The Academy at HeronsGate

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Best of Both worlds: My Personal Educational Journey

Posted by Sarah Pierzchala on January 27, 2015 at 4:10 PM

I was raised in the Pacific Northwest, in and around the vicinity of Portland, Oregon. In the early 1970's, I attended public kindergarten, followed by a year of Catholic school.  Towards the end of that first year, my college-educated parents decided that they would not re-enroll me for the following term. They decided that they were going to join a growing movement that advocated "homeschooling" children, in response to the disentegrating academic and moral standards occurring throughout the culture. As this was the '70's, even (or perhaps especially) Catholic education was hardly immune from these seismic shifts. I believe they were also influenced by much of the back-to basics, hippie movement, as well as thinkers such as John Holt and Raymond S. Moore.


Although I'd been happy enough attending traditional classes, I was also happy to be at home. I wasn't a fan of getting up early or having to do the same things at the same time everyone else was. Academically, I was also ahead of just about all of my classmates, so I wasn't really learning much, just having some fun with the other kids.

My brother was about two years younger than I, so he was never enrolled in school.  Being a red-headed, left-handed, active boy, my mom's experience in teaching him was different than in teaching me.  He struggled with dyslexia, and teaching him to read was quite a challenge. This task was made all the more challenging, as she had access to virtually no resources or support groups. She only had her heart and gut and perhaps more than a few whispers from the Holy Spirit, to guide her towards what was best for him.  By being patient, understanding and sticking with phonics rather than any trendy whole-word techniques, she was eventually rewarded with success and he became a solid reader.


Not having many educational resources, my parents got good at cobbling together their own makeshift curriculum, largely consisting of cute old readers purchased from second-hand stores. And since most of our early childhood was spent in a tv-free home, me and my brother had plenty of time to...play outside. And to read (mainly about Narnia and Middle Earth). And to draw (horses, dragons and spaceships). And make toys out of sticks and pine cones. (We did of course have "real" toys, but sticks and pine cones can be more adaptable depending what kind of games you're playing. For instance, they can be used as stick horses, stick dragons or stick spaceships---that can fire pinecones.)


By the time my sisters arrived (the next in line is a full ten years younger than myself), the homeschool/unschool movement was really taking off in America.  There were far more legal protections in place for families, as well as more resources and varieties of full curricula to choose from.  This situation was something of a double-edge sword.  With so many shiny new resources--all promising academic success-- there was a temptation to move away from the freedom of the de-facto "unschooling" we'd been enjoying, to more of a formal, standardized "doing school at home" mindset, which bolstered the expectation that we would all attend college, whether we really wanted to or not.


Being in the advance guard of a counter-cultural movement can be both exciting and stressful. My parents suffered many sleepless nights wondering if they were in fact doing the right thing for us, or if they were ruining our lives and destroying all chances for us to have successful careers or personal relationships. We kids sometimes felt like freaks or outsiders. It was diffcult to blaze new trails, but by the end of the late 1980's, things had really changed. We had accrued a support group of like-minded families and so had many friends.  


I made the transition from "un-high-schooled" to community college very smoothly, where I had not the slightest trouble interacting with fellow students and instructors alike, as well as mastering the academic material. The transition from cc to local university was also quite easy. My brother had always been driven towards the goal of joining the Air Force and flying fighter jets, so the first stepping stone towards this was joining his local chapter of the Civil Air Patrol at about age 13. Although later in his "rebellious" teen years he complained a bit about not having some of the same opportunities and experiences that main-stream kids had enjoyed, he now admits that being shielded from distractions, temptatons and time-wasting was actually very beneficial for him. At an early age he became very good at setting goals and meeting them. He also graduated university, and after his stint in the Air Force (where he was flight engineer on rescue heliocopters, not a fighter pilot), he went into the Secret Service, and from there, the private sector, in the area of banking cyber-security.


My younger sisters have pursued careers in art restoration and early childhood education, obtaining both the certification and the life experience useful to both fields.  They are both seasoned world travellers, who act as unintentional ambassadors for "unschooling". Foreign acquaintances are amazed at how much more well-balanced, well-rounded and educated they are compared to the average American public school graduate.


After my own graduation and marriage, I focused on free-lance art and prepared for a family. Although my husband's European educational experience was very old-school and strict, he was open to and supportive of the plan that we'd educate our kids at home. This was nice, because I'd always assumed that we would be doing this.  But to be honest, on days when our special-needs, high-energy son was particularly challenging, I would prayerfully consider placing him in a tradtional classroom. Always the answer was that that wasn't best for him.


Teaching my eldest was certainly not the rosy, cosy, Charlotte Mason-esque experience that I'd hoped it would be.  He had more learning and personaiity issues than I'd thought possible, and even my experienced mom couldn't help much. But I did have an advantage over what she'd experienced with my brother in that there were far more resources and support systems for families like us. Now that he's in his teens, it's obvious looking back that we did in fact do the right thing by him and that by carefully tailoring his educational experience to his strengths and weaknesses, we've given him the best chance in life he can have.


As our family grew, we remained committed to homeschooling, though always with minds open to adjusting our approach or customizing each child's journey.  For example, for a few years, we were enrolled in a Catholic correspondence school.  This approach worked for our family for a time, but when we outgrew their model, we had to be open to really restructuring as well as questioning our underlying reasons for continuing to homeschool.  After much prayer and soul-searching, as well as looking back at my own childhood and recalling what had worked and what hadn't, we decided that our family was ready to try a much freer, "unschooling" approach. This doesn't mean that there aren't expectations or oversight, but the kids are much freer to explore their own interests and hone their own skills.


So now we are striving for the best of both worlds in our kids' learning experience: "Unschooling" freedom to explore their world and develop their God-given gifts, as well as navigating and assimilating the vast array of resources available for self-educating students and families these days.

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