Unschoolers before us: The Smiths
1 November 10
Hearing other unschoolers’ stories is so inspiring. The internet has made it possible to connect with others who have embraced the philosophy of learning naturally, and I’ve been asking those with adult children to describe their unschooling journey.
In this first interview, I asked Colleen Smith a range of questions to learn about their family and their unschooling philosophy. Colleen and Les Smith have been married for 28 years and have five children on earth and four with the Father. They live on the Pacific island of Guam, a U.S. territory situated north of Papua New Guinea and west of the Philippines.
As entrepreneurs, the Smiths have been involved in different business ventures over the years, as well as in private schools. For the past eight years, they’ve run a driving school. And recently they’ve purchased another business — filling scuba tanks with compressed air and selling various diving/spear fishing equipment.
“This was a business opportunity that offered itself to us in the same building as our driving school so was a good fit. Oh, and my husband is also a wedding minister for Japanese weddings. The tourist industry on Guam is huge. So we stay busy, and our children come to work with us and often help us in our businesses.”
The Smiths’ oldest son, Kevin, is 25 and is stationed in California with the U.S. Air Force. Adam, 22, is currently working for the family business and writes and composes music. Stephanie, 16, Eric, 10, and Cassie, 7, live at home and help out with the family businesses too.
Home-schoolers for almost twenty years, Colleen calls herself a “Christian who unschools.” She clarifies that they aren’t home-educating for religious reasons. “We homeschool/unschool our children because we can do a far better job of educating our children than the public school could,” she says.
The Smiths didn’t initially start on the the path of home education. They only started pursuing it when their oldest reacted poorly to a school environment.
“Kevin was very smart and had taught himself to read by age three. I worked in preschools at the time and always brought the boys to work with me. By the time he entered school at five years old, he was bored with schools.
“Kevin went from being this very inquisitive, smart boy to a sullen, angry child at age six. School bored him and we realised we needed to do something different. We found out about home-schooling and that is where our journey began, back in 1991!”
As new home-schoolers, the Smiths’ main concern was about following school-like curriculum. “We worried about whether our children would have learning gaps, but over the years I have figured out that teaching our children how to learn is the key. If they know how to learn they can find out all the information they need, regardless of learning gaps.”
Initially, curriculum packages seemed to offer a solution. “We tried ACE, Alpha Omega and Abeka. One year I tried a complete computer-based curriculum called something like A+ Curriculum. We lasted about two or three months with each kind of ‘canned’ curriculum before we tossed them aside.”
Slowly, Colleen relaxed into a natural learning style with her children. “One revelation that came to us early on was that in essence we had been home-schooling our boys from the time they were born.” She discovered the freedom of letting her individual kids pursue their interests.
“We provided whatever equipment or books our children needed to pursue their passions. For one son it was lots of computer-for-dummies books, and then — as he progressed — more complicated computer-programming guides. For our other son, it was musical instruments, guitars, pianos, lots of freedom and time alone to pursue his music.
“We stock our bookshelves with books that interest our children. When my younger son went through a penguin stage, I bought all kinds of books and videos about penguins and supplied tons of paper and markers/crayons for his drawing endeavours.
“If one of our children asks to learn about something, we do what we can to find the resources to help him/her learn that subject. Unschooling is all about listening to your child and encouraging their interests.”
Colleen’s definition of unschooling is a series of points: Not using a set curriculum to teach your child. Allowing your child to pursue that which interests him/her. Giving them the freedom to learn whatever they want in a manner that suits their learning style. Non-coercive education. No grading or testing. Natural learning. Living life and learning as you live.
“Unschooling by its very nature is very hard to define!” she laughs. I join in, though I did make an attempt at defining it earlier this year. Colleens agrees that one is guided by the Holy Spirit to develop the talents God has given. “This is the essence of unschooling,” she summarises.
In Guam, home-schoolers are not accountable for reporting on their methods. But like many unschoolers (and home-schoolers), the Smiths did meet with opposition to their philosophy and methods. At first it came from their extended family.
“I had to deal with family who thought I was crazy. I got married at 19 despite my parents’ objections, so they knew they couldn’t sway me and had to accept what we did. But it was much easier when we moved to Guam because all I had to do was tell them the horrible things that went on in the public school system and that converted them to advocates for home-schooling the grandkids!
“We also found opposition from church, which was full of educators. Teachers can be very offended when you say you can do just as good of a job without the years of training they put in.
“And then the greatest opposition I get is from the home-school community itself — for my choice to unschool. Many school-at-homers cannot understand how our children can learn if given the freedom to learn what they want.”
Networking with other home-schoolers has always been important to Colleen. “My first few years I teamed up with a group of parents who were trying to start a Christian school and we did ‘Friday School’. We met once a week and did art, cooking, P.E. and music together. It was a fun time.”
Upon moving to Guam, Colleen says the first thing she did was look up the home-school group and become involved. Over the last 15 years, she’s been heavily involved as a newsletter editor, group leader and webmistress. But lately, she admits that she’s become disillusioned by the group itself. “I’m the only unschooler, and I’ve gotten tired of all the talk about testing and grading and which curriculum is the best. I have managed to convert a few to the concept of unschooling, but no one has been willing to embrace it full-on.
