Saturday, February 26, 2011

Journey Toward Schooling at Home

I will never homeschool.  Never. 

My parents were both public school teachers.  One of my Uncles was a public school teacher, another, a private school teacher.  My grandmother was a public school teacher.  My husband's grandmother was a public school librarian, his grandfather, a school teacher, then principal, and eventually, district superintendent.  To say that our family has been in the education business is like saying the Bushes are a little into politics (I like to think we were substantially better at it).  (It's my blog.  I can take sides if I want to).  Sure, my kids will encounter teachers that don't mesh with them very well.  Learning to deal with that is a life lesson.  You will grow up, move out, and get a job.  What will happen if you only expect to work with and for people who think exactly like you?  You'll end up living in a cave, eating grass and living on government handouts, bitching about the government.  My kids will certainly encounter teachers who teach them things that I disagree with.  No problem.  That's what the family dinner table and long drives in the car with no videos or gaming devices are all about.  We explain our viewpoint to them, and teach them critical thinking skills, and that it's important to evaluate information on their own.

I had a really nice job.  A fantastic job, in fact.  I had a boss who was very open-minded; she was very family-friendly to work for.  Christmas concerts, parent-teacher conferences, sick kids, were all workable issues.  Working and parenting was not a "conflict" to be resolved for the organized parent, and the job itself was phenomenal-- as a genetics research assistant for a prominent children's hospital, I had a very varied and interesting work day every day, the kind of day people would ask about and actually listen to the answer with high interest.  I was interested in what I did, and although I hated saying good-bye to my kids at daycare each morning, I looked forward to arriving at work, too, and to the people in my lab.

My older son had a terrific year in private kindergarten.  Team-taught by an engaging head teacher, a certified fitness instructor and art teacher, and a professional music teacher, he had the kind of kindergarten year most parents dream about, at a local institution known as Educare.  Despite entering the program a year early (he was only four) he thrived.  His younger brother, despite some known developmental delays, was also showing signs of being very bright, and was also enjoying himself in Educare's preschool and daycare programs.  Life was good! 

The following year, #1 son (in birth order, my children tell me, not love order, when I told them I could not refer to them that way) started at the local public school.  Due to his age and height, an agonizing decision was made to enroll him in kindergarten again, rather than applying for an exception to place him in first grade.  Trouble started almost immediately.  Already an avid reader and excellent speller, he and we were instructed that he would do best by following their "research tested" program.  Soon, he could no longer spell.  An enthusiastic rule-follower, he followed their advice, and only spelled words "how they sounded" instead of how he knew they were spelled.  Now in the fourth grade, he is still re-learning how to spell words he had been spelling correctly at age four, thanks to their "research based, highly successful program" that was designed for kids who have never cracked a book open prior to kindergarten, but definitely not designed for kids who can already read.  He also arrived home every night HUNGRY for good reading material, as he had been forced to read "baby books" in school.  Fortunately, we insisted on half-day kindergarten only, and re-enrolled him in the private Educare program again for the afternoons, so he didn't go completely mad.

First grade went no better.  He was handed off to a very, very strict teacher.  He could do no right, it seemed.  Told to sit and write, he would sit and first try to think and plan his writing.  Suddenly, writing time was over, and he was punished by staying in for recess (sent to "work room") for not doing his work.  Work room was a set of tables placed on stage at the front of the cafeteria.  In public.  He was told he was a "slow worker, a daydreamer, with bad work habits."  Always kept in from recess, my extreme rule-minding son (5 years of daycare, and only sent to time-out once!  Once!) was a mess.  I conferenced with the teacher.  Recess punishments continued.  Homework was assigned to the tune of 45 minutes or more per night.  In the first grade.  As a result of always being indoors at recess, friendships were not being developed.  No talking was allowed during class or lunch, and he was shy to begin with.  So there was no socialization going on during school.  He was miserable and hated school.  Already, he was begging me to school him at home.  No way, said I.  You have to learn how to deal with people you don't get along wtih.  At no time did I stop to think . . . this is not a short adult that I am talking to.  This was a six year old.

In second-grade, it was more of the same.  Again, he overheard teachers saying that he was not a very good worker, even though academically, he was at the top of his class in ability.  For some reason, reasoning, thinking, and reading were not valued in the second grade.  All classwork was based on speed and speed alone, and all was done under pressure.  Son #1 came home and told me everyone's test scores, something the teacher disclosed to all of the students.  His feelings about school became more and more negative, even if his naturally positive personality kept him going.  For reasons that were never adequately explained to me, he was kept out of the gifted program that year.  8 girls from his class were placed in the program.

In the third grade, he had stopped trying to write, because he had stopped believing in himself entirely.  A gifted and advanced writer in Kindergarten, he was now writing below grade level and was happy to stay there.  He did have a teacher who relaxed the pressure a bit and tried to encourage him, but the time-dependent nature of the school was still there, partly because the "standardized tests" apparently demand some timed tasks.  Therefore most tasks were also timed, rather than evaluating the quality of the work or thought process.  He was back in the gifted program, which provided some relief, and his teacher did allow him to keep free reading books in his desk to read when he finished his general busywork (other than writing) early because it was below his level and she didn't have anything to challenge him with until the rest of the class caught up.  This wasn't an ideal solution, but he loves reading, so at least it was something.  And by allowing him to choose the books, he was reading something appropriate for him instead of "for the average 3rd grader."  Recess was still an issue.  Fewer recesses were being missed, but the social pattern had been established.

