This is sort of long, and offered, not because it’s fascinating, but because I known many parents are working over these same issues. Here’s how I got to the place where my conscience couldn’t say anything but “yes” to homeschooling at a particular moment in time. Others have different experiences: they never considered anything but homeschooling or the school options were all so very bad, they really had no choice. That’s not my experience – this is, and perhaps it will resonate with someone else’s dilemma.
And I really didn’t need to write this post. Not really. Because yesterday, in a comment, Sally Thomas said it all in the succinct way a poet does:
And largely what motivated us to stop going to school was the feeling that school was largely an annoying middleman that wanted to dictate our schedules for us.
But since, I started…..
At some point in the winter of 2012, I made a suggestion, asked a question, wondered aloud.
“What would you think,” I asked the first and fifth grader, “about homeschooling next year?”
They were horrified. Honestly, even though I’d been the one asking the question, so was I.
But there it was. The equation had become unbalanced. It had seemed to be for a while, but now the tilt was undeniable.
It wasn’t that something had to be done. Nothing had to happen. But as life and school kept happening the way it was, it seemed more and more clear to me that something should happen. It was becoming a conscience issue for me.
As I said yesterday, and have written before, I see this formal education thing as an agreement. A deal. It’s no different than any other aspect of life: a job, for example. The question is: what are you willing to put up with in order to receive the benefits? Hardly anyone adores their job a hundred percent, and many can barely stand it, but most of us do what we have to do in order to be support ourselves and our families and make some tiny contribution to …something.
Another way to put it is: How would you like your aggravation served today?
For there will always be aggravation, stress and frustration, today and every day. Sometimes you don’t have a choice about it, but sometimes you do. With the last two kids’ educations, I did have a choice, and that’s the way I had finally settled on working out the question.
How do I want my aggravation?
Do I choose to take it as I deal with an institution’s structures, rules and procedures – the folders, the particulars of supply lists and uniforms, the inadequacy of curricula – or…
…do I choose to take it in the form of having us all together most of the time, of planning, of teaching almost everything myself, of sorting out their learning, of being on 24-hour alert for resources and opportunities?
In other words, do I want to be annoyed about what others aren’t teaching them or do I want to be stressed about what I’m not teaching them? Do I want to be worried about what I feel they’re missing by being at school or do I want to be worried about what they’re missing by staying at home?
What had moved me to this point at which something I had never even considered in over twenty-five years of parenting was suddenly looming as a real possibility?
Before I get going on this, let me make clarify what wasn’t an issue:
- Concerns about instructional content that outright violated my principles.
- Learning issues.
- Concerns about social or cultural context.
- A preternaturally gifted kid who needed and wanted ten hours a day to develop his talent
None of that. Nothing odd was being pushed, neither boys experiences learning difficulties, we don’t have figure skaters or genius violinists, and we liked everyone and didn’t feel any need to be set apart. That, by the way, is not a part of my mental framework anyway. I simply mention it because homeschoolers are often accused of want to put kids in a cocoon. My issue was, as you’ll see, actually the opposite. I was concerned that school was narrowing their vision and experience, and I wanted to give them more, not less.
I suppose I should also mention that this was an elementary school issue for me at the time. The boys were in first and fifth grades, and I was not thinking about high school. The question was about the rest of elementary school.
Oh, and a word about other options. Public school isn’t an option , even given my own background – I have just really come to believe that the daily faith formation offered in Catholic elementary education is invaluable for a child. The only classical schools around here, sadly, are those offered by Reformed churches, so that’s not happening. A Catholic Montessori school would be great, too, but there’s none of that around here, either. The one local Catholic school that is not of the parish model, St. Rose Academy, is run by the Nashville Dominicans, might have been an option (and is indeed where my younger son will be going next year), but at the time, as you’ll see, it wasn’t so much which school, but school in general that was the problem, and I didn’t think that making the kids change schools and adapt to a new set of kids and teachers was really the answer to the question hovering over our days.
So, I’ll start with matters that had been festering for a while – the basics are in the previous post, but let me take it in a slightly different direction. Go grab a snack and settle in.
As is the case with many of you, I’m sure, I have never been impressed with contemporary pedagogical fads, movements and materials. So that was always there: A grudging acceptance of the reality of dumbed-down, lowest common denominator materials. Catholic schools that for the most part embraced secular curricula and made not attempt to integrate faith into the entire program. Catholic schools that, if they were not appealing to the lowest common and non-denominational denominator, were running in the opposite direction, anxiously pursuing “blue ribbon” status in order to appeal to upper-middle class striver parents.
Over the years, my kids had experienced many good teachers, but always in the midst of systems that seemed determined to undermine authentic Catholic education by emphasizing the priorities of the Secular Pedagogical Flavor of the Month. I remember once going into one of my kids’ Catholic elementary schools in which for a couple of weeks, they had been all about the rainforest. They had been reading about the rainforest, writing about it, and were super proud of the hallways bedecked as little rainforests in between cinder block walls. So much effort put into the rainforest in a school that could not be bothered to celebrate a single saints’ feast day in a memorable way. But hey, they were a Blue Ribbon School, right?
And then time went on, everyone got older, and my concerns and issues focused and got more specific, nagging me and not letting go.
First, I was just tired. Of all of it. I had been doing elementary education as a parent for twenty-five years. I confess, this did play a part in the decision. Six different Catholic elementary schools, hundreds of weekly folders and envelopes, thousands of hours spent quizzing, checking planners, interpreting teacher and administrator instructions, running over spelling words, going over the water cycle, looking at one more unit on the rainforest, and oh don’t forget endless fundraisers, one after the other, coming at me in fat envelopes and bleak, empty order forms.
