One of my guilty weekend pleasures involves reading the “Date Lab” column in the Washington Post Magazine. “Date Lab” is a virtual reality show in miniature---the Post sets up blind dates with young singles, and then interviews the participants afterwards about their impressions of the date. Occasionally, someone finds their soul mate, but more often the dates end in disappointment, if not outright disaster.
Often the dating singles in Date Lab look really compatible on paper, but that compatibility doesn’t translate into a real-life encounter. “Yes, we are both young urban professionals who love jazz, travel, funny movies, dogs, babies, and romantic sunset walks, but……”
What’s missing? Usually it’s “chemistry”, that intangible, hard-to-define quality that is so essential to successful friendships and romances. You know chemistry when you see it, but it’s awfully hard to put it into words, or predict when it will happen.
Just like available singles seeking the perfect mate, we homeschooling parents spend a lot of time seeking the perfect curriculum materials for our children. We search for “that special something” in homeschooling catalogs or the displays of conference vendors. Sometimes we even let our friends set us up on blind dates with curriculum: “My son just LOVED learning to read with this, and I know your son will love it too!”
Every book, resource, or activity kit on the market comes with rave reviews, but does it have “chemistry”? Does it have the special spark that will make it the perfect fit for your child? Sometimes the answers are surprising.
Take Cuisenaire rods, for example. The veteran homeschooling mom who sold them to me swore that my kids would love these colorful wooden math manipulatives. And she was right; they did love them--as a three-dimensional building toy. After the thrill of designing skyscrapers and gymnastics equipment was over, the Cuisenaire rods went back into the box, never to be opened again. The same goes for a lot of other cool-looking educational toys, books, games, puzzles, and kits, which are now sitting in my basement awaiting a yard sale.
While the Cuisenaire rods were a bust, we got an amazing amount of mathematical mileage from another set of manipulatives. My 3 year old daughter loved this purchase and played with it daily, mastering one and two-digit number recognition, simple addition, and the concepts of odd and even in the process. I am embarrassed to admit the manipulatives in question consisted of dice, poker chips, plastic race horses, and a miniature roulette wheel, all found in a beat-up suitcase purchased at a yard sale. It was definitely not your conventional homeschool resource. But there was a lot of unexpected educational chemistry inside that old brown suitcase.
Chemistry is often a fleeting affair, as evidenced by our little romance with Latin a couple years back. My 11 year old son said he wanted to read about Roman warriors and battles in the original language. There were plenty of books and materials which were informative, easy to understand, and appropriate for beginners. However, these resources were not compelling enough to attract and sustain the interest of a preteen boy with no prior language experience.
Eventually, we found the Minimus Latin series, which teaches Latin grammar and Roman culture through the cartoon story of a real-life Roman family living in Great Britain about 1700 years ago. While other beginning Latin texts might have been far more thorough or comprehensive, Minimus offered just the right mix of grammar, vocabulary, history, color, charm, humor, and cartoon mice to appeal to my son. It was unquestionably the perfect match for my son at that particular time.
Alas, the romance with Latin did not last. The second Minimus book was a little harder and less appealing than the first one, another beginning Latin resource I purchased turned out to be a major turnoff, and eventually our studies were set aside for another day. But the cultural knowledge gained from this doomed love affair came in handy this spring during our visit to England, when we visited the Roman ruins in Bath. And perhaps in time my son will return to Latin, although the last time I talked with him, he was thinking of studying Spanish instead.
Meanwhile, that little 3 year old roulette player is now 17 and contemplating college admissions. She seeks a moderately academically challenging school in the Mid-Atlantic region with a good program in advertising, mass communications, and/or marketing, ample amateur theatre opportunities, and lots of interesting people. Literally hundreds of schools have written to her, claiming they have exactly what she wants. But most of these appeals leave her cold; these schools have the right package, but not the right chemistry.
As I write this, one particular college stands out from the rest for its innovation and charm. Is it “the one”, or merely a passing fancy? We’ll see how this particular chemistry experiment holds up over the next few months.
Celeste has been unschooling her kids for well over a decade. She does homeschooling advocacy work for her state homeschooling organization and spends way too much time on the computer. In her spare time, she does tae kwon do, plays the piano, and plays a glamorous, powerful, purple lady bunny in an online virtual reality game.