Writer Laura Brodie once received this sage advice from a preschool teacher: “Don’t worry about tears at drop-off time. Was your child crying when you picked her up?”
Brodie remembered those words when her oldest daughter Julia struggled in elementary school and came home desolate. A dreamy child with a unique learning style, Julia grew increasingly unhappy with the relentless test prep, drills and worksheets.
So Brodie, a professor at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, decided to home school Julia for fifth grade, cutting down her own college teaching load to become her daughter’s teacher.
Brodie chronicles the challenges and rewards of that year in her new book, “Love in a Time of Homeschooling.”
The book is not a paean to home schooling, which Brodie says she could never embrace full-time, calling herself a public school parent who chose to home school to meet her child’s needs. The book is the saga of a mother who decided that her unconventional child needed an unconventional approach to education, at least for a little while.
In an interview, Brodie explains that her goal with one year was to allow Julia to “take a break and catch her breath.”
In listening to Brodie talk about her daughter, parents may recognize their own strong-willed child. Julia used a pacifier until age 4 because she cried so much. Bedtimes were an endless battle.
On an outdoor field trip, Julia once lost sight of her group because she stopped at a stream to stare at the fish. (The following year Julia could only participate in a lakeside school scavenger hunt if one of her parents accompanied her.)
Julia balked at doing her homework, dragging out her assignments for hours until both she and her mother were frustrated. She hated the strict routines of the classroom and mourned the lack of movement, freedom and choice.
But given that life requires compromises and that routine is often inescapable, does it serve a child who isn’t willing to compromise to re-jigger your entire life to accommodate them?
“This is one of the advantages of short-term home schooling,” says Brodie. “My child was going to experience public-school rigors. She was going to be in environments in life that might not be ideal and she would have to learn to deal with it much of the time.
“But life isn’t all about suffering. It isn’t about saying, ‘Too bad, you have to deal with it,’” says Brodie. “We can show our children there are other ways to learn.
For one year, you can pursue something that works better and that you hope rejuvenates their love of learning.”
Now, from a vantage of several years later, Brodie can see her missteps as a home-schooling parent. As a college professor, she says she treated her 10-year-old as a miniature college student.
Brodie expected Julia to enjoy hands-on math at the grocery store, not understanding that her young daughter preferred the decoding worksheets and word search puzzles that Brodie had always dismissed as busywork.
She also realized belatedly that Julia was a visual learner and learned most effectively from drawing. Had she better understood Julia’s learning style, Brodie says now she would have handed her a sketchbook and had her draw the solar system or Africa.
In researching her book, Brodie learned a lot about home schooling and its demands on parents; she was surprised at the minimal education qualifications for home-schooling parents in many states and that the testing some states require of home-schooled children is “a cheater’s paradise.”
She also has watched the refinement of the concept, including the intriguing practice of blending home schooling and traditional classes. “It is not unusual at our high school to see home schoolers coming over for a foreign language or an elective,” she says.
Brodie isn’t planning to home school her two younger daughters, or to resume home schooling of Julia.
Julia’s return to public school had its tensions, but overall she welcomed being back among peers. (She told her mother, “Let’s face it, Mom, you and I mostly hung out with a lot of old people.”)
But Brodie has twinges as Julia describes high school as an anti-intellectual climate. However, the teen loves art class and had a great math teacher. Even with a Harvard degree and a University of Virginia doctorate, Brodie says she’d be out of her league teaching high school and didn’t want to resort to hiring tutors for Julia.
She bemoans the dearth of writing in schools, saying, “Julia wrote more in her year at home when she did in sixth, seventh and eighth grade combined.”
With the testing frenzy that has seized control of schools, Brodie worries that the three R’s of education have become reading, ’rithmetic and rote memorization.