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Greetings From New England

The American schoolmarm of yesteryear with her long skirts, prim bun, and gumption to manage a multi-grade, one-room schoolhouse -- is often invoked as a symbol of academic excellence.

She is my inspiration as I labor in the vineyards of the alternative education movement -- both, as a homeschooling parent and as a teacher in the private school on our small four-acre farm. Because I chose to homeschool my sons, Dan and Wid have never ridden a yellow school bus, didn't learn their ABC's on a classroom blackboard, and won't be graduating from an accredited high school. And I harbor no regrets.

I first encountered home-schooling in the Pacific Northwest. On a honeymoon/sabbatical in Washington state, my husband and I befriended our hospitable apartment managers who welcomed us into their lives. Over dinner and Uno games, we discovered that underneath their middle-American veneers they were counter cultural radicals. One night they revealed to us that their adorable three-year-old son would not be attending kindergarten, first grade, or any other grade for that matter. They planned to educate him at home. Since we were marginal iconoclasts, our curiosity was piqued.

Once I had been introduced to the "teach-thine-own" concept, my investigative juices began flowing, and I read all the homeschooling literature I could find. (My favorite is Home-spun Schools by Raymond and Dorothy Moore.)

I discovered that the homeschooling movement was not new at all, but a return to the way things were before the "innovations" of common schools and compulsory attendance laws. Indeed, the way the Founding Fathers were educated. Homeschooling's rebirth stems from many sources, but mainly from parents' discontent with the academic and/or moral training their children receive (or don't receive) in traditional schools.

Some parents choose to homeschool because they desire a tailor-made, not a factory-made approach to learning. Others prefer to include religious instruction (be it the Bible, Torah, or Koran) with reading, writing, and arithmetic. Still others utilize a back-to-nature approach which allows children to understand their world through experience and apprenticeship.

We made our decision to homeschool our sons for these reasons and more. After asking ourselves, "why homeschool" for a while, we began wondering, "Why not homeschool?" We both had bachelor's degrees and felt we could teach elementary school subjects. By the time our first son was born, we had become converts to the modern-day homeschooling movement

As I prepared for the time that "school" would begin, I realized that there is more to homeschooling than teaching a little kid the capital of Florida. I needed to answer the following questions in the affirmative. Was I willing to stay at home instead of pursuing a lucrative career? Was I ling to be the art teacher, phys. ed instructor, dean of students, principal, cafeteria worker and custodian, too? Was I willing to seek out friends for my son? For some moms and dads, especially those with a large brood, this lifestyle is a real sacrifice.

Still, my desire to be with my children and play a daily role in training their minds and influencing their hearts was overwhelming. We began to informally teach our firstborn (the guinea pig) phonics by using Scrabble game blocks. We were thrilled when he read simple stories at age five. The homeschooling marathon had officially begun!

As the years have passed, and our curriculum has advanced from colorful math flash cards to complex physics problems, we have faced the typical struggles of most homeschoolers. Grandparents question the wisdom of making ends meet on one salary. Grocery clerks wonder aloud why your child isn't in school this morning. Friends muse that you may be a tad overprotective of your offspring.

For our little red schoolhouse, we have made use of traditional curricula, borrowed books and books-on tape from the library (from David Copperfield to Pippi Longstocking), surfed the Internet, conducted hands-on science projects (including hatching baby chicks and dissecting a Carolina grasshopper), viewed umpteen videos about World War II, and ad libbed whenever the need arose. Our eclectic method seems to yield results: both our sons score above the 80th percentile - the norm for home schooled students - on their Stanford achievement tests.

Socially, we've never lacked opportunities for our boys. We've been involved with sports, craft classes, day camps, and other homeschoolers. For several summers, we hosted boys from inner-city New York in our home. We've entertained Nelson Mandela's grandson at a Halloween party, chatted with Pat Buchanan at Lexington Green, traveled to Costa Rica to meet then-President Rafael Calderon Fournier, dined with homeless men, and been interviewed by reporters about our life-style.

Academic studies (like the one done by Dr. Larry Shyers of the University of Florida) have concluded that homeschooled youngsters mature just as rapidly as conventionally-schooled students. I'm not surprised. Homeschoolers are less likely to have self-esteem problems, since they can pick and choose their contacts. Conventionally-schooled students are often stuck in classrooms with miscreants who can make a well-behaved student's life miserable.

During the ten years we've been teaching our sons, we have been schooling ourselves. By taking turns, mom and dad have received their PhD's and are teaching other parents' teenagers. We call our extended homeschool Harkness Road High School, a private, co-ed, day school with back-to-basics courses and a vocational component. Our curriculum is challenging, a B is required to pass a course, and our instruction is quite personal, since we've chosen to limit enrollment to twenty students. Our diplomas are real: 13 of our 16 grads have gone on to college, and this year we will graduate our second National Merit Scholarship finalist. Both members of the class of '98 will enter the computer Science department at a large state university

To date, all indications are that our efforts (though not without trial and error) are paying off. Our family is intact and closely-knit, and our sons have developed a can-do attitude that will serve them for a lifetime. My husband and I feel that we are contributing positively to society by giving our children and others the skills and discipline to be thoughtful, upstanding, patriotic, and responsible young adults... something our country desperately needs.

What began as the seed of an idea in the Northwest has bloomed into a life-style in the Northeast. But the finish line in our alternative education marathon may not yet be in sight. Given the trend toward obtaining a degree via on-line campuses, it is possible that our children may decide to utilize a laptop, modem, and their bedrooms to attend college. As Dorothy noted, in The Wizard of Oz, there's no place like home.

Isabel Lyman is a homeschooling mom of 2 boys. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.

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