Homeschooling Is Out Of The Closet
Once whispered about behind closed school doors, homeschooling has come out of the closet.
When our two sons were young, my husband and I decided to try homeschooling. We lived in Manhattan Beach, California, home of blue-ribbon public schools and a handful of expensive private schools. Friends, and a few family members, thought we’d lost our marbles when we explained our five-year-old wouldn’t be returning to the local public elementary school. Their horror was reflected in the sudden lack of invites to children’s parties and get-togethers. Overnight we’d become outcasts; hippie-blue-collar rebels in a community of conservative liberals—give or take a few like-minded neighborhood friends.
Fast Forward Twenty-one Years
The current pandemic has thrown parents around the globe unwillingly into homeschooling. Many can work remotely from their homes; some cleared out closets to set up temporary office spaces, sacrificing clothes, purses, and shoes for tranquility. It’s not uncommon for Zoom meetings to include a worker bouncing a toddler on his or her knee, cats passing by screens, or dogs demanding attention. For parents with multiple children, this new life has proved challenging.
CEO’s and entrepreneurs turn bug-eyed at the thought of having to balance a business call and a trigonometry question. While at the same time, their spouse is busy changing diapers, and their preteen executes amusing pubescent mind games. But it’s not only the school work that needs tending.
Education is More Than Academics
Before the pandemic, car rides to school and one-on-one time with each child were ideal for conversations regarding personal issues. Let’s face it, a car ride with a teen is the perfect place for a parent-daughter/son in-depth discussion—power-lock those doors and talk it out!
While many parents have been able to keep the status quo, some have found it challenging. Teens confine themselves to bedrooms, face-timing friends, and wondering what the hell their college life will look like, or perhaps they’re tired of getting job rejections. They’re scared, anxious, and lonely, a typical teenage state of mind that is compounded given the current circumstances.
I’m a firm believer in hiking and getting outside. Something unique happens during long hikes; children get exhausted, and after a while, teens open up and start chatting. I’ve found that it’s during long walks when I learn best, the quiet moments when I’m not thinking about anything, and the penny drops.
Tender Moments Create Life-Long Memories
My sincere appreciation for homeschooling began one morning while my five-year-old struggled to read three-letter words. I knew once he learned the letters’ sounds, in this case, short “A-words,” reading would begin to make sense. But he struggled, and I knew it was time to shake things up, or I’d lose him to frustration. So, I turned to art and science.
That afternoon we painted the alphabet with our fingers, made letters out of clay, and ran our fingers over the shapes, saying each letter aloud. We made cookies and shaped the dough into three-letter words before cooking and eating the lot. I hoped that by using all his senses to learn the letters, his reading brain would activate.
Exhausted, I sunk into the sofa with my two little boys and picked up the book I’d been working on with my eldest. I pointed to the picture of the rat and asked him what animal it was. He answered, “Rat.”
“And what’s this word?”
“Mat,” he said and continued reading—exasperatingly slowly—the entire eight pages.
When he finished, he paused, turned to me, and asked, “How was that, Mommy?”
“Fantastic,” I said, fighting back the tears, “let’s celebrate!”
The penny had dropped. He reread the story about Max the rat and how he sat on a mat, and to hear him read, well, he may as well have been reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
Days later, his three-year-old brother picked up the same book and read the entire story aloud. After every page, he’d look at me, his little face brimming with pride. I figured he’d memorized the story, so I chose another book, and sure enough, he read that one too. I tested him with other words; he knew them all. “This means another celebration,” I said, marveling that he’d learned through osmosis.
Accept Your Weaknesses and Strengths
My sons weren’t the only learners. I discovered the magic of project-based learning and working with a timeline. I also accepted my weaknesses and strengths and traded teaching art and music to children whose parents were skilled in math and science.
Clear The Decks!
After the birth of our first son, I envisioned keeping everything relatively tidy. However, by the end of the first week, our house looked like a cyclone had gone through it. Between breastfeeding, baby naps (which were a rarity), and diaper changes, I barely had time to shower, let alone sweep the floors. Housework was low on the “to-do” list. I called Mom regularly and asked, “How the hell did you do this with four kids?”
My dream of being the perfect mother, wife, and Mary Poppins never became a reality. It was lost along with the vision of my waistline, being, well, a waistline.
With homeschooling, the kitchen table quickly became the center for learning. The boys and I were an expert team at clearing the decks at mealtimes. Boxes labeled with each child’s name were relocated to a space on the kitchen floor and filled with textbooks, journals, pens, and pencils. We worked like art-directors orchestrating set changes on a stage.
Once the boys figured out their schoolwork could be done in about three or four hours, they worked hard to complete projects promptly. They helped me prepare snacks and lunch or a picnic for an after school hike. I considered these tasks home economics and all part of learning.
