"Not all those who wander are lost" J.R.R. Tolkien

Friday, November 25, 2011

Why I'm Thankful for Harry Potter

I consider myself an Accidental Homeschooler.  Teaching my children at home, abandoning any hope of personal free time, wearing the mother hat at the same time as the teacher hat.  None of these ever factored into my vision as I contemplated the educational future of my boys.  In fact, I distinctly recall having a fairly heated discussion with a parishioner in small town, conservative Nebraska when #1 was the ripe old age of about six months.  Still fairly new to the church, I guess not everyone had figured me out yet.  So the parishioner, a homeschooling parent, asks me if I intend to homeschool.

My first thought was:  "Good Lord, I'd just like to get him out of diapers!"  However, instead of a smart aleck remark, I sensibly responded, "Oh, gosh No!  I have a teaching degree and I'm a firm believer in public school."

What I thought was a conversation between me and one other person turned out to involve half the room as heads swung in my direction like I'd just announced that I intended to drop my kid out a window.  There was a fair amount of gasping, as I recall.  Well, the conversation was pretty much over from my end as the gaspers tried to convince me I was wrong.  Having an infant is a really good excuse to get out of a lot of things and I'm pretty sure I decided that #1 needed an immediate diaper change.  Or feeding.  Or a kindergarten enrollment form.

Being blessed with stick-to-it-iveness, I happily sent my kids off to kindergarten when the time came.  By the time #1 was in third grade, it was his third school, in two different countries, two different states.  Six weeks into the school year he was miserable because of a bullying situation.  Crying every night, "Please, Mama, don't make me go back tomorrow."  I was enjoying my first year of having both kids out of the house full time.  I had a dissertation to write, half marathons to run and I planned on making full use of all my child free hours.  Meanwhile, #2 was in first grade and he was coming home every night with quite a shocking vocabulary and many in depth questions about sex.  Not to mention getting kicked off the bus because an older boy punched him and he punched him back.  And getting pink slips for jumping in the rain puddle.  And pink slips for not sitting quietly with his hands folded during music.

I was re-reading Dobson's Bringing Up Boys at the time.  It's hugely informative regarding male mental and physical development and firmly establishes, the feminist movement notwithstanding, the differences between boys and girls.  Dobson addresses school in a particularly useful chapter and the basic idea is that school is not designed for boys.  At all.  Dobson also addresses bullying.  He doesn't denigrate public school but simply thinks that if you can educate your kids at home, it's probably best.  As I read the chapter I began thinking, "Well, we are only stationed here for a year.  Maybe I could give it a try.  After all, I do have a degree in this stuff and I'm not using it."

I mulled it over for three weeks until I mentioned it to Donald, whose jaw, very predictably, dropped.  Later that afternoon he agreed it might be worth a try.  With that, we were off.  Three years later we are still attending the School of the Kitchen Table, even though that table is presently in an RV.

Most of the time school goes really well.  The boys get everything done in a few hours and usually by lunch time they are free to play, which, in my opinion, is a huge advantage.  My kids get to still be kids.  They have extracurricular activities but it doesn't all have to be squeezed in between 4 and 7 every night.    They also get to study what interests them.  They don't always want to do their arithmetic but they are both a year ahead of their actual grade so it can't be all bad.  They insisted on learning German so we worked that into the curriculum.  I'm slowly teaching them Latin because I think it has huge value on their grammar skills.  We are doing a pretty in depth anatomy course this year.  Being an English teacher to my soul, I throw in poetry memorization but give them some choice in the poems.  We go through history chronologically, linking events from all over the world in the same time period.  We are up to the mid 1600's and are studying the Plague and the Great Fire of London.  I'll probably show them the Monty Python clip:  "Bring out Yer Dead!"  We also do about an hour and a half a day of required reading.  I decide what is read during this time as it usually pertains to our history.  They spend a lot of time reading on their own too.

Both boys have read their way through the seven book Harry Potter series.  #2 is on his second time through.  #1 did not learn to read easily but when he did, he took off and flew through reading levels like crazy.  His reading level is early college but his love of comic books does not often reflect this.  #2 learned to read easily (I'll never forget his excitement about sounding out B-O-O-K from a Cheerio's box one morning) but has, until Harry Potter, been a reluctant reader because reading requires that you sit still.  Reading through the Harry Potter series has given him the confidence he needs to sit through the required reading that I hand him.  He knows from experience that even if he wouldn't have checked it out from the library, it will probably be interesting and he really does have the ability to sit still long enough to digest it.

Because of the whole sitting still requirement, #2 is also a reluctant writer.  Last week he had to write, Oh Horrors, two informative paragraphs for language arts.  Best handwriting, capital letters, punctuation, no run-ons or fragments, subject/predicate in every sentence.  You'll remember that type of thing.  The text book offered four topic sentences.  He discarded every one with much complaining.  "It's boring, it will take too long, I don't know how to do it."  Blah, Blah, Blah.  Suddenly his eyes perked up.  "Can I write about Harry Potter?"  My first inclination, which I quickly reigned in, was to say, "No, just do what the book says."  It's the curse of being an inveterate rule follower.  Instead of squashing his inspiration (which I do enough as it is) I calmly asked him to walk me through what he wanted to write.  That child beautifully, eloquently, intently wrote two descriptive paragraphs about how to play Quidditch.  It took him a good thirty minutes.  If I had previously told him he would be writing for thirty minutes he would have called Child Protective Services.  Giving him the chance to write about something "interesting" has shown us both that not only is he merely capable of writing, he can do a excellent job.

I'm not always thankful for homeschooling.  Lots of days have me searching the internet to see what schooling options are available.  Moments like the Quidditch essay help me recall why I am thankful for homeschooling.  I don't always, but I can, bend and flex to make school more palatable for the boys.  I am thankful for Harry Potter not only being such a creative and entertaining series for me and my children but because it is has proved such a beneficial vehicle for bringing out the best in a reluctant reader/writer.

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