Interview With Gail Withrow
Gail Withrow is a veteran homeschool mom of two daughters, Alissa Kira (age 12) and Emily (age 9). Her extensive website, HomeTaught.com has launched Gail into cyberspace homeschool hall of fame. This year she has begun an alternative private school/homeschool resource center, which she hopes will have enough students by the Fall of 2000 to emerge out of her home and into the Austin (Texas) community.
MANFRED SMITH: How long have you been homeschooling?
GAIL WITHROW: My daughters have never been enrolled in a traditional school. This is our 8th year homeschooling.
MANFRED: What were your thoughts when you first considered homeschooling? What brought you to make this choice for your family?
GAIL: Initially I was not enthusiastic about homeschooling. I had thought I would return to my career when my eldest daughter was old enough to attend school. My husband convinced me to try homeschooling; I figured that the kindergarten year wasn't crucial academically, and since I had enjoyed being a stay-at-home mom for 5 years I decided to try it for a year--then another, and another, and here we are 8 years later!
MANFRED: Friends of mine say that homeschooling acts like a mirror for their own life giving them an opportunity to see themselves in a new light. That watching our children engaged in the process of learning and living can have a profound effect on the direction that our own lives are going. What are your thoughts about this?
GAIL: Seeing myself in a new light? I don't think so. Homeschooling is a very integral part of my life, but it is only a part of it. I've learned a great deal about what I don't know from homeschooling--for me, it's a great way to re-educate myself as I teach my children, and it facilitates a closely bonded family. Homeschooling is something that I have come to value tremendously. My goal is to reach the point where my children become fully independent learners and my job as their parent-teacher will come to a close. I hope to have my own private school in full swing by then, using what I've learned to teach others. I suppose if I hadn't been homeschooling I wouldn't have come to discover how much I enjoy teaching, so in that sense homeschooling has had a significant effect on my life course. I treat it as a career that I enjoy immensely.
MANFRED: Like many homeschoolers, you discovered John Holt when you first started out, but your approach to homeschooling does not follow John's child-centered philosophy. What do you do and how does it differ from John's approach?
GAIL: Initially I was drawn to John Holt because of his reverence for the individual. I agreed with John's view that children are unique and should not be treated as cookie cutter kids, as they are in government school classes. However, I disagree with Holt's premise that children can teach themselves what they want to learn, when (and if) they want to learn it. Certainly children do learn some things on their own, but their often roundabout way of going at learning is not necessarily the best way to learn.
MANFRED: Should children be free to follow their own interests; to learn what they want when they want?
GAIL: For optional topics, yes; for topics that the parents view as essential to a well-rounded education, no. It's good to take into account the child's genuine interests when planning a curriculum and to build as much as possible around what the child wants to learn about, but there are some topics that may be deemed essential by the parents that the child isn't too keen on at first. He may not know the real value of those topics, and it's up to the parent--the adult who has the broader context of knowledge--to bring these topics within the child's realm so that he sees the real value to his own life and becomes motivated to learn it.
MANFRED: Many homeschoolers avoid directly instructing their children because they associate this with teaching in the schools - something they consider a negative thing. What is your view on teaching our children?
GAIL: First, I don't agree that "many homeschoolers avoid instruction." My HT-talk discussion list (off my website www.hometaught.com) is testimony to many parents who ARE trying to teach their children well. Those who would avoid all instruction assuming that their children are better off left to their own devices instead of being taught by a caring, thoughtful parent are, in my view, doing a disservice to their children. They may be afraid that they'll do something "wrong," or that they don't know enough, or they may mistakenly assume that teaching is synonymous with "forcing facts." What these parents fail to see is that a parent teaching her children at home is not at all like what passes for "teaching" in a government classroom with 25 children! Parents have a vested interest in truly helping their children learn and grow. Love and care goes far when it comes to learning the art of teaching.
I believe that children greatly benefit from a thoughtful teacher who can present essentialized knowledge to them in a meaningful, hierarchical fashion. Parents are in the best position to teach their kids because they know their children intimately, and can enrich the child's learning with real-life examples. In my view, there is no reason not to teach a child and every reason to teach.
MANFRED: What about burnout? This tends to afflict those homeschoolers who tend to do a great deal of teaching in the home. How can parents who want to teach their children avoid this problem?
