Homeschooling: Halfway Through

by Pat Goltz

(The following essay was originally sent to Growing Without Schooling, a magazine published by the famous homeschooling innovator, John Holt. It has been edited slightly.)

There have been some very interesting developments since I last wrote. We are beginning to see the results of our method of homeschooling, including the impact on other people, and on society.

Our oldest son, Tom, started in Montessori school when he was nearly 4. He and the other older beginners were assigned to the less trained and experienced teachers. I was always a homeschooler at heart. I set up a Montessori room at home with a lot of activities different from those in the class, and taught Tom how to read. The teachers complained about my Montessori room, claiming that he wasn't interested in working at school because he was satiated. The common teacher attitude is that they just plain don't want the parental competition. I feel it is none of their business. It angered me that the principal would not let me choose his teachers. For this reason, we put him in public school for first grade.

Public school was a disaster. Tom complained that they were teaching them to watch TV (Sesame Street, at that age!), and that they would not let him check out sixth-grade level books from the school library. My complaints were that they made a big fuss over pagan holidays or turned Christian holidays into pagan ones, that the teacher took credit for teaching him to read (he was the only literate person in the class), and that he totally lost interest in reading. So we went to observe, and saw all the games that went on, including the fact that during the math lessons some kids completely turned off, while others asked questions until they had been given all the answers on the worksheet, and written them down. The worksheets were an insult; they were quite cutesy. The playground was a disaster. The kids were cruel. We had him in private school by November.

The new school was an orthodox Catholic parent-run school. Tom made good academic progress, but he also learned more lessons in acting out. For discipline, he would be sent from the room, but the teacher would stand guard over him. Naturally, he liked the attention.

The following year we transferred him to the first of three Baptist schools. None of them challenged him, though one of them allowed him to skip fourth grade. By seventh grade, school was a total washout. We finally had enough, and pulled everyone out of school, at the urging of the principal there!

The first year I assigned Tom some challenging stuff, which he did well, but I could see that he would never develop self-discipline if I kept that up. So I dropped the whole thing, and for several years he did nothing but read science fiction. Then he taught himself computer programming. When he took the GED and the college entrance exams that were administered at the local community college, he made the highest scores ever achieved. He left home when he was 23, and moved in with his grandmother. He works as a computer programmer, consulting, and spends as much time as he can in the family business.

The most important result of his homeschooling, as far as society is concerned, is that he refuses to work at a 9-5 job, because he cannot abide the stultifying atmosphere and the politics. The implications for the restructuring of the workplace, should many people like him get loose, are mind-boggling. Homeschooling is revolutionary, which is one reason we are often feared.

Marti, 19, spent only two years in school, always a year ahead of her age. School seems not to have had a lasting effect on her. After she was out for awhile, she got very interested in animals and developed a high degree of skill with them. She also became an outstanding artist and taught herself how to program in BASIC. Her typing speed is around 90 wpm. It bothered her not to have social contact, and she didn't consider involvement in computer bulletin boards adequate. Many people who use them are social misfits. Martha considered herself shy, although she was well-liked, and seemed at ease with people. She met her husband over the BBS. He is 25. He owns and runs his own Tae-Kwon-Do school. Marti recently took the GED, and although she didn't do as well as her brother, she was way above the crowd. She does all the art work for their business.

Allen, 18, had one year of school, and during that time, he suffered a great loss of self-esteem. In particular, he hated his curly hair because the kids teased him about it.

As you may recall, Allen decided to learn to play the violin, and did so at first over my dead body. He took the initiative and found a willing teacher. When she had to leave, she turned him over to her teacher. It was only two years until the time Allen was playing in the top string orchestra of five. This is a touring orchestra. Last year, they played at Disney World in Florida, and this year they went to Washington, D.C., and played on the lawn of the national capitol. They have been invited to play in Carnegie Hall next spring, but it looks like people weren't able to arrange the practicalities. In the past several months, Allen has been a coach with them. He coaches the violas most of the time, but when someone is needed for another section, he can take over, because he can read all the clefs. A couple of times the director couldn't be there, and Allen conducted the entire group. The hours spent shadow-conducting in front of the hi-fi have paid off. He is very good at it, and the kids respect him. During his free time, he gives lessons.

