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Learning as we Live

"I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in
 which they can learn. "
                                                            ~~ Albert Einstein

We are a homeschooling family, as we found this to be the best way to allow discovery of the self and the world to unfold spontaneously and keep lifelong learning exciting.   We also believe that true learning of any particular subject happens  when one is receptive and his/her own place and time. This is why we prefer the home/community learning lifestyle to that of the classroom.  Not only do the kids of this family learn in freedom, but their public school-trained and my husband...are now enjoying our own self-directed leaning!  We live a modest lifestyle in order to have this home-based learning arrangement , and we feel lucky to have one parent with the kids at home.

Our family's interests include reading, music, hiking, gardening, some sports, and travelling.  We have found that our kids have picked up many interests  during any of our activities, or while just kicking back at home, in making  their own discoveries.  We don't  make a point to create days full of "learning experiences" or "lessons", but rather hope our kids will just take in what they are interested in form the world around them.

Some thoughts on unschooling
There are many homeschooling philosophies, so we can pick and choose how to go about learning.  Thank goodness for the unschoolers ahead of us who have blazed the trail for our family!   "Unschooling" is unstructured learning at the child's own pace.  The child has experiences, materials, and people available to him as resources, but the child himself decides what, how much, and when to learn.  It involves having great trust in children to be willing learners, which goes against a common  assumption that children won't learn unless they are taught to do so in the structured enviornment of school.  Doubts are abound in the minds of many about wether or not the learner can actually aquire knowledge everything she/he needs to know by learning this way.  As I said above, it can be very hard to trust the process of living life and gaining skills needed to live that life.   On the other hand,  this last sentance compells the question, "Doesn't it make sense that "learning what you need to live" involves actually doing it?" 

Because "the world is the classroom" to homeschoolers, you will find that most are very involved in their communities.  They tend to know the people around them more as they interact while going about buisness.  They have a real vested interest in what goes on in their communities, because this is where they spend their lives.    What better way to see what occupations are out there than by being side by side with the people who are doing them?  Not only can small children directly observe what people do, but older ones can and do apprentice to learn a skill or craft..or volunteer to gain a wealth of experience.  This kind of flexibility in a typical homeschooler's day is something generally not available to  kids confined to a 7-hour school day.

When exploring homeschooling for the first couple of years, I was very uneasy with this concept of "child-led" learning.   ( and I still am every now and then))  But basic skills can be learned in very practical ways...math by baking and managing one's own money, writing and reading by coorsponding with friends and family,  just to name a few ways.  The desire to learn "basic skills"  is often propelled by needing them to do something else.    For example, my son wants to build model airplanes,  but he needs to know how to read the directions.  I think  the drive to learn what is needed to participate in our society can be done in the context of our interests. 

What I have learned first hand as my kids grow is to trust that learning will happen when they are ready.  I see this learning in my children, in myself now, and in those around us.   There are countless books out there about interest-led learning.  One great publication, Growing Without Schooling, is written by homeschooling kids and parents.  It was a bimonthly magazine filled with the individual experiences, and all were about learning within the context of living in the real world.  (Unfortunately, they have ceased publicaion recently, after a 25 year running!  There are copious back issues available.)

A few words on preserving homeschooling freedom: preserving real educational choice

Within the context of our nation's constittution, all Americans have the right to seek out educational choices that best suit their children's needs .  Therefore, homeschooling is legal in all 50 states.  However, legal requirements of homeschoolers vary from state to state.  For example, some states require a yearly curriculum plan, standardized testing,  and/or periodic teacher evaluations.  Other states have much less requirements.  All our state requires is a one-time filing of an affidavit  to the county school superintendent for each homeschooling child. 

Our family is very fortunate to be living  where there are few intrusions  into our learning by the state.  Many other homeschoolers are currently living with the above requirements, which are projections of public education's own measures on a group of people who don't participate in it's system.  In many more places than not, public education (and the governments that fund it) has tried to bring homeschooling under it's own control...arrogantly presuming that it is the sole expert on learning.  As a legislator in my state put it last Spring,  "What is holding these children (homeschoolers) accountable for learning anything?"  Homeschooling families answer, "We the parents are, thank you very much."  Parents are ultimately responsible for their children, and homeschooling parents retain the primary responsibility of their children's education, instead of handing this responsibility to the state.  Even more improtantly though, it is the children who are primarily responsible for their own learning.  They own their own learning experiences, and make their own meaningful lives.  They have their own drive to learn even without  being made to follow a set course of study at arbitrarily choosen times of their lives. 

