Thursday, August 11, 2011

Interview with Elizabeth

I have to admit I feel a little hinky posting my own interview. :) But hi there, I'm Elizabeth, and I am beyond delighted to be joining Kate in this project. I'm looking forward to helping give folks a glimpse into the incredibly diverse community of homeschoolers here in New Jersey. Kate has such a way of seeing the loveliest, most vibrant aspects of everything she looks at, and then showing those aspects to the world. I only hope my words can do her photos justice.

You can see a little more of Sarah's and my homeschooling journey at our journal: For peace comes dropping slow

What brought you to homeschooling?

When my daughter was 2 and a half, my husband and I started researching preschool options and early childhood educational theories. We were drawn to the work of Maria Montessori (especially her emphasis on mixed-age learning, independence & competence, and allowing kids to work independently and at their own pace), and considered a Montessori school. But we found the research arguing against early academic focus even more persuasive. David Elkind, Raymond and Dorothy Moore, Rudolf Steiner (founder of the Waldorf schools -- although his work was more philosophical than research-based)... There is an astounding amount of evidence that schools' emphasis on earlier and earlier academic work is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing, that kids are neurologically, psychologically, and emotionally better off if we delay academic work until age 8 or so. Before that, kids should be learning the way children have always learned: through play and stories, games and songs -- the way kids did in the old-fashioned half-day kindergarten I attended, 35 years ago. There's plenty of time to learn how to sit still and do worksheets and fill in little circles with number two pencils when kids are older. Research shows they catch up with their peers quickly -- why spend 3 years practicing a skill when you can learn it faster if you start later?

We couldn't find any school that provided the environment we were looking for (Waldorf schools do delay academic work until 7 or 8, but they share with more mainstream schools the practice of forcing kids to do all the same activities at the same time, regardless of where the child's curiosity and passion might be engaged at the moment.). So we decided to do it ourselves at home, borrowing some Montessori approaches, some Waldorf approaches, some Enki resources. Mostly we played and sang and read together, took walks to the playground, did lots of pre-reading and pre-math games, and experimented to find a rhythm to the day and week, to see what worked best for Sarah. The plan was to homeschool until she was 7 or 8, and then find a Montessori school nearby.

The Universe, it turned out, had other plans. When Sarah was 6, we found ourselves involved with a democratic free school (a school in which the students are free to decide how they spent their days, free to follow their own interests and passions to choose what to learn and how, and in which the majority of the school rules are decided by democratic process: one school member, one vote), and my educational views were further transformed by the writings of John Holt, John Taylor Gatto, Chris Mercogliano, Matt Hern... I met so many curious, passionate, independent, empowered young people who had blossomed in an environment where they were trusted with the control of their own education, their own time, their own lives. That's what I want for my daughter.

We were involved with the school for 2 years, until it closed for financial reasons. Afterwards, there was no question but that we were going to continue homeschooling together. I dream of opening my own democratic free school down the road, when Sarah is high school aged, the two of us working on that grand project together, but who knows where our paths will take us?

What do you like about homeschooling?

Everything. Seriously. We started out for academic reasons, but we're constantly finding new things to love about homeschooling. I love the incredibly diverse but still tight-knit community -- the fact that Sarah has friends of all different ages and family backgrounds, that her friends include the adult women in our homeschool network, just as mine include a dozen homeschooled kids. Sarah has a community of intelligent, thoughtful, powerful women who carve out their own lives, confounding societal expectations left and right, modeling so many different ways to be in the world. She has friends as young as 3 and as old as... well, I was going to say 13, but that's only if I ignore all her grownup friends.

I love the freedom we have to spend our days however we want without having to work around a school schedule. We want to take a week off and drive to the midwest to see my sister? We can do that. Go visit my daughter's great-grandparents one afternoon a week and hear stories of what it was like to grow up during the depression, to be a young adult during WWII; stories of what her grandma was like as a girl, what I was like as a kid? We can do that, too. We volunteer one afternoon a week at a local grassroots organization. We go visit my parents in the Adirondacks for a week so Sarah can kayak and hike and have my dad teach her what the tracks of different animals look like or have my mom take her to the local theater. Our schooled friends rarely do anything like this during the school year -- they're always too exhausted from dealing with the onerous demands of the school schedule and the ridiculous amounts of homework.

I love how much family time we have. Right now we "play school" for a couple hours most weekday mornings. After that, if she isn't signed up for a homeschool class or activity that afternoon, we go to the library or visit with friends or work in the garden or bake together in the kitchen. Or we go visit her dad for lunch. When he gets home from work they play math games he made up for her, or watch cartoons, or read together. One day a week he comes home early from work to take her to a weekly card game get-together.

What challenges have you faced?

