Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Homeschooling is NOT what you think.

In my previous post, I mentioned homeschooling my two sons. Tell most people that you do this, and you get the same aghast look and disapproving sigh. I know, I held much the same opinion whenever hearing that word: "homeschooling". You know the image people form in their minds: flabby, pasty kid with thick glasses, introverted, perhaps the wide-eyed zeal of an indoctrinated religious fanatic. I saw "Jesus Camp" too.

This is far from the truth. Granted, there are many religious zealots who choose homeschooling as an option to protect their delicate children from the dangers of progressive thinking. better they have their heads filled with religious propaganda than hard science. THAT will prepare them for the real world. But this is only a portion of the homeschooling community, and it is a community.

We live in Ohio, one of many states that have accredited, school-supported homeschooling. Several companies provide strictly-structured programs and strong support from trained educators. In fact, many of these programs prefer to be called "Home-based public school", as their guidelines and curriculum are based on regional, state, and national educational standards.

My kids are enrolled in the Ohio Virtual academy, a division of the K12 program. We are provided with a computer and Internet access, an online curriculum with support and links to educational websites, including museums. They send us textbooks published both by educators at K12 and by other publishers, including the same textbooks your kids use in public school, student workbooks and teacher's guides in each subject, supplemental materials including supplies for Science experiments, with graduated cylinder, spring scale, litmus paper, and so on, Math teaching tools such as number cubes and flash cards, handwriting workbooks and worksheets, maps and books pertaining to History, Art and Music supplies with instructional CDs and DVDs, instruments, clay, oil and pastel paints, and more.

Along with the extensive supplies, I have weekly meetings with Intervention Specialists, former public school teachers and administrators who act as a liaison between my students, myself, and the state, making sure the kids are keeping up with their classes, and lending advice and aid whenever they get stuck. Each students has their own teacher, as well, whom I also have a phone conference with each month, who is even more familiar with their individual classes and needs. During these meetings, my kids speak directly with their teacher either via phone or on a shared classroom online, and their do activities to show what they have learned.

Whenever you tell someone your kids are home schooled, the same two arguments pop up: socializing and qualifications. To be honest, while I can understand the latter, the former leaves me scratching my head. What about public school do you remember as positive socializing? Being shoved into large groups of people all the same age as yourself, spending 90% of your day sitting quietly and being punished for "talking" or "laughing"? How does that teach you about interacting with others? Was it fun being judged by others for your appearance and clothes, especially those of us who didn't grow up in affluent families? My favorite are the people (usually without kids of their own) who get that smarmy smirk when I mention bullying. "How are they gonna learn to be tough, to stand up to bullies, if you protect them all the time?" they ask. You just know this is the same guy who made the skinny kid eat his own gym socks in ninth grade.

Yeah, that's how it works. I remember being picked on by groups of sixth graders when I was in seven years old. I should have stood up to those eight kids who out-sized and outweighed me, especially the grandson of the Superintendent of Schools who never did anything wrong, the little angel. What necklace made of teeth? I've been a big guy since I hit puberty, but I always felt smaller than others, a distorted perception of myself derived from low self-esteem and years of abuse. Being bullied didn't make me stronger, it made me hate myself. Eight years and two botched suicide attempts do not a strong person make.

I'm teaching my kids to stand up for themselves without being bullies themselves. Both of them have Autism-Spectrum disorders. They are intelligent, sweet, polite boys, but they lack in social skills, and all the artificial peer constructs public school has to offer wasn't changing that. When my oldest was bullied, he internalized it, blaming himself, no matter how much we told him is wasn't his fault. He didn't, and still can't, understand why people are mean to each other. Hell, I don't get it, either, kid. My youngest had a different solution. When he was picked on, he lashed out, shoving, kicking or otherwise rebuking his tormentors. Oddly enough, this made him the more well-adjusted. To him, the problem was solved. When he kept getting in trouble for fighting, we asked him what was going on, a novel approached the Principal, Dean and teacher at his school never considered.

Turns out he was being picked on by an older girl during recess. She had been held back once, and was bigger than all the other kids in the class, except my son, who is tall and broad for his age. When told this, the Dean (who served no real purpose, considering the school had a Principal and Vice-Principal; I think he was related to someone on the school board) said he never saw anything when he chaperoned the playground. So, living only five minutes' walk from the school, I snuck over with my digital camera and caught her bullying him on video the next day. By this point, he simply stood there and took it, having been told by his "superiors" at the school that it was wrong to hit a girl. So, while this beast and her three friends shoved him around, he stood there, head down, enraged and impotent, then took it out later in class on other boys.

