Friday, January 30, 2015

Homeschooling, the Why

I am planning on homeschooling Lydia, Elisheva and Guinevere next school year.  This is not the kind of statement that goes lightly in today's world: there always seems to be an elephant accompanying the phrase into a room.  Here's my elephant - I am excited, but also terrified.  I am doing it, but mostly not for educational reasons.  Sometimes I think I will sit on the fence between homeschool and public school for so long that my proverbial feet will fall asleep and sting me sharply when I finally decide (or fall from lack of balance over to a side).  I suppose this post is an attempt to get off the fence, to formally say, move over large vans full of unruly children with frumpy moms of stereotype, Thora's coming to join you. (Except...could we just lose the stereotype? I mean, I do have a lot of kids who act crazy, and I do drive a van, and I am probably frumpy, but I have never worn a denim jumper in my life, so there is that.)

So why then? Why spend more time and money and bother educating my kids at home when they are already getting educated somewhere else for free? Well, in a nutshell, because it makes sense for me and for our family at this time. But of course you know that the only thing I have ever put into a nutshell is a nut, and so here is the long reason.

Avram is graduating this year, and we know not where we will be in the future, from the midwest to Hawaii, with a permanent job to a visiting assistant professor to adjuncting.  About the only thing certain in our future is its uncertainty.  I expect to be moving three to four times in the next five years, between post docs, VAPs, adjuncting, and hopefully finally settling down with a tenure track job.  As part of our prable many moves, I have concerns about changing state and regional requirements every year or two. I worry about having so much disruption with our children. 

 Lydia is currently in a full time Gifted and Talented program, which is situated at the closest school to our home, and where Elisheva is able to attend as well.  I don't know how the other G&T programs will work in other parts of the country, but I do know there is a good chance that I would be schlepping Lydia across the city, or having her take long bus rides to attend a school with a full time program - if I could even get her into such a program, coming from another state. The thought of having to work out this situation multiple times in as many years back to back has been rather unappealing to me. Not to mention balancing children in different schools - just the few weeks I did that this year still make me grateful I was able to get them together at the same school.

As well, Lydia is very advanced in some subjects, but she is actually remedial in others - she has struggled with writing, can't summarize to save her life, and yet does compose poems.  She struggles to master the basic facts of math, but is the most accomplished in her class in logic puzzles.  So although she needs advanced work, she also needs help with laying a solid foundation - which she has been able to gloss over in the past because she was so advanced in other areas. Meanwhile Elisheva is fairly on board with her grade across the subjects, but I do not like how the school teaches her reading, with the emphasis on guessing and whole language versus phonetic progression. I taught Lydia how to read at home, I did about have of the work of teaching Elisheva, and I feel like I would end up teaching Guinevere as well.

Avram and I also disagree with some of the other prevailing pedagogy in public schooling in America. One is the amount of homework expected out of elementary school. We both feel that six hours a day of schooling is plenty for younger children, and that to do extra work on top of that, when they are already tired out for the day is excessive. Practically speaking, I find that the time spent with Lydia and Elisheva on homework to be dubious in value, excepting just straight reading.  Not that it is a bad thing to require a student to practice principles that they are learning, and I also see the value of parents knowing what children are doing in school. Rather, I am not sure of the efficacy of homework in accomplishing both of these activities, especially in light of the fact that homework is directly competing, in the manner of time, with other worthwhile home activities - free, imaginative play, chores, cooking and eating and cleaning up as a family, reading as a family, reasonable bedtimes.  We don't watch TV at our house, and I still feel like there is not time to fit it all in.

 Additionally, we do not like this emphasis on testing, especially with schools who already do well getting more funding, while schools that struggle get less. Often the struggling schools, like the ones my daughters have attended, have lower income families that are working a lot, often have many immigrant children and families who are not familiar with English or the American school system, and who need more help than ever, not less, when their scores are low.  There is nothing wrong with tests per se - it is this test that measures the worth of a teacher by how well her or his students do on a test, thus leading to teaching to the test, and thus encouraging focusing on a test.  And yet the teachers continue anyway - I have been happy with every single teacher my girls have had, all seven of them. They weren't perfect, but then neither am I.  And they all cared a lot about teaching.  But within a system of pedagogy that I increasingly feel dissatisfaction with, I feel they are hampered.

I feel like our days become so disconnected, with the rush in the morning to get the girls off to school, the lull during the day when I am only home with small children, the rush of the afternoon routine with picking up the girls, homework, dinner, bedtimes, and hopefully some chores squeezed int here somewhere. I want to effect a more organic day, where we move from one activity to another, but not on someone else's timeline.  I want to feel like I can look back on a day and be satisfied with where we spent our time, instead of feeling like we are always artificially marching to the beat of someone else's drum.  I want to give my children a solid basis in home management and cleaning, without feeling like I have to sacrifice something else equally vital in order to do it. There are some difficulties I feel that I have in parenting our various children, like Lydia and her defiance, or Elisheva and her tendency to be the emotional barometer (and hence very affected by whom she spends time with), and as I look forward in time I see that these have grown worse, not better with age.  I don't think that homeschooling will be a magic cure, but rather it will stop giving me places to hide, but force me to spend so much time with these children that I have created that we will begin to work through some long time underlying difficulties, instead of applying short term band-aids while hoping that somehow they will just grow out of this stage (that had been life long, so not a stage at all).

