Friday, December 28, 2007
The year Erin was, by virtue of her early birthday, still a pre-Kindergartener, I began a secret thought-experiment with homeschooling. I changed nothing about how I interacted with her. I did not go out and buy a curriculum or start trying to teach her according to some external agenda about what almost-5-year-olds should be learning. It was a thought-experiment. I just changed the way I thought about what was happening, not the happening itself.
Privately I did a few things. I joined the regional homeschool association. Newsletters started showing up in the mail -- tangible evidence of my interest in homeschooling. I was able to see that, while the homeschooling network in the area was mostly located an hour and a half away, it seemed to be full of innovative, free-thinking and largely unschooling families.
I read a few books. "Dumbing Us Down" by John Taylor Gatto was one of the first, but I followed that with "Better Than School" by Nancy Wallace and "The Three R's at Home" by Susan and Howard Richman (now best available in on-line format here) and two or three books by John Holt. And I read about 30 back-issues of "Growing Without Schooling", the now-defunct unschooling magazine published by Holt and friends.
I began journaling. I started jotting down observations about what Erin was focusing on, and what I was seeing. I began to realize that while she had long absolutely refused to perform on command, sensitive low-key observation would give me a few pieces of the puzzle of her evolving learning. I couldn't ever know exactly where she was at, but if I was patient eventually there would be a little piece of evidence that would present itself and I'd realize "well, she's somehow learned ___." Her reading was a case in point. There was a little evidence when she was a young three that she was cracking the code of written language, but there was absolutely no 'working with her' or 'watching her skills evolve.' She was totally private in her learning, until finally at age 4 and 3/4 she read one book aloud to me, fluently and with expression, and at at least a 3rd-grade level. And that was that. For eighteen months up to that point all I'd been able to say was that she had been able to read isolated phonetic words of 3 to 6 letters at age 3. Finally I was shown another piece of the puzzle. Through my journaling I saw this pattern in her, and found a way to collect puzzle pieces and put them on display for myself.
I began posting some of my musings and photos and observations on a webpage. I built the page mostly for myself. I said "What if I wanted to sell this homeschooling idea to someone like myself? How would I spin the happenings around here to make them sound like an impressive educational program?" If extended family and friends were impressed, so much the better, but I didn't make the effort to point anyone to my website. With Chuck I was casually evasive. I'd muttered things like "well, I'm starting to think maybe about the possibility of perhaps not putting Erin in kindergarten next year, because she's still so reserved."
By springtime that year we'd begun to hang out a little with like-minded families of similarly-aged children. This meant travelling to the nucleus of homeschooling activities in our region, but that was fine. There was a great group of six or eight families with kids on the cusp of school-age who were "thinking about homeschooling" and exploring social connections and activities that weren't necessary geared to school readiness. Erin connected with those kids in ways she didn't seem to as well in our community. The photo above is from a cold early spring day at the beach in 1999. She had only met those children a couple of times before. She was deadly shy in most situations, but felt comfortable enough with them to romp around in the woods and engage in joyful story-telling and imaginary play about dragons. That's her cherubic intent little face in the centre facing the camera. She's the one telling a story and the other kids are listening. What a difference from her demeanour at preschool!
That photo was it for me. It said to me "she will be fine if she doesn't go to school." It told me that she could still have a playful enjoyable childhood with other children for friends, that she could be happy and comfortable in groups, that there wasn't going to be anything crucial missing from her life if she didn't go to school. I guess I'm a visual learner.
We never really did make a decision to homeschool. My maybe-possibly-might-perhaps thoughts on keeping her out of school for kindergarten became probably-mostly-likely thoughts. I think Chuck likely would have gone all pale and twitchy if I'd told him we were going to have four kids and none of them were going to go school. Ever. Because I would facilitate their education organically at home. Truth be told, that thought would have turned me all pale and twitchy too. But to him, to me, and to our ever-respectful non-interfering extended family, our plan at the end of that year was acceptable. We had this super shy kid who was academically extremely precocious and we were going skip kindergarten, putting off school entry for another year. And in the meantime we'd hooked up with a network of other families with kids who were homeschooled, and we had some activities and group opportunities lined up to expand her social horizons.
I was telling people we were putting school off for another year. But by the fall of her actual kindergarten year, I no longer believed my own propaganda. I knew unschooling was going to continue to be the right thing for us for the longer term. And that year I was on a mission to make school seem an awkward, illogical and unnecessary option.