Thursday, April 30, 2009

Why Are We Homeschooling?

As mentioned in the previous post, I wanted to provide a more detailed explanation for why we are planning to homeschool. Here are the reasons:
  • Improve Harry's math and language arts: he has not progressed much this year in either area. He entered 1st grade with a strong reading ability, but much of the year, his class time was spent learning basic words. He has had very little phonics and he is not encouraged to learn correct spelling at this age, a philosophy that we are finding that we disagree with. Also, he hasn't done nearly as much math as we were expecting. Harry has not even quite mastered addition and subtraction, and we're already near the end of 1st grade. We feel that in the two areas of math and language arts, we can do better than the public school setting. We don't fault Harry's teacher for this; she has no choice but to teach to a group of 25 and there is no way to provide individual attention to every child. We've learned that the average public school student receives 3-5 minutes of individual attention a day. Even though I am not a teacher by training, if I can even provide Harry with direct one-on-one teaching in math and language arts every day, he should be able to progress at a faster pace than he has this year. We're not trying to create a super-genius, but we do want what he studies to match what he is capable of, and to this point, his public school experience has not been able to do this.
  • Control over subjects: I admit that I am a bit of a control freak, and once I began learning more about different homeschooling educational philosophies, I loved the idea that I could choose a path for Harry that would be of our own preference, not restricted by what the public school deems appropriate. I'll explain more about this in another post, but we'll be adopting a largely classical-based education, which means an emphasis on great literature, a focus on the development of the mind in a systematic way, with the end result being that the children growing up learning how to learn, loving what they learn, and being able to communicate in the written and spoken word effectively and persuasively. It feels like a children's version of a liberal-arts college education, something I'm very familiar with myself.
  • Concurrently, homeschooling allows us to let the kids focus on areas of interest and design experiences to help them deepen those interests. We took a day off school this year to take Harry and Ron to the Chicago Auto Show, since cars are such a passion of J. in particular, and homeschooling would allow us to continue to do activities such as that with more frequency and without the guilt of missing school.
  • More time to enjoy childhood: This year has felt extremely stressful for us all. Every day of the week feels stretched and rushed, and we think that moving to homeschooling could actually ease the pressures for us all. Right now, Harry comes home around 3 p.m., and sometimes even later than that. By the time he comes home, has a snack, and has a little downtime, he has something to do homework-wise, plus piano time, with the end result that he barely has much time to play before dinner--and I highly value the benefit of play in young children. Our hope for our homeschooling schedule is that we would be largely done with our schoolwork and 30 minutes of piano time by the time or before school typically gets out for his peers (2:30 p.m.) After the younger brothers are awake, we will have more flexibility for outings and field trips before dinner, or for more unstructured play time than we have had this year. We just think this will result in a lot more joy for us all.
  • Family focus: Earlier this year, I was wrestling with the question of, what is our family's purpose? Instead of trying to do so many things and not do them all particularly well, I wanted to gain a sense of mission so that we could pare down those things that don't fit with the mission and put more emphasis on the things that do. Homeschooling will absolutely force us to do this. There is no way around the fact that to do this well will require time, energy, creativity, and effort. I'm committed putting in that time, because I do feel we are being called to do this, and so for me, being "missional" in this season of life is to focus on my kids' educational development. But it means that we will be paring down and/or letting go of other time commitments that were, frankly, wearing us thin this past year in particular. Homeschooling will help me say "no" to many wonderful opportunities that are just not right for us at this stage in life. This will be a big switch for me because I'm used to being super-involved, especially in my church context. But I just sense that right now, we need to have a simpler life. Homeschooling itself may not be that simple, but it provides us a focal point for our energies that makes sense to me right now.
  • Strengthen family bonds: I like the idea that should we continue with homeschooling, sibling and family bonds will become even more important for our kids, as opposed to being replaced by peer relationships. Not that peer relationships aren't important, and at some point that shift has to happen, but especially when the kids are young, I see the value in building a foundation of family relationships that will stay with them as they move into later childhood/adolescence/adulthood.
Why we are NOT homeschooling:
  • To create a pristine, bubble-like environment for Harry and the other boys. No, this is not our desire, although we do confess that if Harry learns fewer slightly offensive, 1st-grade level jokes as a result of homeschooling, we will not protest! We know that we will need to be extra attentive to make sure that Harry has enough opportunities to connect socially with other children. We also know that we are not to retreat from the world, and that we must find ways to engage and enter into the lives of others. Of course, knowing this in our heads and making sure we take the right steps in reality are two different things! But we don't necessarily believe that the only way to become socially adept is to spend most of one's time primarily with one's own age group, and we'll be looking for ways to help Harry engage with other children without being necessarily restricted by the idea that being in a class with 25 other children is the only way to do so.
  • Because we think that homeschooling is the only right way to educate children. No, this is absolutely not where we are. We have come to the place ourselves that we want to at least try this out for a year and see how it goes, but we certainly do not believe that this is the only right way. We don't even know at this point if all three boys will be homeschooled entirely or in part, or for how long. All these questions will be answered in time, but right now we'll just take it a year at a time. And by no means as we embark on this journey do we mean to communicate that others should be joining us. But, that having been said, if anyone reads our story and feels led to investigate the option themselves, we'd be happy to chat more about our decision!
Next post: more about the classical education philosophy that we are leaning towards adopting. Does this mean our boys may learn Latin??? Find out next time. =)

