Knowledge, Wisdom, and Two Kinds of Plankton

This week, Charlotte spent some time with her Aunt Erica on Orcas Island, Washington.  Erica’s an amateur naturalist and volunteers to take plankton samples from a special area in Puget Sound.  She looks at the samples under a microscope and reports the kinds of plankton she sees.

Some are good plankton like Coscinodiscus…


…some are toxic like Alexandrium:


Charlotte helped Erica take the samples, studied them and looked for all kinds of plankton varieties under the microscope, then made an official report to NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) for their plankton index.


The two were peas in a pod. Charlotte seemed to enjoy being a scientist.  Erica remarked on the submission form that she had help from her 7-year-old niece and the scientists (who often do not respond) emailed back, wanting to know more about her experience.  That would be cool enough, but days later something happened that was more profound.

I was driving with my wife and we were talking about my anxiety about work-related assignments.  Charlotte was in the back seat buckled in and (I presume) plugged in to her iPad.  But no, she was listening.

She spoke and said, “Daddy, I have an idea.”

“What’s that, honey?” I asked, a bit embarrassed.

“You have too much Alexandrium in your gills and not enough Coscinodiscus surrounding you.”


Even though I had no idea what that meant in the plankton world, I trusted she knew the context. Before I went online to look it up, I assumed one kind of plankton was bad and the other was good.  It was a brilliant application of her knowledge.

I was reminded that children are more sapient than we realize, and when left to their own devices, will find ways to integrate the lessons they learned, even in abstract ways. Could she have made this connection as a school student?  Sure, but I like to think that since no one was pressuring her to learn about marine biology, she was more able to seamlessly integrate it into a conversation about a completely different subject.

That’s not just “applied learning”, my friends, that’s called *wisdom*.

Thank you, Charlotte.  With that little gem, you inspired me in ways I did not expect.


64,800 Advantages of Unschooling

If you have to work at a job, I’d like you to take a few seconds right now to imagine a special kind of vacation.

Imagine that you are allowed to learn whatever you want at work and didn’t have any deadlines to prove you learned it.  No meetings to present tomorrow, no reports to write by Friday, no mid-year performance review, no plan to submit for approval by month-end.

That’s the kind of daily vacation my wife and I are giving Charlotte.

Of all the advantages to homeschooling / unschooling compared to school, what stands out most to me is that there are no deadlines for learning.

When I look back at my schooling, I was confronted by a deadline in some way, shape, or form countless times a day for 270 days — for 12 years!

(For the sake of argument, let’s call “countless” 20.  That’s 64,800 times.)

Even if they weren’t spoken, they were on my mind:

* “This paper is due in two weeks.”

* “The test is this Friday.”

* “There’ll be a quiz on this sometimes this week. You won’t know when.”

* “The homework is due tomorrow.”

* “Your projects will be judged at the end of the month.”

* “Mid-terms are in 4 weeks.”

* “You have 10 minutes left to finish Exercises 5 to 10.”

* “Raise your hand when you know the answer.”

* “Jon, I haven’t called on you yet. Can you come to the board and diagram the answer to question 7?”

Each time I had to show to an authority that I knew something by their timelines because that’s what was convenient for them. I’ll bet a majority of schools don’t (or won’t) operate on what’s convenient for kids.  That means they’re inducing some form of stress.

If it’s true that “stress is working hard doing something you don’t want to do” and “passion is working hard doing something you love to do,” I’m proud to have a wife who is setting up Charlotte right now to have day after day of following her passion, not hour-to-hour of managing her stress.


House, rules


monopoly house

Charlotte’s into Monopoly now.  I don’t know how it started, but I came home from work one day and there it was on the coffee table.  I didn’t why or how, but the impulse to ask quickly got washed away with a flood of memories from when I played it 35 years ago.

Taxes and mortgages and fines and jail and an ultimate goal of BANKRUPTING others like Henry F. Potter in “It’s a Wonderful Life”…


Maybe playing is a bad idea.  All of a sudden, sex education or cell phones or dating boys seemed trivial topics.  It was more like, wow, am I really ready as a Dad to play *Monopoly* with my little girl?!?  Am I ready for her childhood to end when I see her having to mortgage everything to pay me for her Boardwalk hotel bill? What kind of Dad am I anyway?

