One Good Year: A Look at Short-Term Homeschooling

One Good Year: A Look at Short-Term Homeschooling

By Laura Brodie

Girl writingMy 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.


Yes, fruit.

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

Brain, Child (Spring 2007)


The End of All Things

The End of All Things

By Catherine W. Crawford

iStock_000021904999SmallI find myself lately wandering through the past. Sorting through layers of my life like an archaeologist, careful to brush gently so as not to damage what remains.

A six-bedroom house has many corners. We were once practically a town unto ourselves. Our doors never locked, our lights perpetually ablaze to ward off sadness and accommodate insomnia. It seems like a ghost town now. I look for tumbleweed. The two oldest kids live a thousand miles away. The extended family who shared our lives have moved on, grateful to be beyond the reach of the co-dependence that bound us.  My husband Quinn, the central feature of the home, the elephant in every room, took his own life almost five years ago. The three young people still living at home maintain an uneasy alliance, each waiting to fall out of the nest and, gathering strength and a small amount of savings, flies away. The empty spaces have, like a dig, begun to give up their secrets; photos, notebooks, and revelations have surfaced.  Some of these finds are mundane, some earth-shaking, and all leave me in wonder.

I have found my sociology notes, and copies of the tests that might have helped my younger daughter get a grade higher than a C last semester. I tore the house apart looking for them and here they are, right next to my desk.

I have found my phone charger, from three phones ago.

I have found many photographs.

In one, I am surrounded by pumpkins and kids, an autumn day eighteen years ago. My Autumn Self was always a happy one, endlessly optimistic, energetic, and creative. I have no doubt the woman in the photo thought her worst days were behind her. Losing a child, job changes, health issues, strange days when her husband was confused and erratic, early courtship days when people seemed conspired against them as a couple. What would we do differently if we could see what form our futures would take?

Another picture of all of us, smiles tired and wary, an evening birthday party about eight years ago. A stolen moment with cake and presents.

A photo I’ve never seen before. My eldest child, thin and tense, the way brides-to-be are, surrounded by her bridesmaids, bathed in sunshine at a bridal luncheon. Most of the photos seem to be taken in the fall, my hopeful time of the year. Too often, loving a person with a mood disorder means you cycle right along with them, and my husband’s cycles became ours.

I have found pictures of Quinn too, and they strike me in an odd way. I can tell his mood, what the day had entailed, what had not yet happened. It is always surprising to find photos of a man who hated to be photographed. He once (once? Maybe twenty times) told me how, as a ten year old, he ripped up every photo he could find of himself, systematically leafing through every album, destroying himself. I had always pictured this scene after a punishment from his mother, one laced with the poisonous guilt and deep shame she wielded so well.  No wonder. No wonder. I grieve for the little boy who hated himself so much.

I married, at far too young an age, a man who was brilliant, angry, damaged. I thought the force of my joy could fix him. I thought children were sure to help. Although he said he wanted none, I ignored that statement, certain it was a wish to remain young. I had never been consistent taking a pill. I was just as inconsistent with The Pill. However, I barely thought about the adults my babies would become, the father I’d be giving them.

As the children grew, I wound the cocoon around us. The key was to keep the love coming—and keep the world away. I never knew the manipulation I was under, never knew the cocoon was his to weave, not mine.

I stayed home with my babies; I nursed them and homeschooled them. Through it all, Quinn encouraged me. My days were poured into the little ones. But the unwritten law was that all attention shifted to Quinn at the end of every day—and all weekend long. Even now, my memories of those days are rosy-hued and I miss them. Nowhere in these memories do I find me. I told my homeschooling friends my husband was very supportive. Very supportive.

I had no concept of mental illness, of bipolar disorder, of the long tentacles of shame and depression. My own upbringing had been gentle, structured, purposeful, with a sense of security so integral to my life, that I did not see my husband had none of his own. His narcissism was a thing of survival. He was a funny Pied Piper when his mood was high, organizing contests, making up rhymes and songs, dispensing tickles and compliments, and pocket money.  And if they were naughty within earshot of Daddy, they were subjected to long shaming lectures; Quinn accused them of attitudes and even looks they could not have understood. There were tears, and shouting, and the next day a toy. A television, a bicycle, a puppy, the post-punishment gifts were ridiculous.

