- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 13, 2000

With the recent successes of home-schoolers in the National Spelling Bee and National Geography Bee, I suspect many families may be thinking seriously about joining the population of 1.7 million home-schoolers.

As one school year ends and parents and children evaluate its events, they may wonder: "How would our lives change if we were to home-school?" People frequently ask us, "What is your daily schedule? How do you juggle everything?"

Each home-schooling family is different. That's one of the best aspects of home-schooling, as far as I'm concerned. For instance, a family may contain all early risers and therefore might like to do the major studying in the morning. Another family might like to spread the work throughout the day. The nice thing is, the family can fit the education to its needs and desires, rather than the other way around.

We are late risers, as all of us like to read ourselves to sleep at night, so we tend to start school around 9 a.m. Our mornings are times for quiet, concentrated work. We tend to do our individual study work then: the mathematics, English or art.

When noontime comes, we take a full hour for lunch. What that really translates into is "free time." About 10 minutes is spent eating; the rest of the time is used for practicing the piano, reading non-school books, playing educational computer games, sending e-mail and occasionally watching PBS. We keep lunch-time activities within the general realm of "educational activity," but everyone makes his or her own choices.

Lunch itself is a freestyle event for us. The children have gained a certain level of culinary expertise, so they may decide to cook up some macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, pizza, omelets or french toast or just warm up some leftovers. I consider it a form of home-economics training, because each of them has become proficient at handling cooking temperatures, timing and measurement and following recipes.

Around 1 p.m., we reassemble in our home-schooling room, which happens to be the nicest room in our house. (I have to say how nice it is to have the luxury of one whole room just for home-schooling. All the books and materials are in one convenient place, and the atmosphere is much easier to maintain away from distractions.) Afternoons usually are a bit more convivial, with lots of joking and repartee.

The children have chosen to do their foreign languages, sciences and history in the afternoons. I may do a spot of writing in the adjacent room, and when they need me, they just call out, and I help them over the hurdle.

When they have finished a chapter or a lesson, they give it to me to check. I correct it and give it back with comments. Sometimes, I can see from a certain lesson that they have missed some important point, so I will go back and explain it to them.

The daily journals they have been keeping have been a huge success. Their writing styles have improved enormously, and they have been keeping a daily record of their activities, which also is a great memory-tickler. In their journals, they propose ideas for their weekends, for parties and activities, and they evaluate past activities. I write back, and we discuss what might be fun, what was boring, what was disappointing and what was interesting.

We end at 3 p.m., and they are free to go out for some tennis or bicycling or to watch "Rosie O'Donnell" for a while if they like. They cook dinner several nights a week when I am working or their father is busy. They do odd jobs for neighbors mowing lawns, feeding cats or baby-sitting.

One daughter takes martial-arts classes two nights a week and helps teach the younger children. Both daughters are involved in Teen Court, in which they act as prosecutors, defenders or jury members for teens who admit guilt in some petty crime. My second daughter is teaching herself piano and drawing, so she practices on her own a lot. My son loves the Boy Scouts and occasionally joins a baseball or soccer team. Mostly he enjoys playing with his friends.

For us, there are no barriers between "school" and "home." For instance, the other day, we had a party and were in a rush to finish the cooking. We had a huge, industrial-size can of green beans and about six small cans of pork and beans. We needed to find cookware that could accommodate each, so I set the children to measuring the volumes of a rectangular baking pan and a round casserole dish. Using the formulas studied in their math lessons, they were able to assign the pork and beans to the round casserole and the green-bean dish to the baking pan.

They all can figure out how much money they can save according to the percentage of discount. They know how to shop by the unit price in the grocery store and how many hamburgers they can expect from 5 pounds of ground beef.

Each family is unique, and each individual within a family is unique. The particular pattern or method that evolves usually reflects those differences. It doesn't mean that one is good or another bad; it's just "what works."

It's sad that schools can no longer rely on "what works" as a way to teach young people. People far from the classroom often set down the plans, ideas and policies, and the unfortunate teacher and student are left without a lot of personal ownership of their educational situation. This is a waste of human creativity.

I hope the flexibility and pragmatism of home-schooling can eventually have some peripheral impact on the institutionalized school systems. At this point, however, we just feel lucky to be able to enjoy the advantages of education that fits the family, rather than making the family adjust to the demands of the educational institution.

Kate Tsubata, a home-schooling mother of three, is a free-lance writer living in Maryland.

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