“Home”schooling So Far

Friday marked the end of Week 8 in the kids’ schooling, so this weekend I need to type up a progress report to each of their teachers, which we’re expected to do every two weeks. It’s an exercise that makes me reflect on how Colly and Kyle are doing, how Morgan and I are doing as parents/teachers, and whether this whole “roadschooling” experiment is working as well as it could.

While in Colorado, the kids got a tour of the University of Colorado Special Collections department, including a peek at their great-grandfather's archives.

While in Colorado, the kids got a tour of the University of Colorado Special Collections department, including a peek at their great-grandfather's archives.

As my first post on our quasi-home-schooling detailed, I had a lot of concerns that tempered the alluring prospect of taking Colly and Kyle out of school and teaching them while we travel. So here’s the gist of how it’s going so far: It’s working out better than I could have hoped, and all four of us find the arrangement nearly ideal. We have independent study contracts through their school district, which effectively means we’re doing a hybrid of homeschooling and traditional schooling. We generally follow the schedule and content of their grade-level core curriculum, with some long-distance guidance from their teachers, but tailor their studies to leverage the educational opportunities of our travels.

A homeschooling "Everyday Math" lesson: Kyle practices addition and learns about probability while his grandfather teaches him Blackjack.

A homeschooling "Everyday Math" lesson: Kyle practices addition and learns about probability while his grandfather teaches him Blackjack.

The kids’ minds are expanding, they’re learning the basics that they need to know to pass the 3rd and 6th grades, and they say the only thing they miss about school is the other kids and a couple of favorite teachers. We all tremendously appreciate the gift of time and flexibility that homeschooling gives. Back home, their peers are in school from about 8:30 until 3, followed by an afternoon of scheduled sports and activities, followed by lots of homework. By contrast, Colly and Kyle spend about two to three hours, four or five days a week, doing required schoolwork (e.g. math, language arts, science and history basics) — and then they’re done. There’s no more rushing to get from Point A to B on time, no more homework hassles and scheduling stress. No more time wasted on transitioning from one period to another at school and zoning out while the teacher helps other students. No more being told to put away what they’re working on — even if they’re in the middle of working on something they care about — because the classroom schedule says it’s time to do something else. Colly’s blog post on homeschooling describes her perspective on what we’re doing — and the fact she wants to blog is a prime example of travel-inspired learning.

Nonetheless, I question how we’re handling things and see room for improvement. Are we doing too much “schoolwork” (which is hard to define) or too little? Are Morgan and I providing too much structure and direction, or not enough? Are we blowing the opportunity to maximize the benefits of genuine homeschooling by following their schools’ assignments?

Take the last two weeks, for example. Colly plugged away at a chapter in math, wrote a creative short story, answered questions on a worksheet about a history chapter, reviewed vocabulary lists and took a grammar quiz. Kyle completed worksheets for math and language arts, wrote in his journal and practiced cursive. Both kids read novels on their own, and also read and discussed Time’s weekly kids’ edition. Those were all assignments from school, and they all seemed pretty worthwhile (though we’ve debated whether Kyle learning cursive is a waste of time. We concluded that the process of developing fine motor skills and taking care with words is useful, as is being able to read cursive, even if he never writes much cursive himself because he’s going straight to a keyboard).

Colly's interest in writing has blossomed over the past two months. Here she's writing a story as we drive across Arizona.

Colly's interest in writing has blossomed over the past two months. Here she's writing a story as we drive across Arizona.

For the most part, however, the best learning moments were sparked by the surroundings and our time together. When we got to Argentina and found ourselves surrounded by the metric system, we spent a morning measuring things in meters and comparing containers in the refrigerator that are in liters, which got the kids doing calculations involving addition, multiplication and decimals. On Thursday, we took a day trip from Buenos Aires to Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay, so we learned where Uruguay is on the map, how “Colonia” means “colony” and discussed a bit about what colonialism was all about. When we got there, they learned to convert Uruguay prices to Argentinian pesos (divide by 5) and then to U.S. dollars (divide by 4). On another recent morning, Kyle wrote a detailed letter to family back home and Colly added a “recommended reading” page with mini book reviews to her blog. Almost every day, we read aloud a chapter from Three Cups of Tea (Young Reader’s Edition), which gets us talking about what’s going on in Pakistan and Afghanistan. We’re picking up Spanish vocabulary and noticing cultural differences around the clock. And we’ve become hooked on Brain Pop videos, since the kids can’t get their TV fix from Spanish TV.

I cherish the time Colly and I were playing around with word choices while reviewing her blog, and she leaned into my arm, put her head on my shoulder, and said, “Thank you so much.” Or the time Kyle and Morgan spent the better part of a day learning a graphic design software program together. Or the time Morgan took the kids on a creepy tour of the Buenos Aires cemetery to marvel at the tombs and hunt for Evita’s.

