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Perks for Parents! Surprise blessings of the homeschool journey
[Reprinted from Issue 107, Winter 2010, of the PA Homeschoolers newsletter.]
I’m getting set now to chant a new Torah portion in our synagogue in a few days—in Hebrew, reading from an actual parchment scroll. This is exceptionally challenging to do—especially as I didn’t start learning Hebrew till the year 2000, at age 49. And why did I have the courage to take on this daunting task at that point in my life, a time when some adults would think studying a whole new language would be totally out of the question? I had the guts to do this because I’d already helped all of our four kids learn French during our homeschooling years.
And I was one of the worst French students in my high school class, too.
This is what dedicated homeschooling can do for you—it can truly open up whole new learning adventures not only for our kids, but for us as parents. It can help us gain the confidence to try new things for ourselves. We learn not only how our kids might learn best, but we learn how we learn best. Through helping my kids gain a grounding in French, I discovered the ways that let me do well with a foreign language. I found that I learn best with a wide range of materials, that I need lots of audio resources, lots of simple books, lots of songs, lots of films and instructional videos, lots of computer resources, along with a core program (and it better have some humor!) to introduce vocabulary and grammar topics. And I need people and travel to make it all real. So, what I initiated with my own kids, I just continued to do for myself when studying Hebrew on my own. Now one of the travel ‘perks’ of studying Hebrew is getting to visit our older daughter Molly, who now lives with her husband in Israel. And just like I used to subscribe to a children’s French Canadian science magazine for Hannah and Molly when they were young and studying French at home, now I’m subscribing to a sort of adult Weekly Reader type newspaper for myself, all in Hebrew. I know how to go about this process of language learning—and I’ve even tutored a few adults at my synagogue in beginning Hebrew. After all, I’m a homeschool mom.
Or take music. When our older son Jesse (now 32) was very young, maybe five, I decided I wanted to motivate him to start playing piano. I somehow thought I could probably teach him the ‘basics’ myself, even though my own piano background basically consisted of Heart and Soul and Chopsticks. I figured that if I just pretended that I wanted to learn to play piano, using some of the Suzuki and other materials I’d collected, that surely he’d then want to try it all for himself. Within three days I realized that would never work—if I wanted to really motivate him to play piano, then I couldn’t be pretending. I indeed had to really want to learn to play myself. And so I did. It was slow, but exhilarating. It took real work and real effort and real time—but I still fondly remember my first times sharing simple Suzuki Book One pieces with another homeschooling family. The mom in that family was also working at her own piano playing—something she hadn’t done since dropping piano as a high school student. And Jesse did learn to play also—and he still enjoys playing informally today. I got to the point of actually playing simple Clementi Sonatinas – something I never expected to be able to do when I started out. I could actually enjoy playing for others, too, something that used to panic me as a child (it was a reason I never took piano lessons when young—I’d heard I’d have to be in recitals!). But being a homeschool mom can do this sort of thing for you.
And piano makes me think of singing…. I loved to sing simple folksongs with guitar from my high school years, and discovered so many delightful children’s folksongs as my kids grew up. I noticed, though, that our kids couldn’t sing rounds well, and I definitely was having little success in guiding them in this fun skill—they’d always ‘lose’ their part if singing on their own. But we persevered (a real lifetime gift of homeschooling—this realization that anything good in life really does take perseverance…lots of perseverance!). I finally heard of a recording made by a homeschooling family from California that taught rounds (we still sell the Lester Family rounds CD in our online store). We were hooked—and learned all their songs. Singing around campfires went to a whole new level, especially when one of our favorite homeschooling families (who also eventually became our older son Jesse’s in-laws!) joined in learning these with us. But singing two or three or four-part harmonies? Never—I couldn’t do it myself. But there was another recording by the Lester family that claimed to teach this too. I bought it and listened—it sounded way too hard. No way we’d succeed. But the songs were beautiful and we tried it, persevered, took it step by step, and had fun with it. And for years we loved to regale others with our family rendition of America the Beautiful in four-part harmony. I now have a part-time job leading singing at the ‘folky’ service at our synagogue, and I do a sing-along time weekly with the preschool program there also—and I can make up alto harmonies on the spot with no problem. Again, skills and abilities nurtured during our homeschooling years are now going out in a new direction.
Some of you may have heard me speak at a homeschooling conference sometime—and I may seem to be a very relaxed and confident speaker now. I can tell you now that I never took a speech class in high school or college, and never even gave a talk to any group beyond an occasional nervous oral book report growing up. But homeschooling my own kids gave me my topic—I now knew what I wanted to speak about to others, I knew what was in my heart that I wanted to share. If I hadn’t homeschooled our kids, I might never have found this voice—and I never would have spoken to all the many groups beyond the homeschooling movement, sharing what this whole new educational choice was all about. And this ability to speak from the heart transfers to other types of public speaking also—and if anyone asks how I learned to do this, I just tell them it was my homeschooling years that taught me.
Then there’s the matter of US history teaching—I’ve been teaching homeschool students from all over the nation in my online AP US History interactive class for over 14 years now, and overall my students do incredibly well (much, much better than the national average). I hesitate to let everyone know this, but I only took one history course when I was in college—and it was first semester freshman year. And it was a terrible course. I was really an English major (and actually started out as an art major), with elementary education certification as an extra. But when we were thinking of starting up some form of online AP courses many years ago, and my husband Howard was having real trouble finding someone to lead AP US History, I finally blurted out that I was the one who should take this on. After all, I’d especially loved history with our kids—I was one of those homeschool moms who made almost anything we did into an avenue for more history learning. And I’d helped our older son Jesse through AP US History the year before, and so I’d gathered all sorts of materials from the College Board and knew all about what the exam covered, and had a good sense of the scope of learning involved (and my library of 2nd hand American history books had taken a leap, also…).
