By Laura Brodie
My ten-year-old daughter, Julia, was never a good fit in the public schools. Her teachers described Julia as a “very creative child,” with strong emotions, obsessive interests, and little patience for group activities and social norms. In the classroom, she sat with a book perched on her knees, sneaking dragon stories under her desk and missing the teacher’s instructions. On the playground, she avoided the girls’ cliques and boys’ noisy games, and sat alone in the shade digging for fossils. Every day she came home with another large rock.
By third grade, Julia was complaining of being burned out on her elementary school routine. The mixture of boredom and anxiety, weekly tests, increasing homework, rote memorization for standardized exams—all had left her knee-deep in a puddle of misery, and I, as a parent, shared in that swamp. Nevertheless, I encouraged her to tough it out. Most children had their own classroom complaints, and our elementary school, with its small-town community, seventeen-to-one student-teacher ratio, acres of green fields, and generally caring and intelligent teachers, was, by national standards, idyllic.
But as the year went by and the complaints increased, I sympathized more and more with Julia’s plight, partly because of my own memories of public school drudgery, and partly because, as a professor of English, I understand the need for sabbaticals. If adults benefit from intellectual rejuvenation, then why not children? Why shouldn’t a child have time off to pursue her own research and writing?
The breaking point came during Julia’s fourth grade year, when I lost her for an hour. She had been sitting at home on our living room carpet, pressing tiny Legos into colorful dragon bodies, and so I was surprised to get no reply when I called her name from the kitchen. For the next half hour I searched the house, the yard, the shaded recesses of our backyard creek. I scanned the surrounding pastures for the silhouette of a wandering child, then telephoned our neighbors. They had not seen Julia. They would call if she dropped by.
Assuring myself that a fourth-grader was old enough to wander alone, I stretched out on my bed and tried to concentrate on a novel. After twenty minutes I heard a rustling noise in my closet, and I opened the shuttered doors to find my sheepish daughter, crouched on a pile of old shoeboxes.
“Didn’t you hear me calling?”
Yes, she nodded.
“Why have you been hiding there?”
“I heard you say that it was time for me to do my homework.”
Every child has a misery quotient, the line at which mere whining turns into real unhappiness. Some children are born miserable, their glass always half empty; others are made miserable by the adult world. And when it comes to squashing a child’s joy, there’s nothing like homework. In Julia’s mind, homework was the shadow haunting every day—the shapeless dread that grew larger with each passing year.
I sympathized with her aversion. Today’s public schools seem to have responded to the endless cry for achievement! by adding more worksheets to the homework pile. Math worksheets, grammar worksheets, bland spelling exercises. I wouldn’t mind so much if the work seemed more valuable—if Julia was asked to perform a fun science experiment, or to walk outside and compose a poem about the sounds in her yard. What rankles is the monotony of colorless paper, the columns of equations and fill-in-the-blank history.
As it turned out, Julia’s homework was minimal that afternoon. Once she climbed out of the closet and sat down in front of her books, the whole ordeal took barely ten minutes. She had spent an hour hiding to avoid ten minutes of schoolwork, and the thought of that warped equation broke my heart. It confirmed what I had been thinking for the past year—that my daughter needed a break, an escape, some air. Julia needed something to quell her growing misery.
My mind did not turn naturally toward homeschooling. I had always thought of it as a drastic measure. Homeschooling was for Mormons, for Bible-thumping Baptists, for children with disabilities, mental or physical, and for families who lived off the grid with solar heat and composting toilets. Homeschooling was a little bit weird.
But in the chameleonic world of modern parenthood, we mothers must constantly change colors to meet our children’s needs. We become accomplished fundraisers when our preschools need a fruit sale chair. We take up the violin when the Suzuki method calls for parent-child lessons. And when my daughter decided that she would rather hide in a closet for an hour than complete ten minutes of homework, I knew that it was time for me to become a schoolteacher, if only for a little while.
I told Julia that for one year we could try something different. Starting next September we could stay at home and follow a curriculum that combined her unique interests with the public schools’ idea of fifth grade essentials. She could study dinosaurs and dragons, as well as American history. She could learn some conversational French with her fluent father (on the afternoons when I taught part-time), and her daily violin practice could take place during school hours, rather than cramming it into her after-school schedule. Above all, we could plan field trips to Washington, Williamsburg and Jamestown, to art museums and science fairs and bookstores and concerts. I had only one caveat, stemming from my years of teaching freshman composition. Whatever Julia studied, I wanted her to write about it.
