Sunday, February 18, 2007

apples and oranges

"I don't clean my eye out with a chainsaw."--Gayle Erwin, "The Nature of Jesus"

The Deputy Headmistress recently posted about why homeschooling isn't (or shouldn't be) a third-rate imitation of public schools; how we usually find methods and materials that work better out of the classroom. I quoted her here; and I've posted some of my own ideas about that before.
"Apples and oranges. The original question was, are homeschooling parents competent to teach their children? Should their competency be judged on whether or not they can find any use for a Guided Reading Beach Ball or 35 Must-Have Assessments?"--"Between Two Worlds," October 2005
One reason I haven't sent my children to government schools (until this year, more on that later) is that I haven't felt we needed to take advantage of what they were offering. We do accept some government perks such as occasional low-income heating rebates; most of these we don't even need to apply for, they just arrive (based on our tax returns); and they help make it possible for us to live on one income. So I can take no high ground on claiming independence from all government assistance. And--something that some non-homeschoolers don't realize--we do pay school taxes even though we homeschool. (Every property owner pays school taxes, even if they don't have kids! How do they think we'd get away with not paying taxes? But I digress...)

So we're certainly entitled to send our children to public schools; and we live within walking distance of two of the highest-ranked elementary schools in the city, so it's not a problem of the schools being particularly dreadful. But just as the DHM has said about people being "entitled" to food stamps, just because you're entitled doesn't mean you should take what's offered. School buildings are expensive; so are heating, and desks, and books, and teachers, and janitors, not to mention buses. Teachers complain that they're overworked as it is. I feel it would be somewhat selfish of me to take that "for free" when I'm capable of teaching my own without using up more of the local school board's limited resources. It's actually more efficient (creates a smaller footprint?) for my children to learn at home. Please don't take that as criticism of people who do choose to use public schools; it's simply the position that our own family is in.

How is homeschooling more efficient? Two ways in particular:

1. Efficiency in teaching--or should that be, in learning? Even on days when we don't get in a full quota of "school," I see learning happening. Someone picks up a calculator and we play an impromptu game of "Century." (Something like blackjack.) The five-year-old decides she's going to write a book (never mind that it ends up being one page and a cover). The nine-year-old tries to devise her own kind of music notation. Someone asks me how to spell something, or follows recipe directions, or goes out to help Daddy with a job in the garage. Please note that we are not using "chainsaw methods" here--although we are not unschoolers by any means, we do take advantage of natural learning opportunities, many questions and attempted answers, many small minutes, and they add up.

We are not a copy of a public school or even a Christian school. We are a family, and like any family we have our ups and downs, sometimes frustration, occasionally heartache. My kids are not "perfect classical kids." They fight over the colour comics, they do not have perfect handwriting, and they sneeze on each other.

However, over the space of two days this week I catalogued this list of activities that went on here, most of them outside of "regular learning time." Let's see...we had an art lesson with Jan Brett, and Ponytails did a couple of fraction pages. Crayons did some pages in a yard-sale pre-writing workbook (trace the round snowmen and draw scarves on them). We read a chapter of Sajo and the Beaver People and a story from the Red Fairy Book. The younger ones had lots of imaginary play with Lego blocks, and then got out every preschool jigsaw puzzle we have (the ones they haven't done for a year) and built them all over the floor. [Clarification on "imaginary play"--not that they imagined they were playing, but they were using all their imaginary people. When little girls play Lego, it gets combined with storytelling. Little people made of stacks of Lego blocks get new hairdos and redecorate their rooms.] They played in the snow, and helped shovel it. Ponytails made a quick batch of peanut-butter treats. She noticed that my Valentine's Day bunch of tulips had opened up and looked just like the flower diagram in the Botany book, so we got that out and compared. (We also read this week about seed dispersal and how that helped inspire the invention of Velcro.) The younger squirrelings watched "The Borrowers" (the old movie with Eddie Albert), listened to Dad's Bob Dylan and Neil Young tapes, went to their dance lessons. Two of them built their own Stonehenges out of building blocks, after looking at Constable's painting. We looked at a map of southern Ontario, flipped it over to look at Northern Ontario, and noticed how far north of that Hudson Bay goes (to get an idea of Really Cold. We're reading about fur traders and Arctic exploration). Ponytails cleaned out a dishpan full of her old papers and magazines, reading things to me as she went (such as how astronauts blow their noses in space). During that time I was writing on the couch with Crayons beside me, who is determined to read through the entire Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series by herself. ("What's a burr?" she asked. A what? Oh, a bureau. A fancy word for dresser. "Okay." There, simple vocabulary lesson accomplished.)

And, and, and--the highlight--the electric typewriter. It was Ponytails' idea to drag it out of the basement and start typing on it, but all THREE of the Squirrelings needed a little refresher course on the pre-computer keyboard. (Where's the Enter key?) Ponytails typed a letter to a friend. Crayons just typed.

2. Efficiency in evaluation--Government schools spend huge amounts of time and money on standardized testing and other methods of evaluating progress. Our long-term goals in education are to "produce" (unfortunate word) capable, educated adults who can think logically, act responsibly, read intelligently, write clearly, show compassion, and have a working relationship with the world and its Creator. I don't think there is a standardized test that can measure those things.

As a slightly apologetic afterthought, we do have a Squirreling attending public high school part time, so I'm not in a position to say that government schools are completely useless to us. It was more efficient for The Apprentice to take some of the courses she really wanted (like drama and hairdressing) in group classes and in well-equipped labs. For our family, it works best for her to do that at the local high school, rather than looking for private opportunities or homeschool classes. Sometimes the high school classes seem to waste time watching videos. I miss the unlimited time at home when we could just read something and not worry about whether it was counting for a credit. But it is a moving-on step for The Apprentice, so I'm glad that she has the opportunity to try out these things that we can't provide at home.

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