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Regaining the Spirit of the Pioneers

by Mary Hood, Ph.D

Mary Hood, Ph.D
Mary Hood, Ph.D

In 1982, our family faced a dilemma. My five-year-old son, Sam, who had been relatively happy during his few experiences in pre-school, was supposedly “ready” to move on to first grade. I had been given many warnings of an impending problem over the years. You see, I’d made the “mistake” of letting our young son learn to read before it was educationally appropriate. So here I was, with a five-year-old who could read (on almost an adult level), but who, in all other respects, was a typical little boy, not really ready for a school-like environment.

“Don’t worry, Mrs. Hood”, the principal smiled condescendingly. “He will probably test into our gifted program in April.” (This was August!) ...”And then he will receive two full hours of special instruction a week. In the meantime, it won’t hurt him to go over some things again.” Let’s see, I mused, which would Sam prefer . . . phonics or Jules Verne (his favorite author). It didn’t compute in my mind, so I knew it wouldn’t work for Sam, either.

A search in the library (a real search, in the days before the internet, walking up and down the aisles) led me to the works of Dr. Raymond Moore (Better Late than Early), and John Holt (Teach Your Own). We soon made the decision to jump into the world of homeschooling, but that world did not resemble the movement as you know it today.
First, where would we get materials? The big textbook people wouldn’t sell to homeschoolers back in those days. There were no curriculum fairs, no catalogues arriving in the mail (except for John Holt’s Book and Music Store), and no card packs, either. There wasn’t even a teacher store, and there certainly weren’t any homeschooling resource centers. They were still just a “gleam in someone’s eye” (mine, as it turned out later). So where did we get our materials? At the local public library! It turned out you could get just about everything you needed right there, for free!

Now . . . for support. I knew I wouldn’t get any from my mom, or my in-laws, who were all public school teachers. My husband was trying, but to be honest, he thought I was wack-o at the start. I was in a master’s program in education at the time, and all my fellow students and professors considered me a traitor. I started to think, “What kind of people might be interested in joining me in this adventure?”, and trotted off to my LaLeche League meetings and health co-op, to try to muster up some more recruits. Gradually, we developed a small, but very supportive, group of like-minded friends. After awhile, a few of us got together with people from other areas and helped to start the first homeschooling support group in Alabama. There were about thirty of us statewide at the time, and we used to get together for supper at each other’s houses. Once we invited a speaker, Karl Reed, author of “Our Reeds Grow Free”, who talked about his experiences homeschooling when it was so illegal his kids had to hide inside their house during the day while their public school counterparts waited for the bus directly in front of their porch.

No textbooks, no fairs, no catalogues, no ready-made support groups. Add to this no internet, no cell phones, no Nintendo, no VCRs, and only a black & white television set with which to watch network-only shows. How DID we survive?

Magnificently!!! I wish you could all find a way to return with me, at least a little bit, to that simpler time. Because we didn’t have a clue what to do, we had to make it all up as we went along. “What is education?” I asked myself. Thinking of Abraham Lincoln, I knew it started with good books and lots of quality reading experiences. Twice a week, we spent the whole morning at the library. I selected good read-alouds for the rest of the week, splitting them up among fiction, non-fiction; science, and non-fiction; social studies. I used the “throw the book on the couch” method of stimulating interest, and stuck books on art in an art center, books on musicians on the piano, and books on birds near the picture window overlooking our feeders. The kids were taught to use the Dewey Decimal system, (Yes, Virginia, there really was a card catalogue, which, by the way, is STILL TESTED on standardized tests -- yet another reason to ignore those results.)

What about math? It’s hard to “do math” using the library. How could we do it without having a textbook, either? First, we often used little workbooks from K-Mart. Second, we learned to use the real world around us. We told time by buying the kids digital watches, learned measurement in the kitchen, the garden, and the workshop, skip-counted in the car, and made up our own multiplication tables. We learned carrying and borrowing with popsicle sticks and a big roll of paper, obtained free from the local newspaper. We played Monopoly, one of the only “math games” available at the time, and learned how to manage our own money through allowances, small business ventures, (the proverbial “lemonade stand”) and savings programs.
For science we put up bird feeders and made a nature trail through the back yard, complete with a guidebook, and then the kids tried to charge the neighborhood kids to come take a walk. We had a garden, a pond project, and countless pets. (My twenty-eight year old STILL has a pet tarantula on the front porch, raises black-widow spiders in the side yard and raises mice to (yuck) feed the tarantula. Be careful what you encourage when they are young!)

