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|Teens: Who They Really Are|
© 1998 Alison McKee
It seems to me that the overall opinion about teenagers is that they are to be dreaded and endured. I've come across this attitude more than once. As a parent, I have to admit that I have had my share of moments of dread. To be fair, though, I also have to admit that bad moments are not all there is to parenting teens.
Most of the time our teens are simply normal everyday kids. They have their sore spots and they have their moments of stardom, but the rest of the time they are quite unremarkable. When we lose sight of this fact, we tend to focus our attention on the extremes, thus leaving teens feeling as though they are only worthy of our recognition when they are either shining or having a rough time. I've lived with teens long enough to know that this is a trap that is easy to fall into.
In many respects, teen life, and especially the life of homeschooled teens, seems to be similar to adult life. There are periods of time when everything hums along on a nice even keel. The alarm clock rings after a good eight hour sleep, there is time for a leisurely morning routine, and although the day may be a bit hectic, interesting and pleasurable activity fills most of the hours. During these phases of life, evenings are generally spent doing things which seem to feed the spirit and allow for relaxation as well. Days like this may last for weeks on end or they may come and go more frequently. During such times, moods are on an even keel and the pieces of life seem to fall together without effort. Similarly teens, like their adult counterparts, often experience periods of time when nothing seems to go right. On such days the alarm seems to ring way too early, morning is rushed and the remainder of the day is filled with demands which often times are unpleasant to deal with. On such days evenings may often bring on a "melt down," and time to renew the spirit and relax go by the wayside. Like days where everything seems to hum along easily, these more difficult days may be intermittent or they may last for weeks on end. Each of us, I am sure, can recognize ourselves in both of these scenarios and yet, unlike teens, adults are not as often maligned for their off days. Is there something we, as parents of homeschooled teens, can do to remedy this, so that our teens don't end up feeling so out of sorts with the rest of the adult world?
As a parent I believe that the most important thing I can do to help my teens feel more part of, rather than apart from, their adult peers is help them recognize that, while their feelings of angst may be pronounced, they are becoming more like the adults they aspire to be than the children they once were. Sometimes I use metaphor to help them understand the changes they are going through. Becoming an adult can be likened to learning to ride a bike. We all remember this and the many times we fell off and cried because we had hurt ourselves. Over time we learned to catch ourselves before we hit the pavement. Finally we mastered the art and only fell off under unusual circumstances. I can use this sort of metaphor to remind them that they are simply dealing with the frustrations of learning something entirely new. Some days will be more successful and rewarding than others. Adults have these times but not so frequently. We've learned to ride our bikes pretty well.
I can also help my kids recognize that, on the whole, they are (1) making more complex decisions then they are used to making, (2) learning to handle their independence well and (3) are taking on more and more responsibility as each day, week and month passes. When I'm caught in the throws of my teens' turmoil this is often difficult to do but, like learning to ride a bike, I must learn to do it. Even if it takes microscopic inspection to discern the growth of my kids it is my job to help them recognize that, indeed, even though they may be home-bound for this short time, they are growing and maturing. It is my responsibility to remind them of this fact almost more so than it is to remind them of their shortcomings. Their shortcomings will always "catch them up" and remind them to get back on track, whereas the praise of their growth and development will shore up their self-esteem for a lifetime. It is my hope that as we parent our homeschooled teens we learn more of these positive tools of parenting, thereby easing our teens transition from child to adult.
|The Summer the Dishwasher Broke|
© 1997 Alison McKee
I will always remember this past summer as "the summer the dishwasher broke." Really, that describes only a small piece of what has happened in our teenage household. With Christian making his exit for college I would have appreciated not having to deal with squabbling about whose turn it was to wash the dishes, multiple expensive car repairs, household electrical difficulties, underemployment and two teens who are going through their own turmoils. As I was lamenting these things with a neighbor and wishing things were going differently, I was brought back to my senses by one simple remark, "Alison I don't see why you just don't send Georgina to school."
