Saturday, October 10, 2009

A Book Recommendation

I've been reading Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense by David Guterson. The author is an English teacher at a public high school who, along with his wife, homeschooled their four children. Even though it was written back in the early nineties, most of the points he makes still ring true today. (Sadly, his criticisms of the public schools in the nineties haven't changed in the nearly two decades since the book was written.) We took our kids out of good schools--award-winning, high-testing schools--because we felt they needed one-on-one instruction and a more authentic learning experience. Most people can't imagine why parents would make such a radical change, but Guterson makes the case clearly and concisely:

As a public-school teacher and a homeschooling parent, I find myself moving between two worlds almost on a daily basis. School is the world of the fixed curriculum, and inert body of knowledge and skills to be disseminated on a fixed schedule...Thus the schedule of the day and year is made routine, because no other timetable of learning lends itself to an institution of such unwieldy proportions, and content is tailored to a sense of what the group needs rather than the individual. Creativity is limited by the sheer size of the student population and by the individual teacher's resolute commitment to meet the needs of the many...

And this:

Mastery learning has, too, a pair of fatally flawed premises: that children learn best when the world is deconstructed into endless small components, and that method is ascendant over content (so the uniform subject matter of the workbooks is never called into question). Teachers who commit themselves to the concept and employ it in their classroom see very little transference of learning from the system's workbooks and progressive tests to the student's larger frame of reference.

In other words, if kids do an endless progression of worksheets about perimeter and area, they learn how to do worksheets about perimeter and area. But then ask them to figure out how much carpet they would need to cover the floor in their own bedrooms, and they are at a loss.

But what about socialization?

What, you're not satisfied with scouts, soccer, horseback riding, acting and piano classes, taking a dog to the vet, buying something from a shop clerk, asking the librarian for help, playing with friends and cousins, going to restaurants, and participating in a homeschooler's co-op? And is spending time with family not a social experience? Do we really have to close our kids up in a classroom with 25 other kids the same age for 7 hours a day (while admonishing them NOT to socialize) in order to teach them how to get along with others?

Guterson has this to say:

Homeschooled siblings must live and learn with one another, and the intensity and meaning of their relationship, its daily depth and fragility, become the standard for future relationships. Without the chaotic background of hundreds of peers that ultimately distorts the social lives of school students, allowing carelessness and cruelty to creep in, homeschoolers are able to nurture the health of a few intimate and important connections. Like all children they develop friendships with others of like minds--with other homeschoolers, private schoolers, public schoolers, cousins, siblings--and while these friendships are apt to be fraught with many of the same difficulties and tribulations we find among schoolchildren, they are also not troubled by school's social web, its cliques, rumors, and relentless gossip, its shifting alliances and expedient betrayals, which all produce dark complications. They have the potential to be whole in the sense that at the center of their universe lie not primarily their age peers but instead the communities in which they live and the families from which they spring.

He addresses one of the things that I found so troubling about school:

Yet peer obsessiveness and the clique mentality are the natural responses of children to mass schooling, which in essence removes adults from their lives or rather puts them there at a ratio of one to thirty and in an authoritarian role not entirely conducive to the forming of meaningful relationships... Homeschoolers, generally speaking, are not only less vulnerable to peer pressure than their public-school counterparts but less peer obsessed and thus better able to enter into vital relationships with adults.

I have met so many children who are either intimidated by adults or who ignore them, as if they aren't relevant in a child's world. Have you ever greeted a child in a social situation and observed their reaction? Do they shy away and seem unable to carry on a conversation with an adult? Or do they provide a quick answer and then move on as quickly as possible? How many kids do you know who can have a meaningful, enthusiastic, natural conversation with a grownup? In the artificial world of the classroom, it's no wonder kids learn to ignore or fear adults and look to their peers for imitable behavior. I want my children to be able to move freely in the entire community, which includes people of all ages.

OK, so they are socialized. But how are your kids going to make it in this tough world if they haven't been bullied or exposed to harsh discipline? And how will they adjust to the drudgery of adult work if they haven't experienced the drudgery of middle school math or high school history?

This question always makes me so sad. Is the "school of hard knocks" the only way to prepare kids for life as adults?

Another great quote from David Guterson:

To acclimate students to misery under the rubric that doing so prepares them for life is a cynical notion--and a horrifying one. Rather, in shaping the academic experiences of our young we should recall that they are individuals who, with no help from our institutions--but because life simply is what it is--will learn by osmosis of the injustice of the adult world they will one day both define and inhabit.

Thank you, Mr. Guterson for an excellent book.

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