Trust The Children

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Trusting Your Children to Play

I have mentioned before, that I have had several pivotal experiences in our home schooling journey. Experiences where the light bulb came on for me in lasting ways. For me, one of those experiences, was a Washington State Home Schooling Convention where the keynote speaker was Pat Montgomery. Her talk was peppered with observations about childhood development concepts and it sounded to me like she knew what she was talking about. Two comments that she made have stuck with me all these years.
As I remember, at one point she said, “The work of a child is play.” She spoke of the developmental stages of the brains of our children and what these brains were ready to learn at various stages of development. All of this was over my head and out of my league. But, the point was that learning by doing and trying and experimenting and moving about, from ages 1-12 fit the developmental stages of a child’s brain more naturally than “sit-down” cognitive learning, involving concepts and ideas. Especially when it comes to boys.
This idea hit home for me. I just believed it. Reading to the children each day combined with lots of moving about activities, field trips, exploration trips, was enough, more than enough actually. At a certain point, when it was necessary, they would catch up quickly, in fact at light speed. It made sense to me, because I had already seen this happen with my own children, Allison with Math and David with bike riding and reading. Both were held off and didn’t follow the “publicly accepted curriculum deadlines. Both, when the time came, attacked these delayed topics in a natural way and moved through them like a hot knife through butter. Actually I think this is more self evident that we often realize. All of us learn things faster when we are motivated or want to learn them. In other words, when the timing is right, when we reach the point where we WANT to learn for our own good reasons, we blow through the material like lightning.

Then came the next power idea, a statement she made to a parent who was concerned because her son was 6 and not reading to school standards. Pat said, “You can teach a monkey to read, but it doesn’t mean it is good for the monkey.” In other words, forcing the learning when the mind and emotions are not developed to the point to accept it, can do more harm for the child than good. While it may make the parent feel vindicated/proud to tell friends that Johnny is already reading at age 5, it may not be in the best interests of the child. This made total sense to me, as well. Forcing the issue, any educational issue, before it’s time, can create more problems that it is worth. (The problems associated with not trusting and forcing educational objectives upon our children is a topic, a large topic for another day.)
Taking these ideas together, we grew gradually into the idea of trusting our children. We learned to trust them that they would respond to this approach over time. We learned to trust them, that given time they would pass through the boredom stage. We learned to trust them that they would eventually get used to all the freedom of this approach. We learned to trust the children that when it comes time to “catch up” so that college and other forms of higher education are possible, they would and at light speed. We learned to trust them.
Again, a reminder, at age 12, give or take a few years, and taking the gender of the kids into consideration, things can and do change. Educational expectations do become more formal, and more regimented. By then however, both parents and children are so accustomed to learning while having fun, that it is hard to imagine a purely cognitive approach ever being part of the picture.

For parents, it is an act of faith to trust in these things, until they see it happen the first time, As Cyndy says, “For parents with only one child, they just don’t want to experiment when they’ve only got one chance.” But, as in all acts of faith, you receive a witness of it after the trial, not before. There is more going on when our children play and learn things experientially than we think. There is more to the idea of natural timing associated with learning than we think. Perhaps, the problem really is, that instead of trusting, we as parents think instead of trust, too much.

Next Week: Can I do it?

Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Best and Most Crucial Choice?

Since we have children, and since they have friends, we hear our share of the challenges that go on in other homes. Parents share these concerns back and forth. You joy in the highs and hurt for the lows, whether in your family or another. For our family, the joys and challenges make for a thrilling AND scary roller coaster ride. I suspect it is the same for other families. Uuuuppp then dooooowwwwwwwwn, hoping to come uuuuuuppppp again, only to go dooowwwwnnn again, twist and turn, wonder if you are going to get sick from it all, and finally the peace of rolling back into the flat and slow part of the track where we got off and others get on.
Cyndy commented a few weeks ago, out of the blue saying, "Mark. Do you know how many problems we have avoided because of our decision to home school our children?" If we made no other decision, home schooling has been huge in preserving and strengthening our children.

As I drove to work, I saw new saplings planted along the parkway I drive on to get to the freeway. Each one had a stake driven into the ground next to it 4-5' in height, holding that new tree straight while it established its roots. I thought to myself, "If it is good enough for them, it is more than good enough to me." The county has an investment in planting a new tree, and protects that investment until each tree is ready to stand on its own successfully. We have a more important and larger investment in our 11 children. Home schooling has been like that stake, allowing us to firmly establish the spiritual, mental and emotional roots of our children until they are prepared to stand on their own.
I am preparing to speak at a local home schooling convention. They take a chance in having us speak I guess, because our style of home schooling includes cherry picking the resources of our public system in the high school years of education. My talk is supposed to be to the fathers, offering ideas of what fathers can do to help the in home education process. To anyone who knows me, I am not an expert on this, since Cyndy carries the majority of the load. I have had to search a bit to identify just exactly what role I play. And then decide if my experience is of any worth to others at all.

