Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Waldorf Unschooling Through the Teen Years: Final Thoughts

(The final essay in a series on Waldorf Unschooling Through the Teen Years)

One of the hardest parts of parenting and therefore homeschooling was to learn to trust that each child was unfolding in the way they needed to unfold. The tragedy comes from both ends of the spectrum – shifting the responsibility to our children at too young an age as well as not ever shifting the responsibility to them. It was hard to not push sometimes. We knew that if they wanted to matriculate in a traditional institution of higher education at some point in their future they would need to show four years of English, three-four years of math and science each, three years of social studies and two years (sometimes four) of a foreign language. While we didn’t want to abandon them to their own devices, somehow we had to figure out how to move the onus of responsibility for their education onto their shoulders even if that meant later they would have to deal with certain consequences. We had to trust and respect that their unique, individual educational process was right for them.

I have come to completely believe that there is much happening deep inside them even when I cannot see any immediate outward results. The hours my oldest spent digging in the yard or my youngest spends now pouring over his comics are not lost hours. Daydreaming and times for introspection are needed during these teen years. And, sometimes boredom is the impetus for great leaps in learning. Agatha Christie said, "We owe most of our great inventions and most of the achievements of genius to idleness, either enforced or voluntary." Maybe we actually owe it to our teens and society then to give them that time of idleness, of impasse and indecision. My daughter Jenn said once, "most people don’t really waste their own time, but most people don’t mind wasting other people’s time."

Our days were a mish-mash of laughter, work, tears, doubts but our schooling became just a part of the process of our lives together. There wasn’t a day that went by without something academic being accomplished but we didn’t do school at home. Our lives continue to be guided by Anthroposophic principles. Through the years some days that looked amazingly like "Waldorf" while other days it probably didn’t look like "Waldorf" at all. I look back on these almost 15 years with wonder and awe. It has been an amazing journey to be privileged to share with our children. We rarely did all I saw in my mind’s eye. Some days were bumpy. Sometimes it seemed we weren’t doing enough. I had moments of doubt and loneliness. But often it was the most difficult moments that led to the most powerful outcomes. I believe it is in the striving that we find ourselves; it is in the striving that we bring forth that which wants to be. Sometimes along the way it was helpful to look back and remember where we were 2, 3 or 5 yrs ago. I was usually amazed at the growth that had taken place somehow unfolding because and despite of the choices, decisions, twists and turns we had taken.

You never quite know where your child’s interests, abilities and opportunities will lead them. Looking back I can clearly see how each of mine has reached their current adventures in life but it wasn’t always clear looking ahead. On a plane to England during the summer of 2004, Sarah turned to me and asked "what would I have to do to become an eurythmist?" I was flabbergasted but on reflection of who she is and the path of her journey this made perfect sense. She is now in the middle of her third year at Eurythmy Spring Valley. As of right now, her plan is to finish her eurythmy training and then stay on at Spring Valley to do a fifth year of eurythmy training or be a member of the eurythmy troupe; after that she hopes to teach in a Waldorf school setting. She found a job at the local co-op, works in the costume shop on campus and progresses with her eurythmy studies; she is cooking her own food and navigating life in a dorm far away from the family base.

Jenn is now in the middle of her junior year at the University of Missouri, Columbia. She is majoring in Women’s and Gender Studies with a minor in Leadership and Public Service. She continues to thrive in an academic environment maintaining her 4.0 while become ever more involved with campus and community activities. She is holding down four jobs and continues with her community volunteer activities while carrying a full academic load. Future plans have her looking into any number of graduate programs and vying for various fellowship opportunities in the public service arena. This fall she coordinated a fashion show to raise money and awareness to combat human-trafficking. Her efforts made this event a rousing success with standing room only and raising over $2000.

Josh is now the only one in the homeschooling fold in the middle of his junior year of high school. He successfully navigated the PSAT this fall and is turning his thoughts towards college decisions and tests. His love of the Japanese culture is influencing his thoughts about what to study in college, thinking he will major in Japanese Cultural Studies. A trip to Japan is planned for this fall after all college applications are in. While he plans to apply for college, he is also exploring the possibility of a year’s deferment and has his eye currently on the Artistic Year at Eurythmy Spring Valley. And, so even my youngest, who claims to have the least Waldorf connection, is considering a year of eurythmy training before heading off to college full time.

