Breaking Chains in Homeschooling

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As our final read aloud of  2018, my kids and I enjoyed reading Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The story has all the perks of classic literature–rich usage of symbolism and metaphor, complex sentence structures, and challenging vocabulary. If you can believe it, no one in a Dickens’ novel ever once says, “LOL!” My kids knew the basic story, so they were able to get what they needed from the text even when Dickens’ writing got very, well, Dickensian.

After the swell and noise of the holidays died down, I began to ponder the symbolic device of Jacob Marley’s ghost’s chained figure. I had also been thinking about the atmosphere I wanted to create in our new homeschool semester, and soon these two trains of thought began to connect. Marley’s chains were most decidedly his greed and his disregard for the needs of his fellow beings, and Scrooge was also similarly chained to his stinginess and isolation.

The metaphor of chains is a great one; who isn’t at least sometimes weighed down by bad habits, old wounds, or just unhelpful patterns of thinking? We often call it “baggage.” So I asked myself if there were any chains in our homeschool life that needed loosening.

One of my big struggles as a homeschooling mom is comparing our homeschool to the public education system. This is one of my chains. No matter how much Peter Gray or John Holt I read, it still bothers me now and then that our days just don’t often look much like a public school day. I know the constant fears and comparisons only rob me of joy in the task of educating my kids, and they also take up a lot of mental space that could be used for creativity, spontaneity, and openness to my children’s interests.

Learning might be hard work, but unlearning is so much harder. Year by year, I have had to work to unlearn the methods and ideologies of public education, and I’m nowhere near “untaught” yet. I’m not even going to argue that those methods and ideologies are wrong; it’s just that my family has chosen a totally different path. Instead of walking that path with confidence, I often look over my shoulder at the other path. And, of course, I worry.

But chains are best broken slowly, link by link, and that’s my plan for the new year. Slowly, I need to challenge and break the assumptions that so many of us blindly hold about education. How many of the following beliefs sound familiar?

  • It can’t be considered school if the kids are enjoying themselves.
  • Quantity equals quality (that is, 50 math problems are always better than five).
  • It doesn’t count if the kids don’t fill out a worksheet or take a test to prove they have learned something.
  • Learning has to be standardized, and all kids should learn the same things at the same ages/times.
  • Kids have to be sitting still and have to be quiet in order to learn.
  • Children shouldn’t question why they need to know something.
  • The point of school is to get good grades, get into a good college, and make lots of money when you grow up.

Please don’t mistake me. I do strive for a measure of order and structure in our homeschool, and learning goals are important to me. However, none of these things requires a public school environment to accomplish, and I’m not doing myself or my kids any favors by trying to force a public school “feel” on our days at home. I still cringe to remember that I once tried ringing an actual school bell to let my kids know that it was time to sit down and hit the books. Yeah, that one worked really well.

So this semester, over and over as needed, I’ll be saying to myself, “It doesn’t have to look like public school, it just has to look like learning.” No bells, no super strict schedules, no “learn this now or else.” Just a gentle moving forward in each major subject area in the ways that work well for my kids and for me.

Whether my kids learn from a great read aloud, a field trip, cooking, working at our own pace through a math book, or simply observing and questioning the world around us, it’s the learning that counts, not the schooling.

Here’s to a new year of throwing off the chains of old, unhelpful ideas and embracing courage and freedom.

Lessons in Shame

Earlier this week, I visited a science museum with my daughters. We happened to look at an exhibit on America’s oil resources that included a map showing shale oil deposits. The states were outlined but not labeled. As I stared at the map of my homeland, trying to identify the various squares, rectangles, and blobs, I was reminded of how I still somewhat struggle with U.S. geography.

I find my difficulty with locating certain states (hello, Midwest!) to be embarrassing, maybe even a little shameful. After all, wasn’t there a TV show that made fun of adults who couldn’t answer questions likely to appear on a fifth grader’s homework?

Many of us are familiar with educational shame.

We trudged through school struggling with certain disciplines, yearning for math class to end so that we could head into English class where we felt more confident and competent. Or perhaps our experience was the opposite, and we would have happily solved a hundred equations instead of being forced to write an essay. We may have been labeled as “behind” in a certain subject and told we needed to work harder. Yet instead of prodding us into improvement, such admonitions just made us want to avoid the subject and cling to what we were already good at.

When given a choice between working on something difficult or preserving one’s self-esteem, nearly everyone will choose the latter.

I believe this is why so many students hate math or can’t find enjoyment in reading: at one point or another, they became convinced they weren’t any good at these endeavors, so they stopped trying. Trying, in the context of low test scores, negative labels, and perhaps even teasing from peers, was simply too risky. Too shameful.

As I embarked on homeschooling and began studying various philosophies of education, I began to question whether learning, even learning subjects that were quite difficult, need involve any embarrassment or shame whatsoever. What was the point of placing children in a learning environment that only seemed to reward easily coming to the right answer? Maybe wrong answers and stumbling were sometimes a necessary, natural step in discovery. Perhaps providing children with a safe place to experiment and to fail without shame was as critical, or even more so, than teaching them the three R’s.

What if I had been able to play around with maps the way my own children do, learning history and geography side by side, being fascinated by Washington’s strategy of crossing the Delaware at night or tracing my finger along Lewis and Clark’s trek westward? What if math had been presented as a challenge that I could tackle at my own pace? What if I had felt joy when it finally clicked and I grasped the lovely logic of numbers? What if learning happened for learning’s sake and not just to raise the peak on one’s standardized test summary graph?

As homeschoolers, we have a unique opportunity to break the cycle of shame and avoidance that all too often accompanies learning in our society. We have a chance to say to our kids, “I don’t know, but let’s find out together” instead of feeling embarrassed that we aren’t experts at everything.

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