But she wanted to play, and it’s my duty to play.

I set up the board and caught sight of the other artifacts of her home schooling — crafts and posters and games and books and scissors and tape and her laptop with headphones…

This Monopoly board, the pieces, the tokens, the Chance cards were materials, same as the popsicle sticks and pipe cleaners in the rotating craft caddy.  The “rules” are simply the way those materials are combined.  What came out of this would be part Rorschach test and part time-machine for each of us — me seeing who she’s become, she seeing a new dimension of me, and both of us adapting and improvising to maximize the fun in what the game throws at us.

This home, this board, the time right now, is our SCHOOL. Come what may, it has to be about learning and the SAFETY of learning, even if what happens is conflict. Suddenly, it was not just a game, it was a chance for me to see Charlotte as a thinker, a tactician, and a citizen of a real-estate-based economy.  What does she do with her money, her debts, and how does she handle the Chances life throws at her?

As we started, though, I was still a bit nervous.

I mean, when you break it down, Monopoly is really 4 introductory college classes — economics, politics, ethics, psychology.

But wait… no… this is unschooling, darnit, and that means that we are not bound by rules! Learning doesn’t have to happen any one way.  It can happen whatever way we want to make it happen.

I remembered when I last played and the how “house rules” made it more fun.  I told Charlotte some of the basic premises, but that she was free to improvise. She said “I know”, but I think she meant “ok-whatever-Dad-let’s-play-already.”

I learned it was not conflict or adult life themes that were the problem.  It was boredom.  Dice roll, property, buy, pay rent, dice roll, property, buy, pay rent, dice roll, property, buy, etc.  Improv naturally came as a simple matter of making the game more interesting.

I was going to write some of the rules we came up with as the game progressed, but I decided to do some research instead. I suspected I’d find sites on the ‘net about other “house rules” and variations — and I did — but what was first and foremost in the search results was a pleasant surprise:

Earlier this year in March, Alison Griswold from Slate magazine wrote a piece titled “The Surprisingly Realistic Economics of Monopoly’s “House Rules” where she writes about how Hasbro has recently crowdsourced its rules, culling the top ten rule variations from us, the playing public.

For example, it’s a common “house rule” to have a bounty if you land on Free Parking.  But in the variation I play with Charlotte — any and all payments (real estate, taxes, etc) go to the middle.  It adds up quickly. And since the game ends when someone runs out of money and real estate, the balance gets tipped fast.  Yes, it winds up to be luck more often than not, and it was a test for me when I landed on that space first (Charlotte took it well, and even cheered for me).

I was in awe to find that Charlotte has an amazing grace and sense of fairness as she played.  When I landed on a spot with her hotel, she told me the rent, but she also asked if I had pets.  I played along and said I did — “two dogs and a kitten.”  She said, “then you can stay free.”  Another time, I landed on her property and owed her $18.  I rounded up to $20 because I didn’t have ones, and neither did she.  Instead of getting change from the bank, she said, I’ll remember next time I have ones… and she did!

Today, Charlotte came up with another great variation.  The game now starts with all of the real estate cards dealt out to each player randomly and each player gets $1000, so you get right to the action.

Fun, fun, fun.  I am so proud to be her Dad, and I intend to nurture her spirit as much as I’m able, even if the game was meant to show a depressing nature of capitalism.

Don’t be scared, dads.  Monopoly may have intended you to act like adults when you play, but the materials Hasbro included in the box can be repurposed to help both of you keep your childhood alive.

Walls between us

There’s a special time between when I get home and Charlotte’s bedtime.

In that time, I find that walls are useful things.

In one room of our house, we have a world map, a US map and a poster of different kinds of birds.  A bedtime ritual I have done recently with Charlotte is to play some games with the map. I’m impressed at how much she remembers from the night before. 


