Education IS Life: Going Beyond the Bus and Homework

If you know our family well enough, or simply read my last blog post, you are familiar with how different our children’s education has looked compared to most.  We have had a lot of back and forth, reevaluating, researching, discovery.  We have gone to great lengths to ensure that our children were in the most appropriate environment for continued academic growth, but also in a place that would assist us in enriching their lives.  So, we have dipped our feet into a few different types of education from public to parochial to homeschooling to STEM-based private schooling.  While we have found both pros and cons in these different environments, as with any school, we expect none to be perfect.  However, assessing these differences has allowed us as parents to be able to develop a clearly defined goal for our daughters’ education.  What is it we are looking for?  What do we want them to learn in the areas of academics, social experiences, and extracurricular pursuits?

In the past we have felt as though we were victims of a broken system.  It made us angry that we couldn’t simply send our daughter off to school on the yellow bus each morning and greet her as she walked down those black, rubber lined steps each afternoon with a smile on her face.  We were greeted with the anxiety and early onset depression typical of a very bright child being under challenged.  It has been a learning experience for us.  As parents we took chances, pulling our kids in and out of different schools to test the waters and at times bringing them home to learn in a safe place at their own pace.  In the process we have learned a lot about our children, their specific needs, and we have learned to trust our instincts more than the opinions of others.  This has brought with it both blessing and misfortune.  While we have gained an abundance of wonderful friends who aren’t scared to march to the beat of their own drum, at the same time we have built walls between ourselves and family members who think much differently about life and learning than we do.  While we have moved our children in and out of different social situations, at the same time it has taught them to be flexible and resilient, able to make friends beyond their age group and converse confidently with nearly anyone.  It hasn’t been easy, but I wouldn’t change it for anything.  It has shaped us into what we are today.  For that I am grateful.

In the past when we have chosen to homeschool our children it has been because it was a last resort, our only option.  I always exclaimed that I hated homeschooling.  I didn’t want to do it, but we had no other option.  At the same time I did a really good job at teaching my own children, despite the fact that I would have rather been anywhere other than at the kitchen table with a math book and a lesson plan.  We homeschooled with the notion that we were bridging gaps until we figured out our next step.  That level of thinking led to resentment and frustration.  I fussed about this in blog posts, to friends, and through social media.  I was met with pro-homeschoolers, great public school advocates, and advice that ranged from ‘let your children be’ to ‘take it to congress’.  I didn’t care to do any of those things.  This may sound bad, but even though I care about the kids in our public schools, I don’t have their best education in mind.  I have the best education for my own children in mind.  This is a family thing, not a community thing.  I never wanted to fight the school board, or advocate to the head master of any school for my child to receive a better education.

Instead, we decided to make our efforts family-centric.  While I have no idea what is best for Suzi Lou struggling in the public school system, I don’t care much.  That sounds horrible, I know, but bear with me, for I too used to think I knew what was best for everyone else.  I have come to understand that I do not…at all…not even a little bit.  Suzi Lou’s parents and her teachers know what is best for her, but my husband and I know what is best for our children.  Furthermore, it is in our best interest to put our efforts into figuring out what to do with ourselves versus wasting time trying to guide everyone else in our direction.  In my experience, people who do that tend to have an inflated sense of self on a narrow path that in no way considers or appreciates differentiating circumstances that exist from person to person, family to family.  What is right for one is never going to be perfectly right for another.  Assuming so and living under those types of guidelines leads to much unrest, and frankly, we have done away with that.

We took our frustrations with not being able to follow an easy path of K12 education and threw them to the wind.  “So, what!” we finally exclaimed.  Those frustrations breed nothing in the way of progress.  Sure, it gave us the bravery to steer away from the well-beaten path, and that was a gift.  At the same time, we eventually would come to our senses and understand that those same frustrations had to grow into gained knowledge and a positive outlook for our own future–how it would look and what our goals were going to be.

