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Vive la difference!

Comparing my experiences in school classrooms and homeschooling is interesting to me. All of the schools and programs we’ve been involved with have things to recommend them to almost any child, yet in each instance the children seemed to learn differently based on the mix of kids, the teachers, and the subject matter.
As I’ve written before, our foray into homeschooling at first felt like a failure. My daughter had failed to be able to fit in to a classroom, and we joined her homeschool program in a sort of desperate move for companionship and examples of functioning homeschooling families. Now in our second year of homeschooling, it’s become a choice for her and for me. We’re following a standard homeschooling maxim: if a box of lemons turns up at your doorstep, make them into lemonade, incorporating math, science, and social studies as you go!
Yesterday my daughter and I bought seeds for various herbs and early vegetables. She wanted to use the little seed starter greenhouse she’d checked out of her school’s resource center. Homeschooling is all about following your child’s inclinations. Mine goes into the resource center for inspiration, and comes out with a bug viewer (study insects!), a wood burning kit (learn about an art that does not excite you), and a seed starting kit.
Starting seeds is a common thing that a first-grade classroom will do. Each child gets to plant one type of seeds in a pot and make a label for it. If the teacher’s lucky, there’s a parent there to help out. Such an exercise can turn chaotic with younger kids, their sensory-seeking hands in new black dirt. A good teacher has to focus the lesson plan to make it relatively quick and give each child a piece of it so that there’s something like ownership of the project as a whole.
Starting seeds in homeschool takes that wide-spreading activity and focuses it narrowly and deeply. My daughter got to plant all the seeds herself, seeing each size and shape. She started to put soil into the pots while they were in the tray, and found that the dirt was getting all over inside the tray and would turn to mud. So she had to rethink her process, dump the dry dirt out, then fill the pots over the dirt rather than over the tray. Then she had to get a piece of paper and draw a diagram of the tray. In this case, it holds three rows of four little pots, but one little pot was missing. So she drew circles to represent the pots, and put an X through the one that was missing. Then as we put the seeds in, she wrote each seed name in the appropriate place in her diagram.
The homeschooling experience included a study of how to notice problems with a process and correct them, drawing a diagram that would accurately represent where the seeds were planted, looking at different seeds and identifying them, and spelling all the plant names correctly.
The school experience included working with one type of seed on a process that the teacher had prepared, having to work cooperatively with a group and follow instructions, and making a tag spelling one plant name.
Although the exercise was the same, the type of learning was different. Since my daughter is being homeschooled alone, her seed-planting activity did not include any social lessons except for right at the beginning, when we went to the plant store and discussed seeds with the salesperson. Instead of getting instructions to do part of a larger project, my daughter had to figure out the process herself and correct her own mistakes. Instead of seeing her work growing alongside other kids’ work, she will see a larger variety of seeds come up in her solo project.
As we extend the project, we’ll note the date that each seed sprouts, and check it against the seed packet’s estimate. We’ll see how fast the plants grow. We’ll make decisions about which plants will be planted in containers and which in the ground. The homeschool lesson will be very narrow and deep.
The similar lesson at school will take a different route. It’s unlikely that a first grade classroom will go on to take notes about the germination rate of the seeds; this is not necessarily something teachers would expect 20 6-year-olds to all be able to follow over a longer period. The teacher probably won’t do comparisons also because it sets up social conflict when one kid’s pea plant gets enormous while another’s herb is tiny and slow. On the other hand, the school program will give kids something of their own to plant at their school, thus creating a sense for the kids that they are part of the fabric of their school’s life.
Neither of these experiences is necessarily better or worse in an objective way. They just are what they are. But for my daughter, for whom social cooperation is a lesson that frustrates her right now, and who prefers projects with longterm results over one-day exercises, the homeschool approach works well.
Vive la différence!

Posted in Parenting.

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