After awhile, Allen decided he wanted to learn to play the trombone, and it happened that we watched for a used instrument to purchase, and the fellow who sold us the trombone happened to be a teacher. He became our children's brass and clarinet teacher. He teaches both classical music and jazz. I had wanted our children, Allen and Ken in particular, to learn something that came from black African roots. Jazz was perfect. After awhile, the teacher told Allen that he wanted to set up a small business to run swing bands in retiree mobile home parks, and that he'd like Allen to work with him for pay. In the meantime, he suggested that Allen form his own swing band for awhile. This he promptly did! He selected high school aged folks from all over the city, found a place to practice and a director, and established and maintained a rehearsal schedule. He got on the tail of people who missed a rehearsal without notifying anyone. They rehearsed once a week for approximately a semester, and at the end of that time, they performed four selections at the citywide Jazz Sundae. The kids sounded wonderful! I had to remind Allen that being able to organize such a band in that way is not an everyday skill that any teenager has. It never dawned on him that it should go on his resume!

Allen is currently playing the violin, viola, trombone, and piano. His self-study has really paid off. When he began to take piano lessons, ostensibly as a beginner, he read through the first half of the book in one sitting. The teacher was astounded. He is currently working on a Mozart sonatina and one of Bach's two part inventions.

At music camp last summer, Allen met a girl with whom he keeps in touch. She says she wishes her parents had homeschooled her, because she likes the way Allen turned out.

Recently Allen was approached to compose a score for a CPR instructional tape. I hope he does it. It sounds really interesting.

Ken, 16, has developed an interest in a volunteer paramilitary organization. He originally wanted to become a pilot in the Air Force, but the rescue work has captivated his interest. Because of some of his learning difficulties, it hasn't been easy, but he has the self discipline to keep plugging away at it, and little by little he has been making progress. He has done exceptionally well in the paramedic courses he has taken. We had no idea he was so gifted in the area of touch, though everything pointed in that direction all along. The kind of diligence and responsibility that Ken has is another product of the right kind of homeschooling. To earn money to attend some functions, he cleans horse stalls. His employer is a master teacher of the skill of being a good employee. Ken is working hard at learning to please her.

Unfortunately, this group was another example of an institution that insisted on forcing square pegs into round holes. Recently, Ken dropped out because things got so bad that he wasn't allowed to do anything anyway, and I said I needed the time and gas money for other things. He didn't mind much. He has organized a morning study group with a younger brother. They get up at 8 AM and study in the living room until 11. Then they move to the bedroom for a little while longer, and in the early afternoon they practice their instruments. After taking a vacation from the trumpet, he is back, very much involved again. He is learning to play the first trumpet part from Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, and the theme music from Masterpiece Theatre. These two pieces were totally out of his reach when he quit, but he picked them up quickly the moment he returned.

Our remaining daughter, Heidi, is rather quiet, and I am waiting eagerly for the day when she feels she can blossom. She has studied two musical instruments: flute and viola. She is quite good on both, but she doesn't think so. Lately she said that she feels she doesn't get enough social interaction with others. I pointed out to her that social interaction should not be the primary goal in life; that there were more important considerations. She would not have the opportunity to enrich her social life until she got her priorities in order. She made a real effort in that direction, and, sure enough, the problem solved itself. She has now joined the string orchestra, and she loves it! It never ceases to amaze me how much some homeschooled kids seem to think they are socially inept, when I find by watching them that they aren't inept at all! I guess society's attitudes manage to filter down no matter what.

Philip developed an interest in astronomy and space exploration from our trips to the planetarium. I hunted up all the books I can find, and he has been systematically polishing them off. Occasionally we talk about it. He wants to go to space camp, but I don't know if we will be able to afford it before he becomes too old. This is another example of the kind of ageism that really makes me angry. He needs another couple of years to develop to take maximum advantage of the program, but that will be denied him. Ultimately, he wants to have a career somewhere in this area.

Victor, our youngest, intends to become an architect. He began to construct little architectural models out of old cardboard. He is very creative! He likes to design churches which have a triangular motif. We talked about the Trinity, and I said that I figured his buildings were a good way to symbolize that. He hadn't thought of that at all! When I began to give him books on architecture, he first read everything he could about Frank Lloyd Wright, and then a book on the history of architecture. I explained the features of Greek, Roman, and Gothic architecture. He then began to read about high tech architecture. I told him about being fascinated with high tech architecture when I was younger. We talked about high tech architecture not being very compatible with environmental concerns, and discussed ways in which this might be remedied. I explained that the architect's work is determined in part by such practical considerations and that an architect is also an engineer.

