Thursday, September 23, 2010

My old homeschooling folder

The other day, I got a package from home. It was my old "Sheila School" folder from my mom's filing cabinet. Since my family is moving to Korea soon, they've been purging that kind of thing from the house.

Yesterday I took the time to read everything in it. Of course it was a blast from the past, seeing my old handwriting and seeing my mom's homemade report cards. But it also really made me think about what things in my education were the best -- and, by extension, what I want my kid(s) to have the opportunity to do.

Most of the time, my homeschooling was very structured. My mom is a structured person, and she was also standing up to a lot of criticism from the outside, so we studied each subject for an hour a day, and at some points we also had homework time too! However, sometimes she really got stuck and didn't know how to teach me something, or else I (being a stubborn little tick, and I admit it) would dig in my heels about a project she had planned. Her usual solution was to say, "Okay, fine. You come up with a way to learn this, and if it's sufficiently educational, I'll let it count."

The first thing that I saw when I opened the folder was a piece of DNA, made out of dental floss and tiny post-it notes. I remember making that.

Then there was a science-fiction story about invertebrates which I wrote in the seventh or eighth grade. A biologist in the future gets himself shrunk down to half an inch tall in order to film an educational holo-movie. An excerpt:

Ericsson decided to leave the scene before the horrible hydra took an interest in more food. The cnidarian waved its three-quarter-inch tentacles and he realized that the only passage between two [tentacles] was through the fearsome monster. He drew his vorpal laser sword and activated it, but saw that even if he cut the tentacles, nematocysts would still spring out and paralyze him. Thinking brains would be in order, he picked up a pebble -- being underwater helped -- and threw it at the hydra. Nematocysts stabbed at the stone, but had no effect. He threw more until a large area was covered with hanging harpoons. He edged closer and cut off the stinging strands. But as he scooted through the safe zone, he discovered a fatal flaw in his plan. Even without stinging cells, tentacles are still quite capable of stuffing you in a gaping maw.

As Ericsson was lifted high above the pond floor, he could see the monster's mouth open hungrily, ringed by tentacles with mostly operating nematocysts and full of digestive acid. He brought his laser sword around and sliced at the tentacles. Soon he was on the ground, panting. He lept up, dashed toward his parked rocked scooter, and zoomed away toward a stream entrance.

I admit that I am still proud of that story. It's some of my best work.

Later on there's a newspaper, The Spanish Gazette, with a cover-page story about Columbus discovering the New World. The classifieds are the best: "For Sale: Two well-equipped caravels, slightly weathered." Years later, I still crack myself up.

Not included physically, though there are mentions, are my Monopoly-style game about cellular metabolism (as you travel around the board, you collect ATP and other necessities for completing the various cycles) and my role-playing game about exploring Washington State. Those were fun and actually were played for entertainment outside of school hours.

My mom says these things are just a tribute to my creativity and how I am a "born teacher." I'm not sure, though. I think it's quite possible anyone could have done the same if they were given the freedom to learn things how they liked instead of doing the same drudgery of lecture-quiz-paper-test over and over again.

Besides, I didn't flourish in other environments. I read, for the first time, a letter my mom wrote to my dad when I was almost done with sixth grade. I had been in public and parochial schools for three years and had begged to return to homeschooling. I was getting a few very poor grades, and my personality was also suffering:

Perhaps Sheila has toughened up in the last few years. Instead of crying, she glares. Instead of being sad and hurt, she is angry, sullen, and prideful. Her defenses make her almost unreachable, unteachable. Her speech sounds so much like her classmates -- it's maddening. She seems cliquish and far less inclined to sympathy for others. She says unkind things to David. She seems to have "gotten down" socialization. She seems incredibly vulnerable to it. She is an astute politician. If she weren't so good at socialization, I think, she'd be far safer.

Luckily my dad must have agreed with her, because I returned to homeschooling after that. I met some great homeschooling friends and developed my hobbies of writing, making music, and creating things -- dolls, clothes, a treehouse. I loved biology (still do, despite all this time I've spent since on the liberal arts!) and even dreamed of being a geneticist! My math grades, which were C's in my parochial school, were A's by the next time I went to school, in the ninth grade. It was a struggle for me, but left on my own with nothing but the textbook, I pushed my way through.

The rest of my learning experiences that I remember were mostly outside of "homeschool time" -- stories from my mom as we took walks or waited for the bus; learning to sew from a few ancient books; learning to knit, ditto; making up new lullabies to sing to the baby my mom nannied; painting my bedroom. While the most "schoolish" stuff in my folder, I don't remember at all. Short answers about Eisenhower? Drawing a total blank. Research from primary sources about the Vietnam war? I kind of remember that. Reading Veritatis splendor because it was assigned by my mom? I'll admit now I mostly slept with it on my face. Reading Dei verbum so that I could write to our priest (for credit) respectfully explaining why, contrary to his homily, the wise men did exist? Definitely remember.

I've been told the adage that whoever does the work, learns. In school, the teacher prepares and prepares, and the teacher learns a ton. But the kids learn only what they have to, and only till the next test. At home, I made the decisions and did the work an awful lot of the time, and I was the one who learned.

I like the idea of unschooling. But I like even more how someone I read recently called it "autodidactic homeschooling" instead. You could just say self-schooling. The parent is a source of information and help, and often the parent can set the goals as well. Mom says, "Here is the material we have to learn; how would you like to learn it?" She can still retain veto power if an idea is not really educational. But kids are endless sources of creativity, so it makes much more sense for the kids to come up with the ideas instead of Mom wearing herself out trying to keep school interesting -- or, alternatively, relying heavily on workbooks and the old lecture-quiz-paper-test format.