I think back to the days when all three were under foot and wonder where those days have gone. In a little over one year, our official homeschooling days will come to an end when Josh graduates. But I sincerely believe that we will continue to enjoy each others’ company and continue to learn from each other no matter where the next steps on our journeys take us.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Waldorf Unschooling Through the Teen Years: Their Passions and Curiosities

(A continuation of a series of essays on Waldorf Unschooling Through the Teen Years)

As they got older and began to explore their passions and curiosities more deeply, they had to move out into the community because they were not in a school situation where all that was built in. At first we helped with this process, finding them classes, mentors, and areas to explore but as they got older they became instrumental in finding their own way with this. They have studied with various music teachers (in voice, fiddle, piano, oboe, Irish tin whistle), taken classes from community centers and private studios in various martial arts, fencing, computer gaming, dancing (from ballet to jazz; clogging to Irish set) as well as various community theatres and orchestras. They were led to many wonderful mentors and experiences as their passions and curiosities drew them out into the wider community.

Sarah was intrigued by the performing arts very early on but it wasn’t until she was 12 years old that she really identified this passion as something to actively pursue. She started auditioning at several children’s theatre companies in the Phoenix area. That first year, she auditioned for every children’s production at four children’s theatres and got rejection letter after rejection letter. She started taking dance lessons and struggled with that till it finally clicked after two years of hard work. She started taking voice lessons and had a range of about 5 notes and even then she wasn’t always on pitch. We supported; we encouraged; we dried the tears when rejection letters came; we found the auditions and drove her to them; we found the voice teachers and the dance studios and got her to classes in dance, voice and theatre. After the first long year of auditioning without getting parts, she finally got some pay off with numerous parts in numerous plays at three of the theatres as well as working behind the scenes. She struggled with voice lessons and then after studying for four years with a voice teacher, we changed teachers because we realized that how this particular teacher was teaching was not a good match and in fact this was ruining Sarah’s voice. She continued to audition and also got a paying job through one of the children’s theatres. She got parts sometimes, other times not. She continued to study voice and dance, really starting to click with dance when we finally found a laid back dance studio that matched her personality better. And, all along, she read Shakespeare plays and memorized dialogue and scene information, watched old movies and read biographies of actors, memorized monologues and poems, volunteered at theatres as often as possible either behind the scenes or ushering so she could see numerous plays, dived into historical fiction and spent time writing her own stories.

Jenn’s passion is music, math and academics. She always had to be busy and intellectually challenged. She went off the charts with her math, working through 60+ math textbooks and popular press books (many published by Dover). She got excited about knot theory and game theory as well as statistics. She did geometry artistically with origami and by drawing with colored pencils. She began to play the violin at the age of 6 years and continues to study violin/fiddle to this day at age 21 years. She also studied the piano and the oboe for a time and taught herself to play the bowed psaltery. Throughout her high school years she was a member of three different community orchestras. She started studying dance as well and fell in love with ethnic dancing as well as the discipline of ballet. She has always been an avid writer of both fiction and non-fiction. Today she is a writing tutor on campus and has been published twice in two different Writing Tutor journals. Before she started college, she was writing a book on unschooling; someday I hope she finishes this gem. Despite never writing a formal research paper during her high school years, she has received accolades from all her professors on her writing skills. From her volunteer work at the DVRAC and a community radio station, she has found a love of archival work.

Josh’s passion is the Japanese culture. He has been studying the Japanese language with his Dad for several years now, learning first the hirgana and katakana alphabets and now working on the kanji. He has intensely studied the histories of Japan as well as other Asian cultures, also studying their cultural practices, geography and art. This passion grew directly from his enjoyment of video/computer gaming, comic book heroes, and anime. He writes extensively; he draws extensively. He is studying the art of web-comics. His love of the various card games has increased his math, logic, and reasoning skills as well as influencing his voluminous fiction writing. I am constantly amazed at what he is learning from all this from the Greek alphabet to mythologies of many lands. At one point he shared with me an article on the Internet about Magic the Gathering and what the colors mean in that game. The article was very in-depth and the whole of the concept reminded me very much of the temperaments. From that article we had numerous conversations about various groups of characters and how they might fit into this Magic the Gathering color wheel. This led to us some interesting discussions about personality and psychology.

