Two Generations, Home Schooled

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PHOTOS: DIANA AVERY AMSDEN
As far as the three women pictured here are concerned, home schooling runs in the family! LEFT: Winifed Amsden, the clan's first teaching parent.. CENTER: Diana Avery Amsden, the author of this article, was home schooled as a child and home schooled four of her children. RIGHT: Dyanne was the author's first home-taught child.

In a MOTHER EARTH NEWS interview with John Holt, the home schooling advocate
talked at length about the whys and hows of educating your
children and the advantages of not allowing them
to go through our country’s conventional school system.
Well, the author of the following piece not only
home schooled several of her children …
she was
also educated — as a young child — by
her mother!


Can you provide your child with a better education than he
or she could expect to receive in the public schools?

That question is, of course, quite difficult to answer.
After all, most people have been helped and inspired by
exceptional teachers. On the other hand, it’s pretty much
common knowledge that many public school educators
are incompetent. Worse yet, the overall atmosphere
of our learning institutions often makes it all but
impossible for a student to receive a good education. (in
some instances, both pupils and instructors can do little
more than worry about their physical safety!)

All in all, though, before you can decide whether you’ll be
able to teach your child better than the established
schools can, you’ll have to assess both your
abilities (and commitments) and the quality of
your local educational institutions. One thing’s for sure:
It is certainly possible for parents to provide a good
— indeed, excellent — education for their own
children. I know this to be true from my own personal
experience … because not only was I taught at
home as a child, but I later educated four of my own
offspring during their early childhood years. And I feel
that the results, in both cases, were quite
rewarding.

My Days as a Home-Taught Student

My mother — Winifred Stahly Amsden — never
earned a college degree … but she is nonetheless an
unusually literate, well-read, and businesslike woman. She
started my education when I was four with help from
the correspondence kindergarten course provided by the
Calvert School. (Even today, it pleases me to remember the
Calvert-supplied bright wooden beads and the variously
shaped blocks that I arranged in elaborate patterns on my
pegboard.)

When I reached the age of five, though, Mother did enroll
me in public school. The institution, located in nearby
Nambé, New Mexico, was backed by Cyrus McCormick (a
well-known philanthropist) and headed by a marvelous woman
named Mary Watson … and the quality of instruction was
excellent. In fact, I was studying — and loving
— such subjects as simple bacteriology, paleontology,
and archaeology at the age of seven!

But local political maneuvering ended McCormick’s
influence, so the school’s quality soon deteriorated. The
atmosphere became repressive and the work boring. I
distinctly remember an instance, in the “changed”
classroom, when another pupil was stumbling — word by
word — through a reading group recitation. Now I knew
I couldn’t help the struggling student without
being labeled a showoff, so I fought my boredom by reading
on in the assigned book. I was working through the text for
the second time when the teacher called upon me to recite,
and then — since I had no idea where to begin —
she soundly chastised me for not paying attention.

Similar “noneducational” incidents occurred almost every
day. For example, I was often the first pupil to finish our
frequently assigned seat work. Each time I asked the teacher
what I should do next, she replied that I should check my
work. When I finished that task, she would tell
me to go over the paper yet again! I soon realized that
there was little reason to be careful the first time I did
my lessons … and consequently developed sloppy work
habits.

I also developed a strong — and obvious to everyone
around me — case of “schoolphobia.” So, with the
blessing of Mary Watson (she had by this time become New
Mexico’s State Superintendent of Education), Mother decided
to teach me at home. She gave me only a couple of hours of
instruction each morning — while she did the
household laundry, ironing, mending, and cleaning —
but I gained far more from that brief tutoring than I had
while “working” all day in school.

At home, every minute of study counted. No misspelled word
or error in grammar escaped my parent’s sharp eyes. I had
to be able to solve every arithmetic problem and answer
every history question (not merely one out of every 25, as
in my public school days). In addition, Mother always
communicated precisely at my level, so I was never made to
feel either confused, bored, stupid, or superior!

