November-December 2010 Selected Content
An Interview with Laura Grace Weldon - Mary Nix
Our long-time HEM "Questions and Answers" columnist, Laura Weldon, is now the author of a wonderful recently published book, Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything. She shares research on how we all learn, ways we can connect with others, ideas for helping to create a nurturing community for our children, and insights from homeschoolers around the world.
I asked Laura for an interview to learn more about Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything. Laura graciously agreed and I began by asking what inspired her to write the book.
There are plenty of answers to that question but I'll share one. Homeschooling (like parenting itself) is a learning process. Whether we're well-planned schedulers or relaxed unschoolers, information others share with us can make a difference us as we introduce our wonderfully unique children to the world around us. I offer Free Range Learning as part of that process.
I'm thrilled when readers get in touch with me. Everyone has commented on something different. One person told me that history and current events have really opened up for his family as they experiment with ideas they're finding in the book. Another reader said she has changed what she called her "achievement first" approach with her teenaged son and as a result he seems, as she notes, "more like his old self, playful and fun to be around instead of tense and grumpy." And just this week someone emailed me to say that the book put into words what she'd been feeling about the process of learning. She wrote, "It was something I sensed but couldn't back up. Now that I feel it and know it, I can trust what learning is."
Mary: The book is informative, yet easy to read and I know this did not happen accidentally. Which took longer the research or the writing?
Research is as fun as snacking on popcorn for me. My family members are all information hungry. We subscribe to lots of obscure magazines and our conversations tend to zip off in all directions. I had to consciously keep myself from packing Free Range Learning with too many facts. I hope the result is a book with a balance of information and inspiration.
Writing probably took me longer. That's because writing the book had to fit alongside homeschooling my kids and keeping up with tasks on our small farm, plus other freelance work I do. Ideas for the book kept popping up throughout the day. I found myself scribbling passages down during meetings, at stoplights and while waiting for a son's bagpipe lesson to end. Those scribblings became an integral part of the book. Guess there's a lot to be said for spontaneity.
Mary: As I was reading, I felt as if I was sitting with you in a homeschool seminar with input from other attendees. How did you gather the input by others for the book?
I spent plenty of time studying the work of experts in fields such as child development, neurology, anthropology, business and history. But to me, the real experts in alternative education are the people out there doing it.
Thank goodness so many people were willing to share the wisdom they'd gained. All I had to do was ask. The word got around through homeschool groups and forums. Nearly 120 children, teens and adults around the world offer their insights and experiences to Free Range Learning readers. I hope the book enables their ideas to travel across many time zones reaching families everywhere.
Mary: You devote a great deal of time on interests and the importance they play in learning. Can you expound on that a bit here for our readers?
The big thinkers in education emphasize customized or individualized learning as the wave of the future. We homeschoolers already do that every day. Sometimes it's in small ways, like making information relevant. For example, if the question of ratios comes up it simply makes more sense to explain the concept as it relates to our children's interests---perhaps in reference to their favorite baseball players' stats or as a way to divide the pizza right there on our table.
But homeschooling also gives our children time to delve deeply into what they find intriguing. Whether they have a passion for designing video game, riding horses or building forts they often find a whole range of related interests open up. The powerful momentum of curiosity propels them. They blast right through challenges and gain competence as they learn new, often interrelated concepts. Because interest drives them they're also much more likely to remember what they've learned.
Perhaps more important than what interests can teach is what the pursuit of interests does for the child. The child who is free to follow his or her passions develops a strong sense of self. In fact, studies link a child's time invested in his or her own interests with a strong achievement ethic in adulthood.
Interests themselves aren't likely to last. That doesn't matter. Our interests affirm that each of us is brimming with unique possibilities just waiting to unfold.
Mary: What role, if any, does technology play in free range learning?
Technology offers us many more options but also brings significant trade-offs. That topic takes quite a few pages in the book, so I'll stick with one of the positive aspects.
A marvelous benefit of technology is the way it gives us access to people around the world. Online groups and forums help us connect to others across so-called boundaries of nationality, race and religion. There we talk over interests, share concerns, debate, investigate new ideas and collaborate on projects. Learning is enhanced. Friendships are built. All the while we're creating goodwill. I think of this growth in mutual understanding as "global heartening" with the power to change our world for the better.
This may sound overly idealistic but I see it happen all the time, even here in my home. As an example, I'll mention some of the connections of one my sons made online. His interest in acoustics led him to join an audiophile (sound lovers) forum. Their discussions led him in all sorts of related directions. He was inspired to investigate topics in depth including acoustic engineering, electronics, the physiology of hearing, and all kinds of music. He designed and made components for microphones and amplifiers, which became a small side business for him at the age of 16. He also made his own guitar by hand, from raw wood to finished instrument. All the while he enjoyed fellowship with people of many ages on this forum as they helped one another by sharing resources and experiences. They also talked, as friends do, about everything from politics to movies. As a result he knows folks in Iceland, Australia, Indonesia, Germany as well as the U.S. who respect his knowledge and enjoy his dry wit. Yes, he has in-person mentors in his life as well, but online access to mentors has significantly expanded his learning journey and his worldview.
