Published September 1, 2013 at 4:00 a.m.
"Avaricious." My daughter, Abby, and I contemplated the first word in her bright yellow spelling book. It was her first day of eighth grade last fall. Abby's former classmates were taking their seats in new classrooms, but she and I were sitting at our kitchen counter, breakfast plates cleared, a pile of books in their place. We had decided to try homeschooling.
At that moment, I was pretty sure it was all a big mistake. What was I supposed to do with "avaricious," or the rest of the words on this list? How could I make memorizing spelling words interesting? For an entire year? Yikes.
I looked at my new "teacher's planner," listened to the clock tick and felt like an utter fraud. I put the speller to the side, and pulled the history book from the pile.
Homeschooling was something I'd sworn I would never do. I had a demanding career I loved, and it wasn't teaching. I liked knowing my kids were being taught by professionals. Abby's older siblings had completed their educations in school.
Then an unexpected opportunity shook us out of our routine.
When Abby was in seventh grade, my husband had the chance to teach and study for a year in Seville, Spain. We moved there and registered Abby at a local school. She opted to be "immersed" — she wanted to meet Spanish kids and learn their language.
In that year, my daughter's immersion became my immersion. At first, she understood nothing in school. Her teachers spoke little English. So on evenings and weekends, she and I slowly deciphered lessons on everything from ancient history to multivariable equations, relying on my college Spanish and a Spanish-English dictionary. Together, we tackled it all.
By January, Abby was hitting her stride. By April, she was doing well in school, arranging a pool party with friends, and speaking better Spanish than I ever could.
Although we were happy to return to Montpelier that summer, Abby was reluctant to go back to middle school. She worried it would be "boring" after her year abroad. Her dad and I were inclined to agree.
Abby wanted to maintain her Spanish fluency, and study advanced math. We thought she should catch up on the American history she'd missed in Spain. Plus, I'd really enjoyed working side by side with my daughter, and watching her learn, during that intense year. I wasn't quite ready to let go of that closeness.
So, despite the skepticism of certain family members who seemed to believe we were joining a weird cult, Abby and I decided to homeschool for a year.
I knew I wasn't ready to be her only teacher. Luckily for us, Vermont allows homeschoolers to take classes outside the home. Abby was accepted into Spanish IV at our high school. And at Pacem Learning Community, a nearby homeschool center, she signed up for twice-weekly physics classes. (I couldn't teach that!)
The rest, I felt I could teach — or, at least, supervise. And I'd still be able to work part time from home.
Of course, nothing went quite as anticipated; we learned as we went. Things improved when I realized that rather than pretending to know everything, I should just join Abby in learning. The online math course we'd chosen was often confusing, so we started watching the videos and reading the materials together. Then I could answer Abby's questions and check her work. It was often frustrating, but we both mastered the algebra.
And Abby resolved some issues herself. When she felt I wasn't clear enough about our plans, she created a whiteboard calendar. On Sunday nights, we'd map out the upcoming week's schedule.
As for that spelling book — boy, was it boring! Eventually we stopped worrying about Friday spelling tests and just learned to spell the words we needed for other lessons. Similarly, we abandoned regular 10:30 a.m. history sessions in favor of history field trips around New England. When you're homeschooling, your schedule is flexible.
That flexibility also allowed Abby to volunteer as a mentor for first graders in the mornings. In the spring she served as a legislative page at the Statehouse. The two of us joined a string ensemble — she playing violin, me playing cello. We still had time for writing, reading, hiking, skiing and just talking. And, unlike most of her schooled friends, Abby usually got enough sleep.
Homeschooling did involve trade-offs. I missed going to work. My husband, who worked long hours away from home, sometimes felt excluded from our domestic homeschooling scene. And though Abby still saw her friends, coordinating get-togethers with "schoolers" took extra effort.
But homeschooling was empowering and fun. We were the ones in charge of Abby's education, and we were following her dream curriculum. Family dinner conversations became livelier as our lessons overflowed into the dinner hour.
This fall, as we'd planned, my student is heading off to high school. She's looking forward to being back in a classroom. I know I'll miss all that one-on-one time we had. But as we head deeper into Abby's teenage years, I'm especially grateful for one lesson homeschooling taught us: Working together, we're a pretty good team.
This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.
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