Roadschooling — What that looks like for us

Being responsible for the primary education of your children – how tricky could that be?  I have often joked that teaching the engineering fundamentals of Naval Weapons Systems to engineers, scientists, and English majors (everyone at USNA has to take that class) was not unlike teaching a 6th grader, a 3rd grader, and a Kindergartener.  And then I started doing research into what that process really should entail and I got immediately overwhelmed – I began to realize I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.  I started asking several friends who are educators, both in the public school system and homeschooling parents, how they do what they do, and was quickly talked down out of the tree.

Not surprisingly, homeschooling is the education experience of choice for many military families as the ordered timeline to change one’s duty station doesn’t always coincide with the public school academic calendar or CONUS boundaries.  I learned a few things pretty early into my research that were a little surprising, most notably that homeschooling requirements vary widely by state.  In Tennessee, for example, you need to take attendance to show that your child was in school at home for at least 180 days of the year.  For most homeschoolers, they must ally their efforts with whatever the education laws of the state they’re either living in or a resident of.  We’re in a unique position because we can claim anywhere as home.  Because we still own our house in Anacortes, Washington, and Washington State Homeschooling Laws are far less in my chili pot than, say, Maryland’s, we opted to enroll our kids in the Anacortes School District and applied for permission to homeschool for this coming school year.

In a nutshell, Washington requires that formal education of some variety is compulsory for children over the age of eight and that homeschooling parents cover the “big eleven” topics:  occupational education, science, mathematics, language, social studies, history, health, reading, writing, spelling, and the development of an appreciation of art and music (tin whistle, anyone?).  How these topics are covered is entirely up to you.  Homeschooling is pretty wonderful in that the daily work in math, writing, spelling, and reading can be accomplished in a few hours leaving much of the day open for field trips and other experiential learning.  I realized pretty quickly that it would be folly to reinvent the wheel and first looked into various math curricula since there are only so many ways you can learn multiplication tables.   Soon after I realized that it would also probably serve us well to have a writing curriculum.  Both Flight and I agreed that, while we were both able to offer feedback on writing to improve it through the editing process, we have no idea how to teach someone to write.  That’s a totally different skill set, one I have neither the time nor the inclination to acquire.

After reading up on what’s out there, I (sorry, Flight, we…) were very pleased with what Singapore Math has to offer.  For American students, there are three different Primary Mathematics curricula available: U.S. Edition (pretty much the same as what has traditionally been taught in Singapore but also includes US measurements since we’re the only ones still bent on bucking the metric system), the Standards Edition (includes all in the U.S. Edition plus some other requirements in line California’s Public School requirements – who knew they were more stringent?!), and a less robust version in line with the Common Core.  We opted to go with the Standards Edition just in case we end up in the state of California after our travels.

The first step was to get our kids, especially the older two that have been subjected to Common Core in their public school experience, transitioning to this new and different curriculum.  So, ogre of a mother that I am, I made them work through the level they just finished in school – and I made them do it over the summer so they’d be up to speed for their upcoming respective academic year.  Actually, there was some reasoning behind this act of tyranny.  Singapore Math recommends that homeschooling parents do placement exams with each of their students to determine the appropriate level to start.  Both Keeper and Firebolt showed that it would serve them both well to refresh their recently acquired (?) knowledge, and (more importantly) learn how other than Common Core practices are taught and applied.  I was encouraged to see that the Standards Edition textbooks introduce material in more seemingly logical methods and information flow.

In response to his rebelling against this transition, I have had to remind Keeper that because his interests seem to point him strongly down the science or engineering paths, it would be in his best interest to have strong math and science fundamentals to build on and enable his success in these fields.  It was a bit of a hard sell, but now that Keeper sees the value of really knowing his multiplication tables, I think we have now won both him (and Firebolt) over.  WoodSprite, however, can’t get enough math and is very comfortable working with numbers.  I think it helps that we started homeschooling her part-time in her last year of pre-K (math practice we did can be found here…).

For the writing program, we opted to go with one offered by the Institute for Excellence in Writing.  I read many enthusiastic reviews for this program and watched several sample lectures, but they truly had me when I received two well thought out emails from two of their employees in response to questions I posed about educating three students in 6th, 3rd, and Kindergarten years.  Although they each said it slightly differently, both recommended one level aimed at the middle schooler, but with a modified workbook for our elementary student.  Since we’re waiting to start this program until after Labor Day (see, really I’m more Fiona than Shrek), I’ll post later on how well we like it.

