Our First Unschooling “Period”

Aidan and Vie are motoring on their unschooling fronts as part of our new adventure. It’s been challenging for all of us in a few areas as we try to find an unschooling rhythm. It’s also been rewarding to see the young adults start to do some very interesting things.

There are so many things to write about as we get going. Here I think I’ll focus more on what the kids are doing. There are some higher level themes we are trying to engender, but I’ll go more deeply into those later.

I’m fortunate that I made my (over)scheduling mistake early and was able to correct it. Aidan and Vie have now mostly found their schedules and are getting into their respective rhythms. Aidan needs a little more structure so I developed a spreadsheet for him to track his unschooling hours, reading hours and technology use. I‘m secretly hoping he likes using Excel enough to use it for more planning activities as a tool.

Our primary goal for this first “period” (aka semester, quarter, etc.) of unschooling is really building confidence, engagement, and passion for learning more than mastery of any particular thing. We don’t think that mastery can come easily without the former. We are also using this first period to get the young adults familiar with some basic digital tools like Microsoft Word, Excel, Publisher and even some more specific ones.

Toward that end, Vie and Aidan both chose two projects to work on based on their interests. We added in some dedicated reading time and also learning Spanish. Learning Spanish was the one thing we asked them to add as a project because we’d like to get them starting to speak the native language here soon. We got a few grumbles from them over Spanish but they understood the importance and are working with it.

As I describe the projects Aidan and Vie are working on, you’ll see a gaming, or “gamification” theme influencing them. This is intentional on our part. I’ll speak more about this in another post soon, but gaming is a great way to foster engagement and really understand the core aspects of what they are learning – and they are both very interested in gaming.

Aidan chose two cooking related projects. He loves cooking, cooking shows, and trying new foods. We actually call him “Chef Aidan.” His first project is to create a cookbook of recipes that he’s created on an online site like Food.com. This is a big project that will require several big steps and a lot of learning about foods and cooking. His first step in this project is to get to know all about herbs and spices. As part of this, he is creating 20 flash cards that each describe one herb or spice. Here’s an example.

spice flash card

He’s nearly finished laying out all of the flash cards in Publisher and is working on tying them to the cuisines that they are used inn (the flags on the cards). Deb wants to get them printed and see if Aidan can sell them!

In the process of doing these flash cards, I gave Aidan a side “quest” of writing a description of the difference between herbs and spices such that it would definitively categorize something into one or the other (or not applicable). In other words, nothing would end up being both or somewhere in the middle. I can’t immediately do this, mind you. Aidan is working on it, but he started off with “something off the top of his head” he says: “hydration”. It was pretty brilliant. I’ve been throwing different spices and herbs at that one word and so far it is working pretty well to distinguish the two (notwithstanding the fact that one “could” dry herbs).

Step 2 in Aidan’s first project is to start cooking and getting to know some basic techniques and recipes. Clearly, this is a lifelong project, but we’ll just start cooking a variety of things in Aidan’s “test kitchen” so that he can begin to try some of his own creations.

As his final step, he’ll create and write up 10 recipes. He’ll need to perfect them in order to actually write up the recipe so this will get him very familiar with prototyping and iteration – part of a good design thinking process. We’re hoping that he can write up one of the recipes in Spanish to help compliment his learning of the language. Look forward to some updates, and fun stories, around “Chef Aidan’s” recipe project. I understand he wants to create “sour gummies” as one recipe. That will of course involve chemistry!

Aidan’s second project, which he wants to start after his first one is complete, is very cool. It is a baking card game. It is similar to some of the more popular thematic card games like Munchkin. He’s thought a bit about the game mechanics and play as part of his prep work. It will not only help teach players baking concepts, including chemistry, but it will also be a lot of fun to play. More importantly, combining a constructivist (i.e., “making”) approach to learning with gamification principles, we expect that Aidan will learn a ton about how to learn in general.

