DIY Education: Talking with homeschooling parents

In a city where school shootings are cause for nationwide alarm, where teachers complain of policing more than educating and, in some neighborhoods, where the graduation rate hovers just over fifty percent, parents of all income levels, races and backgrounds are taking the reigns back from the public school system and deciding to teach their children themselves.
While an estimated seventy-four percent of homeschoolers nationwide are Evangelical Christians, in Chicago they run the political gamut from left to right, wealthy to not-so-well-off, deeply religious to atheistic. “There are as many styles of home schooling as there are styles of parenting,” one mom explained.
So, with that in mind, rather than make broad and possibly dubious generalizations, let’s explore a few of those manifestations, peek in on three Chicago families and find out what goes on, why they do it, and how their kids— and neighbors—are responding.

The Asinyanbi Family

Parent: Phyllis L. Smith Asinyabi
Child: David, 7
Location: East 87th St., near Baltimore Avenue
Group Affiliation: Hasn’t been able to find a group in Chicago that she identifies with; writes a blog, Single Big City Homeschooler; owns and moderates an online support group, Christian Homeschool Support Group.

Why did you decide to home school?

My son attended four days of first grade at Robert A. Black Magnet School. He said it was “boring,” and the students were doing “baby work” that he learned in kindergarten. I spoke to his teacher, and she did not seem to have high expectations for her first grade class.
I then decided to try the Chicago Virtual Charter School but it did not work well for my son. I then decided to home-school.

What materials or activities do you use?

At first, I tried to replicate what they do in school at home, but that didn’t work for my son. He’s very much an auditory and kinesthetic learner. So, we do a lot of fun learning activities: math games, flash cards and I read to him a lot. We also use some workbooks from Christian Liberty Press, and I use the book What Your First Grader Needs to Know. I’m definitely an eclectic homeschooler. He likes Time4Learning.com, so he wants to go online a lot, almost everyday. I’ve also gotten him into some activities where he can be around other children, because that is important.

To what extent is your decision a response/reaction to the current state of public education?

I would say to a great degree. I would love for my son to attend a magnet school, or even our neighborhood public school, and be assured that he will obtain an excellent education. In Chicago, that is not the case. Where you live and whether you live in an affluent community greatly determines the quality of your neighborhood school.

Are your religious beliefs a factor in your decision to home school?

I did not begin homeschooling because I am a born-again Christian. However, Bible study and Christian training are definitely an integral part of our homeschool. We might work on scripture memorization, and I might work that into his penmanship lesson or I might dictate a Bible scripture and have him write it.
Part of our language arts are Christian Bible stories, or stories with moral lessons. A lot of these stories that I’m reading to him I got out of What Your First Grader Needs to Know, which has sayings and idioms with moral lessons, stories like “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” and things like that, which to me are very good literature and they also have a moral lesson behind them.
I think a lot of people associate homeschoolers with fundamentalist Christians. There are also Christian homeschoolers that don’t use explicitly Christian curriculum.

How much do you think you spend annually on homeschooling your son?

Less than $200 a year. The library is a great resource, and I have found some wonderful books at the thrift store. My biggest expense has been Time4Learning, which costs roughly $20 a month.

How would you like to see the education system change?

I would like to see an educational system with smaller class sizes, alternative methods of teaching, and more consideration for individual children’s learning styles. I wish the schools weren’t so worried about teaching to the test. It’s hard for it to be individualized because you have so many students.
More parental involvement is also needed as the schools alone are not responsible for educating our children. Education begins at home. Before I ever thought of homeschooling, I realized that I was my child’s first and best teacher.

What sort of reactions have you gotten from people who send their children to traditional schools?

Most of the people I encounter really don’t know a lot about homeschooling, just as I didn’t, and I use their questions as an opportunity to educate them. I read that 29.5 percent of homeschoolers are Black, while Blacks only constitute 12.9 percent of the population. Why do you think that might be?
I think a lot of African-Americans are looking for alternatives. Many of them know that the public school system has failed them and their children. If your child learns a different way than what is taught in the public schools, or if you want to send your child to a private school but don’t have the resources to do that, home schooling can be a great alternative. Since I started it, I’ve gotten more into it, because I can see it’s really working.

The Howard Family

Parents: Tina and Chris
Children: four-year-old Frances and 11-year-old Myra
Location: Logan Square
Group affiliation: Northside Unschoolers, possibly the largest secular homeschooling group in Chicago

Why did you decide to home school?

We looked at a lot of alternative models, like Montessori, Waldorf and magnet schools. Finally we found one that worked. It was great for about a year and a half, then the principal left and everything changed. The classrooms increased in size by a third and suddenly desks were brought in and everyone faced the front. My daughter was sobbing every day, begging me not to take her.

What was it about traditional education that wasn’t working for her?

Once all the chairs face the front and there’s a person in charge who’s doling out information to you, it stops being fun. That’s when the kids start hearing that they have behavioral problems.
I think for her it was a profound boredom mixed with a pressure to produce inauthentic work. She always thought the segments were really random and weren’t linked.

What form does home schooling take in your home?

