We had forty special people to our house today for my oldest daughter’s homeschool graduation ceremony. After homeschooling for ten years without the typical school milestones, this event was something she wanted – to just once have all her multifaceted community together and to express gratitude for all they have meant to her. It indeed takes a community to raise a child. I strove for brevity, but the ceremony lasted an hour and a half, which was too long. (We were under a rented tent in my back yard in the rain.) Most of the time I called on different people and thanked them for what they have meant to my daughter and for their unique contribution to making her the great person she is today. There was a musical interlude while a homeschooling friend played a song that was meaningful to my daughter. Then I gave the speech reprinted below, after which I gave her a nice diploma I had gotten from here. Both my sisters and their families attended from out of state which made the occasion even more festive. People brought tissues, but I don’t think anyone cried. It was such a remarkable community with an equally remarkable graduate, that there was nothing slightly wistful about it. After my remarks, she gave a short speech about her philosophy and experience, and we moved on to refreshments. Here is my speech:
“Why did we homeschool Virginia? We took the homeschooling plunge in order to satisfy Virginia’s insatiable curiosity and her deep need for intellectual stimulation. In second grade Virginia was bored in a fast-track private school, restlessly tired of always waiting for everyone else so she could learn. We had no initial intention of homeschooling, but saw no other option than to take the responsibility of educating her fully into our own hands, freeing her, and letting her soar. This courageous choice has been an enormous blessing beyond what we could have imagined.
Virginia is graduating high school with 40 credits, twice as many as needed. She got a perfect score on her SAT essay, which is hard to do. She’s got a 4.4 grade point, which she totally deserves even though some of her deadlines where a bit soft, mostly due to the fact she always tries to do too much and goes beyond what is required. When I didn’t have tests to go by to know how to grade her, I approached the Harvard educated author of her writing curriculum and asked him if he would mentor her and grade her work. He consistently gave her A+’s, raving about how outstanding and publishable her work was.
Virginia’s become such a life long learner, “graduation” doesn’t mean the end of requirements to her, for she knows how far from finished she’ll ever be. She hasn’t yet read Voltaire after all! There are things she still doesn’t know! And she has a daunting reading plan for her summer, in between taking in every aspect of London, being hardcore in the back woods for three weeks volunteering in the Delaware Water Gap building trails, and getting ready of college. She keeps packing the meaningful content in with no end in sight.
Unlike most homeschool high school students, Virginia was not part of a co-op, and did not take any internet or community college courses. She chose the relatively isolated path of a rigorous classical education, with lots of original source materials and supplemented by Teaching Company DVD lectures by esteemed college professors. She watched many hundreds of them! This is why she is so primed for a discussion based, participatory, seminar driven college experience.
She’s had to find her own internal incentive. My husband, who was a sub for several years at Joe Barlow High School didn’t think you could just leave a high school kid alone in their room and expect them to get any school work done. But that’s pretty much what I did, and in that sink or swim environment, Virginia’s come out a strong swimmer. She’s learned time management skills, prioritization, where her weak spots are and how to avoid them.
She’s made her learning her own, from dolphins to immigration in third grade, through an obsession with Queen Elizabeth and British History, to thinking War and Peace is her favorite book ever. She’s had too many sleepless nights reading too late (a phenomena our family calls “sneak reading”) and has gotten distracted with fan fiction on the internet. Meanwhile she become an esteemed administrator at Luminarium.org.
Contrary to the frequent impression of homeschooling as insular, dogmatic and indoctrinating, homeschooling for us set Virginia in a wider, more real world, to discover where she fits, what she is passionate about and what she thinks and believes. It is an expansive context with unending opportunities, infinite possibilities and resources, and therefore vast choice. It is freedom from the artificial segregation of learning within one’s peer group, making all of life and every relationship about learning, with every experience rich in lessons about what one thinks oneself, independent of what others may believe. With a foundation of unconditional love and support, she never had to wait to try her wings in the world, but has done it all along, embracing and developing what has interested her in the community and academically. In our style, the homeschooling parent learns along side the student and is more of a facilitator and encourager than a teacher.