Of the three traditional “R”s in elementary education, writing is the component most often neglected. It’s a time-consuming enterprise, overlooked by many teachers who feel burdened with the exigencies of test preparation. Having no such burdens myself, I knew that if I was going to homeschool my daughter, I wanted her to compose essays and short stories and science reports, to write drafts and polish revisions, and keep the best of it in a portfolio.
Julia seemed willing enough when I described my plan. Lured by the promise that her only daily homework would be to write a page in a journal and read for an hour—something she did habitually—she agreed to my terms. And so from April to August of 2005 I gave myself a crash course in homeschooling.
It turns out that homeschooling is one of the fastest-growing trends in American education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (part of the U. S. Department of Education), in 2003, 1.1 million children were being homeschooled in the United States–about 2.2 percent of America’s school-age population. Brian Ray, founder of the National Home Education Research Institute, places the total higher—somewhere between 1.7 and 2 million. Most experts agree that the number of homeschoolers seems to be expanding at a rate of about 7 to 10 percent per year.
It’s impossible to describe a “typical” homeschooled student in America, though the 2003 government study provides a rough profile. Overall, white children in America appear about twice as likely to be home taught as their black peers, and four times more likely than Hispanic children. Most homeschoolers come from two-parent families where only one parent works full-time. Households with one or two children seem equally drawn to homeschooling, but in families with three or more kids the odds of full-time home education double. Families with an annual income of more than $75,000 are less likely to homeschool, and rural homeschoolers outnumber their urban counterparts (“urban” being defined as 50,000 people or more). Finally, the South is the U. S. region with the most homeschoolers–the Northeast has the fewest. (Northeastern states also tend to have the most strict home education requirements, with more detailed specifications for curriculum and testing.)
These statistics, however, are sketchy at best. According to Neal McCluskey, an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., who specializes in school choice, “You can’t get systematic data on homeschooling because most homeschoolers want to be left alone.” In other words, parents who shun government education also tend to avoid government tracking. The one thing McCluskey asserts with confidence is that homeschooling is “definitely expanding,” and this expansion has taken it well beyond its traditional base.
When homeschooling first emerged as a populist movement in the 1970s, it was spearheaded by two groups: Christian conservatives who favored Bible-based teaching and who deplored what they saw as a lack of moral values in America’s secular schools; and a more free-form crowd, alternately called ” liberal” or “libertarian,” who chafed against the constraints of institutionalized education and sought more “organic,” child-based forms of education. New York University professor Mitchell Stevens, in his book Kingdom of Children, explains how the Christians, with their tight social networks and strong organizational skills, surpassed the loosely based libertarians to become the predominant strain in American homeschooling. That’s why today, when the word “homeschooling” comes up in conversation, many Americans envision a fundamentalist Christian mom sitting at her kitchen table teaching creationism alongside algebra.
But over the past decade that stereotype has been fading. In the Department of Education’s 2003 study, less than half of the respondents cited religious motivations as their chief reason for homeschooling. (It might be one reason, but not the primary focus.) Instead, concerns over safety, drugs, and peer pressure topped the list. In addition, the study found more parents turning to homeschooling for purely academic reasons. As Neal McCluskey explains, “There’s a rise in people who want their children to learn more, faster and better.”
This expansion of home education doesn’t mean that Christian conservatives are taking a back seat. They remain the most solid, well-organized block in the homeschool world, and the new faces in the crowd—me included—who have turned to home education without any religious or philosophical compulsion, owe a debt of gratitude to the early pioneers who suffered jail time and substantial fines to blaze the homeschooling trail. Because of those groundbreaking efforts, home education is now legal nationwide, with fifteen states funding and supporting cyberschools, where homeschooled children can take courses with online instructors. California has even opened brick-and-mortar charter schools specifically designed to support homeschooling families, with teachers who provide enrichment classes, textbooks and videos, counseling and administrative aids.
