Saturday, August 30, 2008

Get these subjects out of my learning!

-Note: I realize this blog is a little hard to read here, so I'm cross-posting it here as well, with the caveat that much of the stuff around that blog doesn't really apply anymore.-

At the beginning of this summer, I took on an odd project. I was beginning to explore the idea of homeschooling and decided to try eclectic homeschooling on myself. I made myself a list of things I "wanted" to know (read: things I thought I "should" know) and a daily schedule in which to study those things. That list is here. I gave myself the timetable of "till the end of August" to "finish" this project.

Midsummer, though, I discovered radical unschooling. With great timing too - right when the Radical Unschoolers' Network was started, and right before Learn Nothing Day. I decided to try unschooling for a week, and never went back to the old schedule. Unschooling is way too much fun. And I kept right on learning, of course, I thought it'd be interesting to look over that "curriculum outline" from the beginning of summer and see if, by coincidence, I'd learned any of the same stuff by unschooling.

Looking over it, I realized I only learned a few of these areas, but I learned SO MUCH MORE about them than I would have on the plan I'd made. And I learned about them in ways that were real and fun and relevant and intertwined with each other. The way I'd been learning before was so shallow and detached, and this is better. Here's some highlights:

Subject: German
Original plan: Daily workbook assignments in a dry textbook designed mostly for travelers. Flash cards. Language software. I learned only very basic words in a very rigid order, without jumping ahead or looping back.
Unschooling: I listened to Rammstein and Kraftwerk and Rosenstolz, looked up the song translations online and listened to the songs again to see what words I now recognized. I noticed different accents among the singers and looked up where they were from to learn about regional differences in pronunciation. I found German versions of David Bowie and Peter Gabriel songs that I could compare back and forth to the English versions. I got excited when I realized I understood the meaning of the Simpsons episode title "Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk". I played a game with friends where one person would put a phrase in Babelfish, translate it into German and tell the rest of us, and we'd all try to guess what the original phrase was. (This meant my friends learned some German too, even though they hadn't planned to study it.) I bought a German magnet poetry kit. I watched the film Bach in Auschwitz. A friend noticed my interest and lent me Run Lola Run, which I haven't watched yet, but it's there when I'm ready for it. I watched Youtube videos of Old English and Middle English, which gave me a better understanding of both English and German. And, I still used that language software, but I jumped around and did whatever lessons I was ready for instead of going in a prescribed order. I did these things because they were fun and interesting to me, and they all felt like play.

Subject: Literature (a subject I totally loathed in school)
Original plan: Read classic books off a reading list.
Unschooling: I've learned about Jekyll and Hyde from a show on History International, and from an Arthur cartoon. I learned about Oscar Wilde from the Venture Bros. I read Watership Down because my friends all said they loved it, and I really loved it too. From that one book I learned an enormous amount about various political systems, nature, and the value of different personality types. I also read the first half of A Clockwork Orange because I always wanted to read it (didn't finish because I ran out of renews at the library), from which I learned an uncountable number of things about morality and even picked up a few words of Russian. I played a complicated game involving shuffling through your iPod and pulling lines out of different songs to make a poem, and then trying to interpret what that poem might be about. (It's eerie how often they come together in a way that can make sense!) I've driven myself mad trying to figure out what certain song lyrics are about, and quoted others to express my own feelings. I've written and read tons and tons of blog posts (many of which could easily be called "essays", if you wanted to suck the fun out of them.) I've listened to rock operas straight through and followed their plots with ease, even though I used to refuse any form of fiction that wasn't a 30-minute sitcom or cartoon. I learned about HP Lovecraft through playing Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem.

Subject: Social studies and current events. This one is HUGE. I'd say the bulk of my learning right now, if forced into a "traditional" school category, falls here. Which is impressive since I hate, hate, hated social studies in school. Now I find all these things interesting (and of course, most of them ooze nicely over the edges of "social studies" and into other areas, in ways school would probably never allow).
Original plan: Read books about specific topics like Native Americans and the Middle East. Study Islam. Draw maps. Study the Russian Revolution and WWI. Force myself to read three news articles each day (regardless of what they were about or if I truly understood them.) Listen (probably halfheartedly) to some samples of world music from a curriculum CD.
1. I play Civilization II. To do this I have to carefully craft each empire, making meticulous decisions every step of the way about what form of government to use, what improvements will help each city grow, what kinds of military units I need, whether it is wise to go to war (and I've found it rarely is), and which scientific advancements to pursue. I've discovered certain advances developed in a certain order, and wondered why, and looked that up on Wikipedia. For example, the game makes you learn polytheism before monotheism; when I looked this up I learned about the very first religions and how they were polytheistic and why. I played as various different civilizations and learned the names of their major cities and most important leaders. I learned about the differences between despotism, fundamentalism and other forms of government I wouldn't have ever "studied" in a curriculum. I learned about the value of mining, farming and trade.

