the scent of discourse

School is starting again.  Okay, not for us, but I could tell even if I had never heard of a calender because EVERYONE is asking Smootch about what grade she is going into.  I am trying to coax her into responding with, "I'm in Grade Awesome!" but even at her tender age she knows what an extremely dorky statement this is and so far refuses outright.

Still, a response is needed, and I usually jump in, after a pleading look from Smootch, informing our Nosey Nelson that we home school.  Then Smootch, who refused to admit to being in Grade Awesome and was too shy to say she is home schooled, will positively screech at me, "No, mom, I'm unschooled!" 

Now I get to explain to Great Auntie so-n-so's friend, or whoever, that unschooling means a child-interest led form of education where there is no set curriculum but follow her natural curiosity learning in a holistic blah blah blah blah blah...

And it gets seriously over detailed for a simple question, and if Lady Hoha's eyes do not glaze over she starts to give me a look I can only say is extremely old, meaning something like you kids and your freaky hippie ideas.

(I just erased a huge chunk of text explaining why Smootch is so adamant about being 'unschooled' versus 'home schooled' but I realized that this may be a story for another day.  So, you'll just have to believe me when I say that Smootch isn't normally so rude as to yell corrections at me, at least in front of other people, but that she feels agressively protective about her relative independence and freedom to her mind her own thoughts and time.  I can't say as I blame her.)

But the truth is even more complicated than this apologetic mini-lecture I end up giving twenty times during one wedding reception.  We learn what Smootch wants to learn, and what Smootch wants to learn about is EVERYTHING.  Our biggest challenge right now is to stay on track with one idea or activity long enough to see it through to it's natural conclusion.  I have no problem with a broad range of seeminly non-related topics (because they really are connected) but how to make connections and deepen our explorations and understandings.

Smootch's education is interest led and what Smootch is very much interested in is books.  Almost all of our ideas lately come from books, ideas and dramas taken in, thought about, expanded, questioned, and applied.  We have a habit, started when Smootch was the tiniest of infants, of reading aloud at the breakfast table. Yes, this is bad manners with all the talking with food in our mouths and, yes, we have to be extra careful to keep books clean.  But, oh my, the places we go just as we are starting our day.  These morning books colour our moods, and influence our activities and thoughts.  More often than not, they almost immediately led to some sort of post-breakfast craft or art project.  That is why you so often see Smootch and Birdie in pajamas here when  I take photos while they work.  In my house, teeth brushing and getting dressed comes after art

The other day we read Elbert's Bad Word.  This book initially appealed to Smootch because she has an ongoing love affair with what she calls 'K-words,' meaning the type of language that makes a mother's hair curl.  In the book, the bad word (I hate this particular label, but that's what author Audrey Wood called it) is a scruffy little beastie that jumped inside Elbert, and then popped out at inopportune moments.  There was mouth washing and a consultation with a wizard.  Really, your basic, every day fabulous picture book.  What sparked our imaginations is the idea that words can be represented as a non-alphabetical image.  Not what the word means, as in it's definition, but if the word was an entity all onto itself, what would it look like?

That morning we didn't leave the breakfast table until after mid morning snack.  Smootch and I took turns coming up with verbs and pronouns to draw.  Not unusual, knowing  Smootch, most of her descriptive words ended up having people features. 


It was a fairly natural step for us to begin to talk about the different types of words, nouns and verbs and so on, and to talk about our associations with the words.  What colour is happy?  Why do some words seem smooth while others are messy?  Why does confused have glasses?  (I tried not to take it personally.)

From there, we talked about how just saying some words made us feel good and others felt bad.  Soon after, stories began to emerge as the word characters took on a life of their own.


(I have a particular love for 'nasty'.  I also found it interesting that her unhappy words are all done in brown.  Notice, also, that Happy still looks happy, despite his problems with the thieving, angular ugly - something to think about.)

This was a great activity, on many levels, and one that we've come back to several times since.  Smootch has a heightened awareness of words right now.  Sometimes she will stop her play or almost space out during a conversation as a particular word catches her fancy and she pauses to visualize the word and try to experience it. Drawing is only the beginning.  Because how, really, does green taste?  What does fast feel like?  How does wet sound?

