by Joyce Reed and David H. Albert
(This is the first full column by Joyce & David. We are very pleased to add them to The Link)
". . . Who could ask for anything more?"
Homeschooling in Hawaii . . . 30 + Years Later, Some Results
"I got daisies in green pastures, . . . . who could ask for anything more?"
"I Got Rhythm" by George Gershwin
Joyce Reed: Personally, I just LOVED school. It really worked for me. I grew up in Canada, an ‘only’ child with very conservative parents. My teachers, the library, opened worlds to me and I was always overwhelmingly grateful. I will never forget Mrs. Capling, my third-grade teacher, who got me involved in theatre productions in Toronto – got me out of a household that could not understand my ‘reading habit’, guzzling as much of life as I could get through books – to say nothing of my proclivity to lock myself in my room on Saturday afternoons to listen to the opera, on radio. Hmmm.
Growing up in Toronto meant it was cold much of the year, which meant being indoors. As an only child, I had no one to play with at home (I never learned to play a single card game . . . and very few other games). Yes, I had Gwennie and Wendy, neighborhood girlfriends to skip rope with when the weather was good, but ….
But boy did I read! My favorite fragrance is still that dusty, wonderful scent of old books, old paper. I can hear the sound of an old book opening in my hands, wondering how long it has been since a ‘friend’ has made loving contact with it . . . it still gives me the willies to think about it. I can feel the glass floor of the stacks in the library under my knees as I scrunch to read poetry in the dim light – and have to go to the end of the row to turn the light back on, regularly. Mmmm, good!
Moving to West Hartford, Connecticut, as a teenager meant, primarily, a bigger library. But it also introduced me to closer friendships – the weather was better and I could get transportation under my own control. But, you know, I have only one connection with any school friends made during those first 18 years of my life . . . and he is an old boyfriend who located me through the internet a few years ago – a pleasure to reconnect and share life stories and news of our families. Being good at school (which always seemed easy to me – my mind and their materials and techniques seemed naturally confluent) -- getting those A’s and standing first in my class gave me the opportunity I craved to enlarge my world by going to college on a scholarship.
Brown University instantly became the home of my heart, at age18. Those classes! Those professors (dear Dr. Lynch’s Greek classes)! The enormous library! I was in heaven. In a certain way, I never left Brown after that. It set my standards regarding the joy of learning. I spent half my adult life on Brown’s campus – and the other half on the Big Island of Hawaii. I retired from Brown’s administration two years ago. My deep personal friendships began for me with college . . . and those have lasted a lifetime (over 45 years) because we shared community and personal growth with all that burgeoning intensity of young people in college, making the break between childhood and being grown up. Or so we thought. My closest friends and I all became involved in higher education or publishing; I have spent equal time teaching and administering inside the halls of academe and homeschooling at my kitchen table, or on the porch or on a walk through the meadows here in Hawaii, as a happy, happy homeschooling mother of five. I still love both environments with a passion.
So my memories of school were always fond ones, and it was nothing short of a complete shock when I discovered that my response was often not the only one. When my first dear daughter, Elizabeth, was born, I was teaching and working in the administration at University of Washington in Seattle. I naturally placed her in a pre-school at age four, thinking how much it would offer her, how deep her delight would be. Moreover, I knew a teacher in her school very well. But from my teacher friend I learned, to my grief, that Elizabeth was miserable at school, even to the point of hiding under her desk. She went dutifully to kindergarten and first grade in Seattle, but clearly, school was not a happy experience for her. I think it may have been our fault, in part. She had already learned to read at home, enjoyed creatively occupying herself in her great playroom, overlooking the Seattle Arboretum where she and our Afgan/Doberman, Sappho, loved to romp and take walks with us daily. Suddenly I realized school was not expanding Elizabeth’s life…it was shutting it down. However there didn’t seem to be any other option.
Elizabeth was coming up seven when my anthropologist husband and I moved to Hilo, Hawaii, and changed a lot of things about our lives. During my first year there, I started a state-licensed, small alternative school which Elizabeth attended, happily. But within a couple of years we moved to a very remote area of the island (no electricity, phone, or indoor plumbing – other than a tap in the kitchen which led to the catchment water tank). We were in heaven, in the middle of a 600-acre cattle ranch, with beautiful meadows and woods, bamboo groves, rose-apple trees . . . and a new baby on the way. Town (one street, two blocks – hardware and grocery store, one-room library, and yes, a school) was only five miles away, but our road was, shall we say, "challenging."
