Archive for the 'homeschool' Category

Among the Paleo-Humans: The Rules of Homeschooling

Sharon December 18th, 2009

A small band of ice-age hunter-gatherers is presently in my yard stalking wooly rhinos, and trying to entice a dire wolf into becoming a domesticated dog.  There’s also some issue with predatory smilodons.  The hunters spent part of yesterday flint knapping spearheads out of driveway gravel, tied them with raffia to sticks, and are now crawling around hunting abovementioned rhinos (goats) across the scrublands (the backyard), and around the glaciers (snowy woodpile).  

The dire wolf is being slowly acclimated to human presence with food.  The major issue in the present project of domestication is that the dire wolf tends to respond to the presence of food by acting, well, depressingly domesticated, and has to be regularly reminded that she is fierce and unsure about this human project.  Meanwhile, the saber-toothed cats are just plain mystified about why all this running and screaming when one of them is spotted.  But they do appreciate the increased degree of respect, which they feel is only their due.

As you can probably guess, we’re doing the ice age and paleo-humans right now in homeschool, and it has taken strongly.  Thus we hear Isaiah shriek at his brother, who has done something to irritate him “You aren’t even a Cro-magnon or a Neanderthal, you are just a monkey, Simon!”   There is no official award for best insult by a five year old at our house, but that one is going up there.

This is not what we are actually supposed to be doing.  The Plan (which I had to file with my school district earlier this year) calls for us to have long since put away our spears and mammoth skulls and moved firmly on to ancient Egypt and the African Empires.  My assumption was that two weeks would suffice on early humans and then we could go on to the excitement of pulling dead people’s brains out through their noses – ah the pleasures of Egypt and its Mummies.  But the kids don’t want to do mummies, they want to be ice age hunters, and well, I’m prepared to explain to my district and the state of New York why ran out of steam at the fall of Rome, instead of making it through the Vikings and Meso-America.

We’re also spending an awful lot of time on languages this year, since this is Simon’s present obsession.  My kid taught himself to read Russian, Greek and Hindi – seriously, I am not joking about this.  And he just got workbooks for his birthday for Chinese and Arabic.  We are teaching Spanish and Hebrew, along with English, and Eric speaks Russian and a little Hindi and once upon a time I studied Greek – but  neither of us had planned on getting little messages from our son written in Arabic.  But we are, and we figure we might as well enjoy it.

This is one of the indisputable rules of homeschooling, or at least homeschooling as we do it – that you will not necessarily end up doing things in a linear way, or what you expected.  I’m sure there are parents out there who run a tight ship, but we are not among them.  My feeling is that there is a time and place for tight ships, but it probably isn’t when you are seven – at least in this respect.  It doesn’t seem to matter much to me whether my kids meet the Barbarian Hordes at the fall of Rome now or in a year or two.   

And meditating on this fact – that homeschooling really never seems to work out just the way you think it will, made me think about what the other rules of homeschooling are.  So here I inscribe them, so that other parents taking on this project will be warned that homeschooling is a lot of fun – but it isn’t always perfect. 

Rule #1 – Homeschooling doesn’t always end up as you planned.  Whether you start out with the intention of doing all of first grade math in a month or with the intention of totally unschooling, sometimes your expectations aren’t realistic.  And often, one’s kids take us places we hadn’t expected to go.  My feeling is that for the most part, and absent any major imperative, the best thing to do is go with the flow, at least until it drives you crazy. 

Rule #2  – Everyone will worry that your children are not being adequately socialized.  Whether they know you or not, they will fear deeply for your child’s future ability to get along in the world, without going to school.  You, on the other hand, will often consider your children wildly oversocialized, say, on the day when you have homeschool group, playdate and a museum visit all at once.  And when your 8 year old comes home loudly singing the lyrics of a song about a boy who could belch the alphabet, you may seriously consider the virtue of raising children in isolated caves.  Maybe even isolated from you.

Rule #3 – Homeschooled children reflect the general population.  That means that despite the fact that every kid in your homeschool group seems to be doing calculus at 7 and playing Chopin at 4, the reality is that some homeschooled kids will be struggling to read at 7 or 8 – and some of them will be the Chopin and Calculus kids.  Homeschooling does bring out the overcompensation in some parents – they want to say that not only are their kids getting a good education, but an extra-special-perfect one.  Ok, whatever.  The reality is that some kids will be like that, and some won’t, just like everywhere else in the real world.  Don’t let the woman whose daughter just built a 1/5 scale replica of a gothic cathedral, complete with gargoyles and flying buttresses out of toothpicks get to you – although feel free to make puking noises when she’s out of hearing.

