Monday, April 7, 2014

The Year of Learning Dangerously by Quinn Cummings

So, this school year has been one of questioning our place.  As the first year of Common Core, it has been interesting to see the way our school has had to change.  This is the fifth year at our school and we've been very happy, but as I listen to parents of older students I have wondered if this where we need to stay.  I have considered the academically rigorous charter school nearby and the more structured "traditional" charter school a little farther from home and I have also considered homeschooling.  The thought keeps occurring to me that my children can come home and do an hour or two of homework after school or we could homeschool and have the entire day's worth of work completed in just two or three hours.  When I came across Quinn Cummings' book, The Year of Learning Dangerously, I was intrigued.  I particularly appreciated the appeal of teaching "a curriculum tailored specifically" for each child.

Ms. Cummings begins by detailing the constant struggle with her daughter Alice over math.  Alice had come to the conclusion that if she didn't care for math, she could manipulate her teachers into letting her ignore it.  Because her current school wasn't working very well, she enrolled her daughter in a private school.  She was surprised to discover that this did not solve the problem and so she thought she would try her hand at home schooling.  She admits to being "highly anxious about my own qualifications to educate my kid", but she certainly puts in the effort to find the right way to do it.  

Among the advantages she lists for home schooling are these:
  • There are no bullies in homeschooling.  At home you can be eccentric and survive lunch.
  • The curriculum can, in fact, be tailored for each child's exact needs.
  • Anything you do with a homeschooled child outside the home can be described as a 'field trip'.
And of course Ms. Cummings addresses the constant concern about socialization:
  • Peer groups are an important part of social development.  But so are older people.  And babies.  And cousins you get into trouble with.  And great-aunts who make excellent pies.  And neighbors who can fix bikes.  
  • Compulsory schooling in the United States is less than a hundred and fifty years old.  It is, arguably, too soon to tell whether the peer group should be considered a developing child's best social influence.
  • How will these kids learn to deal with bullies and jerks?  As luck would have it, there are bullies at the Scout meeting, in the mall, on the playground and even at family reunions.  There are jerks everywhere.  Children who homeschool do get to negotiate with socially toxic people.  What they don't get to do is grimly endure an entire year sitting two feet away from a person who makes their lives miserable on a regular and predictable basis.  
Ms. Cummings attempts several styles of homeschooling and explores the options of many others.  She and her daughter try online state-sponsored homeschool, independent online homeschool as well as several different sources of curriculum.  She visits at "unschooling" convention, a Fundamentalist conservative Christian homeschool conference, and even tried to get a look at the Gothardite homeschool materials (those used by "their reigning first family, a perpetually smiling Arkansas couple with [as of this writing] nineteen children and 'very conservative values', who spread the gospel of a pure soul, a debt-free lifestyle and sexually segregated hairdos via basic cable").

By the end of the book, Ms. Cummings feels they have found a good solution that works well for their family.  She suggests that "American education is going to have to become smaller and more nimble, taking what resources it needs from anywhere it can get it."  She imagines a time when a high-school student may take some of her classes at the local high-school, some at the community college, some online, some from a private tutor while still receiving some instruction from a parent at home.  Why can't we design our own educational experience?  I find this method particularly compelling.  

Ms. Cummings is entertaining in her description of the journey she and her daughter took exploring the different options for homeschooling.  She is self-deprecating and at times sarcastic.  She admits her own shortcomings and looks forward to her own growth.  It is not often that I read non-fiction and this was enjoyable enough to not feel like work.  There was so much that I would have like to share here, perhaps you will read it for yourself.  

No comments: