By Deborah Wood, Ph.D.
In high school I read Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner as well as Summerhill: a Radical Approach to Child Rearing. Both books acknowledged that the education I had received to that point had often been impersonal and limiting. Don’t get me wrong, I had had a few great teachers, but the overall system was, even at that time, long overdue for improvement. Fifty years later, with a career path that shied away from public school teaching, I now have the chance to provide a very individualized education to two very special students who happen to be my grandchildren.
Curiosity and Confidence
While minimizing the psychological stress related to the highly contagious Delta variant of Covid-19, we are trying to prevent “missing out” on academic content that is being covered in the classroom. My general approach to a homeschool day might have loose plans to tackle a math concept or a reading selection, or other such nougats from second grade or fifth grade curricula. Internally I struggle though, weighing the importance of my students “keeping up” with unseen peers versus following our own desires.
Postman and Weingartner observe that a student’s motivation for learning is key to supporting that learning. Learning should be relevant and purposeful. Is this particular content germane to my past experiences or present interests? Will a particular skill make my life better?
We enjoyed lessons at Assateague Island last week such as dodging the waves on the shore when we didn’t want to get wet, and anticipating how big a wave was going to be when we wanted to get splashed by it. Both of the children and I also played with the waves’ intrusion on our sand constructions. We worked around the occasional demolition of a wall with determination to rebuild. We made our walls thicker. We inched our structures further ashore. But eventually the tide fulfilled its twice daily surge upon the beach. And we peaceably abandoned our sand building.
One of the thought-provoking points made in Teaching as a Subversive Activity is that a curriculum needn’t be demanding – designed on purpose to make getting good grades difficult – in order to be a “good” curriculum. A confident student, one who isn’t burdened with the pressures of mandatory assignments, tests, and grades, is a more eager student.
The Summerhill approach stresses the absence of coercion. A student should want to learn, rather than be forced to learn. At Summerhill School, founded in 1921 and still thriving near the east coast of England, lessons are offered, but participation is not compulsory. Its founder A.S. Neill said, “All outside compulsion is wrong. Inner compulsion is the only value. Every moment of a healthy child’s life is a working moment.” This is how the learning community of 75 students, ages 5-17, and 25 staff, still operates today.
Similarly, if any proposed activities of Bubbie’s homeschool are met with disinterest or the interest fades, we can move on to something else. On the other hand, when one or both students are absorbed in an activity, there’s no reason to cut it short. My responsibility includes flexibility to follow an idea or interest as far as the students want and I am able.
The internet is a magnificent tool for accessing information and images to satisfy our interests. “Let’s look it up,” is a suggestion that we state and follow several times a day. Pencil and paper, as well as other art materials, are also generally available to help explain things to one another. I’ve been thus instructed, with the help of Google plus the fifth grader’s drawing, in the symbolism of the eye and triangle used for the villain, Bill Cipher, in the animated kids’ show, “Gravity Falls”. “See?” I was shown. “Like on the dollar bill.”
One of my roles is to add engagement and meaning to the learning process. For example, soon after exiting the car at our campsite at Assateague Island we discovered the painful sticking power of sand burs. These spiky seeds cling to socks, trousers, and the fingers that try to remove them. We quickly learned to avoid grassy areas, especially if sandal-footed. But this prompted me to tell the story of Velcro. The children were fascinated that a man’s walk in the woods with his shaggy dog would lead to tinkering with plastics and a very useful invention. George de Mestral of Switzerland successfully replicated the tiny hooks of the burs such that they sufficiently held onto the fuzzy counterpart that simulated dog fur and sock fuzz. By the way, he wasn’t assigned to invent Velcro. He was driven by his curiosity.
Often it’s the spontaneous lessons that arise from real world experiences that bring excitement and satisfaction to our time together. These might include just making food or exploring properties of nature. Our camp host presented us with a couple of kites left behind by other campers. The first day our students tried them out there wasn’t enough wind. (Granddaddy explained from his real world experience why the kites didn’t lift.) The next day, however, was perfect. Granddaddy demonstrated how to take a few steps back to help the kite climb, and I passed on the technique of a gentle tug. Natural teaching at its best.
Without a rigid time schedule, and free of having to compete with the needs of a whole roomful of students, we can let questions lead to more questions. We can play with wet sand until the tide comes in. We can go down rabbit holes on the internet or tug on a kite string to lift our understandings.
In homeschooling, I’m free to be the teacher I always wanted to be.
Dr. Wood will be Keynote Speaker and one of the workshop facilitators for parents and early childhood professionals at a one-day conference, Come Outside – Where Learning is Great! at Chesapeake Children’s Museum on Saturday, October 23.
Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.