Many homeschool traditionalists deplore these new developments as the U. S. government’s backdoor method of getting its bureaucratic tentacles back into their homes. For them, real homeschooling means that the parent is the teacher, not some intangible cyberinstructor with fifty students on her roster. Nevertheless, these new public initiatives show the legitimacy that home education has gained across America, and with this growing legitimacy comes an increased confidence and curiosity among so-called “mainstream” parents who are seeking educational options for their children.
That’s where short-term homeschooling comes in. The expansion of home education among America’s mainstream has made it a viable alternative for parents who are dealing with short-term problems. These problems might range from a bad principal to a persistent bully to a homework-phobic child hiding in a closet. Whatever the motivation, more and more parents are deciding that, when faced with problems at school, they don’t have to stick it out, or pay a fortune for a private academy. Instead, they can take a “do it yourself” approach to their children’s educations, teaching their kids at home for a limited time, with the intent of returning to the public (or private) schools at a not-so-distant date.
There are no statistics on how many parents have tried short-term homeschooling. The Department of Education does recognize “part-time homeschoolers”—students who spend less than twenty-five hours per week in school, and devote the rest of the day to learning at home. In 2003, eighteen percent of all homeschoolers fit the part-time mold. (Although guidelines vary across school districts, homeschoolers have the legal right to insist on access to some public classes. Even as I write this, a local friend has just embarked upon part-time home education. Her eighth grade son takes band, geography and algebra in the public system, while she teaches—or arranges for private tutors—in English, science and music.)
Short-term homeschoolers, however, remain well beneath the radars of both the U. S. government and most homeschooling organizations. The National Home Education Research Institute (one of the biggest clearinghouses for homeschooling data), draws a blank when it comes to data on short-termers, as do the folks at the Home Education Association of Virginia. “Sorry, that’s not part of our mission,” the receptionist said when I called their offices for information. Nevertheless, if you ask homeschooling advocates, authors and parents if they know of short term-homeschoolers nationwide, the anecdotes come pouring out.
Isabel Lyman, author of The Homeschooling Revolution, has met with several short-term home educators. “I’ve talked with parents whose child had a personality conflict with a particular teacher, or who had to face bullies, as reasons for short-term homeschooling,” she explained to me in a recent online interview. “Also medical issues or an accident or a school violence incident can drive families to this choice for a brief time. Colorado homeschool advocates reported receiving a gazillion phone calls after Columbine from parents who wanted information about homeschooling. No doubt some switched over but then switched back after the shock wore off.”
In her book, published in 2000, Lyman writes about a Massachusetts widow with a home business who removed her youngest son from elementary school for a couple of years when she became turned off by the school administration’s politically correct style. The boy apparently thrived, but he returned to the conventional system once middle school began, when a new cast of administrators was in his life.
Other parents see the perils of middle school as a driving impetus for home education, especially for young girls facing the sort of nasty peer pressures documented in books such as Queen Bees and Wannabees and Odd Girl Out. Sarah, a mother in my own corner of southwest Virginia, removed her daughter mid-year from the seventh grade when the viciousness of her child’s pre-teen peers began to wear visibly on the girl’s psyche. “She was awake at midnight, crying,” Sarah recalls. By eighth grade the problems had smoothed over, and mother and daughter were back to their normal routines at work and school. Another mom in South Carolina, whose story I encountered after posting a query on the About:homeschool forum, withdrew her daughter from middle school after the girl repeatedly came home with injuries, including marks on her neck from a choking incident. That parent informed her other children that they could stay in the public schools for their elementary and high school years if they wished, but when it came to middle school, homeschooling would be mandatory.
Short-term homeschooling also has a special appeal for families on the move. Kelly, a Georgia mom who also frequents the About:homeschool site, explained that she homeschooled for a year when, in the midst of relocating, her family lived in a neighborhood with a weak school system. Once the move was complete, her son was back in the public schools. “I do not regret my decision to homeschool,” she says. “I would do it again if needed. I also do not regret putting him in this particular school and teacher. She is great and does a superb job with my son.” Kelly described short-term home education as a valid choice, since many families today are transient.
