Friday, July 23, 2004

And the Skylark Sings


By David H. Albert
New Society Publishers

The whimsical title of David H. Albert's book is lifted from a poem written by William Blake (1757-1827), itself a fitting prelude to the Albert Family's homeschooling adventure. In the poem, a schoolboy denied summer's simple pleasures complains:

"...going to school in a summer morn,
O! it drives all joy away."

That pretty much sums up where the author is coming from, and what he thinks is wrong with schools today.

This 1999 book is subtitled 'Adventures in Homeschooling and Community-Based Education' and I was happy to have gone along for the ride. David Albert (who is a Quaker) and his partner Ellen tell an engaging story about homeschooling their daughters Ali and Meera in ways that mirror their deep love for children. As David writes, he did not start out to be a champion for the homeschooling community; it's not clear, but perhaps his daughters' precocity eased the way.

The book begins at an annual concert featuring a Handel's Messiah Sing-And-Play-In in Santa Cruz, California. There his 20-month old daughter Ali (short for Aliyah Meena) falls under the spell of the proceedings, and promptly declares she wants to learn to play the violin, "NOW!" By the time you reach page 34, seven-year old Ali is part of the Portland Children's Chorale performing at New York's Carnegie Hall, besides having raised enough money (by herself) to buy her own violin. In the meantime, younger sister Meera Behn is inviting herself over to a neighbour's and along the way picks up piano, and subsequently a gifted piano tutor who teaches her music and sight-reading - all before she learns to read and write (Read the writer's advice on choosing a music teacher too).

David Albert calls himself an advocate for children and believes that education is not a commodity to be packaged and dished out with utilitarian glee. Unfortunately, modern schooling puts the stress on adequate instead of optimal learning, a fault David deservedly skewers throughout the book. Schools in themselves are not necessarily 'bad' but in the writer's opinion they are far, far, too 'narrow' in their objectives for reasons that become clear in the light of his daughters' remarkable education.

The book provides a personalized and anecdotal account of homeschooling that leaves no doubt that the writer had to learn on the go (like all novice homeschoolers). But you don't get a sense of disquiet or an inner struggle though. Hmm. He's a brave man who takes the road less traveled, with no preconceived ideas, as he says. And no master plan too. No, that's only partly true, because to begin with, the writer certainly believes in a child's potential and the book fairly bristles with fascinating insights into child-directed learning. As an unschooler who subscribes to natural learning, David's story of Ali and Meera's education makes a convincing pitch for homeschool.

The girls come across as normal kids whose language, reading habits, writing skills, thoughtfulness, musical talents - and may I add, self-confidence - flower in the fertile soil of the Albert household. Now, there's socialization for you. In a home where 'seldom is heard a discouraging word' (so goes the song of a bygone era) children cannot but thrive. What about curriculum? Both Ali and Meera were not tutored in a didactic or formal manner as David believes "the job of the teacher (parent or otherwise) is not to teach but to provide the opportunities whereby these needs can be met." How these opportunities were harvested is richly elaborated in the rest of the book.

Since no single individual (teacher or parent) can expect to meet a child's every learning need at any one time it makes good sense to look elsewhere - to clubs, relatives, neighbours, the library, friends, community historians, etc, who provide a ready network of available resource. As the education of Ali and Meera unfolds, the reader sees how the girls' interests serendipitously lead to apprenticeships with adult 'experts' and participation in community-based activities with heart-warming success. They cost virtually nothing (or little) to tap into as well.

The writer is quick to assert that the book is not of the "My Homeschooled Kid Got into Yale... Yours Can Too!" genre. And I like the fact that he spends as much time writing about what his children have taught both him and his partner Ellen, which he says are chiefly, humility and respect. Intertwined in this narrative are the writer's personal thoughts on education, examinations, life, humanity, and his wishes for children everywhere, whether educated at home or in school. He reminds us that education should not be seen as the mastery of knowledge or amassing of facts. It's really about nurturing good citizens of the planet whose values go beyond consumerism and one-upmanship.

He does meander towards the second half of the book, but don't mind it. Pat Farenga, President of Holt Associates, calls this book "...a beautiful story...A joyous and memorable book!" I agree. As a book that enlarges one's convictions about homeschooling and raising children, it's a story well told and a book you don't want to miss.

Link to William Blake's poem.

[This review was previously posted online on HOMEFRONTIER]

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