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All in a week’s play

My son and I went down to LA so he could attend the state science fair for the second time. It’s quite an exciting thing, to see so many kids who are into science and are willing to put their work out there to be judged. Unfortunately, the state science fair’s listings don’t include the kids’ schools, so I couldn’t count how many homeschoolers were there. I recognized at least four homeschoolers from Santa Cruz—the same three as last year plus a sibling who’s now old enough.

One of the fun things about the science fair is that science-minded families, whose kids are usually spread thinly throughout different schools, get to come together. Our kids don’t have to dumb themselves down for acceptance, and parents don’t feel the need to apologize for our kids’ abysmal social skills. (Though many of these kids have pretty impressive social skills, so there goes another stereotype.)

I also get to see a few other school parents I know, which is really fun because our paths don’t cross very often anymore. One conversation I had reminded me how our lives have diverged from school families’ lives. The mom I was talking to is someone I’ve known for a long time, and she was talking about how her daughter didn’t like to miss school. I joked that in our case, we miss school all the time!

Her answer was very interesting to me: She responded that it must be exciting for my son to get out, given that he’s homeschooled. Now, it’s possible she didn’t mean to be negative or critical – it’s the sort of thing people say in conversation. But when you say, “It must be fun for your son to get out” to a homeschooler, we hear, “We know you are an overprotective parent who isolates her kids by keeping them home from school.”

As I posted a month ago, the things that people say to homeschoolers don’t always get received as they might imagine. It’s possible this person didn’t mean to imply that my kids are somehow deprived, but since this is the sort of thing we hear a lot, we can’t help but hear implicit (and many times explicit) criticism in statements like these. The other thing we can’t help but do is laugh to ourselves about their naiveté—about how little school families seem to understand our lives.

The state science fair is very exciting for my son, that’s true. But it’s not exciting because it’s such a contrast to his usual life. For us, getting out and about is the ordinary state of things. Staying home a lot is something he and I only dream of.

I look at my son’s last few weeks and wonder if the general public could really continue to think of homeschoolers as deprived of appropriate interaction with the world if they had to tag along with us for a few days. Here’s a short list of some of the things he did (and this is on top of doing all the “school” work that we do at home, plus all of his classes which take place outside the home, plus his online math tutor, plus…. well, you get the idea):

  • Fun in the snow with another homeschooling family
  • A stop at the most awesome museum: The Fossil Discovery Museum.  [We saw a sign for it in Chowchilla, which is off Hwy 99, which goes to Fresno. It’s built around a huge cache of fossils they found in the garbage dump across the road (really!). The man who took us around the museum, it turns out, is an adult homeschooler. He got into helping out with the dig, self-educated himself, and is now ABD (all but degree) a paleontologist, and is about to go back to school to get the degree he already has all the knowledge for.]
  • When we got back my son had his art class with the most excellent Yvette Contois of the Art Factory. (OK, that’s an ongoing activity, but I thought I’d give her a shameless plug.)
  • A trip with me to the Makers Factory to do an interview. While I interviewed, they got a personal tour of the cool tools they have there.
  • Meeting friends at Pogonip (on a school day) and going for an excellent hike on which my daughter adopted her new pet, a darkling beetle named Abyss.
  • Creative writing club, which we organized for a really great group of highly creative, thoughtful homeschooled writers.
  • Planning with one of the teachers in our homeschool program about the upcoming student film festival, which was planned and run entirely by middle school kids.
  • I admit we were so dragged out with all the running around that week that we skipped a fabulous field trip on Friday so we could hang out together at home and garden, play, and work. We also skipped about four other really cool homeschooling activities (out of the house, with other kids) that we could have done that day.
  • Science camp up in Yosemite with his homeschool crew.
  • The new Math Circle happening up at UCSC for middle/high school students.
  • A homeschool Presentation Day where he presented his work in Minecraft to a bunch of other homeschooled kids and their parents.
  • More intense work on the film festival, meeting with students and teachers.
  • Having his Minecraft crew over to our house for Minecraft club (which means that the kids actually interact with each other and play outside in addition to playing online… and the moms get to drink tea and gab!).
  • A fabulous fieldtrip to Point Lobos, swim team, sister’s softball game….

All this headed into the weekend of the state science fair, which started with my son accompanying me to San Francisco for a concert I was singing in, eating really fabulous Thai food in SF, going to a party at the composer’s house, staying in a hotel, and getting up very early to get to LA and set up for the science fair.