For my husband and I, we want our girls to go to college some day.  At the same time, we want them to grow up with the type of enrichment I don’t believe many children get these days.  We don’t sign our children up for leagues and lessons.  We do not cart them around in our minivan from violin to dance to soccer to swimming.  Instead, we listen to their hearts, observe their passions, and let them chose what to focus on at any given moment.  Because of this, each of our children thus far have grow into themselves at an early age.  Our oldest daughter has a strong interest in literature and writing.  She lives and breaths it.  She is currently earning money to save up for a writing camp this summer.  Our middle daughter has a passion for dance, one that has been passed down from my mother.  While she isn’t the absolute best dancer, nevertheless we see that she takes her passion for ballet very seriously, so we have sought out putting her into ballet classes with one of the top ballet companies in our area.  Our youngest daughter is still developing.  At four-years-old she is vivacious in her pursuit to engage with her surroundings.  She loves to investigate and explore.  She loves physical activity; at two-years-old she once ran two miles next to me on the greenway as I pushed the empty jogging stroller–the last time I remember her ever riding in it as it had now become an absurd notion to strap her into anything.  I have no idea what direction she will take in her interests, but I do know that this is exactly how we have approached and supported the individual development of each of our children.  We just observe them, listen to their needs, know and appreciate who they are, and let them be.  It is amazing what happens when you just give them the tools and resources necessary then get out of their way.  This is our idea of ‘letting them be’.

I think it is humorous at this point that we have gone to great lengths and have provided an abundance of financial resources to put our kids in great schools.  They have hopped around, been tested, gotten labels, but in the end we have thrown our hands up and decided that education and children are just like life.  There is no perfect route; instead you have to navigate your own way.  You can follow someone else’s path by reading their advice books, listening to the plan they say you should follow, or letting the discouraging opinions of others put a damper on your own parental instincts.   We have oftentimes felt like we never really knew what was best, whether or not we were making the right decisions, and felt as though we were in some way ruining our children; however, the actual results we observed in our children proved to be quite different than that nagging self-doubt in the back of our minds would lead us to believe.

Here we come to the end of another school year, and here we have two children fighting with all of their might to be homeschooled indefinitely.  Our middle child seems to want the comfort of home and to spend more time with her friends she barely gets to see anymore. I know that what she really wants is to focus on her studies, finish them in a fraction of the time she does now, and wants to sit at the table to make things with her hands.  She wants to learn to sew because she wants to convert old clothing into clothes for her dolls and stuffed animals.  Our oldest daughter is a little more adamant and articulates her points very clearly.  She exclaimed on the way to school this week that while she loves to study things like history, she feels that her learning is confined to textbooks, that she has little time anymore to break away from the text and study more thoroughly a particular area of interest.  She is highly gifted in english.  She wants the opportunity to take writing classes within the community, develop her blog, and possibly write her own children’s book.  Of course, all of the other subjects are quite important.  We highly stress the importance of the basics.  We expect our children to read, to learn math, and to grow.  We expect them to take tests and perform to the best of their ability.  We just take it a step further.  We look beyond rudimentary education and see beyond the homework and bus routes.  For us, education has gone from simply that to so much more.  Education goes beyond simply going to school.  It is the totality of life and a way of living it.  It isn’t something that we do just to go to college and ‘pick something’.  It is continued every single day as it is invested in and built upon.

We don’t just want our daughters to go to school and do well.  We want them to embrace life fully, and realize that education is intertwined in our experiences and is connected to everything.  We want to give them as many of those experiences as possible in order to enrich not only their lives, but our family unit.  It is interesting this time around.  Before it has been mostly me alone with the overwhelming emotions of raising children who seem to go against the grain for whatever reason.  I mostly blame our families, but in a very good way.  Our children are the product of an interesting gene pool.  My husband comes from an incredibly bright family while my family is incredibly artistic.  If any of us from either side were to try to fit ourselves into a particular mold formed for someone else, it would literally drive us insane, making us feel confined and depressed.

So, perhaps my children were dealt an interesting mix of biological circumstances that have led us down quite a different path when it has come to their education, but so what?  We either fight against it and assume that they are flawed in some way for not working well within a system, label them, and force them to conform, or we can take a different approach.  We can learn, think more positively, and explore options.  We can perhaps listen to our children, their specific needs, and allow them to take a different, more unique approach.

