I found a major flaw in my metaphor.
I’ve been writing about what I call “tidal homeschooling,” the way my children experience an ebb and flow of alternating periods of deliberate study, directed by me, and periods of what is sometimes called “natural” learning but which I more often describe as “accidental” learning—the enormous quantities of facts and ideas children are wont to soak up when given time and freedom in which to do so. I’ve described the periods of structured study as our “high tide” times, when I charter a boat and lead my merry little crew on a fishing expedition in quest of a particular skill or subject, in contrast to our “low tide” times when they wander off, each in her own direction, to explore the shores and tide pools of the world, eager little beachcombers gathering sackfuls of treasure. Because of the high-tide voyages, I cannot accurately call us unschoolers; but because of the frequency and fruitfulness of our low-tide times, which sometimes last for months, I have shied away from various other home-education labels as well, finding more in common with the outlook of the unschoolers than with any other group. Since no label fit, I coined my own term which seems to aptly describe the rhythm and manner of learning that takes place in our family.
But I was mulling over this excellent post at The Common Room (subsequent mulling-over being the usual pleasant result of reading a Common Room post) and it struck me that my metaphor breaks down when I come to the beachcombing part.
“The adults in the child’s life,” writes the Headmistress, referencing Charlotte Mason,
“have the ‘power of appeal and inspiration,’ and the responsibility to act ‘the part of guide, philosopher and friend’ to these young people with wonderful minds but no knowledge to speak of.
“Or… we can just abandon them to their uninformed judgment about what’s important and what isn’t, leave them to their own devices, and allow them to believe that their own judgment about what is and is not important to know is just as well informed and solid an opinion as Mortimer Adler’s, Thomas Jefferson’s, Peter’s, Paul’s, or…. yours. Leaving children to pick up what scraps of knowledge they think to ask about, willy nilly, is not doing them any favors. It isn’t respectful of their situation as newcomers to the world or to the adults they will grow up to be. And if we don’t do our job as the adults in their lives when they are small, the adults they grow up to be will have a malnourished background upon which to build.’ “
For a brief moment, the unschooler in me bristled defensively. Not that I think the Headmistress was denouncing unschooling with this statement—she has made gracious remarks about the philosophy in the comments section here on Bonny Glen and elsewhere. But this statement jumped out at me: “Leaving children to pick up what scraps of knowledge they think to ask about, willy nilly…” Is this, I wondered, exactly the sort of experience I have enthusiastically hailed as our low-tide times? Allowing children the freedom to learn by undirected exploration of the world? To be sure, what I have witnessed and described as the collection of a sackful of treasures is a rich and bountiful harvest of knowledge, not an aimless scrounging after scraps. And yet…is there a willy-nilliness to their education? Am I—are unschoolers—leaving too much up to chance?
Then it occurred to me that I’ve overlooked an aspect of my beachcombing scenario. I’m the one strewing the beach with treasures for the children to discover. You see, this is where the metaphor breaks down. Sometimes, yes, I am simply the person bringing the children to the metaphorical strand and turning them loose to explore. But other times—a lot of the time, when I think about it—I have visited the beach in advance and filled the tide pools with interesting creatures; I have hidden the treasures behind the dunes.
This strewing is something unschooling parents talk a great deal about. It is the same thing Charlotte Mason meant when she said, “Education is a life. That life is sustained on ideas…we must sustain a child’s inner life with ideas as we sustain his body with food,” urging parents and teachers to provide hearty feasts of ‘living’ books and firsthand encounters with the natural world. Of course, Miss Mason recommended regular and orderly mealtimes, while an unschooler would probably say that the human mind thrives best when allowed to graze. But in both cases, we see a committed, thoughtful parent doing the shopping and preparing the food. I am doing just as much preparation (to jump metaphors again) during our low-tide times as I am during high tide. Whether I am piloting the boat on a fishing trip—as I am doing now with our studies of German and Shakespeare—or whether I am hiding bits of sea glass in the sand for a wandering child to discover (or not), my role is indeed that of “guide, philosopher, and friend.”
And so I see that my metaphor needs tweaking. And I continue to chew on these ideas (with apologies to the gentle Headmistress for running off with her post in my mouth), which—like everything connected with Charlotte Mason that I have come across in the past ten years—provide such stimulating nourishment for my own mind.
At any rate, the tidal homeschooling metaphor is not a method; it does not shape what we do. It is useful insofar as it is a way of answering the many variations on the question, “How do you do it?”—which is to say, “What does homeschooling look like in your home?” This is a question homeschoolers are constantly asking one another, and it is a root question in many discussions between homeschoolers and folks whose children go to school. And perhaps a better way of answering it is to apply the Writers’ Rule: Show, don’t tell. I think this is why we love blogs and discussion boards: we crave these peeks into other homes.
One of my favorite “peeks through the window” is Elizabeth Foss’s lovely book, Real Learning: Education in the Heart of the Home. Here we have an entire book full of examples both practical and lyrical to the “How do you do it?” question. The Common Room family lives in another house full of enticing windows. This post at Cottage Blessings is a glimpse into a cottage that is truly a blessed place—so much so that I am daily tempted to pack up my little brood and move right in. (Wouldn’t Alice be surprised!)
Other recent peeks-through-the-window I have enjoyed:
And these books:
• Homeschooling With Gentleness by Suzie Andres
• Homeschooling Our Children, Unschooling Ourselves by Alison McKee
• A Charlotte Mason Companion by Karen Andreola—like Real Learning, this is a book I return to over and over
• The about-to-be-published Catholic Homeschool Companion, edited by Maureen Wittman and Rachel Mackson—a glimpse through many windows!