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Book Review Part II: Agnes Leistico’s Books

In my last post, I reviewed two books by Agnes Leistico, I Learn Better By Teaching Myself and Still Teaching Ourselves. I would like to share with you some of my favorite passages from these books.

On education:

“I fight a losing battle when I try to force my children to learn something that has no immediacy or meaning to their lives. I am still having to struggle with this, as the “teacher” and “mother” in me says that I know what is best for them. Yet every time I allow them to choose their own course of learning I am amazed at how well they have chosen for themselves. I do not necessarily know what or how my children should learn something unless I make the time and effort to listen to what they are saying by word and action.” (ILBBTM p. 49)

“The teacher-student relationship is vital to the educational experience. The active and responsible agents in education must be the students…. nothing worth learning can be taught. “Students must themselves come to grips with major texts and with the difficult tasks of thinking and composing and articulating ideas into language.”” (ILBBTM p. 50)

“I came to view education as a life experience that cannot be confined by time or textbook.” (ILBBTM p. 23)

And this: “My youngsters want me to be a facilitator, not a dictator.” (ILBBTM p. 129)

On trust:

“I personally fought the idea of homeschooling because I could not imagine children learning any other way than within public or private schools. But my youngsters taught me a marvelous lesson. This is my story about my struggle to learn to trust my youngsters to make wise educational choices. I learned that it is possible to educate children without following strict schedules or guidelines. As a parent I am in the ideal position to fit the learning experience to each child as an individual student.” (STO p. 11)

“Trusting our children to lead the way depends greatly upon recognition of two basic principles. The first one is that the amount a person can learn at a given moment depends on how she feels about her ability to do the work. The second one is that interest initiated learning allows the student to utilize her abilities in the optimal manner. The old saying, ‘You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink,’ expresses the futility of forcing a student to learn something when she does not think she can succeed and / or she is just not interested in the topic.” (ILBBTM p. 77))

“When we are relaxed, learning abounds; but when I am anxious about progress very little is accomplished. The biggest lesson has been to accept each child for who she is and myself as I am. Trust is not static. It changes with circumstances so I must also change and allow my students to change. What worked yesterday will not necessarily work today.” (p. 89 ILBBTM)

On grades:

“Seeing no educational value in giving grades on work accomplished, I do not grade my youngsters. They and I know without any doubt how they are performing. When they experience a problem we work it out… I am not placed in the position of a judge and they are not being judged by anyone other than themselves.” (ILBBTM p. 91)

On relationships:

“The first truth about homeschooling is that it’s based on relationship. Relationship is the curriculum upon which everything else is based. Relationship is a day-to-day awareness, an honest looking at oneself and others and an honest dealing with oneself and others.
Successful education, including home education, is based on reason, not absurdity. That sounds obvious, but much conventional school is unreasonable. Random facts are taught to cover state mandated curriculum requirements.
The mind needs a reason to learn. When it doesn’t have one, learning becomes divorced from life and thought and is therefore absurd. The parent who wants a child to learn something may have some very good reasons for thinking the child should learn it, but the child needs to be infected with those reasons – and reason needs to be expected if learning is to occur.
Education that empowers children, gives them a life long skill or strengthens the mind has its own reasons for compelling a child to learn. Interest-initiated learning is particularly successful because the reasons are built into the process by the child.
Another principle of education is that it starts and ends with the child. It’s individual. Every child has his or her own particular time table and special qualities. The mind of a child, or anyone else, cannot be controlled. The mind can’t even be taught, really. Not in any significant way. But it can learn. That’s where relationship and reasoning play their part.
These all – relationship, reason, individuality – require an atmosphere of freedom to thrive. Freedom is a necessary requirement for the development of an active, intelligent mind. This isn’t the freedom to do whatever you want, to pursue any whim, but freedom based on reason, good relationships, and individuality.
Education isn’t so much about the superficial things we remember from our school days, math problems or text books, as it is about these essentials. Focus on the essentials and find the peripherals that align with them. This focus might lead to some of the traditional things of school, a good text book or math problems. But it will be in a way that works for you and your child, and for reasons that fit.” (STO pp. 48-49)

Wow.  Imagine – relationship, reason, and individuality, all thriving in an atmosphere of freedom.  What more could any homeschooled kid ask for???  Why can’t all children be raised and educated with such thoughtfulness, dignity and respect?

Book Review: I Learn Better By Teaching Myself and Still Teaching Ourselves by Agnes Leistico

In 1990 Agnes Leistico published a book called I Learn Better By Teaching Myself. In 1996 she published a second book, Still Teaching Ourselves. In that second book she relates the following story from a Michigan mother who had ordered Agnes’s first book:

“After I opened the package, the book (I Learn Better By Teaching Myself) sat on the couch. When my 7 year old homeschooled son noticed it, he read the title and said, “Hey, Mom! You see this? This is what I am trying to tell you!”

I love that story.

Agnes Leistico homeschooled her three children in California in the 1980’s and 90’s. One by one she and her husband made the decision to pull each of their children out of school due to various problems, beginning with her oldest, Jim, who went to public school until the 6th grade, and then later bringing home their two younger daughters, Laurie and Susan. Eventually, each child chose to go back to public school in high school.