State-mandated standardized testing, teacher evaluations, and curriculum requirements chip away at our homeschooling freedoms by allowing the state to have control over the learning process of our children.  If we allow the states to continue to make legislation defining homeschooling (defining the requirements and what we can/can't do legally),  our homes may very well become little public school satellites.  In fact, many homeschooling proponents advise only to comply only with what is legally necessary and nothing more. The reason is if we voluntarily give information or submit to the wishes of school/state official, it gives the perception that homeschoolers are willing to be goverened by these officials.  Homeschoolers do not get any special consideration or "extra credit" for providing more than the law requires.

Homeschooling is flexible, spontaneous, and practical.  it accomodates each and every learner, so she/he can aquire an education and life experience in her/his own unique way and timetable.  It is an important education choice that we need to take great care to preserve.

Learning as we live: a fly on the wall at our house 
It is often helpful to learn about each other's experiences for validation and exchanging ideas.  So I offer here a few writings of our learning in progress.  I would live to hear from you about your experiences too...please feel free to sign my guestbook.
 Since music is a big part of our family life, I can easily write about that, so here it is:

having a musical life
My family and I have a musical life.  Music breathes life, energy and feeling into our days.  I often have a tune playing in my conciousness throughout the day, my son (age 6) loves experimenting with different musical instruments, and my daughter (age one) moves her whole body to the beat of any music she is enjoying at any particular time.  My husband, though claiming himself to be "musically challenged", loves going to our local performances year 'round. 
Music means different things to all people.  To many, music+kids=musical instruction, including "mastery" of an instrument.  This is great, and their are many stories out there (especially among homeschoolers) of kids that have the desire and concentration for disciplined study of an instrument at an early age.  I am in awe of their talent, determination, and joy they find in making music.  You can probably tell by now that this doesn't fit the description of our family!  But serious study of a musical instrument isn't the only way for kids and their families to enjoy music. 

I myself have had years of formal instruction in two musical instruments, but (luckily) I was not pushed (for the most part) to practice to technical perfection.  I began playing the clarinet in the 5th grade, under the tutiledge of the public school system, some private lessons, and by my own exploration.  I learned to play this instrument fairly well through the years of high school, some time in college, and again regularly for a few years before motherhood.    Also, I began playing the piano around age 11, and after three years of lessons, continued playing on my own.  I may not be a virtuoso, but I do enjoy making music very much...I enjoy the spiritual exhileration and peace it gives me, and the "groove" of making music with others. 

But I also enjoy music when not actually making it on an instrument.  I love dancing to it, listening to it while just relaxing, while attending concerts, and while singing silly made-up songs with my kids.  I love the community music creates...wether we find ourselves as part of an audience, or as  participants in a gathering of musicians (my definition as those making music, regardless of their expertise)  playing together. 

My son is developing his own relationship with music, and I sit back and observe with great interest.  He is 6 years old, and has a very musical life.  He doesn't "play" a musical instrument in the sense of taking lessons on becoming technically proficient and reading witten music, but he does explore the world of music-making in his own way.  This section is a description of my observations of his musical journey.

I think it all began when the boy began his second summer at 15 months of age.  At this time, we had the same t.v. viewing fare every Saturday night at 7pm on PBS...the Lawrence Welk Show!  He loved to watch his "Welk" each week.  Oh, how he would love to dance and bob to the music! Sometimes if he happened to be taking a bath when the strains of the opening music filtered into the bathroom, he would run as fast as his wet, chubby legs would carry him to swing and sway in front of the tv.  He even came to know the celebrities by name. We started going to the summertime concerts in the park at about the same time, at which time he would pick up his chopstick and conduct the band from our little patch of grass in front of the bandshell. 

At about age two, conducting live, tv, and CD/taped performances was still a favorite pasttime for him.  At this age, his chopstick baton accurtately followed the tempo of the piece he was conducting.  We continued to see live performances in our community.

At age three, my son noticed the vast array of musical instruments out there.  He now drummed on empty oatmeal boxes with two chopsticks, (who says they are just eating utensils?), drummed on large, inflated balls, and blew into toy trumpets and saxophones and slide whistles and kazoos.  That Autumn, he an another musical friend of his each "won" an inflated toy guitar at Oktoberfest, and jammed to the tunes of dixieland stomp in the beer tent !  One of the performers in the band took me aside after playing their set, and told me how he noticed my son's joy for music and his ability to keep the beat.  "keep him involved in music" he said as we parted.  These were nice and encouraging words for a proud, music-minded mother to hear. 