Victor also continues to improve on the guitar. Last spring played in a citywide festival. He played a piece that the fellow who got to play in the master class had played only three months before. The other fellow has been studying for four years, to Victor's 2 1/2. This makes Victor one of the best classical guitar players of his age in the city. Lately, he has learned to play flamenco style, and has already learned two pieces. I have been encouraging him to devote at least part of his life to guitar, and explained he can do that alongside architecture if he wants to.

A couple of times the kids performed at the street fair. Each time, they collectively earned $60 to $70; thus it provided them with a little spending money for Christmas. Unfortunately, kids who look fully grown don't get compensated nearly as well as the younger ones. This year, we asked if our youngest could play in front of a local music store. Not only were they interested in doing this, but they also encouraged him to come and play on Saturday nights, and told him that a local bookstore is hiring musicians at $10 an hour. Of course, we will investigate.

One of the family projects is to build our own house. At this point everyone has had a hand in it. We are so anxious to move in. It has taken us ten years. We are the talk of the building codes department in our county for the length of our project!

Not long ago, at a cactus club meeting, a member came over and gave me three club magazines from Belgium, in Flemish. They were very interesting, and I asked her why she had chosen to give them to me, and she said that she had heard talk that I would be interested. She promised to lend me her entire collection if I was interested. Of course, I was. I took the three home with me, and have translated one, and part of another. This was my introduction to Flemish, which is a dialect of Dutch, so consequently, I can also now read Dutch. This homeschooling mom is continuing her education! Whether it is the result of homeschooling or whether I would have eventually done it anyway I can't say. To bring you up to date, I have studied law and mastered it to the degree I can and have conducted my own court cases from start to finish, including the appellate process. I have learned to read eleven languages other than English. I have learned several new crafts. I have significantly improved my skills on the organ, learned to play the recorder and ocarina, and am currently teaching myself to play classical guitar. I have developed much knowledge and understanding in a lot of skills involved in natural living and homesteading. And I am currently writing a book on the uses of desert plants, including which ones are edible, which are used for medicine, and how they are used, and which ones are used for construction, clothing, dyes, and other household uses. I like the way Tom describes me. He calls me a "knowledge packrat".

Now for some philosophical musings.

I find I feel defensive about my role as teacher. A local bookstore offers a discount to teachers. For a long time, I did not even want to ask how to qualify, because I didn't want them asking me a lot of personal questions. Eventually, I learned that all I had to do to get it was to tell them that I was qualified for it. But they only give the discount on items they feel will be used in the classroom. If you do things differently, they want to know how you do them and why. I don't think that they are aware of homeschooling. I think they would figure that if it is only for the use of "your own" children, it isn't valid. I wonder how universal this attitude is. The way I see it, a homeschooling parent is a teacher (without all the negative connotations, mind you!), and entitled to all the perks pertaining thereto. I think we need to claim them.

I responded to a couple of things Growing Without Schooling readers said about race. Allen and Ken are adopted, and both of them had a black father and a white mother. We have always enriched our lives with other cultures. We did a lot of folk dancing for awhile. We also eat a lot of ethnic food. The kids have done nearly all the cooking for many years. We often work with folks of other races. In particular, their music teachers and wives have been of varied background, including three whites, two blacks, a Hispanic, and a Chinese. The orchestras they have participated in have all been fully racially integrated.

We have met virtually no prejudice of any kind. For the first decade of their lives, the two boys were not aware of any significance to their difference in appearance, except for the teasing about the curly hair I mentioned. All of us have been accepted. When the two boys became older, we had to explain prejudice to them. It wasn't easy. I told Allen that society would consider him black, and he went through a period of time when he refused to admit he wasn't "white". He didn't want to identify with ghetto black culture. I explained that not all black people live that way. Later, as we were able to find black friends, he was able to see for himself. He has now come to terms with it. Some people believe that children who are transracially adopted should be immersed in "their own" culture. I don't agree because many black families teach their children how to defer to white people to stay out of trouble. White people react accordingly. Our experience is that a person who is raised to act as an equal usually gets treated like one. If raising a person in the dominant culture, and teaching him to "visit" the culture of his "racial background", will make it easier to function in the dominant culture, it seems worthwhile. And it is not so strange to "visit" one's own culture, after all. I am nearly half German, but I wasn't raised in the German culture. I identify with it, but I came to it as a "visitor", and had to learn German as an adult. I think we all make choices as parents, and this means rejecting other choices. It is always a tradeoff. To sit in judgment over others because they didn't raise their children the way I raised mine, or the way it "spozed to be", just isn't in my vocabulary. I would like to see everyone have the opportunity to become a Christian, but even that is an individual choice; you can't force anyone to do that. The only thing that bothers me is when parents teach their children to hate or ignore God, especially when they claim to believe everyone should choose for himself. Somehow that seems contradictory and hypocritical.

