The Push – a homeschooling post

(I am part of a beautiful homeschooling community that is based on mutual respect as well as a love of our kids. What I’m about to write is my opinion, yours may differ, and that’s ok. I respect you for the path you choose, and I trust that you feel the same xx)

I often hear in homeschooling circles the idea that children should never be coerced to study. That learning should only happen when, where and how, the child chooses. Tied in with this is the idea that we should never teach, only provide opportunities for learning. Apparently, this is trusting our children.

The thing is, we need to trust ourselves too.

There is a focus on being child lead, and rightly so. My son and I regularly explore his random questions to their conclusions, and we love learning together. Going on the treasure hunt for answers together is one of the joys of homeschooling, along with education fitting in with life’s adventures, rather than the other way around. But part of my respect for him is respecting that he is a child, and just as I have learned what he needs when he’s hungry, tired, or sick, it’s also up to me to learn what he needs when it comes to education.

Sometimes that’s freedom; other times it’s a gentle push.

You see my five year old is as beautiful and complex as any other kid out there, and part of that is that new things scare him. He is not the child who will find the workbook and begin trying to figure out the exercises, or the child who will pickup a notepad and try to write, just as he’s not the kid who will try to master a new skill at the playground or to figure out his bike. For him there is joy in learning something only when he feels like he can do it.

He also possesses a unique laziness. He’s proud of it, so wouldn’t mind me telling you that. Be it a long walk or writing a letter it is often ‘work’ best avoided. The other day at the zoo he walked joyfully for three hours before reaching the car, when his face dropped and anger filled his voice “Oh no!” he breathed, as though about to deliver terrible news “I just exercised by accident! I hate exercise.” Exercise too, as you can imagine, is ‘work’.

So if left entirely to his own devices he would avoid school work all together. He’d also avoid brushing his teeth, making his bed or exploring new places that he now adores. He is my gorgeous boy and his positive qualities are endless, but get up and go and mastering the new are not amongst them.

That’s why I’m allowing my child to lead me to what he needs. He needs a Mum who will tell him to make his bed and go and brush his teeth, he needs a Mum who sets rules and boundaries, and he needs a Mum who will tell him it’s time to sit down and do school for a bit – even if he’d rather be playing LEGO.

There is the myth that homeschooled kids live in a perpetual bubble of joy about learning. Life is learning, and they get more time to explore the richness of it so in a lot of ways they do, but they’re still kids, and there will likely be days when they tell you school is BORING, or RIDICULOUS, or RUBBISH and that it should be thrown in the BIN.

This is not an idyllic world and it’s unfair on each other to pretend that.

More often than not my son runs to his desk when it’s time to do his school work, he sits down and he giggles and he focuses and he tries hard. He has a ball. But other days it just doesn’t go like that, and those are the ones when I need to dig my heels in a little. We don’t do as much on those days, but we still do school, and it’s because of that that his enthusiasm for the rest of it grows. It’s because of the consistency that he’s finding reading and writing and spelling and math become easier – he likes easy.

The more he learns, the more he wants to. He’s bubbling with ‘I can do it!’ But because of who he is I will probably always have to push a little from time to time. I will probably need to take a deep breath here and there when he decides he HATES his books one day and ADORES the very same ones the next.

My son is very lucky, not only because he has the better part of his days to follow his passions and interests and explore the world, but because he has before him the gift of an education. And it matters. Don’t let anyone tell you it doesn’t.

Around the world, hundreds of thousands of children would give anything for the opportunities our kids have. Some walk for hours to sit in dusty classrooms just to gain a little of this precious gift of knowledge and the skills that make it possible.

This reading and writing business? That’s the access code for everything they could ever want to know. In giving them that you’re opening up a bit more of the world for them that they couldn’t have accessed otherwise. The grammar matters, the spelling matters, the vocabulary allows them to wonder a little more vastly than they could have otherwise.

This maths business? Those are the numbers that underlie our finances, our sciences and the schedules of our days. They are not only useful, but exciting, and our mastery of them can lead us to places we can only imagine.

When you give your child an education you give them a gift that is probably too big for them to unwrap right now, so don’t be surprised if they don’t always appreciate the magnitude of it. They will in time, just as the skills you help them build and the virtues you encourage in them will help shape their world.

By all means give them opportunities for self-learning, but don’t be afraid to teach any more than you’re afraid to be taught.  A child needs to learn the value of listening, of focus, of gaining knowledge from another. You don’t go to a language class and have the teacher sit down and say “Ok, now you figure it out.”

Being taught is a skill, just as self-driven learning is.

I’m not saying I’ve got it all figured out, but I am saying that I’ve been there. I’ve been an intelligent child in an environment that went out of its way not to teach (I attended a democratic unschooling style school for four years as a child) and as smart as I was there was a MASSIVE amount I missed out on learning before I moved to a more structured approach at home.

