Industrial Arts

Eva Murray: ‘Does this count as school?’

Tue, 04/07/2020 - 1:30pm

“Does this count as school?”  

That question, now a wise-aleck remark uttered with rolled eyes or a wink, is a Murray family one-liner.

Among us four—me, my husband, and our two children, now in their late 20 —“does this count as school” might be asked during any experience which makes us scramble, toil, or sweat.

Anything difficult but which leaves us feeling we’re learning something, whether we want to or not, like making some complicated repair when the nuts and bolts fall down into the machinery, landing a small airplane on a gusty day, taking the Cross Bronx Expressway for the first time, or navigating some exasperating new bureaucracy could result in somebody mumbling, “Does this count as school?”

When Paul and I were our children’s teachers during their older elementary school years, we heard this query a lot, because it began as a serious question. Does reading kilowatt-hour meters count as school? Does hiking in the Grand Canyon count? Does stargazing? Sure. The answer was hardly ever “No.”

For a period of time on Matinicus Island, in the late 1990s, our kids were the only school-age children here. We decided we liked home-schooling.

Have I any qualifications to comment on the education of children? Well, maybe.

In addition to our own years of first-hand experience teaching our children, and reading maybe an excessive number books about doing the same, few of which had anything to do with our own experiences, I was at the time (and still am, for what it’s worth) a certified K-8 teacher.

I’ll be the first to insist that such a credential is not important for successful homeschooling. There. It’s in the newspaper.

I haven’t taught school in years (CPR doesn’t count, I’m sure) but by way of keeping my oar in professionally and trying to stay up-to-date, I more recently completed a graduate certificate in an educational specialty through the University of Maine at Farmington (and no, not all online). 

So I do actually know a thing or two about home-schooling, whether spelled as one word or two, with or without hyphen.

My family was not doing this with any political or social or religious agenda, by the way. We were not keeping our children away from anybody or anything. We do not believe in arranged marriages or a flat Earth, but neither do we feel that “no child should have to do anything that isn’t their own idea.”

Homeschooling in the news tends to be all about families with philosophical extremes, depicted as more than a little bit off the beam, or denying their children involvement in “the real world.” School isn’t necessarily the real world, sport. We landed right in the middle, I think, intending to provide a mainstream education but with the real world getting more priority than any ol’ workbook pages. 

Oh, and with sixth-graders cut a lot of slack to just huddle up and read all day.

Anyway, there are a few homeschooling experiences which are common, normal, and to be expected—and this according to all the books on the subject, and the other parents, not just me.

Even though most of the families now tackling school at home did not intentionally start down this road, and even though many students are getting regular interaction with their teachers online (although some are not) please allow me to offer a few thoughts in hopes that they may be reassuring:

• It is typical for there to be a slack period, perhaps a few weeks of inefficiency and uncertainty and disorganization, while transitioning from public school to home tutoring. It’s common for progress to be awkward or pretty hard to see for a little while. This is not a sign of the parents being failures, or the kids being lazy bums, or the family not having bought the right expensive materials. It happens to most people. Don’t worry.

• Nobody who takes on the job of teaching their children will tell you it fits in seamlessly with another full-time job, immaculate housekeeping, hobbies, adult quiet time, and six academic subjects a day for each child. That is nonsense. There is not time enough in any day to get through a list like that, and anybody who thinks otherwise is delusional. 

• There is an enormous difference between the educational needs of little kids, older elementary-age kids, and teens. Little guys don’t need long lists of discrete academic subjects, with grades and an eye toward their Harvard applications. Read a ton of stories and cuddle. Teens should be able to work without an adult hovering all the time and should start acting like adults. Let them do stuff. You might not believe me. Middle schoolers are from Mars, but they still shouldn’t speak to you like that. Make peace; it’ll be a worthwhile effort. 

• Avoid ordering those cute little mail-order baby chicks too hastily. Homeschoolers raise a lot of chickens. Make that decision thoughtfully.

•. Encourage hobbies and studies other than video stuff. Activities that require hard physical exertion, interacting with elders, improving fine motor skills, patient practice, ear training, learning directly from another individual, or working on something all by oneself are worthwhile and typically not done enough in “regular school.”

• Asynchrony means not being at the same level, or having the same degree of proficiency, in everything at any given time. An example might be a student who is ten years old, in fourth grade by virtue of age, and maybe does third grade work in reading but eighth grade work in math. We have somehow got the idea that the “normal” student is at the same level in everything all the time. Actually, few human beings are like that. Asynchrony is fine.

• If the student gets everything right with very little effort, their work is too easy. Boredom is going to lead to trouble. Excelling in the ability to do paperwork is not everybody’s real goal. Likewise, if the student is constantly frustrated, there is a skill somewhere that hasn’t been mastered yet. They are quite possibly not “just being stubborn and refusing to do their work.” Find the level where they can do it, but not do it effortlessly. Worry less about what is usually taught in a certain grade. Worry less about a paper trail and more about a sense of growth.

• There is no arcane knowledge imparted in teacher’s college that parents wouldn’t understand. There is no secret handshake. 

•. Homeschooling families are targets for retailers, and new homeschoolers especially can often be convinced to spend way more money on materials than necessary. Spend some time together before filling out those order forms. 

• Respect each other. Meet and plan with everybody at the table, even the littles; this has to be a team effort. Make good use of every adult in the household; this is not “mom’s responsibility.” Make an effort to keep the stress level low when it comes to the scheduling of schoolwork. It’s fine to spend a whole morning on just one subject, or to go play the saxophone all day. It is not fine to ignore everything and just binge-watch television and paint the dog’s toenails every day.

•  The joke is always “I couldn’t possibly homeschool my children because we’d kill each other.”

Well, you won’t actually kill each other. But parents and children need to meet each other half way. These days especially, kids need to understand that their parents right now are worried, tired, and may be trying to work from home—and on top of that, they learned to do arithmetic a different way than the kids. Hockey and summer camp and all sorts of recreational activities are getting canceled, and everybody’s bummed, so don’t feel like having fun at home is cheating.

Parents need to realize that children may experience all this upheaval more than they show outwardly, and they likely miss their routine, and their friends--oh, and they learned to do arithmetic a different way than their parents. 

• So teach them to carry the one. Then, let them make the cookies.

Eva Murray lives on Matinicus