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A Mother's Thoughts on Freedom-Based Education

by Kathy Richardson

I wake to sleep and take my waking slow
I learn by going where I have to go

Theodore Roethke's words are written on a 3x5-index card and taped on our bathroom wall. The second line is circled in pencil and a note added by my 15-year-old homeschooler: "Think about this, think about me."
Her words are meant to remind me, again, that although I call our method of education "unschooling" and claim to allow her freedom of choice in what and how she learns, there is within me a history of formal public schooling and a strict family upbringing, both of which constantly threaten to topple my tower of good intentions.
Patrick Farenga of Holt Associates and Growing Without Schooling tells us in Schooling At Home (John Muir Publications, 1990) of John Holt's coining of the word "unschooling" to contrast home schools from public and private schools.
Nowadays, those who teach their children at home are divided by some into the homeschooling camp and the unschooling camp. I see the two terms as situated at opposite ends of a long line of families who love their children's company and want to be deeply involved in their education.
In our area, we have about 20 families who call themselves unschoolers, but I have noted that they, too, range from families who give total freedom to their children, through the line to those who structure a few activities and ending with those who have their children spend structured time and lessons on each subject. It seems to me the terminology isn't the important issue here. Instead, each family has to make decisions about their children's education, based on the children themselves, family values and beliefs and time and money available.
The teacher teaches the learner . . . the learner teaches the teacher. I taught my daughter to use the word processor. She taught me some sign language. A computer web page teaches her tabulatures for playing certain songs on her guitar. She teaches an acquaintance guitar-playing techniques. We are all teachers and we all have to remain open to a lifetime of learning.
Public school requires seven hours per weekday of formal education. I offer my daughter the opportunity to learn 24-hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Our minds do not operate like a store, open 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
An acquaintance told me of his 10-year-old grandson's repeated failures in schoolwork and his particular difficulty with anything in worksheet form. His beloved grandson appeared, according to the school's official terminology, which Grandpa was taking as gospel, to be headed down a path to nowhere unless they (the school) stepped in with all kinds of special help.
I asked the grandfather what the youngster liked to do. Was there something he excelled at? There was no hesitation - the boy loved assembling model cars. I was intrigued and queried further. Did he have any problems reading or interpreting the assembly directions? If you are not proficient in such endeavors, as I am not, such directions confuse you. You have to wonder what frustrations and confusions this boy was facing each time he worked on a model.
Was I surprised to learn that he did not need the assembly directions; he just figured it out in his mind and did it? No, I was not surprised. Thomas Armstrong leads you to "discovering and encouraging your child's personal learning style" in Their Own Way (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1987). He says that your child may employ several or all of these learning styles - never just one. Schools tend to teach to one or just a few of the seven learning styles: Linguistic, Spatial, Kinesthetic, Logical-Mathematical, Musical, Interpersonal and Intrapersonal. The 10-year-old boy sounds like he is highly kinesthetic. My daughter is mainly musical.
Over the weeks following our initial discussions, Grandpa and I continued to debate education in terms of learning what the schools require versus what you are truly interested in learning, as well as ways you learn best. The last I heard, his grandson had started in special classes where he was doing computerized worksheets and having no problems at all. I see computers as more hands-on, (kinesthetic) and they often come with sound, which could also be a welcome stimulus in this boy's case.
Is a computer necessary in every home? What about homeschoolers who don't have daily access to them? Just as a parent's lack of training and accreditation as a schoolteacher frightens many people, so does the lack of a home computer raise concerns about preparing today's young generation for present and future technologies.
A homeschooler, particularly an unschooler, has a distinct advantage in being allowed the freedom of pursuits of his/her own choosing, as opposed to a school-determined, time-limited curriculum. Patricia Joudry in And the Children Played (Tundra Books, 1975), reminds us: "Some people think that if you're going to educate your children at home, you have to be constantly ready with blackboard and pointer" (for the year 2000, substitute the word "computer"). "Not a bit. You have to do something much harder than that. Mind your own business."
Joudry's daughter Stephanie expressed the desire to make a dress. When you are a hit-and-miss seamstress, you hold your breath, hoping no child of yours will decide to learn something you typically approach as Joudry says, "with the throw-it-together-and-hope-method." Unschooled Stephanie read the pattern directions and made the dress - the first of many - requiring nothing more from her mother/teacher/facilitator than a quick drive to town and a bit of cash for pattern and material.
Joudry admits she should have known this would happen, since a few years earlier she'd mentioned to Stephanie her wish that someone else would help out with the family cooking. Stephanie's wordless response was to immediately go into the kitchen, get out cookbooks and start cooking. Stephanie became an expert cook, specializing in lavish birthday cakes.
Until age 12, my daughter's contact with computers was limited to what was offered at the public library . . . one with few capabilities and no Internet access. After spending a time in her older brother's home (a month-long vacation in the middle of the official school year), she returned home quite the computer expert. When she needs or wants knowledge, she gets it.
Recalling these earliest computer experiences, she simplified the matter: "There was a place on the screen with www. And it said address, so I figured that was where I should type in www.addresses. And when I saw SEARCH and a blank space after it, I typed in what I wanted to search for. It was all common sense."
Other than two month-long stays at her brother's home, she has only occasional access to computers in the library or a friend's house. At 15 she has recently started a part-time, paid position in a non-profit agency, where she spends the majority of her three hours daily upgrading her computer skills and passing on that knowledge to adults who come in to access the Internet and computer, GED and typing tutorials.
Attending a school board meeting early in the school year, I couldn't help but notice that a large portion of the agenda dealt with student aptitude testing and comparisons of the students' test scores within that school system for the current and previous years, as well as with students in other schools in the state, other schools nationwide and with state scoring expectations.
Prior to aptitude testing, classroom studies are concentrated on those facts and figures which will be included in future testing -- not necessarily what every child is interested in learning, is able to excel at, or even understand. These facts and figures are, instead, what state education bureaucrats decide students should know. Do these aptitude tests give accurate assessments of one's knowledge or intelligence or do they actually show how much one does not know about what is included in a particular test?
As a prerequisite to kindergarten my now-grown public-schooled son and his classmates met individually with an evaluator. As he entered the small, curtained-off testing area, I noticed there was a Fisher Price fast food restaurant on a table. Afterwards, I asked if he'd played with it. "Yes," he replied, she - the evaluator - had asked him to pretend to be going out to lunch with one of his parents, pick up a tiny tray and load it with lunch for the two of them. "And what did you get?" I asked. "Three hamburgers, three French fries and two soft drinks." he said. I cringed slightly, wondering how those numbers would be evaluated and, at the same time, wondering why he'd chosen three hamburgers and three orders of fries for only two people. I asked him. His simple answer: "So we wouldn't have to go back to the counter and wait in line if we wanted seconds."
Aptitude tests are cut and dried, multiple choice, only one right answer . . . no alternatives, no options, no allowance for thinking ahead.
When my daughter was two-years-old, we installed a full-length mirror on the living room wall near her toy shelves. On the mirror was a picture of her holding a sign that read: Help me to help myself.

Kathy Richardson is a frequent contributor to The Link. She lives in Bath, NY.

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