Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Homeschooling Four Seasons: Reflections on the First Year's Journey

Fall 2006
From School-at-Home to Homeschool

When we moved into our mountain home last year, I began thinking seriously about homeschooling. We bought our house from homeschoolers and I was intrigued by the idea. I had threatened several times to pull N. out of school when we were having difficulty getting his needs met in the very large district in town. I frequently escaped the chaos of the moving process by browsing in the peace and quiet of the bookstore. There I began reading a copy of The Well Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise. I opened to the first chapter and read:

"The first day I taught my children at home, I cleaned up the playroom and set up three desks. I hung an American flag at the front of the room and led them in the Pledge of Allegiance. I was shaking with nervousness..." (Bauer and Wise, 2004, p. 3).

I was hooked. Jessie Bauer's story brought back to mind many of the questions and concerns I had pondered about my son's school education. It reminded me of how many times, as I worked in my classroom with gifted kids, I had said to myself, "This would be fun to do with N." But there was never time. I was spending a tremendous amount of energy just managing N.'s special education, his difficulties in the general education classroom, and the amazing amount of busy work he brought home--work that neurotypical kids could complete in half-an-hour but that took N. untold hours of frustration and tears.

As the start of the school year approached, I was accepted into the doctoral program in Special Education at UNM. I was thinking about an ambitious plan of study, one that would combine special education/gifted education with psychology and neuroscience. And I could not imagine how I would teach in the public schools, manage N.'s increasingly complicated Individualized Educational Plan, and pursue my passion--the education of gifted children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. I realized almost right away that teaching under those conditions would do my students no favors. When I resigned my teaching position, I realized that I had made space to more effectively manage N.'s education. And the more I thought about it, the more I believed that he would benefit from a home education. His disabilities would become simply differences, and in some cases, even strengths, outside the noise and confusion of a large school. And I would be able to provide the challenges his gifted mind required; the need for a gifted education that I could not get the public schools to acknowledge or meet.
I broached the idea with N., telling him that he should take some time to consider the option. He took about 30 seconds, saying, "I always hoped you could teach me like you teach those other kids."

So in August of 2006, on the cross-quarter day that traditionally began autumn in the old calendar, we began. Being a teacher, I could not imagine starting without all the "stuff." So I had put together a schedule and a curriculum for N.'s sixth grade year. Using TWTM, I made an ambitious schedule that would keep us busy six hours a day, four days a week.It was definitely school-at-home complete with lunch and recess breaks. We were definitely "getting a lot done," whatever that means. As we continued, I began to notice that I was getting that intense, nervous feeling in the gut when we got "behind" our schedule. And I began to wonder: what does "behind" mean in this context anyway? And N. began to chafe at a schedule planned down to the minute: 20 minutes for this, 15 for that. He began asking to spend more time in order to finish some activities that took more thought, and he wanted less of others. If he was in the middle of a chapter when "free reading" came to an end, could he continue to read to the end of it? Well--yes. That's the point of homeschooling, isn't it?

At six weeks in, we took a break for the Jewish High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and then, during the eight days of Sukkot (Festival of the Ingathering), we did a unit study that included study about the Sukkah, building the Sukkah, cooking, and harvest festivals across the world. When the holidays were over, we had reached our first turning point. I relaxed, N. relaxed, and we morphed from school-at-home to homeschooling. We still had plans, but they were made together and altered as we went. We still had a schedule--in that we did certain things on certain days, but the structure was looser and open to senrendipity. The boundaries of our days became praying the morning and evening services, reading aloud and Bar Mitzvah study, since the big day was fast approaching.

Winter 2006 - 2007
Unscheduling: Learning from Life

In the last weeks of November, we took a travel break to go to Illinois to spend Thanksgiving with family. There, I noticed that learning was taking place, but it was not formal learning in any sense. Rather, N. was experiencing the end of harvest time in a farming community, he learned about culture and climate, ran in the Turkey Trot, and spent time socializing with cousins.

When we returned home at the beginning of December, we reached our next bend in the road of our homeschooling journey. We began five intense weeks of study as Bar Mitzvah preparation swung into high gear. We had four meetings with the rabbi to get guidance on N.'s D'var Torah (literally, "words of Torah"--a sermon). N. had to perfect his Torah chanting skills and learn to chant his Haftarah (prophetic reading). During this time, N. took over the leading of the morning service each day. He also had to complete his service project. We had to send out invitations, plan meals and the celebration which required budgeting and finding information. We had decorations to think of, hotel reservations to make, all manner of preparations to attend to. During this time, I realize now, we had another intense session--the Bar Mitzvah Unit Study. And it was very unconventional and very successful, too! I really don't know how we would have managed all of this intensity if N. had been in school.

After the Bar Mitzvah Unit, which consumed all of December and into January (the Bar Mitzvah was on January 6th and we entertained relatives until the following weekend), we took another break. N. did start a homeschooling science class at Explora! Science Museum, and I started classes at the University, but other than that, we just sat back and caught our collective breath. For three weeks. And during that three weeks, I realized that we had "unschooled" the Bar Mitzvah. And that in the process, N. had made a great change in demeanor and maturity. He seemed to have taken a great step toward Jewish adulthood. And as I reflected on this, I began to "grok" how much more powerful process is than product.

