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Teach Your Children

By David Hill — October 25, 2019 12 min read

Monday, 9 a.m. Most of the children of Bainbridge Island, Wash., are settled at their school desks, trying to put the weekend behind them and focus on their assigned tasks. Mothers and fathers, too, are already busy at work; many of them have been up for hours, in time to catch either the 7:10 or the 7:50 ferry to Seattle, 35 minutes away.

But the Gutersons are still at home, in their 90year-old, shingle-style house nestled in a cedar grove. David Guterson, a writer who teaches English part-time at Bainbridge High School, sits on the living-room couch grading papers, while Taylor, 11, and Travis, 9, sit next to him reading books. David’s wife, Robin, is in the kitchen, nursing baby Angelica. Upstairs, 7-year-old Henry is still asleep. “Taylor,” Robin shouts from the kitchen, “you need to finish your chapter and go on to your violin practice.” Then, in a softer voice, she says, “He’d read all day if I’d let him.”

Like a growing number of parents, David and Robin Guterson have chosen to teach their children at home. They’ve come to expect the puzzled looks and probing questions they get when they tell people that their three sons don’t attend school. They’ve also come to expect the assumption, which many people make, that they are fundamentalist Christians seeking to protect their children from secular schools. (Many homeschooling families fit this description.) But the Gutersons are not religious extremists; in fact, they see themselves as part of a mainstream tradition in American education. “Homeschoolers are not eccentrics and cranks but keepers of an educational tradition that sustained human beings for thousands of years and Americans until the mid-19th century,” David writes in Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense, published last fall by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. “State-controlled, compulsory schools, on the other hand, are a relatively recent phenomenon, a modern educational experiment whose results, thus far, are not particularly encouraging.”

The Gutersons believe that homeschooling allows them to offer their children what the public schools simply cannot: individualized learning in a loving, nurturing environment. “Teachers at Bainbridge High School, where I am employed,” David writes, “generally meet with between 125 and 150 students daily—close to the national average for secondary-school teachers. Most are astonishingly good at uncovering the unique inner mechanics of at least some of these children, but most would readily admit, too, that even after 10 weeks of class most students remain in essence strangers, somebody else’s children, their private histories and intellectual idiosyncrasies mostly lost on them. …

“Homeschooling parents, on the other hand, find themselves uniquely well-positioned to nurture learning in the lives of children. From the moment of their child’s birth, they have been immersed in an evolving and intimate relationship that allows them to shape educational experience appropriate to that child. For them, it is the nature of the child that defines both content and method, and it is the response of the child to content and method that suggests to them their future choices, new alternatives, other strategies. Curricula can be supplemented, revved up, altered, intensified, or momentarily abandoned; methods can be used in combination, in sequence or simultaneously, then revised as the child grows and changes, month to month, even day to day. Uninhibited by the inherent inertia of schools—their uniformity of content and pedagogy—and intimately connected to their child’s educational needs, homeschooling parents are able to invent and reinvent, learn from error, modulate as their understanding deepens, and finally nurture their child’s intellectual growth from the advantageous position of one who loves that child deeply. In short, parents are natural teachers, positioned by the very structure of life to tend to the learning of their children.”

You won’t find a blackboard in the Guterson home, and you won’t see the children taking pencil-and-paper tests. Sometimes it’s hard to tell when the playing stops and the learning begins. But that’s precisely the point. In fact, David believes the word “homeschooling” is a misnomer. “It’s one of those words,” he says, “that leads people to believe that it’s `school at home.’ You know, as if you take what’s done at school, and you just do it on a smaller level inside your home—that the model of `school’ is operating at your kitchen table. It’s really not that at all. And also, it leads people to believe that it’s primarily the kind of education that happens in the home. Whereas, to the contrary, it’s the kind of education that happens in the world.”

With that attitude, virtually any event can be turned into a learning experience, and learning itself can occur anytime, anywhere. “A winter day on which snow begins to fall,” David writes, “is the natural starting point for discussion and reading about meteorology, weather fronts, road salts, sloped roofs, Alaska, polar bears, the invention of touring skis—each boy according to his interests. A spring evening spent on a blanket in the yard as the stars begin to show themselves is a proper time for talk of constellations with Taylor, bringing out a star chart Travis will look at, questions from Henry about satellites, setting up a telescope for all three boys, inquiries about eclipses, comets, meteors, navigation, Columbus, the Apollo space program.”

