Saturday, August 31, 2013

Adventures in Homeschooling

When we learned back in January that we would be moving to Hawaii, one of our first priorities was to find a good school for Aiden and Aubrey to attend. Army wives talk, and for years, I'd heard from fellow wives about the horrors of Hawaii public schools. The poor educational standards, the shockingly low test scores, the bullying of "haoles" (the Hawaiian word for white people, generally proceeded by an expletive that begins with an f) by locals, and the paltry resources the schools were given. Not one to give much credence to gossip, I did my research, and although the facts aren't quite as bad as portrayed by my fellow Army was pretty darn close. Hawaii is 48th in the nation for overall education rankings. There are little-to-no resources for the kids in the schools. Many schools are lucky to have half of the kids showing mastery of basic subjects like math and reading. And science? Most schools show mastery levels in the teens or single digits. Bullying by the locals doesn't occur in every school--but in some of the worst locales, white kids have been sent to the ER with concussions, broken bones and worse, thanks to beatings handed down by some particularly awful locals. All of this is enough to make a Mama want to cry. So, we began our search for a public school alternatives while still living in Kansas.

We researched and applied to several private schools on the island. One school was really not a great option, the other sent us a letter stating that they just flat didn't have the resources Aiden needed (Aiden is gifted, having tested in the upper 5% of IQs, he's already skipped a year of school, but he also has several sensory integration issues which require a few minor classroom accommodations). One school was an absolute perfect fit--a tiny school that restricts admissions to gifted children, and above average intelligence kids with learning disabilities or ADD. We toured the school and were blown away--it wasn't a traditional learning environment, small classes, multiple teachers per class, the kids were given a lot of autonomy and the ability to take enrichment classes and advance at their own pace in subjects. The kicker--tuition would be $19,000 AFTER the financial aid we were offered. Ouch!  We searched and crunched numbers and tried to figure out a way to make that work, but there was just no way.

Once we found our home on the island, we looked at the local public school, just to see how it stacked up. (Not all Hawaii schools are created equal--a handful are great.) We discovered that the school in our neighborhood was actually a pretty good school, and things were looking up! But then, thanks to redistricting plans, we discovered that Aiden and Aubrey weren't eligible to attend to school across the street from our neighborhood--our little enclave of houses had been assigned to attend an older, lower-performing school several miles away in a poorer area. Grrr.

So, after much soul-searching and mulling and agonizing, I decided to homeschool Aiden. Since Aubrey is only 4 and would be attending Jr. Kindergarten this year, I decided to enroll her at the local public school. (Aubrey attends a regular kindergarten class; at the end of the year, if she is ready for first grade, she will promote. If not, she will be given the "gift of time" and will take kinder again next year, without it being seen as a repeat. A weird program, but since Aubrey is already reading and has mastered most kinder subjects already, I'm pretty confident she'll be moving on to first grade next year.) The local school in not a BAD school or an unsafe school, and is fully qualified to provide a kindergarten-level education, so I figure it will be fine for Aubrey to attend and will be a good experience for her. It will allow me to focus my time and energy on Aiden and figuring out this whole homeschool experience. However, I don't think it can get even close to meeting Aiden's needs--and I doubt Aubrey will attend next year, either.

I researched curriculum and learning styles and homeschool methods. I decided to use a unit study style lesson plan--Aiden and I will tackle our subjects relative to group of overarching themes that will change throughout the year. I bought and stocked up and planned, and then last Monday, Aiden had his first day of homeschool.

Our first week went well. Our themes all relate to a particular character value, and this month, our value is Obedience. We learned about authority, where our authority comes from, and the Bible. We learned about Johannes Gutenberg and the printing press, movable type, and how printed word changed our world forever. We studied Germany in the Middle Ages, the Black Death, and how Gutenberg's invention and the plagues helped to usher in the Renaissance. We learned about light as a metaphor for authority, studied lighthouses, learned about sources of natural vs. man made light, and learned about electricity. We wired a model lighthouse, creating an electrical circuit from a battery, wires and a small light bulb, and used paper mache and paint to convert an empty bottle filled with wires into a working lighthouse. We learned about the local lighthouse here on Hawaii, Makapu'u, researched, wrote and published a travel brochure on the light, and then on Friday, hiked as a family to see the lighthouse in person. Along the way, there were spelling and vocab words to learn (all words that fit our theme) and we completed eleven lessons in math. It was a busy week, yet it was all fun--very little of it seemed like work. Aiden had a few meltdowns--he had to challenge my authority a few times in the name of scientific research, I guess, but we survived.

The most surprising part about this week? The learning didn't seem forced or tedious. Aiden and I explored and discussed and researched together. We took a genuine interest in what we were doing and the time seemed to fly by. At one point, I started getting insecure, thinking that we were having too much fun--we must not be learning enough! But I sat down and listed out the subjects we tackled and the learning objectives we had completed and realized, we were learning. A lot.

Now, there were rough moments. Moments I wanted to pull my hair out when he whined. A point at which I yelled, "Will you just sit down and do your work!! You are taking FOREVER!" Things weren't pretty all the time. I even fantasized a couple of times about drop-kicking his butt into the van, driving up to the local school, dragging his whiny butt inside and telling the administrators, "Forget it, he's your problem now!" But those moments passed and we survived, my liver only slightly worse for wear after a cocktail-infused evening or two.

I know we will have dark days ahead. I know there will be days I want to quit. But I also know there are plenty more fun days ahead--days where learning doesn't seem to be a chore and I can watch with joy as my son's eyes light up with understanding or fascination. And those days (mostly) make the rest seem trivial.

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Want to hear more about the Pack?

Check out A Belly in Bloom, a page devoted to Angela's pregnancy with Aubrey. You can see belly pics, sonograms, and learn more about how Aubrey (formerly known as "The Bean") came to be the lovely little girl she is! You can also find Angela's favorite recipes and newest food experiments at Cooking with the Parker Pack.