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The Wonder Year

Calvin was burned out on learning. Would homeschooling relight his fire?

My wife has an uncanny ability to broach important decisions when I am at my weakest. I’m convinced that’s why she chose midnight as the ideal time to suggest we homeschool our nine-year-old son for the coming year. Calvin and I had just wrapped up a cross-country drive from California to Connecticut. I was hungry. I was tired. But instead of going to bed, I elected to brag about all the things I had taught him on the road: geologic ages at the Grand Canyon, the roots of rock and roll in Memphis, the best pillow to choose in a hotel pillow fight.

“You realize you just homeschooled him for two weeks,” Tracy said.

“Yeah, I guess so,” I replied, oblivious to the trap.

“Do you think we could do it for a year?”

“Homeschool? Homeschooling is for people who churn their own butter.”

“No, not any more.”

And with that she rattled off the reasons why homeschooling made sense for us. We planned to move to an area of Brooklyn with underperforming public schools. Our underperforming bank accounts would limit any private education options. We both had jobs that afforded us long stretches at home—she’s an actress; I’m a writer. And we’d talked about traveling more throughout the year. Then she went in for the kill.

“If we did it for just one year, do you think Calvin would learn more than he would in the neighborhood school?” she asked.

“Of course,” I said. “Way more. We’re talking third grade. Calculus isn’t until, what, high school?”

“Then maybe we should try it.”

I felt like the aggressor in the Judo match who suddenly finds himself in midair. I saw the fall.

In the coming days, we floated the idea with Calvin. “You can do that?” he asked, wide-eyed at the prospect of not having to attend a fourth new school in five years. Calvin seemed an ideal candidate for homeschooling. He’s contemplative and mature, a boy who enjoys his friends but works better alone. “Bright” and “creative,” read his second-grade report card, before noting the equally accurate “distracted on occasion” and “sometimes had trouble finishing assignments on time.” He “got along with everyone,” though an unkind word from a classmate usually dented his confidence and dulled his curiosity. He stopped reading for pleasure after a bully on the bus called him stupid for reading slowly.

There was another argument for homeschooling. It had been years since Calvin seemed excited about gathering knowledge. Little things used to do the trick, a captured cricket or a paper plane. Now he came home with the glazed look of a commuter.

Tracy and I knew little about how Calvin learned. The homework assignments and parent-teacher conferences gave us a glimpse into his mind. But when we talked about his strengths and weaknesses in the classroom, we talked in generalities. He was an “artistic type” who “learned at his own pace.” We wanted to change that, to insert ourselves into his education to better understand that hidden side. And we wanted to rekindle Calvin’s passion for learning.

“Try homeschooling for a year,” we told him. “If you don’t like it, we’ll find a good school and get you back in the classroom. Look at it as an adventure, for all of us.”

Within weeks we had enlisted in the homeschooling army, a force of more than 1.1 million children and their parents—the fastest-growing segment in American education today, according to the U.S. Department of Education. New breeds of homeschoolers include parents who telecommute or freelance, inner-city families disenchanted with local schools, immigrants seeking to reinforce their values and worldviews, and parents of all backgrounds who wish to spend less time at work and more time with their children.

Results fuel the growth. A Time magazine cover story declared that homeschooled students outperform their counterparts on standardized tests and college acceptance rates. Studies conducted by the University of Florida and University of Michigan found homeschooled students to be confident, focused, less susceptible to peer pressure, and less likely to be unemployed as adults. Unfortunately, none of this had an impact on our friends when we told them our plans.

“Homeschooling?” they’d say en masse. “What about socialization?” They seemed convinced that Calvin’s mental health hinged entirely on a couple of dozen classmates with a penchant for spit wads and fart jokes. We mentioned our plans to enroll Calvin in art, science, and music classes outside the home, while packing his afternoons with play dates to make sure he got his fill of potty humor. None of this assuaged our friends. I took a different approach: “Socialization? We’re against it.”

