Homeschooling: An accidental journey
Knope, M.
Ohio Association for Gifted Children, Newsletter
Fall 2002

This article by Muriel Knope is a personal perspective on homeschooling. The mother who wrote it discusses her experience with trying to advocate for her child in the public school system. She also talks about her decision to pull him out of the system and educate him at home where his educational materials would be a challenge and of interest to him.

People often assume that my husband and I homeschool because of our political or religious beliefs. Yet our decision to homeschool had nothing to do with dogma. It was a journey begun in desperation, sadness and anger. I'm a former public school teacher. I never dreamed that we would go down this road.

In kindergarten, my son loved school. He loved books. He loved to write in his journal with invented spelling. JD was joyfully ready to spread his wings. Instead, he flew smack into a wall.

After moving to a new school for first grade, JD's sunny disposition vanished. He glowered under a dirty baseball cap. He said the work was too easy.

When my husband and I met with our son's teachers to express our concern, a wall went up. If our child was unhappy at school, there must be something wrong with him. They began to refer to JD as "distractible" and raised the question of learning disabilities. Ironically, the head of school reviewed his aptitude test scores and remarked that he was gifted. That was the first time we heard this word used to describe our child.

One teacher, a 20-year veteran, told us: "He's so far ahead, it doesn't matter if he doesn't learn anything all year." But it did matter. It mattered to our son. He wanted to learn something new.

We took JD out of private school in late February and homeschooled him for the remainder of first grade. Surely we just needed to find a school that could challenge bright kids. Homeschooling would be only a brief sojourn.

We turned to our public elementary school, a theme school for high achievers, ranked among the top schools in our state. I met with the gifted teachers before enrolling JD in second grade. I shared his private test scores and stressed his need for challenge, especially in language arts.

At first, JD was thrilled about going to a new school and tried hard to adjust. Soon, we heard a familiar complaint. The work was too easy; he compared school to a prison. The school declined to give him an individual achievement test. He must wait until spring, when the Iowa tests would be administered.

At home, he read Harry Potter; at school, he read Henry and Mudge. His language arts teacher had created an in-class lending library; she knew that he was reading the hardest books on the shelves. Each time we asked that he be moved to the more challenging language arts class, we heard a different reason why he could not be in that class.

The principal described our son as "quiet, compliant and unengaged." She told us, "We don't see what you see."

The county's battery of group tests did not identify our child as gifted. This school uses the inclusion model for gifted services. They were already giving him what they deemed "gifted instruction." The gifted teacher taught a weekly science class and provided occasional pull-out classes in math for students who had tested out of a unit. Enrichment consisted largely of extra worksheets or projects done at home.

JD came home many days crying and discouraged. His disillusionment was complete. He hated school.

During spring break, in desperation, we traveled to Winchester, Kentucky, to consult with Dr. Edward Amend, a psychologist whose work focuses on gifted children. He administered additional tests. He assured us that our child is gifted. He said that JD would need a dramatically different curriculum.

As a former teacher, I trusted the school. I thought they cared about the needs of my child. I thought they would believe me when I described his growing despair. I thought that if I held up my end of the bargain, they would hold up theirs.

Although we advocated for our son, volunteered at school and tried to work cooperatively with the staff, our efforts failed; our child became increasingly despondent. We struggled to console him. What good were wings? He had to fold them back up and sit on them for six hours a day. His love of learning was overshadowed by frustration.

We wrote to our district's gifted coordinator. We described our child's experience in school and shared some of Dr. Amend's comments. We received little response.

At this point, we could have filed an appeal. However, our confidence in the school was badly shaken. There was nothing to fight for. The principal told us "grade-skipping" was out of the question. There would be no advanced language arts class for third graders. Gifted services would again be limited to a weekly science class and an occasional pull-out in math. We chose to go another route. We began our "accidental journey" of homeschooling.

Instead of pushing others to meet JD's needs, we strive to make sure his needs are met. It is a task that is often daunting, yet we see the direct results of our efforts.

In homeschool, JD is not lost or overlooked. We find our way together. My son is happier due to a more flexible schedule, the chance to work at his own pace and to explore his interests.

I participate in a number of gifted listserves. If I have a question, I turn to cyber-friends. Someone has always "been there, done that." I'm a bit of a curriculum junkie; I have both paper and electronic folders bulging with ideas, links, and book titles. Distance learning opportunities expand my son's horizons; the yellow school bus has morphed into a PC.

We live in a metropolitan area where there are many homeschoolers; some organize their own classes. Museums also offer events for homeschoolers during the day. Often we pack the car with books and snacks and travel to points north or south like educational "hunter-gatherers." My son has met new friends all over town.

"Homeschool" really means "learning everywhere."