Instead of textbooks, for the most part we have used what we call “living books,” a term coined by Charlotte Mason, an educational reformer in England in the late nineteenth century. A living book is one written by an author with a perspective — in contrast to textbooks written by committees carefully devoid of opinion — and is narrative in style. You can read living books with varied and opposing view points and in this way begin to formulate what you think. The narrative style makes you care about what you are reading. Compare an impassive paragraph in a textbook dispassionately stating the date of the Donner party, with a historical novel about it, that has compelling characters you’ve come to care about, who are desperately facing eating their dead companions. Which would you find more captivating, powerful, vivid and memorable? Charlotte Mason gives the following advice, “…for the best thought the world possesses is stored in books; our own concern is abundant provision and orderly serving.” This we have taken to heart in our homeschool, and as a result, our own family library has grown over the years to more than 10,000 books.
But in what order does one serve up these books? Where Charlotte Mason provided us with the cozy “how” to learn, we were largely influenced by The Well Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home by Susan Wise Bauer (a professor at William and Mary who was homeschooled herself and is homeschooling her children) written along with her mother, Jesse Wise. This book came to outline the “what” for our homeschool. While we wanted a learner led approach, we also desired to expose our children to the tremendous variety of topics there were to explore. The Well Trained Mind outlined a four year chronological history sweep from the beginning of time to the present day to be done once in the elementary grades, again in Middle School and repeated in High School. This puts history in the context of story, and through the huge range of available materials, there is plenty of room not only to do age appropriate study, but be learner led as well. For example, while our whole house was studying the Middle ages, Virginia in High School — loving the examples of intense women — was delving into Hildegard of Bingen, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Joan of Arc, while her middle school brother was immersed in Vikings, King Arthur and the Crusades, and her elementary aged sister was reading about castles, knights, and Robin Hood. This wonderful system builds on itself with making many more connections, as the second time one goes through history chronologically, knowing more about Alexander the Great and Napoleon enormously helps the study of Ancient Egypt. All of history begins to fold into itself to one whole, and one begins to see the present day in light of all that has gone before. Science in this method follows a similar repeated four year survey of topics, and math and grammar are needed more like supplementary daily vitamins, compared to essential rich nutrients of History, Science and Geography.
Although we always advocate balance, content is constantly being customized as there is flexibility enough to emphasize our children’s unique interests. We have sought out and found many mentors, invigorating programs, and diverse opportunities in the community to inspire Virginia to be actively, and not just scholastically, involved in her world. You have seen that the term “homeschooling” is a misnomer, after seeing her intense level of activity in her church, 4H, music and job related communities. We encouraged her to seize the day, be happy, fulfilled, and socially savvy, while doing meaningful work.
I remember Virginia, sitting in our living room at about 8 years old after reading a biography on Thomas Jefferson in the day and age of Spice Girls and wondering aloud, “Who are the Thomas Jefferson’s of our day?” I remember telling her then, “You are.” So I don’t need to give a traditional graduation motivational speech because she’s already got that covered. If you knew how many random unassociated people tell us “they’ll vote for her when she’s president” you’d know she must be projecting something of that already. For our part, what we want for her is simply to be healthy, happy, prepared, and safe… making good choices and a positive contribution.
When we were considering starting homeschooling, I had a lot of clients in my work struggling with empty nesting. I was curious how a homeschooler who was so involved in their kid’s lives, would feel about this, so I asked an experienced one about it. She said that the difficulty over a child leaving home was more related to a wistfulness over lost opportunities at building a relationship with them, or a desire to still micromanage them. She said homeschooling families forge deep relationships with their children that do not stop when they go away, and that because they utilize the opportunities they had with their children while they were present, they are confident about who they have become, and their ability to handle whatever may arise. I am struck by how much her perspective all those years ago is mine today. Virginia and I text, tweet and facebook between my third floor office and her second floor bedroom. I will remain in touch with her going forward in much the same ways. I do not have to worry about letting her go because I have done it all along.
Homeschooling Virginia for these ten years has been pure joy and a total privilege. Because of homeschooling, we know each other, trust each other, and like each other. It has been satisfying to watch her unfold as a historian and writer, leader and friend. She is confident and capable, self- assured, and prudent while still willing to take risks. She has emerged independent, balanced, enthusiastic, and always ready to learn. The unassuming, rugged individualist she has become is a blazing testimony to the efficacy of of our homeschooling style and philosophy.