So I jumped in—and have just loved the amazing opportunities this has given to me over the years. I guided our next three kids through my online class (yes, I was a mom who communicated with my own children via computer about their assignments for this course—and they were held to all the same deadlines everyone else was meeting), and learned with them and with all my other students. Meeting so many astonishingly dedicated teens from all over the nation has been a true blessing—and the work they’ve completed is often added to our course archives of history interviews, creative biography projects, and more, enriching each successive year. I’ve personally continued to learn about our nation’s history in the same way I did with our own kids at home—by reading stacks of books, by seeing connections, by visiting history sites, by using varied media, by taking initiative. I’ve also taken College Board seminars on teaching AP US History—and rarely felt I knew less than the teachers there who’d actually majored in history in college. After all, I’d ‘homeschooled myself’ in this area. And I have at least a dozen shelves of US history-related books now to prove it.
And then there are the people I’ve gotten to know…. For those who worry that homeschool moms may grow stir-crazy never seeing another adult—well, that hasn’t been my experience. Early on we got to know other homeschooling families, and friendships formed readily as we shared about our children and how we were going about various subject areas or how we were dealing with common challenges. I met women at support group meetings, at homeschooling conferences, at the various homeschooling events for kids I organized (Geo Bee, math contests, writing club), through our Fall Testing service, through my AP US History class (I always appreciate hearing from parents), and maybe most importantly through my in-depth meetings for spring homeschool evaluations. Many of the parents I’ve met with for evaluations have become fast friends who I value so much—and I feel privileged to be a part of their families’ lives over many, many years, truly watching their kids grow up. I can’t think of more meaningful work to do—and I could start doing it even while all my kids were at home. My daughters, who’ve both worked as teachers in various settings, both got their starts perhaps during evaluation season, too—they developed their own little service of doing ‘evaluations’ for the little tagging-along siblings of the children I was seeing. They created little games to play, activities for beginning math and reading, and more as part of this work—and the families and little ones were thrilled. Homeschooling has brought many wonderful people into my life—and I’ve learned to be a better counselor and evaluator because of all these interactions.
I hesitate to add this surprise blessing of homeschooling, as this is still definitely a ‘work in progress’… but homeschooling has helped me to become more organized. Many non-homeschool moms bring this personal lack up in conversation, saying things like, “Oh, I could never do that… I’m not organized enough.” Well, I definitely am not the ‘born-organized’ type myself—but through homeschooling I really needed to develop this ability – or at least start improving. We had to find ways to keep track of our kids work, plan for portfolio presentations, and learn not to lose every pencil in the house (at least some of the time…). We had to learn to keep to our schedule of piano lessons (yes, we did eventually move to a wonderful outside teacher—she also became a dear friend…), and I had to be prepared for Math Olympiad or MathCounts coaching meetings, or have everything ready for the Geo Bee or for Writing Club. I had to learn to keep track of things for our newsletter, and then for my online class. I had to develop a helpful filing and record system for all my evaluation families. And because I was the ‘school janitor’, I had to develop some strategies there, too—and involve my kids in that area also. This is not a shining area for me still, but one I’ve definitely made progress in over time—and it’s helping me out in many other areas of my life now ‘post homeschooling’ my own crew.
Finally, there’s the blessing of getting to see my kids grow up into who they uniquely are—and each one is very different, though they’ve shared a lot together of course. I feel so grateful and awe-filled that each of our kids are honorable and good and doing well, finding their own most meaningful work and developing their own families and lives in positive ways. And when last Mother’s Day came around, I heard from each one, far-flung as they all are (Jesse in Norfolk VA, Jacob in Seattle WA, Molly near Haifa Israel, and Hannah finishing her last year of college outside of Boston MA). It was one of those “her children will rise up and call her blessed” (Proverbs 31:28) moments, as I like to put it—and made me feel very grateful for the blessing they have each been in our lives.
I sometimes think that it’s been relatively easy to see them fly off into their own lives, far from our farm home in Western PA, as we had so many close years together. As a further ‘perk’, now I have wonderful places to visit—I never would have hiked about a beautiful hidden waterfall in Washington state, or walked a half-marathon by Virginia Beach, or walked all about downtown Boston, or explored all around Israel, if it hadn’t been for our kids being in those places. I’m also always grateful for all the hi-tech ways of keeping in touch available these days (and my kids have been instrumental, too, in helping me learn how to use these!). Jesse called us last night on his cell phone while walking their dog and baby number four (sweet little bouncy Anna, born February 28, 2009); this afternoon Jacob was able to help me figure out a computer problem I was having through an IM and Google chat; yesterday I got to see over al hundred digital photos of the community theater play in Haifa that Molly’s been acting in; and Hannah and I chatted online about upcoming plans for her visit between semesters. I hope that our many homeschooling years have something to do with this blessing of having wonderful kids who make us so grateful. I think back to the very early years when we first decided on this path, and remembering how this truly felt like a proverbial leap of faith. I glad we took the jump.
Homeschooling has brought so many blessings in our lives—and helped me as much as our kids.