Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Love in a Time of Homeschooling

As a parent who has often considered the benefits (and challenges) of homeschooling her children, I was delighted to discover this nonfiction book detailing a year in which a mother with whom I have very much in common decided to homeschool one of her children (the same age as my older child) for reasons that resonated for me. Laura Brodie teaches English at a University, and has therefore has a background in education (unlike many parents who choose to homeschool their children - I was astonished to learn that in most states, the only requirement to homeschool children is a high school diploma). All the same, she found her year as an at-home teacher to be much more challenging and frustrating than she'd expected - but enlightening and rewarding as well.

Brodie choose to homeschool Julie, who was going into the fifth grade, after feeling such frustration at the many ways in which her daughter was miserable at her public school. All parents want their children to enjoy learning, and to have positive school experiences, and it is clear that some children flourish in school settings, while others simply do not. Julie's temperament, unlike that of her sisters, seemed to make things extra difficult for her at school. Would learning at home revive her daughter Julie's love of learning?

With compelling honesty, and in an engaging, conversational style, Brodie recounts the events leading up to her decision to take a year off from work to teach her 10-year-old daughter, and she takes us through their school year together. She discusses their challenges, their failures, and their successes, and she also talks about her own research into homeschooling, the things she learned form books and other longtime homeschoolers. She draws some very interesting conclusions during the course of the book, and I found myself marking down many passages as I read. For instance:
As I thought back on my mom, it occurred to me that all good parents are homeschoolers. Homeschooling is what happens when families turn off their TVs, cell phones and iPods. It occurs in long, thoughtful conversations at the dinner table, as well as at baseball games and ballet recitals, and in the planting of a vegetable garden. Parents who enrich their children's lives with art and sports and multiple trips to the library provide the backbone of American education. Unfortunately, in our busy lives, parents and children have less and less time for hours of thoughtful interaction, which is one reason why homeschooling has been on the rise. Homeschooling provides families with the quality time that used to occur after school.
One thing that Brodie found frustrating as she read through all the books she could get her hands on that discussed homeschooling was the fact that while many books talked about the many rewards and advantages of homeschooling, and about implementing an effective curriculum, and dealing with the paperwork from state to state, there weren't any that addressed the emotional issues surrounding homeschooling:
Among the millions of homeschoolers in America, there must be plenty who have stormy encounters with their children, and who sometimes doubt the efficacy of their teaching. Those people, however, don't seem to write books. In the homeschooling volumes I encountered, expressions of serious frustration seemed taboo.
Brodie makes a point of being very honest and open, and there were times I found myself laughing out loud at the way she related the interactions between Julie and herself. There is no one who can push our buttons more than our parents and our kids. She makes mistakes - what parent doesn't? - and says and does things she isn't proud of. But she also has some remarkable success stories, and I cheered along with her, having experienced the vicissitudes of her homeschooling experiment.

Brodie lives in Virginia, as do my family and I, and her discussion about Virginia's SOLs - the Standards of Learning tests that are mandated in public schools - were of particular interest to me. On one hand, no one can argue, looking at the questions on the exams, that most of the topics covered are things that well-informed (or even minimally informed) people really should know. On the other hand, it galls me that the emphasis on these tests is so extreme and really seems to focus on the lowest common denominator. The classes spend the entire school year on the topics of the tests, grilling and grilling them so that the children who are the farthest behind will be able to pass the tests at at the end of the year.

Of course those children should learn these things, and of course they should all be capable of passing the test by the end of the year. But it saddens me when I see my own kids sitting there, bored, not challenged, not all that interested in many things that go on at school. Luckily, we have been blessed with some teachers who are able to somehow make things exciting, get the kids through the SOLs, move on to higher-level learning activities, and make it all fun. When it works, it's great. It's when it doesn't that I worry, and some years are harder than others - my kids' happiness at school is incredibly dependent on the skill and passion of their teachers - and some have more than others.

We are lucky that our school offers a partial-immersion foreign language program in which the children are taught part of the curriculum in a foreign language - so from the first grade they speak only that language during part of the day. That is challenging for my children, and it gives them a sense of real satisfaction that they are mastering another language along with the curriculum content (which they often master quickly, so without the additional challenge of the foreign language, class would not be nearly as interesting for them). I do wish that the emphasis on these tests wouldn't preclude so many other things that teachers might be able to add to the curriculum, things they are particularly passionate about or interested in teaching.

That is one of the reasons that I periodically wonder about homeschooling, and I think about all the fun and interesting things I could do with my girls, the field trips we could take, the wide range of subject matter we could explore. Then I think about all the math I'd have to teach them, and my fantasy bubble pops. Seriously, though, I do think that if either of my children were miserable at school, I might try my hand at a year or two of homeschooling - and thanks to Brodie's candid portrayal of her year, I would go into it with a much more realistic mindset.

This was such a fascinating book- both for the content matter, which was of interest to me, but also for the compelling story of a mother and daughter's journey down a new path together, and the way it impacted their relationship. I think it is a must-read for anyone considering homeschooling their children, and it is also an intriguing memoir about a year in the life of a woman and her daughter.

Love in a Time of Homeschooling: A Mother and Daughter's Uncommon Year by Laurie Brodie (HarperCollins, 2010)

Source: Review copy from publisher

Also reviewed at:
Bookin' with Bingo: "...a funny and inspiring story of human foibles and human potential, in which love, anger, and hope mingle with reading, math, and American history."
Booking Mama: "Of course, it should be a must-read for any parent who is considering homeschooling their child. ....But it is also a book that I think women are going to love because Ms. Brodie is extremely honest about the ups and downs of being a mom."
Presenting Lenore: " It’s an interesting subject and Brodie gives a very balanced view of the pros and cons in a style that reads like an engrossing novel."

7 comments:

  1. This isn't something I would normally pick up, but your review made me want to go out and get it - it's been added to my wishlist, thanks!

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  2. Joanna - I'd love to know what you think of it when you've read it - particularly as it's not your usual read. Please stop by and let me know!

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  3. Like Joanna, I wouldn't normally pick this up, but it does sound good! I like reading books where the authors can make unfamiliar worlds and situations (like homeschooling to me - I was in public school coming up and was definitely fortunate in my teachers) funny and approachable.

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  4. I enjoyed school growing up but it's definitely not for everyone. I always thought that several friends were a lot smarter than their grades indicated because they spent more time being social than learning.

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  5. Jenny - I am glad you're willing to give this one a try. You are right - it is definitely funny and very approachable. I'll be interested to hear what you think!

    Ladytink - It is funny how my own school experiences color my impressions (rightly or wrongly) of what's going on with my children at school. And I agree - grades certainly aren't the best indicator of intelligence!

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  6. How interesting. As you know, I'm not a fan of homeschooling (and that fact that there are no requirements for a parent to home school heightens my discomfort of this form of education), but I like your discussion on it.

    Also, I LOVE the language immersion program and I hope when I have kids I can get them in such a program, how great!

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  7. VA Gal - I love the language immersion programs, too, and wish more schools had them. It seems ridiculous to wait until that open window of language learning opportunity has passed before offering foreign languages to kids.

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