This year in home education, a milestone I've looked forward to: my eldest son, now in tenth grade, begins General Chemistry. Also precalculus -- not quite as fun for me to teach as proof-based geometry was, but still, it makes me smile.
For a long time, I didn't expect to teach General Chem at home, even though I'm entirely capable of it. Because: labs. Mark may be quite handy around the house, but I didn't expect him to construct me a fume hood. And how to dispose of used reagents safely? And -- all that glassware! I knew, of course, that one can buy a fully-stocked chemistry kit for homeschoolers; all the catalogues have them. But I guess I have been a bit snobbish about chemistry: I never really thought a home-grown chemistry lab could be adequate. I wanted a proper laboratory experience.
I mean, good enough if you don't have other options, sure. But we do have other options. Here in Minnesota, high school juniors and seniors can take courses for credit at a number of local colleges and universities for minimal cost. (The program's also open to high-scoring sophomores who attend institutional high schools, but not to homeschooled sophomores. Go figure.) I have been telling people for years that I intended to have my kids take chemistry in their junior year through the college-credit program, especially so they could take a course in a "real" laboratory. I figured that we could do physics at home instead.
And then as sophomore year approached, I found myself thinking: How involved is a first-year high school course anyway?
I personally racked up a lot of time working with laboratory equipment in high school, it's true. But now that I think of it, some of that was in the second-year course (yes, I had two years of high school chemistry -- also two years of physics). And a lot of it was extracurricular activity, such as setting up demos for the summer elementary school chemistry camp, and hours of prep for inter-scholastic science competitions, and sometimes just messing around in the back prep room that joined the two chemistry classrooms. (Was there really a glass jar half full of mercury on the bottom shelf, glistening dully through a thick layer of dust? Or have I manufactured that memory? It seems that by 1990 such things should have been long gone.)
Anyway -- what labs do first-year students really do at the lab bench? Flame tests (not the stupid kind involving methanol, but just putting saltwater-damp probes into Bunsen flames). Weighing a precipitate to find how close you came to theoretical yield. Calorimetry -- in practice, this consists of known masses of ice and warm water mixed in a Styrofoam coffee cup with a thermometer thrust through an insulating lid. I remember the most difficult lab, in the sense of being easy to screw up so that you had to start over and risk being late for English class, being acid-base titration with its impressively towering buret and frustratingly sticky stopcock. I vaguely remember doing one thing that required a crucible.
Anyway, I spent some time researching, and I found a microchemistry lab kit and manual that began to make me think that we could do an adequate job with the laboratory at home. Microchemistry: why didn't I think of that before? Tiny quantities means less waste, mitigation of safety hazards, and next to no disposal issues. And after all, there will be a chemistry lab in college. It's not like this is the last chance the kids have to experience laboratory work. The fundamental skills of observation, meticulous direction-following, keeping a good notebook, writing detailed laboratory reports are the same everywhere.
It's the perfect example of how to play to the strengths of this homeschool while mitigating its weaknesses (like no fume hood or convenient hazmat disposal.)
Paper chromatography lab, one of the first in the manual. With a toddler in the house, the safest place to work is a relatively inaccessible upstairs room with a large table. A pitcher of tap water and a plastic dish tub serves as a portable sink. Distilled water comes in plastic jugs at the grocery store. I purchased a plastic eyewash-station bottle (green-lidded bottle) and sterile eyewash solution from an occupational safety supplier.
Microchemistry lab supplies use small quantities, measured dropwise from calibrated dropper bottles and reacted in the tiny wells in plastic reaction plates (there are 96 wells in the plate at my son's elbow). The reused glass yeast jar contains fruit juice from the kitchen -- one of the liquids subjected to the chromatography lab along with bromophenol blue, copper nitrate, and assorted household dyes.
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I'm not just teaching my own son, but two other teenagers. We meet twice a week for 45 minutes, and if you're thinking, "That's not nearly enough lecturing to teach high school chemistry," you're right. I wish I had time to teach the teens by lecture 4 times per week.
If we took two years to get through general chemistry, I could do it; that's exactly how I taught proof-based geometry, which went swimmingly and was a lot of fun too. The kids studied geometry at half-speed with me for two years, and on the other days of the week they studied algebra at half-speed for two years. At the end of two years, they had one credit of geometry and one of algebra, just as if they'd done them sequentially.
