Chapter One: Running for the School Board
Glenn (53), Ann (52), Judith (18), Rebecca (10).
Relax and make learning fun.
Follow the steps in The Well-Trained Mind. (This is not to discount the many useful resources and ideas in the book; just to say that while the theory is enticing, the practice is overwhelming.)
"To laugh often and much, to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children, to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends, to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others, to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition: to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded." (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
Saxon Math by Hake and Saxon, Saxon Publishing.
History of US series by Joy Hakim, Oxford University Press Children's Books.
Literature-Based Reading series, International Fair (Grand Rapids, Michigan).
Critical Thinking Skills series, Remedia Publications (Scottsdale, Arizona).
"Real books" from the public library.
Some people leave their public school system and never look back; this wasn't true for Glenn S. and his wife, Ann. The couple fought to keep their daughter in their neighborhood school until they finally felt forced out by bureaucratic indifference.
The family had long been at odds with their local public school administration, beginning with its push to create full-day kindergarten classes several years previously. The pervasive attitude at that time was summed up in a quote from the then head of early childhood education: "No matter how enriching the home environment, the public schools still know best how to educate your child." Ann and Glenn thought that they, as parents, should judge what was best for their daughter, and firmly believed that a five-year-old child with a parent at home did not need to be in school all day. When the school converted to full-day kindergarten, the couple worked with a sympathetic principal and together arranged a half-day program for Rebecca within the system.
By the time Rebecca was ready to enter third grade, "some administrative personnel had changed, but the attitudes hadn't," Ann says. "Because of redistricting, many in our daughter's rising third-grade class were slated to attend three different elementary schools in three years." The prevailing quote now became, "Only parents are bothered by such moves; the children adjust fine."
After several attempts to work with the school, Ann and Glenn pulled Rebecca out of her class. "Children are not ping-pong balls, to be batted about at will," says Glenn. "Our efforts to put some common sense into administrative decisions affecting the education of children became time consuming and frustratingly unsuccessful. It was time to go. But we loved Alexandria and didn't want to move, and we couldn't afford the private schools in the area. So homeschooling became our only alternative."
Rather than simply walk away, though, Glenn ran for the school board. He felt he couldn't leave without making a statement about how the city's schools were chasing good people away and failing those who remained.
"The decision to homeschool our daughter after second grade was for her sake," Ann says. "The decision to run for school board was for the sake of others who didn't have that option." Glenn's slogan was "Put children first." His goals were to increase the administration's responsiveness to parental concerns, to heighten the role of parents as partners -- rather than as enemies -- in the education process, and to awaken the community to the detrimental effects that frequent school changes have on student achievement. While Glenn lost the race, through his efforts and that of others, positive changes were made. Children in Alexandria are no longer required, for example, to switch schools between second and third grades.
Ann, a freelance writer for the Washington Post, educational associations, and other clients, is now Rebecca's primary teacher. Glenn continues in his work for the General Services Administration in Washington, D.C., where he is a writer and editor who works on internal communications; he also has the role of Rebecca's history teacher. Big sister Judith, who graduated from a private school and is attending college, helps teach when she is available.
Rebecca, ten, is "the proverbial little girl with a touch of tomboy," Ann says as she smiles. "She loves dolls and anything pink, but she says her goal is to become a catcher for the Baltimore Orioles." Rebecca is in fourth grade of the Perky Pelican School, her self-named homeschool, complete with flag and stationery. The school song, composed by Rebecca, is sung to the tune of "You Are My Sunshine":
I love my homeschool,
My Perky Pelican School
I'm learning new things
All day long.
I love my homeschool
My Perky Pelican School
It's fun, it's cool, and it's
Why I sing this song.
I do experiments
And I learn history
I read a lot
Which makes me glad!
I'm taught by Mommy,
And my sister, Judy,
And even my
Grumpy ol' dad.
As Ann began her second year of teaching in the Perky Pelican School, her said goals remained the same as when she began. "All education should be geared to helping children become independent, lifelong learners," she says. "Rather than memorizing a bunch of disconnected facts, children should be taught how to find any information they need and how to tell when they need more information. In addition, my job is to show my daughter the myriad of wonders that are out there; hers is to latch on to her passion and take it as far as she can."
Rebecca enjoys homeschool. "She likes the fact that she can stay with a subject," Ann says. "In public school she said that as soon as they got into something interesting, it was time to rush off to another activity."
They do maintain a daily routine, however. "My daughter gets up around six A.M. on her own, so I have an assignment waiting on her bulletin board," Ann says. "Morning homework, we call it. I'm up by seven, and we must be dressed before the school day starts: no lessons in p.j.s." Mom and daughter take a brisk walk to get their circulation going, and then return to "work." This might include reading about a particular topic, doing experiments, writing for Rebecca's monthly newsletter, or filling out work sheets.
ar"Work sheets have never been a learning tool that worked for me, but Rebecca loves them," Ann says. "I've made it a point to seek out the most challenging in various subjects. For example, I shy away from the fill-in-the-blank reading comprehension workbooks, where the answer is found word for word in the accompanying passage. Rebecca needs to be encouraged to think and read between the lines."