However, in harmony with this topic, I have to say that one thing that I have brought to the table is this. Early in our home schooling career, I read John Taylor Gatto's book "Dumbing Us Down". I was open to the idea that even though I had a ton of great experiences in my own public school exposure, it was still possible that hidden influences of the system still played out in my life. Gatto's book described these unproductive influences for me. I became convinced that it was not only possible that I was negatively influenced in my own personal public school experience, it was probable. And, if the negative influences of the education system I was exposed to could have quietly and invasively impacted me, which they did, they could also do the same to my own children if I was not careful. Our decision was to eliminate this 7 hour a day exposure and influence in the lives of my children for as long as we were able. As long as it made sense. My role, then, was to remind Cyndy that as hard as home education is sometimes, the negative influence of the alternative on our children was completely unacceptable. In addition, Cyndy reminded me that at first we only committed to keeping them out to age 8. As our courage increased, we began to feel we could extend beyond age 8. Finally it led us to where we are today.

Some say less is more. In this case, less of the public school influence, especially in the early years, has meant more for our children in a myriad of ways.
• We have preserved their curiosity,
• We have contrasted the negative influences in the system clearly against the back drop of more time proven values.
• We have caused our children to think twice about the risks and rewards that are part of a more self directed education versus the spoon feeding and regurgitation method that is the public system's fare.
• We established that the home is the center of learning, where life is processed, not the public school environment.
• We made clear that we value learning from hands on experience as much if not more than the learning process in the public system. The public process has become, in many cases, more a driver for the implementation of social and moral norms in the lives of our precious children, than the business of educating them and developing a love for lifelong learning. (A reality that is still lost on most parents in the siren song of the "convenience" of the public system.)

In short, the elimination of some influences in the lives of our children has allowed other influences to flourish. In other words, you kill the negative influence by starvation. Or to give it a political overtone, if you don't like it, you just don't fund it. We accomplished that by removing them from the influence, and embracing the home education path. Home schooling, with its ups and downs, has been the best and most crucial educational choice we have made for our family.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Helping Them Learn What They Live

I experienced something, but did I learn it? Raising 11 children, owning a business, serving in our church, I have learned that there is a huge difference here. Where this post actually had it's beginnings was in a comment Ben made, during a family night together. Ben takes a spanish class at the high school. I do German, Cyndy does Italian, Ben wants to learn spanish. Go figure. So he was describing to us how it works when he sits down at his desk at school. He said, "I basically sit down and my mind shuts off until the teacher finishes the class. His "grades" are OK in spanish, so I guess it works for him. But I asked him, why he attended the class at all ?

The "fam" knows that grades don't mean much to me, unless a child decides to play that game. If they choose to do the public school for science or language or music, then they are playing a different game than they play when they follow their curiosity and are self directed at home. Which ever game we agree on together, they are expected to excel at that game. If they play the home schooling game, activity, research, experiments, exploring, and excited "aha" experiences tell me the story. If it's another game, then we use those rules.

In either case, I have found it imperative to inquire as to what they are learning. "What did you learn in Sunday School today?" Listen, ask follow-on questions, listen some more. Praise. "What did you do in Metal Shop today?" Listen, ask follow-on questions, listen some more. Praise. "What did you learn today while we built the workshop?" Listen, ask follow-on questions, listen some more. Praise. "How was the Camp out?" Listen, ask follow-on questions, listen some more. Praise. "How did your scout meeting go?" Listen, ask follow-on questions, listen some more. Praise. "How did you do on your Spanish test?" Listen, ask follow-on questions, listen some more. Praise.

When we go on a family outing... "What did you enjoy most about this outing?" Listen, ask follow-on questions, listen some more. Praise. "You seem depressed? What's up?" Listen, ask follow-on questions, listen some more. Praise. Listen, ask follow-on questions, listen some more. Praise.

Of course, I could go on. This is just a way of life around here. And sometimes, in the asking of follow-on questions, and listening some more, I get a chance to review their "conclusions" about what they learned from this little life experience. And occasionally, some real, learning happens.

I asked Sam, after a particularly tough day building our workshop, what he learned today. "I would have never thought to make sure that the trusses we were staggering the panel on were all centered as we put down the first row of roof sheeting. That is what I learned." I ask, "And what difference did that make?" "Well, if we hadn't checked, when we went to put on the next row of roof sheeting, they would not have fit and we would have had so much more work to do. Needless work." My response, "So why that is a pretty important step ?" I ask. "Because it saved time and made the building stronger" is the answer. Silence for a few seconds while this sinks in. "I am really glad you picked up on that. Another thing you learned was that you can benefit from the experience of others, namely your old dad. Right?" "Riiiiiiiiiight", he says. Silence. It sinks in. "You learned some great stuff today. I really enjoyed working together on this. I think it's turning out great. How about you?" "I am just excited to have a real workshop. And to be building a piper cub in there someday."

