Educating My Boy

Chronicles of a Free-Schooler
Clara Middleton

I have unexpectedly found myself home schooling – or as I like to call it, free schooling – my son. This is a major change in our lives. In this blog, Educating My Boy, I will chronicle the many aspects of this process. These blogs reflect a range of experiences and ideas, from personal views and family decisions to experiments and challenges in educating a middle-school boy.

Wrapping it up: Overview and self-evaluation
August 19, 2011

To wrap up sixth grade I did two things. First I reviewed what we had covered during the year. I went over the notes I had taken for and during our lessons. Jack certainly didn’t “remember” everything. I had to put things that he didn’t remember in context and then it would ring a bell – or not! 
    But as I put it before, I’m not very concerned over kids remembering everything they are taught. “Remembering” is often a form of demonstrating that you have “learned” something. Learning is more invisible than that; it takes place on a much deeper level. Kids can’t help learning. So I was happy to just go over what we had read or talked about, whether Jack “remembered” or not. He just listened and made an occasional comment. That was good enough for me. 
    The second thing that I did was that I asked Jack to write a self-evaluation for sixth grade. I got the idea from my ballet school. (I’m always learning things from teachers of dance!) I thought it was a great idea to get kids to think about how they did during the year. I think that’s a much better indication of progress than how we think they did. More

Other Curricular and Extracurricular Activities
July 22, 2011

As I “homeschool” my son I am studying the question of what goes into educating a kid. (The reason I put "homeschool" in quotation marks is that as you will see a lot of the education happens outside of the home.) In that spirit I will record here other things we have done with Jack in addition to the official “lessons” I have been blogging about. Many of these activities we would have done even if he were in school but certainly not all.

Song writing and recording 
    Last summer Jack took a song writing and recording summer camp with Pamela Parker of the San Francisco Rock School. It was such a success that the summer camp developed into a three-month long weekly workshop. One of the homeschooling moms hosted the workshop at her house (all day on Tuesdays) which was a blessing to the rest of us moms! Jack got a Mac for his birthday so he would be able to work with the popular recording software used nowadays. That was in the Fall. More

Failing Math
July 9, 2011

I’d say this year was not a successful one for Math. My husband Henry was in charge of teaching math and since because of our move and Henry’s long commutes we knew he would not have a lot of time our goal was a modest one. The plan was to use sixth grade to get Jack to become sure-footed and fast in using the multiplication table and to continue with basic arithmetic. 
    Well, it didn’t work out. I realized half way through the year that Henry was simply not going to have enough time, or energy, to take on teaching math to Jack. I myself felt pretty overwhelmed by all that I had to do too so I looked into getting some outside help in teaching math. More

Teaching What I Don't Know: Physics
June 27, 2011

Most of what I worked on with Jack this year was what I knew. I studied social science (developmental psychology as an undergraduate) and the humanities (literature in graduate school), and I have taught literature and writing in college. I can certainly do a passable job teaching literature, history, philosophy, the arts, intro to social sciences, and even some scientific methodology. But what about fields I know very little about...? 
    I know a lot of homeschooling parents whose approach to teaching their kids is to study things with them. This is a fantastic approach and I’ve seen families who have achieved great results doing this. Although what tends to happen is that the kids at some point get better than their parents and take off on their own, which is wonderful to see. But I have felt very insecure taking on subjects I don’t know anything about – this is the flip side of having experience teaching subjects I am familiar with! I felt a lot less adventurous than a lot of homeschooling parents I admired. 
    So I decided to challenge myself. How do I teach physics, I asked myself? More

On the Reading List: The Prince and the Pauper
June 13, 2011

The “lessons” that I have been blogging about have been on readings from My Book House. But we’ve done other readings and other “lessons” as well. I will blog later about the reading list I’ve been going through with Jack. 
    On the reading list for this year was Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. Alas, I read this book on my own in second grade but had to read it to my sixth-grade son. But no matter. He has to get certain books in his consciousness, by hook or by crook! One of the reasons for reading The Prince and the Pauper was to lay a foundation for introducing him to sociology, which is on my agenda to take up as part of our social science curriculum next year. More

