Homeschooling with Excellence no. 17

The Basics of Our Philosophy

Before my wife Sarita and I decided to teach our children at home, we had observed two different homeschool philosophies at work.

  1. Parents who seemed to import the classroom into their homes. They would spend hours each day, often year-round, preparing lesson plans, working up schedules, making decorations and putting together hands-on crafts. They sought to incorporate all the trappings of a classroom into their homeschools. Within one or two years, most of these parents were completely burned out!

  2. Another set of parents "homeschooled" for the purpose of saving money. They didn't want to place their children in public school and they couldn't afford to send their children to private schools, so they kept them home. Having as their chief motivation the idea of "saving money," these parents let their children's education suffer.

It wasn't until I visited some friends who had integrated education into every aspect of life that I saw a model I thought we could follow.

At the time, Dave's and Jean's children were in kindergarten and first grade.

"Most parents teach math every day," said Dave. "Math is part of life. The difference between us and other parents is that we are conscious of the educational process and of the vocabulary — the jargon — that goes along with it.

"The thing that the educational establishment has over most parents is the jargon. 'We teach set theory,' a teacher says. Well, we teach set theory, too. Every time we ask our kids to set the table, they are practicing set theory. A set, when setting the table, includes one knife, one fork, one spoon, a plate, a cup... If I feel so inclined, I mark that down in our record book: 'Math: Set Theory.' That's what we are teaching them. We are teaching them other things as well, of course: things like responsibility, obedience, and helpfulness. But as far as the educational establishment is concerned, we are also teaching them Set Theory. All I need to do is record it."

Education as an Integral Part of Daily Life

Once I caught on to the idea, I found it easy to see educational value in almost everything we do. So this idea formed a cornerstone to our educational philosophy at Sonlight.

In the summer of 1989, my family and I planned a trip to an area known for hot springs, geysers, and volcanoes. A few weeks before our trip, I got a book on geothermal energy. The book included simple experiments that illustrated many of the principles that make geysers and hot springs work. The fact that we were going to see them launched us into a wonderful educational experience... and the vacation itself became an exceptionally worthwhile field trip.

For us, homeschooling is a way of life and an overarching attitude toward our world. The world is out there to be marveled at, enjoyed, explored and learned from.

Quality Literature as a Primary Educational Tool

We believe that all of life can and ought to be pursued with educational goals in mind, but there is one pursuit that has a better educational yield than any other: reading quality literature.

Books can convey us more readily, easily, and cheaply to other places and other times than any other means of transportation. Quality books can distill the wisdom of an entire life into the span of a few pages. They can feed us with spiritual truths none of the people we know have ever learned.

It is these truths about books that have inspired us to make quality literature a primary tool in our educational workbasket.

The World as a Place for Wonder and Exploration

Though we have specific times set aside for concentrated reading of books, writing of papers, scientific experimentation and working through math texts, we look for ways to learn with our kids and teach them all day long. If they (or we) don't understand a term or concept, we look it up.

One day I was reading a book in which the author said someone had "finally met his Waterloo." I had heard the phrase before, but I wasn't exactly sure what it meant. I figured Waterloo must refer to something in history, but what? I looked up "Waterloo" in the encyclopedia and discovered that the Battle of Waterloo, "fought on June 18, 1815, was the final battle of the French military genius, Napoleon Bonaparte. It put an end to his political ambitions to rule Europe. His defeat was so crushing that, when a person suffers a disastrous reverse, we say the person has 'met his (or her) Waterloo'" (from World Book Encyclopedia, vol. 21, article on "Waterloo, Battle of").

If our children find a toad or salamander, we will take them with us to the library to "do some research" and find out more about this wondrous new pet we've acquired.

One day I was bringing our oldest daughter to summer camp. I needed to look at a map. "Amy, can you please help me locate Route 72?" I asked.

"I don't know how to read a map!" she responded, even though she had studied a textbook and used a worktext on maps the previous year.

"Well, it's about time you learned," I replied. I pulled off to the side of the road and helped her find where we were. Despite her complaints, she began right then and there to use her map reading skills... and, in the process, gave me some useful (and sometimes not-so-useful!) help in finding the camp.

Not everything one needs to know can be learned in books. Some things can only be learned by doing. So you can't just read, you have to do to learn.

The World Needs the Gospel

It was our evangelical Christian missions environment that helped define Sonlight Curriculum, both the product and the company. It is our missionary concern — our desire that God's name should be known and His glories revealed throughout the world among all peoples — that motivates us to study history from an international perspective.

Seeking Authentic and Authoritative Voices for Other Perspectives

Sonlight Curriculum actively seeks authors who can speak authentically and authoritatively for other groups that hold views and perspectives that are different from our own.

Why? Because we believe we can only speak authoritatively and winsomely to members of other groups if they are convinced that 1) we know their story, 2) we have listened to them, 3) we have understood what they are saying, 4) we have empathized with their perspectives, and 5) if we still hold a different perspective, it is despite our obvious understanding of and empathy with who they are and what they have said.

When one person bumps into another person — someone who obviously and deeply understands and empathizes with them and yet holds a different perspective — the first person cannot help but wonder: Is it possible that my view is incorrect? Have I been misled? Do I need to reconsider something?

If you are the one who causes others to ask such questions of themselves, you will have no shortage of people asking you "to give the reason for the hope that you have" (1 Peter 3:15).

Few of us have been trained to listen attentively, to listen with empathy, to seek to understand first while holding only the hope that we may possibly be understood later. Far more, we — especially those of us in the evangelical Christian camp — have been trained to judge quickly (we call it "discern rightly"), to proclaim boldly, and to seek, by any means, to make our voices heard and, all the while, ignore the voices of others.

