HS 171: Are you an unschooler? The Ultimate Guide to Homeschool Methods with Sue Elvis
Thank you for sharing this homeschooling podcast
This interviewis from the Ultimate Guide to Homeschool Methods a series from the archives from about 2015. These audio recordings have not gotten a ton of play through the years because they were never released as podcasts. I am dusting them off and putting them out in the world because I think they are just so helpful to homeschool moms and some of my favorite interviews ever.
In this episode, I loved chatting with my old friend, Sue Elvis who blogs at Stories of an Unschooling Family. Sue unschools her large family where they focus on doing their own projects, relationships, and trusting the child.
Links and resources from today’s show:
- SPONSOR: Big Life Journal
- SPONSOR: BookShark
- Sue’s Website, storiesofanunschoolingfamily.com
- Curious Unschoolers: Stories of an Unschooling Family
- A Little Way of Homeschooling
- Homeschooling with Gentleness: A Catholic Discovers Unschooling
- A Perfect Method for Keeping Unschooling Records
- A Successful Evernote Homeschool Registration Visit
- Registering as Homeschoolers Using Evernote Homeschool RecordsThe Unlikely Homeschool
Big Life Journal: A Growth Mindset Journal for ChildrenBig Life Journal – Teen Edition: A Growth Mindset Journal for Tweens & TeensBookSharkCurious Unschoolers: Stories of an Unschooling FamilyA Little Way of HomeschoolingHomeschooling with Gentleness: A Catholic Discovers Unschooling
Free Resource Sheet
Is Unschooling right for you? As a gift to you, I am offering this free downloadable resource sheet on homeschooling methods. Find out which method might appeal to you, and the number one resource I recommend for beginning to explore each method.
And when you sign up for your free download you will be added to the weekly newsletter list so you will be notified when more audio interviews about each method are released. There will be five in all.
Pam: Hi everyone. It’s Pam from Edsnapshots.com and today we have our final interview in the ultimate guide to homeschooling methods. Today we are chatting about unschooling. I’m joined by my very special guest, Sue Elvis, Sue homeschools, or I should say unschools her children in Australia. She writes at the blog, Sueelviswrites.com and Sue is just wonderful. We’ve known each other for a number of years and she is always such a blessing to me and so I was really, really looking forward to the chance to get to speak with her in person, well on Skype anyway, but it turned out to be a fun interview. I think you’re really gonna like it. Sue and I chat about unschooling. Of course we chat about John Holt, we chat about trusting the child and we also chat about Sue’s ingenious method of tracking her children’s learning for her homeschool record keeping. It’s all about unschooling today on The Ultimate Guide to Homeschooling Methods. Hi Sue and welcome to the program.
Sue: Hi Pam. Thank you for asking me to be on it. I’m really excited about this.
Pam: Well, I am so excited to have you. You and I have quote-unquote known each other for a number of years and if I ever went to Australia, I think you would be one of the people I would just have to stop in and visit.
Sue: That’s really lovely. Thank you.
Pam: Well, tell me a little bit about your kids and their ages.
Sue: Well, I have eight children, but only seven of them have needed homeschooling. My eldest daughter is 28 and my youngest daughter is 11. Amongst that I’ve got four adults, so I guess that they’ve finished homeschooling. And I’ve got three children whom would be of school age. Sophie’s 14, Charlotte 17, and Gemma-Rose is 11
Pam: Okay. And have you always been an unschooler? Tell me a little bit about your journey.
