The Great Home School Experiment

Two weeks ago, we officially took the plunge. After a year of thought and planning (and a fair amount of worrying) we began home-schooling our older son, Haley.

For those who don’t know the background, Haley is now eleven. When he was in second grade, he was diagnosed with borderline dyslexia and ADHD. It was a rough year, and my attempts to keep him interested in the curriculum by telling him bedtime stories from the Greek myths are what inspired The Lightning Thief.

The past few years, Haley has been attending private school and he’s made some strides. He had a great reading specialist who used the Scottish Rite program, and his reading skills are now more or less on grade-level. Writing is still a big struggle. Spelling? Very hard. Handwriting? Yikes. Last year in fifth grade we tried ADHD medication for the first time, and while it definitely helped his focus in class, we weren’t comfortable with the way it changed his behavior at home, after the medication wore off. Instead of being somewhat okay most of the time, he went from being very okay in school to off-the-wall at home. I’ve seen how ADHD medication can affect different kids in different ways in the classroom. Some kids really do need it to be successful. In Haley’s case, I just wasn’t sure that the trade-off was worth it.

As we started looking ahead to middle school, we knew Haley would be in for a rough ride. Middle school is a difficult transition under most circumstances, even for excellent students. Suddenly, a student has five to seven core teachers rather than one. There are lockers to deal with, massive amounts of homework to keep organized, extracurricular activities . . . Well, I’m sure you know the drill. At Haley’s private school, we were pretty sure the middle school program would not be a good match. He would fall through the cracks.

We began looking at other schools. Unfortunately, the options are somewhat limited in San Antonio. We didn’t find a program that Haley was comfortable with and that we liked. Then, after a lot of research, we tried a sample day of home-schooling. I designed the curriculum, which wasn’t hard, considering I’d been a sixth grade teacher forever. Becky and I took turns with the lessons. I tried to make it as hard as I could so Haley would understand that home-school would not be a free ride. It would be more work than regular school. I impressed on him that spending the entire day with Mom and Dad might not exactly be fun for him. It didn’t matter. Haley loved it. At the end of the day, he said, “That’s what I want.” We did more school visits, looked into other options, but Haley was convinced. Home school was it.

I was by no means convinced. Like many people, I didn’t understand or trust the home-school initiative. The words “home school” carried all sorts of negative connotations. Who did these people think they were, taking their children out of school? Wasn’t home-schooling only done by religious fundamentalists?

Well . . . We are now in our third week of home-schooling. The year is still young, but I can share with you my early impressions.

First, home-schooling isn’t for everyone, because it’s a ton of work. I was not surprised by this, really. I knew how much work it would be teaching Haley half of every school day. For Becky, I think, it was more of a shock, but she seems to be getting into the swing of things and even says she’s enjoying it. Who would ever have thought that Becky, my BFA left-brained significant other, would be covering math and science? It’s a huge time commitment, but there are a lot of great resources on the web. We are more or less mirroring the curriculum at Haley’s old school (the same middle school where I used to teach), which in turn loosely follows the Texas state framework.

On the bright side, it is amazing how much you can get done in a school day when you aren’t worried about taking attendance, filling out administrative paperwork, doing cafeteria duty, etc. Haley is usually done with his school day by 2:30, and he’s done everything his peers have done and more.

Also, there is no falling between the cracks. Haley is the only student, so he has to master the concepts or we don’t move on. He has to answer the questions, engage in discussion with me, use his best-handwriting, edit his paper . . . He can’t turn invisible, which is what he prefers to do in a regular classroom. Strangely enough, he likes the new system. I was sure he’d be ready to run for the hills by now, but nope. He tells me every day that he loves home-schooling.

Some of the things he’s done so far: He has learned the basics of geography and designed his own continent, complete with maps, a narrative reflecting the five themes of geography, and a bar graph showing immigration patterns. He has begun writing a short fantasy novel (His idea, amazingly, not mine – I would never wish my choice of professions on anyone unless they were truly determined and a little crazy!). He spent a morning studying minerals with his grandfather, a retired physician who has been itching to share his love of science. He takes walks every morning with his mother. He reads about twice as much as he used to, and sometimes even reads more than he’s required to. Gasp! I am teaching him guitar and he’s learned seven chords. He’s taken a pottery class at a local art studio. In English, we’re doing a unit on Norse mythology. He’s watching his own stock portfolio and learning to invest. And of course, he still has his friends over to play in the afternoons.

One of the big questions about home-school – the one that always gets asked first: “But what about socialization?” Boy, I fretted about this a lot. Is it enough that he just hangs out with his friends and takes a few classes with kids here and there? Won’t he miss being around his peers all day? And then I stepped back, and started thinking about what people mean when they say ‘socialization.’ Do we mean the typical school environment? Let me propose something radical: Is there anything inherently ‘normal’ about cramming 300-1000 adolescents together – so many that they can’t possibly be supervised – and letting them teach each other how to behave? If that’s what we mean by socialization, I’m not sure it’s a good thing. It’s also a fairly recent paradigm. Education did not always mean huge institutions busting at the seams with children. Well . . . that’s a much bigger debate, but I thought I’d toss out the question.

As I said, the year is early. I may change my tune by winter. But right now, I’d say the benefits of home-schooling far outweigh the disadvantages for our family. Is it for everyone? Good lord, no. But for us, right now, it seems to be working. I’ve gained a lot of respect for other families who have made this choice.

We still have a lot of work to do, and part of that is educating others about why we are doing this. Becky and Haley were walking down the street yesterday and saw our neighbor Pete, who’s a retired Navy man and a great guy. He was sitting on his porch reading the paper, and he asked why Haley wasn’t in school.

“He is,” Becky said. And she explained.

Pete cursed. “Y’all spent too much time in California!”

Becky just smiled and she and Haley kept walking. She didn’t have the heart to tell Pete there are just as many home-schoolers in Texas as in California, maybe more. To Pete, it’s a crazy hippie idea that must be from somewhere else.

But (shhhhh) the biggest advantage of this experiment so far? I feel connected with my son. I was starting to feel that adolescent “pulling-away,” which is normal and good, I know, but at least now I talk with Haley every day about current events. I read with him, write with him, find out what he’s interested in. Next year, Haley may decide he’s had enough of his parents and say goodbye to home-schooling. If he does, that’s fine. But for the time being, I’m enjoying getting to know him as a student and watching him learn.

I’ll keep you posted!

Rick Riordan