Tuesday, August 21, 2007

What Does It Mean to Guide a Child?

Aha moments are funny; they come when you least expect them. I had one of those breaking point days earlier this summer, the kind of day when you are disappointed in yourself and everyone around you, the kind of day where the pressure is so high that you have to huff and puff and let off steam, or else you'll explode and either end up rearranging furniture or crying into your pillow. Let's just say that our furniture wasn't in the same place by the end of the evening.

I'll admit it; I was frustrated. So frustrated that for 10 minutes I perused the website of the local Montessori school, wondering if it was time to throw in the towel and send the boys to school. I sat, and I read, and then I turned off the computer and told myself that it would never work anyway. I reminded myself that we are committed to home education. I have promised my boys that I will be their guide; we even shook on it. Besides, all of the day's frustration had nothing to do with home learning, or did it?

We are life long learners. We combine a holistic philosophy with a large dose of unschooling. I try to keep the big picture in mind while muddling through the little things: phonics and place value, art and argument. I plan reading practice and make sure there is enough time for making mud pies. I make schedules that we never stick to, and delight in the unexpected experience that teaches far more than I ever could. Still, I feel a little guilty whenever we swing too far into the realm of unstructured days. We miss the integration, the rhythm, the comfort of knowing what will come next. We all start to build pressure, and we have blow ups like the one earlier this summer.

While we were at the market that day, I realized that something important had been missing from our home learning. I hadn't been guiding my boys, not in the true sense of the word. I would pay lip service to being their guide, but in reality I had been an engineer. At some point the responsibility for learning should have been passed to my boys, and I should have stepped aside and started providing maps and directions instead of pulling the train by myself.

Since then, I have tried more and more to observe and guide, rather than direct. I pay close attention to the boys throughout the day, listening to the energy in the house and deciding when once activity has run its course and the boys might need guidance as to where to go next. The more I observe, the more I stand back, the better they get at moving themselves through the transition and finding the next thing to do.

I'm still me; there are things that I want them to learn. I'm all for following a child's interests; at the same time I want them to understand math on paper and not just in their heads. There are many books and stories I want to share with them that are far above their reading levels. There are also things that I want them to learn that they may never show an interest in, but that I consider important life skills. I've found that by the time the child is old enough to clean the toilet properly, s/he has lost interest in doing it.

Teaching life skills is part of guiding a child. I'm glad that I learned the basics of ironing. I'm glad I learned how to use a hammer and screwdriver. I wish I had known more about personal finance and interpersonal relationships when I left my parents' home and started my life with Papa.

Guides teach along the way, as they walk with you. They help you identify the paths, and also teach you how to bushwhack when necessary. They point out hidden dangers. Guides take you places you might not be able to go on your own. They don't, however, carry your backpack for you. They expect you to work for the experiences you are gathering. They stand ready to to point out a gorgeous view or a beautiful flower, but they pause first, waiting for you to discover them on your own. The best guides don't teach you everything you need to know; they help you connect with the fact that you are learning all the time.

Homeschooling Conventions Are For Everyone!

We attended our first state-wide homeschooling convention August 10-12, and we had a blast! Actually, ours is called an EXPO, which is fantastic because nothing about the weekend was conventional in the least.

Now, we've been trying to get to the state convention (actually one of two major conventions in our state) for years now. Something always worked against us; we'd plan our vacations and have the dates conflict (those who read the blog regularly know that we plan our vacations about a year in advance), and we were always working against special needs.

But this time I was ready. I reserved our hotel room in October. Papa arranged to have Friday off. I put it on the calendar and planned around the weekend for almost a year. As usual, life messed with my plans and we were unable to stay at the hotel, but we did make it to all three days of the EXPO.

The experience was incredible. For one, the entire EXPO is planned with the needs of children in mind. There was so much for them to do, and there were also welcome in sessions as long as they didn't cause too much disruption. There was also plenty for the parents to do, and most of the kid things were adult-friendly as well, so we could do things together.