I have long understood that teens typically are seen as "the problem" that must be dealt with. My friend's remark reminded me that neither Christian's leaving nor Georgina's going off to school would resolve issues related to dysfunctional dishwashers, autos, and electrical systems, underemployment, or even teenage angst. Like the dishwasher's breakdown, that must be resolved if we are to ever get beyond doing dishes by hand, the shifting relationship between parent and teen must also be resolved. A broken dishwasher sitting at the city dump is still a broken dishwasher and teens sitting in classrooms are still just teens. Neither the dishwasher nor the teen are problems. They are simply issues which confront and confound us and beg our undivided attention.
In our family the solution to the dishwasher problem has been to create a dish washing rotation. Parents and teens all take their turn at the sink and, lo and behold, our dishes get done and put away twice a day. Similarly our "solution" for living with teens has been to "stay with them" through their transition from childhood to adulthood. Just as doing dishes by hand may take a bit more effort, so too does raising homeschooled teens. Whether its washing or caring, the genuine benefits of "taking the time" are clear. Our dishes shine without having to worry about whether or not we will have to deal with the perennial dishwasher problem of water-stained glassware. Our children also shine, and because they have spent their teen years living and working in our larger community alongside special mentors and adult friends, we don't have to worry about whether or not they will succeed in this world.
After years of doing this thing called homeschooling, I have experienced what it means to live through the process of raising children, just as I now live through the process of taking my turn at the kitchen sink. When I stand with my hands wet and wrinkled from my turn at dish duty, I realize that although the task may be arduous at times there is no better way to get the job done than to be with it and do it. Similarly, there is no better way to help teens through their transition to adulthood than to be with them and help them. Like the entire process of dishwashing, from filling the pan to emptying the soiled water down the drain, teens deserve our undivided and special attention as we live with them through all phases of their transition into adulthood. Living with them through this journey provides everyone an opportunity to grow and change in relationship to one another while at the same time establishing new and lasting adult-to-adult family bonds. At my home our car is still in the shop, the lights in the stairwell still don't work, we still do dishes by hand, underemployment is still an issue and Georgina is still home with us living and learning and I am thankful - even on the rough days.
|Dealing With Our Doubts|
© 1998 Alison McKee
Years ago a friend said to me, "We don't know how to homeschool." In response, I remember being dumbfounded. Her children, like mine, had never been to school and both of us had teens. Needless to say I asked her to clarify what she meant. "We have all been educated in school. We unconsciously work from the school model. Our children have never been to school and therefore know more about what it means to be homeschooled than we do." To this she added, "We need to follow their lead. When they want to learn something we should listen to them and follow that advice."
I knew from experience that my friend was correct, and I also knew how difficult it was to follow that advice. At that time in our homeschooling venture, our difficulty was learning to accept that what our family did and how our family lived was the normal way to live. On the surface I understood that the institution of school, a human creation, was, in fact, an institution which removed learning from its natural realm of the greater world and put it within the confines of brick buildings. I was well aware of the fact that the mammoth educational institution, so pervasive throughout the world, often caused me to forget that this humanly created institution was still in its infancy. I needed to consciously remind myself that schooling , as we know it, has only been in existence for the past hundred years or so. Before that time most children spent few hours within the confines of classrooms and did the majority of their learning alongside the masters of the arts and trades to which they were apprenticed. I'd often forget this fact, and when I did I'd find myself face-to-face with my own doubts about my abilities as a home educator. Even with today's success of the homeschooling movement and my twenty years of active participation in it, I too can sometimes hear the skeptical, critical little voice in my head questioning whether we have done the right thing. Over the years I have explored this doubt--where it comes from, what it is like and why it is so pervasive--with others who homeschool and in so doing have tried to help them, and myself, come to terms with this only partly tameable beast.
I have learned through experience that the best way to come to peaceful terms with our doubt is to tell our stories to one another, in much the same way that we do when we attend homeschooling conferences, so that together we can create a new understanding of what healthy living and learning look like. It is my hope that by sharing our personal stories with one another we can begin to destroy the myth that without full-time traditional schooling our children will somehow become less able adults than their schooled peers. The oral tradition of story-telling, as a means by which to transmit culture, has long been part of the human experience and so it is within this context that I'd like to tell you some of my story. As you read, it I hope you will be encouraged to tell your story to friends and fellow homeschoolers and thus help us all form a new basis of educational understanding which views learning within our homes and communities as the rule rather than the exception to the rule.
