If you know us, you probably know that we have been considering homeschooling for our kids, on and off, for about as long as our kids have been in school. It’s an incredibly complex decision, and not for the reasons that I would have guessed.
Here’s the thing. We have special needs kids. They aren’t delayed and they don’t have any of the other issues or problems that people assume when they hear the words ‘special needs’. But, all the same, they have special needs that a school is going to be hard pressed to meet. Oliver and Hazel are off-the-charts smart. Both were reading at age 3; Hazel is in kindergarten and reads on at least a second grade level. Oliver is in second grade and reads on at least a sixth or seventh grade level. Oliver intuitively understands mathematical concepts and remembers everything he reads. Hazel’s writing skills and attention to detail are incredible, considering her age, and her spatial skills are probably better than mine.
I know, I know. You feel so badly for me, right? Me and my really smart kids? Poor us, not getting the attention we want at public school when there are kids who are struggling to learn how to read or struggling with fine motor skills that make learning to write properly challenging.
Unfortunately, that’s the attitude that comes naturally. It’s like rich people or celebrities. Oh, poor little rich kids, with all their money. I’m sure their problems are sooooooo big. And those poor celebrities being hounded by paparazzi—they knew that would happen when they got into that business. I hate to break it to you, but rich people do have problems too, and I’m sure that being hounded every time you leave your house sucks. Even if the flip side of that coin is great (lots of money/success in the career you love), that doesn’t make the downsides not downsides. So, yes, it is fantastic that my kids are gifted. It means I can play complex board games with them, annoy them with punny jokes, and that when we have independent reading time at home, they can read their own books. But there are downsides, and one of them is that they are unlikely to be regularly challenged academically at public school.
While I lament the annoyance that comes from public school not meeting their educational needs, I also get it. Globally, American education doesn’t seem to cut it. We consistently rank below other nations in test scores. It really is important that everyone learns to read and write and do basic math—and goodness knows that in our current educational climate, kids graduate from high school without those basic skills. I don’t know how, but it happens. So, what difference does it really make if some smart kids don’t get all of the educational opportunities they could? They’ll still come out of school probably knowing more than most of the other kids. Sheeeeeeesh.
I get it. I get that attitude, I get that thinking. But, at the same time, one could argue (unpopularly)—why not funnel those resources towards the brightest kids because they’re most likely to have the opportunity and capability to make a difference?
Hopefully it’s obvious that neither of those is the best solution. So, there is an educational problem—lots of kids, limited resources, limited time, and high expectations. How do we solve that problem, nationwide? I have opinions and theories, but those are perhaps beyond the scope of this blog post. In the meantime, while teacher pay is linked to test scores, and improving test scores, I don’t blame teachers for feeling the need to triage, triage, triage. Smart kids will do well on those tests.
My kids’ teachers have, by and large, told me that my kids are a joy to have in class. If they had classes full of Olivers and Hazels, they would never want to leave work (they might feel differently at bedtime!). But my kids aren’t the gifted kids who get bored and then get disruptive. Hazel doesn’t get bored—she’s an extrovert and being in a kindergarten class with a bunch of other kids her age means that she’ll have a great time no matter what. Oliver gets bored. But he’s an introvert, and he is generally well behaved, so he comes home and cries because his spelling words aren’t challenging, phonics is boring, the space unit they started only scratches the surface and he already knows all the facts they’re learning, and his math problems are too easy.
Oliver also can be a bit negative, and only tell me about the bummers in his day. He’s unlikely to tell me about the rousing discussion he had with the reading specialist, or how he was able to make his whole class laugh when he gave his presentation.
But it’s obvious to me that school isn’t meeting his academic potential, and probably isn’t going to anytime soon. Hazel is too young to know for sure, and school meets different needs of hers, and fulfills her in a different way.
So I’ve (we’ve) been considering homeschooling. In thinking about it, we are looking at both kids individually to consider their individual needs and address individual concerns. Because while Kullervo and I might have an educational philosophy we believe in, we also have distinct human kids, and it is important that we consider them as whole, entire beings.