For the Gutersons, home-schooling is, in a sense, “parental involvement” carried to its logical extreme—for it allows them to be totally dedicated to the education of their children. And the fact that homeschooled children perform well on standardized achievement tests only confirms their belief that strong parental commitment to education is the most important factor in determining the academic performance of children.

“Every parent,” David says, “has an obligation to decide what’s best for their children educationally. And, for our family, it’s homeschooling. It may not be the best choice for a lot of other families, and I can accept that. A lot of other people don’t make the choice that I make, and they choose to send their children to school. By homeschooling, I’m not trying to make the statement that schools are bad and homeschoolers are good. I’m just trying to make a choice that works for our family and works for our kids.”

If David, 36, is the eloquent spokesman for homeschooling in the Guterson family, then Robin, 37, is the hands-on practitioner, the one who, as she puts it, takes care of “the day-to-day grind.” While David grades papers or works on his novel in an upstairs office, Robin sees to it that the boys are reading their history books, doing their music lessons, or writing in their journals. She tries to focus on the basics—reading, writing, arithmetic, science—for several hours each morning, but no two days are ever alike.

This morning, Taylor—the spitting image of his mother—is engrossed in The Patchwork Girl of Oz, one of L. Frank Baum’s classic children’s books. A voracious reader, Taylor intends to read all of Baum’s books someday. But right now it’s time for him to practice his violin, so he reluctantly puts the book down and takes out his instrument. He begins with an old fiddle tune, The Millionaire’s Hoedown, which he plays effortlessly, and then switches gears and plays a short piece by Vivaldi.

When he was younger, Taylor told his parents he wanted to learn how to play the fiddle. So they found a Suzuki-method violin teacher, and, at age 6, Taylor began taking lessons.

After working his way through several other pieces, Taylor begins playing scales, first in the key of G. “That was good,” Robin tells him. “Now try A the same way.”

“I’m not good in A,” he complains. But he does it anyway, and he does it well.

Meanwhile, Travis, who looks as if he were born with a smile on his face, sits at a large table in the kitchen working on a writing assignment: “My Trip With My Dad, Summer 1992.” He’s already written a first draft, which his mother went through and edited in red pencil. Now he’s working on the final version. It begins: “We left about 6:00 in the morning to catch the ferry boat. We drove up to Mazama in the car. We went up on a mountain to scout grouse, but we didn’t see any. Then we went to Omak for the rodeo.” On another day, Travis might write letters to his grandmothers, his “pen pals.” But not today: “They owe me letters.”

After he finishes practicing his violin, Taylor moves into the kitchen and begins to write a letter to his grandfather—David’s father—in Seattle. Although they see each other often, they exchange letters once or twice a week. Taylor decides to tell his grandfather about making root beer the night before—a family project that was inspired by a trip to a local root-beer brewery.

When David wrote an article for The Seattle Times about duck hunting with his oldest son, an animal rights activist wrote Taylor a letter asking him to think about alternatives to killing animals. So, after discussing the issue with his parents, Taylor wrote a thoughtful reply to the man. “It was a great writing assignment,” Robin says. “It had to do with his life, hunting with his dad. This is the kind of stuff I like. It’s not some assignment, `Pretend you got a letter from so and so, then write a response.’ It’s real life.”

Every morning around 10:30 or 11, David gets into his International Scout and drives the five miles to Bainbridge High. He acknowledges the apparent contradiction of teaching other people’s children at school while he and his wife teach their own children at home, but he doesn’t apologize for it. “I see no real conflict in what I am doing and remain committed to both worlds,” he writes. “At school I come to admire many of my students, to like them so well that I am sad to see them go. ... Yet for all this, for all the quiet joys of the classroom, I am forever aware of some amorphous dissatisfaction, some inkling that things might be better. It seems to me that many of my students should simply be elsewhere, that they would be better served by a different sort of education, that their society would be better served by it, too.”

As David leaves the house this morning, Henry is playing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” on his guitar. He’s been taking lessons once a week for a year and a half, and his musical talent is obvious. Later, he works on a new piece. “Start from the beginning,” Robin tells him. “That’s a G.”