You wont harm the thirst for knowledge in your child by setting a little structure for an hour or two a day, you may even spark more of a thirst in them, or give them more tools to explore their wonderings. A child who knows little of history cannot find their passion in it, a child who knows nothing of geography may miss out on fascinations about the world.

A child who picks up a book and teaches themselves how to read is remarkable. But so is a child who needs a bit of encouragement to give it a go. Both will have strengths, weaknesses, challenges and joys. It’s our job to help them navigate those.

When you home educate your child you are taking on something amazing. I commend that. And I admire anyone who trusts their child to guide their education… but more so those who put the same trust in themselves.

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Copyright Nirvana Dawson 2013

Educating Us

We will be homeschooling.

It’s something I’ve hesitated to blog about, because people have a habit of mistaking passion for my truth as judgment of theirs. But that’s not it. There isn’t one right choice, just as there isn’t one type of person or a single kind of joy – they’re all valid and any choice made in the best interest of the child and family unit is the right choice for them. I smile just as much hearing about a friend’s child enjoying school as I do about mine enjoying freedom. So having said that, I’ll say a little more.

Sometimes I call myself an attachment parent, but that’s not entirely true. I instinctively parent. I do what feels right for my kids. That includes breastfeeding, co-sleeping, baby wearing, not leaving them cry, feeding them healthy food… and how we educate.

A couple of years ago now I was looking into schools for Bodhi. I had been homeschooled from age nine onwards and had gotten so much from that. In that time I had I found so much of me, I found a hunger for knowledge, self-motivation, creativity and exploration of the world around me. But it would be too hard to homeschool my kids, I decided, and I found myself sliding uncomfortably into the norm.

I planned to send my son to school. The thing was that the more I looked at these schools – these good schools – I couldn’t get past the fact that this was thirty hours of my child’s week (not including homework). The best thirty hours. The thirty hours where the sun was out and his mind was fresh and that these thirty hours a week for thirteen years would be spent in an institution. And it struck me that it didn’t matter how good this institution was, or how dedicated his teachers would be – that was a huge part of his life that he would be away from the life he was being raised to be part of. And for that huge part of his life the child I was so passionate about raising would not be raised by me at all.

It wouldn’t really be the teachers either, because they are amazing, but in the ratios of children to teachers he would be raised just as much, if not more, by peer pressure.

A feeling of unease sat in my belly.

I began to read. I read random books on homeschooling, I read Holt and Gatto. A lightbulb went off. I decided that I could homeschool my kids. It would be hard at times, and it would challenge me, but that would be ok, because I could do hard things, I could be challenged.

Bodhi often tells people that we’re homeschooling before I do. He radiates confidence and he owns it – as much of it as he understands. And the responses we get are interesting. We get admiration. We get sharp intakes of breath and brows drawn together as people mutter “why???”. And we get “there’s still time to change your mind.” Or “but if he wants to go to school you’ll send him right?” We get those two a lot.

I don’t have any intention of changing my mind. That sounds defiantly naive from someone whose child is yet to start ‘prep’, but I know this one, not just because I’ve been homeschooled, but because it makes sense for us. It feels right. It feels exciting. I have no doubt that we’ll make mistakes, and that we’ll learn from them as much as we do the successes. For all the highs and lows that will undoubtedly come my children will have the world as their classroom, they will be taught by someone who loves them more than anyone, and their needs, challenges and strengths will drive this thing before us.

What about if he wants to go to school? See here’s the thing; he wants to eat chips for every meal, except when there’s chocolate. He wants to have custard for desert every night and icecream every day and never, ever brush his teeth. As his parent it’s my job to guide him for what’s best for him, until he has gained the wisdom to make those choices for himself. So if he wanted to go to school would I send him? No, not now. I’d see why, and I’d make changes and fill gaps that might not be being filled. I’d put his happiness first, without question, but I’d encourage him to take this time. If he was older and he decided school was right for him then I would support him all the way.

This thing before us is big, but it’s also awesome. And I don’t plan to do it alone. He will have many teachers in his life, he will pursue hobbies, languages, probably martial arts, sports or dance. He will be surrounded by friends of his choosing, of all ages, and he will also enjoy the peace of solitude that he craves.  Sometimes he will be bored, and from that he will find his own motivation. He will have opportunities laid out for him and have to pursue others himself.

We will explore rockpools and textbooks. Some days we will play and wander until the sun goes down and others we will get lost in study.

He will get a great education – and so will we. His family. We’ll learn together. Not just about phonics and science and history and art but about each other. We will learn what makes each other tick, what drives each other mad, and what makes each other hungry for more.

Some links of interest…

Csilla is a homeschooling consultant (see Too Cool 4 School on facebook) and has just written an amazing book about her family’s journey. I was fortunate enough to be asked to write the foreword Love Learn Live

John Taylor Gatto – All his work is brilliant, but this speech connected so much for us The Seven Lesson Schoolteacher

SunnyHomeschool on facebook is a wonderful resource and run by a very special homeschooling Mum, Heather.

