Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Homeschool Morning (and a few other relevant comments)

This morning we didn't wake up until 8am. Partner-Guy had already left for work and Anna commented when we came out to the living room that it was already "really light outside". Holly and Jasmine are just getting over colds and it was nice to sleep a little later than usual, which seemed to benefit everyone including me.

Anna and Holly had slept in clean clothes (they like to be ready to start the day as soon as they get out of bed and they consider pyjamas to add an extra and unnecessary step) and Jasmine helped herself to some semi-clean clothes out of the laundry basket and got herself dressed. (She prefers to sleep naked, a preference she has had since she was about 6 months old when her eczema started to appear all over her body.)

The last few nights at bedtime I have been making up ridiculous stories for Anna and Holly, usually including many of their outlandish suggestions. Anna had suggested last night that we should make one of the stories into a book so this morning she immediately set about finding a sharp pencil, assorted markers and pencil crayons and a new little unlined notebook. Then she and Holly helped me remember one of our made-up stories (about 2 princesses: one likes to get dirty and one thinks dirt is "Eeeewwww!") and I wrote it down in the notebook, one sentence on each page.

Then Anna and Holly sat beside each other and shared the job of illustrating the book. No fighting. No competition. No criticism of each other's drawings. It was quite a family moment.

Meanwhile, Jasmine got out the playdough and I entertained her at the table and kept her from swiping the markers. When some of us got hungry, I found that Partner-Guy had forgotten his lunch in the fridge, so Holly, Jasmine and I shared it for breakfast.

When the illustrations were finished Anna and Holly disappeared into the bedroom with their Barbies while Jasmine and I cleaned up the playdough, vacuumed, read about 25 books (at her level, of course), loaded the dishwasher and did my 20-minute workout. (I use a DVD that has a gentle toning/stretching/yoga style program that gets progressively more intense.)

It was 11:30 before Anna and Holly were ready to take a break from their make-believe Barbie world. I read a dozen-or-so books to Holly while Anna and Jasmine played a running-through-the-room-and-jumping-off-the-couch game, then we all ate lunch and suddenly the morning was over and it was time for Jasmine to take a nap.

A mundane morning, you think? Well, I recount the details of our morning only to be able to now comment that it's a great life. Homeschooling is neither a burden nor a hassle. I am not Supermom. I am just going along with the kids and doing what suits them. The housework gets done in bits and pieces, each child gets whatever individual attention she requires each day and there is no schedule to be followed. Everyone benefits.

I think the part of homeschooling-in-an-unschooling-way that seems to worry some of my critics is that the content of the children's learning is determined by them and not by me. People are so convinced that the North American model of formal education is the only way that children learn anything, that they can't possibly imagine that children can have meaningful, interesting lives without their days being scheduled into little blocks of time dedicated to topics that an adult has decided is important. The extent to which my children already know about Canadian history and geography, the water cycle, weather, healthy living, animal habitats and the food chain and even their literacy and numeracy is because of their interests and natural curiosity, not because I have decided what they will learn and when.

I can certainly see with my girls that learning is a cultural phenomenon, unique to each family and community. If we made our living as dairy farmers (as my parents did), my girls would have a big understanding of the life cycle of cows and the planting of crops. If we ran a landscaping business, they'd know about trees and flowers and grades and soil. If we belonged to a church, it would form part of their community and they would learn there, too. Because we are literate, environmentally-minded, world-issue-conscious and committed to healthy living, our children will have those ideas as part of their culture. And because we live in a fast-paced, ethnically diverse city, they will have access to more ideas which will form their complete culture.

I think that culture is incredibly important in the education of children. (And by education I basically mean learning.) Culture determines priorities, perceptions and core values. I have read about a group of Mennonites or Hutterites who formed an isolated community in which to live within their beliefs without outside influence. Within two generations they were completely illiterate. But I bet their children could tend the animals, plant crops, bake bread, butcher a pig and make cheese. They probably understood weather patterns and the habits of wild animals, too. It goes to show that priorities determine education, as established by the culture of the community.

On Monday morning the principal at Partner-Guy's school made a school-wide announcement asking the students and staff to observe a moment of silence to remember the victims of the earthquake in Haiti and to be conscious of how many Haitian children are now without food, water and schools. Partner-Guy almost choked on his coffee when he heard her say that. As if schools are as important as food and water? And what about the Haitian children who are now without parents? Not as important as being without schools, apparently.

So why is it that whenever humanitarian aid is offered to impoverished regions, immediately teams of Westerners are sent to establish schools in the typical style of North America? Wouldn't it make sense to let the community establish its own educational priorities as reflected by their history, lifestyle and core values? I remember watching the Oprah special when she went to South Africa and built schools. Every child showed up for school wearing an American-style uniform and sat in desks in neat rows and wrote in notebooks and studied from textbooks. I couldn't believe it. Was she trying to make them into Americans? Just because the children study South African history, or read a novel that offers the South African version of To Kill a Mockingbird, does that mean their true educational needs are being met? And meanwhile, they are removed from the work of their parents for 8 hours a day and they lose the opportunity to learn meaningful life skills from them. I'm still confused.

I'm not anti-education. Really, I'm in favour of access to education for all. For example, preventing girls from attending school in Afghanistan is clearly just one more way that women are oppressed in that country. And literacy is a basic life skill that everyone should attain. Throughout the world ample evidence exists that access to education opens doors for people who would otherwise live generation after generation in perpetual poverty. But why has the word school come to mean just one style of education all over the world? ( It's like the word milk automatically connotes cow's milk, not soy milk or human milk even.)

This issue of forcing North American style schooling on the people of developing nations is one of the things that prevents me from giving to humanitarian groups such as Oxfam or Compassion or WorldVision. Instead, I keep my giving local by handing my pocket change to the homeless or panhandlers I see. I can't help it that my tax dollars fund a system of education that I don't endorse. (My tax dollars also fund a healthcare system that is wasteful and misguided, but I can't cover everything in one post.) But I can question where money is spent if I am going to make a donation to provide humanitarian aid overseas.

And I can remember everyday how fortunate I am to be raising my daughters in a time and place where I can not only ask these questions, but also follow my heart with regards to our priorities and core values.

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