In the mid twentieth century, John Holt attempted to popularize a method of home education, called un-schooling, which calls for parents to provide a rich environment in the home which will stimulate the child’s curiosity and foster intellectual development. Children learn best, Holt claimed, when they are allowed to follow their own interests and choose their own methods. Personally, I have never been a big fan of un-schooling past the pre-school years because, to become truly educated, children must learn from a prescribed course of study. A little boy may want to focus on spiders and bugs, but nevertheless, he needs to learn his catechism questions and how to spell.
This is not to imply, however, that we parents should not be providing a rich intellectual setting in our homes. Children will develop better when they spend more time with books than they do with the TV set, and when family conversation focuses on world and national events rather than sports and celebrities. Often, events in our everyday life provide lots of “Trojan Horse” opportunities to sneak in some education.
The recent presidential election certainly provided one such occasion. Even younger children, who have no real idea what is going on, can see that Mom and Dad are concerned about who they vote for, can accompany them to the polling place, and will begin to recognize the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship. As children grow in understanding, they might be allowed to stay up late and watch debates on television. Parents can articulate their reasons for supporting one particular candidate and rejecting another. This is a chance for children to see how their religion lessons, some of which might seem a bit theoretical during class, have real practical applications in real life.
Subscribe to your local newspaper and encourage your children to read it. Although at first they may seem more interested in the comics, sports and Hollywood news, they will inevitably begin to read real news stories. If they comment about a particular article, now is your chance to expand on it. For example, many municipalities are banning smoking in public places. Ask your children about the advantages of such a ban: protection for workers and non-smoking patrons against secondhand smoke; further discouraging an unhealthy habit and having a positive effect on public health. Do they recognize any disadvantages? Point out that some businesses will lose sales, might have to lay off staff, and perhaps even close their doors. Invite the children to consider if a smoking ban is an unfair restriction of individual rights. Young people need to understand that many issues have valid arguments both for and against.
If your student is junior high school age or older and expresses a strong opinion about an issue, encourage him or her to write a letter to the editor. By all means, review it before it goes out, but actually participating in public discourse is great for students and is an important step towards a lifetime of responsible citizenship.
Young people are often put off by the fine arts because, not understanding them, they consider them “boring,” but every home schooled student knows the Christmas story. This blessed time of year offers many chances to painlessly enrich the educational environment, when one considers the wealth of art, music, and literature devoted to the birth of Christ. Gian Carlo Menotti wrote an opera, Ahmal and the Night Visitors with an original libretto in English. It is a great introduction to opera and can be viewed on DVD, which you might be able to purchase or borrow from your library system. Handel’s Messiah is often performed at Christmas time and is readily available on CD. The piece is based on Biblical text from Isaiah, is in English, and is beautiful beyond description. Children who will not sit still for classical music at other times often love hearing traditional hymns. Ask them to do an Internet search of words like “yuletide” and “Noël” to learn why we use them in Christmas hymns. If your community has a presentation of The Nutcracker, get tickets. Early exposure to fine music and dance will enrich your children’s lives immeasurably.
I think Seton has the best elementary level art appreciation in the country. Look through the textbooks for representations of the Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, and Epiphany. Ask younger children to set up the family nativity set according to a particular painting. Ask older children to explain the differences among paintings in the Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and other styles. Many Christmas cards feature the Great Masters. See if your children can identify them as they come in. If one child clearly loves a particular artistic style, a trip to the library is in order, or better yet, a carefully chosen book wrapped under the tree.
Do your children love Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol? The 1951 black and white version, featuring Alistair Sim as Scrooge, retains much of the author’s original dialogue. Copies of both the movie and the book might make terrific Christmas gifts. Dickens also wrote other Christmas tales that your students might wish to look for. A Google search I did of “Christmas stories” pulled up more than 4 million hits. One very interesting topic is how certain Christmas customs originated. St Francis Assisi is often credited with the first nativity set. Christmas trees spring from a German custom and were popularized in England by Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert. Of course, the popular song Oh Christmas Tree is often rendered in the original German as Oh Tannenbaum.
Planning and prioritizing holiday sentiments and activities will teach important life skills including critical thinking skills and problem solving. Although it should certainly not be the basis of your math curriculum, following a recipe does reinforce concepts such as fractions and proportion. The flurry of shopping, decorating, card-writing, and entertaining encourages children to plan and schedule—important skills for any student.
The materialistic extravaganza that Christmas has become in our country offers students a critical lesson in correct thinking. Guide them to realize that Christmas is first a religious celebration, second an opportunity to share good times with loved ones, with gift giving and receiving coming up a distant third. Wise parents do this by making Mass attendance the centerpiece of our holiday, and nativity sets the most important decoration in the home.
No question, home education must be rigorous and orderly, but its intent is not to have students digest lots of information and spit it out. Rather, home schooling must seek to enhance natural curiosity, and instill a love of learning for its own sake, and the sake of the Kingdom of God. We do this by making the lessons in our textbooks come alive in practical ways. Carefully looking at the liturgical year, the daily newspaper, and events in our own communities will offer parents a wealth of opportunities to foster intellectual growth.
Tip of the Month
The key to maintaining serenity this time of year is, “Keep it simple.” Apply this principle to shopping and entertaining and the holiday season will be far less stressful.