When Oliver was in kindergarten, I walked him to school one day, grumbling about something or other to do with education. I was talking to one of my best friends, Downtown Dad, and he teased me, saying that I was just mad because Oliver spent more time with his teachers at school than with me. I scoffed, because I didn’t believe it—I’m a stay at home mom, after all—but, as it turns out, when kids are in school, they really do spend more of their waking hours at school than at home. Especially when I add in time spent at sports, playdates, and the fact that I have all these kids to spend time with. It rankled me then; it continues to bug me now. (So, if I homeschool and fail, I am totally blaming Downtown Dad forever… hello, scapegoat!)
Oliver really wants to be homeschooled. Almost daily he tries to convince me of the benefits to me that homeschooling would have (“You say it’s so helpful when I hold the baby, Mom. I could hold him while I do my schoolwork so you could get stuff done!”). He likes working independently and he really, really craves one on one time with Kullervo and me. I remind him that it won’t all be holding the baby and reading fiction—there will be plenty of work and I’ll expect him to do it, and I will probably be much stricter about his work quality than he is used to.
Hazel is such a happy-go-lucky kid that she will thrive no matter where she is. Special considerations we have with her include that she is currently on a gymnastics pre-team team. Right now she practices twice a week for an hour and a half each time. Next year it will be three hours a session, twice a week. That means that after school, when we get home between 3:45 and 4, I will almost immediately shuttle her to gymnastics. It will end right around her bedtime, and if she’s enrolled in public school, she will have to also find time to do her homework and eat dinner. There won’t be time for fun or playing or reading or snuggling together. She’ll learn to hate gymnastics, which she loves, because of the schedule. We have been lucky this year that Hazel’s kindergarten teacher has a small class (14 kids), and that she adores Hazel (who doesn’t?). Her teacher has done a great job of differentiation and of recognizing Hazel’s abilities and helping to scaffold her learning.
Right now, with four kids, alone time with each kid can be hard to come by, mostly for the older two. I try to make it a priority, and take as much time as I can to read individually with Oliver and Hazel before bed. We used to read all together, but I’ve started taking each alone, sitting and snuggling under a blanket, and reading. I think it’s important for them, and it’s important for me as well. Next year, with an intense gymnastics schedule, twice a week that just won’t be possible, because bedtime is not negotiable in our house—Oliver and Hazel do not adjust well to less sleep, so we need to keep their bedtime as firm as possible.
So we’ve been looking into homeschooling. I honestly didn’t know much about it. I wasn’t homeschooled, and I didn’t know anybody growing up who was. I have friends who homeschool their kids for various reasons, and I’d read blogs and magazine articles. Most of what I had read about leaned more towards an ‘unschooling’ method of homeschooling, which isn’t a good match for me. If I was going to homeschool my kids, I’d want to have them learn everything. All the things. Because, why not? And as an inherently lazy person, I have a hard time accommodating the idea that the kids would wind up wanting to learn stuff on their own, and I worry that I would be too lazy to follow through and help them explore their interests thoroughly. Because of that, I had rejected homeschooling as a possibility because it didn’t seem to mesh with my personality.
Then, one weekend day while we were traipsing around Barnes and Noble, I was browsing the education section and I stumbled onto the book The Well-Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer, which, it turns out, is the book about providing your kids with a classical homeschooled education. A classical education is based on the trivium, which basically divides the school years up into three parts. The first part—the elementary school years—are known as the grammar stage. This is when kids are young and capable of absorbing ridiculous amounts of information. There’s a reason why kids can learn foreign languages at young ages and retain it all. There’s a reason why you remember the preposition song from elementary school, or the original thirteen colonies. So, the first stage is full of memorization and information. Lots of reading, lots of history, lots of the building blocks of learning. As kids get older, they begin to think more analytically, and want to know why things are the way they are. This is called the logic stage, and is based on cause and effect. Then, the high school years are called the rhetoric stage. During that stage, students take the facts they learned, and the answers to the whys, and put them together to draw conclusions.
