Asynchronous Beauty

In the educational realm, giftedness is often linked with high achievement. This has always aggravated me because I’ve accumulated a lot of anecdotal evidence to support the notion that, in many cases, intelligence, creativity, and sensitivity have little to do with achievement. I’ll even take it a step further and assert that these qualities frequently present barriers to the small, narrow, blindingly superficial definition of achievement subscribed to by many. In reality, there are several definitions of giftedness, and none that I’ve encountered cite achievement as a characteristic of gifted individuals. My favorite definition comes from the Columbus Group:

“Giftedness is asynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm. This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity. The uniqueness of the gifted renders them particularly vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching and counseling in order for them to develop optimally.”

Before we started homeschooling, I conducted substantial research on our state’s options for gifted students. To summarize, a primary goal of gifted and talented education programs is supporting gifted learners in meeting and exceeding grade level standards at an accelerated pace. I’ve heard rumors of fantastic gifted programs, but after looking into our local options, I concluded that they weren’t offering what my daughters needed. In fact, they didn’t seem to cater to asynchronous learners at all, but focused instead on bright, high-achieving students.

My daughters’ asynchrony means that a traditional classroom environment, even an accelerated environment, is not an ideal fit. It means a lot of tried and true parenting advice doesn’t apply, and learning and living look different for us. We have unusual circumstances and unique challenges. Finding families we can truly relate to isn’t easy.

The process of learning about my children and creating an environment where they can thrive has taught me that great difficulty can be accompanied by immense beauty. Through our lifestyle of boundless and completely personalized learning, my daughters have the opportunity to grow and develop without the imposition of external forces reminding them how they measure up, whether they’re ahead or behind, and what they’re too old or too young for.

 

The poster my older daughter chose for her bedroom wall inspired by her current read, playing with colorful dinosaurs, and recent bookstore purchases

 

My younger daughter enjoying the outdoors, focusing intently on an Algebra problem, and learning about anti-Semitism through historical fiction

 

The obstacles of raising asynchronous learners are far outmatched by the rewards. I have witnessed my daughters embrace their individuality, attack their passions with fervor, and develop a sense of purpose that is all their own. The intensity can be overwhelming, but it can also fuel inexhaustible creativity and depth. Their intuitiveness, empathy, and intellect are just a few of the gifts that are linked to that asynchronous intensity.

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Sacrificing Busy

For over a year, I homeschooled while working full time. I was able to keep my schedule relatively stable, and with a little flexibility, homeschooling fit into the day. Our time together began early in the morning and ended in the middle of the afternoon. The girls came with me to work, and brought along games, art supplies, and our iPad to continue their studies and watch movies. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked well for a while. I had also worked full time before we began homeschooling, so the absence of an imposed schedule during the hours that were once dedicated to school was a great relief.

My daughters were learning anything and everything, and I was working so hard to provide them with every opportunity to flourish while also trying to afford the impossibly high rent on our closet-sized apartment. My first year of this endeavor, as a single parent with a single income, is a testament to the fact that homeschooling can happen on even the tightest of budgets. I knew I was giving my daughters what they needed, and I was willing to take any steps necessary to maintain our new life.

Slowly, a number of small inconveniences became intrusions. I didn’t get enough sleep, relied on take out or frozen dinners too often, and felt exhausted from long days and little downtime. The sacrifices weren’t mine, alone. My daughters were frustrated with the long hours spent at work and missed out on many field trips and social gatherings because of my schedule. Shortly after we started homeschooling, we joined a local group for families with gifted kids. The girls were forming deep, meaningful friendships, and they needed the time to secure those bonds. We were loving our newfound educational freedom, but as I began to view homeschooling as a lifestyle rather than merely an educational choice, it became clear that there were many freedoms we weren’t taking advantage of.

We were busy, and it permeated every aspect of our lives. Always on the go and juggling multiple commitments, we were the family dropping in at park days and leaving just as a game got underway. Compounding our frustration was the fact that my efforts weren’t yielding financial security. We were afloat, but barely. I couldn’t realistically entertain the notion of taking time off to join our group for their biannual camping trip, and some of the field trips my schedule would have permitted us to attend were cost prohibitive.

For all the wonderful discoveries we made during that first year, our chaotic pace held us back. At first, I thought this was an inescapable truth of our situation. It was expected, I reasoned, that the joy and freedom of our lifestyle would be accompanied by certain sacrifices. Also, busy is normal. The most common response to an inquiry about well-being that I receive from friends, colleagues, and parents of traditionally-schooled and homeschooled kids alike is, “busy.” It is not uncommon to be perpetually rushed and feel overwhelmed by an impractically lengthy list of tasks to be accomplished.