In the past few weeks my husband and I have joined forces and the outcome has made us both excited with the possibilities ahead of us.  While my husband has always been supportive, he never really understood exactly what it was we were doing when we home educated, and frankly, neither did I.  I knew the material and how to teach it–anyone can follow a lesson plan–but we didn’t have a long-term goal.  We didn’t research together how to come together as parents to start working toward that goal.  This time we have researched top universities across the country to understand exactly what it is about homeschooled children that universities find the most appealing.  Stanford University uses this term in particular to describe what it is they see in homeschooled applicants that give them a competitive edge over the rest:  intellectual vitality.  This is what they are looking for when determining whether or not a prospective student posses it:

We want to see your commitment, dedication and genuine interest in expanding your intellectual horizons; both in what you write about yourself and in what others write on your behalf. We want to see the kind of curiosity and enthusiasm that will allow you to spark a lively discussion in a freshman seminar and continue the conversation at a dinner table. We want to see the energy and depth of commitment you will bring to your endeavors, whether that means in a research lab, while being part of a community organization, during a performance or on an athletic field. We want to see the initiative with which you seek out opportunities that expand your perspective and that will allow you to participate in creating new knowledge.” (Stanford Undergraduate Admission)

 

I am not setting out to educate my children per Stanford University’s standards.  I have no idea where my children will end up choosing to pursue post high school studies.  At this point, I’m not even deciding whether or not to let them have a say in their education by pursuing homeschooling because they claim to have enjoyed it and learned more taking that route.  What I do know is that if top universities are using the criteria stated above when making their selections, our children are already at their young ages way ahead of the game, and that my husband and I need to trust ourselves a little more by obliterating that little negative voice in the back of our mind (or over the dinner table of that distant relative) that tells us we are foolish and wrong in our thinking.  According to a more broad view on the value of education and how we apply it to life leading up to post collegiate careers, my husband and I have been doing it right all along.  As a result, we will continue to do what we have always been doing, which is investing in what will be in the best interest of not only our children, but our family.  We will continue to grow, learn, and walk along our very own path, clearing the brush and seeking out each new step under the view of our own unique lens.  It is just our way of doing things, which has really been the best thus far.

p1020575

Jane enjoys academics on a beautiful day (2010).

p1020452

Anne with one of her many props she uses to set her stage (2010).

p1030003

Molly slinks away quietly during our studies to get into mischief (2010).

Advertisements

The Great Homeschooling Debate

p1020865

Homeschooling Days:  Frequenting the Farmer’s Market in Nutrition Science

As most people know, we have reverted back to homeschooling off and on since our oldest daughter reached school-age, thus her education in particular is a composite of different elements of learning environments and styles.  To be precise, here is what our 10-year-old’s educational experience has looked like thus far:

Kindergarten:  Public schooling with a great teacher, but an overall terrible experience due to what we perceived to be our daughter’s lack of maturity mixed with her very high intellect being under-challenged.  (We later came to understand this as the asynchronous development of a gifted child, but we were stupid then.)

1st Grade:  Homeschooling, which was a great experience, but emotionally draining for me considering that we had a daughter in pre-k and a baby.

2nd Grade:  She is fixed!  Or so we thought.  We send her back into public school and our middle daughter enters kindergarten.  Our oldest reverts back to severe anxiety over the course of the school year.  She goes through a series of testing within the school and is placed on an IEP and put into the gifted program early.  We have the option to place her on medication to help her in the classroom.  After much research, we refuse to numb her to fit into the mold of public schooling.  We end the year vowing to never send her back into that arena.

3rd Grade:  We have the opportunity to enter private schooling and chose the local Catholic school.  All is well, but we notice, too, that although the social environment is a ton better than public school, the curriculum and the teaching methods aren’t much better.  Plus, our daughter is still under-challenged, experiences anxiety, and over the course of the year we physically have to remove her from the car each morning to get her in the door.

