Teachable moment

Scene at the Grocery Store:

Neighbor: I hear you’re not in school anymore!

Nine-year-old: Yah. My mom’s teaching me.

Neighbor: Oh really! That’s nice.

Nine-year-old: Not really. She’s not really teaching me anything.

[Everyone disperses into frozen-food aisles.]

Me: What do you think you should be learning that I’m not teaching you?

Nine-year-old: Everything! The kids at school are learning all the time!

Me: You can learn whatever you want. Do you want to learn decimals? That’s what they are learning. We could do an hour of decimals. We could read out of that social studies textbook you had last year. There’s plenty left for fourth graders to cover.

Nine-year-old: Oh no! Forget it! And anyway, remember how we learned about Albert Einstein at Lego Land?

You’d be surprised to learn that I wrote this post two years ago. And then I filed it away for later, because writers know that bad writing isn’t for throwing out. It’s for coming back to when you have more knowledge.

The key to turning bad writing into good writing is knowledge, which is why graduate writing programs don’t work, by the way. You can’t teach self-knowledge. You can only inspire it.

Which is what this conversation in the grocery store did. It made my son realize that he should choose what is important to learn, instead of letting the grocery store yentas get hold of him.

Two years ago I thought this was a post about being scared. But it’s really a post about gaining confidence in our own agenda for learning. Because that’s what happens in homeschooling—kids do it, but parents gain confidence to do it as well.


11 replies
  1. Pat Sommer
    Pat Sommer says:

    One semester of 5th grade public school and my homeschooled 7th grader has just now recovered from learning insecurity.

    How can you ever be sure what to study and when and how good you are without the teachers and the tests and the grades?!

    Yup, she’s over it. She charts her own course now.

  2. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    This line from above – “Nine-year-old: Not really. She’s not really teaching me anything.” gives me pause. It’s the difference between learning in a classroom at a school and learning in a homeschool environment. The kid learning at school can blame the teacher, the curriculum, etc. as a reason for not learning while the bar for the homeschooled kid is much higher. You really don’t know if the homeschooled kid has learned until they are able to teach the subject material back to you with the criterion they have devised for themselves.

  3. Gena
    Gena says:

    I am very curious to know how many of you let kids chart their course 100% of the time and how many are being invisible “suggestors” of topics, material, directing, while letting the child think they’re on their own?

    I find we’ll have periods of time when kids are on their own (and I know they’re learning because they teach me daily). Then we reach a point when I sense some boredom, so I’ll do something like “Wow, check out this cool video I found”. They’ll watch a video about the rainforest and keep researching and learning about that for days. But then again, many times topic ideas will randomly come from them.

    • Pat Sommer
      Pat Sommer says:

      100% of the time with one demand: math.
      What material she chooses and what pace she sets, I grant her. Once geometry and 2ys of algebra are done, it is her free choice to pursue any math needed for her chosen subjects.

      Other subjects, such as stop-mo film, is a contract : she wants how much in software and supplies; she puts in the time and work before asking for anything else.

      Works so far.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      The same could be asked of adults. How much does the CEO of Amazon chart his own course and how much is he influenced by strong suggestions?

      My point is that part of self-direction includes learning who to listen to and who not to listen to. And a lot is ones sense of responsibility. No kids I school would say they are responsible for their own curriculum. But most homeschooled kids would say they are.

      It might not matter that neither is 100% true. It might just matter who feels responsible for the path they take and who doesn’t.


    • Bostonian
      Bostonian says:

      As idealistic as I’d like to be, I still find a conflict in myself between the ‘grand plan’ idea of homeschooling and the idea of letting the kid lead himself to his interests. Because of basic inborn laziness, mostly, I do neither. I’d love it if I were the kind of guy who can believe in the perfect curriculum, but I’m not. And it’d be awesome if I believed my son could play video games for years on end and not just come out dumber, but I don’t.

      I do have values, and thus ideas of what is a worthwhile occupation for a child. My son mostly gets to direct himself towards activities, but I play a bigger role in determining how much to do than what to do. If he remembers when he grows up that dad says anything worth doing is worth doing well, that won’t be so bad.

