On the Outdoors, Trashing my Expectations, the Dreaded S-Word, and the Challenges of Community

A secret that I don’t usually confess in real-life company is that even though I have always adored nature and indeed, crave trees like chocolate, I often tend to function as more of an “inside girl.” When I was a child, you could often find me in my bedroom on a sunny day reading a book or creating elaborate worlds from bits of paper. (This love for quiet activities, by the way, made me a pretty good performer in school.) And this is still truer than I would like it to be. When summer vacation comes, I am more easily drawn to my comfy home office with its ready stack of unread books than to the garden, the park, or even the porch. Perhaps this is partly because I have also always been shy and introverted, frequently preferring my inner world to the world outside.

This, I suspect, is true of many adults who choose to homeschool their children. Perhaps this is why I sometimes think that there is a small kernel of truth hidden within the mostly fallacious socialization argument; some of us, even (especially?) those of us in the city, want to cocoon away from others, at least sometimes. Then again, we are not alone in this. Distance from others is, after all, part of the disease of modern American life—which is why, perhaps counterintuitively, homeschooling offers such a compelling remedy when we’re able to leave our cocoons and venture into the outside.

My five-year-old homeschooled son possesses none of my quietness or shyness, as you will see, but he sometimes goes through phases where the outdoors have little appeal to him compared to the latest Lego sets and I feel compelled to drag him outside to avoid letting him become too much like me (plus, Vitamin N and all). So, I was happy one day about a month ago when he agreed to take a walk around the block with me after dinner. My happiness quickly turned to unease when my son became fascinated not with the birds, which have become my adult loves and which are wonderfully ample in our neighborhood, but with the piles of trash in front of each neighbor’s house, left out for recycling.

I should have known; my son has, almost from birth, been attracted to gadgets and machines (he recently told me that he has an “instinct for building”). Still, I wasn’t sure what to do as he began to climb in the piles and paw through other people’s cast-offs. I was a bit horrified when he demanded (loudly) that we take things home with us. Large things. Things that the neighbors might see us taking. While I love the idea of reusing everything and of living in a place where neighbors all know each other—and see absolutely no shame in curb surfing from a social and intellectual standpoint—none of these are my current reality.

My son, undaunted (unyielding!), convinced me to carry home a giant piece of piping attached to some sort of indiscernible plastic apparatus. I am reminded in hindsight of Shaun Tan’s brilliant children’s book, The Lost Thing. I struggled to hide my embarrassment as we approached another yard where the neighbors were sitting outside. I (barely) managed not to run home with my face in my hands as he greeted them and proceeded to go through their trash with their help, ultimately ending up with a completely usable fold-out lawnchair (like the kind I had as a kid in the 80s) and a pile of old newspapers.

I think I was able to rise above my awkwardness in part because it was giving way to pleasure and pride. Here was my homeschooled son, interacting with other people with ease, building community beyond my abilities and reclaiming materials to use for his art. He was pushing my boundaries, but in a good way. Wasn’t it supposed to be the other way around?

The outcome of this adventure is as follows: My son proceeded to build what he called the “Paw Patroller” out of the materials that he collected (the Paw Patrol, my son’s favorite TV show, has been an incredible source of creativity and invention in our family, giving rise to his own original characters, stories, and building projects, not to mention hours of play). Soon after, I got a reminder about an annual uncensored, non-juried community art show, Art All Night, located in another city neighborhood. The show is fairly unique in that it is open to people of all ages and the organizers cultivate an atmosphere of supportiveness and inclusion, built upon a deep respect for the multiple ways of creating art. My son participated last year with the encouragement of a fabulous mentor he worked with for six months in a research study at the wonderful Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh Make Shop. The event itself is very child-friendly, though it literally goes all night and I hear that it gets more raucous in the wee hours.

My son decided to submit the Paw Patroller to the show and to hang a sign on his art inviting children under five to climb inside. He watched with pride from the children’s activity area (a rockin’ cardboard city) as babies, toddlers, and kids played in his creation—and he beamed later when one of the organizers told him that his piece was her favorite among the many submissions, including adult-created, professional works.

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I am by no means a practiced homeschooler. With a five-year-old, I have barely begun. But the more I roll this undertaking around in my mind, the more I come to a vision that this story conveys better than any homeschool “mission statement” (not that my plan-averse husband would let me write one of those anyway!). When I took my son out in “nature,” I thought I was creating the conditions for something good. And I was right. But he knew what it was more than I did. I think this might apply to a lot of the lessons that we parents try to teach. The treasure I was trying to pass to him (some abstract, idyllic idea of nature) was his trash; my trash was his treasure—but in the crucible of real life outside, something meaningful (and educational!) happened for both of us. And possibilities were opened beyond my imagination.