Rule #4 - You may not have time or desire to homeschool, but I’m pretty sure you can handle fourth grade social studies if you want to bad enough.  I don’t know how often someone comes to me and says “I wouldn’t know how to teach my kid all the things he needs to know” or “I’m not educated enough to homeschool.”  And I’m sitting there thinking – are you really sure that you couldn’t maybe look up Niels Bohr, the Louisiana Purchase or subject-verb-predicate?  Because while there are plenty of American not literate enough, good enough English speakers or otherwise seriously challenged, most of them aren’t the ones saying this.  If you passed all your grades you can homeschool without an enormous amount of new learning.  It isn’t that hard.  

Things get tougher in high school, and you have to be prepared to learn stuff you’ve forgotten or sucked at on your own, but you can do it, or find other people to teach your kids trig.  There’s nothing wrong with not wanting to homeschool, or not having the time or being limited by unfamilarity with a language. But if you really wanted to, most people could definitely teach someone the multiplication tables. 

Rule #5 – You don’t have to go everywhere and do everything.  There’s a lot of pressure to be this kind of homeschooler, I think – to constantly be on your way to the museum, or off to the local archaeological dig.  The idea of hands-on learning is very seductive, and for them that like this sort of thing, and live close enough to good stuff not to be driving like crazy, that’s cool.  But you don’t have to be like that to homeschool – you can do smaller-scale hands on learning at home, burying old bones in the sandbox and having the children excavate them.  Or you can read about fossils and focus in on learning to build stuff.  Sure, there’s stuff you’ll miss that way – but that’s the way of education, you always miss some things.  And you miss plenty when you are always in the car.

Rule #6 – If it sucks, and you don’t have to,  don’t do it.  Seriously, teachers in public schools have to do a lot of really crappy, boring things.  They have to have a classroom of people who will stand in line to go to the bathroom and who will return the obvious answer.  They can’t always teach teenagers the dirty funny bits in Shakespeare or say “ok, maybe you aren’t ready for this, we’ll come back to it later.”  They’ve got 30 other kids and an administration on their back (I am not picking on school teachers here – in fact, I think it is astounding, given how many ridiculous hoops they have to jump through, that so many teachers do so very well.) 

You only have your kids, and you don’t have to do that stuff – so there’s no good reason to make yourself and your kids miserable, unless there’s some real pedagogical advantage.  This is not an argument for letting your kids grow up without learning the multiplication tables or about fire safety, but maybe you can skip over the “patriotism” curriculum, and not re-teach the American revolution 9 times the way they do at school.

Rule #7 – Sooner or later, your kid may want to go to school – or you will want/need them to go.  There’s no shame in this, and it isn’t bad – sometimes homeschooling is not a good choice.   This has not happened to me yet, but I fully expect that it will.  We already send autistic Eli to school – we wouldn’t be able to teach him well – I would not voluntarily homeschool him.  I know people who teach their kids with special needs at home, but I don’t aspire to this (although I have a plan in case it becomes necessary).  So far, Simon and Isaiah are both ideal homeschooled kids – Simon because he’s such a self-directed natural learner and Isaiah because he’s domestic and doesn’t really like things like school. I expect Asher to be considerably more challenging, though, and I’m not sure where he’ll end up.

I have a neighbor who found herself in constant power-struggles with her son while homeschooling – and everyone got happier when he went to public school, where he thrived.  Some parents aren’t great at homeschooling, and some kids aren’t great at being homeschooled. Sometimes a new job or a move comes, and the circumstances change.  Sometimes a kid wants to go to school.  Just as subject matter and approach demand flexibility, so does your relationship to school in general.   And make sure you allow yourself permission, periodically on bad days, to mutter under your breath about sending them to school, ideally military school. 

Rule #8 -  The best part of homeschooling is staying home.  Seriously, this is the reason we started – because my school district went to all-day kindergarten with an hour’s bus ride on each end, and my kid wasn’t even five yet, and still took a nap.  Keeping him back wasn’t an option – he’d been reading since he was 3 and had half the multiplication tables memorized.  So we homeschooled, and we’ve been doing it ever since.  We’re having fun – and the best part of it isn’t that we do everything, but that we don’t.  Instead of racing around in the morning to get everyone out, we’re going slower – just one kid is leaving.  

