July 7, 2010

Perimeter makes me second think unschooling

Hannah Jane has been on a perimeter kick lately.  Odd, huh?  It all started when she came in and reported that, "the dog may have an infection on her owie because the perimeter is all white, which could indicate an infection."  After Joe and I cracked up at how our 6 year old talks a little like a cross between Steve Earkle and Doogie Howser (you have to be a child of the 80's to to know what I mean), I asked how she knew what perimeter was.  She said, "Well, you use it all the time when you say things like, 'I think I'll plant marigolds around the perimeter of the garden.'"  She said it in a totally mommy-mocking voice, by the way.  But I was pleased that she was paying attention. 

I heard her use the word about 4 more times over the following days so I asked if she wanted to learn a little more about perimeter, as in how to calculate it.  She said yes, but not at this very moment.  I could live with that.

A few day later we were sitting in the van while Hunter was in speech and she said, "I'm ready!"

"For what?" I asked.

"To calculate a perimeter!"she said, rolling her eyes as if it should be obvious all this time later.  On a side note, Joe says she gets that from me- that ability to pick up a conversation hours or days later and then look confused when the other person isn't right there with her!  LOL!  I guess I can't be irritated!

Anyway, all I had on me at the moment was a doughnut box (yes, we have doughnut dates once a week!  Gets 'em out of bed early enough to get Joe to work when we need the car with a little less complaining).  So I scribbled some fake lengths along the edges of the doughnut box, one along the top and one along the side.  Then I asked what lengths should go along the other side and the bottom.  Just checking to see where we were on the whole logic front.  She correctly assessed that they should be equal to the opposite sides so we labeled them and moved on.

"So imagine this is a garden and your going to walk the entire perimeter.  That means you'll start in this corner and you'll go all the way around, adding how far you've gone as you go.  Got it?  That's how you'll find perimeter."  She nodded, but I didn't see her writing anything down.  Thinking she couldn't do it in her head, I asked her to think out loud.  She said, "so 4 plus 8..."

"No," I interrupted (stupidly, I might add), "You mean 4 plus 2 plus..." 

She roller her eyes and then finished it correctly.  I thought we were off to a smashing start.  I had no idea that I had just talked her out of making a little mathematical leap.  I sketched out a few more garden plots for her to figure out and thought we had a successful little lesson on the back of a doughnut box. 

Later she asked me why she had to do it the slow way.  Again, "Do what the slow way?"  because it was hours later. 

"Why do I have to add perimeters the slow way when I know my double facts?"

Oh.  Dumb mom realization was setting in.  She was just doubling the length of 2 sides and then adding their sums.  In case she was stuck with the most dense mom on the planet, she pulled our a piece of paper and walked me through it like that condescending math teacher we all had at least once in middle school.  You know, the one whose voice goes up at the end of every sentence to make sure you realize what a complete moron you are?  Yeah, that's how she walked me through this simple little math problem.  But I earned it.  I'm pretty sure any other mom would have caught on and not over corrected her. 

So this little child-led adventure in Math Land makes me second guess my skepticism about unschooling.  While all of my training and understanding about how the child's mind works says that kids actually do want to learn until we squelch the wanting out of them, I just have had trouble trusting that they'll want to learn thoroughly or well roundedly enough to pass a college entrance exam some day.  But I never imagined a time when a 6 year old would actually initiate the study of perimeter, so who knows what else she'll ask to learn. 

Our dear friend Sarah's family claims the title of unschoolers and her kids seem so enthusiastic about everything!  And so smart!  Her daughter who is Hannah Jane's age is what we have all decided to call a great lover of life.  And her oldest, I'm told, asked to catch up to grade level in math this year.  You could ask for nothing more than kids like hers.  Their family pulled me off the anti-unschooling bandwagon and made me want to take a closer look and now this little perimeter thing has me thinking.

But then I still have that thought in the back of my mind that says, "Sure Hannah Jane will ask about perimeter, but would most kids ever do that?  Will Hunter or Haven be 16 before they ever do?"  And in the path of the true unschooler I want to think, "So what if they're 16 before they care about perimeter? Everyone learns at his or her own rate."  But for me, I want them to be able to do whatever they decide to do, not being limited by their education in terms of fields of study they can pursue.  What if they want to be architects but I never offered them sin and cosin because the never asked?

So there must be a balance between this controversial and seductive thing called unschooling and being able to run the rat race if that's what they choose someday.  I suppose we chose homeschooling so that our kids could have endless opportunities and I worry that if they don't get all they need because they never thought to ask for it, then they are limited in their opportunities.  But maybe I have misunderstood the whole unschooling thing, or maybe it means something different to everyone who ascribes to it.  Maybe it can be looking for those things your child takes interest in and pouncing upon them with endless chances to choose to learn more.    Whatever it means, I have been inspired to use our texts a little more like a loose spine and a little less like a lesson plan, making time to stray off the beaten path and follow a fancy as far as it proves productive and then come back to the curriculum when we need new inspiration.  Maybe there doesn't need to be a term for what we do.  We can be both child led and curriculum led to a degree, finding what works for us and being inspired by the cool families around us who seem to be getting it right in their own ways.  That feels just about right!

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