Our research about preschool:
When our eldest, Leigh, was a toddler there was much talk about nursery schools, preschool programs and Four Year Old Kindergarten which was the school issue of the early 80's. Though we had already chosen many alternatives as far as birthing and diet we were pretty steeped in the idea of traditional schooling. We had yet to encounter any home-educators or the reality of the public school system!
One of our acquaintances with older children told us that if we had concerns about the school system that we should become informed and get involved now so that there might be some changes made by the time our kids were in school. Our first step was to look at the options available to us: there is a public school about ten minutes drive from our rural home or the Catholic school five miles further. We looked at Montessori and Waldorf schools but the reality was that as appealing as private school might be, it was not a realistic option financially.
Our Firstborn starts school:
We chose to keep Leigh home from Junior Kindergarten. When Leigh turned five, though, the demands of two active children and the impending third, coupled with the demands of Leigh himself, and my own ignorance and inexperience, we all seemed ready to send him to Senior Kindergarten. We chose the Catholic School as we had heard good things about it. Leigh adjusted well and enjoyed the friends and social side of it all. His teacher was a very patient, very experienced woman who seemed to be able to gear her subject areas to each of the many different children. She and Leigh got along well.
After a few months, I noticed that when Leigh came home he was very grumpy and seemed to take out his frustrations on his younger brother, three year old Carey. It was as though everything that was said or done to Leigh during the day, on the playground, waiting in line for the washroom, or sitting in the classroom, he had to say and do to Carey. He was also very hungry when he got home and we learned very quickly to get some food into him ASAP when he arrived home to minimize the aftershocks.
Learning to Read:
When he was home sick for a week in November that year, Leigh learned to read. It was exciting to think that he just figured it out: with minimal coaching from me and while he was sick!! He would have crossed that step if he had been in school, if not that week, soon after, but I thought at the time it was quite ironic that he learned to read when he was NOT in school.
Unfortunately, that big step in learning was not to be such a good thing for long. By the time he got into grade one, he was reading at a Grade 3 level and became quite bored with the time and attention given to basic reading skills in the classroom. Because he was a social child, he would talk and fool around with his willing peers. This of course, caused problems in the class.
When we asked about providing some kind of enrichment, we were told that they don't do anything extra for kids like Leigh, who excel in an area, until they are "identified" as gifted and that doesn't happen until the end of Grade 3! I was even admonished by the principal for stimulating my child too much. It was easy to see through her narrow view. I had not spent hours and hours teaching Leigh. All I had done was love him and read to him.
While in Kindergarten and Grade 1, Leigh had a substitute teacher for a large portion of each year. During Grade 2, Leigh had the benefit of the same teacher for the entire year so she got to know him well. But, again, because he was so quick to pick up on new concepts and ideas, he would master worksheets in a fraction of the time of the other children and then in his usual social manner, try to help them with theirs! His report card stated, "Leigh is a very social child" - a positive way of saying he talks and noses into other people's business, too much!
Again, when we tried to get some more challenging work for him the teacher gave him extra work or extra things to bring home but again we were told "wait until the end of Grade 3". That being the case, all I could imagine was that by the time they 'tested' him, this kid would be totally bored, totally 'put off' by the school system, totally unwilling, unhappy, and consequently would do poorly on those tests, so causing an even more rapid downward spiral of achievement.
He had many altercations on the playground including a swing in the side of his head that required stitches, a lunch box smashed, and numerous bullying experiences that were making it hard to be patient with the situation. He was trying to get along, respond without violence, trying to "use his words", as he had been taught, but the majority of the kids he was dealing with did not have the same skills or goals. So the hope of getting along and making changes quickly became simply a "How can we give Leigh the skills to cope with this?".
Carey goes to kindergarten:
In the meantime, Carey entered Kindergarten, while Leigh was coping through Grade 2. He had the same Kindergarten teacher as Leigh had. After the first half day Carey had, he announced that he wanted to stay all day long! I was encouraged and for a few weeks things went well. But by November, Carey was not so enthusiastic and became more sullen and even unhappy. While at home he had been drawing pictures of underground wells and what's inside trees, his schoolwork challenges included colouring three balloons and staying inside the lines. He lost his natural spark and interest in the world. He no longer laughed and talked as he had before. Where Leigh's tendency toward talking became more pronounced when he was in the stress of school, Carey's tendency toward thoughtful reflection also became more pronounced. He became more introverted. By January, he was battling skin infections. We got our medical doctor's opinion and prescription, but the diagnosis from our Naturopath MD was the clincher: it was stress! What could cause stress in a five year old?
