The Common Good
July-August 1998

At Home, In the World

by Susan Gushue | July-August 1998

When we made the decision to take our older two children out of public school, my
husband and I felt it was the only real choice we had.

When we made the decision to take our older two children out of public school, my husband and I felt it was the only real choice we had. After years in a successful public Montessori program, their current public school was getting the best of them. They kept their discoveries to themselves (and these discoveries happened out of sight), and they invariably came home tired, hungry, and unsatisfied.

My son Charles, 12, is an avid reader who enjoys music and dance. But school seemed to interfere with his real learning. Instead of actively engaging him, it was just something he had to cope with. My daughter, Helen, 9, enjoyed her friends at school but when it came to learning it seemed that she was mainly just killing time. Or worse. (When a broken and desperate Washington, D.C. school system felt the pressure to improve student test scores, my daughter found herself in a windowless classroom memorizing the 20s times tables. This did not help her learn anything, least of all math.)

Our twin 6-year-old girls were doing fine in their D.C. Montessori program, but in the case of our two older children, we felt intervention was necessary.

Home schooling was a big step for us. I had never taken on such an important task. I quickly discovered that I would be more of an "unschooler," since my children—like all children, I believe—have a strong desire to learn and do not necessarily need a school curriculum to do it. We decided not to replace schoolwork with home-school work, although we did develop some regular structures for learning. Several other home-schooling families join us at different times for weekly math lessons, units on geography, a writing class, and a reading discussion group.

But our children primarily learn their lessons in more spontaneous and experiential ways. Science, for example, often happens when the children pursue their active interest in astronomy. Caring for the numerous pets and houseplants and working in our garden engages their scientific interests in a more natural way. Whether or not we call it a lesson, it always is a learning moment.

I try to give my children the opportunity to pursue the things that they are naturally drawn to, that interest them. We get up. We read and talk. We do things that need to be done at home, reinforcing the disciplines of responsibility and teamwork and encouraging the care and love that they have for each other. We go ice-skating, visit museums, go to the store, take walks, listen to the radio. In short, they engage with their world at their own pace and in their own environment.

We have more time now. We discuss what to do with that time and choose what is most important to us for each day. How many children have the opportunity to do that? How many adults? My children have not devoted themselves to great projects or hours of homework assignments. Instead they focus on things in a completely different way: They take the time to wonder.

A certain level of calm is required to be able to notice things. Instead of just sticking those things in a box in their head, they can look at them—a bug, a book, a friend—for a moment or for an hour. The choices are theirs to make and the results are both educational and prayerful. And, ultimately, deeply memorable.

They also do things that children just don’t do anymore. Both of my older children have spent a lot of time with our new baby. They have become wonderful caretakers and nurturers of their infant sister. How many children get to be with a newborn all day and see that baby grow, learn, and develop? (Not to mention cry, fuss, fidget, and throw up on whoever is holding her at the time.) Our family is growing up together, learning together, living life in a much fuller way than would be possible if our oldest children were away from home most of the day.

I know that this is a luxury that not every family can have, and I am deeply thankful that I can share so much with my children. What parent wouldn’t treasure her children’s moments of discovery?

HOME SCHOOLING (at least our particular brand) has taken on an even deeper meaning to me. I believe an abiding spiritual life comes from a combination of both wonder and gratitude. Wonder is the feeling that draws us outside of ourselves, but takes us with it. It is uniquely one’s own. Gratitude is the feeling that draws us out of ourselves and connects us to others. In our feeling of gratitude, we reach out to others to share what is more than we could possibly need.

In the beginning of her book The Story of Painting, Sister Wendy Beckett says we want to know what we love. This seems exactly right to me. For us, home schooling has cleared a path for my children and for me to experience both more wonder and more love. It is through these two things that we are drawn to learn. Learning comes to us as both a part of our nature and as a gift. This way we associate learning with the wonder and love that cause it. Having the opportunity to realize what we need, and appreciate what we have, allows us to feel a deep and abiding gratitude. That is the way I know how to love God.

My children are not getting ready or waiting around for some next phase of their lives. They are already in this life, "at home in the world." Home schooling can teach us how to find "home" and take it with us for the rest of our lives.

SUSAN GUSHUE is a wife, mother, teacher, and activist living in Washington, D.C. She continues to organize and lobby for improved city schools.

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