My husband was teaching extension courses to the local teachers. We had a fair idea of the level of education available in the local school system and knew that Elizabeth was far ahead of her age-grade peers. It would waste her precious opportunity with the new baby, the new environment, the new and interesting community of educated mainland dropouts and richly-knowledgeable local inhabitants. I had never heard of ‘homeschooling’ in those days . . . except perhaps for royalty, or some level of isolated elites (ambassadors in Thailand, perhaps…who might need to have their children privately tutored). However, I had read A. S. Neill’s Summerhill with great enthusiasm . . . and thus we started. Elizabeth was the first royal princess in our home, and the first to benefit from and experience the richness and the freedom of self-motivated learning. Who but a princess (supposedly) could so control her own destiny? What a relief, for her! What a delight, for all of us!
Homeschoolers who are reading this article know just what I mean. But in 1971 what we were doing was odd, to say the least, and there were no supports -- not that we could have contacted them easily – we had no phone and no computer, of course, and picked up mail at our mailbox once a week or so. But again -- boy, did we read! I suspect that in the ten years we lived in Ahualoa, Elizabeth’s hands touched more than half the books that were in the little one-roomed library in Honokaa, where the wonderful librarian nourished her hunger by giving her carte blanche. Over that decade we got to know that space so well, during our weekly pilgrimage to the library -- first with Elizabeth, but eventually with five eager little people.
Homeschooling was the way of our life for the next 15 years, and, for some, the next 24. Elizabeth read, completely voraciously, between her chores . . .the main one was collecting kindling, because our pile was (always) dwindling; our only source of hot water was the Japanese ofuro bath, which we fired up nightly for ten blissful years. That ritual hot bath each night can hold a family together like nothing else, and it did. She wrote her short stories and novel on a manual typewriter by kerosene lamp, in the evenings, which is how she studied for her SAT exams also, when she decided that college was her next step. She went to town with a family friend each week to work at the health food co-op, measuring flour and cutting cheese. These weekly excursions were her math classes, designed to compensate for the fact that it seemed to me (who had loved school and excelled at math) that Elizabeth had no ‘math sense’ and that I had better stop tutoring her myself before my sighs of frustration become noticeable and affected her learning. The plan worked. She learned the math she needed when she began preparing to take the SAT II in Chemistry. In her second year of college, she proudly announced she had won a math prize. I am convinced it is because what she didn’t know allowed her to move past pre-conceptions and embrace a new mathematical concept with a fresh mind, which enabled her to be the only member of her class to solve the given problem.
We lived so remotely it provided us with a sense of royal privilege to determine our choice of activities for the day or the week, and whom we might or might not see. Making choices as well as taking on responsibilities (important responsibilities that affected the quality of our daily lives, even what we ate or drank) were always part of my children’s lives. In fact, we had much more freedom than any royal family could ever have, with all their responsibilities, and so little real privacy! Our ‘castle’ was a remote old Japanese house that we rebuilt and expanded, as the children came along. Rooms opened into each other, but there were no doors -- except to the ‘great outdoors’, which was often easily accessible through open sliding doors and windows.
The four younger children shared a ‘nursery’ which had the Greek and Hebrew alphabets around the walls and shelves full of old National Geographics, and a big bin of Lego toys. We learned without text books (until Elizabeth borrowed some college texts, to prepare for SAT tests), nor were there ever any worksheets, or a set curriculum. We didn’t discover correspondence courses until late in the 1970s, after which we used a few, primarily for their materials, not for getting tutoring or grades. We had five children, and they all learned very different things. They relied (and still rely) on each other’s expertise, recognizing and respecting each other’s skills while developing their own set of interests and abilities.
Bedtime was always storytime. I had light from a kerosene lantern to read to them with, and there was a fire in the open fireplace. I read to my children at least two hours a day, naptime and nighttime – more if the weather was bad. They read, too. We read every kind of mythology, and fiction, and history, and poetry, and old magazines. When I walked through the nursery to kiss them goodnight, after the stories, we all felt so privileged, so blessed, in the quiet nights when the only sounds were of cows, and the occasional bull crashing our fence (the children would walk the fence line in the morning, to check for damage). I saw a video of Michael Caine’s performance in The Cider House Rules a few years ago, and I heard those lines, "Good night, you kings of New England, you princes of Maine!". . . and I returned at once in my mind to the nursery in Ahualoa, Hawaii, and the sense that we were being gifted with a truly rare and extraordinary experience.
