The Unexpected Homeschooler: A Mid-Year Update

2020 brought about many unexpected new realities and for my family, choosing to take our son out of school to homeschool him, was ours.

As I wrote in another blog post The Unexpected Homeschooler, distance learning was super stressful for our 8-year-old son and despite his public school doing a great job, it just was not sustainable for us for another year.  (Our public school was only doing 1-2 days a week of in-person learning, which would have meant the lion’s share would still be online.)

To take over as a teacher was not a stretch for me: I have been active in music education for over 25 years, having taught music in pretty much every imaginable setting.  I have taught early childhood, k-8, middle school, high school and college (I’m currently on faculty at Fordham University.). I also run a busy private studio where I teach piano, voice, songwriting and musicianship to a wide variety of ages, levels and styles.

Fridge full of spelling tiles.

There was one small liability:  I have never taught any subject but music EVER.  While I have always been a curious person and have self-educated most of my life, I have no real notion of the framework for teaching writing, social studies or science.  And frankly, I was so bad at math growing up that the mere idea of teaching it gave me a case of diarrhea.

With the amazing support from my husband, and a few Hail Marys, we withdrew our son from public school at the end of June and I submitted an IHIP (Individualized Home Instruction Plan).  Since camp was canceled and we were unable to travel due to COVID-19 restrictions, we decided to start our official semester in early July.  It made sense to spend a few hours a day doing school, since it would keep him busy and hopefully avoid boredom and excessive screen time.

Fast forward to now:  I have just completed the second term quarterly report.  We are officially at the halfway point!  It is incredible to me how much we have both learned and grown in this time.

Working from the beach house table.

When we first started, I decided to take the Classical Education approach, using Writing, Spelling and Grammar curricula organized in textbooks and workbooks.  This allowed me to have some structure to our learning, but it turned out to be pretty boring for both of us.

I started getting more interested in a freer approach to learning and became obsessed with home education guru Julie Bogart.  I read her book The Brave Learner and started consuming her YouTube videos and podcasts like crazy.  I purchased her Partnership writing book, which takes a more holistic approach to teaching writing to children, hoping to spice up our work and keep my boy entertained.  Instead of sentence structures and workbooks, she provides 10 writing assignments for the year that each serve the purpose of teaching language arts through creative writing.  The projects have great starting points and are very customizable depending on your child’s interests and needs.

Julie Bogart is a genius!

We have done some incredible projects together as part of the Partnership Writing curriculum.  We did a unit on Secret Codes, where we used ciphers, invisible ink and Pigpen to send messages to each other.  This resulted in an incredible Halloween scavenger hunt, where he had to decode each of the clues.  My also became interested in Alan Turing and he researched and wrote a short picture book about him.  We did a family tree project that had my son calling family members on the phone, gathering and recording information.  It resulted in a wonderful poster with all of our family members’ names, birthdays and places of birth which now adorns our living room.  He has written comic books, dozens of letters and postcards to family and friends and is working on publishing a cookbook of recipes that he has tested and copied out.

The 5 W’s of Minecraft project.

We have read mountains of books together, including a bucket list of books I never got to read when I was a child.  We recently finished reading the Hobbit (11 hours of reading!!), which resulted in hours of discussions about the journey and what we thought would happen.  We are now in the midst of watching the 3 Hobbit movies and moving on to the Lord of the Rings movies.  Speaking of movies, we have watched dozens of them, including movie versions of books we had read.  It’s been so much fun to discuss the similarities and differences and decide which we like better.

Comic book math?? Why did this not exist when I was a kid?!?

Despite my own personal math challenges, we have managed to make a significant dent in the required 3rd grade units.  We are using Beast Academy for math, which are super rigorous.  The textbooks are actually comic books, which my son reads and rereads in his spare time and we have skipped over a few of the more advanced material which is above his grade level.  I have gotten stuck a few times and have made emergency calls to my dad (a retired engineer) and my now if my son sees me struggling with a math concept, her reminds to “call Grandad” for help.

