Thoughts on Harvard & homeschooling

Last weekend I attended events at Visitas, a chock-full weekend for students admitted to Harvard College and their families.

We are local to Harvard, and quite familiar with the neighborhood and the campus through community events, arts events, and the Extension School. I’ve been in the audience and on the stage (thank you, Revels) of historic Sanders Theatre many times, but sitting in the hall as the parent of an incoming student was a different experience, one of those moments when I felt the fullness of time in all its magical profundity.

Not all my kids went to Harvard, or even wanted/want to go there, and I’ve written before about my thoughts on whether college is necessary for a fulfilling life (short answer, no). That said, if you’re looking for a liberal arts education, Harvard is a great place to be. Listening to Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust speak was a real treat (younger daughter was quite taken with her, and we stopped at The Coop to pick up a copy of her book on the way home). Ditto for Dean of Harvard College Rakesh Khurana (“He was awesome,” I later told my daughter, who replied that according to her peers, I wasn’t the only mom smitten).

I felt little of the elitism or snobbery often associated with the Ivy League. Yes, the faculty members and administrators we encountered were super smart, but they were also approachable, down-to-earth, funny, and caring. They spoke about transformational learning experiences, finding community, and the importance of making mistakes. As I reflected on some of their inspiring and reassuring comments, I noticed some parallels with our homeschooling philosophy.

Khurana remarked that it was important to him that Harvard students are not the best in the world, but rather that they are the best for the world. I like that. Service is a family value that was firmly woven into my kids’ lives.

President Faust stressed that she wants students to stretch their limits and try new endeavors, even those at which they might not excel. Students are not expected to be perfect, she said, and mistakes are a necessary component in learning. I got the feeling that the administration and faculty have to work at getting their student body to believe this, but fortunately my homeschooled daughter has lived it from day one.

Harvard isn’t ditching grades, of course, but at least they take a bit of emphasis away from them by offering compelling freshman seminars that are pass/fail. Parents were also told not to expect their kids to earn the kind of grades they did in high school. In an environment that encourages them to try new things and look to expand their comfort zones, why would they? Fortunately again, my daughter never received grades until she started taking formal classes as a teenager, and by then she had already prioritized learning.

One of the things I did this past year as part of the college application process was to join a few e-lists specific to homeschooling and college. I encountered many parents obsessing about test scores, grades, and extracurriculars that would make their kids stand out from the pack. My daughter had plenty of extracurriculars, but none of them were chosen in service of a college application. Her entire application, and our whole approach to homeschooling, was antithetical to that. Our goals were broader. They included, as we stated in our “school profile,” “intellectual curiosity, creativity, self-reliance, industriousness, resilience, compassion, and happiness.”

What did that look like in practice? Our kids played a whole lot, and hung around people of all ages. Together, we read a lot of books, made a lot of music, and asked a lot of questions. As young children, they tagged along with their father and me to work places, rehearsals, meetings, and volunteer jobs. They became independent on their own schedules, stepping into the world as teens to pursue classes and work that interested them.

Does this approach guarantee admission to the Ivy League? Of course not, but what does that matter when it guarantees a life filled with the joy that comes from learning, loving, creating, exploring, and serving others?

Perhaps I was wearing rose-colored glasses, but that joy is what I saw at Visitas. I left feeling inspired for my personal continued lifelong learning, excited for my daughter and the amazing opportunities coming her way, and hugely relieved by the support and care that she’ll be getting at Harvard.

How’s school?

Recently at a doctor’s appointment, my daughter got the oh-so-familiar question: “How’s school?”

Without skipping a beat, she replied “Great!”

The doctor asked what classes she liked. “Well,” she said, “I’m enjoying history right now.” The doctor said that she, not surprisingly, had really liked anatomy. The routine appointment continued, as did the pleasant conversation, which covered the delights of passionate teachers and the joys of dissecting frogs. This doctor had no idea that my daughter is homeschooled, and apparently, my daughter didn’t feel the need to enlighten her.

Thinking about it later, I saw the sense in it. Most people think of school as a building one goes to every day, but with the growth of homeschooling and other forms of alternative education, that paradigm is changing. Instead of responding with an answer that negated the doctor’s question, my daughter gave an answer about her current personal experience with education.

