This Rocky Road We’ve Traveled

When the Los Angeles Unified School District kicked off the 2019 spring semester with a strike, parents reacted in a myriad of ways. Many kept their kids home or sent them to child care in a show of support for the union. Some military families, who are allowed by the state of California to send their kids to any school that has space, pulled their children out of LAUSD and enrolled them in neighboring school districts. And some, with serious reluctance, sent their kids on to school each day. As for our son, we conducted a trial run of homeschooling.

I hadn’t been particularly happy with the education our son was getting in the LAUSD system. Although he was only in the first grade, I felt that the student to teacher ratio, coupled with the lack of classroom aides, was hindering how much was being accomplished each day. Many aspects of a well-rounded education were falling between the cracks and we worried that he would leave California unprepared for what would be asked of him at his new school when we moved the following summer.

One week of homeschooling during a strike went surprisingly well. We completed Kiwi Crate boxes and walked the picket line. We posted pictures of our Lego art on social media and we baked brownies. I began to look at homeschool curriculum while he watched Molly of Denali. By the time classes resumed the following week, I was convinced that I can do this. Then I convinced myself I could not do this. And I vacillated wildly between conviction and apprehension for almost 4 months…until I attended a homeschool conference last June.

I filed into hotel meeting rooms for 2 days, from 8 AM – 5 PM, listening to industry leaders and other homeschooling parents give advice and maxims on effectively educating my child. I shopped the vendors with their curricula that covered everything from math and language arts to art history appreciation, nutrition, and coding. By the time I headed home, I had a solid plan for what our 2019-2020 school year was going to look like.

I had no idea it would be so difficult to get our son on board with my solid plan.

Experienced homeschooling parents had told me that it can take up to a year for a child who has been in a traditional public school setting to adjust to the freedom of homeschooling. But our son had attended 4 different schools in 6 years. I was, if nothing else, assured of his resiliency. He would take to this like he had always done, with a cheerful heart and an appreciation for the adventure.

He did not take to it with it a cheerful heart or an appreciation for the adventure. He cried for 2 weeks. My mom reminded me that I cried every day of the second grade. I looked at my second grader and instantly regretted my decision to homeschool him this particular year.

In California, homeschools can be considered “public schools” if you enroll in a homeschool charter school. Also in California, the money set aside for each child’s education follows the child. So, by unenrolling him in a LAUSD school and enrolling him in this homeschool public “charter” school, I was given approximately $2000 to purchase curricula, memberships and extracurricular activities. The rules for how the money can be spent are precise and a little bit tedious, as well as unimportant unless you find yourself in our exact situation, but suffice it to say I had bought all. the. things. I know our son, possibly better than he knows himself, and I had purchased everything that would make learning a joy…except when it came to math and language arts. And for those, I purchased traditional curricula from BookShark and Eureka Math, which would ensure that he was prepared for whatever public school he would enter next. If I was a cooler mom, I would have found a way to work math and language arts into his Lego play and his current obsession with Scooby Doo, but the fact is, when you are not an education professional, you follow the curriculum because you don’t want to unwittingly create any gaps in learning. As a result, he fought me on language arts and math every single day.

FOR EIGHT MONTHS.

Y’all…I cannot even tell you how not fun homeschooling was for those 8 months. Neal would come home and my son and I would not be talking to each other. He and I had said things. Not nice things. At least once a day I would threaten to take him back to the elementary school down the street. He would cry and beg me to let him stay home. He refused to go back to public school. He refused to do the work I was assigning him. I had 2 jobs: mom and teacher. And I was absolutely bombing at both of them. One night, after I had escaped with my mom friends in the neighborhood to the Thai restaurant down the street, I came home to find our son hosing down the back porch. At 9:30 PM. My husband had informed him that his job right now is to go to school and if he won’t do that, then he will work. He will perform manual labor in our home from sun up to sun down. By 7:30 AM the next morning, he had changed his tune significantly. Too bad it was Saturday.

