Friday, March 2, 2012

Educational Philosophy, Curriculum, and Approach

Homeschooling can take two legal routes; one is affiliation with a Charter School, which provides an Educational Specialist (ES) who is trained to support family-centered learning. Charter Schools also offer stipends to spend on educational materials; these range from about $500 to $1800/year. Those who opt to use the Charter option are technically enrolled in a public school; their autonomy can vary according to the ES and his/her interpretation of required standards.

The other legal option for homeschoolers is to establish your own private school. This has the advantage of autonomy and the disadvantage of lacking public funding; however, this option allows parent administrators to exercise their judgment about approach, testing, standards, etc. just like every other private/parochial school.

We have opted for the private school choice, forgoing the attractive stipend offered by Charters because we're concerned when educational costs increase at the expense of others. In the county where we lived before, for example, parents had a "race to nowhere" approach, paying for their children to be in multiple summer camps, layered schedules of after school activities, and more. Yet they also voted for others to provide increased funding for the schools through multiple bond measures. What we saw were wealthy families essentially bullying others into paying for what they could easily pay for themselves, literally at times causing others to lose their homes when tax increases bloomed above individual capacity to pay. We don't object to public funding, but think that the consequences should be considered (and, to be a bit political, to recover from our nation's crippling debt requires individuals to commit to taking less rather than tapping into every "free" government resource. "Free" has a price). Money is tight, so our choice isn't hard and fast, but it is in part informed by the idea that we should take less so that others can simply live.

When homeschoolers talk, they often ask each other which philosophical approach to education they are drawn toward. Often, in the first years of homeschooling, families will adopt a more rigid, "school at home" model. Condoleeza Rice, for example, got dressed for school and left the house every day, then marched back in to signify the start of her school day. This seems sweet, but extreme to me (though it is hard to argue with the outcome, as her brilliance is impressive regardless of politics). As families gain more experience learning together, many blend their models or experiment with new ones. We have varied our approach over time, but currently are drawn to an eclectic blend of approaches that range from Classical Education to unschooling, with influences from Charlotte Mason, Montessori, Waldorf, Thomas Jefferson, and incorporating solutions to "Nature Deficit Disorder," a term coined to address the effects on development when children are alientated from nature.

We are "homeschoolers" because that is the understood term for our method; however, the more accurate term (one rising in popularity) is "custom schooling" because the learning within our school is structured to encourage influence from many teachers. The girls both attend many classes with teachers coming from paid ranks and through parent exchanges, in classroom settings, homes, and on field trips. I tell them that it is not unlike being in college, where you take the classes that you want and have multiple teachers, each specializing in a different area. Currently, K has teachers other than us at least seven times a week, though that varies depending on what we are studying at any given time.

Those who take a traditional ("brick and mortar") approach to education often ask about curriculum. As stated above, it is offered "free" through the State and we could opt to use it. However, we choose a different approach, looking at state standards at the start of the year and again when making year-end assessments and then setting individual goals for the grade ahead of each girl's age. We then add E.D. Hirsch competencies, mix in some Classical Education goals, and ask our students what they want to learn. That approach provides a framework and from there we go where the year's journey takes us, exploring topics and taking classes as opportunities and interests arise. For the past two years, for example, we've had a monthly book club and done a monthly Country Day celebration that goes well beyond state grade standards, introducing literature above grade level and allowing international interests to flourish as we explore culture, geography, history, politics, science, and more. Similarly, while State standards introduce science in only very marginal ways at the younger grades, the girls have taken introductory courses in chemistry, astronomy, geology, and evolution and have had mentor/teachers in their lives who specialize in entomology, botony, and ornithology.

We do build basic skills (reading, writing, math) through daily work, which we aim to do at least five times a week, but without more than a day in-between. (In other words, when other classes begin early during the week, we work on Saturdays, too.) We then apply this learning through opportunities that arise along the way. This is where we have the most fun, living and learning with a diverse network of friends, including both a core of overlapping circles whom we see several times a week and evolving eddies of new influences as interests shift and opportunities arise. (For homeschoolers/custom schoolers, the "socialization" question is a joke, since we are so rarely at home and busy with such a broad variety of social opportunities. Plus, we relish the diversity of the homeschool social experience, with students joining each other to learn based on interest, not on a very narrow age spread, and extending to communities that would never be encountered in a local school experience.)

Finally, one criticism of homeschooling is that it is for "religious wackos." We are, admittedly, more religious than many of our homeschooling friends, which as a community in this part of the country seems more apt to be hostile to religion. That said, homeschooling allows us to incorporate our sincerely held religious beliefs (and our own ongoing learning about our faith) in a holistic way into every day activities without apology or segregation. In other words, we can be fully who we are, which is a refreshing change of pace from every academic/professional experience I've ever previously had.

More important than the specifics of curriculum or approach is our embrace of the philosophy of play. We try to play, play, play, in Gadamer's best interpretation of the word, with authentic respect to every child's natural understanding and with strong belief that extended periods of creative play nurture creativity, a life long love of learning, and an ontological understanding of leadership. This approach, encompassing our entire family and families within our network of wonderful friends, is fun and dynamic, and provides the kids with models of adults who truly relish learning and do so fully visible to the children whom we hope adopt the same approach.

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