Take Five

“What exactly is it that you do?”

It’s probably the most common question I get regarding homeschooling. For anyone who hasn’t tried it, homeschooling does seem oddly opaque and mysterious from a distance. Am I running a one-room schoolhouse? Do I have a plaque with MR. MAYER on my desk? Do H and E have to raise their hands to go to the bathroom? It only gets more confounding if I mention that we’re really doing more unschooling than homeschooling, so I try and reserve that term for moments when I’ve got significant explanatory time on my hands.

I did have an odd variant of that common question lately, though, as someone ask me recently if I could describe unschooling in one word, and of course I didn’t have a ready answer; do we ever? But esprit de l’escalier came to my rescue once again, the next day, as I realized that there is a one-word description for what we do, and that word is jazz.

Traditional teaching is symphonic music writing. Every part, from first violin to timpani, is scripted out on paper; every section comes in on time and plays harmoniously together. September’s unit is earth science, October’s unit is the Cahokia, November’s unit is energy, December’s unit is money and economics. It sounds beautiful, but often as the first violins play while the French horns are silent, there’s something missing: interplay. The economics of the Cahokia, or the role of the earth in clean energy, isn’t in the script; nor are how the Cahokia felt about the earth, or the economics of energy production. Unit by unit the content goes by, prepackaged and perfectly shrinkwrapped. There’s a good reason for that: classrooms are symphonies. They’re groups of musicians, with different timbres and voices, led in education by a single organizing figure.

Unschooling – at least the variety we practice – is more like improvisational jazz. I’ll give you an example.

I started out with E last fall very much in the symphonic mode; my overall plan was to move through a very traditional set of prescripted units. I even had the first four fully developed – etymology (surprising origins of words), science (the formation of the solar system), history (the Rosetta stone and its role in Egyptology), and writing (the short story form). Day one, lesson one, the Rosetta stone. We got 0.004% of the way through my designed lesson before E asked, “why would they have bothered to write the same text in three different languages?”

Well, I explained, Egypt had undergone considerable political upheaval during the period surrounding the Stone’s creation, and there was a strong need to communicate in more than one language. “The same way,” I said, “that there are safety instructions in English, Spanish, and French on products you buy.” So there were three different cultures coexisting at the same time? Yes, essentially, I told her.

“How do you define the limits of a single culture?” she asked. I began describing the core aspects of human culture – economic interdependency, agreed-to governmental structure, shared language –

“Can we make one?”

I felt my symphonic performance coming off the rails. “A language?”

“A culture.”

I stopped, sensing one of those moments in life when the path you’re on opens into a very clear fork. Down one path – well-lit, by the way, and nicely paved – lay my lesson plans for the year, carefully developed, with new structured activities for each day. Down the other (decidedly darker, with something of a ground fog going on) lay…well, I had no idea what. What I did have in front of me, right now, was passion; E had risen from the floor where we’d been examining a picture of the Stone, elbow to elbow, and was now pacing the room making her excited fists.

“Sure,” I said, the harmonious strains of Mahler being elbowed aside in my head by the opening notes of ‘Take Five.’

That single question opened some big doors for us. We did create a culture together, and in so doing, E gift-wrapped a learning framework for me that took us from seismic activity and statistical analysis of Black Swan events to cultural economics and carrying capacity to arts, music and food. E gave her new culture everything – its own alphabet, its own hierarchy of government, its own annual fairs and festivals. What she told me, through her words and her actions, was this: passion creates a window of interest through which learning can take flight.

E’s culture (a section of Guatemala that broke free and became culturally isolated during a worldwide tectonic cataclysm) needed an origin story – and she wanted a believable one. So we put together an Excel table of all the earthquakes that had happened in the region since 1900, and analyzed how strong a quake would have to be to fracture a tectonic plate. Her culture needed a means of sustenance, so we researched the indigenous flora and fauna of the region and worked out the carrying capacity of the land remaining to our isolated Guatemalans. Based on that carrying capacity, she decided that there would need to be a form of government closely focused on food production and population, but she wanted freedoms and self-direction for her culture, too. So we talked through the rise of the state, the formation of governmental entities, and chose the type of government that worked best for her society. Throughout the fall, we worked on everything from transportation to commerce and trade to education (ironically).

