Why I Homeschool
The answers change almost as fast as my kids do. But my commitment to at-home learning remains strong.
I'm on my third year of homeschooling our three children and probably my 150th response as to why. The question always makes me panic, just a little. The answer is not simple and certainly it's evolved since I decided to make the big leap.
Initially, I simply missed our kids. Our twins, a boy and a girl, were 5 and in an excellent preschool near our home in a suburb of New York City. Our eldest daughter, nearly 8, was in second grade. I had left my career as a video producer to throw myself into the job of parenting our children. I had been passionate about my career; I was now passionate about our kids. Yet, a mere four years after their birth, I was supposed to transition again, detach, send them off to school and resign myself to seeing them for a few harried moments in the morning and exhausted, homework-ridden hours at night.
There is a lot of pressure to encourage children to be independent when the school bus arrives. Yet, my intuition cried out that even at 7, a child was too young to force separation. Our children, my husband and I felt, would most definitely discover their independence in their own time.
I found shepherding three young children through the morning and evening routines of a typical school day unpleasant, to say the least. I wanted to hear about our children's dreams, but instead had to wake them before they had a chance to remember so I could jam clothes over their heads. I wanted to hear the questions that arose somewhere after cereal but before brushing their teeth, but instead had to tell them to hurry up so we could leave. I wanted to give them my complete attention, but there were dishes to wash, boots to pull on, and details to attend to just to get out the door.
A Growing List
Once we considered homeschooling, the floodgates opened. I couldn't stop thinking up more reasons to do it. Alleviating stress, seeking a healthier environment, and searching for a more profound learning process became the next most pressing reasons for us to homeschool. Since I had left my job years before, my husband and I had already adjusted our finances to make living on one income work. (Homeschooling also gave us the flexibility to relocate to our weekend home in Vermont full-time when my husband decided to leave his job in New York City to start his own business.)
Our son's asthma heightened our awareness of health, or lack thereof, in the classroom. A large group of kids together, indoors for most of the day, besieged immune systems. At the beginning of each school year at least one of our children would get sick and spread it to the rest of the family. We kept the kids home from school long enough to let their bodies fight back naturally — which almost always took more than just a day or two. These recuperative days just made me miss the kids all the more when they were back at school. Now that we're not tied to a classroom or strict schedule, we spend most of our time together, much of it outdoors. Although our children are with other kids all the time (in extracurricular classes, homeschool group settings, and at playdates), they are rarely ill.
Slow Down, Branch Out
"Do fewer things well" is our mantra this year and was a pivotal part of our decision to homeschool. The more I work with our kids on long-term projects, the more I realize the need for them to focus on fewer subjects over longer periods of time. Now, each child picks a topic to study for an entire semester, and we use it as a jumping-off point for lots of cross-curricular lessons. So far, subjects have included Egypt, queens, world religions, primates, and democracy.
While the kids were in school, I volunteered to teach a "hands-on art history" class in which we studied an artist or time period and then created art reflective of our subject. At first I used a packaged curriculum and had exactly 45 minutes to set up, deliver as much information as possible, get the kids on task, and ask them to be creative with only 25 minutes to spare (including clean-up time). I don't think any of us learned much or completed satisfying work. This classroom time convinced me that learning slowly and with time to fully experience the process is much more valuable and long-lasting than that which is rushed and superficial. Darting from one subject to another every 40 minutes seems to create a culture of short attention spans. Now we devote entire mornings to writing, art, science or social study projects, which leaves us satisfied with the richness and depth of our study.
There is a certain fluidity to the children's learning because it doesn't stop at the "homeschool door." We discuss the subjects that we are studying, often passionately, at the dinner table, in the car, or with friends and relatives. Their depth of knowledge builds confidence. Our youngest daughter said one morning after practicing the violin: "The more I practice, the better I get, the more I want to practice."
Freedom, I have found, is a huge and beautiful reason to homeschool. Certainly, I have much less time (if any!) to be alone in the house, talk on the phone, or go shopping unaccompanied. But we have the freedom on a brilliantly sunny day to strap on our snowshoes and explore the glittering and fluffy snow outside our farmhouse. The children can learn at their own pace, which allows them to zoom forward in math while also slowing down to experience the world so they can have interesting things about which to write.
I am now absolutely convinced that there is nothing better than lots of exercise and moving around for young kids. We get outdoors a lot. On those rare days when we can't, we move around in the house getting supplies, switching from room to room, and doing chores. The children bring in firewood for our wood-burning stove and stack it; they also empty the dishrack, vacuum their playroom floor, and help take care of our new puppies. When they have the freedom to move about, they have the desire to think, to focus, to dig in. Otherwise, their need to move distracts them and little gets accomplished.
Tuning in to Kids' Learning
As I homeschool, I discover more reasons to continue despite the tremendous amount of work it can be. I have noticed that our children, like most, sponge up knowledge on their own at a rate faster than any adult can keep up with; and that higher-order thinking skills and cross-curriculum studies come naturally to them. For example, on our latest project, our dog's pregnancy, our eldest daughter applied her recent knowledge on the multiplication and division of fractions to figure out what fraction of the puppies would have curly or straight hair, counting the grandparents as well as the parents' influence. The kids will apply factoids in which they're interested to an entirely different subject on which they are working. "So," they will note after a math session on measuring, "Alice was only thirty centimeters tall when she almost drowned in the pool of tears!"
Besides the benefits to our kids, my husband and I are invigorated by the education we are receiving, not just about how to homeschool but about all the subjects in which our children are interested. Along with the kids I am teaching myself French, studying poetry, listening to great books on tape, rediscovering and loving history (a subject I thought I hated), figuring out how to sew and knit, and going to museums and plays and concerts and on hikes and picnics. It can be a tremendous amount of work and requires loads of patience, which I am terribly short on. Mothers who have their children in school tell me, "I could never do that." I reply, "I can't either. But I am, somehow."
If it were not for the support of my countrywide network of homeschool friends, the small but percolating community of homeschoolers here in Vermont, and my husband, it would be very hard to continue. Their insights, suggestions and wry wit about the daily machinations of homeschooling buoy me and keep me going. Although, at times, it feels like just one more thing to do, making the effort to connect is essential to our happiness and success. Ultimately, even though I'd love a few hours to myself, the more I am with our children, the more I love and appreciate them, the more I want to be with them.