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I’ll admit to wearing “busy” like a badge of honor. It was a source of pride when homeschooling friends held me up as an example of how work and homeschooling can coexist, or when colleagues said, “I don’t know how you do it all.” A lot of value is placed on stress-management, and I was (for the most part) doing a commendable job of managing my stress.

Homeschooling began as a way to provide my children with the best possible education. School was a stifling environment for them, and they weren’t challenged. I knew I could do better, and I did, but as that first year progressed, homeschooling grew from a means toward an educational end into a monster. It devoured my old, tired outlook, not just on education, but on so many societal norms, and forced me to engage in an uncomfortable but enlightening examination of my values and priorities.

What I came up with was that my daughters and I most value the uninterrupted time we spend together. They have insatiable appetites for knowledge, and need a partner in learning who can be fully devoted and stay in the moment. After their physical and emotional wellbeing, my daughter’s education is my highest priority. In actuality, I knew this all along, but looking at my situation through homeschool-colored lenses, I realized new possibilities. My objective had been stress-management, but I set my sights on stress-removal, instead.

I needed to work less. My parents suggested that the girls and I move in with them, and for several months, I didn’t even entertain the possibility. I was too independent to live in anyone else’s home, I thought, but my attachment to freedom was, ironically, shackling me to an outwardly imposed structure and draining precious time from my children. After discussing our options with my daughters, I made the decision to scale back on work, leave the minuscule apartment that had been our home for over four years, and move in with my parents.

This difficult decision required its own unique set of sacrifices. I worked full time even as a teenager, and I have a strong work ethic. I had to own up to the fact that a lot of my self-worth was tied to others’ perceptions of that work ethic, and I had to untangle those knots. I had to redefine my notions of self-reliance, independence, freedom, and success. I had to resign my busy badge. My previous training had taught me that busy was synonymous with productive, but my experience had proven otherwise. For my daughters and I to thrive as homeschoolers, this drastic change was necessary.

The last seven months have been amazing and challenging. I was the only adult in my household for years, and adjusting to living with two more people was hard, as was learning to navigate the change in my relationship with my parents. Overall, they have been incredibly generous and supportive, and have strengthened their bond with my daughters. The daily presence of extended family has been just one of many tremendous gains our new arrangement has brought us.

Just as important is what we’ve lost. We’re not busy anymore, which is simultaneously scary and wonderful. As homeschoolers, we were already pushing boundaries, and to give up the frenetic, harried pace that is the norm of daily life only enhances our disparities. The transition from a six or seven day work week to radically reduced hours hasn’t been entirely smooth, strange as that may sound. I frequently entertain thoughts that I’m not doing enough, but I’ve learned to hold those thoughts up to reality to determine if they hold any weight rather than indulge them.

My reality tells a different story that can best be summed up by an exchange I had with an acquaintance a few months ago. He asked me if the girls and I were keeping busy, and without even thinking I said, “No, we’re keeping happy.” He laughed, but it’s absolutely true, and this statement served as both an admission and an affirmation of my bold and unconventional choices.

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Being Prepared and Other Useless Endeavors

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I was so prepared for our first day homeschooling. My older daughter left school first, so I thought I had it easy starting out with just one kid. I was still hopeful (or delusional) about the school providing the ever elusive differentiation promised to my younger daughter, fully anticipating that she’d join us the following year. It didn’t seem as urgent for her as for my oldest. She lasted about another month, but everything was different by then. The firsts of everything had come and gone, and she was the beneficiary of a much more relaxed homeschooling parent than the one my older daughter endured during our initial weeks.

In the weeks leading up to our first day, I had done my research. Educational styles and philosophies were committed to memory, blogs were scoured, and resources were bookmarked. I read Peter Gray, John Holt, and any other pro-homeschooling book or article I could find. Part of it was a need for validation. I wanted to know that, wherever I was going, others had been there before and lived to tell about it. Of course, no one had actually traveled the path I was on; that was mine, alone. Every family has a unique set of circumstances, so no two journeys are exactly alike. Still, the comfort of familiar experience should not be discounted.