Ann has found tools such as the Literature-Based Reading series, books that base questions and activities on well-loved books at each grade level, to be a good compromise between her desire for discussion-oriented learning and Rebecca's love of workbooks. Ann also likes the Critical Thinking Skills series. "Their exercises in comparison, analysis, and application fit in well with our goals for Rebecca," she says.
The family enjoys playing games with an educational twist, such as Chronology, in which players demonstrate their knowledge of when things happened in history; Made For Trade, a game about buying, selling, and bartering in colonial days; and Chatter Matters, to help stimulate conversation on family traditions, goals, and special moments.
Rather than following a packaged curriculum, Ann assembles a variety of tools to help Rebecca grasp a concept or subject. "We use our computer through all subject areas to research specific topics and narrow down good resources," she says. "We belong to several homeschooling boards and find the interactions between members to be invaluable in exploring effective ways to approach any subject." Ann also pulls resources from the library and a local teacher's store. Virginia's Standards of Learning serve as a guide to what is covered in each grade, but Ann thinks of them only as a guide. She uses one textbook, Saxon Math.
Many activities are hands-on, accommodating Rebecca's visual learning style. One of her favorite parts of her language arts program, for example, is diagramming sentences. "Her writing has improved tremendously because of the way she can visualize how words relate to each other," Ann says. "We use the Frank Schaeffer Basics First series. The exercises are clear and easy to follow."
Instead of simply reading about geography, Ann and Rebecca use globes and maps regularly each day. "Rebecca automatically looks up places we hear or read about, and she is the navigator on all road trips -- whether around town, to a nearby community, or to another state," Ann says. "One of the most enjoyable resources we used was a free 'What Do Maps Show' program offered by the US Geological Survey in Washington, D.C. A variety of excellent maps give students experience in reading different types of maps -- topographic, road, or relief."
Rebecca studies Hebrew in her twice-a-week Sunday school classes. "We practice Reform Judaism and find homeschooling to be a natural extension of the faith," Ann says. "A basic tenet of Judaism is to question in order to understand, to look at ideas from many different perspectives. We encourage our daughters to think it through to reach a genuine understanding of the subject at hand."
"We don't want our children to accept things blindly," Ann continues, "but rather, as Judaism teaches, to reach for the real meaning of things." The family studies religions other than their own, as well. "Both girls have found it fascinating to see what others believe and what binds them to their individual faiths," Ann says. "We've taught our daughters that the religious label one claims is not as important as the way one lives. My favorite illustration is from the Hindu philosophy, that religion is like a giant mountain. There are hundreds of paths up the mountain, all leading in the same direction, so it doesn't matter which path you take. The only one wasting time is the one who runs around and around the mountain, telling everyone else that his or her path is wrong."
One of Glenn's passions is history, and he is very active in homeschooling his younger daughter in the subject. His schedule allows him to have one day off every other week, so he uses that day for Rebecca's history lessons. "Glenn really makes the subject come alive," Ann says. "He has studied extensively and has an envious ability to recall unique facts about historical figures, with descriptions of -- and insights into -- significant moments and people in mankind's past. For example, rather than just talk about Longstreet's role in the Civil War, Glenn can visually put you there with his description of the general's hulking bear size and piercing blue eyes." Glenn has found this descriptiveness, plus reading some of the best historical fiction, helps Rebecca grasp not only historical concepts, but the emotions, fears, and triumphs of each time period.
Ann thinks traditional history textbooks are deadly. Instead, to instill a passion for the subject in the girls, Ann and Glenn have relied on historical fiction and classics such as Johnny Tremain. They use primary sources found in local museums and collections, as well as history anthologies such as The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem Van Loon and a 1951 version of The Heritage of America by Henry Commager and Allan Nevins. Rebecca enjoys the writing in the History of US series by Joy Hakim. A typical ten-year-old, she likes to let her imagination flow back through time by curling up with one of the books in the Dear America or Royal Diary series.
The family spent six months studying colonial history from Roanoke up to the Declaration of Independence. "Our location in the mid-Atlantic region is a big plus, because there are countless places to go to walk in the footsteps of historical figures," Ann says. "We have Jamestown, Williamsburg, Valley Forge, Independence Hall, the Smithsonian, National Geographic, the National Archives, and a myriad of other museums and art galleries, all within easy reach."
During their first summer homeschooling, Ann and Glenn concentrated on visiting places that helped bring their history studies alive. Rebecca became involved with a local living history group and participated in colonial reenactment programs. Alexandria offers a living history camp, taught by two women who call themselves "The Little Maids of History." Bonnie Fairbank, one of the partners, says, "We're not little, and we're not maids, but we are here to clean up after bad history." During weeklong sessions, the two women don the outfits and mannerisms of various personalities in American history and take campers through a hands-on program that highlights the political and social activities of a particular era, including its art, music, and customs. Students enjoy walking tours around Alexandria, one day learning about the first fire engines, another learning the difference between colonial, Georgian, and Victorian architecture, and so on.