(free public domain image from

It goes like this…

“I’m thinking of a yellow state that begins with A and ends with A”.

“What state is “hi” in the middle and round on both ends?”  (thanks, Elmer Fudd)

“What state borders the most other states?”

“What states have panhandles?”

… and then I turn the tables and tell her to ask me some questions.  And I get things like:

“Daddy, what state looks like a mitten?”

“…what state is married to Mr. Ippi?”

“…what state would be a spice if you added an O on the end?”

“…what state has the best vision?”

Priceless learning, and good fun.

Preamble: The Minority Report

“Scootin’ off to work now… have a good day”

That’s usually what I say to my 7-year-old daughter as I head out the door for work on weekday mornings.  She’s usually up before I am and plugged into her laptop and headphones as she sits at the kitchen island.

At this point, I would say something like “Have a good day at school”, except, well, she doesn’t go to school.  She stays at home with my wife.

That’s legal in California provided you comply with one of these five options (listed on the Homeschool Association of California (HSC) legal page):

  • Establish a private school, which involves taking some simple steps. A teaching credential is not necessary. Once the school is established, file a private school affidavit form.
  • Join a private school satellite program PSP, if it has filed its own private school affidavit in California. If it has not, then you must take all of the steps to establish your own private school and must file the private school affidavit.
  • Join a public school ISP (Independent Study Program), in which case your child is enrolled in public school.
  • Join a Charter School Homeschooling Program, in which case your child is enrolled in public school.
  • Employ a credentialed tutor; or, if you have the appropriate credential, you may be the tutor yourself.

(We did Option #1.)

When we moved from Seattle to California in 2011, we didn’t know which school would be best for Charlotte, but then my wife happened to meet some homeschooling moms, and from there the die was cast.  It was legal for Charlotte not to go to school and many other kids were living that freedom every day!

I loved that Charlotte didn’t have to deal with confining desks and noisy classrooms and alarm bells and incompetent teachers and stupidly written tests and forced homework and bullies-on-buses and being told to be quiet right now or pay attention or that she risk being hit in the back of the head with spitballs or being ostracized or anything I hated about school that actually DISCOURAGED me from LEARNING.

And Charlotte loves that she doesn’t have to be anywhere she doesn’t want to be.  At home, with my wife serving more as guidance counselor than teacher, she learns what she wants to learn when she wants to learn it, whether it be 5 minutes or 5 days. One day it could be dinosaurs, another day astronomy.  And she’s not alone. During the day she might get together with other kids a bit younger or older than her to do an activity like a museum or aquarium, an in-person Minecraft network jam, a nature walk, a theatrical play or park-day play.

I love that not only is this legal, there’s a thriving community for this.  When I went to the HSC Conference last month, I was blown away at the richness of activities to do, targeted from the very young to the oldest teens — all family friendly. And the place was packed!

I did notice, however, that Dads were the minority.  Out of 1100 people in attendance, the “Dad’s Roundtable” session attracted a whopping 17, which seemed just about amount of Dads there. Maybe it’s because like a lot of families, the Mom usually does the enabling because they’re at home more than Dads. Like many Dads, I have to work. I’m a quality manager for eBay in San Jose, and they get me for 8 hours a day with a 30-mile one-way commute on 101.

What’s a Dad to do other than to feel like a minor ground crew player to a hotshot fighter pilot and wingman who have all the fun and get the glory?

Well, I’ll get to that.  Suffice it to say I was lucky enough to meet Sue Patterson and I asked her what could be useful for the community to hear from a male minority, and a newbie one at that.

She encouraged me to create a blog about what I see and how I react to my daughter’s homeschooling.  She helped me realize I was doing a lot with Charlotte that I didn’t even consider “schooling” because it was just FUN!

Stay tuned,  I’ll talk about those things in future posts.

By the way, Sue has an excellent blog post this week about the back-to-school season we’re in now.  It’s titled “Don’t Do It!” and it lists some of the great reasoning behind homeschooling that resonates with me and so many parents and kids who showed up at the HSC Conference last month, representing thousands more across the country who couldn’t come.