Kullervo has long thought that the way that we teach nowadays is flawed. We want our kids to learn critical thinking, and emphasize that in early grades before kids are actually capable of really thinking critically. We want to teach kids high level thinking, without giving them any foundation to think about. I definitely feel like I grew up without learning a lot of content. I learned about the colonization of the United States a bunch of times, and never progressed further than the Civil War in American History. I don’t remember learning any world history.
And when we don’t give our kids a ton of content, they don’t put connections together that they could. An example that Oliver and I just experienced—we were reading Harry Potter together in the car during Hazel’s gymnastics practice one afternoon. We had just found out that Sirius Black was an animagus who turned into a dog. When we finished reading, Oliver was looking at the car stereo, and saw the Sirius logo on the stereo, with a picture of a dog. It made us wonder what the word Sirius meant, because obviously there was a connection between the word Sirius and dogs… or it was a huge coincidence. I went to my trusty friend Wikipedia and looked up Sirius, while Oliver was trying to remember where else he had heard the word. Sirius is also the name of the brightest star in the night sky… also known as the dogstar, because Sirius was the name of Orion’s dog in The Iliad. Or, the example that a lot of people talk about is how when you find out about a celebrity you’d never heard of before, you start to notice their name everywhere. It probably isn’t because they suddenly became more famous–it’s likely because they are suddenly on your radar, and before you used to tune out the references, filed away in the part of your brain labeled ‘NOT RELEVANT’.
The idea of a classical education resonates with both Kullervo and me. I feel like part of my desire to homeschool the kids classically comes from a selfish desire to get to learn all of the things I didn’t learn, and which I’ll never take the time to learn independently. But I also want the kids to be able to pursue their interests, be it musically, athletically, artistically, or more in depth into subject matters that strike their fancies.
A woman in my neighborhood who homeschools her kids was gracious enough to come over and tell me about her experiences homeschooling, about the curriculums she uses, and the groups that she’s involved in. She brought a suitcase full of books she’s used, and seeing it all and hearing about it made me excited to do it myself.
So, what are the things that are holding me back? They aren’t the things you might think.
There’s the big, looming, doomsday question that people fall back to when you mention homeschooling:
What about socialization?
There are a number of ways I can answer this. First, we live in a neighborhood. One of those neighborhoods you hear about but rarely find anymore. It’s a neighborhood. Just looking at half of our block here, there are 20 kids that I know of, perhaps more. On any given day, if the weather is halfway decent, there are hordes of children running around outside. And our front yard is one of the more popular places to play (not because we’re awesome; there is just a wide expanse of grass). Our neighborhood is quite large (more than 4000 people live in the boundaries), and it has enough children to fill its own elementary school, which everyone can walk to (there is literally one bus for the school, and only eight or so kids ride it). There is no shortage of kids nearby.
Second, my kids are in activities. Hazel takes gymnastics; Oliver plays lacrosse and baseball. When I go to the gym, they play with other kids in the kids’ area. They participate in summer camps. We are faithful church-goers.
In other words, they have plenty of opportunities to play with other kids.
But, also, if you think about the question, it’s a weird one. What about socialization? Well, they live in a world with other people and don’t hide under a rock. They go to the grocery store—they are being socialized. They have conversations with other people, wherever we are. We talk to them. We read to them. In what universe is that not socializing?
But, you might ask, what about being with kids their own age regularly? We need that to learn to get along, right? Except that we don’t. I mean, think about your job, whatever it is. How many of your coworkers are your age? Oh wait—they aren’t. Even if I was to think of a microcosm of my former job, as an auditor at a big accounting firm, the people who started the same year as me (so, my ‘class’) had a variety of ages. I took five years to graduate from college. Others went straight to work after their bachelor’s degree. Others took time off to travel, or went to graduate school. We were all different ages. Now I’m a stay at home mom… my coworkers—fellow parents—have such an enormous range of ages it’s pretty incredible. My friendships span decades, literally. So, with that in mind, where is the draw to having an elementary and middle school grouped by ages? Even in high school, classes aren’t necessarily age-based.
