by Marc Porter Zasada
Often enough we will get a desperate call from a complete stranger at nine p.m.: “I’ve heard that you homeschool, maybe you can help me. My daughter refuses to go back to that place.” Usually, it’s the mothers who call, but not always. Men are more businesslike, and better at hiding painful situations: “Sorry to bother you, but I’ve got a problem here, and perhaps you could help explain some of the options to me.”We’ve been homeschooling our four kids, now aged five to fifteen, for the last nine years, so people think we must know what we’re doing. Usually they want to come over and see our “setup,” examine our bookshelves, read our “curriculum” and find out the legal steps. “What do you do first?” they ask, reasonably enough. We try to be helpful, we try to explain that we don’t have a setup or a written curriculum and we try to ease their fears, but our advice – and the advice in homeschooling articles -- always seems far too general: “Relax. Give yourself time when you get started. Don’t dump a bunch of new textbooks on your kids. Network with other homeschoolers.”
This kind of list, often numbered and delivered with good cheer, is usually met with a blank stare. More often than not, people remain fearful, and the next morning they are up at 7:00 a.m. for carpool.Lately, I have decided to become more specific. I give folks a few practical notes (please see the sidebar, which is, indeed, numbered), and I explain how to get started in one easy step: “You begin homeschooling by letting the kids sleep in one Monday morning, and read in their pajamas until noon,” I tell them, with a level gaze. “After lunch, you surprise them by asking them to help with the dishes, and then you take them to the park to run around where the other kids are small and watched by their nannies. That’s it . . . as easy as stepping off at a station and letting the train disappear into the distance.
“At first, like summer vacation, your kids won’t always know what to do with themselves. They might get all blurry and out of focus. I suggest not making them do any schoolwork at all for the first couple of months – it doesn’t matter once you’re out of school, what schedule you keep, you know. Experts call this time of decompression and self-discovery the ‘deschooling period,’ and like infant bonding, it’s vital to let it occur. Try taking the kids to the library of a long afternoon, and check out as many good novels and beautiful storybooks as the librarians will let you: Let the kids pick whatever they want. We generally go armed with four library cards. Put the books in a big pile in the middle of the living room, and then go for a walk. Sometime in the next few months (or maybe a year) you’ll start thinking about math again. But not yet. No textbooks yet: First let’s find out about this big world that needs math. In time, I guarantee that your kids’ desire to learn will return from wherever it has gone hiding, and they will have no choice but to learn. Like hunger and thirst, it will return to them.“Take the kids shopping with you. Drive them to the museum. Pretend it’s summer, and you have, literally, all the time in the world to enjoy it: All the days and all the nights of the rest of your lives, working or not working, learning or not learning.
“The next morning, if you have to, call the school, and tell the principal that because of all the problems your kids have been having in class, you have decided to place them in a private school for the time being, to see if the situation improves. No matter how bad your relations have become with these people, be nice and friendly and shrug: ‘Thank you for all your help, and sorry if we have caused you grief. Maybe this will work out better for us. If not, you’ll be hearing from us in September.’ If they ask what private school, be vague: ‘Well, we have a couple of options we’re considering.’ As you’re speaking, remember that you are talking about your own children. Not theirs.“Remove the television set and the Nintendo after the first week, but start letting the kids stay up until 10:15 each night with their dad. Ask him to read them Watership Down and Treasure Island and other classics with some meat on the bone. Let them ask him questions as they ask you questions all day long: Any question in the world, all the questions of the rest of your lives, important or unimportant, about this world or the next. Ask him to try dimming the lights and reading by candlelight.”
People narrow their gaze suspiciously when I talk like this, all poetic and sappy, and they cast worried looks over at my kids, all four of them, 5 to 15, on the floor playing a board game they invented together, storybooks laid open nearby. There’s something right and something wrong with the scene, them playing together, 5 to 15, so intently. Shouldn’t they be studying something?“Most local homeschooling support groups have ‘park days’ once a month or so. Find the group, and go to the next park day with a watermelon, and cut it up to share among all the kids. Be on the lookout for nice, compatible, well-behaved playmates for your own charges. Doggedly pursue genuine friendships with the parents of those nice, compatible, well-behaved playmates: ‘Maybe you could watch my kids one day while I shop? I could trade off with you.’ Homeschooling is an opportunity for remarkable friendships among married adults: Take that opportunity. But don’t propose ‘cooperative schooling’ or anything complicated and formal to these people; most homeschoolers have been down those roads with regret. Remember, you have left institutional life for a time.
“Ask around, but after a couple of weeks, you should probably look up the laws in your state regarding homeschooling. There will be a way to do it legally, and because you are a competent, responsible person you will find a way to do it legally. Whatever the laws, there is strong political support for homeschooling in most states, and you will find a dozen articles about it on the internet. You will fill out whatever forms are necessary, and you will do so proudly and fearlessly – because after four or five months, your kids will already be nicer people, sweeter in the mornings, more pleasant in conversation, and you will have confidence in them.“Be unafraid: there’s no one out there persecuting homeschoolers. Millions are doing it, and it has become socially accepted, even admired. Indeed, in 2000, the U.S. congress voted to congratulate the homeschoolers of America. If the school calls, tell them that you are indeed homeschooling for the time being, and that you’ve filled out all the proper forms, etc. Wish them well.
“Only now,” I tell my listeners, “after this first couple of months, will you understand the community, yourself, and your kids well enough to ‘get set up’ and ‘create a curriculum.’ But here’s a warning: That curriculum may be quite different than you first imagined, and if your kids come to love life outside of the brick walls, and come to see learning as a very personal adventure, it might not exist at all.■
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