My husband and I have been homeschooling our two children since 1978 when our first child was born. As preschoolers, Christian's and Georgina's lives were their schools. When Christian became school age we decided to continue allowing his life to be his school. A few years later we made the same decision for his sister. For neither child did we want text books or curriculum. We'd witnessed the miracle of learning that had taken place in our living room and out in the community and sensed that things might continue in the same way if we simply allowed Christian and Georgina to learn from what life brought their way. Why, then, were we sometimes haunted by doubts about what we were about? Did we not trust our instincts or our children? Why is it that we sometimes, even now, feel the pressure of society, questioning ourselves and our decisions? Our children are grown, one is even in college, and yet with one teen still at home there can be momentary lapses where we question what we are doing and the direction we are going.
Like most parents who make the decision to homeschool, our decision was made with great care. Before Christian had reached school age, we had already had many serious discussions about it. We read all we could find, starting with an interview with John Holt in The "Mother Earth News" and continuing with all the back issues of "Growing Without Schooling," Nancy Wallace's book Better Than School and all of John Holt's books, some of which we had read in college. We eagerly read anything that was available. I even had the wonderful chance to spend an evening with John Holt when he came to a music educators conference in Minneapolis. All of this foraging in the realm of homeschooling made us feel we could do it. By the time Christian was school age, we felt pretty sure that we were well prepared to take on the full responsibility for his education. That was back in 1983.
As luck would have it, a confluence of events took place the summer before Christian should have gone to school. I was suddenly, and most gladly, back at home full time. David was done with his degree and had accepted a job in Wisconsin. If school were to be our choice, Christian faced the possibility of spending three weeks in kindergarten before we moved. We decided that rather than put Christian in kindergarten at all, we'd simply keep him home "an extra year" and try our hand at homeschooling. After all, what sense could it make to enroll a five-year-old in a school, remove him three weeks later and put him in a new school in a new town and state? We also knew that Wisconsin was in the process of developing new homeschooling laws, which meant that there would be the possibility of having a voice in the process. All of these events, when considered together, seemed to be an open invitation to take the risk and try a year of homeschooling.
Given the fact that we were well prepared to homeschool, and that it seemed the only sensible thing to do, how did doubt creep in? In the initial stages of our homeschooling life, the most serious concern we had was limited to one important issue: Finding support, in our new community, for our chosen educational path. This was a scary issue at the time because homeschooling was not so well known. Eventually we made connections with two families in Wisconsin who were homeschooling. Although these two families didn't live anywhere near us, we felt as though we had found the support we needed. We were, by no means, going to be the sole homeschoolers in Wisconsin!
In those initial years, we continued to build a network of support while we watched our children grow and learn. From an educational standpoint, we felt relatively secure with our decision to homeschool and continued to keep "trying it for another year." As the years rolled on, it seemed to us that our young children were mastering the basic skills of life quite successfully with little guidance from us. Christian learned to read, Georgina showed an interest in the written word but was not ready to master reading, and both children seemed to be happy and outgoing.
Those early days of homeschooling were both a joy and a frustration. Even though David and I could recognize that our children were making progress in their personal and educational development, we still worried. Georgina was definitely a "late reader" and Christian's "allergy" to writing caused us to think of him as a "non writer." These issues combined with the often invasive questions about our educational choice and whether or not we were harming our children by keeping them at home kept staring us in the face. We'd often find ourselves asking, "Are we on the right track?"
We found it easy to doubt ourselves when we focused on our children's "difficulties" with reading and writing or on "bad" days. It took us a little time, but soon we learned to focus ourselves on the positive aspects of homeschooling. We reminded ourselves, when we worried about academic issues, that our children were not becoming stagnant. They always seemed to be mastering new skills whether it was how to use the telephone to make inquiries, tie their shoes, cook a meal or spell the name of a new friend. With such reminders, it became easier to assuage our doubt and replace it with a new found confidence in our children's ability to learn and grow according to their inner voices rather than our schooled expectations. When we were confronted by a series of "bad days," which might be marked by quarreling or endless boredom, it was important to remind ourselves that these, too, were learning opportunities. By homeschooling our children we were giving them endless opportunities to work through their differences and learn the intricacies of living closely with one another. Their boredom more than once served as a motivator and spurred them on to long-term, creative learning ventures that neither David nor I could ever have planned. By teaching ourselves to focus on the positive rather than the negative, David and I learned to recognize that, indeed, we were on the right track after all. Our children were thriving, happy and curious about their world. They fit in socially with adults and children in our community of friends.
