Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Teaching My Own: Overturning The Furniture

Over the years, I've read several hundred books on the subject of children and education. This is my stack of tried-and-true keepers; the handful of books that have most profoundly shaped and influenced me, the ideas that have brought the most value to my own journey as a homeschooling parent. I recommend them all.

But in the beginning, I suggest you read Teach Your Own by John Holt. It lit me on fire.

When I first heard about the concept of homeschooling, I thought it was an awful idea. I didn't know very much about it, but I assumed it was a fearful response to the bright and exciting challenges of learning at school; a coward's way of sheltering and overprotecting children by keeping them at home, lashed to the kitchen table, constantly under their mother's control.

On that day when a copy of Teach Your Own fell off the library shelf and into my open hand, I had no idea how my shallow preconceptions were about to be turned upside down and inside out. 

I remember that I started in on the book right away, reading it in stolen moments during the course of the day, as bookish mothers of young children often do. I remember walking around the house with the book in my hands, my finger between the pages to mark my place while I poured little cups of juice and helped build block towers. I remember reading it as I cooked dinner, holding it up with one hand as I stirred a pot with the other. And I remember that by the end of the evening, I had hungrily swallowed up most of the book, and passages like these were ringing in my ears.

* * * * *

"What makes people smart, curious, alert, observant, competent, confident, resourceful, persistent - in the broadest and best sense, intelligent- is not having access to more and more learning places, resources, and specialists, but being able in their lives to do a wide variety of interesting things that matter, things that challenge their ingenuity, skill, and judgement, and that make an obvious difference in their lives and the lives of people around them."

"Of course, a child may not know what he may need to know in ten years (who does?), but he knows, and much better than anyone else, what he wants and needs to know right now, what his mind is ready and hungry for. If we help him, or just allow him, to learn that, he will remember it, use it, build on it. If we try to make him learn something else, that we think is more important, the chances are that he won't learn it, or will learn very little of it, that he will soon forget most of what he learned, and what is worst of all, will before long lose most of his appetite for learning anything."

"I have used the words "home schooling" to describe the process by which children grow and learn in the world without going, or going very much, to schools, because those words are familiar and quickly understood. But in one very important sense they are misleading. What is most important and valuable about the home as a base for children's growth in the world is not that it is a better school than the schools but that it isn't a school at all. "

"What children need is not new and better curricula but access to more and more of the real world; plenty of time and space to think over their experiences, and to use fantasy and play to make meaning out of them; and advice, road maps, guidebooks, to make it easier for them to get where they want to go (not where we think they ought to go), and to find out what they want to find out."

"About reading, children learn something much more difficult than reading without instruction - namely, to speak and understand their native language. I do not think they would or could learn it if they were instructed. I think reading instruction is the enemy of reading. "

* * * * * 

Questions began to overturn the furniture in my neatly ordered mind:
  • Was it possible that rather than serving as a knowledge-stimulating petri dish, a traditional school classroom actually stifles a child's ability to learn?
  • Is there a difference between learning specific stuff, and learning how to learn?
  • Could it be true that going to school is not the same as going out into the real world? If school isn't the real world, then what is it?
  • What is the relationship between learning and play? Can learning be fun? Can play actually be legitimate learning?
  • If I had been guiding my children's natural abilities to grow and learn during the all-important first few years of their lives, why did I think that it was necessary at age five to hand them over to institutionalized professionals?

* * * * *

My response to these questions was two-fold:

I kept reading, voraciously, on the topics of children, education, and homeschooling. I read everything I could find by John Holt, then stretched out into other authors and works cited in his books. Eventually, I built my own collection of the best books I read, which I still own and treasure to this day. 

I began to sort through the memories of my education to see if Holt's outrageous claims might hold any truth in my own life. 


  1. Checking some books out right now.

    1. Fun! I definitely prefer a book that explains the 'why' rather than the 'how to' of homeschooling. Hope you enjoy.


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