The School of Life – Learning History

(Originally published in the George Street Co-op Newsletter (sometime in 1993?). As you can tell from the writing, it was one of the first essays I ever attempted.)

by Sarabeth Matilsky

Every homeschooler is different. Ask twelve homeschooling families what homeschooling means, and you will get a dozen different answers.

In our family, we unschool. We don't have scheduled lessons; rather we decide what we want to learn and we follow up on it, using Mom and Dad as resources. For instance, if I am interested in Victorian England, I might go to the library, read about it, and come to Mom or Dad with my questions. If they don't know the answers, they can point me in the right direction.

Our way of homeschooling has one advantage – it's flexible. One of us can be reading at college level, yet be doing math at a fifth grade level, and that's okay. Because eventually, we will all know what we need to know to survive. And since we learn at our own pace, we enjoy the learning process.

It has been very difficult to get good history books, mainly because they all focus on wars. It gets quite depressing to read history as one murder after another! Not enough history books (textbooks in particular) give thought to everyday lives, customs, native rituals and traditions, etc. Of course, you can get books about different historical topics, but only if you know what you're looking for. I have gained a knowledge of history in many ways – through historical novels (James Michener, Laura Inglalls), encyclopedias, and history books that are written by people who are at least somewhat Politically Correct. Last fall Mom was reading books to my sister about the Civil War and the Reconstruction period, and since the books were on a high school level, I ended up listening, too. Even though we were different ages, we could both learn together – it didn't mean that one of us was “advanced”, and the other “behind,” but that we were both interested in the same subjects at different ages.

I also learn history through real-life experiences. Five years ago, when I was nine, my family took a trip to Yellowstone National Park, and on the way, we stopped in Lancaster, Pennsylvania (Pennsylvania Dutch Country). Many Amish people live there, and I had ample time to see their dress, customs, etc. It was very interesting to me that in our high-tech world, people still plow their fields with horses, don't use electricity, and dress as they have for centuries. When we got home, Mom read books to me about Amish lifestyles, clothes, etc., and I sewed authentic dresses for my sister and myself for Halloween. (Before the trip, a Co-op member had offered to teach me how to sew, and by the time we left for Yellowstone, I was pretty good.)

More recently, I became interested in the Renaissance. Last spring, I was biking in Donaldson Park, when suddenly it looked like we had entered the Middle Ages. There were people dancing and sword fighting, and they were all dressed in Medieval clothing. It looked interesting, so my friend asked one of the women what was going on. She told us that this was an event sponsored by the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) and that they also have monthly meetings where they recreate the arts, games, food, clothes, and customs of people in the Renaissance period. The woman gave us an information packet..

When I got home, I read the information and in it were instructions for making a simple dress. I made a pattern and sewed a basic tunic-style dress. After that, I was hooked. I never joined the SCA (I couldn't get rides to their meetings), but by then I was definitely interested in the history of clothes. I got out books from the library about clothes, looked at pictures, and learned all I could about clothes. I added to the dress, and made an eleventh-century lace-up back. I wore the dress to the local Renaissance Festival, and while there, got many more ideas for different styles of clothes. A few months before Halloween, I decided I wanted something more. I did more research and sewed a thirteen century cloak. I even read about how to wear my hair!

I definitely got a lot of sewing practice, making the dress, and math goes along with sewing (measuring for the pattern, leaning seam allowances, etc.). And then, of course, there was all the history. the information on costumes was presented with a background of daily life and major historical events, and it's amazing how much clothes tied in with this! And although there was mention of different wars, they didn't present it as the main topic, so it was much more interesting to read about.

Now I want to add that while both of these incidents were great learning experiences, I did not do research for my “history class” - I was doing it because I was interested in different cultures. Provided with the resources, people will learn, and it doesn't necessarily have to be from a textbook.