Sue: Well, we started up as unschoolers. I think that we sort of just fell into it. Somebody I knew unschooled and I thought, this is the way that you homeschool. So I sort of followed her example. And the problem was I didn’t really understand the philosophy of unschooling very well. I went to a few talks but I missed something along the way. I thought that unschooling was, the parent had to step back and let the children take the lead and a parent could do nothing. They weren’t to interfere with their children’s education. And I stepped back and I expected my children to be doing wonderful things because I’d seen what other unschoolers were doing. Except my children didn’t actually do anything very much at all and I got a bit discouraged by the whole thing and I decided that I had to step in and I started doing what I think, or I didn’t know what it was called then, but now I know what I was doing, I was strewing. I was introducing them to things like Shakespeare and poems and taking them places, or things that I’ve been itching to do before, but thought that I couldn’t do because we were unschooling and I guess we were unschooling for awhile and things might’ve gone really quite well if I hadn’t got distracted. Then I sort of read a few books and I found out about Charlotte Mason, classical education, unit studies, all sorts of other things. And I read one book after another and I got excited about the lot of them. And in turn I tried them all out on my children. Yeah, they were Guinea pigs. I had a great time at trying things out, I guess. It was all very exciting, homeschooling. All these wonderful ideas and we moved further and further away from unschooling, but we never found the perfect method. I sort of chopped and changed, tried this, tried that, listened to what other people were doing and thought, well, this might work for us. And some of it we enjoyed. We enjoyed living books, for example, for Charlotte Mason, but nothing, nothing fitted perfectly for us. And I did come to the realization that what I was doing was trying to impose a method upon my children that didn’t really suit them. We were doing things because the book said to, or somebody else said to, not because it was the suitable thing for my children and what they wanted to do. I wasn’t actually listening very carefully to their needs and what they wanted to do. But you’ll have to do this because it says so. This is what Charlotte Mason says. We have to do this. You have to narrate that book back to me and it got a little bit stressful because I couldn’t find the right method. And I came to the realization that our relationships were suffering because of this. I became a bit of a dragon mother yelling at my kids, you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that. And one day I had enough of that and I started to throw out things one by one that weren’t working for us. And what I’ve told people we were doing was we were doing our own thing. We weren’t doing Charlotte Mason anymore, we weren’t doing any of the other things. We were doing our own thing. What we were doing was unschooling. But I called it my lazy way of homeschooling, just myself. I admit that to anybody else. But it wasn’t that my children weren’t learning anything because they were learning heaps, but we had no conflict. And I wasn’t forcing my children to do anything anymore. Life just seem too easy. So I called it lazy way and it wasn’t until a few years ago I read some of both of Suzie Andres’s books about unschooling and as I was reading I thought, “Wow, this is what we’re doing.” We’re unschoolers, and then I had to rethink everything because I thought, well, I obviously didn’t understand what unschooling was. We’d found our way there by mistake, which just seemed a natural thing for us do, but I had to change my whole ideas about what unschooling actually was so that I could describe myself as an unschooler. I mean, not that it matters, labels do not matter, but it was just exciting. We’d come back full circle to unschooling and hadn’t even realized.
Pam: Okay, well there’s a lot of information in there to unpack in just that little nugget that you’ve told me right there, so I’m going to ask you quite a few questions based on that.
Pam: Okay. You mentioned that you started out unschooling because you knew some unschoolers and that appealed to you and you listened to a few talks but you felt like you had missed something in the philosophy, and I think this is going to surprise a lot of people who are listening because they’re like, what philosophy? But, there actually is a philosophy to unschooling. So if you could describe that philosophy for me and maybe just two or three sentences, how would you describe that to somebody who asked you? What is the philosophy of unschooling?
Sue: Philophophy of unschooling: To us it’s a way of life. I’ve got a tagline on my blog: Trust, Respect and Love Unconditionally. And I think that is sums it up for us that we have to trust that children will learn what they need to learn, when they need to know it. Respect our children: to listen to them, to treat them, not as equals because we’re adults and their children, but they’ve got just as much dignity. They say that their views, their interests are just as important as ours, which is quite a difference in experience, I think, that I’m not the teacher and they’re not the child, I’m guiding them through life rather than pulling them through. Love unconditionally: that there’s so much love we weren’t getting. Things were becoming in the way of that love when we were doing other ways of homeschooling. And love unconditionally: love who our children are, as they are, respecting their interests, forgiving. It spills over into all aspects of our lives so that we are very much a forgiving, sort of, accepting and forgiving and encouraging our children to be who they are meant to be. I think that’s the basis of it. Who are our children? That God has a plan for all our children. He’s given them talents. We have a job as unschooling parents to encourage our children to be the people that God means them to be.
Pam: You know, I listened to an interview a few years ago with Pat Farenga, who had written Schooling at Home. I think I’m not getting the name of that John Holt book right. But he was a coauthor with John Holt on his homeschooling book and he said that unschooling was giving your children as much freedom as the parent could bear.
