What should you do if your children learn differently than their peers? I asked myself that question 10 years ago when my son was 3 and began reading books on his own. My sorority sister suggested I check out the website: forums.welltrainedmind.com and look for ideas on the “accelerated learner” comment board.
At first, I felt like an imposter poking around an online forum for homeschool families. I’m a former teacher and strong supporter of public schools. But I soon discovered homeschool curriculum programs that were a great help to my son’s situation.
In addition to the accelerated learner board, the forum also had boards for general education, learning challenges, K-8 curriculum, high school and more. It was a wealth of resources for families with questions about how to improve their children’s education.
The founder of The Well-Trained Mind Community is Susan Wise Bauer, whose new book “Rethinking School: How to Take Charge of Your Child’s Education” is on bookshelves now. Bauer is many things — author, historian and speaker. On Feb. 1, I had the chance to interview her when she visited Edmonds Heights K-12.
When Bauer’s parents pulled her out of school in the 1970s, they inadvertently made history: Eventually mother and daughter would co-write “The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home,” which is now in its fourth edition. It is the definitive book on homeschooling children from the classical perspective. (Students who receive a classical education are known for their strong background in the liberal arts and are often well-versed in overlooked subjects like dictation, penmanship and Latin.)
Part of Bauer’s legacy is The Well-Trained Mind Community, which, as an online forum, is an entity unto itself. Some users have posted over 20,000 times.
“Back when the forums started, the internet was a brand new thing,” Bauer told me. “From the first boards, we attracted an astoundingly wide variety of posters: Protestant parents, Mormon parents, secular parents, Wiccan parents, married and unmarried parents, heterosexual and same-sex parents, home educators, parents of kids in traditional schools — you name it.
“I think that this was a reflection of what we were trying to do: We wanted to support parents who were trying to make a difference in how their kids were educated,” Bauer said. “We weren’t trying to prescribe or favor one perspective or lifestyle or set of choices above another. We wanted to offer a space where parents could ask questions and express ideas without getting jumped on.”
Not only did Bauer teach at the College of William & Mary for 15 years, but she also is the author of history curricula for children and adults. My kids have listened to the audio versions of “Story of the World: History for the Classical Child” multiple times and my husband has read “The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome.”
I asked Bauer if she could think of any time in American history — not including the Civil War — where our country has been so ideologically divided.
“As a historian, I’d venture to suggest that our country has always been just this ideologically divided,” she said. “In the 19th century, there were at least a dozen political fights that ended in armed pistol duels. Because that’s what you did in the 19th century when words broke down. Irreconcilable ideological divisions have always been part of American politics.”
And the divisions extend to culture, too, Bauer said.
“Read something like Sinclair Lewis’s early 20th-century novel, ‘Main Street,’ ” she said. “(The novel) highlights the reality that, in the 1920s, the rural and urban communities of the United States wanted entirely different things, had different standards of what was “classy” and “trashy,” spent money in opposite directions, and each thought that the other side was corrupt and would bring the American way of life to a nasty end, if given free rein.
“I have a T-shirt that says: ‘Study history. Yes, people have always been this stupid.’ As a historian, I’m 100 percent in agreement with that,” she said.
The world of education also deals with vast chasms. There are public schoolers, private schoolers, people who want charter schools (which tends to be an unpopular notion in Washington), and those who advocate for a wide range of alternative options like partial school schedules and online learning.
In the homeschooling world, there are also different camps. Some people homeschool for religious reasons, some take a secular approach, and others abandon formal schooling altogether and are called unschoolers.
Bauer hasn’t been immune from criticism. Her “Story of the World” curriculum is the perfect example. The four nonfiction books for kids present a historical narrative but also include stories from major religions. Conservative Christian homeschoolers have criticized “Story of the World” for not espousing a “Young Earth” timeline. Secular homeschoolers have sometimes said that the delineation between history and the religious stories isn’t clear enough.
However, the general consensus of over 600 reviews on Amazon is overwhelmingly positive.
I asked Bauer how she walks the line of sticking with facts and being true to herself, while at the same time not alienating her audience and its gigantic range of opinions.
“How do you walk the line? Make sure that you’re actually being true to yourself,” she said. “Sorry to go all Shakespearean, but: ‘This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.’
“I truly believe that the major religions deserve to be treated seriously as part of history,” she continued. “I truly believe that a strict division between history and myth in ancient times is impossible to clearly draw. I am completely convicted that religious people should not explain what God is doing in history because we are not God and so by definition don’t know what that is.
“In other words, I write history not with an eye to my critics or fans, but with a commitment to be as intellectually and spiritually honest as I am capable of being. And I also truly believe that if I’m doing that, my history will find its place with those who are looking for work that isn’t false.”
Honesty, opposing opinions and support — everyone needs these things at one point or another. Parenting can be isolating, but so can being a teacher.
What I’ve learned in the past 10 years since I first read Susan Wise Bauer’s work is that public schoolers and homeschoolers have a lot to learn from each other. There’s an ideological divide that can be difficult to cross, but once you do, children benefit. It can be as simple as a public school mom reaching out to her homeschooling friend and asking for ideas, and vice versa.
Education doesn’t have to always happen in the classroom. When I was a teacher, I constantly encouraged my students to enrich their minds outside of the school day.
So here’s a tip that all of us can use, borrowed straight from The Well-Trained Mind Community: The next time your family goes on a road trip, try popping “Story of the World” into your CD player. You’ll be amazed at how much history your entire family learns. Someday, when your kids grow up and take the AP World History exam, they’ll be grateful.
Jennifer Bardsley is author of the books “Genesis Girl” and “Damaged Goods.” Find her online on Instagram @the_ya_gal, on Twitter @jennbardsley or on Facebook as The YA Gal.