Mid-3rd Grade year:  Our daughter is referred to a psychiatrist and highly regarded educational psychologist.  He sees it necessary to do a thorough evaluation.  I fear the worst:  she is broken, and of course it is all my fault!  However, her results come back with a slight Aspergers (1 point on the scale and something that will present little to no symptoms if her educational environment aligns with her ability) and she is what the psychiatrist refers to as “highly gifted”.  He states that the speed with which she learns will be a problem we will face throughout her educational career; however, we aren’t even referred to therapy services because we have apparently done everything right thus far and our daughter will live a normal and happy life if we just continue to do what we are doing.  (I should also mention here how appalled I was in the discrepancy between the results in the testing inside the public school and outside of it.  This is where I draw my conclusion that highly gifted children are done a great disservice in public schools.  They are easily labeled and medicated when they just need to be motivated and challenged.)

At this point, a huge financial setback led to us pulling our girls out of Catholic school (an unseen blessing at the time) and we homeschooled them for the rest of the school year.

4th grade:  Public schooling starts and we put our middle daughter back into public school for the 2nd grade, as she always did wonderfully there.  We go back and forth on whether to put our oldest at a different type of private school in the next county over.  When our 2nd grader shuts down in the public school environment and begins bringing home F’s, we decide to move them both to the private school a county over.  And it is amazing.  Remarkable!  Both of our girls are flourishing.  It is well worth the tuition, even if it means that we have to sacrifice things like family vacations and extracurricular activities.

It’s the conclusion of the 4th grade year for our oldest and the conclusion of the 2nd grade for our middle daughter.  Our baby attends a local preschool (she is now 4-years-old).  We feel that we have found a school that seems to work quite beautifully academically, although our oldest still gets out of sorts when she feels like her coursework isn’t challenging enough.  As we approach the end of the school year, it is humorous how both of our girls are assuming that we will homeschool them again next year.  They are used to it.  Their idea of schooling doesn’t come from within a building, and their sense of consistency and enrichment comes from home instead of an outside source; although, I do have to admit that we have little room for much enrichment now, as it seems we are going back and forth from thing to thing, finding little time left over for self-motivated learning.

Recently I got into a bit of a short-winded debate with someone over homeschooling.  Although we no longer homeschool, most of our daughters’ friends do, and we see first-hand what wonderfully social and bright children they are.  Considering that, I am the first person to stand up and state what I know to be the truth in regard to homeschooling.  I have done the research, have homeschooled, and have public and private school experiences for comparison.

It is a misconception that homeschooled children are the victims of social suicide.  It is my experience that homeschooled children communicate with others leaps and bounds above what I observe from most other children, even most adults.  Instead of growing up thinking that their peers consist of simply other children with birth dates close to their own, they grow up knowing how to socially interact with the real world around them versus the mock world of their school enviroment.  They do things like run their own businesses, possess a high level of self-confidence in who they are, take initiative, enter a group without reservation, and seem to have a healthy and responsible sense of themselves when they enter their teen years.  I have never come across a promiscuous or scantly-dressed homeschooler, neither do I come across many who wear ankle-length skirts and trash bags for bathing suits.

I can’t tell you how many people I come across who say they work in social services and baulk at the idea of homeschooling, assuming that they can accurately draw their conclusion of homeschooling on the experience of one family, somewhere in time, who locked their kids in the basement and threw books to them every now and then.  There is also the infamous expression of disgust on the face of a parent when someone mentions homeschooling.  “I could NEVER do that,” they say.  But why?  What is so scary about it?  They are just your children.  Education is extremely important, and guess what?  Results show that homeschooled children are rising to the top, testing much higher across all fields, as well as being more socially and academically prepared for college.  As a matter of fact, top universities in our country are seeking out homeschool graduates above and beyond both private and public schooled graduates. Why? Homeschoolers end up testing better on their college entrance exams, adjust better socially, and have strong executive functioning skills.  Furthermore, this preparedness in no way correlates to the education level of the parents.  These children aren’t all the results of a homeschooling parent who had a masters degree in education prior to homeschooling their children.

Many people get fed up and bring their children home when they experience the same disappointments we did when our oldest daughter entered kindergarten.  As a parent, you get visions of sending your beautiful 5-year-old off to school on the bus, greeting her when she comes home, doing homework pleasantly over an after-school snack, and sending her off to play.  For us, and for many families, that is not what our experience turns out to be.  It is of no fault of our own.  It isn’t a result of bad parenting.  It is because our children, for some reason or another, need something a little different than the norm.  For some of us, we are open to the idea that normal doesn’t always mean better.  As a result, we do some research, look at other options, and find the right fit for our family instead of expecting them to be broken into a system that doesn’t suit them properly.

