Catching Up, Thanks to a New Reader

Hi, there!  It’s been a while.  I have so enjoyed the response to this blog and thank so many readers for reaching out to me over these past few years, especially as I have not posted publicly in so long.  Thank you!  A recent note from a reader has inspired me to post again. Please see the note and part one of my response to her below.

I recently discovered your blog after seeing your old xoJane piece about homeschooling. I’m happy to see a secular homeschooler out there and have found many of your posts useful. I have two boys, ages almost 5 and almost 3, and in the next few months will be coming up big time against the decision about school or not.

[M]y husband is very much on the fence about homeschool. I feel motivated to give it a go. I’m drawn to the idea of being with my kids in a non-harried way every day (during their best times, not just before and after school hours), giving them the opportunity to direct a portion of their learning, exposing them to great art, poetry, thinking, literature, etc., freeing them from some of the inanities of school, and … because they are boys – letting them move far more than school allows. I’ve been homeschooling this year, but because they are still not school age, this sometimes feels more like “not sending them to preschool.” Homeschooling for us has mostly consisted in doing art projects, nature walks, a science coop/play group, swimming, violin (starting a few months ago), and teaching reading to my older son using the Ordinary Parent’s Guide (plus reading aloud). I have so much to ask but thought I’d just start by saying hello and seeing if you’re still homeschooling and if things are still going as well as they seem to from reading your blog.

My main concerns are: 1) my kids potentially will feel like oddballs because most people in our town go to school, 2) the financial stress of living forever off basically one income and – if I do go back to work – the problem of getting a job after so long away from working, 3) the logistics of helping my kids grow and continuing to have a bit of time for myself/my marriage/my health, 4) making sure I give my kids a solid education!

One question I have is this… you wrote about your schedule: “We work in Math 3-4 days per week, Grammar 2-3 days per week, and Copywork 2-3 days per week,” but then you mention doing so many other things with the kids – from apps to videos to trips etc.

I’m curious how you organize your objectives, encourage your kids to do their school work, “keep up” with state standards, and keep track of all the available resources. My four year old son is not exactly pumped to be told – in however cheerful a way – to do anything! Okay, this is a long enough note for now. Thanks for writing. I look forward to hopefully connecting.

Take care,

[New Reader]

Hey, New Reader!  Thank you for writing.  I haven’t posted in a while for a variety of fun reasons, which I’ll save for another post.  I’ve missed it though, thinking about it often.  I am really glad that some of my writing has been helpful to you. You shared a lot of interesting thoughts and raised a bunch of issues I care about.  You’ve also inspired me to put pen to paper again, so thank you!

First, you really made me laugh with your insightful observation that because your kids are still not school age, “this sometimes feels more like not sending them to preschool.”  We used to joke that our kids were “preschool dropouts”.

I’ll try to break up my responses to ensure I don’t miss anything.  It may take a few posts.

Yes.  We are still homeschooling.  We’ve now homeschooled officially for 4 years.  My kids are 10, 8 and 5 and all three are homeschooled.  None of our good friends homeschool. Most of the people we know and spend time with don’t homeschool.  So, we are still kind of on our own in this choice.  We try to take things year by year with the idea that if we or the kids want or need to go back to school full time, we’ll try it. So far, things seem to get better and easier every year. It was one of the hardest but also one of the best decisions I think we have ever made.

I’ve changed and grown in my understanding of education and child development, which has allowed me to relax.  And while I am sure there are a host of things we are screwing up, the kids seem to be thriving.  The more time we spend outside the institution of School, the more I find that homeschooling is about creating a life we want as opposed to one that we “should” live.  It’s not even really “homeschooling”, as we are rarely home.  I have come to think of it more as “parent/child-directed education” as opposed to “government/school-directed education”.

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A recent example of parent-directed education in our house

When we started, I felt the need to explain to anyone who would listen how my kids are “always learning” and that every activity was a learning activity.  I couldn’t help but point out (in my highest of high voices) that my daughter was reading at 5 or how my son loved the museum. While I didn’t say it outright, I was always building a case about how we were better than those “schooled families”.  It really was an us vs. them mentality which came from a place of feeling judged by mostly everyone we knew and also from my own insecurities in veering from the norm of formal education.  I really don’t like to make mistakes (who does?) and, well, leaving the safety of Schooling scared me even though it felt like the right thing to do. Taking responsibility for my kids’ education left me feeling very vulnerable.