Right now, reading our books and following through with our little inspirations and playful ideas is school for us.  And it's fun.  Us kids and our freaky hippie ideas.  Unschooling is so much fun it does feel like we're getting away with something.  But Smootch is learning.  It's not conventional, it's not usual, it's not concrete nor structured and certainly not easily explainable in the line at the drugstore.  How can I explain this whenever a virtual stranger makes a casual inquiry into Smootch's school life?  What I really want to say whenever someone tries to put a Grade on my girl, pigeon hole her intellectually by calling her a Grade Oner or Kindergartner and then walking away thinking they know every thing there is to know about her, is that it's really none of their k-word beeswax.  

But that wouldn't make me a very good ambassador for home schoolers.

Perhaps I can invite them to ponder with me what irritation looks like?


  1. that activity is going straight into my teaching bag, now to find the book:) thanks, hope you don't mind the theft of your idea, but it's a great one. And yep, I'd be one to guess what "grade" Smootch was in, my fave answer was ""we unschool/homeschool, but she's in kindergarten (or whatever)", because no matter what you are learning, she will still be meeting all the government standards as she learns at home. have a great unschool year!

  2. I want to unschool. But my hubby is against homeschooling being a former public school teacher. But then after the night I just had I think I want to ship the girls off to boarding school in Siberia (j/k). Love the post. Love your blog.

  3. LOVE the word pictures!!

    This post reminds me of a conversation we had the other day. My 3 yr old had asked if she 'has school' and I said, "Well, of course, all of life is school." The next day my son asked her what she does for school and she said, "Oh - all sorts of things. Coloring. Drawing. Lipsticking."

  4. We receive the same bewildered looks when my kids are asked about school (and school uniform). They go to a Rudolf Steiner (Waldorf) school and don't wear a uniform (all public schools in Australia do wear a uniform so this is considered waaaaayyy out there). At the end of the day, I make the decision about my kids' schooling, and I have to be happy with it. And I'm proud to maybe give some people an inspired nudge to think about it and be conscious of the decision.

  5. I love the idea of visualizing words and thinking about what they feel and taste like... Very neat idea... I may have to have a home lesson with my public school kids about that... maybe I can find the book at the library... Good luck with finding an answer to the busybodies irritating you... :D


    I homeschool all 4 kids now- phew. I love it! the kids love it! my mother---sister-- not so much. every year i get a lecture. hate that!!!

    just yesterday someone asked and i almost walked away. i get sooo tired of explaining my decision. i don't bother them with why they send their kids to school?
    Maybe they are secretly jealous.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. keep on keep'n it on.....

  7. I really do love your blog. My daughter will be 5 in December and she has started getting the "Are you excited to start school next year?" question. We have already decided to unschool, but for my daughter right now, we just call it home schooling. I love that Smooch is protective of the unschooling title. I would love to know more about why though. I never really thought it would be a bit deal to just call it homeschooling and just go with our own flow.
    Thanks for the reading at breakfast idea, I think we might have to start that tomorrow :)

  8. Most people just don't know what homeschooling looks like, not to mention unschooling. I had a conversation about homeschooling just the other day where the lady had no idea what the laws are or how a person would do it, or why someone would want too.

    Also, most people don't know how to talk to children and what-grade-are-you-in is a safe question.

    My oldest (12) replies, "we homeschool," at which time I get a "help me" look from the person asking. I then give them a "thinking" look and say, "Seven...I think."

    I love home-un-schooling!


  9. Great update. I've found with my unschooling that my kids tend to know more with true understanding than their peers on the appropriate "grade level" - and if they don't, they've caught up soon enough.

  10. I LOVE THIS POST! I've been deciding what to do with my son. He turns 5 in a few weeks and will not be starting school until next year. I've been back and forth on homeschooling versus public schooling for a while now. (Mother in law is a retired teacher - so not for homeschooling.) It's fun to see what you guys are doing! I just might do this homeschool thing yet. Thanks so much for sharing.

  11. My girls and I were talking about making t-shirts that say "it's okay, I'm homeschooled" or "I'm homeschooled, don't ask" or "grocery shopping can be school too". That way, we don't have to answer the questions. We just finished day 2 and so far, so good.

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  13. Thank you for such beautiful way to start our day. I just put three books on the breakfast table. Do you have anymore unschooling springboard techniques to share?

