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Dealing With Doubts
From the Older Kids column, by Cafi Cohen, originally published in the September-October 1997 issue of Home Education Magazine.
A fellow homeschooling mother recently wrote to my electronic mailbox:
"When you were in the midst of homeschooling, did you ever feel like you weren't sure what you were doing? I mean, it is all well and good to look back on the journey after you have arrived and know you did make it, but what about when you were in the midst of those years with your kids? Were there moments when you really wondered if your eclectic approach would get you to where to wanted (or I should say where your kids wanted) to go? The doubts arise over our relaxed approach especially when I am surrounded by the Scope & Sequence people who hold so true to them. It is funny - I used to be so much more into planning units and making lesson plans. After I have [experienced] this relaxed year, I don't really want to do much of that anymore. I feel as if I have become a rebel. Any thoughts for this veteran (9 years) but always-learning homeschool mom?" [California mother of 14-year-old daughter]
I always will worry about whether we did The Right Thing, just as I did while we were homeschooling our two children through middle school and high school (see example of our eclectic curriculum for our daughter in the sidebar, page 56). When my now-adult children tell me that certain college classes are difficult, I blame me. Surely, I could have forced more Latin or Math or History on them - making their lives miserable as teenagers - but giving me, the parent, the mindless assurance from a Scope and Sequence (a list of who learns what when) that we were Doing The Right Thing.
Why do we need that assurance so badly? Think of all the brainwashing we have to overcome, and it is not a difficult question to answer. Like most homeschooling parents, I was educated (or at least trained to play the game) in government schools; and I turned out okay, didn't I? How can I reject the progression that led to seven years of post-secondary education and two degrees? (A nasty question rears its ugly head here: ultimately, did the seven years enhance the quality of my life or detract from it? Right now I do not know the answer - or just will not admit that it all really was a waste of time and simply delayed my finding worthwhile work I love.)
Like you, I was and am sometimes surrounded by homeschooling parents who heavily curricularize their children. To an even greater extent, I, like almost all homeschooling parents, find myself amid parents of schooled children, parents who automatically link learning only with classroom seat time and credentialed teaching. The constant national debate, which sadly has changed - except in alternative education circles - almost invisibly from debate (are national standards a good idea?) to mere discussion (how do we implement national standards?), further intimidates many of us.
Yes, I had and still have doubts. Homeschooling is not a math problem with one right answer, and even though our kids seem to be happy, well-adjusted adults, the dire warnings of didactically-oriented educationists still echo in my head.
Fortunately, alongside the cacophony of academic diehards, I have an ever-increasing database of positive anecdotes about the lives and accomplishments of less traditionally educated children. Take science, for example. I know older homeschoolers who build telescopes and discover comets, develop new strains of tomatoes, write innovative computer simulations of real world phenomena, and invent devices to help disabled relatives live more normal lives. These kids do science. Even though these activities cannot be measured by tests, surely they are just as valid, in fact more valid, than absorbing and regurgitating the contents of politically-correct biology, chemistry, and physics textbooks.
In analyzing the situation, it seems that those who do science can easily learn to absorb Textbook Science (an oxymoron if there ever was one). But does the reverse hold true? Are memorizing examples of accepted scientific thought and remembering facts for a test the best way to encourage scientific literacy? To begin to answer this, you have to ask: in general, do we have a scientifically literate populace (most of whom attended schools)? For my money, we do not.
It is a frustrating thing for us eclectic and unschooling types to try to explain homeschoolers' accomplishments in educationalese (the language of professional educators). Usually homeschooling success is not identified or quantified in the same way. We need to look beyond the national norms and averages and test scores (even though all studies seem to show homeschoolers doing better than their traditionally schooled counterparts). Instead, individual families, using their idiosyncratic criteria, define success in ways that make sense to them. That is very difficult to explain succinctly to skeptics.
Of course, it comforts others if I quickly answer, "My kid scored sky high on the SAT," but do we want to measure homeschooling success that way? I hate the defensive posture I sometimes feel forced to assume when I reel off my kids' accomplishments. At the same time, I felt often like it was the only way to begin to answer the critics.
Fortunately, I recently had a 17-year-old begin to teach me another way.
At a homeschooling conference I listened to this young lady steadfastly refuse to list her accomplishments (although I have heard from her father that there are many). Instead, with much more confidence than any adults I know would display, she had the nerve to insist that yes - despite not using curriculum and not taking tests, despite not even studying anything in a formal manner - she was perfectly capable of learning whatever she needed to know, to do whatever she needed to do.
She saw no sense in memorizing American history dates, reading prominent English poets, learning chemical symbols, or fighting her way through geometry proofs. She said she was content, at present, to spend much of her time either snowboarding or planning to snowboard. So this is part of the answer. Just look 'em in the eye and unblinkingly tell them what your kids do. Leave them aghast, if only to drive a small wedge into their minds.
Of course, the question most people had for the 17-year-old at the conference was, "What about all the gaps in your education?" Okay, what about those gaps? How important are they? Every homeschooling family has to grapple with this point sooner or later. The parents and kids have to decide and agree on the essentials. In our case, with our two kids, the major difference between our essentials and those of any published Scope and Sequence was that our Family Scope and Sequence was very short - character development, the 3 R's, basic computer literacy, everyday living skills, physical fitness.
