Light-Bulb Moments in Home Schooling

“Ugh,” said my daughter Liliana one morning, melting into the limp-noodle position I know so well. It says, “I’m not excited to do any of the projects you suggest today because it is Monday even though I’m still in my giraffe pajamas.” This is one side of home schooling. The “Pièce de résistance!” But, looking at the Post-it with “indefatigable” written on it inside a star stuck to the wall behind her head (which is now slipping further beneath the table in an effort to escape), I decide that I will soldier on. Then, moments later, she reappears at the kitchen counter and asks, “Can you try to help me again?” Vindication! And so goes the rhythm of home schooling: try, meet resistance, power on, and often find joy.

Our family’s homeschool experience started when my other daughter, Phoebe, Lili’s twin sister, became adamant that she did not like Kindergarten. Her dislike wasn’t your usual level of protest but instead took the form of severe night terrors. I felt like checking myself into a hospital in order to get some rest. Having my daughter scream, “Where’s my mommy?” with her eyes wide-open in the middle of the night and then beat me with her fists is about my most painful memory of motherhood to date. It was pretty obvious she wasn’t going to return to school easily.

We had already been thinking about home schooling part-time, and now we got serious about it. I started by sitting down with Phoebe and making a chart of the days of the week. I let her pick which days she liked best at school and what she would want to do most at home on the other days. That schedule of three days at school and two at home lasted the entire year. Going back wasn’t perfect, but we had landed on a workable solution. Lili was included in this as well.

Home schooling in kindergarten was mostly about outdoor play, art, and reading. They were all mixed together and on whatever timeline worked with the weather and our day. Things had to evolve, as they got older, with school taking a bit more shape. We stuck with two days in first grade, but decided to work on a yearlong project to give things a bit more focus. They each picked a tree in our yard to observe each week. We worked in math, art, science, writingthe whole shebang. In second grade, friendships and special activities drew their interest more, and so we decided just on a single day at home. That year, they each picked a spot along the rocky seashore to observe throughout the year, tracking weather conditions and also writing poetry inspired by our senses.

Then came third grade, and they were eager to be full-time students, and they braved being in separate classrooms for the first time as well. Things were rough at the start, to be sure, and they never got to a perfect place. In fact, we went back to a day at home for Lili in the late fall. But still we thought our home school days were mostly over—until COVID-19.

Although we had home-schooled before, ramping up to all day, every day, was not easy. My peaceful writing mornings now required setting up another computer or two, making tea for two other people, and answering invaluable but innumerable questions. While it made my heart sing when both girls began writing for the school newspaper and learned to work on a deadline, it made working on a deadline a bit more of a challenge for me! And when Phoebe took up writing a cooking column as her project, again I thrived on her creativity, but I found myself a bit conked out as I helped clean up and put away the results of her recipe development.

One of the biggest challenges, however, has been to tamp down my enthusiasm for projects. Why wouldn’t they want to see how fast an ice cube melts in salt water versus fresh, or go on a bud-collecting expedition in the woods? How could they possibly prefer to play Prodigy instead, on a beautiful day? But then I turned things on their head when I realized that I was the one who would rather get outside—and so I did. I went for a walk and left the girls alone. They are nine, and there are two of them, but this was a new endeavor. Everyone was happy when I got back, including me.

They were curious to see what I’d collected, and we spent the afternoon poking into the seeds with safety pins and smashing them open onto pieces of paper. So, lesson #1: Plow ahead with a neat idea and perhaps your kids will join in. Lesson #2: Foster independence for everyone when possible.

The next light bulb went off for me while helping one of my daughters understand common denominators. After reminding myself what they are, I attempted to explain the idea. I tried again and again, but she repeated, “I just don’t get it!” Her brow furrowed, and her head fell down onto her hand. “Can I just be your mom right now and give you a hug?” I asked. “Yes!” she said. “You know, sometimes I don’t want to be your teacher. I just want to be your mom,” I said. “And I know you don’t want to be my student. You just want to be my kiddo.” Lesson #3: Define your roles clearly and share your frustrations with your “students.”

So, that’s where we are with schooling at our home. Who knows how things will shake out in the fall, but we know it will require constant shifting and recalculating, whether we are at home or at school or some of each. Regardless, the lessons we have learned together are lessons that we can carry forward. They will help to turn the “Ugh” into a “Yes!”

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