Homeschooling: A valediction

(Valediction: “a farewell, a bidding farewell,” 1610s, from past participle stem of Latin valedicere “bid farewell, take leave,” from vale “farewell!,” second person singular imperative of valere “be well, be strong” (from PIE root *wal- “to be strong”) + dicere “to say” (from PIE root *deik- “to show,” also “pronounce solemnly”).

My daughter graduated from homeschool high school at the end of May and is headed to college in the fall. For seven years, through middle and high school, I taught her math, science, and arts every week, plus a bonus-senior-year literature class. As this means that I am also graduating, in a sense, or at least retiring, I thought I should be allowed to make a speech. And since there’s no one around to stop me, here it is. I’ll keep it short.

Welcome to FIAT! Danger: Learning in Progress.

My time as headmaster of the Falanouc Institute of Arts and Technology (or FIAT, as we all know her) have taught me nearly as much as it taught my beloved student. Well, okay, that’s an exaggeration. But I learned some cool stuff. I learned that the blanket octopus, having developed immunity to man-of-war venom, snaps off that animal’s tentacles and uses them as weapons.1Seriously, that’s the coolest thing I learned. I could stop there. I learned folk wisdom for predicting the weather and the complexities of reducing our dependence on single-use plastics. I relearned calculus after thirty years. I read a few hundred really good poems, which I still treasure. I hiked a couple dozen vastly different forest communities without leaving my home state. And I learned how to distill ethyl alcohol in my kitchen (in chemistry class, natch).

I also learned an awful lot about teaching, most of which I can distill (ha!), like any good graduation speaker or internet marketer, into one simple rule.

The rule is this: Take the work seriously, but do not take yourself seriously. Education is serious business. Do not tell me your pet theories about unschooling. Do not think that you can teach (for example) middle school mathematics with the attitude of a volunteer parent in a kindergarten classroom. It demands discipline, and the first person of whom it demands discipline is the teacher. Start on time. Be prepared. Correct homework; don’t just have them check their answers in the back of the book. Keep daily records. Push for improvement — sometimes gently, sometimes pointedly, but push. Invest time in your own learning. Invest time working with your kids, even the older ones, to learn together.

But for Pete’s sake don’t turn into a middle school principal. Have fun with your kids. There is room for the silly, the goofy, the absurd. Not everything is going to be enjoyable, nor should it — that’s a good lesson to learn — but some of it ought to be. Frame the dull and repetitive with the enjoyable and the intriguing — don’t just use the latter as a relief or a reward, but as a frame for learning. You can learn anywhere: take field trips (but take them seriously). You can learn by doing, not just by sitting at a desk: get your hands dirty (but talk about what you’re doing and what it means). Admit that you don’t know half this stuff and declare you’re going to figure it out together — and say it as if it’s the greatest adventure since Bilbo Baggins forgot his pocket-handkerchief. Send the kids to research things you don’t know anything about. If you’re teaching literature, ask questions that intrigue you, questions that might be fun to talk about in the car driving home from dance class, instead of the ones English teachers like, the ones that have turned generations of high school students off of reading. If you don’t think math, ultimately and deep down, is really cool, go and read a couple of popular books about why it actually is, and find ways to communicate that to your kids with the hand that isn’t cracking the whip over the multiplication tables.

Don’t waste beautiful weather on work that could be done another time. Or that could be done in the beautiful weather (but then, do the work). Or that could be adapted to make use of the beautiful weather.

If it snows, say “stuff this for a lark” and go play.

Come to think of it, my one simple rule of homeschooling is a pretty good rule for life. Whatever you take the trouble to do, take the work seriously. But don’t take yourself too seriously.

In conclusion, I can’t think of anything that demonstrates my point better than this video of dear daughter explaining her homemade telegraph.

Now, let me lead you all in singing our alma mater:

Falanouc, oh Falanouc,
Sturdy as the mighty oak,
What you taught us ain’t no joke.
We’ll treasure it until we croak.

Go forth and do stuff, y’all. Peace out.