But here was the rub: on any given day, I awakened having absolutely no idea what we were going to do. I’d made a roster of topics we needed to tackle, but I’d allowed Ellie the freedom to choose the order we’d examine those topics in. The lesson plan, as it were, needed to be developed on the fly – and my job was more to react to the choice of topic of the day, and install as much content, with as much subject variety, as possible. Exhausting? Yes – but exhilarating, too; it was, for all intents and purposes, improv jazz, with all the tightrope-walking and rapid changes of pace and direction that improvisation demands. What I got, to start each day, was a key (her passion area for the day) and a time signature (the relative pace with which she wanted to go; slow, methodical and intense some days, rapid-fire forward progress on others).

At the core of this concept, three simple rules emerged for me:

  • Turn the traditional unit-based concept on its side. Rather than starting with a unit-based learning structure, start with a project, and let the widest possible variety of learning disciplines – writing, research, mathematics, statistics, arts and crafts, music, physical activity – into that project. I’ve done projects with E that ran through a very traditional set of school ‘classes’ in the course of a day, but they might have been made of up fifteen minutes here, a half-hour there. What I try to do is to let each stage of the project dictate a set of tasks that need to be solved to move the project along, and then let E explore how to address those tasks. What this allows a child to do is learn something when it is important to learn it to advance the project.
  • Passion and interest > scheduling and convenience. Would I rather have known a week in advance what I was going to be teaching E? Sure. But answer me two questions. First, what are you going to be doing a week from today at this time? You can probably answer that question with some reasonable level of conviction; I’ll be in the Monday morning meeting at work, I’ll be going for my 7AM run, I’ll be cooking dinner. Now, tell me what you’re going to be excited about a week from today. That took a little more thought, didn’t it? If you could even answer that question at all, it’s probably a very rough guess1. It’s all right, as a mature adult with a career, not to worry whether or not you’re going to be motivated to learn through your daily work; I’d hope you would, but for many of us, the learning stage of our career work is over, and now we’re applying what we’ve already learned (and, I hope, enjoying doing it). But for children, whose career is learning at the moment, excitement is key to ensuring that new concepts and ideas take hold.
  • Be ready to install related disciplines at a moment’s notice. One of the benefits of an excited and energized learner is his or her willingness to take on additional learning tasks. As a result, I’ve learned to look for every way possible to wedge another discipline’s worth of content into a project. Introducing science into creative writing (because you can’t write a convincing diving suit experience if you don’t know how atmospheric pressure works, after all) or physical activity into science (show me what walking would look like on the Moon…now Jupiter) makes for more interesting learning. You’re involving more areas of the brain in onboarding a new concept, and that increases your chances that said concept will take root and grow.

Over time, I’m sure E is going to want some symphonic components in her learning. She might not; she might be content with improv jazz until she heads off for more ‘traditional’ learning in college or graduate school. But maybe she finds a way to bring the two together in her life. If she does, I want to be among the first in line, with headphones ready, to hear what it sounds like.


1 Although, since you’re probably a parent of a gifted child if you’re reading this, it’s all right to answer this question with sleep.


One response to this post.

  1. Sounds like our days, although you made all that unpredictability and scrambling to keep up sound like a good thing! Well, in the long term I’m absolutely certain it is a good thing — for us that’s evidenced by our kids still having a deep love of learning long past many of their schooled peers. That doesn’t make it any easier as a homeschooling parent who might actually thrive on lists, schedules and predictability, but this unorthodox journey isn’t all about us, is it?

    Great analogy with the music genre. I enjoyed your post.


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