- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 3, 2001

We have been taking advantage of study opportunities in the community. My eldest daughter, who is 16, is taking a driver's education course available in a local driving school. For three hours each evening, she has been learning about safety, driving speeds, the law and other related subjects. This has given her some new perspectives on her other schoolwork.

Part of the course content is about intoxicants, such as drugs and alcohol. She was a bit surprised to hear fellow classmates discuss these things from personal experience. Because the students are all about her age, this means underage drinking and illegal drug use is going on.

Coincidentally, in her psychology course, she is studying about the effects of drug use. She started looking at these effects with new eyes after finding out people she knows have been using drugs and alcohol. Noticing some of the areas of the brain and nervous system that are affected by drugs and alcohol, she sees how motor function and judgment would be compromised seriously.

Interestingly, the forum where she gets to process these disparate bits of information is our family's "together time. " Every night, she tells us what she has learned, and we all talk about it. Her sister and brother add their own observations. My husband and I share our experiences. Then we might discuss solutions real and imaginary.

As a result, the abstract material she is taught in the course is processed into something that is part of real life. She told us last night that the course instruction isn't very deep, and she paid us a big compliment. She said, "You guys have already taught me these things much more completely. Parents are really the best teachers."

Both our daughters are participating in a biology course at the local community college. Each week, they do a project or visit a facility to learn specific applications. They have done a nutrition analysis project, keeping track of what they ate for three days and entering the data into a computer to get a dietary analysis. They have visited the National Aquarium in Baltimore and the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel. Because the course is aimed at home-schoolers, they do a lot of independent work.

The nice thing is that everyone in our family learns when the children discuss their experiences. Their younger brother will hear about something they studied, and he'll add what he learned in his science course or from a PBS nature special. If we come up with a question that none of us can answer, one of them will check it out on the Internet. It's all very relaxed, of course. We talk about it because it's interesting, and we enjoy the process of continual learning.

In fact, there is virtually nothing that one of us does that is not brought back into the family for discussion and incorporation into our common awareness. When my son joined the Boy Scouts, we all became interested in the material he was learning. No sooner does the Boy's Life magazine arrive than we all fight over who gets to read it.

Not only do we integrate information learned in the community into the family consciousness, but we make use of experiences that happen in the family to absorb new information. When some friends were visiting recently, my daughter began asking the wife about her experiences in her native Italy. They began discussing the beaches and topography of various parts of Italy. They found a globe and map, and the visitor told my daughter about traveling through Europe, her experiences in various countries, and the currency systems there. They chatted away for nearly two hours.

We have had the same experience with friends from Africa, the Philippines, Austria, Iran and other places. It's not something we do consciously. We just start asking questions, and the next thing we know, we're learning. A person can share things about the language, food, temperature and climate, social systems and entertainment. You can ask the visitor anything, and he or she can tell you exactly what it's like, because of having lived it. It's real, interactive learning.

Family-based learning isn't something limited to home-schoolers. I know families who play music all the time and just naturally absorb new musical information and styles because it's part of their family culture. Other families love politics, and the children join in with the parents' discussions of current issues, avidly read the newspapers and develop their own ideas on public issues.

No matter what your circumstances, everyone learns when you "bring it on home. " The family is the ultimate processing station for all the experiences outside the home. With everyone's input, learning is deepened and a bigger perspective is gained.

So, make use of all those larger-community resources, but make sure you integrate them into the more important emotional network. Keep up the good work.

Kate Tsubata, a home-schooling mother of three, is a free-lance writer living in Maryland.

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