Homeschooling for Critical Consciousness

2014 812 nall 7Jeffrey Nall reads Think Fair Trade First to his daughter, Mimi’s pre-k co-op class at a local health food store. (Photo: April Nall)

Also see: Abandoning the K-12 School System: Listening to Our Children and Thinking for Ourselves

Why This Progressive Family Homeschools: Nurturing Creativity, Compassion and a Critical Consciousness

Announcing that you homeschool your children is like announcing your decision to major in the humanities, vote for the Green Party, have a homebirth, become an atheist, or stop eating animals. It usually elicits furrowed brows and a barrage of loaded questions steeped in stereotypes. What are you – a fundamentalist Christian who wants to prevent your child from learning about evolution? How will your children be prepared for life in the world? And aren’t you concerned they won’t be socially well-adjusted? Are you doing this to insulate your children from cultural diversity? How will your children learn without a formal education?

Still it’s perfectly reasonable for someone unfamiliar with homeschooling to ask: Why do you choose homeschool? My wife, April [1] and I were first driven away from conventional education institutions by the toxicity of the dominant education model, “Abandoning the School System.” Equally important, we embrace homeschooling as an evolving, everyday practice of honoring our children’s dignity, nurturing their natural intelligences and interests, fostering their critical consciousness, and living a just, civically-engaged life.

The Logistics

Homeschooling works for our family in a way it might not work for everyone. April and I are aware of the ways in which class, race, gender and other significant social categories significantly expand and/or limit one’s options. So it’s important to address what too many people avoid in virtually all segments of society: the logistics.

April and I have four children and live off a modest annual income under $30,000. April is presently a full-time student and breastfeeding mother to our youngest child. I am an adjunct professor teaching at least 11 classes throughout the year.

We homeschool our children to honor their dignity.

We are very busy and live on a carefully managed, shoe-string budget, but we have a few advantages. We live in a location that is relatively cheap. We have one another to rely on. I could not both teach and homeschool our children if I were the only parent in the household; and there’s no way April could do what she does as well as homeschool the children without my help. Even though we struggle with finances we are part of a network of family members who, despite their own economic distress, come to one another’s aid when needed. Finally, we have the advantage of a flexible schedule.

At a basic and personal level, we homeschool to foster familial bonds. Common sense dictates that siblings, particularly those of differing genders and ages, will inevitably become rivals or combatants. Freed of the age and gender segregation common to school settings, homeschooling has given our children the opportunity to get to know, play with and love one another. An important factor was our concerted effort to require that our children respect, care for and listen to their siblings. Today our oldest children, Charlotte and Julian, have been best friends for years.

Homeschooling for Dignity

We homeschool our children to honor their dignity. We do this by treating them as individuals who have unique learning styles, interests and natural aptitudes, rather than treating them as members of an age-based category. We allow them to develop their academic skills at a pace that is suited for their individual learning needs and propensities rather than forcing them into a “one-size-fits-all” system that fails to fit so many.

Homeschooling for dignity involves allowing our children a significant influence over what and how they are studying and how they will set out to engage in that study. Recent examples include our assigning Charlotte and Julian a research project to develop their writing and researching skills. I not only left the subject matter up to them, but also patiently worked with them to help identify their specific areas of interest and to develop research questions. Over the course of a month, they checked out about half-a-dozen books from the library, read them and took notes, further developed their topic, visited internet sources and took more notes, and eventually authored wonderful papers. It wasn’t an easy project, but the give and take of our homeschool environment resulted in a product that they are not only proud of, but also ultimately responsible for, and intrinsically interested in. And when they were done, they excitedly took up making elaborate powerpoints on their topics to present to extended family members. Taking meaningful, individuated consideration of each child’s interests and skillset allows us to more effectively aid them in developing fundamental skills, without turning the enterprise of learning into a competitive, soulless and dehumanizing endeavor.

Another reason we homeschool is because we want our children to recognize that living is learning: Opportunities to develop insights occur throughout everyday life, if we pay keen attention and live mindfully.

