November-December 2008 Selected Content
Self-Inspired Learning - Karen Vogel
I've read all those homeschooling books detailing the adventures of families who live on the road, performing musical concerts or selling some amazing product that they invented. I've read about the families who decide to go back to the land and learn how to survive on their own. Those stories make me wish my family lived somewhere more exciting, on a boat perhaps or a ranch or with a traveling carnival, or that we possessed some special talent that we could develop into a family business. But, to be honest, I don't think we have what it takes. Let's face it - my family considers it a test of survival if our air conditioning breaks down. And as far as becoming the next Von Trapp Family Singers, well, the less said about that, the better.
But, despite living an unremarkable existence in the depths of suburbia, my kids all manage, at one point or another, to develop an interest in a subject I never bothered to introduce. As most of my friends know, I regularly suffer paroxysms of guilt over my complete neglect of science as a school subject. Aside from having a birdfeeder outside our kitchen window, with a bird identification book handy (well, when we can find it) and a cheap pair of binoculars (which are often missing as well), my children's parent-led science education is nothing short of woefully inadequate. But my oldest, at the age of nine, followed me around the house with a bird book, demanding that I read it to him. In fact, we ended up buying him the aforementioned birdfeeder for a birthday present. He has since developed an interest in gardening and botany, both subjects at which I am an abject failure.
The next boy down became obsessed with ships. We were living for a year in a coastal town, and we lived and breathed ships and pirates and whaling and lighthouses. I'll tell you, I've never had so much fun. Then he moved on to airplanes, a subject which leaves me cold, but by then he could read on his own and learned everything there is to know about flight, regardless of my indifference. He spends his days now "designing" airplanes and gliders and rocket ships with whatever he can lay his hands on (primarily cardboard and duct tape).
My youngest son, who is seven, adores tornadoes and volcanoes. Just tornadoes and volcanoes, mind you. One week in the library I couldn't find him any new books on his "fields," so I offered him a book on hurricanes instead. I figured, hey, one natural disaster is as good as another, isn't it? Apparently not. "No, thanks," he said soberly. "I don't do hurricanes." I do think that age seven is sort of young to specialize, don't you?
Anyway, he's seven and is reading quite detailed books on these two natural phenomena and (here's my point, finally) because this is his interest; he is absorbing all the information he is reading. He's learning about geology and meteorology and who knows what else and loving it. He's making his own learning fun. Last I checked, that's the goal of this home education thing - producing kids who can learn on their own. It sure beats the academic passivity that comes with being force-fed irrelevant information for twelve years.
It helps that our family goes to the library once a week, rain or shine. Now, I may be making a virtue out of necessity here; after all, when I miss a week, the overdue fines get out of control. Fortunately, our local library still lets us in, despite our embarrassing book habits. But every time we check out, it turns into a fifteen-minute ordeal of being reminded of which books are still out, which are overdue, how many are on hold, and "Haven't we mentioned our fifty-book limit on the library card, ma'am?" Each week I walk in there, I expect to see a police officer standing by the circulation desk, handcuffs at the ready. It didn't help when I accidentally shushed a librarian who was speaking too loudly near my sleeping baby. I wonder how many people have ever had to tell a librarian to pipe down? But they continue to put up with us, which is a good thing, as books are our only way of learning about all sorts of things that we may not come into contact with in daily life.
Yes, I still sometimes wish we lived somewhere more "exciting." But I have come to accept that the biggest adventures we will have as a family will involve hunting for the bathrooms at some local festival, or getting lost while we're driving around looking for the amazing air show in the next county. And adventure can be vastly overrated, particularly when it involves a lack of indoor plumbing or an overabundance of manure. As for a lucrative family business, well, unless we can discover a market for numerous airplane models constructed out of duct tape and craft sticks, I guess we are out of luck. But, with the help of our local library, we are able to learn about anything we want, even if we don't have the excitement of living it directly. And really, with six kids to take care of, I'll take stability and predictability (and flushing toilets) over excitement any day.
© 2008, Karen Vogel