For more than 30 years people have been asking me about why I homeschooled my children, and how I knew what I was doing, and I have replied simply that I didn’t know, and that was the value of it all. What was important was the constant, day-by-day, moment-by-moment flexibility and attention I was able to give to my children, helping them construct a learning experience and compensate for shifts in attention, skills and accessibility of materials. I did not know what I was doing; I only knew what I wasn’t doing. I was not providing them with a time and a place to learn, like school does. I wanted them to know that the world, as they could grasp and experience it, was the place to learn and the time was now, whenever, wherever that was.
There is no separation between learning and living. I don’t think we ever stop learning, no matter what the condition of our mind or body. Life is just the curriculum. Learning is our path through it. Dancing or plodding, or stopping -- it’s our choice. I don’t really know what my kids learned because I didn’t teach it to them. They learned. They learned to learn – and in consequence, they seem to feel that they can learn or do just about anything they choose to do, or that they feel fits them and their interests.
Homeschooling ‘worked’ for Elizabeth, as clearly as regular schooling had worked for me. And it certainly did not inhibit her acceptance to colleges. She applied to three (those were the days!) – Reed in Oregon, Carleton in Minnesota and St. John’s in Santa Fe and Annapolis – all three colleges with very strong academic programs and interest in unusual students. Her transcripts consisted of long letters from her, and from me – and the description of a couple of correspondence courses which she had taken from the University of Nebraska. Not only was she accepted by all three colleges, but the Reed admissions officer came and visited us in Hawaii and invited Elizabeth to visit Reed, which she did.
Our failure regarding Elizabeth’s college choice (and it was a big one) was in thinking that her ‘socially restricted’ upbringing might not have prepared her to attend a larger school, such as Brown, where both her parents had studied and loved it. It is true that college students seemed to her to be overwhelmingly silly in their social adjustments during her first year in college, but her love of learning and the self-motivation and focus of a homeschooler would have carried her successfully through a richer curriculum and environment than she ultimately found at St. John’s – the ‘Great Books’ institution, in Annapolis. Elizabeth is now the mother of three. She has homeschooled, but she has also become a truly excellent and beloved schoolteacher. She has taken five years off from teaching while her own children are growing up, but her love of creating learning experiences, especially for the ‘unusual’ learner (aren’t they all??), will take her back into a classroom situation next Fall.
Homeschooling was definitely the way to go for my next child, Ben, who was such a quiet observer, and such a ‘hands-on’ learner. Ben’s early years were spent in his father’s wood shop, or walking the water line, or checking the chicken nests for eggs. He didn’t really read much to himself until he was close to ten, and I know why. When he was seven, I asked the children to write thank-you notes for Christmas presents to my mother, in Canada. Ben’s seemed completely illegible . . . until I took it out to the bathhouse and held it up to a mirror, and gasped. Yes, perfectly written, backwards. I didn’t say a thing, or push Ben’s reading or writing during the next few years. His younger sisters were writing or reading, but Ben was not worried about it . . . he had so many other capabilities which we acknowledged and on which we relied. Then suddenly at age ten, everything shifted. His writing and reading became ‘normal’ or even more than that, and by age 11, he had read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. The next year he and his father built our first computer from a kit (by that time, we had moved into town and had electricity . . . and a flush toilet!).
Ben’s learning curve and trajectory was certainly defined by his ability, as a homeschooler, to control his time and his interests. His interest in electronics took him to the local theatre where he set lights and handled audio for local and traveling productions. His computer skills were seeded early, with the construction of that first home computer in 1982, and grew organically after that. Ben has worked in the computer industry since 1994 when he started at Cambridge Technology Partners, after having graduated from Brown with a degree in Art Semiotics ("Well," he said, "it was something I hadn’t learned about on my own"). I believe he took one computer course while in college, in some kind of art/design. The rest of what he knows he has learned ‘hands-on’ . . . He was a founding partner in two ‘B-to-B’ computer internet companies, and is currently constructing a computer ‘platform’, which I can’t understand . . . in between working as a virtual CEO for a couple of developing companies. He keeps a large apartment in Manhattan where he loves to cook sumptuous dinners for family and friends . . . particularly anyone with a connection to Hawaii. His place is the space to crash for any of his Hawaii ‘ohana’ (extended family).