Every morning we can get up and learn what we please. Most of the time, we don’t even know that we’re learning. If Myra gets up and one day just spends the day studying the tsetse fly, cool, who cares, the next day she might study ergonomics. She can take the time to get what she needs.
When you don’t have a time expectation on how long it takes you to learn something, it frees you up and takes off the pressure and you can learn it your own way.
We use learning opportunities in real life. She started a pet sitting business; she made a flyer and is learning math by opening a bank account and learning interest and percentages.
I do lot of fishing for curriculums online. I found this amazing math program from Dartmouth. I get it and I play a couple of the games and talk about it and pretty soon she wants to try it. I find all these cool things; she finds all these cool things. I will intervene if I feel like there’s a huge struggle.

What is “unschooling”?

It is based on a belief that meaningful education comes from inspiration. Some people call it “screwing the path.” We don’t have to accomplish our education between 8 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon. We’re not limited to a building where people go to learn.

How do you think change for the better could take place within institutionalized education?

If you want to fix that system, it’s not about funding. It can just be so abusive, to teachers and students. They take away their art and their PE and they give them pure starch and french fries and no brain food and then wonder why they get irritated.
They’ve also disempowered the teachers. People go into that job because they love the idea of imparting wisdom and knowledge and experience, but the curriculum is so highly mandated that they don’t even get to include their own gifts and experiences.

What sort of reactions have you gotten from people who send their children to traditional schools?

People say “what about college; what will you do if they don’t take all those tests?” I think that probably 10 or 15 years ago that would have been more of a concern. The movement has grown strong enough and there has been enough info disseminated about it that it won’t confuse the system to say she doesn’t have a GPA.
A friend of mine is a professor at DePaul and says that the traditionally-taught students have a hard time getting going and need too much instruction. Someone who has had to take charge of their education for most of their life takes more initiative and has more innate direction.

Why do you think relatively so few parents make that leap?

Well, for one, it’s terrifying. I started wondering, what if I’m wrong? What if I’ve made a mistake?
But more than that, I think the parents are institutionalized themselves. There’s this belief in our society that you have to go to the authority. There’s no trust of self-awareness, the idea that you can go and get that information yourself. People don’t do that, they go to the authority figure. They let George Bush take them to war. You learn to be dependent upon authority figures in school and that keeps on being reinforced.

The Flynn Family

Parents: Scott and Kate
Children: 5-year-old Hugh and third grade daughter, Lorraine (a.k.a Rainey)
Group affiliation: Many, mostly Home-schooling Gifted Students. “I have belonged to every group, except the Christians.”

What is Homeschooling for Gifted Students?

We meet at Cindy’s [the founder’s] house in Evanston and try, at least monthly, to do a social thing, a game day or water park day. We’re starting a co-op next year, every Friday for four hours, teaching Latin, Montessori math, conversational French, kidizens, which is a class for kids about government..
The group is very academically-focused. The mothers tend to be highly educated. There’s no requirement about giftedness. It’s a great group of women who care passionately about academics and keeping their kids challenged. They believe that every child deserves to be challenged.

What style of teaching to you use at home?

I’m researching Thomas Jefferson Education, which is about inspiring, not requiring. It’s similar to unschooling at the early ages, where you just try to get your kid excited about learning and having fun. From age 8 to 12 learning is child-led, it’s called the “love of learning” phase, which is when you just kind of follow the child’s interest. From twelve on, the parents are supposed to be scholars, and to model studying.
My kids right now have a website about Chicago sculptures because that’s what their dad’s into, so they’ve gotten into it, too.

What is your background?

I was a Montessori teacher, with training from birth to three years old, and ran a Montessori daycare for three years. I also taught in the Chicago Public School System for a few years.

Why did you decide to homeschool?

It started out as financial, because we started out at private schools and we were paying $24,000 for both of them. When Rainey was two, I went around and took some tours of CPS schools, and I knew that they did a lot of worksheets, and as a Montessori teacher I was really opposed to that.
But really I felt like I did not get a good education. I remember when I was in grade school, my father made some comment about the Roman Empire and I said, “What’s the Roman Empire?” And he didn’t say, “Here’s a book,” or “Look at this”—but just, “My god, what are they teaching you?”

How much do you think you spend annually on homeschooling your children?

Maybe $500 a year on books and at least $3-4,000 on classes per year for the both of them.

How would you like to see the education system change on a broader, institutional scale?

I’ve worked in public education and they’d just have to blow up the administrative center and start over. It’s been so run by fat cat government-official types—I worked at CPS—it’s a nightmare.

What sort of reactions have you gotten from people who send their children to traditional schools?

I don’t allow my children to watch TV and my brother thinks I’m raising little sheltered, oyster freaks. He gave my kids a Jimmy Neutron video and said, “Someone has got to teach them this stuff,” meaning pop culture.
But as for people we meet, we don’t even say it anymore because people just say, “Oh my god, what about socialization?” And we think, “Do we look like people who haven’t thought about this?” Some of their reactions have just been awful.

What are some of the benefits/drawbacks to homeschooling?

I think they are very well-behaved and able to entertain themselves. But they might be a little naïve. They don’t have any clue that people lie, and maybe they’ll have to find out someday. But I just love how enthusiastic and pure they are.