By Nora Krug
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 8, 2010; GZ15
Before she decided to home-school her 10-year-old daughter, Laura Brodie was skeptical. Home schooling "was a little bit weird," she confesses in her new book, "Love in a Time of Homeschooling" (Harper, $25.99), a practice reserved for conservative Christians and people living off the grid. But in 2005, Brodie, a novelist and visiting professor of English at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., found her oldest daughter, Julia, hiding in the closet instead of doing homework. "That, to me, was a sign," she writes, that drastic change was in order.
Julia had always been a dreamer, the kind of student teachers described as "unusual." She balked at structure and change and often drifted away from group activities. She struggled with spelling and needed extra time for math. Then came the standardized tests, rote worksheets and mountains of homework.
"If Julia's wandering mind had been our only challenge," Brodie writes, "I never would have opted for homeschooling." But, she explains, "I kept looking at the bland content in Julia's worksheets and tests, and thinking, 'Oh, c'mon. I could do much better than this.' " (Private school options were limited by distance and expense.)
The legal requirements for home schooling in Virginia, Brodie learned, are not terribly stringent: Because Brodie had more than a high school diploma, all she needed was a curriculum to share with her local school superintendent and for Julia to score above the lowest 25th percentile in a standardized test that Brodie could choose and administer. The more difficult part was persuading her daughter, whose initial reaction -- a shrug -- was overcome by the promise that her only homework would be to write one page in a journal and to read for one hour a day.
Together, mother and daughter constructed a fifth-grade curriculum that embraced Julia's interests and Brodie's hopes: a wide range of subjects from Mayan culture and dinosaurs to typing and knitting. The pair went on field trips to Washington, Jamestown and Williamsburg; they attended lectures and a protest and were regulars at a coffee shop where they listened to live music. Brodie's husband took Julia to the gym and tried to teach her flute. From the beginning, Brodie knew that this was only a year-long experiment, modeled on a university sabbatical. Also, she admits, "one year was the limit of my patience."
As Brodie chronicles with refreshing frankness, not every day was an ode to the joys of learning (or teaching). Mother and daughter clashed over spelling and violin lessons, and at one low point there was name-calling and even a swat. Brodie had to deal with the jealousy of her other two daughters, then 6 and 8, and conflicts with her husband about how to teach.
But mother and daughter agree that it was worth the trouble. With home schooling, "you get to feel that you are remotely in control of your own education," says Julia, now a ninth-grader at Rockbridge County High School in Lexington. Brodie concurs, noting the added benefit of practicing "the art of patience."
We asked Brodie to elaborate on these and other lessons she and her daughter gleaned from their year playing hooky from public school.
Describe a typical home schooling day.
We would begin by 8:45 a.m. at the kitchen table doing math. We would play some math games; then Julia would do a sheet of equations or build objects out of geometric shapes -- hands-on, fun learning. Then we might go into English and history-writing, then 30 minutes for violin practice.
I didn't ring a bell and never had an hour-to-hour schedule. Mornings were a time to get paperwork done; afternoons were more open for outdoor play, music, science experiments and art projects. Most days involved something outside the house, exploring the community: going to the knitting cottage, a coffee shop to hear bluegrass music, to Washington and Lee to hear a talk, even grocery shopping.
How is grocery shopping a learning experience?
Grocery stores provide great home-schooling lessons, not only in nutrition and meal planning, but in math. The scales in the produce section offer practice with measurement and multiplication. On a few occasions Julia brought a notebook to the store and estimated how much we were spending, rounding prices to the nearest dollar, and adding up everything I put into the cart. This was also a valuable lesson in how the daily expenses of life add up.
How was your daughter able to maintain social interaction with her peers?
She could see her friends at dance class, tennis clinics and other after-school activities. She had the same social schedule; it was just from 8:30 to 3 that she did not have classroom social interaction.
How much did it cost you to home-school?
It was not very expensive in terms of materials. Field trips were our big expense. There were hotels and restaurant bills. Gasoline was probably the most expensive thing in all of home schooling. Roughly, the entire year was less than $1,500. Also, I only taught one course at Washington and Lee, which cut my income in half. Home schooling is only a possibility for parents who can have one parent not working at all or working part time.
What do you think your daughter got out of the experience?
She learned a lot more about history and science and English than she would have otherwise. Academically, you can take a leap forward with individual tutoring. She absorbed more about the love of learning and about taking some initiative in her schooling. She became a more active participant in her education instead of passively sitting at a desk.
How is your daughter doing in school now?
She's doing well academically but is not a happy person in school. Few teenagers are.