Sue: Yes. freedom is a very good word to describe unschooling because it comes in with trust. Can we trust to give our children the freedom to make their own choices with guidance, of course. We don’t just push them out there and say, “Go on off you go, go and do what you like.” I think that’s misunderstood entirely, but I think that freedom to let go actually becomes easier over time. And so that we start at one end of the spectrum and you give them as much freedom as you are comfortable with and you find yourself moving down the line to point where you do trust and you can let go of them. Yes.
Pam: Well, you mentioned strewing and I want to touch a little bit more on that. Tell me exactly what is strewing and how would you go about doing it?
Sue: I think strewing is enriching our children’s environment with experiences. Could be conversation, it could be resources, works, DVDs, we could go somewhere. That’s enriching their environment and I think we are very good at doing that when our children are very young, when they’re pre school age from baby to preschool, we’re always bringing new experiences towards little children and then when we get to school age, everything changes. But, I think that we should keep on doing that. And what I would do is I find something interesting. I will say to my children, “Hey, would you like to watch this? Would you like to read that?” Put things down where they can see them. I’m an active strewer. I don’t just leave things and walk off. I’m more inclined to say, “Hey look, I’m going to watch a Shakespeare play this afternoon. Would you like to join me?” That type of thing.
Pam: And then if they decide to say, “No, mom, I don’t want to do any of those things.”
Sue: Well, it doesn’t happen very often. I would just say, “Oh, that’s okay.” And sometimes, one of my children will say, “No, I don’t feel like Shakespeare this afternoon, mom.” And that’s fine. That’s her choice. But I have a very, very close relationship with my children. I know what, well, we’re very, very similar and quite often things I do strew they pick up on and I also know that I know my children very well, so I strew towards their interests as well. But though I also try and introduce them to new things. Yeah. If they don’t like it, that’s fine.
Pam: But you’re going to put it out there for them to give them the opportunity to possibly like it.
Sue: That’s right. You never know what they might like if they haven’t been introduced to it, give them the opportunity. So yes, I do. I go out looking for things that maybe are outside their little interest area, well they’ve got a lot of big interests, but yes, I do look for things which embroaden their horizons maybe.
Pam: Well tell me, Sue, most of your children are older now, your youngest is 11 but how does an unschooler handle things like basic skills like reading and mathematics?
Sue: A lot of unschoolers would say they don’t unschool maths, but we managed to let go of that one. I do a lot of strewing. I’ll do a lot of recording of things that come up naturally in life. We do use a lot of maths, but I go beyond that because I like maths and I want to give my girls the opportunity to share that love of maths. So I go looking for resources, DVDs, books, anything that might spark up an interest in maths. And I do have one child who’s 14 who considers herself a mathematician. So that’s what I do for maths. But we’re all writers and readers. I’m a writer, I’m a reader and my girls, especially my younger four girls, they do that naturally. It’s what we do, it’s who we are and they’ve learned their basic skills by using them. So novel writing, they’ve learned to spell, they learnt their grammar. It hasn’t been a problem. We learned to read by reading. I have used a few structured things to teach my children to read phonics and things, but at a time when they’ve been ready to, when they’ve wanted to read.
Pam: Okay, so you, you wait for an interest to blossom in the child?
Sue: I guess I do, but I don’t think there’s any harm in introducing a few ideas and resources ahead of time, see if they are ready. “Would you like to learn to read?” You know, that type of thing. I wouldn’t say that directly, but bringing books out and try, well, my last child is 11 now. It’s a long time ago, but she was interested to read when we started learning to read. She was motivated to learn and we did use formal aides to help her read. I didn’t wait until the day that she picked it up by herself, but what I did do was when at various points along the pathway she got a little bit stuck and she needed more time and it was hard to step back and say, “Well, I’ll just wait a bit.” I’m a very impulsive person. I want to keep going and get excited. She’s going to read one day, perhaps, you know, push her along. And I did learn to step back and one day she came up to me and said, “Mom, can I read you a chapter of this book?” And I was so surprised I said, “You can’t read that.” And she said, “Yes, I can mom.” And she did. So all fell into place for her. But yeah, a combination of offering my help and taking the time to step back when I could see that she wasn’t ready.
