Monday, April 20, 2009

First Vision

The first vision is almost always the truest.

Joy. Real learning. Depth rather than breadth. These were the things that pulled us onto the path of our great learning adventure.

But, as I just explained to you, there were times when I lost my way.

The problem was, what we were doing didn't look anything like a proper school. The anxieties were numerous and looming. Would our son learn what he "needed to know" ? Would he fit into the mainstream, or would this experience mean that he was forever excluded because he was too different? What about testing? Was he up to grade level in each subject area? Had we covered each subject area? Would he be able to do well on achievement tests? Should I teach to the test? Should I teach him how to take a test? The worry was overwhelming.

After those first months, I ordered a complete curriculum that was created for private schools. The instructions in the lessons amazed me with their attention to detail. Nothing was left out. . . Say: "Circle the correct answer." Let the students circle the answer. Check to see if the answer is correct. If it isn't, say: "Look at the picture at the top of your page. What is the man doing?" Have the students circle the answer that matches what is happening in the picture. Say: "Look at the next problem." Read the problem aloud . . . There was no room for error. I imagined marks on the page that told me when to breathe. Next, I bought test prep books. We completed a six-week course to prepare for the annual achievement test. I studied the questions he missed. I decided that we should look more like a real school. A room in our house was filled with desks, workbooks, references, and a globe. My son began doing all his lessons at a second-hand wooden desk. We always started right on time. Thus, everyone was reassured.

But something wasn't right. The sparkle in my son's eyes was gone. There were many days when we were both in tears. He did not even want to hear me speak the name of his curriculum aloud. As I tell you this, it seems obvious, doesn't it? We had exchanged joy and adventure for something else. I am ashamed to tell you that I didn't understand what the problem was for at least two years. Even when I saw it, I was afraid to do things differently. My heart aches when I remember it. I wish I could scoop up my brown-eyed boy and tell him that there was never anything wrong, after all, we were just learning the hard way.

What I know now is that a curriculum written for private schools is designed for the classroom, not the individual student. It is designed to enable one teacher to control, instruct, assess, grade, and present to their parents a classroom of students. A standard is created. The students must march in step to meet that standard together. Tests are given to measure performance in a way that is efficient to grade. Students complete extra work pages, regardless of whether they need to, because it keeps them quiet in their seats and ensures that the entire class has learned the lessons. The average student rules the day. Those who are ahead must wait. Those who are behind must somehow catch up. Almost everything is designed with the goal of moving the group along easily measurable objectives that can be clearly assessed and reported. It's a big job, and the teacher needs all the help the curriculum can provide.

This is not to say, of course, that there are not wonderful teachers in classrooms. I have known a number of them. There's nothing wrong with desks and globes. Assessment help us evaluate our progress. My point here is that I failed to recognize that the home school is not a classroom. We needed a fresh agenda to motivate us to learn. Materials created for the classroom shouldn't be used without adjustments. Often it's best to exchange these materials for great books and curriculum which has been designed for the home school or for self-instruction.


Here's an exercise you can try. Find one of the school books your student does not particularly like using. Try to read the book comfortably and continuously for forty-five minutes, which is the usual classroom period. Does it hold your attention? Is it enjoyable? Does it leave you wanting to learn more about the subject? If it doesn't, then either adjustments should be made or something different should be used. Next, do this with a book, any book, that your student loves. How does this book affect you? Finally, do this with all of the books your student uses. Make a list of the books that were not enjoyable to read. Now you have a general shopping list. Although you don't know the exact books you will buy, you do at least know what you need.

What was the most enjoyable thing you did with your kids over the past year?

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