child-led learning

Free as a Bird

When I was a kid we adopted my uncle’s pet Parrot for two years while he was living overseas. That parrot terrorized me and anyone else that came into our den. Since then I have never really liked birds in cages. They are not my ideal pet. But I love birds in the wild. I love their music, how they soar and flutter. I love their beautiful colors, bright or subdued. And I love watching them flock together, making patterns and ripples in the sky. I wasn’t a Bird Watcher though. I just was an amateur  bird gazer.

Last Autumn Zephyr went on a birding expedition with her homeschool school Naturalist class. The class met some Birders up on a Hawk Watch Observation Deck.

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When I picked Z up from classes that day she was agog and breathlessly recounted the myriad birds they had seen with the fine binoculars borrowed from the Birders. Then she said something like, “I could do that all day!” and asked if we could also get some fine binoculars, since all we had now were opera glasses, which just wouldn’t do.

Come Hanukkah Z received the  8×40 Action VII Binoculars,which Amazon told me was the “standard entry” for Birders. We also got her the Birds of Pennsylvania Field Guide.  Then we made a trip to the local depot store and bought a bird feeder, some seed, some suet, and a wire cage feeder to hold the seut, and set them both up on a tree in our yard that was easily viewed from our family room and sun room.

Then Zephyr got an account at ebird.org and started participating as a Citizen Scientist, keeping track of “our” backyard birds.

Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology works in conjunction with ebird and also hosts multiple citizen scientist projects that are at various levels of education and require various amounts of time and effort, i.e. projects that are great for beginning birders through programs for experts.  Zephyr started with YardMap, a cool tool that uses google maps and interacts with ebird. There is also Project Feeder WatchNest Watch, Online Classes, Bird SleuthBird Cams, the world’s largest collection of recorded animal sounds, newsletters and even more. And, almost all of it, except for the online classes, are FREE.

Except for an investment in binoculars, a bird guide, and a bird feeder, bird watching is mostly free. And, as I am delving further into it, it looks like it could be all the science you need to study for years and years. If you were so inclined you could use bird watching to get into many of the sciences (physics, biology, ecology, chemistry ) math/statistics, history, geography, art, poetry, and even Shakespeare. No really. )

You probably have FREE local nature sites, bird sanctuaries, wetlands, woods, etc. I am sure there are also FREE to join local birding clubs. But all you really need is a window to your own backyard or a walk through your neighborhood.

There are so many benefits to bird watching, not just getting you out of doors, it is also relaxing, good for your brain, and good for the environment. Start with binoculars, and a bird feeder. You can even do a woodworking project to make your own bird feeder if you want. I recommend going on a guided bird watch soon too, the guides really add to the experience, teaching about bird calls, where to look for birds, how to keep your distance and how to be a good bird steward. It is also exciting to  bird watch in a group with other people that share your passion or whose passion will rub off on those who are still birding skeptics. But, what is not to like about bird watching? Birds are  cool, amazing, beautiful, and descendents of dinosaurs.

Categories: Art, Birding, child-led learning, geography, homeschooling, learner-led education, Poetry, Science, Tech, unschooling | 1 Comment

Maker, Citizen Scientist, and DIY

Last week a friend on Facebook posted this NPR article about Hacker Scouting. Hacker Scouts build forts and campfires but they also learn to solder, build prototypes, and film stop-motion animation movies. They also take a photo or film of themselves doing it, share it to the internet, and earn a badges.  DIY.org is a hacker scouting organization for kids 8 -14. They have hundreds of online tutorials for their young hacker scouts to get hands-on with biology, cartography, industrial design, special effects and many more skills, with new ones being uploaded everyday.

Today Z searched through the site, ooohing and ahhhing over the many exciting tutorials. She ended up choosing to work toward her Salvager badge. I think she was imagining that there was a secret (clean) junkyard that I could drive her to, and where she would find awesome (clean) metal and wood bits that she would paint and re-purpose, perhaps as our new dining set.

Instead she ended up randomly finding some plastic plants on the sidewalk,

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and plans to use them in some sort of art project or maybe to decorate her Dollhouse, which is also a salvaged project that we made from an old bookcase. Once she uploads at least 3 Salvager projects she will earn a badge in that skill. I wonder what she will sew the badge onto…

I love using projects that combine online activities with activities you can do IRL. Z has recently started bird watching. We got her her first binoculars, a birding book, and two bird feeders. Today she worked on a cool Citizen Science project today through Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology. They have several projects to do, but we started with Yard Map. Yard Map uses google maps and some other mapping and drawing software to gather information about the birds right in your backyard (or at your office or school, etc), as well as teach you things you can do to make your area more sustainable and bird friendly. While Z was mapping our yard she also learned the number and names of the trees in our yard. She also recorded birds she saw in our yard this morning at ebird.org, another citizen science tool for bird watchers.

