Jonathan: Welcome to Kidorable Parenting’s interview with educator Dr. Susan Wise Bauer, author of many books including, “The Well-Trained Mind,” a homeschooling blueprint, and “The Story of The World,” a series of history books for children told in a compelling story format. I’m Jonathan Domsky, blogger, parenting coach and co-founder of Kidorable. Susan’s books took the mystery out of education for me and Kubla. They helped me articulate what I wanted to teach him about the world and why, and they’ve been a steady companion, shaping our reading choices.
Susan, tell me a little bit about who you are, what you do and what you’re passionate about.
Susan: Well, I’m a writer, I am a historian, and I’m an educator and a lot of what I do now grew out of the fact that I was home educated myself back in the 1970s when not that many people were doing it and the legality of it was a little sort of foggy to everybody. My mother decided to teach us at home because she wasn’t happy with her educational options and really everything that I’ve done since then and I am passionate about teaching kids, I am passionate about… I’m passionate about getting people excited about history which tends to be you know, the thing that people remember not liking in high school. And it’s such a fantastic, wonderful field of exploration.
I’m passionate about giving kids the tools they need to read and write, all of these things just really grew out of that early homeschooling experience for me, and I guess the other aspect of my life is that I am an enthusiastic amateur farmer. I run a small farm here in Virginia. We do sustainable crops, we do sheep and goats, wool goats, and produce our own custom wool. So this is the farm I grew up on, so you know, the non-academic part of my life is really about sustainable small scale farming.
Jonathan: In today’s education systems, social studies and history have been crowded out by an emphasis on math and reading. Why do you believe that history should be central to a child’s education?
Susan: Well, you know, I always like to quote Ken Burns, you know, the documentary filmmaker. When somebody asked him why he spent so much time doing historical documentaries, and he said, history is all that there is. Everything that has happened up until the present day is history. All of human experience is history, everything that we know about the world and about ourselves is history. It is the subject, it is knowledge of ourselves through knowledge of the human race as a whole.
Jonathan: What is something you wish you had more courage or imagination to do when you were younger?
Susan: When I was younger? Interesting question, you know, I have such a… I had such an adventurous childhood. One of my mother’s principles of education was to give us plenty of space to explore the things that we really wanted to do, So I feel like I had a lot of freedom to have adventures and to try things. I will say I always wanted to learn how to figure skate, and I wish that I had learned how to do that as a kid. It was always just this longing of mine to do it and I was never able to do it.
And I started taking figure skating lessons this past year, this is the year I turn 50. Yeah, and as I’m skating, I just find myself thinking, you know, there are things that I do so easily because I’ve done them since I was a child and this is never going to be one of them. So I guess it’s a little bit of a regret, but you know, it’s a present day adventure for me.
Jonathan: Nice. What do you do to give children that you love the courage and imagination to seize possibilities for themselves in the world?
Susan: Oh, it takes so much effort, you know. I’ve got four kids, mine now are…wait, I always have to stop and think about how old everybody is now, 28, 26, 22 and nearly 18. And I see that they’re so talented and they’re so…they’ve got so many internal resources, but I see in all of them just this tendency to second guess and self-doubt. And I think my job as a parent is to listen for that…for the negative self-talk and to point it out to them and to ask them to be aware of the negative voices that are inside their own brands.
Teaching them to hear those negative voices, to recognize them and to realize that those are coming from the outside somewhere, that’s not who you are. That voice saying you’re not good enough, you can’t do this, you shouldn’t try, be careful, that’s not who they are. So I think that’s my biggest job as a parent, it’s to teach them to identify that voice and not to block it, because you know, the internal self-doubting voices are always with us, but to recognize that that is not a true voice.
Jonathan: Susan, describe something in your family life that you consciously made more fun, easy, meaningful, or joyous.
Susan: Well, I think meal time. I grew up in, you know, in a fairly strict religious family, and I was definitely taught from childhood that obedience was a primary virtue. And when I had my own kids, at first meal time really became a place of a power struggle. You know, eat your food, have good manners, you know, kids don’t fight at the table and I remember consciously thinking one day, “This is not fun and eating together is supposed to be fun,” and making the conscious decision to let go of how much and what I required them to eat, I let go of table manners to a certain degree.
If they bickered and fought at the table, I ignored it and turned the conversation in another direction. And I would say now meal time for us is a festival you know, it’s a celebration rather than a point of contention.
Jonathan: What was something about your current family life that you wish was more fun, easy, meaningful or joyous?
Susan: Let’s see, honestly I’m not trying to be obstructive here but I’m pretty happy with things the way they are right now.
Jonathan: Sounds good. What’s something that you treasure from your childhood that you tried to recreate with your own children?
