by Kim Cameron-Smith
As our children approach school age we begin to think about schooling for them, frequently not without some anxiety. It’s certainly not a decision to be taken lightly. Part of what gives children dignity is their vast potential for growth and learning. In giving life, we as parents have a duty to ensure our children are prepared to live a “fully human life”. Pope John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, Article 36. We must investigate our choices and pray for discernment, taking into account our child’s personality and our own goals for education.
In the U.S., we have two basic options for schooling our children: homeschooling and traditional on-site classroom placement (both public and private). Whatever we decide, we can never forget that we are our children’s first educator. That doesn’t mean we’re their only educator, but we’re the “first and foremost educators” of our children. Pope John Paul II, Letter to Families, 16. Thus, the state cannot prevent us from directing our children’s education if we choose to homeschool and it cannot exclude us from the education of our children if we send them to school in an institutional setting. As parents, we have the right and duty to be interested participants in our children’s education at every level no matter the placement we choose.
Here we’ll explore both homeschooling and away schooling, then I’ll introduce the most popular learning methods and approaches, a topic applicable to both homeschooling and away-schooling families.
1. CHOOSING HOMESCHOOLING
Let me say right off the bat that I’m a homeschooling mom. I believe passionately in the benefits of home-based education not only for the student, but for the entire family — including Mom and Dad. I began homeschooling my oldest son when he was about to enter kindergarten. We thought we would try it for a year or two until we found an appropriate school for Aidan, but we loved it so much we’ve never looked back. That was nearly 10 years ago. I made the choice primarily for academic reasons – I had little faith in our local public school district and we couldn’t afford a good private school. However, I soon discovered that the best thing about homeschooling had nothing to do with the quality of the education I was providing. The greatest benefit is the quality of life we enjoy as a family.
There are so many things I appreciate about our homeschooling lifestyle it’s hard to narrow it down, but here are a few of them:
- I love that my children are accustomed to and enjoy one another’s company.
- I love that when my children disagree or argue, I have the time to guide them in how to handle these differences with equity and love.
- I love the way our family has grown in faith together, exploring the Sacraments, popular devotionals, and liturgical traditions.
- I love that my kids can be different and still feel successful. My Dominic wouldn’t fare well in a traditional setting, yet he comes to his studies with enthusiasm and a sense of pride.
- I love that my kids have lots of free time to slop around in the mud, read books, think big thoughts, stare at bugs, and live the kind of life all kids deserve.
Homeschooling is really a natural extension of our attached lifestyle. We play together, work together, learn together, and those 3 activities aren’t always separated in our day. I love that!
Can You Really Do It?
Many parents wonder whether homeschooling is legal and whether they are qualified to instruct their children. First, homeschooling is legal in all 50 states. How you go about doing it legally varies by state. Compulsory education laws exist in all states, but exemptions exist that permit both private schooling and homeschooling.
Second, parents are quite capable of teaching their own children, and in fact home-based education was the norm in our own country until the early 20th century. Many great historical figures were home educated, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. Remember that you are not starting from scratch. You have many resources available to you in teaching the children. Just in the ten years I’ve homeschooled, the resources available to homeschooling parents has exploded.
The hardest thing is to decide what your educational philosophy is – what your goals are and what you believe about the learner. Once you decide that, there’s a curriculum available to you. Some of them are out of the box, ready to go. Others provide reading lists. There are even on-line schools that oversee the student’s studies. I have personally come to relish my annual curriculum planning sessions. It’s like play. I enjoy visiting curriculum fairs at homeschooling conferences, swapping books with moms at my park day, exploring educational websites, and reading books on learning and teaching pedagogy. With all my kids to think about, I’m like a great seamstress, stitching together a quilt of learning and love.
Remember that you don’t have to be an uber-educated genius to teach your kids. Many parents armed with only a high school diploma successfully homeschool their children. You have the most important quality necessary to communicate a passion for ideas: love. Sound corny? Well, maybe, but it’s also so true.
You love that child of yours more than any classroom teacher ever can; you recognize his talents, his struggles, and his passions. You are motivated to do what is best for your dear child. Your love is powerful. As you learn together cuddled on a couch or sitting next to one another at the kitchen table, you pass on your enthusiasm and commitment to your children. Pope John Paul II emphasizes this qualification of love, unique to parents, in directing the education of their children:
In addition to these characteristics, it cannot be forgotten that the most basic element, so basic that it qualifies the educational role of parents, is parental love, which finds fulfillment in the task of education as it completes and perfects its service of life: as well as being a source, the parents’ love is also the animating principle and therefore the norm inspiring and guiding all concrete educational activity, enriching it with the values of kindness, constancy, goodness, service, disinterestedness and self-sacrifice that are the most precious fruit of love. Familiaris Consortio
Remember, too, that as children get older, they become increasingly independent. As they approach 5th or 6th grade, homeschooled students begin to take ownership of their studies. They are capable of longer periods of independent learning while Mom (or Dad) focuses on younger ones. By high school, parents tend to coordinate and oversee the high schooler’s studies, but much of the actual teaching can be done by mentors, tutors, on-line teachers, or community college teachers.
You don’t have to go it alone. If you’re considering homeschooling, do your homework and pray for guidance. Seek the advice of experienced homeschoolers and your priest or spiritual director. Your state likely has an organized homeschooling support group in addition to more local groups, so check them out. Here are just a few books to get you started if you’re considering home education:
The First Year of Homeschooling Your Child (Linda Dobson). This book is a basic guide to getting started in homeschooling — the why and how of that first year.
Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense (David Guterson). Written by a homeschooling father and teacher (and celebrated author of Snow Falling on Cedars). This book is quite powerful. It was hard to find for a few years, so snap it up while you can!
Catholic Education: Homeward Bound (Kimberly Hahn and Mary Hasson).
2. CHOOSING AWAY SCHOOLING
While I enjoy homeschooling my own children, homeschooling isn’t always an option for all families. In fact, for some families, homeschooling may be the wrong choice. These families seek out the best placement for their children in traditional brick-and-mortar schools, whether at a Catholic school, public school, or non-sectarian private school.
Of course, ideally families will find the perfect (and affordable) Catholic school in their area, where Catholic values and ideals are taught and encouraged. At a good Catholic school, our children can learn about the central importance of the Eucharist, about Catholic doctrine, and the joys of Catholic culture. We have to be discerning though. Some parochial schools have watered down our faith in order to be more acceptable to a wider range of parents. So make sure you visit classrooms and ask teachers questions about the school’s fidelity to the Magisterium.
Some families will need to look into their local public schools or non-Catholic private schools. The quality of such programs varies drastically, as we all know. If our only option is a program that isn’t ideal, we can always supplement our children’s education. These parents will benefit from many of the same resources as homeschooling families. We call this “after-schooling”.
I’ve known many parents who have put together an extraordinary learning life for their children by combining what’s available to them at their free public school with after schooling experiences that they’ve created themselves. This afterschooling isn’t about “after school enrichment programs” where Mom drives the child from school to another building where the child participates in some other adult-led program with yet another group of kids. It involves the parents and the children discovering something together. It perhaps involves Mom and the kids gardening together and charting their progress, making their way through a lavishly illustrated children’s version of the Aeneid, or Dad encouraging a young artist who is creating his own comic book series. The possibilities are endless!
Guarding Their Hearts
The Church encourages us to have an ongoing relationship with our children’s teachers and the school administration:
But corresponding to their right, parents have a serious duty to commit themselves totally to a cordial and active relationship with the teachers and the school authorities. Familiaris Consortio, 40
This is wise advice! The teachers I know tell me how much they appreciate parents who go the extra step to get to know school personnel. Volunteer in your child’s classroom and volunteer for committees. If appropriate, invite you child’s teacher over for dinner! Such involvement also creates a connection with your child while she’s at school.
A parent’s active participation in her child’s school life will also help the parent gain awareness of what’s being taught at the school. This is so important nowadays. If a school attempts or begins to teach ideas or to expect things from our children that conflict with our Faith, we really have to speak up no matter how unpopular our views might be. I know it’s hard. I don’t personally like complaining or confrontation, but it’s worth it in this case. We are talking about our the souls of our children! If our complaints fall on deaf ears, we can join with other like-minded families with the support of the Church in communicating our protest:
If ideologies opposed to the Christian faith are taught in the schools, the family must join with other families, if possible through family associations, and with all its strength and with wisdom help the young not to depart from the faith. In this case the family needs special assistance from pastors of souls, who must never forget that parents have the inviolable right to entrust their children to the ecclesial community. Familiaris Consortio
Guarding Our Connection
A few tips for protecting the parent-child connection when our kids attend an away-school:
Avoid overscheduling: One of the best things we can do to maintain family connection is to avoid overscheduling outside of school. Make certain family times together are sacrosanct, especially dinners and any special family nights. As the kids get into the teen years, these lines become more difficult to maintain, but when the children are young it’s really better for them and for the whole family that we avoid running in 50 different directions after school. Parents are feeling increasingly pressured to turn their children into super-achievers to the point that kids have little free time outside of school hours. You can set rules about outside activities – one or two activities per child.
Play together: Play with the kids after school and on the weekends!! This can be planned play, like game nights or a trip to a reserve to stargaze, or it might be completely spontaneous, like finding bugs and watching them until it’s time for dessert, making up jokes, wrestling, or acting plain goofy.
Lawrence Cohen, in his book Playful Parenting, discusses the amazing benefits for children when their parents are playful with them. By “playful” Cohen isn’t just talking about the act of playing; he’s also talking about having a playful, light demeanor. Your state of being is as important as your acts of doing. A playful demeanor is especially important if a child has had a hard day at school (which they often won’t communicate!); playful parents tend to draw their children out of emotional isolation.
Nurture your family culture: What does your family enjoy doing together? What values do you share? Recognizing that they are part of a shared family mission grounds children and helps them to feel secure. Our Catholic faith is the foundation of any family cultural identity. Attending Mass together, setting aside Sunday as a day of rest, exploring Saints days and devotionals, and praying together every day are just some of the steps we can take to becoming a community of love.
3. EDUCATIONAL METHODS AND APPROACHES
Whether you decide to homeschool or place your child in a traditional school setting, it’s useful to have some idea of the theories behind different educational methods. Underlying any approach are assumptions about the nature of the learner and the appropriate goals for that learner, so even if you like the packaging — the books, classrooms, pretty school supplies — it’s important to pay attention to these assumptions as well. With the following chart, you can get a snapshot of the most commonly implemented educational approaches. All may be adapted to a Catholic learning experience: Educational Methods and Teaching Styles
Does all this information make you anxious? The good news is that no matter the choice you make, it need not be permanent. Make decisions as you go along, step by step, and rest in the arms of your loving Father who will never lead you astray. Enjoy sharing this next stage with your growing child!
Photo credit: Chris Elwell (photos.com)