These gifts left the children confused but grateful that Daddy was no longer mad.

I can recall, with very little effort, the feeling of overwhelming relief when his rage was over, and all was temporarily ok again, as if the sun had come out and we were redeemed.

*   *   *

My hand traces the drywall that was pierced by shotgun spray a few months before he died.  Examining the gun he forced me to buy for him, he accidentally discharged a shot in the house, which miraculously hurt no one.  The wall was patched but the inside of the closet was not repaired.  The holes lie just below some words an angry child once scrawled on the wall after a punishment. The words say, “Dad is an asshole.”

I have found his well-worn Zippo lighter. The sound it makes upon opening it, or rather the absence of that sound, was the first clue I had that he was dead. I hadn’t heard the sound in the hours before he died that night. I remember telling the 911 operator this fact.

I have found the journal he gave me for Christmas, 1981—the year the Mighty Quinn descended upon my life. We were soon engaged to the horror of my parents and siblings—and in a strange way, to my own relief. I would no longer have to see my mother’s face tighten as she heard Quinn’s car sweep up the driveway to take me away. I would no longer have to endure my father’s gentle, old-fashioned comments about character, and temperament, and the nature of a successful courtship. Or the lectures about how my education, my dreams and my goals, also mattered. Quinn and I would be away. Our grand story would continue, this time with new china and pretty towels, and a new name.

I hold the journal in hand, the pretty flowered cover now faded. On a romantic whim, I had dedicated the journal to Quinn, “the god of my idolatry” (I tended to speak in Shakespearean terms at age nineteen and sometimes quoted Elizabeth Barrett Browning). The first few pages are filled with gushing, overwrought nightly declarations of love. But as journals often do, it diminished into once-or-twice-weekly entries about my day. Quinn would ask how the journal was coming, and I would hurriedly write something heartfelt. After reading these entries, he would spend the evening pouting that my sentiments were “shallow” and “like something you would write in a letter to your sister.”  My next entries would then gush about our “love” and the people who were thwarting that love around us.

In those pages I feel his manipulation, and my own desperate attempts to find a reason for it.  I grieve that I only see it now.

I have been called “brave” by those who have known the outer edges of my life, but not the inner madness. I have been called “smart” as long as I can remember, but how smart was I not to see what I helped to construct? A brave woman gets a madman to a doctor. A smart woman does not buy a depressed person a gun.

He is gone now, that brilliant abusive boy, killed by his own hand with a gun he coerced me to buy, ostensibly, to protect us. Left in his wake are those five children, grown now, eager to flee this house, eager to try to escape memories of his illnesses, the chronic pain he suffered from a car accident, his despair at losing his job, his descent into a delusional world he insisted we share.

I have rearranged many of the photos on the walls, trying to incorporate those golden autumn days. I have loaded up the car with things that no longer fit into our lives. I am having more trouble finding a place for the memories, and where to put the girl who wrote the journal.

I have wrapped the journal carefully in tissue paper, unwrapped it, wrapped it again. I have flirted with the idea of burning it and just as quickly decided against it. I have held the journal to my nose, trying to detect the odor of Old Spice and Marlboros.

I have closed the nearest closet, and thrown away the sociology notes. One of the empty bedrooms will be reclaimed and a daybed and desk should just about fit. The artifacts will be cataloged, studied, dispensed with, put to rest. Here, at the end of all things, it is good to open my hands and let go.

Catherine W. Crawford, a Northern Illinois resident, wrote her first parenting piece when her first child was three. She is now a grandmother and finds that parenting never ceases to inspire and reward her.

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Fun with Dick and Jane

Fun with Dick and Jane


0-11While an October sun shone on her blonde bob and illuminated her gray front tooth—the product of a nasty fall the previous year—my four-year-old daughter Faith proudly sounded out all the words to a Dick and Jane anthology. “Dick runs. Jane Runs. Dick sees a ball.” Every few words, her eyes left the page to glance up at me and make sure she still had my attention. Somehow she had, along the roads back to Texas from New Mexico, learned to read. I’d secretly scoffed at the giant bag of B.O.B. books and early readers that Faith insisted on loading into the car, the weight of which slumped her shoulder to one side, bending her slight frame at an uncomfortable angle. However, somewhere around Big Spring, the pieces snapped into place. Letters became sounds and sounds became words, and words knitted together into a book. As parents, we never forget the elation of these first accomplishments. Moments like these are why we homeschool.