Whereas our older children attended pre-K programs, where they received significant help learning how to read, Mimi, age 5, has not. So it was a new and truly amazing experience to witness how she is learning to read at home and with minimal assistance from her parents. We make real effort to encourage and mentor her, and to provide her with developmentally-appropriate resources, like the Now I’m Reading book series. Yet Mimi has significantly been responsible for her own learning, asking for us to practice sight words and work with her on reading skills books. Rather than pressuring children to learn, our approach has been to surround them with resources and opportunities for learning. Equally influential, we educate our children by way of example: our children never go a day without seeing one of their parents with a nose in a book or writing or having prolonged conversation over coffee. And when their beloved aunt and uncle and grandparents visit, the engaging conversation and coffee is once more on display.

But homeschooling for our family isn’t just “school at home.” Scheduled learning activities comprise a trivial amount of our homeschooling day. Another reason we homeschool is because we want our children to recognize that living is learning: Opportunities to develop insights occur throughout everyday life, if we pay keen attention and live mindfully. As Ivan Illich wrote in Deschooling Society (1971), “Most learning happens casually, and even most intentional learning is not the result of programmed instruction. Normal children learn their first language casually, although faster if their parents pay attention to them.” [2] And so our children’s interdisciplinary education is meshed into our family life. They learn life skills, independence, responsibility and fairness in doing activities such as laundry, sweeping, mopping and caring for a younger sibling. They also learn about environmental stewardship and sustainability as they tend to the compost pile, recycling bins, pick up trash in a local nature preserve, or visit the Treasure Coast Reuse Center. Through cooking, playing board games and shopping at thrift stores they learn about planning and mathematical concepts; we do science by firing off a rocket powered by vinegar and baking soda, or watching and discussing a Bill Nye the Science Guy DVD. We develop language skills not only through writing assignments, but also through ongoing silly word play and silly song-making, and games like Scrabble, Madlibs and interactive online games.

Through homeschooling, our children are able to fully embrace their creative interests. On a regular basis they are able to delve into a variety of projects including writing stories, making comic books, drawing, painting, building Legos, and engaging in hours of imaginative play. In K-12 education, these aspects of human creativity are rarely (in practice) sufficiently honored; they are frequently underemphasized, if not deemed unimportant.

Our homeschooling allows us to support our children’s organic love of reading. As homeschoolers, our two older children have flourished as readers. Some days they only read 45 minutes; many others they read for three hours or more. Over the years, Julian has regularly devoured entire books in a day. His favorites have included most works by Roald Dahl to the popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. In July, Charlotte chose and read a 600-page novel, Eona, featuring a strong female protagonist who had to pass as a man to pursue her dreams. By simply providing her with ample time, Charlotte read the book, the second in a two-book series, in less than a week.

By homeschooling for critical consciousness, we enable our children to forge an authentic, humane sense-of-self.

We do not promote “speed-reading” novels; nor do we give rewards for numbers of books read. Our children’s serious commitment to reading is due to their interest in the books they read, not outside pressure. Following her older siblings’ lead, Mimi initiated our present tradition of reading books from the Who Was series prior to bed. So far, she’s chosen books on Jane Goodall, Sacajawea, Walt Disney, and now Dr. Seuss. These books spur discussion and deepen her understanding of history and interest in creative endeavors. Our homeschooling enables our children to discover the deeper value of reading – be it the inherent joy of reading a great story, being inspired or discovering a new idea that helps one make sense of the world, instead of seeing reading as another competitive academic subject where the aim is just to “win” or “earn a prize”: free pizzas, $10 from a bank or knick-knacks from a bookstore or local library.

Homeschooling for Critical Consciousness

There’s more to our homeschooling than allowing our children to follow their own spirit of inquiry where it takes them. We also seek to engage, inspire and cultivate their critical and compassionate thinking skills. This aspect of our homeschooling pedagogy is invisibly woven into the mundane features of everyday life. We use naturally occurring events in our family life as teaching moments. Like when Julian pestered his younger sister, Mimi, invading her personal space. We used this as an opportunity to teach them about harassment and why it is wrong to push yourself upon someone who does not wish to interact with you. Other sibling disputes have provided us with opportunities to discuss timely, politically relevant issues including privacy, fairness and abusing power: bullying.