Tracy and I dived into the logistics. Requirements, we learned, vary from state to state. Parents in Alaska and Texas can teach what they wish without so much as a letter of intent to the local school district. States like Virginia and Maine mandate a combination of test scores and professional evaluations. New York and Massachusetts are among the states with the strictest requirements, including curriculum approval, regular evaluations by certified teachers, and set topics to be covered in each grade.

Lesson plans differ as much as state laws. Parents can purchase whole curricula and materials from educational establishments, the so-called “school-in-a-box” approach. Others opt for online programs, private tutors, or a curriculum based on religion. Some choose to “unschool,” a method where parents let their children determine when and which subjects to study.

We selected the Charlotte Mason program as a starting point, mostly because of its proven track record and classics-based approach to education. But like most homeschool families, we settled on a combination of materials to fit all our tastes, including literary standards (Robin Hood, The Jungle Book, Huckleberry Finn, The Hunchback of Notre Dame), grammar texts recommended by other homeschoolers, A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich, table-sized maps and timelines with stickers of historical figures, a giant box of art supplies, and math books from Singapore. We patted ourselves on the back after learning that several nearby private schools used the same materials.

In addition to English, math, science, health, United States history, grammar, music, visual arts, and physical education, we’d be required to teach fire safety, citizenship, and the dangers of substance abuse. We had all the books. How hard can this be?

Day one, I slept in. I panicked for a minute before realizing this is one of the chief advantages of homeschooling. Once we were all awake, we sat Calvin down at the kitchen table, put on a Mozart CD for ambience, and cracked open the textbooks. Unfortunately, we started with math.

“Your sevens are backwards, Calvin,” I said.

“No, they’re not.”

“Yes, they are.”

“Says who?”

Day five, I snapped. “Didn’t that school of yours teach you how to write a proper seven?” He shook his head. “Then I want you to write your numbers from one to a hundred. And if you get anything backwards, we’ll start again.”

Tears followed. First his, then mine. How could the lessons get off to such a poor start? Tracy and I had spent months researching the best materials, mapping out lesson plans with the help of homeschooler websites, plying Calvin with nutritious breakfasts. We promised ourselves we’d be patient. But backward sevens for five straight days?

It soon became clear we had the wrong attitude. All of us. Calvin refused to recognize our legitimacy as teachers, developing elaborate excuses to escape schoolwork. Our days were filled with trips to the bathroom, requests for food, appeals for naps, pleas for fresh air, and efforts to bait us into discussions about anything other than the work at hand. “I’d like to skip math today. I don’t think I’m going to use it much in my lifetime.”

With our early missteps and lack of patience, Tracy and I hardly inspired Calvin to see us as educators. We’d explain a lesson, shuffle off to start a load of laundry or tidy up a bathroom, then snap at him for not finishing the assignment on his own. Our explanations were the explanations of neophytes, not the psychological soothings of classroom veterans who’d been asked the same questions for decades and knew how to explain, say, sentence diagrams in ten words or less. My appreciation for teachers soared.

Then, another stumbling block. In our months of planning, we had forgotten about one element, one towheaded three-year-old element. Who was going to entertain Oscar, Calvin’s little brother? Oscar, who would play with Legos for hours while singing at the top of his lungs in our open loft? Oops.

Tracy and I developed a tag-team approach. One of us would teach in the morning, while the other would do chores and stay with Oscar. In the afternoons we’d switch. My writing and her preparations for auditions would wait until after the kids were asleep. In a pinch we’d enlist the services of sesamestreet.org. Who knew an unsupervised three-year-old could reformat all our computer documents in Korean?

None of us had much fun those first months. Tracy and I were so worried about completing the required third-grade curriculum that we overloaded Calvin with assignments and angst. The more we pushed, the less he learned. We decided to cut back on the workload. Then, a few developments changed everything.