All these impromptu lessons are hard to quantify and don’t necessarily “count” toward the kids’ independent study obligations, but they seem more meaningful and engaging than the school assignments, in part because they’re as much about family dynamics as about their education. Colly and Kyle are collaborating, growing closer to each other and also to us. They have two parents who are fully engaged in their lives. I wouldn’t trade these times for anything.

Does this count as learning, or messing around? A bit of both ... which is why it's valuable.

They think this is just "cool" and "fun," but they're also plotting strategy, figuring out spacial relations and resolving sibling conflict. (Colly laughed and mocked my seriousness when she read that caption!)

But, nothing’s perfect and easy (and wouldn’t it be boring if it were?).  Speaking of family dynamics, one bump on the roadschooling road has been the working relationship between Morgan and me. Our somewhat different approaches to homeschooling reflect — and sometimes magnify — differences in our personalities. He’s a less-is-more, let’s-be-flexible-and-try-new-things guy. I’m a more-is-better, let’s-stick-to-a-schedule-and-do-what-the-experts-say gal. He points out that the kids will have to spend the rest of their academic careers loaded with work and doing what their schools require, so they should do the minimum they need to do to meet independent study expectations for schoolwork this year. That way, he says, they’ll have more freedom to develop and nurture their intellectual interests, become self-directed learners and absorb what the foreign environment has to teach them.  I see his point, but — the kids are returning to regular school next fall, and I want them to succeed, not struggle, then. I say we should take advantage of this extra free time and the opportunity to work one-on-one with them to do all the schoolwork and more so they can master and even exceed the grade-level standards.

On good days, we balance each other out in a way that benefits the kids. Occasionally, though, we disagree over details and teaching styles. The conflict gets to the heart of my conflicted feelings over the way we’re homeschooling. I admit it: I think Morgan’s approach is the better one, and I would like to be able to see and do things more his way. But it’s hard for me to cede control over the kids’ education because I care so much about it and hence want to be (overly)involved in every aspect. I also feel accountable to the kids’ school since we agreed to follow their independent study plan. In hindsight, we could have completely withdrawn the kids from school, had an unstructured and experimental year of education, and then let them repeat their grades if necessary when we return (which wouldn’t be so bad, considering their spring birthdays make them relatively young for their grades). But none of us wanted to go down that road; we liked — and still appreciate — the curriculum and teacher guidance the school plan provides.

It's easy to get excited about writing and literature when you're with my brother David. Here, Kyle reads his essay aloud to his uncle, which prompted some exciting discussion about something.

It's easy to get excited about writing and literature when you're with my brother David. Here, Kyle reads his essay aloud to his uncle, which prompts a silly yet stimulating discussion.

Now I sometimes think, “What if we really homeschooled?” It’s unlikely we’d do that now, since both kids want to get back to their school’s social scene, but I’m more open to it. I also hear Morgan echoing my brilliant brother’s view — my brother David, the writer and teacher, who together with my sister-in-law successfully homeschooled their two kids (who went on to earn numerous honors and merit scholarships at two prestigious colleges). They did full-blown homeschooling, in which “schooling” is not so much a separate, scheduled activity as a fully integrated approach to life. They trusted my niece and nephew to set the agenda by following and kindling their curiosity, and they moved through basic subjects such as math at the kids’ pace. My brother likes to quote Emerson:

… the secret of Education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do … only he holds the key to his own secret. By your tampering and thwarting and too much governing, he may be hindered from his end and kept out of his own. Respect the child. Wait and see the new product of Nature. Nature loves analogies, but not repetition. Respect the child. Be not too much his parent. Trespass not on his solitude.

I’m grateful we spent the first leg of the trip living with my brother and sister-in-law in Colorado and started our “roadschooling” year with them as role models. I admire their perspective and am coming around to it more and more — which means I’m caring less about the kids “keeping up” with what their peers are doing back home, and trusting and respecting them more to do what they want and at their own pace.

I increasingly have faith that learning is taking place all the time, and they’re more likely to remember lessons that sprout from their curiosity and are in the context of their real lives. I’m trying to step aside and act less as a manager, more as an on-call consultant, and to not interfere when Morgan is doing things his way with the kids.

Plate tectonics, ancient seas, sedimentary rock layers and erosion become more interesting when you're dazzled by the end result.

Plate tectonics, ancient seas, sedimentary rock layers and erosion become more interesting when you're dazzled by the end result.

So here we are, about two months or one-fifth of the way through Kyle’s 3rd grade and Colly’s 6th grade, and you could say we’re all “learning as we go.” Despite my hand-wringing and over-analyzing above, we all love this new world of roadschooling and anticipate that it will be very difficult to go back to school next fall — not because the kids won’t be ready academically (I’m now confident they will be), but because we don’t want to give up this arrangement. Every time I ask Colly and Kyle how they like school this year compared to years past, they say it’s “way better.”

I’d say they’re developing a genuine curiosity about the world, becoming independent learners and risk-takers, making connections between academic disciplines and feeling that their education is relevant.

Morgan, to his credit, would probably say, “They’re being kids. They’re doing fine.”

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