I’m often asked a question, usually timidly, by local friends and neighbors. It goes something like this: “Why, did you decide to, um, homeschool? I mean, do you not like the schools here or….um….?”
Because I live in a place that has “good schools”. I live in a place where people move to so that their kids can go to “good schools”. But after one year in one of these “good schools”, I had had enough. Enough of the focus on test scores, enough of kindergarten homework, enough of skipped recesses because they were behind on something or other, enough of no art or music or science, enough of the junk food that passed for a “healthy” snack. And most importantly, enough of my child’s specific needs being ignored.
What I was grateful for, was that it was only half-day kindergarten, because full-day is, in my opinion, a very long day for a five year old boy who much prefers being outside climbing trees to sitting on a carpet square staring at an overhead projector and counting to 100.
It was Rivka’s post over at Tinderbox that really got me thinking about this. Or writing about it, really, because I’ve thought it for a long time. I was never a fan of No Child Left Behind. I didn’t like what public schools had become, so focused on test scores. But hey, these were good schools so we decided to give it a shot with our oldest child. And here’s what happened.
Firefly struggled with handwriting and reading. He struggled to control his anger, was sometimes impulsive and off-task, issues which flared up when he felt a sensory overload. None of these were news to us, his parents. We’d known him all his life and had taken various tactics to help him with these struggles. It’s our job, we take it seriously. So when he arrived at public school, we began to advocate for him there. I spoke frequently with his teacher, found out who the guidance counselor was and what services might be available.
But there was a problem. He wasn’t enough of a problem. He didn’t qualify for a diagnosis. The red flag of a needed IEP was never raised. And it took me months to convince his teacher that he should be allowed to miss a half an hour per week of classroom instruction so that he could go to a group in the guidance office on managing his intense emotions. She expressed fears that he would suffer academically the following year if he was pulled out of class this year. I countered that if he didn’t learn how to control his anger and his behavior, he would suffer academically next year because the stakes would be higher, the tolerance lower, for the behaviors he was exhibiting. She finally agreed. Or maybe she figured I wasn’t going away.
She wasn’t a bad teacher. I actually thought she was pretty good. She listened to me on lots of stuff and changed her approach with my son, but when it came to taking him out of the classroom, she worried that he would not learn what he needed to learn. I knew that meant “the tests”. She emphasized that because our county is still half-day kindergarten, teachers must pack in the same amount of learning into a day as the counties that had a full day program.
Then there was the nightmare that was homework. I am still trying to figure out what a kindergartener needs homework for. I was learning that I had a child who hated to write. Thus the homework battles began. I cringed, wondering what the next 12 years of school would be like if we were starting out like this. Not only did my child hate to write, and hate to do homework, but he was starting to make statements like, “I don’t like learning.” and ” I hate school.”
So, I started to modify his homework. He was given lists of sight words to write over and over again. I made them into signs and put them up all over the walls. At night, we turned out the lights and played the flashlight game: shine the light on a word and read it. No problem. He learned how to read the words, he just did not want to write them. I took pictures of our flashlight game and sent them in, instead of the homework. The kids weren’t being graded on the homework so our modification didn’t seem to cause an issue.
Then I tackled the handwriting piece. I requested a conference with the teacher, to see how we could work on this at home, but I never got one. She seemed tired. She’d been a teacher a long time and this was her last year before retirement. So I stopped asking her to meet with me and ordered Handwriting Without Tears (HWOT) curriculum on line. I also decided that it was not the end of the world if a 5 year old didn’t want to do handwriting. We practiced fine motor skills (it had always been an issue for him) and did a little HWOT and that was enough. The other element that I now know was needed: Time. He’s seven now. His writing is not beautiful, he still doesn’t like it, but it’s better. It’s definitely better.
And while all of this was going on, of course, there were the things that were missing. I had known they would not be there, but to see it, to see kids get nothing for science, the arts, and barely even any recess on the little cement paved, walled-in kindergarten playground, well, it just seemed all wrong.
I had spent the first 5 1/2 years of my child’s life exposing him to wonderful things like music classes and nature hikes and now he was in an environment where those things were no longer a priority. And I wondered how that would affect him. How different of a person would he be. Of course, since it was half-day kindergarten, he had plenty of exposure to those things outside of school, but what would happen in first grade? And beyond, as homework increased?
All of this led me to revisit that little option that had always been in the back of my mind: Homeschool. And the more The Husband and I talked about it, the more it seemed to make sense to at least give it a try. I was already teaching him at home to some extent. What was a few subjects and a few hours more?
I have not told this story before because I truly don’t want to offend my friends or family with publicly schooled children or those who work in the public school system. I certainly don’t think myself superior, nor do I think my friends and family members made poor choices by putting their children in public schools or choosing to work there. Every family does what fits for them. At some point, who knows, one or all of my children might be in public school, but for now this works for us.
I write a lot on this blog about the challenges and the struggles we’ve had this year, but when I step back to look at the big picture, here is what I see: It has been wonderful to focus on all the intricacies of language, study history to it’s richest depths, do science experiments until our kitchen looks like an explosion, read, read, read, and read more, master each math concept in detail before we move on, listen to music with all of our senses and oh, yeah, that other thing that kids learn from, which public schools seem to have forgotten: play, play, play.
In graduate school, I interned at a mental health center and learned how to do Play Therapy with very young children. Do you know why this is the most widely used form of a therapeutic intervention with young children? Because children cannot yet articulate their thoughts and feelings as well as adults do, thus negating the effectiveness of talk therapy. Also, as we all know, it’s because children learn by playing. If they are trying to figure something out, they will “play about it”. Usually it is not subtle. It is a repetitive theme, over and over and over again until they wrap their minds around what they are trying to figure out. Play therapy is very effective with kids who have suffered trauma or loss.
And play is effective in helping any child to figure out the world. Why would we want them to have less of that? It is akin to taking away from you or I, libraries full of books, universities, documentary television shows, experts in any given subject, our cumulative life experiences and the internet. Without access to all those things, how do adults learn? It’s the same thing when you take play away from children. Of course, there is some play in public schools, and certainly after school and on weekends. I just simply think that there isn’t enough of it. Not for young kids.
So, that is how we got to be “that weird homeschool family” in our neighborhood, who walked away from the good schools, who lets their kids play outside at 10:30 in the morning. And if they looked more closely, what they would see are kids who are learning, all the time, in a way that meets their individual needs. On a different schedule at times, perhaps, than their publicly schooled peers, but learning nonetheless. My kids will be prepared for the world, we’re just taking a different path.