Thursday, November 17, 2011

Keeping School Simple

I just read this blog post about homeschooling, and how we should keep things simple. The gist of it is that as long as your kids are reading or hearing great literature and doing math once a week, they'll be fine (ie. get into college and survive in the world).

I understand that the move to "keep school simple" is a response to the busy, stressful way a lot of homeschool parents educate their kids. Parents overburden themselves and their kids with too many assignments, tests, activities...etc. The terrible responsibility of educating your child, the fears of not doing a good enough job, not to mention the plethora of intense homeschool plans (Well Trained Mind anyone?) can lead a parent to compensate by becoming an overachiever.

One thing I have learned after homeschooling for eleven years is that educating your children at home is a monumental balancing act. It is alluring to believe that "one way" is the right way for your family, and that you'll stick to it forever. But the truth is that there are so many factors, so many considerations that a homeschool parent can't afford to rigidly adhere to any one approach, whether it is "keeping school simple" or otherwise.

I have had to flex and adjust my teaching approach several times over the years. I still question and doubt and change the way I homeschool.  One of the first (and most important) lessons I learned was that, as the teacher and mom of the family, my needs were just as important as the kids'. I was intensely uncomfortable when I tried the "unschooling" approach in the grade school years, and for right or wrong, I had to change things up. You know what they say, "if Mama ain't happy...." Learning to balance assignments with free exploration time was hard, and at times clunky. But I valued my feelings enough to craft an approach that didn't drive me crazy, but was still a stretch.

Another reality I've had to face is that (unfortunately) standardized tests such as the SAT/ACT and Subject Tests are especially critical for homeschooled students who plan to attend a four year university. At the high school level, a student must be able to write well, have a deep understanding language, have a good grasp of advanced math, and thoroughly know the specific subject material studied (eg. history, chemistry).

Let's face it, what child will spontaneously discover how to write a well organized, interesting five paragraph essay? And doing math once a week will not give a student adequate mastery to test well. The truth is, at the high school level, students must be prepared and able to study rigorously, even if they don't love the subject. With that in mind, it is unfair to allow a child complete academic freedom with no requirements prior to high school.

Also, I don't agree with "Keep it Simple's" assertion that everything a children learns before 7th grade will be forgotten. If a subject is taught once, and never seen again, then I agree the child probably won't retain it. But with cyclical repetition of subject matter, even if done casually and in a fun way, students do learn and retain knowledge. Keeping subjects to a minimum in the early years makes repeating them easy.

That said, I agree that early grade school children should learn mostly through play or pleasant experiences. An atmostphere of fun and creativity goes far in fostering a love of learning.  At this age, I think "Keeping it Simple" applies beautifully. If young homeschool parents realized what was ahead of them, they would relax and cherish the special times with their young students.

But it is unrealistic to think that students will be prepared for high school, and later, college level work if they have never been required to learn and work at tasks and subjects that are difficult. Thankfully, by high school, most students are mature enough to realize that their future depends upon their education, and are willing to do the work (though perhaps not joyously).

In the end, homeschooling through the years is a lot like yoga. It takes a lot of balancing and stretching! We balance joyful learning and required learning, our kids' needs and our own, our aspirations and our fears. We stretch into approaches that are uncomfortable, while remembering to value our own feelings. Figuring out the balance that works is the trick, and is unique to each family.