And on we went like this, through October, November, and December. We extended Christmas break by a week because I just couldn’t endure any more fighting during the season of Christ’s birth. And when we finally returned in January, it seemed we had turned a corner. Our son knew what was expected of him each day (because it was the exact same routine we had begun in August) and sometimes he would even start working before I asked. Until he got to the math.

I have never really understood this resistance to math because he’s actually very good at it. The same addition and subtraction problems he can do in his head, I have to work out on a piece of scratch paper. Common core, for all of its faults, has taught him some spectacular number sense. But when I hand him 3 worksheets of 4 problems each, his head starts to swim and he manages to work up several real tears before storming up the stairs.

If I had to homeschool more than one child, I don’t know what I would be doing differently at this point. Something would have to give because I would not have the luxury of spending 4 hours cajoling one child into doing 9 math problems.

As we finish out the year, our daily rhythm, on the whole, has smoothed significantly. And we have, together, learned quite a bit about ancient civilizations, the animal world, the human body, famous artists, proper grammar, and how to play the recorder. We have read genuinely enjoyable children’s books like Owls in the Family, The Year of Miss Agnes, Gooney Bird Greene, Little Pear, Homer Price and Detectives in Togas. We’ve also read several Roald Dahl books, including James and the Giant Peach, The BFG, Going Solo (I skipped over the war scenes where pilots were dying in gruesome ways), The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Matilda. Because we finished our assigned read-alouds for the year with 2 months left to go, I started Little House on the Prairie, which seemed fitting considering this period of isolation that we are now experiencing. We start our day with me reading one or two chapters while our son builds detailed, labyrinthine cities in Minecraft. I know he’s listening, though, because sometimes structures I’ve described end up in his carefully crafted scenes.

From there, we read the assigned pages of science and history, which are currently focused on the human body and ancient Rome, respectively. He has a couple of questions to answer about each and then we start our language arts and (the dreaded) math lesson for the day. A couple of days each week we wrap up with an art project or a science experiment.

What I will take away from this year, above all else, is that nothing great and lasting was ever built in one day. In fact, the most effective way to educate anyone is little by little, each day. A steady and consistent diet of nuggets of information. Although we have only read 2 pages per day of both history and science, we have learned a great deal. And we have built a foundation of background knowledge on which he can stack more complex information about these topics in the future. He may only remember that the Scythians were like full-time RV families or that white blood cells attack Coronavirus, but the next time ancient civilizations or the human body are mentioned, it won’t be a new concept. And the battles of August feel like so long ago, I would almost be willing to do it again. Like childbirth. Sometimes you have to forget in order to be accepting of the idea of repeating it.

I wholeheartedly agree that what parents and teachers are piecing together looks nothing like what we know as homeschooling. Even homeschooling right now doesn’t look like homeschooling. The extracurricular activities and the precious play time outside each afternoon are sorely missed. My only child is missing out on being a kid with other kids. Somedays I feel like he might be one Smithsonian documentary away from emerging, post-COVID, as a 34 year old man trapped in an 8 year old’s body. His middle age parents are inadequate substitutes for the boys across the street, who often came bearing Nerf guns and a cache of foam bullets just 5 weeks ago. But we are all doing our best. We are doing the next right thing each day, whether that’s 2 hours of Scooby Doo or 30 minutes of scrubbing toilets or a 60 second dance party.

And I wonder, when our younger kids are in high school, what they will remember about this time? Surely, some will remember a time of financial stress and strained relationships…tension in the home and a palpable sense of some impending doom. Others might remember more family time and less commitments pulling them apart. Maybe they will recall a time when summer break lasted for 4 months and started before the flowers had really even started to bloom. Aside from the isolation from our friends and neighbors, our routine looks almost exactly the same. So, maybe our son will only mark this time by an increased vocabulary with words like “Coronavirus” and “social distancing”. Maybe he will remember it as the year when, by the end, everyone was mad at math, but we were all in it together.

And he wouldn’t be wrong.

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