Lesson Nine: Some Poetry 
June 1

One of my pet peeves is the way children are introduced to poetry these days. It’s similar to a lot of music education going on. Children are asked to write poetry and make music as their first introduction to poetry and music. This is totally absurd. Children should first hear poetry and music, they should become sensitized to it. Making poetry and music is impossible if you don’t hear them first. 
    Through our year, Jack’s sixth grade, I read to him some poems from the seven volumes of My Book House that we have so far covered. Every single time he says that he hates poetry. The only comment he ever makes about poetry is that a particular poem is or is not “realistic” – not that he can tell me what he means by realistic, and I never push him to give me a definition. 
    I had marked three poems to read to Jack from Volume Seven: “The Cloud” by Shelley, “The Bells” by Poe, and “The Peddler’s Song” from Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. More

Lesson Eight: King Midas brings homeschooling crashing down!
May 16

One of the stories I had Jack read as part of this lessons was the story of King Midas. If you recall, Midas was the king who so coveted gold that he dreamed of having the ability to turn everything he touched to gold. When his wish was granted and he turned his most beloved daughter (and every plant and flower as well as his food) to gold he realized his mistake. 
    I had Jack research the origin of the story (Greek or Roman?) and read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s telling of the story as a little shot of good writing. While mentioning the moral of the story my main idea was to discuss how we come to “value” thing: is gold more “valuable” than bread when you’re hungry? That sort of thing… but we didn’t get to that! 
    I asked Jack what the moral of the story of King Midas was. “Not to be greedy,” he said. “Money isn’t happiness.” 
    “What is happiness?” I couldn’t resist asking. More 

Lesson Seven: Analyzing Stories
May 5

An ancient Egyptian tale, “Rhodopis and Her gilded Sandals,” is the oldest version of the Cinderella story. Jack’s assignment was to read this version in Volume 7 of My Book House and to compare it to other versions of the story. 
    In the Egyptian version the story opens with Rhodopis (Greek for “rosy cheeked”), a beautiful young woman, bathing in a river. One of her dainty slippers is picked up by a “royal eagle” and dropped in the lonely king’s lap. The king has all the maidens of the realm try on the slipper, to no avail. Then a grateful subject, a man whom the king has set free from the burden of unjust taxes, leads the king to the river where Rhodopis bathes. Her little foot fits the slipper, she produces the other one, and then she and the king get married and live happily ever after. 
    Jack mentioned some of the differences in the characters in the Rhodopis versus Cinderella stories: there was no fairy godmother, no ugly sisters, and Rhodoppis was not a servant. There was no ball or pumpkin carriage either. Jack also mentioned that one of “morals” in the Cinderella story, the one where Cinderella forgives her step sisters and everybody lives happily ever after together, was missing. The moral in the Egyptian story was that the king reaped the rewards of being a good and just king. More

Lesson Six: Fiction, Folklore, and Fakelore
April 18

We are still on book four of the My Book House series. For this lesson I assigned stories about three American folk “heroes”: Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, and Johnny Appleseed. 
    The main difference between Pecos Bill/Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed is that the first two are total fiction – “tall tales” – while Johnny Appleseed was a historical character. Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan were literally larger-than-life (very big dudes), capable of acts of stupendous strength. 
    I really don’t like to encourage Jack to use Wikipedia for research but it sure was convenient for learning some more about these American heroes... We came across an interesting concept on Wikipedia: Fakelore. Fakelore is folklore that is deliberately invented instead of mysteriously springing up and taking root on its own. In America fakelore is often connected to advertising. Paul Bunyan was adopted as a sort of mascot by the logging industry and used to put a folksy face to logging companies massacring the environment. There are huge statutes of Paul Bunyan in many logging towns. More