By homeschooling for critical consciousness, we enable our children to forge an authentic, humane sense-of-self. Each time I teach an introductory course to gender studies, multiple students indicate that their authentic “self” has been obscured, sometimes lost, in the fog of dominant social norms. When I teach critical thinking and philosophy, students come to similar conclusions concerning their religious beliefs, their life’s trajectory, or the meaning of their own existence. Time and time again, my students have taught me a terrible reality: many Americans labor under a false sense of individualism, one often defined in relation to material possessions and consumerist practices. Authentic senses of self-determined identity and purpose, however, remain elusive.

Homeschooling provides our children with ample time to contemplate and explore their own interests, without facing arbitrary deadlines based on false universalizations of what all members of grade/age group x are supposed to have achieved. It provides freedom from narrow-minded thinking that demands conformity to dominant but deeply flawed social practices and ideas: consumerism, inequality, egoism, violence, abuses of power, mindless following of orders, education for profit rather than education for enlightenment and intellectual liberation, and so on.

Homeschooling has been particularly helpful in allowing us to challenge dominant culture’s dehumanizing and ubiquitous gender roles: that a girl’s worth is primarily determined by her physical appearance and conformity to stereotypical and unhealthy beauty ideas; and that a boy’s worth is primarily determined by his adherence to shallow, life-damaging toughness, violence, emotional detachment, and identification with the denigration of femininity. We do this by reading and discussing books like My Name is Not Isabella, about a little girl dreaming of being groundbreaking women throughout history.

The point is to realize learning occurs organically, and opportunities to develop insight, or mistaken perspectives, are ubiquitous.

Instead of force-feeding our children ideas, April and I offer our considered opinion, explain our reasoning, ask them questions and encourage them to think independently. All of this has taught them and conditioned them to comfortably question authority, namely us! While we do require adherence to basic moral virtues, including mutual respect, honesty, fairness, responsibility and compassion, we also provide the ethical basis for these commitments and encourage them to scrutinize our reasons for abiding by them.

Teaching our children that everyday life provides countless opportunities for developing knowledge also means helping them realize the way in which the lessons of everyday life are sometimes subtle and counterproductive if not outright damaging. A rarely discussed consequence of dominant education is that many develop a theory of learning that presumes little done outside of a classroom or without a “certified” teacher has an “educative” effect. This tends to foster dismissal of the way in which popular culture shapes human thought and, as a result, behavior.

The irony is that we probably learn the most outside of anything called a “classroom” or “learning” environment because these settings put us on guard and often provoke resistance. But when we are watching a TV program, listening to a song or having a conversation, we tend to be more open to the ideas we are being exposed to. This isn’t necessarily a good thing. We might embrace, for example, media stereotypes for this reason. The point is to realize learning occurs organically, and opportunities to develop insight, or mistaken perspectives, are ubiquitous. To prepare them for this overlooked reality, our homeschooling life involves encouraging our children to question what they hear or see on TV, the internet, in music, from friends and even family members, not merely parrot or imitate it.

Public Dimensions of Homeschooling

Though many equate homeschooling with social isolationism, our family’s homeschooling, like many others, entails a significant public dimension. It has propelled us to seek out and discover community resources such as the local Humane Society’s unique, affordable and inspiring summer program. In July 2014, our older children took classes including Veterinary Basics, Junior Humane Officer, and Pet First Aid and CPR.

Homeschooling has actually helped our family address social isolation through developing meaningful bonds with families in our community.

Leaving school has increased our family’s reliance on public spaces like libraries, parks, playgrounds, nature preserves, pools and fountains, and community centers. The local library, for example, not only offers the books everyone in our family crave, but also free public classes (yoga, dance, fitness), clubs (Lego club), and special events (book parties, movies, indoor carnivals, etc.). In frequently utilizing these resources, we encounter and interact with parents and children in our community.

2014 812 nall 4The Nall family promotes the fair trade cause during the Space Coast Progressive Alliance’s 2012 Progressive Fest. (Photo: April Nall)

Homeschooling has actually helped our family address social isolation through developing meaningful bonds with families in our community. As many homeschoolers do, our family participates in various small learning and sharing communities. For about a year, we participated in a fruitful once-a-week, parent-run pre-k cooperative. Parents took turns each month teaching creative, hands-on classes involving subjects such as science, reading, math, and social studies. The children spent as much time playing together as they did in the class setting, and the adults spent as much time communing as they did teaching. For our last contribution, April and I taught historical and geographical origins of chocolate. The last of the month-long class culminated in a reading of the children’s book, Think Fair Trade First, and a fair-trade product scavenger hunt at a small, local health food store. Beginning in October 2014, our family will participate in and contribute to a family friend’s exciting, new local homeschool cooperative: Homeschool, Peace and Carrots. Planned classes include gardening (from growing food, conservation and composting) “in a suburban homestead setting,” enrichment classes in math, language arts, science and social studies, and library meet-ups for kids to freely explore and share their passions.