And then, if you think about it, throughout most of history, people haven’t been grouping kids by ages and throwing them into a classroom together. Even the first public schools were based on who could meet in that one building—so, proximity-based instead of age-based learning. It’s relatively recent that our current model has existed, and just because it’s what we’re used to right now doesn’t mean that it’s the best or most efficient method.
Another common question I’ve received as I’ve talked with people about homeschooling falls along the lines of whether or not I have the patience to be around my kids all day, every day, and the patience to teach them even when they don’t want to be taught? And, I guess that I can’t honestly say that I do—I’ve never homeschooled before. I’m an introvert, so I will need to build a period of quiet, alone time for myself into our daily schedule. But aside from that, I’m sure the answer will be that some days I will have the patience and do it all right, and some days I will suck. And most days I’ll fall somewhere in the middle. You know, just like with all of parenting. And it won’t matter if I want to have the patience to teach them, or if I want to do it—if I’ve taken on that responsibility, I will have to. Just like I have to teach them to use the toilet even though potty training sucks. Just like I have to teach them manners, how to use a telephone, and to look both ways before crossing the road. We already teach our kids so much, and we have the patience and energy to do it purely because we have to.
So, if socialization is actually a false concern (you can disagree with me, but I think it is), and I’m not worried about having enough patience or having to be around my kids all day, every day, what are my concerns with homeschooling my children?
First, deciding to homeschool is making a proactive decision that can imply more than we mean by it. We would not be homeschooling to try to make any kind of political or social statement. But it’s different than the norm, so it says something. We have to specifically come out and say that we don’t want our kids in public schools—we are opting out and opting to do it at home, which somehow seems more political of a statement than choosing to put your kids in private school. Also, it’s weird. In homeschooling, we become weirdos. Which I’m fine with—who isn’t a little weird?—but there is a stigma and I can’t just pretend it isn’t there because my motivations aren’t the same as some of those other weirdos who homeschool (who probably also think they’re pretty normal, just like I do).
This is going to sound premature, but I worry about putting them back into the classroom. If we homeschool for a year, will they be able to transition back into school, or will they be bored? Presumably, if we homeschool, they will be able to progress really quickly. There will be no reason to limit them to grade level material—if they want to go higher and deeper, we can do that. So, is committing to homeschool for a year the kind of decision that, while we tell ourselves we can choose year by year if we want to continue, actually something that we need to stick with or exacerbate the current frustrations we already face?
I worry about having enough time to do all the things I want to do with each of the kids. Will Henry get swept to the side (thank you, television, for being such a reliable babysitter)? Will I have enough time to do all the reading and learning and experiments and everything I want to do with the kids? Will I still be able to go to the gym regularly (my current hobby of choice)?
I worry about my introverted tendencies—the amount of socializing that a homeschooled kid can do with other kids is actually enormous, and I’m worried that I’ll overschedule us and just exhaust myself. If you’ve met me, you might know that I have a volunteering problem. Like, a need to tie my arm to my side to keep it from involuntarily raising to volunteer.
I worry about dealing with the state. I’ve heard that some school districts can get offended when you choose to homeschool, and they can get nasty. I don’t think that would necessarily be the case here, but it’s a concern. My kids’ school is actually a great school with a wonderful staff. The people who work in the front office are kind and friendly, the school nurse is amazing (she knows all the kids’ names!). The teachers are by and large fantastic.
I worry about missing out on the camaraderie that I have with other neighborhood moms. School drop off and pickup is a time for parents to see each other and connect, and I will be giving that up, although I guess I could schedule some timely dog walks, and arrange playdates with friends and go to the school to pick up other people’s kids to bring them home.
So, that’s the background of us and homeschooling. Our plan right now is the try it out this summer—take the time to get a schedule going, figure out where the kids are in terms of different subject areas, start documenting our activities and keeping records, and basically try it on for size. If it works, we will keep going in the fall. If not, no harm, no foul.
What do you think about homeschooling? Are there concerns that I haven’t thought of or addressed that I ought to?