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Education and the Family

By Joyce Fetteroll, April

Some of you may know that I homeschool my daughter Kathryn. Most of what I know about homeschooling I've gotten from homeschoolers online and now I spend a good portion of my early morning hours returning all the help I received by answering online posts from other parents who are considering homeschooling.

A recurring worry of many of these parents is that they don't feel qualified to teach their kids. That feeling of not being able to help their children learn spills over into many non-homeschooling families too.

We've gotten the message from educators that there's too much to teach and too few hours to do it in. Combine that message with the fact that even with professional teachers helping them, too many kids aren't making it. So, of course teaching seems like an incredibly hard job that parents shouldn't meddle with.

The truth is, it's not the teaching that's hard, it's teaching 30 students of 30 different abilities and interests material that a good portion of them don't particularly care about. Now that's a Herculean task!

But to help one child learn something they're already interested in, or strew their paths with tantalizing things for them to stumble over, or share thoughts on various aspects of daily life is an incredibly easy -- and joyful! -- task.

I think we need to get the message out to parents that not only are they their children's best teachers -- religious, ethical as well as academic -- but give them back a feeling of competence that we've all unconsciously relinquished to the schools. Though this isn't the cause of the breakdown of families and education, I think it's a piece of the puzzle why schools feel overburdened and why parents' too high expectations of schools are so rarely met.

Three things I think can help. One is we must learn to value a child's interest, whether it be in nuclear physics or Nintendo. If they are engaged or curious, they are learning, even if it doesn't appear academic. (By the way, those who need to justify it to themselves ;-) most video games include an incredible amount of strategy and 3D mapping, math skills that are often neglected by schools while concentrating on the more testable arithmetic. And if kids read the gaming magazines, they're reading for meaning, exactly what schools are trying to get them to do!) Also it's easy for us to value the "Why is the sky blue?" questions but we also need to stop and give real thought to the apparently obvious questions like "Why do we have to ___?" The second is to eliminate the idea learning must be formalized with a definite beginning and end and a testable outcome to be legitimate. A parent of a child in preschool here asked Judy what she could do to help her child prepare for first grade. Judy rightly replied, "Read to him everyday." But the parent wasn't satisfied. We're conditioned to need defined activities that teach a specific skill or fact, so reading for a half hour a day doesn't seem satisfying.

Parents need to learn to value the moments when a child asks who that is on the nickel and equally value the simple answer of "Thomas Jefferson, he was one of our presidents." Because months later it can be tied to seeing Jefferson writing the Constitution on the Animaniacs cartoon, and another few months later to one of the faces on Mount Rushmore, and to the character of Jefferson in the book Ben and Me which can branch off into "Did you know Franklin invented the rocking chair and public library?" This creates a network of interesting tidbits which kids can use to catch the more detailed and overwhelming information from textbooks. It would be like us picking up a book about the Ming Dynasty in China. We might read it, but we'd retain very little because we have no hooks to hang the information on. And neither do kids.

The third is a bit more radical. It's obvious to say family life should come before school, but putting it into practice is more difficult when we've come to accept as necessary annoyances the intrusions of homework, the morning rush, the afternoon crash and all the unconscious ways schools affect family life. But when parents find themselves in the midst of a stressful school imposed activity, if it's not nurturing their relationship with their child or is disrupting family life, then it's time to step back and reconsider how or even if the activity should continue. When you look at it objectively, homework should not be the primary focus of education and parents have better roles to play in nurturing a love of learning in their kids than being homework police. It's a fine line to walk to convey a deep abiding respect for education while disengaging from responsibility for a child's homework. (Which is not to suggest refusing to help when a child asks!)

Were the world a perfect place, public schools would be supporting the learning that goes on in the home rather than parents enforcing the learning that goes on in the schools.