Home Unschooling: Practice
When our daughter was five, she was going to a local Montessori school. Her mother thought she was ready to learn to read; they didn't. So Betty taught her to read, using Doctor Seuss books. Our son, three years younger, observed the process and taught himself. We heard about the local Sudbury school, new that year, brought our daughter over to visit. She decided she preferred it to the Montessori school, so we shifted her. A few years later we added her brother, a few years after that shifted to home schooling.
The Sudbury model includes classes if students want them. When our daughter was about ten there was a class, lasting somewhat over a year, in math. It started assuming the students knew nothing, ended with the early stages of algebra. That is pretty much all of the formal instruction either of them had. In addition, we required them to learn the multiplication tables, which are useful to know but boring to learn. That, I think, was the closest thing to compulsory learning in their education.
How did they get educated? They both read a lot, and although some of the books they read were children's books, pretty early they were also reading books intended for adults. When our daughter was about nine we were traveling and ran out of books for her to read, so she read the Elizabeth Peters books her mother had brought along—and liked them. A few years later our son, about eight, went everywhere carrying the big one volume edition of Lord of the Rings.
Betty remembered having liked and learned from How To Lie With Statistics--actually about how not to be fooled by statistical arguments--so we got a copy and both kids liked it. Our son likes D&D and other games with dice rolling, so was interested in learning how to figure out the probability of getting various results. It turned out that the same author and illustrator had produced a book on simple probability theory—How to Take a Chance—so we got it and he read it multiple times. The result was a ten year old (I'm guessing—we didn't keep records) who could calculate the probability of rolling 6 or under with three six-sided dice. For the last few years his hobby has been creating games. At the Los Angeles World Science Fiction Convention he had an interesting and productive conversation with Steve Jackson of Steve Jackson games concerning a game Bill had invented; currently one of his ambitions is to get a board game commercially published by age sixteen.
I am fond of evolutionary biology, so recommended The Selfish Gene to my daughter. She liked it, found the approach intriguing, and read other things. Currently she is waiting for me to finish The Moral Animal so that we can discuss it. She also likes economics. At this point she has audited four of the classes I teach at the law school, following them at the level of the better students. She also has her own footnote in one of my articles, crediting her with a significant point she contributed to it.
Both kids spend a lot of time online. We discovered that Bill had taught himself to type when the family was playing a networked game on the home network—Diablo or Diablo II—and misspelled words started appearing on our screen. He needed to type because he played games online and wanted to be able to communicate. Later he wanted to learn how to spell so that he wouldn't look stupid to the people he was communicating with. His sister spends a good deal of time on World of Warcraft, some of it writing up battle reports and other essays to be posted on suitable web sites. She too wants her writing to look good and so consults, usually with her mother, on how best to say things.
I am fond of poetry and know quite a lot of it. When our daughter was little, I used it to put her to sleep. Sometime thereafter we were driving somewhere at night and heard a small voice from the back seat reciting "Lars Porsena of Clusium, by the nine gods he swore"—the opening lines of "Horatius at the Bridge"—in a a two year old’s lisp. She now knows quite a lot more poetry. When I put my son to bed—my wife and I take turns—we generally talk for a while, then he asks for some poems.
A few years back, I read and recommended to my daughter Duff Cooper's excellent biography of Talleyrand. She noticed the references to Talleyrand's memoirs and decided that, since some of her writing involved politics, it would be interesting to learn about it from a world class practitioner. I found her an English translation; she is now part way through the first volume.
Some years ago our daughter decided she was seriously interested in music. Since then she has participated regularly in two choirs--one at her mother's church, one specializing in early music--and taken harp lessons. She practices because she wants to, not because we make her. She is thinking of majoring in music in college, then trying to get a job as an editor. As some evidence of her qualifications, she has edited some of my manuscripts and done a useful job. Our current plan is for her to do some volunteer proofreading for the firm that published my novel.
But the largest part of their education, after reading, is probably conversation. We talk at meals. We talk when putting one or the other of them to bed. My daughter and I go for long walks at night and spend them discussing the novel I'm writing or the characters she roleplays on World of Warcraft.
Our most recent concern has been getting our daughter, now 17, into college. She doesn't have grades, she doesn't have a list of courses taken. She does have a list of books read—still incomplete, but already in the hundreds.
Without grades she needed another way of convincing colleges of her ability, and standardized tests were the obvious solution. She spent some time studying for the SAT exams, but enormously less than the time she would have put in on those subjects in any conventional school, did extremely well on the verbal, tolerably on the math; her combined score is well within the range for the students at the very selective liberal arts colleges she plans to apply to. Just to play safe she has now taken the SAT exams again, after spending a little more time on math, part of it solving pages of simple equations I produced for her. To keep it interesting, I included a few that no value of X solved, a few that all values of X solved, and a few that reduced to 1/x=0.
Many schools now require two of the SAT II achievement tests—again especially significant for a home schooled student. It turns out that "literature" is not, as I feared, a test of what you have read but of how well you can read, and she reads very well. For a second one she chose American history, read all of Paul Johnson's A History of the American People—well written and opinionated, hence not boring—plus part of a book of primary source material. She spent a good deal of time in the week before the exam using Wikipedia to compile her own time line of Presidents and what happened during their terms. The results of both exams were satisfactory.
What is the result? Our daughter will enter college knowing much more about economics, evolutionary biology, music, renaissance dance, and how to write than most of her fellow students, probably less about physics, biology, world history, except where it intersects historical novels she has read or subjects that interest her. She will know much more than most of them about how to educate herself. And why.