And, so I came up against one of the most difficult parts of Waldorf homeschooling: honoring their interests without compromising my own values. But as hard as it has been sometimes, I felt I had to meet them where they were even if I wasn’t interested in what they were interested in. And, then we would build from there. If I wouldn’t talk to Josh about his passions, then why would he come to me with his concerns or listen to me when I wanted to share something with him? How to honor their interests without compromising our own values? How to step aside so they could start to own their education? How to help them find and then encourage their passions, however fleeting they might be before a new passion/curiosity comes along, even when we didn’t understand their passion/interest? These became the questions we grappled with as we moved into the high school years. It took trust in our children, of their own wisdom, of the time they each needed unique to them to let this unfold.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Waldorf Unschooling Through the Teen Years: Volunteering

(A continuation of a series of essays on Waldorf Unschooling Through the Teen Years)

One of the most important pieces of homeschooling into the high school years is getting your teen out into the community. I once heard Doug Gerwin, from the Center for Anthroposophy speak about education. He felt that it was imperative that during the third 7 yr cycle (14-21 yrs) the teen needed to move out into the community even beyond the school setting. This was something we had been doing all along in a number of ways.

An extremely important way my children moved out into the community was through various volunteer activities. I cannot sing the praises of volunteering enough. It did not even really matter where they volunteered or how they picked the place, they just needed to be out there as early as possible. My daughters both logged more than 1000 hours of volunteer time during their high school years; their brother is easily moving in that same direction as he moves into his last years of high school.

Volunteer opportunities are sometimes hard to find for the younger adolescent but it was worth the effort of searching. When Jenn wanted to volunteer somewhere on her own at the age of 15, few places would take her. She finally checked out the Deer Valley Rock Art Center because it was just two miles from our home. We had been there once in all the years we had lived 2 miles from it and she didn’t have a strong interest at the time in archeology or petroglyphs. But they allowed her to volunteer there before she turned 16. She started in the fall of her sophomore year in high school. By the end of that school year, she had been named the Junior Volunteer of the Year but more importantly she had been given real work to do (cataloguing and accessioning their entire library collection and then entering the data into their on-line site). Soon her sister joined her at the DVRAC as well. They were allowed to participate in the Pueblo Baby Canyon petroglyph recording project where they worked alongside archeologists cataloguing petroglyphs on site and then entering that information into the computer later.

When we moved to Columbia, both girls began volunteering at the community radio station and Peace Nook, a not-for-profit venue involved in peace and social justice issues. Soon enough Josh, then age 12 years, joined them at the Peace Nook and he continues to volunteer there weekly recently finishing his fourth year. Jenn is now the director of the reel-to-reel project at the radio station and in that capacity has written grants, worked with programmers as well as others in the community, and gained extensive archival experience.

My children’s volunteer activities have included community theaters and orchestras, community radio, museums, rescue greyhound, and social justice venues. From their various volunteer activities they have received offers for paying jobs as well as leadership and academic opportunities. Sarah’s first paying job was with a children’s theater where she helped with an after-school theater program in an inner city school. Their portfolio of letters of recommendations from the various mentors/teachers they have worked with over the years is voluminous. As volunteers their opportunities and experiences were more diverse than many entry level jobs could have offered. These experiences quickly built a strong resume for both employment and college applications. Their volunteer activities strengthened their high school transcripts helping them to secure some scholarship money for higher education.

Volunteering was just one way my three have gotten involved in the community. My next essay will focus on how we found outlets for their passions and curiosities throughout their high school years.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Waldorf Unschooling Through the Teen Years: Some Resource Ideas

(A continuation of a series of essays on Waldorf Unschooling Through the Teen Years)

Because the Waldorf curriculum of the high school is often one of delving deeper into something already studied in the grade school years, we weren’t afraid to revisit a resource we had already used in the earlier grades. In this essay, I will highlight some of the many resources we used over the course of our children’s high school years.

