Family-Centered Education

by Rene Zitzloff

Home schooling has become increasingly popular in the United States in recent years. One mother explains why she and her husband made this choice:

"Why do you home school your children?" This is a question I have often been asked in the last eleven years. Behind it I often find a plethora of preconceptions and misconceptions: "Home schoolers are too protective of their children." "Home schoolers have withdrawn from society." "Home schoolers are raising a generation of poorly socialized children who walk about drooling and muttering."

I cannot speak for all home schoolers, but I can share the reasons my husband and I made this choice. Doing this, however, requires seeing home schooling in a larger context. We did not decide to home school simply to transport school into our home. Our decision resulted from a search for ways to create and nurture our family. It started when I as a young mother began trying to understand what being a mother means, and what a family is. I wanted to understand how to provide my family with emotional and spiritual sustenance and nourish our relationships. I wanted to discover how to keep our family intact in a world that is increasingly fragmented and arbitrary.

Our first child, Joshua, was born 15 years ago, immediately filling our lives with joy and challenge. Like being run over by a diaper service truck, the realization hit us that parenting might be the toughest challenge we would ever face, but what an interesting challenge! Before Joshua's birth, we assured ourselves we would have only two children -- "the ideal family size." After Amanda was born, friends congratulated us on fulfilling our parental quota, but by this time we didn't want to stop with just two. I wanted to experience childbirth more than twice. I liked the result. I wanted to be surrounded by children. I began telling people who asked that we were aiming for at least six children. The shock in their eyes was gratifying, but it became a self-fulfilling prophecy: Joshua (15), Amanda (13), Cassandra (12), Jeremiah (9), Elisha (6), and Micah (4).

As our children grew, it became necessary to think about education. In the U.S. the norm is that children are placed in pre-school around age three or four, kindergarten at five or six. It's almost an automatic process, with little thought going into it. Frankly I have never understood the concept of getting children out of the home as young as possible. If God entrusts children to parents to raise and educate, why this hurry to give them to strangers for these crucial tasks? It's certainly not necessary to place children in school to get them started in learning. I've watched my children from birth on. They learn all the time! Every day is one glorious experience of learning after another: How does this sand taste? What happens if I push the lamp off the table? Where will I end up if I crawl under the bed? What will mommy do if I play with the diaper in the toilet? How does the diaper taste? How many grapes will fit in baby sister's mouth? Young children learn naturally, continually and freely. Their entire existence is dedicated to investigating the world around them. This desire to learn seems to want only when they are forced to learn. As a young mother I wondered if a very structured environment, surrounded only by children the same age, was truly the most conducive, healthy way for children to learn. So I began reading everything I could find on the subject of learning and education.

I discovered the books of John Holt -- How Children Learn, How Children Fail, and Learning All the Time -- who taught for over 15 years in public schools. He became convinced that children are born with a natural ability to learn, and given the right atmosphere will learn easily and without coercion. He concluded that most schools do more to dissuade learning than to encourage it. Finally he became an advocate of home schooling or rather "un-schooling," as he termed it. He confirmed what I learned observing my own children. Another influential book was For the Children's Sake by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, and the writings of home education pioneers Dr. Raymond and Dorothy Moore.

The more I investigated, the more I was convinced that institutionalized schooling is not what many Americans think it is; rather it is one option, an option that was looking less and less desirable for several reasons.

One of these was "time." It was clear to me from the beginning of our family that we would need time to be together; time to establish relationships with our children; and time to instill in them the spiritual values my husband and I were working to build our lives on. Where were we going to find this time, if our children were involved in school and its related activities most of each day? Time spent in school takes a huge chunk out of life -- seven to eight hours a day plus more hours in extra curricular activities, then homework before sitting in front of a TV trying to forget the stress of the day. Occasionally families meet around the dinner table, but this occurs less and less in our hectic society. Finally off to bed. The next morning the cycle continues. When do children have time to think for themselves? To talk to their parents, brothers and sisters? To read a book they choose, to climb a tree, play tag, or do nothing?

In the modern world we squeeze family life around school and its adjunct activities (as well as parent's jobs). Isn't this a strange way to live? A strange thing to impose on children? In many ways school has become the quintessential step family -- teaching not only academic subjects, but also other subjects once reserved for the family. Sure, we are conditioned to this lifestyle; we grew up with it, and may have nostalgic memories of our school days. But is this the best way to live and learn?