(It occurs to me now that for future cohorts of children, I might be able to do something similar with science: Chemistry at half-speed in a full lecture format, while the kids study some other thing at half-speed the other two days of the week: biology or physics, perhaps. Two years to do two credits of science. It could work, perhaps. H. and I will have to talk about it. I already have a fully written evolutionary biology curriculum that has no labs, so... it could work.)
As it is, though, instead of following a lecture format, I am following a reading-recitation format. I am more tutor than lecturer. With only the barest introduction from me at the end of the previous class meeting, the students read a few sections and work assigned problems (I assign the ones with the answers in the back of the textbook, so they can check their own work). Then when we meet around my kitchen table, I uncap my dry-erase marker and ask, "Any questions? Did you have any trouble working any of the problems?" We work some of the problems together, and then I tell them things like: The most important thing to remember from this chapter is such-and-such. Or I tell them a nifty mnemonic (how do I know it's nifty? My high school chemistry teacher taught it to me, and I haven't forgotten it) to remember which of the gaseous elements are always found as diatomic molecules. Or I give them a list of ions and molecular formulas that they have to memorize because they are going to come up again and again, and set them quizzes on it until they stick.
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I'm enjoying something about this that I also enjoyed about plane geometry and am (mostly) enjoying about my son's precalculus work: Having already set up the schedule so that I know what they are studying each week, I can walk into my class sessions cold. There are, it turns out, a few consolations for the stay-at-home geek, and one of them is finding out twenty years on that you've still got it, or at least can fake it in front of newbies.
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So here's the temptation: After a few weeks of high school mathematics and science going so well, having put a fair amount of work into designing a course that is rigorous and emphasizes the strengths of the homeschool while mitigating the weaknesses, I sometimes start to think: Gosh, it's a good thing I've got such an extensive background in this material! Otherwise how would I ever make sure that my kids learn this?
It's an understandable temptation. Who doesn't want to justify our past decisions (such as devoting years of our lives to study a field in which we never wind up employed)? Who doesn't want to feel essential?
But it's one that I am compelled to reject as contrary to my philosophy of education. Not that it's bad to arrange it so that one's children can learn a subject directly from an adult who's specifically trained in that subject. This is a great choice! But -- contrary to what many people imagine -- it is not an essential choice. Being an autodidact has merits too, such as the training in self-discipline, self-examination, and resourcefulness required to find out what one does not know and then to track down the necessary resources to learn it. Sometimes what's learned on one's own sticks better than what's drilled into one by others. Probably the optimal mix of an education is one that includes some training by experts along with some mix of self-directed study -- with the exact recipe varying quite a bit from family to family and from student to student.
Even less essential is that the parent specifically be the expert. Not for nothing am I teaching chemistry and geometry to two other families. I'm their non-parent expert, brought in in an informal brain-bartering arrangement. In return, I call on H's skills and (to me) astonishing patience and resourcefulness teaching writing and language arts to all our offspring over the age of four. Yes, yes, I can write, but can I teach writing? If I had to, I'd try, but I'll tell you one thing -- I don't enjoy it much at all!
I've also paid money to bring in experts (as in: music education) and -- admittedly my favorite solution -- I've taught myself subjects so I could turn around and teach them to children. I'm a quick study, but in principle anyone can do this. One of the great advantages to this method is that the learning process is fresh in the mind. Having just learned something presents some surprising advantages to the teacher.
(Something I learned in engineering school: when a graduate student is not entirely sure that he or she understands a topic, it is a normal occurrence for the student's advisor to assign the student to teach the unsteady topic to undergraduates.)
So, yeah, we subject-experts have to watch how we talk about our expertise to other people, even to other homeschoolers, lest we plant the seeds of the idea that self-teaching is impossible, that experts are always and everywhere necessary. The answer to "But what qualifies you to teach your own children?" always and everywhere has to be: I am their parent. I am motivated to give them whatever they need to see them succeed. We often look outside ourselves for those resources, but the fundamental resource that powers it all is the resource of self-gift that resides in the very fact that we relate to them as parents are meant to relate to their children: as mentors in all of life, and education is not really separable from that.
The confidence that learning of some kind is out there to be grasped by anyone with the drive, whatever their immediate limitations, is a fundamental assumption of home education -- and I would say, a fundamental assumption of humanity. You can do it, if you want, and if your priorities can be so arranged. It's an optimism that one can never have as long as one is dependent on experts.