Glenn and Ann cover history sequentially. "One thing that always troubled us about the public school approach to history was its disconnected thread," Ann says. "In Virginia, third graders study ancient Egypt, Greece, and colonial Jamestown! Some classes cover Jamestown at the beginning of the year, others at the end. The natural flow of history is lost. We believe it's important in the younger years to give a child a sense of continuity, how one event or period in history led to another. We may not be on the same page with our school system, but we are striving to give Rebecca an in-depth look at the causes and results of historical events."
With all of the family's study and activities, Ann has little problem keeping up with state regulations. "They're very basic, no-sweat requirements," she says. "I have a B.A. degree and that's all the state requires. When asked what curriculum I'd follow, I said, 'the Virginia Standards of Learning, state-mandated tests, and common sense.' No further questions were asked." Ann makes sure that Rebecca is tested yearly. "I need to know where she stands in relation to her grade and I think testing is an important skill for kids to learn. There will be many times when children may have to be tested in life."
Academic skills are important, but so are socialization skills. "I always laugh when people ask about socialization," Ann says. "The hardest part about homeschooling in our area is limiting the group activities. Between Girl Scouts, dance, a choral group, pottery lessons, and her twice-weekly classes at our temple, she certainly doesn't lack for interaction." Rebecca just finished a Toastmasters public speaking course, where she gained confidence talking in front of a group. In the spring she plays softball with a local recreation team, and in the summer looks forward to a week or two of Girl Scout camp.
Rebecca interacts with more diverse ages and backgrounds now than she did in school. "Her second-grade class was seventy-five percent low-income minority, but as hard as we tried, we could not get any real interaction after hours," Ann says. "Groups stayed in their own neighborhoods. Now my daughter doesn't see that division. Her 'school' group is comprised of children of many different ethnic and economic backgrounds," ranging in age from six to the teens."
The local homeschool support groups are very casual. That's fine with Ann, who prefers not to get into the regulation and formal structure of one particular organization. "Here in the northern Virginia area we have numerous groups who share resources and event ideas, and who open their activities to all homeschoolers, regardless of 'style,'" Ann says. "All it takes is for someone to have an idea and take the lead in organizing an event."
With other homeschoolers, the family has attended both theatrical and musical programs at the Kennedy Center (about ten times a year rather than the one or two Rebecca got in public school), nature outings, or special classes that are hard for individual parents to conduct. Home-schoolers have organized pottery classes, salamander counts, tall-ship visits, camp-outs, and study skills groups. "It's very easy for any parent who has a particular interest to post it on the computer boards, giving others who share the interest a chance to pool resources," Ann says. "We're currently hoping to organize a camp-out geared to eighteenth-century living, with no modern clothing or conveniences allowed."
One thing that has troubled Ann in her still fledgling foray into homeschooling is the drop-off in participation during long-term activities. "Because homeschooling parents tend to be free-spirited, it seems that many sign up for an activitiy, only to abandon it when another interest takes root," she observes. "That may be the down side to homeschooling: not giving children a sense of commitment to a group or activitiy. Some homeschoolers' propensity to go with the flow -- to drop an interest the minute it's not exciting -- may come back to haunt those children later in life."
To cope with this, Ann and Glenn work hard to help Rebecca make choices, and to understand her responsibility to carry out her activities to their proper conclusion. Ann says piano lessons have helped tremendously in giving her daughter the ability to stick to it even through the tedious or slow times.
Ann finds homeschool "fabulous -- exhausting but fabulous. It's been more than I expected. I've been surprised at how much we accomplish in a short period. And I've been able to help my daughter, who is very shy, to gain a sense of control and confidence. We do all the same things we did while she was in school. The only difference is that now we have time to enjoy them."
The homeschooling life-style can be a challenge for Ann. "One of my biggest problem areas is that I have no time for other things, like basic chores," she says. "Fortunately, I have a very helpful husband. Also, there are times when I don't want the responsibility, when I have doubts about doing things right. But these are short-lived when I see how well my daughter is doing and how much she has grown intellectually. We will continue to homeschool until we think it's not working."
For support, Glenn and Ann rely on "great friends over the past thirty years who are thrilled with our adventure into homeschooling," Ann says. Extended family are either deceased or absent from the family's life, but "friends and former teachers support us enthusiastically, because they know what we went through in the school system. Ironically, some of our biggest supporters are the teachers and staff from our public school days -- many are on the mailing list for Rebecca's newsletter, and take the time to write her encouraging notes after each issue. So far, the fact that we are homeschooling has received minimal growls, maximum applause."
When Ann and Glenn pulled Rebecca out of public school, their lives took a very different turn. Glenn's run for the school board was based on the hope that one voice could help change a system badly in need of repair. Instead, the school system inadvertently did the family a favor. "We never would have considered homeschooling if we hadn't been pushed into it," Ann says.
Copyright © 2002; by Rhonda Barfield