Thinking of home schooling? Me, too.

By Allison Barrett Carter

While the rest of the parenting world thinks ahead to summer camps and languid months of their children lounging on their sofa all day, my thoughts are consumed with the month following that: September. My desk has stacks of paper with applications and printouts. It’s the season of charter school lotteries, open houses and registration forms. My anxiety level rises as I desperately look for a perfect answer for my children’s education. Then I unearth an old email about home schooling.

I do feel fortunate to have so many educational opportunities available to my children; it is certainly a privilege to have options. But somewhere between the local public school and its poor performance report, the open choice options, the four private schools we can’t afford, and the six charter schools that are an option only if we win the lottery (literally), my husband and I are lost. What is the best fit for our family?

I grew up the product of public school, as did my husband, and we did just fine. Before we had kids we never imagined we would look for alternatives to the public school down the street.

But things have changed in six years and we, like most American parents, have been bludgeoned with news that the U.S. public school system is failing.

Articles about how public school systems are especially ill-suited for boys are huge. Books about the superior education systems of other countries are bestsellers. One of the most-watched TED Talks, with more than 9 million views, is of Ken Robinson declaring that schools “kill” creativity.

Robinson says: “Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip-mine the earth: for a particular commodity. And for the future, it won’t serve us. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we’re educating our children.”

Thus, my husband and I struggle. We want to be part of America’s education solution, but not at the cost of our children’s futures.

So when an email from my friend Gina, who home-schools her three children, hit my inbox, I was intrigued.

“There is a misconception of how much time it takes to educate your children at home,” she writes. “I enjoy that we can really focus on each child’s interest. Each of my children has a separate curriculum that highlights areas where they excel as well as areas where they need more focus. Then, we have certain activities that they always do together.”

Home schooling takes the old axiom “the best teacher is no substitute for what you do at home” and boldly cuts out the middle man. Perhaps it is the solution for our family?

After reading Gina’s email, I became aware that more parents in my social circle are taking this route. I have been privy to numerous playground talks about Classical Conversations — a Christian-based home schooling support network — and my Facebook feed shows many friends teaching at home.

So I did some research. I learned that I live in a state where more children are home-schooled than enrolled in private school.

The New York Times has reported that home schooling is on the rise across the nation, regardless of race or religion. In the 2011-2012 school year, according to the Times’ reporting, nearly 1.8 million children were home-schooled in the United States, compared with 1.5 million five years earlier.

These statistics surprised me, but I guess they shouldn’t. The Internet has opened many alternative educational opportunities; it was only a matter of time before individualized at-home learning reaped the benefits. America is a nation of “do-it-yourselfers” full of grit and determination, so why should we not DIY what matters most: our children’s education.

The Internet offers a potential home schooling parent free step-by-step how-to’s, lesson plans, books, activities, proposed daily schedules, and active communities for support and connection. In my immediate area, I have found multiple Facebook groups of home schooling parents who meet regularly for lessons and field trips.

Add to this the popular lifestyle blogs, such as the Handmade Home, that dedicate entire series to their home schooling tips, and I can’t help but romanticize the idea. It seems like a simpler, slower way of life. No more school buses, 6 p.m. homework battles or packing lunchboxes at 7 a.m. I can change my office into a classroom and our home will ooze family time and learning.

With the help of the Internet, home schooling has become normalized. In fact, with all my clicking and reading, I find myself excited about it.

I am an educated woman with a degree from a top public university; why wouldn’t I be able to teach my own children elementary school topics? After all, the media keeps telling me that many teachers may not be qualified. Maybe I am? With the Internet as my partner, I feel strong.

Home schooling isn’t right for everyone. It is a commitment and it requires an intense dedication from the entire family. My husband and I are aware that a making a decision to become our children’s primary educators is a big one. And like all things in education, there are pitfalls to the decision.

But as families like mine tire of waiting for our country to fix public education, as the Internet puts resources at our fingertips, as it becomes normalized and even romanticized, home schooling is a serious contender for our educational choice this fall. I might just decide to not worry about my lottery chances and DIY it.

Allison Barrett Carter is a freelance writer in North Carolina. She blogs at allisonbarrettcarter.com.

 

Teacher says: Want your child to succeed in school? Help them clean out their backpack.

One of my high school students had asked for help with his homework. “Of course, I’ll help,” I answered.

I told him to find it and watched as he hauled his heavy backpack onto one of the classroom desks and started to dig.

I allowed him a couple of minutes of futile search before asking him to take everything out to see whether he could throw anything away. He claimed he didn’t, but proceeded with enthusiasm.

I wasn’t surprised.

Students love to clean out their backpacks as they believe they get to dodge work. My years of experience as a classroom teacher, however, have taught me that spending time now allows students more time on task later. The student might have thought he was getting away with something now, but I knew I would win in the end.

