Homefires - The Journal of Homeschooling OnlineHomefires - The Journal of Homeschooling Online

Trusting Your Children To Determine Curriculum

By Diane Flynn Keith

I want to invite you into the dark, suffocating recesses of my school mind. I want you to see that in spite of the fact that I have homeschooled my children for 6 or 7 years now, I still suffer the consequences of having been schooled -- and that my indoctrination to school thought is so complete, my mind still plays school tapes even as I try to embrace the unschool mantra of "Trust the Children."

The holidays were over. I asked my kids to make up a list of the things they would like to study, learn about, and do over the next few months. I said I would make a list too -- and then we would compare our lists to develop a schedule that would include all of our interests.

What I Wanted To Do
I planned a course of study to take us through the end of the school year. I decided that we would try to finish the math texts my kids were using, read some American history everyday, write everyday, and read biographies of famous scientists. We would supplement these studies with a hands-on science class once a week, music lessons twice a week, a physical education program twice a week, and an occasional field trip. Oh yes, and I intended to teach them some key phrases in Spanish for a short trip we will take to Mexico in the spring.

Don't laugh at me. This plan was not too ambitious. I've been homeschooling for a long time now and I'm telling you -- this is possible. The math, history, writing and reading can be accomplished in a couple of hours each day. Then it's just a matter of scheduling the classes and field trips to sandwich our studies.

You can imagine my consternation when my children presented me with their lists...

What My 11-Year-Old Wants To Do

  • Snowboard
  • Aggressive Inline Skating (become "sponsored")
  • Arrange Parties with Homeschool Friends
  • Fly Airplanes
  • Jam With Other Musicians
  • Play Starcraft On-line And Off-line
  • Take Science Classes
  • Talk On-line To Friends

What My 13-Year-Old Wants To Do

  • Fly Airplanes
  • Aggressive Inline Skating (master a series of flips of varying degrees)
  • Ski & Snowboard
  • Play the Guitar
  • Take Science Classes
  • Go to Parties with Homeschool Friends
  • Talk On-line to Friends
  • Play with the Dog

I don't see reading, writing, arithmetic or history on my kids' lists -- do you? That's too bad, because if those subjects were their primary interest -- making my plan work would be a whole lot easier. As I look at each list, I realize that nothing on it remotely resembles schoolwork - with the single exception of science classes. What's worse is that my sons think they've come up with a legitimate learning plan.

Back to my list -- it sounds like school. I even use a time frame created by conventional schooling -- "semester-speak". I am trying to neatly package their days in two-hour time frames of imposed learning. I'm trying to cover all the subjects they would get in school. I'm trying to finish the current textbook so we can move on to the next. I want to indoctrinate them with dumbed down answers to pre-fabricated questions. I want my children to engage in endless routines of drill work so that they can take standardized tests (like CHSPEs and SATs), so they can be ranked, classified, and set on a course for academic titles that have no real meaning (because they have nothing to do with the character of the person who holds the title).

If I can coerce my kids to follow this path then maybe someday, with their little diploma in hand, they can get a "good" job (with a prestigious title) working for someone else, with "decent" pay, benefits, and stock options so they can afford a "good lifestyle" that includes a "nice" home, car, clothes, a big-screen TV, and an occasional trip to Club Med.

Ultimately, I guess I want them to be happy little consumers who run in endless cycles turning the wheel of the global economy. Isn't that what we all hope for our children? (Okay, I'm starting to sound a bit facetious.) But the management of my children through a school-engineered curriculum will produce exactly that -- that is what it was designed to do. And doesn't it make my life easier? It's so simple. So sanitary. So mindless. A routine, an order, a way to predict outcome -- that's what makes me feel comfortable, reassured, and on schedule as I raise my children. These are the "school tapes" that play in my head after all of these years.

The dichotomy of my own thinking is evident when I remember why I rescued my kids from the school system in the first place. It was because school taught subjects that had little or no relevance to what my kids were interested in. It was because my kids complained of being bored by the curricula carefully selected by expert teachers. It was because my kids thought that school was a big waste of their time and objected to time-management techniques -- including the fact that they didn't have enough time to explore a subject when they were interested in it.

It was because my kids objected to the way the teacher treated the students -- speaking to them in clipped tones and directives: "Take out your pencils," "Don't read ahead," and "Time for lunch," -- never taking the time to really have a conversation with a child or bothering to really listen to what a kid had to say. It was because teachers imposed their will under threat of punishment. It was because, in essence, they were simply managing all of those kids -- not educating them. It was because my children didn't like the way the kids treated each other (tattling, vying for position by shoving and pushing in line, teasing, and bullying) -- makes you wonder what disturbed those kids so much that they had to act out like that.

So why would I want to impose the same insane parameters of school in my homeschool? Because it's familiar, it's what I know, it's what almost everyone else does. But if the results produce lock-step adults, passive and compliant, who never question why, who mindlessly accept the titles, rank, and class bestowed upon them by society, and whose happiness will ultimately be defined by what they can buy -- then that is not the result I want. School and its method of mind-control produces that result. To expect that method to produce a different result just because its done in my home is naïve at best.

I once read that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Reproducing school in my home will get the same results as sending my kids to school. I do not want my kids to become devoid of critical thinking skills, to be easily manipulated and maneuvered, to have their every thought measured and monitored, to be subject to constant surveillance with fleeting (if any) moments of solitude in which they might contemplate their naval, the universe, or just be bored. I do not want them to be intimidated into learning anything. I do not want them to become angry because like so many school children they are unheard, unappreciated, unacknowledged, undervalued, and uneducated.

Back to my kids' lists. Are the things they want to learn about really so devoid of education - in the academic sense of the word? Let's take a look. Right off the bat I can tell you that flying airplanes covers science, math, geography, history and reading. Aggressive inline skating, skiing and snowboarding covers P.E. and health (as in go to the emergency room frequently and make observations of health care while being x-rayed, stitched and bandaged). Playing musical instruments is Fine Arts. Arranging and going to parties with homeschooled friends covers socialization. Taking science classes is obvious. Talking on-line to friends is an exercise in writing everyday. They aren't actually talking -- they are typing on a keyboard -- reading emails and instant messages -- and sending them. This covers reading, writing, spelling, grammar and probably computer science. My overall impression is that they will learn all of the subjects that schools insist are so important -- simply by virtue of doing the things that interest them.

Not only that, but based on their interests they will learn valuable skills that will serve them through-out their lives. They might even be able to make a living without getting a diploma.

What?! Indulge my fantasy for a moment... Let's say they get their pilot's license. What if they became "sponsored" skaters -- that means a skate company would pay them to skate in demonstrations and competitions. Suppose they save and invest that money and buy a plane. Suppose they start an air taxi service -- carting people with diplomas to business meetings. Suppose they advertise their service at their web site on the Internet. Suppose they take customer orders by email. Suppose at the end of a long, satisfying day -- working at a career they created and love -- they relax by playing music at a party with their old homeschool buddies. It's not a far stretch. It's entirely possible. And in that case, their lists do provide learning experiences much more relevant and useful than mine. We are only limited by our schoolish thought. And I am reminded to trust my children to know what really matters.

Copyright 1999, Diane Flynn Keith