On choices in education

It is late summer. The time of year when school parents begin to stock up on school supplies, lunch items and cool clothing. Locker accessories are drooled over and for those with office supply obsessions, the haunting of the aisles is eagerly engaged in. This is the time of year when home school parents finish up their curriculum choices for the year and the boxes of new books begin to arrive, alluring in their untouched-newness, begging to be written upon.

And all of us Americans, people of privilege; we wonder. Have we chosen well? Are our education choices right for our kids? Are they in the environment where they will learn the most? Where they will learn to love learning? Will their individual strengths be seen and honored? Will their individual weaknesses be improved? While African parents simply worry and wonder about how to afford the required pair of shoes for their children’s first day of school, we wonder about multigrade versus traditional classrooms. We consider the charter middle school with all the languages, sports and high-level academics in contrast to the local Christian school with an incredible community and constant exposure to the presence of God.

We have done a little bit of educational everything with our kids over the years. As Naomi approached kindergarten, a middle-class child of a middle-class community on the East coast, we dutifully and eagerly did our research into schools and co-ops. We were less than thrilled by what we found. None seemed like a better alternative to what we were doing at home already. By three and a half, Naomi taught herself to write words, her vocabulary surpassed that of many grown ups and her ability to listen to long hours of reading allowed her to explore great portions of the world with us. Thus began two years of unschooling. We chose not to buy curriculum or engage in teaching. Instead we simply did life. We took untold field trips, read and read and read, crafted our home into a state of utter confusion, and watched cooking shows for hours. Naomi thrived and blossomed and grew in wisdom and stature.

When God called us to Africa halfway through Naomi’s first grade year, educational options changed. As part of a very small mission group in the bush, we were expected to join the little one-room schoolhouse taught by two American teachers with a total of nine students. Naomi was placed in second grade with two other missionary girls. She slid right in, learning to “officially” read in a matter of weeks, catching right up to her peers, a year ahead of her in placement. This is where they learned for three plus years, Quinn joining Naomi in the one-room schoolhouse for some preschool a year later. Quinn began with the books, manipulatives and curricula of a home school approach. He too learned eagerly, giggling himself silly at school and at home, happily learning beside his best-friend and fellow missionary kid, Gabriel. The loving missionary teachers were more like aunts than anything else. What could be better?

We returned to the States midway through a school year. Naomi halfway through fifth grade and Quinn halfway through second. We traveled through Cairo, Rome, and Paris on our way home in January, and once we were back on America’s east coast we chose not to re-enroll our children in school. Through a six month season of constant travel, uncertainty and re-settling; we just learned and lived together. We trusted that our children would be fine.

Their first year of traditional schooling followed as David and I went to a ministry school together and the kids were full-time in the associated Christian school. Naomi repeated fifth grade, allowing her to stay with her age-peers rather than her academic ability. Often bored intellectually, she spent the year learning the social, relational and cultural skills needed for an American child. Quinn entered a multi-grade classroom where he too focused on learning this new world of concrete, unlimited internet and shopping choice that his peers saw as normal.

Last year, we gave Quinn his year at home. Naomi happily entered sixth grade and enjoyed being at the top of her class, playing soccer on the school team and dancing in the school performances. Quinn spent the year working on lego robotics, watching documentaries, learning to type, listening with fascination to American history, building forts and cuddling his kittens. His countenance opened up and his spirit began to soar as he embraced his new life here through new lenses. Just as we had seen with Naomi in kindergarten, being at home gave Quinn unparalleled emotional health and built deeply into our relationship with him.

Now it is back to school for both of them. For the first time Quinn will be in a traditional single grade classroom. His teacher has a deep connection with God and sensitivity to children and Quinn will be surrounded by boys who provide the community he thrives in. Naomi can’t wait for the seventh grade, her teacher is a thoughtful and gregarious life-learner who inspires his students everyday and challenges them in the way she needs. Meanwhile, we will continue the life learning during our frequent home hours. Mechanics, robotics, internet explorations, film watching of every kind, crafting and artistic endeavors and sports will continue to fill our days. David and I will continue to push the limits on our own learning, pursuing our passions wholeheartedly, and modeling a lifestyle of enthusiasm and accomplishment to our kids.

As a family, this is one more year of learning. And it’s all good.

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