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March-April 2006 Selected Content

Gifts of Homeschooling - Rachel Phillips

I have recently discovered several boxes filled with artifacts of my early years as a homeschooled child. In one of the boxes were the tiny dolls I sewed when I was seven, during my first year homeschooling. As I took the dolls from the box, I realized I'd come to take the richness of my education for granted; I'd ceased to wonder at how joyful and nurturing homeschooling was from the beginning. But holding the tiny dolls in my hands, I couldn't help but meditate on the power of homeschooling to offer a deeply satisfying education.

Not that I want to over-romanticize my past. The early years in our homeschool had their share of confrontations between my parents and me as we struggled to find our path through an uncharted educational wilderness. And yet, despite our early conflicts, the dolls I held in my hands were the undeniable evidence of the beginning of an educational journey leading to the person I am today. Those little dolls--crudely stitched and dearly loved--are the product of what I now see as two of homeschooling's greatest gifts: time and experience.

Time for What?

If homeschooling offers the gift of time, what is that time for? In my case, it was time to sew small dolls, time to spend hours playing with those dolls, time to read. For your child, homeschooling might offer the gift of time to catch bugs or learn about Albert Einstein or write poems in iambic pentameter. Homeschooling might even offer the gift of time to write a poetic tribute to Albert Einstein in iambic pentameter! In essence, homeschooling offers children time to explore what in the world piques their interest. Truly, this is a gift. How many schooled children are studying the California missions when they want to learn about space travel? How often have you heard an adult say, "I always wanted to learn piano, but I just didn't have time?" How often have you lamented your own lack of time to explore?

The interests, like doll-making, which your homeschooled child chooses to pursue may strike you as eccentric. You may wonder about the value of a child spending so much time sewing dolls (or catching bugs). Don't worry. The interests of homeschooled children have a way of growing and evolving in meaningful directions. My early love of dolls had a significant influence on my educational journey. Because of the sewing skills and costume history I learned from creating dolls, I studied fashion design at community college in my mid-teens. I also used my background in doll-making to land an internship in the costume shop of a professional theater company when I was sixteen. Finally, a series of dolls I made in my late teens were evaluated by the textiles professor at Skidmore College--and I was awarded college credit for the project. So trust your child's instincts. If children are happy and excited catching bugs or sewing dolls, take that as a sign that they're learning something of value. Who knows where it may lead?

Experience of What?

The gift of time lets children explore, discovering through experimentation where their innate interests and talents lie. But what about homeschooling's gift of experience? Experience of what? Homeschooling offers children experience of the real world. While their schooled peers are in the artificial world of school at least six hours a day, homeschooled children are immersed in the intricate, diverse, nuanced world they will navigate as adults. What a gift!

Fashion design, a theater internship and college credit aren't the only experiences that unfolded from the hours I spent sewing dolls. Homeschooling can make abstract concepts real and vital through experiential learning. History, for example, seems remote when presented in a textbook. But when I transformed my dolls into the American Revolution characters I was reading about, history was suddenly something I could experience through play. Boxed with the dolls, I found a tiny letter I'd written from one doll to another when I was seven or eight years old:

Dear Aunt Jane,

I write to you in hope that this letter will reach you before we meet again. For now we have a sewing machine in our family and a tea set. What a relief it is to have tea instead of coffee every day. Goodbye.

Love, Aunt Anne

The line, "What a relief it is to have tea instead of coffee every day," came from my study of the Boston Tea Party. History was real, important, exciting and dramatic to me--not dead and abstract. Compare my incorporation of Colonial history into my doll play with the way my seven-year-old niece is learning history in school. One day she told me her first-grade teacher had taught them that, "Martin Luther King was shot down in cold blood." King's assassination--disconnected both from its historical context and its continuing impact on the world--was an isolated fact my niece parroted mindlessly. A keystone of the Civil Rights Movement was not something she could relate to as real and significant, because history is not something she has experienced. In school, she hasn't had time.

Of course, it isn't just history that homeschooling brings alive through experiential learning. What about economics, for example? Why not start a business so kids can experience economics? Because I had homeschooling's gift of time, that's exactly what I did. When I was about ten, I started Rachel's Clothespin People, a line of seasonal doll ornaments I sold at craft fairs. The business offered a wealth of experiences, including creating a quality product, marketing, sales and customer service--all empowering skills. And when I was twelve, I met a professional doll artist who was homeschooling her children. She hired me to help her sell her work at doll conventions and juried art shows. The experience exposed me to a global community of artists and art patrons, allowing me to refine the skills I'd learned from my own business. Interacting with adults as an equal in the adult world is critical for kids' confidence. I grew through selling dolls because the experience was not artificial or vicarious, but real.

Obviously, time and experience are co-dependent. Without time, experiences cannot happen. But without a familiarity with experiential learning, kids won't know how to direct the free time homeschooling gives them. I have seen many schooled kids struggle with the free time of homeschooling when they first leave school--they don't have experience with knowing and following their interests at their pace, in their own fashion. Like everything in life, being a self-directed explorer takes practice. There are false starts, avenues of interest that turn into dead-ends, lazy curves and even hair-pin turns along the way to finding what is satisfying and integrating to each of us as individuals. Explorers don't have maps; they have to make their own. Fortunately, when you are a homeschooler, you have the time to learn cartography via first-hand experience as you map your own unique educational journey.

© 2006, Rachel Phillips

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