2. The German music I mentioned above sparked an unexpected interest in Peter Gabriel, who has worked hard to give world music a wider audience. Through his songs I've been exposed to many languages, including little-known African ones like Xhosa and Wolof, and learned about Apartheid and the murder of Steven Biko. Because both Gabriel and my other favorite artist, Queen, performed there I watched the 46664 concert for Nelson Mandela's 90th birthday, where I learned about Mandela's life, struggles and achievements. I was exposed to African artists like Youssou N'Dour and Geoffrey Oryema through Gabriel's collaborations with them. I went to a music store and looked at African drums. I learned the rough locations of different countries in Africa and read about the controversy surrounding Zimbabwe's elections. Africa was not on my list of "subjects" to cover and never would have been, but I took interest in it all because of very western, English rock music.

3. I read liberal blogs that have gone into deep, thoughtful discussions about privilege and the different prejudices that impact people of various races, classes, genders, religions, and so on. I thought long and hard about my own unconscious prejudices and worked on getting over them. I developed the courage to stand up when someone is being offensive, and the tact to realize when they didn't mean to be offensive, and to explain it in a non-accusatory manner. These are skills no curriculum will ever cover. All I've ever learned in formal classes was how to squabble and make enemies.

4. I've followed the developments of this year's presidential campaign closely, and had long, deep, thought-provoking discussions with friends about the significance of each choice the candidates make. This has included trying to predict how the general public will respond to each new development, and analyzing how the media often puts a biased or misleading spin on information.

5. I've taken an unexpected interest in the History International channel, mostly sparked by Civ II. I've watched, among other things: several episodes of The Naked Archaeologist, shows about Victorian England, a documentary about the Dark Ages, and a show about the city that inspired the story of Jekyll and Hyde. When I was in school, you had to drag me kicking and screaming to a history book. I surely would never have watched a channel with the "history" label for fun.

6. I memorized the "Yakko's World" song from Animaniacs, just for fun. I looked up which countries he missed and which ones he named that no longer exist.

7. I visited an anime convention in Miami with some friends. Because it was anime, I was exposed to Japanese culture. Because it was Miami, I was exposed to Latino culture (and had quite a culture shock when I realized almost no one spoke English in the part of town we were staying in!). I shared a hotel room with a friend from India who now lives in Singapore. (That friend is also Muslim, and I took note of how difficult it is to get halal/kosher food when going out to eat.) My friends and I ate lunch in a cafeteria that had flags from many countries on display, and we tried to identify them all. I asked my mom if a particular mall I went to had been there when she lived in Miami, and learned that they didn't have malls in the 70s.

Subject: Practical skills
Original plan: Learn, through specific, carefully planned lessons, how to sew, cook, and take care of a car. Force myself to clean house and exercise on a regular schedule.
Unschooling: I experimented with cooking, joyfully preparing meals without a recipe, while blasting music and dancing and singing and not taking it a bit seriously. I helped my mom with trips to the grocery store. I discovered I could move just two pieces of furniture in my room (out of like seven major ones - it's a big room) to give me optimal space and convenience. I learned how to wash my hair with baking soda and apple cider vinegar instead of shampoo. I thought long and hard about career choices and where I want to live someday. I applied for jobs. I drove six hours to Miami by myself. I carefully budgeted the last bit of my money so that I can take another trip to south Florida for my birthday. I made a list of things I want to buy when I get a job, and compared their prices from various stores, Ebay, etc. I played DDR and jumped on the trampoline and danced around like a lunatic. I happily fed the cats a few times (usually my mom gets to it first) without being asked - not because it was "a chore" but because they were hungry. I didn't sew or change the oil in the car - the oil doesn't need changing right now and I don't even own a sewing machine. If I ever come up with a project I really need sewing for, I'll learn it then.

And there's plenty more learning I've done this summer! This blog would just drag on forever if I named it all, and it was so natural I can't remember it all anyway But those are some of the biggest, most exciting, most surprising things I learned, things I never expected to take interest in. And comparing it all to how I was learning - well, I don't think I need to point out which way is better :)

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