Homeschooling Through Spousal Deployments, a Destructive Flood and More
In this series, I have had the privilege of interviewing other homeschoolers from across the country. For today’s interview I’m turning to my sister, Cynthia, and brother-in-law, Tom who homeschool their three children. Cynthia works full time at a university as a professor and associate provost and is a prolific writer; Tom is in the National Guard. They have weathered some pretty trying periods in their homeschooling life and I thought I’d have them share some of their story with you.
Welcome Cynthia and Tom! Thanks for carving out time from your busy schedules to do this interview!
Can you tell us the ages of your children? How/why did you get started homeschooling?
Our kids are 15 (G), 13 (B), and 10 (G). Our family might be unusual on the homeschooling front – our first conversation about homeschooling was when we’d first met, before we were even dating! Both of us had been miserably bored in school, particularly high school, and we wanted to shape an education that led to a love of learning and an affirmation that being smart was a good thing. But in terms of actually rolling homeschooling out, we sent the children out to a Montessori preschool, and brought them home for kindergarten.
How old were the kids when Tom was first deployed to Kuwait/Iraq?
Oooooooooh, THAT deployment. Yeah, the little one was 13 months, the middle child was 3.5 and the oldest was in first grade. That was an interesting year. I was teaching five days a week *and* had a Wednesday night seminar during Fall. At the end of that semester I even wrote a poem about it – “The Doom of the Wednesday Babysitter” – my childcare kept falling apart. Thankfully, spring was easier – my dean was GREAT and worked out an easier teaching schedule. But yeah, all that and diapers too: a memorable year.
What made you decide to continue homeschooling while Tom was gone for so long?
To be honest, it never crossed my mind to stop. We loved the lifestyle – it is really family centered, and great fun. Learning IS great fun, and first graders relish that moment of discovery; facilitating that was important to me/to us.
Cynthia, how did you manage both to homeschool and to work full time?
I drank a loooooooooooot of coffee. Well, that was true too. But mostly, it was a matter of organization. Remember, two of the kids were in preschool some days of the week, and I (theoretically) had babysitting during the day for the other days. (Though there were a couple of times when the kids wound up underneath the piano while I was teaching – we went through a lot of coloring paper that year!)
I set up *some* school for the babysitter to do with them – usually the workbook stuff that was straight-up, the art project of the day, and/or a field trip. (Many projects had their preschool equivalents, and other days the two younger would be in preschool, and the first grader would get more focused attention) But most of the “big” stuff came later in the day: we did school in the late afternoons and evenings (and weekends).
What did homeschooling look like that year?
I would get home around 4:00 and we’d immediately head outside for some “sidewalk chalk” school. We did a lot of maps (“jump from Virginia to Pennsylvania”), number-line running (“run to 3-plus-5,” which for the younger ones translated to “run to the number 8!”), true/false, and so on. I usually had 45 minutes to an hour of actual instruction with them doing active responses – or we’d do a project like “measure the dinosaur” – if a dinosaur was 35 feet long, how far up the street would that be?
We’d then take a walk or do some nature journaling. We cooked dinner together, and usually read a book (we read all of the Volunteer State Book Award nominees every year as part of our English curriculum) or talked about the day. Then it would be time for baths and maths – I have vivid memory of working through the math workbook with the oldest while the others played in the tub. We always do books at bedtime, and then the oldest (who is and always has been my night owl) and I would settle in on the couch for a final hour of school before the BBC news came on (while the diapers ran through the wash).
And, of course, insert lots of hugs and snuggles into all of that.
How old were the kids during Tom’s second deployment?
13, 11, and 8 – no diapers, yay!
How did homeschooling look that second time round?
Very different. A lot of it became student-driven; I’d put together a chart of what they had to do (with a writing assignment, and some math book pages and then math web links, a board game, card game, or Professor Noggin game, and a project to work on, and chores, and so forth) and they could decide what order to go in. Much of the time I was working from home, but needed them to do their work on their own. Then we’d have time for together-school, with the more tradition model of instruction-and-learning, or some kind of project, often chemistry-related (shout-out here to RealScience4Kids).
The 10-year-old says: When my dad was deployed in Iraq my mom left tasks for us to do on the bulletin-board saying XJ do 5 pages of math and 30 minutes of piano and you can play a board game with AJ. Having the lists made it easier to remember how to do things. I loved doing the red math books. I wrote to my dad, but I don’t remember much from then.
