|Starting at Seventh|
By Susan Spann
Are you crazy?
I might be. At least, if you believe what people said about our decision to start homeschooling in the seventh grade. But if results mean anything, I’ll take crazy any day.
By the time my son Christopher reached sixth grade he had attended four different schools, one private and three public. He had experienced Christian school, secular school, gifted classes, and even an international baccalaureate program designed to meet the needs of the top 1 percent of public school students. He had high grades. He tested at the top of his class. He finished his homework every night and went off to school each morning with a backpack filled with projects. In the eyes of the world, he radiated success.
But appearances deceive.
In reality, my successful child grew increasingly miserable as the schools failed to meet his needs. He balked at assignments that sacrificed learning in favor of artwork, like a “letter from Thermopylae” in which he had to draw picture postcards of the battle between the Spartans and the Persians, but which contained no graded component for historical facts. He struggled to understand why his textbooks gave more credibility to Greek gods than to Christ and why, even in an allegedly Christian school, his teachers discriminated against his faith under the guise of “tolerance.”
My husband and I supplemented his education at home, teaching and guiding him to explore different subjects in depth. We grew crystals, read books, and let him attend the business law courses I taught at a local college. We went to church and read and discussed the Bible. We knew the schools did not and could not properly meet our son’s educational needs, but we thought we could fill the gaps, and we worked hard to teach what his classes could not or did not cover.
Our efforts had unintended results. Christopher’s teachers passed over his raised hand because they knew he had the right answer. When they did let him respond, they cut off thorough answers in favor of superficial ones, claiming that time and the other students’ lack of understanding prohibited deeper analysis. His questions went unanswered or, worse, dismissed as outside the scope of class. He grew bored and frustrated. His love for learning waned.
Fortunately, my husband and I eventually recognized the falsehood in our claim that we “supplemented” Christopher’s education. In reality, we were the education. School had become merely a babysitter, and a frustrating one at that, constantly challenging our moral, political, and religious beliefs and attempting to substitute its own. As legal counsel for The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, I spent my days helping others educate their children, and my nights undoing the web of frustration the public school had woven in my own son during the day. Somehow, the irony escaped me.
I no longer remember exactly which straw broke the camel’s back. It might have been the English teacher who didn’t correct misspelled words in student essays because “too much criticism makes children think negatively about writing” or the history teacher who explained that she didn’t teach facts and dates because “students focus on those too much and don’t spend enough time ‘connecting’ with the events.” I could mention the principal who failed to punish a boy who punched my son in the face yet put Christopher in detention for defending himself against a bully, or the P.E. teacher who overlooked locker room harassment because “boys will be boys.” These events, and many more, all played their parts.
But I do remember the night my husband Michael and I decided to get off the “allegeducation” carousel once and for all. We had a long talk about the public and private schools’ failures to meet Christopher’s educational needs, the way his love of learning had faded, and the fact that we spent every evening helping with busy work or answering questions on important topics the school dismissed as irrelevant. We had discussed homeschooling before, but it always fell into the category of “when we have the time/money/ability.” Other people homeschooled, but not us. We did just fine without.
That night, however, Michael was sure: “We should pull him out and teach him ourselves.”
“But what if we don’t do it right,” I asked, terrified to commit to what seemed an overwhelming task.
He looked at me for a moment. “That school has ruined his attitude, mocked his faith, and won’t even teach him to spell.
“We can’t do any worse.”
With those encouraging words, a homeschool was born.
Only two weeks remained in the spring semester, so we decided to let Christopher finish his sixth-grade year at the public school and start seventh-grade classes in July, on a semi-trial basis. We told ourselves that if we could not stick to a schedule, or if homeschooling “didn’t work out,” we could always send Christopher back to school in the fall. At least, that’s what I said. Michael never considered homeschool an experiment, though I think he went along with my plan in order to lessen my fear.
Because I had a lot of fear. Homeschooling seemed nearly impossible, a greater responsibility than anything I—a practicing attorney, college teacher, and former law professor—had ever undertaken before. As the only parent with teaching experience, the primary teaching role fell to me. If I failed, I would ruin my son’s life. No pressure there.
But instead of panicking, I turned where I always turn in times of stress: first to prayer, and then to action. Michael and I committed our homeschool idea to the Lord, seeking His guidance and help, as well as confirmation that we had made the correct decision. Prayer and consideration left us convinced that homeschool was the right choice. So with only one week left until the end of his sixth-grade year, we broke the news to Christopher. Eyes glowing, he gave us the largest grin we had seen in months, if not years. He also told us that ever since I had started representing The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine four years before, he had been hoping and praying that we would bring him home.
It took almost a month to decide on a seventh-grade curriculum. Because I had over ten years’ teaching experience, Michael and I opted to create our own program rather than working from a prepared list. This also allowed us to tailor the courses to Christopher’s special needs. For example, although we decided on Saxon™’s Homeschool Math 8/7, a level-appropriate math book for seventh graders, we also used Apologia™’s Exploring Creation with Biology, a book designed for older students but suited to Christopher’s special interest and talents in science. English composition, vocabulary, geography, world history, and Chinese language rounded out the initial curriculum.
