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I’m Sierra. I live in the Boston area with my family.

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Taking the Fool’s Leap into Homeschooling

by Sierra on October 3, 2012 · 11 comments

in homeschooling

We’ve decided to homeschool Rio.

School is no longer a crisis but it’s not good either, and we kind of want the main thing Rio does with her time to be actively awesome as opposed to just tolerable.

She’ll probably have to go to school for a few more weeks while we get all our ducks in a row, and then we’re looking forward to some wild adventures learning at home.

School has actually gotten a lot better for her. The transition was super hard, but after a couple weeks she stopped coming home in tears, and stopped clinging sadly to me when I dropped her off. She started to make some friends in her class, and to talk about her teacher and school with a sense of belonging. She was still having some pretty substantial sensory issues with the physical environment, especially the noise level in the cafeteria. This seems like it should be a manageable situation, and indeed I felt like she was adjusting.

But what she was adjusting to was a low-level dislike of all aspects of school. She came home one day and threw herself on the floor declaring she hated math. She picked fights with her sister after school. She slouched into her classroom in the mornings with a defeated look on her face.

These are all pretty common problems for kids to have. But none of them are problems Rio has ever had. She’s always been a curious, engaged, eager learner. She loves school & learning wholeheartedly. My tolerance for watching that atrophy in her might be ridiculously low, but there it is: the compromise of having her do OK in a school environment where she’s unhappy isn’t one I’m eager to make.

I kept doing what I could to support her going to school: making playdates with kids from her class, engaging with her teacher, attending all the extra events, signing up for the PTA, biking to school. And she kept asking to homeschool.

Eventually, we took a day off from school to test drive homeschooling and visit Parts & Crafts. It was idyllic. So simple and sweet and powerful. I found myself fighting back tears a lot of the day, it was so good to see Rio opening up and engaging with the day in such a playful, creative and focused way.

Here’s how our day went: we had breakfast with Martin and Serena, then they headed off on their bikes for school. Rio and I spent 15 minutes meditating, which turned into a guided (by me) grounding exercise. Then we talked for a little while about Stranger Danger (initiated by her) & then we wrote “morning pages”, which Rio at first resisted doing and then agreed to 5 minutes of. After 5 minutes she asked if she could have five more minutes and after that she said she wanted to put what she’d written into the iPad.

“You want to type up what you wrote?” I asked.

“No, I wrote a song and I want to put it in GarageBand,” she told me.

Well then. Of course you can do that. So she went off to put her song into Garage Band while I talked to her dad a bit about math pedagogy.

Then we all went to visit Parts & Crafts, a local homeschool collective. When we arrived, they were playing Scrabble on a giant board inside a geodesic dome. Rio was invited to climb up the dome and watch the Scrabble game, which she cheerfully and immediately did. I was surprised at the way she dove right in to the activities there; the group was nearly all boys, and was a little rowdier than she usually likes. After the Scrabble game devolved into an argument, the teachers declared it time for morning meeting, during which everyone talked about what they were planning to do with their morning. Then the whole group went to watch some videos of synchronicity in nature.

We decided to leave just as they were getting ready to act out synchronicity with some flashlights. We went to the Davis Sq. library, which is small and the children’s room smells funny, but we found some fun-seeming books about places where family members live (Argentina, Arizona, Massachusetts) to use as a jumping off point for learning about geography. I also checked out a cool book on the history of maps.

We went home and began work on a family tree, a project Rio is *really* interested in. We worked together on it in a completely focused way for probably 90 minutes, setting up a profile at Ancestry.com and entering information about our immediate family and coming up with questions to ask other relatives. Rio was extremely engaged and curious and productive; she really kept the project going when my own interest flagged a little.

When we got hungry we took a break for lunch, which Rio enthusiastically cooked with a little supervision from me. We laughed and played a lot while we were making lunch. Martin came home and we all ate together. Then the two of them did a math project where he went over some multiplication facts with her using the piano. This was so awesome I nearly cried, sitting in the next room drafting some work email while she laughed her way through a lesson with her dad and then extended what he’d just done into a new song.

That was pretty much our homeschool day. It’s hard to find words for the ease we both felt, the deep sense of flow that informed everything we did. It just felt so *right*.

When it was time to go get her sister from school we biked over to the school, where we discovered Serena had been invited to a playdate and wasn’t coming home with us after all. I biked Rio over to a friend’s house and then had a precious hour alone to write and catch up on email. Bliss.

Of course I know not every day will be like that. The novelty will wear thin and the weather will turn cold and there will be days when Rio and I are bored and sad and lonely bouncing off each other in unhealthy ways. That scares me more than a little. I also know homeschooling doesn’t entirely play to my strengths: I have a hard time sustaining focus, even on projects I love and am deeply committed to. I’m not the most organized and attentive person. Homeschooling will certainly have its challenges.

And I have to work, too. Much as I might like to, I can’t just play with that kid all day. How will I juggle the demands of my writing career with the needs she’ll have for me as a teacher? Very carefully, and probably not always successfully.