Then working from a tutorial we found online she made this awesome stenciled shirt (with a little help from me doing the ironing.)

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Doesn’t it look pretty professional? This was our first time trying it.

Z wrote another poem today too:

I see no stars

I see no stars
The only light comes from the glowing orbs encased in hanging lanterns
Tonight, there is no Mars
But sweet music floats through the satiny darkness to me
Celestial scars
Are all but vanished in the rich enthralling night
There are no cars
Honking and whirring, no penetration of this thick absence
The night’s guitars
Still strum a hypnotic lullaby, even though
I see no stars

Today she also read, played the piano, went for a walk, and built with her LEGOs.

Categories: Art, Birding, child-led learning, homeschooling, learner-led education, Poetry, Science, Tech, Uncategorized, unschooling | Leave a comment

Junkanoo, The Unknown

We had an almost perfect day of unschooling/child-led learning/democratic education today. It was one for the books.

We started the morning playing Just Dance 4 on the wii U. We did high energy duet dances to Rock Lobster, Ooops… I did it again, The Final Countdown, Les Ketchup, and Everybody Needs Somebody to Love ala Blues Brothers. It was really fun and a good workout.

After breakfast Z took out some old geography detective games.

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In the background on the whiteboard is a list she keeping of projects she wants to work on.

Then she worked on LEGOs for awhile.

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After lunch we played around with a new geography app, The Barefoot World Atlas. From that we got the idea to work together on one of her projects, “Take a World Tour.” Z wants to take virtual trips around the world attending various festivals. Today, December 26 aka Boxing Day, The Junkanoo Festival is being held in the Bahamas. Junkanoo is a street parade with colorful costumes and music. The origin of the word Junkanoo is obscure but it might come from the French “L’inconnu” which means “the unknown.”

We first learned about Junkanoo on the atlas app. Then we checked it out on the net. Next Z found a flight from Philly to the Nassau, Bahamas, via Newark. Then she plotted her course on the trip mapping website travellerspoint.com. She want to use that website to make a map of her virtual travels. Then we listened to some Bahamian music and watched some Junkanoo parades on youtube. Of course we were inspired to design our own Junkanoo costumes.

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I just realized now that, of her own accord, Z ended up doing a lot of geography today. That’s interesting.

Another project she came up with is to write a poem everyday. I would never assign something like that. I would think that too ambitious. Obviously she doesn’t. It was raining when she wrote this:
Drip

Drip
Splattering on my window like the torn fragments of someone’s diary
Drop
Children sliding down the glass towards the place where lost souls rest
Drip
Pooling into cracks of the broken pavement
Drop
Edged on like racehorses to the finish line
Drip
Filling the oceans and pouring down the sandy banks
Drop
A single tear clinging uncertainly until a bat of eyelashes casts it away
Drip
Drop

Pretty melodramatic, but rainy days can invoke that. I like the last bit about the eyelashes.

In the late afternoon she practiced piano. I think I heard her playing Great Balls of Fire, Mad World, White Rabbit, Havtikva, Musette, The Entertainer, and Castle on a Cloud.

She built more with her LEGOs until she remembered that she wanted to write letter to a friend in Indiana. At 5:00 she went down into the basement to play on the wii U, our new video game system that bookended this really good feeling day.

I know every unschooling day wont be like this. But that is fine. Sometimes real learning doesn’t look like the learning we see in traditional school. Personally I’ve never felt like geography was all that important. Anything you really need to know you can just look up on the internet in like 30 seconds. I’m more interested in the meta skills Z was evidencing today, like self-direction, executive functioning, creativity, critical thinking, and spatial reasoning. And yes, she did it all in her pajamas. Since we weren’t leaving the house today it was more efficient, not to mention better for the environment (less laundry!).

Categories: child-led learning, geography, homeschooling, learner-led education, Poetry, unschooling | Leave a comment

whispered echoes of peaceful yodeling on a serene winter day

Explorer’s Log – Day 2

December 11th, 2012,

Sometimes, when you start a new journey, you have to trek for quite a distance before you are out of familiar territory.

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That is what happened to us yesterday, our first day unschooling. Zephyr had grand plans to begin a project of her own design, something to do with her SAS Survival Handbook. She just needed to finish her homework for some classes. It is the end of the semester and many of her activities are having their big event or big project due. She spend the morning finishing up a writing project for her homeschool-school Writing Workshop, working on her biology project on HIV, and attending her online Current Events class about the North American Drought.

Then we headed out to the city together to take part in a study for daughters of women who have had breast cancer. We answer surveys, give saliva or blood samples, and have her weight and height recorded twice a year for the next five years. We are happy to be part of something that might help girls and their families and excited to be part of a big scientific study. This excursion is a good application of our philosophy that learning happens everywhere. Zephyr learned about surveys, what makes a good one and what makes a frustrating one.