Finally, there are the mothers who simply want more time with their children, or vice versa—the children are asking for more time with Mom. In the same year that Julia and I were playing geography games on our living room floor, at the opposite end of our county Christi and her ten-year-old daughter, Susan, were sitting at their kitchen table doing art projects. They, too, had entered homeschooling on the one-year plan, at Susan’s request. Although Christi was initially inclined to refuse, in the end she thought, “You know, they grow up so fast.” Meanwhile, Rebecca, three miles away, was reviewing multiplication tables with her fourth grade daughter, who also had asked to stay home for one year.
I often wonder if short-term homeschooling has a particular appeal for mothers and daughters. Most of my acquaintances who have tried it describe a need for “special time” with their girls. Of course my musings on this topic are wholly unscientific. The Department of Education’s homeschooling statistics show that girls and boys are almost equally likely to be homeschooled full-time, and since there are no studies on short-termers, I can’t say how their numbers break down by gender. It may be mere coincidence that among the twelve mothers who shared their stories for this article, seven were homeschooling a daughter, usually in response to their girl’s emotional needs. “I really got to know my daughter,” explained June from Alexandria, Virginia, a mother whom I located through the Virginia Organization of Homeschoolers. Homeschooling allowed June and to have long bedtime conversations with her eighth grader, rather than trying to finish homework and hurry to get minimal amounts of sleep. “We are so much closer now,” added Sarah, my local acquaintance, who loved her months with her middle-school daughter, but would never do it again. “I’m not cut out for teaching.”
And therein lies one of the greatest challenges behind short-term homeschooling: How can you do it well, when most parents have no professional training as educators and must try to go from zero to sixty in a matter of weeks? A mother may be the expert on her own child (and I stress mothers because women are the primary home educators nationwide, especially married women who aren’t employed full time), but most moms have no expertise in sifting through curriculums and pedagogical methods. Long-term homeschoolers have years to hone their craft, plenty of time to make mistakes and plot course corrections. But short-term home educators—in particular those who view the experience as an opportunity for enrichment, an educational bonus, not just a stop-gap measure—need to catch on fast if they want to make the most of their brief time. “I imagine that, as in any new endeavor, there’s a learning curve,” says the Cato Institute’s Neal McCluskey. A parent can spend much of her first year “just trying to figure out how best to do it.” That was precisely the case for June, whose experimentation with teaching methods lasted well into the school year: “I was still trying to figure out our homeschool style (Charlotte Mason? Unschool? Classical?) when my husband declared, “You have six months left! Pick one and be done!”
As I discovered during my own sharp learning curve, there aren’t many resources to guide the short-term crowd. A basic Internet search yields a wealth of sample curriculums, how-to guides, and book-length pep talks, all designed to help novice homeschoolers get started. But most of these are written by authors with an all-or-nothing approach—parents who have removed all of their children from the public schools, or who never tried those schools in the first place, and who often have negative attitudes toward public education, ranging from mildly dismissive to openly nasty. None of these authors consider the pros and cons of supplemental homeschooling, i.e., how to build on the public schools’ foundation, to give a child one good year.
Some folks might question whether separate advice is needed for short-term homeschoolers. “Supplemental homeschooling isn’t all that different from the regular deal,” one Internet correspondent told me. “All the usual books apply.” But that’s not quite true. While the homeschooling books on today’s shelves are a crucial starting point for any curious parent, in their philosophies, their curriculums, and their pedagogical methods they often offer advice that doesn’t apply to one-year dabblers.
Take, for instance, The Well-Trained Mind, one of the most impressive homeschooling guides available, written in 1999 by the mother-daughter team, Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer. These women advocate a classical education in which global history is the guiding principle, with literary masterpieces and scientific discoveries taught in a historical chronology. In this model, the first through twelfth grades are divided into three repetitions of a four-year pattern: the ancients (5000 bc to ad 400), medieval through early Renaissance (400 to 1600), late Renaissance through early modern times (1600 to 1850), and modern times (1850 to present). Grade school children study each time period at a simple level; fifth through eight graders delve into the same subjects with increasing complexity, and by high school, students should be reading original sources in translation.
It’s an ambitious agenda, and not without flaws; the authors often slight children’s creativity, and they minimize the importance of music and art and the need for play. Still, reading The Well-Trained Mind provides an education in itself, and offers an ideal vision of human intellectual potential. For me, however, the book was also a major guilt trip. It reminded me of how, in our imperfect worlds, we mothers are constantly falling short. The best I could hope for Julia was that, by year’s end, she would have read some children’s versions of The Iliad and The Odyssey.
