I first heard of homeschooling in a creative writing class. I was in my twenties and struck up a friendship with the other young mother in the group. When she said she didn’t send her kid to school, my reaction was full of the incredulity I regularly encountered later, once I jumped on the homeschooling bandwagon myself. You can do that???
The answer, of course, was yes. I thought it sounded nuts but kept that opinion to myself. My daughter was about to enter kindergarten. We’d made sacrifices to move to a suburb with “good” schools, and I was excited to send her to them.
You see, as a kid I loved school. I now realize that had more to do with my home life than anything great about school, but nevertheless, I was enchanted by the prospect of my own child traversing that rite of passage.
We shopped for school clothes, supplies, and the all-important lunchbox. When the big day came, I took pictures of my daughter in her carefully chosen outfit, clutching her lunchbox, smiling with anticipation. This was a milestone! I couldn’t wait to be involved, help in the classroom, join the PTA, and get to know other families.
By October the impossibly rosy picture I’d painted of school had tarnished. I saw problems. One was the curriculum, which was largely based on the principle of “Letter of the Week.” To learn about each letter there was a whole lot of coloring. Each day, my daughter came home with mimeographed sheets carefully filled in with crayon. An image of an apple for “A,” a ball for “B,” a cat for “C,” and on and on. My daughter was praised for neatness and staying within the lines. Those who couldn’t or wouldn’t manage that were considered to have poor fine motor skills and a lack of readiness for learning to print.
Speaking of printing, my daughter had been happily scribbling stories in invented spelling for quite some time, but she was made to modify the ways she wrote “m” and “w.” If her pencil strokes didn’t go in the right direction, she’d never learn cursive properly. She had been writing her name with pride since the age of three, but was instructed that the way she made her “J,” the first letter of her name, was incorrect, and she needed to remove the horizontal line she drew atop the curved line.
Another part of the “Letter of the Week” curriculum was Disney movies. “Cinderella” for “C,” “Dumbo” for “D,” “Sleeping Beauty” for “S”—you get the picture. “Letter of the Week” activities seemed to me to be a whole lot of busy work, and nothing like the exposure to books and the interdisciplinary, hands-on projects I’d imagined.
Perhaps even worse than the mindless tasks was the way they were evaluated. My daughter did everything perfectly and quickly became a teacher’s pet, but those who didn’t were labeled. When my daughter came home from school and said things like, “Johnny can’t even hold a pencil right,” I was taken aback by the judgment.
One day my daughter told me the teacher got angry with a little girl for having a bathroom accident. This was so far out of the realm of what I thought could be possible at this “good” school that I found it hard to believe. On an afternoon when I was helping in the classroom I casually remarked to the teacher that my daughter had mentioned the accident. “I was so mad,” the teacher said. Speechless, I listened as she described how the girl “lied;” when she learned she couldn’t take a buddy with her she’d said she didn’t have to go to the bathroom after all.
Other incidents upset me, as well. The active boy who’d been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder was constantly punished for speaking too loudly or moving too much. Those punishments entailed being sent to the corner and staying inside during recess. I still remember the way he sat at the window, watching the other children doing what he wasn’t allowed to do—play. The girl who sucked her thumb was told if she didn’t quit the teacher would tie her hand behind her back. When confronted, the teacher referred to the thumb sucking as “disgusting.” One day when I arrived to pick up my daughter from the school playground, I saw a child lying on the ground being kicked by a few other boys. The teachers were busy chatting and hadn’t noticed. I headed their way to let them know, but a little girl got there first. I stood dumbfounded as the teachers reprimanded her for “tattling,” turned back to their conversation, and left the little boy to be mercilessly kicked with no help from them.
Even though my daughter had landed in the top tier of the school’s unspoken but clearly evident tracking system, the fact that such a system was in place was not okay with me. The ridiculous amount of busy work was not okay with me. The Disney movies were not okay with me. The school culture was not okay with me. We considered moving to a different district in the same city. We considered private school. In the interests of being thorough and researching all my options, I went to my homeschooling friend and asked her for some materials.
An essay by John Taylor Gatto was in the pile she gave me. Once I read it, I knew that no matter how much I had loved school, no matter how much of a refuge it had been for me in a troubled childhood, I would not send my children there.
That first year was spent discovering by trial and error what worked and what didn’t, a process most homeschooling families go through. We connected with the local support group and the handful of families that were homeschooling at the time. We bonded with them at the playground, potlucks, field trips, and all manner of clubs and activities that we organized for ourselves.
I’d bought some traditional curriculum material but it wasn’t long before I realized that it was as much a waste of time as the worksheets my daughter had done in school. More valuable were the hours she spent writing poems and stories, looking at books, drawing pictures, and playing with friends. We went to the playground, fed the ducks and took nature walks at the nearby pond, visited museums on weekdays when except for an occasional school group we had the exhibits all to ourselves, went to concerts and folk dances and potlucks, and enjoyed life.
