First day of Kindergarten!
No shoes, but at least he's dressed...
But then I moved here, to Maryland, and met some pretty amazing kids. Intelligent, confident, curious--everything you'd ever hope for in your own children. I still remember the shock I felt when their mother informed me that they homeschooled--these are NOT the kind of kids I had expected. These were the kind of kids you would expect to find in the best public or private schools, performing at the top of their classes. Interacting with their family shattered my image of stereotypical homeschoolers. I was impressed.
Impressed, but not in any way a believer. I still had no intention of doing anything other than the standard procedure: thirteen years in the public school system. After all, both my husband and I (and all twelve of our collective siblings) had done the same, and with pretty good results. Sure, I had my share of crappy teachers (the most memorable being the middle school math teacher who seemed to have little understanding of mathematics or of the obvious fact that you should not wear brightly colored bras underneath tight, white shirts), but I also had some of the very best teachers you could find. I credit my perfect score of 5 on the AP Calculus AB test solely to my extraordinary teacher. I struggled with math before his class, never took math again after his class, but for a brief, shining moment during his class I UNDERSTOOD CALCULUS and it was entirely due to my teacher. I got a full tuition scholarship to a fairly exclusive university and had no struggle adjusting to college-level classes. The public school system served me well and I had no doubts it would do the same for my children.
And then, one night while laying in bed, a thought popped itself into my brain: "You need to think about homeschooling Seth." I didn't tell my husband because it was so completely ridiculous. First of all, my son was all of three years old. And second, there was no way it was going to happen. Dismissed.
But it wouldn't go away. So I let it stew. I asked questions; I read everything I could find. Eventually, I brought it up to Jon. He was more open than I expected, but he had lots of questions of his own. Over the next months and years of research, we both came to the same conclusion: I would homeschool Seth, at least for a few years, starting in kindergarten.
Our decision was mainly due to three factors. First was the school we are zoned for: it's an officially failing school. While we've heard nothing but good things about the teachers, our school has a serious parenting problem. As a teacher myself, I am well aware of how critical parental support is. Even the most wonderful, gifted, intelligent teacher can do little with a classroom full of kids whose parents don't value education and don't support what's being done at school. Sadly, for many of these kids school is little more than taxpayer-funded daycare. We want Seth to enjoy school--to enjoy learning, especially in the early years. But it's hard to do that if your teacher is constantly dealing with discipline problems or trying to play catch-up instead of teaching new material.
Second was Maryland's full-day kindergarten. I had no idea this was coming--I thought half-day kindergarten was standard practice. Not here. Which means that at five years old, my son would go from being home with me all day to being away from me for eight hours a day, five days a week. That is a HUGE jump for a little kid. Half a day is perfect developmentally--they can have their class time and social time for 3-4 hours a day, then go home and do what kids that age need to do: play in an unstructured environment. Every parent and teacher I've talked to agrees that the second half of the day is a total loss--the kids are tired and burned out, often falling apart or falling asleep as soon as they get off the bus. "But they get used to it eventually!" is what I hear again and again. Very true: humans are remarkably adaptable. But just because they DO adapt, does that mean they SHOULD? Is an eight hour day really best for a five- to six-year-old child? I had serious doubts, especially after doing more research on how childrens' brains develop.
Last, and most important, was Seth. From the time he was an infant, Seth has needed a lot of quiet time. Loud places and people exhaust him. Two hours at preschool were enough for him--he'd come home and immediately run up to his room to play or read quietly. If he's ever in a situation where, for whatever reason, he can't escape and find a quiet place to decompress, things usually end in tears. I can only imagine what eight hours in a classroom with 15-20 other kids would do to him. He's getting better and better at tolerating those situations, but he's not ready yet. Academically, he's ahead of the curve (already reading simple sentences and doing simple addition and subtraction). Socially, school would be a very unpleasant experience.
And so, a few weeks ago I submitted my paperwork to the school, officially declaring myself as a homeschooler for the 2013-2014 school year. Which means that now I am one of "them": a weirdo homeschooler. I'm not finding it an entirely pleasant role--not due to my actual homeschooling (which I think is a blast), but due to the reactions I get from others.
Which I why I'm writing this: to explain that I am NOT a weirdo. I'm just a mom who is trying to do what is right for her kid.
So let me address some of the questions I'm already getting. The first? "What about socialization?" Well, what exactly do you mean by socialization? The ability to interact with a group of people all born within a year of your birth and who live in the same school boundaries? That's a skill that will serve you only long enough to get you out of school, at which point you'll be forced to interact with people of all ages and from many different places. I'm not seeing the benefit here.
Will Seth interact with other kids his age? Of course! He'll be in a little co-op with other kids his age, just like in a classroom (except with fewer kids, and thus, more interaction with his teachers). He'll also be involved in other activities--gymnastics, swimming, sports, etc. with other kids, and with different teachers (not just Mom). He will learn to follow the rules, to sit and listen, to take turns, to deal with other kids he may not like: all the things kids in a standard classroom learn. But the benefit here is that he will be exposed to people of all ages, from infant siblings all the way up to many different adult mentors. He won't be confined to only interacting with other kindergartners and a single adult teacher. Socialization? The bigger problem is going to be picking WHICH social activities to sign up for!
I've also found that my homeschooling friends are able to complete their lessons for the day much earlier than public school classes let out. This is due to the efficiency of numbers--it's a lot faster to get one kid to focus on and complete her work than it is to get twenty kids to focus on and complete their work. Which means that instead of getting off the bus at 4 pm, just in time to run to piano lessons/soccer practice/karate, homeschooled kids are done early in the afternoon, giving them plenty of free time to play with the kids in their neighborhoods. Unfortunately, the kids in their neighborhood don't get off the bus until 4 pm and then rush to various extracurricular activities, leaving THEM no time for socializing. Socialization now is very different than it was in the days of neighborhood night games and pick-up basketball games in the driveway. But homeschoolers aren't the ones who can't play--it's their peers.