So after this blissful day of homeschooling, we went to the kids’ open house at school, where I had a very nice conversation with Serena’s kindergarten teacher, who seems to be a perfectly lovely kindergarten teacher who is hampered in her teaching goals by administrative bullshit. Not surprising.  Serena is extremely and simply happy in her class. She says every day that kindergarten is AWESOME. I’m so grateful for that.

Then I went to Rio’s classroom, where I got to see her teacher give a presentation to a group of parents about what’s going on in his classroom. I was much  more impressed than I’d expected to be. He was candid about his dislike of homework and passionate about his efforts to get the kids a second recess. I like the curriculum materials they’re using, and I liked the way he talked about implementing it in his class.

I came away feeling like this guy is my ally in wanting a progressive education for my daughter, albeit an ally with limited ability to enact his ideals, due to both systemic constraints and his own lack of experience.

It’s not like I have a lot of experience teaching 3rd grade, though. Homeschooling, I’ll be completely at sea, learning along with Rio what works for us and what doesn’t.

So I’ve been deeply conflicted about what to do for her. I feel it’s my responsibility to give her the best social, emotional and academic environment I can. I just don’t know what that looks like for her. It’s easy to see that some aspects of school are working for her and some are not.

In deciding to pull her out and homeschool, I’m painfully aware of what I’ll be taking from her: access to reading specialists and built-in art classes and a group of peers she sees and learns with every day and a big box of math manipulatives in the classroom. Little things, big things, just things I don’t have at home. (Yes, I can get some math blocks, that’s not really the point).

It’s less obvious what I’m giving her, because we haven’t done it yet. I know what I hope for: a nurturing, focused learning environment, a lot of flexibility and agency in her course of study, a sense of magic and wonder about learning. Our one homeschool day together showed me that it’s at least possible for us to be in flow, for me to work and her to learn and the whole thing to be informed by a sense of peace and right action.

And yet, I’m haunted by the fear that I’ll be inadequate to the task. I feel like I have to give her everything school would and more, to be worthy of this project. Of course that’s not how it will work. There are tradeoffs. I can’t and won’t mimic a public school education for her; I’ll do some things better and some things worse and some things just different. It’s not that this school sucks (it doesn’t), it’s that it’s not the right place for Rio right now, so we’re trying something different.

I feel incredibly vulnerable about this decision, cracked open in all kinds of ways. It’s been one of the most challenging choices I’ve ever made as a parent. I’ve spent weeks working on sorting out my own fears and hurts and memories from hers, trying to quell my urge to protect and coddle my own 8 year old self as well as dealing with the very real pain of being a mother whose child is struggling. I had a terrible time in school at this age, but that’s not the terrible time she’s having now. They’re different, and I can’t protect my own 3rd grade self from my old unhappiness by homeschooling my daughter. On the other hand, I don’t think there’s anything noble about suffering through school. If I have a chance to give her a different path, I want to take it.

I don’t know where this path will take us or how long it will last. I just know we’re going to try it.

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  1. Being Nibbled By The Homeschooling Bug
  2. homeschooling, day 1
  3. a funny thing happened on the way to homeschooling…
  4. Homeschooling for Grown-ups
  5. Today on grown-up homeschooling…

  • Gelflinggirl

    I love you all. I have great faith in you, and I’m here to help.


    Sierra Reply:

    Thank you! I’m sure I’ll be coming to you with questions and challenges and triumphs as this adventure unfolds.


  • Sam H.

    Reading this made me feel really viscerally anxious. What a choice to make! You are really brave and I wish you the best of luck. :-)


    Sierra Reply:

    I’m sorry this made you anxious! I’m feeling pretty anxious about it myself, but also excited. We’ll see how it goes!


  • Meagan

    Good luck! I can’t wait to hear about it.


  • Anastasia Tircuit

    That sounds like a great plan. Best wishes for you and Rio!


  • Rebecca Weger

    Thanks so much for sharing your story.  I am continually struck by the strength and integrity with which your whole family approaches the well being of its members.  I’m inspired, and confident that you will continue to be thoughtful and passionate.  It strikes me that there are lots of us – near and far – who might be interested in having a small part to play in the education of  your remarkable child.  Perhaps someday she’ll need to learn about New York?


  • Jaime

    Check out zenhabits.net’s latest entry on Unschooling.  A plethora of knowledge and something I truly believe in.


    Sierra Reply:

    Thanks for the tip! I saw that and really appreciated finding it. What perfect timing for our family!


  • Vicky Charles

    How does homeschooling work with authorities/regulations in the US? We have National Curriculum and all sorts of national targets and frameworks here, which I think homeschooled kids still have to more or less fit into. My niece is 5 and beginning homeschooling now, but I think it’s a short-term fix until she can go to her parents’ preferred school. I’m tempted to look into doing it longer term with my daughter when she reaches that age.


    Sierra Reply:

    It varies by state. Here in Mass. the guideline is that we have to provide an equivalent education to what she would get in public school, but we have a lot of latitude in terms of what teaching materials and methodologies we use to get there.


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