How We Spent Our First “official” Year Homeschooling

I’m not a tree hugger, I haven’t worn Birkenstocks for 20 years and I wouldn’t call myself a radical anything. But when Sofia was just a few months old, I started thinking about homeschooling. At first it was because we are a film business family, and I wanted to make sure we kept the family together as much as possible. But then I started to really fall in love with the notion (John Holt, John Taylor Gatto, Well Trained Mind, etc.) and pretty early on decided to homeschool. But then it was time to tour Kindergartens and all my mom friends were on the bus. I tagged along. This caused me unnecessary grief and suffering as I doubted my choice. People told me, “I knew homeschoolers. They turned out weird. Like weird-weird.” People looked at me like I was nuts and asked, “Why on earth would you want to be with your kids all day?” Like I was one of those people without a life or a helicopter parent hovering anxiously around the kids, just waiting for them to choke on something. And then Sofia got accepted into some really lovely schools.

I adored school myself. Given just two more hours in the day I would be in a Ph.D program of some sort. Some of the schools Sofia was accepted to made my heart leap because they were the kind of school I would have loved to attend. But I kept feeling a tug, like homeschool would be a fit for her. I have to admit, selfishly, I like having both the girls around. And we travel so much, it allows us to all be together. But I was terrified. I hired consultants, (Tammy Takahashi), I drove my unschooling pals crazy, I asked numerous opinions. Claudio asked that Sofia sign a waiver saying she agreed with us ruining her life. I prayed I wouldn’t be ruining her life. I saw a shrink and I took her to one as well.

My friend Lorraine and my sister and mother all told me I could not go wrong by following my heart and also said, “So what if you fail? Then put her in school for first grade.” I finally calmed down and just committed to it.

The girls and I went to the HSC convention of homeschoolers in Sacramento. Claudio could not be coerced into joining us. He believed Homeschooling would be “Death of Fabulous,” to use his words. I question how much Fabulous we really have to begin with…(See previous post of him counting his chins.) Homeschool in his mind was right up there with a minivan and mom jeans. A bit too parental. The conference was titled “There’s No Place Like Homeschool” and the first night of sleeping in that Sacramento hotel room felt like death of not only fabulous, but anything I had ever imagined for my life.

The next morning I trudged to the keynote speaker’s talk. Linda Dobson’s kids are now all grown and she and her husband were selling their house and sailing around the world. She was an interesting, funny lady and as she spoke of having a calling to this life, (she discovered homeschooling on the Donohue show back in the dark ages) and of her love of being with her kids, of how joyous her life had been during the homeschooling years and her memories, I started to cry. I know! Like a baby. I was surrounded by tie dye, birkenstocks, fairy wings and tree huggers and really lovely, lovely people who were as jazzed and excited by learning as I was, and I stopped feeling weird and just decided to enjoy myself.

There were other women like me there: One woman stood up during the “Is Homeschool Legal” session and announced how much she hated being there, that the noise level and crowds of homeschoooled teens roaming around freaked her out, but that she was so glad to be talking with people who understood her. A New Yorker accosted me in the hotel lobby and grabbed onto my arm and said, “Thank you. Thank you for trying.” I didn’t know what she meant and then she pointed to my glasses and all black garb. “If I see one more piece of tie dye or another braless woman, I may scream. At least you are trying.” (I did not point out that I too was braless, just pert because I was still lactating and due for a feeding.) And I couldn’t really hate her for her judgmental quality as it mirrored my own from just an hour earlier.

I called Claudio and told him of my epiphany, of my feeling of finding kindred spirits and he said, “Are you making hills out of your mashed potatoes, too?”

Still, once home, I offered Sofia school probably about once a week. I’ve even, truth be told, threatened her with it, as in, “Sofia, if you whap your sister one more time you’re going to School! School-School. That’s right. With recess!” We did two months of homeschool in Los Angeles, and then moved to Taichung, Taiwan for Claudio’s latest film, where I would tour a Kindergarten about once a month because the city of Taichung had really no Homeschoolers to speak of, and certainly no one the same age as my girls. I was told if she wasn’t Socialized I would be raising a weirdo, and Taiwan was definitely the social experiment. When I would get nervous, I’d tour another school. It looked like this:

Me: Sofia, look this school has an American teacher, a slide in the classroom named “The Kitty Room” and they have the biggest ball pit in the world! How about this school?

Sofia (age 5): Hmmm. Nah. I don’t want to give up my freedom. Who wants to be at a desk all day? I’m a homeschooler!

Here’s one of the schools I tried to convince her to go to:

Here’s what we did, for the record, as much as I can recall for this year.

My goals for her were to have fun and for her to read fluently by the end of the year. But mostly fun, since it was Kindergarten, after all.

Sofia loved doing workbooks. She did books 1-4 of the Explode the Code phonics books. (Actually 8 books as each one has a 1.5, 2.5, etc.) She would pretty much take these off to a corner and do them by herself, although now that she is in Book 4 it requires some assistance on my part with the phonics rules. “The silent E on the end makes the vowel say its name.”

She did Spelling 180 and is now into 360. ( She pretty much did these on her own with me sitting beside her if she got stuck.

She did Singapore math 1a and 1b. We had a tutor in Taichung for awhile, but Sofia seemed to do much better with me. (I came into math class one day with the tutor and Sofia was on her back with her legs in the air, screaming at the top of her lungs and was beaning the tutor with the math manipulatives. She doesn’t do this with me.) We’d do a little every day and when she got bored or wiggly, we’d quit. Fun was our operative word.

