Archive for September 8th, 2009

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.


My Speech to the Nation's Schoolchildren

Sharon September 8th, 2009

Note: At the last minute, President Barack Obama, bowing to pressure from the right, withdrew from his proposed speech to the nation’s schoolchildren.  Many Republicans had correctly indicated that having the sitting president address schoolchildren was wholly unprecedented, something not done since the distant days of George W. Bush, when that president reminded schoolchildren that their president really prefers they not use drugs.  President Obama, seeing their point that an exhortation to do your homework from the president really was the final step towards communism withdrew, and the White House frantically sought a non-controversial replacement, lighting, finally, on a nearly-unknown writer, farmer and blogger, famed for being non-controversial, unopinionated, and offering a glowingly optimistic view of the future.  Here, then, is my speech to the nation’s schoolchildren.  Upon receiving the text, the White House decided to go ahead with the original plan, for some reason.   To see Obama’s, go here.  I admit, I have no idea why they didn’t want me.

Good morning - how wonderful to see all these bright shining faces looking up at me.  My own kids stayed out of school today, because Presidents talking to schoolchildren is a commie plot, but I’m glad you and the 14 school districts brave enough to stand up to Glenn Beck are all watching me, even if you are pretty disappointed that it is only me.  I only wish I was President or Empress or something, or had ever done anything really interesting, because one wants to be inspiring in these situations.

Or maybe I can inspire you, at least in my own special way.  The President was going to tell you to work hard - I, of course, am going to tell you to do that too, but unlike him, this is more of a “do as I say, not as I actualy did” sort of thing.  But if you are going to grow up to be President, you definitely will have to work hard - or someone in your family will.  For example, it is pretty much a pre-requisite these days to have gone to Harvard or Yale if you want to be President.  To do that, you have to be either really smart and hardworking, like the President, or to have the convenient foresight of being born into one of those monied families that has a place reserved from birth.  And in most cases, that money was made by someone working hard, at least way back in the distant past.  Often doing not too savory things, but we won’t go into that, since you are still children.  So what I’d definitely suggest is that you either work hard getting your parents to give you up for adoption, and getting one of those monied families with political legacies to adopt you, or work hard at school if you’d like to grow up to be President.

My own suggestion, however, is that you not aim for being President.  It seems to me like a very tiring and stressful job - it does come with perks - you can order ice cream at 2am, order troops to invade any foreign country you want, and you get to address the nation’s schoolchildren,  but it comes with a lot of downsides.  There are a lot of other good jobs out there that don’t require you spend two years away from your family running for things, don’t make you an assassination target and don’t involve so much being polite to people you will never see again.  Don’t get me wrong, if you really want to grow up to be president, or senator or national security advisor, I definitely hope you achieve your wish. 

The problem is, that being a powerful political person, involves never really doing anything risky or too controversial for all the years leading up to it.  That’s kind of boring.  It also involves never letting on that you don’t believe in  ”doing things the way they are done” - whether in party politics or in any other respect.  And that can wear on a person.  If you want to be president, you can’t get arrested demonstrating against injustice, you can’t espouse radical political opinions, like that we ought to restrain our use of resources, you can’t, unless you can pull off a Dick Cheney, swear much in public or say what you really think and you have to smile all the time.  Me, I’d rather raise me some hell, and I suggest you’ll have more fun if you do too.

Now to be honest, I chose the slacker path all along, not just when I decided (and it was a very, very hard decision - I was really just about to declare my candidacy when I decided to take the “farmer and unknown writer path” to the future) not to be President. I didn’t work all that hard at school.   In fact, I was pretty lazy.  I cared a lot about learning, I read a lot and studied a lot of things on my own, but I didn’t like the part where we were all expected to parrot the same moral lessons or derive the same meanings from things.  For every inspiring teacher who taught me something that I continue to value (and there were a number of them), I also had a teacher who had nothing worth teaching, or who had been so worn down by the idiocies of administrative life and dealing with annoying kids that they’d decided the power to torture the kids was the only compensation for having to put up with 20 years of this.  For every creative and liberating educational experience there were a dozen repetitions of “recite the causes of the civil war…”  It wasn’t until I was older, and actually had occasion to read a lot of books about the subjects,  that I realized that through six repetitions of American History, all somehow spending 90% of the time on the period between the Revolution and the Civil War, I hadn’t really learned much of anything, except of course, that America was the sun, and the rest of the world pretty much revolved around it.