I certainly didn’t set out for my kids to learn at home. My personal school experience was pleasant but mediocre. Labeled gifted, I was bussed to another campus one day per week, where I had the type of divergent learning experiences that I’ve come to believe most public education lacks. The gifted class wrote research papers, made mummies and pyramids, pored over logic puzzles and performed detailed chemistry experiments while the kids back in “regular school” recited spelling words and did times table drills. Even in fourth grade, I puzzled over why only some of us had the opportunity to learn in such a rich environment. It didn’t seem fair that simply because I performed well on a test, I should be given a buffet of enriching learning experiences while other children were served meat and potatoes.

I wanted that gifted classroom experience for my kids, despite their testing abilities, or supposed I.Q. scores. I wanted time to spend an entire day in a museum, or with a book, or mastering complex logic problems. My strongest desire was for my children to meet the world, and all the lessons it has to offer, on their own terms, with a willing heart, propelled by their innate curiosity.

When my oldest was kindergarten age, I started reading everything I could find on homeschooling. The Internet was still young, but there was enough out there for me to piece together a rough idea of what our days might look like. My family and her father, my ex-husband, were resistant to the idea, but I forged ahead anyway, and my stubbornness and tenacity eventually won out. Like so many other parenting decisions I’d made—breastfeeding, homebirth, clean eating—this one felt important and I had the research to back me up. As she grew, and as the other children came along, we bumbled our way through. It took me around five years to feel completely sure footed and capable. The early years were overwhelming with small children coming every few years and toddlers underfoot. Yet, my children were learning, and what I couldn’t teach them, I found experts that could. Tutors, online classes, extra-curricular activities. My oldest son learned volumes about chemistry from an Einstein-haired man on YouTube. Participation in a part time co-op ran by two of my closest friends rekindled his love for history. Trips to the children’s museum taught my youngest daughter all about the anatomy of a tornado, as she stood transfixed in front of an interactive “tornado machine.” My oldest daughter, hungry to finish school, locked herself in our upstairs gameroom for two weeks, emerging with an entire year of Geometry under her belt, due to a DVD course. Years rolled by, and so did countless hours of school. Before I knew it, we had a high schooler, then a graduate. Most of the time, the children were learning and thriving, and we all felt successful, which is what I’d wanted when I set out.

However, what you want as a homeschooling mom isn’t always what you get. It wasn’t always a dream state, our homeschool days. Sometimes we yelled and argued, and my son refused to do math. My teenager complained incessantly that the algebra tutor I hired, while fully capable, smelled of bird seed and baby vomit. This same teen, my oldest daughter, graduated at fifteen, a product of a lot of hard work on both our parts. Seeing us struggle our way to a diploma, my youngest daughter chose to attend public middle school and plans to go onto high school. In fact, all my school age children have attended public school at one time or another. We’ve used it as a tool and a stop gap for what I call “When Nothing Else Works.” “Nothing Else Works” means our school days no longer contain joy, my children see me as an enemy wielding a workbook, and despite all my best tactics, learning ceases. Attending public school for a while seems to restore balance in my relationship with my children. The motivators to learn become grades and the teacher’s expectations, and I can go back to being the provider of cookies and snuggles. Yet for some reason, my children and I often gravitate back to each other, to the rhythm of days we know best as a home learning family. Sometimes it takes a year, sometimes a semester, for all of us to remember the lifestyle we lose when choosing to follow the calendar of the local school and not our own.

During the times my children attend public school, I feel a certain freedom from responsibility. I can sit back and relax with relative certainty that my children are meeting state standards. They are interacting with other kids, which is mostly a good thing, as our experiences have been for the most part bully-free and low-stress. I have more time to myself, the ability to structure days free from periodic tables and the battle of Bull Run. My child’s successful future rests less on my tired shoulders when handed over to professionals and principals. But I think something also is lost. Like the moment when Dick and Jane makes sense, or fractions become less of a mystery over a cake recipe you’ve halved. You lose days spent in a pile in the living room, everyone in their pajamas with books in their hands. There is a light that shines in the eyes of a child when an “aha” moment happens. They literally become lit from within as they grasp the concept of a square root, scientific notation, the structure of an atom. I’ve shared so many of my children’s firsts. First steps, first words, first heartbreaks. It only seems natural that we share moments of educational discovery, that they learn, alongside me, even more of how the world works. Homeschooling isn’t about keeping my children next to me out of fear, it is about allowing them the room to blossom at their own pace.