There was no question that things were busy and stressful in our home. Our third child, Theo, was going on two and he had been born with a heart defect. We were dealing with hospitalizations and a new 'normal' level of anxiety. Was Carey having a delayed stress reaction to our home life? What else had changed? The most recent change was his being in school! I couldn't imagine what we were to do!
We coped day-to-day and one day in spring, I picked the boys up after school to do some grocery shopping. Leigh was complaining about a bad experience on the playground. Carey was not happy and not talking. The toddler was teething and doing what two year olds do. I offered up a little prayer in desperation, "God, help me, what am I supposed to do with these kids?"
Forging ahead, as the toddler settled into the grocery cart, I walked past a book rack. On that shelf I read this message: TEACH YOUR OWN. In my small town grocery store John Holt's book jumped out at me! I had never heard of John Holt. I had never noticed that bookrack there before and I never saw another book I liked on it after that day. I bought that book, though it took us over our grocery budget for the week. I read Holt's wisdom from cover to cover and there was no doubt: Home education was definitely my answer. We made contact with the few home educators we now knew and got the information and support we needed. We trusted in that providential message and took the kids out of school that fall and we never looked back.
Leigh tries again:
Leigh returned to school for Grade 5 and 6 , by his choice, as he was looking for more social interaction with peers than our isolated rural community could provide. Grade 5 went well with an enriched program and a wonderful teacher. Though he was identified as 'gifted' in all three areas in which they tested, things were by no means perfect. The school was too small to provide a special program for gifted kids. The approach to enrichment was to give more work to the gifted kids. Leigh had to do the regular classroom work and the more challenging materials were given to him after he did the basics! So he was penalized with twice the work of the other children and often set apart from his peers.
Grade 6 started out great despite the fact that of the 28 kids there were 23 boys in that class! When that experienced teacher went on maternity leave after Christmas this male- dominated mix of pre-teens were left in a portable classroom with an brand new teacher (read: absolute greenhorn) and the whole class went down the tubes in a matter of days. Leigh and we struggled over the next weeks and months trying to help him get something good out of that bad situation, believing that it was important he stick to his commitment to be in school for the year. We met with the principal and spoke with the teacher many times.
Near the end of the year when we met to lay out a plan for the next year, the principal stated, "this really was a 'write-off' year for Leigh". We had been thinking that, but to have the principal say it as such a matter-of-fact, after all the stress and demands coping with that last few months, was not welcome news. I was furious and all the more determined that we would never put our children in school again. No matter how inadequate I might feel or how little I seemed to get done at home, I could do better than that! Leigh was determined never to go to that school again.
On to High School:
Leigh was content to stay home for Grades 7 and 8 and started at our nearest Catholic High School for Grade 9. We documented the things he had done and prepared a report based on the new curriculum at the time. The principal's response was "I hope you realize that our school cannot provide anything like the enriched program you have provided for your child". Leigh and we agreed to tolerate the inferior educational setting. After a few weeks of adjustment, he fit in well, was finally being challenged academically and got involved with the drama and music programs.
Carey spent eight years at home, learned to read and write and became quite an independent and self-directed learner. He started school again for Grade 9 and we joked about it being his 'first day of school' even though he was taller than me.
Our two other boys, Theo, now 15, and Christopher, age 8, have never been to school. Theo has decided to stay home for high school till further notice. Christopher is reading as Leigh did, early and well. And two-year-old Theresa is benefiting from our 20 years as parents with 13 years of home-education experience and the positive influence of her older brothers' nearly constant love and attention.
Stay tuned for Part Two of Home Education Memoirs: A Personal Biography of Our Journey in the June 2002 issue of Home Rules.
Jeanne Lambert is a mother and grandmother, living in a owner-designed and built passive solar home in rural Eastern Ontario. She and her husband, Tom Graham, run a Marketing and Communications business, volunteer in their church and community, sing and play music, teach and lead workshops, and generally keep up with the day-to-day demands of a busy home educating family.