Thursday, May 28, 2009

Blog Mission Statement

One of the challenges faced by homeschool parents is that the things we or our children do sometimes become referenda on homeschooling as a practice. I am sure you can think of many examples of this both in the news and in your lives. The other day, my husband and I were discussing the way that a conversation he and N. were having at a park get-together may have different ramifications in public than it does in private. In this case, N. asked Tim what 5 and 7 make because he was counting the people on each side of the picnic table and Tim told him 12 and then he asked N. what 7 and 5 make. N. thought for a little while and then said, “12!” This kind of conversation is typical for them at home and has no stakes. It is not a quiz and if a few seconds of silence go by, Tim will tell N. the answer, or he might not even pose it as a question, but simply state it as additional interesting information. Because as a general rule we don’t quiz N. (and I really hate when people do this as a way of interacting with kids – quizzing them on “their colors” or “their shapes” or “their letters”), I am quite sure that when these kinds of conversations take place at home, N. experiences them as pressure-free, as part of the general give-and-take of information and questions that constitutes our days.

But out in public, at a picnic table with other kids and parents, this conversation might have a different resonance. Maybe N. feels pressure to perform, to come up with the right answer when all those people are listening. It might well look to the other parents like we are showing off, trotting out our trained monkey, trying to prove how successful our homeschooling is.

Tim pointed out that in blogging about our homeschooling experiences, we are vulnerable to the same problem of distortion. So far, the tone of my writing for this blog has been just about equal parts boasting about my child’s awesomeness and self-righteous statements about the awesomeness of our parenting choices. I don’t really mean it to sound that way, but it does, in part because of some choices I’ve made about what to write about and what not to write about, and in part because I am taking private moments public, where they lose some of their context.

So, if I am concerned about privacy, performance anxiety, and boasting, why am I blogging? I started this blog for the following reasons:
  • To document (some of) what we do as we homeschool/unschool
  • To articulate our philosophy of education, for ourselves, our friends and family, and whoever else might be interested
  • To ponder our child’s progress through various stages of learning
  • To connect with other families who homeschool/unschool, from whose blogs I have learned so much
My topic choices are guided by the knowledge that someday my son may read this blog and I don’t want to write something about him that he is someday mortified to discover is out in the public sphere. That may well happen anyway, but I am trying to avoid it.

Despite its pitfalls, I am enjoying blogging so far. I like writing about the many, many things regarding children’s lives and education that I have strong opinions about, even if this makes me sound like a self-righteous braggart. As the non-stay-at-home parent in our family, I feel connected to our homeschooling adventure by blogging. As a scholar who labors for months and years writing things that few people read, I find the feedback on my posts addictively gratifying!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Bible Stories

I am an atheist and Tim would I think describe himself as agnostic, but we were both raised in the Catholic church; Tim even attended seminary for a year before transferring to a Catholic college. As children, we each experienced many positive features of church membership, and we look for other ways to pass these on to N. though we don’t practice any religion. Some of these features include the value of liturgy and ritual, music-making, regular meditation, belonging to a community, and a commitment to social justice. We both believe that knowledge of the Bible should eventually be part of one’s cultural literacy, but we hadn’t figured out exactly how to pursue this with N.. After all, I am not aware of any secular-humanist retelling of the Bible for young children! Then, a solution fell into our laps when Tim began tutoring the 11-year-old son of a friend (a woman I think of as my local homeschool mentor) in literature. This boy is passionate about art history, so they decided to study the King James Bible, source for so much great art, and they’ve been working their way through the Old Testament since January. Some mornings while N. draws or plays, Tim reads the Bible or the scholarship he’s checked out from my university library. At one point, N. asked Tim what he was reading, so Tim started reading the Bible to him, stopping frequently to explain and discuss. In this way N. has had a preliminary introduction to some of the Bible stories in what I think is their most beautiful English form, rather than in a dumbed-down and possibly less than accurate kids’ version. And he’s seeing them as objects of study (when Tim prepares for his tutorials, N. says Tim is “practicing the Bible”) to be pondered over a life time. The King James translation in particular provides such rich language, and N. and Tim immediately started drawing on it for fun in their everyday activities. When they were clearing out a huge patch of overgrown English ivy in our yard, Tim said, “We have to smite this,” and N. responded, “Yeah, let’s smite these Philistines!” I suspect English ivy will henceforth be known as “the Philistines” in our family!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Basilica

