My Contrarian–Non-Ideological–View of Homeschooling

I’ve written a two-part post on homeschooling for the new–and very good–Convergent blog.

I find myself in a weird sort of place when it comes to my thoughts and experiences about schooling, because while in principle I believe firmly that it is society’s duty to provide equal access to education of the highest quality to every student–and I am not enamored of the ideology that suggests that public schools–often forebodingly called “government schools” as if government in this country were not for and by the American people–do it all wrong and should be dismantled. I am happy to pay taxes so that kids can go to school, and my regrets have to do with the relatively low wages teachers earn in comparison with, oh, say, executives, and that cutting sports and music and art seem to always be on the table before cutting, oh, just about anything else.

I also support strong (and stronger) oversight of homeschooling families and their curricula. The Home School Legal Defense Association frankly frightens me with their rhetoric, which very often hedges on defending parents’ rights above the rights of a child to not be abused and to receive an adequate education. No child should suffer educational neglect. I am proud that my mom complied 100% with New York State regulations for homeschoolers, and that I took the same standardized tests as everyone else.

So when I hear stories about homeschoolers being abused and educationally neglected, I am horrified. There is definitely a seamy underbelly to homeschooling that, frankly, scares the crap out of me and is antithetical to everything I hold as a Christian value and as an American value.

All that being said, I don’t appreciate the prejudice and assumptions about homeschooling and homeschoolers, especially because, for the moment, I’m teaching my own kids at home, and because, for a time, my parents taught me at home, as did my husband’s parents. (Did I mention my husband’s Ph.D. from a top British university?) We are not all cut from the same cloth. We have different and valid reasons for what we do. Nor does homeschooling my kids mean that I am somehow not committed to the common good.

Anyway, here’s a taste of the first part of my homeschooling post, centered on my experience BEING homeschooled. The second deals with my reluctant and conflicted decision to school my kids at home–for now.

My parents were (and are) conservative Christians, but their decision to teach me at home was less ideological than practical. They took action when I was in fourth grade to ensure my well-being. It turned out that my tenured teacher at a public school was abusive. He flew into rages over the slightest infractions, overturned a student’s desk because the kid was taking too long at his spelling test, and once jacked that same kid up against the wall. I wasn’t allowed to read silently at my desk when I was finished with my assignments. Instead, I had to sit quietly, doing nothing, until the other students had finished theirs. Before long I grew to hate school. I told my parents all that was going on in the classroom.

When they confronted the teacher along with a member of the administration, he countered that I was a troublemaker. My parents pointed out that the third-quarter report cards had come out several weeks earlier, and that the teacher had written something along the lines of “Rachel is bright and a pleasure to have in class.” He had written a similar assessment on my other report cards from the same school year.

My parents and I agreed that I would endure the rest of the year in his class; it wouldn’t be all that long. But then we discovered that he would be one of the two fifth-grade teachers in our small school. To make matters worse, the administration refused to guarantee that I would not be in his class.

Enrolling in the nearest parochial school would mean I would spend at least ninety minutes on a bus every day, not to mention paying tuition that my parents didn’t have. Going back for another year of Mr. McAllister was not an option. So my mom, who was working part-time at a bank, pushed aside her assumption that homeschooling was for do-it-yourself weirdos who lived in the woods, shot deer, and tapped trees for maple syrup. She ordered textbooks and managed to arrange her work hours so she’d be home four out of five weekdays. My dad, who was pastor of a small church, would arrange his schedule so that he’d supervise me when she couldn’t.

I finished out the year in public school, but fifth grade, sixth grade, and seventh grade I learned at home.

{Continue reading at Convergent.}

Reading Classics With Kids (Even as Comic Books)

My dad told me about a series of comic books that were available when he was young—comics based on the plots of books commonly assigned to schoolchildren, which served as CliffNotes in those pre-Internet days when plagiarism generally meant that you copied either from a classmate or from the saved papers of students a year or two ahead of you. I’ve never actually seen one of those comic books, but I always liked the idea of them, even though I’ve pretty much always been the sort of student who reads the book.

(Except for The Martian Chronicles, which was assigned in 9th grade and which I simply did not read.)

