- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 22, 2009

One of the joys of my life is discovering good books. When I find a good book that is also about home-schooling, it’s like hitting the jackpot.

I was thrilled to find “By Heart: A Mother’s Story of Children and Learning at Home,” by Kathleen Melin, who shared with me the genesis of this thought-provoking chronicle of her journey from public education to home-schooling.

“Books have been such friends and support to me,” she said, “and I looked to them when I began home-schooling, but I couldn’t find myself in the literature.”

Existing books seemed to fall into the categories of “how-to” or presenting only a glossy, idealized view of home-schooling.

“I wanted a grittier, more complex truth and a deeper understanding of the cultural currents around education — and I wanted to pay close attention to my life and my children’s lives,” she said.

The book succeeds. The chapters follow the family as they navigate some of the pitfalls of their educational journey. Like many home-schoolers, they first tried to replicate the schoolroom at home — with desks and schedules and a particularly irritating clock — but found that a comfortable old sofa was the best “reading room.”

Encounters with other home-schoolers introduced challenges and gifts of understanding. Struggles with each child’s unique learning style — especially that creative one who spends the day dressed as a superhero — remind us that children love learning, even when not being instructed. The dad teaching math to his equally frustrated child, doubting whether they’re getting the factual information they’ll need to do well — but who secretly is grateful to be a part of his children’s education — yeah, he’s in there. I recognized my own struggles, and my own discoveries.

The book is threaded with a vivid awareness of nature, whether it be the Alaskan tundra, the lakes and maple trees of Wisconsin, or even a sunny beach in Mexico. Lessons come from the land, the vegetation, the animal life.

Ms. Melin is gracious in her writing — exposing the places of doubt, loneliness, hurt or misunderstanding — but somehow bringing a compassion and forgiveness to each issue. We learn to gently turn away the instinctual emotions that may rise up, seeing in each circumstance a larger context.

Having home-schooled her two sons and one daughter to adulthood, she narrates some key landmarks and turning points along her pathway, referring to the touchstones of ancestral values, private faith, social conscience and the delight of discovery that impelled her to choose home-schooling.

Without rancor, she examines many of the sacred cows of large-scale education. With her family’s awareness of the circumstances of indigenous peoples in Alaska and throughout the United States, she unmasks some of the hidden assumptions in the mantra of “socialization.” The effects of mass education on various populations in history, and the intent of the power class come into question.

One of the values Ms. Melin feels home-schoolers bring to the public forum is “the gift of resistance.”

“The dominant culture believes public education is the way. We know that institutions change slowly. Just as consumers voting with their feet gives feedback to businesses to create change, we are voting with our attendance, giving public education a lot of feedback, encouraging a lot more diversity in educational opportunities,” she says.

With her three children in college or professions, Ms. Melin is now teaching in universities and speaking at conferences and educational assemblies. She will be the featured speaker at the Virginia Homeschoolers’ Conference and Resource Fair in Richmond on May 22 and 23.

Kate Tsubata, a home-schooling mother of three, is a freelance writer who lives in Maryland.

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