No Place Like Home
A Personal Look at the Education of Children: Public, Private, & Domestic
by Leon J. Podles
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The Dynamics of Home Learning
It is difficult to teach children at school. Is it possible to do it at home? Yes, provided the needs of the children rather than educational theories determine what the parents do. Some children need a highly structured environment, almost like a classroom. However, most need a greater amount of freedom, to study what they are interested in, when they are interested in it, in the manner they find most fruitful. Some structure and some parental supervision are usually necessary, especially if a child has learned bad habits in school. We find that the less time our children have spent in school, the more independently they can work. Mathematics is necessary for modern life, and almost all children need some prodding and assistance in mastering its elements. Languages also are hard to study independently, and need parental or other adult involvement.
Even in a good school, a child may get at most ten or fifteen minutes a day of personal attention, the attention he needs so that the teacher can ascertain what the child does or doesn't understand. If a parent daily spends a half-hour to an hour per child in formal instruction, that is enough for most children. If there are several children, the older ones usually end up teaching the younger ones, and teach more effectively than a parent could. To a small child a parent belongs to a different order of being, and adult attainments may seem hopeless. However, the younger child usually feels that he can do the same thing that a slightly older child is doing.
We were astonished when our five-year-old suddenly announced that he could read, and read things like the Chronicles of Narnia and the National Geographic. We had not taught him to read. As far as we can determine, his sister read stories to him at night after they went to bed, and he played with a pre-computer that had a spelling program. His abilities to understand words did not always match his judgment. When he was five and we were visiting relatives, he announced that a flying saucer had landed in a city in the Soviet Onion. We asked him where he had learned this interesting fact, and he announced it must be true, because he had read it in the newspaper; when pressed for the name of the newspaper, he said it was something called the Weekly World News (my brother-in-law, a graduate of Harvard and Harvard Law, is a connoisseur of tabloids). Children will need some guidance from parents in making judgments about the things they encounter, but the thrill of discovery is always great.
How We Teach at Home
In teaching children at home, I spend a little less than an hour in formal instruction with the oldest boy, now 14, and my wife less than three hours with the remaining five younger ones. She is usually finished by lunch. The children have some independent assignments, and lots of time for sports, including skiing, ice skating, recreation league baseball, and soccer; for reading (our children take out about 700 books a year from the local library); for Scouts, piano lessons, visits to neighbors, projects (making brownies and selling lemonade to passers-by), computers (we have two that are fully occupied all day), serving as altar boys, and anything else they are interested in.
Some education goes on inside the house, but only part of this is formal. Chores, for example, can teach: the oldest boy pays the bills and runs our house finances from the computer. A lot of education goes on outside the house, and introduces them to the wider community, giving them a wider experience than children have who are in school six hours and then have homework.
Our children are doing well by grade-level norms, but even if they were behind I wouldn't worry. Some children, boys especially, are not ready to read until they are ten or eleven, when in their brains occurs the mysterious process of neural development that makes reading possible. They would be miserable in school, but enjoy playing and learning crafts until the brain is ready, and then they read it or above grade level within a few months. This is even more true of children with real learning disabilities or mental limitations. The practice of mainstreaming them into regular school often leads to acute misery.
For the lower grades we use structured material from the Calvert School, which has been in the business of home schooling for almost a century. The middle children can use the materials on their own. As they get older, we use Saxon Mathematics, which has books from advanced arithmetic through calculus. In studying pre-algebra with one son, I finally under- stood addition in base 2, an operation that had escaped me thirty years ago. Cambridge University has a Latin series for middle school, which we have used successfully with nine-year olds.
Parental ignorance of a subject is not an obstacle. The parent should demonstrate to the child that adults too have a willingness, indeed an eagerness to master new and difficult material. Such an attitude is one of the most important lessons a child can learn. Some parents of our acquaintance are success- fully teaching themselves Latin as they teach their children. This is the system used by St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, known for its Great Books program. I interviewed for a position there, and the dean explained to me that all teachers were expected to teach all material, including Greek and French. I said that, alas, my languages were Latin and German. She assured me that all I had to do was keep a page or two ahead of the students. I was doubtful, but St. Johnnies are among the few American undergraduates who seem to be genuinely educated.
A Look at Expected Obstacles
Some parents, although their children are having problems at school, and home schooling' looks attractive, are put off by practical difficulties or fears. Is it possible to maintain a house and teach children at the same time? We have a part-time house- keeper, but this is a luxury, and we could have the children do more of the cleaning. Other families we know successfully do without outside help. It seems that in any large family parents must develop a certain tolerance of mess (this tolerance comes naturally to children).
The fear of denying their children socialization also scares some parents away from home schooling. Socialization usually means learning to succumb to peer pressure, and to the material and sexual competitiveness of adolescence. After leaving school, how many people spend all their time with their peers, that is those of the same age? Children taught at home also are taught by other members of the community in formal and informal ways, and have a pattern of development saner than that of children who associate almost exclusively with their peers.
One common concern is, can we afford it? One parent, usually the mother, has to be home in order to supervise the children, and many families feel they cannot do without two incomes. Although all family circumstances differ, the financial savings derived from home schooling—such as not having private-school expenses, or being able to live in an area, which although pleasant, does not have a good public school and is therefore less expensive, or being able to get along without a second car—sometimes can help the family do without a second income. After the expenses added on by working—childcare, clothing, lunches, transportation, higher taxes—are deducted, wives often are surprised to discover that they are working for less than minimum wage. There may be some things a family has to go without, but they gain something that is precious and irreplaceable: time together when the children are young.
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