I suppose some children would come up with more exciting things than others. But I definitely think that allowing them to make more of the choices about how they learn would better preserve their natural creativity, independence, and industry. Yes, I said natural industry -- because kids actually love to work, if they choose the work! What they hate is being pushed to do something that doesn't interest them.

Of course all this takes a lot of time. But think of it this way: conventional schooling insists that kids learn dozens of facts every day, and yet it is taken for granted that they won't remember much of it when they're grown up. It took me all day to make my cellular metabolism game, and I still remember it fairly well, half my life later.

If our goal is lifelong learning and the development of creative, independent, hardworking adults, the more we involve kids in their own learning, the better.


Allison said...

okay, I would LOVE a Monopoly-style game about cellular metabolism! That is right up my alley! I majored in biology :)

That's so great that you were able to take so much out of your homeschooling. I think it gives a lot of hope to those who wish to homeschool their children.

Heather said...

I agree with you that working to learn will lead to learning.
And it builds character. This can happen in a creative school setting with a creative formal teacher, or at home. I don't think schooling inherently is all rote, but hopefully more teachers are being trained today in innovative interactive methods.

On the other hand, I think a little bit of exposure to cliques like you had in middle school can be good to build endurance of personality. I know I'm stronger for all that bullying and insecurity and indignance. It took a while, but I got there.

Oh, homemade board games! I made one about the novel, The Cay. And homemade newspapers! I think your Spanish Gazette would have a fine time hanging out with my Norway Times or something or other (name uncertain since it's buried in a box right now).

Anonymous said...

"But think of it this way: conventional schooling insists that kids learn dozens of facts every day, and yet it is taken for granted that they won't remember much of it when they're grown up."

You destroy public schooling in sentence; very nice.

I also liked the story . . .


Sheila said...

Heather, your point of view about cliques seems to have been my dad's suggestion as well. My mom's point was that so much exposure to cliques was not "toughening" me, but actually hardening me and making me a less nice person. She said that we build ships in port, not on the open seas -- that childhood is a time for sheltering and gradual exposure to the world, not fullscale entry into the hard realities of the world before one is really ready for them.

Yes, I'll be the first to admit that I'm unusually trusting, that I tend to assume the best of people, that I'm willing to start conversations with strangers without worrying about whether they will shun me (or losing much sleep if they do), that I am not "cool." However, I don't think this is a bad thing. I'm not really sure what the long-term benefit is of being exposed to cliques and mean people at a young age. The only long-term effect I know of is a huge drop in self-esteem and confidence among adults who were bullied as children (as I was, during those years).

I do hope and try to bring some of that great educational experience to the kids I teach, but somehow it gets really difficult to manage with a large class. I can't let them *all* decide what our direction will be, because we have to go together. I do stress that they are responsible for their own learning, that I'm not going to shove knowledge into their heads against their will.

But I guess you did have some chances in public school to make games and newspapers! That's good, and shows some teachers have managed to make room for such things.

Sally Thomas said...

This is a lovely post. And it's so nice to hear this kind of reflection from an adult who was homeschooled.

My oldest child went to school for four years (in a state school in England), and we pulled her from school at nine for many of the same reasons your mother articulates in her note to your father, though we were still in the crying stage at that point. I'm kind of glad we never progressed to "glaring." I think the observation that we build ships in port is brilliant.

And it's not as though homeschooling completely insulates children from social experience, either. Both my girls -- and for some reason these things seem to be part and parcel of girl dynamics; my boys have been totally happy-go-lucky, socially -- have experienced the clique thing with other homeschooled girls, the "two's company/three's a crowd" syndrome, the "but the boys all like the girls in the spaghetti-strap tank tops" syndrome, the "boys like bubbly extroverted girls and I'm not" syndrome . . . in short (except for the boy stuff, which we weren't dealing with when our oldest was nine), pretty much the same kinds of things we experienced when the older kids went to school.

I think the main difference is the focus. When children go to school, that's their world. Home is a refuge, to be sure, but they're not there that much, and when something's going wrong at school, it's as if the whole universe is imploding. In homeschooling, the world of home and family encroaches on that external, social world in a serious way, and balances it. My oldest teenager is invested in her friends for sure, but she sees her siblings and parents as allies in a way that I know I never did, and that's been very valuable to her, especially as a sensitive, introverted person who feels her joys and griefs deeply. She's off to college next year, a more confident, focused, self-motivated person than I would have envisioned her becoming, back when she was nine.

And as a formal public-school teacher, I know what you mean about wanting to, essentially, homeschool them all (though I didn't have that paradigm in mind when I was in the classroom). I often feel that way about the 36 children in my First Communion class now. I do my best to give those kids at least something of what my children get at home, but really it's impossible, and I end up sending stuff home in the hopes that their parents will get a clue . . .

I haven't had anyone make DNA, though we've had lots of short stories, a Latin bingo game (made for a class of younger children my oldest taught last year), and other good stuff. I make plans, but then I'm overjoyed when they come up with something better.

Sheila said...

Those are some really good points, Sally. Home life makes an excellent balance for all the rest of life -- and today's kids don't spend nearly enough time at home!

I am so glad homeschooling is working out so well for your family. So different from being a formal teacher!

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