Archive for the ‘Home schooling’ Category

There’s a movement within the home school movement that emphasizes completely child-lead learning.  No curriculum, no textbooks (unless the child wants one), and from what I can understand, no structure beyond the normal routines of the family.  This approach to education is called unschooling.

I’ve gone back and forth over how I feel about unschooling.  I’ve seen both my daughters spontaneously learn what they needed to know as they grew from baby to toddler to (in L’s case) preschooler.  It seems logical that they would naturally continue that learning.  A neighbor of mine home schools and a number of time I’ve been at her house, she was nagging her children to get their work done (or start it) and there was the general sense that if she wasn’t hovering over them they’d just laze around all day and watch TV or engage in some other mindnumbing activity.  That’s the fear a lot of parents have about unschooling, that if someone isn’t breathing down their children’s necks, their children will just be blobs.

I’m not worried that my children will be blobs if I don’t direct their learning.  What I do worry about is will they learn everything they need to know.  And that’s when I have to ask myself just what is the “everything they need to know?”

That’s a pretty complicated question.  I remember being in junior high and the common whiny question we liked to ask the teacher was “When are we ever going to use this?”  It was a pretty regular refrain.  The teacher would either supply some lame answer or tell us to quit whining and start working on our homework.  What did I know about the real world as a child?  How was I supposed to know just what I’d need as an adult and what I’d wind up forgetting how to do?  A drill I really hated in school was diagraming sentences.  I had this English teacher from 6th grade through 9th grade who delighted in diagramming sentences.  I remember taking home anywhere from ten to twenty sentences and having to use a ruler to neatly show the different parts in their proper places.  I’m sure I wondered when I was ever going to use that skill.  I mean, who writes a sentence with all the modifiers in slanted lines underneath?

Once I changed schools beginning my sophomore year I never diagrammed another sentence.  If you asked me to diagram a sentence today I’m not sure I could do it.  Yet today I’m very thankful that I was compelled to diagram as many sentences as I was.  I credit that exercise more than anything else for my ability to write ever since.  I’ve written copy for newspapers both in my first couple years of college and now as a not-so-young mother of two.  Most of the time my copy has needed very little editing.  I’ve kept journals at various junctures in my life and it’s been possible because getting my thoughts down in writing has been a fairly effortless process.  My junior year in college my English composition teacher told me several times he liked my writing.  This teacher has himself published several poetry books.  Come to think of it, my writing has been affirmed by just about everyone who’s had anything to say about it except for that English teacher who made me diagram so many sentences.  Well, her and a really weird one in high school.

So what do I do when my daughters are around eleven or twelve and I want them to diagram sentences because I now see the value of it but maybe they don’t?  Do I wait a year or two and see if they spontaneously develop a desire to delve deeply into the workings of sentences?  Or do I make them do it for their own good?  Is it possible that I am the only one in that school who truly benefitted from that exercise?  I mean, maybe it was good for me because I have always been destined to be a writer.  Maybe no one else cares.  But even people who don’t enjoy writing blog posts, journal entries, articles for magazines, and a novel in their spare time still have to write just to communicate.  So, I’m pretty sure most everyone in my class diagramming sentences and hating every minute of it is better off today for it.

I always go back in my mind to this experience of diagramming sentences when I ponder the merits of unschooling.  I know my children will learn a lot on their own, but will they get the growth from doing something of value that seems boring and tedious at the time even when they don’t want to?  Or is that a false dichotomy?  Maybe there is a way to make sentence diagramming, not to mention long division and other school exercises, something exciting and interesting, something that every child would want to do.

That’s what I want to find out.  Learning is something that can be fun and exciting.  To be perfectly honest, I have learned and retained so much more since leaving college and my full time job than I think I’ve learned in all my seven years of higher education.  I learned how to take full advantage of my library card, and when I got an interest in a subject, I simply checked out books about it and read voraciously.  The first subject had to do with finances.  In all my many and varied school subjects, I somehow missed the one about how to manage my own money.  I did learn a fair amount of that from my parents, but even they left out a lot of stuff I’d need to know once I got married.  Somehow, the everything I needed to know wasn’t covered in my formal education, and I survived.  I just put myself (and my husband) through a self-directed crash course and six years later we’re still doing OK in that department, and we also have much to learn.