My daughter and I discussed her interests ahead of time. We didn’t (and still don’t) fit neatly into any one philosophical or stylistic category with respect to homeschooling, but I had enough insight to know that we had the best chance of making this work if she had a voice in our decisions, even though I wasn’t sure what that should look like. For her, school had been mind-numbingly boring at its best, and brutally stifling at its worst, so I was excited to give her more control over her education. At the same time, she was nine. How much input should she have? She told me what she wanted to learn about, and I went to work preparing neatly tabbed binders and schedules. I divided our day into subjects and involved myself in every aspect of her learning. Even before we started homeschooling, I considered myself to be more of a facilitator than a teacher, but it took a long time before I was able to clearly define what that meant for us.

At the time, I felt very progressive. I had thrown out the arbitrary grade level standards, and I thought I was following my daughter’s lead. There were some great moments in our first few weeks. We studied at coffee shops and parks, had long talks, and learned a lot about each other. There was also plenty of apprehension, anxiety, and doubt as we embarked on a new relationship and experienced those first successes and failures. The newness of it was everything all at once.

Those first weeks taught me a lot. Without intending to, I had structured my daughter’s learning much like a school setting. This works well for some families, but I took my daughter out of school because it wasn’t working; it wasn’t the ideal setting for her. Recreating it at home was not what she needed. I had to drop my ideas about what I thought she should need and provide the environment best for her. In our case, that means very little imposed structure, blurred lines between subjects rather than clear divisions, and giving my daughter freedom to run her day as she sees fit.

 
I had to give up a lot of the control I thought I should have and a lot of the organization I thought was necessary. I wasn’t prepared for any of this on our first day. There was no way I could have been, really. So much has changed since those weeks of binder tabs and subject scheduling. I made several mistakes during our first weeks, and many more since. What I’ve done right is keep an open mind. Being flexible enough to make changes when we need to has been a greater asset to us than any amount of preparation.

 

Now – Typical, Extraordinary Days

It would be impossible to describe a typical day in our lives. They are only predictable in their overall lack of predictability. There are some constants, certain grounding forces we’ve grown to rely on for a dose of continuity, but we fold them into our days rather than living around them. The girls go ice skating most Mondays, sometimes followed by a quick park trip. My older daughter attends a guitar class on Wednesday evenings, and a writing group on Friday mornings before the park day held by our homeschool group that we almost never miss. Thursdays, my oldest gets together with a friend to review the section of the Biology textbook they’ve both studied that week. I work for varying amounts of time most days, and my oldest has a volunteer job for a few hours every Sunday..

It looks like a lot when I write it all out, but our reality is many hours of open, unscheduled, completely free time. We can fill these hours any way we wish, and it has become my custom since settling into homeschooling almost two years ago to let my daughters take the lead. This looks different every day. Some days we spend almost the entire day outside, while others are spent at home. There are textbooks open all day, or not at all. There are self-paced online classes to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace, and there are others with assignments, deadlines, and exams. Sometimes we make a plan, sometimes we follow our plan, and sometimes we ride the hours like waves and let the moments take us away.

Our days look nothing like school. Even when we sit at a table and open a textbook, it bears no resemblance to a classroom experience. There is no time limit, no set amount of material to cover, no quiz at the end of the lesson. My daughters follow their interests, develop their passions, and set their own goals and expectations. They eat when they’re hungry, use the restroom when they need to, and take breaks at their discretion. Every day there is adventure, boredom, creative problem solving, arguing, debating, playing, and so much learning.

Two years ago, I could describe any one of my daughters’ days in school and it would serve well as a representation of their entire experience. Now, it would be difficult to pick up on our rhythm if a full month of activities were recorded. It’s not that we don’t have a rhythm; there is a distinct flow to our days. It’s just so subtle and flexible that it would be easy to overlook. Each day is typical in how we approach and embrace learning, and each day is extraordinary in the details that fill the hours.

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Then – A Look Back

Two years ago, there was a day that served as a catalyst for a dramatic change in our lives.

I roused my daughters, then nine and five, from a deep sleep. Before their feet hit the ground, both girls pleaded to stay home from school. They looked so tired. I wanted to give them a day off, but I had to work, so it was impossible. Instead, I promised a good breakfast and left them to get ready. When they came into the kitchen, dragging their backpacks behind them, I was assailed with a litany of grievances: Heads and stomachs hurt, teachers were cruel, apathetic, or incompetent, classmates were immature and thoughtless, and they weren’t learning anything. That last one I heard every day.

