Telling the story, teaching my son

Home-schooling, to me, has never held much allure. I have always been content to entrust my son's education to the local school system, with which I have been, by and large, well pleased.

However, when Alyosha entered high school last year, I noticed a waning in his interest for the books, while his devotion to the teenage social circuit found full flower. So, in the commencement of his sophomore year, I decided to do the thing I never thought I would do: I offered to give him instruction at home.

Not in all his subjects, mind you; my own work schedule wouldn't permit it. But as a college biology teacher, I thought I could perhaps make a productive go of it in my own field. And so, over the summer, I made my pitch to Alyosha. He accepted without hesitation.

It was that "without hesitation" that caught me up short. Had my son perceived this as an opportunity for a little more time off? "Now, Alyosha," I counseled, "this is going to be work, and I want you to take it as seriously as I'm going to."

My son crossed his heart, and no sooner was he out the door, off to one of his activities, than I began to fret over my decision.

I had wanted to home-school him in biology for two reasons. First, I felt it would give me some insights into how he learns. Second, with one-to-one instruction, I was hoping to seed in him some enthusiasm for science, a discipline he had all but decided was as distasteful as Brussels sprouts (with balsamic vinegar!).

The thing about teaching one's own child is that the offspring knows all the parent's tricks. I mean, if my son were to slack off in his studies, what could I tell him? That I would send a note home to his parents?

I realized from the start that there were complexities with home schooling that went beyond academic discipline, completing assignments, and establishing consistent rhythms of study.

Another consideration was that we would be doing the lessons in the evening, after his formal school day had ended. Would this discourage ambitious study on his part?

We hit the ground running. For the first lesson, I prepared a powerhouse of notes, worksheets, demonstrations, and experiments. After supper, I spread out all this largess on the kitchen table.

"There," I pronounced as the two of us sat down, as if expecting the instructional material to organize itself for some sort of performance.

"OK," said Alyosha, who also perched himself, ripe for something to happen.

And then: nothing. I have given thousands of lectures in my teaching career, run hundreds of experiments, organized multimedia presentations to flesh out my courses, and now, all of a sudden, I was speechless.

"Wow," I finally voiced as I drummed my fingers on the table.

"What's the matter?" asked Alyosha.

I threw out my hands. "I don't know how to start."

It was true. Accustomed as I was to managing full classrooms of students of varying interests and abilities, I found myself having difficulty adapting my tried-and-true methods for the solitary student, my own son.

Alyosha gave me a few moments to consider our situation. And then, "Just tell me the story," he said.

The story? Hmm. I paused to reflect upon my classroom teaching. I thought of the times when, in the middle of a complicated concept, I would put my chalk down and say to my students, "I want to tell you a story." At that point, they would drop their pens and lean forward in their desks in anticipation.

And so I looked at him and began, "Once upon a time...." With this fixed phrase as our introduction, everything seemed to fall into place and the path ahead suddenly became clear.

I talked about the 18th-century Swedish botanist Linnaeus, and how his classification system of plants and animals made order out of chaos; the transition from the wistfulness of alchemy to the rigor of chemistry; and the emergence of the human mind from the mire of folklore and soothsaying onto the consistent and myth-vanquishing terrain of the scientific method.

We have been at this biology stuff for quite a few weeks now, and I have been pleasantly surprised at the degree of my son's cooperation and interest.

I need only remind myself from time to time to stick to the story, which has made me, as the teacher, as curious as my new student about how it will all turn out when our little experiment in home-schooling finally comes to an end.

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