My Educational Experience

Sarah Laughton

2004

 

[Note: I wrote this piece for an assignment for an education class, Evolution of Education with Professor David Swanger. TA: Julie Arroyo. The assignment was to write about our own educational experiences and relate them to some of the readings we had done for the class. I decided to put it up here because I have gotten a lot of emails about the piece on being homeschooled as an only child]

 

My own educational experience was rather unusual. It was, in fact, almost as far from the traditional classroom model as one can get. I was homeschooled from first grade (or kindergarten or preschool or whenever you consider ones education to officially start) until I was 16, when I started attending a local community college.

The way I hear the story, my mother could not find a preschool that she was willing to put me in, either because she didn’t think the preschools she found were very good or because she didn’t think they would be very good for me. Then she read John Holt’s Teaching Your Own and thought “Hey! I don’t have to send her to preschool at all!” Nor elementary school, not junior high, not high school. But those decisions came later.

My mother put a great deal of time, energy and thought into my education and my up-bringing in general (the two are inextricably entwined, at least in home schooling life). My mother is a woman who tends to throw herself wholeheartedly into any project she puts her mind to; carefully researching it, collecting books and other materials in the subject, experimenting and talking to similarly interested people. And, for some 16 plus years, I was her main project. So she networked with other homeschooling mothers, explored various independent study programs and filled our bookshelves with educational books and books on education.

I, meanwhile, was mostly oblivious to all of this. I was too busy being concerned with the very series business of being a child. The most important thing in my life was playing - with my friends whenever I could and when they weren’t available, by myself.

This was punctuated by various overtly educational moments such as kitchen science experiments, listening to history books on tape or electronics lessons with my father involving a broken tape recorder and a screw-driver. But most of these blended in with the daily business of living and playing, and if my playing was sometimes quieting guided, encouraged or facilitated by my parents so as to be educational, I was only peripherally aware of the fact. For the most part, even the activities that I knew were explicitly intended to teach me some “school type” subject (such as science or history) were fun, interesting or at least relatively painless with two notable exceptions: math and spelling. These were the two subjects which I actively disliked studying but which my parents insisted I learn because they were important, basic life skills and they were the bane of my existence as a child. But these were, as I said, exceptions. For the most part I enjoyed learning – a concept that seems to be sadly foreign to many children in traditional schools.

In this way, my parents’ educational style was somewhat reflective of Rousseau’s philosophy – that the educational plan should be as transparent as possible to the student, that learning should be affected through living and that freedom is an important element of a healthy childhood.

In particular, when Rousseau says on the subject of things that the child should not do “do not forbid him -- prevent him” it sounds very much like my mother’s philosophy, especially in relation to very young children. Things that I was not supposed to play with were, whenever possible kept locked up or out of my reach and out of my sight.

Certainly I was as close to Rousseau’s rural child as one could be, living in the suburbs of San Jose. I had the run of a thoroughly childproofed house and a largely wild and unmanicured yard where I spend many hours playing in the dirt, building forts in the bushes and building tiny little fires (always on the concrete and always with a supply of water nearby. Fire safety was an important part of these experiments). And there was our weekly parkday. Every Thursday from when I was 4 until I was about 14 or 15, we attended a homeschooling park group – a group of homeschooling mothers and children who would meet in a park. The mothers would sit and talk and the children would play.

However, Rousseau’s approach to childrearing seems rather calculating, almost cold and more based in philosophical theories that actual experience. Rousseau may say “Love childhood” in the abstract, but I don’t get the sense that he really knows what it means to love a child.

Along with lacking a certain essential warmth that I, for one, consider vital to child-rearing, Rousseau also lacks any consideration of the social side of life. Focusing on the individual is all well and good, but children need friends and they need to learn how to interact with others. To find these things, we must go to the writings of Maria Montessori.

Of the works that we have read so far for this class, Montessori is the one that I find resonates most with my own views on education and with my experiences of my up-bringing which shaped those views.

Though I am not familiar with the Montessori method and have never been to a Montessori classroom, the image of the Montessori classroom which we saw in the film Follow The Child had much about it which I found comfortingly familiar. I cannot quite put a finger on what it was that seemed familiar to me. Was it the big, sandpaper covered cut-out letters? The tiny chairs? The little, wooden toy tools? Or was it more the atmosphere of the classroom? The group of happy, busy children scurrying around working/playing together and separately quietly monitored by an adult who was there to help them, answer their questions, and intervene when their behavior threatened to become violent or destructive but otherwise just to watch them. I think it was all of these things. Anyway, it reminded me of the alternative classrooms of independent study programs I have seen and of many of the homeschooling living rooms where I played as a child.

Even more than Rousseau, Montessori is about freedom, and freedom is an important part of the homeschooling philosophy in general and my families in particular.

Montessori is also about practical education, learning real life skills, and that is something which I think is better learned in day to day life, shopping with your mother, helping with dinner, covering the kitchen table with art projects and then having to clean is up to eat,  than in any classroom.

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