An Alexandria housewife hands her 10-year-old daughter a clothing catalog from a major department store where the family has a charge account. "You have $400 to spend," she tells her. "I want you to go through and replace your entire wardrobe. A new coat, shoes, everything. If you do a good job, tomorrow I'll let you have $100 for toys."
This may sound like an evening at the Rockefelers, or a page from a diary of a mad housewife. Actually, it's a "recipe." More precisely, it's one of dozens of "home lab learning recipes" devised by Dr. Dorothy Rich, a Washington education specialist who is studying the role of the family in the learning process.
"Everybody is a teacher, just as everybody is a learner," said Dr. Rich in describing her methods for having parents participate in educating their children. As founder and president of the Home and School Institute, she has spent the past 13 years convincing parents and teachers that eduation, like the student's protection under the Constitution, does not stop at the schoolhouse gate.
To assist parents in their Role as educators, she has devised a series of projects and scenerios - what she calls "recipes" - that involve the child and the parents. For example, the scene above was taken from the recipe "Blank Check." The daughter was told to imagine that she had lost all her clothes in a fire. She was given some clothing catalogs and a dollar amount to spend, with instructions to "buy" all the clothes she will need. Afterwards, the mother checked the list of purchases and their prices, to see that all essential apparel was included and that the cost did not go over the budgeted amount. The recipe also gave instructions for interpreting the results, and variations on the theme, such as shopping for groceries or toys.
For younger children there are projects like "Family Photos." Pictures of events or series of events with which the child is familiar are given to him. After arranging them in the order in which they occurred, or some other given sequence, he then writes or dictates captions for the photos. In "Measure Me," pieces of yarn are cut according to arm length, waist size, etc., then compared.
Each of the projects is designed to improve one or more of the basic skills of thinking, reading, writing and mathematics. In her new book "Basic Skills the Home Lab Learning Way," co-authored with Cynthia Jones, Dr. Rich lists dozens of these recipes. Most can be done with common household items and seldom require more than 10 or 15 minutes of the parent's time.
The Home and School Institute also operates a family learning center in the Terrell Elementary School in Southeast Washington. A mork-up of a home interior is used as a setting to show parents and teachers how the home can be used as a school-away-from-school. Recipe projects and other exhibits are scattered throughout the house - even the bathroom can be a "learning center" - for visitors to pick and choose.
"It's like going through a cafeteria," she said, "only what we're offering is ideas for learning."
Despite the increasing weight being given in current education theory to parent participation, Dr. Rich said that it has been an uphill battle getting her "family as educator" ideas accepted by some members of the education community. Her family learning center is still "novel enough to be called "unique'," although she envisions that ultimately there will be similar centers operating out of store-fronts, schools and churches across the country. The Institute, formed in 1972, now has training programs in cities such as Baltimore Los Angeles and New York.
"It has really been the parents that provide the leadership for this kind of change," she said. "I would like to say that it came from far-sighted administrators - not that we don't have any far-sighted administrators in education - but institutions tend to change only when they're nudged from the outside."
"Our bottom line, in everything we do, is improvement in the child," she said. "That's what legislators care about. That's what parents care about. That's what I care about. But along the way, we're finding that we're also helping families get a feeling that they're important people in their children's lives."
"We're not adversaries to teachers and the schools. I try to impress on teachers that it is part of their professional responsibility to work with families of the children, not just the children themselves. They will not be able to accomplish what they hope to do with the children unless they work with the families on a partnership basis. What we're really saying is, "You can't do it alone'."
Details about the family learning center and other programs are available by contacting the Home and School Institute, Trinity College, Michigan and Franklin Avenues, Washington, D.C. 20017.