After about 20 minutes of this, Robin says to Henry, “Shall we do some reading?” Henry puts his guitar away, joins his mother and Angelica on the couch, and begins reading from a book called Small Pig. Although 7, Henry didn’t start reading until recently, a fact that doesn’t bother David and Robin. “Why did he need to read at 5?” David says later. “We don’t worry about comparisons to other kids or to the established norms of each grade. They’re not relevant to our thinking. But I certainly would start to be concerned if they got to be about 10 or 11 and they weren’t interested in learning to read. It’s really great when a kid says, `Yes, I want to,’ as opposed to school, where it maybe gets rammed down their throats and some kids aren’t ready.” (Taylor and Travis also learned to read when they were 7.)

After lunch, Robin takes the boys to the Homeschoolers’ Resource Center, which serves many of the 80 or so homeschooled children who live on Bainbridge Island. David convinced the local school district to pay for the center, located in a portable building behind an elementary school. Marilyn Place, a former teacher who homeschools her own two children, was hired to coordinate activities at the center.

Parents are encouraged to sign up to teach mini-courses; today, Robin is leading a small group of homeschoolers, including Taylor, Travis, and Henry, in math games and logic puzzles. David, who is now through teaching for the day, drops by to help out.

The center, David says, allows homeschooling families to become “well-connected” in the community. “I think that’s really important,” he says. “I don’t want to just have this insular family life that walls everybody else out. I think it’s very important for home-schooling families to reach out, to each other and also to other people who don’t homeschool.”

Once a month, parents meet at the center to compare notes on homeschooling. “I find it inspiring,” Robin says. “It keeps me going.”

People are always asking David and Robin, “What about your sons’ socialization?” The question, as David writes in his book, means different things to different people. To some, it can be interpreted as, How do you expect them to understand people well enough to get ahead in the world if you don’t send them to school?, while for others, it is more a question about the boys’ social life. “They simply want to know,” David writes, “if our boys have any friends to speak of and are concerned that homeschooling must mean by definition a great diminishing of social opportunity. For them, home-schooling evokes sad isolation, a world devoid of intimate friendships and composed chiefly of loneliness. In their mind’s eye, they see our boys hunkered down at our kitchen table, silently toiling along with their pencils, friendless, isolated, with one of us, perhaps, hovering over their shoulder, but with no one their own age present.”

But nothing could be further from the truth. The Guterson boys may spend their mornings at home with their mother, but their afternoons are much like other boys’. “For example,” David says, “for the last couple of months the routine has been: Henry has his swimming lesson with a bunch of other kids, and all three of them have these martial-arts lessons that involve a group of kids. Of course, they have friends in the neighborhood. And Taylor is involved in Suzuki violin and has group lessons. He’s in a youth orchestra. So, they’re out of the home a lot, involved in these other activities with kids. And I think that’s pretty important.”

After leaving the resource center, Robin takes the boys grocery shopping in Winslow and then begins the process of schlepping them around to their various extracurricular activities. Late in the afternoon, David picks them up at their karate lesson and takes them to the Bainbridge High gymnasium, where Taylor has a basketball game. (David played basketball in high school, and his sons all seem to be following in his footsteps.)

Taylor isn’t the biggest player on his team, nor is he the smallest. But tonight he plays well, contributing 16 of the team’s 37 points while David, Travis, and Henry cheer him on from the sidelines. Despite the encouragement, Taylor’s team loses the game by seven points.

Recently, Taylor was concerned that, as a home-schooler, he might not be able to play on the Bainbridge High School basketball team when he reaches high school age. His parents researched the matter and found out that under state law he would be eligible to play. Taylor was relieved.

“I think Taylor’s getting a little curious [about school],” Robin says. “He has some homeschooling friends who take one or two classes at the middle school, and he might want to try that, just to get a taste.”

When David and the boys return home after the game, a dinner of salmon quiche, salad, and baked potatoes is waiting for them. As they eat, Taylor, still sore from the game, tells his mother about the bloody nose he got when another player elbowed him during the before-game practice. “Did you cry?” she asks him? “A little bit,” he says. “Good,” she says.

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1993 edition of Teacher as Teach Your Children