Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Hello? Is this thing on?

This has been a long hot summer.  The oppressive heat of our un-air-conditioned house has left me staring into space rather than reading great books and writing blog posts about them.  When I have deigned to pick up a book, it has often been a light contemporary novel or memoir rather than an ancient classic. Add to that the fact that I was dealing with a personal issue (which is in a much better place) and all the reading it required to understand what was going on.

And now I'm up to my eyeballs planning our 7th grade homeschooling year.  Although we've taken a fairly unschooly approach in the past, following our son's interests and abilities as any given day suggests, this year we plan to be much more focused and directed.  We're trying to decide whether to homeschool through our son's high school years--and I think we need to figure not only how to make sure he is prepared for college work (and that our record keeping is adequate for college admissions) but that we can work together intensely with some semblance of civility and joy.

And the Skylark Sings with Me - Adventures in Homeschooling and Community-Based EducationAs we think about the upcoming year, I've read (and reread) some fascinating books about educating children.  An old favorite is David Albert's And the Skylark Sings with Me - Adventures in Homeschooling and Community-Based Education.  I read it just about every August, right before our school year starts.

The story of how Albert's two daughters were educated at home, Skylark is inspiring and thought provoking.  The author seeks to allow his daughters' gifts (and the girls are gifted in different ways) to develop as fully as possible, with as much freedom as possible.  Even within that freedom, the girls develop a deep sense of responsibility, direction, and relatively traditional academic values.  Some of my friends resist the story because they feel that the Albert family is special and the girls are so precocious that his book is unrepresentative.  Others dislike the fact that the book is not a how-to book in any way.  Reading the book this year, I loved it just as much as ever--but I must admit that I was disappointed to remember that the book ends right as his elder daughter reaches the age my son is now.  Although the critics are right to say that readers cannot extrapolate from Albert's story to make specific choices about our own children's education, I have always loved the model of his general approach to homeschooling and child-rearing.  Now that my son seems to have entered a whole new world, I would love to have Albert hold my hand as I grow to understand my own 12yo.

The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and EducationAnother book I love is Grace Llewellyn's The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education.  When I first read the book many years ago, I dreamed of those future years when my son would take control of his own education and become as devoted to learning for learning's sake as Llewellyn clearly is.  In fact, perhaps this is the perfect book to follow Albert's.  Like Albert, Llewellyn is committed to a true life of an active mind combined with radical freedom.  But instead of talking about how parents can foster that freedom-education in their children's lives, she talks directly to teenagers about how they can create it for themselves.

Llewellyn lists all sorts of inspiring and thoughtful idea about things to do, subjects to study, and books to read.  Sometimes, though, some of the suggestions seem a bit too new-agey or too deliberately "deep and meaningful."  A bigger caveat: sometimes the author is so anti-school that I'm turned off, personally.  And that profoundly anti-school attitude makes little sense to youngsters who have been homeschooled from the beginning.

The Day I Became an AutodidactA more traditional academic path is taken by high schooler Kendall Hailey in her memoir The Day I Became an Autodidact.  Because of this book's relevance to my own adult project, I plan to review in much more detail at a later date.

You see what a hippie-nerd I am.  I'm drawn to both child-led freedom education and to the formal rigor of academia.  That combination of commitments is what makes this blog project so appealing for me, what makes these particular books so relevant to my life, and also what makes homeschooling such a great pleasure.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger MotherBut I do read books that challenge my general approach.  I'd heard vicious accounts of the uber-popular family memoir by Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother--and knew I would hate the author's beliefs about child rearing.  Perhaps partly because I was expecting something so awful, I was actually pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed her short book.  I am contemplating getting my son to read this as well, just so he knows how the other half lives.

Rather than believing in child-led education and nurturing freedom, Chua supports what she calls Chinese parenting.  She feels that it is not only a parent's right to force a child to follow a particular path but a parent's responsibility.  Only by pressuring a child to work very hard, she argues, will that child develop into an adult capable of serious dedication and success.  Sometimes she uses blackmail, shame, and other parenting techniques that make me queasy in an effort to get her two talented daughters to develop their gifts. 