If Aidan is our chef, Vie is our artist. Vie already has quite a following on Deviant Art. It was natural that one of the projects would involve digital art, and so it does. Vie is already very proficient with indirect digital drawing tools such as Wacom tablets, where you look at the screen while drawing on a small pad with a digital pen. Vie is now mastering direct digital drawing – drawing directly on the screen (of a tablet, for example).

Vie’s first project is to learn 3 different programs for digital drawing and then compare the three of them, possibly in a video format. Vie is already very gifted at drawing and is a master at SAI, a digital paint tool used in a lot of fan-based anime art. For some reason that “product loyalty” means that learning Adobe Photoshop is out. However, Adobe Illustrator is one of the chosen ones. Illustrator is a vector based (drawing) product vs. a raster based (painting) tool so that should provide some new skills and learnings. It may be useful in the second project as well. Vie is still working out what the other two tools will be. One might be a 3D tool such as Maya, which is a high-end tool for creating 3D animated characters. You’ve likely seen its results in most recent animated films.

These are all professional art and design tools, and they all have “professional” price tags. Vie is using the one month free trial period most have for this project and to see if they might be of future interest. Meanwhile, I’m trying to see how an “unschooler” can qualify for an educational discount given all of the institutional verification forms. Who said it would be easy J ?

Vie’s final result (“deliverable”) for this project will be the same character image drawn, painted, or rendered in 3 different programs, highlighting the strengths, weaknesses and differences of each tool. It should be pretty awesome to see and we are hoping that vie does a simultaneous “speed painting” video of the three for YouTube. We haven’t seen that sort of comparison before.

This brings us to Vie’s second project. It is still getting defined but Vie is trying to bring together several interests, both near term and long term (i.e., career). Vie is very interested in being a professional game videographer, game tester or game designer. A “game videographer” (my term) is someone that creates videos showing how to play aspects of a particular game and then puts them on YouTube to make money. (It was a new one for me too.)

There are really 3-4 projects wrapped up here and we are working to separate them a bit so we can have a clear, focused project with some sort of deliverable. Vie is leaning toward learning how to make a video, in this case of someone showing how to play a sequence in a game. Vie is already working on learning video screen capture tools (TinyTake or Camtasia), audio tools for voice-overs (Audacity), and video editing tools. For now we are using Microsoft Movie Maker but if this interest grows, as I suspect it will, then we will move to Adobe Premiere – and that is a serious professional tool that will be great to learn early.

There is a lot of tool learning, and consequent frustration, going on right now. That is expected. Most of us who use these tools have gone through it too. I expect that this project will be more about learning the tools. I hope that Vie can then develop some deeper learning about the gaming industry in the next several projects. Those projects will likely involve things like gamification, coding, testing, designing, interviewing gaming professionals, and project management. An exciting possibility is that there are now online certifications you can get in gamification and Vie may pursue one. More on that soon.

On top of these projects, I am still sending Aidan and Vie links to TED talks, articles and resources that are relevant to what they are doing in order to get their juices flowing more. One which I’ll talk about more in a future post is the first 18 minutes of a Harvard Law School course on philosophy. It is surprisingly accessible and makes you think.

While I am still trying to figure out how to bring math more into the mix, these projects all involve reading, research, writing, problem solving, critical thinking, project management, and design skills above and beyond the specific subject matter knowledge and tool skills inherent in each project. Vie and Aidan are getting very digitally literate. Most importantly, they seem to be enjoying their projects and learning in general so far. And for us that is a key metric of success for this first “period” of unschooling.

My First Mistake

It’s inevitable that we’d make mistakes along the way in unschooling in our new adventure. It’s part of the learning process. It’s part of good design thinking and iterative design. It’s how you make something better. You rarely get anything right the first time, after all. Still, knowing all of this, I walked right in on this mistake.

