Last week, in this great post about her son starting his own business, Jessica said they were coming closer to unschooling. Coincidentally, I heard part of a report on NPR about that very thing. The unschooled 12-year-old boy on NPR said he was bored a lot and wished he had a new TV series to watch or comic book to read. Somehow, I don't think Jessica's kids are ever bored - even if being bored is a central tenet of some people's unschooling experience.
Last Christmas we were discussing schools with some friends at home - in Ireland you have to put your kid's name down for the local (free, probably Catholic) school as soon as they're born, and even then they might not get in. If you want them to have a non-denominational education, you need to live in the right part of town (or be willing to spend a lot of time in the car), and put their names down as soon as you start dating a guy you think you might have kids with in ten years' time. A mention of homeschooling was met with uproarious laughter, because it just hardly ever happens in the British Isles; as far as I know, you have to be a fully qualified teacher to be allowed do it, and even then most people just don't. Here in the US, on the other hand, it's reasonably normal - I can think of four or five acquaintances or people I've met in the neighbourhood who homeschool. The rules vary from state to state, but in Maryland you have to show that you're following an appropriate curriculum - and there's enough market for such things that it's easy to buy homeschooling curriculums and materials - or you can put together your own.
I was a good student, in the end, but I took my time getting there. I had good report cards in primary school because I was well behaved and the teachers liked me - I may or may not have exhibited abilities in anything other than reading, but mostly, as far as I could see, it was just about being a good girl. When I started secondary school (at 12, so that's 7th grade in the US) it took a while for me to figure out how it worked, with a different teacher for each subject, and homework not always due the next day but sometimes not for a week, and projects due in two months. (Our first project, set for Religion on an evangelist of our choice, was a resounding group disaster. The teacher may have mentioned it, but she never told us what to do, and we all conveniently ignored it until a note went home in all our homework notebooks about the missing project. My mother was sympathetic, and I think the teacher learned that you can't just set a project for a bunch of kids who have no idea what you're talking about, announce a due date, and expect them to hand it in.)
Anyway, I didn't bring home A's in every subject throughout my school years, even though by the end I did pretty well and was considered some sort of "academic" type. Same thing in college: my first-year results were resoundingly average, but I ended up with a first and a 2.1, which is not too shabby. (I have no idea what that converts to in USA-ian, but a first always sounds impressive, doesn't it?)
And now we have my first-born child, offspring of me and his rather brainy and also academically-inclined father (rather more than I, I have to say, what with the black holes and stuff), heading off to start his life of formal education. What do I want him to do? Do I want him to bring home A's across the board from kindergarden on? Do I want him to finish up valedictorian and go to an Ivy League school (and condemn us all to decades of debt) and end up working his ass off as a med student or a lawyer or some other member of the professions?
I am not a tiger mother, and I don't want that. I don't want my son to learn the value of hard slog and poring over the books and learning by rote and repeating his times tables and study planning and spending hours on his homework every night. I am much more concerned that he gets exercise and fresh air every day, that he makes friends and learns how to get on with people, and that he reads (not right now; by the time he's 8 or so, say). So long as he's reading books, everything else will come.
So I think about the homeschoolers and the unschoolers, and about the things I like about their systems. Children follow their interests and thus they learn. I realised early on that the subjects I liked were the ones I was good at, and I followed my interests despite the naysayers who claimed I should do Science to keep my options open, or that I should study law because I had enough points to get into a law degree.
I'm not saying "Look at me now with my multi-million business," or my great law practice, or whatever, but I am saying that I'm happy and I'm still finding my way. As a SAHM, I'm lucky enough to get a chance to do that. A few years at home with the kids seems to provide a change of perspective for a lot of people, and they come out of it less willing to go back to the corporate grindstone and more eager to stick their necks out creatively and make money on their own terms.
What do children learn from school that they miss in homeschooling? How to sit in a classroom and take notes? How to raise their hand if they have a question? How to function as a member of a team? Or as a member of the proletariat - as a Hand, to hark back to Dickens? How to study subjects they're not interested in? How to work to a deadline? (That one's important.) Or do they get a basic grounding in everything so that they can find their interests?
Do homeschooled kids go on to University and have trouble functioning in a classroom setting there? Or are the homeschoolers the go-getters of the future, the entrepreneurs, the leaders, never the followers, the ones who rise to the top despite no formal education? (But someone has to be a follower. If we raise a nation of leaders, what happens then?) I muse. I don't have answers.
I hope I can learn to navigate the public school system for and with my son without compromising my principles too much. I hope I can help him find a middle path, with friends and fun but also learning and logic and development in directions that interest him.
I hope he's not just another brick in the wall.