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Three years ago, my eight-year old son announced he would rather not go to public school. He had actually been announcing this since he was six. A bright boy, he found the public school scene stifling, boring, unengaging. We had tried many tactics to make school work for him, including having him grade-skip twice. But it wasn’t enough. Ian wanted to learn at his own rapid pace, and do it without textbooks and worksheets.
Now I am not trained as an educator, and the idea of homeschooling without a curriculum was frightening. Without following someone else’s structure, how was I to ensure he would learn everything he was “supposed” to? But clearly, the standard approaches weren’t working, so I had to back up and think about how to move forward in such a way that would renew his excitement about learning.
When Ian turned 9, we made this radical decision to homeschool; my equally bright daughter was 6, and determined not to miss out. So we made the plunge together.
I give this backstory to explain why I threw out all the educational standards we take for granted, including grades, textbooks, and the dreaded worksheets. We had to do things differently.
Though our schedule includes history, math, science, and literature, I am equally respectful of my children’s individual talents and interests, and actively weave them into their schoolwork. This individualization empowers the kids in a way that a grade never could. And it has created two pretty amazing leaders.
Let’s start with Ian. Ian has two major loves of his life: music and trading cards. I could write an entire entry on his music, but you can learn more about that here.
What I want to talk about here is his trading card craze, which was banned from the classrooms at his public school. But where the school saw nuisance, Ian saw opportunity. Three years ago, he thought it would be fun to take his love of Pokémon and his interest in science and math and meld them into a new zoology based game. He poured over the details, musing that players would collect cards from different areas on the food chain and battle them out together, winning points for successfully attacking or defending. A fun childhood fantasy.
In the first year of homeschool, I let him pursue his idea for science class. We researched trading card structure, bought new games to compare, inspected the differences… basically, we lived every nine-year old boy’s dream. Ian chose his animals, researched their “stats,” and created a game structure that reflected their interaction in the wild. He now has a fantastic game called “Animal Attack.” He’s worked on this for two years now, entering it into several entrepreneurial contests, and presenting the idea to business leaders, teachers, and kids; he will have the game ready for market by the end of this year.
The academic benefits of allowing Ian to create his game include a deep understanding of zoology and the food chain and the development of research and computer design skills. And life skills? Business planning, budgeting, public speaking, prototype development and testing, and a sense that he is working to improve educational resources for kids like him all over the country. And he made an “awesomesauce” game. No textbook, worksheet, or grade could ever do that.
And then there’s eight-year old Eva, who is my storyteller, narrating stories about her dolls ever since she could talk. When we started homeschooling, she was six. I signed her up for National Novel Writing Month to see if she could create a story from beginning to end. She and I worked together to make an outline, with me asking probing questions to encourage her forward. Then she dictated her story to me. After it was down, she read it out loud and made her own revisions. I fixed her spelling, but that was all; she did the rest. She illustrated it, and I packed it and sent it to a self-publishing website. In just a few weeks, Eva held her first self-authored picture book, and people could buy it! This is what she said that day: “Mom, I used to want to be a princess. But now I want to be an author!”
The next year, she wrote a chapter book. She entered her authorship business into a kids’ entrepreneurial festival. We hosted a release party at our home. We created a website so that she could promote her work. And she went along on my husband’s first book tour, showcasing, selling, and signing. Not too bad for an eight-year old.
But she wanted to do more. She wants to change the world by inspiring other kids to write. So I helped her create a series of five 2-minute videos in which she talks about writing and encourages other kids. We co-wrote the script, but all the charm and poise is hers alone. She hopes that teachers and homeschoolers across the country will use her videos in their classrooms to inspire kids. You can see the videos on her website.
The academic benefits? Grammar, creative writing, story structure, art. The life skills? How does one begin? This extremely shy princess-in-training has become a confident author, teacher, entrepreneur, and public speaker. At eight.
I’m glad I ditched the ‘ole textbook.
Bio: Gwyn is a late-30′s wife and mom, environmentalist, and advocate of quality education with an emphasis on gifted kids. By trade, she is a children’s librarian and a home educator. You can learn more about her project-based learning experiences at gwynridenhour.wordpress.com.