It took quite some time before I realized why David and I could fluctuate so easily between feeling so good about our decision to homeschool one day, and being so unsure of ourselves the next. Like most adults, we had been traditionally schooled for thirteen years not to mention the fact that both of us were college graduates. It turned out that those years in school had done more to us than we realized. If I really thought hard about it I understood that, beginning in kindergarten, we had been taught to recognize our failings and our weaknesses. In fact, most of my adult peers had learned the same lessons. Some of us learned that we were not able to color well, others learned that the alphabet wasn't easily mastered and, most importantly, many of us found that our peers and teachers were not always supportive of our differences. These lessons seemed to be the simple beginnings of what I came to realize was the self-doubt that school instills into our collective psyche. Schools taught us that all children should be on the same developmental path. If they aren't, we worry and try to think of ways to manipulate them onto "the right path." In this way, David and I, and most other schooled people, have been taught to doubt the value of being a unique individual.
On days when things were running smoothly there were other situations which brought our doubts to the fore. Most commonly it was the questions of friends, neighbors and even strangers. No matter how they worded it they all seemed to be asking one thing: How will your children learn if they are not in school? It was clear by the tone of their voices that they believed "real" learning could only take place within the confines of a classroom. As a homeschooling parent at the threshold of our homeschooling experience, I was just beginning to tear apart this myth. I was coming to understand that school buildings are not the holy temple of learning nor are its teachers its priests. Slowly it became apparent that most children I knew, myself included, had never been given the chance to recognize just how much is learned by self-education. Instead most of us were told, beginning in kindergarten, "Now you are big children and you must settle down and learn." Implicit in that message was the failure to recognize the value and merit of any self initiated learning that may have been done outside of school not to mention the fact that unique interests had little value in the classroom setting.
Another large dose of doubting ourselves as homeschoolers came from direct observation of our children and what they were doing and not doing. Although I was becoming conscious of the fact that genuine learning--learning that was as authentic as the unstructured home-based preschool learning our children had done--need not be tested in order to prove its value, my overly educated self often thought otherwise. On the one hand, I could recognize that when Georgina asked me to teach her to use the library's catalog, I didn't have to resort to worksheets and tests to evaluate whether or not she had learned the skill. I recognized that the authentic experience of working through the process, followed by being able to find books on her own, was all that was needed. On the other hand my doubts about our natural form of homeschooling (unschooling as it has come to be called) lingered because of my limited personal experience of authentic learning. I remember being concerned because my children were not doing those things which I had half-heartedly expected them to do. They did not naturally gravitate to sitting still for hours on end nor did they seek out textbooks when they wanted to learn about something. For quite some time, they were the only people I had long-term first-hand relationships with who learned in this way. Although Georgina's and Christian's authentic learning experiences were small miracles to behold, David's and my doubts could easily loom large when we saw how differently they went about their daily activities--their work--compared to our childhoods.
Oddly enough, our doubts about whether or not our free form approach to educating our children subsided after I took on work as a long-term substitute teacher in 1990. The stark contrast between the work that my children were doing and what my students were doing helped us put aside our concerns and know that our path, while still uncharted, was by far superior to the traditional approach to education.
That year of substitute teaching was the same year that Georgina became immersed in the study of ancient Egyptian culture, an interest that began with her random browsing through books at the library. We would read anything we could get our hands on--adult books, picture books, encyclopedias--it didn't matter what. Georgina was fascinated by anything to do with ancient Egypt. Some days we would sit on the kitchen floor and work on a scale model of an Egyptian city, some days we would talk about Egyptian hieroglyphics and on some days Egypt had nothing to do with our daily activity at all. Our days had a natural rhythm to them and we thoroughly enjoyed our discoveries together.
