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Getting ready for life

My kids’ homeschool program is putting on their annual play this week. It’s a lot of work. One by one, kids and adults are melting down. At our house, we haven’t done much in the way of academics this week. I ask my daughter to do math and she says she needs to make a sign for the teacher’s director’s chair. I throw up my hands and make muffins.

It’s the lot of the homeschooler always to second-guess her performance as a teacher of her children. We all accept that someone with a degree can walk into a classroom and teach the children of strangers, but we question whether a mom who’s known her kids her whole life, who is, herself, a well-educated person, can really do a good job.

And in weeks like this, it’s very easy to start wondering: Am I doing the right thing? Are my kids learning anything?

And then I remembered the lessons I learned when my son was at a parent-participation charter school. This is a great school. They get great test scores, if you care about such things. The teachers are dedicated, the parents passionate.

But if you’ve never taught in elementary school before, getting involved in a school on a regular basis can be a real eye-opener. There were so many things I hadn’t remembered from my own schooling.

First was the amount of time spent transitioning from one activity to another. Frankly, if schools could just do one thing all day, they’d get a whole lot more done. But every time you need kids to open a book, change positions in the room, or — god forbid — move to another location on the school campus, you lose enormous amounts of time. When I started working at the school, I was used to the self-employed life. When the kids were gone, I would work with intense concentration. But when I was “working” at school, I felt a whole lot more like a shepherd than a teacher.

Next was the amount of class time spent on what teacher training calls “classroom management.” You know, Johnny just can’t stop talking and it keeps disrupting the class and how is the teacher going to deal with this? This is one part of school that I know my son detested. Some days I’d pick him up and say, “How was school today?” and he’d reply, “Well, it would have been OK but we had to have yet another class meeting about so-and-so’s behavior.” In my day, they used to just send them to the principal’s office. That may have not solved anything for the kid, but it sure did make the teacher’s job easier!

Another thing I hadn’t considered as a student myself was the amount of time I spent “learning” things I already knew. Part of what I’ve learned in my research about gifted kids is that most enter school already having mastered most of what is taught in the first few years of elementary school. That’s a lot of waiting! And even many children who aren’t particularly ahead are going to master some tasks and then have to wait for the others to catch up. This waiting game, for an academically inclined child, probably takes up a good 75% of the time at school actually spent on academics (which you can see from the previous two paragraphs is much less than you might assume).

Finally, there’s everything else that school is about. Like the school play! I remember some teacher of my son’s remarking to me one day, “Oh, I don’t expect we’ll actually get much educating done this week. The kids are too excited.” Teachers learn how to coast through days and sometimes weeks when other goals eclipse their daily attempts to keep to the standards. Field trips, performances, visits by notable people — all sorts of things can send a classroom into a fever of preparation. Yes, in these testing-happy days, these sorts of weeks are perhaps less common in many schools. But still, they are an integral part of the educational experience.

What teachers know, and what homeschoolers like me who second-guess themselves on a daily basis try to remind ourselves, is that these times are also times of learning. In fact, many teachers will tell you that all the other stuff — learning math skills, working on phonics, memorizing the parts of a plant — would come to nothing without these distractions. The distractions are the punctuation in a paragraph, the scenery in a nature film — not just the icing but the very stuff that makes the cake a cake!

Kids learn to sound out words and then practice reading, but it’s the school play that brings it all together and makes reading important. Kids do a worksheet on the parts of a fish but helping a scientist on a fieldtrip dissect a ten-foot squid on a picnic table is what makes it real. Learning the names of the planets is all well and fine, but it’s the day that a real astronaut comes to his school and talks about what it feels like to be weightless that sends a young boy on his path to science.

So what are we doing this week? Not much of anything. This morning my daughter and I worked in the garden and made muffins for the cast of the play. We did a little math, too, but who knows if it’s going to stick? My son, well, I’m not really sure that he did anything you might call academics today.

But what we are doing this week is intense preparation for the sort of learning that makes it all stick. The goal of a performance in front of our families is what is making everything else real, important, and worth slogging through. No, we’re not doing much of anything this week. Just getting ready for life.

Posted in Education, Homeschooling, Parenting.

One Response

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  1. Amy Wirth says

    I love this post and how you capture the anxiety of the homeschooling parent, the realization of what really goes on at school, and how much learning actually happens during the “non-academic” periods – oh, and I can totally relate to all of it.

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