When we first took the leap into homeschooling, our thoughts were a jumble. We were so terrified. What if we failed? What if people didn't approve? What would people think of us? We were Liberal Democrats who always supported public education. What would our friends think? I went online to find answers.
The best advice I got was about a process known as “deschooling.” One of my online mentors suggested, “Before you do anything or decide on any curriculum,” she advised, “you really need to deschool your child – and yourself.”
Being socialized to institutional public schools brings on certain thought patterns and emotional responses that need to be cast aside for a new homeschooling lifestyle to be fully realized and enjoyed. The deschooling process is like a decompression chamber that allows the mind and the body to shift away from a situation that was stress-filled and constrained to one that is more relaxed and free. Most people suggested that we deschool for at least one or two months for each year in school. Since my kid was in school until halfway through the fifth grade, that would mean deschooling for as long as ten months before we got really started on homeschooling. I was assured given my son’s very negative experience with school that the longer unschooling time would be more than fine – it would be a huge benefit to him.
My online mentor’s suggestion that I would need deschooling myself proved to be even more beneficially true than deschooling for my child. My son embraced his new found freedom from the very first day of homeschooling. He came to me with an armload of books on a variety of topics. “Mom, these are all the books that I’ve wanted to read for a long time but I’ve never had the chance until now,” he said. “Is it okay if I read them now?” Of course I said “yes” but I also remembered to say that he didn’t have to ask my permission to read anything he wanted to read. He could just do it. His face lit up. “You mean I don’t have to do anything unless I really want to?” “Yes,” I responded as I held my breath and gave away my authority. And off he went – to read for four days straight. On the fifth day he came to me and said, “I’m out of books to read now. Can we get some more?” Off we went together to the library where he checked out another armload of books.
After nearly two weeks of complete absorption reading, my son was ready for a change. I suggested a field trip with a large homeschooling support group that I’d found on the Internet. He seemed interested. Good thing since I’d signed up to participate in nearly every field trip they offered. The first field trip to a huge berry farm that regularly accommodated school groups felt so familiar. Our group was nearly a hundred people, in a sea of hundreds more people. Crowd control measures were enforced and we were herded through various exhibits that conformed to the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs). At the end of the exhibits all the adults were given handouts describing the exact SOLs that were covered by the exhibits. Naturally I took these sheets home to file for when our formal homeschooling took place so I could craft a lesson plan or a unit study that would cover these SOLS.
Then I saw my son’s face go blank. The excited light was gone and a dull look of detachment was in its place. I remembered how much he hated crowds and looked around at the hundreds of people we’d placed ourselves with. All new faces meant a treasure hunt for an extrovert like me but a near panic attack for my introvert son. I realized that I was replicating school and that was not a good thing for us to be doing. I remembered the words of one advisor who wrote to me that replicating school was like repeating a failure – and who needs that?
I learned that deschooling is a process that has no set timetable and no set method. It only involves following one’s heart and staying true to the child’s interest. Furthermore, the child’s interest may not be revealed until a certain amount of time is devoted to what may seem to be idle reverie. Through deschooling we came to know that learning opportunities are in everything and are everywhere – especially in those things that the schoolish experts have warned are not what they deem as “educational.”
At the beginning there were several subjects that my son did not like because all interest in them had been killed off by poor teaching methods, drill and kill, or emotionally negative experiences from school. History was one of those subjects that he told me he hated. It broke my history-lover’s heart, but there was no way that he would pick up a history book. That changed when in the deschooling process he discovered a computer game called “Age of Empires.” For a week he stayed up late into the night to build his empire and army. In the wee hours playing that game he learned more about the medieval period of Western civilization than he would have in a semester of high school. Soon he was giving me mini lectures the features and flaws of various siege weapons. He asked me to take him to the hardware store so he could get supplies to build a trebuchet.
Until recently I thought we were still deschooling math after 4.5 years at home and no math. I admit that a few whispers of anxiety creep up in my throat whenever I am asked about his “math performance.” How can a kid possible know all the math he needs to know if he never picks up a math book? I have to consciously push those fears away, reminding myself that despite having taken all the math in high school and college that qualified my pre-med major, the most I can remember off the top of my head is the basic arithmetic that I’ve used on a daily basis. My son’s continued interest in medieval siege weaponry lead to an interest in rockets which lead to an interest in physics which led to a practical understanding of trigonometry in order to calculate the launch angle for the proper trajectory.
His continued interest in physics is leading him back into math – a subject that was his most dreaded during his school daze. Now he is telling me that he wants to pursue a career in physics. I did say to him, “But what about the math, sweetie?” I regretted what I said as soon as my words hit the airspace between us. Luckily, he shrugged off my interest-killer probing, telling me, “If it’s related to physics I’m sure that I will learn it pretty easily.” Then he reminded me that Albert Einstein, whose Theory of Relativity my son wears on a T-shirt, was math-phobic and even failed math as a student.
Last weekend we went to the Delmarva Chicken Festival and stopped by the local Democratic Party booth. We live in Virginia, but my children and I have been involved in campaigns in several other states. Our way of learning civics is check out the political climate in whatever locality we visit. We struck up a lively conversation with the older gentleman staffing the booth who said he was impressed with my children’s political knowledge as they shared with him the concerns about voting machines, environmental policy, and comparing the performances of Virginia’s governor with Maryland’s governor. After several minutes of adult level conversation with my 12 and 16 year old sons, the man reached for the hackneyed question so typical of adults who suddenly remember that they’re speaking with kids. “You must do very well in school -- What grade are you in?” My boys explained that they did not attend school. The man’s face tightened and he looked at me, then back at the boys. “Well -- you seem to be learning a lot about politics – but what about science?” he barked. I could almost see him trying to wrap his brain around the concept of a homeschooling family of liberal Democratic activists – challenging his own preconceived notions.
My eldest piped up, “Oooh SCIENCE! That’s one of my favorite subjects! I LOOVE science.” The man blinked. “Well…I was a science teacher and it’s very important to me that children learn science.” My son was eager to pick this man’s brain. “What area of science did you teach? Physics? Geology? Chemistry? Biology?” The retired science teacher replied that he had to teach all of them and as a classroom teacher was not allowed to go into depth in any of them. He expressed how educational standardization became so frustrating to deal with that he eventually just retired from teaching.
My son remembered back to his school years and expressed sympathy with the science teacher about being a student who wanted to probe deeply and fully into subjects that he was interested in and the frustration he felt when he had to abandon a topic in order to suit a standard academic calendar. The science teacher’s face lit up as he stated, “And now you’re really lucky because you get to study whatever you want as much as you want!” And with that, we just shared a deschooling moment with a perfect stranger.
Alicia grew up all over the world, including many formative years in Southern California, specifically “The OC” before it became pop culture cool. Now Alicia lives in Virginia, below what she calls “the sweet tea line,” the geographic point at which the wait staff in restaurants begin asking if you prefer your ice tea “sweet or unsweet.” The psychological sweet tea line demarks the state of the Southern mind; full of angst, still defensive and too proud for its own good. This is the place of Alicia’s ancestors, who whisper to her of their triumphant joys and painful sorrows. In between writing for politicians who borrow her words to speak their minds, Alicia writes poetry and prose whenever the spirits or events inspire her.