Schools Are from Mars, Homeschoolers Are from Earth

by Patrick Farenga © 2004

I'm all for schools and homeschoolers figuring out how to peacefully co-exist ó indeed, even cooperate! ó but sometimes I wonder if weíre even talking about the same thing when we discuss children and learning. Judging by the language we use, I wonder if weíre even on the same planet.

For instance, a mother tells me how her son read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix twice on his own initiative. She allows him all day to read if he wishes. Most of us recognize what is going on here: A child is enjoying reading a book at home. But if you take that very same action and place it in a school, this no longer takes place. What happens in school is called "uninterrupted silent sustained reading."

If a homeschooler takes their child to a living history museum, such as Plymouth Plantation, they are likely to speak with different interpreters about their homes, histories, and daily lives. They may bake bread over an open hearth with a Pilgrim, or help an Indian make a canoe, or help a Pilgrim plot a garden during the course of their time. If the family has to report their learning to a school district, they will say they did a field trip, or undertook various activities and projects at Plymouth Plantation. But if you take this very same activity and place it in a school it becomes "an interdisciplanary unit study using learner-initiated activities."

I feel I am partly to blame for this decay of clarity, as I have counseled many homeschoolers to take their childrenís everyday activities and wrap them up in the jargon of school if they report their childrenís learning to school officials. Since learning at home is completely different from learning in school, sometimes school officials find it easier to approve or evaluate a homeschooling situation if there is academic jargon used by parents. Using such language can help establish parental seriousness and understanding in words the school will readily grasp. Not all states require you to report or evaluate your homeschooling progress, and there are some school officials who will accept common explanations of competence written in plain language.

For instance, by correctly tabulating a bowling score a child could prove their understanding of basic addition. I would tell my school district, "I know my daughter can add correctly because she keeps correct scores for our bowling league each week." A few schools would accept this evidence, or term it a "progress report," as stated. However for fussy school districts I would advise parents to write that their children are "modeling efficient addition strategies" by keeping correct bowling scores. Indeed, in some seminars I offer lists of "educationese" that can be adapted for use by homeschoolers in their attempts to speak the same language as their schools. For instance:

If your ten-year-old is spending days or weeks studying and performing magic tricks, reading books about designing illusions, and not much else that looks academic, you tell people and school officials they are doing "block learning" or "project learning" in language and theater arts. If you donít want your child to take standardized tests because your curriculum is eclectic or totally learner-directed, you tell people and school officials that you will assess ("evaluate" is losing currency in current eduspeak) your children through "progress reports," or "portfolio evaluations" instead.

Some other examples of "Speaking Educationese" are provided by Cafi Cohen in her book, Homeschoolersí College Admissions Handbook, (Prima Publishing, 2000 pp. 120 - 121):


Chess = critical thinking

Paintball = physical education

Visiting museums = history, science, and fine arts

Appliance repair = science

Catalogs = consumer math

Fiction = contemporary literature

Nonfiction = science, history, language arts


As you can see, homeschoolers have tried to meet the schools halfway on this language issue. We are trying to be cooperative and provide schools with evidence that education is taking place for our children in words and concepts they should understand, but the schools have widened the gap again. The Washington Post ran the following article: "Talking the Edutalk: Jargon Becoming Prevalent in the Classroom" by Linda Perlstein (Sunday, January 18, 2004; Page A01). In it she notes the following developments in educationese:

6-year-olds donít compare books anymore -- they make "text-to-text connections." Misbehaving students face not detention but the "alternative instruction room," or "reinforcement room," or "reflection room" And in Maryland, high schoolers write "extended constructed responses" ó the essay, in a simpler time.

The most interesting quote for me in this good article came from a student:

Robert Maeder, 17, a senior at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, finds the terms demeaning -- especially "learning cottage," instead of "classroom trailer," and "assessment" for test. "Itís like renaming a prison ĎThe Happy Fun Place,í " Maeder said. "Tests should be called tests."

I donít think homeschoolers are deliberately polluting plain-spoken discourse when they use eduspeak: They tend to use school jargon as self-defense for homeschooling, a kind of "verbal judo" to describe everyday life for children in academic language. Some school authorities justify their use of jargon by claiming these new terms are better descriptions of what children are doing, but Iíll let the examples speak for themselves and let you be the judge of that claim.

As homeschooling continues to grow, I hope homeschoolers will resist the temptation of using jargon as the schools do, as a way to establish themselves as authorities over others. Iím also de-emphasizing the use of educationese by myself, because it seems to be yet another capitulation of everyday learning to the power of schooling. Rather than diminishing the power of these words and concepts by repeating them to the school to describe how our children grow without schooling, we may be inadvertently strengthening their grip on our ideas about learning.

Homeschooling has grown by leaps and bounds over the years because it works, not because school officials, television shows, big business, or professors of education have blessed it with their approval and attention. Homeschooling has grown because people see it working for other families, and they can see how learning doesnít have to mean duplicating school at home. Homeschoolers are showing what active learning can be, and our numbers are increasing. Homeschoolers can also talk about what our kids are actually doing and learning in words people of all ages and backgrounds will readily understand, and this should help us all see that there are many other possibilities for helping children to learn and grow in our society than being educated in a school classroom. But somehow school people keep coming up with words that distance people who "learn outside the box," rather than include them. I used to think that schools and homeschoolers had difficulty speaking to one another because, primarily, schools and homeschoolers are stuck in a battle about the boundaries of what is public and what is private in our lives. Now I realize it is much simpler than that: schools are from Mars, Homeschoolers are from Earth. P.F.




Patrick Farenga and wife, Day, homeschool their three daughters, ages 17, 14 and 11, in Boston, MA.

Farenga worked closely with the author, teacher and "unschooling" proponent John Holt for four years, until Holtís death in 1985. He is the President of Holt Associates Inc. and was the Publisher of Growing Without Schooling magazine (GWS) from 1985 until it stopped publishing in Nov., 2001. GWS was the nationís first periodical about homeschooling, started by Holt in 1977.

In addition to writing for GWS for twenty years, Patrick has written many articles and book chapters for publications as diverse as Mothering magazine, Paths of Learning magazine, Home Education Magazine, The Bulletin of Science, Technology, and Society and The Encyclopedia of School Administration. He has also published and edited several popular books about homeschooling including his own book, The Beginnerís Guide To Homeschooling. Farengaís recent work includes a cassette tape, A History of Homeschooling and How You Can Become Part of It (Tape one of The Singing Turtle Homeschool Starter Kit, 2002) and a chapter in A Parentís Guide To Homeschooling (Mars Publishing, 2002). His latest book is Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book of Homeschooling (Perseus, May 2003). Farenga now works as a writer, speaker, and education consultant.

  Copyright © 2002 The Link - Subscribe to The LINK for FREE