What We Love

Above all else, we are enjoying the time we are spending together.  We are both learning to be more patient with ourselves and each other and I am learning how to be a more supportive teacher for him.  Some days we get into a wonderful workflow and just glide and some days I find myself raising my voice to a wiggly boy who spends more time fiddling with his pencil than finishing his copy work.  Every day I remind myself to stay in the moment by singing the chorus of The Gambler  (“know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run”).

Our NYC workspace – sometimes we eat dinner here too!

I have discovered that we do our best learning in a less structured, workbook-free environment.  I have discovered that he is capable of doing more than I ever imagined he could.  I have taught him how to do a ton of domestic tasks like laundry, vacuuming, dusting, taking out the rash and cleaning the bathroom.  He has learned to prepare simple meals and even some more complex dishes like lasagna.  (His future spouse is going to owe me BIG TIME.)

This experience with Brave Learner learning has even changed how I’m teaching him piano.  After following a structured piano curriculum for four years, I have started expanding what he is learning music-wise.  I have been teaching him how to play by ear and to transcribe his favorite songs.  I even took him through the material from Piano Skills for Singers, Level 1 and he can play his major and minor triads in 12 keys and accompany himself singing.

The school day only takes around 3 hours, so he has plenty of time to play.  He spends hours building with Lego, making Spotify playlists of video games songs, building incredible buildings and cities on Minecraft and he reads for hours every day.  We go to Central Park almost every day and have become avid birdwatchers, identifying nearly 2 dozen types of birds.  We have spent hours at museums and zoos, gone on some great hikes in Upstate New York and have taken up weekly ice skating.

The Challenging Stuff

I want to be honest and let you know that this hasn’t been easy for me.  It’s a LOT of work and energy and it can be extremely challenging to keep it moving all the time.  I continue to teach privately via Zoom every week, while growing my online course business, which has released 4 new courses in the last 12 months.  I am spread very thin a lot of the time and I have had to learn to let a lot of things go.

I have hardly made any of my own music in months and have only attempted one livestream concert during the entire pandemic.  There are many days where I am so exhausted by 8pm that I can do little more than watch something on tv and crash.  Some days I feel super overwhelmed and pulled in many directions.

Luckily, I have an incredible husband who is an amazing father and who carries a fair share of the household load.  I have a handful of friends who are great cheerleaders and supporters and have found an incredible community of homeschools online.

Home Ec time – learning to make a lasagna from scratch.

My survival tools are daily exercise, which keeps me from going out of my ever-living mind.  I also need quiet time to myself every day and I’m very good at hiding out in my studio for a couple of hours to listen to 90s rock and scroll social media.  Once a month, my husband and son go out to our beach house, so I can have a couple of days to myself to binge work, eat Sweetgreen salads for every meal and watch tv shows full of people with English accents.

Another challenge for us is that our son has almost no in-person interaction with other kids.  We had a few outdoor, masked, socially distanced playdates in the fall, but with Covid numbers rising we have stopped those.  Our saving grace has been some online programs that have been a lifeline for our son.  He does Zoom classes in coding and Minecraft with Maker-State, where he gets great instruction and enjoys interacting with other Minecraft-obsessed kids like him.  His karate studio KP for Kids Karate has made Zoom classes feel like in-person, since the teachers have such wonderful rapport with each of the kids.  Finally, Steve and Kate’s has created a wonderful evening program for kids that operates similarly to their cool summer camps.

Gratitude

The best part of all of this has been that our relationship, which has always been close, is getting deeper every day.  We definitely drive each other crazy at times, but we have found a true place of joy and comfort together.  Every parent out there will tell you that children grow up so fast and I feel like this year has given me the gift of getting to really see him growing up before my eyes.

Some more homeschool magic – feeding the Tufted Titmouse in Central Park.

So, that’s my report on my homeschooling journey so far.  Even though this has been a terrible year for so many reasons, I have a feeling that we will both look back on this year together as one of the best.  Silver linings. 

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