There is a great deal to be said for schools – many teachers know and care a lot about what they teach and the best teachers are wonderful.  But there’s also a lot to be said for home – for being fully integrated into family life. Not everyone can do this – many people work long hours.  But having kids integrated into a fully active home life has real virtues that ought to be explored – that is, the skills you can teach, the relationship to a place you can teach are different, and the kind of education you can get as a homeschooler can be different – and these, at their best are extremely good things.  The truth is we need sense of place and deep knowledge of local environments desperately – so go with your strengths.

Rule #9 – The best thing to teach them is how to learn.  The reality is that I can’t keep up with Simon on languages – Eric probably can, but I’m not sure we have time.  So Simon is learning to learn himself. Critical thinking, research and analytic skills are things that are often taught very poorly by public schools in general – and also by many homeschooling parents.  The truth is that if your kid doesn’t read Romeo and Juliet in high school or learn Russian or whatever, *if they’ve received a good foundation* and if you’ve taught them how to learn they can do a lot of it later. 

Rule #10 – There’s nothing wrong with NOT homeschooling. The thing is, homeschoolers get a lot of shit from non-homeschoolers, assuming that homeschoolers are too ignorant to teach their kids, or are raising weirdoes, and they can be awfully defensive about it.  At the same time, non-homeschoolers feel like homeschoolers spend a lot of time trashing public schools and implying that if they really loved their kids, they’d be home with their kids.  Frankly, both of these attitudes piss me off – it isn’t either/or, and there’s no real reason for parents, struggling to do the best they can by their kids to fight one another.  Let’s just assume that everyone is doing the best they can, can we?



What Is It Like to Homeschool?

Sharon September 8th, 2009

I get this question a lot.  Or I get the corrollary “I could never homeschool.”   When I hear this, I don’t assume that people mean “I could never actually teach an 8 year old the multiplication tables, or what a cell is” – because obviously, nearly everyone could.   I think most people who find homeschooling unimaginable envision home education as a smaller version of public school.  They imagine that it would be the parent’s job to keep their children firmly at their desks, to reproduce school in all its forms, to follow exactly a curriculum, and the thought isn’t very appealing. 

I’m not saying there are no parents who do this, but let’s just say there’d be a lot fewer homeschoolers if you had to.  We certainly wouldn’t do it.  The techniques required to manage a classroom of 28 six year olds or even sixteen year olds are totally different than to manage a “classroom” of a 9 and 12 year old who are your own kids, or, for that matter, a room of an almost-four year old, an almost-eight year old and an almost-six year old.

So I thought it would be worth describing what it is like to homeschool – or at least, one way it is possible to do so.  My intention is not to try and persuade people who don’t want to to do so, but to demystify something that might come up for any of us.  Because, as I write in _Depletion and Abundance_ any of us may find a reason to homeschool – just as the most committed  homeschooler may find themselves needing to send their kids to public school. It isn’t an either/or thing.  First of all, some kids are better suited to one technique than another – some kids simply can’t handle public school, or can’t get their needs met there.  The same is true with homeschooling – one child might flourish while another ends up battling with their parents, but does great in public school. 

Moreover, we’re all subject to circumstances beyond our control – sometimes kids gets sick and need to be taught at home for a time. Sometimes events close schools for extended periods.  Sometimes we have life changes that require educational changes.  Even if you don’t want to homeschool, you should at least have some sense of what it entails, if you get stuck doing it involuntarily.  For example, it is perfectly plausible to imagine that if the flu outbreaks this year are severe, school districts may close for extended periods, and you might want to continue teaching at home – a short break is fun, but bored kids stuck inside with nothing structured to do can be, well…annoying.  Trust me, even if homeschooling isn’t your dream, you’ll be glad to have something for them to do!

I realize we are enormously fortunate in that we have parents around during the day – I know single mothers who homeschool and work full time, or two career working and homeschooling families, and am always impressed by how hard they work – but I don’t know if I could do what they do.  I know people who supplement their children’s education remarkably after school as well, and around their full time jobs, and I’m awed by their commitment.

I’m a lazier person than that, and of course, very fortunate - in some ways, I homeschool because doing all the things we’d like to do around a full time school schedule just seems too hard – we homeschool because we like to spend time at home together.  I homeschool because there are so many things that my kids need to learn that school won’t teach them, and it seems so hard to do that at the end of a long school day.  But that is a luxury not everyone has.  I realize that – but also realize that if schools are ever extensively disrupted, someone – parents, a neighbor, a friend, a family member – will have to meet these needs around work schedules.  There may come a time when economic demands mean we have to homeschool and work out of the home full time – and it is worth being comfortable with home teaching beforehand, and having a mental sense of how it might work.

