Homeschooling and Libraries

Things I'm thinking about and learning while working with homeschoolers and writing Helping Homeschoolers in the Library for ALA Editions.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Homeschooling on the Road

Comics author Scott McCloud (Understanding Comics) and his family – wife Ivy and daughters Skye and Winter – are off on a year-long tour to promote his new book, Making Comics. The family is homeschooling the kids (6th and 8th grade) while on the road, and they’re doing some really fun things like podcasts and video interviews with comic artists they meet along the way. And the whole family’s blogging. So far it’s been fun to peek over their shoulders while they’re homeschooling, traveling, and meeting interesting people. I saw the McClouds when Scott was speaking here in Rochester at RIT, and I’d highly recommend taking in one of the family’s presentations if they come to your area. For their evolving schedule, visit the Making Comics 50 State Tour web site.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

An Interview with Mary Griffith, Part Five

Adrienne: What can you tell me about Viral Learning? I love the title, and it sounds like it's going to be an interesting book.

Mary: After I'd finished the 2nd edition of The Homeschooling Handbook, my then-editor asked me what homeschooling book I wanted to do next, and at the time, I simply had nothing else to say about homeschooling. She asked me if we should do a revised edition of The Unschooling Handbook, but we couldn't figure out enough that needed changing – their standard for a new edition was about 40% new material. (Aside from updating the resources, I don't think there's that much I'd change now, either – that book was pretty much exactly what I wanted it to be.)

So she asked what other homeschooling books I wanted to write. I didn't have any other homeschooling books I wanted to write, and I couldn't face the idea of rehashing and repackaging what I'd already done into other titles just to have something new. So I didn't do a series of Unschooling Your First-, Second-, . . . , Twelfth-Grader.

But with Christie heading off to college this fall, it occurred to me that 2007 will be the ten-year anniversary of the publication of The Homeschooling Handbook, and I got to thinking that maybe I did have one more homeschooling book in me. There's a bit in one of my talks (Hidden Hazards of Homeschooling) about how homeschooling is contagious and the individuals most vulnerable to the contagion are the parents of homeschooled children. When we as adults spend so much time trying to foster our kids' curiosity, encouraging them to follow their interests wherever they lead, some of that is bound to rub off on us. So "Viral Learning" is an extension of that idea: how do long years of homeschooling affect us, the parents – and by extension, society at large? And what will the long-range effects be with our kids? I see parallels in other fields such as political blogging, where citizen activism in some areas is bypassing both the political establishment and the mainstream press. A few years ago, such effects were pretty isolated, but with the Internet explosion over the past few years, the effects can become almost viral – what happens when larger and larger chunks of our society become more independent and self-directed and involved with ideas and activities they find important?

I think it's going to be a fun book to write.

Adrienne: It sounds like it's going to be a fun book to read! Thank you so much for answering my questions and sharing your thoughts.

[Editor's Note: Remember that you can keep hearing Mary's thoughts over at her Viral Learning blog.]

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

An Interview with Mary Griffith, Part Four

Adrienne: Did the girls ever want to try institutional schools?

When Kate was 12, her best friend, a homeschooler, decided she wanted to go to junior high because she was tired of her current friends. Kate seriously considered going to school then, but it only took her about five minutes, she said, to decide that the odds of making a new best friend were not high enough to offset the disadvantages of not being able to read whatever she wanted whenever she wanted or sleeping late or not having to raise her hand to go to the bathroom.

Adrienne: What prompted you to start writing about homeschooling?

Ah, there were two stages there. Early on in our homeschooling, I got involved with what was then the Northern California Homeschool Association – when I offered to help the editor with the newsletter, she invited me to the next board meeting, at which, when they were divvying up jobs for the next few months and everybody seemed to have one already, I took the one that was left – newsletter editor. I never had to resort to the previous editor's occasional need to write articles under two or three different names to fill the thing up, but it did mean I wrote regularly about homeschooling.

Eventually, I was also elected to the board and was dragged into other fun and games like conference planning and legislative watch and marketing and outreach (we eventually became the HomeSchool Association of California, which meant we had a much bigger territory to reach). We – the board, that is – used to talk about doing a book about homeschooling as a nifty big project worth doing someday.

Which gets me to the next stage. One day I got a call from a woman at Prima Publishing who said they were considering getting into the homeschooling curriculum market and wanted more information about homeschooling. I sent her a bunch of stuff (HEM, HSC newsletters, GWS, etc.) and eventually they asked me to come take a look at what they'd come up with and tell them what I thought.

What they'd come up with was completely silly (blank box with yet-to-be-developed board game and yet-to-be-written text as English curriculum for unspecified grade level(s) at a price point of $50), which I told them, and I went home, thinking it had been a fun little lark.