The 13-year-old says: We would wake up, eat breakfast, and do school. Mom would put a list up. Back then, I would work top to bottom, but now I would choose what order to do things. Now I like to start with History, because I usually watch a movie for that, and I’m really tired when I first get up.
We did pretty much everything for school – science, math, history, writing, language. I would have to do chores like unloading the dishwasher. Exercise – we played games, trampoline. We kept a nature journal but that didn’t work so well, because we don’t like keeping journals. AJ wrote a marshmallow story that year, and she kept on adding to it for the next two years. I wrote about something every single day, but I can’t remember the writing prompts. For science, we did experiments, and we read together out of a book. European History was pretty good; mom is interesting.
AJ, what do you remember about homeschooling from those years that your Dad was deployed? Do you remember much from when you were 6? What about the second deployment?
From the first deployment, I remember the babysitters but not the homeschooling. I do remember the measuring out the dinosaurs. I remember watching the news once talking about people being deployed and some of them leaving children deployed such as Tom – and my mom pointed out that they weren’t talking specifically about dad. We read a lot of Magic Tree Houses, though I don’t remember if that was while dad was gone. (It was.) I remember going to space camp and going to the different ice cream stores. And I tried reading German to mom because I asked if I could help her with her work.
For the more recent deployment, the flood wiped out a lot of memories I would have had. We did write the Highway 70 Weekly – it was NJ’s idea. I think he decided to write the newspaper so dad knew what was happening here. We put pictures and basic information on the newly acquired animals we had because dad never met them. We would put in silly advertisements. I laid out the articles. NJ drew mazes. XJ wrote some articles, and I wrote some too.
I took over tracking my own school work. We tried to memorize all of the presidents. There was a book about Mendel that I read while dad was gone. While the younger kids had European History, I would go out and explore the woods. We read “Life As We Knew It” and all of the rest of the books from the book award list. That was a year where the better question was “Where didn’t we do school.” We did school everywhere except the roof. We did school in mom’s office, the Community Center (ceramics class!), and every single park that has anything to do with the civil war. We also got to go to California, where we saw lots of dead animals from the La Brea Tar Pits, ate lunch at an art museum, and went out into the desert where we went up a gravel hill in a rental car (ahem) and weren’t quite sure we would be able to turn around at the top. We saw really cool geological formations and learned about desert ecology.
We also took off time for snow days and got to go sledding on the frozen-over pond.
To stay in touch with dad that year, we skyped, wrote the Highway 70 Weekly, did some email, and sent letters and drawings. I also sent him the draft of my silver award pamphlet for Girl Scouts.
Tom was back from that second deployment for just a few weeks when flood swept through and totaled your house. How did this affect your homeschooling? Were the kids able to “keep up with the basics” while your family was struggling through such a difficult time?
Our evacuation plan included “grab a box of homeschool stuff” so we actually did have schoolwork available in the RV where we rode out the flood itself. Afterwards, we moved into an apartment for 3 months, and one of our very first trips was to the bookstore, where the kids got to choose what they wanted to read. We replaced the beloved math books first thing, and several homeschooling families gave us multiple boxes of materials which we’re still using.
We obviously adjusted our expectations way, way down, but the kids learned a lot of different things – how to read a property deed, sociological observations about middle TN, federal government paperwork, how insurance works. We called that life lesson “Civics,” to be honest. We also did a lot of car school during the house-hunt. You know you’re homeschoolers when… you read and discuss Plato as you’re driving to an open house!
Where did you live when the house was totaled? Did you have much of your homeschooling stuff left?
Except for that one box in the RV, we lost all of our homeschooling materials. Putting together the inventory for the flood insurance was an opportunity for walks down memory lane, though – there was an incredible amount of “I remember doing that” “Boy, X sure enjoyed this activity,” “golly, I wish we’d passed that along.” I did come out of the inventory process with a significant shopping list. Most of that was the board games and card games that we’ve used; those shared activities were ones I felt the need to recreate.
Thank you, Cynthia and everyone. I’m going to bring this part of the interview to a close for now. Stay tuned for more tomorrow!
Tomorrow (Thursday, June 21) I’ll post the second half of this interview. Cynthia and the kids talked about homeschooling through high school and more!
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