By Diane Flynn Keith
One evening, my son, Nick, was standing by a window in the family room. He suddenly slapped his hand to his neck and shrieked “Ouch!” I attended his wound as my younger son screeched repeatedly, “There’s a wasp in the house!” I immediately set about trying to get the stupid bug out of our home. He flew around and around. We threw open the door and window. Instead of flying away to freedom, that wasp took a fancy to a window that doesn’t open and kept flying against it over and over trying to escape. He was caught in a self-imposed trap — there was no exit at that window. All of his wing-beating and buzzing were not going to help him crash through. Yet “Rambo Bee” kept on trying harder and harder to make it work. He was absolutely set on going out through that window and only that window in spite of the fact that it surely meant his doom. We attempted to guide him to another way out. We waved our arms and used a broom to swish him toward the open door not ten feet away. But he was bound and determined to continue to beat his brains out against the unrelenting glass — a strategy that ultimately sealed his fate.
The effort that insect expended on a lost cause was phenomenal to observe. If he had just once turned around and noticed the open door and window he could have made a breakthrough to freedom. It was such a simple and easy thing for him to do. Yet, in spite of our efforts to show him a different approach, he was steadfast in his belief that this was the only possible way to accomplish his goal. Why was he so insistent that this particular route was the sole means to achieve success? Why didn’t he think to try something different? If he had just examined his options and considered all of the possibilities he wouldn’t have met his demise on my windowsill — and he’d be pollinating flowers today.
Is it such a far stretch to associate this incident with the frenzied effort that sometimes accompanies a new homeschool year? As September approaches, new and veteran homeschoolers alike will equip their families with expectations — and curriculum products to fulfill them. Many will have an image in their mind’s eye of exactly what methods and materials they’ll use and the routine they’ll follow to help their children learn. However, often after just a few weeks the reality of day-to-day homeschooling sets in. A family conflict may arise over the use of time, and the materials chosen. It can result in kids’ refusals to cooperate, and parents clamping down on insubordination — insisting that children do their work — or else! It can shatter illusions causing anxiety, despair, and a feeling of failure, OR it can present wonderful opportunities to re-examine educational goals and the many possible ways to achieve them.
Unlike the insect in my story, homeschoolers don’t have to “lock on” to only one approach. They can consider possibilities and reframe their ideas about learning with their children. Here, two families share their personal stories about homeschooling expectations versus reality — and how they managed to resolve the disparity between the two.
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Karen Anderson homeschools her two children, Marisa (age 8) and Courtney (age 3). Marisa was enrolled in a Home Study Program through a public charter school in California. Karen worked with the resource teacher to develop a course of study that would be appropriate for her daughter. She explained how they adapted the program to suit Marisa’s learning style:
“When Marisa entered second grade last year, part of her homeschool program included math workbooks. A few weeks into the program, Marisa made it clear that she hated the workbook drill and practice work. She preferred learning math concepts through playing math card games. We had a book called Deal Me In* that was designed to teach and enhance various math skills. At our monthly parent-teacher conference, I explained to the resource teacher that because of the way Marisa learns we couldn’t possibly provide worksheets as proof of her learning. The resource teacher, to my satisfaction, understood the situation and agreed to let Marisa demonstrate her math skills by playing the card games with her. It is interesting that by allowing Marisa the flexibility to learn in her own style, she has progressed very well in math and enjoys it.
Marisa enjoys hands-on learning projects. She did not want to write about the subjects she knew – she preferred demonstrating her knowledge. Unfortunately most of her projects wouldn’t fit neatly into the portfolio the resource teacher must keep as proof of Marisa’s academic progress. I suggested taking photos of Marisa working on various projects to illustrate that she’s learning. To my chagrin, the resource teacher explained that new regulations in our charter school program required her to collect samples of Marisa’s written work and that photo-documentation would not be sufficient for Marisa’s cumulative file.