Home Education — Routines Become Rituals
Here’s the thing—quickly get into a routine and stick to it. Ours looked something like this:
- Breakfast, personal hygiene
- Classes in the morning
- Followed by a hike
- Or tied-pooling
- Or visiting museums
- Or seeing the hundreds of iconic features around Los Angeles, such as The Korean Bell of Freedom and the Fort MacArthur Military Museum at Angels Gate Park in San Pedro.
- Personal hygiene
But What About Socializing?
Both boys played on baseball and basketball teams and participated in after school programs at local Parks and Recreation departments. But more importantly, they became voracious readers.
Currently, with social distancing, playing team sports is not an option. Some families have formed small “quaranteam” groups where extended family, and some friends, have created “COVID-19 free pods” to allow for social interaction. Of course, check with your doctor about what’s safe, and understand the risks associated.
And while we all may be getting tired of the lack of face-to-face interaction with others, this is not the dark ages. We have Zoom, social media, and cell phones. For now, this is how we socialize. These are unusual circumstances. It won’t last forever.
Mental Health Days
There were days we homeschooled when either the boys or I needed a break—we called these “mental health days.” The boys had free reign for the day (with certain boundaries), and what they chose to do was read, with Lego and dressing up as pirates a close second. Sometimes they read storybooks. Other times I’d walk into the living room to find them sprawled on the floor scouring over maps in our Reader’s Digest atlas or lost in a Star Wars encyclopedia, or one of the many books on history or art my husband and I have collected over the years.
Storytime followed dinner; a sacred hour that covered a multitude of genres: The Harry Potter series, The Wind in the Willows, James Herriot’s Treasury for Children and All Creatures Great and Small, Gerald Durrell’s The Fantastic Flying Journey, One Thousand and One Nights (The Arabian Nights), Greek Mythology, Tales of King Arthur, ghost stories, biographies, and poetry.
The Realities of Homeschooling
I believe homeschooling works for every child, but not for every adult. It takes an enormous amount of preparation and patience. There were nights when for a variety of reasons, one or both of the kids had me up during the night, or I’d wake up to a cat coughing up a furball, a dog staring at me begging for breakfast, bunnies to feed, and a turtle’s aquarium and a birdcage to clean. Tired doesn’t explain what it’s like being the primary parent acting as teacher, cook, cleaner, taxi driver, confidant, and nurse.
At times I wanted to scream out loud. I needed a break from everything and a change of scenery. As soon as he had a few days off, my husband and I would pack up our Westfalia and take the boys camping. We didn’t have monitors in our cars, and the kids didn’t have Game Boys (much to their horror). Instead, we played travel games, sang songs, and enjoyed the silence of forests, beaches, and mid-week campsites. And we read.
Homeschooling made me humble, taught me to be grateful, and brought me pure joy. With that chapter of my life written and read, I can say the experience and the outcome was well worth the moments of stress and loneliness, and I’m proud of the adults my sons have become. Would I do it all again? Absolutely!
This Too Shall Pass…
In twenty years, it won’t be the moments of frustration your children will remember while homeschooling, nor will they miss the anxiety they experienced at regular schools from shooter drills or homework.
They will remember the tender times they spent with their parents, who kept them safe during COVID-19. They’ll remember when they never had to ask three or four times to play catch or bake cookies with a parent. Or the times they snuggled up after lunch on a weekday and listened while a parent or sibling read them a story. And they’ll remember being able to stay home with family while grieving the death of a loved one.
Since March 2020, I’ve seen families out walking who I never knew lived in our neighborhood. Now, we wave and chat from a safe distance, share extra fruit and vegetables from gardens, and pick up groceries for elderly members of our community. Chalk drawings of rainbows, hearts, and animals appear weekly on our streets, accompanied with short phrases such as “be kind” written in a child’s hand. These memories are how children will remember this period of history.
For many, homelessness during COVID-19 will mean a matter of life and death. Day-to-day living is stressful enough. What happens when poverty takes hold and tempers flare? The lack of compassion from political leaders to withhold much-needed funds for those in need acts as a testimony to the social injustices of this time. That’s what I’ll remember.
My advice to parents struggling with homeschooling is not to sweat the small stuff. Most elementary science is doable in the kitchen or the garden, and if you don’t have a garden go to a park. Let your kids search for bugs and watch birds. Get out in nature, take a hike, wear a mask.
If you have access to a computer, virtually visit museums worldwide—most have some form of online format they offer for free. Plunder used bookshops. Search Little Free Libraries; many now have individual boxes for children’s books. Ask your high schooler to read to his or her siblings, give them some responsibility.
Most importantly, let your kids see you reading. Let them learn through osmosis. Let them discover the power of reading and watch them find their autonomy. Oh, and remember to play.
Yes, homeschooling is out of the closet!