I made sure both girls had a couple books in their backpacks. While I thought some of their complaints about school were exaggerated, the claim that they weren’t learning anything was decidedly accurate. This was a good school; a project-based charter boasting top tier educators and a substantial wait list. I reminded myself of this after each one of the numerous meetings  with my daughters’ teachers and principal I’d endured since the beginning of the year. I had tactfully explained our concerns, shared multiple work samples, and offered to provide more appropriate material for them to complete in class if it couldn’t be obtained from upper grade teachers at the school. Still, their academic needs weren’t being met. After they read everything in their classroom libraries during their abundance of down time, I began sending books with them to school so they would have something to do. They both spent several hours of each school day reading.

The drive to school was taken up largely by the daily pep talk I gave to my oldest. It was about having a positive attitude, finding the silver lining in a difficult situation, and above all, a plea that I might get through my work day without a call from the school nurse. At this point in her fourth grade year, she visited the nurse’s office up to three times per week. She was so anxious and frustrated at school that she had developed fevers on several occasions that mysteriously disappeared when I brought her home.

I spent my work day on edge, anticipating a phone call from the school. When it didn’t come, I tried to convince myself that maybe things were turning around and we were finally getting on track. I did this every day. It was my own pep talk, much like the one I imparted to my daughter on the way to school. Sometimes, I could almost convince myself that this was just a rough patch, a phase. More often, I was nagged by intrusive thoughts and questions. I knew my children loved learning. It seemed counterintuitive that these thoughtful, intelligent girls would hate school. At home, they never stopped learning. Why did they describe their school days as dreary hours spent on repetitive, mindless work?

Hours later, when I returned to the school to pick them up, two sullen, agitated kids climbed into the car. My cheerful inquiry about their day was met with a continuance of that morning’s list of grievances. They weren’t allowed outside all day because it was drizzling, my older daughter’s teacher returned the extra credit essay she had written with no marks or comments of any kind, my younger daughter had leaned back in her chair and had to stand for the rest of the day. They came to work with me for a couple hours and explored contentedly until it was time for us to leave. I spent this portion of my work day a lot less tense, knowing that they were happy working on projects of their own invention.

Typically, the nerves started to set in around dinner time, and this evening was no exception. “I want to be homeschooled,” my oldest said emphatically. It wasn’t the first time, but there was a new urgency to her request. We talked about it for a long time. She had so much to say, so many passions she wanted to pursue, and school was muting her. With each passing year, I had seen her vibrance dimmed by well-meaning professionals. After just half a year of Kindergarten I was seeing the same thing happen to her sister. Homeschooling was already on my mind, due in large part to my oldest’s persistent requests, and I thought it might be a viable option for the following year. I told her I would keep researching and we’d keep talking about it.

My oldest had been doing some research of her own. Before she went to bed that night, she left two tabs open on my computer to Ted talks she wanted me to see. There was this one by teen homeschooler Logan LaPlante, and this one by Sir Ken Robinson. I was inspired, both by the talks and my daughter’s initiative. I knew we couldn’t wait for next year.

 

Reading Aloud

We are readers.

Our interests and passions may endure  a natural ebb and flow, but reading is an immutable fixture in our lives. As a child, books were my companions. They were my playmates and protectors; my greatest allies and most remarkable teachers. This first love has followed me into adulthood, and even the most chaotic of times will find me working through two or three books simultaneously.

I’ve always encouraged my daughters to develop their own interests, and I’m continually overcome with amazement as they direct their enthusiasm toward subjects I wouldn’t have dreamed of exploring. My influence and guidance are tolerated, even respected, but they are clearly forging their own paths. While I fantasize about cultivating a love of writing and philosophy in my children, the actual children sitting across the table from me are working through anthropology classes, examining mathematical concepts I’ve never heard of, and developing a distinctly scientific view of the world.

I love that my daughters are drawn to math and science, even though I’ve had to learn Algebra to be of any use to them (it actually wasn’t as difficult as I remembered). Still, I’m ecstatic that they are both prolific and fervent readers. Seemingly from the moment they first held a book in their hands, they have been captivated by the magic contained in the pages.

When they were younger, we read together all the time. They became strong and independent readers, and our read-alouds persisted in delicate balance with their autonomous literary undertakings. As they navigated through many of my old favorites on their own, my nostalgia led to a habit of reacquainting myself with those familiar friends while they were sleeping.

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Recently, my eleven year old picked up To Kill a Mockingbird, and I seized the opportunity to share the experience with her. While it’s required reading for most high school students, I had the good fortune to stumble upon Harper Lee’s masterpiece the summer before I was assigned to read it in school. As a result, I have retained only the sheer enjoyment of the text without memory of the spirit-crushing busywork that aids many teachers in sucking the life out of literature.