Whether it is because I’ve spent most of my time reading and thinking about education for the past 4 years or because I’ve had the luxury of watching my 3 very different children (as well as dozens of other kids of varying ages and abilities) grow and develop first-hand, I am so much more comfortable these days.  I don’t feel the need any more to explain how everything we do is educational or that we are “always learning”.  Truth is, kids  –  – in school or not – – are always learning but they don’t need to be taught all the time. And making learning a competitive sport is destructive and joyless.  And unnecessary.

Because I have mostly non-homeschooling friends, I know that we all worry.  We all fail. We all have victories.  We all stay up some nights wondering whether what we are doing is right.  That’s parenting!  Educating our kids outside the System has given us the gift of (most of the time) living outside the awkward world of child-rearing comparisons and competitive growth.

I think the reasons you state for wanting to homeschool are some of the best that I have heard: wanting to spend time with your kids in a non-harried way, wanting to let your kids have input into their life and make choices in their educations, and wanting your kids, especially boys, to have the opportunity to move their bodies.

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A non-harried moment camping in Acadia National Park

Deciding to homeschool really isn’t about opting out, but rather, hiring your unpaid-self, instead of the State or a private entity,  to perform the challenging job of managing how your kids spend their days.  It is opting in!

Some days, for us, that means chess by the fire or reading on the couch or visiting our elderly friends to call BINGO.  Somedays it means sitting in the car listening to The Moth Radio Hour or Short and Curly, an Australian podcast for kids about ethics.

Some days, thanks to New Hampshire’s equal access law (click here for a list of states and their laws) and a very progressive public elementary school, that means the kids attend that school.

But it also means we do formal lessons because they are a means to an end (a subject we want to learn, a skill we want to develop).  There is a reason why we do them. Homeschooling allows us the the luxury of picking the subject and the time when we do them so that the lessons have actual meaning for the kids.

That means, for my 5-year-old, we may spend 10 minutes copying letters and numbers in a Star Wars workbook so that he can feel like a big kid (I don’t actually think 5-year-olds need workbooks but he insists because he wants to be like his siblings).  Or I fold laundry while he draws a picture.

For my 8-year-old early riser, it means literally flipping out of bed and tumbling around on the floor while I ask him for his 3-times-table. Sometimes for him it also means a sprint around the house so that he can sit still for Grammar with me at the dining room table.  Or a side-by-side game of Tetris that allows us talk about the book that he is reading.

For my 10-year-old night-owl, who wanted to take an online writing class this semester, it means hunkering down at 5:15 p.m. and sitting in a chair reading and writing on a laptop until an assignment is finished – – which this week took 2 and a half hours straight.  It also means having her attend a meeting with me for a committee or a board that I sit on.

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Most of the time it means me entertaining myself in the car while I wait for my kids while they do fun things that I am too old to do with them

No education is perfect and complete.  Not public school education.  Not private school education.  Not Finnish education.  Not even homeschool education, no matter how much time or money or effort you put into it.  So we don’t do it because we think it is the only way to educate our children.  We do it because it gives us some of our greatest joy.

Yes, our kids seem to be people who are interested in the world and learning and who take responsibility in and for their lives (yes, even at 5, 8, and 10).  They surpass learning benchmarks set by the State.  We do believe that homeschooling has something to do with that.  We also acknowledge that coming from a family like ours, and with advocates like us on their side, they would probably perform similarly for their ages and abilities in a traditional schooling environment too.

More than any academic achievement, we have deep and meaningful relationships with each of our kids.  We really like our kids as people and spending time with them. They like each other.  We are having a great time.  We do believe that homeschooling has something to do with that too!  We see how quickly time passes and we want to make the most of every day with them.  If we were to send our kids, the people we love the most, out to school every day, we would, as you wrote, get each other truly at our worst times in a rushed way.  Why would we set our lives up like that if we don’t have to?  For us, we’d rather make other sacrifices like giving up income (that we could really use!) or professional achievement (I coulda been someone!) or a trip we’d love to take or a meal that we’d like to go out to eat than that time with them.

