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Michele’s Musings

Freedom Within Structure

by Michele Hastings

So…you long for structure but your kids have a mind of their own. And although you appreciate the concept of unschooling or interest-initiated learning, you can’t relax that much! And maybe you recognise the benefits of allowing your kids lots of free time to pursue their interests…but you’re concerned when they seem to be wasting time or investing it in activities that you’re hard-pressed to find the value in. Welcome to my world! If you find yourself walking that fence between dictatorship and having a completely hands-off approach to homeschooling, I think you’ll find yourself in good company. Although many families fall into camps at opposite ends of the homeschooling spectrum, more of them land somewhere in between both extremes. Let me share from our family’s experience that I consider the middle ground of “freedom within structure.”
This year for the first time ever, both of our boys (Tymon age 12 and Asher age 11) took on Saxon math. Most homeschoolers are familiar with Saxon, as it is highly-respected within the homeschooling community. Since our kids have never been very fond of anything that looks too much like schoolwork, I’ve hesitated from purchasing expensive textbooks or other curriculum. Thankfully we belong to a very supportive homeschooling community in our city and we’ve been able to borrow materials from other families. 
The boys trudged through their math textbook until the Christmas break. They successfully completed just over 60 lessons (almost half the book), complaining only occasionally about how much of a drudgery math had become. However, when facing our first day back to routine after the holidays, both boys expressed their desire to abandon Saxon and do something else for math. 
I have to admit that I was disappointed. After spending last year jumping from one math web site to another, I was relieved to be taking a more systematic approach to math this year. Yet the fact that the boys dreaded doing their math weighed heavy on my heart, so I agreed to find a new approach. Although my preference was to assign them a lesson, assist them if they ran into difficulty, and then correct their work when completed, I just didn’t have the heart to make them do something that they found to be so tedious . . . especially when there are so many other options available. 
So, it was back to the drawing board. It’s a good thing I don’t mind doing a little research. In fact I enjoy surfing the web looking for fun and interesting educational activities. Since ditching Saxon the boys have spent time on various math sites including Kids’ Bank, Changemaker, Moneyopolis, BBC Math Games, Math Maven Mysteries and Who Wants to be a Mathonaire? On these sites and through these Internet games, the boys have grappled with unfamiliar math terms and tackled complex problems. Although I appreciate the safety, security and familiarity of sticking with a tried and true program like Saxon, I can’t deny that much learning has taken place over the last number of weeks. My biggest complaint is that sometimes the games are even above my head and we have to skip sections or abandon the site entirely and go on to something else. (For those who want to try this approach I strongly suggest keeping The Math Forum’s: Ask Dr Math on hand in order to look up terminology you may not be familiar with!)
But, if you’re like me, leaving a textbook only half done grates you the wrong way! There’s a constant tension within me. Part of me insists that the boys finish what they start. But another side of me is more understanding and sees the wisdom in letting go of an activity or a resource that no longer fulfils its purpose. Not only do I want our kids to become educated, I also want them to enjoy the process of learning. And if the material is too difficult, uninteresting, or too repetitive, the joy of learning is replaced with frustration, boredom and animosity. Why not kill two birds with one stone, searching and experimenting with resources until you find something that is both fun and educational? They are out there . . . waiting to be discovered by you and your children.
Another subject area that receives a lot of attention in most homeschooling families is Language Arts. Reading is a cornerstone of education. Although learning happens outside of books, being able to take in information through reading is extremely advantageous to both the homeschooling student and the parent involved in his/her education. Neither of our boys were early readers. Although they both enjoyed being read to, neither had much use for reading themselves until they were 8 and 9. Homeschooling has become easier for me since the boys have become independent readers. Yet, our 12- year old still prefers to learn in a more hands-on way, or through watching programs rather than reading, and although his younger brother is a strong reader and very good writer, neither cares much for reading or writing.
So, if I were convinced that unschooling is the way to go for my family, I would sit back and allow them to read and write as little as they wanted to. They actually do spend a lot of time at an Internet chat room called The Habbo Hotel where reading and writing is a necessity. But, because I’m uncomfortable with that being the extent of their intellectual stimulation, I have set up some guidelines that allows my conscience to rest easy. My expectations are threefold:
1. The boys have to listen to a daily read-aloud.
2. Both are required to read at least one chapter book per month . . . a little each day.
3. Both are required to write something every day.
Therein lies the structure. But here is where the freedom comes in. Although I usually choose the book to read aloud to them, if neither one likes the book after we’ve given it a fair shot, (say, reading 3 chapters) we can exchange it for another book. And although neither one cares to spend the time finding books to read independently, each one chooses whatever book he wants out of the armload of library books I come home with. If they start a book and don’t like it, they can again exchange it for another.