GAIL: Burnout is a phenomenon that affects parents who are trying too hard. Some new homeschoolers want the comfort of knowing in advance exactly what to teach and how to teach it. These parents are trying to be responsible by planning everything, but they often fail to consider that even the best made plans will necessarily be modified by how the child responds. Curriculum is only a tool to teach the child. Facts of knowledge have importance, but teaching the child to learn to think is the ultimate goal in raising independent learners. Parents who suffer burnout are often not working WITH their children. I believe that team work &endash; where the children have as much input as possible in the curriculum plan &endash; helps everyone to know the expectations and to meet them. Plans should be made, but should also be flexible enough to respond to the child's needs.
MANFRED: Homeschoolers are a varied lot - their approach to homeschooling is all over the field. At what point would you say that a parent is acting irresponsibly in regard to educating their child?
GAIL: Education is, and should always be recognized as, solely a parental decision. I follow my own values when teaching my children, and I expect that other parents do the same. A parent that does nothing at all to foster an education in his child doesn't value education. That scenario would be a terrible tragedy, yet I believe it is the parents' decision alone to make.
MANFRED: What studies do you consider vital to the education of children, homeschooled or otherwise?
GAIL: A basic education should include those essential topics necessary for independent living. In my curriculum I teach: reading, writing, mathematics, history, science, geography and literature. The "3 Rs" are skills essential for living in an advanced society, and writing is especially beneficial as a tool for looking at one's own ideas in concrete form. History, science, and geography provide a foundation for learning about man and the world, while literature, as the conceptual art, provides the fuel for man to live up to his potential. Heroes in good literature model the world as it might, and ought to be.
MANFRED: Could you give us a brief glimpse into a typical homeschooling day in your home?
GAIL: This year I've taken in students who are not my own children and since I teach them along with my children, I am actually more like a private school now, and am not "homeschooling" as I had been in the past. Teaching children who aren't your own changes the home learning environment. We follow a more defined schedule just to manage our time well and to meet everyone's expectations.
We typically start our day at 9am (or so). I like to get through daily math and writing during the morning when the kids are fresh, and use the afternoons for either literature, history, science and geography. We typically spend an average of 3 hours on our school work (an hour more for my eldest daughter who works mostly on her own, and an hour less for the youngest boy who works primarily with me). I prefer to combine materials from many sources, including using games and special projects for learning, rather than using textbooks.
The children work from a proposed weekly schedule that I write up. Their log sheets present an outline of what I expect them to do that week (including page numbers, sources, and projects), as well as provide documentation for each student's portfolio. I recognize that flexibility is vital when teaching and motivating children, and I am always open to suggestions from the kids to adapt the plan if it makes sense to do so.
Educational activities outside of the house include math club (1 / week), library (1 / week), chess club (2 / month), and co-op (1 / week). My children are also involved in the Austin Girls Choir which meets in the evening (2-3 / week). Occasionally we take field trips to museums, local businesses, parks, and other places of interest.
MANFRED: What are some important areas that parents need guidance on?
GAIL: I think the biggest area that parents need guidance in is structuring the homeschool without making it stifling and rigid. A rational, proper education cannot be accomplished in a one-sided manner. A complete child-led approach (as in unschooling) may develop the child's strengths but does nothing to develop his weaknesses and broaden his horizons; while a dictatorial parent-led approach may specify the specific content that ought to be covered but hurts motivation by not taking into account the child's uniqueness and interests. Teaching is an Art which, when done properly, matches the needs and ability of the learner to the methodology and curriculum deemed essential by the teacher. Teacher and learner ought to work together as a well-integrated team to achieve the goal of independent learning.
MANFRED: You have created and run a very successful web site, HomeTaught.com. What can a homeschooler expect when visiting your site? What would they find of value?
GAIL: I advocate teaching children in a respectful manner what the parent deems essential for them to know. My site provides numerous examples and explanation on why and how to implement an objective, rational approach to homeschooling. HomeTaught.com also gives some insight into different approaches to homeschooling and what I think is right and wrong about those approaches. I expect visitors to my site to draw their own thoughtful conclusions and go from there to honor their own values.
MANFRED: What advice would you offer parents considering homeschooling?
GAIL: Try it for a full year &endash; not during the summer, but for a full school year. So many people believe they can get a glimpse of what homeschooling is like if they teach a little in the summer. The problem with that is the children are expecting to have complete freedom during their summer vacations, and are already predisposed to being unresponsive to "school work" during the summer. Certainly hesitant parents can be more involved in casual learning with their children during the summer months but they won't really know what homeschooling is like until they've kept their child out of the school system and taken the plunge into homeschooling. A year isn't such a long time, and it could be the start of something wonderful! Try it and see.
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