I never know where this road will take me, which educational path we will choose from year to year as my children grow. I do my best to follow my children while still honoring my own needs. It took some time to learn how to be fully present as the teacher of my children without losing myself. This means that I schedule time for regular pedicures and lunches with girlfriends. I hire a sitter often so that I can shop and drink coffee alone with my own thoughts. I’ve also learned over the last eighteen years, and as a mother of four, to trust the natural curiosity of a child. I know without a doubt that my children, having been given so much opportunity to follow their own interests, will find their own passions as adults. Often, my mantra is, “He will learn what he needs—to do what he loves.” They will learn these things under my tutelage or in a brick and mortar building. I know this, as I see it in action every day.

After graduating, my oldest took two years before deciding to go on to college. Freshly enrolled, she plans to get a degree that allows her to work with foster youths in group homes, something at which I know she’ll excel. My youngest daughter is enrolled in the culinary academy at our local high school. My oldest son, eleven years old at the time I write this, plans to go to middle school next year. He’s ready for the social experiences and sports opportunities that middle school provides, and not interested in home-based alternatives. My toddler will likely stay at home with me throughout his early school years. I will, once more, build block towers and roll out countless play dough snakes. He’s my last child, and as challenging as homeschooling can be, I still can’t wait for at least one more Dick and Jane moment.

Sarah Green is a wife and biological mother of three, adoptive mom to one, and a foster mom currently on hiatus. She enjoys crafting, chaos, and baking. Sarah is currently working on books about the realities of foster care and an anthology focused on homeschooling. Read more about her daily life at 

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Stealing Time For Fun: The Magic of the Homeschool Day

Stealing Time For Fun: The Magic of the Homeschool Day

It’s a little maudlin at my house these days. Through a combination of natural attrition and a distressingly adventurous Youngest, our nest is prematurely (if temporarily) empty. I’ve been wandering through bedrooms and sighing a lot, remembering the times I said “I AM SO TIRED OF THIS” instead of “Sweetie, come here. Tell me.” It’s going to be a long-ass haul to December.

In one room, left bittersweetly messy, I am dwelling on all the times I got it wrong when my eye falls on a coupon. It’s taped high on the wall, safe from the chaos below:

homeschooling coupon

One of the tragedies of working full time was that my evenings were all about tasks. Weekends, of course, were errands-and-sports. Eventually I realized that, to get several hours in a row that were PURE FUN, I was going to have to steal them.

Everyone knows that stolen time is sprinkled with pixie dust, all activities more magical when you’re supposed to be doing something else. Tom Sawyer had more fun playing hooky than he ever did on a Saturday afternoon.

But casting myself as both Tom and Aunt Sally would be tricky; it’s a far more gifted parent than I who can manage the message: “Cutting school with me is special fun, but try this with your little friends and INCUR MY WRATH. School matters!”

But I wanted to playyyyyyy.

And so homeschool day was born. Each kid got a single coupon a year.

I didn’t always know what precipitated the triumphant cashing in of a coupon – time for a break? a good weather forecast? – and I didn’t pry. I just took the coupon and started planning. And because our kids have been blessed with many of the best schoolteachers on the planet—thank you, thank you, thank you—we always had cheerful school-side partners in crime. (Ditching work was harder, but, you know, whatever.)

Now, if I were actually homeschooling, I’d have needed things like a long-term plan and possibly some training. But really, how much damage could I do? Tomorrow, my darling would be back safe with the professionals. (NB to actual homeschooling parents: Wow. Go you.) Having absolutely no responsibility to anything made my prep work giant fun.

I made Highly Official trappings. A printed schedule, with class periods and color coding. Very legit. Such hullaballoo is hardly necessary, but I found it upped the fun AND kept me feeling good about the messaging—this was different school, not skipping school.