“There is such resistance to the idea that children — if given the opportunity — will do more than play video games all day. Others assume their kids will do nothing but play games all day — little do they know what my children have learned via video games!”
She laughs, and I ask Colleen how she handles negativity and opposition. “By blogging and ignoring the comments and just passing the bean dip,” she says.
Over the years, another obstacle for the Smiths home-schooling plans was tight finances. “For many years, we simply could not afford to buy or do the things we wanted to do with our children. My girls never did dance classes because I couldn’t afford the fees. The older boys did some tae kwon do, and it would have been nice for them to continue that when they showed promise, but again, finances interfered. Now we make enough money to allow our children to do things, but time gets in the way. You can never win, you know?
“We are self-employed, so we cannot take long vacations. I took the youngest two back to Canada (where I am from) and had all these lofty plans for educational field trips. Time was the limiting factor and we didn’t get to do half of the things I wanted to do.”
One thing the Smiths don’t struggle with is unity. Colleen says her husband is 100% supportive of home-schooling. “If anything, he is the one who will put me back on track when I start to question whether unschooling is right for us,” she laughs.
I wondered about how Colleen and her husband managed to spend quality time together while constantly looking after young children. Her children are spread out over almost 20 years with the oldest 25 and the youngest seven years old.
“We have always had young children around and still do! We work together and so see each other at work, while not many couples have that opportunity. We are best friends, too. One thing I try to do is to get up in the morning and make coffee and sit with him and chat before he heads off to do a wedding or whatever the day’s task is.
“We also try to end our day with some quiet time in our outside garden, drinking tea or coffee and just chilling and having time alone. The kids are instructed not to disturb us when we are outside in the garden. Having summer year-round helps us to have this time no matter what season it is.”
As my children are still young, I find these tips very encouraging. I also love hearing stories of how unschoolers grasp big “school” concepts like reading and writing. So I asked Colleen about when her children learned to read.
“With five children there is a lot of variety! Our first son became interested in reading at 18 months when he started to ask me what the names and sounds of letters were. He figured out that an ‘m’ made an ‘mmmm; sound and from there wanted to know what sounds all letters made.
“By two he could read simple words, and by three he was reading all on his own. He read The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe by himself at age five. I actually thought I had stumbled upon an easy way to teach reading, and if only parents would provide the tools — any child could read at age three. Boy, was I wrong!
“The next son came along, and we did the same things we had done for Kevin, but Adam would just look at us like we were crazy. I ended up buying a phonics curriculum similar to Hooked on Phonics (but much cheaper), and he learned all his phonics.
“But he didn’t put it together until the day after he turned six when suddenly it all just ‘clicked’ for him, and he could read. However, he didn’t like to read until he was about eight or nine. Then he took off and read the Lord of the Rings series at age 10.
“From age three to five, our daughter Stephanie attended a preschool that worked from the Abeka program, and she learned to read by age five via that method. I was busy working at the time and wasn’t really that involved in teaching her to read. The school did it.
“Next son, Eric, attended a preschool for ages three and four and learned his phonics there. (Again I was working at the school.) He was six before he put it all together, and that was because he wanted to read Calvin and Hobbes comics and was tired of asking us what the comics said.
“Now my last daughter Cassie will be eight next month and still can’t read fluently. She has the basics, and she can figure out words, but she won’t apply the phonics she has learned and relies on guessing and more sight-word reading.
“She also questions everything she is reading and loves to argue with the authors! Ask her about a movie or TV show she saw months ago, and she can tell you all the little nuances of the characters, the motivations behind their actions, etc. I have no doubt that by 10 she’ll have this all figured out and be reading at college level like all our other children.”
For Colleen, math was a different sphere of learning. “I love math,” she says, “but I cannot teach it. For me, it just comes together and numbers make so much sense. Answers are absolute. They are either right or wrong. As a result, I have not been good at teaching math to my kids.
“Kevin was smart and fast and we used the usual math workbooks with him… which actually drove him to tears. Once he learned a math fact he knew it and saw no point in doing endless worksheets and drills. He was a fast learner (and I suspect had my natural math skills), so I didn’t force him to do the entire book.
“When he entered 11th grade he had been unschooled since he was 10. We ended up putting him in high school because of a job I had gotten at this private Christian school. School officials assigned him to Algebra 2 classes.
“Kevin had never done any algebra except that which he had taught himself to do for his computer programming. He went home from school, got online, found tutorials that taught concepts and caught himself up to his peers within a month.
“After the first quarter, the principal skipped him ahead to 12th grade and he moved into Advanced Algebra class. He aced the class. Again, self-taught, super-smart. I’d guess he’s a genius.
“Adam learned most of his basic math facts working in a little snack shop that we owned. I was working in a preschool, and we ran the snack shop for the preschool. Adam was 10-11 during that time and could add items together in his head and give correct change without using a calculator.
“He did some Algebra in 8th grade at the Christian school, but when we pulled him out to have him home-schooled again, he pretty much dropped it. He can do all basic math pretty fast in his head and has learned business math concepts via our businesses.
