Homeschooling: your mileage may vary

This essay was published in the local newspaper on April 1.

Nearly four years ago, I removed my kids from public school and, with the help of an experienced and local homeschooling friend, created an education plan for the following academic year. That summer was spent acquiring textbooks, magazine subscriptions, elementary and middle school math and science curriculum, laboratory equipment, and art and school supplies. I created lesson plans, multidisciplinary projects, a daily schedule and elaborate spreadsheets for tracking assignments, progress and the required days and hours needed in the “classroom” and across subjects. I was ready to homeschool.

The first day of school arrived and we sat down at the kitchen table, excited to see what this new reality would look like. Would it be similar to my friend’s experience? Would it follow the process outlined in any number of homeschooling books? Would it be similar to the kids’ experience in public school? Within an hour it became clear it would be none of those things. Noticing my frustration, my then fourth grader reached across the kitchen table to pat my hand. “You’re doing a great job, mama,” she reassured me. Hours passed and I realized I was sinking. The seventh grader took this opportunity to throw me an anchor. “I’m worried I’m not getting anything out of this,” she said over the din of her sister’s pencil and foot tapping. I excused myself and went upstairs to cry—a habit I’d mostly broken until recent events. Despite planning and best intentions, there was a key ingredient I was still lacking: actual teaching experience.

On the best of days, homeschooling can be exhausting at Fiske Street Preparatory. Even with what I have learned, I’m still battling with my own kids who may not be interested in what we’re doing and are quick to let me know because I’m their mother. Maybe they’re not always able to be independent and I’m now trying to manage two different learners at two very different stages of learning: middle school and high school. Perhaps I’m the one struggling with a concept that I now need to explain to them and in multiple ways. Maybe the dog is barking too much or my spouse decides to work from home in our less than 1,500 square foot house. Maybe I am sick or just having an off day and need a break from being both parent and teacher. Or just maybe we’re in the early stages of a pandemic and under a stay at home advisory and all of the above is happening while I’m also trying to manage the one thing I was not lacking when I began homeschooling: anxiety.

To those local parents and guardians of school-aged children who now suddenly find themselves trying to school from home (while also working there) and are struggling with this new reality? Give yourselves a much-needed break. I will remind you that you did not choose this. Some of you in fact may remember calling me a “saint” when learning that I did choose this, while others confessed, “I could never do that.” A remark often followed by a deep exhale and slight shudder. With teachers from both the Carlisle Public Schools and Concord-Carlisle Regional High School continuing to work remotely to provide your kids with educational opportunities, you should not feel compelled to scour the Internet for homeschooling resources. Let the teachers continue to do the heavy lifting as they follow their curriculum and lesson plans, and just try to support your kids as best you can and in whatever way you can while we all try to maintain some sense of normalcy in a time that feels anything but. 

The biggest mistake I made early on as a homeschooler was trying to mirror public school in our house and thinking it would work. It was all we knew at the time – days split into a series of individual class blocks with set start and stop times, recess and lunch. With a student teacher ratio of 2:1 in our case, learning happens at a very different speed at home. We have the luxury of time when it comes to more complicated subjects or concepts because we are working at our own pace, but can also move quickly through those less challenging. Discovering they could take as much time as needed to really understand something without the pressure of moving on to a new concept because of someone else’s expectation or schedule was game changing for my kids. Discovering who my kids are as individual learners and adapting to that has been my game changer. For the child who likes art, for example, I add art-based components for nearly every subject. For the child who likes music and filming, I ask her to write a song or film a scene based on a historical event or literary scene. 

Adding humor, especially now, has also helped. Three years ago, my kids spent months reading and watching documentaries about the Salem Witch Trials, but it was not until I had them reenact and film a scene from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible that they got excited about it, creating and building historically accurate sets, costumes and accessories while using Littlest Pet Shop figures for the characters. As math word problems increasingly became an issue, we took to creating absurd ones of our own, now known as “Mommy Math.” When writing became a chore, we switched it up a little and began summarizing everything from novels to historical events using six-word stories, with the history of Jamestown forever encapsulated as “Starving. Oh no, not the shoes.” They’ve written ridiculous short stories based on nothing but snippets from out of context conversations they overheard back in the days we went to restaurants. A child who compulsively doodles has treated us with absurd, but scientifically accurate drawings based on our Biology readings. They make silly health-related cartoons and historical and literary memes. I am teaching and they are learning in ways that work for our family.

And yet, I will admit to doing less school now than ever before. We no longer have access to the activities that were a core part of our homeschooling life: art classes, music lessons, sports-related activities, and countless field trips and opportunities to socialize with others in the same physical space. The kids sleep later and finish school before lunch. Learning new concepts seems an impossible feat most days considering all that is happening in the world. Too much has changed. 

I’m taking a bit of a casual approach for the remaining school year, one that I hope will be best for our collective well-being: letting the kids read what they want, while trying to sneak in a required novel here and there. They will continue with a website they started a year ago where they regularly post book, movie, and event reviews because they like doing it and are obsessed with Google Analytics. We are doing a lot more trail walking these days and photographing nature, sometimes using the iNaturalist mobile phone application to identify species. We are reviewing what we have learned in history regarding things like the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution and relating them to current events. And we are trying to keep a journal of what is happening as a primary source historical document for our family. 

Otherwise, we are spending our time self-isolating and reassuring our children that we are doing what we can to keep people safe, snuggling on the couch watching movies or deforesting islands in Nintendo’s Animal Crossing as we create our own private oasis, connecting with friends and family online and trying not to control what we cannot. 

Journalist, freelance writer, blogger, and amateur photographer.

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