It’s all a balancing act.

As for your concerns 1 – 4, I will start with 1:

1) my kids potentially will feel like oddballs because most people in our town go to school

When we first started, I heard concerns about my kids being “strange” if we  homeschooled.  I worried about it too.  We still joke about our kids being “weird homeschoolers”.  I guess they are.  And I guess I just don’t see that that is such a bad thing anymore.  You need to ask yourself, “what does it mean to be an oddball”?  Seriously. What are you actually worried about? What does the word “oddball” mean to you?  Is it that you worry that they will have no friends? That they will be socially inept?  That they will be mocked?  Or that they won’t fit in?  Are you worried that your kids won’t ever get to experience whatever it is that you actually thought was valuable about school?  I was worried about all of the above.

In my experience, if kids are oddballs, it’s because they are oddballs or their parents are oddballs. Sometimes both.  Their choice of schooling hasn’t had a lot of impact on that. We know homeschoolers that pull carrots out of the ground and eat them dirty with the skin on.  That’s ODD to me!  We know many elementary school kids in a “very good school district” that have no friends because they don’t know how to connect with other people. Or who cannot look an adult in the eye to have a conversation.  ODD!  We know kids at elite independent private schools that do what their friends say, no matter what.  ODD!

Do you want your kids to be just like their peers?  In what ways?  Do you want them to think for themselves even if that makes them odd?  As we tell our kids, usually in a bad imitation of Miranda Sings (even though she sort of mocks us by making her character a homeschooler): “You make the cool. Be the cool, don’t copy the cool”.  That’s our way of saying that we hope our kids define their lives and what matters.  Not School, not friends, not anyone else.  It’s more work that way, but we think it’s worth it.

John, my youngest, just turned 5.  For his birthday all he wanted was a pair of “high sneakers, gold, with real golden glitter on them.”  I did a quick search and didn’t come up with them.  I broke the news.  Then Molly took over the search.  She found a pair of gold high tops with real glitter on them.  I paused.  Was it OK that my 5-year-old boy had glitter high tops?  ODD! That’s oddball!  Then I reached out to my non-homeschooling sisters, making a joke, but sort of asking if it was OK.

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Thanking our lucky stars for aunts who have our back

In a flash they reminded me that oddball is OK.  They almost fought over who would buy them for him.  You know what?  Those sneakers were his favorite present.  He wears them every chance he gets.  He feels faster and smarter and generally more awesome in them.  Surprisingly, they’re a big hit with his school-schooled friends.

When my 8-year-old needed new shoes last month he specifically asked for “brownish shoes that I can slip into with no socks”.  Umm, loafers?  In rural New Hampshire?  For a kid that wears sweat pants and nothing else most days?  Yes, he wanted loafers.  I bought them thinking he could wear them at the holidays.  He wears them with everything!  You do you, Joseph.

Just two weeks ago, Molly needed boots.  I pulled up some pull-on winter boots.  She pulled up red Doc Martens, which she now wears daily.

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We’re lucky enough that all our friends and our community just totally support our kids various and distinct styles.  If they didn’t, though, that would be OK.  My kids have decided that they are “cool” and they don’t need their approval.  I don’t know if that is real confidence or them just being oblivious because they are still young – – or whether it will stick around – –  but I wish I had that ability earlier.

It may feel lonely at times not being part of the institution of School because of all the fun things (pictures, back to school day, awards) you may miss and your kids might feel like, or really be, oddballs, but it’s not just because they do or don’t go to school.  Whenever the shadow of those worries crosses my path I just try to remember that while they might not have that particular experience, there are thousands of other experiences that my kids have that other kids won’t.  And that’s OK.

Do you want to know the hardest thing I find about homeschooling?  And I mean bar none, the most difficult?  It’s managing others’ expectations of us and my extroverted, eager-to-please, need to defend us.  After 20+ years of my own formal schooling, I’ve had a hard time shaking it.  It’s an awful place and when I think of it, it reminds me that it is my baggage and to leave it to the side as much as I can.

So, try to take it easy on yourself as you think through this decision.  I’ll get to work on answering your other questions.  In the meantime, don’t hesitate to reach out again.  And if you want to get a pair of gold sneakers for your oddball kid, find them here.

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