March 26, 2011

Independent study: homeschooling our teenager...

I’ve written before about the important educational role played by stuffed animals and games in our homeschooling.  I do what I can to make learning fun for our eight-year-old twin boys and our six-year-old daughter.  We cheerlead our way to good spelling, rely on trusted elephants to remind us of our multiplication facts, rewrite the story of Angry Birds to improve our handwriting, and so on.  Many more of my not-so-secret ploys to bring some life to education will have their day here on my blog in the weeks to come.  But today, a word on the one I teach who has moved far past such things.

The early days of his education: five-year-old
Scott enjoying a good book before bed

To say that I "teach" our fourteen-year-old son Scott is not entirely accurate.  It would be more fitting to say that I used to, but now I "oversee his education".  I had the privilege of teaching Scott how to read at a very young age, something he has loved to do ever since.  But today I could never keep up with the rapid pace at which he plows through books.  I taught him to do arithmetic, helped him solve word problems, and vanquished fractions with him when he was a young boy, but now I sit back and watch with admiration as he does geometry proofs independently.  I taught him his first words, but now take a macro-not-micro-managerial position as he studies his third year of Latin.  In every subject I have slowly let go of my grip on the nitty-gritty details of what Scott is learning, allowing him to take ownership of managing his time and effort to accomplish the rigorous work in front of him day-to-day.  My role is to check his work, help him only when he needs it, and keep us on track to accomplish our goals for the school year as well as the years remaining in his education.
It wasn’t a quick transition from educational games and hand-holding to serious independent study.  Over the years, step by step, subject by subject, I have done my best to gauge Scott’s need for independence and respond to it appropriately.  I haven’t always read the signs correctly: at times I let go too quickly and had to pull the reins back in to steer him better, while at other times I had to quickly release them upon realizing I had been holding too tight and limiting his progress.  But through honest discussion with Scott and careful evaluation and re-evaluation, we have a system that encourages learning and independence without a stuffed animal or cutesy activity in sight.  And with each new school year, we revamp and forge ahead, increasing Scott’s self-management along the way.
Scott’s success no longer depends on my expertise in the subjects he studies or my ability to articulate the details of them in fun and engaging ways.  Now a young man and not a child, his success depends almost entirely on him.  He needs guidance, not long periods of tedious explanation and practice.  He needs clarification of unfamiliar terms at times, not detailed instruction in every bit of new material.  And what he needs most of all is the opportunity to prove that he can do his work without me holding his hand.
Our daily routine is built around all of this.  While I’m working one-on-one or two or three with his younger siblings throughout the morning, Scott works independently.  After lunch he and I spend a short time going over his assignments from the previous day and looking at what is next.  He takes any tests or quizzes on our agenda at this time too.  Then he has the remainder of the day as well as the next morning to complete his new assignments.  He determines the time it will take to do so and maps out his schedule for the day accordingly.  He recognizes that freedom comes with responsibility and puts his schoolwork first, while rewarding himself periodically with video games, TV, a good non-school book, or time outdoors.  All in all he spends at least as much time on schoolwork as would likely be required of him in a traditional school setting, but with greater independence and more rapid progress.  In some subjects he is as much as two years past his grade level.  I don’t say that boastfully on his behalf; though his achievement is partly due to natural ability, it is greatly due to his freedom to pursue his education in the literal sense of the word.
I don’t know if this much control and self-management would work as effectively for every young teenager.  As with so many things in our efforts to raise our children, Scott is our guinea pig as the oldest in our home.  I’ll let you know when the other three transition to this stage if it works as well with them.  For this reason, I can’t tell you that the details of what we do will work for your teenager, homeschooled or not.  I can only say for certain that it seems to work with Scott.  We see it in his grades and in his understanding, as well as his level of maturity.
That doesn’t mean we grant that same level of freedom in every aspect of his life; at fourteen, he still needs us to guide and direct in many areas.  It’s our privilege and responsibility to do so.  We see our children as gifts from the Lord.  We take seriously His instruction to parents to teach our kids His Word and His ways as we see them through to adulthood, and to continue to be a source of counsel and comfort to them even then.
We are also expected to ensure that they develop the practical skills they need to function in this world.  That extends far beyond reading, writing, and arithmetic.  Efficient and productive time-management as well as the ability to learn without being spoon-fed are essential skills our children will need when they reach adulthood, among many other important things.  It would be unfair and a disservice to them if they were to be forced to face all of that in an overnight transition.  We are not of the belief that we should hold tightly to them until they’re eighteen and then drop them without warning, which logically can only result in calamity.  Maturity comes about best when nourished, guided, permitted and encouraged step-by-step along the way.
Next week, back to the little ones and a little something about how even the youngest among us can enjoy and contribute to a good literary discussion of historical significance…

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