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Learning at its Best

Paperless Un-Schooling Summer School

Christy and I are hanging out with Julia when Joel asks, “Could this grape turn into a raisin?” Joel asks. I could send him to Google. I could show him a YouTube clip, perhaps. However, I want him to see for himself.

“What’s your hypothesis?”

“I think it could turn into a raisin,” he says.

“Any other possibilities?” Julia asks.

“It could turn moldy.”

“What are some of the variables that can affect it?” she asks.

“How hot it is,” he says.

“Or how much moisture is in the air,” she explains.

We’ll see how it turns out. It’s an impromptu science lesson in our backyard.

“Can we build a story?” Micah asks.

“Sure, do you want to start it?” I ask.

“Once upon a time . . . no, let’s try a different start. One day Manny the Monkey was sitting at home . . .”

Impromptu language arts lesson.

“I want to play the ‘how do you get to’ number game,” Joel tells me.

“Can you give me a way to get to fifteen?” I ask.

“You could take five three times,” he says.

“Like, five and five and five?” I ask.


“How else?” I ask.

“You could half thirty,” he explains. “Or you could do eight plus eight and seven plus seven and then put them together.”

Impromptu math lesson.

“Did you have iPads when you were little?” Micah asks me.


“Did you have Angry Birds?”

“Nope. We had Intellivision. But that was it.”

“Was it like Little House on the Prairie?” he asks.

“No, but it was a time without cell phones and very few computers.” His eyes light up. To him, I’m ancient. It’s an impromptu history lesson.

“Dad, I heard that in some places kids don’t have food. Is that true?” Joel cuts in.

“Yeah, it’s true.”

“Then why do we have an iPad?” he asks.

Impromptu social studies lesson.

I’m a big fan of public education. It’s why I send my school to a place where an expert in the content and the teaching strategies will give them a structured learning experience. I believe in authentic learning and I recognize that there is authenticity in structure. Life isn’t always sandboxes and dandelions.

I’m also a fan of unschooling, which is why their summers are filled with science experiments and verbal math games and story-telling and Legos and magical mud and dragons. I want my kids to shake off the layers of industrial-strength indoctrination and get mentally messy.

I’m a big fan of paradox and nuance. I’m a big fan connections. It’s why I embrace paper and paperless, schooling and unschooling, specific and thematic instruction.


About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


7 thoughts on “Paperless Un-Schooling Summer School

  1. Not only well written but inspiring. I wonder how many of today’s parents actually teach and mentor rather than telling?

    Posted by bridgesburning | June 10, 2011, 2:23 pm
    • Thanks for the kind words!

      I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of math and the danger in saying “first graders can get addition, but not multiplication.” Wonder if we need more mental math and conceptual building. Then again, my experience is limited to my own children.

      Posted by johntspencer | June 10, 2011, 2:26 pm
  2. I am curious to hear about your having the cake and eating it too philosophy as the years go on. I suppose it could be done, but from my experience, the longer a person is in compulsory school, the harder it becomes for him to become not only self motivated and directed but interested in learning. school has this way of taking over your life. the basic wisdom being that it takes at least one month per year of school to de-school & decompress from the overwhelming schedule and responsibility to the system. I know many parents who think they they can embrace both: school and unschool. the good part about hearing this is that the idea of unschooling is starting to become well respected by educators like you. I hope that one day school and unschool morphs into the perfect combination for all kids not just the lucky few. anyway, have a wonderful summer learning along side your kid! with respect, amanda

    Posted by amanda enclade | June 10, 2011, 3:00 pm
    • Perhaps you’re right. We’ll see. However, in my own life, I never felt overwhelmed by school. The tough parts were always relational (less about the school, more about the peer relationships). But my parents did a few things that helped:

      1. Told me I didn’t have to do homework and fought against the system when it became necessary
      2. Told me that grades didn’t matter. I should pursue my passions instead.
      3. Encouraged me to develop a quality relationship with teachers.
      4. Helped me see the point of community service and extracurricular activities.

      Aside from math (which was always kill-and-drill), I found my school content experience to be great. I loved social studies (the debates, mock trials, projects) as well as English. Half the science classes were excellent (lots of labs, inquiry-based learning). One of the possibilities I will look into will involve an art school that I really respect.

      I still believe in public education and I believe that teachers can transform schools into arts-based, STEM-based and project-based schools. I love the notion of smaller communities as well and I see how many of the unschooling ideas can be implemented in a quality learning environment.

      Posted by johntspencer | June 10, 2011, 3:07 pm
    • Amanda, This is exactly what I was going to say, and want to put back to John…

      Posted by Kirsten | June 12, 2011, 10:02 pm
      • Every model is broken, even the home school and unschool, because we are broken. The point is to be humble, to be flexible, to be open to nuance and paradox. Ultimately, with that mindset, authenticity will occur.

        Posted by johntspencer | June 12, 2011, 10:10 pm
  3. Having had one son aged 23 go all the way through public school and college and now another aged 14 who has been homeschooled (unschooled/relaxed homeschool) since the end of 3rd grade, I feel the most important thing to do education-wise is to determine exactly what sort of educational model works best for your child. Some young people do beautifully in a public school setting but would struggle with the freedom of unschooling, others are unmotivated in school yet flourish as homeschoolers.

    Based on my personal experience, I feel that rather than having parents decide what sort of educational model to offer their child, maybe we should let our children’s learning style determine what sort of schooling (or not) to offer. If parents initially decide to send their children to school, check in with them frequently and make sure they continue to stay excited about learning and if things should change, know there are options such as homeschooling to turn to. Same goes for those who choose homeschooling and find their young people would rather learn in a group setting such as school. Know you have options and change is OK. Both adventures in learning can be great as long as it fits the child.

    My younger son loved school until the summer after 3rd grade when he asked to be homeschooled. Having never considered it and really feeling ill prepared to take on such a challenge, I sent him off to 4th grade and faced a daily struggle with him complaining about and refusing to attend school. Because my son could put words to what wasn’t working in school, making me understand that his learning style was vastly different than the school’s teaching style, I pulled him out and we have never looked back.

    I feel especially privileged because I have been able to walk in both educational worlds- that of public schooling and homeschooling. It has been a fantastic journey on both fronts and I wouldn’t change anything for either of my sons. Enjoy your children as they journey through life. It sounds to me like your thoughtfulness and consideration for what they may need will steer them well…

    All my best,


    Posted by Darcy | June 10, 2011, 6:12 pm

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