Public schools have not always been the norm. They became firmly entrenched in America only around the turn of the century. How did children learn before the advent of public schools? "For thousands of years in thousands of places," David Guterson points out in Family Matters, "families educated their own." This included such things as apprenticeships and working at home side by side with parents, brothers and sisters. This gave families time to be together, and time for real life. This is what I wanted for my children, for our family. Home schooling seemed the best way to accomplish this.

As I do not have a degree in teaching, what made me think I could teach our children at home? Am I the arrogant idiot who thinks I can teach calculus? In fact it never occurred to me that I could not teach my children at home. I felt that if I did my job well, my role as "teacher" would be limited. I was capitalizing on the fact that children are natural learners, and I wanted to help preserve my children's innate capacity to wonder. I adopted the same creed the medical profession once believed in: "First do no harm." I felt if I could nurture my children's natural instinct to learn they would educate themselves.

The Latin base of the word "educate" is educere, from ex (out) plus ducere (lead) -- "to lead out," the opposite of how education is usually defined: "to put in." I wanted my children to know that education is not cramming one's mind with facts, then spitting them back on tests. I wanted to teach them that the purpose of education is to search for truth in every area of life. I wanted them to acquire a habit of searching for truth that would last all of their lives.

Most schooling does not have this aim. It takes the created world, the arts, sciences, literature, divides them into seemingly unrelated categories, and organizes them in a way that haslittle meaning in a child's life. This is far removed from teaching children to seek truth and utilize it. When education is detached from seeking truth, it's reduced to being a way to get a job. Once the diploma is issued, there is no longer any need to "learn."

In Crisis in the Classroom, Charles Silberman says, "If one looks at what goes on in the classroom . . . he will discover that the great bulk of students' time is devoted to detail, most of it trivial . . . and almost all of it unrelated to any concept, structure, cognitive strategy, or indeed anything other than a lesson plan. It is rare to find anyone -- teacher, principal, supervisor or superintendent who has asked why he is teaching what he is teaching."

Has eleven years of home schooling worked for our family? Have we accomplished the things we set out to do? The answer is that we do not know yet. Six children live at our house. There are days I am ready to hijack the first school bus I see and put my children on it! My husband's work takes him away from the home most of the day -- one benefit of home schooling is that our children occasionally take turns going to work with him. By state law we have our children tested yearly using standardized tests, and as a general rule they test between the 70th and 98th percentile, though I have never used a standard curriculum. During a time when I was dealing with trauma in my personal life, three of our children attended a small near-by Catholic school for a couple of years. The children entered at their grade level, and did well. Two opted to come back and be home schooled. One daughter is finishing eighth grade in school.

Joshua, now 15, and home schooled from day one, did not learn to read well until four years ago. I quit trying to teach him when he was about seven; it seemed only to frustrate both of us. I knew that sooner or later he would pick it up. I continued to read out loud to him and the other children for many hours a week. Suddenly, at age 11, it clicked. Since then he has been an avid reader. Recently he developed a special interest in medieval history, and is taking a high school correspondence course from the University of Missouri in this subject. We have not yet attempted calculus -- we are still working on algebra!

An integral part of our home education is a deep involvement in church and community activities and encouraging our children to minister to others. Along with a group from our church, for three years I have taken our two oldest children to Mexico and worked with an Orthodox organization called Project Mexico which builds homes for indigent Mexican families with the help of volunteers. This has been an invaluable experience for those who have gone. Our younger children ask each year if it is their turn to go build a house in Mexico! Such experiential learning, with its combination of hands-on work, exposure to a third world country, and intense times of discussion and worship, is probably worth a whole year of school work.

When it comes to the education of children, I believe many of us have lost our way. In The Closing of the American Mind, Allen Bloom puts it this way: "Fathers and mothers have lost the idea that the highest aspiration they might have for their children is for them to be wise -- as priests, prophets, or philosophers are wise." I would add saints to his list of the wise. Do we want success so badly for our children that we have forgotten that the Christian definition of success is completely different from that of the world? How can our children learn to be seekers of truth if they are schooled to believe that truth is relative, and education chiefly a way to acquire money? How can our children believe that families are important, when we don't have time to nurture the relationships that keep families alive? These are issues we need to face and questions we need to ask. The hearts and minds of our children are at stake.

Renee Zitzloff directs the Church School program at St. Mary's Greek Orthodox Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She has a background in journalism and has been active in the pro-life movement.