On the first Monday in November this suddenly came to an end. My subbing work began. As it happened, two of the students I was working with were studying ancient Egypt with their classmates. The first day that I sat in on the classroom discussion I was jarred by the unreality of it all. "Egypt," for these children, was something that was only discussed between 10:30 and 11:20 on certain days of the week. "Egypt" was memorizing the meaning of terms like "obelisk," "pyramid" and "mummy" for a multiple-choice test. "Egypt" was something to be forgotten when the class moved on to "Greece" two weeks later.
Georgina and I discussed Egypt at breakfast or read about it for our bedtime reading. My students were reading texts for certain facts which they would be tested on and do worksheets on. Georgina was reading and being read to about something that fascinated her. There was no test or worksheet at the end to test what facts she had learned.
My heart sank as I sat with those sixth graders and wondered how such an interesting subject could be made so deadly dull. The class seemed uninterested in the discussion that their teacher was trying to lead. My gut reaction was to get up and shout, "No, this is wrong, this is awful!" Of course, I didn't have the nerve to do it. Instead I sat in disbelief and felt my heart sink because those children could not experience the excitement of studying Egypt the way Georgina had. At home Georgina was alive with Egypt. As I sat in that classroom, on that particular morning, I was transfixed by the absurdity of what I was witnessing. All children deserved to experience the magic of Egypt and none deserved having that magic stolen from them by lesson plans, text books and prying questions.
It was at that moment, and many others that followed, that I began to feel truly confident that David and I were on the right path. Over the years we continued to allow our children to follow the magic that sparked their interests. They have been led down paths of study which have included learning about foreign language, animals, drama, theater make-up, orangutans and apes, fly fishing, singing , swimming, radio production and many more. They also immersed themselves in the lives of their community doing volunteer work at meal programs, radio stations, for political candidates, at pet stores, and at clubs of particular interest. When necessary, they found tutors/mentors to help them learn the foreign language, develop their dramatic skill or help them refine their singing techniques. Each time our children ventured out in a new direction David and I became more confident that we were on the right path. If we ever doubted that homeschooling was the right choice, we simply reminded ourselves of what I encountered when I work in the schools.
My life has been lived in two worlds. The artificial world of school and the natural world of homeschooling. Each week for the past eight years I have spent anywhere between two and twenty hours a week within the walls of educational institutions working one-on-one with visually impaired students. Often times I feel a terrible sadness for my students. As I try to bring them the freedom of the homeschooling experience, within the confines of their school, they bemoan the drudgery of their regular classroom instruction. Each time I hear them complain about being forced to waste time on "busy work" I am reminded that for the most part our homeschooling life gives me very little worry these days. Gone are the days of wondering whether or not Christian or Georgina are "doing what they are supposed to be doing." Of course they are! It is the schools in which I work that seem to be on the wrong path. My students confirm that schools are entirely out of step with what the lives of children are really about.
As David and I come close to the time when we will have no children at home, I often find myself wondering why we ever gave our educational worries much consideration. Of course, I know that hindsight has lots to do with how I feel now. It is for this reason that I enjoy sharing our story. I hope that those of you who are just beginning to venture down the homeschool path can take from this story and the stories of others who have gone before you, the secure knowledge that your children will succeed in life as long as you offer them your support and guidance as they follow their unique and true path in the world.
|When Things Fall Apart|
By Alison McKee
It seems to happen like clock work. The phone at my house starts buzzing off the hook at predictable intervals. The first onslaught of calls usually comes just before or just as school starts up in the Fall. The next onslaught of calls comes later in the academic year, usually in January as the first semester is ending. The calls that I receive at these times are not from parents who are praising schools and all the success their children are having there. Rather, they are from parents who have given school a good chance and just don’t want to continue waiting for things to get better. Usually the parents are in despair because, in one form or another, school is not meeting the needs of their child or children. The questions these parents ask are unique to each situation and yet have relatively familiar themes. For those of you who are new to homeschooling or simply considering its possibility I’d like to share the commonly asked questions that come my way when things are falling apart. My hope for you is that the answers to these questions will help you find your way in this transitional time in your lives.