Monday, April 27, 2009

On the Road to Homeschooling!

We've made our decision. We've informed the principal. Our eldest son (Harry, 6 1/2 yrs old) will be doing his second grade at home, with younger brother (Ron, 4 yrs old) in preschool part of the week and homeschooled the rest. (Youngest brother Dobby, 19 mos, will likely run around and cause trouble for both!) If you'd like to find out more about how we came to this fairly radical decision, feel free to read on.

About seven weeks ago, I was interviewing Sue Ferguson, a leader at Community Christian Church and wife of lead pastor Dave Ferguson, for a book I'm writing on missional moms. During the course of our conversation, Sue mentioned almost in passing that she was a homeschooler to her three kids, although it was not something she had planned to do before they started. Not even quite understanding why, I asked her to elaborate, and so Sue told me about how one of her kids was quite gifted but not really receiving the support he needed in public school, then about her own journey towards accepting homeschooling as a call, and then about how she feels looking back on it now, how glad she is that she did it. She felt that homeschooling gave her kids the chance to just enjoy being kids, due to its flexible scheduling and reduced school time, since in homeschooling you can often finish the work way before the public school kids end. She also mentioned something her mother told her, which was "you can always go back," if she tried homeschooling and didn't like it. So Sue made the jump, but then never looked back.

Afterwards, I went back home, and then in the days and weeks that followed, I just could not shake what we talked about regarding homeschooling. I could hardly believe that I was even thinking about this topic, as someone who has never never never, not even once, ever given homeschooling a moment of thought. Once years ago, my DH asked if I would ever consider it, but I shot that idea down in a flash. I had multiple plans for my life, many many plans, plans for as soon as Dobby is in kindergarten and then 1st grade, plans for those scant 6 1/2 hours that the boys would all be in school.

But what I can only describe as God's still, small voice pushed back at all my (frankly) self-absorbed plans. "Just look into it," is what I heard him saying. So, in a feeble attempt to be faithful, I started doing so. I wasn't even sure where to start, but typing "homeschooling" into a Google search box was my first step. There were so many links I didn't even know where to begin, but slowly, I started working my way through website after website of people or organizations talking about homeschooling. I felt as though I were wandering through some foreign country, the topic was much more complex than I imagined, everyone talked in acronyms, and it still felt like a world I could never inhabit. But, every so often, I'd stumble across a nugget of thought about the benefits of homeschooling, and they'd all sound good: your child can work at his own pace and you can tailor their education to their interests and passions and you have the opportunity to build close family ties all resonated with me.

Next step: library time. I went to our public branch and took out a huge stack of homeschool-related books, titles like Help for the Harried Homeschooler and The Idiot's Guide to Homeschooling. I thought reading about the reality of homeschooling might turn me off the idea. But the opposite happened: the more I read, the more I wanted to know, and the more I felt myself growing in openness to this crazy idea. Not that I think homeschoolers are crazy, of course! But for me, it was such a foreign concept that it felt insane to even be thinking about it.

