What's the first thing that pops into your mind when you hear "homeschoolers"?
Religious fanatics, nutcases, isolated and backwards families of 20 on a farm somewhere?
"That's pretty much the picture I had, too," admits Melanie Applebaum, a St. Louis woman who is homeschooling her two daughters, aged 8 and 11. "It's not what most people still consider the 'norm,' even me. I mean, we went off to school every day, and our parents did, too."
Still, after waiting and yearning for the first five years of her kids' lives to hurry up so they could be off to school, Applebaum realized something: she wanted to be with her children.
"I couldn't believe after all that time of wishing them out the door what a change it was to be there without them all day," she remembers.
It's not as though her daughters Hannah and Dinah were having bad school experiences they attended the Lutheran school associated with the family's church, and their mom served (and continues to serve) on the school board. But it wasn't long before Applebaum's generalized feeling that something was missing turned into a search for a specific solution.
"I started to read and go online and basically drive everybody I knew nuts," she says. "When I first started to think about homeschooling, it sounded so hard! But the more I looked, the more I found and when I mentioned it to people, everybody knew somebody who was doing it! People would say, 'Oh, my neighbor...' or 'My sister...'"
A quick web search or a chat with a handful of homeschooling families will quickly reveal that there are as many ways to homeschool as there are people doing it (hundreds or more in St. Louis alone) Applebaum considers herself a somewhat structured homeschooler, but variations abound, from Montessori to Waldorf to fundamentalist Christian to "unschooling," perhaps the loosest arrangement of all. Homeschooling is legal in all 50 states; in Missouri, parents who choose to homeschool must provide (and document) 1000 hours of instruction each calendar year, with 600 of those hours in "core" areas like science, language arts and so on. Logs must be kept, evaluations must be obtained ...and it can all sound pretty daunting at first.
One of the keys to Applebaum's decision, made with her husband, to homeschool her children was the support she received from Hannah's third-grade teacher (who fully endorsed the move, "as long as I promised not to take her out until after third grade!" laughs Applebaum). The teacher assured her that the individual attention her kids would be getting could not be matched even in the best classroom situation; she also sat down to demystify textbooks and curricula for Applebaum.
"We were looking at the teachers' manual for science, and I just couldn't believe what a huge book it was," she says. "I asked her if she would teach everything in there by the end of the year, and she just started laughing and said they'd be lucky to get through a third of it. As I started finding out about curriculum and how to pick what to teach, it dawned on me that this is how it's done! It had never even occurred to me that just a regular old person made those kinds of decisions, that seem like they've been handed down by Authority."
Because Applebaum describes herself as "not terribly creative," she and her daughters work mainly from curriculum sets and online modules she orders for each discipline. They maintain a regular schedule, getting started most mornings by 9 in the family kitchen ("where I'm close to the coffee pot all day") with Bible, and then moving through science, math, language arts and social studies. Other activities supplement the basics: the girls take art classes at the South City Open Studio and Gallery; swim at the YWCA every Friday; go on plenty of outings to the Science Center, the Arch and so on. "Plus, right now, we're trying to learn Spanish," Applebaum says. When the mood strikes, they've devoted hours to studying great composers and their musical works. For a time, they went each week to sit at the Saint Louis Art Museum and sketch, something Applebaum enjoyed as much as the girls.
One of the great benefits to their family of homeschooling is an ability to work out a schedule that fits for everyone. No one has to be up early, and usually they try to get everything wrapped up before leaving the house for "special" activities; as Applebaum points out, "If we go somewhere and come back home, and their attention's been distracted, they don't want to do anything else for school and frankly, neither do I."
Also, Hannah and Dinah participate fully in the life of the family; last year, when Applebaum's parents died within months of each other, the children were home and engaged in the family crisis. "It was nice to have that flexibility," she says. "In a way it was better that we weren't shipping the kids off to school every morning where they would have to sit and wonder about how Grandma was doing, or where a teacher might have to come and tell them bad news. They were right here, with us, experiencing it. If one of us had to go to the hospital, we all went to the hospital. There is a real benefit to having them participate in your lives, and in each other's lives."
The guaranteed question sort of the homeschool equivalent of "where'd you go to high school?" is, "what about socialization?" So, what about it?
"There's this whole worry about 'socialization,'" says Applebaum. "I don't even know what that means. Having a social life? My kids have that, and plenty of friends they know from the neighborhood or church or wherever. But as far as socialization? Actually, no, I don't want them being influenced by 30 five-year-olds! I'd much rather have them influenced by me."
The family's decision to homeschool is, for now, a course they will stay on, "as long as they're enjoying it and I'm enjoying it," says Applebaum. Although the girls initially weren't sold on the idea in fact, Hannah made a spectacular scene at her third-grade graduation ceremony, wailing at top decibel that she "didn't wanna home school!" in front of an auditorium full of friends and their families they now seem fully acclimated. Applebaum says that Dinah has lately expressed curiosity about what it would be like to go back to school (she only finished kindergarten before coming back home), but seemed aghast at Hannah's description of a world where kids had to get up early and couldn't just have a snack when it seemed right.
Dinah recently had an epiphany of her own: she proclaimed that she likes homeschooling because, "I like learning I never learned anything at school!"