Tuesday, June 11, 2013

One Mom's Journey Through Homeschooling

     I remember watching my children struggle. They were much younger then; we were living in New Jersey, and my fourth and youngest child was not yet born. My two eldest children were in elementary school at the time.
     My older son was being persistently scolded for his inability to sit still; I was once called in by his teacher and told that he was sometimes so active that he would knock others over. Meanwhile, my daughter, who was in kindergarten, was getting into trouble for gathering children in her class and reading to them.
     Clearly, something was not working.
     When you watch your children grow up, you start to recognize their personalities, their individual quirks. My older son, fidgety as he was, was never more content than when he was pulling apart an old, broken television and putting it back together.
      My youngest son, on the other hand, liked to observe things and was obsessed with anything visual. He even refused to wear more than one color at a time — he seem perpetually perplexed by the idea that he could wear shirts that weren’t blue with blue jeans.
      It wasn’t long before I started to understand why my children were struggling in school. Their personalities overwhelmed their learning, and public schooling didn’t have the time, means, or opportunity to account for those individual personalities.

     The sheer number of students in each classroom stamps out the possibility of any recognition of distinctive learning styles. Private schools would be more likely to accommodate my kids as individuals, but, truth be told, we could not afford that for our three children, and the fourth was on the way. Neither the private nor public schooling systems was providing us with what we needed.

I grew up surrounded by educators. Both of my parents were teachers and one of my grandparents was a public school superintendent. That made my next choice seem all the more radical to me: I chose to homeschool my children. 
     When I made the decision to homeschool, my oldest son was eleven years old and my youngest daughter was a newborn. Back then, there weren’t the resources there are now — internet or computers even — so I went in to the experience rather blindly. I originally went for the traditional schooling idea, buying the usual textbooks and workbooks; I reasoned that that was what my children were already most used to. Eventually, however, it seemed like my children were in need of something radically different.
     My youngest daughter was in a phase where she loved watercolors. I say ‘phase’ loosely, as that’s really how she’s been her whole life. Once, she even painted the entire back of a chair we had recently reupholstered! It brought me back to thinking about how my children’s related to the world in completely individual ways. For my daughter, it was through watercolors and art. For my older son, it was through breaking things apart and putting them back together.
It wasn’t long, then, before I figured out that these were their learning styles: my oldest son and youngest daughter were kinesthetic learners, and my middle daughter and son were visual learners.
From then on, I knew the best way to help them learn would be to play to their strengths. I was lucky enough to have only two different types of learners in my family, so I only needed two different ways of approaching subjects.
     Visual learners, like my middle children, work perfectly well in a traditional school setting: they are good at reading and writing, and even enjoy them. The difficulty with them is trying to get them to apply what they learn from what they’ve read, asking them, “okay, now what do you do with that information?”
     My kinesthetic children, on the other hand, did not at all flourish in a typical school setting. Besides their inability to keep still, they, my son in particular, have a harder time with reading. On top of that, they can easily start to feel inadequate when they aren’t understanding something that their visual peers are easily grasping. My son was always an optimistic child, so he never let it get him down, but my daughter always got frustrated when she saw her siblings understanding something she simply couldn’t decipher.
     Their education needed to be tailored to them: their needs, their personalities, their strengths, what they liked and disliked. I let my son continue to take broken TVs and remote controls apart and put them back together, but instead of letting that be it, I would have him write about exactly what he did. After that, he would read aloud what he had written, and eventually, his struggles with reading passed.
     Awareness of the way my children learned, and helping them to understand they learned, helped my children become captivated by education. They would no longer feel inadequate when they didn’t understand something, they would no longer feel frustrated. Instead, they learned to play off their own strengths, and the strengths of their siblings. They understood how they worked and how to work together, and that understanding has shaped their lives, even to this day.
My oldest son is now 30. He never let go of his desire to move and play with things; in fact, he now owns an extreme sports clothing company. My oldest daughter, one of my visual children, is now a manager at H&M and designs and sells things on Etsy. My youngest son, also one of my visual learners, is a published author, and is about to start an MFA program at Chapman University. My youngest daughter is now 19, and is currently studying at UC Santa Barbara.
What was the best takeaway from learning how my children learn? It was their reignited passion for learning. Even to this day, they continue their education in any way they can, looking for learning opportunities in everything they do. The experience and new understanding even helped me rekindle my love of learning. I started studying at a culinary institute, and have not stopped my quest for education since.
     Understanding how a child learns, and catering to that, making education interesting and involving for them, can make all the difference in a child’s life. It can reshape them to love education. Take your child’s education and personalize it; it can change their life forever.
About the Author: The author resides in California but is a Texan by birth and has lived in seven of the fifty states and homeschooled in three of those states. She received a degree in finance from the University of Texas at Austin and later followed one of her passions by attending culinary school in her thirties. This fueled her desire to learn to speak French and Italian and these endeavors are still works in progress. You can find Gaye at: gayemarkham.com

Aaron K. Harris
Tutorspree: Co-Founder and CEO


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