And because I am hip to all the big-league educational trends, my homeschool always sported an INTEGRATED CURRICULUM. When Eldest, third grade, slapped down her coupon one dreary November evening, my subsequent lesson plan was as Thanksgiving as a smiling, bulletin-board turkey.

Four days later at 8:30 sharp, first period, we headed to the kitchen for Mathematics (she loved when I called it “Mathematics”). Our task was to quadruple all the recipes for Thanksgiving dinner BECAUSE OBVIOUSLY, LEFTOVERS ARE THE WHOLE POINT. We got out actual ingredients when necessary, and the lightbulb that went on when Eldest measured 3/4 cup butter four times—”Hey! That’s three cups!”—was barely dimmed by the surrounding white haze. (Flour is not the best choice for teaching fractions. Well, now I know.)

For Literature & History (double period, 1-2:40), I read aloud from The Witch of Blackbird Pond, because it is vaguely Pilgrim-y. Plus, it has that chapter where the Tory governor cancels Thanksgiving, even though long-suffering Mercy has already made the pies.

And so on.

In Homeschool Day, we found that sweet spot where what my child likes anyway (school in pajamas!) hit what I really wanted to share with them (books from my childhood!).

One year, we revolved Middlest’s day around his favorite part of regular school: P.E. We jogged a mile to our favorite park, then talked about why exercise makes us sweat. Flopped on the grass that was today our classroom, we read Jackie and Me, a fictionalized look at the man who broke baseball’s color barrier, and then we calculated batting averages.

The quasi-formality I drummed up each Homeschool Day resulted in a kind of role play, Student and Teacher. This broke some of the unpleasant habits we fell into as Parent/Offspring. I’m sorry to admit that I was reliably more patient as Math Teacher than when I was monitoring math homework.

The kids stepped up their game, too. When Mom chirps on a weekend morning, “Guys! Let’s go to the museum!” it’s just a groan. But when your homeschool schedule reads:

1 pm: Field trip, The Frye

Well, that’s a whole other thing.

And when we went to the Frye Art Museum (a free collection of manageable size, and close to home), I had Eldest pick her favorite picture (ART CLASS!), then create backstory for it in the form of a poem or a fairy tale (WRITING!). While she scribbled in her notebook beneath a painting twice her size, I wandered the museum and created a kind of scavenger hunt:

Identify art that. . .

…makes you feel scared

…makes you feel hopeful

…makes you feel sleepy

Afterward, we tried to pin down what the artist had done to elicit those feelings. Bonus: Her “scary” picture had a battle scene on it, so we went ahead and learned what the fighting had been about. (HISTORY!)

We got a lot of mileage out of the museum. Then we went to its café and ate a lot of cake. (LUNCH!)

My kids are too old to want homeschool days, now. (Not to mention NOT EVEN PRESENT. So unacceptable.) But a relic on the wall above a crash scene of rejected clothing brings back those stolen moments: in the museum, at the park, in a cloud of flour. I wasn’t only drudgey. There were times I got it right.

Can Homeschooled Children Excel On Standardized Tests?

Can Homeschooled Children Excel On Standardized Tests?

By Lucie Smoker

0-6“Oh yeah,” my son Brad said when asked if we had received any mail. “I got a letter from National Merit. It’s no big deal but I’m officially a contender.”

My heart stopped for a moment and I hugged him, crying. The National Merit Scholarship is awarded for top-notch performance on the PSAT.

Before age 13, Brad had never taken a test.

Our relaxed homeschool took its framework from Waldorf, unschooling, and multiple intelligence theory. “School time” consisted of about an hour of active learning each day with free learning and homeschool group activities filling the rest. For us, the true goals of education were to ignite a love of learning and to establish a strong base of practical skills. In other words, to build up the passion and tools to help pursue dreams.

My two boys thrived, but even after what I thought were fantastic afternoons learning together, I often received phone calls from relatives concerned that I was ruining my kids’ futures. They loved our boys and didn’t understand how I could endanger their chances for rewarding careers. While I felt confident overall, a small part of me agreed with the naysayers. Who was I to experiment with the boys’ education?

