Click-bait title, but what follows is a true anecdote all the same. My oldest son, Ariel, has officially finished high school this month. Congratulations, Ariel!
Ariel has been accepted into the engineering program at both the University of Alberta, and the University of Calgary. His current thinking is to go down the path of mechanical engineering. Between choosing from a couple of reputable programs and deciding on which stream of engineering to specialize in, he has some big decisions ahead of him!
This post isn’t a homeschooling manifesto or a how-to recipe (though I intend to write more extensively on this topic), but I want to share highlights from Ariel’s education journey in hopes they provide some relief to parents who are worried about the pandemic’s disruption of their child’s education.
An important disclaimer: this is not a recommendation to homeschool your kid. It’s simply the highlights of what worked well for our unique context. Your situation is different.
This is also not a hit piece on the public education system, or teachers. Our public school teachers have one of the most difficult and important jobs on the frontlines of the next generation and they need our support and respect.
Those disclaimers out of the way, I also don’t want to overly hedge my opinion: pulling our kids out of the school system and accepting responsibility for their education is the most rewarding decision we have ever made as a family. Here’s our experience with Ariel.
The Public School Era: Ariel attended a French immersion school from kindergarten until Grade 5. The problems first appeared about Grade 4, and continued to escalate in Grade 5. I remember the meetings with his Grade 5 teacher where she would kindly express her anxiety about what to do with him. He wasn’t completing his work. Frustratingly, he would use up his class time on only a small portion of his assigned work. She didn’t feel right advancing him to the next grade with this kind of performance – he was only going to fall farther behind.
Her solution was to ante up the homework and use his recess time to catch up on school work. The disappearance of his free time made Amanda and I nervous, doubly so because the strategy wasn’t working. He would mostly idle away his homework time disinterestedly daydreaming. Amanda was held hostage beside him trying to help, her physiology flooding with cortisol at his inability to buckle down or display any kind of hustle!
Distressingly, his younger brother, in Grade 3 at the time, seemed to be going down the same path, with recess times taken away and homework mounting. Were we going to have to go through this with all four kids? It was unsustainable. Tensions were rising between us and the teachers, us and our kids, and we hit the tipping point by the end of that year.
The Homeschool Years: with fear and trepidation we took a leap of faith by pulling all four kids out of the school system. Well-intentioned friends and family cautioned us against this move with valid concerns: neither Amanda nor I had been professionally trained in education … between the two of us, we had a combined total of 1 year of post-secondary education! I had a demanding job, how was Amanda going to properly educate four kids at home?
In over our heads, we blundered forward regardless and for the grades of 6, 7, 8, and 9, Ariel experienced a type of unschooling (not the “do whatever you want” kind, we supported & directed him in following his curiosities), balanced by the highly-structured classical education model endorsed in “The Well Trained Mind” for subjects like math, writing, and history. We subscribed to the mastery learning model during these four years, and for the most part, the structured portion of his learning was limited to:
- 1 – 2 hours per day.
- Only on Mondays through Thursdays (plus some Sunday evenings when I taught history).
- Only during October through May.
- That’s it.
Back to (Online) School: Ariel had a clear bent towards a university science education, so to benchmark him against his peers after four years of (relative) freedom & (relative) slacking, and also because Ariel wasn’t responding as well to Mom as a teacher anymore, we enrolled Ariel in the online high school offered by St. Paul’s Academy where he would be taught the Alberta provincial curriculum. In this season, we tried to keep out of the way and didn’t provide much support. If he was going to experience academic failure, we wanted it to be now, at home, rather than later, at university when the $take$ were higher. I was more comfortable with the prospect of his failure than Amanda was 😉
The first semester was rough. After four years out of the school system, Ariel didn’t know where the bar for success was set, and in an abundance of caution he err’d by overshooting. It was stressful for him and he worked extremely hard. Fortunately, this stress subsided as his marks started to roll in – he was crushing it and found he hadn’t missed out on, well, maybe anything. Our bets on the curriculums and pedagogy chosen for Ariel paid off, fueled by his determination to do well.
I had mixed feelings about this, but he gradually learned how to “game” the system (not unscrupulously, I mean apply minimum effort for maximum results), a necessary life skill if he is going to survive a university experience. By the time he arrived at Grade 12, he hardly seemed to be breaking a sweat. Fast forward to today, his average mark for his Grade 12 courses is 92%.
If you can’t already tell, I am bursting with pride for Ariel and excited about where his work ethic and intelligence will take him (did I mention he is a killer guitar player, a graceful skier, and pulls off a plaid shirt almost as well as his dad?). But my excitement has nothing to do with his scholastic achievements. Aside from university, another path I am equally comfortable with is him trying out the dirtbag life, living out of a Honda Element with his guitars and bikes. What excites me, is that Ariel is everything he needs to be to make his way in the world and put a positive dent in it.
If you are one of the many parents a little freaked out about how COVID is disrupting your child’s education, I hope that in between all these humble-brags you can see that there can be seasons of slack with minimal long-term damage to your kid, even if you don’t have a PhD in education to support them. My advice is to do your best to enjoy this season.
If you are wondering if homeschooling/unschooling/at-home learning is right for your situation, I hope you’ll reach out to Amanda and I to chat about it.