As I write this, it is the height of summer, the kids are busy at camps, and our biggest plans for the afternoon are to find somewhere to get wet and stay in the shade for the remainder of the sweltering daylight. I confess its a little difficult to think seriously about school planning. However, I also know that each fall I kick myself for not spending just a little bit of time preparing, at least drafting a rough outline for our year’s goals, and ideally, finding some new resources and ideas to freshen up our unschooling days. We usually have a homeschool meeting with the whole family about a week before the school year starts, discussing things we liked about the previous year and things we’d like to change. We often come up with a rough outline of goals, and I am usually filled with a host of ideas for structuring our year that I don’t have nearly enough time to implement. So, this summer I thought, what better way to do a little pre-emptive planning and get a head start on things than to write a blog about it?! Though I cannot claim to be the world’s most organized unschool mom (clearly), I have tried a variety of techniques for planning and scheduling, often not implementing them fully until a month or two in. Having an outline in place by the time September rolls around is sure to ease the inevitable stress the end of summer has for me, and, I think it’s safe to say, many homeschool moms. Balancing Structure With Spontaneity: Everybody’s Different If you are new to unschooling, you may be wondering why I’m talking about planning ahead, if unschooling is about following your kids’ interest. The answer is that it’s all about balance, and everyone is different. I am a believer that having at least a skeleton of a structure makes life and learning flow better and eases the instinctive fear humans have of the unknown. However, I am also a firm believer in scrapping the plan and following spontaneous learning opportunities when they arrive. When those opportunities are followed, you and your kids will get to experience what some call “The Flow”– the state of mind where learning and doing come naturally, flowing seamlessly as your spontaneous curiosity about the world is sated. This is the gem that unschooling offers. Knowing the right balance of structure and spontaneity for you and your family is a delicate skill that each parent/child team must discover for themselves. In fact, as many of us have learned, siblings who are both homeschooling may have very different needs in terms of the level of structure that works best for them. In my case, having twins who are roughly at the same grade level but have extremely different personalities, I almost need to make two separate plans for their year’s study. Being a little too lazy for this, I have compromised by allowing my “free-thinking” twin, who needs lots of options to be satisfied, opt-out of structured activity. My more organized thinker flourishes when I take charge more and give him clear goals. In any case, there are several ways I have found to be useful in creating an unschool structure that works for everyone. Some of them, such as talking to your kids about their own interests, are basic building blocks for an unschooler. Others are more a reflection of preference or taste. Hopefully, you find some useful tips, and have plenty of time to prepare yourself, slowly, for the year ahead! Talk to Your Kids About Their Goals: Be Specific So, as mentioned above, talking to our kids about their interests and goals is the essence of unschool. But, sometimes it’s hard to know exactly how those conversations should look, especially if you have tweens or teens who are exploring the beauty of the one-word answer. When I began unschooling (when my twins were 5) I thought I could ask them beautifully open-ended questions like “What would you like to learn about this year?” or “What kinds of activities do you like?” After being met with blank stares repeatedly, I realized I needed to ask much more specific questions, mostly with yes or no answers. Even now that they’re 11, I need to structure any homeschool conversation pretty clearly. Questions like, “How are you feeling about your math skills?” or, “Did you like the way we did science experiments last year?”, or “Is there anything your friends in school are learning that you feel you’re missing out on?” are much more productive than open-ended questions in most cases (though it all depends on the kid, of course!) The last example, if they feel they are behind in things being taught in school, can be important if you’re not sure you’re keeping track of all the standardized recommendations. I learned this the hard way a few years ago when my kids informed me that they had been talking to some friends who go to public school and realized they were quite a way behind in some of the standardized math skills. I wouldn’t have known that they were feeling frustrated and ashamed if we had not had that conversation. Fortunately, it is easy to find a list of learning objectives by grade. Another way to frame the conversation can be to ask them what types of activities they enjoyed the previous year, or at any point in their school career. Your child may not have the self-awareness to say “I’m a kinetic learner”, or “I really need some quiet space to be my most creative” (though some homeschool kids could articulate that!) – but you can deduce from your child’s answers, and from observing them as they work, what types of activities stimulate them. Consider the Seasons I have always been drawn to structuring our school year around the seasons. Being the most obvious of natural systems, it makes intuitive sense and grounds our studies in something solid and tangible. It also makes practical sense, especially since we live in a cold climate where most outdoor activities are off-limits (or limited to brief periods) much of the winter. Every area of study can be connected to the seasons in one way or another. For example, Autumn: In terms of the scientific realm, fall is a good time to study weather, with all it’s fluctuating storms and changing patterns. If you have a garden, you may be spending a good deal of the fall, as we do, harvesting and processing food, which is an excellent way to learn not only about plants and their life cycles, but about history– “ how have people preserved food over the ages?”, geography : “what kind of climate challenges do people have in Africa or Indonesia?”, or even math : “how many quarts of tomatoes would it take to feed our family for a year?” ; or, “do we save or lose money by growing tomatoes?” You can also learn about how animals in your area prepare for winter, methods of winterizing homes to conserve energy, or what the equinoxes are. For the humanities or social studies, you can bring it back to food ( a theme for me apparently) discovering how people meet their food needs in other parts of the world, or read about and even re-create various harvest festivals around the world – everyone has one as far as I can tell. The coming of Halloween/Samhain always spurs conversation in our home about the various traditions that have led to this point, as well as other ways that cultures honor their deceased, often in the waning of the year. Though not every activity can necessarily fit into a seasonal category, it is a nice fall back for me that adds a sense of connectedness to our studies. Use “Semester” Focus Blocks Another way to approach your year schedule is to create focus areas for roughly semester-length periods. This style can also reflect the seasons in a direct or symbolic way. For example, our homeschool co-op breaks the year into semesters entitled, (starting with fall), “Survive”, “Innovate”, “Express”, and “Connect”. To me these are very reflective of the seasons, with fall being a time to make sure the basics of life are secure, winter is a time to work indoors on technology or self-reflective activities, early spring to reawaken the creative voice and late spring/summer a time to get out and connect with the community. You can explore what types of activities or focuses resonate most with you and your kids, and work together to fit specific projects, reading lists, or goals into them. Make A Portfolio You are probably familiar with the term “portfolio” for artists, but you may not be sure what it means in relation to homeschool. I like to think of it as a map crossed with a scrapbook. It is a place for you and your child – mostly the child if you do it right- to sketch out their vision of their school year. Pictures, written goals, brainstorms, clippings, letters to themselves- kids can use any kind of method they want to create an outline for the coming year. As you move through this “map”, your child can add finished writings, pictures of projects, links to videos, etc. to mark their progress. Some families like to have the student write an essay at the end of each section/block/semester describing how they feel they did. As with everything in school, don’t be afraid to alter the map as you go, if it isn’t serving you as well as it should. Unschool is all about self-empowerment and self-guided learning; portfolios are just one way to help you make that process easier. Our website is designed specifically to give unschoolers a place to organize, track and share their portfolios. There are others that also have lots of examples and ideas. Sign up for your free account to help organize and track your school year at www.unschoolinc.com.