Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Why We Do

Recently, I was hanging out in a Dollar store while I waited for two of our kids who were taking an art class.  I was purchasing a few items for our upcoming homeschool Valentine's party that I was putting together with some other homeschooling family friends we know.  A teenager we know from church was there and he saw me loading up the checkout belt with my items and wondered why I was buying those things.  I explained what they were for and he asked this question, which I've been asked many times over the past three years or so in some form or another, and that's...

"Why don't you have your kids in real school?"

I want to first explain that the word "real" sets off a chain reaction of negative emotion in me beyond some of the worst swear words.  It's personal to me because soon after our adoption of our oldest three kids, they decided to gang up on me secretly, by reminding each other who their "real" mom was and it wasn't me.
I don't hold grudges against our children's birthmothers.  They have their own struggles and the path they were on led them to the loss of custody and rights over their children.  We were there with a softball glove so the kids would have a safe landing.  No matter what their birth certificates read, I will never be able to go back in time to be there on the day(s) of their birth(s).  Their birthmothers were their mothers first and I would never presume to take that away from the women or the kids.

However, the word real irks me because of what it represents.  I'm the one there each day drying the tears on the faces of these children as they struggle with their own pains from their past.  I'm the one bandaging their scraped knees when they fall.  I help them with school work, I pray with them, I hug and kiss them till they're blushing from embarrassment and I try to remember to remind them about regular hygiene and cleaning their rooms.  I'm the one there at night to tuck them in.

Am I imagining all this stuff? When they scream insults at me, do I not feel hurt?  When they cuddle with me, do I not feel warm joy?  When they ride their bikes along a brick wall at the park after they've been warned (by me) not to do that dozens of times and then they fall and injure themselves, do I not feel frustration and concern and worry?  How in the world can I not be their real mom?  (And yes, the brick wall thing did happen a few months back with our middle son, Z.  True story.)

So, instead, I banned the word from our kids' vocabulary for a while.  The birthmoms and me, we're all real mothers or none of us are.  That's the way I see it.  Thankfully, in time, the kids have learned that I'm the mom they can rely on through thick and thin.  That's what matters most for now.

Secondly, our road to becoming a homeschooling family was surprising and complex.  That, however, does not mean that I am a militant homeschool mom who insists it is the right way or the only real way to educate children.  I've met some of those families (pardon me if you are one of them), but they're a little bit annoying.  I think families should have the right to decide what is best for their children with regards to education, however, there are so many things to consider when making a decision.

For us, homeschooling had been something we'd thought about long before the kids entered the picture.  When they first arrived, as foster children, the State insisted that they must be enrolled in public schools.  We followed procedure on this.  But during the three-plus years we fostered them, we began to realize how much of a disservice the public schools were doing for these kids.

Our oldest child, S, had missed all of kindergarten and most of first and second grades.  She was moved around to various foster homes during third grade.  By the time we were able to adopt her, she was just entering sixth grade and she was significantly behind.  She was barely able to add, she couldn't spell and she hated school with a burning passion because it made her feel like a failure.

We decided to homeschool her for a year to help her catch up.  We unofficially homeschooled her during the summer between fourth and fifth grades and saw her get excited about knowledge for the first time, so we were sure it was something she'd flourish in full time.

The oldest two kids, both had IEP's in public school and were said to have various learning disabilities and other issues that allowed them to get some extra help.  But ultimately, we were told again and again that the public school system could not provide enough help because of the number of other kids requiring attention.

Also, while the kids were the dreaded, "foster children," teachers would automatically assume they were partly to blame for any classroom disruption.  We were constantly meeting with teachers and school staff to get them the extra help they required or to help teachers learn how to be less biased against them.  I even became a licensed Educational Surrogate in that state, so I could legally represent our foster children (and others in the system) in the schools.

Ultimately, I repeatedly hit brick walls and our kids were the ones suffering because of it.  When our son, H, was enrolled in first grade at the public school, we pulled him out by Thanksgiving because of many reasons, but were appalled to learn that his teacher had yet to even read his IEP.

When Z entered kindergarten, he lasted until Christmas break before we pulled him.  His attachment issues were made worse by transitioning from home to school to home again each day.  His bond with us was getting weaker, not stronger, and his abilities to manipulate us and the teacher against each other were becoming better.  Finally, when we'd decided to try homeschooling him, our reassurance came that afternoon when the teacher met me in the hallway to apologize and beg forgiveness because she had slapped him in the arm.