Now, I’m sure it wasn’t really my first mistake; I’m sure I’ve made a bunch along the way. Those were probably so quickly or easily corrected that we didn’t dwell on them. This one was in the end still fairly easy to correct, actually. I still dwell on it though. I think it’s because it never would have happened if I had actually listened to myself…or even read my own blog 🙂

The young adults had just completed their awesome 28 page paper comparing Diablo III and Borderlands. That was a “quest” and a sort of warm-up to unschooling. We were now ready to really dig in and start getting into the meat of unschooling. As I had written before, we had already done our prep work to begin unschooling. I had had Vie and Aidan think about and write down 10 things they were interested in. I was starting with their interests and needs, which were different. We’d build a set of projects from that. This part started well. That’s where the learning from my mistake also started.

I had good intentions. I wanted to provide a bit of daily structure for our young adults in their unschooling path, especially because it was new to all of us. We had decided to try about 4 hours per day as a target for unschooling work. Deb had read that kids on average need only about 2-3 hours per day to cover a traditional daily school curriculum and we figured that if we kept to about 4 hours, we could accomplish all of our goals and the kids would still have more time. I suggested that Vie and Aidan get up at 10 am and be ready to start by 10:30 am. There wasn’t anything magic about 10 am though really. It also happened to be convenient for me and gave me a few hours to get my stuff done and look for inspiring material for them before we started. That should have been a clue.

In comparison, last year, Vie had to be at middle school by 7:30 am and Aidan had to be there by 8:45 am. We knew that teenagers’ body clocks aren’t ready for school at that time (and yet that seems to be when they get a lot of tests). I figured 10 am was a good start. It seemed to work well during their paper quest. I even told them that the time before 10:30 am was theirs to do what they want – sleep, watch videos, etc.

I thought I was doing pretty well until Wednesday this week. We had pretty slow starts on Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday, I got frustrated. I guess it had been building. Vie would get up at 10 but then snooze on the couch until 10:30 am and still be sleepy. Aidan would get up about 9 am and then watch videos until 10:30 am. On Wednesday, I was excited to start but I got a luke-warm reception from both of them. Vie was still sleepy and not really into it and Aidan had been ready for awhile but now got engaged in something else and didn’t really want to switch. I felt like I had to play the role of “unschooling cop”, which I disliked. We were all frustrated.

I felt like I was pushing rope. I’m sure Aidan and Vie felt like they were back in school with lots of rules. No one was happy. With some help from Deb, I realized that I wasn’t following my (our) own intent. And then I had the “aha” moment I needed.

I was trying hard to help Aidan and Vie really drive their own unschooling with their interests. It is one of the core tenets of unschooling. They should be responsible for their learning. My misstep was not taking that all the way to how we structured the days. They are different people with different needs and rhythms and yet I was putting this schedule on them that wasn’t working for either. More importantly, I wasn’t really giving them responsibility for it, as we said we’d do. I wasn’t listening to their needs and I wasn’t iterating when it wasn’t working. I didn’t even think of the 10 am start as a prototype that would not be correct in its first version. The “aha” moment was actually a “duh” moment.

I changed several things after that. Aidan and Vie don’t have to start at the same time. Aidan is usually up earlier and ready to go. He takes more breaks. Vie gets up later but works continuously. I told them they were responsible for their schedule but we still wanted to unschool for an average of about 20 hours per week (4 hours a day or so). They didn’t need to even work the same schedule every day unless they wanted to. The real point was that they have a goal to work toward and that there are many flexible ways to get there.

Things got a lot better. And as a reflection, today Vie, Deb and I had a great conversation about it. Vie volunteers for a few hours Friday through Sunday and mentioned that there really isn’t a day “off” between school and volunteer work. It was a good observation. We all brainstormed ways that Vie could get a “day off”, settling on taking Monday off and unschooling Tuesday-Friday, working a bit more on average each of those days.

As I reflect, this kind of flexible schedule is exactly what I like, and expect, in work. We are fortunate to have worked in the tech industry where this is pretty common – and for good reason. It gives us the opportunity to be at our best. Vie and Aidan should get no less of an opportunity.

I learned a lot from this whole experience. It should have been more obvious and easier to learn, but sometimes the best and most memorable learnings come this way. Just like life. And hopefully for our young adults, they also learned about flexibility and responsibility. Just like life.