At the other end of the spectrum stand the advocates of “child-centered education,” who let the curriculum follow each child’s interests (an approach which, in its loosest variety, takes the form of pure unschooling). David Guterson’s Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense (1992) offers beautiful descriptions of how he nurtured his sons’ curiosity about salmon: “Feeding the salmon fry, weekly, at a nearby holding pond, and measuring their growth and development, graphing changes in water temperature and flow, examining eggs, weighing out feed.” Not to mention the days they spent “visiting the Elwha River hatchery, the fish ladders at the Rocky Reach dam, the Science Center Display on the Nootka people.”
It all sounds wonderful—extended field trips and hands-on learning and long, winding conversations. These are the freedoms that homeschooling allows, whether short-term or long. But unschooling in its freest form doesn’t appeal when re-entry into the public system hovers in the near future. At a minimum, short-term home educators must ensure that their children do not fall behind the public benchmarks in math and English, as well as any foreign language track where the child wants to keep up with her peers. Even in the Guterson household, his wife insisted that their nine-year-old spend a few hours every morning at the kitchen table with her, practicing math and writing.
Short-term homeschoolers usually remain tethered to their school systems’ educational priorities. “That’s the biggest difference between short-term and full-time homeschooling,” explained Rebecca, who chose to stick closely to her elementary school’s curriculum when teaching her fourth grader. Rebecca was content with Virginia’s Standards of Learning (SOL) model, and wanted to be sure that her daughter didn’t miss anything.
Other parents start out with their school’s objectives in mind, but leave them behind as mother and child gain their own footing. So it was for Sarah, hunkered down with her seventh-grader at the other end of our town. They began in January with a stack of heavy textbooks, planning to follow the middle school assignments which were posted daily on the Internet. But civics was never meant to be learned from a book, and neither were half of the other school subjects. For Sarah, the greatest “Aha!” moments came when she set aside the texts and followed her daughter’s budding culinary passion. Lessons in Mediterranean cooking expanded into explorations of geography and history.
My own plan was to use the public curriculum as a foothold, and try to climb the fifth grade mountain from there. Math provided a typical example. I was surprised that my ten-year-old had never encountered Roman numerals. Nor did she have any concept of where “Arabic” numerals came from, or the history of zero (why didn’t the Romans use it?). So I wanted to back up and look at the history of counting and examine early Mayan and Egyptian numbers before we continued with the public agenda of fractions and decimals and long division.
The same was true with social studies. Julia was bored with her school’s heavy focus on American history. She wanted to study the Maya, Aztecs and Incas. She also loved natural history, especially dinosaurs—a topic our school had removed from its first grade curriculum, since dinosaurs are not included in the Virginia first grade Standard of Learning topics. And so we tried to do it all, beginning with the Big Bang (and a brief nod to creationism) followed by an overview of the planet’s development and the evolution of successive life forms through multiple ice ages. We leaped from homo habilis to the Maya, then in January spent a month on Native Americans before we ever reached Columbus. In the end we squashed the usual fifth grade history curriculum into three months, and spiced up the SOL basics with more provocative women, like Anne Hutchinson. “That’s ambitious,” one homeschooling mom laughed when I described our course. In other words: “That’s too much.”
The danger of trying to balance a public curriculum with personal interests is that you can fall into a game of “Anything you can do, I can do better.” If the public school fifth graders are adding and subtracting fractions, then your child should be multiplying and dividing them. If they are studying place value through the billions, you should consider trillions and quadrillions. This is not as difficult as it sounds, since the public school day includes an enormous amount of repetition and wasted time. But keeping tabs on your local school produces paranoia. Is my child missing something essential? Will she fail her first sixth grade math test because I overlooked a key concept?
Trips to the local bookstore can further feed the short-term homeschooler’s paranoia. In my town’s cozy cat-inhabited store, with its children’s section twice as large as that at any Barnes and Noble, Julia and I spent wonderful hours soaking in the new titles. And yet, whenever I passed the Education shelf, my stomach lurched. There was E. D. Hirsch, perched atop his hill of Cultural Literacy, expounding on What Your Fifth Grader Needs to Know. Julia hadn’t been exposed to most of Hirsch’s third grade essentials, which included Constantine and the Byzantine Empire, and scientists like Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace and Elijah McCoy. Even I, with my Ph.D., didn’t know half the stuff.
