During our early stages of homeschooling I did a lot of reading to learn about approaches, learning styles, and such, to create a vision for what I wanted our homeschool to be like. Somewhere along the way I came across “The Animal School.” It’s a fable that was originally written in 1940 by George Reavis, the Superintendent of Public Schools in Cincinnati, Ohio. I still remember how I felt when I read it – inspired, energized, and empowered. I want to share it here for a new generation of homeschoolers and give you some insight as to how it affected me as a teacher. There are many versions out there now, but the one I believe to be the original follows:
THE ANIMAL SCHOOL
Once upon a time the animals decided they must do something heroic to meet the problems of a “new world” so they organized a school. They had adopted an activity curriculum consisting of running, climbing, swimming and flying. To make it easier to administer the curriculum, all the animals took all the subjects.
The duck was excellent in swimming. In fact, better than his instructor. But he made only passing grades in flying and was very poor in running. Since he was slow in running, he had to stay after school and also drop swimming in order to practice running. This was kept up until his webbed feet were badly worn and he was only average in swimming. But average was acceptable in school so nobody worried about that, except the duck.
The rabbit started at the top of the class in running but had a nervous breakdown because of so much makeup work in swimming.
The squirrel was excellent in climbing until he developed frustration in the flying class where his teacher made him start from the ground up instead of the treetop down. He also developed a “charlie horse” from overexertion and then got a C in climbing and D in running.
The eagle was a problem child and was disciplined severely. In the climbing class, he beat all the others to the top of the tree but insisted on using his own way to get there.
At the end of the year, an abnormal eel that could swim exceeding well and also run, climb and fly a little had the highest average and was valedictorian.
The prairie dogs stayed out of school and fought the tax levy because the administration would not add digging and burrowing to the curriculum. They apprenticed their children to a badger and later joined the groundhogs and gophers to start a successful private school.
It’s easier to think of in terms of animals because their inherent differences are more apparent to us. Some have wings while others don’t. Some have webbed feet or humongous ears. Some have specialized beaks or tails. What if our children’s differences were as stark? It might be easier to understand why they aren’t able to excel in a particular skill. Further, we aren’t encumbered by comparing their race or class, or the education level of their parents.
As we progressed through the grade levels and learning stages these lessons were always in the back of my mind as I assessed my children’s strengths and weaknesses. Here are seven lessons I learned from “The Animal School:”
- It reminded me not to compare my kids to others, or even to each other, that they would learn at their own pace and in their own way. It helped me to relax and enjoy the differences I saw. Some of my most cherished memories are from watching my kids develop.
- It reminded me that no matter how much time is spent, or how much of an expert teaches a subject, there are going to be areas that just aren’t my kids’ strengths. And that’s okay. God has a plan for our children and He equips them accordingly.
- When my kids started “soaring” with something, it was easier to sit back and enjoy watching them, letting them take the lead and take off. I didn’t try to bring them back down to earth to work harder on an area they were struggling in. When a child finds something they are good at and is allowed to pursue it as far as they can, they rise above the crowd. It builds their self-esteem and sense of purpose. That, in turn, can give them the confidence and perseverence to tackle harder areas.
- Too much pressure is also crippling, whether from the teacher, or the student themselves. The rabbit started off great but dropped out because of a nervous breakdown. Homeschooling allows us to alleviate pressure from outside sources, or help the student learn to cope with their own self-induced pressure. Read “The Anxiety Epidemic” article that I’ve linked to below.
- The squirrel taught me that teaching methods and curriculum have the power to exasperate and cripple our students. Reassess often and make changes as necessary.
- As homeschooling parents we’re a bit like the prairie dogs who took matters into their own hands. We do what we can, but at times we need to seek out specialized help for unique needs. Also, they apprenticed their youth. College is not the best goal for all young people. Consider alternatives such as apprenticeships, technical schools, or their own business.
- Like the eel, many kids adapt well to school, tests, and expectations, and flourish. If our child is not an eel, they are no less important, nor are they failures. (Or their teacher!) They have unique strengths and gifts that aren’t always showcased by mainstream subjects and environments. While we can be happy for the eel, it’s important to help the non-eels to find their place in the sun.
“The Animal School” uses a handful of animals to make its points, but remember how many animals there are. What if your child is more of an endangered species, or one that defies categorization? One that is underserved by curriculum and extra-curricular activities? That can be more challenging to accommodate, but just remember that you’re going to do a better job of it than a school that has limited classes and resources. Often, a child given the time and freedom to pursue their own interests will find a way to their own end. It may involve building their own bridge or blazing their own trail. In trying to reach their own goal, they may see the need for better writing or math skills, for example, and be motivated to persevere in an area that is more difficult for them. Just help them find the resources, and most of all, give them time and encouragement. See how far they go, and how high they fly.
Finland’s New Approach
As I was working on writing this, an article appeared in my Facebook feed that suits it perfectly. It was about how Finland is beginning a radical change to its education system by removing all subjects. Instead it will begin to teach by a method that resembles the homeschooling approach of “unit studies.” The article claims that Finland’s educational system is ranked among the top in the world. Who knows how long, if ever, it will be until our country considers reforming its education system, but homeschoolers have been benefitting from that approach for many years. There is a link to the article below.
Read or watch “The School for Animals” periodically. Let it help put things back in perspective for you. At some point in your children’s growth you will need to start viewing yourself more as a facilitator than a teacher. If they are allowed to pursue their interest, it may not be long before they turn the tables and become the teacher! If you have had that experience then I invite you to share it in the comments to encourage other homeschoolers.
The Animal School: A Fable – (Video, slightly different version)