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Kiddie sabbatical offers families a chance to find new approaches to learning

By Jay Mathews
Monday, May 10, 2010; B02

The Washington area has the highest concentration of ambitious and challenging schools in the country, a result of the quality of the educators and the affluence of the parents. But such educational riches come at a price.

Schools that demand so much don't work for some kids. Parents, including some Post colleagues, occasionally tell me about their bright children who see no point in many assignments and don't do them, leading to tension and heartburn for the adults.

When it gets too bad, a family may pull a child out of school to let everyone calm down and see whether another approach can be found. The pause in schooling doesn't usually last long. The student reads on his or her own for a while -- something he or she likes to do -- until the parents find a different school or a new year begins with new teachers better tuned to different rhythms.

You might call this a kiddie sabbatical, a break to recharge batteries and reassess values. It isn't the same thing as long-term home schooling. The strain on parents is short-term. In the Internet age, it is often possible to work at home for a few months. I have found no data on this, but we could be seeing a trend toward sabbaticals for the young and restless.

Just published is what could be considered a guidebook for such family adventures, Laura Brodie's "Love in a Time of Homeschooling: A Mother and Daughter's Uncommon Year."

Brodie is a novelist and adjunct English professor at Washington and Lee University. From the beginning of her fifth-grade daughter Julia's year at home, Brodie had no intention of abandoning the public schools of Lexington, Va. She just wanted a respite from battles over homework.

Within the home-schooling community, Brodie says, these breaks are no longer considered unusual. Home Education Magazine calls them "emergency homeschooling." Your kid is being bullied. A hurricane has wiped out your city. This year's classroom teacher is not a good fit. Your spouse gets a sudden transfer. So you teach the child for a while.

Brodie had an intriguing but dreamy daughter. Teachers would lose her on field trips because she lingered at some sight that was only supposed to take 10 minutes.

In the same sweet way, Julia resisted certain school assignments. When pushing her daughter to finish her worksheets ruined one too many evenings, and when Julia once hid in a closet to avoid the torture, Brodie figured that home-schooling her would provide at least a year when she didn't have to dread life between the time Julia got home and the time she went to bed. She would be the teacher, at least for a time, and could make sure her nights were free.

Julia was less entranced with the idea but accepted on these terms: no after-school academic work except reading an hour every day and writing one page in a journal, anything she wanted.

Freedom of choice in writing appealed to the independent-minded child, but Julia was initially relieved to return to regular school because the teachers did not demand nearly as many writing assignments as her mother did. Brodie made daily writing across the curriculum the centerpiece of their year.

Did Brodie fail to teach something important? That is hard to do. She learned a secret of elementary school known to most home-schoolers. Just keep the kid progressing in math and she will do fine. In the regular schools, all the other subjects are pretty much the same every year.

For more Jay, go to http://washingtonpost. com/class-struggle.

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