by Steph W.
"In the beginning, I became a teacher without realizing it," wrote author and educator John Taylor Gatto in an essay titled "The Green Monongahela." He grew up near the Monongahela River in Pennsylvania. In a sense, his "classroom" was the fertile riverbanks, which teemed with life, the trains that passed through, and the riverboats. Trains stopped on their way to deliver water or coal to distant locations, and a brakeman or engineer often talked to the children who gathered around. They told the kids stories and let them explore the boxcars. Children were allowed to roam around the riverboats that sometimes stopped to discharge a crew. Kids also learned from everyone in the community, from parents to police officers. "The rules didn't need to be written down; if men had time, they showed boys how to grow up."
Gatto reflected on how this had shaped him. "...in my own heart, I never left Monongahela," he wrote, "where I learned to teach from being taught by everyone in town, where I learned to teach work from being asked to shoulder my share of the responsibility, even as a boy, and where I learned to find adventures I made myself from everyday stuff around me -- the river and the people who lived alongside it."
In a very real way, this seems to have laid the foundation for part of Gatto's educational philosophy. As an outspoken critic of compulsory public education, he argued persuasively that most effective learning takes place within the family and community. While schools are part of the community, of course, but they tend to remove children from the heart of family and community life for long stretches of time. Gatto also explored the roots of his passion for teaching and learning. He thought about a young teacher he'd once inspired, and he wondered "was I your Monongahela?"
I started wondering whether, as a former counselor/educator and a home schooling mom, I -- too -- had a "Monongahela." Was there a time and place when I gained the confidence and desire to teach? Maybe that's the wrong question. I suspect that being a home schooling parent is less about being a teacher and is more about being an learner - an autodidactic learner who can serve as a trail guide for younger explorers. Maybe it's a balance of both. In any case, I think they're really seamless parts of the same question. At some point I gained knowledge and confidence about how to learn -- with or without school -- as part of a family and community. In time this expanded to a hope -- and belief -- that I could create an educational life without school for my kids.
My parents got me excited about the world of books and ideas. They also taught me, from a very early age, that much -- if not most -- real learning happens naturally through conversation. I grew up asking questions, and having long rambling conversations about how society works, what the future might look like, and life and death. I suppose I was a fledgling student of philosophy, sociology and civics long before I could articulate such things. One might say this was an occupational hazard -- having parents who were college professors. :-) But I think this happens naturally in virtually all families. Stories shared among family members, conversations about bits of news or popular T.V. shows, and answers to the various odd questions that arise throughout the day become a rich source of learning.
Some of my public school teachers also fostered the confidence I needed to become an autodidact. My eighth grade English teacher stopped by my desk, not to check my homework but to see what I was reading. There was always a novel slipped between my purse and my grammar notebook; she noticed and talked to me about the authors I read. A high school civics teacher insisted that her main role was not to pour information into us but to help us learn to question everything we're told. "Whatever you read or hear -- you need to be able to poke holes in it. Think for yourself." I hope there are plenty of public school teachers like that today.
Most of all, of course, my kids were my Monongahela. They learned from playing, books, studying ants and spiders crawling through the grass, gazing at the clouds, and through everyday conversations in a way that made worksheets superfluous. They've reveled in the world of their own ideas. They have discovered passions, gorged themselves on them, and moved on to new things. They are teaching me -- slowly -- what real learning is.
Did you have a Monogahela -- either as a teacher or as an autodidactic parent living without school? What was it?
Quotations are from "The Green Monongahela" in Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling by John Taylor Gatto, New Society Publishers, 1992.
Stephanie W. lives with her family in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. She has been learning at home full time with her three wonderfully creative, feisty and quirky children -- Sarah (13), James (9) & Patricia Elizabeth (4) since 2003. Her other interests include literature, writing, editing, and the internet.