Let’s start with the first, and most commonly asked question. I want to begin homeschooling my child, how do I start? My advice is always to do lots of reading on the subject. Of course I suggest that parents read my book Homeschooling Our Children, Unschooling Ourselves. I wrote it for those who are new to the notion of homeschooling and want to learn more about the possibilities that lay ahead should they choose to homeschool. I also tell all callers, whether or not they have teens, to read The Teenage Liberation Handbook and Real Lives, both by Grace Llewellyn. Of course, the work of John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down and The Underground History of American Education are part of my recommended reading list. For those who are more apt to explore on the internet I suggest that readers go to www.homeschool.com, www.home-ed-magazine.com , www.unschooling.org and www.unschooling.com.
If the parent I am talking to is discussing a teen with me, I often suggest that the parents and teens do the exploratory work together. Besides reading books about homeschooling and what it is, I strongly suggest that parents become familiar with the statutes governing homeschooling in their state. If callers are not familiar with resources for such statutes, I tell them that most libraries will have copies of the relevant material. When parents tell me they wouldn’t know where to begin looking up the homeschool statutes, I suggest that they work with their reference librarian. Such librarians are glad to help people find resources. Often I suggest that they also ask the librarian if they know of homeschooling support groups in the area.
Sometimes the parent who is calling me has already taken a child from school. They are calling in desparation because now they are faced with educating their child and they have no idea where to begin. They often say, “I just signed up for homeschooling, can you tell me where to get the books and what to do.?” My answer to these parents often comes as a surprise. “There are no specific books that you are to use, no specific curricula that you are mandated to use and no specific time lines that you must follow.” Once I’ve said that we get into the meat of the answer. I tell them that every homeschool is unique and that that is the beauty of homeschooling. We discuss the reasons for the uniqueness of each homeschool: each family, and each child within the family, has unique learning needs. As we talk, it becomes clear to them that homeschooling is not necessarily a replication of what takes place in public and private schools. This can often be a frightening concept to grapple with so I emphasize the fact that this is the strength of homeschooling. My reminder of this fact is that if a child is unhappy in school doing what school people ask, that same child will usually be just as unhappy at home doing that same sort of work.
Once the parent begins to understand the freedoms that they now have they often ask, “but where do I really begin?” My advice is that the best place to begin is by slowing down. I remind them that they now have the freedom to shake the cobwebs out of their system and begin to learn to enjoy the process of living each day fully without the thought of bells telling them to jump from one subject to the next and from one grade level to the next. I strongly advise that the parent begin the homeschooling process by simply spending lots of time with their child. With that child they should explore everything together - what he/she wants to learn, what type of homeschooling style will best suit that need, what excites the child, what excites them. If the child has strong non-academic interests I suggest that a focus on those interests is often the best place to start. I remind them to put academics aside for a while. Take a break from what has been so miserable (traditional schooling) and re-discover the joy of learning. “Your job as a new homeschooler," I remind the parent, “should be that of learning how to facilitate the learning needs of your child and how to create a happy learning environment.”
Sometimes the caller will say, “Yes, what you are saying makes so much sense to me, but I have been told so many different things about what to do and how to get started already. What am I really supposed to do?” My response to this question is that every family makes its own decisions about what to teach, how to teach and what materials they will use. I remind them that every homeschooler they talk to will give them a different opinion about what to do, what works, and what to avoid. I tell them this is natural and that this is what makes homeschooling such a wonderful alternative. My reminder is that homeschooling is a customized educational plan for each individual child. Each parent customizes as the need suits their situation. I am careful to remind parents that they can try or discard anything that others may suggest. They are not required to follow advice that does not seem to resonate well with them. Most importantly, though, I say, “If you try something and it does not work, feel free to drop it and go on to something else. Homeschooling should be fun and richly rewarding.”
Often parents call me in a state of great duress. They may have a teen who is getting into trouble with the wrong crowd, for example. Their questions may be something like, “I need some help because my daughter is getting into real bad trouble with her friends, she’s not going to graduate, what can I do?” Since I have never faced such a situation in my own family (my children never went to school) so I can only answer by speaking of what I know about school and homeschooling. I usually tell the parents that if the teen were my daughter I would make an attempt to put aside notions of having her graduate and shift the focus onto getting her out of trouble. Often parents agree that this is the best course of action. The parents and I then begin a conversation about what it means to get a child out of trouble. Usually the first step is to get the teen out of school quickly. If that can be done we talk about next steps. If the teen was in trouble at school because they hated the work, I remind parents not to replicate that sort of learning environment at home. I suggest that parents offer their teen many different options. These options may include letting the teen find a paying job, letting the teen try enrichment classes in art, photography and the like, letting the teen loose to read and explore on their own. This advice is based on my fervent belief that if we give teens the opportunity to immerse themselves in the things they truly love, their passions will consume them rather than trouble.