What I found persuasive is the author's articulation that requiring more from a child is fundamentally a sign that a parent believes the child is capable of more, of better.  Letting a child get by with a half-hearted attempt at something, or letting a child give up before exerting serious effort, teaches the child that he or she is not capable.  These insights are sprinkled throughout Chua's very funny narrative.  Although she ends the book still supporting "Chinese parenting," the reader sees the author struggle with the limits or problems of her child-reading style.   And throughout, as she recounts those queasiness-inducing parental behaviors I mentioned above, she is self-deprecating and even humble in her own sarcastic way.

*  *  *

The weather has cooled off here is DC--kind of odd for August, I guess, so probably temporary--and the school year is starting anew.  Time for me to get back to my classics reading!  The next few posts will be discussions of books about books, plus reviews of a few random summer reads I want to mention.  After that: Greek Drama!  Please join me.


  1. Good to see you back! I'm looking forward to your posts on Greek drama.

    Remembering my own teenage years, I admire any parent even contemplating taking on homeschooling at that age...

  2. I think the WSJ, which did most of the promotion of the Chua book, was guilty of a little link-baiting. (Big surprise, right?) They chose the most inflammatory passage to excerpt and let the unmoderated comments fly. The book itself, as you say, is not bad at all, even if you disagree with her conclusions.

    I honor your decision to homeschool! These decisions are always so challenging. Looking forward to your thoughts on the Greeks.

  3. You don't have air-conditioning and you didn't actually melt this July? My goal for most of July was to get from one air-conditioned environment to another as quickly as possible.

    And I think Jenny's probably right about the Chua book and the WSJ. Possibly too the publisher encouraged the excerpting of that particular chapter to stir up controversy and, thus, sales. Everyone I know who has actually read the whole thing didn't think it was nearly as bad as it was purported to be. One of the columnists for our magazine even wrote a nice column about what he learned from the book (even as he disagreed with it overall).

  4. Emily--When we think about homeschooling, I try really hard to erase all memories of the terror I was as a preteen. I was a goody-two-shoes but still an absolute nightmare.

    So glad to see you here. I am looking forward to reimmersing myself in the blog world--both writing posts and reading some of my favorite blogs.

    Jenny--I think you're onto something. I did not read the WSJ article, but I clearly absorbed a lot of the fallout. Sounds like you read the book?

    Teresa--Ha! We spent a lot of time in air-conditioned cafes, movie theaters, and museums. Sleeping was rough on two nights, but between our huge windows, great air flow, and multiple fans, we survived. We thought about putting a window unit in, but it is pretty complicated because of the size and placement of our windows. I think right as we hit the point that we could not take another day, the heat broke.

    I'd love to read the column. Do you have a link, by any chance? Sounds like the columnist had a very similar reaction to mine.

  5. I am glad to see you are posting on books on the life of the Autodidact-without knowing it, I began such a life style many decades ago-I can see now it has left some big holes that those with traditional literary educations do not have but it has also lead me down some very interesting paths over the years

  6. mel u--I'm with you, as I suspect an enormous number of serious readers are these days. Some of us had poor educations, others studied other subjects in depth, and some perhaps zoned out when topics were not presented in appropriate ways for their maturity. I love how the blogosphere sometimes acts like a seminar table!

  7. NPR had a really interesting story about *unschooling*-where there is no curriculum except the child's own interests. It actually made more sense than you would think. One of the parent-advocates was a teacher...

  8. You have to bear in mind that when she wrote Teenage Liberation Handbook Grace Llewllyn did not have any children, and that's probably why it is so idealistic and slightly polemical:-) Want some encouragement, you can't go far wrong with a bit of John Holt.
    thanks for sharing and good luck with the next few years, it was the bit I was looking forward to and then was deprived of.
    much love


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