At the Jazz Sundae performance, to my chagrin, the director urged the audience to vote for funding for the school system's arts program next time. I guess he didn't get our message, which was that we should be establishing alternatives to the schools. We had successfully shown it could be done. If the members of a community would spend one night a week doing something significant with children, we could establish some very real alternatives for the kids, and wean our society of its dependence on stultifying institutions. Some day I hope to organize and fund some real alternatives. Offering classroom facilities for groups like the jazz band, recruiting adults, the return of apprenticeships, are all in the idea bin. People should learn from folks who do it for a living. I would like to see arts, science, and engineering apprenticeships. I would like to see some children use the community as a classroom. I have had to fight for the right of my own children to be able to take advantage of these resources, and I have lost more often than not. People find it quite acceptable to put kids in a barren classroom with all the books virtually inaccessible in another part of the building, and no other kinds of materials at all! We fail to discipline our children enough so that they are a pleasure to have around. School is actually intermittent involuntary incarceration for the crime of being young. We send our children a subtle message that they might as well not bother to act mature; we won't let them into our world regardless.

Thinking back to my remarks about Ken putting down the trumpet for awhile, then picking it up only to show an instantaneous and startling improvement, something was growing and connecting in the meantime. This is common in self-directed people. The key to academic achievement is to work with a child's learning patterns. This flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but I have just seen too much success in my own children ever to doubt it again. There are more important traits than early achievement. These include overall achievement, and motivation to work hard. It takes a parent who is in tune with his children to encourage this. Teachers do not have the time to be that observant of 15-35 children. Human mothers don't have litters for a reason! Parents must teach children to take self-responsibility seriously. Forces in children's lives discourage these attitudes. School is one of the worst offenders. I tell my children what will be required of them, and that the buck stops with them. If they have not studied for a number of months, I remind them. Once they have a life's goal, the problem resolves itself, and they really apply themselves. I then make it my business to provide the means to implement it, and tell them what they have to learn for that field.

What makes homeschooling so special is that it puts children back where they belong: in the family. I hope that more and more parents realize that homeschooling is not setting up a miniature classroom in the living room, and putting kids through the same things they were trying to escape. Schools fail for a reason. If some people want to duplicate school, they have that right, but I hope that the number who do it that way will diminish considerably. Doing it the way we do calls for a heavy commitment, some heavy duty thinking and research, innovation, and self-confidence. On the other hand, I believe children left to themselves grow like weeds, rather than flowers, but we can only harvest their good tendencies if we are willing to be flexible and leave some of the important decisions up to them. I don't recommend letting a child teach himself how to read, because that is like asking him to pull himself up by his bootstraps. But once he has learned to read, there is so much you can turn over to him. We taught each of our kids to read, although we taught the first five early and the last two late. I don't really believe that children generally succeed in teaching themselves to read. I suspect that some parents, eager to gain the praises of others with the Holt philosophy, downplay their involvement. Regardless, not all ways to learn to read are a good idea. The primary reason for teaching phonics is not to teach a child to read, but rather, to teach him that the world is an orderly place, and that looking for the order and the rules is profitable. We need more thinkers and less rote performers. Rote look-say memorization of reading vocabulary teaches people to be rote performers, and in my opinion, flies in the face of the Holt philosophy, which emphasizes trying to develop the child's thinking and critical capacities. Very few children will intuit phonics without exposure to it. I call for a little moderation. The extreme position that all children should be allowed to be the sole arbiter of their learning without guidance flies in the face of reality. Children have parents for a reason! If the parent finds learning truly delightful, he is going to want to share, which means initiating some paths of learning. And as they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and we have raised seven children of whom I am very proud!