Scheduling proved equally challenging. Five years ago, I had retired from full-time teaching and returned to the practice of law. In order to avoid day care or after-school programs, my husband had left his position with a video game company to become a full-time stay-home dad. The arrangement worked well when Christopher attended public school, but our new plans required me to take a more hands-on role in the education process. Again we took the problem to the Lord, and again the answer came: we could not change my schedule, so we reversed Christopher’s. He could study and do homework in the morning and have class when I came home at mid-afternoon.
This option not only worked for us, but it also had some unanticipated benefits. By doing homework in the morning, Christopher could focus on individual projects when his mind was fresh and rested. Instead of forcing an exhausted student to sit at a desk all afternoon, homeschool let him tackle the bulk of his work early in the day and take breaks when his mind needed a rest. By late afternoon he had finished his homework, relaxed a while, and prepared himself for class. Questions stayed fresh in his mind, as did preparatory readings.
Family and friends initially thought Michael and I had lost our minds. Bringing Christopher home at the time “sensible people” should consider putting their homeschooled children back into public or private school made no sense to them. They voiced a plethora of concerns, from the standard warnings about stunting Christopher’s social growth to complaints about his unusual schedule. Ironically, no one ever questioned whether or not Michael and I had the capacity and qualifications to provide a high-quality education. Instead, they worried that our son would not properly fit the mold society carved for public-school kids—a mold we had no desire for him to fit anyway.
In the beginning, I lacked the fortitude to meet the criticism head-on. Not wanting to argue with close friends, I qualified our decision to homeschool by saying, “If it doesn’t work out, we can always send him back to school in the fall.” Although weak, and in retrospect not the best way to address the problem, the comment did silence our critics. Moreover, I never considered it untrue. I just didn’t intend for us to fail—and we didn’t.
Two years down the line, we still pick our curriculum based on
Christopher’s individual needs. We read the Bible at the start of each
class and begin every day with prayer. In addition to the “big five” of
English, history, math, science, and Chinese, we teach a series of
“Friday electives” ranging from a study of the election process to
screenwriting and from homemade root beer to the chemistry of
fireworks. Christopher chooses the topics himself, and we either find
pre-published texts or I design an appropriate course of study. The
special courses give him an incentive to work hard, and they offer
exciting variety in our lesson plans.
We still use the inverted
schedule, with homework in the morning and formal class starting at
mid-afternoon or in early evening. Although Michael is home and
available to help and supervise as needed, Christopher likes having the
ability to structure his own day. Our unusual schedule has helped our
son develop a sense of responsibility and the ability to use his time
As for our critics, not one remains. Within two months of our beginning homeschool, my mother expressed surprise at “the big change” in her grandson. During his public school days, Christopher’s idea of a telephone conversation was a litany of complaints about school, boredom, and the unfairness of life. Almost immediately after he started homeschool, everything changed. He chattered at length about the difference between bacteria and viruses, adventures on his scooter, and how he helped cook dinner on the grill. He started laughing again, and he laughed often. People no longer needed to pry positive thoughts from Christopher like prospectors picking over an empty mine. He offered them freely and without reservation.
Two years later, the miserable, lonely student has become a happy, confident, well-adjusted young man. Our homeschool explores many more topics, in far greater depth, than any classroom teacher has the time to do, tailoring the work to Christopher’s needs rather than those of an institution that must sacrifice the abilities of the few on the altar of the many. If you ask what he likes best about homeschool, Christopher will give you a long and specific list. He likes learning from Michael and from me, being able to study a topic in depth, not having to suppress his faith, and the fact that he “gets to answer all the questions.” Traditional schools parched him dry, but homeschool has given him the freedom to grow and develop, both academically and socially.
Parents should not shy from the idea of homeschooling a high school student, whether or not they have homeschooled before and regardless of their student’s needs. All students have special needs, and parents know how to meet those needs better than any institution ever will. The wide variety of excellent resources, from pre-packaged curricula to subject-specific texts and supplementary materials, has made education as simple or as time-consuming as a parent chooses or needs. Scheduling doesn’t have to fit someone else’s day. It only has to fit yours. Family and friends will have opinions, but you can address those without compromising your faith or your child’s education.
Yes, homeschooling is a big responsibility, and sometimes it seems frightening, but no more so than the prospect of raising a child from a helpless infant to a self-sufficient adult. If you can accept that responsibility, you can manage this one too.
Our family’s experience proves that homeschool works, even for those who didn’t start at kindergarten and even for those whose schedules don’t permit a traditional day. Some days I come home tired, and the TV looks more tempting than a textbook. Once we get started, though, I find Christopher’s enthusiasm contagious. His love for learning and gratitude for the environment in which we work makes every day worthwhile—even the ones when we’re tired and cranky and our Odyssey seems as long as Ulysses’ and twice as difficult. Are we crazy? Maybe. But we’re also grateful we started at seventh, because it means that, for our family, the important things now come first.
Susan Spann is a partner in the law firm Llewellyn Spann, where she specializes in copyright, trademark, and corporate law. Formerly a professor at trinity Law School in Santa Ana, California, she currently teaches business law at William Jessup University. She blogs on legal issues from a Christian worldview at www.HomeschoolBlogger.com/SusanSpann.
Copyright 2008. Originally appeared in The
Old Schoolhouse Magazine, Spring 2009.
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