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Revelations of a Homeschooling Mom
This article, by Carol Wanagel, was originally published in the January-February 1995 issue of Home Education Magazine.


Thirteen years ago when my kids first talked me into trying this homeschooling thing, I was like everyone else who thinks about trying it- scared. I didn't know how to teach a kid to read and I didn't remember much of the science or math or history I'd been taught, and what would the school officials do to us?

So I had my doubts, but, even without knowing all the good that would come out of home education, I had to consider it. I never felt right about sending my kids to school, knowing what it was like there. From the moment that motorized yellow monster came to the end of my driveway and swallowed up my children, I felt guilty and anxious until they were home again. It seemed worth it to try something else.

REVELATION #1, of course, was that home schooling was legal at all.

I guess everyone knows that now, but thirteen years ago when we started, it came as news to me. I was so used to the idea of kids being put into state institutions at the age of five that it hadn't occurred to me that John and I might be allowed to raise our children our own way.

I started out very conservatively, setting out a curriculum and directing the kids' education pretty much the way the school does. I ordered standard textbooks and planned to assign them chapter by chapter . . . except the kids were so excited to have school books they felt free to use, and so happy to be able to go at their own pace, that they each polished off a whole year's worth of work in two or three subjects before the summer was out.

By the fall they'd already lost interest because someone else was still deciding what they should study, and because the books were still school books, after all.

REVELATION #2: Textbooks are the most stultifying, mind-deadening books in the world.

So the kids started doing just what was assigned each morning before rushing off to explore more interesting things. The odd thing was, even though I was assigning a little more than they would have had in school each day, they were done by mid-morning.

That was REVELATION #3: It takes about an hour and a half a day to cover everything they would cover in a day at school.

Why? Because most of a school day is spent waiting-waiting for the nightmarish bus ride to be over, waiting for the bell, waiting for the teacher to get things organized, waiting while she struggles with discipline problems, waiting in line to be marched elsewhere. It's like being put on hold for long hours every day.

Once I realized how bad the textbooks were, we started going to book stores and libraries more often. The kids bought or checked out whatever they wanted. Suddenly, with all their reading and discovery, THEY were the ones giving ME information. Josh asked, "You know about klipspringers, European mountain goats that can land with all four hooves on a ledge the size of a quarter?" No, I never knew that. Joanna, experimenting with the piano, asked, "You ever notice that a melody sounds better if you use notes right next to each other or at least two apart?" No, I'd never noticed. Jon J explained to me, "For SOME people (meaning himself) it's just as easy to add large numbers by calculating all the columns at once." Gee, I wouldn't have suggested that method.

It seemed like I wasn't teaching them anything anymore, and yet they were learning at a furious pace. It became very clear that every time I started up with my assignments and lectures I was interfering with their education. Whatever I told them they had to learn, they slowly and painfully memorized, then quickly forgot. Whatever they wanted to learn, they learned instantly and for life.

REVELATION #4: The more you teach, the less they learn.

Sure, a teacher can accelerate learning miraculously, but only if the student has asked for the information. Forcing unwanted and questionable data into unwilling heads isn't education, it's indoctrination, and it has no place in children's lives. You can't give them knowledge or force it on them; they have to reach out and take it. They'll only do that when their own nature and interests command them to, and then only if they don't feel coerced.

Another problem with making assignments was that I didn't have a very good idea of what they would need to know in a future I couldn't predict. Oh sure, I could stick with the traditional school curriculum that my grandparents and my parents and myself and my first two children had all gone through. I could pretend that had something to do with preparing them for the future, but who was I kidding?

Who remembers the causes of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 or the chemical symbol for sugar or how to complete the square to solve a quadratic equation? We all memorized those things in school, and promptly forgot them. And so what? We can look them up any time we're interested. Forgetting all that stuff hasn't interfered with our lives at all. The typical school curriculum is an odd conglomeration of antique bureaucratic agendas anyway.

My schooling did nothing to prepare me for the life I've led-and yet somehow I did learn how to raise children and cook meals and keep house and handle family finances.