We found plenty of interesting things in his backpack: stacks of handouts from the previous school year, pencils, old tests and report cards as well as empty chip bags and candy wrappers, all of it covered in a disturbing orange dust.

“Cheez-It crackers” the student explained before he, with a triumphant yell, pulled out what looked like a failed origami project from his backpack.

Locating his homework had taken about 20 minutes.

All parents know that students receive enough handouts to wallpaper a house, and unless they use an organizational system, their backpacks will soon resemble an experiment in hoarding. While students might want to do their homework, they often give up if they can’t find it within a reasonable time.

Cluttered backpacks are overwhelming and it’s easy to miss something in the chaos. Students’ failure to do their homework might be due not to inability or laziness, but to a lack of organizational skills.

There is a simple fix so they will do it themselves.

Use the following five steps to help students to get organized and they might become more engaged in their homework, and in cleaning out their own backpack. If not, at least, they can no longer use the “I can’t find it, I probably left it at school” excuse we all know so well.

  1. Check your kids’ backpacks once a week. I picked Fridays for my own kids, but any day will work. We started as early as fourth grade, but don’t worry, you won’t have to organize backpacks forever. If you start early, they’ll develop the skills and habits to manage on their own.
  2. Ignore protests. Your kids will object; they’ll claim that they need every single piece of paper in the backpack. I’ve seen students cling to their papers as if they were life rafts from the Titanic. Stay firm and make sure you involve them in the process. They’ll enjoy it for a few minutes, tossing and sorting with abandon.
  3. Recycle everything that is obsolete. I’m no Marie Kondo, but a certain amount of ruthlessness is required to make a dent in the endless cycle of handouts. This is a tricky stage. Your kids might not be sure what they still need and worry about throwing away something important. Check the date on top of the paper, if it’s more than a month old, they don’t need it anymore. Work that has been completed and graded should never be returned to the backpack. You may keep some of the finished work in your home, but beware: papers will try to take over your house unless you show them who’s in charge. Save a couple of pieces of stellar work and toss the rest. Remember this, and teach your kids: OLD STUFF DOES NOT RETURN TO THE BACKPACK.
  4. Sort by subject. I don’t care whether students use folders, binders or something else, but separating papers according to the subject makes it easier to locate work both at home and in class especially for middle and high school students. Ask your kids what they would like to do. They’ll be on board and feel liberated by the entire process.
  5. Keep it up. Unless tidying the backpack becomes a habit, you’ll soon have the same mess on your hands. Luckily, keeping it up requires less time and your children will be more skilled at identifying what they can keep or toss. If you get a good start, you can step back in a while and let them manage on their own.

Many students find doing homework easier and much less time consuming after they have tidied their backpack. Once they get their work organized, they feel more confident. In addition, not wasting time looking for their work leaves them more time to study. I have been through this process many times with students and they all end up making the same delighted comment in the end:

“Feel how light my backpack is!”

 By Daniela Loose
Loose is a teacher and a writer. Find her on Twitter.

My son with autism is going to college. Cue the happy tears.

One of the great parental rites-of-passage is when your eldest child receives their first college acceptance letter. If it happens to be the school that he or she so wants to attend, then it’s a moment of genuine celebration, tinged with the bittersweet knowledge that the adult leave-taking is beginning.

But when, like my son Max, your child is autistic, and that first “you’re in” letter lands on the doormat… well, full disclosure, I found myself sobbing uncontrollably. Because early on in Max’s odyssey along the autism spectrum I was categorically told that the hope of him ever having a so-called “normal life” — let alone eventually going off to college — was beyond the realm of possibility.

Ask any parent of a child with a disability and you will usually get an earful about the all-encompassing uncertainties that accompany having a son or daughter with “special needs” (to use that politically correct catch-all phrase). These parents are acutely aware of the fact that — in its brutal, happenstantial way — life can suddenly deal you some very bad cards. Only retrospectively — many years down this track — do you also begin to realize that how you, the parent, grapple with this determines so much of your child’s future.

I was a late arrival at that station marked parenthood. When Max showed up in the world I was a 37-year-old American writer based in London, married to an Irishwoman in the film business. Though there was a moment of panic in the delivery room when a midwife discovered that the umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck, Max hit all his early developmental marks and seemed to be a cheerful, engaged baby with decidedly night owl tendencies.

But then, when he was three, his connection to the world around him gradually began to diminish. Our growing worries were magnified when the head of his kindergarten called us in to observe him sitting alone in a corner of the playroom, withdrawn from his peers, staring blankly into the void beyond the nearby window. A briskly clinical educational psychologist diagnosed him with a receptive language disorder, meaning he had trouble understanding and processing what was said to him. She mentioned a private school that — as she noted in her crisp, bloodless Anglo way — “specializes in these sort of things.”

