As a kid, I’d have told you that homeschooling could solve a lot of the world’s problems, but I admit I never imagined a pandemic would be one of them. However, it looks like a whole lot of people are now embarking on the adventure of educating their children at home as part of a global effort to halt COVID-19 in its tracks. As someone who thrived being homeschooled as a child, I want to share a few words of, if not wisdom, then at least encouragement.
First of all – and you’re going to have to trust me on this – it doesn’t really matter what you learn, or how you learn it. There are many ways of homeschooling. Not interested in forcing your kids to do stuff? Neither was my dad – google unschooling and see what you think. There also many different ways to learn. Just because the school does it one way, doesn’t mean you have to. And just because they were planning on covering the multiplication tables, how volcanos work, and the revolutionary war in the next 3 weeks, doesn’t mean you’re going to succeed in covering those topics at home with your kid. So maybe don’t even try.
The objective here, really, is to keep everyone sane while locked up in the house together, right? That’s going to be a lot more likely to happen if everyone is engaged in a project. The key word here is engaged – make it a project which springs forth from some predisposition or prior interest. Do you know what I did instead of taking a history class in high school? I researched and sewed a pair of eighteenth-century stays. (I have, in fact, never taken a comprehensive U.S. History course, and I’m a historian!) Skip math and physics in favor of an afternoon around the dining room table, jointly re-designing your current house to be better suited to the needs of your family in self-insolation. Take a pass on the essays and write a story, a poem, an op-ed for the local paper, or skip the writing entirely and draw something. It might be harder than usual to get physical exercise while cooped up in the house, but you have a unique opportunity to exercise parts of your brain that don’t usually get to stretch at school.
If someone in the family has a question, turn it into a research project. Where is Iran on a map anyway? How do vaccines work? What did people do during the bubonic plague?
Start off by getting really, really bored. Many families who are transitioning out of traditional school and into homeschooling or unschooling take time off – often months – to not do any school at all. Without anything you have to get done, life can get kind of boring, and that’s the point. After being really bored, learning stuff starts to feel appealing again. So make the response to “I’m bored” be “Ok, what do you want to learn about?” and go from there.
Let kids teach themselves. One of the most common comments about young adults who were homeschooled is that they are really good self-motivators. That comes from taking responsibility for our own learning. If, like me, you discover at age ten that you have a really keen interest in colonial American dress, which is not shared by your parents, you get really good at finding and investigating your own sources. Trust me, this is a skill which is many times more valuable than whatever the fifth-grade class was going to cover next week while preparing for a standardized test.
You may find that it is not helpful to draw definite boundaries between work, play, and school. Work around the house and the yard can be schoolwork/ Gardening becomes plant biology; cooking becomes chemistry; and laundry a chance to talk about history and women’s studies. Play can also be schoolwork. Think dress-up as theater or social studies; sports as physics; card games as math (when else, after all is your child going to learn to count cards and cheat a blackjack?). Without firm boundaries between these activities, it becomes apparent that we learn from everything we do. Also, it’s a win-win for everyone when kids get school credit for doing chores.
With all of that in mind, I’ve got a suggestion for your first unit of study: collectively, design your ideal education. Everyone (parents, kids, anyone else you live with, the dog) gets to describe/discuss/draw/write about their ideal education. What would they learn? How would it be assessed? What would it enable them to do?
Maybe the perfect education looks like never having to take another test. Maybe it looks like lots of discussion and no homework. Maybe it looks like super-hero school, where the classes are all in things like “emergency first aid” or “secret-hideout construction, 101.” Maybe it looks like 4 hours a day where the kids are empowered (and required) to find answers or solutions to all their own questions or problems. This last possibility means that parents have some time to themselves, but also have to respect the solutions arrived at by the kids.
I think you will find that there is an element in everybody’s concept of ideal education that can be incorporated into your homeschooling. The act of designing school together will also give everyone a sense of ownership and responsibility over what they learn. That is perhaps the most valuable thing that can be learned while homeschooling.
And with that I wish you luck. Go out and learn!