Monday, March 18, 2013

The School of Life

Even though my son is only three, I’m already thinking about school for him. He has a November birthday, which means he won’t be able to start kindergarten until he’s nearly 6, and since he is exceptionally tall for his age (he’s already the size of the average six-year-old), he’ll look pretty out of place. Not to mention that he already knows his letters and is able to spell out words, and can even sound out and read a few simple words like “on” and “off” and “go,” so by the time he starts public kindergarten he’ll probably be reading at about a 2nd or 3rd grade level. So my husband and I have agreed that home schooling him for a few years might be the best option.

Because I am a researcher by nature, I have already spent hours and hours online looking into homeschooling. What curricula are available, what local homeschooling groups we might be able to join, what our state requires for subjects and testing, etc. And what surprised me most during my research was how broad the parameters are for homeschooling subjects. Required subjects in my state are “orthography, reading, writing, the English language and grammar, geography, arithmetic, drawing, music, the history and constitution of the United States, the duties of citizenship, health education, physical education and good behavior." There are no other specific requirements for which subjects must be taught in any given year, or what aspects of those subjects must be taught. And it occurred to me that I am already teaching many of those subjects every day!

Here is an example of the subjects that I teach as part of everyday life during a typical day in our house:

Orthography (or, as most of us would call it, “spelling”): My son spells every word he sees all day long. We talk about how some letters can make different sounds (hard and soft G, long and short vowels) and how some sounds can be made by more than one letter (C and K, C and S, G and J). We list words that start with particular letters. I also give him credit for self-study for waking up in the morning and immediately reciting, “R-Y-A-N spells ‘Ryan’!” over and over until breakfast.  

Reading: Both during the day and at bedtime, we sit down and read books together, including classic literature such as “Make Way for Ducklings” and “Green Eggs and Ham.”

Writing: We color with crayons and he practices tracing over his name where I write it on his paper.

English language and grammar: We read books together and learn new vocabulary words. His vocabulary already includes words like, “humongous,” “stabilizer,” “genius,” and “paleontologist.” We talk about opposites: big and small, wet and dry, tall and short. We practice thinking of rhyming words: cat and hat, bug and rug, hot and pot. I also correct his grammar on a regular basis when he says things like, “We goed to the store,” or “I throwed the ball.” I encourage him to tell me stories. Sometimes they even have a somewhat logical plot.

Geography: I tell him the name of our street, our city, our state, and our country. We talk about different countries, and learn that kangaroos live in a country called Australia, tigers live in jungles in India, his cousins live in a country called France, and that people speak Spanish in the country called Mexico. I’m setting up the framework for basic cartography by teaching him right and left and asking him which way we go to get to the store, or to church, or to the playground, or to his grandparents’ house. (This is also helpful to me personally because I’m awful with directions and am sure I will be able to use his navigational assistance in the future.) The GPS in the car is a great source of fascination to him so we even talk about directions like east, west, north, and south, and how a map is a picture of part of the earth.

Arithmetic: My son is great at numbers and counting, so we’re already working on rudimentary addition and subtraction. We play the “what’s one more than…” game, we count how many crayons are in the box, we play the card game “War” to practice what number is bigger and what number is smaller. We practice counting by ones, twos, fives, and tens. We even do word problems like, “You have five goldfish crackers; how many will you have if you give two to your sister?” We learn geometry by talking about shapes, and how many sides and angles various figures have. We learn to identify a circle, triangle, square, diamond, rectangle, trapezoid, rhombus, pentagon, hexagon, and octagon. (Sorry, heptagon.)

Drawing: Construction paper and crayons are a regular part of our day. When the weather is nice, so is sidewalk chalk. It’s sometimes mere scribbling, but more and more often he’ll tell me that he’s drawing a robot, or a tree, or a rocket. And occasionally, I’ll even recognize a drawing of a human figure or a spider with being told!

Music: He can sing “Peter Peter Penguin,” “Little Boy Blue,” “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” “Happy Birthday,” "K-K-K-Katy," "Jesus Loves Me," and the chorus of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (which happened to be playing on the radio when we were on our way to the hospital for his birth, so that’s “his” song). He listens to the children’s CDs “Mr. Bach Comes to Call,” and “Beethoven Lives Upstairs” and recognizes several Beethoven pieces when his father plays them on the piano. We play the piano together (although it’s more John Cage than Beethoven). He strums the guitar. We talk about how sheet music tells you which notes to play on both instruments.