Lesson Five: Useful Metaphors, Aesthetics, "Social Studies"
March 26

For this lesson I had assigned a number of stories for different reasons. 
    I wanted Jack to read the two stories, “Stone Soup” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” for their metaphorical value. 
    Our most interesting conversation, however, followed an old Greek story that I had had him read. “The Battle of the Frogs and the Mice” is a parody of Homer’s Iliad, composed about a century later. It is about a war that breaks out between frogs and mice because of an incident that occurs between the prince of mice and some frog. The mouse prince, running away from a cat, asks the frog to carry him across a pond. The frog agrees but while the mouse is on his back he runs into a snake and ducks underwater. The prince of mice is inadvertently drowned and a bloody war breaks out between frogs and mice, avenging the killing of the mouse prince. The story is a parody of the interminable fight between the Greeks and Trojans in the Iliad and pokes fun at the absurdity of war. More

Lesson Four: Interpretation, Editing
March 3

As I teach Jack I occasionally hit on insights that I think are valid. I also imagine what advice I would give to others based on them. One advice is: “Don’t belabor. Revisit.” I’ll write more about this later but this advice is based on something that I automatically do as we progress in our lessons with Jack. 
    Usually, at the beginning of a lesson I revisit points that we had brought up, or “covered,” before. The reason that I put “covered” in quotation marks is because I don’t think of learning as a linear progression where you cover or learn a “fact” and you move on to the next one. In my blog “Uncertainty, Improvisation, Approximation” I wrote that I think it is much more accurate to think of learning as achieving approximations. More

Lesson Three: More Stories
Jan. 26

Volume Three of My Book House series, “Up One pair of Stairs,” is also a collection of folk and other stories and poems. Here there are more original texts (as opposed to retellings) than in the previous volumes and children are introduced to the unadulterated language of literature. I assigned Jack poems by Robert Louis Stevenson, Emily Dickinson, and Wordsworth, and stories from the Grimm brothers, Old Testament, and retellings of a couple of stories from Chaucer. 
    Now, please don’t imagine I expect a whole lot from my son. Alas, the average middle-schooler of today can only handle very simple language. I have no idea what age group Olive Beaupré Miller, the editor of these books, had in mind for each volume but I would bet anything school children in the 1920s were a lot more sophisticated readers than kids are now. I only mention this so my readers don’t think that I am overly ambitious with my son or that he is any kind of prodigy. More

Lesson Two: Stories 
Jan. 20

“Story Time” is a collection of fairy tales, folk tales, animal fables, stories from the Bible, and a few anecdotes about actual people (Chopin and George Sand, for instance). Again, the editor, Olive Beaupré Miller, has done a fine job of drawing on sources from all over the world: Aesop’s Fables (Greek), Panchatantra (Indian), Jatakas (Buddhist), Kalileh-va-Demne (Persian/Arabic/Indian), as well as Native American and African stories. 
    I had assigned a number of stories from this collection for Jack to read before having our lesson. On the day of the lesson I was curious what he remembered from the first lesson. 
    “What did Aristotle say was the purpose of poetry?” I asked. 
    “To entertain and to educate." 
    Good. He remembered! More

Lesson One:  Nursery Rhymes
Jan. 9, 2011

Volume One of the series of books I have by chance come to adopt as a teaching tool (here and here is the story) is all nursery rhymes. The editor, Olive Beaupré Miller, has done a fine job of collecting nursery rhymes from all over the world: Europe, Asia, Americas (including Latin American, Native and African American), and Africa. (Not bad for 1920s, eh?!) There are also short poems from actual poets such as Shakespeare, Christina Rossetti, Robert Burns, Keats, Langston Hughes, etc. 
    So how do you put an 11-year old boy to work on nursery rhymes? 
    I started with a famous quote from Aristotle: “The purpose of poetry is to amuse and instruct.” More

The Role of Chance
Nov. 16, 2010

What I am going to do in the next series of blogs is to record some of the “lessons” that I prepare for my son. But before I embark on the planned part of our curriculum I want to pay homage to the role chance plays in what Jack studies. In fact the very “curriculum” that I’m going to blog about came to us by chance. 
    I wrote here about how a friend of my mine unexpectedly gave me a series of books that she had read as a child. The series is called “My Book House” (first copyright 1921, thirty-fifth printing 1953) and has twelve books for “boys and girls” from elementary through high school. As I looked through the volumes I decided to use the series as a guideline for organizing some lessons for my son’s sixth grade education. I will blog about each volume after we cover it. More

