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Viral Learning: Reflections on the Homeschooling Life, by Mary Griffith

A Review

By Ann Zeise

Even if you have a hundred homeschool books on your bookshelf, you simply must buy Viral Learning: Reflections on the Homeschooling Life, by Mary Griffith!

Mary Griffith pulls no punches with her witty insights into her life as a homeschool mom, the making of herself into a “famous homeschool author,” and her part as a vital leader in the growth of homeschooling.

Those of you who have been thrown out off your comfort zone by being put in the spotlight regarding homeschooling, will immediately identify with what Mary has to say about how her family reacted to her fame. One moment you are just an ordinary mom, and the next you are being interviewed and asked your thoughts about education policy!

Even a “famous homeschool author” has her moments of self-doubt. Mary talks about how her first daughter took to reading and her instruction like a duck to water. Her second daughter, though, wanted to take her time and figure reading out for herself. For Mary, allowing her daughters to learn to read on their own schedule was the hardest part about homeschooling. For me, it was allowing Scott to not write. I love to write, so why couldn’t I pass this on to our son, who loved to read, and could type fairly well-formed sentences in chats.

In the chapter It’s my house, so why don’t I get to make the rules? Mary talks about the conflict many parents have to fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum from being overbearing, domineering parents and totally permissive parents turning out total brats. The middle ground is built on mutual respect and trust. Getting there is the problem. How do you know when is the best time to allow a baby to crawl up and down stairs? Is it safe to show a two year old how to cut with a sharp knife? Too many rules that begin with “Don’t” can actually put a child in more danger than just teaching them how to handle “dangerous” things safely. We have to trust that our kids don’t want to get hurt.

Later, we worry that our children won’t be interested in something “important” and will not learn some key concept necessary to survive in modern life. It is hard to trust that, if it is important, the subject will come up in the 18 years a child is under your roof. Mary says that her parenting style could best be called “collaborative.” When a problem or concern arises in a collaborative family, everyone who can help pitches in to come up with a solution.

Then Mary switches gears from her personal stories, to her concerns about education. Now that we understand the experiences Mary had with her own and her daughters’ education, she starts to tell us what happened next. The plot thickens!

She first takes on Accountability. Are all these state content standards really barriers rather than a framework for building knowledge? When learning is reduced to something like memorizing the questions and answers in your Trivia game box, then is it real education?

I loved Mary’s chapter she entitled Duh. Know how you read some new study that comes out about how children learn, and you think, “Well, duh! Any mother could have told them THAT!” I’ve got my own set of such research. My favorite is the one that says that kids remember what they learn better and longer if they learn the material in natural light. Well, duh! Our son was either learning outside, or inside near one of our windows only when he wasn’t in an interior bathroom. We couldn’t miss! Mary gives several examples regarding the effect of praise (it doesn’t work) and the importance of self-discipline. Any mom could have told them being smart doesn’t cut it if a kid isn’t determined to do something well! She talks about other research regarding the importance of parents and children playing together. Okay, all together now, “Well, duh!”

Mary isn’t afraid to talk about the tough parts of homeschooling. So, who here talks boldly about the major personal problems we’ve had homeschooling? She talks about the panic attacks and the times she was ready to throw the girls back in school, usually just before one of her books was about to come out proclaiming her to be the “expert” homeschooler. I cried during this chapter, and homeschool books don’t usually move me to tears. Mary, you are so brave to tell us all this about your personal anguish. Been there.

Where is homeschooling going? Is it still a “movement,” or has it moved into the mainstream in a similar way as civil rights, etc.? Mary tells the story of HSC, the large California Homeschool Association, and her role in its founding, its near death, and revival. What’s left to do now? Is it time to let our guard down, and move on to other things? Mary explains the politics of homeschooling, which has roughly followed national politics in the last eight years or so. There are three sets of divisive factions:

  • the Fundamentalists (which call their groups “Christian,”) and the Inclusives, who have members both religious (but not dogmatic) and secular;
  • those who consider themselves “Real Unschoolers” vs those who adopt maybe a few “schoolish” things into their homeschooling.
  • and the Independent Homeschoolers vs those who accept control and often money or reimbursement by government programs. Each often acts like the other has “cooties.” The Independents seem to be surprisingly tolerant of those who homeschool through private programs. They at least are not accepting government funding.

If you are a researcher or reporter and hope to write fairly about homeschooling, then you need to read Viral Learning. It is tough to admit to all the infighting and pettiness that often goes on. Each faction does not want the other to hog the press or the research, while trying to get as much favorable press and research interest as they can, to trivialize the others. Mary helps us all to understand the history behind some of these disputes. Hopefully, her writing about it will help us all to rise above it, and get on with keeping alternatives for home education in its many forms available to those of diverse incomes and philosophies.

If you are considering homeschooling, read Mary’s book, but don’t let it scare you into not going on. Be relieved that we are all just normal, flawed humans, trying to do our best to ensure our own family’s right to homeschool as well as the rights of others, and to ensure that the laws stay favorable or are changed to be more favorable. While you do not need to become an activist for home education, you may find yourself in a situation where you want your voice to be heard. Read this book and realize you are not alone. Many of us who homeschooled in the eighties and nineties are now grandmothers. We hope you respect our advice, pick up the cause, and help it to grow and prosper.

Mary Griffith’s Blog, Viral Learning
Mary Griffith, Homeschooling Author

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