Just dribbling along

By Cynthia McStephen

“Hello there from Radio Home Ed Land, where there are a million different reasons and styles for every million home-edders. Today the topic is ‘Why we do what we do’ and sitting opposite me in the studio today is … hmmm. Actually that person looks remarkably like ME.”

It can be a strange experience to want to interview yourself, to have something in your life make you examine just WHY you are doing what you are doing, and not only that, but why you do it IN THAT WAY. Allow me to explain:

I recently emailed another home-edder. Let me be brutally honest here. The topic of my email was ‘Home Ed Whinge’. (Reading between the lines, a topic like that really said to my friend ‘open at your peril’). It was not, as is obvious, my finest day.

Basically my complaint was that I was feeling like being super-organised-home-edder, it was our first day-at-home of the week, and I’d planned a thumping great educational experience. But I had woken up with foghead, and the kids were looking pale and wan. So I had to reluctantly cancel my plan to win the mother-of-the-year award and let them drift.

Everybody reading this knows precisely how this story goes next.

During the rest of the day, the kids did Mathletics, sewing projects, cooking projects, guessing games with the calculator, downloaded sheet music and wrote limericks for a local competition. All that sort of stuff is home-ed apocryphal – it doesn’t even need to be written down.

And I knew all this, anyway. I’m an experienced home educator. Hey, there ain’t no kidding myself that the puny efforts I make in my kids’ education is where they REALLY learn stuff.

But I’m also middle-aged and grumpy enough to have decided that I’ll do things the way I think suits us. And that day didn’t go to plan, which made me even grumpier. So I wrote up my dissatisfaction with life, hit ‘send’, and went about my life. The kids and I moved on, the day ended, and life continued in its usual up-and-down, occasionally organised way.

Hitting ‘send’ on an email is a powerful action. For one thing, it goes a long way to curing one of a grumpy mood. Get it down, send it off, and suddenly it almost becomes someone else’s problem.

For another, sometimes you get a response. And that’s when things started to get interesting.

I’d unleashed a monster. And by that I don’t mean my friend. (She may occasionally be a monster, of course, but that’s no business of mine).

But by expressing my frustration to her I’d tapped into a few questions she’d been asking herself.

It seems that I wasn’t the only home-edder who can see the benefits in natural learning and still chooses not to do it. My friend confessed herself to be at a point in her life where she had been trying to articulate her reasons for not choosing the hands-off/parent-on-standby mode, and instead was choosing to be engaged in and direct at least a part of her children’s learning.

There’s nothing like discovering that you are both doing something AND YOU DON’T QUITE KNOW WHY to start a great conversation.

So together, over a series of emails, we nutted out our reasons. And somewhere along the line, it seemed to be a good idea to share them with the world. A strange idea, really. It’s one thing to confess to another grumpy middle-aged home edder that you are behaving in an unaccountable way. It’s another to Out Oneself quite so completely as to be published.

But maybe, just maybe, there will be some reader who is interested in what we do in the privacy of our own homes. So, here we go:

  1. The first reason is too obvious for words. I’m keen for my kids to do some planned educational stuff so that I’m assured that they are learning – not all the stuff which kids in school churn through – but the things which I think they ‘should’ know. Maths is the clear example here.
  2.  Also I think that sitting down and working at something in order to learn it is one of many ways of learning, and one which my kids can experience alongside the other ways they learn things.For example, I’m a keen gardener and learn about gardening by experience, talking to other people, reading books, looking stuff up on the internet, reading tags on plants at the nursery, etc. My husband Michael, in a spectacular example of a mid-life crisis, has chucked in his job, returned to study and is in the middle of a TAFE course in conservation and land management. That involves, of course, lots of formal study about plants. (And hardly any money – but that’s another story altogether).In our evening verandarising sessions, when we chat and enjoy a glass of wine (cheap, of course – refer the point above about money) the talk often turns to plants. I notice that we each bring a different approach to the conversation, and I don’t mean only the obvious ones (hey, every cell in Michael’s body does have a Y chromosome in it after all.)

    But his information and mine about one of our favourite topics come from different places and sit on different frameworks. His comes from formal study, mine from doing. We both appreciate the approach the other one brings to the conversation.

    Also, just simply knowing that they CAN learn in a formal way increases my kids’ confidence, in a world where knowledge is a currency. I may not like the way the world runs – I don’t, a lot of the time – but I want my kids to feel that they are equipped to take part.