I am still learning about the things my children learned when they were not in school. Because they had time and space and were interesting and interested young people, they got to do all kinds of things in the community . . . surfing and beach time, and biology classes at the beach, of course. Over New Year’s 2005, when four of my children and partners/spouses/ and a new grandson were home, I got to listen to more of their stories and reminiscences, and to feel an enormous relief and pride in the successful results of our homeschooling experience. I heard Ben talk again about swimming out beyond the sight of land with a close family friend, so that they could swim with a pod of whales. He also told about the time a friend, who had been teaching Ben to fly, sent him off on his first solo flight . . . and Ben realized he had to land the plane all by himself. How could we have provided our kids with such extraordinary life experiences, had they been focused on a school curriculum and time schedule?? These experiences are what made them who they are today.
Each and all of my children developed unique relationships with other adults and children in the community, through art classes, poetry classes, and hikes to Anna’s Pond, or the back of Waipi’o Valley. They worked, harvesting strawberries, for months. They took jobs in the local video store, and we got to add looking at great old movies into our newly electrified life. And how much I would have missed, personally, had I not been present for so much of their learning discoveries and masteries! I cherish a little felt mouse that Rebecca embroidered incredibly when she was four, under the tutelage of my dear friend Theresa. Rebecca was clearly an artist from the moment she could hold any kind of tool, starting with a pencil. Now a graduate of Rhode Island School of Design, she is a practicing industrial designer in Boston. . . . and happy about it.
My marriage ended in 1985, just as Elizabeth was graduating from college and the younger four were 7, 9, 11, and 13. It was a tremendous (in the best sense of the word) challenge for the children and me, and no doubt contributed greatly to their/our developing the kind of ‘can-do’ attitude that all of them have. They truly learned to pull together as a team in order to achieve each and all of their goals. . . which meant, among other things, preparing ourselves to move to the mainland where I could work again to support the family by myself, and they could go to college. I started working, part-time and often from home, in 1985. I did development work for two local private schools and taught a course at one of them, which allowed my children to take some courses and join some sports teams. I co-founded The Learning Center, a tutoring program for homeschooled families. We all did everything we could to move the family forward. In the fall of 1989, Brown University offered me an associate deanship -- and we were off to the mainland and a whole new life that included shoes, coats, keys for doors, biting cold (we arrived in January), a very, very busy working Mom, and a full-time school experience, for a while, for some of the kids.
My youngest son, Michael, is the only one who was ‘schooled’ for much of his life, and I truly think it is why he is the least avid reader in the family. He learned what schools really teach – to do the work assigned and get the grades. Of course, as a member of our family, he also learned to learn and to do what he wanted, so he discovered how to create music electronically and to do audio engineering before I could afford to provide him with music lessons. His creativity couldn’t be held back by what money could or couldn’t buy.
So what is it I have to share with you expert homeschooling parents and families? Not much. You know SO much more than I do about the incredible range of learning options and opportunities available to you and your children -- interactive computer programs that will link you to homeschool programs, or colleges; fabulous video/audio tapes of the nation’s greatest professors’ lectures. What yummy options you have! And in a few years (by my standards) Google will have whole libraries accessible on-line! The specifics of your homeschooling experience and mine will inevitably be very different – but I hope the quality of the experience is not.
The reason I am writing to you today is simply because I have a 35-year perspective on homeschooling and I have seen the results . . . and I want to tell you that not only has it been the most fun I ever had, but that the ‘proof is in the pudding’. My five homeschoolers have thrived in many different sectors. I watched them closely and yet with more perspective when four of them were home recently, at the start of the New Year. They are at ease with themselves, self-supporting (even offering help to Mom!), self-motivated, responsible, good and active citizens, thoughtful and caring friends (nurturing new friends, and loving old). They read, love movies, but hardly watch television. They play lots of games, with each other and with friends. Boggle is a staple, and the starting-point or endpoint of many an evening. They ALL cook, and sons as well as the daughters make excellent pies, and some make bread. They are all college graduates; they studied in a wide variety of disciplines, and they all did extremely well. They are whole people with a myriad of skills and experiences and knowledge, which they share with each other electronically and by phone, since no two of them/us live less than 300 miles apart (Boston, New York, Washington, Asheville NC, Los Angeles, and me, back on the Big Island of Hawaii). The one-room nursery just got larger – one world. Some have gone to graduate school, and some have taught, in one format or another. They have traveled around the globe – much, much more than I have. They hike, garden and keep spick-and-span homes that are comfortable and eclectic. Listening to music is big on all their lists – their tastes vary, but they share, with me, too. Ben and I recently attended Maria and her husband, Jon when she gave birth to their son (in a Washington DC hospital – mine had all been born at home, with each other there – no hospital nearby). I watched Ben and Jon massaging Maria, counting the contractions, and fearlessly, tenderly holding the newest family member as he learned about breathing and swallowing and recognized our voices, now that his ears weren’t under water. My kids have courage. They are flexible. They enjoy their lives. They share with me. "Who could ask for anything more?" And they learn all the time.