There was more homework to finish in the afternoon and then another performance with her Girl Choir at a local retirement community. By the time she got home it was past her bedtime.

So, despite our best intentions, no real unschooling action happened yesterday.

Today Zephyr spend the day at her homeschooling-school. It is their child-led philosophy that inspired me to start unschooling. I love what they are doing there, with Zephyr’s age group and the younger kids. I visited this morning to hear a reading from the Writing Workshop group and I saw the Young Ones all busy, in various groups, painting, drawing, building, and listening to stories. They all seemed so genuinely engaged.

The older kids all shared poetry and stories they had been writing. I think that is pretty amazing on its own. No one was forced to write anything, much less read it aloud in front of a group, but they all chose to. And they seemed to have a really good time doing it. This is one Zephyr shared:

Poetry is…

The whispered echoes of peaceful yodeling on a serene winter day
Double rainbows stretching across the future
Brilliant Baboons trying to feed random pizza to a bothered group of usually amiable lunatics
Purple Juxtapositions hidden in the folds of my sushi, resting on a turquoise melancholy doily
Outlandish echoes travesing my imagination
My heart stretching out to all the furry Thestrals, helpless and alone, forced to eat angry noodles, abandoned in February
Helpful Xylophones on Tuesday

It is kind of crazy and funny, a lot like her I think.

Categories: child-led learning, homeschooling, learner-led education, Poetry, unschooling | Leave a comment

Terra Incognita

Explorer’s Log – Day 1

December 10th, 2012,

Today marks the first day of of our journey into Terra Incognita, the Unknown Land. Our young navigator is guiding us out beyond the boundaries of the known, on a journey as yet uncharted.  There is no spare thought for when we might return amidst the excitement of discovering new lands, phantastical beasts, and treasures untold.

This is the first expedition to be led by our intrepid explorer Zephyr Bly. I am gladly passing the proverbial torch of Lead Guide into the hands of this young, adventurous vanguard. She has shown herself to be capable, curious, and a true challenger of the unknown.

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Today I handed over the reigns of my daughter’s education to my daughter. She is eleven, which to some people may seem too soon to be put in charge of her own learning, to others it may seem too late. To me it just feels really right. Like really.

I only started contemplating this idea last Wednesday and since then I have felt really at peace with it. My husband, who only kinda-sorta knows about unschooling, also jumped onto the bandwagon with surprising ease. My daughter was the one that needed a bit of convincing.

On Wednesday morning I asked her “What do you think about unschooling?”
To which she replied, “I don’t think I want to do it. I like learning.”

I was able to convince her, during a conversation that continued sporadically throughout the day, that unschooling didn’t have to mean “playing video games and not doing math” but more like, “You decide what is important for you to learn and do.”

I told her that I am just really curious to see what she would do with her time if it was her own. She said, with sincerity, “I am too.”

And really, I am SO curious. Is she going to write a musical? Learn to cook? Plant a Garden? Organize a Social Action initiative? Read 100 books? Study Linguistics via Tolkien’s Elvish Languages? Design and Sell her own line of geek culture t-shirts? All those things sound plausible. But she will probably do something I haven’t thought of, something that is really about her, something that she might not have had the time to pursue in-between doing everything else that the world tells her is more important. Exciting, isn’t it?

I guess what we are doing could be called “unschooling.” Though that word means different things to different people, so I am not sure I can really claim that as an accurate description. Also, personally, I don’t like the idea of describing what I am doing by what it is not.

Another term I could use is “Child Led Learning” but DD seems too old to start calling her a child now. “Learner Led Education” is what they use at the homeschooling school she goes to twice a week, but that is a  mouthful.

As a writer I have a belief that words are imbued with great meaning and power. The right words can make it and the wrong ones can break it. In my mind, what we are doing is recognizing that it is time for our daughter to be the lead decision maker regarding her own education. The metaphor that I came up with, that fits her and us, is that she is the Lead Guide in this Exploration. And, right now, we are very much in an exploration phase. The uncharted territory is a practically unlimited land of learning opportunities and life experiences. Her father and I are Argonauts in her Exploration Team. We have skills and knowledge she can call on but we also understand to use what authority we have sparingly to encourage her to gain the independence that is right and natural for her at this stage in her life. Like most explorers we are excited to be leaving what’s familiar behind and setting off on our own adventure, not really knowing where it is going to lead.

As the team scribe I will be chronicling our adventure, transitioning from homeschooling to unschooling, here in my Explorer’s Log. Special Thanks to the late, great Jack Kirby for the inspiration for my blog name The Challengers of the Unknown. And to the New Pornographers for  making this awesome song, that reminded me of the name.

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Categories: child-led learning, homeschooling, learner-led education, Uncategorized, unschooling | 1 Comment