Equally intimidating were the displays of Summer Bridge Activities—those big paperback reams of worksheets, designed to keep your child grinding away over the summer months. The fifth grade book placed a major emphasis on human anatomy, which convinced me that Julia was missing something essential. So she and I spent two futile weeks learning the names of all the bones in the human skeleton. (The metacarpals are connected to the…phalanges).
So much to learn, so little time. Full-time home educators have the luxury of years upon years spreading out before them: “If we don’t get to the Maya this spring, there’s always next fall.” In addition, homeschoolers with strong religious and philosophical approaches tend to be weaned from the public schools’ competitive mindset, in which children are constantly graded, ranked, and compared. They don’t feel the same pressures to keep up with age-based curricular models. As one mother from Earlysville, Virginia, told me in an e-mail:
In short term homeschooling I personally felt very tied to the school system, to make sure my son was “keeping up” with his peers. But the families I know who make homeschooling a long-term commitment see it as a lifestyle, and they feel much less pressure to stay the course… It’s about learning as a way of life, and finding what makes you happy.
In the end, every parent must cling to his or her own pedagogical rock, whether that involves lifelong learning, religious teachings, or, in my case, a belief in the value of the written word. So long as Julia was constantly writing, I felt that we were on the right track. My confidence grew with the length of her portfolio.
At the same time, I was glad that Julia and I didn’t entirely abandon the public curriculum, because Virginia’s standardized learning topics inspired some of her brightest epiphanies. Take, for instance, the time when we studied the earth’s layers—core, mantle and crust—one small component in Virginia’s fifth grade requirements.
“We should make a model of the earth’s interior,” I said to Julia one morning. “What would you like to use? Playdough?” I imagined concentric rings of clay, balls within balls, cut in half to reveal the multi-colored stratums. “Or would you like to slice a Styrofoam ball in half? You could paint the earth’s layers onto the flat center.”
Julia shook her head.
“Well, what do you want to use?”
“Fruit,” she said.
From the basket on our kitchen table Julia lifted a kiwi, then took a steak knife and cut it in half. She held the green fruit to my eyes, and there was a model of the earth: the white core, surrounded by the squishy green mantle, with black seeds like the rocks that float in the earth ‘s magma, and on the outside, the thin dry crust. I felt completely humbled, reminded that all life is connected in repeated patterns—as when one learns that the ratio of water to land on our planet is the same as the ratio of liquid to solid in the human body.
The lesson continued for ten minutes more as Julia and I took turns cutting tectonic plates into the kiwi’s crust, carving a drippy Ring of Fire. “Look,” said Julia, “when the plates shift, the mountain ranges form.” She squeezed the kiwi, and a ridge of lumpy green flesh emerged on the surface. I couldn’t have been more proud if she had painted the Mona Lisa. My daughter could see the world within a slice of fruit.
One final challenge for short-term homeschoolers rests in the arena of social life—how to keep it active for both the child and mother. Socialization is a key concern for all homeschoolers. Fortunately, with the nationwide expansion of home education, more and more communities have established support networks, with families gathering for field trips and pot lucks and classes taught by visiting experts. “Those are life-savers,” says Luis Huerta, a professor at Columbia’s Teachers’ College in New York who has studied homeschooling. According to Huerta, the potential for alienation is one of the biggest reasons why some parents give up on home education. It’s an enormously difficult job, and mothers who take it on usually need strong support groups.
But Huerta didn’t know whether the majority of homeschool networks would welcome short-term visitors into their midst. His research into homeschool charter schools revealed bitter divides between parents who want nothing to do with government-funded education, and those who are willing to take advantage of classes or resources offered at public sites. One mother in Huerta’s study contrasted the early “people of conviction” in the homeschooling movement with “the new breed” that want to have their cake and it eat too.
