Homeschooling at the Ramseys
Source: Pacific Sun
May 28, 2005
Marin County, CA -- When would-be education reformers get together to talk about alternatives to what they sometimes describe as the ineffective, dysfunctional, and obsolete public school system, they tend to break into two camps. Some champion charter schools (which boast a nationwide enrollment of around 500,000) as the most promising alternative, while others says it’s time to get serious about experimenting with school vouchers (which at present are used by fewer than 20,000 students nationwide).
Both camps fail to notice people like Steve and Kathy Ramsey, whose 8-year-old son Wyatt is one of 1.1 million students who are being schooled at home. A recent report from the U.S. Department of Education estimates that the number of homeschooled kids in the U.S. has increased by 246,000 since 1999. The Ramseys, who live in Novato, California, decided on homeschooling chiefly because they wanted to ensure that their son’s education would match his personal learning style, but also because Steve’s work-at-home lifestyle (he’s a graphic designer) makes homeschooling not only practical but what he calls a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“I mean that primarily in terms of our son but also with myself in mind as his father,” says Steve, who handles the lion’s share of his son’s homeschooling activities. (Kathy, who has a full-time job in San Francisco, takes over at nights and on weekends.) “Kathy and I realized these years in Wyatt’s life would go by fast, and only once. The same is true for us as his parents. The more we found out about homeschooling as an option, the more clear it was that this was the way we wanted our son to learn.
Brian Ray of the National Home Education Research Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Salem, Oregon, thinks the actual numbers are higher than those cited by the Department of Education report. Ray reckons that during the 2002–03 school year, there were 1.7 million to 2.1 million homeschooled students in the United States.
Whatever the actual numbers, there’s no doubt that homeschooling is catching on fast throughout the nation — and in Marin County. Ramsey says the 70 families active in Marin Homeschool Families represent only a small fraction of local families who have chosen to educate their children outside school settings. “Interest in homeschooling is growing quite rapidly,” says Ramsey, who notes that attendance is way up at group’s periodic information evenings for parents who want to know whether homeschooling is the best educational route for their kids.
In 2004 Brian Ray published Home Educated and Now Adults, a book based on his survey of 7,000 adults who had been homeschooled as children. Ray listed these as the top five reasons respondents said they or their parents engaged in homeschooling: 1) can give child a better education at home; 2) religious reasons; 3) teach child particular values, beliefs, and worldview; 4) develop character/morality; 5) object to what school teaches.
None of the reasons are particularly surprising. Yet many homeschooling parents say there’s still a widespread assumption “out there” that families who opt for home education are … a little … strange. This from a Marin homeschooling mom who agreed to speak off the record: “At first I was amazed at the looks on people’s faces when I mentioned that we’re a homeschooling family. It was like we were members of some strange cult. I learned to joke about it by adding: ‘But our house does have electricity and running water, and we even own a motor vehicle.’”
Public acceptance seems to be growing, according to the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll, an annual survey of the public’s attitude toward public schools. In 1985, when the poll asked respondents if they felt the homeschooling movement was “a good thing or a bad thing for the nation,” only 16 percent of the respondents said it was “a good thing,” while 73 percent said it was “a bad thing.” In 2001, the most recent year the poll asked questions about homeschooling, 41 percent said it was “a good thing” and 54 percent said it was “a bad thing.”
Even with this shift in public sentiment, several Marin homeschool parents said they scratched their heads in wonder when they read a recent essay (New York Times, May 15) by University of Chicago professor Mark Lilla, citing the “separatist instincts of the home-schooling movement” as an ominous sign for the culture, along with “fascination with the ‘end times,’ the belief in personal (and self-serving) miracles, the ignorance of basic science and history, the demonization of popular culture, the censoring of textbooks.”
The anonymous homeschooling mom I spoke to says she doesn’t recognize the movement she’s part of in Lilla’s account. “Kids have been homeschooled for centuries, for goodness sake. It’s public education that’s the relative newcomer. I’m close friends with several conservative Christian homeschooling families, as well as with homeschooling families that voted for John Kerry and Ralph Nader. We don’t argue politics and we don’t fight culture wars. We talk about what’s best for our kids. If that makes us weird, then maybe we’re hitchhiking in the wrong galaxy.” She says this with light humor as she watches her kids throwing a Frisbee to a golden retriever.