As my conversations come to a close with the parents who call, I always tell them, “Call back if I can be of further help.” Over the years I have been richly rewarded with return calls saying that life is so much better now that families have freed themselves school and its rigid structures. As always I will continue to look forward to answering the questions of those who write to me or call me.
© 1998 Alison McKee
Until recently, I'd not thought much about how Christian's transition to college has affected our relationship. For a short time I thought, "Wait, what's up, should our relationship with Christian be developing differently than it is?" Then I realized, no, our relationship with Christian is as it should be.
Christian's transition to college life has been relatively easy for us and, I believe, relatively easy for him. I think this is so because this transition, in many ways, has been in the making for years. Christian had always been at ease with book learning and participating in the discussion of ideas that are generated from such learning. The friends he chose to spend significant amounts of time with reflected similar interests. Many of them were in college themselves. Aside from this Christian also had a history of leaving home for lengthy periods of time to study things which interested him: fly fishing and German. As David and I witnessed these developments, we realized that he was slowly making the transition from living at home to finding his own way in the world. We just weren't sure where he'd end up: by a stream or in a lecture hall. By the time Christian announced that he'd prefer the lecture hall, David and I had already been through much of the transitional angst that many parents experience when their kids first move out. I'm not saying that Christian's transition to living independently has been one that hasn't pulled at my heart strings, it has. Instead, I am saying that the transition has been gradual and has always felt so right.
When Christian left for college, he practically ran. He was eager to get on with his studies, live the campus life and make new friends. In fact, he was so eager to go that both David and I were concerned he might feel disappointed once class routines set in. We were concerned that he might miss many of the community activities of the "real world" he'd been immersed in for so long. Much to our delight, this has not happened. Christian has found ways to pursue his extra-curricular interests in music (he's teaching himself to play the mandolin) and radio, and remains enthusiastic about being a student, even when the professors are not always the best.
As the parent of a very independent homeschooler, I can't say that much has changed in David's and my relationship with Christian, except for the fact that he is a day's train, bus or car trip away. Our communications with one another are via e-mail, U.S. mail, and infrequent phone calls. We offer our help and consolation when things get rough but generally speaking we are not part of the life he is creating for himself unless he invites us to be. This may sound harsh, yet David and I feel it is simply another indication that Christian's lifelong homeschooling experience has given him the wings he needs. In David's words, "Christian will always have a mother and father, but he no longer needs us to be his parents."
That we will always be Christian's mother and father and relinquish our parental role is not an idea that has come to us suddenly; rather, it has come over the course of a few years. Now that Christian is no longer home, it is simply easier to understand the role shift. He has weathered significant difficulties with roommates, professors and students. When he feels the need he calls or e-mails. With the exception of one call, these are not calls of "help me, I don't know what to do" but rather "listen, see what you think, this is what I'm doing." As he processes his solutions to the problems he faces, it is quite apparent that his need for us to help him find his way through the maze of traditional college routines has been next-to-none. His first quarter successes affirm for us that he knows how to pace himself, who to turn to when the going gets tough and how to continue finding enjoyment in his work.
Of course, life here at home has changed. The first week of Christian's absence was the most difficult. It wasn't like past leave takings, where I'd catch myself thinking that Christian would be home in a few hours or that he must be sleeping in. It was deeper than that. This departure had a sense of being more final. Although Christian would be home for holidays, and possibly over the summer, his returns to us would be different, temporary. The bittersweet realization of this fact remains and yet I'd never want him to give up what he has found for himself at Kalamazoo. At the moment, things are right the way they are and I enjoy being able to surprise him by sending him a batch of his favorite "oatmeal scotchies" from time to time.
It's funny, but when I think of Christian I think of him as a homeschooler (still) who is continuing his homeschooling experience elsewhere.
|Looking Back Over Twenty Years|
© 1998 Alison McKee
Our family first considered homeschooling as an alternative to traditional school after I had read an interview of John Holt in Mother Earth News. At that time David, my husband, and I were convinced that Holt's views of children's learning were "right on." Holt's ideas seemed as though they'd be so easy to implement.