Early in our homeschooling years, we were pretty isolated. It didn't occur to me to look online for local homeschool mailing lists, and our closest homeschool friends were 45 minutes away. But then one far-away homeschooling friend introduced me to a local homeschool mom, who introduced me to 2 other homeschool moms and told me where to find yet more of them, and before long we were in the midst of 3 different, but overlapping, homeschool communities.

Other than that... No challenges, really. My parents (retired NYC teachers) are incredibly supportive of our decision to homeschool, and everyone else in the family is pretty supportive, although I think a few of them think we're nuts for doing it. :) Sarah loves homeschooling, I love homeschooling her. Living on one income can be pretty tough, and sometimes I miss working outside the home, but my volunteer work and the homeschool classes I occasionally teach give me a lot of the same satisfaction and validation that a full-time job did, and the financial sacrifices are totally worth it. (ah, okay, and one other challenge -- resisting the temptation to overbook ourselves because there are just so many awesome things to do)

Any surprises?
How easy it is, maybe? How many other homeschoolers there are?

What was your own school experience like?

I loved school and I did well. I went to a public elementary school in Queens. Because I was so shy in kindergarten they thought I was struggling with the schoolwork, so they put me in one of the less-advanced first grade classes. I dealt with my boredom by becoming even more dreamy and imaginitive than I already was -- I finished my work before anyone else in the class, and then spent the rest of the time daydreaming. They quickly caught on, and put me in the "top class" from there on in -- where I was much less bored, although I still got my desk moved on a regular basis because I kept talking with my neighbors when we were done with our work. In 6th grade I was in an experimental class in a middle school specializing in music and art -- other than math and reading, for which we were broken up by academic level, we learned almost everything else through creative projects done in small groups (putting together a newspaper from ancient mesopotamia, directing a play about Theseus, and so on) and had virtually no homework. I loved that year, although I was too shy to tell the teacher that the math group I'd been assigned to was too easy for me -- and so, when it was time to prepare for the exams for the specialized NYC high schools, my dad taught me pre-algebra and algebra at home at night.

Seventh through Twelth grades I attended an academically rigorous specialized public high school in Manhattan. I loved it, and I was pretty good at it, although I was rarely an A student. I didn't see the point of working harder than it took to get a B -- except in math, or on a term paper, both of which I both loved and tended to excel at. I loved being surrounded by people who loved words and ideas, people who were curious and intellectual and who dreamed big dreams. But I got to college and had no idea how to organize my time, or how to figure out what I wanted to do with my life -- I was very good at the academic stuff, very good at doing what I was told, but had no idea how to be a person out in the world, and it took me many years to find my own voice, and to become strong enough to use it.

How would you describe your homeschooling style?

Indescribable. :) I find labels more oppressive than helpful, for the most part -- no matter what you say you are, there are always people who are all too happy to tell you you're doing it wrong, or who'll judge you based on that label without bothering to get to know you. I also find that getting invested in a label can get in the way of making the best choices for yourself and your family -- if you find people you really like who use the same label you've been using, it can be really tempting to want to stay part of the club, even when your instincts start calling you in a different direction. Sometimes I say we're eclectic, or child-led, or unschooly, but really, the best way to describe it is Responsive. I check in with Sarah on a regular basis about what we're doing and how it's working for her, and I respond based on my knowledge of her temperament, her strengths and challenges, and the needs of the moment.

When we first started homeschooling full-time again after being involved with the school, we spent a year being very unschooly. Going to the library a lot and just following her interests of the moment -- maybe spending a week reading about butterflies, or going through all the Magic Treehouse books we could find. Then, after being home long enough that we started getting a sense of what we wanted our days and weeks to feel like, we shifted into being more Waldorfy again -- focusing on the rhythms of the day and alternating between expansive and contracted activities. As she became a little more academically and emotionally mature, we found ourselves shifting to a more structured approach -- picking 2 or 3 themes for each month and planning readings and activities around those themes. Right now we're even more structured than that, because of a conversation we had about feeling too rushed by our monthly themes. Together we've designed a semester-long curriculum, including World History (starting with the Big Bang), Spanish, Science (earth science, focused on weather and Nature Study), Mythology and Comparative Religion (reading myths and reading about religious celebrations around the world), Geography (studying maps of the cultures we were reading about, and also creating and studying local maps), and an approach to math that includes project-based work and reading about the history of math and mathematicians. I'm inspired by Charlotte Mason to focus on living books (narrative books instead of text books, and books written by a single author who's passionate about the subject) and to use narration (giving an overview of what she just read, either verbally or using some kind of art or craft) to help Sarah process what she's learning.

What is the homeschooling community like in your area?

I'm in Northeast Jersey. We're part of a few small, private groups of 3-12 families who get together regularly for playdates or educational activities (a 6 week lego science group, once a month geography club, etc.). We're also part of a few larger groups -- some informal mailing lists, one formal co-op -- who share resources and ideas, organize field trips and clubs and activities. There are certainly some religious homeschoolers (that is, those who are homeschooling for primarily religious reasons -- lots of secular homeschoolers are religious, too), but I think the vast majority of local homeschoolers are secular. I notice more unschoolers here than among the homeschoolers I know from Central Jersey, who seem to be a little more structured on average.