A couple of years later my husband and I separated and homeschooling was no longer feasible. With financial help from extended family, our kids went to an “alternative” private school. This was better than the public school had been, but there were still issues. In her third and fourth grade classroom, my daughter became embroiled in a four-way friendship. Midway through the year, one of the girls tried to ostracize another. The girl who was being pushed out had attended the school since kindergarten and her parents were donors and board members, but after the teacher’s tepid reaction to what amounted to bullying, they left. My son, in his mixed classroom of grades 1 and 2, had wonderful teachers. They could not have been better, really, but they still couldn’t stop my son from being picked on. At the first parent-teacher conference they were frank with me about the situation, describing the way my son would put his hands over his ears when he was approached by kids being mean to him. I appreciated the honesty of the teachers and the real work they did to help my son begin to speak up for himself, but I was disappointed. Even in this earthy-crunchy, alternative, open classroom, the destructive social issues that arise from herding kids of the same or similar ages into a building all day long were inescapable.
My heart was still set on homeschooling, and as soon as I was able to, we found our way back to it. In the short two years we’d been away the community had grown. There were more support groups to join, and more people to befriend, but the numbers were still small enough to forge connections easily. Parents started turning to nature sanctuaries, museums, pottery studios, karate schools, and other institutions to organize classes for homeschoolers, and those places welcomed the opportunity to do business during school hours. As homeschooling continued to grow, those grassroots classes organized by homeschooling parents and advertised in local support group newsletters became more official. The institutions themselves began to include the offerings in their catalogues. Teachers disillusioned with their public and private school work experiences started to see homeschoolers as a market they could tap into while pursuing their idealistic educational philosophies. They offered structured programming in the form of classes and eventually learning centers that looked a lot like the alternative school we’d left.
We’d already experienced the rewards of doing it ourselves. Between that and the need to be frugal, we didn’t sign up for many programs, sticking with the theater group organized by a homeschooling mom, the literature group run by another homeschooling mom, and the math club led by a homeschooling dad. I remarried and had two more daughters who never went to school. They spent the bulk of their early years playing. We went to the library regularly, read together, made paintings and collages, sang in a chorus, performed in plays, cooked, took bike rides, went for walks in the woods, hung out with friends at the park, spent precious hours with pet ducks, picked apples in the fall and wild berries in the summer.
While the kids played, my husband practiced his clarinet, and I did my own work which included writing, performing duties for my part-time job, and helping found a statewide nonprofit to support homeschooling families. We never taught our girls to read, but they learned. We never taught them to add and subtract, but they learned. Once they were ten, we introduced multiplication and long division. To them, it was a fun activity they did with their dad.
Meanwhile, at the insistence of her father, my older daughter went to high school. My son resisted that, and spent his teenage years pursuing multiple interests including bird watching, nature photography, and folk music. Public transportation and his legs took him where he needed to go—his internship at the science museum, the folk music club in the next town, wherever there were birds. When he had to travel, for example when a Red-footed falcon miraculously showed up on Cape Cod, he went with his buddies, in this case the local, middle-aged raptor expert he’d befriended in his birdwatching adventures. I drove him to the Audubon sanctuary where he did wildlife care on Sundays, and to folk music open mikes, bringing the little ones along to watch and listen.
In our intergenerational chorus my son sang and played mandolin, and after one concert a friend told me that the little girl sitting next to her in the audience tugged on her mother’s arm and said, “That’s the guy who holds the owl at the Museum of Science!” Today, he’s a working musician.
As my younger daughters got older, they developed strong interests, as well. One became obsessed with Ella Fitzgerald and jazz, spending hours listening to the well-worn Ella CDs she checked out of the local library. Soon, she was singing jazz herself. Instead of going to folk open mikes, now I was going to jazz jams.
Our daughter took some lessons with a wonderful young jazz singer, but they were sporadic. The intensive listening to Ella and other jazz greats, and the participation in making music at jams were the foundation of her training as a jazz singer. At 12, she decided to record a CD and started entering and winning contests that offered amazing opportunities including attending the Grammy Awards, performing with The Boston Pops, performing at the Monterey Jazz Festival, and becoming a Presidential Scholar in the Arts. Meanwhile, her younger sister was percolating an intense love for Shakespeare and a desire to act in his plays that led to a backyard production of “Hamlet” and the formation of a youth theater company.
Five years later and she’s landing parts in the male roles she craved at 13 when she created the otherwise nonexistent opportunity for herself. This summer, she’s excited to be Prince Hal/Henry V.