On the recommendation of that cheerless diagnostician, Max spent two years at a posh, rather a useless school for children with language disorders in a leafy corner of South London. Not only did he make no progress during his time there, but the headmistress once dismissively told me: “Max’s prospects are simply limited. At best he will be happy within himself.”

After this conversation, I started frantically researching other educational possibilities. And then, out of nowhere: Disaster. Max developed a series of nervous tics. He had tremors that left him disoriented and confused. I brought him to a pediatrician who said Max had Attention Deficit Disorder and put him on a course of Ritalin.

Ten days later, while my wife was on a business trip, I walked into Max’s room to discover that while he was physically present, he wasn’t responding to any outside stimuli. When I called his name, when I took his face in my hands and begged him to answer me, he stared back at me with eyes as glassy as a lake in winter. He was a vacant shell.

Lifting him, I discovered that he had lost control of all bodily functions. I raced him into the bathroom, washed him down with the shower hose, then called the local children’s hospital. Minutes later I was negotiating rush hour traffic. Halfway to the hospital, Max was hit with a convulsion that lasted one long terrible minute. Seated next to him, in her child seat, his two-year-old sister Amelia stroked his head with her left hand, willing his seizure to stop.

When we reached the pediatric neurology ward, my son was hooked up to an EEG machine to measure his brain waves. When the EEG machine whirred to life — Max’s head now covered by twenty electrodes — the needles on the monitor went berserk. It was like a mad Jackson Pollock canvas mirroring the electrical activity in my son’s brain. The resident neurologist was on the scene moments later. His voice remained calm, level, as he told me: “Your son is in the throes of a very severe epileptic incident. I know it is frightening, but in most cases the child comes through this.”

In most cases. This qualification unnerved me. He sent us across town to a specialist he felt best equipped to handle this “incident.”  An hour later I was in the consulting rooms of another doctor. He walked in as I was holding Max down during another convulsion.

After studying him intently, the doctor crouched by my catatonic son and said: “So Max, how does it feel to have taken five years off your father’s life?”

Then, gripping my shoulder with his hand, the doctor said what I was longing to hear: “I think I can get him back.” That doctor became both my ally and friend. Especially as it took another three months and many pharmacological adjustments for Max to emerge from his walking coma. When Max could talk again, the doctor sent him one of England’s top experts on autism, who officially diagnosed Max as being mid-range on the autistic spectrum.

After that, the wife of a friend put me in touch with a fellow American in London who was the mother of two autistic boys. She introduced me to a controversial way to teach autistic children that were pioneered at UCLA by Norwegian psychologist Ivar Lovaas. Known as the Lovaas Method, it also goes by the name of Applied Behavioral Analysis, and is noteworthy for its brutal 40-four hours per week one-on-one therapy that reportedly reorders the autistic brain.

With my friend’s help, I set up a Lovaas school for Max at home. And thus began the process which saw him accepted, 14 years later, at Ringling College of Art and Design. It was a frequently arduous journey. The early months of the therapy saw Max howling his head off as the chief tutor began to chip away at his autism.

I had to fight to get Max into the one secondary school for autistic children in London — and then had to fight again when our local borough closed it down (nasty budgetary cuts). I had to fight to get him into one of the few state boarding schools in the United Kingdom for autistic children. But then it was Max who insisted — when a teacher suggested he consider vocational training — that he wanted to get the British equivalent of a high school diploma. And it was Max who said yes, three years later, when I asked him if he was ready for college.

When it came time to start the college admissions process I was a divorced man living back in the United States. It was Max who, without my help, wrote a remarkable essay entitled ‘My Life with Autism,” which accompanied all his applications. Ringling was his first choice — and Ringling was the first of four schools that said yes to him.

Three and a half years on, Max came to visit me in Manhattan for Thanksgiving. He grabbed a taxi in from JFK International Airport alone, checked himself into the hotel I arranged for him, walked alone to my home and went with me and his sister to four plays over the weekend (we’re all culture vultures).

He especially had many things to say about “A View from the Bridge” on Broadway, which he pronounced brilliant. He asked,  “Do you think Eddie Carbone knows he is writing his own destiny? That’s the Greek tragedy part of the play, right?” I thought back to that dismissive headmistress in London who told me that Max’s future would be, at best, limited. And I said to my son — all of whose extraordinary achievements are the tribute to his fierce desire to defeat the autism that so tyrannized him for years: “Writing your own destiny can also be a wondrous thing”.

Douglas Kennedy’s 12 novels include “The Big Picture,” “The Pursuit of Happiness,” “The Woman in the Fifth” and “The Moment.” His new novel is“The Blue Hour.” A native New Yorker, he now divides his time between Manhattan, Maine, and Paris.