Today I look back on such thoughts and I realize that we didn't even come close to comprehending the complexities of implementing such radical ideals. How could we? Although we knew we wouldn't use curriculum or aspire to maintain grade level pace for our children we still thought in those terms. Like most parents of preschoolers we were concerned about issues of socialization and how our children would continue to learn. Obviously, even at that early stage of our homeschooling experience, our traditional educational expertise was infiltrating every aspect of our thinking. It has taken us nineteen years to learn otherwise.
When Christian and Georgina were preschoolers I never worried about their socialization. It simply wasn't an issue. If I did happen think about it at all it was in reference to comments I'd heard from friends who worried that our children might somehow miss out on opportunities for becoming socialized individuals if they failed to go to school. Sometimes I took such worries to heart and found myself wondering just what would become of our "isolated children." It wasn't until we were well emersed in our lives that I realized that socialization was a moot issue.
Christian and Georgina participated in classes geared toward their same aged peers often enough that they learned the rudiments of lining up, waiting their turn and being cordial to strangers. They were also having experiences I'd never had as a child sequestered within the confines of school walls. By being actively involved in community life they learned to interact with many adults, some pleasantly mannered some not, from all walks of life. Not until I'd repeatedly heard strangers say that Christian and Georgina were mature and well mannered did I realize that socialization was, as it had been, a non issue.
Likewise I was never worried about the nature of my children's learning when they were preschoolers. If Christian or Georgina dabbled with learning to read, count and name their colors or simply played on the jungle gym and in the sandbox all day I was happy. Something seemed to happen though, when each child became school age and we had to register them as homeschoolers. Unlike the socialization issue which quite naturally resolved itself my concerns about our children's need to learn specific subject matter became mired in traditional ways of thinking when they turned five. What about reading, math and writing?
When Christian was five his interests seemed to revolve around building with legos, having us read to him or helping him learn to read and whistling incessantly. Aside from Christian's interest in reading I saw nothing that resembled the lessons that his school aged peers were learning. Likewise when Georgina was five my concerns for her educational development were great, indeed greater. She showed nothing more than a cursory interest in learning to read or compute and instead spent hours singing, playing imaginative games and thoroughly involved in gross motor activity. Where was the "natural" shift in learning that I had so unconsciously expected to take place at the tender age of five? Certainly something was amiss. With constant reminders from my unschooling support network (GWS, Better Than School, David, my children and a small support group I had started) I cautiously practiced the art of letting go to the learning desires of my children.
Over the course of the next few years I learned to recognize that issues of subject matter, like issues of socialization, were isolated schooled constructs. Certainly there were no work sheets that attested to the fact that either Georgina or Christian had mastered the skill of reading and yet I was discovering that reading was more than I'd been led to believe it was. It was both an art form and a tool.
For Georgina reading was an art form, for Christian it was a tool. While Georgina turned to books to find voice, Christian turned to books to open new avenues of knowledge. Reading was the tool which led him from building with legos (following lego patterns may not require the ability to decode words but it certainly required the ability to read) to paying attention to fine detail which, through various other activities, eventually led him, as a teenager, to taking on an intensive four year study of fly fishing and fly tying. That study entailed reading and following fly patterns, reading rivers and streams, and reading the history of fly fishing. This was nothing like Georgina's pursuit of reading as a performing art, an art which gives her voice. Like her brother her unique, and truly unschooled, interest in reading has led her down many interesting paths. Along the way she has discovered that reading is an art to be shared with others through singing and acting and once again I learned not to worry myself with traditional schooled constructs.
It has taken me many years to learn to see the world through the eyes of my nineteen-year-old and fifteen-year-old. Eyes which see socialization as something far broader than learning to be quiet, line up and listen and reading as something far broader than a tool. If I can say anything at all about homeschooling then, it is this, it is the means by which we are offered the chance to open ourselves up to the broader implications of learning, implications which know no limits and offer us all, parents and children, the chance to live full and meaningful lives. In 1983 I never suspected that this was what would become of our keeping our son home from school.