But a couple of weeks later, I got a call from a different editor there, who said they'd scrapped the idea of the curriculum but thought there might well be a market for a trade book on homeschooling. She invited me to submit a proposal, which I did, and they accepted, and that's how The Homeschooling Handbook came about. I proposed The Unschooling Handbook almost as an antidote for me, in reaction to some of the school-ier stuff in the HH, and it took a bit of persuading to talk them into it. But I think the fact that the HH had done so well right from the start made them willing to trust me a bit. (Of course, after Prima sold itself to Random House, the whole proposal process is an entirely different matter now – my nice little mid-list books chugging along aren't quite the volume of sales they're really looking for.)

Anyway, it's not a leap to say I just fell into writing the books.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

An Interview with Mary Griffith, Part Three

Adrienne: One of the many things that has interested me in Holt's writings is what he describes as his continual struggle to turn off his "teacher brain," and I would think that would be such a challenge. I would imagine that letting go would be even more of a struggle when you're talking about your own kids....

Mary: I think I spent a lot of time consciously trying not to be teacher-y, though I can remember driving around in the car, I'd see something interesting and say, "Ooh, look at that!" often enough to drive the girls nuts. One of my internal rules, though, was never to try to get them interested in something I wasn't interested in myself. I used to see an awful lot of families doing that, and it never worked to do anything except make the whole family miserable. That's not to say that I wasn't willing to be a bit bored in order to help them with something they were interested in – I was always willing for them to have and indulge interests that none of the rest of us shared.

Pedagogically, I'm definitely a constructivist. I loved that my kids were curious creatures, but I also always thought they needed to do things at their own pace, with breaks and plateaus as needed, and that it was important to allow them to piece things together for themselves. It often meant their knowledge was a weird hole-y patchwork, and that they learned weird things at weird ages. Kate went on a mythology bender as a 6-year-old, the sort of stuff I had in junior high – one of my favorite memories is of her scorn when some adults not only failed to recognize her costume with the googly-eyed pipecleaner headdress as Medusa, but didn't even recognize the name. We learned a lot of history, from biographies and genealogy and historical novels and movies and living history events, but hardly ever chronologically. We'd sometimes talk about what order things happened in, but mostly we let them figure out for themselves how things fit together. Science was haphazard in the same way, except that we had the live-in science guy to supplement Bill Nye.

As they got older, we sometimes got more formal. Kate was very much a liberal arts type, skewed severely to the literature and history, so mostly she just read more and more on her own through her teens. Knowing that what she needed for the acting schools she was interested in was only a GED and a decent audition, she never did much that could be called formal coursework. Christie knew she wanted to fence in college, so she went a bit more formally with the math and other high school courses. She probably wouldn't have had much trouble getting into college as a less formal unschooler, but the NCAA is currently inflexible enough that we decided we'd have more luck adapting to the NCAA than forcing it to adapt to our way of doing things. So she did a few high school topics more formally, often using textbooks, but using them at her own pace, doing just enough problems to be sure she understood a concept rather than entire pages of problem sets.

One of the aspects of kids' lives today that we (parents and kids both) constantly noticed and commented on, was the whole process of resume-building. So many kids and their parents, even before the high school grades, seem to spend so much time doing activities and taking courses because they think they need to in order to have the appropriately loaded permanent record to get into that college, so they can get into this graduate program, so they can have the important and successful career. When are they ever supposed to get the chance to figure out their likes and dislikes and just enjoy what they do for its own pleasure?

That's one of the things I’m proudest of about how we raised our kids – they had a minimum of drudgery-boredom. When they were bored – and they were – there was always enough around to do that if they were bored, it was their problem and not mine; it was that they couldn't decide what they felt like doing or hadn't found their Next Cool Thing.

Monday, September 18, 2006

An Interview with Mary Griffith, Part Two

Adrienne: Did you unschool from the get-go? Did you try any programs or curriculums through the years?

Mary: I think what I did was just extend preschool for another five years or so. When the girls were 3 or 4, we did tons of reading out loud. (Another useful thing to know about my youth (and entire life, for that matter) is that I've always been a complete bookworm.) We always had lots of books around, plus lots of paper and pens and crayons and paint and blocks and Legos and cooking and Dad's science toys (my husband works for Pasco Scientific, which is one of the leading manufacturers of school science lab apparatuses in the country, so asking him a science question always prompted at least a half-hour lecture with hands-on demos) and whatever else we happened to think looked like fun.

There were a couple of things we used that could be described as more or less formal programs:

A very big element for us was the Brownie Try-It Handbook. Several of us started a homeschooling Brownie troop which met weekly or biweekly (I can't remember) for almost seven years before we left it just after Kate became a Cadet Girl Scout. I was a leader or asst. leader for most of that time. But the Brownie years were especially fun, because all the badge work at that level (at least, then – I haven't seen the program for several years now, so I don't know if it's still the same) was so good. We'd poke through the book and find things that looked like fun and do them – everything from science and nature projects to plays and poetry and games and playing with numbers. I'm of the opinion that if we completely did away with the primary grades in school and just let kids fiddle around with Brownie badge work as they felt like it, they'd end up learning more and enjoying it more (and I'd be willing to bet they'd do better on the damn standardized tests, too, if they could stand being bored long enough to take them).

