Why Lemony?
(the “About Me” page)

December 10, 2004

Comments on homeschooling

Well, after reading Husayn's post on homeschooling, no even before that, when Billy said, 'you need to read Husayn's post on homeschoolong', I knew that I would be commenting on his post here in my webble because it would be too long to put in his comment box. So here I shall. And I will comment by just telling a few parts of my own story. But first, a disclaimer: I grew into a budding sociologist by the time I was about 8 because of the serious questions that being in public school raised for me. And I was a good experimenter, although motivated by a need to please my teachers, and I always did as I was told, did all my homework, took all my tests and did well in them. I was the ideal student- pliable and obediant, submissive and quiet. And I saw what the results of this experiment were, this experiment of doing what I was told, knowing all along that what I was doing was not a very effective way to actually learn things. I got good grades, was praised, got the Nod of Approval for jumping through all the Hoops. But the unintended result of this experiment was that I got sadder and sadder, more and more bitter inside myself, knowing that there was so much of ME that was not touched by anything at school, even the good grades I was getting were not really satisfying. It became hollow. (And then there was high school, which I can still only describe as a thinly disguised jail. Let's not open that box, though. Yikes.) Yet I clung to that worn out pattern of swallowing all that was put on my plate, so to speak, and regurgitating it back up on demand. But where was my voice? I was never asked to speak or be motivated from my own self and interests to the depth or extent that I could SEE was possible. I must have developed some kind of vision during my school years that there must be something better. Some vision based on this growing body of knowledge created from the experience of going through the public school system and feeling every spark of excitement that came from learning new things, squelched almost immediately by the forced direction that every lecture took, the fragmented days of little bits of many subjects thrown at me incongruously, just the non-choice of where to be all day, at every moment, let alone the crazy social pressures from classmates not to do well or know the right answer or think for myself, and on and on. When I actually get specific and think about the actual teaching practises that I experienced as a student, now that I've studied education and been a teacher myself, I am so angry and appalled at all the bad teaching that went on that I want to scream, for a long time, at the top of my lungs, from the highest mountain. And the sad thing is that, within the system that they were working in, many teachers were doing their very best, and it still had the result of stifling actual learning, where you actually learn something that is important to you and your life for a long time and that you can and do actually use. And don't even get me started on the social life of school. That's a whole five years of therapy right there. Shudder shudder. The socialization of public school, bears, in my opinion, a striking resemblance to that in 'The Lord of the Flies'. That's all I'm going to say about that at this point, except that I know, for sure, that there is a better way to 'socialize' people than is touted as happening in public schools.

So that's quite a disclaimer. It's point is to say that, of course, I am not a neutral player here, and I have my reasons for thinking the way I do. Despite all that I said in the lengthy disclaimer, however, I never took a liking to the idea of homeschooling when I started thinking about how I was going to educate my own children. I think I hoped that something better than my experience would evolve for my kids, that it would all get better somehow, maybe a private school would be affordable somewhere, like a Montessori school (whose child-directed learning approach I just love), or something wholesome and peaceful like that. And I certainly wasn't going to put my own career on hold for who knows how many years just to teach two (now three) children simple stuff that anyone could teach them. It's too much to put on a parent to say that the social system of school has failed and that they are just going to have to figure it out themselves. That's just not fair. And certainly plenty of expert educational researchers have figured out how it should all be done so that I don't have to reinvent the wheel. What kind of a society can't even provide such a basic thing as an education for children? It seemed unthinkable that in this modern society that I'd have to do it myself. And, always needing to please and conform, I don't want to do something so weird and isolating and unpopular as homeschool my kids. What kind of education would they get anyways? Wouldn't they miss out on valuable, key 'school' experiences that they needed to succeed in the world, and what about all the standardized testing? How could they get a diploma or get into a good college without all those numbers in a row and all those official transcripts and Stamps of Approval from Offical School Administrators? And how would I even know what to teach them and when to teach it and how to teach it? And why would they listen to me, their mother, who they already rebel against EVERY DAY about something- eating vegetables or brushing teeth or putting on shoes? Am I now to add educational goals to the list of things for them to have fits about when I remind or insist that they do them? That's not going to work. Besides, I've got ambitions for my children. They need to be prodigies or at least given every opportunity to ace all the tests given them to show off their brilliance so they can be highly successful at their prestigious careers, right? Isn't that what it's all about? But then there's that sneaky reminder of my actual experience in school that kept coming back, saying, would you really send the delights of your heart to that fate that you suffered through? Do you really want to be responsible for inflicting that on another human being? Well, I managed to ignore this difficult dichotomy of thought until it came time to decide where Georgia was going to go to kindergarten. Then I had to make a decision. So I figured it better be an informed one. I knew from asking around that there was not a whole lot of reform that had magically transformed the schools of my past into some ideal school of the present that would be acceptable in the ways I found them so unacceptable as a student. And, in fact, new problems had arisen, old ones worsened, and the fact that people talk about schools as good or bad based on test scores of children was a red flag for me. I had taken graduate courses in testing theory and had developed a healthy skepticism for them based on the fact that it is so extremely difficult to actually make tests that meaningfully test what they set out to test. Most seem to just test how well you can figure out the test itself, which seems to be a really stupid and frightening loop. Furthermore, most of the things that are important to me about learning are not tested by standardized tests. They can't be. How do you test for being true to yourself, integrity, goodness of fit between subject and student, asking important questions? In considering public school for my children, I am reminded of a great line from a Jane Austen novel (OK, I actually remember the line because it was in a movie, but I did read the book!). The movie/book was 'Emma' and the line was about how the girl that Emma had taken under her wing had been subjected to "an indifferent education". And that just summed it up for me, right there. An education that's not really thought about in all of it's ramifications or thought out to it's ultimate conclusions, one that does not consider the individual or their learning needs or preferences, but puts them through a factory of machines to turn out the product. Indifferent.

