Tuesday, December 6, 2011

SCHOOL ON A SWINGSET (Instead of a classroom)

Guest post by Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell

Editor's note:  This is another article in my effort to dispel myths about learning and showcase ways people are thriving and learning without being "schooled." The purpose being that educators discover alternative ways to foster learning that may be more effective for some children.

Distracted and bored
Twenty-one years ago, my parents were faced with a dilemma about where to send my brother and me to school.  The small private school we attended didn’t offer middle school, and the public schools in our rural Georgia county were at the bottom of a state typically at the bottom of the nation as far as education was concerned.  What to do?

At that point, homeschooling was a fledgling movement that boasted only about 200,000 students in the entire country.  But we knew friends doing it, and they seemed to be doing well.  My father has always had a creative, entrepreneurial spirit, and so on the last day of fourth grade, I came home from school, and never went back.  Not until college, anyway.  I suppose you could say we were homeschooling before homeschooling was cool.

And boy, was it cool.  People ask me now if I liked it.  Yes, I liked it.  It worked extraordinarily well for my brother and me for two very different reasons.  I was a nerd.  I read everything I could get my hands on.  I cried when summer break came.  My brother, on the other hand, was... well, easily distracted.  We’ll call it that because back then you weren’t “diagnosed” and no one was taking meds for distraction.  But if a butterfly flew by the window, you can bet that was it for his attention to the day’s lesson.  He was on his way to hopelessly failing the fifth grade, while I was bored to death waiting for everyone else to finish their work in the fourth.  Enter homeschooling.

Stars and a swingset
The glorious beauty of homeschooling is individualism.  Freedom.  It’s the American way, right?  As long as we were turning in attendance reports to the local school board (4.5 hours per day for 180 days a year) and taking achievement tests (offered annually through the local home education association) every three years, we could do what we wanted.  I remember journeying through the structure of the eye as my mom read I Am Joe’s Body.  I remember taking apart a computer and putting it back together, same with a television and a VCR, and making an electrician’s map of our house in my dad’s invented course “Household Physics.” I remember tracking the stars using a broken swingset frame, the windshield of a Volkswagen Beetle, and a vacuum-cleaner hose.  I remember sending off writing samples to have them reviewed by a college professor through a National Writing Institute program called Writing Strands.  Most importantly, I remember every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday starting in the fifth grade, gathering around the table with 4 or 5 other homeschooled friends to study Spanish with my dad, the start of a journey that would be my life’s calling.


When I reached high school, my parents told me I could go back to school if I wanted, which represented a significant sacrifice for them.  I knew it would be expensive and far from our house.  But really, I didn’t want to.  I had plenty of friends.  I had plenty of learning.  I was active in the 4-H program in communications and computers, becoming a Georgia Master 4-H’er five times.  What was school going to add?  We even had cheerleaders and a basketball team.  

Success without Big Brother’s help
I write all this in response to the Innovative Educator post about yet another government intrusion on homeschooling parents.  I remember our on-again, off-again war with the government.  Our association had people specifically assigned to keep an eye on legislation and cases that could potentially present problems for homeschoolers.  Once Washington proposed a badly-worded law intended to require high school teachers to be certified in every area they taught.  Homeschoolers recognized how a zealous anti-homeschooling lawyer could effectively end high-school homeschooling, since it was impossible for our parents to be certified in all the things they taught us.  We flooded the Capitol with so many phone calls, the switchboard couldn’t handle them all, and essentially they told us that if we’d just leave them alone they could go fix the wording in the law.  Twenty years later, not much has changed.  We still need voices to shout that parents and communities have been educating their children well long before the government ever got involved.

When I tell people about my education experience, sometimes traditionalists look appalled, but always with this sneaky what-if-that-could-really-work look of wonder on their faces.  No, I never took Calculus.  Or Chemistry.  Yes, I went to college.  In fact, I printed my own diploma.   I also made up my own high-school transcript.  I laugh looking back at how much I tried to pin my dad down on what my grades were.  He hated grades.  Every time I took a test, he just sent me back to fix the answers until they were all right.  Now, I spend a lot of time lamenting the arbitrary grades I have to give my students.

Happy and fulfilled
Unfortunately, colleges didn’t seem to care what was on my transcript because my SAT score was 1460/1600, the 92nd percentile.  I took the test once and was so sick over it that it’s still a good reminder to me of what a bad idea high-stakes standardized tests are.  I finished college half a semester early with a double major and a 4.0, in the top half-percent of my class.  After teaching for three years, I went to graduate school and earned my M.A. in Linguistics, still with perfect grades.  Now I have a family I adore and students I love to celebrate, I am the department head at my school, and I stay busy with my state professional organization and attending and presenting at conferences.  I’m insanely happy, and completely fulfilled.

My brother’s story is  a little different.  He took the GED and became a truck driver.  Later, he developed a passion for photography and took classes at a local community college.  Now he works full-time for the state government and plays with photography on the side, newly married and expecting his first child, and insanely happy, and completely fulfilled.

No, we can’t tell you how to balance chemical equations.  But when my brother needs someone to interpret at a quinceaƱera he’s photographing, guess who he calls?  And when I needed to save money on photography for my wedding, guess who I called?  I know what vitamins I need to take to stay healthy, I can use HTML tags, I can even tell you exactly why the who should technically be whom in those two questions I just asked.  And sometimes, when I look up at the stars, I still imagine I’m seeing them through the windshield of a Volkswagen Bug.

Thanks, Dad and Mom.

Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell teaches advanced Spanish, as well as preschool and lower elementary Spanish, in Louisville, Kentucky.  She shares her journey with other world language educators through her blog, Mis Musicuentos, and on Twitter as @secottrell.
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