Tracy read that homeschooling parents should switch subjects whenever their children bog down. In our case, history did the trick. Calvin, like most children, loves a story. History is the ultimate story, I told him, and he bought it—provided he could dress the part. Samurai warriors, Roman soldiers, and a fairly convincing Theodore Roosevelt joined the lessons.

Another breakthrough came when we joined the vast homeschooler networks throughout New York City—art workshops on Thursdays, nature classes in Central Park Monday mornings, a physical education free-for-all with Styrofoam swords on Tuesday afternoons. Most activities were low-fee, organized by parents, taught by professionals. Calvin studied with kids his own age, while Oscar played with younger siblings. Take that, socialization worrywarts!

The hands-on learning resonated, so we took off on bigger field trips—travels to Civil War battle sites, presidential homes, nature reserves. Driving to California, we learned state capitals by visiting as many as we could along the route. We read Mark Twain, then ventured to Hannibal, Missouri, so Calvin could traipse through the caves like Tom Sawyer.

The lessons flowed better when we left the house. Calvin learned to complete assignments on the subway or in the back of a car. In fact, we ditched the word “homeschooling” altogether. Roadschooling, we now called it. Our friends seemed more comfortable with that.

Calvin started to treat us like educators, and we started to act like them. He accepted that learning can occur anywhere, not just the classroom, and that Mom and Dad can sometimes show the way. Bathroom breaks diminished.

We still had ups and downs, of course. A fun morning spent adapting The Land of Nod to video might be followed by a tear-drenched afternoon arguing over long division. My suggestion that Calvin dress up like Albert Einstein didn’t alter his views about math. But when we clicked, every frustration evaporated. Calvin’s face would light up when he identified a Van Gogh at the Met, spelled “b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l,” or located Brazil on a world map. Tracy and I loved witnessing his joy as he mastered something challenging for the first time.

The best moment happened late one evening, well past Calvin’s bedtime, when I noticed a dim light coming from his room. Tracy and I poked our heads in to see what he could possibly be doing at that hour. To our amazement, we found him reading. An actual book. No cartoons or pictures. No prodding from Mom and Dad. (God bless The Phantom Tollbooth.) We silently high-fived each other.

Oscar surprised us, too. Once, when I asked for a bite of his ice cream, he replied, “Just a diminutive one.” When he received a five-dollar bill for Easter, he exclaimed, “Grandma sent me a picture of Lincoln!” It turned out he had been eavesdropping on Calvin’s lessons more than we imagined.

“Look,” said Tracy, holding up one of Oscar’s drawings, increasingly filled with numbers and letters. “His sevens are backwards.”

At the end of the year, we sat Calvin down again. A nearby private school had openings for him and Oscar. The choice was his. We’d either homeschool him for another year or send him back to the classroom. At first he opted for homeschooling, citing the need to continue the Styrofoam battles. He changed his mind after a trial day at the school amid classmates who treated him as if he were already one of them.

Tracy and I had mixed feelings. A block of free time each day sounded like heaven for our careers. But when Calvin made his decision, we exchanged somber looks. We knew we’d miss the adventure. The year was like shining an ultraviolet light on a painting at which we’d stared every day. We saw strengths and flaws we never knew existed. Calvin wasn’t simply an artistic type. He had a head for numbers, despite his doubts about their value. He was more adept in science, spelling, and history than we imagined, yet struggled, to our surprise, with his creativity at times. By year’s end, he far surpassed the requirements for third grade. And his passion for learning had returned.

All of this made the masterpiece more cherished and interesting than ever. We’ll know how to take better care of it no matter where it hangs.

FRANZ WISNER, A88, is the author of Honeymoon with My Brother, the true story of how he was dumped at the altar and then decided to take a two-year honeymoon to fifty-three countries with his younger brother, Kurt. His latest book is How the World Makes Love, for which he traveled the globe documenting the state of romance.

  © 2009 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155