Describe your day.

We tweak our daily rhythms on a regular basis. Right now, I get up around 8 and have an hour to myself, to have tea and go online. Then I get Sarah up and we have Dance Time -- we put on music and dance anywhere from 10-30 minutes, depending on how soon we have to be out of the house. We have breakfast and tidy up a bit. Then most days we play school: Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays we do world history, spanish, and nature study or geography; Tuesdays and Thursdays we study weather, mythology, and math. I'll read her a chapter from one book, then she'll do a narration, then she'll read to herself for a bit, and maybe we'll listen to Coffee Break Espanol together or she'll work on a project. Then we do some independent work -- sitting side by side at the table, each working on our own schoolwork.

After we play school, we might dance more (we take 3 or 4 dance breaks throughout the day, or we'll add a short walk to our errands if we're out of the house for the afternoon). Then we have lunch, quiet time (just a few minutes to meditate or doze), and then our afternoon adventure. In the fall and spring our afternoons are very busy -- playdates with friends, our volunteer work with GSE, homeschool bowling, homeschool soccer, maybe a trip to see my grandparents or a field trip to a museum. The Fall and Spring are also when Sarah's most likely to have various classes or be meeting once a month for geography or music group. In the summer and winter, our afternoons are more likely to involve baking or crafting at home, or a trip to the library, with the occasional playdate thrown in.

When her dad gets home, he and Sarah spend some time playing math games or reading together while I make dinner. After dinner we tidy up together, then play board games or watch a movie.

What are your aspirations for homeschooling?

I want Sarah to understand that she has an immense amount of power, and not to give it up easily or without careful consideration. She has the power to make her life almost anything she wants it to be. She never needs to do anything just because it's "normal" or expected. I want her to question things, to think for herself, to know how to listen to her gut, to her spirit. I want her to have a strong voice, a clear sense of herself, who she is and what she needs. I want her to be curious, passionate, compassionate.

I think the purpose of education is to prepare the student to craft her own life -- it should prepare her for whatever she wants to do next (including college or a career but also a balanced life full of hobbies, friends, a spiritual practice, the ability to balance a checkbook and change a tire...), it should prepare her to be an informed and active citizen of the country and the world, and it should prepare her to take her place in the ongoing cultural conversations of curious, enthusiastic, informed people.

Do you have any tips, tricks or resources that you would like to share?

Oh wow. What a big question. Let me start with a tip: Trust yourself, trust your child, trust the innate drive of humans to learn, investigate, invent, explore. Don't get intimidated by edu-speak. Don't get intimidated by how much there is to learn -- let yourself get swept away by the joy and excitement of that, instead. There's *so much* to learn. No one can learn everything in a year, or twelve years, or a lifetime. There's so much to see, so much to learn, so much to do -- just pick something your child loves, something that lights her up, and get started. Oh, and ask lots of questions! Reach out to your local homeschoolers, ask your librarians about awesome books and interesting local events, go to funky little museums and ask the staff questions (we got into the best conversation ever with a historian working at one of Washington's HQs when he overheard us wondering aloud how they'd learned that the rooms had been used for different purposes from what had originally been assumed). People love to answer questions, and you can learn so much that way!

The importance of music is apparent in your household, from the inclusion of song in your daily rhythm to the belting out of tunes during random parts of your day. How important do you think it is to share your passions with your child (in this case, music being an obvious one of yours)?

What a great question! I love that the singing stood out to you, because most of the time I don't even notice we're doing it. Music is definitely a passion of mine, but it is also such a central part of my heritage that I don't even notice how deeply and broadly it's woven into my life. When I sing with Sarah, I'm singing the songs my mom sang to me and my sister when we had trouble falling sleep at night, the songs my dad sang as he bounced me on his knee when I was even smaller than Sarah or whistled while he drove me to the train in the morning, the songs my grandma sang as we worked together in her backyard after school. The songs my sister and I tossed back and forth on long road trips in the summer, and the songs I sang to myself as I walked down city streets at lunchtime as a high school student. Each song has a story, a memory attached to it. Sharing this music with Sarah is one way of passing that heritage down to her.

But, also, yes, it's a way to include her in a passion of mine. I think it's incredibly important that parents let their kids see them passionately engaged in some hobby or interest -- not so much to pass down that *specific* hobby, but to model for kids a rich, vibrant life that consists of more than work, chores, and TV watching. Maybe music won't be one of Sarah's passions (although I admit I'll be surprised if that's the case), but I want her to fill her life with passions of her own, whatever they might be.

1 comment:

  1. Responsive. I love it!! What a fantastic interview and window into your lives!