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Building an education

By Meagan McGovern

It’s funny, the second or third things that people ask about when they find out that I’m homeschooling my kids. They always ask how I do it — how I teach so many subjects, and how I’ll be able to teach chemistry, calculus, French — anything that’s hard.

It’s just such a strange thing to ask that it always throws me — why on earth would I teach chemistry? I can’t even understand why they’re asking, and it takes me a minute to realize what the question means, and I know right away that they know nothing about homeschooling and that we have to start the conversation on a very basic level.

Oh, and for the record, the first and second things people ask? How my kids are going to make any friends, and how I can do it, when they couldn’t possibly. Those are entirely different questions, to be answered another day. What I’m addressing now is how, not why. And why it’s a whole lot simpler, and more complex, than most people seem to think.

I have an extended analogy, if you’ll forgive me for it, and follow along. I think it’s a good one, and it’s the way I frame homeschooling in my head.

I think of building an education like building a home. You start at the bottom, with a good foundation, and you build the walls, add a roof, and if you’ve done it right, you’ve got something that will last you a long time. You can always add on later, and of course, if there are parts you don’t like, you can start over.

But here’s the thing: I’m the contractor for my kids’ education. I’m not the builder. I’m not the designer. I’m not even the architect. All I do is figure out what they need built, how much time we’ve got to build it, what materials and terrain we’re working with, and who’s the best person to complete each job.

And then I just get out of the way.

The public school system does the same thing, of course: They’re the country’s biggest provider of educations, or in this analogy, “houses.” Public schools crank out cookie-cutter houses. I hate cookie-cutter houses, and I always have. Sure, they’ll keep the rain off. But they all look alike, and they have that stupid two-car garage right in front, staring at you, letting you know that there was no thought or care put into the design, and the materials are cheap, the construction is shoddy, and there’s nothing custom about them. You could have the same house in Arizona, Florida or New York, and you wouldn’t know the difference.

I’m a funky, custom-made, do-it-cheap-but-well, add-all-the-finishing-touches-you-want sort of girl, myself.

If you want a yurt in Alaska, that’s what you should have. But find a good yurt builder, someone with a passion for that type of design. Don’t go to David Weekly homes and ask them to build you a yurt. You’re going to get a two-car garage tacked onto that sucker, whether you want it or not. Plus a two-story entrance way with windows that no one can see out of, looking onto a view of your neighbor’s garage.

Nope. For my kids, I help them figure out what they need, what style they’re looking for, and then I find people to help them build it.

I’m thinking Sander’s going with “log cabin in the woods.”

He needs an education that involves the outdoors, hands-on, animals, working outside, and he doesn’t care if he ever reads a classic. Unless maybe it’s White Fang or Moby Dick. Chemistry? Maybe. If he needs it to get a job as a forest ranger or a veterinarian.

But all the actual “work” of his education? The walls and roof, so to speak? We’ll put the studs and walls in here — teach him to read, figure out what kind of floor plan he wants, a little math, lots and lots of books about animals and nature and science. And then for the fancy stuff? Animal physiology, vertebrates, mammalian study, botany?
I would no more teach those classes than I would lay in my own electrical work. Sure, I could do it with a step-by-step manual, and some people do that for education. They buy a set curricullum, and on day one it says, “Turn to chapter one, read it, and answer the questions. Read pages 1-17 in the textbook.”

But why wouldn’t I hire an expert for science, art or math? They’re the metaphorical equivalent of tilework, electric, plumbing and painting — and I’d rather have someone with a gift and a passion for those subjects do them, thanks.

Writing? I can teach writing. And if I built a house, I’d love to help design and lay out the garden, plan the kitchen, figure out what appliances to put in. But I’m sure as hell going to stay away from the electrical grid if I want the house to run right.

So, for Sawyer, I teach writing, and we both have a passion for history. His “building” is more Griffyndor common room than log cabin. His building, were it real, would be full of classics, literature, art, and a bit of modern technology. That’s an easy building to create: There are lots of plans out there for kids who want that style. There’s classical education, a little tradition, maybe some Waldorf for a touch of magic.

A lot of Charlotte Mason, with some good teachers for the sub-contractors. I don’t teach math — he uses Teaching Textbooks, Khan Academy or some other fabulous resource with brilliant instructors. I’d be doing him a disservice to use anything less. Same for science — sure, we could use a textbook, read the chapter, check off the answers. But in that case, why not just go to public school and get the same standard education that everyone gets?

So we’ll find a science teacher with a passion for teaching small groups and let her lead Sawyer into a whole new world. It’s like finding a good tile guy — once you’ve seen them at work, you wonder why you ever even attempted to rent the tile saw from Home Depot. You’re just fooling yourself. Let the expert get in there and do it right.

And Scout? We’re still figuring out what kind of foundation she’ll need. We know it requires a love of learning, a joyful curiousity, and a passion to excel. Beyond that, does she need an urban loft, driven by technology and the need to fit into an electronic world? Or will she need an artist’s loft in Paris, and need a love of language, art history, style and drive?

The jury’s still out on her. Frankly, the boys are a work in progress as well — Sawyer’s only just turning 12, and only going into seventh grade.

But the foundations are in place, and have been for years. I can build walls, and I can teach Sawyer to build walls, so when the time comes to renovate, he’ll have the tools and know-how to do it. And when it comes times to decorate and add his own style —  writer or an engineer, Harvard or University of Texas — he’ll have helped design, build and put up the structure. He’ll have seen me hire the subcontractors to do some of the work, and he’ll have worked with them on the details. And when he stands back after his college graduation, he’ll have something to be proud of, something that he helped build.

And it will look very different than the houses that most people have. But that’s the way it should be, right? Because if you’re going to live with that house for the rest of your life, why wouldn’t you build it to spec? I guess the people who ask if I’m going to teach chemistry have a valid point, if they think all homeschoolers are simply attempting to do the equivalent of building homes themselves with a how-to manual and a giftcard to Home Depot. I’d be pretty wary of that, too.

And maybe there are some homeschoolers who do just that. But for us, we spend our days immersed in the fascinating world of building now to create futures, and there’s very little that someone else’s blueprints can tell you.


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