I am a stay at home mom for a few reasons, among them because as a mom of very young children, often with one nursing, working would be complicated to balance with childcare.  Especially because I do not have a thriving career I put on hold to have children. I never had a career - I graduated from college in Near Eastern Studies, originally having intended to go to grad school and become a professor. By the time I graduated, I did not want to do that, but I didn't have any other real career plans in place.  And without a job that either provided sufficient remuneration to compensate for being able to be home with my young ones, or, alternately and more important by far, that was a vocation that I felt passion for and was emotionally fulfilling to work at, I would rather be a homemaker. I know that I have complained in times past (or current) about my job - about being a stay at home mom. But it would take a "true love" level of job for me to pursue a career or even long term job outside the home.

I have always planned to do that, with going back to school for a master's and possibly a doctorate after Avram graduated and obtained a tenure track job. My long term plan has been to go to the school he would work at, where I would get free tuition. If Avram would have gotten a tenure track this next year, I would have planned to start grad school the year after that.  However, that did not happen, and until he gets an academic job that is tenure track, we would not have the stability for me to start a program and knowing I would be there to finish it.  So my long term plan is quickly ranging out of reach, potentially for forever. With these limitations, I have thought a lot about, "Now, what?" Now what can I do, because I feel like without something extra, I am home all day mostly with kids who cannot carry on an actual conversation. I feel like an unpaid maid, because it seems some days as if my highest calling is to make sure that the family's laundry keeps on its eternal round.  I definitely feel that I was made for more than laundry rotation, however necessary and good that is as well. 

And yet I did not structure my life to have skills or developed interests that I could pursue outside the home. Avram and I did not lay out a life where we could share care, and switch off child care while both pursuing jobs. And neither of us have an entrepreneurial bone in our collective bodies to desire to try and create these opportunities ourselves. Homeschooling, for me, is a way that I could exercise my brain and my house running capabilities.  The modern home does not require a constant, full time caretaker, and yet small children still do.  Thus, modern homemakers often develop all consuming hobbies (scrapbooking, couponing, cooking, cleaning, blogging, exercising) or small businesses (blogging, Etsy, Scentsy or Mary Kay and the like).  They volunteer at schools, take their kids on excessive amounts of activities just to get out of the house, and some become like my grandmother spent her days playing bridge, shopping, and at the officer wives' club.  I believe this is a hidden reason behind the growth of homeschooling - it provides a productive way to engage one's brain and time, all while providing more family time together with one's children, and freeing up the family schedule to pursue what is important to ones family on ones own time. I feel that I am here on this Earth at this time to be a mother, but I also feel like God created me to be smart, to use my brain. And while I do use my brain to manage the home, I know I am capable of so much more than just what I currently fill my days with.  I feel like I have been hibernating mentally for years, which feels like it is made worse by the fact that Avram is in a very intellectually stimulating environment.  There have been many days where he has been home writing on his dissertation, and I have stumped around the house, struggling because he gets to sit and read all day (yes, I know this idealistic, yes, I know that getting a Phd is very hard...) and I get to change diapers and clean up continually made messes.  I did not go to school for elementary school teaching, so it is not necessarily the vocation that has always called to me, but I certainly believe that spending hours everyday working with my children on chemistry, ancient Egypt and the rest of the ancient world, reading and writing and grammar and math sounds a lot more intellectually stimulating than trying to perfect the art of a daily chore routine.  

And since I am home all the time anyway, it makes sense to take charge of our family's schedule, so that we no longer have the dreaded homework hour every night (that Avram and I conveniently forget to do on so many nights).  It makes sense to solve the disconnect and rushing through our days that occur, and accomplishing our schooling early in the day so that we may have better evenings as a family.  It makes sense that in moving around the country and its associated upheavals that we may as a family keep as much continuity as possible within our own family unit.  It makes sense to find something to do as a mother that is more fulfilling that housework to fill my days (uhh, and personal reading, because of course I do that too....).

What homeschooling is not for us: we like public school. I actually feel guilty in a way for withdrawing from the public school 'conversation' because I deeply believe in the existence of a quality public education in a society.  I think there can be no true modern civilization without one. Also, it is not a statement of future intent. If we ended up in a stable position where I could go to school or pursue an outside career that I love, I would mostly see our kids going back to public school. Who knows? Maybe I will give it a try for a year, and decide that despite the scheduling downfalls that I am more grateful than I ever knew for our daughters' public education options.  Or maybe after a year, the minimal time I am giving it a try, we will decide that I should have started homeschooling back when Lydia entered Kindergarten like I first thought of doing.

I do have the fear that we will begin the year with pomp and circumstance, and then somewhere in the middle a child will be buried alive under a pile of books and unfolded laundry, and as they claw their way out our house will spontaneously collapse under the combined weight of family guilt and  insanity and the collective bystanders will watch as the "Fall of the house of Shannon" occurs before their sympathetic yet mildly entertained eyes.

But, at least that would provide fodder for better literature and all that, and after all, isn't that what Homeschooling is all about - the pursuit of knowledge in all its areas?