For his part, Steve Ramsey was happy to go on the record as a homeschooling dad. “One thing I want to convey is that the homeschool families I know don’t view themselves as somehow at odds with or superior to public school families. What we’re all about is our kids learning in ways that suit their uniqueness. It’s that simple.”
How did you and your wife decide to homeschool your son Wyatt?
A big factor is that we wanted Wyatt to be educated in a way that best suits his personal learning style. When he was in kindergarten Wyatt was held back because he was an early reader – he had started reading at age two. It was hard for him to sit in a classroom for a week while they were going over the Letter A and coloring it. He wasn’t being challenged in that respect. In other subjects he’s a little behind the curve. Writing’s more of a challenge for him, we’re working on that, getting up to speed. In terms of math, he’s probably right at his grade level. Homeschooling appealed to Kathy and me because it allows us to fine tune for his needs — building on natural strengths while shoring up areas that need extra attention. The school model isn’t set up to provide this kind of focus.
Also, we felt homeschooling would offer opportunities for interacting with other kids that might not be the case in an institutional setting. Contrary to the idea that homeschooled kids have poor social skills because they’re supposedly isolated, we had observed the opposite: higher level social skills reflecting the fact that homeschooled young people are around so many different types of kids of various ages and levels of maturation and development. Rather than being in the same classroom for an entire year with the same twenty kids, half of whom he might not relate to or get to know well anyway, Wyatt plays with kids who are 12, 13, and 14 as well as 2, 3 & 4. It’s quite remarkable to see kids not needing or expecting to be around only their own age group.
The third reason we chose homeschooling is that I love being in my son’s life. I can’t believe Wyatt is 8 already. It’s like he was just born. I’ll never be able to relive this time again – I just enjoy him so much. People ask me, how can you stand to spend all day with your son? My response is: How can you stand not to? What I mean to say is I love my kid.
“Different learning styles” is a phrase that is almost a mantra among homeschool parents. Say more about how homeschooling works for the way Wyatt learns.
A good deal of literature is now available about the variety of learning styles. For instance, Howard Gardner's book Frames of Mind holds that human beings are capable of seven independent means of information processing: linguistic (verbal), logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic (using physical movement), musical, spatial (visually oriented), interpersonal, and intrapersonal (independent). My wife and I decided to take a tailored, somewhat eclectic approach to discovering how Wyatt learns. He doesn’t like to sit at a textbook page with 50 math problems. He goes bug-eyed, so we find alternatives to that, like my developing full-page word and logic problems that employ critical thinking and algebra. He works out formulas to compute his weekly allowance. We use poker chips to wager who can solve multiplication problems throughout the day.
Kathy and I end up buying a lot of different curricula, using half of it, getting new stuff. And we get lots of recommendations from other homeschooling parents about books and learning tools to suit every type of intelligence. Many prospective homeschool parents think what they have to do is recreate what’s done in schools, but the point isn’t to set up blackboard in the living room and have your kid sit behind a desk all day. Now there are some homeschool parents who set up little classrooms, but very few approach educating their kids that way.
The phrase “homeschooling” is a misnomer in many ways. I think “homelearning” is more accurate. The goal is to create opportunities for learning rather than just imitate the structures and processes of educational institutions – which often serve organizational rather than learning needs. It quickly becomes clear that learning can take place on Sunday evenings or outside on the lawn or at the park and so on. There’s no need for a school bell to say when learning starts and stops. Having said all that, let me make clear that there’s no single right method of homeschooling. The options are many, and we don’t for a moment want to imply that we’ve hit on the perfect formula for all homeschooling families. Our approach seems to be working for Wyatt, and that’s what matters in the end.
So, what’s an average learning day like with your son?
That’s just it — there’s no average day, though most days are busy because we’re involved in so many things. Wednesdays we meet with four other homeschooling families for a math co-op. We take turns teaching different math skills for the three to four hours we’re together. Writing club is Friday. The YMCA has a terrific physical education class for homeschool kids. Karate is two days a week. Lego engineering class is Tuesday. We do field trips on Thursdays, sometimes with 20-30 kids. We’ve been to the Bay Model, Petaluma Wildlife Museum, Marine World, Aquarium by the Bay, Marin IJ, art museums, SF Zoo. There learning opportunities everywhere, if you just keep your eyes open.