Christians who are going to make a deep and lasting impression on a culture cannot follow this standard evangelical mode. We have to learn how to listen, to understand, and to empathize with those around us — and still to hold to our core convictions.

Our goal at Sonlight Curriculum, Ltd. is to develop a curriculum that will teach children (and parents) how to do just those things. We hope to achieve our goal by giving you lots of practice. Our intention is to permit you to wrestle through the uncomfortable realities of history — not only to confront the facts of history, but to judge those facts, and to determine how you might have acted differently if you had been permitted the opportunity to act at those key moments.

We want to encourage you and your children to determine appropriate rules of conduct that might stand you in good stead for the future as you find yourselves placed in similar circumstances.

And what is the purpose for all these exercises? First of all, of course, is to enable you and your children, as much as possible, to avoid in the future the mistakes of the past. But also — and here we are back to the issue of missions — to enable you and your children to see, feel, and know that, in almost every circumstance, there truly are "two sides to the story." When you know this to be the case, then you are far more inclined to approach a new and unfamiliar situation with the humility and grace that is appropriate to an ambassador of Christ.

We want you to know where "the other side" is coming from. We want you to know where you are coming from — not just superficially, but deeply with conviction.

If you are to convince anyone else of what you believe, you must know how your perspectives differ from the perspectives of those you hope to convince; and you must know how to keep your footing even as your underlying cultural values and perspectives are being challenged. You must be unafraid to examine alternative perspectives because you must have greater confidence in God: that He will protect you as you seek to understand those whose views so strongly differ from your own. All of these tasks, all of these goals, are the tasks and goals of an effective Christian apologist and of an effective Christian missionary. And all of these goals we hope to achieve by helping you and your children study history from an international perspective.

Parent-Child Interaction

Some parents want a pre-packaged home school program that they can hand to their children and let the children do on their own: one sheet with all the assignments pre-written, a stack of textbooks, and another stack of workbooks.

Like the miller's daughter left in a room to spin straw into gold, these parents say to their children, "Here. When you're done with these, you are done with your schoolwork."

This method of home schooling is easy for the parent and takes almost no time from the parent's schedule. It forces students to be independent and self-disciplined. In some circumstances, it is the only way a busy mom can hope to educate her children at home.

Despite these advantages, Sonlight Curriculum, Ltd. has chosen another way. Sonlight Curriculum requires significant parental involvement. If you have just read my comments about studying alternative perspectives, you can understand why it would be foolish for us to choose the minimal involvement approach. But there are other reasons which we will get to in a moment.

Some things — basic math facts, for instance — are best learned through rote memorization and raw repetition. This kind of learning should require relatively little involvement on your part. You may want to read through the lesson with your child (we found ourselves doing this even when our kids were in high school!). You may find it helpful to work through each lesson's example problems with your child. But most of the time, once your child can read, most of the workbooks and textbooks explain themselves perfectly well on their own.

Other subjects, such as science and history, profit greatly from the presence and involvement of an older, more experienced person. You bring your own knowledge and values to the learning process. You can inject your insights into the discussion.

One of the prime reasons you should want to home school is to pass along to your children your specific intellectual and cultural heritage. Perhaps Sonlight Curriculum can expand that heritage; but we certainly ought not to try to replace it!

Therefore, though we have included many questions concerning many of the books in the various instructor's guides, we want to refrain from ever suggesting that these are "the" questions to ask. Indeed, we would rather encourage you, if possible, to ignore our questions and pursue your own. Stay engaged with your children; stay engaged in their educational process. Don't ask our questions unthinkingly. If you're going to use them, ask them in such a way that you can discern the true import of what your child is saying. If you can afford the time, ask follow-up questions of your own. Dig out the meat and meaning of what they're reading.

As we go through the years of teaching our own children, we realize more and more what a privilege we have: what a great heritage of knowledge and insight we are permitted to bequeath to them! You have the opportunity to serve as mentor to your own children. We think you ought not to waste the opportunity.

Interact with your children. Ask questions. Point out similarities and contrasts between what you read in one book with what you read in another. If you find that two books disagree, point out the disagreement — and pursue a solution to the problem. If you are uncomfortable with something one of the books says — or something we say — talk about it! Ask your son or daughter if s/he noticed the same thing. Explain your thinking in some depth. Show your children by examplehow a mature, well-educated person interacts with materials s/he disagrees with.

After all the cognitive subjects have been covered, there are areas of life — skills, perspectives, attitudes — that can never be passed on to our children through words alone. These are the intangible qualities and elusive blessings we want our children to enjoy: things like a positive self-esteem; a sense of belonging and of being loved; a love for learning; an appreciation for beauty: qualities and characteristics that can only be acquired through the personal example of and interaction with loving, caring parents.

Your willingness (or lack thereof!) to pursue a solution to a disagreement between two sources, your method of finding a solution (call the library? consult an encyclopedia? get on the internet?), your eagerness to learn: all of these are attitudes, values and methods you can pass on to your children — attitudes, values and methods they will easily miss if you simply hand them a stack of books.

Sarita gives me books to read to our children. Often, she chooses books that she knows will cause me to cry. I'll get to the teary-eyed part of the book and hardly be able to continue. My kids will look at me: "Dad [or, when they were younger: Daddy], are you crying?"

"Yes."

"Why?" they ask.

The very fact that I cry teaches them many valuable lessons: men can and do cry; there is something sad — or too inexpressibly wonderful — in this passage, and I (the child) don't understand it yet; I need to ask questions so I can understand what it is that is so important that it causes my father to cry.

Perhaps you have been in the company of adults and little children when one of the adults cracks a joke. All the adults laugh loudly. The children remain silent until a moment after the adults are finished. Then the little ones burst into laughter.

Even our sense of humor is learned, at least partially, as a result of observation.

Let your children observe you!