Homeschool Information Library
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Homeschooling Correspondence Schools
From the moment when we first decided to "try" homeschooling up until our daughter's fifth birthday, I had been preparing to design our own curriculum. To this end I had amassed an abundant supply of resources. Catalogs in every subject overflowed in our filing cabinet. The closet was stocked with math manipulatives, science kits, puzzles, art supplies, craft items and everything I thought we could possibly need to begin. The book shelves housed numerous volumes on homeschooling. But as Kate approached that magical, mystical age of first grade, my confidence wavered. Perhaps some outside help would set my fears to rest.
I was ripe for an "expert" to come and take me by the hand and lead me down this unfamiliar road. When a friend showed me her children's Oak Meadow curriculum I was intrigued. Her favorable impressions coupled with what I saw changed my decision from a self prepared curriculum to a homeschooling correspondence school. Oak Meadow's emphasis on a child's imaginative spirit appealed to me. They present much of their information to a child through stories. Art activities accompany each subject. Their approach is relaxed and follows the child's developmental stages. They recommend introducing each subject in a natural, informal manner so the child does not feel forced into the activity. Their curriculum emphasizes the child's imagination and concerns itself with the process of the child's work and not the product. It sounded perfect for Kate. Kate had always spent her days pretending, drawing, dreaming, and playing.
Oak Meadow also appealed to me as the educator. There would be a curriculum broken down into subject matters, a monthly correspondence with Kate's teacher, and a weekly lesson guide. Some of this sounded a bit contrived to my emerging beliefs of trusting my children to learn by themselves from life, but my traditionally schooled self like the reassurance that everything was being covered. I feared that if left alone, Kate's life would be unbalanced. The arts would be covered without a problem. But what about science and math? This is where I felt I needed Oak Meadow's guidance.
We enrolled Kate in Oak meadow's first grade and paid the extra fee for monthly correspondence with a teacher. When the curriculum arrived we were eager to begin. Some of Kate's friend's were also signed up with Oak Meadow . One family even had the same teacher. It felt as if we were all in this together as one big family. That gave me security. I needed the feeling of being backed up in this venture. Kate followed the Oak Meadow curriculum for two years.
There were many ideas that we benefited from in their curriculum. Kate was immediately drawn to the stories. I read her the stories about the seasons, the life cycle of a seed, animals, and tales of word families for the first grade. We played fishing games where she would catch letters from a bucket and attach them to a word family. During her second grade I began to read her fairy tales. She gobbled the stories up. Each day we would spend hours reading together. The four of us would snuggle up on the couch and I would pour through the tales. Our baby nestled on my lap nursing and our four year old would become wide eyed hearing the adventures. We were introduced to the stories of Thornton Burgess. Each one was devoured as we grew to love the animals of the Smiling Pool, the Green Forest, and the Laughing Brook.
Our math was centered around fairies. I substituted fairies for the gnomes Oak Meadow suggested to teach the four processes of math. We delighted in drawing each of the fairies. The pictures reflected the attributes of each process. Thus the plus fairy was fat and jolly and was always adding jewels to her sack. The minus fairy was rather forlorn. His pockets had holes in them and his jewels kept tumbling out of his sack. These images helped Kate identify each of the processes and a story matched them with their sign. After the fairies were drawn, I told Kate story after story about them. This was how she learned to add, subtract, divide, and multiply. It worked.
Science was more of a hit and miss proposition. The science curriculum was broken down week by week. Immediately I felt the pressure to get the lesson accomplished. It didn't seem like much on paper, but our week would slip by without the work done. Some of the activities interested Kate. But many were met with resistance. She had absolutely no desire to learn about the weather. She didn't want to make a wind vane, balked at the suggestion of making a weather chart, and rolled her eyes when I began to tell her the different names of clouds. We skipped it. Other projects were greeted enthusiastically, especially those that were art centered. She eagerly worked on the Autumn leaf projects, any project that involved drawing, and preparing food for the wintering birds from pinecones, peanut butter, and seed.
Much to my surprise, Kate wasn't inspired in the bulk of Oak Meadow's art curriculum. At six she had already established her own style of drawing. She shunned their suggestions of filling the entire page with color, would not draw with crayon, and liked to outline her figures even though they strongly advised against it. She did enjoy their drawing exercises. We spent many an hour making patterns then drawing the mirror image of it. Later she took the patterns and made borders for her artwork.
Oak Meadow's musical instruction focused on the recorder as the instrument of choice. I introduced the recorder several times to Kate but she didn't bite. The tape cassette sent with the first grade curriculum was much too sweet for Kate's taste. She wasn't moved to sing the songs recorded on them. However, their suggestion of singing in rounds was a delightful addition to our lives. It has become one of my favorite activities to do with Kate.
One part that I looked forward to doing each month was writing a letter to Kate's teacher. I would take a weekend afternoon and sit at the computer for a couple of hours composing this monthly masterpiece. Boy did that make me feel great. When the letter was completed you would think that Kate was a whiz kid and that her every waking moment was spent in academic pursuit. My self confidence was boosted. Writing these letter was my proof that Kate really was learning and was becoming a well rounded person. All the bases were covered. Not only did my writing serve as a concrete means of proof of learning, but the replies were the icing on the cake. The teacher reflected my words back to me and encouraged me to keep up the good work. She raved about Kate and gave me the needed pat on my back to keep going.