By the time I was a teenager, I did work hard - mostly at being a royal pain in the ass (am I allowed to say “ass” to the nation’s schoolchildren?  Crap…note to self, no more swearing…. oh, and delete “craptastic” from latter portion of speech!) to my teachers and the administration.   I had noticed already that a lot of what I was taught wasn’t really all the truth - and that a lot of what I was taught was, by necessity, basically an extended version of “sit down, shut up and become a good little consumer.”  So I was an annoying teenager, forever pointing out that there was another viewpoint, or that something wasn’t true, or even constitutional ;-) .  And while I genuinely feel bad for my teachers, many of whom were delighted to be rid of me (and some of whom were absolutely terrific, despite enormous pressure not to be), I think that one of the best possible futures for all of you to grow up questioning authority and being a pain in the ummm…tuchus as well.

You see, the President was going to tell you to do your homework, listen to your teachers and work hard, so you can go to college and become the best you possibly can be.  I’m a big fan of hard work, but there’s a problem with this message - most of the people who mean it only imagine one path, and one story for your future.  And that path and story might not be the best possible one for you.  College usually involves a lot of debt.  Getting a good job, and curing cancer is a great idea - but most people don’t cure cancer, they mostly work at WalMart, and that helps keep things like WalMart going.  A lot of people out there have inspiring stories about the merits of working hard to get a better job.  A considerable number of them could also tell you about working hard and ending up poor and screwed. 

The President says we need you to cure poverty - well, honestly, we’ve been trying to cure poverty with social scientists and hoping that a little more money will trickle down to the poorfrom the rich for a long, long time and it isn’t working.  Maybe it is more important if you ask what might work, or why the rich have to get richer for the poor to get richer?  Can you see any just way to get the poor richer faster?  Is there a chance that maybe all of us working hard to get richer might be a problem there?  Can everyone in the world be rich? How about everyone in America? I’m just asking. 

The President was going to say that our future is in your hands, and I agree - but the hands that have had it so far haven’t done such a hot job, and you should be somewhat skeptical of what we’re teaching you.  Ask yourself - is it more important to get a job curing cancer, or is it more important to live a life that puts as few carcinogenic chemicals into the world as possible?  I don’t know the answer - we need both, and how to have both together is one of the great challenges.  We need better and newer answers, and while there’s a lot to learn from your teachers and parents and other people, don’t forget the fact that they not only don’t have all the answers, they’ve often not got any. 

The President was going to ask you to serve your country - and I agree, that’s a great goal.  But maybe ask yourself what the most important way to serve your country is - loving your country means wanting it to be a good and decent country, one that is worth living in and that is worth loving.  That means being there to say “this is wrong” “this is unjust” “this direction is bound to failure.”  A lot of “serving your country” looks a lot like being a pain in the…rear.

If I were going to set up a path for you to serve your country, it would be this - work hard.  But don’t just work hard on the conventional path - everywhere you go, ask “is this the right way.”  Don’t just work hard at doing what your teachers tell you (ok, this advice does not apply to my three homeschooled sons who should always do what their teacher (me) tells them…right guys? ;-)), work hard learning whether what they tell you is right and true.  Don’t take what you are told on face value, even by the President, even by your teachers, and certainly by me - think it through and learn as much as you can and then you decide.

Work hard at what you care about - but make sure that what you care about actually makes the world better.  You’ve been told to care about a lot of really wrong things by people who should be telling you better - the most important things you can do don’t involve owning a house, getting a good college education, being President or having a good job.  The most important thing you can do is find a way to live that’s worth living, and help other people get there, to ask for more justice, and question whether the paths we’re on are worth continuing.  The most important thing you can do is be contrarian, critical, obstinate, radical, thoughtful and angry - and a royal pain in the ass.  So go to it.

G-d bless you, and you be a blessing to America.  Lord knows, we need it.


Independence Days Update: Before the Deluge

Sharon September 8th, 2009

The last couple of days have been quiet.  We rearranged our plans for the long weekend at the last minute, and ended up with a whole lot of delightful and unexpected free time.  We visited a local pick your own down in the warmer valley and picked sweet peppers (if I get a dozen red ripe this year from my own plants this year, I’ll be happy - and I’m not holding my breath!) to freeze and dehydrate.  We went apple picking (yay, Greenings!) with friends and then sat around chatting while their kids and mine played.  We built a goat birthing pen for Selene.  We went to the Arboretum and hiked for a while, and pulled together our school supplies.