Oh I know what you're thinking. If I'd chosen a different career, something the schools are designed to teach, then I'd have learned something useful. Oh yeah? I got a master of arts in teaching, but realized the moment I stepped in front of a class that I didn't have a single idea about how to teach history to thirty disinterested kids. I went to law school too, and happened to be taking domestic relations law and New York State procedure at the same time that I was getting divorces for legal aid clients. The courses were in no way related to the reality.

So what DO we learn in school that's useful? Well, basic skills- reading, writing, arithmetic. That's about it. We learn those things- even in school-because those are the only things that-even in school-we learn by doing. Everything else we just memorize . . . and forget.

That's REVELATION #5: Most of what we do in school beyond the third grade is a big waste of time.

We all have the impression that school is necessary to make kids learn anything, that they'd never do it if it weren't for school. Well, I'm here to tell you that that notion is complete superstition. It's a superstition I shared until we tried home education and began to see the truth of things. I also had the superstitious feeling that we need school to become informed adults and to get jobs. My first two children, David and Rebecca, are ten years older than the rest and that's how they did it. That's how most of us do it.

But the truth is, people are naturally inquisitive, especially children. They're born achievers. Nobody has to force a child to learn to walk and talk. Anyone with a toddler knows they're way too interested in everything around them. They're also determined to try everything they see anyone else doing (along with a bunch of other stuff no one else would even think of doing). Their interest and motivation are instinctive. When they see a book or a bike or a computer, they automatically feel a need to master it and to know all about it, especially if some other kid is using it at the time.

I already told you that when I started home schooling I didn't know how to teach a child how to read. I still don't, but all nine of my home- schooled children learned how to read anyway, badgering me and everyone else in the house for help until they could read as well as anyone.

The insistent inquisitiveness of toddlers continues forever . . . IF you don't send them to school. Because it's coercive, school interferes with the motivation to learn, depriving students of the chance to find out what they want to know when they want to know it. Kids hate school not because they HAVE to learn things there but because they CAN'T learn things there, because so much of the time they're put on hold and the rest of the time they're forced to memorize things that have no place in their lives.

Beyond the basic skills, what should kids be learning all those years? Here's my answer: Whatever they want. The whole point of education is to offer opportunities to think and become aware, not to indoctrinate and certify. So let their curiosity lead. Whatever they get interested in will draw them into giving themselves a well-rounded education no matter how narrow the initial interest might have been.

REVELATION #6: The pursuit of any one interest will result in a complete education.

A major portion of my kids' education began with an interest in video games. Ten years ago, for entertainment only, we got an Atari computer and PacMan game cartridge. The system incidentally came with an operating manual and a book on programming. I didn't know how to set the thing up but the kids figured it out in short order. Before long I heard them whispering things to each other like, "Wouldn't it be neat to break into this program and give ourselves more power?" Soon they were looking into other computer systems and more challenging games.

Right off the bat they became computer adept, confident with all those wires and devices and very quick on a keyboard. They also developed astonishing mental skills, remembering the complex, three-dimensional mazes with endless hazards and rewards in hidden corners, planning many levels ahead, keeping a number of parallel factors in mind, calculating how much gold could be spent on potions and still leave enough for the magic sword three levels away. Interactive games required even more: logic, reading, divergent thinking, accurate spelling, and an understanding of economics, geography, history, politics, sociology and psychology. All of the games inspired animated conversations and frequently were won with pooled information and cooperative efforts.

Then they got modems and discovered BBSes (Bulletin Board Systems). Instantly they learned to speed read and to type like the wind, because logging onto a BBS gave them access to a huge crowd of other computer uses and a whole world of information. In a flash they developed remarkable skill in written communication, expressing themselves, giving and getting information. Pretty soon they set up their own BBSes, teaching themselves how to design a system and how to keep it up and running.

Where did they learn all that stuff? I'm not entirely sure. They thought about it, read manuals, brainstormed and talked with friends. One way and another they figured things out. If you assume kids learn only what they're taught and have to be forced at that, then how come my children have profound expertise in an area I know nothing about? How come I'm left out of so many dinner table conversations while they discuss their latest computer upgrades and the funny thing that happened on the Internet? How come they're correcting me on the use of an ellipsis when I'm supposed to be the resident expert on grammar and punctuation?

