Home School/Real School: A View from Both Sides of the Barricades: Part 2

Some parents decide before their children are born that they will home school them. I was not among their number. Frankly, had the nurse at George Washington University Hospital told me, as she handed over my first swaddled newborn, that I would spend five years teaching this child algebra, Roman history, and the difference between igneous and sedimentary rocks, I’d have been tempted to inquire about the hospital’s returns policy.

So how did I end up in the spring of 1994 sitting in a church basement, clutching a bag of fourth and fifth grade textbooks and listening as a speaker extolled the joys of home schooling?

The short answer is that we had decided to take a family timeout. I left my corporate job; my husband took temporary leave of his position teaching at the University of Chicago Law School to spend a year as a visiting professor at the University of Utah. We wanted to explore the west untrammeled by a school schedule, and home schooling would make that easier.

The longer answer is that we thought we were escaping from progressive education. As far as I could tell, the private school my children attended in Chicago taught reading using the Music Man’s “think” method: Imagine that you can read, think about reading, picture yourself reading, sit on a cushion surrounded by a pile of books, and abracadabra, you will read. At the end of first grade my older daughter could read . . . her name and one other word. We eventually hired a tutor to remedy that with a strong dose of phonics. The award-winning second grade teacher used inventive games to instill math problem-solving skills. Yet the only reason my kids knew any math facts, I’d become persuaded, was that the Turbo Math Facts computer program we’d purchased bribed them into solving problems with the promise of earning newer, bigger, and better race cars so that they could cross the finish line first. History seemed to have disappeared from the curriculum, although my daughters did study one continent each year. That continent was Africa – every year. As it happens, I had lived in Uganda as an exchange student and studied African politics in graduate school. I did not object to my children learning about Africa. I trooped off dutifully to school each year to show slides of my high school adventures in Africa. I did wonder if my kids were ever going to learn about anywhere else.

So months before we embarked on our Utah “gap year,” I arrived at a home school fair in suburban Illinois ready to pay up to get back to basics. The textbook vendors must have thrilled as I threw my credit card at one traditional textbook/workbook set after another. If ten long division problems were good, twenty would be even better. Maps with labels to fill in thrilled me. So did stolid multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank chapter tests.

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