Thursday, March 22, 2012

Public schools, homeschooling, and a request for help

I am unable to home school full time. Neither my ex (who is birth father to all three boys) nor my husband feel that it would be a wise idea for the boys. I do understand part of their reasoning - as children, all three of us (myself, ex, and hubby) were socially awkward kids, and by being pretty much forced into a social setting (i.e. public school) eventually taught us the basics of social behavior.

Now, I could set up with a local homeschooling group and have the children socialize with other home schooled kids. Sounds great, right? But there are a couple of drawbacks to this idea, the first being transportation. I don't drive, we don't own a second car, and with my back injury I am not confident that I can ride my bike all over town like I used to be capable of. Second, and perhaps more important, the only local homeschooling group I have found is based on a strong conservative and fundamentalist religious ideal, and that would be a horrible fit for our liberal, agnostic/atheistic family. In fact, I'm sure the kids would feel MORE like fish out of water in that situation than in public school!

So the boys attend the local schools, and I admit that they are better than the average school in our country. Not only are the boys taught the basics like reading, writing, math, science, and history, but they are also taught free thinking, acceptance, and of course, the basics of social interaction. Innovation and creativity are encouraged and praised. All of the teachers remain in close contact with me, the parent, and come to me immediately with questions, concerns, and praises. I feel included in their education, which is fantastic! I've had them enrolled in other school districts where my interest and participation in their education was treated as an oddity at best and disruptive at worst, so having a school district that respects and includes me is gratifying.

All that said, I still feel that the boys education is stifled. This is NOT the school's fault exactly. They have to follow the guidelines and lesson plans that are put out by the state, and they are not allowed to deviate from it, even if they really want to. So for the last several years, I have taken it upon myself to fill those gaps during summer break by focusing on one particular area and doing an in-depth study on it. I try to make the sessions fun and short - after all, it is summer, and I want to make sure they have time to run around and play with each other, with friends, and explore like little boys should.

I guess you could call me a summer home schooler.

Let me give you and example from two years ago, before we moved to this school district. I had gotten numerous complaints about all three boys, and all the complaints were the same - illegible handwriting and a poor sense of sentence and paragraph structure. Since my handwriting is flawless and I have always written beautifully, I was truly confused as to how my children could struggle with these issues. So I thought back on how I had learned in the hopes that I could teach the boys in the same manner I had learned.

I decided almost immediately that they would not learn handwriting the way I had. I used to be ambidextrous, and would alternate between left and right hand writing without thought. This really disturbed my stepfather, who was deeply religious in many ways and believed wholeheartedly that left-handed writing was a weakness that allowed the devil a handhold in my soul. He saw it as his responsibility to protect my soul, so every time he caught me using my left hand, he would smack it - hard. When I sat down to do homework, he would silently place a ruler by my left hand as a silent warning - "use that hand and I'm smacking it with this ruler" (the ruler would also be used if my handwriting wasn't readable or neat, so I very quickly learned to write in an obsessively neat script.).

I remember one day, he was sitting next to me doing a crossword while I did my homework My right hand got tired, and without thinking I switched my pencil from my right hand to my left. Of course, he hit my left hand immediately - it was a reflex for him at that point, I suspect. I honestly don't think he remembered he had a pencil in his hand when he smacked my own, but my cry of pain and the blood that flowed proved that he had inadvertently stabbed my hand with the sharp point of his own pencil. I jerked away and in the process, the lead point of his pencil broke off in my hand. He ended up having to cut the wound open a little bit more to remove the lead.

Remembering that made me shudder, and I unconsciously rubbed the small scar from the incident. No, I wouldn't teach my children good handwriting the way I had been taught! I decided I would just teach them the basics of good penmanship, and make them rewrite anything that was illegible.

Figuring out how to teach them sentence structure and paragraph formation was harder. I couldn't recall a single instance of being taught how to write. I did remember teachers harping on things like "a paragraph has a main sentence and supportive sentences", stuff like that, but I also remembered tuning them out because it seemed like such a "duh" thing to me. Of course the rest of a paragraph supported the main sentence. It was just natural. As a child I just couldn't comprehend why others in my grade couldn't get the concept. And I had no idea how to teach my children a skill that I had never struggled with.

It was my mother who shed light on the solution. I was talking to her on the phone and mentioned how I was at a total loss to teach my own children the skill of writing cohesively. I remember her laughing and saying "Of course you learned to write well. You read so much as a child that you picked up the skill instinctively. No one had to teach you, and that's why you were so bored in English classes."

It was like a light bulb went off. I learned how to write from reading - and my children love to read! At that moment, our summer schooling plan was set. I let the kids check out books they wanted from the library, and every day they had to write a paragraph or two about what they read that day. My husband joined in by finding a DVD of the old "School House Rocks" videos, as well as things like Between the Lions episodes and a few other shows that tended to focus on writing.

By the end of the summer, all three boys were churning out their paragraphs (and in some cases, multiple paragraphs) in record time, and their handwriting and sentence structure were improved enough that their new teachers found nothing to complain about.

Over the course of teaching my children, I've learned the truth of Frank Oppenheimer's quote:  "The best way to learn is to teach." So I decided the kids and I will learn something new together, and after researching subjects, talking with the kids about what they want to learn, and thinking about what I want to learn myself, I decided the subject of this summer's lessons will be sign language.

This is where you come in, my dear reader. Do you know of any online classes/videos/educational sites for learning sign language from scratch? Can you recommend any books or DVD series? An educational cartoon along the lines of Sesame Street or Dora the Explorer, only for older children? The more material I have to work with, the better I can create a lesson plan of sorts.

Let me know what you think on in my comments - and if you know anyone who blogs/home schools that knows sign language, please link me to their blogs.

Thanks a lot!

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