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A Homeschooler Enters High School

by Erin Chianese

My daughter just completed her first year in high school. It was also her first year in school, ever. She was asking for a few years to "try" school. I did not take her request seriously until she turned 14. I felt that homeschooling had given us a more natural and idyllic family life together. I looked forward to my girlsí teenage years. Watching them grow older was such a joy. Being very sociable, my oldest daughter enjoyed all types of folks. She could go into a room of strangers comfortably and have a good time just like she did when she was five. Our homeschooling approach was eclectic, studying some subjects while also taking time to visit a tangent. My daughter always found something interesting in everything we came across. So, it was with shock and sadness that we considered her request to go to school.

My daughter had some valid questions she wanted answered for herself. After age 13, almost all of the homeshoolers in our support group stop coming to park days. Instead they attend school, go to community college, or spend time on their individual pursuits. There is no cohesiveness maintained by the teens with each other at this point. Besides wanting to be around other teens, my daughter also had two common doubts felt by many homeschoolers, "Am I as smart as kids who go to school?" and "Am I different from kids that go to school?" Because she had never been to school before, and she heard portrayals from cousins and neighbors, a romantic curiosity nagged her.

I think that of all the grades to attend school, high school is the least influential. Elementary school is so conforming; it suppresses creativity. Middle school is the time when peer pressure can be the most detrimental due to a childís developmental need to belong. But high school is full of individualism: Teens are ready to leave their comfort zones to explore their own paths. I saw my daughter at this point in her development. She was certainly ready to form her own opinions, make her own mistakes, and to spend time away from the family. In our "letting go" process, we reminded ourselves that we were doing a good job as parents because this is the healthy path for a maturing, whole person. School was her issue and had to be her decision. I hoped that we had raised our children to be independent thinkers and decision makers. I felt a bit hypocritical in sending her to school when I do not believe in the school system. But I had to respect her decision and allow her to learn from it. I would never want her to regret in any way her parentsí decision to homeschool her.

We enrolled her in a public magnet high school. She wanted the magnet emphasis and we felt that the kids would be coming from many different schools rather than the local middle schools. Cliques would not yet be etched in stone and the kids may be more interested in the curriculum.

My daughter was overjoyed the first week in school. Suddenly she was surrounded by one thousand teenagers. She quickly found a group of kids to hang out with at lunchtime. She made a few close girlfriends.

However, my daughter was surprised by the conduct of the kids in classes. They spoke disrespectfully to each other, talked constantly, and a few even threw things across the room. They didnít complete homework assignments and didnít really care about the Dís they received. In English class my daughter was the only one to raise her hand to the question, "Who has read Harry Potter?" (Since she could write coherently, she was booted up to Honors English.) The only incentive for the kids to get better grades was that the extracurricular activities (the reason the kids were at this magnet) required a grade point average of 2.0 or above. My daughter was in a play in which one-third of the kids were dismissed due to low grades.

My daughter, who had never taken a test before entering this school, took about 25 tests in the first five weeks. Pop quizzes, vocabulary tests, tests on homework assignments, and comprehensive tests; they sprang forth at every turn. She also wrote innumerable essays in English, all about a given subject or with a prompt (the first few lines of the piece). My daughter dove into her classes, wanting to learn and experience. She diligently did all her homework and participated fully in class. She couldnít wait for her first report card. Perhaps in it she would find proof that she was as "smart" as school kids.

Throughout the year, our family was awed by my daughterís enthusiasm. She awoke every morning at 6:30 a.m., and she worked on her homework every night and weekend, never complaining. She took responsibility for her choice in this way. She really tried to make it work. I am very proud of her in her effort.

The academics starkly revealed their own shortcomings. The worst assignment had to be from Honors English. At the end of a few weeks concentrating on the book, To Kill a Mockingbird, the teacher handed out a list of 150 words. "Find these words in the book, write the page number you find it on, the sentence the word is in, and the definition." My daughter frantically looked for those words for three weeks. I cannot think of an easier way to dissolve the love of a good book.

This points to a real problem created by the nature of such schoolwork: Kids in high school must be jaded by all the mindless work they have had to complete in previous years. How and why could their work now be any more important or interesting to them? The college path is pushed constantly on the students. In fact, high schools stake their claim of worth on how many of their graduates go to college. I certainly didnít learn anything in high school, but I played the game to get into college. Which is worse -- on one hand, wasting time on meaningless assignments to get good grades in lieu of using that time to develop an interest? Or, on the other hand, spending time on more meaningful pursuits than homework, even at the cost of getting low grades? In the former scenario, kids may get into college without a direction and in the latter scenario kids may or may not go to college at all.

In the second semester my daughter experienced burn out. After having to do three dull research projects, she started to wane in completing her homework. She chose which one to ignore due to its value set by the teacher. The less credit, the less it would affect her grade. She chose to receive a B in an easy class she didnít care about Ė Health -- rather than complete all the somniferous work required to get an A. She had started to play the game.

She found that one of her new girlfriends was shallow. This girl had an interest but no drive, and her talk became less engaging. My daughter figured out which girls to avoid due to gossiping tendencies. She was disappointed when some of her friends got into drugs.

Finally, near the end of the school year, she realized she had no time. She had no time to read a book of her own choosing, to relax, to see her best friend (a homeschooler), or to pursue her main interest -- dance. When summer break was in full force, my daughter talked about not missing school. She did not once call any of the friends she had made in school. She decided not to return.

Our whole family learned from this experience. My husband and I found that our choice to homeschool was reconfirmed at every turn. My younger daughter suffered the most when she found herself suddenly without her sister. She was forced to focus on herself and make good use of her own time. My older daughter quenched her curiosity. All her original questions were answered. Most importantly, she found she could easily deal with all that was put in front of her, both academically and socially. I am empathetically disappointed it didnít work out for her. She went through a lot for the socialization and she didnít find it -- or it wasnít what she was looking for.

I am still sure she was mature enough to choose to go to school. But I had wanted her to see through the school box and that type of maturity comes later in life. We were amazed at her willingness to so easily comply with doing the mounds of homework. We had become worried that she was lapping up everything the school was telling her and not questioning any of it. Our society proclaims such authority behind schools. No parents we met in this school openly questioned it. The students may realize the work is meaningless, but our society still wants the students to play the game it offers. Being caught up in the thick of it, my daughter could not stand back to analyze it for herself. Looking back now, she has commented that she did not learn the subjects by most of the methods, but at the time she did think she was learning.

School was very disruptive to our family life. Every day we missed her. She was either in school or in her room doing homework. Our life revolved around her schedule, which limited us all. We did not feel a part of my daughterís life as much as usual. It was almost as if we were on hold until a school break. We were constantly reminded how precious our time is together. Our family embraced each other with a huge sigh of relief when the school experiment came to an end. -- E.C.