As my coworkers were sending their children off to the first week of school recently, I started to feel scared about Lily’s schooling. Not so much about her academic success, but about whether she would be unhappy. I remember the end of summer being a sad time for me as a child because it meant my freedom was over for the year. I was thinking of how Jeff’s mother stopped making him go to Quaker meeting when he turned to her and said, “This is worse than school.”
I had always considered homeschooling something that’s done by stay-at-home mothers, either in very Christian or very hippie families. But the homeschooled boy down the street seems to belong to a different model. His parents both work, and he seems to be doing well—he’s studying calculus, has friends, and is carrying out a project of riding all the train and subway routes of the Boston public transit system.
So I started to look into what homeschooling might look like for us. The Boston area has a wide variety of homeschooling groups and a sort of homeschooling workshop where older children can hang out during the day and take classes or work on projects independently. Jeff and I have a broad enough range of skills and interests that I think we could cover most areas, and with homeschooling cooperatives we could supplement the rest (I take the kids Monday and do gardening/botany projects; another family takes them Tuesday and teaches French). And everything from Khan Academy to Wikipedia makes it possible for kids to learn independently in ways that weren’t available when I was a kid.
I had also assumed that homeschooling necessarily took six hours a day like a typical school, but it doesn’t have to. I thought of all the time we spent waiting in lines, waiting for the other kids to quiet down. I thought of studying the same facts about the Revolutionary and Civil Wars in history class every year for six years. All the busywork. All the time writing notes to each other, folding paper, doodling. An education custom-tailored to a child doesn’t have to take six hours a day to cover the same material, and it doesn’t have to happen from 8 am to 2 pm. In fact, the 2007 Census indicates that most homeschooling families have two working parents (or a single parent who works and homeschools.)
Letting a child’s interests drive her education really appeals to me. She’s interested in ancient Egypt? You do everything about that. Geography and ecosystem of the Nile delta. Physics of how levers and rollers were used to move huge stone blocks for building projects. Geometry of how to find the volume of a pyramid. Art history of Egyptian art. Linguistics of how hieroglyphics worked and how the Rosetta stone was used to decode them. Anatomy of mummy-making. Sociology of a slave-owning society. Etc.
A lot of parents I know take a second job to pay for their kids’ private school. That’s something I had considered, but in a way it makes more sense to just work one job and let homeschooling be my second job. That way I get to spend the time exploring things with my child instead of barely seeing her.
I do think standing in line and behaving in a group are useful skills, and I would want Lily to have at least some experience in a regular school. And if public school is a good fit for her, great. But if it’s not, I feel better knowing we have other options.
(Some qualms: it would be easy to fall into the trap of parents spending all their time on work and kids and rarely seeing much of each other. Also, I think Jeff and I are not as good as the best teachers I had, though certainly better than the worst. And this may just turn out to be something that either Lily or we don’t want.)