Pam: So when it suits your purposes though, you would pull out, not a formal math curriculum and that you’re going to start with step A and go through the entire thing and try to finish it in a certain amount of time, but if it suits the purpose of an interest that’s going on in the home or something that you guys are learning, you would pull out a formal math curriculum and say, “Hey, let’s take a look at how this teaches us multiplication” or something of that nature.
Sue: Well, for example, one of my children probably did have a problem with multiplication and we just went looking for a video or something online. I haven’t actually used textbooks, but I do go looking for resources when they get stuck on a particular concept, I don’t just leave it to chance if they’re interested. For example, one of mine was having trouble adding up fractions last term and she wanted to know how to do it. So I went looking for some, some videos on YouTube to explain that and yeah, she conquered that.
Pam: Okay, Sue, so let me ask you this. What was she doing that you knew she was having trouble adding fractions? Because I have a feeling that most teenagers are not going to get up in the morning and say, “Hey mom, let’s add some fractions today.”
Sue: Oh, well it’s probably something as simple as cooking with all those halves and quarters and things, and being, we never do the recipe as it is. We are always, well, two and a half times the whatever. It was probably something like that.
Pam: Okay. So it was something in real life that indicated to you this was not a skill that she had mastered or was easily picking up and so she needed some extra help.
Sue: Exactly. But, we do learn maths for its own sake as well. My 14 year old does like maths and she likes playing around with numbers and she has worked her way through some maths books, not textbooks, but other ways of thinking about math just because she’s interested in numbers and she likes to work out how it all goes. So that has nothing to do with real life. It’s just the fact. Like writing, you’re manipulating the letters and your words to form stories and she likes to manipulate the numbers, see how they all work and go together and how many different ways that you can approach a problem.
Pam: I don’t have that ability myself, so I admire it and anyone else who has it. Well, what are some of your favorite books and resources about unschooling that you would share with someone? If you had a young mom nearby who was interested, where would you send them?
Sue: I would send them to Suzie’s books, probably Suzie Andres’ books. There’s A Little Way of homeschooling and what’s the other one? Homeschooling with Gentleness. I really love that title and I think that that’s really one of the things I love about unschooling is I become a much gentler person through it because we don’t have any battles anymore. And that’s a real attraction of our way of life. Yeah. So those two books definitely. John Holt, he’s written a number of books and you can still get those, I think there. I’ve got a few I’ve had for many years, but they’re still being printed. I think John Holt.
Pam: What might a typical day look like in your home with your three girls who are, well, you may still have other kids living in your home, but with three girls that you’re still schooling at home? What does a day look like with them, maybe? And I know every single one of your days is different, so just pick one.
Sue: Okay. Well actually life revolves around my four youngest daughter’s because Emma turns 20 but she’s doing her University degree online at home and she’s very involved with a lot of things that we’re doing as well because we always say that unschooling never finishes so she’ll come and join us for whatever we are doing if she’s got time. So the four girls and I, our days revolve around our activities. Usually in the summer when it’s warm, we’ll have a run together before breakfast, get up about 6:30, go for a run together. The day then gets into showers and getting ourselves ready for the day, getting the chores out of the way, morning prayers. Then I will probably say to them, “What’s everybody got planned for today?” And then, each of them will say, “Well I’ve got some uni work” or “I’ve got music practices to do.” The other girls will have music practices as well. They’re all learning piano. And two of my girls, well, all of them are learning, singing and so we got certain set things in the day that have to be done and in between that I’m available to help them do whatever they want to do. We all have our projects that we’re working on, me as well. Sometimes we just sit side by side with our computers. We’re writing, or we’re researching things, and we’ll just say to each other, “Hey look at this. Look what I found out.” We’ll share things together. My two youngest girls still like me to do things with them so I read aloud a lot. Yes, so I help them with anything they’re doing.
Pam: Can you give me a couple of project examples that you wouldn’t mind sharing that your girls are working on right now?
