Part Two: Unschooling; what did I realize?

In adjusting my teaching style to my children’s complex demands, I gradually learned to observe them and learn. Since imposing the wrong approach created conflict, I gravitated toward a more productive routine. My rule became harmony, not the default procedure that had worked for past students, but did not work for Annette and Lewis.

For teaching music reading, I learned to accept the complexity they wanted, even though I continued to wonder if they were actually learning what they needed to. But I saw that they thrived on difficult tasks, and that for them, the difficulty of the job was the whole point.

I couldn’t resist the pull to do what so obviously made them happier—and clearly, they learned better in a relaxed atmosphere in which I supported what they wanted to do.

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Part One: My journey to unschooling

Our home school was going to be the most organized on the planet. I was committed to that after reading Paul Copperman’s The Literacy Hoax: The Decline of Reading, Writing, and Learning in the Public Schools and What We Can Do About It (1978).

Copperman details various ways in which schools cheated their students out of an education, and I didn’t want to do that to our children. Determined to run a tight ship, I soon bumped into our children’s special needs. They rejected the simple, sequential process I tried to impose when teaching them to read music. Both sought complexity, and it didn’t seem to bother them that they didn’t understand the printed music they most wanted to try to play.

This was unprecedented in my experience, and I floundered. How was I to explain complex rhythm patterns to a child who was looking at a page of music for perhaps the fifth time in his or her life? Jumping in and doing my best, I still felt like a failure most of the time, but in retrospect realized some important things.

Next: What did I realize?

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Part Five: The damage we bypassed

Annette

As a child, Annette was organized, focused, and somewhat teachable. Her drive for independent learning expressed itself in activities such as reading Ellis’s college astronomy textbooks and studying Jupiter’s moons. In a classroom, she probably would have been obedient and well-behaved, but intolerably bored. Twelve years of this would probably have killed her curiosity, at minimum, and maybe transformed her into a mental zombie.

Lewis

Lewis was dreamy from the beginning. We could tell that he was thinking all the time, including when he was a baby and was supposed to be asleep. When he was about six, I discovered his right-brain learning style, and this smoothed our school routine beautifully. But in a classroom, he’d have been so centered on his own thoughts that it’s likely he’d have missed most of what the teacher said. Poor or average grades would have resulted, and by high school or earlier, he’d have become convinced that he was a failure.

My husband and I have always been happy that we made the right decision, to home school our children.

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Part Four: Success

When our children went to college, I began to see how different they were from their public school-educated classmates. Annette and Lewis were curious: Both would take on difficult engineering or math problems for fun. If they disagreed with their instructors, they argued with them. Fortunately, this was at our local junior college where the professors were competent, not egocentric, and excited about our children’s curiosity and independent thinking. They welcomed and encouraged Annette and Lewis. Both found devoted mentors, who created early opportunities for professional work.

Observing this, I realized that in centering our home school on student curiosity, we were nurturing that trait, not only for college, but for their whole lives.

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Part Three: Negative attitudes about home schooling

As Annette and later, Lewis, began approach kindergarten age, our friends and neighbors started asking us which grade school we planned to send them to. Until this point, I hadn’t realized that home schooling was suspect—at least in the mid-1990s.

When I mentioned our plans to home school, people’s replies were uniformly negative and often disguised. One neighbor said, “I firmly believe that it takes a whole village to raise a single child.” A family friend asked, “What are your children going to do when they find out that everybody isn’t a genius?” One relative was especially blunt: “Why would you want to ruin your children?”

I’d recently read Nancy Wallace’s Better than School, and her story of their family’s homeschooling success inspired me. Gradually I began to realize that the attitudes I’d been encountering were probably ignorance-based.

“But what about socialization?” This was by far the silliest comment, and the most frequent. People appeared to believe in the automatic virtue of children’s association with age-peers, completely forgetting that adult life is filled with social, family, and professional relationships with people of all ages. Worse, they appeared much more concerned about our children’s social development than their education.

Next: Success

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Part Two: Home schooling

Where should we put our energy?

From descriptions of advocacy, I learned that parents who advocate for their children travel a long, steep, and rocky path. Just reading about it exhausted me.

“If we decide to make the schools do what they ought, we’ll spend hours at it and drain ourselves emotionally.” I told my husband, Ellis. “And,” I added, “we might not succeed. Meanwhile, Annette will be forced to sit in classrooms where she’ll be bored.”

Ellis concurred.

Discussing the matter, we realized two things: 1. If we put the same amount of energy that we might put into advocacy into home schooling our daughter and future children, the result would almost certainly be better and happier. 2. Ellis and I, between us, had a significant array of skills we wanted to teach our children. If they attended public school, the best part of their day would be spent at school. They would come home in the afternoon with only leftover energy for learning what we knew.

Having seen this, we couldn’t resist the pull to arrange our household schedule around our children’s learning as much as possible.

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Part One: Home schooling

Deciding to home school

Both of our young adult children have thanked us for home schooling them. It was an easy decision except for the financial pressure it imposed.

Our oldest was about three, and doing amazing things; this had begun when she was about six months old. So, knowing nothing about accelerated development except that I was witnessing it, I read all the books I could find about gifted children and their needs.

My husband and I had already decided that we didn’t want our daughter in a fifth grade classroom when she was four. That left two options: home school or insist that our local school obey the law and provide her with a free and appropriate education—what’s now known as advocacy.

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Part Nine: Good old books for your voracious reader

Rumer Godden

Rumer Godden’s two children’s books—Miss Happiness and Miss Flower; and Little Plum—go together but can be read separately. Little Plum, the sequel to Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, is the more compelling of the two. However, both are worth reading.

Little Plum features naughty Belinda, a stubborn but lovable 8-year-old. The small Japanese doll for whom the book is named becomes the center of a fight between Belinda and an equally ingenious and resourceful neighbor girl.

The episodes in this book are funny, and unmistakably true, in the way that excellent fiction can be.

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Part Eight: Good old books for your voracious reader

Margery Sharp

Margery Sharp’s “Miss Bianca” series is readable and lively. The best of her books is The Rescuers, featuring an aristocratic white Mouse—Miss Bianca herself—and two companions on a journey to rescue a (human) political prisoner. For them, the greatest danger is probably the jailer’s cat.

Her other books, though not quite as good, are still worth reading. None has violence or anything else potentially unsuitable for young, sensitive readers. These are approximately mid-grade school level.

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Part Seven: Good old books for your voracious reader

Noel Streatfeild

Noel Streatfeild wrote about children in sports and the performing arts. Her titles tell the subject: Theater Shoes, Dancing Shoes, Circus Shoes, Tennis Shoes, etc.

Although some of her episodes and characters feel contrived, we still want to read on, compelled by her storyteller’s skill. One of her most delightful children’s novels is The Magic Summer, about four siblings who have to spend a summer separated from their parents, with an aunt they’ve never met—managing largely by themselves.

In addition to her “shoes” series, Streatfeild wrote many other children’s books, plus novels for adults, and even some nonfiction.

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