Sunday, November 14, 2010

Book Review: Love in a Time of Homeschooling, by Laura Brodie

Okay. It's now been something like 2 months since I finished reading this book. I started this post back in September, but then I shelved it and didn't finish up before I had to return the book to the library, so this may not be as thorough or detailed as I might otherwise have done. I'd like to write at least something about the book, however, so here goes. ;)

Laura Brodie is an English Lit professor at Washington and Lee University, here in Virginia. When her eldest daughter, Julia, started having pretty major trouble with school in the 4th grade, Brodie decided to give her daughter a "sabbatical year" before middle school. She pulled her out for 5th grade and embarked on a short-term homeschooling endeavor. And of course, after it was all said and done, she wrote a book about the experience.

Love in a Time of Homeschooling is a rather interesting read, I thought. Since the author lives here in VA, there were some interesting (and scary) insights into the state educational system.
In Virginia, third grade marks the onset of the annual standardized tests, something all states employ, but some are more zealous than others when it comes to dictating the schools' test-driven curriculum. In the 1990s, Virginia instituted a new curriculum called the Standards of Learning, or SOLs -- an appropriate acronym, since most parents and teachers I've met seem to feel that when it comes to the SOLs, we are all "shit out of luck." As one high-school teacher put it, "The SOLs are the monster that is devouring our schools."
"Teaching to the test" has obviously become a big problem across the country over the past couple of decades, but some of the illustrations in this book were especially shudder-worthy.
School districts throughout Virginia were issuing flash cards from a private company that gave its package the silly title "Race for the Governor's Mansion." Trying to be a dutiful parent, I quizzed Julia on the cards and was dismayed by their poor quality.

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are ____________ that all Americans enjoy, one flash card read. "Inalienable rights," Julia responded, repeating Jefferson's words from the Declaration of Independence. I flipped the card over. Privileges, it read. How ridiculous, I thought, to have the children memorize an arbitrary word pulled out of a hat.

In fact, the flash cards would get worse in upcoming years, containing numerous errors. "What ancient cities farmed on hillsides?" Greece and Rome. "What country was home to several great empires?" Africa.

(That's all I'd written before. Continuing on now, from memory.)

General impressions of the book, two-ish months later - I'd never really put a lot of thought into the notion of short-term homeschooling. (My parents did consider pulling me out of public school for 7th and 8th grade, but I think even then part of me assumed that barriers to re-entry would be pretty great. Not so much that I'd have been academically unprepared to return to traditional schooling, but more that I'd have a difficult time readjusting to the tedium and busywork.) So it was interesting to read about this plan to homeschool for just one year, and no more. Seems like there were some pros and cons to this approach. Among the most obvious benefits, I'd say, was the fact that the mom was able to keep her regular teaching job (she scaled back classroom time for that one year and then went back to a fuller schedule afterward). Also, they were able to take maybe a more relaxed approach, looking at it as a "sabbatical year," which seemed to be best suited to this particular girl. The flip side of that, however, is that it took them a little while to find a rhythm and work out the best ways to go about meeting their educational goals. By the time they had sort of optimized their methods, the year was mostly over.

Thinking more broadly about homeschooling, there are some very attractive aspects. The freedom to get out and explore things in a more practical way than is allowed by traditional schooling sounds really great. It would be easy to get caught up in the fantasy, as the author did early on, of having intellectual and educational conversations while touring historic monuments or going for walks outside or kicking around a soccer ball. Of course, then you have the inevitable reality checks - parent/child tension, difficulties of staying on task and/or meeting goals, and the fact that some things you kind of just have to learn by rote *cough*math*cough*.

Ultimately, the book was an interesting read on a topic I find fairly intriguing. I think I'm definitely open to the idea of teaching one or both of our kids at home - either short-term or long-term - if public school doesn't work out for them. However, I think we'd be fools not to give traditional education a fair shake first. ;) Homeschooling seems like it could be great in a lot of ways, but also not super easy to do really, really well. I think a bigger takeaway message is that there is so much you can teach your kids outside of school, a lot of learning that can easily be integrated into everyday life. And it's silly not to take as much advantage of those opportunities as you possibly can.


Anonymous said...

I used to wish for year round school with 3 weeks off at the end of every period. I imagined 3 weeks to travel, and coordinate enrichment activities. Not very feasible when you have to mesh everyone's schedules to accomplish this! Free time to explore interests is undervalued in our culture. You can see the impact of this in the arts. Sounds like an interesting book.

Gramma Carrie Ann

Anonymous said...

Something like that would be great. Probably also lessen the various deleterious impacts of social promotion.