I count myself among this new breed (although I’ve never laid eyes on a charter school), because I want my daughter to experience what’s best in the public system, supplemented by whatever I can offer as a homeschooling novice. If homeschooling purists feel antagonistic toward their long-term peers who have taken advantage of government-funded charter schools, I can imagine how they’d roll their eyes at folks like me, deeply entrenched in the public system and using homeschooling as a temporary sabbatical—an approach which, admittedly, cannot yield any of the long-term benefits of home education. In fact, one thing that short-termers must get used to when reading most homeschooling literature is the chastising tone toward parents who maintain bonds with the public schools. Even Isabel Lyman, an otherwise open and helpful homeschooling advocate, had this to say in a 2003 blog interview with author Peter Brimelow: “Why in the world would any parent with half a brain place their precious child in an American public school?” (“You have to remind me how punchy I can sound, huh?” she replied when I showed her the quote in an online exchange.)
There is bound to be a social void between committed homeschoolers and the short-term crowd. Some temporary homeschoolers with strong religious roots have reported being welcomed into local Christian support groups. Meanwhile June, from Alexandria, found homeschool Girl Scouts to be a godsend. But not everyone can expect the same social support. In our own small town, Julia and I attended a few of our local homeschooling functions, including one very good trilobite dig, but while everyone was nice enough, it was clear that we were merely observers in these families’ world. We were neither as religious as some, nor as liberal as others. The high school kids were too old for Julia, the first-graders too young. If we had possessed vast amounts of time to get to know them all, the distinctions in ages and beliefs might have faded. But social bonds require years to grow, and we never became regulars on their e-mail list.
At the same time, Julia missed out on the social rituals of the public school year. At our elementary school’s annual Halloween parade, when the costumed children marched through the school’s neighborhood, Julia stood beside me on the curb, watching the long procession of fairies and wizards, her sisters among them (who’ve so far been content with their school routine), waving their butterfly wings. When the principal spotted Julia, she stepped out of the parade long enough to give her a hug, and I pitied my daughter in her homebound exile.
Later that year, when her fifth grade friends performed a musical version of Schoolhouse Rock, I glanced at Julia, sitting in the audience by my side, thinking that now she must surely regret our decision to homeschool.
“Would you have liked to be in that play?” I asked when we walked out.
She shook her head. “No way.”
Julia didn’t miss the plays or the concerts, the kickball games or field trips (we had plenty of our own). What she missed were the parties. Her elementary school was a party heaven, with Halloween bashes, Thanksgiving mini-feasts, Christmas celebrations and birthday cupcakes. “Can’t we have a party?” Julia asked on Valentine’s day. So we went to our local tea room, where one can dress in wild hats and tiaras and long white gloves, and we sipped Moroccan Madness tea while munching on cookies and sorbet. But a mother in a boa does not a party make. Julia received no Valentines that year, except from Mom, Dad, and Grandma.
Of course, Julia was constantly meeting other human beings—chatting with historical re-enactors; counting change with shopkeepers; asking questions of librarians and park rangers and musicians. Her after-school schedule included dance classes and tennis lessons with schoolmates who asked about her homeschooling with curiosity and envy. “I wish my Mom would homeschool me,” one little dancer lamented. “I hate school.”
But despite the social contact that I took pains to schedule, for many, many hours in the week Julia and I sat alone in our quiet rural house, while outside the cows and ducks and herons moved in slow motion. After a while one understands why homeschooling is most common in households with three or more children. The family becomes a social unit, taking the scrutiny off one child, and distributing the parent’s attention and frustrations. In the one-on-one homeschooling that I and most of my acquaintances practiced, the dangers of isolation and resentment loomed large. “I did feel at times that there was a noose around my neck,” confessed Christi, reminiscing on her year with her ten-year-old. The rope was less tight than when her children were babies—those wonderful and terrible days of diapers and bibs and bottles had been the most claustrophobic experience of her life. But homeschooling had its own quality of constriction.
So it was for Sarah, who had felt relieved, years earlier, when all her children were off at school. At last she could have time for herself, working at a job that she enjoyed. Homeschooling meant paring that job way down and returning to the house for much of her day. Inevitably there were tensions, especially when her daughter failed to meet her end of the bargain, becoming uncooperative, or surly, or slow.
Most homeschooling books never speak of these tensions—the power struggles and resentments and irrational moments of fury that emerge in any family, however loving. Many authors, even the secular ones, have an evangelical, sometimes self-congratulatory tone, trying to persuade other parents to join the fold. Reading them, one would think that homeschooling is an endlessly rosy enterprise, filled with brilliant, cooperative children well on their way to the Ivy League. In all my reading I never found a book that addressed what I feared most—the battles.
