Teaching with a Mom's Touch

More families are choosing homeschooling as an alternative to traditional education. Their reasons may vary, but alumnae who have set up class at home say the experience strengthens family bonds and makes their children active participants in their own learning.

by Jane Falla

 
Linny Blumer AC ’89 and her family are avid world travelers. They’ve lived in Switzerland; currently have a home in Brazil, where they moved to nine years ago; and have traveled extensively throughout the United States, Europe, and South America. When her two oldest children were in elementary school in Switzerland, Blumer took them out of school for a six-month trek, and after returning home and having her children go back to school for a short while, she finally made the decision to teach them at home. Life itself, she had come to realize, was perhaps the best teacher for her kids, and the world at large was the best classroom.
 
That’s not to say Blumer didn’t struggle with her decision. “Both my husband and I felt insecure because most of our friends and family told us we were crazy and irresponsible, and the kids were going to be misfits,” she says.
 
Once she overcame her doubts, though, Blumer, who was briefly homeschooled as a child, took on her role as teacher with relish, and her children thrived. She loved being able to tailor her children’s studies to their interests and passions, taking advantage of others’ expertise, such as visiting biologists who invited the kids to do fieldwork, and going to museums and hiking in the mountains. By homeschooling, she says, “I taught my kids how to teach themselves.”
 
For Blumer, and a growing number of families, combining the roles of mom and teacher makes perfect sense. Indeed, at a time when US public schools are struggling with budget cuts and, in many cases, poor performance, and teachers continue to get a bad rap, the ranks of homeschooling parents are growing. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that the number of homeschooled students in the United States rose from 1.7 percent of the student population in 1999 to 2.9 percent in 2007. The NCES cites three main reasons for homeschooling: concern about a school’s environment, the desire to provide religious or moral instruction, or dissatisfaction with the academic instruction available in their areas. “One of the primary reasons we decided to homeschool is we felt that we were responsible for our children’s education—academically, spiritually, and morally,” says Claire Derrick Kennedy ’94 of Alabama.
 
Other alumnae who have chosen to teach at home cite a great deal of satisfaction in their choice and say the experience has deepened their family bonds and

Anne Stevens Frost
Anne Stevens Frost ’98 and her two daughters.

taught them a few lessons of their own.

 
Anne Stevens Frost ’98, who now lives in the Philippines, began thinking about homeschooling five years ago while living in Arizona, before her oldest daughter, Kai, was ready to be enrolled in kindergarten. She believed that Kai’s advanced skills (she was reading by the time she was 4) and “quirky personality” might be stifled in a traditional classroom. “By the time she was old enough to start kindergarten, Kai was getting ready to start her second-grade curriculum,” Frost says. “She knew too many things to be in a kindergarten classroom and stay interested, and she wasn’t socially mature enough for a second-grade classroom.”
 
An experienced fourth-grade teacher, Frost approached homeschooling tentatively at first, hoping to see how Kai progressed. That was four years ago, and now she’s teaching her 6-year-old daughter, Abigail, as well.
 
Describing her teaching style as “eclectic,” Frost says she combines structured methods of learning, like textbooks, with experimentation, observation, and discussion, and the girls are thriving academically. They do level-specific work in the morning, rotating math, grammar, reading, geography, religion, art appreciation, logic, and handwriting. After lunch, they work together on science, social studies, gym, and writing. The result, Frost says, is that her daughters have developed a closer relationship. “They will still play with other kids, but they are each other’s best friend,” she says.
 
Part of what inspired Beth Donatelli Herbert ’82 of North Carolina to consider homeschooling nearly two decades ago was her own upbringing—she came from a family of teachers who instilled in her a great interest in education—and a deep desire to help shape what her children learned. “I was drawn to the idea of being able to personalize and individualize education for each child,” she says.
 
In becoming teacher to her five children, who now range in age from 12 to 25, Herbert discovered that “homeschooling opens up a whole realm of learning possibilities. You can also look at the bigger picture—not just at how someone acquires knowledge, but also at the character and qualities that you hope to see coming together to foster a good, productive adult life.”
 