I will never forget one night when we stayed up late, and somehow she figured out how to carry the one and she started screaming, “I get it! I finally get it. I can carry the one. I’m a rockstar!” I had been lightly introducing the concept and watching her flail for about a month, so I’d back off, and then one night she just got it. I almost cried and I still get goosebumps thinking about it.

Here is a video of math flashcards. Who says they are boring?

We bought her a hundred pounds of books. (I know because I weighed them when packing to return to the U.S.) and she read like a fiend. There was no library in Taichung, a big handicap, but there were a couple of good English bookstores. The first week we landed back in Los Angeles we went to the library. We have a basket that we like to fill each week. It’s much more cost effective, I must say. She loved books like the Ivy and Bean series and classics like Black Beauty (short form, not original). She is mad for Bearnstein Bears and Lola books. She is currently in the middle of The Secret Garden (original, read mostly aloud by me and occasional paragraphs by her) and she likes to run off with any spare luggage keys she finds in hopes that they’ll open a secret garden door should we stumble upon one.

She loved practicing her penmanship. She wants to “do cursive” next year, so we shall. She loved reading poetry, especially Silverstein.

Science was potions, (Sofia’s invention–salt, water, soap, whatever else she found in the kitchen to “do spearments” with), and cooking. (Scrambled eggs: “I don’t need your help mom. I got it.”) Magic School bus videos and experiments. And she was very into the Monster Inside me series, worms and bed bugs and if I never have to see another one of these videos, I’ll be fine with it, especially the one about the guy who found a worm crawling down his thigh in the dark one night. She is obsessed with head lice, worms, and dandruff. I count all this loveliness as opportunity for science. Here is a photo of what the chickens in Taiwan look like when you thaw them and take them out of the freezer bag. It’s Science!

All of this “schooly” stuff took less than 2-3 hours a day. We would sometimes go together to the hotel or apartment lobby and do some work together, sometimes in the office or at the dining room table. It was amazingly simple and easy and unexpectedly fun. I like a bit of routine, so we’d usually “do school” from 9-11 or so and then I’d find us doing things that would “count” if you were so inclined to keep track of that sort of thing throughout the day. Learning just happens. (All my Unschooling pals told me this over and over and I would roll my eyes at them behind their backs. Sorry ladies: I take it back. You were right.)

She took daily Mandarin private lessons with sweet Leli, a friend and tutor, but kicked and screamed the whole way. I think it was her way of dealing with homesickness, and the fact that many Taiwanese speak English, (or just because Mandarin is so kick-ass hard to learn)so her Chinese is not as strong as I had hoped. We may keep it up in the fall or we may return to Spanish.(I made it through eight months of living in Taiwan knowing only how to say ‘Thank you’ and ‘Hello.’ I’m kind of an International Jackass. A.K.A. An American.)

She had thrice weekly violin lessons with a private tutor.

She took a Taekwondo class with a master teacher who was magnificent.

Computer time was for when she woke up earlier than me, when I was fried from being up with Lily all night. and were her favorites.

And the rest of the time we played, went to museums, day trips, hung with her good friend Taiwanese pal Brian or her friend Ingrid, another LOP film family. We made friends with the wait staff at a local pizza joint and had a play date with all of them at our place.

I did not stress about Lily, our two year old. We did not use a curriculum with her learning to walk and talk (I joke….) and she spent her days reading, running around a local park, playing with the occasional Taiwanese kids we encountered at museums or out in the world. There was a joint down the street from our apartment called “Baby Castle” that was good fun. Lily could understand Mandarin pretty well by the time we left and she would even use the Mandarin for “come here” instead of English. This post is mostly about Sofia because no one wants to know how I homeschooled Lily last year. I get questions about the starting of official school–Kindergarten. But I can’t resist: Here is Lily with Chai Ling, our invaluable nanny. She liked to wear panties as hats, and who were we to tell her no?

There were definitely days when I thought, “What am I doing?” There were middle of the night moments when I’d wake up with a thought like, “Sofia can’t tell time yet!” There were days when the girls fought and screamed and I lost my patience and then I’d remember the keynote speaker from the HSC conference who said, (my paraphrase from memory, with hauntings of Claudio), “You will have those days. Days when you question everything, the laundry is miles high, the house is a mess, you haven’t had a wax or haircut in over 6 months, and you feel a definite Death of Fabulous. When that happens, do this. It works. Throw your hands in the air (above your rats-nest un-highlighted hair) and scream FIELD TRIP. And get everyone out of the house.”

I did that a few times.

And then I would treat myself to a massage or facial or a walk around the block by myself near the temple and let the sandalwood incense calm me down and bring myself back to fall in love again with this amazing circus life we chose.

Right before we left Taiwan Sofia and I were taking one last walk to the ice cream store and she turned and looked up at me and said, “Mom, thanks for homeschooling me. I love it.” Cue the sappy music.

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2 Responses to How We Spent Our First “official” Year Homeschooling

  1. nysha says:

    I may throw my hands up above my rats nested hair–but it WILL be highlighted. I drawn the line at roots. Really. You are my hero. We will of course keep discussing. PS tell claudio you could not lose fabulous if you ran as fast as you could screaming down Avenue 54. xoxoxo

  2. Chessa says:

    This is fabulous! I went through the same thing with kindergarten – knew we would likely homeschool, and went through all the hand-wringing and school touring anyway. What the hell is wrong with us!? And I laughed out loud when you mentioned using school as a threat – been there! (Although the last time I did it, Silas actually accepted – like, Ok! School! And I was like…fuuuuuck. And then we had more playdates and it was all good again. Dang social kids). Loved this glimpse into your homeschooling world!

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