Lydia Rivera homeschools her two daughters in a tiny Los Angeles rental house. Ten-year-old Anna is progressing well in her studies, but seven-year-old Veronica struggles with reading, due in large part to hearing problems she had when she was younger. Lydia wants to provide a learning environment where her younger daughter can catch up on her literacy skills without fear of embarrassment, but it turns out that Lydia herself has difficulty maintaining a positive attitude when Veronica struggles. One morning while Veronica is reading aloud to her mom, Lydia's frustration boils over.
She stops her daughter in midsentence. "What this?" Lydia asks, pointing to the word word on the page.
"World," Veronica answers.
"Is it world? Because you're making a sound that's not there."
Veronica tries again. "World."
Lydia sighs in exasperation. "Okay, you're saying world. World. This is not worlllllld," she says, stretching it out to emphasize the extra letter Veronica is mistakenly inserting.
This time Veronica pretty much eliminates the L sound from her pronunciation: "Word."
"It's word? But you've been saying world. It's not world." For some reason, Lydia is not content with the correction—she needs to drive home the error.
"Word!" Veronica says loudly, getting frustrated with the interrogation.
"Pronounce this again!" Lydia meets her emotion with a rising tone of her own.
Now Veronica is losing focus, and reverts to her original mispronunciation: "World!"
"You're not listening to me," Lydia retorts. "You're putting an l in there. Okay, let's try it with the sounds that are right there."
"Wo-ord," Veronica says, stretching out the o to help her avoid the l sound.
"Say it again."
"Wo-ord." Tears start to roll silently down Veronica's face.
"Okay—is that round?" The sarcastic edge to her mother's voice grows sharper. "The word is round? No, the world—okay, you're crying, whining, and complaining, but you're not listening. I know your ears don't work, but they do. Listen to me and stop getting frustrated with me! You know these sounds! Say the sounds!"
Veronica's spirit is broken, but she does her best to respond. "Wo-ord."
Lydia won't let up. "Word," she repeats. "If Momma says 'the word is round' does that mean that we live in the word? Okay, what is that?"
"Word." This one is Veronica's best pronunciation yet.
"Okay," Lydia relents. But now she's angry about Veronica's attitude. "Why are you whining? Why are you doing that? What's wrong?"
At this, Veronica doesn't yell back again. Instead, she just shakes her head and says quietly, with great sadness in her voice, "Because I can't say it right."
The Riveras were one of six families I visited repeatedly over the course of two years, as part of my research for Write These Laws on Your Children: Inside the World of Conservative Christian Homeschooling. This dynamic of Veronica struggling, Lydia pestering, Veronica getting frustrated, Lydia getting frustrated and angry and sarcastic, cycling into more emotion and even mocking Veronica's speech patterns, surfaced on several occasions during my visits. Lydia interpreted Veronica's wrong answers as either carelessness or willful resistance.
This heartbreaking scene, however, was hardly representative of the hundreds of hours of homeschooling I have observed. Homeschooling runs the gamut of quality and context, and for every example there is a counterexample. Consider this scene from the northwest Indiana home of Carrie and Tom Shaw, where Carrie homeschools two elementary-aged daughters while also caring for a toddler and infant:
Carrie asks seven year-old Sarah to try to recite "One, Two, Three," a poem she has been memorizing over the past couple weeks. "Now where do you want to stand?" Carrie asks her. "Pick a place."
Sarah eyes me, the outsider. "Upstairs in my room."
Carrie bursts into laughter. "It would be so hard for us to hear you," she says. "It would make me sad. Can you come over real quick, I want to tell you something." She whispers in Sarah's ear, but I can make out most of it: "—you've been doing a good job and working hard, okay, so I want you to be brave and give this a try."
Sarah nods and returns to the other side of the table, and begins reciting her poem. Thirty-two lines later, with only one pause for prompting, she finishes with a sigh of relief, and her sisters and mom clap appreciatively.
"Yessss!" Carrie says. "Nice job! You're on the home stretch. When we do it next time, I think we can go ahead and add the last two stanzas. And the one thing about it, if I didn't have the book, there are some words that I wouldn't have caught, because it was hard to do it slow and loud, but we can keep practicing on that. It was very good, very good!"
The rest of the morning remains a juggling act for Carrie, as she balances the needs of two young, sometimes restless kids with the formal learning agenda of the older two. While she occasionally reminds or reprimands her daughters, the overall tone is positive and playful. Learning activities are rich and varied, and Carrie provides plenty of individual attention as her daughters progress through a rigorous curriculum. This is a woman who knows what she's doing, and she does it well.
Describing the typical homeschool family is not unlike describing the typical public school family—the range of demographics, philosophies, and practices make such a generalization practically impossible. While most of the homeschool families I spent time with belong to the conservative Christian subset, the shape of homeschooling more broadly (goals, methods, and content) varies widely from family to family. In fact, the quality of educational experience can be quite uneven within particular families as well, as I witnessed with the Bransons in rural Tennessee:
The afternoon finds father Gary and nine-year-old Stephanie getting started on her art lesson, and this hour is easily the most impressive teaching interaction I witness during all my time with the Bransons. With relaxed confidence, Gary helps Stephanie learn to create lighting, shading, and perspective in her drawings. Although he's a bit formulaic in his approach, Gary's instructions are patient and descriptive: "Keep in mind the light comes from over here, okay? Then you just kind of creep up the side of his jaw like this, and it kind of curves and gets darker as it goes into his mouth, see?" He watches Stephanie practice what he demonstrated.
"There you go," he says encouragingly, "there you go." Even the language Gary uses is evocative: "Remember you've got to sneak over to the middle. It doesn't matter how many times you have to go back—the idea is to creep over there so it will be very, very light."
As I observe this lesson, I can't help but think that if Gary and his wife Lauren devoted similar attention to the kids' other academic subjects, their homeschool experience would be far richer. Gary's offhand comment during the lesson suggests why art might be a different story: "Art was the only thing I really excelled at in school," he told me. "I failed everything else or just made a D." Art and music are the subjects within his comfort zone and skill set, and so they receive the most attention and direct instruction. The other subjects seem largely relegated to independent study, with Lauren checking over their work and answering occasional questions.
The consequences of this relative neglect of other subjects aren't difficult to see. During the art lesson, for instance, twelve-year-old Aaron struggles with his math, which involves multiplying two-digit numbers. He continues to use his fingers to multiply, even with problems such as "five times nine"—counting forty-five fingers in all. A girl mesmerized by an art lesson, next to her twelve-year-old brother doing math on his fingers—the potential and peril of the Complete Home Education Program.
In 1983 Phi Delta Kappan published a brief review of homeschooling advocate John Holt's book Teach Your Own. The reviewer commended Holt for his "pioneer spirit" but ultimately dismissed his "yearning for the life and teaching styles that belong to the past." The article ended by predicting that "few people are likely to renounce our age and our schools for parent-run schools." A quarter century later, however, the number of homeschoolers in the United States continues to increase—a 74% increase between 1999 and 2007. The actual total number of homeschoolers is probably higher than the NHES telephone survey suggests, given the reluctance of many homeschoolers to be tracked by the government. It seems clear from these statistics that homeschooling belongs to our present and future as well.
Related: Robert Kunzman will appear on State of Belief on Air America Radio tomorrow morning, Saturday, October 3rd.