Julia and I have had power struggles since she was two. Getting her out of bed can be a Sisyphean task. And so I never expected our year to be smooth sailing; but neither did I expect that I could so easily be pushed into raging temper tantrums. Halfway through our year Julia nicknamed me “the volcano,” because of my tendency to swing from a state of calm, green dormancy into a heap of spitting lava, especially on those days when Julia seemed to get nothing done.
This is where advocates of unschooling are bound to wave their flags. “Follow the child ‘s interests,” they always say. “Then she’ll be self-motivated. Let dragon books lead to lessons in flight and fire, studies of winged dinosaurs and the legends of ancient China.” In fact, we tried all of that. But whether the subject was dragons or fractions, the result was always the same. If I was not nearby to push and prod and cheer, Julia would muddle through her tasks at the pace of an aging sloth.
One afternoon at our public library I described my concerns to a seasoned homeschooler, a teacher-certified mother with an advanced degree in early education. I expected her to tell me what I was doing wrong. Instead, she sadly shook her head: “That’s the story of my life.”
The more mothers I queried, the more confessions I heard. Many moms had similar trouble keeping their young learners on track, and the relentless foot-dragging sometimes drove the parents crazy. “I was sobbing” one mother put it; “absolute fury” said another. “There were days,” according to June,” “where I felt that if I didn’t get away from my daughter I would plotz.” Maryanne, who’d expected to be a long-term home educator when she removed her two sons from the local middle school, gave up on the plan when she found herself locked in ugly confrontations with her elder son. “Look at what this is doing to you,” her husband finally said. Her boys were back on the school bus the following fall.
Social bonds with other homeschoolers are essential, if only to allow a mother time to air her frustrations. In my darkest moments I was glad that my homeschooling was limited to one year. That light at the end of the tunnel served as my guiding star. But when the light expanded into the sunshine of mid-June, I felt surprisingly sad. For in the end, it had been a good year. Julia and I had grown closer through our moments of triumph and anger. She had read and written and calculated more than ever before in the public schools. And now that she has entered a conventional middle school, and is once again oppressed by the combination of piles of homework, little fresh air (no recess in middle school) and endless multiple choice tests (multiple choice is the greatest sign of the failure of American education), she often grows nostalgic.
“Remember last October when the leaves were turning? We walked around town identifying trees with our field guide, making photographs and leaf rubbings and writing a paragraph about each one?”
Yes, I remember.
“That was fun,” she said. “Let’s do it again.”
Julia has even begun to ask about homeschooling for the eighth grade, a possibility that I have not ruled out. But in the meantime, my daughter needs more time away from Mom (excessive mothering is one of the most common concerns about homeschoolers). A third-party adult can often inspire a child more deeply than pleas from dear old Mother, which is why many homeschoolers hire tutors. In addition, the presence of a peer group in a public classroom can keep a child on task, who might, in a home setting, have problems staying focused, and the social diversity in the public schools can’t be matched in today’s homeschooling communities.
In the end, I believe in supporting public education in America, especially in districts like ours, where the schools are small and safe. But in return, the public schools should be supporting America’s families, not filling our children’s family time with more schoolwork. While I am willing to leave my daughter’s education in the hands of the public schools until three o’clock each day, after-school hours should be devoted to exercise, art, music, and unstructured play—all of the highly educational activities that many schools, in their test-bound shackles, have cut to the bare bones. When excessive homework gets in the way of family time—time for long conversations, as well as visits to museums and parks and concerts—that’s when the schools have crossed my line in the sand. And that’s when Julia and I will be back in our local coffee shop, spending our Wednesday mornings speaking bits of French over a game of chess.
Laura Brodie teaches English at Washington and Lee University, in Virginia, where she lives with her husband and three daughters. She is the author of The Widow’s Season, Breaking Out: VMI and the Coming of Women, Love in a Time of Homeschooling: A Mother and Daughter’s Uncommon Year (Harper 2010), and All the Truth. Find her at http://lbrodie.publishpath.com
Brain, Child (Spring 2007)