A discussion of “free schools” over at the local Homeschool Yahoo! Group reminded me of one of my favorite memories of homeschooling my children. It was a time in my life when I had come out on the other side of a bout with "burnout." Burnout is terrible but it forced me to rethink “school” and “learning” and to decide which would take precedent in our home.
All teachers and students know what burnout is. For the teacher or homeschool mom it’s when going through the motions of school becomes drudgery and the family is stressed out. For the student or child it’s when the mind just doesn’t absorb anymore, the ability to focus is lost, and eager learning has been replaced with frustration; a learner’s block. Just going through the motions of school had replaced the excitement of life and learning in my home.
Burnout was inevitable, but it caused me to take an honest look at my goals for my children’s education. It forced me to ask myself some very important questions. Was I homeschooling my children so that we could play school at home or was I homeschooling my children so that we could take advantage of their unique learning styles and their individual personalities and interests? Was I homeschooling my children to play school with them or so that they could learn effectively? Was I trying to engage their short term memories or to change their thinking and their lives? Who should be in charge of designing curriculum publishing companies or children? Should a school day have a beginning and an end or should children be free to learn from their community all day long?
The answers to these questions were obvious to me. Burnout was the symptom and change was the only cure. I put the school books away and I told my children that they were now in charge of what they would learn. I told them to make a list of everything that they loved or wanted to learn about. My daughter dictated her list and her list consisted of various fluffy creatures that you would find in a zoo. How’s that for a curriculum? We took our two lists to the Victoria Public Library. I told each child to checkout books about one or two of the items on their lists. My children took home about 20 books each and we spent the next few days on the living room floor surrounded by several piles of books. My daughter couldn’t read at the time so I read to her.
I remember that my son’s long list contained the word “rocks.” I remember “rocks” from that list because that topic took him on a self directed journey through various topics and subjects. It was amazing to watch my son’s list of interests morph and flow through these various topics. He was in about the 5th grade and his curiosities lead him from gems and minerals to a focus on diamonds which led him to try to memorize the periodic table of elements and then to learn how to convert Celsius into Fahrenheit – all knowledge that would never be tested on the fifth grade TAKS test or some standardized achievement test! One of the books on gems and minerals gave boiling and melting points in Celsius only. A reason to learn!
I remember my knee-jerk reaction when he handed me the periodic table of elements and said, “mom help me memorize this.” My first thought was, “But 5th graders don’t have to know this.” Isn’t that sad that my old mind-set would creep back in and limit my child? Allowing him to follow his interests actually freed him to learn about concepts that his 5th grade math or science texts didn't address. That year I learned about myself and my preconceived notions about children, learning, schooling, and testing. Do you think I learned to respect the TAKS test and it’s results that year?
Sitting on the floor in a pile of books exploring topics that my children were interested in was rewarding on a whole new level. I was connected with my children, learning with them, and my children were actively engaged in and in charge of their learning. I was a part of that learning journey and it did take us all, as a family, on a roller coaster ride through various subjects. Because they were learning about the things they enjoyed their days were filled with excitement and our home was full of eager learners once again!
When I feel burnout creeping back into my home these discussions of free schools, democratic schools, interest driven learning, and unschooling remind me to be more flexible and that change is needed in my home; a change that will free my children so that they can learn without frustration or drudgery.
We have experimented with many different educational philosophies and approaches over the years but that was as close to a "free school" as my family had ever been. I'll share other examples of my favorite memories of homeschooling later.