The North Carolinians for Home Education, a growing network of families who home-school their children, held its annual statewide convention recently in Winston-Salem.
Despite our background in public education - I taught English before becoming a stay-at-home mom; my husband is a high school teacher - we have decided to home-school our children.
Right now, we are in the research phase of this journey. Our children are 2 and 4, so while their education is certainly under way, it's mostly arrived at by way of rain boots in muddy puddles and countless re-readings of favorite storybooks.
Ever diligent and usually prepared, Phil and I felt that we should discover for ourselves what homeschoolers from across the state were up to, what they were talking about, and what materials they were using to support home education.
The materials part was both the easiest to discover and the most overwhelming to digest. Of the two levels of Benton Convention Center that the convention occupied in Winston-Salem, a swarming, sprawling book fair took up the entire lower level.
Almost 100 vendors demonstrated hands-on mathematics materials and peddled phonics programs. There were books on tape, foreign language programs, educational toys, and vacuum-sealed dissection specimens.
Actually, my weekend was more than fulfilled as soon as I looked next to the compound microscopes and discovered a whole and quite dead frog, carefully preserved in plastic and awaiting the home dissection of some lucky 15-year-old. You just don't see that every day.
Upstairs, we attended workshops that defended homeschooling and predicted its future place in society. Some lecturers discussed the practical aspects of organizing the home environment for schooling -- how to store lab equipment and textbooks so your home doesn't present like a classroom when it's time for entertaining. Other lecturers demonstrated teaching methods: reading instruction, narration, apprenticeship.
Phil attended one day; I attended all three. I spent hours absorbing as much information on home-schooling as I could, considering my own opinions of what education should be, what our children might enjoy, and what responsibilities I would have. By contrast, Phil spent five minutes at one vendor's booth and had all his questions answered.
"When you're good, you're good," he said, in his typical modest fashion.
Speaking of modesty, I was as impressed by what I didn't see at the conference as much as by what I did see. Among the many teens in attendance, there were no revealing mini-skirts or skin-tight tank tops. I didn't see anyone zoned out with an iPod or engrossed in texting or hand-held video games. The kids were comfortable with and respectful of the adults, curious and articulate.
Being around them, and the whole atmosphere of home education, got me thinking, more than ever, about what education is, and what it should be. The philosophy I am most drawn to advocates for the whole child. It considers not only the child's mental development, but also matters of physical and spiritual development. It treats the child as a person.
This approach seeks to prepare the child not solely for work, but for an understanding of his world, of our world. To take this approach in the public schools would require not so much a shift in subject matter as a rethinking of why we are teaching what we're teaching, for what purpose?
No one educational system, public or private, is necessarily better than another, so long as its aims are well-thought out and, above all, humanistic. I'm not saying the future of education is home school. But home is a good place to start.
We returned from the conference, I to my home-school, Phil to his classroom, not overwhelmed, but energized. We've been devouring volumes on our chosen approach.
Phil has further scrutinized his methods and his philosophy of education, considering how his classroom can reflect the understanding we're developing at home.
What we discovered is that education is not as hard as we thought. In some ways, though, it's even harder. Children are naturally curious.
Our job, as parents and as educators, is to guide the child's discovery without extinguishing that curiosity - even if it means bringing home a dead frog.