Friday, March 2, 2007

Give Them the Tools of Learning

I'll readily admit I haven't been home schooling long. Officially it has been less than a year since I walked into my children's public elementary and airly announced (quivering violently in my tennis shoes the whole while) that they wouldn't be back the next fall. Where are they going? the friendly secretary asked. "We're putting them in a private school," I replied. Oh, which one? It was a friendly question, one of personal and not school interest but I wasn't prepared to be that open. Courageous I am after I have a few miles of experience, not when I haven't taken more than a half-dozen steps. "It's a new one and pretty small," I said vaguely, and that was that. I asked them what their procedures were for disenrolling students, followed them to a T, and O My Goodness the kids were mine again. The next October I followed our state procedures and filed a Private School Affidavit, and Starlake Academy was a reality.

I scared the the heck out of my friends and relatives. It was one thing for me to have lost my mind, but this time there were children involved. No one knew if they should take me seriously when I announced that Summer Vacation was officially being extended to Christmas. The announcement garnered some nervous giggles and I have a sneaking suspicion that more than one relative looked at another and said, "She's joking. I'm sure she's joking. She has to be joking, right?" Let me set the rumor to rest: despite my unusual sense of humor I wasn't joking. I was completely, thoroughly, and dead-set serious. My children loved school but school wasn't loving them back. The homework load was a ridiculous burden for 6- and 7-year-old to bear. Not only was there way too much of it, but it appeared utterly arbitrary and nonsensical. I can handle not being able to answer all of my children's questions about the workings of the universe, but having my bright little ones ask me to explain the importance of some of their homework was beyond me. I didn't know why they were supposed to color the baby chick yellow and the fox's tail orange on one page and figure out double-digit addition on the second. I didn't know why there were so many pages, why so many of them were beneath my children's ability, and why all of them appeared to be the same level of do-or-die importance. I was ill during that year of public school and it took all of my energy to get them up, dressed, and fed. Forcing them to do homework and having to deal with all of the animosity and trauma involved with that was more than I was willing to face. So that October I declared a No Homework Zone in our house. If they wanted to do it, I was fine and I would help. If they didn't, I wasn't going to lift one miserably exhausted finger to make them. The teachers weren't happy. Later, after the children came home, I found that my daughter had been kept in at recess to finish the homework that Mom wouldn't make her do. They called it detention. I called it a lot of things, most of them not printable. The odd part was that her final report card had only one bad mark on it -- for not turning in enough homework. On every other level she met or exceeded their expectations.

What I learned from my children's public school experience was what I feared would happen, based on my own experiences with the system some 20 years ago. They were killing my children's love of learning and replacing it with a fear of being wrong, a fear of taking chances and making mistakes. There was no right answer unless a teacher gave it to you -- even Mom and Dad were not trusted to know the right answers. Only the teacher knew. My daughter threw a hysterical fit when asked to come up with the answers to an assignment. She wanted to copy them verbatim from the textbook if she couldn't get the answers directly from a teacher. She knew the answers, she could recite them to me chapter and verse, but she had no confidence in her own knowledge because the teacher wasn't there to validate it. She was seven and already her confidence was destroyed.

So when I said vacation was going to last a long, long time I had every reason in the world for being serious. It was time to take the pressure off. It was long past time that I figured out how my children operated, how they learned, what methods worked and what wouldn't (forcing them to do anything wasn't going to work, we'd already had that with public school homework). It looked like goofing off. It looked like a lot of playing in the yard and much too much television. My kith and kin kept telling me that I needed to start getting discipline in my teaching methods or the kids were going to be as ignorent as yams. Maybe. But I do know that they read for pleasure, that they are reading a little more every day, and that I don't have to assign it or force it. I have learned that "Mom, I'm bo-o-o-o-ored" is the sweetest sound on the face of the planet. They'll read, they'll write, they'll beg me for math concepts, they'll even fold the laundry if they're bored enough. They do what I do, not what I say. If I'm reading, they read. If I'm pulling out math, they think that's cool. All of them want to knit or crochet or spin. It's going to be another couple of years before they can help me with the soap. But they're doing it because they're curious, not because someone arbitrarily decided that this was what 6- and 7-year-olds needed to learn.

I call it Sustainable Learning, the encouraging of this curiousity and talent. I've always felt that the keys to creating a lifelong learner is to give someone the love of learning, to give them the tools of learning, and then to get the heck out of their way -- because at that point, you have to work very hard to get them to quit learning. I want to nurture autodidacts, just the way my parents did (despite great obstacles) with my brother and I.

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