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Faith in Vermont, California Sabbatical: The Surprising Joy of Homeschooling

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Posted on March 22, 2016 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



Husband: I was thinking we could go to Berkeley for the second half of my sabbatical. We have family and friends there, and I could do research in my old department at UC Berkeley.

Me: Sure, that makes sense.

Husband: And we’d enroll the girls in school in Berkeley for the spring?

Me: Oh no, I’ll just homeschool them while we’re out there.

And so, over burgers at Park Squeeze in Vergennes in the spring of 2014, some very major decisions were made very quickly.

During sabbatical, we would have two school-aged daughters: a first grader and a second grader. Both were happily enrolled in our town’s elementary school, a school with 400 students and an average class size of 18.

Had you asked me about homeschooling before this sabbatical, I would have answered, “Absolutely NOT!” (or stronger words to that effect.) As a mother of four young children, those school hours were the key to my sanity.

But I had heard from Berkeley friends about the process of enrolling their children in the Berkeley public schools, and it sounded overwhelming.

There are 11 elementary schools in the city of Berkeley, serving 4,040 students. These schools are divided into three geographic districts; families within each district rank their school choices, and students are assigned a school based on these preferences. I heard stories of long waiting lists, families concerned about being assigned to schools that weren’t their top choice, and parents sitting for over 30 minutes to submit their paperwork at the school district offices.

If sanity was my goal, homeschooling seemed like the way to go.

My knee-jerk decision to homeschool was the beginning of a journey involving distinct emotional stages. 

The first stage, of course, was denial. In the days following my decision, I tossed around statements like, “It’ll only be for five months; I can do anything for five months!” “The point of sabbatical is to have an adventure; this will free us up to explore!” and “It’ll be fun!” After all, I’d spent six years after college teaching second, third, and fourth grades. I had an advanced degree in elementary education. How hard could this be?

Then I got the paperwork from the Vermont Agency of Education’s Home Study Office, and I thought, What have I done?

Homeschooling in Vermont has increased by 40% over the past 14 years; by 2014, 2.8% of Vermont’s statewide student body was homeschooled. In addition, we live in a college town where faculty families take sabbaticals frequently. So I assumed that making our homeschooling plans “official” would be quick and painless. I imagined an informal letter sent to our school, followed by friendly handshakes with the teachers. I didn’t expect that I’d have to submit a curriculum plan outlining a detailed course of study in eight subject areas (Language Arts, Math, History, P.E., Health, Literature, Science, and Fine Arts) for each child.

Don’t get me wrong: I do not consider it unreasonable for the Vermont Home Study Office to hold me accountable for my teaching; in fact, I’m grateful that they did. Nor can I blame them for requesting that my children have a year-end assessment by a licensed teacher. But it was with the application packet’s arrival that reality set in.

That packet sat on my desk throughout the spring and summer of 2015, while I moved through the stages of regret, depression, and bargaining. My bargaining centered around the question of whether we’d be able to find affordable rental housing in Berkeley: Without a place to stay, we couldn’t go, and if we couldn’t go, I wasn’t about to waste time filling out those homeschool applications.

(I was a lovely person to live with in the spring and summer of 2015.)

Once we finally found a house to rent, I grudgingly revisited the homeschool paperwork gathering dust on my desk. The acceptance stage began: I contacted friends who homeschool and asked for their advice.

The history of homeschooling in the United States is convoluted, and complicated by legal and religious issues. During the first century of this country’s history, most schooling was some version of homeschooling. In 1852, Massachusetts became the first state to pass a compulsory school attendance law; as every other state in the union followed suit over the next 60 years, homeschooling became less common.

The birth of the modern homeschooling movement happened around 1977, when John Holt, an educational theorist and the father of “unschooling,” launched his newsletter “Growing Without Schooling,” in which he argued against formal education’s oppressive environment. During the same period, Dr. Raymond and Dorothy Moore began publishing the results of their early childhood education research, culminating in 1981’s Home Grown Kids, which suggested that children benefitted from homeschooling through age eight or nine.  

Homeschooling became gradually more popular, embraced by evangelical Christian families on one side, and what might be referred to as “hippies and homesteaders” on the other. By 1993, homeschooling was legal in all 50 states; today, 3.4% of the United States’ school-age population is homeschooled.

There are numerous approaches to homeschooling, from “Classical Education,” emphasizing grammar, logic, and rhetoric, to “Unschooling,” in which children pursue their own interests with few texts or tests. I settled on the Charlotte Mason method, named for the 19th century British educator who founded it. Charlotte Mason homeschooling involves short lessons (10 to 20 minutes per subject for younger children) and features narration, literature, nature study, and the arts. It seemed the best fit for our family.

When I began ordering the books we’d use, I started getting excited. If you’re a book junkie, like me, homeschooling feeds your habit like nothing else. Because there are always new things to learn, I spend hours each week at the Berkeley Public Library, maxing out my library card’s 50-book limit with volumes on the Roman Empire, Honeybees, Poetry, and Astronomy.

As it turns out, homeschooling my daughters may be the highlight of this sabbatical.

We have lessons from 9:00 AM until noon. We do math and reading every day. Science, four days a week, involves a continuing study of birds interspersed with units on famous female naturalists, flowers, lemons, bees, and space. Three days a week we have history: the Middle Ages, including units on Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and the Americas. Every week I introduce the girls to a famous composer and a famous artist. We sculpt, paint, knit, construct, and do needlepoint.

I get to see my daughters learn up close, while they’re fresh; we have fewer battles over homeschooling than we used to over homework, when they were tired and just wanted to play. I get to tailor what we study to their interests and pace, and to integrate all areas of our curriculum. There’s no chance of them getting lost in a classroom full of other students; they receive my (mostly) focused attention and instruction.

The challenge is that I am stuck in the house all morning teaching two children, while simultaneously trying to keep two younger children happy. When our school day ends at noon, I’m ready for a break, and I don’t always get one.

The other challenge is deciding what to do next year.

I am not homeschooling my daughters due to educational or philosophical issues with traditional schooling. I assumed they’d reintegrate into their public school when we returned to Vermont.

But when I think of sending them back to school all day, my heart breaks a little.

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, four young daughters, one anxiety-prone labradoodle — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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