I am committed to following my child’s lead and to remaining respectful of her learning style. I realized that I couldn’t continue to enroll my daughter in the public charter program without compromising our educational philosophy. So, we made a decision to leave the program and homeschool independently. I am grateful to have the flexibility to change course when necessary to create the optimum learning environment for my daughter.”
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Peggy Henson, homeschools her two sons, Matt (age 11) and Scott (age 9). Her original vision changed noticeably during her three years of homeschooling as you will see in this earnest account of her homeschooling metamorphosis.
“My expectations about homeschooling developed after months of research and discussion. Because education is so important, this was not a decision our family made easily. We did not want to enter into it uninformed or under any terms of desperation. I took months to prepare financially, mentally, and socially. Yet, even with this cautious approach there were some things that didn’t go as we expected.
By nature I tend to be a romantic idealist. I visualized only the best scenarios for learning at home (what I now think of as school-in-a-box). I imagined….
…Blissful children rising each morning and completing their personal and housekeeping chores by 9 a.m. Then, I’d pull out a large box containing our study materials and we’d sit at the table studying together, perhaps preparing for a science, cooking, or art project. Then, contentedly, my children would separate to their own reading or other work, allowing me to assist them separately. When lessons were done, we’d attend to our extra-curricular activities or call friends for a rendezvous at the park, museum, or library. In the evening, I’d spend some time preparing lessons, record keeping — such as attendance & grades, and planning for future curriculum events…
I managed to float this perfect bubble until the first day of summer vacation. We left our public school at the end of the school year to ease transition. I expected my children would be so happy not to have that ‘school’ experience, that anything I set before them would be a fun activity. I was so anxious to spread my wings as a teacher, that I couldn’t wait to initiate our first ‘unit study.’ That beautiful bubble I’d so carefully imagined, burst that day with their tears.
Well, call me stubborn, but I knew better than to give up. It took several more teary episodes for me to back off. Actually, it took a year of false starts and misdirected fits of teaching, before I really understood how my children learned. This revelation was greatly facilitated by the words of homeschool authors and speakers like; John Holt, John Taylor Gatto, Diane Flynn Keith, Katy Hunt, Barbara Phillips, the Colfaxes, and many more. But most importantly, I listened to and learned from my children.
I am more relaxed now and try to follow my children’s cues. My kids have relaxed too. They trust me more. I don’t push as hard. They try things I suggest. I try to suggest more constructively. They cooperate with less resistance. We evolved to a style of learning and living together. I couldn’t lead them there, it took all of us pushing and pulling in a brilliant fog (like you might find inside a bubble) to find our path.
Realize now, this kind of relaxed style is very hard for a planning, organizing, comfortable-when-in-control personality like me. I still have spasms of insecurity and bursts of achievement-oriented guilt speeches. My children are not consistently expressing harmony and content in their experience either. But the little personal discomforts we sometimes experience help us grow, and are worth the price for our family’s educational success.
Now, having just rounded out our third year at home, patience has brought us to a balance of planned and spontaneous events, an equal share of my guidance and their faith, and an understanding of their interests and my support. Believe it or not, we’re living the contents of that bubble I’d imagined so long ago. Not the glossy, smeary, outer surface of everything-going-right-the-first-time, according to plan, romantic-idealist bubble; but rather the contents of that bubble like hope, success, and happiness. It’s that measure of happiness that fits with our expectations now. We are content with our potential, our success, and our reality.”
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There are times in homeschooling when trying harder and forcing what makes sense to us, on to our children, can kill our chances for success. Unlike the wasp in my story, the families profiled above chose not to continue banging their heads against the window — enforcing a curriculum that didn’t work — but to fly through an alternate window to homeschooling success. These families demonstrate one of the best pieces of advice in homeschooling which is, “BE FLEXIBLE.” Think beyond your self-imposed limits. You can create your own happy strategy for developing your child’s true learning potential.