Then there’s the matter of stuff I learned in school that is no longer applicable or that I have since come to learn has another side to it and may not even be true.  I remember the Food Pyramid being a fundamental tenet of health class.  Well, today, not eveyone subcribes to the Food Pyramid as the definitive guide for human nutrition.  I also learned that vaccinations were the most important way to ward off disease.  I now know that vaccination status actually ranks pretty far down on the list of effective preventative measures.  In junior high I learned that genetic engineering was a horrible evil of society because it was tampering with God’s creation.  Then I majored in agriculture where genetic engineering was something I did in genetics lab, and over the course of my studies determined that it wasn’t evil.  Now I’m rethinking that view and wondering if maybe it is evil after all, though for rather different reasoning.

When it comes right down to it, much of what we learn is opinion and subject to change.  There are some fundamentals, like faith in God, the ability to read, basic math, and grammar (yes, even grammar does change, but pretty slowly compared to say, computer programming).  I’m sure there are some that I am forgetting.  But beyond those fundamentals, everything else is subject to change.  Either new research will come along to clarify old theories, or they will be proven erroneous.  And the process of debunking old and false notions has historically been a messy one.

I’m not sure what method of schooling I will pursue with my children–I expect I’ll be experimenting with various methods and approaches.  I do hope that my children learn the fundamentals, and that I always remember there is way more out there to learn than could possibly be crammed into a school program.  I expect over time I will gravitate towards more child-lead learning.  I can see myself heading that way already, because frankly, it’s easier.  But I imagine that will be interspersed with me being more insistent than usual that my children learn a particular academic skill.

Like maybe knowing when it’s time to quit blogging and go to bed…


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This past Friday my girls and I went to Harvest Farms with the Northern Colorado Home School group.  They have a corn maze, a place where you can feed and pet various farm animals, a barrel train, and wagon-shaped sandboxes that are actually filled with corn.

L wanted to play in the “corn box,” so we found one that wasn’t too crowded.  There was another little boy who appeared to be about two years old.  A retired woman, who I suppose was his grandmother was sitting on a nearby bench.  The little boy threw some corn at L, and his grandmother told him to stop.  A few minutes later, L and E started throwing corn, and I started telling them to stop.  The grandma interrupted me to mutter something about it being good for the children to socialize.  I nodded in agreement, but was a bit puzzled.  What did that have to do with throwing corn?  Fortunately, the girls found better things to do with the corn.

“What school do they go to?” Grandma asked.

“We’re actually here with a home school group,” I replied.  Then pointing to L, I added.  “She’s just in preschool.”  What I meant was L is just starting out the adventure we call school.  I think Grandma understood it as preschool wasn’t important.  In a rather tragic voice, she said:  “I retired from thirty years of early childhood education.”  I’m not sure I have the number of years right, but it was a significant amount of time.

The little boy had been playing with a bucket which L wanted.  L patiently waited for the boy to lose interest in the bucket, which he did.  L then had the bucket next to her but wasn’t actually playing with it.  At that moment a girl about her age from the next “corn box” came over and said:  “Can I have that bucket?”  L was focused on something else and didn’t answer the girl right away.  I worried that the girl would just take the bucket while L wasn’t looking, so I said:  “L’s been wanting to play with that bucket for a while and would be sad if you took it now.”  The girl nodded and went back to her box.

“She might have had a chance if she’d said ‘please,'” Grandma said.

“Huh?” was my intelligent reply.

“You should have told her if she doesn’t say ‘please’ she doesn’t get it,” Grandma said, the ire rising in her voice.  When I didn’t say anything, she went on.  “Come on now, it doesn’t sound good to say ‘Can I have this?’  You need to teach children how to be polite.”

At this point I was genuinely confused because the girl who asked for the bucket was not my daughter, and in my mind she asked politely enough.  I started to say something to that effect as in, what is the problem here.  I really wasn’t getting it.  There were more words exchanged but I don’t really remember.  I just knew I wasn’t tracking with Grandma, and she was getting more and more peeved-sounding.