Recently, I read an article that quoted the late Paul Goodman: “Suppose you had the revolution you are talking and dreaming about. Suppose your side had won, and you had the kind of society you wanted. How would you live, you personally, in that society? Start living that way now! Whatever you would do then, do it now.”

When it comes to education, the revolutionary outcome I would like to see is a world in which alternative forms of education are socially accepted. A world that recognizes the folly of one-size-fits-all education, and that supports multiple approaches. That morning, when my homeschooling daughter answered the “How’s school?” question, she was living in that society. She and the doctor weren’t two people on opposite sides of a fence. As each shared the common experience of a love of learning, they connected.

Such connections can only help create a world in which homeschooling and other forms of alternative education are as commonplace as a yellow school bus, no debate or discussion required, only living and learning.

Life without television

Did you know that Screen-Free Week is coming right up? It’s May 4-10. During that time, people are encouraged to “rediscover life beyond the screen.” These days, screens are everywhere, but once upon a time there was just the television.

My husband and I decided to live without one many years ago. The old clunker we had served us quite well, although it did require getting up off the couch and turning a dial to change the channel. When it finally bit the dust, we realized that other than watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, we hardly used it. We decided to take the plunge, save some bucks, and leave the television cabinet bare.

We didn’t commit to never getting another television, but so far we haven’t, which means that my kids grew up in a home with no TV. Recently, my daughter had to write an essay on the following topic: Describe any characteristics of your family or community that have been important to your personal development.

She began with this sentence: In the corner of my living room where most families have a TV, my family has a bookshelf. 

The essay focused on the importance of books and the arts in my daughter’s life, but she clearly understood that the ways they were woven into her childhood were a direct result of our lack of a television. There was no “electronic babysitter,” but there were books, music, and stories on tape, and she and her siblings listened to them often. Instead of nightly television watching, we read together (and still do). Entertainment came from attending live music and theater events, not from sitting in front of the tube.

As parents, we can’t really know how the lifestyle choices we make will affect our kids. It felt gratifying to realize what a profound effect growing up without television had on my daughter, especially because of the push back we got from family and community members.

For a few years after we first got rid of the TV, my mother tried several times to convince me to let her buy one for us and stop depriving our kids. When I mentioned our lack of TV to my former boss, he said with astonishment, “Do you have indoor plumbing?” I didn’t dare mention our no-TV household in unschooling discussion forums after being told I was harming my relationship with my children.

The fact is, life was richer without television, especially with kids. Whatever hole was left by getting rid of the television was seamlessly filled to overflowing with other endeavors. We read more books, drew more pictures, played more games, sang more songs, talked more, and took more walks in the woods.

These days, although we still don’t have a television, we have plenty of screens, and even watch selected television shows on the computer. It’s a challenge to make the choice to minimize them, but it’s one that’s both liberating and rewarding. Come early May, try it for yourself and see.

In defense of passion

Passion: a strong feeling of enthusiasm or excitement for something or about doing something —

I like passion. I mean, is that weird? Doesn’t everyone like to feel enthusiastic and excited about what they do? As a parent, I like it when my kids are engaged in activities they feel passionate about. In fact, a major focus of my homeschooling style has been to help my kids find their passions, and to nurture them.

Then I read this New York Times article by Lisa Heffernan called Our Push for ‘Passion,’ and Why It Harms Kids. Harms kids? Have I been harming my kids?

The piece is good food for thought, and I don’t disagree with much of what the author says. Seems like passion has become a buzzword of sorts, the latest trick for getting into the college of your choice and embarking on a happily-ever-after life of achievement and success.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been blissfully homeschooling all these years, but I missed that memo. I still think of passion as that feeling of excitement, the one that drives you to work, to experiment, to try, to learn, and as a result, to grow. I get what Heffernan is saying about “passion pushers,” but supporting kids when they show an interest in something isn’t the same as pushing. There’s a fine line, you may say, and I agree. I found that when I miscalculated and crossed it, I got the back off, Mom message loud and clear from my kids.