Amidst all the scheduled events, we also make choices that depend on what we’re up for. Some days I’m not in a teaching mood so we don’t do a whole lot of structured curricula. Other days he’s not into it, so we slack off on those days. Some days things are really clicking, we’re just cruising. On those days we might cover two weeks worth of material in an hour. With the weather getting warmer, we go outside and sit in the grass.
Since there’s no principal down the hallway at your house, how do you make sure Wyatt’s learning program meets state requirements?
Wyatt is enrolled in an independent study program (ISP) called Laurel Springs, a private, accredited distant-learning school based in southern California. Like many ISPs, Laurel Springs has broad curriculum guidelines that meet California criteria. I have telephone interview each month with a counselor at Laurel Springs, and we discuss how it’s going. If I say I need a new science textbook she’ll make suggestion. As an alternative to the ISP approach, some homeschooling parents file what’s called an R4 affidavit with the state, setting themselves up as a private school, with enrollment of one or two, or however many in the family. And other parents go through charter schools, which provide for homeschooling within the public school context. Again — many different options (see sidebar). That’s a huge appeal of learning at home.
After two years of homeschooling, what do you know now that you didn’t know? Is it what you expected? What’s different?
I started out thinking I needed to be “on” all the time, thinking I had to be structured with a new and focused lesson plan each day. That’s changed considerably. I still prepare in advance, but I’ve learned to be open to what interests Wyatt. One thing that still surprises me is how kids find interest in things — if you let them explore, they’ll learn so many other things that lead to new and unexpected branchings.
For instance, a year ago, when Wyatt was 7, we were reading something and he looked at me and said, “When we are going to learn about mythology?” I responded, “Right now.” We don’t have to wait until 6th grade when that subject is “supposed” to come up. So off we went to the library – we spend a lot of time there. We got a bunch of books and we did a unit on mythology. It was a fantastic experience for both of us.
When Wyatt is really interested in something, he goes deeply. He’s writing a report right now on Sri Lanka, he did one on Thailand a few months ago. He can do the research. I can help him collate the materials. He can build some famous monument out of Legos. We’ll photograph it and put it in his report. Right now he’s really into algebra yet he can also get frustrated with subtraction. It strikes me as a strange paradox but my job is to work with what’s actually happening, because my son’s learning style is his own.
That would be a real struggle for any institutional school to deal with.
The funny thing about that is: no matter how your kid is getting an education, all parents have the same goal. Most parents want their kid to be well educated, well rounded. You can meet those goals in different ways. I scratch my head when I run across people who express disdain for homeschooling. And you know what? Some Some homeschool families have disdain for public schools as an institution. And that makes no sense to me. If the path you’ve chosen is working out for your child, then go for it. If not, consider an alternative. Check out your options. Be informed. Think for yourself.
Some days must be harder than others.
Some days I want to pull my hair out — like when I need to meet a client deadline during normal business hours, although even there Wyatt gets to learn how a business is run. One day he may understand Paul Revere’s ride, or the Boston Tea Party, but the next day he forgets what we discussed. Frustrating! Other days, things go really well. On those days I think this is the best thing I could be doing. In general the good days outweigh the bad.
What advice do you have for parents considering home learning for their kids?
It’s not for everybody. For one thing, it takes time and patience. I’m so grateful that my career allows me to do it. If both my wife and I had conventional jobs, homeschooling wouldn’t be an option, without incredible workplace flexibility that’s seldom a possibility. Your whole life becomes a homeschool life. Parents who consider homeschooling often assume they’ll need to be in an intense, one-on-one relationship with their kid all day long. Again, that’s confusing schooling with learning. The kids spend a great deal of time in activities with other kids, of all ages. And of course there are play dates, which give parents time to collect their thoughts.
A lot of prospective homeschool parents have fears. Can I teach the stuff? Here’s the answer: Kids are smart and if you give them an opportunity to follow their learning passions, they’ll go to amazing places. And I learn a lot myself. Got any questions about Sri Lanka? Shoot.