So… back to what homeschoolers are thinking when you say things like you imagine our kids don’t get out much. From our perspective, it’s school kids who don’t get out! Your kids go to the same place every day with the same kids and the same teacher. Yes, they do fieldtrips. Yes, they can also take part in competitions and go on cool vacations. But on a day-to-day basis they stay in one place, interact with the same people, and have very few unplanned interactions with adults out in the real world.

Now, I’d like to point out that I’m not criticizing the choice to send kids to school. I did it for years and may do it again! But it is so interesting to contemplate how differently we can mean something from how it’s received. I think this is the case whenever there is a large difference of experience between the two speakers—the same thing happens between people of different races or nationalities, people of different professions, people of different educational backgrounds. Because homeschooling is still a rather unusual thing to do (even though they say it’s getting so much more popular), other parents make assumptions that they don’t question about what our lives are like.

Since we got home, we’ve been going nonstop again and even though I wrote this in a cafe in LA, I’m only now publishing it. So the next time you pity us poor homeschoolers for being deprived of social interaction, remember:

It’s all in a week’s play for a homeschooling family!

Posted in Culture, Education, Homeschooling.

4 Responses

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  1. Reuben says

    Thank you, Suki, for being a pioneer in this homeschool movement.

  2. Suki says

    Thanks, but I don’t feel like much of a pioneer. I owe a huge ongoing debt to all the generous parents out there sharing with each other. Suki

  3. Nanasha says

    I think that the main problem is that in the US, standardization is a really important cultural norm, so people like the idea that everyone is getting the “same” quality or better (if you can “afford it”) sort of education/stuff/lifestyles.

    And unfortunately, just like public and private schools, homeschooling has a variety of levels of quality, from the sorts of activities that you describe to the woman (as most homeschooler parents are moms) with the 5 kids who just basically lets them hang at the house all day running amok in non-structured play and whose kids are behind in the standards and requirements for children of their age. Of course, you can also argue that some public schools are so terribly understaffed and teachers with emergency degrees (ie: no actual credentials) are teaching while utterly unqualified, so that can be a detriment to even more students as a classroom tends to be much larger than the individual homeschool parent/child situation. However, children who are not enriched and given the opportunity to keep up with their peers is a real problem- not the homeschool or type of schooling in and of itself.

    So I suppose the real question is how well home schooling can be supported so that ALL children who are home schooled can have the same sort of positive enrichment as your son (I have spoken with many home schooled adults who regret having been home schooled by strictly religious parents who did isolate them, but I blame that more on the parent than the home schooling in general- this also seems to be more of a problem overseas, as there are even fewer networks for successful home schooling over the pond).

    I also think that a lot of this is entrenched in privilege and social status as well- many people cannot afford the time and money it would cost to home school their children, even if they get help from the government, and those who can afford a higher quality experiences tend to have more education, and more privilege. Of course, it is always “possible” but that doesn’t mean that the barriers are much more formidable for a single working mom who wants to homeschool but only has her GED and no support network, and even for a college educated parent with a marriage partner can have issues, as dual income households are basically required even for a modest lifestyle with children.

    So I suppose that, in the end, while it sounds like a magical fairytale to be able to have the sort of structured adventures that allow a child to grow into a creative, dynamic and special individual, there are real, concrete, temporal and economic barriers to making it feasible for the majority of people, and that is the real shame- the fact that there isn’t a true ability to choose what is best, but only what is possible.

    Just my two cents…

  4. Suki says

    Nanasha, Most homeschoolers would probably agree that it’s the very attempt to make school “standardized” that dooms it — instead of working for some kids, it ends up working for almost no kids. You look at really good private schools and they tend to skew how they teach to a certain sort of kid or family — they find their niche and they provide what is needed. But many public schools are run as if these differences aren’t there, which means that pretty much everyone suffers. It’s simply not possible to teach 30 students well if you don’t differentiate in the classroom, and very few teachers even know what that word means.

    I agree that homeschooling isn’t for everyone, but I think that people who don’t choose it shouldn’t form opinions based on weird ideas they have like “homeschooled kids don’t get out.” Even religious homeschoolers have their churches and their activities. The families I’ve known of who spend a large amount of time at home alone do that because that’s their inclination, not because they’re homeschooling and not because of their religious beliefs.

    As to whether our society allows choice… well, it’s pretty much a fact of existence that people with money are able to get more privileges than people without. However, I know a good number of low-income homeschoolers. It’s not easy for them, but they do it because they’re committed to it as a family.

    Thanks for your input!

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