Like the writer of the article, my garage and attic are full of stuff. There are the unicycles my kids used to constantly ride, the juggling clubs my son enjoyed for a couple of years, and remnants of his former obsession with birding and nature photography. The cast-off stuff isn’t limited to the kids. There’s also the tandem bicycle my husband bought when he used to bike our daughters around town, the Italian tapes I purchased when I decided to learn the language, and a bunch of camping gear that we don’t use very much anymore. To me, these things are evidence of the rich, full lives we are fortunate enough to lead. The fact that my son no longer juggles or takes pictures of birds doesn’t take anything away from the value those activities added to his life while he was doing them. The fact that the unicycles are currently collecting dust in no way diminishes the joy (not to mention exercise) they gave my daughters during the time they were riding them all over the neighborhood.

My kids have cycled through a lot of passions. Besides the aforementioned unicycling, juggling, birding, and nature photography, there were Legos, mustelids, basketball, soccer, fantasy novels, jazz, folk music, psychology, politics, neuroanatomy, Shakespeare, Moby-Dick, and theater.

Sometimes my kids pursue their passions like rocks along the stream of life, hopping from one to the next with glee, and sometimes they hold steady to one or two, making them roots from which to grow the rest of their lives. If pursuits are abandoned, some might think, then they’re not really passions. I disagree, because here’s the thing about passion. It’s about the present, not the future. It’s about learning and embracing in the moment. Sometimes that leads to the formation of long-term goals, and sometimes it doesn’t. In order to avoid becoming one of the “passion pushers” Heffernan describes, that’s something we parents have to accept. Quitting happens, and it doesn’t necessarily signal wasted time or effort.

How else to avoid pushing? Value the process, not the product. Expose your kids to plenty of subjects and activities, but don’t jump every time you perceive an interest — if they really want to pursue something, they’ll let you know. Perhaps most importantly of all, be a model, and live your own life with passion.

Kids and self-identification

She wants everyone to know that she is also a farmer, mountain climber, artist, and cook.

That’s the last sentence of a program biography written (well, dictated actually) many years ago by my daughter. She was four at the time, and the music director of our family’s intergenerational chorus had asked her to be a page in a college production of As You Like It. She said yes. I was concerned that she might not fully understand the commitment, and told the music director I wouldn’t force her to continue if she withdrew consent at any point. He accepted the terms, but as it turned out, my daughter felt completely at home on the stage, backstage, and everywhere in between.

Now, at 18, she’s turned the corner into adulthood and is headed to college in the fall. The other day while discussing the future with a visiting friend, he reminded me of that program bio of old and its innocent, youthful swagger. The contents made an impression on him.

What gave my daughter the confidence to self-identify in so many roles? Well, at the time, she was my husband’s right-hand helper in the garden. They were digging their green thumbs into the soil, growing tomatoes, lettuce, and other vegetables. Therefore, a farmer. We took her hiking as often as possible, and scaled plenty of large hills which she apparently interpreted as mountains. She and her siblings spent many hours using the paints, brushes, pastels, and other art supplies strewn around the house, so artist was a no brainer. When she wanted to make her own breakfast, my husband and I didn’t keep her away from the stove. She’d crack the eggs, whisk them, and stand on a chair to preside over the scrambled eggs. So yeah, she was a cook, too.

Fortunately, she hasn’t lost the perception of herself as a competent human being. She’s always been encouraged to try things out, experiment, and explore her interests. No one told her a cook or an artist had to have credentials other than the simple act of engagement. So many of us are afraid to call ourselves what we want to be for fear that we’re not adequately qualified. I wonder, sometimes, how much that holds us back.

In my role as a facilitator of creative writing groups for homeschoolers, one of my most important goals is that the kids think of themselves as writers. And why not? They come to our weekly gatherings, they participate in our writing exercises, and they share their own pieces as they choose. It’s not about trying to get to a point where they’re good enough to have an outside authority bestow on them the title of writer. Their own self-identification as writers, and their investment in that self-identification, is what makes them strive to improve.

I’ve seen it again and again over the years. When kids have the freedom and confidence to self-identify and self-evaluate, they become interested, engaged, and daring. They create, they invent, they learn. They don’t have to wait until they grow up to become. They already are.