Sue: Yes. Sophie, she’s just very much like what I do. She’s got a video channel on Youtube so she’s always making her videos and I help her. She asked me if I would watch her video for her, give her some help and tips on if it’s alright, blog post writing, that type of thing. She wants to open up a blog design online web shop to sell her blog designs. So we’re talking about that. Gemma-Rose, I don’t think has found her big passion yet, but she likes me to read to her and she likes to read to me. What else are we doing? It’s funny how things just disappear out of your head. Why is that? What have we been doing recently?
Pam: It’s okay. If you were to ask me, I could not think of anything I was doing either.
Sue: I’d probably just say to her, you know, we’ve got a lot of videos we’re watching together and they’ll probably say, “Hey mom, can we watch another episode of Secrets of the Castle” for example. Or I might say, “Look, I found this maths video on YouTube. Does anyone want to have a look at it with me?” We’ve got other projects. Gemma-Rose is making homemade books at the moment. She wants help with that because it involves a few tools. Sophie says she wants to learn how to make her own skirts on the sewing machine, but as a mixture sort of like crafts and handicrafts and academics. We do a lot of work on the computer. We’re very much computer people with technology, were always exploring new technology, doing things together that way. I just didn’t mention my 17 year old. She’s an artist. That’s all her projects would fall up around art.
Pam: Does she study art outside the home or do you do it through resources in the home, like videos and things of that nature?
Sue: Well, she’s been teaching herself, she uses a graphics pad and she’s been teaching herself Photoshop. But just recently she did begin an online art course run by a Disney animator creator, someone that designs the characters for Disney movies. And she’s doing that online as well. But, she’s coming up to the decision point. Does she want to go and do an art course formally at uni? That’s her next decision.
Pam: Well, let’s talk a little bit about university. You have eight children and you have four at home, one of whom is doing university at home. And so you have three more who are at university, Or, actually Felicity’s graduated, correct? Or She’s not in university anymore. She’s married and has a home of her own. Right?
Sue: That’s right. And my second son, he’s just finishing, his masters of teaching for primary school, so he will be qualified primary school teacher in a matter of a couple of months or so. And my third child Callum, he did start a university degree doing nursing part time. He had no trouble whatsoever getting on the course, but he changed his mind about maybe 18 months into the course. What he’s really interested in now is welding and he wants to do custom designs on cars, restore old cars, that type of thing. And he’s working towards that by doing his, he’s done his welding certificates. He’s also supporting himself while he does that.
Pam: Yeah. Okay. The proof is really in the pudding here. The unschooling homeschooling method that you’ve used for all these years hasn’t hurt your kids at all when it came to wanting to go to university, being successful and having happy lives.
Sue: No, they had no trouble whatsoever. All four of my adult children have studied at university level and none of them have had any trouble whatsoever, so yes, it’s a good preparation for university if that is what they want to do.
Pam: What does an unschooler do in a primary school setting?
Sue: My husband is a primary school teacher as well, which is really quite funny. So he actually went back to uni to do his master’s maybe six, seven years ago. He had a real career change and chose to do primary school teaching, which we all laugh about because he’s an unschooling father, but we recognize that not all children are going to be homeschooled and there is certainly value in being a school teacher. He takes all his unschooling ideas with him. He I’m sure makes his classwork very interesting. But yes, my son Duncan is doing exactly what my husband’s going to be doing or is doing.
Pam: Okay. And yeah, that’ll be interesting to see how he might be able to take some of those principles and apply them in a school setting.
Sue: Yes. I just hope he doesn’t get frustrated.
Pam: Yeah, me too. Having been a public school teacher. Yes, me too. Well, you have a very interesting way of recording your unschooling paperwork. Tell me a little bit about what you are required to do by your state there in Australia and how you meet their requirements.