When it comes to writing, the boys are encouraged to write whatever they want. If they’re short on ideas I’m always ready to offer suggestions such as reviews (book, movie or gaming), copy work (scripture passages or recipes), journalling, spelling or passage dictations, stories, poems, songs etc. Most of their writing is done on the computer but I sometimes insist that they use good old-fashioned paper and pencil on occasion as well. Even whether they print or use cursive is up to them. Tymon writes in cursive, albeit slowly . . . while Asher has an aversion to writing and prints everything (although he can read cursive.)
The other two subjects that we are required by law to teach are science and social studies. When the boys were younger Tymon was a nature nut and Asher, a history buff. These days however, neither subject holds much interest for either of them. Again, if I were an avid unschooler I would use educational lingo to describe the things that both boys do that could fit under the headings of science and social.
Watching the news is “Current Events”, as is discussing politics or the economy. Many programs on T.V. are scientific in nature or could be considered social studies. The occasional fieldtrip that we go on and the regular excursions we make to the grocery store, bank, post office etc. could be filed under Social Studies as well. I’m sure you get my point. Not to detract from their relevance, something inside me expects more. I want to expose our boys to unexplored territory. I long to see the mental lights go on and learning taking place. I want to see the ideas that are connecting and the concepts that are settling into place. The world is much bigger than our own little, comfortable spaces that we establish for ourselves. I don’t know about you, but doing the same things day in and day out leads me quickly into a rut that I can’t stand to get stuck in. The same thing happens to our kids. The world is at our fingertips and outside our front door but sometimes we just get too lazy to make the effort to discover it and mess around in it. It takes energy and an element of risk. Sometimes it’s easier to just stick with what we know already and what we’ve already experienced.
So . . . I challenge our kids a bit. I introduce them to web sites and resources that look like they might be appealing and I give them time to check them out. Sometimes I get carried away though. If they’ve read most of what’s on a site or tried most of the activities, I tend to suggest rather forcefully that they read every article or do every activity. But, that tactic is a mistake and once I realize that they’ve completely lost interest, I allow them the freedom to abandon the site . . . recognizing that my need for closure doesn’t necessarily mesh with their need to move on and therefore doesn’t benefit them.
Here’s a recent example: I want my kids to learn about science from a Christian perspective. Therefore, I did some searches to find some creation science web sites that seemed suitable for kids and contained some intriguing articles. After a couple months and daily time spent at one site, both boys had read most of the articles presented but still had a dozen or so left to read. Well . . . their interest, which wasn’t as much as I’d hoped, ran out before the articles did. I tried to push through the remaining articles by reading them aloud to the boys instead of insisting that they continue to read them independently. I only read one or two however before realising that the glazed eyes and restless bodies weren’t absorbing anything I was reading anyway. So what was the point?! With every ounce of will power I clicked on the X, exiting the site . . . much to the relief of the boys and my own chagrin. Oh well . . . there’s a lot more to creation science than this one site, and a lot more to science than just creation science. 
After the weekend the boys were introduced to Dragonfly TV, another science web site where they are learning about Matter and Motion, the Body and Brain, Earth and Space, Living Things, and Technology and Inventions through reading about the PBS program and playing games. Once they lose interest I promise to move on to one of the many other sites stored in our favourites file, instead of insisting that they ingest every tidbit of information offered on the site.
A site that we did complete was a geography site called A Kid’s Life In . . . On this site the boys read about life from the perspective of kids from a number of different countries. Afterwards, each boy wrote his own article about what his life is like in Canada. I can’t tell you how good it felt to actually complete something! But I have to constantly remind myself that this is about them . . . not me. (Although I do have to remain true to my own conscientious beliefs.)
So, now you’ve seen how we can exercise freedom within structure, developing a system that meets everyone’s needs . . . my own need for the boys to be educated and their need to have fun and enjoy the process of learning. All of these core subjects are taken care of by lunchtime leaving both the kids and myself plenty of time to follow our interests and pursue our passions. As I’ve been pecking away writing this article the boys have been outside working on their snow fort, complete with tunnels and mazes that wind their way throughout the entire back yard. 
Other passions . . . like spending time online at Habbo is limited to early mornings (before 9:30 am), lunchtime, and after 3 pm, competing only with meals, chores, the company of friends and participation in sports and other outside interests . . . still loads of time to chat and trade with online friends! Thus, we enjoy the balance of a lifestyle that allows tons of freedom but within the safety net of some form of structure . . . A balance this control freak can live with! M.H.
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Michele and Ted Hastings are the homeschooling parents of two bright and creative boys ages 11 and 12. They live in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, and have been leading a lifestyle of learning since the children were born. Ted is a developmental assistant, working with multiply disabled children in a school setting, and Michele is a part-time hairstylist who loves to write. As well as being published in a number of homeschooling magazines, Michele has written a homeschooling book and is eagerly awaiting its publication.