Since he is so interested in cathedrals right now, I took N. to the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis last week (while Tim attended another funeral, and before we headed up north for our nephew's funeral). It's a fascinating Beaux Arts building, completed in 1915. This was the first time N. had seen a cathedral in real life, rather than in a book, and I think it met his expectations. We went at mid-day and there were only a couple people praying in the pews as we looked around. I didn't think to caution him about appropriate demeanor beforehand, but he immediately spoke in a whisper when we got inside, presumably awed by the building's grandeur! N. liked the windows, the barrel vault, and the organ, but was a little disappointed in the dome, which was not as big as he expected and is not a perfect hemisphere like the dome of St. Paul's.
(Our first glimpse of the Basilica)
(the front facade)
(the dome over the apse)

After lunch we walked across Loring Park to see St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral, built in the Gothic style and thus very satisfying to N. -- exactly what he thinks a cathedral should be.
(the choir stalls)

On our walk we also saw Frank Gehry's Standing Glass Fish...


...and Claes Oldenburg & Coosje van Bruggen's Spoonbridge and Cherry


It was a rich day, a last indulgence before we joined our family in mourning.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Socialization and Mourning

Last week we went to Minnesota to attend the funeral of one of N.’s cousins, a sweet 14-year-old boy who had leukemia from age 2-4, was in remission for a decade, but last August was diagnosed with cancerous brain tumors caused by the intensive radiation that had been used to treat the leukemia. His death, while not unexpected, was heartbreaking, and I don’t want to write about that here. I haven’t been to many funerals, and certainly not recently, and the experience prompted many thoughts about the inadequacy of mainstream American mourning practices, about ritual and institutions.

The unschooling connection for this post is socialization, that tiresome topic. My mother-in-law assumed that we would not bring N. to her grandson’s funeral and told us it would be inappropriate for him to be there. We felt quite the opposite. We wanted N. to be part of our family’s mourning, just as he is part of our happier gatherings. We didn’t see our nephew often, but he was the closest cousin in age to N. and they played together for a couple intensive days during our past two annual summer visits to Minnesota. We felt that N.’s presence honored our nephew’s unusual ability to connect to people; not every 12- or 13-year-old boy genuinely enjoys playing with a little kid in the sand for hours as our nephew did. Furthermore, children’s understanding of death is constantly developing, and I don’t believe it is productive for this important process to try to isolate them from it (as I write this, I recognize that choosing how much death a child should be exposed to is a first-world luxury, and of course I am not suggesting that children should be traumatized by frequent exposure to death).

We homeschool because we love to experience life together as a family, even life’s saddest moments. We talked a lot with N. beforehand about what to expect at the wake, the funeral, and the burial, we talked about our own feelings and fond memories of our nephew, and about what other people might feel or do at the funeral. Banal though the comparison is, the death of our beloved family cat Scaredy a year and a half ago gave N. a template for death and burial, and he made several references to this as he processed the events of last week.

N. vindicated our belief in the importance of including him with behavior that exceeded even the most conventional expectations. We told him that he would need to be quiet and respectful, and that we would talk with him and answer questions after each event. He was subdued when we viewed our nephew’s body at the wake, and then got to play outside with another older cousin while the adults talked. He was quiet and observant at the funeral mass, though this was the first church service he has ever attended. He was similarly attentive during the burial. Several of our relatives thanked him for being so well behaved, and while I normally don’t put a high value on so-called “good behavior” by children, preferring that children express their authentic feelings, I was gratified that we were able to experience these events with N. without disturbing others.

I enjoyed seeing N. interact with our extended family during the less emotionally freighted parts of the week, the living room chit-chat and catching up with people, some of whom we haven’t seen for years. Just as his behavior at the funeral events showed his ability to conform to social expectations, his conversations with all sorts of people exemplified what homeschoolers already know about the socialization question: because he does not spend his day in age-segregated environments, he is comfortable playing and talking with people of all ages, and he had a really fun time with his uncles, aunts, and cousins. In fact, I noticed that he was much less shy this year than last year when, for example, he refused to give his paternal grandmother the goodbye hug and kiss that she asked for. This year, he willingly engaged in this social ritual.

I watched with pride my son’s increasing comfort in the social world, his ability to create relationships with his family members with less and less help from me. At the same time, I clung tightly to his hand all week, deeply grateful for our bond as we mourned the untimely and unfair death of my sister-in-law’s son.