I'll probably take some time later to elaborate on all we did and learned, however, it occurred to me that I have met and talked to many people who think that homeschooling conventions have nothing to offer them. Without experience, I couldn't really agree or disagree. But now that I have been to one, I can disagree, because truly, homeschooling conventions are for everyone!

So let's start with some of the things I've heard, and I'll offer my observations.

1) We unschool. We don't need a convention.

Okay, so you unschool. You are doing what works for your family and that's fantastic. Do you think that everyone at a homeschooling conference does school-in-a-box? Are you so set in your ways that you think you have nothing left to learn in life? I met plenty of unschoolers at the convention, and I myself fall somewhere on the unschooling continuum. There were sessions for unschoolers, and there were plenty of things for children and adults to do, regardless of their learning philosophy. Last time I checked, building with blocks, playing dress-up, taking apart electronics, making crafts, listening to stories and music, playing with large appliance boxes, and hanging out with friends are things that most children enjoy, regardless of where or how they are schooled. On the flip side, the adult sessions always had something that I could apply to my personal life, not just my life with children.

2) We're happy with our homeschooling the way it is.

See above post. Plus, no one was out to convert anyone to a particular style of home learning. There is no down side to exposing your children to the wide world of homeschooling. You can even close your mind and try not to learn anything while you are at the convention. I too, am very pleased with our way of living and learning, and still I came away with many ideas that have the potential to make it even better. For instance, I learned:

a) Papa is excited about our home learning and really wants to participate in decision-making. He had always left it up to me, in part because he didn't know what was out there. He too was happy with our home learning, but armed with more information he wants to take a more active role.

b) There are other people out there like me that really believe life is learning, and not in a radical, TCS/NCP, go-ahead-and-watch-TV-Land-all-day cliched sort of way. I've always felt that I was lost somewhere in the homeschooling community, because I'm not a radical unschooler, not a unit-studies person, not a school-at-home person, not a classical education person, and still not really an eclectic homeschooler. When I decided on holistic learning as our educational philosophy I was combining Enki, Waldorf, John Holt, and others, with all my years of seeking a holistic life for myself.

c) My children are ready for more freedom than I have been giving them. They took care of themselves admirably, and they enjoyed the responsibility.

There was more, of course.

3) We are religious homeschoolers. The state convention is a secular gathering.

I talked to a lot of people, I listened to a lot of presenters, and I saw a lot of curricula for sale in the vendor hall. Just because a convention isn't put on by a religious organization, it doesn't mean that it is aimed solely at atheists, pagans, non-evangelical Christians, or people of the Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu faiths. There were presenters of different faiths, and there was a variety of religious curricula for sale. The difference was that the presentations weren't specifically about religious topics. This is also true of the grocery store, the zoo, the museum, and many other places that religious homeschoolers go to. Secular doesn't mean satanist; it simply means that a group doesn't espouse any particular belief or non-belief. The people within that group are free to believe whatever they want.

I think those are three most common things I hear when people are explaining why homeschooling conventions aren't for them. In case there are others, let me share a few observations with you:

There were babies everywhere! Babies in slings, babies in mei tai carriers, babies in arms, babies in strollers, babies breastfeeding, babies laughing, babies crying. There was a session about babies!

There were lots of dads present, but also many moms that came without partners (male or female). Not everyone brought their children. There was no one right way to do it.

I saw people of all abilities at the EXPO. People using canes, walkers, and wheelchairs. Deaf people. Claustrophobic people. Overwhelmed moms who needed a hand from a stranger nearby.

Community. The EXPO was all about community. If you didn't feel like you were part of the homeschooling community before the EXPO, you did by the time you left. I think everyone related to at least one other person in a way that resonated deeply, even if they just heard each other speak and never met.

Finally, my guys are kind of shy, and they were uncertain about being around so many children (and adults). In particular they don't usually like to sit next to "strangers." When they were finding their seats for the first story telling session Papa told him, "Everyone here is a homeschooler...they aren't strangers." That set the stage for a fantastic weekend.

Find out when your state homeschooling convention is being held, and GO!