The thing is, this past year, if I'm truly honest with myself, I don't think Harry has really learned much. He came into first grade with a strong ability to read, while in school they have been learning basic words. He has hardly had much math in school, so little that I now understand why all those other countries fly by the U.S. in math abilities. He has also had a few social issues, not quite bullying but enough to make me always wonder when recess time comes around every day how he is doing. And our days feel stressful whenever he comes home, because by the time he has a snack and winds down a little bit, there is always something to do--homework, piano, etc.--and when all that is over with, his time to relax and play is very limited. And I do believe that for kids, playtime is extremely important, but the reality is that there is just not enough time for it these days. So I always feel like a taskmaster, pushing J. to do this or that before the dinner prep rush begins. It just makes for a daily stress that frankly, I'm not enjoying too much right now. The idea that homeschooling could help us achieve a less stressful, more enjoyable lifestyle began to take hold of me.

I still couldn't believe where my mind was going, and so I began to talk with people. I have just one friend who homeschools, my former roommate and work colleague Mary L. She lives in San Francisco and has homeschooled her 9-year-old daughter for about 4 years, and I sent her an email asking if she could spare time to talk. She wrote back immediately, and glowed as much as a person can glow in her email about her homeschooling experience. When we spoke on the phone, the first thing she said was, "You have to know that everyone who talks to me about homeschooling decides to try it!" And so it was with me; we had a great conversation in which I raised many of my concerns and she addressed every one.

Subsequent conversations that I had with others--Patty K., an old friend from my Christianity Today days, who successfully homeschooled her three boys and gave me great reassurance that it could be done; Kathryn, a friend of a friend who willingly met me and spoke with me for 4+ hours at a local pancake house and who pointed me towards all kinds of local resources that I didn't know about--only served to increase my sense that this was the way we wanted to go.

When I told DH that I was feeling led to consider this approach to schooling J.; he was surprised but not opposed to it, as he has always felt more open to doing this. But, knowing that the task would largely fall on my shoulders, he has never advocated or pushed for us to try it out. The decision was largely mine to make, and each piece of information I gained only added to the increasing sense I had that we were to try it out for a year. But I still might have remained on the fence until just last week, we received an email bulletin from our local school district which made clear that anyone desiring to attend classes in public schools part-time, including homeschoolers, needed to make this clear to their local school by no later than May 1st. So, the time had come for me to make a choice, and I hesitated no longer. Yesterday, I sent Harry to school with a letter addressed to his principal, to let him know that as of this fall, Harry would be homeschooled.

The funny thing is that just last week, while I attended an Open House for Harry's school, I saw this principal, chatting up the parents in his genial manner. He saw us, said hi to J. by name, and greeted me and Harry's younger brothers. "These are the younger brothers? Two more? Terrific!" he said. "The more, the better for my job security!" I laughed outwardly at his joke but inside I felt badly knowing where we were leaning, as though I were hiding something. But it just didn't seem the right time to let him know our news. You just don't know how people are going to take it, especially the principal of your child's elementary school, since the total number of children enrolled will affect how much money the school is given by the district. I am sure the news, when he reads our letter, will not be a welcome one.

In the meantime, Harry had his own ideas about letting the cat out of the bag. We were chatting with his teacher, a wonderful woman who has been the perfect nurturing presence for Harry this year. Whatever issues we may have had with Harry's educational progress, we do not attribute to Mrs. E.; we know there is only so much she can do while trying to oversee a class full of 25 first graders. She said to him, "You are going to love second grade!" to which he replied, "My mom is going to be my teacher!" Mrs. E. did not know what to do with that, and I was forced to reveal to her our situation. She responded graciously, although hesitantly, but I explained the reasons why we chose this path, largely emphasizing the academic issues, and she seemed to understand our rationale, although I could still see the doubt on her face. I understand where she is coming from; I know I'm biased, but if I were a school or a teacher, I certainly wouldn't want to lose a kid like Harry, either!

Now that you've heard the overall story, more soon to come. Next post: why, exactly, are we doing this?? What are the benefits? What are the potential downsides and did we consider them. All that and more, next time!