This article first appeared in the Homeschool Journey newsletter, June 2004
Well, summer has come to Northwestern Wisconsin, USA - after nearly 6 months of frozen ground, it is such a pleasure to work in the garden again. Lettuce, potatoes, cucumbers by the bushel, the unpopular zucchini (“there is no way I’m eating that, Mom!”), radishes... and glorious peas. Peas don’t even make it into our house - during pea-time, my sons can often be found happily grazing amongst the pea vines. Each year my husband asks that I plant more so that we can freeze some - and each year I oblige, but the children just eat more!
For our family, summer means No School. Because of our unschoolishness, the reality is that there is no formal school (and no math!). During the school year we blend formal lesson time with life: reading spills over into anytime of the day (and sometimes all of the day!), and my boys will spend hours writing short stories out of their own interest (these are children, neither of whom really could read before age 10 and who could neither spell or consent to write until about a year ago - now I can’t even wade through what they produce!). We also read aloud and have long conversations about...politics, religion, space travel, how long different animals live and why that might be...whatever comes up. As we live on a farm, much of our science/nature studies is simply the day to day reality of raising goats and chickens, observing the changes of the seasons and tending our garden. We have Main Lesson, times during which we study things in a coherent and conscious manner - but we also blend in our sons’ interests and often stray from the usual Main Lesson form.
No School Time is a time of jubilation for my sons. They’re thrilled to be finished with school - but, in reality, what they do during the summer is not all that different from the rest of the year! Reading books by the car-load, being read to by their father or me, doing a bit of German on the computer, writing adventure stories or nature observations....aside from the dread math, there’s really not a whole lot of difference. But we all pretend that No School Time is vastly different and enjoy our summer break!
Something we like to do during No School Time (and also during the rest of the year) is explore the various libraries in our area. Our part of Wisconsin (I don’t know about the rest of the state) is blessed with an especially fine string of small public libraries and a wonderful inter-library loan system. Within 20 miles of home, there are at least a dozen lovely little libraries. We are, like most homeschoolers, well known at all of them and enjoy pouring over their offerings.
At this time of year, though, we are often a little embarrassed to go to the library because at each we are urged by the smiling librarians to sign up for their Summer Reading Program. Poor librarians! Their smiles quickly fade into disbelief when we gently decline. (Well - I’m gentle - I often have to whip a quick hand over the mouth of one of my sons who might express his rather strong opinion about hokey Reading Programs!) They’re so proud of their checklists, fill-in-the-blank forms, star charts and prizes.
As for me - and Daniel and Gabriel who did experience a Summer Reading Program one summer as an experiment and were appalled by its banality - I can never quite understand the thinking behind these programs which are apparently designed to encourage children to read. Isn’t reading in and of itself a worthwhile and enjoyable activity? Why does one need to lure children into reading by offering bribes? In my mind, such programs are counter-productive - surely learning should be viewed as an ongoing process which brings its own rewards and satisfaction.
This all reminds me of a conversation I had a few years ago with a 9th grader who was babysitting my boys. As I got ready to go out, I noticed her unpacking her bag of books to study that evening. She was a student at the local public high school and this year she was taking biology. I asked her how she liked it. It was interesting, she replied, she liked it. Her homework was to study the eye. She showed me her biology textbook and her assignment. Then she paused and said, “Well, I could make a model of an eye, too, but I’m not going to -I don’t need the extra credits.” But wouldn’t it be interesting to just make the model? Wouldn’t she learn something from that? Oh yes, for sure. But she didn’t need the credits so she wasn’t going to bother.
What happens to learning - and, by extension, to one’s experience of growing up and of life - if it’s all down to rewards systems? Isn’t it better if children set the table, for instance, because they’re members of the family and the job needs doing, not simply to accrue stars on a chart? Isn’t it better to undertake a project - writing a report or reading a novel - because the thing itself is worth doing, not just because of a grade or a percentage on a card? Isn’t it better to do the work we do in life because it gives us satisfaction and is worthwhile - not because of some external validation?
I don’t mind tests (for older children, that is) nor do I believe that it is wrong to have standards and expectations that a student needs to live up to (quite the opposite, actually). The former is simply a skill that is useful to have in our society and the latter helps eventually form the child’s own standards and expectations. Used judiciously, learning to take tests can be exciting and enjoyable. Learning from a teacher or parent-teacher helps the child have a sense of growth, of achievement. But a carrot-and-stick approach to learning is neither particularly useful nor conducive to the development of self-evaluation skills. By helping our children to view learning as simply a joyful part of life, something that happens every day and all the time, we give them a gift which will last them all their lives.