Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Life lessons and homeschooling

I've been homeschooling our two older children largely because the local schools here in the L.A. school district are pretty dismal. Homeschooling isn't my preference, but when in 2003 I saw that only 39% of the students at the school my daughters would be attending qualified as proficient (yep, proficient) in reading according to national standards—well, that did a lot to convince my husband and me to look at other options.

The idea of homeschooling was never a big deal for me because for a long time I'd been surrounded by parents who already did it. At our former church every single family homeschooled except for one. But I learned that people have varying reasons for doing it. And if you become a member of the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), as I made the mistake of doing for a year, you realize from their newsletters and onslaught of email updates that HSLDA assumes all Christian homeschoolers are a right-wing voting bloc that they can exploit for their hyperventilated campaign against same-sex marriage. Pretty obnoxious. Did I mention what a mistake it was to join?

Our reasons for homeschooling have little to do with avoiding "government schools" that promote "the homosexual agenda" as HSLDA puts it. It is about good education, not the right politics. Ironically, even if you are homeschooling to avoid the politically charged atmosphere of a left-leaning school district, by joining a homeschooling group you are just entering into another politically charged atmosphere, quite often right-leaning. Since our focus is on old-fashioned academics, not training up future voters, we have been content to bypass both public schools and homeschooling organizations and forge ahead solo.

And it's funny how the right kind of "life education" takes place when you just let it come about naturally. I'm weak in science so I asked my friend Doug Taron, whom I came to know through my website, for advice on a science unit. Doug is a conservation biologist who specializes in restoring endangered butterfly species. Well, one thing led to another in our email exchanges and pretty soon he had us hooked onto the project of raising Painted Lady Butterflies. We started with the caterpillar stage and took it all the way through metamorphosis, the emergence of adult butterflies, mating, egg laying, and the hatching of several hundred larvae. The larvae died because of toxins from fungus in the cage (my mistake), but otherwise the girls went to town with the project and had a fantastic time. They took photographs, made sketches, observed the eggs and larvae under a microscope. Finally we put together a complete report, a copy of which we gave to Doug when he and his partner came over for dinner shortly afterward. It was by far the most memorable project we have done so far in our homeschooling adventures.

But there was an unexpected educational bonus that came out of that project. Our kids are approaching that age when they're asking questions about issues they overhear adults talk about. When they came to me asking what "gay" meant, not only was I comfortable explaining it to them, but better, I could point to a number of people they already knew that we've had over for dinner, one of whom was our friend Doug. Remember how he was the one who helped us with the butterfly project? Yes, of course they remembered. The butterfly net and butterfly calendar and butterfly educational DVD's they've asked for subsequent to doing that project attest to the fact that they remember him very well.

I feel much more comfortable with that kind of introduction than having them get their first exposure to "gay issues" by going to school and hearing whispers and gossip about whether some teacher or fellow student is gay. Then seeing their friends divided over whether it is or isn't a choice, is or isn't a sin, or should or shouldn't be considered a big deal. Or worse, getting a unit about it in the classroom and seeing parents fight teachers over what should or shouldn't be said. Sure, kids will have to see that stuff eventually. But it seems to me we'd all be better off if everyone's first exposure to this issue took place in a spirit of calm, after having already become acquainted with people who are actually gay.

My friend Doug, by the way, has a blog that is a balanced and interesting mixture of his professional and personal interests. If you like insects, nature, ecology and/or cooking, you can check it out here.