The experience has stretched and challenged Herbert in unexpected ways. Getting to learn about new topics—and relearn old ones in new ways—alongside her children has made her a more engaged teacher. “Sharing that enthusiasm with my kids has helped them to be more enthusiastic,” she says. What’s more, she’s discovered how natural learning really is for children. “It doesn’t have to be so controlled, restricted, and regulated,” she says.
 
Though teaching children at home can offer potential benefits to individual children, critics wonder if those benefits come at the expense of the greater social good. Rosetta Marantz Cohen, professor of education and child study at Smith, admits to having conflicted feelings about homeschooling. “In general, I see the rise in homeschooling as another example of the dismantling of the founding principles of American public education,” she says. “Neighborhood or district schooling was developed as a cornerstone of the democratic system. Public schools were the place where children were supposed to get socialized for citizenship, where they learned tolerance and respect for diversity. Private schools, homeschooling, and charter schools all undermine that goal.”
 
At the same time, Cohen is aware that some parents may wish to create a better learning environment for their children. “I understand a parent’s desire to escape a terrible public school, and homeschooling can be one inexpensive option for doing that,” she says.
 
Concerns about homeschooling also stem from the fact that regulations and requirements vary from state to state, as do curricula and standards that homeschooling teachers must meet. Although homeschooling became technically legal in all fifty states as of 1993, some states require yearly testing of homeschooled children, while others require regular parent training, interviews with children, or review of curriculum.
 
Homeschooling parents recognize these concerns and rely on a number of resources to provide guidance and help them improve their own skills. When Robin Acker AC began homeschooling her daughter Kiersten, who is now a first-year at Smith (see sidebar), she read The Well-Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise and turned to the University of Wisconsin for ideas and resources. “It does take a village,” Acker says.
 
Anne Frost says that she discovered a thriving online community to help her. “Luckily, there are a lot of Websites that provide activities, online games, worksheets, unit plans, and other tools for homeschooling parents and teachers alike,” she says.
 
Beth Herbert went one step further. In 1996, she started a homeschool co-op with two friends that she incorporated in 2006 as the nonprofit Lighthouse Christian Homeschool Association. Today, the co-op serves more than 250 member families in the Wake Forest, Youngsville, North Raleigh area of North Carolina and fosters all kinds of interaction between kids and with other adults through athletic activities, spelling bees, field trips, and more. Parents also have the opportunity to share different ideas about teaching along with resources and other materials. Besides that, developing friendships with other parents helps ward off feelings of isolation, Herbert says. “When you have a group, you can start doing things and providing opportunities, and it makes it easier for other parents to step into homeschooling. I encourage people who don’t have this to start. It starts with a few parents who have a vision.”
 
A key lesson these homeschooling moms—and according to the latest statistics, the majority of homeschooling teachers are mothers—have learned is what it takes to be a great teacher. They say that flexibility, curiosity, patience, humor, and love are key. “What makes a good teacher is being willing to pour yourself into the nurturing and development of another person,” says Claire Derrick Kennedy ’94, who teaches her four oldest children using a tutorial method, and by supplementing lessons with online courses and outside activities such as piano lessons, ballet classes, and Boy Scouts.
 
For Acker, it’s all about being an effective role model. “Parents who are good teachers understand that—whether they home educate or send their child to private or public school—they are their child’s first and most influential teacher,” she says. “That responsibility does not change until their child reaches adulthood.”
 
What makes the role of mom as teacher so gratifying, alumnae homeschoolers say, is watching their children develop their own passions and become motivated enough to want to pursue their own interests. Herbert, in particular, remembers when her daughter called home during her sophomore year in college. She was frustrated with one of her classes because many of the students in it weren’t self-directed. “She said, ‘Thank you for teaching me how to learn and not wait for someone to tell me how to do it,’” Herbert says. “Of course, that was honey for a mom’s heart.” 

Jane Falla is assistant editor at the Smith Alumnae Quarterly.
 
Spring 2011 SAQ