A couple of Waldorf resources that I used a lot for inspiration and understanding during the teen years were Will-Developed Intelligence: Handwork and Practical Arts in the Waldorf School Elementary Through High School by David Mitchell and Patricia Livingston and Stages of Imagination: Working Dramatically With Adolescents by David Sloan.

We found numerous reading lists from various high school/college websites. We used them as a starting point for what to study within language arts. Often we would read plays aloud with each other taking different parts, and then taking advantage of a live performance at a local theatre. We wouldn’t hesitate to read the cliff notes while we read the classics especially if there was something we struggled with understanding together. When we read Gilgamesh together, we found it more helpful to read a quality children’s version together. But my children never understood their public school counterparts who would read the cliff notes just before a test or to help them write a paper on a particular book in lieu of actually reading the book. Sarah saw this often when down at the theatre. Indeed one year she read The Three Musketeers by Dumas because many of her friends were assigned that book for a class and she wanted to prove to herself that she could read what her peers were being assigned in class. While she devoured the book in short order despite the fact that she had really just awakened to reading, few of her peers who had been assigned the book for a class actually completed the book. She never understood that!

We didn’t use Saxon math for any of our three children. For our reluctant math student, it was too overwhelming; for our eager, talented math student, it was too boring. Instead we found the Key To series of workbooks were a good start with the higher level math as our children moved into the late grades. From there, we used many books from the Key Curriculum Press catalog. Our reluctant math student found those books that were most practical to be the most valuable as she worked through such titles as The Only Math Book You Will Ever Need by Stanley Kogelman and Barbara R. Heller and Practical Problem Solving published by Key Curriculum Press. Our eager math student worked through about 60 math books on her own from texts to popular press math books found while perusing the math section of popular bookstores. Josh is now wending his way through the higher level math areas and finding it helpful to explore on his own as well as utilize his dad’s skills in this area. Once again, their particular learning styles dictated what worked best for them.

All three of my children love to write but we never bade them write for us. They kept journals and filled reams of notebooks with their writing. If we were asked to read something we did not critique it (spelling, grammar or content) unless we were asked to do that. All three participated in NANOWRIMO several times over the past several years. While we read Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss and other grammar books on that same order, I believe they learned best how to use the grammatical rules and write well by being exposed to all kinds of literature from early on. All three continue to write from fiction to non-fiction. Jenn has become a writing tutor at the university and has even been published in a couple of writing lab journals. When she needed to write a research paper on a college level, she had no difficulty with that task and indeed her professors often comment that her papers are graduate level work despite the fact that she is still only an undergraduate.

We dabbled in foreign language throughout our homeschooling years. Our best experience was when we were able to live in Germany for a couple of months early in our homeschooling journey. We weren’t afraid to use the various media – tapes, cds, computers, videos – to aid our quest of learning foreign languages. While we didn’t achieve fluency in another language, many German, Japanese and Spanish phrases have crept into our family lore. Jenn easily kept up with her schooled counterparts during her semesters of Spanish at the college level. Josh continues to study Japanese planning a trip to Japan in the fall of 2008.

For science we started with the Phenomena-based Physics workbooks and New Eyes for Plants: A Workbook for Observing and Drawing Plants by Margaret Colquhou and Axel Ewald and then moved on from there. We went to the local community college bookstore to see what they were using for various biology and chemistry classes. Science is probably one area that we veered from the most from the Waldorf approach using such things as Cartoon Guide to Physics by Larry Gonick. We also used the various science coloring books by Wynn Kapit and Lawrence Elson. As a family we watched the videos of the PBS series Connections for science and The Story of English for history and geography and also read the companion books.

Each of our children had their own strong attraction to a particular subject. Sarah loves history and probably knows more British history than many her age in England but she also knows a lot about the history of Russia, France, ancient Egypt as well as the United States. She read a lot of biographies and historical fiction. Jenn’s love is math – from game theory to knot theory and several theories in between. Josh has dived into everything Japanese from its ancient history to language.