So that's how education goes in our home. I make sure they have the basic skills-or, more accurately put, THEY make sure they have the basic skills-and then GET OUT OF THEIR WAY. John and I keep our home an information-rich environment. We pay attention and feed their interests. We make sure they have whatever books and equipment they think they need. We answer what questions we can and guide them to sources for answers to the rest. We applaud and encourage and enjoy, but we seldom assign and rarely lead.

Math is one thing that's still handled in a more-or-less traditional way, I'm not sure why. Justified or not, I insist that Jonah do algebra before he goes off to finish his latest graphics animation, and Luke may have to figure out negative exponents before he goes upstairs to play drums. They all have other texts in their school book slots too, and sometimes they actually read them. I've seen Jocelyn read quite a bit of an American history source book before going off to do gymnastics and Jen has been known to do stuff in a grammar workbook before disappearing into the woods with Jill to work on their fort or invent a new game.

So what kind of results do we get with our helter skelter system? Josh is the oldest of the home schooled kids, the most enterprising of the lot. At 11 he built a barn and put up horse fences. By 14 he'd put siding on the gym and built an attic room to earn the money for an IBM personal system 2. At 16 he'd saved enough from his job to buy a brand new red truck. At 18 he got his pilot's license. At 19 he bought a house. By twenty, the age he is now, he had initiated and developed a plastics division at my husband's materials testing lab, and it is already the fastest growing part of the business.

Then there's Joanna. Working part time at the lab, she very quickly became their best technician and most versatile employee, but a couple years later decided to try hairdressing instead-a courageous decision in itself. She's a blond, so becoming a hairdresser was asking for double- barreled ridicule. She was hired the second she got her license and in two months was asked to be manager of the salon because, of her own accord, she had developed promotional programs, handled inventory, coordinated personnel and figured out the payroll each week. Just something to do between customers. Being home schooled, it never occurred to her to sit back and wait for orders and instructions. Now she's 19 and has decided to develop her knowledge of bookkeeping and business tax forms and become office manager in a technical company.

Jon J, at 17, has an established career in computers. He's the man to call when you want to know anything about state-of-the-art computer technology. If you want advice on what equipment you'll need and where to get the best system for the least money, he's the one to ask. He's the one who can set it up, install upgrades, diagnose problems and fix whatever goes wrong.

Those stories suggest how home schooled kids can enter the job market. Sure, my kids are extraordinarily bright and capable, but only in some ways, just like everyone else. They have their weaknesses too. The difference is, they've been raised with the freedom to capitalize on their strengths.

No, I don't expect other people to be able to do what we've done; we probably couldn't do what they've done either. Everyone has to find their own way, and most do.

REVELATION #7: School is not the only, the best or even the most common route to a job.

Only 80% of working adults in this country have a high school diploma. Only 20% have a college degree, and only 20% of those get a job in the field of their degrees. There's all this hoopla about how college graduates make more money. Well of course. They're selected from the brightest, most capable kids to begin with. They might be making and contributing even more if they hadn't put off work for years and assumed all that debt, and if they'd been encouraged to think independently from the start.

College would be a step backward for many home educated students, but if they want to go, colleges are happy to have them because it's become clear that home schoolers are self-motivated, well-informed and more mature than of most their public-schooled counterparts.

In the meantime, looking for employment is made easier for home educated kids because they have resumes filled with actual skills and accomplishments instead of hopeful credentials. What's more, they can prove their knowledge and skills more reliably than students with a piece of paper signifying only years of time done. In any case, they already know how to teach themselves whatever they need to know for the job; they've been doing it all along.

As Joe, who's sixteen, says, "It's pretty easy to talk your way into a job when you're ready and willing to do whatever they need done." Bosses are crying for people with initiative, who don't need to be supervised and instructed. They know from experience that schools don't encourage those traits. Sure, there will be some employers who can't see beyond an institutional certificate, but who wants to work for people like that anyway?

Taxpayers spend between six and seven thousand dollars per year per pupil on public schools. For that amount twenty or thirty students are crammed into a room that would be considered inadequate living space for four. There is no access to good food or fresh air, no chance to get normal exercise, and each bathroom is shared by hundreds. There's one adult for every twenty or thirty students (and we worry about single mothers with one or two?) There are fewer than thirty books for each student, access to them is difficult, and time to read them is nonexistent. There's one computer for hundreds, one piano for thousands . . . .