Next question: "How will you know he's keeping up academically?" This is another strange question, once you really think about it. How many kids are actually "at grade level" in every subject? My guess? None. Some will be reading several grade levels above, while still scrawling their names like a preschooler (that would be my son). Others will be brilliant at math, but incapable of reading short, simple words. "Grade level" doesn't mean too much when viewed in that light.
Here's what I have done: serious research on what is considered standard kindergarten work. Writing, reading, addition/subtraction, money, telling time...believe me, I've looked it ALL up. It's not hard to find--just search for "typical course of study" and you'll have more than enough to keep you occupied. Or buy one of those grade-level workbooks at Walmart--you'll get a good overview of the topics covered.
Plus, let's be honest--we're talking about KINDERGARTEN. I'd be happy if he finished the year knowing his colors, numbers, and ABCs (check!). So I'm not too concerned about academics this year. However, standardized testing is available to homeschoolers here, so I can always sign him up for test just to compare.
But here's the thing--I guarantee you that I, as Seth's parent, care much more deeply about his academic progress than any other teacher will. Not only that, as a homeschooler I am very much aware of which areas he's mastered and which he is still struggling in. For example, I know that Seth can count to 30 with no issues, but he doesn't recognize some of the teen numbers in print (like "14"). With a classroom full of kids, it's almost impossible to keep track of which kid has mastered which skill, much less make sure that they all have a solid understanding before you have to move on. As a homeschooler, I don't HAVE to move on in order to complete a set curriculum by the end of the year. If it takes Seth three months to master number recognition, then we will take three months. We won't move on until I'm sure he gets it. That's the kind of flexibility a classroom teacher can only dream of, and I believe it's a huge advantage.
"But won't he miss out on all those school experiences?" This is one I worried about until I realized how much things have changed. School parties on Valentine's Day? Nope. Maybe you can pass out some candy right before the bell rings (if you're even allowed to bring candy to school). Special birthday treats to share with your class? Well, nothing with sugar. And nothing homemade. Wouldn't want Mom to poison all your classmates with her cupcakes. Sitting with your friends at lunch? Nope--there's assigned seating in order to limit the craziness of the lunchroom. Same with the bus (so much for that whole socialization thing!). Soccer during recess? If you're lucky enough to have a long enough recess, sure. But odds are against it. Basically, a lot of what made me look forward to school has been removed or sanitized.
These are all examples from local friends. I'm sure not all schools are like this, and I know there are some awesome school activities I don't know about, but the trend seems to be toward more serious academic work and testing, even in very young grades. While I'm very supportive of maintaining high standards for education, I think school needs to be fun! Kids don't look forward to school because of math class or handwriting practice--they love the parties, the games, the messy science experiments. I think we've swung too far to the academic side: pushing for earlier and earlier achievement instead of cultivating a love of learning. (Obviously this applies mostly to younger grades--high school really is a time for serious academics).
But should Seth decide at some point that he's missing out, we're not going to refuse him that experience. And if he loves it, awesome! But if not, I'm glad to have an alternative to offer.
I am in no way trying to discredit traditional schools or teachers. I have many friends and several immediate family members who have been or currently are teachers in public schools across the country. I know how much effort they put into teaching (especially behind the scenes) and how much they hope to inspire their students. And now, as a homeschooler, I understand the pressure--YOU are the one accountable for teaching these kids what they need to know. It's an awesome responsibility.
I'm also not criticizing my friends who happily enroll their kindergartners in full-day kindergarten at age five and let the schools channel them through until graduation. Maryland has some of the best schools in the nation--we are very, very lucky to have access to them. I have no doubts their children will graduate will a great education and good prospects for the future.
But I'm doing what is best for my son, at this moment. Am I going to homeschool him all the way through? I don't know. Probably not. But I like having an option available. Will there be days when I kick myself for not enrolling him in school? Absolutely. But there will also be days when I'm amazed to see what he's learned and to know that I was the one who taught him. Remember how you felt when your baby spoke his first word? Took his first steps? I get that same feeling when Seth reads simple books and (finally) counts to 100. And I get to be there to see him do it--I don't have to wait until his teacher sends home a paper with a star or a smiley face.
This isn't an easy decision. I (and most other homeschooling parents I know) agonize over my decisions frequently. Am I doing what's right for my kids, or am I doing this for me? Am I doing enough? Am I pushing too hard? Will my kid resent missing out on traditional school? How can I keep the balance between sheltering him from things he's not ready to deal with and giving him opportunities to struggle with what is often an ugly reality? I am constantly evaluating and re-evaluating, making changes and trying to do what is best.
So please give me the benefit of the doubt. While I love the chance to openly discuss my decision, it's painful to have well-meaning strangers or concerned friends dismiss it almost immediately as inferior. Please be very careful when criticizing our choice to homeschool our son. It's more than just the difference between School A and School B--this is a major part of our parenting and lifestyle. Knee-jerk criticism of homeschooling can easily come across as criticism of my capacity as a parent/teacher. Am I perfect? Of course not. But neither are professional teachers. We are all just doing our best to teach the children in our lives, to give them the best opportunities for success that we can.
Today is my oldest child's first day of kindergarten. I'm not packing him a lunch or loading his backpack with brand new crayons and notebooks. Instead I'm hanging up posters of coins and pulling out some BOB Books for him to practice reading. There won't be any tears as he climbs on the school bus for the first time, looking so tiny compared to the fifth graders in the back of the bus. Instead I get to enjoy hanging out with him just a little bit longer. And for my family, right now, this is the best decision we could make. Wish us luck!