by Steph W.
My older daughter recently started taking horseback riding lessons. It takes some faith and courage to get on a horse for the first time. You are far off the ground on a creature that is exponentially heavier than you. I watched as she groomed "her" horse, Tiny, and climbed on his back for the first time. The facilitators of the horseback riding program made it possible for her to mount Tiny by herself by setting a scaffold -- basically a large set of wooden steps -- beside the horse. Then they stood by as she climbed on his back and walked beside her as Tiny trotted into the riding ring.
The role of a home schooling or unschooling parent is a lot like that, I think. A child chooses a direction -- as my daughter decided she wanted to learn to ride a horse. Her mentors provide the support she needs to succeed, not unlike a simple, sturdy wooden scaffold, and walk beside her. However, the real experience -- riding a horse and learning to communicate with it and guide it -- is a journey no one can take for her.
This is a difficult thing for me. It's akin to what unschoolers mean when they talk about trusting the child -- and say that this is the heart of their philosophy and they way they live. It is hard to stand beside my child, providing the resources and other supports she needs, and not guide. Yet there are times in our homeschooling journey when we need to do just that, because this is what the child needs to achieve her goal and own her accomplishment.
Knowing when this is one of those times -- a moment neither to guide or push -- is hard for me. Allowing myself to trust my own instincts, and actually do this, is even harder.
My older daughter recently decided she wanted to write a novel. Naturally I have plenty of ideas on how she can develop her plot and characters and enrich the story she's writing. I am full of ideas for other people's work, even if my mind seems sterile when it comes to my own. :-) Instead I provided a little scaffolding (a term I borrowed from RDI) by helping her type her manuscript, because she has difficulty with keyboarding. (I'm a lot faster. You'd be surprised how fast you can hunt and peck after 30 years of practice. :-) ) And I walked beside her in the ring -- I sat with her while she wrote and I muddled through a project of my own. We listened to music and worked together. When she wanted to read her developing manuscript aloud, I listened.
The experience seemed to flow smoothly for both of us. The writing process is kind of like the a stream, which gathers the richness it needs -- as it flows -- from the minerals in the stream bed. Then -- unsurprisingly -- I stopped letting myself trust my instincts. I started giving advice on character development, and her spark dimmed a bit. I remembered a time when I was about 10 and excited about starting a coin collection. I gathered some money relatives had brought me from different countries and began to sort them and label them. When my dad offered to help, and seized responsibility for directing my project, my interest waned. I no longer owned what I'd wanted to accomplish.
My son did not start writing -- beyond an occasional line or two -- until he was about 10. Having been a fairly precocious writer, and being well schooled in what children "should" be doing to avoid "getting behind" in their writing development, this was a real test of faith for me. One by one, we tried different methods: phonics games, narration, copywork, and workbooks. Each one, in turn, was laid to rest as we saw that they did not fit his learning style. Copywork was a particular cause of angst. And although he could narrate fluently, when prodded to do so, he would prefer cleaning toilets or taking out the garbage.
However, he enjoyed hearing and telling stories. He and his older sister, now 14, still stay up late at night telling each other wild fantasy adventure stories that they create as they go along. Although I didn't see it clearly before, this was probably his apprenticeship in writing.
This year, my son turned 10 and we started doing "Breakfast School," which includes -- in addition to board games and a few other things -- Five-Minute Freewrites. I didn't expect my son to take to this willingly, and was prepared to put it aside for a few months, or years, as I had many times in the past. But he wrote a few lines, and I was pleasantly surprised that he did that without too much anguish.
Despite the fact that I'd assured him that I am not worried about spelling or mechanics, he wrote his sentences out carefully, choosing simple words he thought he could spell (Even so, he misspelled many words. :-) ) Here's what he wrote (I corrected spelling and punctuation):
Aengus and Me Playing YuGiOh! We both got good hands. He got a Dark Hole and Witch of the Black Forest and Heavy Storm and Hammer Shot and Armed Dragon N7! And I got these!!
Then he went visual -- which is his normal learning mode -- and sketched 5 YuGiOh cards. We read the freewrite together, and I thanked him for his hard work. We didn't say much else about it. The next week, his freewrite was much different. It was a few sentences long, and the spelling and mechanics were thoroughly atrocious :-) (I corrected them here). But I LOVED it. He risked bringing his imagination into the process and doing a bit of vivid, original descriptive writing:
Helicopters were flying above as the dark howling creature began to screech. People fled from the giant form waving its arms like a three-year-old having a tantrum.
I got excited about these lines, and -- trusting my instincts -- I certainly didn't comment on the mechanics or urge him to "finish" it. He read his work to everyone in the family. His sister and dad encouraged him to continue the story, and he seemed interested in doing that. We continued to do freewrites off and on, encouraging him to write a line or two each time. Gradually his story blossomed into three pages, full of suspense, adventure, and rich descriptive detail.
I think -- for him -- the scaffolding is simply providing a quiet time to work without allowing the distractions of video games and other diversions during that time. I don't guide him in his writing, but I do set aside "study time" in for him to work on these things. I also walk beside him in the ring, listening to him read passages aloud, when he wants me to, and highlighting aspects of his writing that I think work particularly well.
As I write this, my daughter is in the riding ring, riding and guiding Tiny, with brilliant fall sunlight flowing in along with the smell of grass and wild onions. In moments of stillness, between flurries of dusty hoofbeats, I hear the slow, lazy song of crickets, I am thinking about the way the kids are growing and slowly gaining faith in their own gifts and ideas. I am looking forward to the adventures that are ahead and to many more moments when one of them will move away from a scaffold, begin to move into a trot, and eventually gallop away, safe yet marvelously free.
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 since 2003. Her other interests include literature, writing, editing, and the internet.