  3. OK, here I really out myself. I am VERY comfortable with some structure and organisation in my life, so I’m forcing the kids to have it too. Yes, I’m making the poor little things do it my way. Maybe it’s one of the privileges of giving birth.I know they could easily have structure without actually formally learning things – ‘Now it’s time to feed the chooks, now you need to tidy your room….’ But somehow sitting down most days, and working through some things gives us all a focus for part of a day, and just seems to make the whole day have a slightly better sense of purpose. For me, anyway.I’m happy for my kids to learn lots of things by being self-directed, and, you guessed it – boy oh boy, they do! But I don’t feel comfortable when that’s ALL they are doing.
  4. Structured activities are another way in which I am in touch with their lives. Which I’m finding particularly meaningful as my kids hurtle into adolescence.(And no, I have NO fears of ‘teen troubles’ – I think all that stuff’s a school and society-induced load of codswallop, basically. In my pre-motherhood life I worked with adolescents and loved it, and have been hanging out for my kids to hit adolescence ever since. I consider it one of my missions in life to counter every negative comment made about teenagers that I encounter. How can society justify denegrating any group like that?)

Ahem, sorry, I momentarily stepped onto one of my favourite soapboxes.

Even though obviously our family spends a lot of time together, left to ourselves we could easily spend the day in our own little worlds, buried in self-busyness. And that is particularly so as the kids turn, naturally, into more independent beings. Doing a bit of work is a shared focus, and I appreciate it for that. We could easily, of course, have another shared focus – animal care, crafts, sport, or even gardening (hey, now THERE’S an idea).

I am, however, comfortable about doing something ‘artificially’. It’s really just saying we won’t wait for something to be spontaneous – we’ll decide to do it anyway. It can be applied to housework, gardening, money management, exercise, verandarising with one’s partner despite both of you being busy – and educating kids. There’s nothing sacred about learning. There’s no reason why it, of all things, should be set apart and always spontaneous.

And the older I get, the more of a natural-unnatural learner I become. That’s the advantage of getting middle-aged and grumpy. You can’t be bothered being anything other than totally accepting of yourself. Hey, I love structure. Feeeeels gooooood.

So, having outed myself thoroughly, now, what to do? The obvious answer, is, of course, to continue on our merry way. No probs. We are. And lovin’ it. It gets better and better each year. But there’s nothing like being able to define yourselves to other home-edders, and that’s where I find myself getting bogged down in lengthy explanations. All I need is a pithy word, and that’s just what I haven’t got.

Picture me, if you will, sitting at our home-ed group. The sun is shining, the kids are merry, the grown-ups are enjoying each other’s company. We are welcoming a new family to our midst. This very scenario happens regularly in our group, and I’m sure in many other groups as well.

Now, our group has a special advantage. For all I know, the rest of you do too. But when we send out our list of dates, we have a little paragraph at the bottom of it, which basically says that we have lots of different reasons and methods for educating our kids out of the school system. There are people in our group who are home-edders for faith-based reasons, social/emotional reasons, health reasons, academic reasons, alternative philosophy reasons, special needs – you name it.

That little paragraph talks about respecting each other’s views, that no-one in the group has all the answers, and that we are meeting to enjoy each others’ company. We think it’s a good reminder for us and helps make us a diverse and accepting group.

So, back to our scenario, where we are conversing with our new family. We always try, as much as possible, to let new families know that there is no one ‘right’ way to go about educating kids. Sometimes, that involves us going through our own group and showing a newcomer that we have a range of home-ed styles right here in front of them.

Look, here are a couple of natural learners, there’s a family following a classical curriculum, another using faith-based material. One family who have enquired about coming to our group use a tutor, another is enrolled with Distance Ed. Several have a child or two in school, and one is enrolled part-time. All have something to define their style with.

And then there’s me. Yup, when my turn comes, I try to explain. ‘We do some work most days in a range of areas……’ Last time that happened, another mother, who’d heard me do this several times before, looked at me as I was trying to define myself and said ‘I’ve got it! The name for what you do! You Dribble Along!’ That’s it. The official title for what I do. Dribble.

Yes, I’ve heard the word ‘Eclectic’. Perhaps it defines our family. But I use it, when I have to, reluctantly. My dictionary defines it as meaning ‘borrowing freely from various sources’. Of course I choose approaches from all over. I think, really, that most people do.

But what I want is a word for the Actual-Structured-Sitting-Down-And-Doing-Work-With-My-Kids, not the way in which I choose the material. Subtle, maybe. Petty even. But important. I just don’t think that if I say ‘we take an eclectic approach’ that it really says anything more than that we ‘choose from all over’. It’s just a bit too much like being in a multiple-choice questionnaire and choosing ‘none of the above’.

And it can be handy, sometimes, to define oneself in a group. It never, of course, totally sums up all the subtle things one does in life, but it can be socially convenient.

If the majority of home-edders are not natural learners, why isn’t there more variety in our definitions for it?

Perhaps I should define it further – ‘Structured Eclectic’, ‘An-hour-or-two-a-day Eclectic’, ‘I-choose-from-all-over-like-all-Eclectics-and-do-it-in-an-organised-way’.

Hmm. ‘Dribbling’ is looking pretty good.

From Otherways 120

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