I have Bad News (for you young skulls full of mush): School is starting. Sorry.
My children are homeschooled. (By me, occasionally. Sometimes I toss them into The Real World of Learning all by themselves: “You like comic books, son? Great! Go write one.” Creative writing, spelling, grammar, and art completely taken care of in one fell swoop. I’m both a master at teaching multi-tasking, and totally unfair, I know.) Since we homeschool, I choose when we start school, and typically I stick to the calendar of the public schools in the area (although we never have any of those teacher in-service days…gotta fix that this year). The kids around here all start school today, in mid-August. I think this might be criminally cruel to the yutes of America. It’s a hundred-freaking degrees outside, for crying out loud! Because I am not completely heartless, my perfect angels don’t have to start until the Tuesday after Labor Day. Nevertheless, I am thinking school-ish thoughts these days.
Around here, school is pretty laid back, and for the most part, it’s really pretty wonderful. We spend lots of time reading aloud together, talking about what we read and enjoying one another. My oldest helps out the younger ones, and the younger ones soak in all sorts of things the older one is learning. I get to be Right There when the big educational lightbulbs go off, when the letters become words, and the words suddenly mean things, and the value of this is beyond my capacity to explain.
I started homeschooling because that was my last educational option, apart from the Dreaded Godless Public School System. I wanted my children to have a complete education, and I truly believe this cannot be accomplished if those educating are actively trying to keep God and all references to Him out of education. (Sidebar: there are some truly wonderful public schools. I went to some of them. And I have had the privilege to know some amazing people who are immensely capable of not only teaching, but actually inspiring students in the public school arena-a monumental feat in today’s world. These people have earned and deserve our highest respect.) However, the closer I looked at brick-and-mortar schools (both Christian and secular), I saw them as places where bureaucrats train the young masses to be institutionalized.The students all must learn the same way, at the same pace, in the same clothes, from the same (pre-approved) books.
They must stand in line quietly, they must eat the same foods, walk through the same metal detectors, their days dictated by some horrific-sounding bell. Occasionally, they are herded outdoors for some exercise or stuck in an art class for some personal enrichment, but mostly, they just seem to be told to sit down, shut up, read pages 46-81, and then vomit it back up to a tired teacher who has been stripped of their love for their calling because that same bureaucracy has tied their hands, nearly starved them, and simultaneously overworked and under-appreciated them while removing the authority and creativity the teacher needs to make education exciting.
The classroom, thanks to the well-meaning but awful antics of governments large and small, has become a place no one wants to be.
I can not bear the thought of my children being educated in any environment that even remotely resembles San Quentin. I want them to love learning. Toward this end, I am training my children to be readers.
When my oldest was in her very small, very Christian brick-and-mortar school during kindergarten and first grade, they did what most small Christian schools do to compensate for the fact that they are not Very Large and Very Recognised public schools: they set their standards ridiculously high, and force students to be either brilliant or frustrated. My daughter got straight A’s, despite the fact that the basic rules of phonics and spelling eluded her like the little geckos she liked to chase when she was that age.
Consequently, she absolutely hated to read. We started slow. I read to her some wonderful books (Red Sails To Capri and A Little Princess stand out in my memory…beautiful, beautiful stories. Please, read these to the children in your world.) and I would watch her face. Her eyes were beginning to light up as the characters in the stories came to life in her mind. She soon would beg, “Read just a little more, Mom, please.” I also had her read aloud, choosing books that I enjoyed when I was young, along with others children have loved (like Amelia Bedelia, Little Bear, and Frog and Toad). At first, this was slow going, but as her confidence grew, this time became as fun for her as when I would read aloud. Before I knew it, she was in fourth grade, and she discovered she loved to read.
My daughter will never win the National Spelling Bee, but she is a prolific reader. She will fearlessly tackle any book of any size by any author. Scratch that: she just walked in and said that ain’t the case. The kid’s gone and gotten herself some literary standards (probably a side-effect of reading Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings six times. For the fun of it.). She won’t read Lisa Harrison and L. J. Smith, who are either needlessly vulgar or obsessed with vampires, writing insipid teen fiction unworthy of her time. She instead gravitates toward things like To Kill a Mockingbird, Wuthering Heights, Anna and the King, and Great Expectations. Her favorite place in the world is the public library.
All of this reading has some bonus side-effects: my daughter is becoming a good writer. She does not fear having to write a research paper, a short story or a haiku. She does not fear the word “research”, and has been known to actually enjoy it. Also, because she has read books set in places and times that are as different as ancient Egypt, Burma in the 1850′s, Elizabethian England, far-off China, and mid-century Mississippi, she is learning to see the world not only through her own eyes, but through the eyes of those who are different from her. She has met in books people who on the outside would have nothing in common with her, but once she got to know them, she found a comaraderie born of the things she values most: integrity, loyalty, courage, gentleness, and faith.
When I read “Red Sails to Capri” to my middle son a few years ago, I would catch her listening in, secretly visiting her old friends. She would look up what book was coming next, and her excitement would make her brother excited about the world they were about to enter. Their relationship deepened because of their mutual love of these new friends. Sometimes, the youngest would crawl into my lap as we would read, not wanting to be left out, and I was so pleased to discover another benefit of reading aloud to children: their attention spans lengthen. My kids are oddities in our 140-character-limited world: they will sit for an hour and listen intently because Ralph is going to be in the trick-riding contest, and they are dying to know what happens next.
My youngest starts first grade this year, and we will once again pick up “Red Sails to Capri”. He is having the hardest time turning letters into words, and because he doesn’t like the humbling experience of not being awesome at everything he tries, he is resisting reading a bit. But I am not worried. The stories will help him. As I read Michele’s story (complete with all of the accents and the Hard-Boiled Egg Song) he will discover the beautiful mysteries of the story and the value of looking for the truth. The story will help him learn what courage is, that there is value in doing something hard, in failing sometimes and picking yourself, that it is ok to ask for help, and they will make him wonder about what other marvelous worlds are out there for him to discover.
I imagine his older siblings will want to set aside their math when we read the story. They will beg me to let them listen too. I’ll pretend to argue with them, only to make them fight for the privilege of enjoying the book again, this time with their baby brother. I will give in, and be rewarded with their smiles and their rapt attention, all curled up with me on the couch, learning in a way I believe to be almost holy: together as a family.
Something happens as one becomes educated through books of enduring quality. It is something that cannot be learned via standardized tests and dry government-approved textbooks. When a student is allowed to discover the world through its great books, two things are almost inevitable: they will learn to love learning, love their world, and more importantly, they will learn to love people.