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My family never planned to homeschool. After all, we thought, wasn’t homeschooling for left wing freaks and right wing religious zealots? As it turned out, we had an important lesson to learn, one which would demolish the myths of who homeschools, as we went through the process of creatively educating our highly gifted, twice exceptional children.
My daughter hit all the ‘normal’ developmental milestones very early, and was an avid and self-taught reader since the age of three years old. She attended a parent participation nursery school, and we could see that she was smarter than some of the other kids, but there were a number of other bright kids in the class, as well. We were proud of her intelligence, but did not yet equate it with
anything other than an ability to master academic skills slightly ahead of the curve. When she was five years old, we dutifully began researching kindergartens in our area. We briefly considered private schools, but crossed them off of our list along with playing the lottery to pay for them. That left us, we thought, with just the public school option. We figured we had a choice between a neighborhood school or one of the alternative schools in the district.
There were three alternatives, each with different educational philosophies, and eventually we narrowed it down to an open classroom style school in the hopes that she would get a more individualized education there, and the neighborhood school, located directly across the street from us, which seemed academically constraining but not extraordinarily so. Both schools had excellent reputations, and we thought that meant that they would, by definition, be good places for our highly gifted daughter. After all, isn’t a “good school” what everyone wants for their child?
The catch for us was that our daughter has life threatening food allergies, and we needed to be sure that there were procedures in place to ensure her safety – one prefers one’s child to remain alive without special intervention through the course of the school year, of course.
Because we had to spend a great deal of time meeting with teachers, administrators and school nurses, we also by necessity made a number of visits to the schools and the classroom. We were not at all impressed with the recommended safety procedures for prevention of allergic reactions; but what really struck me were the interactions in the classrooms themselves.
The teachers were very nice, and I truly believe they had the best interests of the children in mind, but they did not seem to understand my questions about learning styles or about advanced materials. My daughter had been reading fluently at an advanced level for some time by then, and I ran into policies requiring that she read what was available for all of the children (“it wouldn’t be fair to give her special privileges”) and that she choose library books exclusively from the selection for her age group.
I noticed that there were no quiet spaces in any of the classrooms for children who wanted to focus on their work – both the open and traditional classrooms would be a nightmare for a child with auditory or vision processing issues. I was informed that the children would spend 20 minutes at a time on each subject before they all had to move on, because “the children can’t focus any longer than that.” I wondered if my child was really that different, because I knew that it would take her 20 minutes just to observe what was going on, and only then would she be ready to roll up her sleeves and join in.
The more I visited the classrooms and the more I learned about these schools of high reputation, the less I worried about my daughter’s physical health and the more I worried about her mental and intellectual health.
These did not seem to me to be environments where she would be nurtured in a manner appropriate to her individual needs, but rather places that would adequately address the mean ability level and continue to crank out high test scores with the collateral damage of losing a handful of students on either end of the curve each year. I did not want my daughter to be one of those children, nor my son once he arrived at “school age.” I was left wondering what else to do.
I knew a few families who had chosen homeschooling, but until this point I had written off the idea as something just a little weird. It was certainly not what my family was going to do! Nonetheless, I felt pushed into exploring the possibilities, and after joining a local homeschool support group and attending their activities as well as a statewide homeschool conference, my husband and I were convinced that homeschooling was worth a try. We stuck with it for the kindergarten year, doing nothing especially academic but allowing for child-led learning, and went back to the school district for a WIAT assessment at the end of the school year. The results were a significant spread between high and low scores, both of which were well into the gifted range. Long story short, the school psychologist who administered the test told us that the school could do nothing for my little girl and they recommended we continue homeschooling. At last, we were in agreement!
Schools have limits as to the resources they can provide, but as homeschoolers, our limits have more to do with personal and community resources and our own creativity. We know homeschoolers who have a great deal of disposable income and others who have very little, and we see them all regularly at activities such as homeschool choir, social studies clubs, classes at local science museums, scouting activities and park days (many of these activities are free or low cost). My children have no shortage of a diversity of others with whom to interact, and they can spend the time with these people – children and adults of all ages – socializing with them and learning from them. They are learning based on their interests, at their own pace and in the depth they desire.
We don’t feel the need to restrict ourselves to a curriculum set out by the state government because we can see that the children are learning more and faster by following the path that excites them, and in the ways that speak to them best.
We do very little at home that looks like school, but we do sign the children up for classes and activities and we take lots of road trips, camping as much as possible because that is something we enjoy. My kids get along with each other most of the time, and they have made friends like themselves in other parts of the country.
Despite the stress of being with my children so much of the time (“school as babysitter” certainly holds appeal!), I manage to work and to find personal time, and I enjoy the time I have with my kids when they are not rushing around to ‘go to school, go to bed, do their homework’ and I do not have to drain my energy advocating for them in school. The kids are generally happy and I can see that they are learning. For our family, homeschooling is the educational option that works best.
Since this post was written almost ten years ago, I thought I'd add a postscript sharing how this has worked out for us. My daughter is now 17 years old. After years of homeschooling, travel, social opportunities and enrichment classes, she began taking college classes on the day after her 13th birthday. It took her some time to adjust, but after the first quarter she was invited to join the Early Entry program. After two years, she applied as a 'transfer' student and matriculated full-time. She has been involved with all kinds of campus organizations and was inducted into two honor societies. We are looking forward to her graduation in June 2014 with a B.Sc.! Her next stop is graduate school. My son is now 14 years old and is auditing college classes while he continues to homeschool. He has a particularly unusual set of learning challenges, and the ability to tailor his education to his needs has allowed him to thrive. ~ CBG
Corin Barsily Goodwin is the Executive Director of Gifted Homeschoolers Forum.