Having been raised to appreciate the value and rewards of literature, both girls loved to read. “Moby-Dick” was a favorite; my daughter read it three times and threw a Herman Melville birthday party where guests ate cake and were invited to share their favorite Melville passages. Her sister favored Edith Wharton and consumed her novels and short stories voraciously. Both girls read all of Jane Austen time and again. They continue to be avid readers, lapping up works by Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Richard Wright, Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, David Foster Wallace, and countless others.
My kids started enrolling in community college classes when they were teens, choosing topics they wanted to learn about, such as animal behavior, jazz, and Shakespeare. Their learning experiences up to that point had fostered an open-mindedness and curiosity which also led them to want to try subjects new to them. Thus, one daughter developed a keen interest in psychology and networked her way to becoming a research assistant for an established OCD specialist, with whom she co-authored a published study. At 17 she enrolled in a class that included the dissection of a human brain. At the invitation of the professor, she enrolled in the class he taught the following semester, which just happened to be a graduate seminar. She also developed an interest in politics and worked tirelessly for more than one Senate candidate, canvassing and poll watching on Election Day years before she was legally eligible to vote. Her sister found she enjoyed biology, and worked her way through Human Biology, Anatomy and Physiology, and Microbiology. One of the wonderful things about these settings was the absence of ageism. My kids’ ages had no bearing whatsoever on how they were treated; they were simply enrolled students, co-workers, or volunteers, like everyone else.
The active lives my kids led as teens were extensions of the play and the freedom they’d enjoyed when they were younger. Bird watching, photography, playing folk music, singing jazz, portraying Hamlet, doing research in psychology—these were self-chosen pursuits undertaken with the same joy and excitement that accompanied the sandcastles they built as kids, their learning to juggle and ride unicycles, the puppet shows they created and staged, the tea parties they put on, and all the other forms of play they engaged in.
As for my oldest daughter, whose experience in kindergarten set me on this path in the first place, she graduated from high school in the top ten in her class. She opted not to go to college and instead pursued songwriting and became a massage therapist, working in clinics and with hospice patients. A few years later she decided to apply for a job at a day facility for adults with mental and physical disabilities. Within a couple of years she was offered the job of case manager, then behavior specialist. Today she holds the title of Positive Behavior Support Coordinator, traveling from one facility to the next doing trainings, overseeing behavior plans, and acting as a manager. On the side she teaches music in an after school program at an area music store, and is pursuing her bachelor’s degree. I couldn’t be prouder of the work she’s doing, work that generally requires a master’s degree, I might add.
It’s common for people to say that homeschooling allows kids to keep doing what they did before school—learn. Babies and toddlers are learning machines, so why imagine that suddenly, at some arbitrary age, they stop? My kids didn’t, and neither did the many homeschooled kids I’ve known over the years. As they mature, they don’t stop learning, either. Because they have been trusted to guide their own learning, they know what they want to learn and how they can best learn it. They feel free to try new things without undue pressure to “succeed,” which means they also know when it’s time to dig deeper, ask for help, or even quit, if that’s what they need to do. Having self-regulated from day one, they know when something isn’t working for them. Their executive function skills, honed over years of self-directed play and learning, serve them well when it comes to time management and getting things done.
Besides being a great way (the best, in my opinion) to learn, grow, and spend one’s childhood, homeschooling is a great lifestyle. Living with each other day in and day out, you fall into a rhythm and a synergy that’s almost palpable. Familial relationships deepen, each person in tune with the other. Working and playing together or side by side, there’s a frequency that settles over the house, a current imbued with meaning and satisfaction. Even today, with my two older kids out of the house, my third child living at college, and my fourth the only one still at home, our house is an active place where rehearsals, meetings, and social events are constantly taking place. Homeschooling was the crux of the active lives we continue to lead today, embracing community and retaining curiosity and zest for learning new things.
When I was a child, school helped me escape a worse situation, but it wasn’t all peaches and cream. I was a lot like my oldest daughter in my ability to please the teachers, so I got good grades and a lot of praise. It was one of the only places I got positive reinforcement, and though I wasn’t particularly successful socially, I was physically safe, at least during elementary school. In middle and high school things became darker, but because books had become my major solace and great love, and in my life school was the only place anyone cared about books, I stayed loyal to the idea of it. Perhaps that’s why, as a young mother, I thought school would be the best thing that would ever happen to my kids. I quickly learned otherwise. I will never forget the words of the mom whose daughter was being harassed by the teacher for her “disgusting” thumb sucking. The mom had resigned herself to waiting out the year and hoping for a better situation in first grade. “Public school,” she said to me. “You give up so much control.” To me, giving up that control would have meant giving up on my kids, and I wasn’t going to do that. I remain ever grateful to the old friend who first told me about homeschooling, the craziest idea I’d ever heard. It turned out to be one of the best.