Finally, in the fourth grade, a breath of fresh air!  We went on a sabbatical to the amazing and beautiful city of St. Paul, Minnesota, where the boys enrolled in Horace Mann Elementary School.  There, they were welcomed with open arms, and challenged with a fantastic education.  #1 son's classroom was furnished with bookshelves galore-- its own library of sorts-- couches, beanbags, and recliners wonderful for reading.  His teacher was warm and welcoming, and had never heard of "work room."  She didn't believe in "high pressure" writing, and in fact most of his writing was done at home for homework, which was never a burdensome amount.  She believed mistakes were okay, and a part of the learning process, not a horror to be signed by parents and sent back in to be documented.  And in four short months, she helped him learn to believe in himself and his abilities again.  He began to feel smart, to enjoy writing, discovering, learning, branching out his reading interests, and the social growth!  By the time we left, he had so many friends, people who thought being smart was cool!  He had a separate science teacher, who expected experiments to be written up in lab form-- a hypothesis, procedure, equipment, data, observations, and conclusions, with charts and diagrams.  Live animals were used.  He was in a book club.  He went to school early for chess club, stayed late to study Japanese, and went back on Saturdays to take up fencing.  Now THIS was school!  He had a great librarian who made using the library something to look forward to, and worked hard to put books into the hands of children!  Leaving St. Paul was a sad, sad thing. 

However, we returned from St. Paul full of hope-- we now knew that going to school could be a fantastic experience, full of excitement, discovery, encouragement, academic challenge, social fulfillment, and personal achievement.  Perhaps 4th grade would be fantastic! 

Within 2 weeks of returning home, research into homeschooling had begun in earnest.  Formerly a staunch skeptic, I was now open to the possibility.  School choice in our area doesn't work very well (many of the very good schools are closed to choice due to overenrollment).  Charter schools are often lottery only, and we've entered the lotteries year after year and never won the lottery.  Private schools are either incompatible with our religious beliefs or wildly expensive (some of the better ones actually cite $19,000/year tuition!  Even with financial aid, that's going to be ridiculous).  We've looked at moving, and it is a) expensive initially b)involves higher taxes across the state line and c)expensive over the long haul in terms of a longer commute for my husband, in terms of time, wear and tear, and gasoline for the car.  And it offers no guarantees as budget cutbacks continue in every state, particularly for son#2, whose story will be told in an upcoming post.

I began volunteering in the library as soon as we returned home and school had resumed.  On one occasion, I stopped in and found a half dozen students, unsupervised, running around chasing each other with pencils.  They were the special education class, there for their reading enrichment time.  Where is the reading specialist?  We don't know.  What are you supposed to be doing?  Reading something.  I settled them down, got them all books, and set them to reading.  An hour passed, and the reading specialist popped in and sent them to lunch.  These are all children who have reading help specified for them in their IEP's, and this is the extra help they are getting?  And where was this person who was supposedly supervising them all that time, let alone actually helping them?  I wasn't scheduled to be there-- I had just popped in!  On another day, I was volunteering, and someone came by to pick up my son's class to walk them back to class.  Her exact words:  "WHY do I HEAR talking??  YOUR MOUTHS should BE SHUT unless it is RECESS time.  DO NOT open your MOUTHS until RECESS!"  It was 11am.  Recess is not scheduled until 2pm.  I nearly tucked a kid under each arm and herded them all before me out the front door as fast as I could, yelling, "Run, run, run for your lives!  I will teach you all!"

I went home, pulled up the state form for registering a homeschool, and filled it out that day.

Coming chapters:
Journey toward schooling at home, part 2
What I learned in the first week of homeschooling.


  1. Awesome, 4th Grade is when I pulled my son as well. IT seems when things are unfortunately bad at a school that is the year of "okay, you proved it, you stink and my kid is outta here!"

  2. excellent, Jen! wish there was a way to "follow" so you would be on my dashboard queue.....hint-hint!

  3. never mind, i found it. yay! thanks :-)

  4. Good grief, Jen! I had no idea it was that bad for your son at school. I wish I'd known, I would have quelled some of your fears about homeschooling. :-)

    Oh, and "school choice"? That's something DE is doing now? Or just some areas? I don't know of any other area that does it. I used to be an advocate for it, but started becoming skeptical when I thought about it, and how the good schools would fill up, and people wouldn't be left with much of a "choice" after all. I'd love to hear about how it works (or, rather, doesn't work). Maybe another post, another day?

  5. Hmmmm . . . I don't think I was fearful; just opinionated! And I do, in a sense, feel that although we are truly excited about the opportunities that homeschooling is about to open up, this migration of yet more families out of the public school system is another thing that actually serves to weaken the system further, which harms the children still left behind. But that is perhaps the topic of a future post!

  6. Opinionated I know. ;-) I can't wait to hear your thoughts in future posts!

  7. oh wow, I feel so sorry for all the kids left behind in the school! what a sad story. Was the school in St. Paul public or private? -it sounded fantastic.

    That's the thing, I am not anti-school or anti-teachers...but it seems the fantastic classrooms are few and far between and as a parents we are usually not given any say about how our child doesn't do well with a certain teacher, our observations are not deemed important. Sometimes I hear about or read a blog by clearly a fantastic teacher- I would send my kids to that teacher in a heart-beat, but I know I would never have the choice.

    I loved reading about your journey, (visiting from the hive...)

  8. Horace Mann is a public school. I will always be so grateful for the time my boys spent there.

    I keep trying to figure out any way I could act to have a positive impact on our local school here at home, but that may have to wait until my kids are older. I believe that homeschooling is not appropriate for everyone, but all kids should get a shot at a quality education.

    Stop in and visit any time :) Thanks for dropping by!