Saturday, January 26, 2013

Back in the homeschool classroom: Where it all began ... blazing new trails


"Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."
 --Ralph Waldo Emerson

As I read Ralph Waldo Emerson's quote this morning, my mind drifted back to the 16 years we educated our children at home. Talk about going where there is no path and leaving a trail!

A tip of my hat to those homeschool pioneers who were there years before I joined up in 1990. I read books about their battles with school and state officials in various locations across the country, and was grateful for the tenaciousness and willingness of those faithful parents to basically lay it all on the line, plowing that path for those of us who followed. In Virginia, Delegate Rob Bell's parents were pioneers in that movement, and local homeschool friends whose kids are now grown had been involved in the South Carolina movement.

By 1990, when we took the plunge, laws had been written and there were enough families involved that they had begun forming local groups and state organizations. We were fortunate to find a homeschool support group when we decided to jump from public school into homeschooling.

Before making a decision, I researched. There was a homeschool section of our local library with a number of books that had been donated by the local homeschool group which was how we found them. I wrote to publishers for information -- that was before the internet opened the world on a desk top -- and read books about other families and their struggles, and called the president of the local group. I researched curricula and laws and everything I could think of that would help if we were to make this life-altering decision.

In the end, we pulled our son out two months into second grade. The Calvert curriculum I had chosen used the same reading and math books that he had in class.

First of all, thank you to all the hard-working teachers out there who pour their souls into education. They have a love of children and teaching that makes them special and loved in the eyes of not only their students but the parents. The energy, hours, and financial sacrifices they expend often go unnoticed.

Let me back up a bit. When our son entered kindergarten, I became a room mother who helped with field trips, holiday parties, and reading. A small table and two chairs were set up in the hallway outside the classroom, and I would listen and help students who were having difficulty with their reading. We're talking books with one word per page and, though the kids had been instructed to take their books home and read them ten times to their parents, it was easy to tell who had not done so.

For my son, kindergarten was a great experience and so we moved on.

In first grade, I was again the room mom who traveled with the kids on field trips (by this time they were jokingly calling me "mom") and sitting in the hall listening as students read. I found scrap materials and cut out six-inch round circles of various textures and colors, and the teacher and I began a caterpillar that crawled around the wall of the classroom with all the children's names as they completed a story.

One of the main issues I observed in public school was discipline, and that was especially true in first grade. One or two kids can disrupt an entire class of 25 or 30, and it can be very time-consuming for teachers. Sadly, recess was sometimes taken away from the entire class because of the actions of one or two or three ... recess, where little wiggly legs could run off energy.

Another issue in first grade was busy work. Bundles of work pages, or "staple sheets," as they were called, were given to each child who was expected to work the exercises but also outline each illustration (apple for "a" or whatever) and color it in. To quick learners, it proved frustrating and tedious.

By second grade, a very discipline-minded teacher set forth a rule of no talking in the lunch room until kids were finished with their meals. Since I was again spending time with the students, part of the fun was joining them for lunch. They were delighted to sit with me, and I loved to interact with them in a way that was not necessarily in an official manner.

What I observed during that time was lots of wasted food. Lots. Kids were not allowed to talk during their free lunch time until all their food was gone, or they would have their names written on the board and be punished. So what else were they to do? They threw away most of their food. Problem solved! Now they could talk. It was wasteful. Elementary kids who sit in a classroom for hours during the day need some time to release all that pent-up energy and social time with their friends.

I went to the principal, a fair-minded man I knew well, to discuss my concerns. He was hesitant to interfere with a teacher, something I totally understood, but that didn't help the situation. It was disheartening to see kids basically punished for being kids at what should have been a less-structured portion of their school day.

That was when light bulb #1 went off.

In second grade, more homework began being assigned. Since I was a stay-at-home mom, we were fortunate to have afternoons to complete homework and not lose our family time in the evenings except for those days when we had sports and other after-school activities. On those nights, we often had homework-dominated evenings.

It seemed to me that second grade children who spent all day in a classroom doing school work should not then have to spend more additional hours at home doing school work. When do they play? When do they read? When do they explore the subjects they are interested in pursuing? When do they get to be kids?

That was light bulb #2.

The county took up a new reading program that year. In the past, students were placed in traditional reading groups according to ability and those who were faster learners moved into new books while the slower learners persevered until they could move forward. Makes sense, right? Apparently not to some pencil-pushing desk jockey who came up with the new program. And this is how it worked.

On Monday, all students were given a story to read. The teacher read it in class, and students were then to read it themselves, carrying it home at night to read aloud to their parents as they learned new words.

On Tuesday, the same story was read in class. The typically fast-learning students had picked up on it quickly while some of the slower learners struggled with unfamiliar words. Tuesday night, the story was to again be read aloud to parents to continue reenforcing reading skills and word familiarity.