The Calvert School textbooks we used at home were also more
advanced and interesting than were the regular school’s
materials. In fact, I love V.M. Hillyer’s A Child’s
History of the World
(which Calvert students are still
using today) so much that I’ve even reread the book as an
adult, just for fun. (By contrast, how many grown-ups even
remember the books they used in public school?)

And Mother’s housekeeping duties never suffered as a result
of her teaching me … since she had me help out with all
the dusting, ironing, and washday chores. Even so, l had
plenty of extra hours for healthful outside play, relaxing,
drawing, planning houses (I still love to design adobe
homes for do-it-yourselfers), and for experiencing
those hours of solitude during which we learn to “grow our
souls.”

My “teacher” parent also provided me with extracurricular
activities. She drove me 17 miles to Santa Fe, twice each
week, so I could take dancing lessons … and paid for the
instruction by playing the piano for the class. She even
formed (and ran) a Girl Scout troop, and my participation
in that group gave me some of my happiest childhood
memories.

Of course, my mother could not have done all she did for me
if I hadn’t also had a wonderful father. Without
his cooperation, she would never have been able to teach me
at home. Together, my parents gave me a solid educational
grounding. And their instruction paid off: I entered
college at 15, graduated four years later with the highest
honors, and have subsequently earned four additional
degrees.

Teaching My Children to Read

One of my graduate diplomas was a master’s degree in
education from Harvard. I went after that
certificate not to learn how to teach (and, to tell the
truth, the required coursework in no way trained me to
instruct) but, instead, to merely gain official credentials so I would have the legal right to do for my own
youngsters what my mother had done for me.

I then taught my first four children (two girls and two
boys) at home until the eldest was eight years old. At that
time my marriage ended in divorce. I had to work
outside the home to make a living, and could no
longer spend the day with my youngsters. Thus, while four
of my offspring were taught to read at home, the youngest
son and daughter learned that basic skill in public school.

This unfortunate occurrence did give me a sharp
basis for comparing the value of home and school
instruction. All four older children (now in their early
and middle twenties) are today good readers who enjoy books
greatly. Moreover, three of them developed a spontaneous
— and continuing — interest in creative
writing.

The two youngest children — who are in their late
teens — are just as bright as their older siblings
and can, indeed, read competently. But they don’t
like to sit down with a book or magazine … and
don’t write for pleasure, either. Reading inevitably
reminds them of tedious hours spent with uninspiring texts
and teachers … and that association has “taught” them
that all literary activity is boring.

As you can see, I feel that home schooling gave my older
children a great love for reading that the others lack. Yet
my particular teaching procedure was actually very
uncomplicated. Here’s what I did:

First, I set a good example. I am myself an insatiably
curious, omnivorous reader … so all of my
children could see from my behavior that reading must be an
enjoyable, rewarding activity for some people. (The
home-taught children, of course, had many more
opportunities to make this observation than did the
others.)

Second, I often read aloud to the four older children …
individually, so that each one could learn for him- or
herself that books can be interesting and entertaining,
beautiful and funny. (Because I always kept the listener
beside me or on my lap at such times, the child also
learned to associate reading with attention and affection.)

Third, I occasionally pointed out distinctive-looking words
as I read … and watched the youngster’s face for that
glimmer of comprehension which appears when a child
discovers that each word has its own specific symbol. At
first, the only response from the young listener would be a
blank look. When this happened, I never pressed the point
but went back to reading the story, because I feel it’s
very important not to give children the idea that —
merely because they don’t have all the information that
“giant” adults do — they’re inadequate or stupid in
any way.

Fourth, when the day arrived that a youngster did
start noticing distinctive groups of letters, I knew he or
she was ready to begin to memorize words on the basis of
their general appearance … to acquire what schoolteachers
call a “sight vocabulary.” (For some reason, each of my
four home-taught offspring seemed to reach this point at
the age of two and a half.) I then started daily reading
lessons to help the youngster build up a body of recognized
words. However, I always stopped these lessons at —
or before — the first signs of boredom or
restlessness.

Fifth, after making sure that each child had a good sight
vocabulary as a data base, I began pointing out that
distinctive letters — such as the “z” in “buzz”
— have specific sounds, so that the youngster could
eventually acquire the skill of sounding out new words
(professional educators call this “learning to read by the
phonic method”).