I was 51, my husband had been dead for three years, my parents were dead, my older children were moving on, as they should, and here I was, still checking those freaking weekly folders. Older than most of the teachers and other parents, I was over this routine, tired of their systems and rules and tired of being frustrated by and paying for lame curricula and well-meaning if superficial Catholicity.
Geez, I would think, we could do so much more at home, couldn’t we?
Which of course was then promptly answered.
So. Why don’t you?
Listen. I was not opposed to homeschooling – for other people. In fact, I admired and stood in awe of homeschoolers.
I didn’t know many in real life, but it did seem to me that everyone I “knew” online professionally homeschooled. I mean – everyone.
So why not us? Well, a few reasons.
- As I had raised the older kids, it never really occurred to me. It wasn’t a thing among anyone I knew in that stage, and I didn’t meet any serious homeschoolers until we moved to Indiana in 2001. I didn’t think it was crazy or weird, it’s just that it wasn’t a part of the lives of people I knew for a very long time.
- I didn’t see the need. Up to that point, it seemed as if the balance was still holding. School was school, and while imperfect and not my ideal, it still left space for the rest of life.
- Finally, even as the possibility seemed more possible, and my conscience spoke more and more insistently, there was just a simple, Are you kidding? I don’t…want to.
- I’m an introvert. I get my energy from being alone. It takes me about three hours after everyone has gone to bed at night for me to recalibrate and feel like myself. What was going to happen if we were together? All day? Every day? Would I just….go insane?
- Finally, I was skeptical about how healthy it would be for them to be with me all day. Not that we would be alone, stuck in the house or inactive, I knew. But still. I came from a rather intense , controverted family situation and knew that being homeschooled would have been disastrous for me. Basically, would my kids…go insane?
(Almost done. Be patient)
So there you have all the vague dissatisfaction, the fears, the suspicion that there was a better way, but inability to see the way there. It might have continued, but for some rather specific moments during that 2011-2012 period. Some of these things are going to strike you as silly, and perhaps they are, but taken all together, along with a zillion other small school-related aggravations piled up on a quarter of a century of the same, they were enough:
- This actually begins a couple of years before, when my older son started at this school. As one would expect, he had spelling words. The first few weeks, he was a spelling ninja, and then his grades started to fall. He was missing more and more on the spelling tests, having assured me during the week that he didn’t need to study, no thanks. Finally, after he almost failed one test, I asked him what was going on. He admitted that he didn’t study the words. Okay, but didn’t he study in class? Doesn’t the teacher go over the words, break them apart and talk about them? Oh no, he said, that’s not the way it works. They give us the words on Monday, and we’re just supposed to study them at home. We never talk about the spelling words in class. And I thought…wait. I’m paying you so I can homeschool my kid in spelling? What?
- The reading program was horrible. All the parents hated it. For all I know, the teachers hated it, too. I’ll just straight out say that it was Pearson’s Reading Street and it sucked: Boring stories written in flat prose, with, worst of all, impenetrable and ridiculously random comprehension questions. And I thought…we could be reading Treasure Island. Charlotte’s Web. Shakespeare. Poetry.
- The “special” classes – that is, music, art, computer, foreign language and PE classes – that my children were experiencing were all unfortunately mediocre, rifled with discipline issues and makework. I thought…we could be going to concerts and plays, studying Latin, going on hikes, learning instruments, taking quality art lessons, music…
- I had various and more or less constant questions about matters of Catholicity and other issues of curriculum including Common Core, which was starting to rear its head with no one batting an eye about it.
- For a couple of years, one of my son’s classes were quite small. As in, fewer than fifteen children, all capable and motivated, in a class. A perfect opportunity for lots of hands-on learning which did not happen. He’d say, “We talked about plants today.” I’d say, “What plants did you look at and examine?” He’d say, “None. We just looked at diagrams.” And I thought, plants..microscope, kitchen chemistry, botanical garden classes, science center classes, homeschool classes at the zoo….
- And then finally, two relatively small incidents gave me the final push. First, my older son complained about being bored in class when he got his work done. I said, “You always take a book to read to school. Just read your book.” He said, “We’re not allowed to. If you get your work done early, you have to put your head on your desk and just wait for everyone else to be finished.”
- A few weeks later, there was a big, school-wide event for which all students spent much time preparing. It was a good event. The theme of this even this particular year was related to Eric Carle. It was late April, as I recall, and I was going through homework with my fifth-grade son. I said, “Social Studies?” And he said, “Oh, we’re done with social studies for the next couple weeks, probably for the year. We’re going to be working on our projects for the program.” Oh, I thought, they’re going to be writing and peer editing and such. Nice!
No, he said, they (fifth graders, remember) were going to need the time to CUT OUT TISSUE PAPER CIRCLES FOR THE ERIC CARLE PICTURES.
I was done. That was it. We were out. Nothing personal, but these were my last two kids that I would ever be given the opportunity to raise and form, and if I can give them more than this…I have to.
We have to change this up. And just maybe…we can.
It was not about rushing them home, slamming the door, and shrinking their world, but about blowing it open, throwing out worksheets and textbooks, getting outside, getting dirty. I was privileged. I didn’t have to work at a job, I had no other family responsibilities, I was healthy and had the means..I had no excuses anymore. What was I doing, sending them off to well-intentioned mediocrity while I sat at home doing a bit of work that really didn’t even need to get done? I’d written over twenty books by then. Who cared if wrote more. I didn’t.
It might not be forever, but they were frustrated and felt as if their time was being wasted. They were hesitant mostly about leaving the social setting, but they would stay connected to all those kids through the parish, scouts, sports and other social outlets, so it wasn’t like they’d never see anyone again. In the end, by that spring, they were ready to try a new way of learning and daily life, that the initial horror gave way to openness to the possibility that this ride might not be too bad, after all. Right?