May-June 2009 Selected Content
Bringing School Home - Tony Berryman
Hard on the heels of the big decision - do we homeschool? - came the next fork in the road. How closely aligned to the public system should we stay? In British Columbia, homeschooling legislation gives parents two choices. We could teach the public school's curriculum at home, using a full suite of government texts and materials specifically written for distance education at home and with access to a facilitator for advice, guidance, and testing. The other option would be full-on homeschooling, with no official support, no oversight, and no further government contact.
We chose the school's curriculum for our first homeschooling year and discovered that we had brought many of the public school's shortcomings home with us.
Our daughter is 11, in Grade 6. We had been very fortunate with schools, but gradually it became clear that we could do better for her at home. Still, we would be neophytes at the homeschooling game, and we live in an area without a solid base of homeschooling families. We opted for the school-oriented curriculum. This, we figured, would give us good support, a ready curriculum, and easy reorientation to regular school later on should we choose. Our daughter would also be able to access music classes and team sports at the elementary school - getting the best of both worlds, we thought.
We have a distance learning centre close to us, serving as a text distributor, resource centre, and administrative hub for homeschoolers and other non-school learners. We walked out of the centre in late August with an armload of texts, workbooks, curriculum binders, and the first sense of just how much work was ahead of us. Don't worry, the resource person reassured us, most teachers only get through seventy percent of this in the school year.
So we dove in, opening books on math, social studies, English, and science. Math, consisting of the official Singapore Math books, was pleasurably straightforward. Science was uncomplicated, well presented, but safe to the point of boring. Social Sstudies for Grade 6 was a series of fact questions, essays and projects on various countries, gleaned from a textbook written in the 1980's. English was an unabashed nightmare, with four interlocking text and work and assignment books that we needed to skip between every day, usually finding pages we'd missed on the day before.
One trend I had noticed in my daughter's schooling was a habit for getting by. She was easily smart enough to escape the teacher's disapproval with a minimum of effort. This pattern reasserted itself at home with the school texts. These weren't subjects that were interesting to her, I realized. They were stuff she had to get through in order to pass, and that is exactly what she did. She was learning the subjects well enough to parrot them back to me or properly complete an assignment, but she held no real depth of knowledge, no real interest in the subject matter unless I manufactured for her some fascination around what she was learning.
Each subject, with the exception of math, was organized with a test at the end of every section. The tests and assignments would be examined by the distance learning resource person each quarter, to ensure we were on track and doing our job. Oh boy, I thought, this was not what I had in mind for homeschooling. The tests were another opportunity for quick, minimalist answers, and elaborate sighs and protestations about the uninteresting work she was forced to do. Our daughter quickly fell into the same routine we'd seen at school, of jotting down the answers and running through the tests as quickly as she could, using the minimum effort necessary to answer each question, and getting it over with. Every assignment was like that, breezed through with short answers and approached with an air of indifference at best. We had a few conversations with her about the importance of doing more than the bare minimum and giving more complete and thorough answers, but were left scratching our heads at her general lack of enthusiasm - exactly the same professional jadedness we'd seen beginning in regular school.
Now we are halfway through the school year. We'll complete the course materials; we have our daily schedule set, with time slotted for each subject, and our daughter gets through the materials each day with our help. We've figured out how to navigate the Byzantine textbooks, mostly, and we keep an eye on any developing sloppiness or disaffection, in us or our daughter. We spice it up where we can. It's school at home, and now we know the difference.
This year will not be without benefit. Having a ready-made curriculum has allowed us to ease into a homeschooling environment, showed us what a curriculum can look like, and showed us with great clarity the shortcomings we will want to avoid in future. We have access to materials and support we wouldn't otherwise have, and didn't need to worry about missing something. It has been good to hold hands with the system for awhile, but maybe we're ready to walk out on our own now.
Our daughter agrees. Vehemently. She knows what homeschooling and unschooling are supposed to look like, and she is demanding that our course next year follow some things she is actually interested in. We think we can do that now, with some confidence and even relief. We now have firsthand experience of the system we're trying to better, and it might not be so hard after all.
© 2009, Tony Berryman