The Reluctant Unschooler

So, Term 4 somehow never happened last year. Luckily, we can always fall back on unschooling. And the copious amounts of reading that we tend to do, even when we’re at our busiest. Like most homeschooling parents (and perhaps other parents too?), sometimes I worry about whether I’m doing enough to further my children’s education. After all, when you’re trying to idealistically combine the best educational tactics of the Classical world, the Renaissance humanists, and the 19th century British, it’s pretty easy to fall a little short of the ideal. And how do you gauge their progress without grades or standardized tests? Well, there are lots of ways, and I employ several. But for me, the most rewarding indicators of progress are the little moments when they suddenly say something that blows me away. Like yesterday at breakfast, when Axa asked out of the blue, “Mommy, who do you think was the greater general, Caesar Augustus or Alexander the Great?” A spontaneous and enlightening discussion followed.

Of course I was thrilled to hear her ask such a thoughtful question. And I was also relieved. Her ability to compare and contrast two military leaders from different civilizations showed that she had absorbed, understood, and been interested in what I had been trying to teach her. This was in spite of the fact that my “teaching” over the past few months has unfortunately been reduced to letting her listen to librivox recordings of On the Shores of the Great Sea as bedtime stories. I unfortunately failed to clarify new vocabulary, have her properly narrate to me after listening, or engage her in the “great conversation.” Somehow, she learned anyway. This is not to say that she would not have learned more had I done it properly. It just confirms to me that even when we’re plopping ourselves down in multiple foreign countries, drowning in various languages, and floundering in general chaos ourselves, our children pick up quite a lot along the way. In fact, it is only now that we’ve left Italy that I notice how much Italian Axa and Dominique really know, despite my really pathetic attempts at any kind of regular system of instruction. They still use it in their play together, and they try it out on people here in Tunisia too, where it is at least as likely to be understood as English. They have now expressed a (very natural) interest in learning French. So we started learning our first French primary song, “Je suis enfant de Dieu,” yesterday. Thank goodness for being able to download both a pdf of the sheet music and an mp3 of the song from

During our week at hotels last month, I modified my “no-T.V.” rule to “no English T.V.,” and they ended up watching a lot of Popeye in French and anime in Arabic. I know that’s a pathetic excuse for education, but we were on vacation. Kind of.

For her sixth birthday, we used the money Grammy sent to buy Axa a pair of goldfish. She’s very serious about taking care of “Little Red-Head” and “Little Gold-Fin,” as they’ve been christened. And thanks to Grandma Betty, Axa became the proud owner of her very first Kindle book a few days ago. It’s a 100-year-old book of simple fairy tales, written especially for beginning readers. She’s thrilled to have her own Kindle book, and she’s just on the verge of independent reading. Dominique watches her in fascination, not to mention consternation. Monday night at 9:00 (yes, that’s well past our bedtime), he said he wanted to learn to read. He directed me to make the words on the Kindle their largest size, and then asked me to help him sound out each word. After twenty minutes, I finally sent him to bed. We’ll see if the enthusiasm lasts, but I guess as long as it does, I’ll do reading with him every day too.

Our new house not only came with some miscellaneous pieces of genuine Corinthian columns, but also included a gigantic coffee-table book on Tunisian mosaics. Apparently, the world’s best museum on Roman mosaics is in Tunis, and thousands of gorgeous mosaics have been found all over Tunisia, including some very well-preserved ones in underground houses that the Romans here built to keep themselves cool. Dominique and Axa have already spent hours poring over the pictures in our book, and identifying all the Roman deities they find in the mosaics, including an impressive Neptune-head with lobster claws that look like horns. They were thrilled to see some cheap, tacky replicas in the Hammamet medina when we took a turn in there today. I’m sure they would have been even more thrilled had we bought some, as would the dozens of pathetically idle shopkeepers, who eagerly tried to engage us in conversation, since we remain the only tourists around.

By the way, does anyone know of a worldwide online plant/animal finder? I was really good in Ireland, and looked up lots of the stuff we saw around, but since then I’ve become a slacker. I’d love to find a website that can tell me about the flora and fauna of our environment no matter where we move, rather than having to find obscure websites on everything from shellfish of Ireland to insects of Tunisia. Is that asking too much?

As far as socialization goes, the Bobbles spent a few hours yesterday with a retired general in the Tunisian army, who is the owner of our house, and likes to call them Aisha and Ali. He and his wife came down and spent the day here while they had a new oven installed and refreshed the flower gardens. We’ve also met two other lovely Mormon families that we get together with in Tunis every week. They both have children around the ages of ours, so Axa and Dominique get some “kid time” too.

Anyway, that’s been about the extent of homeschooling at Casteluzzo Academy for the past while. But I’m gearing up for a new term, and making all my usual grandiose plans. We’re always shooting for the stars here, and even when we land in the mud, we usually discover that the mud just happens to be full of Roman ruins.

3 thoughts on “The Reluctant Unschooler

  • February 11, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    I can’t wait to talk ancient military strategy with my kids.

    About the world field guide, I just read about an app called project Noah that’s supposed to do exactly what you described, identify plants an animals anywhere. And when you track an animal it keeps a log so you get to contribute as a citizen scientist etc. I read about on and thought you might be interested.

    • February 12, 2011 at 10:20 am

      Thanks for the Project Noah link, Katy. It looks like just what I had in mind. Now all I need is an iPhone . . .

  • February 11, 2011 at 11:17 am

    In the interests of full exposure, this is Benjamin on Rachel’s profile. Because I don’t have one. But, I heartily approve of the “ancient general” course of instruction, and look forward to many enlightening conversations with Axa on the subject. Although, it should be pointed out that (obviously dependent upon the evaluation criteria) Ghengis Khan was greater than either of the generals discussed above 😉 I’m glad things are going well in Tunisia! Sounds like an adventure.


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