Last week, I went to a dinner party at a friend’s home, here in Hawaii. Typically those in attendance had an age span between one and 70. I was talking to my friend’s daughter, as she bounced her baby girl on her lap. We reminisced about the English classes I had offered at my kitchen table, while I was baking bread, about some of the books I had read aloud, and how she and her siblings and my children had mastered the complexities of gerunds and participles, while I guided them past my pet peeve, split infinitives. Laura is a graduate of UC Santa Cruz, with a degree in History. All very nice . . . but the best part came when she served me a piece of her apple pie – ah, was it delicious! She reminded me that I had taught her, and the rest of the kids, that pies were simple to make. She had believed me. I was eating my words.
David Albert: That was wonderful, Joyce!
Of late, I have made it a habit to ask two questions at the beginning of many of my homeschooling talks: "How many of you are homeschooling (or are planning to homeschool) your children?". Ninety-eight percent of the hands go up. Then I ask, "How many of you were homeschooled yourselves?" At most, I see one or two hands.
I usually make a point of asking these folks about their experiences. I look forward to the day when I can ask the second question and most of the hands go up. At that point, I don’t think there will much of a role for me (or for you either!) One could think of it as planned obsolescence. Of course, I’m not particularly worried by the thought. I’ll be even grayer than I am already (gray’s my favorite color!), and will have plenty of other things to do with my time and energy, or what’s left of it. Perhaps I’ll even get to write my memoirs, though at that point I am likely to be so ancient it might turn out to be a rather entertaining work of fiction.
People need to hear our stories, preferably the long versions. And we all need to get into the habit of telling them. Once we do, it quickly becomes apparent that the emperor of public "education" (I hate even to grace it with that word anymore) has no clothes. It is revealed that we really don’t require the army of testocrats, the graduate schools of "education" instructing strangers regarding how our children should be "managed," the services of the neighborhood real estate developer who makes a killing on the plot of land for the new middle school, or the builder who seems to be an expert in "sick building syndrome," that is, in how to produce it. We don’t require the armamentarium of psychoactive drugs, shoved down the throats of six- and seven- year-olds (almost six million at last count) because they fail to conform, or lectures about how our kids’ failure to want to sit in an uncomfortable wooden seat while the whole world awaits them outside is the result of some biologically-based brain anomaly.
Your personal story is a great introduction for our new column, "What Really Matters." Because it is from the long look back that we are able to separate out what turned out to be of real significance, and what just goes by the boards, wheat from the chaff. So many of the questions homeschoolers get asked, or harassed about by caring relatives or prying neighbors, or for better or worse we end up worrying about ourselves, become almost laughable, or simply disappear in the light of experience. Does anyone who meets your kids (or mine) today ask whether they have been properly socialized? What is the "best" method to teach reading? (Your experience, with all of your kids and especially with Michael, as well as my own, suggests that perhaps the question should be "whether," or to what limited extent, we should teach reading at all? We’ll save that for another column.) How will the kids ever have friends if they aren’t in school? Do they really need to learn 5th grade math in the 5th grade? What will happen when an employer asks for my daughter’s high school diploma? Will my son ever be able to go to college? What about handwriting? (I think we’ll make it a point to go there eventually, too.)
Experience is the best teacher. Problem is, it doesn’t teach until you’ve had it. So we’ll get to share some of ours secondhand. We invite all of our readers to try it out, like a nice-looking cloak from the thrift shop, to see if it fits, or could with just a little alteration. That’s where I find most of my favorite clothes these days. And if our stories do nothing but help give our friends the confidence to create their own, a little bit of old cloth with a lot of new, we’ll have added to the big, wonderful, exciting crazy quilt that is homeschooling.
This is going to be fun! (Fun ranks very high on my lists these days.) D.A. & J.R.
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