If you multiply what the schools spend per student per year by the seven children we still have at home, it happens to be the amount we spend each year housing them, feeding them, clothing them, transporting them, entertaining them, AND educating them, and that includes supplying them with two devoted parents. They live on a hundred acres of land in a fourteen room home. (All right, four of those rooms are makeshift attic bedrooms and the dining room table is a spiffed up picnic table with benches.) They have five computers, four phone lines, thousands of books and a plethora of musical instruments, art supplies, microscopes, machines, toys and tools. (Okay, John and I drive old cars, don't ever eat out, don't take vacations and don't have presentable wardrobes.) They could have more except 8.5% of what we have to spend goes to school taxes.

REVELATION #8: Public schools are typical government agencies- excessively costly, inefficient and incompetent. (Not much of a revelation, I guess.)

Let me emphasize, this is not because of teachers, school administrators or school boards. In my experience they are almost universally dedicated, intelligent, hard-working people. The problem is with all the ridiculous government regulations they think they have to abide by.

Think what a mecca of learning public schools could be if they dispensed with all the requirements and regulations and busing and concentrated instead on filling diverse places with books and equipment and interesting adults (at least one for every dozen kids), resources to be used at will, under no compulsion. You couldn't keep the kids away.

It would also help the schools fulfill their only legitimate function- -to stimulate and enhance thinking. Regulating schools into being centralized disseminators of official dogma and promoting them as mere job hatcheries is exactly where we've gone wrong.

The three questions I get asked most frequently about home education are "What about socialization?" and "What about tests?" and "What about the school officials?"

About socialization: Kids do not learn social behavior at school, they learn anti-social behavior there.

REVELATION #9: If kids are not dropped into school and abandoned to peer influence at an early age, they do not become hostile and alienated adolescents. They become friendly, cooperative and productive young adults instead.

And no, home schooled kids do not end up isolated and alone because they aren't locked in a school all day. They have strong relationships within the family for one thing, and they find friends easily through family, mutual interests, chance acquaintances, clubs, sports, lessons, over the computer-the way adults make friends. And their relationships are solidly based, not the treacherous clique alliances you see in schools.

REVELATION #10 - About tests: Testing and grading are the two most destructive things the schools do.

As I said before, the whole point of education is to offer open-minded opportunities to think and become aware. Tests and grades change that focus to judgment and evaluation, and by peculiar and narrow-minded standards at that.

We want our children to think for themselves and make independent judgments. To get good grades they have to go for the most generally accepted beliefs without regard for validity. We want them to think carefully and deeply, but on tests that strategy is counterproductive. We want them to fix errors on completed work. You can do that in school, but it won't change your grade. We want them to learn cooperation and to consult others for opinions and information. In school, that's called cheating. We want them to develop a sense of community, shared responsibility and achievement. In school there is only competition, so one person's success is bad news to everyone else.

For the first three years of home schooling, I did allow the school to send someone over to give my kids standardized tests, mostly just to show off my home and family, but also to quiet their nerves. After that I told them, look, standardized tests are wrong. You know it and I know it. We won't be taking them any more. If you want to know how we're doing, come on over and talk with us. Bring an open mind, I'll make cinnamon rolls and coffee. (They never took me up on my offer.)

So, about school officials. Yes, they have a whole bunch of foolish regulations to impose on home schoolers. I don't pay any attention. I expect them to behave sensibly and intelligently even if they are bureaucrats. So I just do what's right and assume I'll get away with it.

I do send quarterly reports listing all the books the kids have read and the things they've studied, but that's where I draw the line. Everything else that might be required is either wrong, misdirected or just a silly waste of time, so I don't do it. The only recourse they have would be to take me to family court where they would have to try to prove that my children were educationally neglected. They would have to spend tens of thousands of dollars they don't have to spend trying to prove something they know isn't true. And just imagine the bad press for them. They're too sensible to try it. They're happy to get the quarterly reports, and otherwise leave us alone.

REVELATION #11: If you stick to doing what's right, even bureaucrats may see the sense of it.

1995 Carol Wanagel

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