Spring 2007
As we moved into February, N. began to de-school himself. Other than his science class and
the Brain Engineering exercises that intrigued him so, he expressed no interest in traditional academics. Together, we determined that his religious education needed to be unschooled, too. After the powerful experience of his Bar Mitzvah, he wanted more control over his Jewish learning and he determined the setting.

We still had a schedule, of sorts. We had library day, we had Boy Scouts, we had Chabad classes. And I let N. lead me in terms of what we would read and discuss and do. He spent three weeks watching the movie Titanic, over and over. I began to realize that he was using it to figure out

sequencing and I supported this by suggesting that we make a Titanic PowerPoint. We began with the basic sequence of the sinking of the ship, and then I encouraged him to elaborate. What was the captain doing at each point? What were the characters doing? In this process, I was learning to let go of control, to let him lead, to become what Elizabeth Nielsen calls "a guide on the side." N. was determining the goal, and I was showing him what I know about how to get there.

And I began a second round of reading. Typical "gifted kid" that I am, books have always been my best friends when I need to know something. I read a good many books from the beginnings of the modern homeschooling movement. I read the books of John Holt, including the updated version of Teach Your Own. I read David and Micki Colfax's books, and I read Homeschooling Our Children, Unschooling Ourselves. That book made me realize that the journey of the year so far had been a process of unschooling myself. It was not just N. who was changing his relationship to learning. By necessity, it was me, too.

And I read And The Skylark Sings with Me. This book brought us the gift of The Wilderness Awareness School and the Kamana Home Study Program. As we moved into preparations for the Passover season, N. began the Kamana program. This included a unit of study that required research, writing for reflection, listening to stories, and reading. And while I was practicing the art making Pesach, N. was taking the nature awareness trail. Again, I was the "guide on the side", rather than the "sage on the stage." When N. finished Kamana I, I noticed again how much the process changed and matured him, how much he took responsibility for his own learning. And I noticed that his learning was very successful when it came from his passions.

Summer 2007
By May Day, the traditional beginning of summer in the old calendar, we had come to our "summer mode." Summer mode is that relaxed, let's-go-outside-and-let-our-hair-down way of life that had previously started when school let out in May. It is the time of the year when we all say, "thank goodness another school year is over and we can actually live our lives freely for awhile." We had never thought of learning in the summer, although, of course we have always done it.
We do have a summer curriculum. But it was not a scheduled set of lessons in the traditional disciplines. Rather, it was--and is--a series of summer projects and travels in which learning is going on continuously. It is not that it is effortless, it is that it is that the effort is expended in living and doing our lives. And N. made his own plans and presented them to us. And we added our own projects. In May and early June we planned and build steps in the side garden, and planned for and ordered carpet for the master suites and wood flooring for the house. N. went to Boy Scout Camp the last week of June and earned four merit badges. In July, we began the flooring project and N. traveled to Illinois where he spent time in the city and the country, learning all the time. Now, we are still doing projects, including the flooring with N.'s help. And we are preparing for N.'s Coyote Tracks Camp experience--the last part of his summer "curriculum."
We have come a fair distance on the path of homeschooling. And I have learned so much about my son and about myself. Oddly enough, the changes have not been abrupt or disorienting. They have come naturally from learning together as we live our lives. They have been the subject of reflection and discussion. As we look toward our second year of homeschooling, I see more changes coming. We have plans--but I know they are there for the changing. N. has determined his goals for math and science study for himself. And I know that I am along for the ride.
And as the traditional school year draws close, I do not feel the same sense of sadness that summer is also drawing to a close. That is because we will go on living our lives and learning as we go. I guess we are now unschoolers. Unschooling does not mean that there is no structure or plans. It is just that life happens to the plans and the structure, and living life and learning take precedence over the plans.
I am satisfied with where we are. And I am curious and excited about what's around the next bend in the road. And I love the joy of living our lives in the now.


mcewen said...

I was looking for an email but couldn't find one on your profile. I just thought I'd mention that your comments are turned off on your post.

I'm glad that you're using your 'gift' at home.
Best wishes

momof3feistykids said...

This is a wonderful post; I found every step of your journey fascinating. I have a "gifted" kid on the autism spectrum, too.

Amie said...

Thanks for sharing your journey!

Rebecca said...

"N. made his own plans and presented them to us..."

To me, this is the hallmark of a mature homeschooler. To be self-directed and confident enough to articulate his own plans, goals, and interests, and to be humble enough to seek out and accept the direction and assistance of parents and other wiser or more experienced than himself -- the qualities of a true learner.

Mrs. Darling said...

I like a laid back approach but I could never be an unschooler. Its just not in me and my daughter with a sensory processing disorder wouldn't learn a thing because she doesnt like learning, crafting, or anything it seems. I do wonder though how your child is able to test in the achievement tests or maybe you are one of those lucky ones whose state doesnt require testing! I really think my entire approach to homeschool would be different if it werent for those stupid tests! sigh