When my oldest daughter was four, I agonized over whether to homeschool or send her to kindergarten. I doubted my ability to teach her. When I asked Mel, a dad who homeschooled his five children, for advice he said, "You've made it through the sleepless nights of infancy and toddlerhood, taught your daughter to speak, feed herself, dress herself, and behave properly. You're finally dealing with a reasonable little human being, the real fun of being a parent is about to begin, and suddenly you think you're no longer qualified?" Well, she never made it to kindergarten, and now, almost ten years later, I'm very glad I heeded Mel's advice.
The assumption that trained professionals are the only ones qualified to teach our children is a relatively new concept, historically speaking. Around 1850, compulsory education was introduced in Massachusetts, and by the turn of the century, parents (often reluctantly) turned over the responsibility for their kids' education to the state. A study later showed that the Massachusetts literacy rate was 98 percent before compulsory education; after compulsory education, the literacy rate never exceeded 91 percent.
To teach in today's classrooms, educators certainly do need years of specialized training. Large groups of kids with different interests and abilities spend six or seven hours a day together memorizing blocks of often abstract information. John Taylor Gatto, NYC Teacher of the Year, shared his teaching experiences in Dumbing Us Down: "I began to realize that the bells and the confinement, the crazy sequences, the age-segregation, the lack of privacy, the constant surveillance, and all the rest of the national curriculum of schooling were designed exactly as if someone set out to prevent children from learning."
On the other hand, children who learn at home have the freedom to choose when, where, and how they learn. The only credentials parents need for this type of teaching are a strong desire to help their children achieve academic excellence and a belief that their kids can and will succeed. This sounds like a simple process, but how does a parent become a good teacher?
Gatto explains, "I had to drop the idea that I was an expert whose job it was to fill the little heads with my expertise, and I began to explore how I could remove those obstacles that prevented the inherent genius of children from gathering itself." The best way to accomplish that goal? "Get out of the kids' way and give them space and time and respect."
Homeschooling, seen in this light, is not about a parent becoming a teacher, in the traditional sense, but a parent becoming a guide and a partner in the learning experience. Successful home learning involves observing your child, following his lead, and respecting his choices. This can be done within the framework of core subjects like reading, math, and history -- it's just done creatively.
For instance, I remember studying about the Civil War when I was in school. We opened our history books, did a few activities and spent many hours memorizing large blocks of information. It was incredibly boring, and after I passed the test on Friday, I remembered very little about the Civil War.
When my daughter Jessica was seven, we read a series of books about a little slave girl named Addy who lived during the Civil War. Told from the prospective of a nine-year-old girl, Addy's story fascinated Jessica. She was filled with questions and wanted to learn more: "Why were there slaves? What was the Underground Railroad? Who was Abraham Lincoln?"
We found the answers to these and other questions in the colorful books and educational videotapes in our library. We cooked with recipes from that time period, and made simple garments that were (almost) historical. We also went to a Civil War reenactment -- complete with soldiers camping and food cooking on open fires. But most importantly, we had fun. I never had to "teach" her anything, and I certainly learned a lot. Six years later, Jessica still recalls just about everything we covered -- now that's real learning!