In her thirty years of experience, she'd never struck a child and she looked as though she'd failed herself in the worst possible way.  I knew what he'd put her through every day with name-calling, spitting, lashing out at her and she'd been strong through it all.  She'd read the books we'd recommended and she got to know him and his troubles better than anyone besides us had ever attempted to do.  I forgave the woman, of course, but I knew it was no longer fair to expect her to co-parent with us.  We would need to do it all -- parenting, teaching, disciplining and loving.

It was only a matter of time and our move from there to New Mexico and we decided our youngest two would not be enrolled in the public school system.  So we homeschool all five kids.  Our oldest began in sixth grade and she is now in tenth.  We have experienced a lot of challenges along the way, but we've learned so much about what works and what does not.  We have been blessed time and again for making this decision for our family.

There are days, yes, when I want to toss up my hands, enroll them in public schools and clean up our den so that maybe it might stay clean and organized for more than a day.  But I know that the price for doing that would be ridiculously high.  We would lose so much.

There are days when our children think they would like to hop on the bus like many of the kids in the neighborhood and leave me at home so they can go, be free and unsupervised somewhere else.  Then they realize how much they like it when we can travel any time of year, start on school work at 8:00am or 2:00pm or 8:00pm, or be finished with all their work for their day in a few hours instead of done at 4:30pm with homework still waiting for them to fit around team practices, family dinner and television time.

I have been challenged to make lesson plans suitable for grades kindergarten through tenth this year and it's not easy!  But I love it.  I also love realizing that we've gotten off to a rocky start on a particular day for whatever reason and so we'll all head to the park for P.E. instead of sitting around with books and papers; if it's rainy, maybe Daddy will teach them by allowing them to help him bake or build something, reinforcing lessons in measurements, math, reading and science -- besides learning life skills.

School for us doesn't happen Monday through Friday.  School for us is a way of life.  It's a love of learning and finding new ways to explore the world to develop understanding and skills that will help them become better adults.  School for us takes on many forms, all of them enrichment for our lives.  Our way of schooling is very real and completely on purpose.

I know this post has gone on for an eternity, but while I'm on the subject of education, I would be terribly remiss if I did not include a quick recommendation for a book called Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, by John Taylor Gatto.

Both C and I read this book after we began homeschooling and our eyes were opened incredibly wide to a new reality about public and private schools.  We were both raised in public schools and have managed to find our way as adults.  However, it is incredible to think about how hard our families had to fight to instill in us a passion to learn in spite of so many teachers who just wanted to assign a required set of worksheets and call it a day.

At any rate, this book reassured us about our homeschooling plans and we dug in deeper in order to make it the best learning experience we could for the kids.  That doesn't mean I don't have any down days when I just shove a couple worksheets printed off the Internet in front of the kids because I have a headache ... but I try to make it the exception and not the rule.

So to that teenager and anyone else out there who wonders why we do have our kids in real school, this is the reason in a nutshell.

If we go back to our kids' argument that the first mom is the real one, then homeschool wins as the first school.  I mean, come on, there were no public schools available back when Cain and Abel needed an education -- who do you think were their teachers?


  1. Great post, and I appreciate that you recognize it's not always the best option for every child or parent (people get defensive about this). Obviously some parents just don't feel able to school their kids, and that's their decision (and possibly a very good one!). I can think of some parents that are better off sending their kids to public/private school. :P But I know God has been preparing you for this since we were little and you were teaching me and D and assigning us papers in the summer. :) It sounds like a pretty daunting task to me, but fortunately I don't have to worry about it (yet/ever?).

  2. Thank you for the compliment. I worry it's too long ... but it's an important subject to me. I should also mention, I don't hold any ill will towards people who ask me questions like the teen did ... it's a chance to educate others on something! :)

  3. Hi there, I'm a friend of Jessica's. This was a great, thoughtful post about the way you parent/school your kids. (There really isn't a clear line where parenting ends and education begins, though, is there?:D) I was homeschooled myself but making the decision to educate my own children at home was still surprisingly complex and I still second guess myself a lot. My eldest is only 5, though, so I get to put my toes in gradually--kudos to you for taking on such a diverse range of students all at once! Wow! :) Thanks for sharing!


