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It All Begins With Motivation

by Gail Withrow

Motivation does not translate into threats and coercion to get the child to learn. Nor does it mean that parents must string him along with little goodies and promises as rewards for learning. Motivation entails presenting the topic so as to make it interesting and relevant to the child’s life so that he wants to learn it.

The key to motivation is communication. The homeschooling parent must be able to explain how learning about a particular subject will be of real value to the child. By value, I don’t mean that the topic is necessarily something that the child has immediate use for. Real value to the child means showing how the new topic will be (or currently is) applicable to the child’s life and future goals. The child needs a reason to expend the mental energy necessary to learn. No-one can force a mind to function; it’s up to the learner to do the learning.

Motivation works both ways. Not only does the child need to be motivated to learn a subject, the parent needs to be motivated to teach it. Parents must truly enjoy the process of educating if homeschooling is to be satisfying and successful for all concerned. Your attitude is critical. If you think that teaching from a prepackaged curriculum is boring, then you’ve got to spice it up to make it interesting to both your children and yourself. You’re in this together: If you’re bored, so are they.

Spicing It Up
One of the most challenging aspects of homeschooling is for a parent to transform a seemingly dull subject into a fascinating one. Homeschooling parents are free to be creative with the curriculum; to gather their own interesting materials rather than relying primarily on dry textbooks. Even if you purchase a ready-made curriculum, you are not bound to go through it page by page. Skip sections that don’t appeal to you, add new topics in a unit study format, take advantage of video tapes, library books, and historical fiction. You can play educational games, make your own books, act out an historical event, attend a live reenactment, or take time out to tour historical places. Sound like fun? It is, and your genuine enthusiasm for teaching and learning is contagious to your children. Their joy of learning is itself a motivator back to you to continue finding interesting ways to teach them.

One way to keep motivation high is to encourage your children to be involved in the curriculum planning process. Although there will be certain topics that you deem essential to study, there are other optional subjects that your children may want to include. Ask them if there is anything in particular they’d like to learn and include their suggestions whenever possible. If the children have a say in planning and shaping the curriculum, they’ll feel like their interests matter, and consequently, they’ll be more committed to learning.

Dealing With Resistance
As teachers, homeschooling parents ultimately decide on curriculum goals and chart a course of how to achieve them. New homeschoolers often make the mistake of including too much in the curriculum, or of being too rigid in their structure and expectations. Parents can get discouraged after a few months because they fall behind on an unrealistic schedule. Their displeasure shows and the kids respond with resistance. Their lack of co-operation only makes the situation worse.

The first year of homeschooling is an adjustment period for both "teacher" and "student." It’s a new role for each of you, so be as flexible and responsive as possible. Keep a loose structure, encourage discussion about what reasonable expectations you each have, and listen to your kids. The more you communicate and come to understand each other, the more respect you’ll have for one another. Be honest about your mistakes (you will make them); fine tune your expectations as you go along, and keep talking and listening to your children. Soon you will all understand what’s expected: You’ll be more confident and the kids' resistance will fade. You’ll be relaxed and ready to enjoy your homeschool adventure.

Even when you have the expectations all ironed out, there will still be times when you select a particular subject to study only to hear your child balk and declare that he isn’t at all interested in learning about that. What then? How do you get beyond the stiff-lipped resistance?

Listen to your child and try to understand where he/she is coming from. Maybe he has a misconception about the subject that you can help clear up. Hear his concerns. Discuss why you think the topic has value, and how learning about it can enhance his life. If you can convince him that there is a real value to be gained, you will have begun to motivate him. If not, then your decision to study the subject will depend on whether or not you consider it to be essential or optional to the curriculum.

Resistance To Optional Subjects
Optional subjects are just that—optional. Commonly they are topics that arise from your experiences together that you or your children find intriguing.

Last year, for example, I suggested to my daughters that we study bacteria. We had all been to the dentist and the kids had seen how bacteria could eat through their teeth and cause cavities. I thought a study of the topic would motivate them to have better dental hygiene. Their response to my suggestion was, "Yuck! Who wants to study gross stuff like that?!"

Here’s where good communication comes in. I let them know that bacteria can be harmful in some ways, but they can also be extremely useful to people. The girls were surprised to hear that scientific research of bacteria (the oldest form of life on earth) was the basis of modern life-saving medicine. Even then they still weren’t enthusiastic, but I encouraged them to trust my judgment and give it a chance before they made up their minds.

We began our study with an audio tape overview on microbes and bacteria and an illustrative booklet that went with the tape. From time to time we paused the tape to discuss our impressions of what we were hearing. The most fascinating thing to my daughters was the fact that bacteria are invisible and all over everything — everywhere! They had not contemplated that possibility before and were intrigued by it. Once we got into the topic, the girls became interested and motivated to learn more.

The core of our unit study came from library books, current magazine articles, the Internet, and our encyclopedias. We watched a wonderful old movie about Louis Pasteur, we had discussions about medicine and scientific uses of bacteria, we grew and looked at molds through our microscope, and each girl wrote a final report. So, what began as a motivational challenge turned into a three-way success: We learned some amazing things about bacteria. Since the study turned out well, the girls are more likely to trust my recommendations in the future and they had better dental habits… for a while, anyway.