We started the book together, reading aloud alternate chapters. There was no set time or chapter goal for each day. There were no tests, quizzes, chapter summaries, essays, or time-consuming projects. Instead, we discussed. These were not the guided discussions of my high school English classes, fraught with leading questions and raised eyebrows until individual opinion resigned itself to the answers in the teachers’ manual. We had conversations about the historical context of the story, the evolution of the characters, racism, education, the legal system, injustice, and so much more. Some days we talked for longer than we read.

Probably the most meaningful part was experiencing the story through each other’s eyes. She eagerly asked for my perspective and just as enthusiastically shared her own. For me, it often felt like I was reading the book for the first time. When my daughter’s eyes sparkled during Jem and Scout’s adventures with Dill, and when she teared up, gasping incredulously, as Tom Robinson’s verdict was read, I felt her raw emotion like it was my own. As we read, I witnessed the story chip away at her naïveté and leave behind a sharpened, more refined intuition. She understands something about humanity, about the world, that she didn’t understand before. It is a subtly beautiful transformation, and one I feel fortunate not to have missed.

 

Homeschooling and Resolutions

New Year Fireworks

Yesterday, my older daughter asked me if I had made any New Year’s resolutions. I hadn’t given it any thought, and I realized when she asked that I had no intention of doing so.

New Year’s resolutions run the gamut from a formal (and, thanks to social media, increasingly public) display of commitment toward self improvement to a gentle nudge we might give ourselves to try a little harder in one area or another. Often, the transition from one year to the next evokes a sense of absolution for our previous misdeeds, and we welcome the blank slate we are presented with, open to the adventures to come, eager to fill it with positive intentions. The practice has fallen out of favor with me, and I think the reason is inextricably connected to homeschooling.

When my daughters and I began homeschooling, we were met with varying degrees of skepticism. There were a few strong supporters, and at least an equal number of dissidents, but the majority adopted a mildly amused expression and asked questions that began with, “but what about…”

In general, supporters of homeschooling are likely to be optimistic about the practice even in the face of immense difficulty, and dissidents are likely to find fault even when presented with unmitigated success. Skeptics are more difficult to navigate, which I can attest to as a promoter and practitioner of skepticism under many circumstances.

I was my own most vehement skeptic when we started homeschooling. Not only did I feel a sense of obligation to consider every, “but what about…” tossed my way, I took it upon myself to come up with many more that those amateurs hadn’t even thought of. It’s a practice I was forced to abandon after a couple months when I recognized the growth and happiness my children and I were experiencing.

Not long afterward, I accepted that I hadn’t simply adopted a new educational framework, but had embarked on a profound lifestyle change that lifted many of the boundaries I once thought to be non-negotiable. We were no longer bound by the confines of the school day or school year calendars, our sleep routines were permitted to adjust to rhythms that more naturally suited us, and we seemed, each day, to encounter more possibilities than we previously knew to exist.

It was the realization of options that I continue to find most liberating. A new topic of study might emerge at any time, and we can dive into it any number of ways. We can explore some topics in depth with purpose and direction, and glean superficially over others. We can use any curricula or none at all, and we aren’t tied to any decision unless we choose to be. When one daughter’s math book proved tedious and unremarkable, we found something better. We didn’t have to wait until the end of the year, or the semester, or even the chapter; the change was necessary, so we made it.

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I enjoy the fun and festivities that arrive with a new year. The time with family, reminiscing, speculating, laughing, and playing, is invaluable. For me, though, a transformation has taken place with respect to my attitude about goals and resolutions in that I no longer need, or even desire, a special occasion to make a change. This is not to say that I grant myself a proverbial blank slate each day. Instead, I try to hone in on what’s working, what’s not working, and why. I enlist my daughters’ help, and together we implement new ideas and explore different educational avenues. We don’t do this perfectly, but we act with a resolve, a firmness of purpose, that no skeptic would ever accept because it is based solely on our own experiential knowledge.

Naturally, I asked my daughter if she had any resolutions, and true to form, she countered with a question, wondering if I thought it impractical to resolve not to make any really significant mistakes. We discussed some of our blunders over the previous year, and noted that many of our greatest successes were born from our deepest failures, painful as the failures may have been at the time. This prompted her to consider resolving to learn as much as possible from every mistake, which is a resolution I can support any day of the year.