As my son approached four, the toy and "pretend" instruments became less satisfying to him.  He wanted to play the real thing!  He had my clarinet and our piano available to him, and we also had a ukelele and a small lap harp as well.  He played these, but was still restless.  He wanted to play a brass instrument!  And not just any brass instrument, but his all-time favorite...the tuba!  Hmm...just where I would find a tuba that wasn't expensive to keep, and that  a 4-year-old might physically manage one was a little unclear.   We hmmed and haued  and stalled for time on this one for awhile.  At this time, we saw the PBS performance of  Blast! on tv...which is a very energized, creative indoor drum and bugle corps performance...with lots of brass instruments!  He decided during his Blast mania (which is ongoing to this day) that he would like to play the trumpet.  We could handle that.  So, just a few months before his 5th birthday,  we rented a trumpet from our local music store for the exploration and enjoyment of our son.  We and he had no intentions of taking lessons or learning how "to play" it.  That would come later, when/if  he decided to.  So Alan "played" (blew into the horn and depressed the keys) to Blast and our Chuck Mangione CD for awhile. 

A few months later, my son decided that he wanted to play the trombone after attending a  Winter holiday concert .  So the trumpet went back to the music store, and we exchanged it (and rental aggreements) for a trombone. He had to learn how to put this instrument together, and it wasn't too difficult for him to treat all of his rentals with care. 

Blast also inspired him to play the drums...mostly snare (our toy snare-like drum) and bass drums.  It seems to be a great outlet for his excited energy and emotions.  He has learned a few sticking rhythms from watching the show...some quite complicated!

But what about that tuba?  the boy kept gently (and sometimes very intensely) reminding us that he was still waiting to play one.  So he and I made a paper mache model (a work still in progress) life-size to scale.  When it was mostly done, we took it to a concert featuring Double Play, a flute/tuba duet.  With much encouragement of the performers' local host, we took the tuba up on stage after the show  to visit with the performers.  Patrick expertly took the paper mache tuba into his arms, feeling it's contours. (Patrick is blind) It is amazing how senses adapt, as he knew every curve of his own instrument, and we watched as he navigated himself around ours. 

So my son was pacified with the paper mache tuba for awhile.  He made music with it by humming, brumming, and bellowing out his own voice.  The passion for the real mccoy returned while visiting friends of ours one evening very recently.  Our friend had been playing and constructing french horns for about 50 years, and he commented that my son could probably handle a small baritone horn well.  The boy's passion was ignited, for he knew a baritone was like a small tuba.  So the next day,  the trombone was returned, and we are now the proud renters of a small baritone horn...which is the perfect size for our 5-year-old!

Now at age 5, his favorite musical activity is still playing his instruments to various music performances on video and CD.  He will select the instruments he wants to use before the music begins. (including his "real" instrument of the time, various pillows, chopsticks, toy horns, etc.) Then he will use each one as he sees fit.  In this way, he (all by himself) has learned such things as recognizing and identifying a sound with it's instrument,  identifying when each musical family "has it's turn" (his words) to play in a piece, and has recognizing how various melodies and harmonies fit together.  He also sings and plays the various parts of a piece as he goes.  ("playing" to him means blowing or drumming out the rhythm of the part...he doesn't play the notes accurately at this point)  These observations are what is obvious to me.  I'm sure there are many other ideas and feelings and intuitions that are developing and adding to his rich understanding to, relationship with music. 

So where is he going from here?  Will he become satisfied with these musical explorations and eventually move on to other things, will he eventually want to produce his favorite melodies on his instruments, learn to read music, or want to play in a musical group?  It is all up to is his journey!

As for my other child, she at age 18 months loves to sing.  She listens intently when we sing to her, or during those Sesame Street and Boston Pops video/audio tapes we have.  As she is learning speech, she is learning the words to the songs.  She often amuses herself in her carseat by singing through several of her songs while running errands.  On long car trips, we can be found singing at the top of our lungs (my daughter is the loudest) to "Old MacDonald" or "Take Me Out to the Ballgame", or any of the numerous songs she knows now.  She is also getting into conducting by watching her brother, and dances even to the music from a passing car on the street. 

If I could cite only one gift that I feel humans have given to our Earth, it would be music.  My wish is that everyone enjoy it in their own, special ways.

Some of our favorite music resources:
There is something is almost every community.  We live in a small-ish city in a rural county of our state, and we have various musical groups ranging from one-person shows to a military band, a  small symphony orchestra, and varoius school performing groups.  There are youth concerts and contests...with about half of the participants being homeschooled.  Some of these events are at the same time of year and place year after year. (summer concerts in the park, Oktoberfest, etc) while others are not (we are fortunate to have an arts and music series sponsored by our city)  Some of the best performances we have attended were not given much public advertising, and were found in the nooks of our local community newspaper.

We attend concerts as a whole family.  Both kids enjoy long as we aggree that whenever anyone wants to leave, we do.  We don't force them to sit there and resent the fact...which I believe is a great way for people to learn to dislike going to concerts.  There is no more enjoyment going on anymore when one is ready to leave, anyway.  We sit near the back and/or at the end of isles for easy movement without disturbing others.  For awhile during my son's toddler years, we didn't attend indoor events because loud sounds and crowds overwhealmed him.  We adjust and change as we need to.


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