Agnes began her career life as a teacher, but she quickly found that the children she worked with resisted her efforts to make them learn what she was teaching them. She also worked in adult education and she found that, because adults were coming to her classes of their own choice, working with them was enjoyable. She quit teaching children but continued in adult education and the experiences she gained there greatly influenced how she eventually came to view her own children’s education. She came to realize that it was possible to allow children the same freedom to acquire knowledge as we allow adults.

Agnes embraced what she refers to as ‘interest initiated learning’ as her style of homeschooling her children. She defines interest initiated learning as “…that learning which the learner herself controls and initiates according to her own interests. Learning is guided by internal personal priorities, not imposed from the outside. The learner herself chooses when and how to learn about a given topic or skill. The teacher only enters into the learning process when invited to do so.”

Agnes wrote her first book because she had not heard of any books which addressed how parents can implement interest initiated learning. “I wrote I Learn Better By Teaching Myself because I saw the need for a book that encourages parents to follow their own instincts and to trust their children…. Still Teaching Ourselves reaffirms my strong belief that parents need to follow their personal parenting instincts and to trust their students to know what is best for them.”

Agnes’s writing alternates between very detailed descriptions of learning experiences with each of her children and more general, reflective thoughts about parenting and learning. I cannot possibly do justice to the combined 330 pages of her books. By the time I had finished re-reading them both for this review, I had 35 passages marked that I felt were so helpful, clear, intelligent and succinct that I wanted to quote each of them here.

There is so much wisdom in these books. I would like to devote my next post to sharing some of Agnes’s messages about education and learning, families and relationships, children and trust. If you would like to read her books yourself, they are out of print but can easily be found for a reasonable cost at online used booksellers or, if you live in Wisconsin, through WisCat.

Book Review: Homeschooling Our Children Unschooling Ourselves – By Alison McKee

As soon as I heard the title of this book, I knew that I needed to read it. While I identify increasingly with unschooling, it has only been in the past year that I have really understood that it is not my children that need unschooling, it is me. My children have never been to school, I’m the one who spent 13 years there, and that’s not counting college and graduate school.

Alison’s writing style is soft-spoken, gentle and thoughtful, and her book is an absolute gem. In it, she chronicles the story of her family, beginning with her son’s preschool years and her and her husband’s initial decision-making process regarding homeschooling, and progressing all the way through their two children’s teen years. While homeschooling her own children, Alison also worked part-time as a teacher for children with visual impairments, and throughout the book she compares and contrasts the experiences of her own children with her observations and thoughts about the learning experiences of the children she is working with, and their classmates, in school.

In one story titled Exploring Egypt, Alison paints a vivid picture for us.  After a trip to the library, her own 8-year-old daughter became fascinated with ancient Egypt. She joyously immersed herself (and her family!) for many hours on the topic, reading books and watching videos about Egypt, learning about Egyptian culture and hieroglyphics, and building a scale model of an Egyptian city. Shortly after that experience, Alison was working in a public school and her team-taught class had a unit on ancient Egypt. Initially, Alison was excited to share in this experience but she soon found that studying Egypt for the school children meant that they were given worksheets and assigned words to memorize for an upcoming multiple-choice test. An interesting topic was made “deadly dull”, and the memorized terms were forgotten when the class moved on to a different topic two weeks later.

Alison homeschooled her children in Wisconsin beginning just before a favorable law was passed here protecting homeschoolers’ rights, and she includes some brief but insightful history in her book. She also gives some helpful, concise background about the teachings of John Holt and A.S. Neill (Summerhill). Holt and Neill “believed that children are the best directors of their education and, given a helping hand, without coercion, would naturally develop into well-adjusted and competent adults.” This became known as ‘unschooling’. Other terms for unschooling are ‘interest-initiated learning’ and ‘self-directed learning’.

Unschooling means different things to different families. I felt a kinship with Alison, and I think one of the reasons is because, like in my home, she and her husband had high expectations that their children would use their time well, and they supported them in making wise decisions. Alison’s son did volunteer work for a community radio station and by age 13 he had become a radio engineer. He immersed himself in fly-tying and fly fishing (while simultaneously learning entomology, ichthyology, physics and more) and this interest was not only personally fulfilling and enriching, it eventually led to a paid job. When he became motivated to learn higher math so that he could do well on college entrance exams, he immersed himself in self-directed study and learned higher-level math in 4 months! Likewise, their daughter swam competitively, did volunteer work, and excelled at topics like math when she was ready and in her own way. Both children held jobs (paper route, child care) and participated in their local children’s choir, among other activities and learning experiences.

I will leave you with a final quote from the Introduction: “Our family….. chose homeschooling because it offered us the opportunity to let our children continue to be the creative and enthusiastic children they were from the start. We believed that our children wanted to live as they had in their preschool years: free of someone else’s notions of what was important to learn, and when to learn it.” (And, I would add, how to learn it). “For this reason, we turned to homeschooling as the only means by which we might preserve, for our son, Christian, and our daughter, Georgina, the natural gift that they and all children are born with: an insatiable appetite for learning.”

Unfortunately, this book is out of print.  It is my hope that Alison’s experiences and words will not be lost to future homeschoolers.  You may be able to find it through your local library system or WisCat (a Wisconsin resource).  If not, it is available from online used-book sellers.  I did find new copies of it at this site:  fun-books.com.