Yeah, public school is a great place to learn social skills.

Our homeschooling program has get-togethers such as socials, skating parties, birthday parties, and more for students in the area. My kids are learning to socialize with kids of all ages, and adults as well. Most homeschooled kids I've met are well-mannered and can speak with an adult with poise and intelligence, unafraid of sounding stupid or being rebuked for having an opinion, a stark contrast to how I grew up. One mother told a story about being asked by the mother of a public-schooled boy how her daughter socialized when she wasn't in public school. She asked this question at a soccer game, in which both their daughters were on the same team. The homeschooling mother just laughed it off.

As for being qualified to teach my kids, I admit that this was the big hurdle I expected to face when I began this program last year. I'm not a schoolteacher, I told myself, How am I going to teach them? Let me tell you, with the proper materials, you can teach just as well as any public school teacher, perhaps even better.

Let's face it: when you were in school, the teacher graded your homework and tests off an answer sheet; the lesson taught from a curriculum. Between the Internet classroom, textbooks and teacher's guide, I can relate any information to my kids. If I have trouble relating the lesson to them, my wife, who is in MENSA, can help. Otherwise, I can call either one of their support teachers or Intervention Specialists. In college, I took classes aimed at future educators (A Liberal Arts degree leaves a lot of flexibility for the undecided). In the Math and English courses I took with this theme, we were taught how to relate the subject to a group of students, how to make it understandable to students at all levels of understanding. Loosely translated, future educators are trained to present the course to the smart kids, the average kids, and the booger-eating mouthbreathers.

I know my kids, even better now that I've been teaching them for a year and a half. I know the right references to make something come alive in their minds, to make it something they can relate to, whether I use a favorite book, cartoon, video game or TV show, I can teach them anything. Instead of asking how many apples are left after giving three to a friend, I ask my son how many Krabby Patties he has left if he serves three off the grill. And he gets it right.

No, school isn't all fun and games. Some days, they don't want to start class. But they aren't going to be skipping out of class or playing sick to go home. I can adjust their schedule to the right fit for them. What does that mean? well, if I teach my son how to measure angles in one lesson, and the next is about supplementary and complementary angles and measuring three-dimensional shapes, I can simply go on to the next lesson while it's all fresh in his mind, instead of putting everything away and witching rooms so we can weave baskets out of reeds. Last year, we made it all the way through every subject, even though the state only requires 90% of the subject be covered. It's even less for public school. Remember the days leading up to and after holidays, and the last three weeks of school? My wife dubbed those "Disney Days", as you spent them watching videos, coloring pictures and making crafts. We work. I clearly recall never reaching the end of any school textbook. Heck, most history classes never taught us anything past WWII, and I remember blank worksheet pages in at least 1/4 of every English class.

When my sons tested to enter K12's program, by their standards he was one year behind in Language Skills and Literature. According to public school, he was near the top of his class. Literature? They didn't even offer Literature. I'm not necessarily bashing public school, but you'd be hard pressed to convince me they were better off there. Yes, many people who homeschool make up their own curriculum. Sometimes they do an excellent job. Other times they're like my former neighbor, who's son was kicked out of tenth grade. They began "homeschooling" him, which meant he spent all day playing video games, throwing the football around with dad, or pummeling a guitar that did nothing in any of its former lives to deserve the torture he put it and us through. All the while, his mother is inside, taking his tests for him and sending them in.

But people like that, or like the ones in "Jesus Camp" who suggested that global warming was impossible because the earth is too big, or that the Earth is really only 6000 years old and scientists who say otherwise are only guessing, are a small portion of homeschoolers. I'm an atheist; i didn't pull my kids out of school because of any religious beliefs. I did it because they weren't receiving a proper education. They both have Autism Spectrum Disorders, and their homeschool provides Speech and Occupational Therapy services the public school wouldn't. They socialize with people of all ages and aren't afraid to speak up and ask questions for fear of looking foolish.

They work hard, they learn, and they have a sense of accomplishment, all without being pigeonholed into a certain social group, being abused by older kids, sat in neat little silent rows of other third graders, peeing only when given permission. The next time someone suggests that public school prepares a child for the real world in ways homeschooling can't, ask them the last time they had to carry a wooden block with "Lavatory" written on it in Magic Marker, just to go to the bathroom.

That's what I thought.

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