Sir Ken RobinsonChanging Education Paradigms

A thought provoking video Why I hate school but love education

Copyright Nirvana Dawson 2012

Growing Something Good

“The garden teaches us there is something we are all capable of doing. Only with something so small that can be in everyones hand can we challenge the empire.”  Vandana Shiva

We are currently building a house, a process that involves watching a drawing come to life before your eyes, to the heartbeat of nail guns and tradie’s radios.

We are intensely excited about the garage door, the floor, the windows, even the linen cupboard. Of course not all of it is there yet, but it will be, and we look forward to it like a child looks forward to the end of a story, because no matter how we think it will look or feel, we know it will surprise us in some joyful way.

But around the house is something really special – a blank slate. A yard that has not been landscaped or planted, no garden beds or trees or overgrown pathways. It just is. And I can’t wait to start helping it grow.

I’m really noticing lately how reliant on the grid we all are. For our power, water, entertainment and most of all – food. Few of us want to live a fully self sufficient life, but as evidence continues to show sprayed fruit and vegetables to be toxic, and organic food prices soar while genetically modified ingredients creep into our food supply… maybe it’s time to do something, a little something.

Our little something is going to be an edible garden. Not a veggie garden, but rather an entire yard where everything, bar the grass, either is food, or helps to grow it.

There is an online campaign called “Grow Food Not Lawns” (find them on facebook) and though I love soft green grass beneath my feet, it does make a good point. What if we got used to seeing a front garden filled with vegetables? What if we dug up just a little of our grass and planted something we could eat? What if we turned our ornamental gardens into practical ones? The easy care trees into fruit trees? What if we planted potatoes in the corner of the yard we never use, and turned our kitchen scraps into compost? What if our salad greens thrived amongst edible flowers?

What if even a quarter of us converted even a quarter of our yards into urban farms?

What if all of us grew something?

Can you imagine what it would do for our budgets, our health and our communities? We’d have enough to share, even with that. We would connect with our neighbors more, and ‘fast food’ could be a salad thrown together in minutes from the garden.

We are blessed where we live, but for a lot of people even here affording as many quality fresh fruit and vegetables as they should be eating is difficult (let alone the range they should be eating, or organic). In America someone living on foodstamps has around $30 a week to feed themselves. In other parts of the world people have even less.

We all carry with us a wealth of practical life skills to pass on to our children. They are an inheritance of sorts – a precious one. Maybe this inheritance can help them along the way or even save them revisiting some of our own mistakes. But how many of us have this skill to pass on – how to grow a high yield, thriving, organic vegetable garden. The skill of feeding yourself.

I don’t. I don’t learn gardening from books, for me it’s like trying to learn dance from print. It brings out my clumsy side.

I have planted gardens before, plenty of them, but my system involved putting things in the ground and hoping. In the end the cherry tomatoes and sweet potatoes were victorious (and ones the size of footballs continued to be dug up MONTHS later), while most other things either became insect entrées or just didn’t do anything at all. Seriously, I had a cabbage stay an inch high for months – I had too much sympathy for the poor runt to pull it out.

So I’m hiring someone better versed in permaculture to help create something on that beautiful blank slate of ours. To show me where things should go to help them thrive, how to feed them and nourish them so that they can do the same for us.

Children often learn best by doing, so that garden of mine can plant seeds of knowledge and inspiration for my kids. They might love it and munch on fresh snowpeas and cucumbers they harvest themselves, or they might ignore it in favour of Lego. But I want it to become normal for them, habit, to think of food as coming from the earth rather than a supermarket.

Considering that what we eat and how we eat can affect our health, the planet and even our ethics, I’m realizing that no matter what else I teach my children this lesson should be right up there in “Life 101”.

We look around at what’s wrong in the world and we get a lot of fight in us. Our inner activist looks at all this before us and either attacks what they can or has the breath knocked out of their fight because there’s SO MUCH to be done, and there are SO MANY bigger, stronger warriors on the other team.

But real change doesn’t need the force of a tidal wave, it needs the reach of a ripple. It starts small and spreads, and slowly, it can make a new normal. Because that’s what we have to do to make real change. It has to stop feeling like change at all. If we can get used to seeing lettuce in place of mondo grass, spinach in place of gerbras, potatoes in place of ferns – we can change the world.

Our power doesn’t lay in a fight, but in ceasing to be passive. It lays in planting that seed. That’s what starts the ripple, because we vote most powerfully with our forks – with how we eat. We show how we will accept our animals to be treated, we take the power back in our health, and we help the environment as we do it.

Our garden might make up the knowledge we pass onto our children, parents or friends. It might build a bridge between neighbors or inspire a passer by. It might ease the strain on our budget, or it might just make for fresher herbs and salads. But if we can plant that seed – plant something – the future we grow can surprise us.

Copyright Nirvana Dawson 2012