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Home Education Magazine

May-June/97 - Articles

A Visit with Mary Hood - Janine Calsbeek

Chat with Mary Hood about learning centers, and you'll get a short course on unschooling.

Pull the books and educational "stuff" out of the closet, she says. Put them where kids can see them. Keep things somewhat orderly, clean, and well-lit. React to your child's initiative. If you really want a kid to read a certain book, don't assign it. Just throw it on the couch.

This is Mary Hood, author of The Relaxed Home School, touted by some as "the Christian John Holt." She is somewhat of an unusual item, you must admit. Her theology leans towards the conservative end, yet her educational style is, in a word, loose.

There's no conflict in her mind. She sees how her children learn, and knows they learn best when they're motivated. Her goals for her family include supporting everyone's natural love of learning, not beating facts into their heads.

An example: music. Mary once taught piano lessons. In their days before kids, she and her husband Roy played in a bluegrass band. (They're from Georgia, after all.) So, when their oldest was a first grader, she included Music 101 in the Hood homeschool curriculum.

"We went through a year of teacher-directed stuff," she said. It didn't work. Instead she decided to return to making music herself. The kids saw that their parents liked it and that it was a real part of life. "Now Sam is a fantastic classical guitar player. Ginny does musical theater, Dan plays bass in a band and Laura plays piano." The youngest, Steve, 6, hasn't decided his musical forte yet.

It makes a person stop and reconsider those tearful piano practice sessions, eh?

Of course, not every family will excel in music. "We like music, art and drama. We're not a science family," said Mary. "I don't even know how to set the timer on the VCR." She's in trouble whenever Sam, the family electronics whiz, is away.

The Hoods filled their science void by finding an apprenticeship for Sam when he showed interest. Mary feels no need to feign interest in a subject that bores her. "I believe in honesty. If you're sick of something, tell them."

Get busy with what interests you, parents, said Mary. Show your kids that you love to learn. Your enthusiasm is bound to be catching. Out of sight...

Back to our subject: learning centers.

"There's what could be done, and what I really do," says Mary. One area where she has a state-of-the-art learning center is, what else? Art. It's the best way to approach art, she says. But remember that accessibility is crucial. When the Hoods moved into their home two years ago, Mary had an idea: put art supplies in the pantry! Things could be arranged neatly behind the pantry door and keep the kitchen presentable. Unfortunately, the plan failed. No one did art.

"It never got used. Out of sight, out of mind." So the art center is back in the kitchen. There's a counter top and shelving with pastels, paint, charcoal, a calligraphy set. There's a bulletin board. There are library books about painters - Mary's art appreciation curriculum. She also keeps a few how-to books in the art area too. The kids work on the kitchen table or floor. The easel is set up in another "washable" room, where there's additional space to exhibit art by Hood kids.

There are several music centers in their home too. One is near the piano, with music books, props for learning notes, learning wrap-ups, and a metronome. Another area includes a tape player and record player, "as archaic as that may sound," she says. The two youngest kids, ages six and 10, have free rein at that center, but only the older ones are allowed to use the CD player upstairs.

Actually, learning centers are more a state of mind than a physical reality, says Hood. Thirteen years ago, when Sam began first grade, Mary neatly arranged books and curriculum on high shelves, and brought them down for teacher-directed activities. Much of the material sat there until she later sold it at used curriculum fairs. The best materials moved lower and lower on the shelves.

Her guidelines include providing a few well-chosen library books and other old favorites. Get rid of the beat-up books with covers ripped off, or at least stick them in the attic. Keep the good books in a clean, well-lit and somewhat organized place. If there are fewer books, orderliness is easier. These days, she frequents the library more often than bookstores, and she really does use the "throw it on the couch" method of getting kids to read a certain book.

For math, she likes games, like "Muggins" and Cathy Duffy's math mouse games. Cheerios and popsicle sticks are manipulatives. Popsicle sticks can be banded together to illustrate carrying and borrowing. Videos and mini-series, like Centennial and Roots, have been helpful to inspire interest in history. For science, the critical element is to learn to think and act like a scientist, said Mary. Ask a legitimate question and find the answer. Don't simply do experiments because you think you must. Gardening, wildlife, and nature are explored by the Hoods - Roy got out the bird-identification books and that inspired the kids. But more structured subjects like chemistry haven't been part of their "school" and may never be.