Free range learning encompasses much more than technology, but if families choose to give technology a role the way it is used makes a world of difference.
Mary: You write that homeschooling is self-correcting. Could you share a bit about that?
As parents we're closely attuned to our children so it's only natural that we adapt to their needs, abilities and interests. If something isn't working we have the flexibility to adjust easily, without fuss or failure. We freely make changes not only to find a better approach but also out of loving kindness. That affirms to our children that we see them not as what limiting standards can make of them, but as whole beings.
One way to talk about this adaptability is in reference to readiness. We know that readiness is highly individual. There's no need to force any aspect of learning on our children before they are ready. Pressure actually subverts the process of learning (much more on that in the book). For example, in the school environment it's a crisis if the student is unable to read by age 6 or 7. That's because reading is required for nearly every subject taught. But a homeschooled child can learn in many other, often more direct ways; all the while growing toward reading readiness. When he or she masters reading it will be with an advanced level of brain development to better comprehend and enjoy it. Interestingly, research shows that children who were pushed to read early have no long-term advantage. Children whose reading abilities were more naturally fostered, even if they began reading much later, proved to be enthusiastic readers well into their teens.
The self-correcting nature of homeschooling isn't limited to the sphere of the family. We tend to be very interactive with each other and the larger community. As we take part in the wider world we pay attention to resources of interest. We mull over our options. We try the newest things, hold space for the best of the old and help each other find solutions to our problems. This cooperative and continuous improvement is shared freely as we talk together, not only one-to-one but also at local get-togethers, on forums, through blogs, at conventions and in magazines. We wade right into the stream of opinion and fresh information. These ongoing conversations help all of us self-correct.
Homeschooling tends to be a personal decision for the benefit of our own children. Yet our caring, open source methods of learning can't help but make a significant difference in education and society as a whole.
Mary: Your chapters on practical learning are rich with resources. If you could only choose three, which top resources would you recommend to a new family just starting out?
Rather than citing specific books, links or activities out of the hundreds I've listed, let me give broader resource recommendations.
First, build your knowledge networks. By that I mean seek out skills and experience in the people around you. Consider your father's interest in solar energy, your neighbor's ability to fix anything mechanical, your bank teller's experience volunteering for a mountain rescue team, your sister-in-law's expertise in building a small business. Chances are they'll gladly share some of what they know with your child or your whole homeschool group. When you ask others to impart some of their wisdom it's actually a way of honoring them. People who are passionate about what they do convey knowledge in ways that go well beyond what any flat page or screen can. They transmit enthusiasm. That's priceless.
Second, look for ways your children can meaningfully participate at home and in your community. They may want to sell unused household items on eBay and donate the proceeds to a charity of their choice. They may want to plant a garden and learn together how to preserve the produce. They may want to make puppets and stage a puppet show for the daycare down the street. There are endless ways to involve youth in useful endeavors. They'll not only learn, they'll build character and a wonderful sense of purpose.
And third, listen to your intuition. It's a vital resource. You will be demonstrating to your children the value of paying attention to their own intuition. Your intuition will also help you trust that your children are well equipped to learn in the way best for them. Better yet, when you listen to your gut instincts you'll notice you're being guided toward what is authentic and undeniably joyous.
Mary: Having lived the homeschooling life with your four children, could you give a bit of insight into how free range learning and homeschooling have changed everything for you?
Unlike many of my fellow homeschoolers, I didn't start out intending to homeschool.
I was always interested in learning and child development. In fact I remember reading my father's copies of John Holt books (he was a public school teacher) back when I was in fifth grade simply because I found them interesting. Not long after my first child was born I tried to garner some enthusiasm in my community for starting a Waldorf school, but that fell through before my son was three years old. So I enrolled my older children in public school hoping it was possible to bring about change from within. I volunteered in classrooms, served on committees and headed up the PTA. Change, I learned, was glacial even in award winning districts. Still I persisted, making sure that my children's free time served as an antidote to the pettiness and educational absurdity they experienced in school. It wasn't until my oldest, by then a teen, was critically endangered by a gang in the hallways of his school that we became homeschoolers.
I don't know why I resisted so long. Homeschooling has been an amazing process of exploration and personal growth, and I'm talking about for me! Trusting that our children learn in the ways best suited for them can't help but teach us to trust ourselves. I have learned to relax as a parent and as a person. My early career ambitions have transferred to deeper, more fulfilling pursuits.
My children work hard here on our little farm; they have also proven themselves quite capable and independent in places far from home. They are gaining strength in areas they've freely chosen and I have every confidence in them. Before long they'll be flying the nest. One thing that nourishes my spirit is that every day my family members spend time, quite often hours, in conversation with each other. We're still sitting around the dinner table long after the meal is over or we're sprawled on couches, happily talking. I chat right along even as another part of me is holding fast to these moments, purposefully building memories, just as I did when my children were tiny. Homeschooling has given us rich gifts of time to build these close connections. I'm grateful for that blessing each day.
Mary: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions and share a bit of Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything with us!
Mary, thank you for all you do for homeschoolers here at Home Education Magazine and with all the great information on your blog, The Informed Parent http://www.tiprr.com/blog/
© 2010, Mary Nix