Unlike many parents in these covid-induced times, I did not homeschool my kids on the spur of the moment. I was not thrust into it involuntarily. I made a choice. I consulted with the principals of schools in my area, did a lot of research about various educational approaches, and talked with many people – both those in my same person-with-young-kids-now-facing-school-decisions boat and those with older children and vast personal experience. Then, one year at a time for the next fifteen years, I homeschooled my four, then five kids. I have a perspective that is not theoretical. We did this thing that suddenly millions must do.
I homeschooled before the cell phone era, when it was a fringe thing to do, when our PC ran DOS, when I was a Birkenstock-wearing, granola-making young mom in Vermont. My kids wore I Love Homeschool buttons when we went out to public places during the day so that (maybe) other people would not look askance at them because they weren’t in school. Back then, my fellow homeschoolers and I were sure beyond any doubt that we would always be in the tiniest minority, that no way would homeschooling ever eclipse public education. My neighbors probably asked themselves: What’s up with those kids who don’t get on the bus?
During the homeschool years I had high goals beyond academics. I was okay with our being renegades, mavericks, nonconformists, oddballs or whatever we were called because I wanted our unconventionality to teach my children that charting your own path – within the bounds of reason, integrity and safety – begets an indomitable spirit that is not easily led astray, squashed down or made weak. At that time and in many respects, the world looked to me like a mess. I wanted my kids to be among those making it better. In a post about a year ago, I shared some reflections.
During the homeschool years we all learned a lot about the world and how it works, about each other and about ourselves. We not only got through it. We became stronger than we ever could have been otherwise. Homeschool for us meant figuring things out, making use of what’s at hand, choosing and doing the best we can, getting along, keeping balanced perspectives, aiming for excellence, allowing creativity its moments, finding and using our strengths, managing and mitigating our weaknesses, counting our blessings and keeping the joy – all of which we all use and need every day no matter what our “normal” days look like. In other words, homeschooling was quite the preparation for Real Life. In a nutshell, here’s what we did.
- We figured it out. With no map of the uncertain territory ahead, we made our own map. We invested time and energy, practiced common sense and took one step at a time. In real life, who gets a map? There are no guarantees. Every step of the way you do the best you can with what you have, and you can choose to do it in such a way that years later you will not be mired in regret. But you don’t have to figure it all out today. One day at a time is our allotment. Mistakes are allowed. Mistakes handled well engender confidence and teach in ways that success cannot. That thing (that style, that tact) didn’t work? Okay, not the end of the world. Let’s try this instead.
- We wore no masks. Ha! I don’t mean anti-virus masks. I mean the kind we know we wear when we transition from home to work and back again, the mask that tells others we’re serious about this project or this case, the mask that sets aside one world while we focus on another. Homeschooling forces a kind of juggling. Learning is integrated with meals and playtime and downtime and be-quiet-because-mommy’s-on-a-call time. The day is not neatly segmented. You don’t get to walk out of your bedroom wearing your happy-face mask and say Okay, kids, time for school! You can’t hide your grumpy face, your tired face, your frustrated face. You are with each other all the time and there is no hiding (or very little, or a lot less than maybe there used to be). You had better learn how to get along.
- We aimed both deep and wide. Homeschooling is different than School at Home. A speaker at one seminar I attended back in the day suggested that there are three main camps when it comes to home education: Unschooling (doing no formal education until the child asks for it, John Holt having been a huge proponent of this approach), School at Home (trying to replicate a classroom at home using desks in a row, timed sessions, lots of seatwork and other props better suited to teaching 20-30 kids) and Homeschool (the integrated, personalized development of your children’s lifelong education). Realign your expectations. Look at both the trees and the forest. Show your children that learning is not about fragmented bits of knowledge or random knowhow, nor chopped up into discrete subjects. Rather, the subjects weave together, supporting and making sense of each other. Help your kids connect the dots and better see the big picture. Make sure they know that you are learning too. In fact, let them teach you. This kind of homeschool enables a richer, deeper, broader experience and leads to how to think, how to solve problems. And isn’t life full of problems to solve!?
- We found the tools. In the days before the internet, we tapped into the knowledge bank of the world at large using tangible materials like (lots of) hard copy books, as well as the experiential and intellectual expertise of our local community. I often think, oh, if we had had the internet! But hey, I wasn’t trying to deal with social distancing – every era has its challenges! The thing is: If we found the tools, parents today surely can. The tools are out there. The experts are out there. Good people are out there. The resources you need – if you add reasonable time, thought, energy and organization to this equation – are out there. They don’t come knocking though. You have to go look for them. Gems don’t jump out from a rocky hillside. Most anything worth having requires a little digging.
- We practiced Dependent Independence. When you admire the accomplishments of a brilliant person who came before you, when you investigate or build upon their work, when you actively demonstrate and celebrate the interconnections you have with others – even if they have a different perspective or lived in a different time or faced a different set of problems – you affirm the value of community that binds and supports us throughout our lives. When you balance a recognition of your dependence on others with responsibly taking things into your own hands, you become your children’s primary model of this critical life skill. You show them you aren’t perfect either, that it’s okay to be competent at some things and clueless at others. We stand strong, do what we can and take responsibility for our own decisions and actions, but we need each other and always have something new to learn.
- We flowed. Here we are, a set of people walking a given path together, all with our own quirks, rhythms, ideas and interests. We allowed for some days being more productive than others, for Idea A to spark Idea B, for the unexpected tidbits of everyday life to feed and supplement the plan we started with. We let life teach. We tried to be good students – sensibly aiming for desired outcomes, but trying to not fix the results to match the hypothesis. Life is full of surprises and they are not all bad.
- We marveled. Look carefully at the underside of a mushroom, the veins of a leaf, the uniqueness of your fingerprint. Smile at the random blink of a firefly, the delicate softness of flower petals, the perfect shape of an egg. Gaze in awe at nature videos: a mother whale protecting her calf, a snow leopard marking territory, an eagle soaring in the high mountains, a lizard basking in the warm sun. Note well the simple beauties of nature or the fascinatingly complex interweavings of systems. Teach your children that when they (or you) are feeling an extreme – either full of themselves or totally in the dumps – they (or you) can let the wonder and magic of the natural world feed their soul. Sometimes that works.
- We made it fun. Being a Vermonter steeped in Ben & Jerry’s old If it’s not fun, why do it? slogan had its effect on me. I wanted our days to be as fun as possible, as meaningful as possible, because I never wanted my kids to associate homeschool with drudgery or boredom or annoyance. I also never wanted them to think that learning is confined to classes or that it stops when school is over. I wanted them to be lifelong learners, to “keep the joy,” to never stop being curious or amazed or intrigued, to never stop asking questions and looking for answers. I wanted them to know that despite whatever hardships, challenges, dips, tragedies or pain comes along, life is full of good.
As best as you can in the covid world: Find and celebrate the good. Surround yourself — however you can — with upstanding, intelligent, caring people. Play to your strengths but allow for mistakes. Tap into the experts but use common sense. Aim for excellence but don’t make a federal project out of it. Breathe. You can do it. One day at a time.