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Home Education Magazine

September-October 2003 - Articles and Columns

The Things I Really Want My Kids to Learn - Sue Smith-Heavenrich

By September, every homeschooler in our state has outlined her proposed curriculum and sent it off to the local school district. I never found the forms our school district sent us particularly useful. They provided a planning sheet divided into small boxes, each about 2 inches by 3 inches, into which I was supposed to write all the topics I wished to cover--as well as books I would use.

I never did use the forms. Instead I wrote a descriptive curriculum outline, but it never seemed to include some of the more important things I hoped to teach my children. Things like independence and skepticism.

I started thinking about this the other day when a friend asked me, "What do you think every girl ought to know?"

"I've got guys," I told her, "but I think I'd put 'making your own lunch' at the top of the list." Knowing how to make a tuna sandwich or whip up a pot of macaroni is as important as knowing how to divide fractions. Maybe even more important.

When my children demonstrated their competence in fridge-opening skills, I responded by writing a list of acceptable snacks and taping it to the door. It read: "apples, cheese and crackers, yogurt." Of course, it never dawned on me that they wouldn't be able to read this list with the fridge door open!

I provided non-lethal tools, such as cheese slicers, and gave a guided tour of the kitchen cupboards. "Cooking is neither 'boy' work nor 'girl' work," I told them. "It's a basic survival skill and every bit as valuable as knowing how to light the fire in the woodstove."

If I were writing a curriculum today, I would include growing a garden and knowing how to make a shelter anytime, anywhere, from what's at hand. Sure, it sounds like Survivor, but considering the number of employed people who find themselves homeless, I wonder why leaf shelters aren't included in high school design and architecture class.

I would list mending socks and sewing patches on uniforms right up there with the three R's. Why should Mom be the one to mend the ripped wind pants?

According to statistics, children have a lot of disposable income, and savvy advertisers know this. In a typical 5th-grade math class, a teacher might introduce unit pricing, but there's more to shopping than how much a thing costs.

I admit that shopping for food was never difficult. My guys have a vested interest in what they eat. It was easy to help them learn how write up a list and figure out the best deal for half gallons of ice cream.

Shopping for clothes and other household essentials is an entirely different matter. "New socks simply don't materialize out of the air," I tell them. They think I'm an ogre for taking them clothes shopping until my oldest son notices the baggy khakis I'm wearing.

"Those are cool, mom. Where'd you get them?"

"At the thrift store," I tell him.

"Can you get me a pair?"

"Only if you come with me." I explain the 'no exchange' rule they have, and he allows that maybe trying things on before you buy them might have advantages. Not only does shopping offer an opportunity to learn about how money fits into household budget, it gives us a forum for discussing brand names and sweatshop labor issues.

I'd put lashing and knots on my list of "what every kid should know." Knots are essential for constructing tree forts and basketry. One year we wanted to weave melon baskets with sturdy rims and handles. You begin with two hoops of vines. (We used forsythia, but "making do with what you have" is a different topic.) Then you lash them together with twine before you begin weaving with the reeds.

Somewhere between math and science I'd put "problem-solving." This is a buzzword in elementary education, but I'm not sure they really know what it means. When I mentor my 5th-grade math enrichment students I find them in need of problem-solving skills.

"What's the first thing you need to do?" I ask them.

"Divide!" one yells.

"No, add and then divide."

I shake my head until they run out of ideas. "How about trying to find out what the problem is?" I ask. This seems to be a novel approach: defining the problem and then outlining the steps you might want to take in seeking a solution. Think of the applications, I tell them. If you have to mow a huge lawn, you could divide it into parts and attack one section at a time. If you have five chores and ten minutes, you can prioritize them by necessity and time requirements.

"It's like this math problem," I explain. "Once you determine that it's an area you need to calculate, you can find the information you need."

Of course, the most important things I want my children to learn are the hardest to articulate in terms of "curriculum." I want them to be compassionate to others. I want them to appreciate themselves for who they are, and accept that they will "grow out of it"--whatever stumbling block "it" happens to be at this stage in their lives. I want them to be strong in spirit and assertive, without being aggressive.

I want them to expect joy from life and learn to make it happen.

2003 Sue Smith-Heavenrich

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