      So my input is less along the lines of you ought to do this instead of that or no child is educated unless he knows xyz, and more like if you’re going to do that it’s n hours a week minimum or you can quit in a month if you still feel that way. Want to play violin? How’s practice every day, three hours at the conservatory every weekend, and learn to sing while you’re at it? Want to do mathy stuff when you grow up? Four hours algebra every week ought to get you there. Want to be in a musical again this summer? You need a more ambitious audition song, and work on it every day now. If he’s got four goals he’s working towards, he can schedule up most of his weekdays with them.

      He’s got a good sense of where he wants to go. Sometimes I know more about how he can get there. And everybody trying to learn new things needs planning, commitment, and accountability. My default method is maybe more like being a coach or trainer than a teacher.

      The moment when you say maybe ornament that note with a rising arpeggio and he says like this? and nails it… Something worked.

  4. Katie
    Katie says:

    Just a brief point to add to the conversation. For those who are not in the home school world. There are many ways to homeschool,lots of us follow a detailed curriculum of our choice,and others free school or unschool etc. Homeschooling need not be a decision between regimented school and wild abandon! :)

  5. mh
    mh says:

    Look, there’s no “right way” to homeschool. Do I cringe a bit when my darling sons tell a Helpful Relative that all they have done this week is ride bikes, climb trees, and clean the garage? You bet, I cringe.

    But even worse is when they tell a Helpful Relative that all I’ve really done all week is laundry, baking, a nd sitting in the garden reading a book. Yikes. (It was FOUR books!)

    Then again, the fourth grader won a state award this year in an entirely self-taught discipline, and the eldest went to nationals for his science project.

    Letting go of control over the kids is tough. Feeling like my success comes from their success is hard to overcome. Sitting in the garden reading while the boys ride bikes is self control in action. Kids have to be free.

    I’ve started counting their hours of free time each day, aiming for three. Three hours per day that I don’t know what they are doing, or even sometimes where they are.

    I love them, and I think their independence is more important than my sense of control.

    Tsk, tsk say the Helpful Relatives.

    How can you be sure they’re learning anything? say the Helpful Relatives.

    What about college? say the Helpful Relatives.

    I don’t think you can measure the worth of an education by grades. I don’t think a child who sits in a seat all day can learn to motivate himself.

    I don’t think three hours per day is enough free time. Shooting for four next year.

  6. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    I don’t care about strangers opinions (the yentas) and the people in my life will generally receive a disapproving glare from my oldest daughter when asked to recite facts or perform like a circus monkey. So if a stranger or family member wants to look like a jerk, they can go ahead and ask what my kids are learning, but my kids are not obligated to respond to those questions. We learn about whatever interests us, and our interests lead to passions and specializing. Some passions come and go.

    This entire week was binge watching Bill Nye the Science guy on Netflix, Pokemon Battles, reading, drawing, and acting. Yet my newly turned 8 yo asked me what 6×3 was so she could access some videos on Brain Pop, but I declined to answer as I was busy with my other two kids and talking with my husband. Later she asked me if 6×3 is 18, and I asked how she figured it out. She said she added six, three times. The next day she taught me a whole lot of information about bees that I didn’t know.

    The yentas can keep thinking what they want, but I don’t let them affect our lives. :) Self-care is huge.

  7. Kris Costello
    Kris Costello says:

    I didn’t realize how much I had already taught my homeschooled 12 year old son until recently, when his grandmother was discussing with him how much he might ‘like’ to go back to public school. He thought for a moment, and then replied, “yes, grandma, that might be good, but you know we are a really close family.
    He then spent the next two days exploring and analyzing every school option in our City. If at some point he decides he’d prefer traditional education that’s fine with me. But the kid is well on his way to knowing how to explore options, chart directions and best of all how to be part of a loving, supportive family. I find it ironic and kind of funny, that over all of these years of fun and not so fun experiences he was learning on of the best lessons of all.

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