For social studies, we read good biographies, studied wars and other topics with relaxed unit studies, and, as technology caught up with us, added a few good videos. For example, when studying World War II, we watched a video where the pilot who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima talked about his experiences. We learned about local history, and went on a million family-only field trips.

Nowadays, at my resource center, it is common for new families to come in and say, “Here is $600. I need my curriculum.” More and more families are getting hooked on the supposed necessity of full curricula, “fully accredited” programs, two-day schools, outside labs, and charter schools. Is this really what you wanted for your child? Is that what drew you to homeschooling in the first place? Is that really the best educational experience you can have? Many new homeschoolers today proudly point to the research studies that show how well homeschoolers are adapting to college and adult life. Yet, something inside me always wants to say, “Hey, those were OUR kids they tested and are talking about! Those research studies weren’t conducted on this new breed of homeschoolers, who think two-day schools, with three days of textbook-oriented homework, beat out an education based on reading under an apple tree!”

Rather than giving away your control to others, I invite you to regain the spirit of the pioneers with me. Make a conscious decision to really HOME school your children. Get balance back in your lives by eliminating many of the outside classes that aren’t all that important, especially in the early years. Make use of the larger community in ways that emphasize family togetherness as much as possible. Join (or create) a 4-H club or a Scout troop. Get involved in community theatre, or join in community sports programs. Search for apprenticeships or volunteer or paid work experiences for older kids.

Also, I urge you to seriously consider losing some of the modern “conveniences”, which I believe have only complicated life. Do you REALLY need that cell phone to disturb you at all hours of the day? (I don’t have one!) Do you REALLY need an answering machine? (I do. The point is, ask yourself what YOU really need and what you can do away with!) Consider getting rid of the television completely, or at least minimizing and controlling its influence on your family. Start the day by staying at home for at least a few hours in the mornings. Bring out the sewing machine, bake some bread together, plant a garden, or just get out in the park or the woods and enjoy the beautiful day. Read together every day, as a normal part of everyday life, after lunch, before bedtime, or whatever. Don’t make it be “language arts” on M-W-F from 10-11, and don’t kill off the kid’s motivation by making it seem too much like boring school work!

As the kids get older, there might be some valuable outside classes they could use. My oldest son probably could have benefited from some science labs. (However, the fact that he never had any didn’t prevent him from graduating with a bachelor’s degree in geology!) Always keep individual needs, personalities, goals, interests, strengths, and weaknesses in mind, even when planning high school, and don’t do something automatically just because some college catalogue says you have to do it a certain way.

Above all, learn to enjoy life together. There will always be both joys and sorrows in life, and part of education is learning to get through the tough parts, while finding the correct balance of hope for the future while focusing on the present. Today’s joys will be over all too soon, and today’s sorrows will pass; new joys and sorrows will replace those of today. We’ve personally been through illnesses and deaths of close family members, cancer surgery & chemo for one of the kids, two nasty DFACS investigations, financial problems and unexpected job transfers, and yet we are still here, enjoying life one day at a time. Through it all, because I am a Christian, I have learned to trust myself, trust the God that made me, keep close his son, Jesus, and have found the joy that develops when you get their love deep down inside you.

Finally, learn to ask the right questions, and expect the answers to come at the right time. Focus on your own goals, rather than someone else’s idea of “what to do in the third grade”. Remember to set some goals of your own, too, and pay attention to your own needs, to avoid becoming a “mommy martyr”. If you are going to use some curriculum materials, make sure you use them, and don’t let them use you. Pick things out for a particular child, for a particular purpose, rather than just because somebody else said “that’s a good curriculum”. Throw things away if they aren’t working. Do your own assessments on a daily basis of where you are, and let them drive you, not some stupid standardized test. Ask yourself questions like, “What is working? What isn’t? Why not? & What’s next?” The very last thing a new homeschooler should be asking is “What curriculum should I use?” Once you get to know your kids, choose some goals, and consider individual factors like their personalities and learning styles, choosing the right materials will be easy and the choices will be clear cut. That is one advantage you new people have over us pioneers. You have a lot more choices. Just recapture the spirit of the pioneers, and you can have both: The books and outside classes you may desire, as well as the simpler, more balanced, and joyful lifestyle we all crave.

Dr. Mary Hood, and her husband Roy, have been homeschooling their five children since the early 1980s. Two of the children have graduated from college and are making their way in the world. near Atlanta, is a perennial favorite speaker at The Link Homeschool Conferences. Her humor, wit and candor make her advice highly prized. Her two websites -- archersforthelord.org and relaxedhomeschooler.com., are down at the present time, but will be operable later in the Summer of 2006. You can reach Mary at POB 2524, Cartersville, GA 30120 or relaxedhomeschool@juno.com