Our eldest, Brad, expressed an early interest in science, which we fed through home experiments, science clubs, telescopes and kits. When he reached the middle grades, I organized homeschool chemistry classes and spent my budget on things like microscopes and lab equipment.

As he prepared to begin high school at home, his enthusiasm to become a physicist or engineer blossomed. If he truly wanted to become a scientist, he would need to strengthen his hated math. Together we chose a very difficult math curriculum to challenge him. The homework sometimes took hours to complete. He went from missing most problems to getting most right. Brad also worked harder on his English and writing, knowing scientists have to write reports and express their ideas for grant money requests and professional presentations.

Part of me was terrified. What if I missed something important? What if he couldn’t get into college? While my research and my heart told me we were on the right track, I couldn’t stop replaying those family concerns in my mind:  Who was I to experiment with his future?

Then, our finances hit a breaking point. I needed to work full time. Simultaneously, Brad hit a social problem. Between bullies in scouting and his best friends moving away, he was becoming more and more isolated. Our small town provided very few social opportunities for teens outside the school framework.

After much heartbreak, we made the decision to put Brad in the local public high school. I could homeschool his younger brother in the mornings; work the afternoons/evenings, and spend a little time helping Brad each night. It was the best solution we could manage, but I was concerned for Brad.

At a 2000-student high school in a state ranked 49th for education, my husband and I worried about low standards and a lack of enthusiasm for learning. My son was afraid he couldn’t keep up with the work. Since he was a quiet child, my relatives were convinced that he could not cope socially. And the school counselors warned that he might not be able to compete on standardized tests.

In my heart, a nagging little voice kept telling me I had crippled my son. He couldn’t possibly adapt from such a relaxed environment to a six-hour school day. And while my mind refuted that idea, my soul cried over it every night.

But we were all wrong. Brad excelled in his classes. And many teachers impressed us with their dedication. At every stage, Brad read beyond the planned assignments and helped to tutor his peers.

While some labeled Brad’s shyness a result of homeschooling, I knew it was really his nature. His brother was the opposite, an extrovert. To be certain we weren’t pressuring him to be someone he wasn’t, together we set a few simple goals:

1) Hold up your head and walk with confidence.

2) Reach out to one child in each class. That person doesn’t need to become a best friend, only an acquaintance. Greet that person every day.

3) Sit with someone, anyone, for lunch. Bullies are drawn to kids sitting alone.

4) Join one club, just one to start.

Brad didn’t want to feel fake, but we worked on the difference between phoney and friendly. He joined the quiz bowl team that first year and added the debate team the next. He met a few brainy-kid friends.

During his junior year, Brad’s mostly AP classes posed a challenge. Because he still loved learning, because he wasn’t burned out, he dug in his heels to study harder. When he didn’t have after-school activities, he came home, went to his room and did homework.

While my part was very minor, I sat down with him regularly to talk about school and about his dreams. When obstacles got him down, I helped to keep his focus on his goals. We even talked about … gulp … girls.

Despite his strong GPA, Brad feared he could never compete for entrance to a science research university. His laboratory skills would not meet the standards set by better schools. His chemistry class, for example, was in a temporary shack with makeshift labs. After suggestions from me and from a counselor, he joined a national science competition to work on his skills and applied for a summer laboratory camp at a top university.

His biggest concern, however, was that so many of his peers had been taking standardized tests for a decade. We bought him a prep book and helped with some strategy–but he could never compete, he thought.

When the test results finally arrived, Brad had out-performed most of his peers. The same counselors who had doubted now talked about his possible scholarship qualification.

“I’m so proud of you,” I finally choked out the words.

“It’s no big deal, Mom. I’ll find out in September whether I got the scholarship–or even made finalist.”

While we hope he gets it, the scholarship is not that important. No day passes without his receiving recruitment letters from universities like MIT, Columbia, Harvard and Rice. There’s no doubt that he will gain acceptance to at least one university. We’ll find some way to pay for it.

What matters is that our choices and imperfect journey have empowered him to reach for his dreams. Brad’s future is up to him. I can’t wait to see what he does with it.

An Oklahoma mom, Lucie homeschools by day, works nights and writes in her spare time. Her first mystery Distortion, was published in 2012 by Buzz Books USA, Its sequel is in the works. You can find her at

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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