So then we considered Montessori school, which is available here in town up through eighth grade. But it costs about $700 a month for kindergarten, and increases in cost with each grade. There's no way we could afford that, even if we wanted to, especially with three children! Argh! Montessori was created to be for 'the people' meaning all people regardless of income! That's what Maria Montessori meant for it. But it's just not happening here at this point in time. So that's out. I know that well-meaning individuals and even groups have tried to start up charter schools in this town that try and bring in reforms and changes in the status quo, but have not been able to get through the administrative battle with the school district intact. So it's not like I'm thinking I can do better and try to start my own school where they have failed.

So what are we left with? Do I bend to conformity or try to find my way against the grain of society? Well, that's when I started reading. I read the Teenage Liberation Handbook, and that vindicated and reminded me of all my schooling experiences and made me know that I was not alone at all in my internal withering within that system, and explained exactly and extensively why I had withered. It was revolutionary stuff and I drank it up and felt like a new person ready to think for myself about my own education, to trust my experience, and to learn what was important to me. So that's exactly what I did. I read more about homeschooling, and the even more fun 'unschooling' idea. I read John Holt (How Children Learn, Teach Your Own, and he's written many more that I'm trying to get my hands on) and ate that stuff UP! This guy was a public school teacher, he had also been a private school teacher, he tried to do teaching his own was to try to facilitate actual learning and found it impossible to do within the system. He worked for many years to try to reform the system and had some initial success in getting attention, but as soon as it got old and unpopular and people following his ideas tried to make real changes, they found it impossible to get anywhere. So then he started to advocate home schooling and spent the rest of his life working to advocate very vocally and fiercely and practically for homeschooling. He was quite a heroic figure, in my opinion, with his heart right out there, and so wise in the ways of both childrens' minds and how school systems work. I highly recommend reading anything he's written if you want to figure out what home schooling is about. From Holt's point of view, it's not about going from one system to another, but about breaking out of our ideas of how things must be in order for society to function. And it's about really knowing children and their needs, and studying each one, like a natural scientist would study a rhinocerous herd, carefully, meticulously, until you understand what's going on inside them and know what they need in order to learn. Every single one of my objections and fears was systematically and thorougly and satisfactorily addressed in his books and others like it that I have found since then. Especially 'Miseducation: Preschoolers at risk' by David Elkind. His work with small children and their psyches was a revelation to me, helping me let go of all my barely conscious anxieties and expectations about what little kids SHOULD be learning so they can be prodigies or some kind of superkids by age five. His extensive explanations of why you should just relax and play with your kids instead of dragging them to every ballet lesson, Kindermusik class, toddler storytime, etc etc that you can find so they can a 'get a leg up on the competition' and have that 'edge' of superiority. Not only do early academic, or forcedly rigid athletic classes not actually improve children's later performance in school, they can actually do quite a bit of harm by blocking the normal age-appropriate development that needs to happen between birth and about age seven.

So those are my favorites so far. And you've probably already guessed from all this that Billy and have decided to homeschool our children. He has been pushing for it for a LONG time, but I was completely against it for all of that time until now. And I finally trust myself and my experiences, what I can find out from reading and talking to people enough to just go for it. I don't know what it's going to be like. My next step is to investigate various curricula and evaluate them and see what I think is right in the balance between what my kids want to do each day and how I want to structure our days. I still have a lot of unanswered questions, but they are mostly things that you work out along the way. All of the fears and questions that would hold me back from starting out and trying this are gone.