By the second year of Oak Meadow I felt like a old pro. My letters contained even more glowing reports of Kate's "progress". The letters back to me were filled with praise. But somehow it sounded a false note in me. When I read Kate's report cards I read my words rearranged on the page. I felt cheated. I was feeding the teacher all the information and she just dished it back to me in a slightly different format.
More importantly, I also began to question deeper all this recording. Breaking Kate's activities into school subjects felt false. Writing about Kate's activities for evaluation went against my growing faith in a child's ability to learn what they need when they need it. While I was trying to build up my trust in self directed learning this evaluation process eroded it. Trusting my daughter's internal schedule conflicted with my telling her that it was time to learn to multiply, or spell, or write in cursive. During the second year my confidence in our chosen path of homeschooling was firm and I was not dependent on this life line with a professional. My attitude had changed from being worried about my child's covering all the subjects and being well rounded to allowing her to find her own path and assisting her on her journey. I was less anxious about forcing science and math into her life and was beginning to see it entering in through her exploration of reading, art, music, and play.
Towards the middle of the second grade I was feeling resentful of the curriculum. There had always been twinges of misgivings about following a prepared curriculum. Many of the subjects did not interest Kate. I found myself trying to sell her on some of their ideas. "Wouldn't this be fun Kate? Let's look at the different foot prints that animals make. We can take out some library books on it." Kate frowned. The math work often produced similar results. I would let the topic sit and then pick it up again in a week or two. Sometimes Kate's reaction would be a lot stronger and we would end up in a battle. At times she would burst into tears and I would demand her compliance. "Do just three math problems and then you can play."
These tensions were not what I had envisioned in the ideal homeschooling environment. But still I held fast to the curriculum. I would slack off a bit and ask her to do less during the stressful times. But I wouldn't give it up. I wasn't ready. On some levels I likened the tensions and pressures the those of mothering. My idealized vision of motherhood had long been shattered by the day to day reality of living with three children. My children weren't perfect. They bickered, refused to share their toys, cried, complained, were noisy, and left a mess. So perhaps homeschooling too could only be done with this constant tug of wills. Wasn't it my job to coax our children to perform tasks that didn't interest them so they could learn what they were supposed to according to someone else's schedule? The more I thought about it the more I thought that I did not want be in this role.
This September we did not enroll Kate in the Oak Meadow program. I did not chose to rely on the words of another to judge our daughter's performance. Even though I borrowed a copy of my friend's third grade curriculum, I have flipped through it only once or twice. The difference in our family life is incredible. Kate and I are no longer locking horns over her work. I have gained a new perspective from the space left by following a prepared curriculum. The more I step back the better view I have. There is much more freedom for Kate to pursue her own interests. Gone is that feeling of not keeping up or being on schedule or getting in all the subjects. When following the Oak Meadow curriculum even loosely I always was pushing to complete the work of the week, month, or quarter. Our days were planned by some one else. Much of our time together was governed by the pressure to comply to the schedule. I would be stressed into trying to squeeze Kate's schooling into a tiny window of opportunity. I would have to wait until the baby was settled and contented or else work while he was nursing or napping. When this perfect moment was reached I would switch into high gear and summon Kate to the table. This certainly wasn't "natural" no matter how much I tried to present it that way. Without a curriculum hanging over my head I am breathing easier. The pressure is off me and off Kate too.
Now I can see Kate more clearly. I can enjoy her uniqueness and not worry that she isn't memorizing her multiplication tables, or doesn't know a cumulus cloud from a cirrus. For me having a curriculum, no matter how loose, art centered, and child friendly created the pressure to follow it and guilt and self doubt when I couldn't. This lead to judging my child and competing with others and away from self directed learning and enjoying our time together. The curriculum undermined my ability to look at my child without the outside expectations of others. Without a curriculum we have more freedom to follow our own paths, as individuals and as a family. Kate can attend to her own interests and let them lead her where they will. I can relax and really trust her. So much of Oak Meadow's message is to honor your child and to allow them unfold at their own pace. But for me this process was hampered by the presence of a curriculum lurking in the background.
On top of this I was finding that negative patterns were developing. Kate had begun to dislike math and cringed whenever I suggested we work on it together. She told me that she thought she wasn't any good at math. Kate didn't need a school system to put those negative labels on her, she was doing it at home. Just what I thought I was going to avoid by keeping her out of school was happening right at our dining room table. Today math comes into our lives pain free when we discuss the price of toys she covets, how to divide cookies between friends, and how much Halloween candy she collected. Once in a while we open a math games book and select something that sparks her interest. A Saxton math book sits on the shelf for moments when we choose a more formalized approach. Her self confidence has skyrocketed and math is no longer a charged subject.
For our family the positives of a homeschooling correspondence school were outweighed by the negatives. While we benefited from many of Oak Meadow's methods, learned about new books, and enjoyed much of our written correspondence with the teacher, in the end this was overshadowed by the down sides. The pressure of keeping up, the tension of the power struggles between Kate and me, the lack of time to pursue other interests, the guilt when the work wasn't completed, and the judging of our daughter's performance by other people's standards made the decision to give up the correspondence school an easy one
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