Thursday, March 19, 2015

Staying Connected

Do those of you who homeschool stay connected to your local school community? I ask because I barely know anyone who does. Although we pay school taxes, no one I know even attempts to tap into the resources that their local school has to offer. Here in New York, homeschoolers are allowed to participate in school activities and/or use school materials if the district decides to let you. Our local district leaves it up to the building principals. I am lucky enough to have a good relationship with both principals of the schools my children would be attending, so they allow us to attend school functions and after school programs.

How did I do that? Well my oldest did go to school for kindergarten and first grade. In that time I was VP of the PTA and volunteered in the building almost everyday. So I was able to form a good working relationship with that principal. Now you're probably thinking Too late for that! I can't do that. And in part you are right. But my oldest would now be in a building we had nothing to do with. I never really set foot in that building, I have barely met the principal there and we have never attended school there. But I established a working relationship with that principal.

HOW?! Well I'll tell you. Every year when I write my intention to homeschool letter (a requirement in NY), I send a copy to the building principals that my kids would be attending, as a courtesy. With that, I usually write a letter thanking the principal for allowing us to participate in book fairs, after school game clubs and the science fair. This year, since my eldest would've entered a new school, I wrote a letter to that principal introducing ourselves. I explained what we have been doing and I also explained that it is important to us to keep our children tied to their school community and friends and why. I stated that I would like to attend as many activities as possible, without disrupting their school day or flow.  I offered to come into school over the summer and introduce ourselves at a time that was convenient to her. I thanked her for her time, as I know how busy a principals job is and gave her my contact information.
School science fair

I have to say I was fairly shocked to get a call from her about a week later!! We spoke briefly on the phone and she welcomed us to join in any of those activities. Now maybe I am just lucky. Maybe I have already established a reputation in the district for not being a pain in the ass. Or maybe, just maybe, all we have to do is ask. What's the worst that can happen? They can say no. You really haven't lost anything, have you?

Now many people who homeschool have never sent their kids to school, so they don't feel the need to connect. Others left their school due to bad circumstances, so they do not want to re-connect. I get that. But understand the school has a lot of resources at your disposal. They can allow you to use materials such as textbooks, microscopes and other equipment. They can let you attend after school activities like game club or art club. They can go so far as to let you join activities such as band or theatre. I am able to host my girl scout meetings at the school my youngest would be attending.

I see it as a benefit in two ways (for us). One: my kids stay connected with their school friends, get to experience activities with them at school, and stay a part of the school community. Many would say Who cares? I care because I realize that one day my kids may want to go back to school. I don't want it to be such a foreign land or such a social nightmare that the option is removed before it's even considered. I also realize that homeschooling is a financial burden. A burden we manage now, but anything could happen in the future that might make it necessary for them to go back to school. And Two: I get to use the resources that my school has to offer FOR FREE! I am getting some return on my tax dollars that I wouldn't necessarily get otherwise.

It may feel awkward at first. It did for me and I was already known in the building. But now, 3 years later, it's no big deal. The school community knows who we are. Organizers of activities such as the science fair, reach out to us to see if we want to participate. It takes work on my part - staying up to date on school activities, finding out when holiday shops, movie nights and ice cream socials are happening, and going to events that feel awkward at first. But isn't it worth it for our kids?

So if this has struck a cord with you, I invite you to try it next year. Send a copy of your letter of intent to your local principal. Write a letter introducing yourself. Offer to come in and visit over the summer when it's not as busy for them. You might be surprised and you might gain access to a world of resources you never knew you could get!

Please comment! I'd love to hear how you stay connected with your local school community or ask questions on how to get started!!

Monday, March 2, 2015

Planning to Unschool

Yes, Yes I know. Total contradiction right? Unschooling is supposed to be all about letting go, letting your child explore his/her interests unrestricted, no intervention. Well, maybe not. Radical unschoolers will become very upset with my use of the term 'unschool.' And maybe I should reconsider. There is so much terminology out there - homeschool, unschool, hack school, project based homeschooling, eclectic homeschooling, online schooling........the list goes on and on. I choose unschooling because it fits most of what we do. I don't tend to get wrapped up in the semantics or the politics of these things. I don't feel the need to defend ONE way as the RIGHT way. After doing this for 3 years now, I have learned that the WAY we homeschool changes every year.

But back to planning to unschool....WHAT?!?! Yes I plan. It is in my very nature to plan everything. Just ask my husband. It's like a friggin hobby to me. Sick I know. But in order to get the most out of our homeschooling/unschooling experience, I feel planning is essential. So how exactly do I do that? Glad you asked!

I just started planning for next year. The first thing I keep in mind are the vacations that we have planned. I LOVE to use travel as an excuse to learn something. For instance a trip to Boston triggered a massive learning experience on the Revolutionary war. So I look at the trips I have planned and try to figure out how to work them into our 'curriculum.' Now I should say that I don't plan trips FOR curriculum. Our trips are purely for fun. BUT if there happens to be something cool and different nearby, then by all means we are going to take advantage. In years past we've gone Herkimer diamond mining in upstate NY, to northern California (San Fran, Yosemite & Tahoe), Florida, North Carolina, Maine, Virginia Beach, Massachusetts, upstate NY.......we've learned map reading skills, states and capitals, measurement in miles, about different environments, the plants that grow there, the animals that live there, weather patterns, ocean life, different mountain ranges, glaciers, history, chemistry, literature on these places, math, art, name it! And the only thing that I did to spur such a massive learning experience was bring them there. I planned the trip.

Glaciers in the Sierras

Now it isn't quite that simple for kids that are programmed into learning the way traditional schools teach. It may take more time allowing them to explore and define their learning to get into this. We have always 'unschooled.' So my kids naturally ask questions, have curiosity, want to explore more. They naturally go somewhere and then want to get books on that place or that thing. But ALL kids are curious learners if you let them be. Just offer the spark and watch them ignite.

Sea Stars on the coast of Maine

So when we went to Yosemite, we visited a mock Native American village. This sparked a compare/contrast to western Native American tribes vs. the Eastern tribes we had already learned about. We did a starry night hike. This sparked a solar system interest. Of course the Giant Sequoias were amazing and Half Dome and El Capitan. Visiting beaches regularly - but especially Maine, where we found sea stars in the wild, sparked a learning experience on ocean life. Herkimer diamond mining sparked a chemistry lesson in how crystals were formed. Boredom in the car/plane led to map reading, finding out which states we've crossed and what their capitals are. Figuring out how many miles the trip is, how many we have already traveled and how much more there is to go (math).

Of course, you can stay local and accomplish the same thing. We are lucky to have a large group of active homeschoolers in our area. We are also lucky to have a lot of historical places close by, beautiful nature areas, and cities. So local learning experiences are never-ending!

Dragonfly hatching by a lake near our home

But let's say you don't have so much nearby. I also plan to unschool by finding interesting videos and books on topics that should be covered. There are so many websites! I usually just leave these things laying around for my kids to 'discover.' Maybe we go to a play that sparks interest in something. Talk to a grandparent about their childhood. Find creatures in our backyard (yes we have a tank for creatures in our backyard). Visit the pet store.

There are endless ways to spark learning.  I try to come up with fun activities and trips and then let the rest just naturally happen. So yes, I plan to unschool.  And for now, it works for us. Maybe you should try it too. You'll be surprised at how much learning takes place!!