    My favorite response as to why we choose homeschool and/or Montessori is that both the public school system and the majority of private schools we interviewed said they could/would not meet the needs of my gifted child. That statement alone usually shuts them up. I believe almost every child is gifted in some way but that is a completely separate lecture.
    If they need/want a further explanation, the following speech ensues. Well…., the public school system’s answer to our gifted child’s needs was to send extra challenging work home with her. What? O you won’t be teaching her in school anything she does not already know? Note: at the age of 4.5 she is already testing into the 2nd grade in most areas. So…You will be sending the real challenging work home for me to teach her anyway? Well we could give her some different work to do than the rest of the class if we have time but we really need to focus on the rest of the class. How exactly would that make my child feel on a daily basis? Excluded? Out of place? Both the teachers and the school principals have made it clear that they will not promise to meet the needs of my gifted child. They will promise to meet the needs of a handicapped or special needs child and even have special programs for them but especially since “No Child Left Behind” gifted children are virtually ignored. The GATE (Gifted and Talented Education)program in Las Vegas has even been cut to ZERO. Not a single penny. Even if it had not been cu t, the GATE program did not start till 3rd grade. Well , what about a private school? Well, most of the private schools have the attitude of , “Well this is what we offer. Take it or leave it”. They just don’t have the resources they say. Why not just push her up a grade. She is already almost 3 grades ahead. They are insanely reluctant to let a child skip even one grade. Additionally, she is small for her age as it is. She is no doubt academically advanced for her age but she is still is the age that she is. You may have noticed that one of the first things kids ask each other is, ” How old are you?” How do you see that playing out? We have already seen the repercussions on the playground and they are sad. Oh and this is my all-time favorite…from a teacher no less…”Yes, gifted children are a real problem for the teacher (…in a regular classroom). We are constantly having to find something for them to do.” Wow. Speechless with anger.
    We home early-pre-schooled for a while, then did some Montessori school and now it looks like we will homeschool for preschool for a while again until our spot in a Montessori school will be available again. Moving all the time puts us at the bottom of the waiting list everywhere we go and is just one more reason to homeschool.

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  15. Just home from a day of work, and ack, I HAD to come re-read your post.

    Why I dislike SOME homeschooling parents
    -they do it because they are to lazy to wake up in the morning
    -their kids are talking/understanding WAY below age appropriateness
    -the kids tell you "I get to watch t.v and play x-box all day", and the parent says "yeah I prep them for the standards tests and call it a day"

    WHY I LOVE your unschool
    -you are doing it because you feel it is the right choice
    -smootch is well adjusted and acts like a 5 year old, not like a 2 year old(see safety landing and finger knitting;))
    -you encourage learning (come on, I CAN'T wait to use your ideas with multiple students
    -If I taught where you live, there would be a field trip to your school!!!

    Keep up the AWESOME work.

  16. I am 100% committed to sending my kid to public school when she's old enough (not quite two now). Quite frankly, I'm not sure I'm cut out for this mothering thing and I don't think she'd make it through her childhood unscathed if she had to deal with me all day every day for the next 16 years. :) My husband (a public school teacher who was homeschooled) completely agrees with me, although we have of course decided that we'll constantly evaluate if everything's working out for her the way it should.

    All that said, I really love hearing about your unschooling adventures with Smootch. Makes me hopeful that someday my kid will be interested in more than trying to get out the dog door while my back is turned.

    Oh, and if I were you I'd say something like "Well, we unschool, but she's kindergarten aged" when asked. That'd probably satisfy all but the most obnoxious of askers, and really, nothing you can say or do would make them happy anyway.

  17. So what would be the appropriate question for us to ask children about school/unschooling/homeschooling?
    this is not meant in a judgemental way just would like to know what we ask?
    "so what are your plans for September"?
    " how are you going to learn this year?"

  18. oh and whoosies
    I am secretly jealous

  19. I quietly follow your blog (I can't stand to say I'm a lurker, lol). My daughter is in public school because she's happy and it was largely her choice, but like Tracy, I find so many of these activities to be a great supplement. Learning at home following her own interests really takes the stress off of whether or not the school is covering all the intellectual bases.

  20. I think you should not ask kids what they are planning on learning this year or what they want to do in September, becuase it seems like you are quizzing them or trying to establish judgement on how well they are doing. Why not ask them about their favorite activity? About their hobby? You don't have to nose into their business about how school is going or what the plans are or if they are learning what they should be learning.
    A couple of weeks ago my husband was out with our 5 year old homeschooled daughter, at the gas station and the lady behind the counter asked the question, and my husband said, "we homeschool," and she started *quizzing* my daughter. I was furious. This lady would have been more than satisfied with my daughter's knowledge and skill, but it doesn't matter! How disrespectful to quiz her.

  21. Brilliant. Spectacular. Wonderful.