That 5-step reading program (Read to them. Read to them. Etc.) I describe in The Unschooling Handbook is what we used. The hardest part for me was being patient enough to wait for them to be old enough to really appreciate all the books I was looking forward to them enjoying as much as I had when I was a kid. And then there were all the nifty new ones published after I'd grown up. Kate and Christie both went through stages where they resisted reading something I'd suggest, just because I'd suggested it, and then discovered they loved it when they finally got round to it. The sardonic "I hate you, Mom" that was a kind of reverse "I told you so" got to be something of a family joke.

Christie, my younger daughter, went through a stage after Kate started reading seriously on her own (they're almost four years apart) when she wanted me to teach her to read. I hated the idea, but she felt she wasn't learning on her own and wanted to be explicitly taught, so we toddled around a bookstore looking for something appropriate, ending up with Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons, mostly because she thought it looked serious enough. I think we struggled through to Lesson 63 before we finally gave it up. She hated it most of the way (and we made tons of snide remarks all along about how stupid some of the stories were) but had to persuade herself that it was okay just to go back to reading real stories together instead. (I'll spare you my reading instruction rant, but I'll never understand how anybody could come to believe that draining interest and meaning from texts would make them better to learn from.)

Sunday, September 17, 2006

An Interview with Mary Griffith, Part One

Recently, Mary Griffith, author of The Homeschooling Handbook and The Unschooling Handbook was kind enough to answer some questions and share her thoughts with me about homeschooling and unschooling. I’m going to share excerpts of our Q&A every day this week. Here goes:

Adrienne: So may I start with my first question? It's the one I ask everyone: How did you get started in homeschooling?

Mary: The short and flip answer is "I had kids."

I think, though, that I was primed for the idea by my own school experience. I was one of those kids school people consider shining examples: I got my straight As without much work. I had a knack for understanding ETS item writers' thinking. I was well-behaved and involved in school activities. I was also bored out of my skull (despite thinking of myself as somebody who liked school) and felt like a fraud most of the time.

Until I had kids, I never had much experience with babies or toddlers, so most of what I did with my kids was trial and error, based on what I read. This was the 80s – I had Spock and Brazelton and Penelope Leach, and somewhere in there among the three of them I could always find justification for whatever it was I wanted to do.

Sometime either while I was pregnant with Kate or when she was a toddler, I happened to run across John Holt's Teach Your Own in a bookstore, and I was immediately attracted by the idea. I loved watching Kate explore and play and learn, and I couldn't stand the idea of her having to sit still in a classroom and get all that knowledge doled out to her in appropriate little bits, not to mention all that waiting around for the next thing. I figured if one was to be bored through large chunks of the day, one could at least be somewhere comfortable. Plus, California at that time was in the midst of one of its periodic "phonics is the only possible way to learn to read" paroxysms, so there was no way I was even going to think of letting her attend school until after she could already read.

Essentially, I had fun with my kids as toddlers and preschoolers and could see how easily they learned from just being alive and active, so I didn't see any reason to suddenly change things.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Selected Electronic Discussion Lists about Unschooling

An “on-topic” electronic discussion list dedicated to incorporating learning about math into daily life in a holistic way.

Radical Unschoolers List
An active electronic discussion list open to all families.

An electronic discussion list for Canadian Unschoolers.

Electronic discussion list dedicated to unschooling children ages 11 and up.

Another electronic discussion list devoted to unschooling.

An electronic discussion list that facilitates swapping materials related to unschooling.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Grant Project

Over the last couple years, I’ve been involved in a fairly major homeschooling grant project in Monroe County, New York. If you’re interested, you can read more about it here.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Reading John Holt

“For it seems to me a fact that, in our struggle to make sense out of life, the things we most need to learn are the things we most want to learn. To put this another way, curiosity is hardly ever idle.”
-John Holt in How Children Learn

I’m doing a lot of reading for my chapter on unschooling right now and am currently buried in big piles of John Holt.

From his writings, Holt seems like he must have been one of those people who was wacky in the best of all possible ways. Reading words he wrote decades ago, I find myself completely engaged. His depictions of how children deal with boredom in school in How Children Fail are so true to my experience, and I know that I learn in many of the ways he describes in How Children Learn. It’s funny because, as a child, I loved going to school and was an extremely successful student, especially as I got older, but I often marvel at how much I wasn’t learning while earning straight A’s. And I also know that the things I loved most about school were things like my friends, drama club, chorus, and working in the bookstore. I was lucky enough to be in a school where I felt like I had a lot of freedom to pursue my interests and where my strengths were recognized and encouraged. I don’t think unschooling is the only answer to kids who are bored and not learning, but it’s a good answer. I wish more people were reading John Holt.