I think if our children ever read this Blog, they could add a number of comments about this kind of learning that goes on around here.

The point is, for us, we send our children out into the world, in a variety of settings, to experience it. But after the experience is over, HOME is where we gather to process it. Home is where we make sense of things they experience. Home is where we can put our spin on things, to make sure that they see things in perspective and in the proper light. And if they don't get it this time, they will be heading out into the world again and again, and we will be processing again and again. Finally they will hit that same place again, and we will ask the same questions again, and cover the same ground another time. And sooner or later, the light comes on.

We are grand parents now, and I can say for our married children, class is still in session, questions are still asked, and conclusions are still being reached on their own, as we help them learn what they are living.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Rubber Meets the Road - Child #5

Memories and ideas are nice. Biography can be better. In this post, our #5 child, Jennifer shares how the home schooling choice impacted her life. Jennifer is currently attending Brigham Young University on Scholarship, teaches Mandarin Chinese, and serves as President of the Women's organization at church.

Personal Observations on Home Schooling by Jennifer Weiss - Age 23

The largest outcome of my homeschooling experience was my personal conviction of who I am, why I am here and what I can become or accomplish. Being at home, basic moral principles were easily taught and understood at a young age when challenging outside influences can often dissuade children to alternate beliefs. Mother's constant reminder of her love and confidence in me supplied great support to my growing self-esteem. When I did enter the public school system and begin to experience peer pressure and moral inquiry, my foundation of who I was and what I could accomplish provided a pillar to hold on to. I was not as affected by the common pressures found at school because of the foundation of self-esteem that was carefully built in my home.

As a homeschooler, I had no teacher dictating my time or assignments. Instead, childlike curiosity and desire to learn motivated me to read and understand the world I was a part of. While this style of learning was exhilarating, it also required a great deal of discipline. I had certain assignments and subjects that need to be studied each day, but I didn’t have a teacher looking over my shoulder and demanding a task be done. Most of the time I learned because I wanted to and the remaining part of the time because finishing my daily school subjects was a prerequisite to going outside and playing with siblings. I learned to manage my time and set goals for myself. My sister and I would decide to wake up at six in the morning to finish our school by nine and have the rest of the day to play. I started placing a great value on organization, setting goals and accomplishing them. It was exciting for me to achieve goals just because of the sheer pleasure one receives from overcoming natural tendencies to be lazy and waste time. I believe time is precious and not to be misused. At the end of each day I still strive to have the feeling that I used every minute to come closer to my dreams and goals. My current habits of discipline, planning, and goal setting stem from personal control fostered in a homeschooling environment at a very young age.

Our method of homeschooling is not what most people think of when they hear that word. My father believes that the work of children is play until they are about twelve years old. Children are naturally curious and when left to follow their own interests will learn many things at their own pace. I got very interested in math at one point and jumped ahead two math levels in one year. Another time I was interested in history and the social sciences and consequently spent most of my day pouring over history books and journals. The pattern goes on and on with astronomy, zoology, and engineering. I could do this because I was allowed the flexibility to follow my interests and excel at my own rate, which was usually pretty fast when motivated by my curiosity. Consequently I have continued to follow my interests over and over again in my scholastic career. I get interested and then I study and excel. I know I can understand and do well at any topic because I have done it over and over again in my life. My interests and talents continue to be broad and many as I continue to try new things. This ideology brought about my belief in dreams and any one person’s ability to accomplish that which they put their heart and might into.
Homeschooling left me always in the company of my mother and ten siblings. We were regularly on field trips and attending activities together. We developed strong bonds that did not leave me wanting. Socially I was confronted with multiple types of personalities just within my own family but also had many opportunities to interact with other children in homeschool support and field trip groups. I was naturally outgoing and interested in making friends but not so dependent on them for support because I had a strong support group within my family. I always knew my parents and siblings were there to help me and would always love me, an assurance not so easily found among fickle friendships outside the home. As a result, I greatly value my family relationships and continue to spend the time to deepen them. After all, it is with family that we are promised an opportunity to spend eternity. Eternal relationships are worth working hard for. When faced with increasing divorce statistics and broken families, it is easy to place trust is other relationships. I’ve learned however, that even when things are rough, they are worth working through. My home schooling family has given me the faith and experience to work through family problems and make my future family an eternal one.