On Wednesday, the same story was again read in class. By this time, the fast readers were becoming bored while the slow readers continued to struggle. Wednesday night was a repeat of Monday and Tuesday nights.

The same for Thursday and, according to the thinking of before-mentioned pencil pusher, by Friday all the students would fly through the story with the greatest of ease and that would be that. Monday they would start a new story and the cycle would begin all over.

The problems were immediately evident. Fast readers quickly became bored with no challenge to keep them interested, and slow readers panicked when they realized they were holding up the entire class. No more intimate reading groups so by Friday everyone's eyes and ears were glued to the poor child who was still struggling with words.

It was disappointing. I talked with the teacher who said it was the new program and she had no control over it. I talked with the principal who said it was the new program and he had no control over it.

And then other parents began calling.

That was light bulb #3.

Because I had been a room mom and involved with the students, they thought perhaps I could do something or head up something or form a protest. At about that time, a study came out grading school systems nationwide and, in that study, North Carolina was just about at the bottom of the list.

That was the catalyst that caused me to seriously consider educating my son at home, maybe for just a couple of years, I thought. He was bright, he was a fast reader, he loved learning ... but I saw him wilting from the tedious busy work, and from being slowed in one of his favorite subjects, reading.

My research convinced me that we should take the plunge although I was scared. I had no college degree much less training as a teacher. I did have, however, a love of learning that I had shared with my kids from the time they were born, and a willingness to do whatever it took to make sure we were successful. And I definitely wanted to raise my own children, not leave them in the care of others, so had no immediate plans to go back to work.

What would my parents think? What would my friends think? Would I mess up my kids' education? Would something important and necessary fall through the cracks? I would become one of those parents that others whispered about at school events. I would lose the backing of all that knowledge and all those resources of the public school system. I had received an excellent education in Chesterfield County, Virginia, schools. How could I deny that same foundation to my children?

As I dug more into the subject, our son was brought into the conversation to see what he thought about it. He was fine with staying home to learn; in fact, he seemed downright happy. I assured him he would not lose touch with his public school friends, a promise I kept even after we moved back home to Virginia when he was 12. I looked forward to "homework" being "work done at home," something that could be completed during the day while Dad was at work so our evenings would  once again become family time.

I had decided to try the Calvert curriculum and so ordered it, and applied to the state of North Carolina for permission to educate my children at home. We had to give our school a name so we combined our love of the nearby mountains with the meadows on our farm and became Mountain Meadow School. When the curricula arrived and armed with my state-permission postcard, I made an appointment with the school principal. I carried the curricula so he could see that I was serious about my son's education and that it was not a flighty decision.

He smiled as I pulled out book after book, explaining that reading and math would seamlessly continue from the point where they were in his class, and shared with him the work books and manipulatives to help in the hands-on part of education that I felt was extremely important to young learners. And then he said something that meant a great deal to me.

"I am not surprised that you researched it so well," he said. "From my time working with you, I would expect nothing less. But I'm sad that your son will be leaving us because we seem to be losing our brightest students."

We chatted a bit more, and then I stood up and extended my hand across his desk as we shook hands and said good-bye. Picking up my L.L. Bean bag full of school books and hoisting my purse on my shoulder, we said good-bye to office staff whom I had worked with for the two-and-a-half years while my son had been a student and I had been a volunteer/room mom. Then we walked out the front door into that October morning and climbed into our minivan never to return to public lower education again. Of course, I didn't realize that at the time ... I was still thinking we were on the two-year plan.

Along with my seven-year-old son and three-year-old daughter, we drove to a nearby restaurant and celebrated our cutting the umbilical cord to public education with breakfast and a discussion of the adventures we would have. Then we drove home to begin this new journey that would end up lasting 16 years as we traveled where there were few paths and blazed new trails. Though there would be bumps along the way, it turned out to be a journey we never regretted.

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Lynn Mitchell educated her children at home for 16 years and was part of leadership in North Carolina's Iredell County Home Educators (ICHE) and Virginia's Parent Educators of Augusta County Homes (PEACH). Her son graduated from Harrisonburg's James Madison University (JMU) in 2007 with a BS in Computer Science and a minor in Creative Writing. Her daughter graduated from Staunton's Mary Baldwin College in 2012 with a BS in Sustainable Business and Marketing. Lynn and her husband live in Augusta County located in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

2 comments:

Cindi said...

Thanks for sharing Lynn! I can see so many similarities to our journey. Our daughter is off to Bridgewater next year. Our oldest graduated homeschool, went to VMI and is in the Army. We have one more at home for a few more years.

Lynn R. Mitchell said...

Cindi, congrats on your success during the homeschool journey. If your daughter ever needs anything while at Bridgewater, we are about 45 minutes away. Your son -- words cannot adequately express our gratitude to him and you for the commitment and sacrifices you have both made for our country. Thank you.