Today we’re still off - Eric doesn’t teach Tuesdays and Eli’s school has teacher training, so we’ve one last day to get the house and farm in order, get set up for homeschool to start in earnest (technically we started last week, but homeschooling is easier when Eli is at school too).  And then comes the deluge.  We are now booked every single weekend between now and Chanukah.  We begin the fall holiday season, which includes Eric’s new semester (teaching a new class), my fall class (Aaron and I will be doing Garden Design in October and November - so that as you are putting things to bed, you can be planning and even putting together next year’s garden to make things easier, better, etc… - I’ll post the info in the next couple of days), Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and associated holidays, Halloween (the boys are going as Harry Potter and Fred, George and Ron Weasley, and their friend Kayla will be Hermione), my trip to speak in Macon, Georgia, Asher’s fourth birthday, the big synagogue event I’m chairing, Simon’s 8th birthday, Thanksgiving in Boston, the end of Eric’s semester, Chanukah and Isaiah’s 6th birthday, all crammed into a bit less than 3 months.  Oh, and we’ve got a ton of guests coming during that period, including a French tv producer who wants to film us,  and who will be staying with us when my best friend from college, her husband and their 3 kids (3, 4, 9 months) will be staying with us.  I’m told he likes kids….

In that period, my third book will be released, with all the associated radio interviews and other to do,  two does will kid (nothing yet, but any day now for Selene, Maia probably has a couple of weeks), we must get the fall harvest in, make presents, research new classes, organize costumes, cook feasts, organize school materials and farm records, bake cakes, stack all the wood, begin cutting next year’s wood, get the house winterized, homeschool for third and first grades and preschool, take down the old fence on the pasture, mow it, get it perimeter fenced, set up winter housing for the animals, move my office/herb room, raise the new chicks expected any day now, and as Yul Brenner once said,  …and etcetera, and etcetera and etcetera ;-) .

Autumn is always a crazy time, and if I spend too much time thinking about it, I might become crazed as well.  But it is also my favorite time of year - the weather is beautiful, the colors are inspiring, life is trending towards a settling in, and peace and quiet.  The food is the year’s best - all the pleasures of summer still with us in some form, but the new tastes of are fall pouring in as well (we had our first concord grapes, our first hot cocoa, our first roasted chicken from the meat birds we raised and the first really good apple this week).  The air smells of composting leaves and crisp fall, of drying herbs and cooking apples.  The night temps are cool enough for cozy sleeping under a warm quilt, and everyone has a burst of energy, knowing that they should enjoy the world now.  I love every second of it, and the long to-do list, the celebrations and feasts, the prayer and fasting, the grassy hay and the dry, cool potatoes - all of them go together, to create something I dearly love.  Come February, I may grump and wish I lived somewhere else, but in the autumn, I wouldn’t trade the northeast for anywhere on the earth.

But that dosen’t mean I haven’t been treasuring these last few discovered days of leisure.  There will still be leisure in the autumn as well - but three consecutive unplanned days seems unlikely, a delight to be savored.  Tomorrow I’ll jump in with both feet, but today, well, we’re still taking it easy - painting Isaiah’s new birdhouse, chopping peppers for the freezer, playing with the goats, mulching the harvested garden beds and taking time to play and read and rest.

Plant something: Spinach, bok choy, pea shoots and arugula

Harvest something: Tomatoes, peppers (sweet and hot), beets, turnips, carrots, onions, green beans, lemon balm, feverfew, peppermint, calendula, red clover, anise hyssop, sage, cucumbers, summer squash, kale, chard, collards, broccoli, daikon.

Preserve something: Froze cantelope, froze sweet peppers, dehydrated hot peppers, dehydrated sweet peppers, dehydrated tomatoes, made ketchup, barbecue sauce, tomato sauce, salsa, made raspberry jam, made grape jelly, froze green beans, made dilly beans, dried herbs, made sauerruben (sauerkraut, only with turnips), made spicy daikon pickles (it is getting to be cool enough for serious fermentation to begin), dried apple peels for apple-cinnamon tea, made raspberry-cinnamon vodka. 

Waste Not: Turned old folding closet door into fold-down entrance kidding pen (ok, I’m king of proud of this one, since my limited building skills were pushed here, and it came out great!).  Otherwise, all the usual stuff.

Want Not: Bought some cheap school/household administrative supplies, continued sorting out the kids wardrobes, began planning birthday presents more seriously, exploring pre-existing elements of halloween costumes (we buy used costumes at Goodwill, etc… and save old ones, and have an impressively full box of dress up stuff).  Also ordered inferios (generic cheerios available in bulk ;-) ) for my inferio-addicted children.

Eat the Food: Had the first roasted chicken - ok, the cornish crosses may not have been appealing, but at least they are tasty.  Also the first batch of chicken carcass Laotian chicken soup…mmm….

Build Community Food Systems: Made arrangements to talk about “where your food comes from” to two middle school classes locally.

How about you?