Many parents try to structure the time of the children, which is what making a miniature classroom in the living room is all about. Following the Montessori philosophy, we structured the space. Our space includes our extensive library, the records and CD's, the art supplies, building sets, jigsaw puzzles, games, animals, and 20 acres of virgin desert. Not everyone can afford to provide these things, but there are many alternatives that people can afford, like the public library, the park, the art museum, and so forth. And so much can be scrounged at garage and library sales on a limited budget. Homeschooling is a laboratory in ferment. People need to become more aware of the tools of the homeschool trade. We must provide them, including a good many things that don't look educational to the uninitiated. Our younger kids did a lot of workbooks for awhile. But they are moving more and more toward designing their own curriculum.

Allen's musical achievements have been phenomenal. We need to realize that only a homeschooler would have the time to devote to practice and study that he had. The advantages of homeschooling show up in other ways. Unfortunately, one of the biggest problems in youth orchestras has been that the discipline that should be imposed on the older youngsters in the program falters badly. Notice I said "imposed". People don't realize that the problems are largely a result of the stultifying effect of schools. Even parents are now products of the schools, so they don't know any better, and they contribute to the lack of discipline in their children unwittingly. Some people think that the way to supply music to children is to support fine arts programs in the schools. It doesn't dawn on people that if this were not available, another way would be found. One of the biggest problems we face in preparing Allen for his career is the fear that he won't be accepted into the conservatory of his choice because he was homeschooled.

We discovered that so many wonderful musical moments took place at the kids' music lessons, never to be recaptured. We started recording their lessons and performances on a regular basis about a year ago. I have hours and hours of wonderful material. Once a person who saw the kids' art folios remarked on how rich I am. Regardless of any other rewards, the fact that I made this effort will leave a rich legacy for my descendants. How I wish my mother had been willing to put aside her prejudices for a Good Housekeeping home and saved some of the things I made. Nearly all of my personal riches are things I sneaked past her and saved myself.

I like to speak of the mother-years of experience I have as an educator. To get this figure, I add the children's ages. I have 117 mother-years of experience. After all these years, I believe firmly in setting up some basic parameters, which is to say, those skills that I expect each child to master by the time he leaves home. For us, it is to be able to read fluently and write well, to read music, type, swim, draw, do research in the library, handle animals, build a home, practice natural healing methods and homesteading skills, lead another person to Jesus, use a computer, to have an understanding of science, history, and economics, to be able to write a simple court document, and to study a foreign language. But the timetable and methods for accomplishing this must be the child's. They know we expect them to become educated; they also know that it is up to them to find a life's work and to become excellent at it.

Socialization seems to be the big bugaboo with a lot of people. Some communities have social organizations for homeschooled kids. We have one, made up mostly of Holt disciples. It is a good group, but there are not many older kids in the group. Right now we are too busy to be involved.

A word about testing: I'm agin it. One reason is that the tests are culturally, politically, and religiously biased, against our family's point of view. Another is that it is designed to test children who have been force-fed the state-mandated curriculum. The state has arrogated to itself the right to dictate the timetable and methodology of education. This is not the state's prerogative; God gave that paramount duty to parents. If the state wants to require that children demonstrate that they know how to read at some point (the parents should decide when), I have no problem with that. Other than that, the state has no compelling interest as far as I am concerned. I also believe the government has no business supporting people who won't work, and I think one of the primary reasons the government gets away with meddling so much in homeschooling families is that they claim they think they will be picking up the tab if the children cannot be self-supporting. I don't think most homeschoolers realize that we won't really be free of government entanglement with our kids as long as there are massive public welfare schemes in place. The fact is, the government thinks it has the right to meddle. Public welfare schemes meddle with the duties of churches and synagogues to provide for the needy. Public schools meddle with the paramount duties of parents. The philosophy is the same.

But the major consideration is that is that the public schools themselves rake in a tremendous amount of taxpayer money. Since we are compelled to pay for these schools, they are accountable to no-one, so it is not at all astonishing that they pay absolutely no attention to the beliefs of the family, or the needs of children. Rather, there is great incentive to keep children from learning too much, because that would enable them to leave school sooner and cost a lot of teachers their jobs.

That's all, folks! I bid you peace.

Growing Without Schooling
2269 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02140