Math, check.  Writing, check.  As far as how the rest of the curricula is shaping up, it will probably be as fluid as our flight plan, sometimes defining our path and sometimes making the most of where we find ourselves.  Just yesterday afternoon we studied biology, botany, and ichthyology when we went to Kitch-Iti-Kipi (check out our time in the UP here…) and then studied astronomy and chemistry at the Van Riper State Park’s Showers and S’mores event last night.  Breakfast today became a discussion of the digestive system and why it’s so important to chew your food.  Keeper immediately offered “increased surface area of the food allows for better digestion,” which evolved into a discussion of geometry and how calculus is used to estimate surface area.  Just two weeks into our travels, each of our students knows the names of the five Great Lakes and that Michigan is the only state that touches four of the five.  Bottom line is that the opportunity to educate our kids is limited only by our creativity and how we choose to engage them.  I hope we are equal to the task.


Note to self: when writing in the wee hours, refrain from posting without sleeping on it first.

Flight commented that I was pretty harsh on the Common Core and our discussion evolved into what Common Core actually is and what it is not.  We have a friend who is a public school principal and has expressed frustration that most people lump anything that they find dissatisfactory about the educational process into disparaging “Common Core” remarks.  Although I don’t disagree with the goal behind “Common Core” (Why wouldn’t we as a country want to quantify, qualify, and standardize educational requirements for our future generations, regardless of where each student lives, to ensure that all individuals thrive and work toward collective success as a nation?), I just think there may be a better way to implement it.   I don’t know what that would look like, I’m just not a fan of what I have seen from the outside.

I can imagine it would be a difficult message to effectively convey that positive test metrics should merely be a byproduct of the educational process and not the ultimate goal, all the while tying them to one’s livelihood.  Tricky.  In my uninformed opinion, based mostly on Waiting for Superman (a brilliant film produced in 2010 that provides an eye-opening look at education in the US) and my observations in working closely with the products of our public school system, both the midshipmen at the Naval Academy and members of our own flight team (Keeper and Firebolt), there is something we are missing.

In truth, there are a few skills that I’m concerned our kids haven’t solidly mastered by now.  Multiplication tables stand out as one of those things you just need to learn.  I’m not sure why, but there seems to be less emphasis on knowing them – maybe because everyone has a smart phone with a calculator?  One of our cousins homeschooled each of her three kids for varying numbers of years and, as a fellow engineer, she offered this reasonable hypothesis.  Understandably, most elementary educators do not take higher level math during their own college training, which means many therefore don’t understand the handicap that not having above average basic math skills will introduce.  She offered this comparison in the literature realm: not knowing multiplication tables is not unlike neglecting to learn sight words – how much more time would be dedicated to reading lengthy missives if you had to sound out the, and, there, these, etc.?  Good comparison, I think.

Spelling is another critical skill.  My own spelling skills and grasp of colloquialisms are, for all intensive purposes, in the fair to midland category (Donut, that’s for you), which means I am always thankful for the corresponding squiggly lines (gently?) reminding me that I jacked something up.  And I was held accountable for my spelling skills.  Keeper started out having spelling words to learn each week but that tapered off a couple years ago.  Firebolt has never had the privilege of formally learning words because spelling requirements in our former elementary school have evaporated altogether.

Closely related to spelling skills are writing skills. Firebolt’s reading comprehension is off the charts.  Literally.  We were told by her teacher that because Firebolt was so far ahead, she could no longer legally be tested to further assess her level.  When she came home at the end of the year, I looked through the notebooks of work she had kept at school.  Her writing journal was blank after two weeks into the year.  ???  When I asked her if she had used another notebook to do her writing, Firebolt offered: “No.  I just didn’t write in it.  We were given the opportunity to read after we finished our writing work for the day and I didn’t feel like doing the writing, so I just read.”  Hmmm…  Reading and writing are totally different skill sets – we’ll need to work on that.

I can’t help but wonder if the lack of focus on these crucial skill sets from our kids’ elementary education is the cost of having so many assessment requirements thrust upon the teachers in the wake of Common Core adaptation.  Although we (Flight and I) are admittedly guilty of not paying enough attention to those missing pieces in our kids’ education where we ourselves might have become better educated on the process and be a part of the solution sooner, we are making it a point to remedy that oversight this coming year.