What Do We Teach?
Nov. 3, 2010

Obviously one of the first questions you ask yourself when you decide to homeschool your kid is, What do I teach? 
    I won’t go into all the different approaches and philosophies people adopt when they ask themselves this question. There are the “Classics” people who have a strict curriculum complete with Greek and Latin, and there are the “unschoolers” who allow the kids to completely follow their own interests – and everything in between. Most people are in between. 
    I myself am the intellectual sort. More

Are Homeschoolers Entitled to Summer Vacation?
July 23, 2010

This is our first summer as homeschoolers. My son left school in February and I did some official “teaching” from March through May. Come June, however, Jack started rebelling against our “lessons.” 
    I put “teaching” and “lessons” in quotation marks because what we basically did together was read. And look at maps, discuss topics that came up, look up some of the things we didn’t know, etc. It wasn’t that different from reading together when he was in school. We are just a reading family. But the fact that Jack was now officially a homeschooler made him look at reading together differently. He saw reading time as teaching time now. More

Time for Some Major Changes, 2&3 
July 11, 2010 

Change Number 2: Less Work
The second change I made was that I cut back and changed my work hours. There was just no way I could spend even four consecutive hours a day working. Expecting a ten-year old boy to entertain himself for hours and hours in an apartment is just not realistic...

Change Number 3: The Move
The biggest change we decided to make, however, is to move out of San Francisco. My husband and I are both city people and as for me, San Francisco is the smallest of the cities I have lived in. I used to live in New York City and I still dream of living there again. But… I cannot bear to see my ten-year old cooped up in a city apartment all day. More

Time for Some Major Changes
July 2, 2010

Change Number 1: No Screens

The day I had my meltdown one thing became very clear to me: I couldn’t continue the way we were doing things. For starters, I just could not bear to watch my kid spend hours in front of a screen. That day my husband stayed home from work to take Jack out so I could have a couple of hours of breathing space. By the time they returned from their outing I had packed away the VCR, DVD player, Xbox, and Jack’s computer. No more screen time. Cold turkey in cold blood! Having seen me sob uncontrollably that morning Jack looked around with wide eyes but said nothing.

You see, I hate doing law enforcement work. I dislike and am very bad at patrolling my son’s every move, timing his activities, issuing citations, and carrying out “justice.” And children – especially boys – being consummate negotiators, I just did not want to endlessly fight off his attempts to push limits. More

Uncertainty, Improvisation, Approximation
June 16, 2010

While going through emotional breakdowns and making life changes I don’t expect myself to be “teaching” or my son “studying” an awful lot. Math has completely slipped but we do keep on plodding through my version of a liberal arts “curriculum.” As I pick books and read and discuss them with Jack I give education more thought than I probably ever did. I am determined to give my son an excellent education. (Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon… and for the rest of his life.) More

After the Honeymoon, the Crash
June 6, 2010

Well, it was bound to happen, wasn't it?!
    A couple of months into our liberation from school all kinds of things fell apart. First of all, the emotional crash… Being forced to do something that is mostly torment for six out of your ten years of life leaves not just scars but some open wounds as well. On a deep level Jack was – still is – quite confused. He is glad to be out of school but he still carries a lot of unhappiness and anger in him. He is given to meltdowns. More

The Honeymoon
May 19, 2010

The first couple of months of home schooling are definitely sweet. It’s the honeymoon stage and decompression feels like a million bucks. 
    In our case, the first relief was from daily torment. For the first time after years, Jack did not have to face his tormentors every day. He was not constantly on the defensive or being punished for his attempts to get even. He was calmer and more relaxed. He also enjoyed the fact that his unhappiness was finally being acknowledged – and he even felt a little vindicated. The day he came with me to meet with the school district’s family liaison officer he especially felt validated. More

Decompression, the first stage
May 6, 2010

The important fact about our situation is that we’re not starting from scratch. The positive aspect of it is that I have a ten year- old who can read and write and has basic math. This small little detail makes a world of difference. It makes life a lot easier on me. The negative aspect of not starting from scratch is that we have a lot of things to overcome. We have a lot of bad memories to leave behind and a lot of bad habits to unlearn. Some homeschoolers call this “de-schooling." More



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