So here’s what it looks like here.  We do morning prayer before we go out for chores, and brush teeth, etc… Eli gets on the bus for school and then once everyone is milked, fed, etc… we all troop back and start school.  We tend to do one or two subjects a day, and for a comparatively short time – the thing to realize about homeschooling is this – you don’t have to spend four days explaining fractions so that every kid in the class gets it, you just have to spend as long as it takes.  And if it turns out that your kid isn’t ready for fractions, or isn’t responding, unless you’ve got an immanent test, you can say “ok, we’re going to do Venn diagrams instead” and come back to it.  You aren’t trapped by any rules, other than a general sense of what your kids should be learning.

We had planned to do ancient world history for a while last year, but Simon conceived an interest in modern history, so we switched.  We were teaching him recorder, but he didn’t like it, so now we do Piano (we already had the piano, obviously).  Simon is a self-driven kid in a lot of ways – he gets obsessed with things and wants to focus exclusively on them – he’s gone through bird phases, astronomy phases, Shakespeare, the Blues, the Multiplication Tables, …right now he’s obsessed with the chemical elements.  That wasn’t on my 3rd grade curriculum plan, but who cares? 

For some homeschoolers, the kids interests would guide everything.  We’re not in that category – I’ve got no problem with unschooling, but I’ve also got no problem saying “ok, we’re going to work on this, now.”  Right now we’re doing that with Isaiah – he’s not reading yet, in part, I think because his brother Simon reads to him constantly, and because he’s entering 1st Grade in his Hebrew School, he really needs to learn to read.  Last year we let it go, this year, we’re pushing a bit harder – and he’s more interested (he loves to cook and wants to be able to read recipes independently).  We insist the kids do music practice, do their chores and learn things they don’t care about sometimes – because they don’t always know when learning something will be helpful to something they do want to to do.  I want learning to be fun, but I don’t think it always has to be fun every second – but that’s a philosophical approach.

Besides memorizing Tom Lehrer’s “Elements” song (the chemical elements as of 1950 something sung to “I am the very model of a modern major general”) tomorrow, and reading Simon’s chemistry book and looking through cookbooks for Rosh Hashanah recipes, our school day will include reading the Torah stories that accompany the New Year’s Liturgy, painting the birdhouses the kids have been making and putting them up, taking another stab at a multi-perspective history of the ancient world, beginning with a children’s version of Virgil’s founding of Rome (so far the story has been really grabbing them), English and Hebrew reading lessons for Asher (still mastering his letters) and Isaiah (sounding out words), and making a pumpkin pie – Isaiah will read the recipes, Asher will help get out the ingredients, Simon will handle the lighting of the cookstove fire (with help), and Simon and Isaiah will add  pumpkin seeds to their seed-saving project. 

The whole thing will probably take less than two hours, perhaps not including the pie-baking time.  We also get pie out of it ;-) .  Much of the time is roughly indistinguishable from a lot of time we spend with the kids anyway, reading stories, doing our work with their help, and hanging about, singing, talking and giggling.   The next day we’ll work on math, poetry and music – making up insulting couplets, cutting pies into pieces (and eating them) to be counted, added, subtracted, and divided and divided again according to one’s abilities and age.  It is always hard to figure out what is work, and what is play.  Simon is old enough to do some work independently, so he can be doing math problems while I’m helping Isaiah with his reading and getting Asher to sort blocks by shape.  Sometimes we’re doing other stuff while we do it – I fold laundry while quizzing Simon about spelling, or answer Isaiah’s questions about birds while I’m doing dishes. 

Does it work, this informal approach?  It seems to – the kids are on grade-level pretty much across the board, and wildly above it in places. Simon reads at 7th grade level (he won’t be 8 until November) and is the consummate astronomer’s child, able to describe explain what a gamma-ray burst is, just in case you were wondering.   Isaiah alrady knows the lower multiplication tables, can bake cornbread, make bread and cookies with almost no help from memory and can identify more plants and their uses than Eric by a good stretch.  At 3, Asher can already sing the first verse of the Elements Song, recite the Prelude to the Constitution (no, we don’t teach that, he’s been listening to his big brothers ;-) ), make up new tunes to “Adon Olam” and explain that he’s a carbon-based life form. 

They are not geniuses, or even unusual children – Simon can’t write neatly, Isaiah doesn’t read yet, Asher still can’t eat without dripping.  Their knowledge is broad in some places, and imperfect in others.  What is different about homeschooling is simply this – they haven’t yet learned not to be having fun while learning.  And their parents haven’t yet hit the point where teaching isn’t fun.  We all stagger along as best we can, learning and getting things done, and mostly, having a good time of it.