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October 1, 1996
Vol. 54
No. 2

Individualization Starts at Home

My wife Cherie and I home-school our three children: Rachel, 13; Elizabeth, 10; and Henry, 7. We are Christians (Presbyterian), but we do not home-school for the same reasons as many Christian home-schoolers. Although by some estimates there are somewhere between one and two million home-schooled children in the United States, it is still easy for the public and public educators to perceive that home-schoolers are all politically conservative, suspicious of the public schools, and separatist in their attitudes.
Our family, by contrast to those who believe in a supposed golden age of three Rs education, is more interested in what is best for the individual learner—taking into account personality differences and stages, not ages. We prioritize objectives like critical thinking, integration of the subject areas, learning through life experiences, and developing responsible social awareness. We want our children to have a love for learning; strong self-concepts; caring personalities; and awareness of both the classics and more modern, pluralistic, and popular content. Some like-minded home-schoolers call themselves unschoolers: instead of setting up a one-room schoolhouse at home complete with American flag and desks in rows, they try to work with the individual child's interests and abilities. We prefer to call it interest-initiated home schooling.

Using What We Know

As an education professor with a Ph.D. in English education, I teach in both the secondary and elementary education programs at a small college. I supervise at least a dozen student teachers in the public schools every year. I tell people who see a contradiction between my personal life and my professional life that if I were an architect, I would probably design my own house; if I were a painter, I would probably paint my own dining room. I use with my own children many of the same methods and materials that I promote with my education majors and applaud in the public schools: purposeful learning, attention to the individual, product and process, and student-centered teaching linked with excellent content.
Much of our children's learning is self-initiated during the day, although Cherie is always available to help with a math problem or to practice violin or piano with the children. Every evening one of us—sometimes both—reads to all three children for an hour or two, choosing from a variety of materials such as Winnie the Pooh, The Chronicles of Narnia, Shakespearean plays, The Grapes of Wrath, various nonfiction books, and the Bible. Reading time often involves in-depth discussions on a wide variety of topics, and teachable moments occur frequently, with the kids asking numerous questions or running to get a dictionary, an encyclopedia, or an atlas. Our family learning and teaching styles also reflect many strategies that my wife and I have read about in professional education journals, including whole language and literature-based thematic units, attention to learning styles and personality types, projects, field experiences, and individualized links to prior learning.
We do not think today's schools are evil. We realize that because of the huge political and logistical constraints on the system, the schools do not have the flexibility and options that we have. Simply because of the small number of people involved in our home school, we can accomplish more efficiency and unity of purpose than institutions that must deal with hundreds of individuals. At home, a project can take 10 minutes or 10 days; few institutions can indulge this kind of individualism. Further, a change-oriented teacher often must make Herculean efforts to implement new approaches in the schools. I can teach something in my methods courses and then try it at home with my own kids that evening.

Getting Along with Others

The question of socialization invariably comes up when we talk about home schooling. Although fitting in was not a Jeffersonian goal of democratic education, education was an important part of the acculturation of immigrant children in much of America's history.
What exactly do we mean by socialization? Certainly, getting along with other people is a very important social skill for children to learn. Therefore, we attend home-schooler picnics and roller skating parties with children from the 100 or so families who home-school in our county. Our children also attend modern dance classes twice a week, weekly community children's choir rehearsals, community orchestra, Sunday School classes, and summer swimming lessons and art classes. One of our goals in providing all these social contexts for our children is to help them learn to get along with people of all ages. After all, how many adults deal with just their own age group at work, church, clubs, or leisure events?
Socialization can mean more than just getting along. Frankly, we want to socialize our children to be like us—not necessarily to arrive at the same conclusions, but to engage in the same processes. We are the primary role models for our children, and we want them to have our passion for knowledge, fairness, and dialogue. Like parents everywhere, we would like our children to have our world view. We do not ask a preacher or politician or teacher who does not know us or our children as well as we do to take on that responsibility. Our values—though they may differ somewhat from those of our neighbors, professional colleagues, or fellow church members—are important to us, and we wish to maximize the chances of our children embracing those values. We know our children might grow up to vote differently from us, but we can accept that as long as they are critical, responsible, and decent in their thinking. We realize home schooling is not only about maximizing our children's individual learning styles and self-concepts, but it's also about social understanding, fairness, and responsibility. And that is socialization at its best.

Understanding the World We Live In

Although we cannot endorse the antisocial criticism of 20th century American culture that is practiced by so many reactionary home-schoolers, we agree that our children do need a critical awareness of the culture in which they live. Certainly, all teaching involves values—democratic, social, affective, spiritual. The constant question "Whose values?" is not a problem for a family. We can talk about secular humanism, civil religion, presidential candidates, AIDS, sexual orientations, and other red flag issues much more easily than teachers at public or even religious schools can.
Instead of trying to live on an island, we try to guide our children's thinking about modern culture. Culture is not something we could escape if we wanted to, but we do not have to embrace uncritically every aspect of American consumerism. We deconstruct ads together; the kids share comics and "Dear Abby" and "News of the Weird" stories they've read in the newspaper; and we subscribe to dozens of magazines for children and adults. We analyze TV together during family vacations and conferences (we don't own a TV); we go to almost all the college concerts and plays (ranging from Shakespeare to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest)—we try to read the scripts together ahead of time—and I read to my children many of the novels I teach in Introduction to Literature and Adolescent Literature courses.

I Still Believe

Because we are trying to accomplish many of the same goals as the public school teachers I most respect, I am troubled by the insinuation I hear at times that our home schooling—doing what we think is best for our children—means I am not a team player in the American educational establishment. I am not unsupportive of schools. I endorse the pluralistic, inclusive American educational experiment, although not uncritically. I am working at home and in my career to find ways to constantly improve American education. A love-it-or-leave-it approach is never appropriate in a democracy.
Unlike many home-schoolers, I am a firm believer in education. I trust that my children will go to college, and I can picture them participating in some sort of shared-time program in a public high school if they desire. I think schools need to be moving in a direction that allows adults, students from other schools, and dropouts to attend classes as needed. I look forward to a time when superintendents and state education officials will work with home-schoolers to offer classes or materials on an as-needed basis.
Home schooling is not for everyone, just as sailing or attending college or having children is not for everyone. But choosing to have children, as I have heard many teachers say, involves responsibility for supporting their education as much as possible. Teachers everywhere are decrying the decline of parental involvement in education and the increasing responsibility of schools for additional areas of students' lives; therefore, it seems reasonable for teachers to view my involvement with my children's education as support for what they are doing. We are on the same team: trying to maximize the potential of the next generation. And my kids are turning out to be smart (they have taken standardized tests), fun, and analytical; they will all make a positive contribution to society. Maybe one of them will become a public school teacher. That would make me proud.

Stephen D. Holtrop has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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