Thursday, August 8, 2013

Let The Munchkins Lead!

Wikimedia by Scott Smith.  Public Domain.

Last year, the 2012-2013 school year, was an awful year for us.

We had a major change mid year (and to allay fears, no it WASN'T a tornado), and I have to admit that our 'strict' homeschooling came to a screeching halt.  It was my fault: I wasn't doing very well because of the change, and I had an incredibly hard time devising plans and carrying them out.  The little battles with our homeschool- the kid who really doesn't like to apply himself, no matter how bright he is, the child who loves to talk when she should be working- were just too exhausting for me to handle in a manner that my children deserve.  By spring, I felt like a complete failure.  Less than half of what I wanted to get done actually got there, two-day assignments stretched into a week and, sometimes, two. 

I won't chatter on here about the mistakes I made because it doesn't matter.  If you've gone though an incredibly awful period yourself, you know already.  You've probably given yourself 40-lashes just as often as I did to myself.  You've secretly declared yourself a failure.  It isn't just about doing 'school-lite' for one day, or one week... it's that awful feeling that you've been doing it for a month- or more- and that you aren't living up to what you feel your kids really deserve.

Image on Wikimedia by AukxsonaGFDL
In retrospect, as I plan out our new year, I have enough space and distance to judge last year better. The folder of written work is a little flat.  But, who cares!  Ultimately, that folder does NOT declare us failures or successes AT ALL.  That is a holdover from my own public school days, that belief that WITHOUT WRITTEN RECORD, we have done nothing of note.  It just isn't true.  The successes have been numerous and aren't mine at all.  My son no longer cries and drags his feet when asked to read.  He watches the clock less and enjoys the story more.  He is quicker to apply the math he knows to the every day world (instead of waiting for the next math assignment when he has to do it), and endlessly plays with verbal language: making puns, spins on words, and just generally cracking wordy jokes.  He pays better attention to his own spelling, and makes fewer mistakes.  My daughter now, on her own, reads silently.  She also reads for her own purposes: checking out cereal boxes, packaging, directions, for information.  Words and reading are just a part of her world, not something to be avoided or ignored, and certainly not tears-inducing.  Although we only covered multiplication this past year for the first time, she was doing simple multiplication problems related to every day situations in her head by spring.  Both kids relate what they are doing, what they see, or what they are hearing to some bit of history or some culture we learned about; both know more about the natural world than any kids I know.   

So I had a crappy year... they didn't.  By coloring the failure of paperwork across their learning, I am really blinding myself to what I should already have known: kids learn.  That's it.  With or without us to point it out, they still learn.  We might hold the door open, read them the directions, but they take the ball and learn the skills without us.  We don't have to force them, hold them down, demand they do it.  Because even if we back up, chill out, TRUST them, they can and WILL forge ahead.  This really is their world, too, and THEY are the vital component in our homeschools.  We know this.  We expect this.  But I know I didn't trust it nearly as much as I should have.  Sure, putting things on paper looks neat, we can hang it on the wall, point it out to relatives. But  many concepts can ONLY be learned with time, creativity, a decided understanding about life and the world we live in.  Kids may know the parts of a bee and a flower, but unless they watch bees in action they can't really understand how important bees are to flowers.  I think it's notable here that I had two very broad goals for the year, and somehow we've reached those goals.  Does it matter how we got there? 

Image by Wade Clarke.  All rights reserved
Learning happens.  Sometimes, I think, we have to get out of the darn way.  It took a crappy year, a year in which I was forced to let my own expectations (for myself, for our written work) go in order to teach me that valuable lesson.  I came as close as I ever have to giving up, to declaring myself a terrible teacher, to feeling like I was wasting time better spent doing something productive, to feeling like I had jeopardized the very goal that got me onto this weedy road in the first place.  And in the end, the only idiot was me.  I took far too long to figure out the lesson.

Let learning happen in your homeschool.  We don't have to give ourselves a tag and religiously follow that prescription ONLY and ALWAYS.  Kids are smart little people-  if we give them the time and opportunity to be so.  Just because we relax and let the paperwork slide DOESN'T mean the learning isn't still happening.  Baby animals learn, all the time.  If tigers learned to be tigers in a classroom full of football-type board work, do you think they'd be better tigers?   Sure, human beings have more to learn than tigers, but I'd bet money that your children are better with all sorts of technology than most adults will ever be. There are subjects your child knows that he or she learned entirely on their own, and they may seem silly in an adult world (Minecraft and My Little Pony are favorites here), but they are TRAINING themselves to memorize, remember, learn the pieces that are less colorful, less interesting, and more intricate.  They are teaching themselves the same skills the public school devises paperwork to prove. And our kids, with the learning they are achieving, and the skills they have the time to teach themselves, have a world wide open and unconfined by the good-little-cog model forced on many kids by the public school system.  While public schools are (purposely) teaching kids about conformity, endless rule following, and (perhaps inadvertantly) fitting in with one's peers, our kids have the time to learn about far, far more.  We don't have to fill those hours with nuggets of information, more math, or more written essays.  We can give them time to explore the boundaries outside the box- which is exactly what they need to be creative, confident, high-achieving adults.  We don't need a papertrail for learning to occur, and no one has to bleed.

My son asked a high-impact question this year:  "Why do we only learn a little bit about each thing? Why don't we learn all about it?"  I have yet to refuse to answer a question because I thought the answer was too confusing or 'the wrong grade level' for my kids.  I have tried to take our material far beyond whatever we have, to explain things as completely as I can.  And yet, the public school paradigm is they only get THIS this year, and THIS next year.  He's right: why?  Where is the sense in part-way teaching something this year, then part-way again next year, and on into infinitum?  For most subjects, it isn't about maturity of content (i.e. sex and violence).  So why, then, is the accepted idea that kids are
too dumb to understand it all?  Sure, sometimes long explanations are confusing (I refer to my own attempts to learn cells this past year.  I'm still confused about how it all works together).  But often, it's
out of a ridiculous belief that kids just can't get it.  We cannot possibly teach our kids every single thing there is to know- we don't know it all, and even if we did, there aren't enough hours in the day to ever cover everything.  Which means.. kids need time to explore these topics in their own time, to make the connections, to understand how things work or how things are.  We do not have to 'facilitate' every learning opportunity.  Let's give them space to figure things out on their own.

Wikimedia by Tanakawho. CC BY-SA 2.0

Good luck with your new school year, whenever you start.  And if somewhere throughout the year you feel like you get lost along the way, trust your kids.  They know exactly what they are doing.

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