In Washington State, where I live, homeschooled students are required to be tested or assessed once a year. Sometimes this event makes me nervous. What have we done all year? Will it be on the test? Did my kids learn anything that day when we went to the art museum? theatre? Capitol building? Oh shoot, just what are my kids learning anyway?
When my oldest daughter was nine years old, she went through a phase where anything I “taught” her went in one ear and out the other. It seemed like she didn’t retain anything at all that year, academically. My husband and I had been homeschooling our two daughters for three years by that time and my confidence was still a little shaky. I guess I felt like I had to prove to myself and others that homeschooling worked. I belonged to a great support group but during that time it seemed like the support I received came in the form of well-intentioned tips from other homeschooling parents that made me feel like I wasn’t doing a very good job.
It’s not that I felt inadequate because I was really trying, but I did feel like everyone else was having an easier time of it. One friend told me how her daughter—the same age as mine—won first place in a spelling bee and got her picture in the paper. “She even remembered to capitalize,” she told me. My daughter struggled with spelling, so I felt a little bad. Another family’s four kids memorized the number Pi—you know, the math number that starts out 3.14 something or other and goes on forever—to the nth degree. My daughter wasn’t a math wizard either, so again I felt a little bad.
I told my husband that I was worried about our daughter. I thought maybe she had a learning issue. Seriously, I was frustrated by our seeming lack of progress. Just what am I teaching her? I wondered. Was there anything I could do to bridge the gap between my attempts to educate my daughter and her ability to understand?
I knew that I had to shift gears, so I tried to take a more natural approach to learning. Rather than joining a co-op and having my two kids take classes, we did our book time at home. And that book time started to look like . . . me reading to them. And I enjoyed reading to them, so our days started to have a better feel to them, too.
We also started to take more field trips, sometimes as part of a group and sometimes with just our family. We rode an antique train and learned about the railroad history in our area. From that we learned how technology had a huge impact in our region and across the country. We visited a college that houses chimpanzees and observed how researchers communicate with them. We joined a girls’ book club and read all sorts of amazing stories and then did a craft, cooking project, or field trip associated with the book. Meanwhile, back at home, we relaxed a bit and looked forward to our next great adventure.
Some days sunny weather beckoned to us and we had to go outside. Sometimes we’d do something educational like walk along the boardwalk over marshes and wetlands and once we even saw a blue heron fishing from the banks. Other days we’d see something ordinary, like a robin flying from her nest as we passed by and we’d take a little peek to see her blue eggs. These moments became magical because I witnessed the joys of wonder and curiosity on the faces of my children. And these experiences from nature always sparked an interest in new books from the library.
Both girls started to practice martial arts, and while we’d signed them up for the self-defense benefits, they learned other things there, too. Of course they both learned different forms and strikes and blocks. But maybe more importantly, they learned to set their own goals to progress from one belt to the next after mastering their forms and memorizing children’s home rules.
I started to realize that there was nothing wrong with either of my kids. If a child learns something more quickly (or more slowly) than her peers, it’s neither a sign of genius nor a sign of trouble. And that’s the beauty of homeschooling. As parents, we love our kids more than anyone else ever could, and we really do want them to succeed. Sometimes we have to step back and ask ourselves what that success looks like. Does success mean that my child will accomplish the same milestones along the same timetable as another child? Or does it mean that we can learn and explore together as a family and not worry about what other families are accomplishing in their own homeschools?
Sometimes learning looks like a child:
- Sketching in a book (art, hand-eye coordination, self-expression)
- Performing a song from memory (music appreciation, memorization, recitation, public speaking)
- Planning and preparing a meal (list making, table setting, shopping, kitchen safety)
- Making pillowcases out of scrap fabric (design, estimation, fine motor skills)
- Arranging flowers from the garden (nature, artistry)
- Making up a new game (critical thinking, planning, execution, revision)
- Thinking of ways to earn money (planning, marketing, list making)
- Planting seeds (science, nature)
- Riding horses (care for and respect of animals, balance, core strength)
- Practicing martial arts (self-control, confidence, public speaking, goal setting)
- Volunteering for a cause (serving others, making the community better)
- Planning a family vacation (logistics, map reading, budget creation)
When we spend so much time with our kids each day we learn when to push a little and when to offer a breath of fresh air or just a change of scenery. I don’t regret the year that my daughter had such difficulty learning. While we homeschooled throughout that year I developed a great compassion for students who regularly struggle, and we got creative. Not all great learning has to come from books or flows effortlessly from teacher to student. And sometimes learning is just plain fun!
Four years later, I can look at photos of the interests and activities my daughter has now and see what a waste of time it was for me to worry at all. Despite the issues she had earlier, my now-teenage daughter has gone on to accomplish some great things. She has continued to train in martial arts, and now she’s on track to test for her 2nd degree black belt. She regularly leads classes, helps teach taekwondo to elementary kids at public schools, and leads a performance demo team.
She’s gotten involved in a civics program at the YMCA, and learned how to write and debate bills with students from all across the state. She’s developed an interest in high fashion and wanted to try modeling, and she’s recently gone on a few photo shoots. She also volunteers and babysits regularly so she’s gotten a taste of real work. Because she’s earning her own money, she’s now got her own banking account and set up her own budget for spending and saving.
I think when children learn at home in a supportive environment and their parents provide the encouragement they need when times are tough, they develop confidence and other skills that may not be best learned through books. For her 13th birthday she asked for a guitar, and now she’s learning how to play songs she hears on the radio. My daughter knows that her family is here to support her in whatever she chooses to do. She has the freedom to choose the way to learn something that best works for her and she can now tell me right away if a text book or online class isn’t working for her. We can decide together if she needs to make a change or put it off for another six months and try again. That strategy has helped our homeschooling efforts tremendously. Knowing that I won’t make her stick with an ineffective course of study, and giving her a voice in her homeschooling career makes it more of a partnership between us and less of a struggle.
I do still worry about testing time. How can I not worry? I invest a great deal of my time, energy, and creativity in my children, and I’m sure I’m not the only mom who feels like her children’s scores are a direct reflection of how good a job she’s doing when she teaches her children. The reality is that not everything we do will ever show up on a test.
After our first warm day of spring, my 11-year-old made the following post to her Facebook page: “Had fun today with the good weather!!!! Went for a bike ride with Jessica wearing our new sun glasses!!!!” Does it really get any better than that? So when I ask myself, What are my kids learning anyway? my answer is best given after a few years have passed. My kids are definitely learning…to be individual, to live each day to the fullest, and to follow their dreams.