Column: Nine Kids and 30 Years: Reflections of a Home-Schooling Pioneer

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    Margaret Drye, of Plainfield, N.H., reads to her daughter Annie, 13, from the book "Rifles for Watie" for their home school history unit on the Civil War on March 23, 2011. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — James M. Patterson

For the Valley News
Published: 3/24/2018 10:20:32 PM
Modified: 3/24/2018 10:20:32 PM

My husband and I have pillowcases on our bed that read: “Wake me when the children are grown.” Having our youngest turn 18 last year may have marked that technical point, but we were aiming a bit higher — graduating all nine of our children from our home school.

All it took was 30 years!

I didn’t know anything about home schooling when our oldest daughter approached school age. We heard about a home-schooling workshop in Brattleboro, Vt., and decided to look into it. It gave us food for thought; little did we know the adventure it would unlock for us.

Home schooling looked like it would fit our lifestyle. After years of watching neighbor children stand outside in the winter cold and dark waiting for the school bus, the idea of not having to leave the house early in the morning was appealing. However, the workshop speaker only had one child at the time. When we started “officially” home schooling, on the day after Labor Day in 1987, I had a 6-year-old, a 4-year-old, a 2-year-old, and I was 7½-months pregnant. There wasn’t a lot of information at the workshop on how to school multiple levels. (The speaker later had twins, probably the basis for a later seminar’s chapter titled “Home School Hazards: Active Toddlers.”)

In the 30 years we home schooled, I ended up teaching a single student one-on-one for a total of two years and one day. The one day was Day 1 in 1987. When my husband came home that night, our 4-year-old announced that he was going to join his 6-year-old sibling and start home schooling the next day. And he did. The two years were the last two, when everyone had graduated except our youngest daughter. In between, we ended up at one time with a K-12 boys school (since we had six boys in a row) which ultimately became an “all-girl” school when the boys graduated and two girls were left.

Back in 1994, the National School Board Association’s executive director, Thomas Shannon, called an increase in home schooling in Brockton, Mass., “a giant step backward into the 17th century.” In our family, it turned out to be a trip back in time to the 19th century, because our home school turned out to be a lot like the common multigrade-level school of that era — the one-room schoolhouse.

Except we didn’t use just one room. The whole house turned into a school. We did math at the dinner table, taught reading on the couch, created art in the playroom, and performed lots of science experiments at the kitchen sink. Over time, we developed a rhythm of doing chores and doing school that got both housekeeping and home schooling done by the end of the day.

Finding Our Way

There was no roadmap for home schooling when we started. There was no section of New Hampshire law about home education like there is today, and the resources we all take for granted now — magazines, curriculum fairs, blogs, home school conferences — were just getting started. No one expected kids to be out and about during school hours. I wish I had a nickel for every time someone asked, “No school today?” when we were out doing errands. Nowadays, no one bats an eye.

We took the advice offered at the workshop and joined the Home School Legal Defense Association, located other families that were home schooling, and found a good curriculum. I don’t remember how we found out about Konos Character Curriculum, but it opened a whole new world to us. Konos was written by two home-schooling moms. It’s based on character traits you’d like to develop in your children (like orderliness, responsibility, inquisitiveness) and covers topics and suggested activities under each trait. For example, under the trait of Inquisitiveness, topics to study included the scientific method, weather, the Earth, explorers and navigation. When studying the Earth, suggested activities included a cooking project to show how rocks can be changed by heat, how to make an earthquake in a pan, and suggestions for field trips and reading material.

People and Places

The Konos topics we studied grew to influence everything we did — from the people we visited on field trips to the books we read and the food we ate to the movies we watched as a family. When we studied courage, one topic was Colonial America and the Revolution. That year, our field trips, library books, literature studies and even 4-H sewing projects revolved around this theme as much as possible. We tried to visit as many historical places in New England as we could, including the Freedom Trail, Bunker Hill, Old South Church, Old North Church, Lexington and Concord, Deerfield Village, Sturbridge Village, the Bennington Battle Monument, the Tory Hole in Claremont, Strawbery Banke in Portsmouth, N.H., and the Museum of New Hampshire History in Concord. We watched documentaries and movies about the period. We made colonial-era food and did colonial crafts. The two youngest girls sewed period dresses for their 4-H projects and worked on canning, samplers and quilting to enter at the Cornish Fair.

When we studied the states (for the cooperation topic), we had a food from a different state every day (Kellogg’s cereal for Michigan, baked potatoes for Idaho, lobster at the Weathervane for Maine.)

Home schooling gave us the time to watch obscure Netflix films and documentaries, such as a German-language film about the German Democratic Republic (with English subtitles), or an entire series on American presidents. (We really liked Gerald Ford’s family’s rules: Work hard. Tell the truth. Don’t be late for dinner.)

While we enjoyed the field trips to historic places, the most interesting trips were when we approached people who had interests and expertise in areas we were studying. A small group of siblings can gain access to places where large groups cannot. We talked to neighbors who lived “off the grid” years before it was popular, interviewed a man whose parents were deaf, and had a friend who raises cows help us a dissect a cow’s eyeball.

All of these activities lent themselves to teaching multiple levels and abilities up through eighth grade. Students older than that moved on to high school level curriculum (if they weren’t doing it already.) We went through the whole Konos curriculum a few times over the years and found new and different things each time.

Home-schooling families sometimes have the reputation of being isolated — the “What about socialization?” question — but we got plenty of interaction with others outside our family. We joined with other families to do Konos unit activities and participated in a weekly co-op for a few years to share the study of science and literature. Some of our kids took a science lab at our church’s school, many took an online course in constitutional law that involved chat sessions, and some did an evening “World Views” course run along the lines of Plato’s Academy (a teacher with a small class discussing deep questions).

All of them acted in annual Shakespeare productions, and all of them attended TeenPact, a four-day program at the state Capitol in Concord acquainting home-schoolers with how their state government runs.

One of the great bridge-builders between our home-schooled kids and their public school friends was sports. New Hampshire lets each school district decide its own sports policy, and our schools were open to having home-schoolers. Our sons appreciated the opportunity to join in.

Lots of Firsts, Lots of Changes

Because our family started near the beginning of the modern home-schooling movement, it’s not surprising that we had a few “firsts.” Our oldest son was the first home-schooled athlete at Lebanon High School, and believes he was the first named to a state All-Star team. Our oldest daughter was the first home-schooled state spelling bee champion, as well as the first home-schooled New Hampshire American Legion Oratorical Contest winner.

What has changed since we started? Lots of organizations and businesses have recognized that home-schoolers are available at odd hours and are flexible in their schedules, thus we have Home School Day at the Montshire Museum of Science, and home-school skiing, skating and sports programs. Competitions like the spelling bee, the geography bee and various oratorical and essay contests have adapted their rules to incorporate home-schoolers, and colleges and the military actively recruit and encourage home-schoolers to apply. What used to raise eyebrows is now commonplace.

What have I learned in the last 30 years? I got better at phonics. I finally got the hang of diagramming sentences. I learned Latin. And I learned to love history, formerly my least favorite subject.

A few years ago, while visiting a son in Alabama, I saw that we were not far from Tuskegee, home to the Tuskegee Airmen and the Tuskegee Institute. Home-schooling mom that I was, I couldn’t let the opportunity go to waste, so I dragged my husband and adult son on a field trip.

Now that we are officially done with home schooling, I will still go on field trips. Once you get the idea that learning is a lifelong process, almost anything can be a field trip or a learning experience.

Only, from now on, I won’t have to do any paperwork about it!

Next week: Growing up home schooled.

Margaret Drye lives in Plainfield.

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