Many homeschooled children have ample opportunities for positive social interaction. The unfortunate reality is that children in K-12 classrooms are the ones isolated from organic, cooperative social interaction; such interactions are often restricted to the playground, lunchroom or while waiting to be picked up or on the bus. During his fourth-grade year, my son routinely complained of having virtually no opportunity to interact with his classmates until after class. For this reason he asked that I not arrive too early – that is, on time – to pick him up.

Stetson professor of psychology Richard G. Medlin’s 2013 review of data on homeschooled children’s socialization, showed that research indicates homeschooled children, when compared to conventionally schooled children, “have higher quality friendships and better relationships with their parents and other adults,” “are happy, optimistic, and satisfied with their lives,” and that their “moral reasoning is at least as advanced as that of other children.” [3] To the last of these points, Medlin writes that the research suggests homeschooled children “may be more likely to act unselfishly,” “have a strong sense of social responsibility,” and, as adults, “are civically engaged and functioning competently in every way measured so far.” In other words, if the basis of our conclusions about homeschooling rests on empirical evidence, then the proclamations that homeschooled children will suffer socially and academically are, in Medlin’s word, “alarmist.”

Those concerned with not just the common good, but also the quality of children’s lives, should strive to bring the freedom many homeschoolers experience to children in socially oppressive, conventional schools. More broadly, progressive homeschoolers and progressive public educators should heed homeschooling mother and self-described anarchist Eva Swidler’s call to unite to support public institutions such as libraries, parks, recreation centers, museums, and other facets of the common good, including the transformation of public schooling.

Homeschooling for Justice

Lastly we homeschool to make considerations of justice and the common good central to our children’s development. As citizens of the world’s most powerful nation, we believe that our children must do more than simply partake in the privileges afforded to our nation, often at the expense of others. We encourage our children to consider why they have an ethical responsibility to affect meaningful change: to give as much and perhaps a little more than they take. To this end, we’ve held organized rallies for causes including fast food workers’ campaign for a living wage. We’ve also promoted the fair-trade movement, as a family, by passing out literature and fair-trade candy during Halloween. I taught a class on the subject as part of a homeschool cooperative.

2014 812 nall 6Mimi Nall peeks behind a sign she’s holding at a fast-food worker solidarity rally her father and mother, April and Jeffrey Nall organized, September 2, 2013. (Photo: Jeffrey Nall)

By turning normal familial or communal interactions into opportunities for reflection and dialogue, April and I seek to foster a miniature public sphere where we do not merely “teach,” but rather live out democratic principles: empathy, respect, critical thinking, and nonviolent dialogue. And these are the principles that we personally believe are most essential to our children’s education.

Conclusion

Homeschooling provides a safe, respectful, loving, educational refuge for our children from a dominant education system that is not merely “underserving” children, but, according to social critic bell hooks, joining other elements of dominant culture in miseducating children “for conformity and obedience.” [4] Homeschooling is not the only solution to this systemic social problem. Democratic free-schools are another. Truly radical transformation of the dominant education system is potentially another. Our experience also indicates that homeschooling can be part of the solution and that it is compatible with core democratic principles including civic-engagement, critical consciousness and a fundamental concern for social justice.

Footnotes

1. Thanks to April Nall for reading, commenting, and contributing to the development of the ideas in this essay.

2. Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), p.12.

3. Richard G. Medlin, “Homeschooling and the Question of Socialization Revisited,” Peabody Journal of Education: Issues of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations, Vol. 88, No. 3 http://peabody.vanderbilt.edu/faculty/pje/pje_volume_88_issue_3_2013/medlin.php

4. bell hooks, Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom (New York: Routledge, 2010): pp. 7-8.