I have read many Scope and Sequences. And mostly I have observed that they display remarkably little overlap; in other words, they do not agree among themselves as to what constitutes a good "course of study." That fact alone makes me skeptical about the value of insisting that my kids master the particulars of any externally-generated course of study or Scope and Sequence.
When I hear homeschooling parents worry about gaps, an additional question always enters my mind: what about your kid's positive traits? Take the teenager at the homeschooling conference. She was a personable, intelligent, articulate young lady, possessed of poise and confidence that many adults would envy. She obviously had a wonderful relationship with her parents, and I have no doubt she will achieve any goals she sets.
And then I come full circle. Even after meeting such impressive teenage homeschoolers, I have doubts. Maybe it is similar to growing up very poor, as my parents did during the Depression. As they explain it, no matter how much money you accumulate as an adult, the experience of living in poverty remains and affects your subsequent behavior. Similarly the equations, School=Education=Good and Education=Money=The Good Life, are so deeply ingrained that I may never outgrow them entirely.
All that said, in my experience, there are some things homeschooling parents can do to reduce their anxiety about Not Covering It All. Here are my suggestions - those practices which helped me Let Go:
* Immerse yourself in success stories: Growing Without Schooling back issues, and Grace Llewellyn's books Real Lives and The Teenage Liberation Handbook contain many. At my web site (http://pages. prodigy.com/homeschool) are several homeschoolers' college application essays which relate other success stories.
* Find local, like-minded homeschooling parents with whom to share experiences. Like any small minority swimming against the current, we need support.
* Review several Scope and Sequences (sometimes synonymous with goals, objectives, curriculum, or courses of study) from different publishers and school districts. A Scope and Sequence, as described above, is somebody's idea of who learns what when. You can obtain one from places like World Book Encyclopedia, A Beka Books, the Core Knowledge Foundation, or even your local school district. When you compare Scope and Sequences, you will see that various sources mandate different information for each grade and that nThe Scope and Sequences list the same "essential" information to cover for all grades. At that point, you begin to see that requirements of any one scope and sequence are not critical or even essential.
* What is your definition of success? Clear your mind - as much as is possible for those of us who attended school - and discuss often, with your teenagers, the results you want. If you are bogged down with curriculum, think of your Family Scope and Sequence as being similar to a newspaper article that may be shortened in the editing process at any point. The important stuff comes first, later paragraphs are interesting filler and non-essential. Place the essentials first, and be willing to accept deletions at any point further down the list. Even more difficult, try to make a list of essentials that is less than five items long. In your mind, separate the major from the minor, and let some of the minor content go.
* When listening to those who highly curricularize their children, remind yourself that teaching does not equal learning. Our own school experiences tell us that covering a unit or completing a text often does not result in education or even retention.
* To emphasize the previous point, make an appointment at your local high school to sit through one entire day of classes, ideally by accompanying a single student whose class load resembles what your homeschooler's would be if he attended. Then keep the appointment. Sit through the classes and watch and listen carefully. Keep track of on-task time (reading, doing problems, discussions, taking notes) versus administrative time (forming groups, passing out supplies, fund raisers, taking roll, correcting papers, and discipline). I have done this several times in three different states and never logged more than one hour of on-task time per five-to-seven-hour day. Be aware of what you are comparing your homeschooling to. Observe the behavior of schooled students in school. And then ask yourself who should be worried about gaps.
* Focus on the donut, not the hole. Every day, list one or more positive things about each of your children. Do not do this mentally, write it down, perhaps just on a calendar with a big box for each day. This will counteract the natural tendency that all of us have to define Johnny as a poor speller or Jenny as "no good at math" or Joshua as deficient in science.
* Motivate yourself with record-keeping. This need not be laborious. Every day - in the morning - have your teen list everything she did the previous day (see Sidebar). As you develop abbreviations, this should take no longer than five minutes. Some will prefer to add optional school subject designations like Language Arts, Science, and Math. Although there are good arguments made that we should not have to worry about justifying ourselves with schoolish criteria, it makes some parents feel better. In other cases, assigning school subject designations to all activities (whether academic or not) will give you the raw data for transcripts or other records required by your school district or state. Lastly, if the worst case scenario occurs and you somehow have to justify homeschooling with educationalese, you will be able to do it.
* Don't take yourself too seriously. Probably most kids are going to turn out a certain way regardless what we do. My daughter is wired for creativity - cooking, writing, composing, drawing and painting, acting, decorating, you name it. Since her father and I have almost nThese characteristics - and did little to encourage them since we did not know how - our daughter's creativity seems innate, independent of our efforts to "educate" her. Similarly, her brother has the proverbial mind-like-a-steel-trap with respect to numbers and spatial-engineering problems. Again, not a trait that my husband or I have in abundance and therefore seemingly unrelated to our efforts. Relax. Your kids talents will surface despite what you do!
© 1997 Cafi Cohen
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