I’m not quite ready to retire to a rocking chair in front of the general store, bending the ear of hapless passers-by: Yessir, it was rough back in them early homeschoolin’ days . . .
But still, it’s fun to off-handedly mention that when we decided to take our third-grader and first-grader out of public school after the fall semester, way back in 1985, neither A Beka nor Bob Jones would sell directly to parents. You had to order through a Christian school or try to find second-hand copies (no internet back then either, young ‘uns!). The only other comprehensive curriculum choice was Rod and Staff. Alpha Omega was just around the corner, Saxon Math was yet burning in John Saxon’s heart, and the Cambrian explosion of parent-generated curriculum was still about ten years in the future.
In the meantime, what to do? John Holt whispered in one ear that the kids could be trusted to dictate their own education, but John and I didn’t share the same views on total depravity. Powell’s, the fabulous “city block of books” in downtown Portland, had a whole series of public school textbooks that might do. But then someone told me that a small independent bookstore (operated by the John Birch Society–remember them?) had acquired a stock of new A Beka textbooks from a Christian school that went under, and it was all for sale. I looked up the little store and bought one of every title they had for first- and third-graders.
Notice what happened: I’d taken the kids out of a classroom situation, and immediately plugged them into a classroom model. Classrooms were all us early homeschoolers knew, so it was understandable. Still…
Having books for every school subject felt good for about two days into our actual school experience, and after that it was a continual (and failing) struggle to work everything in during the allotted time while keeping it fun and interesting. Meanwhile I was re-reading the Raymond and Dorothy Moore books that had attracted me to homeschooling in the first place: Home-Grown Kids, Home-Spun Schools, and Better Late Than Early. The Moores took the view, which they claimed was backed by extensive scientific research, that children are pushed into formal schooling too early. When parents wait until age ten or even twelve to start textbooks and planned lessons, the children soon catch up and even surpass their public-school peers without the classroom fatigue that’s already wearied the average fourth-grader.
Maybe it’s because the Moore’s got to me first, but their approach made sense to me then, and still does. It might have been a generational thing, too: my ex-hippie pals and I had crawled out of the sixties with our brains still intact (or mostly). We invented laid-back, man . . . Once the shock of transition from school to home had worn off a little, I began to slowly dismantle the hasty textbook structure in favor of a more casual approach.
A coordinated pushback against the Moores began in the early 1990s, with rival gurus claiming that kids needed to be introduced to academic structures while their little brains were still eager and pliable. I’m sure there’s justification for that approach, and I don’t agree with the Moores on everything (such as their opinion that reading fiction is a waste of time). The beauty of homeschooling is that every family can decide what works best for them: early or late, traditional or un–, Trivium, unit study, Charlotte Mason, etc. With so many philosophies and so much material out there, the only thing I’m sure of is that heading straight for the test-and-textbook model ought to be outlawed. That said, here’s my vote for “Laid-back schooling,” which falls somewhere between Raymond Moore and Charlotte Mason.
I resist giving rules for laid-back schooling (you want rules, try Moses). So let’s just call them “guidelines.”
Now that we’ve got that straight, in no particular order these might be: 1) Enjoy your kids. 2) Include them in your daily routine as much as possible. 3) Teach them to read. 4) Read to them. 5) Talk to them about what you all read, and about current events, interesting news stories, scientific discoveries, family conflicts and dilemmas, biblical principles and controversies, etc. 6) Encourage them to talk to you about the same. 7) Start noticing what they’re good at. 8) Encourage and facilitate what they’re good at. 9) Memorize poems and Bible verses. 10) Ditch the TV; limit computer time.
The educational goal of the first 3-4 years of school is to build a bridge between learning and life. (Remember that bird we saw this morning? Here’s a picture of a blue bunting—do you think that’s what it was?) Life is learning, but you wouldn’t guess that from the average neighborhood school, where masses of children migrate from room to room at the ringing of a bell and study “subjects” by the clock. They do learn, but they don’t necessarily learn the point or purpose of anything, except to pass some test. I agree with John Holt that children love to learn, and they’ll continue loving it if it hands them tools to use, conclusions to draw, or just things to think about all day long. A house full of all kinds of books, with maps on the wall and binoculars in the closet and a dictionary on the reference shelf and tools and art supplies close at hand will facilitate the bridge-building. (Speaking of Egypt, here it is on the map. What’s close by? Have you heard of any of those other countries?) The great failure of public school–which they can’t help, given the structure–is to divorce learning from life, shutting the former up in a boxlike building with noisy halls and cluttered bulletin boards. It’s not the teachers’ fault; it’s just the nature of the beast.
In addition to bridges, kids are also building compartments in the brain to hold all that cool stuff they will learn in the future. To progress in math, they’ll need to get the basic functions down cold: addition, subtraction, multiplication, division. To understand science, they need hands-on interaction with the physical world: the garden and the nature walk. To comprehend history, they start where they are: personal timelines branching out to family trees; historical fiction opening the door to historical eras. I like the image of shelves: all knowledge is related, but it also falls into orders and categories. With sturdy mental shelves, a third-grader will have a head start (pun intended) on organizing and storing all that future information.
So to parents of primary schoolers, I say, Don’t sweat it. They’ll need more structure and academic discipline as they get older, but for the early grades (say, K-3) an hour a day of “school” (not counting free-reading time) is plenty. Ruth Beechick’s Easy Start books provided an outline for us laid-backs in the 1980s; I suspect it’s still good for today. Your home is school; life is school; remember that, and don’t feel guilty that pages 79-83 in the workbook remain blank or the last chapter in the science book remains uncovered. Make cupcakes instead: So, if we want to double this recipe, how much baking soda do we need? How long will they last if everybody eats one and a half per day?
Yes, they will need more structure later on, and you’re the best judge of when to start with the lesson plans and tests. It won’t all be fun, and the kids won’t as excited to learn molecular structure and quadratic equations as they are to read about Civil War history–or vice versa. If you have more than one child, you’ll notice vast differences in learning styles and interests. I had a self-starter who drove me crazy with her perfectionism. And I had another who was impossible to motivate. But the first eventually learned to take life in stride and the second became an entrepreneur who knows how to find out what he wants or needs to learn. They’re successful adults, and that was the goal all along.
So if your school year is already off to a rocky start, take a deep breath, spend some time on your knees and repent of unrealistic expectations. We all have them, and kids have a way of undoing them. But kids are also amazing human beings whom you will get to watch as they unfold. Be thankful for them, enjoy them, and don’t stop learning!
On a slightly more somber note, see my reflections on homeschool “success” and “failure” in The Graduate. Regarding that multi-armed beast, curriculum: last summer I talked about my laid-back approach to teaching composition. And here, I lay back on grammar!
Note: this article was originally posted in May 2012.