It’s funny really.  As our daughters both wrap up their school year from an amazing private school, they both express an interest in returning to homeschooling.  I think they have come to understand that they do have choices.  Our children, through their ups and downs and ins and outs in education, have come to look at learning as a lifestyle versus something they do for ten months out of the year with an eight week break in the middle.  For them, education isn’t about testing and checklists (although those are important and do exist in a homeschooling realm); it is about fully experiencing life even at a very young age.  They get adequate sleep, wake up and take their time to eat breakfast with a good book, and begin their lessons.  They wrap up everything up by 2 pm, including the hour break they took after lunch to play outside.  After that, they have a few hours of continued play outside or time with a good book before we head out for lessons or leagues.  There is no rush.  Their library is the main branch downtown in the middle of our amazing city.  They socialize with adults and children alike.  They have time to invest in their passions (yes, young children have those believe it or not) and they learn how to explore them further.  They have time to learn things outside of “school” that help shape them into strong, resilient, compassionate, smart, and social human beings.

Of course, our girls are enrolled in their current private school for next year.  Regardless of their pleas, we have sent in their forms and paid their dues.  Over time we may change our minds, but not right now.  Our oldest daughter expressed herself quite strongly a few weeks ago when she said, “I feel like I am closed off from the world now.  I miss all of my friends and social experiences.  I go from school to home to homework to softball to bed.  I felt like I learned so much more when I wasn’t in school.  I miss being able to learn at my own speed then play in the creeks with Andrew (her longest and dear friend).  I don’t have time to spend doing computer animation anymore.  I just rush all of the time.”  I am certain she debunked every single homeschooling myth in the matter of a single, emotional, preadolescent breath.

So, you may ask, if homeschooling seemed to be something your children loved and it is something you support so strongly, why did you stop?  Well,  that is a good question.  A lot of it has to do with my sense of confidence in myself with it all.  Much of this comes from the outside world and the fear that I might mess up my children, even though the research I have done and the confession of experience from my children paint a very different picture.  I also had a hard time with my daughters’ ages at the time.  Homeschooling was stressful then; however, they are getting older, and things are settling down as far as us not having to micromanage things like their personal hygiene and being involved every step of the way in their extracurricular activities.  Lack of confidence also comes from butting heads with those who assume that they know how to raise our children better than we do.  Perhaps over time I will learn not to care so much and tackle homeschooling with the bravery of my dear friends.  I continue to learn a lot from them and their children.

In our society we are conditioned idea that schooling should take place in a building of brick and mortar.  When our children turn 5-years-old it suddenly signifies that we are complete nincompoops as parents and we need to turn them over to the state for their education and social rearing.  Instead, we should look at the world on a larger scale to see that education in this country looks much different than most others.  Considering that, is there really any one way that works better than the next?  Our country is falling behind, so no, we certainly don’t have all of the best answers when it comes to education.  And besides, what is the purpose of education anyway?  For us, we want our children to grow up and go to college.  Between now and then we want them to really understand who they are, what what they are interested in, how to apply themselves, and how to seek out and follow their passions as they come and go.  We want them to be happy.  We want them to understand the importance of family and home.  We want them to learn the value of hard work.  We want them to have faith in God and hope in a better world.  What we definitely don’t want is for them to grow up thinking that life exists simply in the ins and outs of buildings and activities.  We want them to believe that life is something to soak up, to love, to embrace.  And with that, I’m certain that no matter how they are educated, they will be brilliant, beautiful, and amazing human beings.  What I want you to take away from this is the knowledge that the world is so much bigger than our children, than their schools, and than our ideals.  It doesn’t really matter how our children are educated, just so long as the education is good and prepares them for life.  It should also be something that works for them, not the opposite way around.  For some children, public schools are the best place for them to learn and grow.  For others it is found in a private schools.  However, for many others, their knowledge, creativity, and social experiences are homegrown.  And in my humble opinion, there is nothing at all wrong with that.