Sue: We live in New South Wales, which is one of the strictest states as far as homeschool registration goes, unfortunately. The rules and regulations changed maybe three years ago and they got tighter, tougher to fulfill. We obviously didn’t want to stop unschooling. Now what we have to do is show that our children are learning what the children in school are learning, which doesn’t seem possible for unschoolers to do. It’s hard enough for regular homeschoolers to do that. But what I’m doing is I’ve got an Evernote notebooks. I record everything in Evernote. I tried this system out on my last registration visit, which was only maybe a month or so ago. The authorized person who came to visit our family, they send somebody out to visit every two years, and we have to show that our children are learning what the children in school are learning, and that our children are progressing and that we know where our children are going in the future, which settles sound like things that unschoolers can’t do but with my Evernote notebooks, I really blew her away with what we’ve been doing. She was really impressed by the amount of learning experiences that my girls have had over the last two years. I’ve tried to match things up with the school curriculum and that impressed her as well. But yeah, I just strew things hoping that the girls might like to learn what’s on the school curriculum if they don’t, at least I tried. I don’t think you can force kids to learn anything. So, and I think that all we are required really to do is to provide opportunities of learning for our children. So if there’s something in the school curriculum that has to be done, all I have to do as a parent is present a learning opportunity for my children to learn it. And if they refused to do it, well there’s not really much I can do about that. I just say, well, I’ve presented that learning experience and they weren’t interested and I just move on. So that’s what I’ve been doing. But I think Evernote is a great tool for showcasing unschooling, it does easy to show all those moments that are hard to record any other way. We don’t have textbooks, we don’t have workbooks, we don’t have any written essays or anything to show. But we can have all these learning experiences that I’ve observed in a visual manner in an Evernote notebook for somebody to look at.
Pam: Right. Well what I’m going to do is I am going to link, I know you have a number of posts on your blog about how you’ve been using Evernote to document your unschooling. And so I’m going to provide links to those posts in the show notes for this conversation so that people who are interested can go have a look at them. Well, Sue why do you think that your chosen method is the best way for children to learn?
Sue: Because the motivation to learn comes from within them and not from me. So I’m not forcing them to learn. And I think we learn much better when we are self motivated. When we’re interested in something. Yes, we’re just inspired. We go out there and we want to know as much as we can about something and we remember it. And I think this is a very good environment for learning. I think a lot of people would say, but of course what a child wants to learn is not necessarily what they need to learn. And so I also think that when an occasion comes along where a child needs to learn something in particular, they will learn it. So it covers both the interests and the needs, but I also think they learn well in an atmosphere of gentleness and an atmosphere where everybody learns and unschooling, it’s very much a family affair for us. We’re all learning. Yes. It’s not just something that school kids do. It’s what everybody does for life and that’s very good atmosphere for learning.
Pam: Have you ever come up against a situation where you had a child who just checked out for awhile and didn’t care anything about learning?
Sue: No. Never been a problem.
Pam: What would you do, all of a sudden tomorrow Gemma-Rose says, “Yeah, you know, I’m just not going to do anything today.”
Sue: I think that’s quite all right. I say, no, we haven’t got a problem, but I think that life goes in cycles. You have intense periods where you’re pursuing some sort of knowledge and then moving into a new season and it usually coincides with my husband being home from school, were we’ll take time to do other things, go on picnics, get up late in the morning, not intensely working on our projects, and then we slide back into another season when he heads off to work, or in the summer we’ll be more inclined to go outside and do outside activities. So, I think that it’s quite natural to have periods where kids don’t want to sit down and do, say, academic work, but it sort of flows through our year. And, we don’t really have a problem with that.
Pam: How important do you think your example is?
Sue: Oh, 100% important. Yes. I think it’s just one of the misconceptions about unschooling is that mothers are lazy. They can’t be bothered to put together a program for their children and to make sure they learn it. They just step back and let their kids do what they want. Whereas in reality and unschooling, mother has to be doing everything, well, not everything with their kids, but they have to be a good example all the time. I have to be excited about learning. I have to be finding new resources for my children. I’m busy all the time. Yeah. I think the example is very important because our children look at us and that’s who they follow.
Pam: Well Sue, thank you so much for joining me today.
Sue: That’s been a real pleasure, Pam. I’ve really enjoyed it.
Sue: Thanks again,
Pam: Thanks so much for joining us today as Sue and I chatted all about unschooling. If you would like more information about the books and resources that Sue and I were talking about, you can check out the show notes by going to pambarnhill.com/methods and from there you can click on the unschooling tab. If you have any questions for either Sue or for myself, be sure to leave them in the comments there on that post. Thank you so much for joining us and have a great day
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