I sometimes used textbooks for such instruction, but never
limited my children to such unexciting volumes.
After all, just as a music student may need to practice in
dull exercise books — but must have access to
beautiful music for inspiration — a beginning reader
may have to spend time with practice texts, but
also needs exposure to entertaining literature in order to
associate reading with enjoyment.

When I first started making letter-sound associations, I’d
again watch the child’s face for a flicker of understanding
… and again the initial response was a blank look. Yet
— as in the case of sight words — a day would
come when each youth suddenly comprehended the fact that a
particular letter can represent a particular sound. And
surprisingly enough, my four youngsters all made this great
discovery at the age of four years … almost to the
week!

Principles for Teaching a Child at Home

Many parents will, no doubt, have their own ideas about the
best ways to instruct children, but I think that —
having been on both sides of the home-schooling
relationship — I’ve gained some general insights that
may be worth sharing. Perhaps the most basic (and obvious)
principle is this: What you don’t know, you can’t teach. Of
course, it is often possible to compensate for not knowing
a subject area by studying it (and, indeed, there’s no
better way to learn something than to teach it!).

Nevertheless, you may sometimes want to get other people to
work with your children in specific areas … or perhaps
even consider bartering teaching skills with other parents
who are strong in subjects where your own background is
lacking.

No matter what, though, never assume that you’re
incompetent to instruct your offspring simply because you
may not have impressive college degrees. If you know
anything interesting that your child doesn’t know, you have
a lesson that you can teach. Besides, although formal
education may be essential for mastering a few
subject areas, in most instances the best education is
self-education. An individual who is curious, can read, and
has access to decent resources will learn best on his or
her own … with only occasional assistance from experts.

Another basic teaching principle I’ve adopted is that
trying to push a child into learning, against his
or her will, can be counterproductive. The youngster may
get balky (a healthy assertion of that person’s right to
individuality). Worse yet, such forcefulness may — by
its inherent implication that something is the matter with
the child because he or she doesn’t want to learn the
lesson — cause the youth to lose self-confidence.

I’ve found it better to let my children make their own
decisions about what to study, so they learn — in the
process — to trust their own minds. Naturally, any
young person will occasionally make mistakes in such
choices … but he or she will very likely learn from the
errors themselves, and also gain practice in making
decisions (at an age when the consequences of poor judgment
are usually not yet terribly serious).

Sometimes, a child will have real difficulty comprehending
a subject. In that case, realize that you may be presenting
the information in a manner that doesn’t suit the
particular student … that the youngster may be ignorant
of some essential basic facts … that he or she may not
yet be ready to learn the specific subject … or
that your pupil’s brain simply may not be designed to
understand the material. In any such situation, either try
a different instruction approach or hold off on the topic
for a while and switch the lesson to some other area.

On the other hand, if a subject doesn’t appeal to your
child at all, you should try to discover the
reason for his or her lack of interest. After all,
humans are naturally curious (as anyone knows who has
watched an infant earnestly studying his or her toes and
nightie to learn how to distinguish baby from nonbaby!).
But, just as the right teacher or book can make any subject
interesting, by the same token inappropriate instruction or
material will make any topic dull.

Last, I believe that high-quality career counseling may be
essential whenever a child’s natural interests and
abilities do not eventually become obvious. But be sure to
judge any potential advisers carefully. (I can, as a result
of my own experience with the firm, recommend the Johnson
O’Conner Research Foundation … which has offices in a
dozen major American cities.)

You, Too, Will Learn

I found out when I was a child that being educated at home
can have an important positive influence on a youngster.
Years later — as an adult — I learned that a
home schooling parent can profit from the
experience as well. And it’s a small wonder that this is so
… after all, when you teach your own children, you have
a fascinating opportunity to make discoveries about the
most complex instrument in the universe: the human mind.

EDITOR’S NOTE: A collection of severalother
parents’ experiences (both positive and negative) with home
schooling can be found in Darcy Williamson’s 91-page, large
paperback book,
School at Home: An Alternative to the
Public School System (available from many good
bookstores)