My children spent the first day of their school year discussing the use of confetti guns with The Flaming Lips, their favorite rock band. No kidding. Before a recent show, Lips singer Wayne Coyne showed Posie and Levi, ages 11 and 9, around the backstage area of Merriweather Post Pavilion, explaining how the band's elaborate show gets put together and letting them stand onstage during sound check.
An amiable, if unlikely, guest instructor, Coyne told the kids that "class wasn't over" when sound check was finished and riffed about the legacy of Miles Davis, the importance of being an artist, and various uses for duct tape and spray paint. He left them with parting words of advice: "Posie and Levi . . . always remember . . . if it looks cool . . . we win."
He broke into a huge grin, gave them hugs, and wished them well with their studies. He then orchestrated an amazing show, one that awed and impressed the children, and Posie bought herself a T-shirt that read, "I experienced The Flaming Lips in concert, and it made me a better human being."
That's how our homeschooling year began.
Will a rock band from Oklahoma be a regular part of our curriculum? Of course not. I happened to interview Coyne the week school began, and, after learning the Merriweather concert coincided with our first day of classes, he extended an invitation to the kids. We've since moved on to history, math, language arts, science, etc., but that first day set a tone that's all about possibility, wonder, excitement, and engagement. And whose education couldn't use more of that?
My wife Anne and I have been homeschooling our children for the past two years. Because the kids are generally well-behaved and articulate, we're often asked where they go to school. Upon hearing they're homeschooled, people's responses generally fall into two categories: dismay ("I could never do that") or curiosity ("I've always wanted to do that"). The former far outnumbers the latter, so it's no surprise that less than 3 percent of U.S. children are taught at home.
And those responses are often accompanied by an assumption that we're either religious conservatives, off-the-grid types, or averse to public schooling. None of those stereotypes apply, especially the rejection of public education—I'm a product of the Baltimore County school system, and Anne graduated from Western.
Basically, we homeschool because we can. Our work schedules—as editor/writer and musician, respectively—are flexible enough, we love learning, and we like spending lots of time with the kids. Don't underestimate the importance of that last item. Sure, everyone likes spending time with their kids, but parents of homeschoolers spend a lot of time with their kids, and they wear a variety of hats. Not just teachers, we're also curriculum setters, guidance counselors, cafeteria workers, activities planners, phys ed coaches, and janitors, too.
Initially a daunting proposition, the scope of those responsibilities is ultimately empowering, especially the part about establishing a curriculum. According to my daughter's latest issue of New Moon Girls, a magazine popular with homeschooled tweens, there are three basic approaches: traditional ("like running a little school in your own home" with rigid schedules and set lesson plans), unschooling (relaxed, unstructured learning that's child-led), and eclectic homeschooling (sort of a mix between traditional and unschooling).
When Posie read the article, she exclaimed, "That's us! We're eclectic homeschoolers."
I think she was afraid we wouldn't fit into any of the categories, and even though we lean traditional, a curriculum that includes The Flaming Lips definitely puts us in the eclectic camp.
Although we considered using a comprehensive curriculum like that offered by Calvert School, we instead selected textbooks, workbooks, and other materials on a subject-by-subject basis. That way, we could customize everything to Posie and Levi's specific needs: Story of the World for both of them, Saxon math for Posie, Calvert math for Levi, and so on. I say "we," but Anne has taken the lead on most of this, and, from what I've seen, it's often the case that mom does the lioness' share of the work.
As a result, our conversation over morning coffee might be about fractions, the difference between a cape and a peninsula, or Eleanor of Aquitaine. Books such as A Dictionary of Earth Sciences, Nebel's Elementary Education, and A History of the American People are stacked on Anne's night stand. And she's just as likely to advocate for vacationing in Williamsburg with a side trip to Jamestown as she is for a jaunt to the beach.
In fact, that's exactly what we did in September when the kids started studying U.S. history. A few days before our departure, Anne discovered we'd be visiting Williamsburg during homeschool week, which features reduced admission prices and programs geared specifically toward kids. So tickets for the four of us cost $26, total, instead of $36 per person, and we were able to leisurely stroll the grounds without being jostled by summer crowds. Homeschoolers in period costume outnumbered Williamsburg employees/re-enactors, and the kids asked intelligent questions to boot. They even said, "Thank you."
Seeing them brought to mind the s-word. If you're a homeschooling parent, you know the s-word. You hear about it constantly, from friends, family members, physicians, and chances are even the mailman has weighed in on it: "Aren't you concerned about socialization?"
"I might be if my children weren't homeschooled," I'm tempted to respond, but usually I tick off how they interact with peers and get outside the house—from sports, music lessons, and volunteering in the community to simply playing with other kids in the neighborhood and occasionally taking classes with other homeschoolers.
Let's face it, we don't live in isolated, or isolating, times. In our wired world, there are many people clamoring for our kids' attention and homeschooling actually helps manage the onslaught. Case in point: Posie and Levi used to watch ABC Kids, a block of children's shows, on Saturday mornings for an hour or two. But Anne and I noticed that afterwards, they'd often be cranky, argumentative, and prone to sarcasm—like the kids on the shows and in the commercials.
Eventually, we decided enough was enough. "We're going to stop watching TV on Saturday mornings," we announced to dejected looks that turned to curiosity after we added, "And we're going to start making TV."
With the kids so computer and media savvy, we figured they could create their own show, and they did. Pole 79—titled from the first two letters of their names followed by their ages at the time—immediately became a media arts course in our curriculum. You can see the results for yourself. Just go to YouTube and search for Pole 79, episodes one to four. You'll see a brother and sister playing Bach and Bob Dylan, reciting Shakespeare and Langston Hughes, riffing about favorite books and music, and generally having a great and goofy time.
Since starting Pole 79, they haven't asked to watch ABC Kids again.
On weekdays, school usually begins at 10 a.m. with Anne leading the kids through yoga or some other exercise, followed by journal writing. Then, it's on to a discussion of history, maybe a quiz on the previous day's lesson, and related reading. After history, Levi might work on his multiplication tables, while Posie does long division. There will likely be some writing exercises, environmental science, and a piano lesson in the mix, as well.
The kids often make their own lunches, leaving Anne to catch up on e-mail, reserve library books online—the interlibrary loan program has saved us a ton of money—or plan the next day's schedule. There's no commute, no rushing around, and the school day usually ends by 3 p.m.
Still, it can be exhausting and even a bit demoralizing when the kids seem unmotivated. On such days, a glass of wine goes down very easily before dinner.
We keep portfolios of both children's work and meet with a rep from the Board of Education once or twice a year. The first meeting was particularly stressful, because it amplified doubts that inevitably came up during the year. Had we chosen the right materials? Was our approach comprehensive enough? Were we meeting standards?
Our Board of Ed rep seemed impressed. "You're covering more ground than we do," he said, looking through our materials. "You certainly seem to have all the bases covered."
We thought so. But just a few weeks ago, Posie mentioned something I'd never considered. "Dad, are we going to have a prom?" she asked.
I hesitated a few seconds before telling her that she'd have a prom, and it will probably be amazing.
Maybe we can get The Flaming Lips to play.