And Georgia couldn't be happier about that decision. As soon as there was a crack in our parental wall of 'you must go to school', Georgia just came pouring through and refused to go back to her wonderful Montessori pre-school for even one more day. That was it. She was done. She was giddy with releif when she realized that she really didn't have to go back. She explained that she had spent enough time at school, thank you very much, and she wanted to learn at home from now on. She's been out of school for a couple of weeks now, and we're still trying to figure out this transition and what we all want to be doing with our days. Anyone that wants to come and work with my kids on some project or whatever, is welcome to 'apply'. I would love many influences and teachers to arise from the people I know and love (and that my kids know and love) to experience and learn something together. Billy has enthusiastically volunteered to be the 'PE teacher' and comes home over his lunch time to take the kids outside to play since I am not always up for that (being big and getting waddly and tired at six months pregnant here). I'm glad we decided this before the baby came, because I've had the feeling with this pregnancy that the direction I need to take to help my family, especially the kids, in this transition that comes with a new baby is to bring everyone closer to me and to the baby. We need to gather together and huddle so that everyone feels like an important part of the family, that each place is still secure, even if it is changing. I always felt before that everyone needs to get used to being farther away from me and the baby, that we needed our own space, and that I needed to get kids used to being away with other people, etc. There is still some of that that's necessary practically, but I feel really strongly this time that I want to protect my family from feeling alienation and undue separation during this change. So anyways, I'm glad that Georgia is at home full time with me right now. We can strengthen our relationship to withstand future tests. And I'm sure there will be many.

Posted by Bahiyyih at December 10, 2004 01:21 AM

Strangely enough, as I comment, I am giving my students a practice test for next week's state test. Every time I make them do these things, I get this incredible feeling of guilt in the pit of my stomach.

Already feeling guilty, I had to be careful not to get misty-eyed while reading your post. The last thing I need is for these kids to see me cry now, or worse yet, to see that I don't have absolute, unbending faith in North Carolina's education system.

Anyway, I have ABSOLUTELY nothing to complain about in the mother department. I have one of the best, if not THE BEST, in the world. But still, when I read your blog, I can't help but feel jealous of your girls. They are so fortunate.

Posted by: Katie at December 10, 2004 08:28 AM

Thanks for your support katie. That's very loving of you to say. I can really sympathize about giving tests. Partly because I know that when you are working in a school system, what you are really focusing on is helping the students to succeed within it, not being a discontent about the faults of the system. And it takes so much work and love to help students to do well on tests, and to really know the content covered in them. The other reason I can sympathize with the agony of test giving is that I used to give English language tests to international graduate students. These tests, that I administered, and others that I rated, would determine whether students could get funding to even be in this country and start in their programs! because I had to determine if their English was good enough to be TA's with some of them or whether they would be required to take these REALLY complicated and difficult 'remedial' classes to get their English up to a certain level with others. Talk about the pressure of tests for both test givers and test takers!

Posted by: Bahiyyih at December 10, 2004 09:20 AM

Thank you so much for posting this, Bahiyyih. You're always so good at articulating just what I'm feeling or thinking but can't quite figure out how to put into words.

Posted by: Suzanne at December 10, 2004 12:04 PM

Bahiyyih (and Bill, too), I'm all excited for you and the kids and the big adventure you are bound to have as you figure out how to successfully home school over the next umpteen years. Jealous too! Like many, I had less than remarkable school experiences, but thank God had opportunities to find my brain later in life. Or more accurately, I found DNA at age 33. That awesome and most miraculous molecule and needing to know everything about it carried me from mindless to a Master's degree in 8 fun years. I am still amazed at how little I knew before I went to college. Wow. Anyway, I hope your beautiful little girls enjoy learning some of the cool stuff I learned along the way, like how math is the funnest game in town (because there's only one right answer but so many ways to find it!), that making things with your hands is just as important as thinking things in your brain, and that evolution IS a creation for Pete's sake! Also, Bahiyyih, I hope you teach the girls how to quilt. You said yourself it took math to figure out how to make Maya's turtle quilt. See? There's a fun lesson plan already!

Posted by: Janie at December 10, 2004 10:33 PM

Man, I hope we end up living near each other for a while. I think Amia and Theresa would be great unschooled buddies!

Posted by: Husayn Allmart at December 10, 2004 10:36 PM