As I wrote last week, my daughter decided that this year she wanted to check out school. As homeschoolers, we were never completely out of the school world since we took part in a public homeschool program. But she really wanted to find out what schools are like, and she’s the sort of kid who doesn’t just want to read about it—she wants to get in and get her hands dirty.
So this week she went to school every day and seems thrilled with all the novelty: Getting up early and actually eating breakfast without having time to sit in bed and read before. Riding her bike to school or getting a ride and sitting in the long line of cars in the drop-off lane. Meeting 31 new kids all at once. Taking a class with a complete stranger who didn’t have to audition for the kids. Having homework 3 nights out of 5. Having folders for different subjects. And the biggest novelty: Mom caving in when at Target buying the folders and letting her get a commercial tie-in (Angry Birds).
I may be a diehard fan of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. But sometimes having folders with Angry Birds on them is an urgent matter of self-expression. Or so my 10-year-old tells me.
Partly because of the novelty, and partly because this a path she chose completely independently of everyone—her parents, her homeschool program teacher, and all of her homeschool friends—, the week went well. Ironically, however, it ended in my speaking at the inaugural Online Homeschool Conference. I had the uncomfortable feeling of being half-imposter, speaking so glowingly about an educational choice my daughter has rejected.
The thing is, I’ve trod this path before and I know it doesn’t lead to Homeschooler Purgatory. There are homeschoolers who say that any and all structured learning is evil and will ruin your children. I love some of these people and I have to respectfully say that they are wrong. School will not ruin most children. Think about it: If your kids are so weak-willed that school will ruin their lives forever, don’t you have a much bigger problem than your educational choice?
School is an integral part of our culture, and I applaud my daughter for going into this with her eyes open and with the intellectual curiosity that we nurtured in homeschool. For the most part she’s still enjoying the novelty and getting to know so many people. (Unlike the rest of her family, she is a happy extravert, and the idea of getting to know 31 new kids at one time didn’t send her to hide quivering under her bed.)
But the things she hasn’t enjoyed are also learning experiences for her, knowledge that she will bring forward as she continues to choose her educational path. This week her teacher needed to get to know the level of math that his 32 students are on, so he sent home some worksheets. The worksheets had, of course, impossibly small spaces in which to write the answers, and my girl with her handwriting troubles became furious and inconsolable at not being able to fit the numbers where they were supposed to go. We discussed her dilemma, and then I left her to make her choice. In the end, she wrote in microscopic writing that, she was sure, her teacher wouldn’t be able to read. But she did in fact do the assignment…her way…and learned that there are ways to cope.
I haven’t heard a lot about what’s happening at school outside of a description of the cafeteria food. But she did tell me this anecdote about math class. Her teacher was teaching the kids about number lines, “which,” my daughter points out, “I taught myself in kindergarten.” (Actually, I think it was first grade, but she’s pretty much on target.) So she got out her new graph paper notebook, purchased for school—and heck, she had to buy it so why not use it? She plotted a parabola on an axis, and then, heck, if you’re going to plot one parabola, why not its inverse?
Then she wrote “For Mr. X” on top and presented it to him as a gift.
I have heard teachers talk about the trials of having former homeschoolers in their classes. How they respond to the challenges these kids raise is a measure of how much they really value the individual learning of each child. My daughter says that Mr. X thanked her for the gift, which is about as good of a reaction as I could hope for.
The fact is, asynchronous learners like my daughter are the hardest kids to fit into a classroom, no matter whether they’re former homeschoolers or not. Yes, my daughter can plot a parabola, a skill which most kids her age haven’t been exposed to yet. But I desperately hope that he doesn’t ask her to do long division on a worksheet with a small space and instructions on how to do long division “the right way.” This skill, which most kids her age can do without thinking much about, is quite a trial for her.
I’ll probably be able to hear the screams wafting up the hill the day he tests that skill!
The longer children homeschool, the further they get from a school-based model of learning. As I pointed out in my conference session this morning, waiting for instructions and giving the teacher what s/he wants are two important aspects of being a good school student. Neither of those is an asset to a homeschooler. The will that led my daughter to learn about negative numbers at the age of 6 and to be fascinated with Fibonacci sequences at 8 did not lead her to enjoy long division. The will that leads her to invent and create is not strong enough to keep her sitting in a chair and following instructions if she’s bored. I know that she’s going to be a challenge in a classroom—that’s why we homeschooled in the first place.
Some may think that I am no longer a homeschooler because I’m allowing one of my kids to go to school, but I know better: My daughter is a homeschooler whether she goes to school or not. She has chosen a goal and she is applying all her skills to attaining and succeeding at that goal. Her yearlong social science experiment is going along splendidly, all planned and orchestrated by herself.
And if that’s not a description of a homeschooler, what is?