Susan: Definitely reading aloud together. When I was a kid we only had wood heating, so when I was a kid and so especially in the winter the place everybody needed to be in the evenings was around the wood stove. And my dad when I was probably four or five started reading us…first he read us “The Hobbit,” the whole thing, and then he started on “The Lord of the Rings,” and I don’t think we got through the entire trilogy, we just read and read and read and read.
But such wonderful memories of sitting around the wood stove listening to him read, and really his sharing his pleasure in those books, his the joy in those books with us. He couldn’t wait to read to us and we still read you know, my husband still reads aloud to our nearly 18 year old now just because it’s such a lovely way to share an imaginative world together.
Jonathan: What’s the best thing about being a parent?
Susan: Watching human beings. Let me rephrase that, watching little kids turn into human beings, watching them…watching them just come to life.
Jonathan: So a number of people in your family are involved in education and in writing books that help people educate their children. Is that just random luck? How did that come about?
Susan: Well, you know my mother with whom I co-wrote, “The Well-Trained Mind,” has always been a writer and an educator and you know, she passed that on to me. So she and I have worked together quite a bit, the funny thing about my…the next generation, my kids is that none of them…I don’t think any of them are going to be educators. I ended up with all these performers. I’m not quite sure how that happened. So my oldest son is a playwright and screenwriter and director and he’s in LA.
I’ve got one kid who is finishing up a music composition and violin performance major in college. My daughter is a dancer and an actress and a singer. So there’s been something…I mean I’m a musician myself, enthusiastic amateur musician, but I’m not a performer and I don’t know if some hidden genetic strand has risen to the surface here with my kids.
Jonathan: Tell me about your current project or something else you think I should know about your work.
Susan: Oh, I’ve got some really cool current projects going on. Well the first thing I’m really excited about is that when I first started writing before “The Well-Trained Mind,” the first few things I published were novels. I always intended to be a novelist and I did the “The Well-Trained Mind” with my mother, in part because my kids were getting ready to start first grade and I wanted to make a plan for myself. And that was really the genesis of “The Well-Trained Mind,” it sprang out of a parenting impulse on my part.
I’m kind of a Type A, you know, rational, linear thinker. I like to plan things out and literally when my son was five years old, I said to my mother, “Let’s make a plan for the next 12 years, so I know where I’m going with him,” and that was really the genesis of that. But you know, and so, you know, 20 years later here I am having done a lot of writing on education, a lot of work on education. “The Story of The World” series really grew out of “The Well-Trained Mind.” I am getting back around your question, I promise.
Grew out of “The Well-Trained Mind” because a big part of “The Well-Trained Mind” was finding resources to recommend but I didn’t like any of the history resources I found, so I wrote my own. I’ve been writing nonfiction and history and books on grammar and books on writing for the last 20 years, and I am finally circling back around to write a third novel. And right now it’s about three quarters finished. I’m having a wonderful time with it, I’ve got no idea whether anybody will ever publish it, I don’t know who will read it.
I’ve got no idea who the target audience is, but you know, at 50 I’m finally coming back around to do this great imaginative project. So you know, something I just look forward to working on every day. And then of course, you know, I’m also doing the writing that I’ve been doing. I’m working on the next volume in my adult history series, which is the History of the World series, it’s a chronological narrative history for grownups.
And I’m so excited about the period I’m working on. It’s basically from the fall of Constantinople and the opening of the African Portuguese trade routes up to the settlement of Jamestown. And I’m so enjoying digging the narrative thread out of that century and a half. And I’m also working on the next volume of a grammar workbook. So I write grammar exercises every day, which I love. I adore writing grammar exercises, so fun.
Jonathan: What do you love…most people wouldn’t say that sentence. What do you enjoy about grammar exercises?
Susan: I think it’s a little bit like…okay, so this is gonna sound funny, but I’m also an enthusiast player of Spider Solitaire, I don’t know if you ever played spider Solitaire. You’ve got all of these decks of cards, and you’ve got to disentangle them and put them in order and it’s very satisfying, and that’s what grammar feels like to me. When this grammar series that we’re publishing to my publishing house, which is called “Well Trained-Mind Press,” we use real books for the grammar exercises. So instead of making up sentences to illustrate, you know, grammar principles, we comb through real literature and real science and real history, pull out sentences and then teach kids how those sentences work.
And it has that same untangling feel to it you know, like you’re making sense out of something that was formless before this and I just find that very satisfying.
Jonathan: Where can I find out more about your work?
Susan: Well, my personal website is susanwisebauer.com. My professional website for education is welltrainedmind.com, and if you’re interested at all in the farming side of what we do, that is historicpeacehill.com, and that’s peace like “War and Peace.”
Jonathan: Susan, this has been such a treat, I’m grateful for your time, your wisdom and the example that you share with me and our listeners.
Susan: Well thank you. I’ve so enjoyed talking to you.
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