Sometimes one kid's room becomes a learning center. When Sam was engrossed in astronomy, his room became home to all the astronomy books and the telescope. The other kids learned from him, equivalent to what one would remember from a college course in astronomy, according to Mary. But no one wanted to move the telescope and books elsewhere. Two kids usually don't have the same burning interest at the same time. Dan's room became the geography center for awhile. Kids learn, says Mary, if they're allowed to learn in a natural way.

"Look at yourself. Do you learn a little of every subject area each year?" she asks. No, almost everyone goes in binges.

"Now my six-year-old Steve is on a reading binge. He wants to learn how to read, so we have phonics material around." At other times, math books and popsicle sticks clutter the floor for weeks. If you have materials around, and if the parents value education, then kids will see that math and writing are a part of life, she says.

"I don't mean to minimize my role. Today I worked almost all morning with Steve." Most days, the Hoods spend about 90 minutes in the morning, doing what looks a little bit like school. The parent initiative. The question is when to interfere. Steve is learning to read, and his mom is reacting to his initiative. Laura, however, who's 10, is writing a report only because her mother assigned it. "She's one of those who would have labels hanging all over her in school," says Mary. She's a natural in art and gymnastics, and she reads constantly. But she does little math, and her writing is mainly an occasional letter to a relative or penpal.

Laura doesn't resist doing the report, however, because Mary requires one rarely, then gives her plenty of time. One day she does an outline - two weeks later she completes a one-page report.

"It's important to make progress," says Mary, "but slow and steady." In fact, Mary suggests not worrying about gaps in learning until age 10 or 12. Then it becomes obvious what the child does well, and what needs work. A small amount of teacher-directed work can be added. She might wait until middle school or high school to introduce a subject that's lacking. "A lot of parents are too worried too early."

Don't push phonics, either. With some kids it works, but others are not ready for phonics at a young age, or have different learning styles. "One good method for teaching reading is only one method, one that works for some kids and not for others."

Another thing--don't fall for the trap that your child must know everything. "I hate to use the word 'basics,' because it conjures up standing over the kids with a whip," she says. But you must admit that piano, art, and biology are not essential, she said, not like reading, writing and rudimentary math skills.

She wants her kids to be motivated, to love learning, and to be acquainted with the tools for learning. She wants them to develop good habits - like visiting the library and using the encyclopedia. Then they can find the facts as they need them.

Values, attitudes and habits are high priority when it comes to educating her children. Next come skills, talents and interests. Last on her list is knowledge. By the way, they do learn how to take tests - in Georgia tests are required. Reporting scores, however, is not. And she doesn't concern herself with the results, she said.

The relaxed way works, if acceptance to college is an indication. Both Ginny and Sam have been admitted and given academic scholarships without transcripts, grades or "subjects." Letters of recommendation and SAT scores were more important to the private colleges where they applied.

Dan, too, did well in a private Christian school last fall. He spent three months in eighth grade - making friends, earning a spot on the honor roll and playing on the baseball team. But he didn't like getting up at 6:30 am to put up with a lot of silliness, said Mary, like losing points for working in pen instead of pencil.

"This is about control. He could put up with it, but I hate it," says Mary. The fact that he knew that he had a choice made all the difference, she says. Loosen up.

Mary, who has a doctorate in education, is a fan of John Holt, and she doesn't mind being linked with his ideas on education. "I agree with very much of what he says about children and learning."

She's finding plenty of interest in her ideas in all sorts of homeschooling circles. Many conservative Christians are welcoming a change from "school-at-home." Her goals are not to become rich and famous, she said, but to see children love learning. She wants people to try other styles of education. And she hopes, she said with a smile, "to help some Christians to loosen up." 1997 Janine Calsbeek

....(articles list) | columns list)....

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