“So is that the way you home school?  Is that what you are showing your kids?  Is that the kind of socialization you’re giving them?”  This time she’s sounding genuinely angry.  I’m still confused.  She goes on with more of the same, and she’s clearly upset with me.

“Are you trying to pick a fight with me?” I ask, which she quickly denies, then continues with her lecturing, which is making no sense to me whatsoever.  I can tell by her tone of voice that she’s criticizing me, but I can’t figure out what exactly she’s criticizing.  It took me forever to realize the little girl who asked for the bucket didn’t actually use the word “please.”  But her tone was congenial enough I can’t imagine that’s what’s making Grandma so upset.  I make a few more attempts to understand her, to ask questions, to explain myself (if only I knew how), and these attempts are met with more and more aggressive interrupting (which I read in a book is the equivalent of verbal shoving) and angrier and angrier sounding accusations about what a poor job I’m doing with home schooling because I’m obviously not teaching my children right.

Finally, I gave up.  “I don’t want to talk anymore.”

“It’s because you know you’re wrong, that’s why you don’t want to talk to me!”

I couldn’t think of anything to say to that.  Right now, two responses come to mind:  1.  The aggressive response:  “No, it’s because you are engaging in very antisocial behavior.”  2.  The assertive response:  “No, it’s because I’m feeling attacked and I don’t converse well when I’m feeling attacked.”

Instead, awkward silence reigns.  She’s not moving, and I really don’t want to drag my daughters away from their play, which they are clearly enjoying.  I do my best to focus on playing with them.  Very hard to do when someone is burning holes in your back.

Finally Grandma spots the barrel train in the distance, and calls to her grandson.  “Look, the train is here.  Let’s go ride the train.”  He seems reluctant to leave the “corn box.”  She insists, and shows him the train.  He allows himself to be picked up.  While Grandma–who is about three feet from L at this point–is picking him up, she says:  “You don’t want to play with these home schooled kids anyway.  You’ve got better things to do.”

They leave.  My heart is pounding.  I’m really bothered that she said the last thing where L could clearly hear her.  Even if I was doing the worst possible thing to my child by home schooling her, it’s not as if she made that choice.  She doesn’t deserve to be insulted over what her parents have chosen for her.

I explain to L that this lady was very rude and had bad manners, and not to pay attention to anything she said.  Maybe I made it worse by saying something.  Maybe L didn’t hear her at all–she really can be focused on her play.

L glanced at her leaving with the little boy.  Then she’s worried that Grandma is going to hurt the boy.  “What if she kills him or something?” were her exact words.

“I’m sure she loves the little boy very much.  She won’t hurt him.  She just forgot her manners today.”  I go on to explain that sometimes I forget my manners too.  I want to leave the “corn box” too, and I suggest a visit to the petting zoo.  L obliges and we have a wonderful time there, until the animals get a bit too rowdy, but that’s another story.

I’ve heard stories about people being criticized for home schooling their children, but I figured that was back in the day before home schooling was cool, like when my husband Erik was being home schooled and parents had to worry about visits from the truant officer and social workers and family and friends looking at them like they’ve decided to move to the North Pole.  Now, pretty much all my friends have considered home schooling.  Many of them do send their children to school, but it’s clear that out of all the legitimate education options out there, home schooling is definitely one of them.  Some people have expressed guilt that they’re not home schooling.  It’s almost becoming the new standard in parenting excellence.  So, I was shocked to have been on the receiving end of such harsh criticism over my decision to show up at an event with a home school group.  That really was all the information Grandma had about me.  For all she knew, and as young as L is, I could have been just checking out my options, and to be honest, I haven’t completely ruled out formal school at a later time.   If I was riding the fence about home schooling, I’m sure this exchange would have put me more firmly in the home school camp.  While my children may forget to say “please” every time they ask for something, I don’t really want them behaving like Grandma did that day.  I hope she wasn’t like that while she was teaching school; I hope she was just having an off day.

I’ve only been officially home schooling for a month or so, and I already have a war story.

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