Homeschooling / not for the faint of heart

A Slightly Radical Experiment

A few things we learned about homeschooling this last year: homeschooling our willful, impetuous, determined boy, widely read, fierce 12 year old fox of a boy. He’s got good manners, a strong handshake, and intense curiosity about science, about literature and history, about construction and design, but him, this shining boy was being extinguished by his school.

Some random experiences and thoughts from the year:

  • Homeschooling was our last resort and it was hard
  •  After a little while, decent parental bourbon daily seemed like a good idea. Or rye.
  • Homeschooling changes your understanding of time; 1 year = 5 in feeling

Some background — we live in a sophisticated rural community, an epicenter for ‘farm to table’ farms and businesses, could be a corner of Napa, could be outside Burlington VT or Hudson NY, could be near Asheville or Austin, or the Pioneer Valley. Where exactly doesn’t matter; but it’s been in your backyard, on your radar or just under for these last 5,10, 20 years. All those youngsters in your cities’ farmers markets; this is where they come from.

And all the many people have been moving here with their design studios, furniture ateliers, et al, have but one question now that they’re parents — “how are the schools?” To which we reply, the local public schools are decent, there’s a Waldorf school we can’t commit to as we’re not benign cultists, and so we sent him, our fox kit, to the private prep school here, a day school from k — 9, in the mold of liberal independent schools throughout the US.

So this, our homeschooling project of last resort, was not before trying to make it work with that private day school — for we were committed! to excellence in education! to paying that tuition! many times we met with the “headmaster”, a veteran of other liberal Quaker-esque schools, who assured us things were going well despite what we noticed.

In his intentionally shabby headmaster study with a wall of books on education, Capturing Ophelia, Boys are Different, The This Factor, the That Factor, The Jargon Manual, he’d say ‘Just give it time, next year will be different, children change so much, it’s a passing phase, he’s an X learner, a Y learner, an ADD learner, the dynamic of the classroom is Z, dogma, dogma, condescending private school dogma and more blathering dogma. Ignore your intuition was the message. A wall of PR to induce us to stay, not hard to do, for after all there was no place else to go, and a non-white kid looks so good in propaganda both web and printed.

Or we’d meet with the lard-assed curriculum head, who when asked why not challenge the 13 kids in the class with literature they had to dig into, would compare her degrees in education and Latin, to our inner city high school background / art school scholarship, and curl her lip; would remind us that she was a professional with a PHD, and we, just readers and writers who work with our hands.

In the end, after preK — 5th grade, with the last 2 1/2 years watching our bright fox get dull and dimmed, coming back from school saying he liked seeing his friends, but everything else was STIFLINGLY BORING we pulled him out and went it alone with our furious reader. Even the bus driver told us he was concerned that our fiery boy was turning clouded and limp from the crap curriculum designed to give parents another social asset to dangle from their key chain with island vacations and kitchen renovations.

So then homeschooling because we care more about learning and joy.

We started homeschooling the day after final bell at Lard-Ass Private Day school, so if we failed over the summer, we could enroll him in a county charter school come September.

And the curriculum, all with his interest in building things:

  • Practical math: sums, problems, measurements, change making, percents, calculating area and volume, all done in the head without paper, construction maths US and metric
  • Academic math: pre-alegbra, algebra, geometry, basic construction and engineering math for load, volumes, time and distance
  • History: US colonial history / mixed with colonial construction methods, indigenous people’s history and experience
  • Biography: a few in the list — George Orwell, Helen Keller, Studs Turkel, Stanley Kubrick, Leonard Peltier
  • Philosophy — Stoicism, Western Buddhist meditation techniques, self cognitive behavior therapy re re-forming habits / forming new habits
  • Physical culture: boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, trail running, skiing in winter
  • Manual arts: welding, greenwood joinery, rought carpentry, ceramics, sketching, sketchup, solidworks
  • Essay writing — 3 short ones per week, 1 long every month.
  • Fiction writing — stories, plays, short film scripts (which he then shot with a phone)
  • Music: guitar and mandolin [both his choice]

How did this function? For academic pieces, we hired local college students who were used to tutoring high school kids, worked up a curriculum for each subject with them, showed them all the over-arcing curriculum concepts. For welding and carpentry, work with friends who had shops and / or skills in each discipline. His history teacher was a ‘disbarred’ Yale PhD lecturer in US history, who had been asked to leave his instructorship due to quarrels with his peers, though he felt it was age-ism, and Yale came to an undisclosed settlement. Our son also worked with this wiry septuagenarian professor on boxing technique, so perhaps there was some basis on both sides. We found instructors through online clearing houses for tutors, and interviewed an average of 3 for each subject, before finding a fit.

For the philosophy piece, for the uses and abuses of propaganda, for drawing from nature, his mother and I did those pieces, but during the day as part of the school day, rather than shoved in after a full day in conventional busy work school.

In our year of homeschooling, we realized a few things:

  • 3 grade through 12th grade is 9 years, yet there’s only 4 years worth of actual academic learning; the missing 5 years is warehousing children, teaching them to adhere to authority, teaching them how to dull their senses and do busy-work via worksheets and online practice programs.
  • Khan academy, Salman Khan should receive a Nobel prize and every other damn prize there is. What an incredible TEACHER even in video, ie non interactive. Just listening to his tone and humor and calm passion is a lesson in how to teach and how to be a good person
  • People’s character is the most compelling piece of their teaching, at least to our boy, and his immediate understanding of who each teacher was, told us if he was going to be able to extract benefit from that teacher. That said, in life one has to work with, cope with people, teachers, who are less than ideal, work with people one doesn’t connect with, but he had that experience for the majority of his conventional schooling, so we made extra sure that these one on one tutors were people he connected with. And then they were super demanding of him, and he came through. He vanquished his former weak schooling experience.

Part of the mission of conventional schools, and indeed our culture at large, is to teach us to mistrust our instincts, instead to trust the corporate messages coming at you from school administrators and curricula, grooming us for file mice, unwilling to take risks, unwilling to dig into earthy meaty messy material, playing it safe. This does not build innovators in learning, in working; people innovate and are creative DESPITE school, not due to it’s inherent nature. Easily changeable, the culture of formal schooling could be far more dynamic.
and most importantly…maybe his school was not so bad — he WAS a difficult learner, some of that inherent to who he was, but completely reinforced by his conventional school

And a different homeschooling benefit: travel when schools are in session, so off-season travel to hot spots when normal school is in session. We rented a house on Cape Breton Island in late August — early September to coincide with the start of school; and while kids were going back to school, our boy was wandering on beaches, writing and sketching every interesting shell and plant, and fitting them into the taxonomy he had started. And we took off other chunks of weeks here and there.

So, we became the administrators of a small school with a student body of 1, teaching some of it, but mostly organizing teachers and planning curricula, the plural only learned since the beginning of this project, and assessing progress; figuring out the ‘learning style’ of our student body and adapting to it, working on putting good habits in, lifelong habits in, and running all ancillary programs, study hall! extra curriculars!. And as said up top, sampling bourbon and rye as recompense for the stress. Because it was HUGELY stressful. And how did we get our own work done? As this was essentially a full time job. And how is our marriage? Let’s just say that the typical scale of ‘if you can survive a house renovation your marriage is fine’ is but a tiny percentage of the homeschooling survival metric. But we did; continued to thrive in fact.

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