  4. This is well said! It's always hard, at least for mefor me, to figure out how to answer the question of why I didn't go to "real" school (how I hate that terminology!).

  5. I'm so happy to have received multiple comments. I heart them so! :) Thank you all.

    Simplythis, I agree with you that the line between parenting and educating is exceptionally blurry. Mostly, it's fine. This did bother our teen for a while and we ran into some struggles. We found that setting a time of day when we would be all done "nagging" her about school work helped. Of course we weren't nagging, really, but checking in or reminding her about what she needed to catch up on tomorrow, but everybody needs some downtime. So if I think of something in the evenings regarding school for her, I write it down and talk about it with her in the morning when she's at her best time of day and better able to listen.

    You won't have to worry so much about that for now, but maybe other moms of teens reading have had similar struggles?

  6. I really appreciate this post and how clearly you articulated why it is so important for your family to homeschool. I was homeschooled from kindergarten through high school graduation and am so grateful. It's hard to communicate why I'm so glad for my educational background when talking to peers who grew up in public/private school. Homeschooling and the mindset behind it can be hard to explain, but I think you said all of this *so well*! <3

  7. This was really interesting. I admire what you're doing and think your reasons for doing it are all very sound!

  8. Great post!
    Coming from a homeschooling family, I know about some of the things you're talking about (though none of us are adopted).
    Bless you for your bravery and doing what needed to be done despite the opposition.

    Like Jessica mentioned, I know of some parents who should never homeschool and then I know of some who it fits so perfectly!

  9. Thank you, all! I think I've gotten more comments on this post than all the others. Wild!

  10. I may have re-spread the word about your blog. :) People like reminders.

  11. Hello, R., another homeschooled friend of Jessica's chiming in. ;) My mother homeschooled me Pre-K through 12th and continues to homeschool my younger siblings; no easy task for anyone, but esp. demanding when one's children number as many as hers. She knows what it is to, from the world's perspective, "have no life" because she lives for her children--and she wouldn't have it any other way. She is Supermom, the most beautiful and sacrificial person I know, and I can only hope to someday emulate her, and other supermoms like yourself.

    As my first child kicks beneath my ribs, your post served as a reminder to me just how much work goes into the care of a child; not simply seeing that they are washed and fed, but in tending to their minds, specifically in taking sole responsibility for their education (for those who choose this route). While I have some experience teaching younger siblings, often the prospect of homeschooling my own children seems daunting. Your post also reminded me why my husband and I are leaning heavily in this direction: because, for various reasons, we think it is best for our children. I don't know your educational background, you could be a rocket scientist or at least equipped with a degree in elementary education; but your post reminded me homeschooling isn't all about what head knowledge parents possess, I shouldn't be afraid of my own stupidity. I can do this, I can teach my child; millions of parents undertake this task, and many children are ever grateful for that undertaking. Homeschooling is less about the size of the head and more about the size of the heart. Kudos to you, "Mom."

  12. Unpoedic, thank you for your thoughts and comments and congrats on your coming child. :)

    As for my background, I graduated high school, attended some college -- got my A.S. in Business after six years of part-time effort. I would love to continue my college education at some point, but not till the kids are older. I made decent grades in school, but the funny thing is that I don't remember a whole lot that I learned there.

    I have learned more in 3-4 years of homeschooling our kids than I did in 13 years of public school. I'm remembering it better, too, because of the way we learn it ... more hands on, lots of reading, field trips, etc. It's a wonderful way to make it stick.

    So if our children learn nothing with the efforts we put in to teaching them ... at least I'll be increasing in knowledge (and hopefully, wisdom) and for the day I get back to college ... maybe it'll go a little easier for all this prep work I'm doing. Ha.

    The main thing I wanted to let you know is that I was terrified when we started. What I haven't known, I learn in order to teach them. My husband has his subject strengths as well and that helps immensely in the moments when I can't think of any other way to say it and they just keep staring at me with a blank look. We also use a lot of free library programs and community programs to supplement what we do at home and provide opportunities for social interactions.

    Believe in yourself and know that you, too, can do it if you really want to. :) -R