This is just a smattering of the resources we used. There are so many resources available and many can be borrowed from a library or read on the net. Many times I was asked how I found the necessary resources to educate my three children in the home. In fact, what was more difficult was whittling the many resources available down to just the right ones!

Friday, January 4, 2008

Waldorf Unschooling Through the Teen Years: A Glimpse Into Our Days

(This is the third essay in a series of essays on Waldorf Unschooling through the teen years.)

Our days/weeks/years had an underlying structure based on the outside activities that the children were involved in. Always we had the in-breath, out-breath during a given day and through the week. There would be times throughout the day when we would all come together, times when we were far flung each doing our own thing and times when just John or I were one-on-one with one of them. When our oldest was about 17, we instituted a "breakfast with mom" date. Once a month, I would go out to breakfast alone with each one of them. These were treasured times and I only wish we had started that practice earlier!

We are a reading family and read aloud to them many books long before they started to read on their own. Even after all three children could read on their own we continued the tradition of a "family read". Each of us would read on our own a particular number of pages of a particular book. Then on a designated night of the week, we would discuss our readings at the supper table. It was difficult to pick a book we all could/would read given the age and interest differences but we worked hard at it. For years, John would read aloud in the living room every evening. This would include something from a non-fiction book, anything from philosophy, theology, math or physics as well as a fiction, like the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. It wasn’t mandatory that they come and sit in the living room and listen. And, they were all able to read on their own by that time so they could have read the enticing fiction to themselves if they had chosen. He would just announce what he was about, when he would be starting and all three were welcome to join him. There was never a time when even one of them missed. They wanted to spend time with their Dad; they wanted to hear the fiction book; and truth be told, they wanted to converse about the non-fiction read as well. Over several weeks he read Numbers by Isaac Asimov which led them to making an abacus together and coming to understand how the four processes worked on that apparatus. Often, Sarah would be coloring or drawing, Jenn would be doing latch-hook or other handwork and Josh would be drawing.

I think a bulk of their learning happened during the many conversations we have had over the years. We had conversations about everything imaginable. We covered a lot of varied topics, some quite deeply. Driving to/from lessons and outside classes was a great way to talk with them about their day, their interests, their hopes and dreams. My daughters would be very talkative especially after a late night play or orchestra practice. This was often when they would open up about the tougher issues of life. Our discussions usually started because someone was bubbling over with thoughts about something they had just read or experienced. Then we would meander all over the place as all five of us joined in with our own interests, thoughts, ideas. When our children were in their early teens, we as parents would get the all rolling on these discussions. Sometimes we would ask questions about what they were reading: who was your favorite character, where did the story take place, how does this compare to another book by this same author? But these questions arose out of our genuine interest in what our children had to say and not as a quiz. Sometimes we would share what we were reading or had heard about on the radio. As our children got older, more and more they were the starters of these conversations.

We filled their environment with things we valued and hoped they would come to appreciate. They were surrounded by books and they saw both John and I reading voraciously to ourselves, to them and to each other. They were surrounded by good art and handwork materials. I am most drawn to the fiber arts and I shared that love extensively with my children. John is a computer scientist and a deep thinker. He would share his interests that ranged from cryptography to science fiction, from aikido to cartoons. We shared our interests with them and eagerly their interests as well. We went to many performances of live drama, comedy, musicals, symphonies and all kinds of dance. We traveled to areas near and far as often as their activity schedule would allow. We frequented museums, nature centers, art galleries, science center, etc. We were eclectic in our approach, using those resources that best matched our children’s needs and interests. When Jenn preferred workbooks and textbooks we willingly bought them. When Sarah preferred tape books that is what we provided. I tried to think outside the box through most of our homeschooling years. I learned early on that I could lead them to a main lesson but I couldn’t make them learn. So I stopped doing main lesson blocks but kept their environment and days filled with enticing things to do. We followed their lead with all this but we were ever mindful of their strengths and weaknesses.