American history: My husband and I have taken him to the reenactment of the Battle of Lexington. We talk about how people used to live a long time ago, how they didn’t have bathrooms inside the house and how they rode in horse-drawn carriages and sleds instead of cars. I tell him about my childhood, and my parents’, and my grandparents’. I tell him that my grandmother's grandfather's great-grandfather sailed to America on a ship called the Mayflower.

For now, we’re skipping the US Constitution and the duties of citizenship. But we are learning about being a good neighbor by staying off other people’s lawns when we go for a walk and not crashing his tricycle into people’s cars, we bring him to the polls with us every time we vote, and he understands that his big sister is learning to be a soldier (she’s in the Army Reserves), so at least we’re setting the groundwork for the latter.

Health education: At meals, we discuss that it’s good for your body when you eat different kinds of foods, like milk, fruit, chicken, vegetables, and bread. I remind him that treats are something we only have every now and then. We talk about how germs make you sick and how washing your hands and getting shots help keep you healthy. We discuss how snot and poop take germs out of your body and why it’s so important to wash your hands extra carefully if you touch either of them. And that you should try really, REALLY hard not to touch either of them.

Physical education: We play basketball, football, and soccer, we run around the room for hours, we freestyle dance and do jumping jacks and somersaults. Since my husband is from a dance family, I’ve taught him a passé, an arabesque, and a shuffle. I tell him that exercise will help his body grow strong.

Good behavior: I teach him to say “thank you” when I bring him something and “please” when he asks for something. When we go out to dinner, I remind him to put his napkin in his lap, wipe his hands on his napkin and not his pants, not talk with his mouth full, put his fork on his plate rather than the table, use his quiet inside voice, and say “please” and “thank you” to the server. When we go to a playground or the church nursery, I remind him not to push other kids, even in fun, and to share the toys. I teach him to say, “Excuse me,” and then wait quietly if he wants to talk while his father and I are talking. We practice saying, "gesundheit" or "bless you" when someone sneezes and "excuse me" when we burp. I remind him that we try not to burp, and we try not to laugh hysterically when we do.

And over and above the required subjects, I teach other important subjects as well:

Biology: When we play with his stuffed animals, we talk about where each kind of animal lives and what kind of food they eat and what noises they make (he does a mean zebra imitation). We discuss poop. A lot. Dinosaur poop, elephant poop, worm poop, dog poop, people poop. He informs me that it comes out of the dinosaur’s/elephant’s/worm’s/dog’s/his bottom. I inform him that poop is what your body does to get rid of the parts of the food you eat that it can’t use. He is vastly more interested in the former fact than in the latter.

Home economics: He makes his own peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He helps me make cornbread, shepherd’s pie, and brownies. He counts and cracks the eggs in every recipe that requires them. We learn about measurements like cups and tablespoons. We learn to pack brown sugar, shake cornmeal, and leave flour fluffy. We learn to stay away from the hot stove and not to lick the electric mixer while it’s plugged in.

Physics: We learn that things bounce off other things, like balls off walls, toy trucks off other toy trucks, and stuffed animals off his little sister. We learn the word “ricochet” (and use it often). I tell him that gravity is why things hit the floor when you drop them. We talk about how gravity is weaker on the moon and non-existent in space. We learn about water displacement when he gets in the tub and the water level goes up.

Astronomy: We look at the moon and discuss how sometimes it is a circle, called a “full moon,” and sometimes it is a semicircle, called a “crescent moon.” We talk about why we don’t always see it in the daytime and why it isn’t always in the same place in the sky. We look at the stars and talk about constellations and how they make shapes. He knows that Mars is the red planet and that our planet is called Earth. We talk about the sun being a star.

Architecture: We build towers of blocks and talk about why they don't fall over as easily when we give them a bigger base and a smaller top. We talk about why we can make a taller tower if we make sure that the blocks are nice and straight. We discuss why the little pig’s house made of straw was so much easier for the big bad wolf to blow over than the little pig’s house made of bricks.

Meteorology: We look at the different shapes of clouds and try to guess which ones are full of rain. We talk about what causes lightning and why we don’t need to be afraid of thunderstorms.

Looking at this list makes me realize that homeschooling doesn’t have to be intimidating. A child’s curiosity about life is a natural basis for teaching. You’re just teaching about life, after all. And I know life! It’s one subject with which I have plenty of experience.


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