Yet even though I’m generally a fan of reading the whole, real book before seeing the movie (or taking the exam)—I read, and loved, an unabridged translation of Les Miserables as a teenager—I’ve discovered that shortened and child-friendly adaptations of classic books can be very good things. I mean, I’m no expert in reading instruction or in child development or in anything else in particular, come to think of it, but there is something about allowing children to absorb great stories, even in a sketched-out form, that seems to be pretty powerful.

A few years ago, my husband started telling the children a child-friendly version of The Lord of the Rings, and they continue to ‘play the story’ in Lego and out in the yard, mulling over the endurance of Frodo, the faithfulness of Sam, the pitiable nature of Gollum, and the dangerous allure of the ring of power. About a year ago, my father read them a children’s adaptation of Moby-Dick, took them to the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum, and watched the classic film (with Gregory Peck). Again, the story figures into their thinking and playing still.

And recently, I read them a children’s version of the epic poem Beowulf, one of the oldest surviving works of literature in (Old) English. They could hardly wait for each successive chapter, and they cried real tears over the death of the old knight Beowulf. Don’t tell them I told you that.

Graeme's version of Beowulf v. Grendel

Graeme’s version of Beowulf v. Grendel

This is not at all to slight classic children’s literature, which I also love (I cried reading Karen Swallow Prior’s chapter on Charlotte’s Web in her literary memoir Booked), but only to say that even as children can absorb stories from the Bible in simplified form long before they can understand theology or read passages from the Good Book itself, they can meaningfully encounter great stories in ways that open up their imagination and creativity long before they’re ready to read Melville—and even if they’re never ready to read Melville.

In Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis wrote that one way to know you’ve encountered ‘myth’ (by which he meant not not true but rather a transcendently powerful story) when even reading the bare bones of the plot moves you in some way, or, in his words, a myth has “value in itself –a value independent of its embodiment in any literary work.” I think that when my children take little child-sized bites of Beowulf, Moby-Dick, Lord of the Rings, and Arthurian legend, it begins to open up the back of the wardrobe.

The More Interesting But Less Provocative Way

The blogger Tony Jones (“Theoblogy”) as had a series of posts on why homeschooling is terrible and awful and bad for society and you’re a bad Christian who doesn’t really love Jesus or your neighbor if you do it. My friend Helen Lee (author of The Missional Mom) wrote an excellent response at Scot McKnight’s blog, Jesus Creed.

I don’t really have any desire to enter into this particular debate. (If you want to get some idea of part of why we homeschool, read anything by John Holt or John Taylor Gatto.) I bring it up only because as I read Tony’s posts, which seemed to base the critique of homeschooling on a skewed, small sample of isolationist-minded homeschoolers, it occurred to me that disagreement and ‘controversy’ often happens because it is more fun (and pageview-garnering) simply to poke at what other people do without asking the really interesting questions.

For example, there are people who intentionally give birth, at home, with no professional in attendance. And people often screech about these “unassisted homebirthers” as being crazy, reckless, dangerous folks. But isn’t it more interesting (and useful) to ask “what is happening in the hospital (and in the culture) that people feel that birthing at home, alone, is preferable to birthing in a hospital? What’s the history here?”

Judgment and declaration drive up pageviews and Facebook shares and retweets. It’s fun to be all righteously indignant and judge-y, and I know this because not infrequently almost every day I read the news and get all worked up and think of devastating critiques, some of which leak out into my online bile duct Twitter account. 

But I suspect that it is asking, not declaring, that opens the way to fruitful conversation.

What do you think?

Do YOU Know the Name of Alexander the Great’s Horse?

I don’t either.

But my six year old son does, and it’s not because I’ve drilled him on it or anything.

It’s because of Susan Wise Bauer’s The Story of The World audiobooks.

We’re very relaxed homeschoolers, which mostly means that my kids have a lot of time to play Legos. But ever since Aidan was 4 and listened to E.B. White read Charlotte’s Web, he’s been hooked on audiobooks. Now Graeme is 4 and is conversant with all kinds of books that are not age-appropriate. They listen and build; build and listen. It works for us.

Anyway, I’m not holding us up as an example or anything (who KNOWS what my kids will say about their early education in years to come!) but I do want to suggest that you check out this series (Peace Hill Press website is here). Jim Weiss’ voice is reason enough to listen.

(And then, if anyone asks, you can tell them that Alexander’s horse was named Bucephalus.)