When I was fresh out of college and bursting with ideas for helping children discover, explore, and understand, I began my first year of teaching as eager as the first graders I faced. Only two years later I was in a whole other world. I was given the almost impossible task of teaching a class of bored and often defiant sixth graders. I didn’t bother to think about why they hated school. I didn’t see them as once eager six-year-olds who had become school weary eleven-year-olds. I just tried to make things interesting so they would change their minds. The only time I had their undivided attention was when I read aloud. Over the next five years I taught special education, administered tests, and worked with other teachers and the troubled students they referred to me. Although I had always realized the importance of how something was taught, I now recognized how disastrous the consequences could be when that was ignored in favor of simply dishing out information. As a famous biographer once wrote, “A mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be lit.” I had managed to captivate my sixth graders with stories read aloud because they had been able to return to preschool memories of discovery just for the pleasure of it.
When I decided to homeschool my own two children, I wanted to be certain that I instilled a love of learning that would not fade because of the common “read, memorize, and test” formula. All around me was a wealth of wonderful materials – in libraries, resource rooms, bookstores, catalogs, science shops (and, later, homeschool conventions). I came up with the approach that would eventually result in the Design-A-Study books simply to give myself the freedom to pull all of these materials together in an organized way. It also gave me a framework so that I would not be in danger of leaving gaps in their education.
I arranged information for maximum flexibility and convenience. I wanted to be able to tell at a glance what was important, to get rid of the clutter and fluff and know the heart of the matter – just what was it kids really needed to understand? And when? And how often was the concept reviewed or repeated? That way I could teach both my children many of the same objectives, and I didn’t have to get nervous because we weren’t covering everything someone else did in the same grade. They could work toward mastery of a concept instead of completion of a text, avoiding yearly, tedious repetition. It also kept me from trying to force understanding when they just weren’t ready (I could assure myself that it was also covered next year…and the next…and the next…) Since my children have very different learning styles (my son is auditory and, as a child, was very kinesthetic; my daughter is visual), I could also choose the types of resources and activities that would suit them individually.
We’re now completing our eleventh year of homeschooling, and my children have developed the qualities I used as overall goals:
- a love of learning
- the ability and confidence to learn on their own
- the habit of critically analyzing, rather than mindlessly accepting, what they see or hear, and
- the ability to express themselves well in writing and in speech, logically supporting their point of view.
Christopher, fourteen, gave up a promising future as a competitive swimmer to work toward his long range musical goals. He now spends several hours a day practicing the violin and has won a number of musical awards. He is a member of scholarship orchestra and takes classes in music theory outside the home. He has composed numerous pieces, including a communion hymn sung in our church. Also interested in computer programming, he found resources to learn on his own and has begun writing his own programs.
Clea, eighteen, spent several years as a competitive gymnast. Her interest in great Russian Olympic figures led to a study of the Russian people. Last summer she had an opportunity to combine her love of learning about other people and their cultures, past and present, with her interest in studying and sharing about the Bible. She spent ten days in Russia as part of the Josh McDowell Ministry’s outreach. She has since studied Russian at a local college, hoping to return. She will be attending the University of Delaware this fall and was granted scholarships, in part, due to her well-written essay. We realize that she will be exposed to theories and philosophies contradictory to Christianity, and if she had been taught only what to think, not how, like many children, we would be fearful of sending her into such classrooms. But, her father and I believe she has studied to show herself approved and is prepared, like Jude said, to “contend earnestly for the faith.”
The teaching suggestions and objectives included in Design-A-Study books give every homeschooling family the opportunity to do what I have done. One example stands out in my mind. A couple of years ago I met with a worried mother and her thirteen-year-old, learning disabled son. After six years in special education classes he was still unable to read. Discouraged and depressed because of the taunts of his classmates, he saw himself as worthless and was interested in little but watching television alone. His mother decided to teach him at home. Using Design-A-Study books, she whet his appetite while covering ground in history and literature by reading out loud from a number of library books. She followed that up with videos and trips to local historical sites. Science and math were hands-on. Compositions were dictated. Throughout each day they worked together on phonics using the Natural Speller along with additional activities I suggested for teaching reading. At our second meeting only three months later, he read to me! His eyes lit up as he told me all the “neat stuff” they’d been doing. His mother beamed and told me that he was a new person. Two years later, her still confident son is reading at a seventh grade level and eagerly working part-time with his father to learn a trade.