This past year, in addition the individualized study that he did at home, JD took group classes with other homeschoolers, including creative writing, Spanish, acting and geology. He studied reptiles at our local nature center. We joined the mineral society and the "mineral of the month" club. JD explored online learning and dabbled in computer programming. At the arts center, he learned to throw a pot on the wheel. He discovered chess, entered several tournaments and won his first trophy. He played soccer, basketball and baseball; he received his baseball team's sportsmanship award. With family and friends, he visited museums and attended plays, puppet shows and concerts.

People ask, "What about socialization?" I have to smile.

On a recent summer morning, we had a playdate with several other families who homeschool gifted kids. While the children ran shrieking through a fountain in the park, the moms sat in the shade and discussed the merits of studying Latin and the benefits of entering a robotics contest.

Whatever the reason they choose to educate their children at home, homeschooling parents are among the most dedicated teachers I have ever met.

Our journey, begun under a cloud of disappointment, is now bright with possibilities. We're not out of the woods yet, but the scenery's rather nice. There's sunlight filtering through the branches.

We take this journey one day at a time. JD works well above grade level. If he were to return to a traditional school, we would need some assurance that the learning opportunities would be appropriate.

I joined our state and local gifted association. I have thought long and hard about our educational system.

I am in awe of parents who are effective advocates. I hope to learn from them so I will be better prepared if my child returns to public school. I wonder how parents and teachers can work as a team in the best interests of the child. How can we listen to each other and avoid defensiveness?

A free and appropriate public education for all children is a noble and democratic goal. But within the current school structure, how can I expect a classroom teacher to deal with my child's extreme asynchrony, along with the individual needs and learning styles of at least 20 other children?

The identification of gifted children should be a flexible, fluid process. When there are major discrepancies between private, individual test results and group test results, this should open a dialogue, at the very least.

In our state, the identification process offers a label, but is not necessarily tied to appropriate services, especially in the early grades. Once deemed gifted, children are "plugged in" to whatever program is available. Even though a child's strengths may be in language arts, compacting or differentiation may only be available in math.

Locally, a formal magnet program for high achievers doesn't begin until fourth grade. Admission is by test scores and a lottery. A child's educational future is determined by chance.

Gifted children may be the happy high-achievers. Or they may be the quiet ones who disappear in the back row. They may be the students who daydream and make careless mistakes. They may disrupt the class; they may have learning disabilities. Sometimes they are medicated unnecessarily for misdiagnosed ADD. Or they are treated for depression. Yet the true cause of their depression is not addressed.

Children need work at their level, even when that level surprises us.

There are no easy answers. The brightest children are underserved in most schools, both public and private. They are not allowed to move forward. With the increasing emphasis on standardized tests, much class time is spent teaching to the test. Teachers do not have the time, resources or support they need to offer a more flexible curriculum.

In our efforts to leave no child behind, we have forgotten the children who are ready to leap ahead. Do we want school to be a place where children march in lockstep through rigid, age-grade curricula? Or do we dare to dream of schools where children can truly spread their wings and soar?

If we see in children a vibrant spectrum of learning styles, strengths and differences, if we allow them to progress at their own rate, support them when they need help, challenge them when they need more, what will school look like then?

I've always liked theologian Howard Thurman's advice: "Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive."

So perhaps we do have a homeschooling dogma after all -- our belief that learning should be a process where children can come alive.

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Comments

Contributed by: Parent on 8/10/2013
As I read the beginning of your article, I was thrown back to my eldest son's kindergarten year. He began Kinder bright and excited. Within weeks he was in tears and begging to stay home. When we attended the first PT conference, we were told that he was finishing his work in advance of everyone else and was then wanting to 'talk' to people. The principal, who never once said his name, began talking about 'nipping problems in the bud', claiming that 'he is the sort of boy who becomes a major issue by second grade.' I was in tears when we walked from the room and my husband and I, who had never considered homeschooling, both agreed 'homeschool' as we arrived at the car. He is 12 now and reading at a college level. His other skills are asyncronous, some at grade level, some above, but he is much, much happier.

Contributed by: Parent on 4/25/2008
So much of this article rang true with me. Our 6 year old daughter is way above grade level in all of her subjects. We took her out of 1st grade at a private school this year and are finishing up the year at home. We have started looking at next year in public & private programs and are leaning towards another year of home schooling because the best local program is more than we can afford. After some hard learned lessons and the advise of a gifted-teacher the next steps in this journey should be far easier.

Contributed by: Homeschool Mom on 2/10/2008
I, too, was a public school teacher with a gifted son who attended kindergarten in our local school district. The entire class worked on letter "sounds" the entire school year when my son read off a propane tank, "No Smoking, Flammable Gas" when he was 3 1/2! I was furious when I realized that even though I was a taxpayer my ONLY option was to homeschool. My son was sad every day when he got off the bus! School systems need to realize the potential and adapt to the special needs of these children. Now that I homeschool I love it and can't imagine doing anything else! My son is so happy, makes friends easily and is excelling! Thanks so much for this article.

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