What if things had turned out differently? What if after a day or so the girls were still complaining that they didn’t want to learn about bacteria, no matter what I said to try to instill motivation? I would have stopped the study and consulted with the girls about changing the focus to some related subject. Perhaps, for example, we could have explored bacteria within the context of a study about evolution. After having discussed alternative ways to study the topic, I’d have given them a choice. If they were still adamantly opposed, we might have agreed to postpone the study for a few months, or even a year. (To a child, that’s forever).

Bacteria is an optional topic. It can stand alone as a separate study, or it can be scaled down and studied as an adjunct to another topic. Since it is not part of what I considered the essential core curriculum, we could even drop it if we had to.

Resistance To Essential Subjects
What if you encounter resistance to something basic, something essential, e.g., math?

Most homeschoolers discover that a child can pick up the rudiments of arithmetic from daily life—counting money (a favorite pastime for most kids), measuring ingredients for baking brownies (another favorite and essential skill!), comparing quantities ("Why does she get more than me?"), and telling time ("When will the brownies be ready?"). Children are motivated to learn these rudiments because they have real value to their lives. It’s a good beginning for learning math at home, but it’s only a beginning. In order to have a solid grasp of math and be able to apply it to a variety of situations, one has to study it in a logical, sequential manner.

My eldest daughter is a whiz at math—she has a better grasp of numbers than I do. Kira didn’t need much external motivation from me to get her rolling in the subject. My youngest, though, didn’t initially have much of an interest. She felt mathematics was her sister’s specialty -Emily couldn’t hope to master it as well.

Beyond baking brownies and counting coins, Emily didn’t care to embark on a more systematic study. To motivate her, I got into the habit of pointing out instances where certain discoveries and inventions would not have been possible without a knowledge of math. These reminders gave Emily a broader context in which to view the value of mathematics and instilled in her a growing interest in the topic.

We worked on math daily, doing the hard stuff (drill and practice) first, then we’d play some math games. We read children’s books about how math is useful, how number systems were invented, and we made our own abacus and calculated with it. To show the meaning of equations we used colored snap-together cubes, and we played around with building blocks and pattern block puzzles. Sometimes Emily was the "teacher" and she’d drill me in the facts and then have me illustrate the hard problems with blocks or cubes; other times her older sister was the teacher and they’d play math games together.

The critical aspect of motivating Emily was to make learning basic arithmetic fun and relevant to her life. Once she caught on to the basics, her confidence and skill improved dramatically. Now Emily is proud to be working arithmetic problems two grade levels above her counterparts in public school, and she likes math.

Essential subjects can’t be ignored, but with a creative effort to show how they are relevant—and even fun—you can replace your child’s early resistance with real desire to learn.

Grades?
Grades typically have a bad connotation amongst home-schoolers. Parents who teach their children at home need not emphasize getting "good grades" since everything is tailored to match the child’s pace. Homeschoolers don’t forge ahead until the child masters whatever he’s learning, so grades are not really necessary. The proper focus at home is on teaching the child, and on achievement; not blindly following the dictates of a curriculum schedule.

Although most home-schoolers don’t go to the trouble to use grades, curiously enough, my daughters enjoy "the appearance" of being graded on occasion. To them, grades are a symbol of success in learning — never failure — because they correct their own work and make sure it’s all right before they ask me to grade it. Then they lavishly adorn their papers with stickers and hang them up for all to see. Their "graded" papers are a symbol of their achievement and serve as motivation for them to "Keep up the good work."

We may not have official grades, but we do have review tests to help us find out how much we’ve learned. Because I create my own curriculum from a variety of sources, it helps us integrate what we’ve learned to pull together the most significant information to be all in one place. The test serves as a review as well as a record of our sources and coverage. One half of the test is essay questions, the other half is fill-in-the-blanks, matching definitions, and drawing diagrams. When the girls finish, we go over the answers together, which makes for a good summary and closing discussion of the material. If the girls miss the mark on the essays, they have a chance to rewrite them. After the essays are acceptable, the kids choose colorful stickers for decoration. The tests are proudly displayed on the kitchen wall and often arouse positive commentary from their neighborhood friends.

Outings As Rewards
Since homeschoolers are typically home-bound for a good portion of the time, it helps everybody’s motivation to reward all the effort with enjoyable outings. Homeschool support groups often schedule a day at the park. They meet with each other, share a picnic and conversation while the kids play. Our family takes Wednesdays off from regular schooling to have an "out" day. We go to music lessons, chess club, or to the library. The highlight of our day is having lunch at different restaurants around town. It is a special time for us that has become a tradition. Taking a day off in the middle of the week helps us stay more motivated during the rest of the week. The kids look forward to our mid-week break, and so do I.

Summary
Teaching and learning is work, but it’s also fun work. Motivation is a two-way street: you need to be motivated to teach, and your kids need to be motivated to learn. As a teacher, it’s up to you to convince your children that the subject you want to teach is worthwhile and valuable to them. The better you are at communicating openly and honestly with your children, the more success you’ll have at motivating them to learn.

Gail Withrow is a veteran homeschooling mom and freelance writer living in Austin, TX. Visit her extensive website, HomeTaught, to read more about Gail's insights on homeschooling.

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