“Stephanie has had the most formal schooling — preschool to kindergarten, home-schooled in first grade, back to school for second through fourth, and she learned all her basics via Abeka math. She also attended a school for eighth grade for a few months and learned some algebra that way.
“Now she does math at our air station. Filling tanks requires knowledge of air pressure and volume and the relationship between how long it takes to fill what size tanks. She also does all the sales and operates the cash register. She has to figure out the cost-per-foot-of-rubber (for spear guns) and discounts and percentages. So she’s using lots of practical business math in an everyday work setting.
“Cassie and Eric have little math workbooks that every once in a while I’ll throw at them to work through. I have used Math-U-See for them to get a visual on math concepts. They like that. We pretty much teach math through everyday living for them — cooking, measuring, estimating, money, etc.”
Colleen says that she thinks unschooling has given her oldest son the ability to know what he wants to do while equipping him with the skills he needs to pursue his career. “Unschooling made Kevin a very independent learner who can look around and see what needs to be done without being told to do it. As a result, after he joined the military, he advanced quickly and has been put in positions of leadership.”
As far a paperwork goes, Colleen jokes that they “cheated” with Kevin and had him enrolled in a private school for his final year of school so he obtained a diploma. “With our next son, we declared him graduated at 18 and gave him a paper diploma. He works for our family business so has never had to show this to anyone. He does plan on moving to the States soon, and I’m thinking we’ll have him get his educational diploma before he leaves just so that he has the official paperwork. At this point he has no intention of going to college. He is a self-taught musician who composes amazing songs. That’s what he plans on doing — working on his songs and trying to get them ‘published’. He may never need a diploma.”
Deliberately unschooling her children has helped Colleen understand about her own habits of natural learning. “In letting my children pursue their interests, I realised that since graduating I have only pursued learning things that interest me. If this is okay for adults, why is it so wrong for children to do?”
She says that she’s learned to be less uptight and more relaxed. “I’m more willing to take that teachable moment and pursue it. I love getting back that joy of learning. I see it in my kids and realise it can help me too!”
“The one boundary we try to ‘teach’ our children is respect for each other and others’ property. This is hard as children go through different stages in their life and can be very self-centred at times. They need to learn to treat others as they want to be treated.
“Safety is also an issue that we do try to ‘teach’. We don’t let our children run out into the road, for example. I teach the basics like ‘don’t run with scissors or knives’. I want my children to learn to be careful when using equipment that could injure them.”
Colleen says she can see parallels between school and organised church. “I think churches these days try to be too program-oriented, which is what schools are too — full of programs to keep the children busy and occupied. Churches do the same thing. I would like to see churches go back to a more home-fellowship style where relationships with each other and with God is emphasised.”
Over the years, the Smiths have attended a variety of churches — big, small, with programs and without. They currently attend an evangelical-style, charismatic church, though it is non-denominational.
“For us, church is more about the fellowship of believers and reaching out to others in our daily life. We currently attend a very small church that is a start-up church. I would hope that it would grow but prefer it to not grow to a mega-church. I like a church to be small enough to still maintain relationships with each member. But not quite as small as ours is now.
“As it is, if I am tired and don’t ‘feel’ like going to church, I feel obligated to go, knowing that my family’s absence makes up one quarter of the church body. So then I feel pressured to go, when maybe I really just need to stay home and rest after a gruelling week. Going to church with that kind of resentment is counter-productive.”
Although her oldest children aren’t yet forming their own families, I asked Colleen to speculate on whether her children will home-school or unschool their own children. “My guess is they probably will consider it. We did once ask our oldest daughter how she would raise children when she had them and she told us ‘pretty much the same way you raised me’ which we felt was high praise for our parenting methods.”
She says that she would advocate unschooling over any other method of home-educating. “But at the same time, I realise it is not for everyone. So while I encourage unschooling when talking to other home-schooling parents, I am always respectful of their choice to do what they do.
“The way in which a child learns varies from child to child. Some learn things earlier, some take longer. This is why one-size-curricula do not fit all. Unschooling allows a child to learn naturally, as he has done from the moment he is born. A child learns to walk and talk with no curriculum. As they enter the ‘school’-age years, why do we suddenly not trust them to learn? I personally think God is displeased by man’s attempt to educate children.”
As a Christian for 23 years, Colleen says that her faith in God is very important, “but not to the point where we pray about everything constantly, if you know what I mean. I know some people whom you ask something like ‘Want to meet for lunch?’ and they’ll respond with ‘let me pray about it’. It drives me nuts!”
She laughs and then clarifies. “We do seek out God’s Word for the important decisions in life, but we feel we are God’s children and therefore lead by the Spirit of God. Most of our daily life reflects that in our decisions without constantly having to ask for His approval.
“Our philosophy is to live our life as Christ would want us to, and to display Christian character in all we do. We try to make the children understand that this is what being a Christian is all about.”
Thank you, Colleen, for cheerfully participating in this long interview. You can’t learn more about the Smiths from Colleen’s blog.