I harbor no illusions that things like this only happen to homeschoolers, but I submit that this unexpected trajectory of mutual learning represents some of the best potentials of an education outside school in

  •  its flexible and respectful approach to humans’ fabulously diverse ways of creating personal and collective meaning from the raw materials of our world (which I managed to foster despite my initial resistance to making meaning from or even acknowledging seeming trash!)
  • its ultimately unstoppable tendency toward human creativity and connection (indeed, its demand that we not lose faith in such, despite our increasing awkwardness at pushing past our comfort zones to speak to and delight in the creations of others in our community)
  • and its small, but powerful, resistance to the unspoken rules of privacy and distance that shape our modern lives (particularly the lives of children, who increasingly occupy the isolated islands of home and school and are seldom unqualifiedly welcome in the parts of our culture zoned as public, especially as active participants and creators).

Such experiences convince me that my homeschool will be a success if my son can transcend my best dreams for him and follow where his best impulses lead him, even if into trash piles.

As we drove away after picking up my son’s piece from the show, my husband commented that our city has a “really great community.” As I tend to do, I was thinking many things when he said this—about what it means to have real community, about what kind of community I want for my son, about how far I still have to go before I feel comfortable talking to my neighbors, about how my son is knowing more community than I ever did in school—but what I said in reply was “yes.” Yes.

~ Anne

Along for the Ride

My husband and I are “city people”. We both grew up in a rural environment, and while we have fond memories of games of hide-and-seek in nearby cornfields and knowing trees by their ease to climb, we can both also recall a sense of isolation from an age long before we knew what ‘isolation’ meant. We yearned for more connection – to friends and places and the opportunity for adventure. Now don’t get me wrong… There is SO much adventure to be found in the great outdoors, not to mention freedom. We had so much freedom! Freedom that isn’t afforded to my city kids. But we still felt like something was missing.

The first chance we had, we both ran fast and far to big cities, hundreds of miles from home. We have since settled in this midsize city, still hundreds of miles from our childhood homes. And we absolutely love it.

One thing that we keep coming back to, again and again, are the opportunities to be exposed to…so much. To museums and science and art and history. To food from all over the world. To a library system so comprehensive it blows my mind and has yet to disappoint (and I search for A LOT of books). And, as we grew our family and then decided on homeschooling, on how easy it is to utilize all our city has to offer as a living classroom.

NH-Dino Museum

Our middle child, Linus, is an intense, sensitive kid who loves with a passion that burns bright and hot. He lands on a topic of interest and consumes every morsel of information he can get his hands on. But as he’s only four, he is dependent on us to feed it to him. In the past six months, we have all learned a huge amount about snakes, dinosaurs, and Star Wars. (The amount of knowledge available to be learned about the last topic has proven particularly impressive, as my husband is a huge nerd and knows the series inside out. Alas, he has found he had pockets of missing knowledge. Linus has ensured that that has been corrected.)

NH-Linus loves dinosaurs

The love of all things reptilian, past and present, has led to many trips to just one of our amazing local museums, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (affectionately referred to as ‘the dino museum’ by our two-year-old, Rupert). Once inside the massive doors, our children lead the way, knowing the exact turns and hallways to go down that will navigate us to their sweet spot, the Dinosaur Hall. At this point, Linus will find a docent to start asking his extremely detailed questions, while our oldest, Calliope (6), will begin to sketch some of the exhibits. I’m not exactly sure where this habit comes from, but she has a special notebook just for that museum, and it is filled with lovely observations. And this is such a huge part of why we love having this opportunity to homeschool – we get to watch each child react to a new topic, a new setting, a new love in his or her own unique way. And as the three kids are fairly close in age (6, 4, 2), what one loves often becomes what they all love, and they each take turns dictating what this day’s or week’s or month’s new passion is going to be.

NH-Calliope drawing dinos

My husband and I often joke that we don’t have a plan, per se, as to how we are going to do this homeschooling thing, that we’re just winging it. In reality, we love learning, and know that perhaps our biggest goal will be to instill a love of learning in our children. If they leave our nest with a thirst for knowledge, we will have done right by them. And in these early years, we are following their lead. Their passion is the driver, we’re just along for the ride.

-Becky

Up and Down the Alley

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We don’t own any sheep.

We don’t arise at dawn to shuffle off to the pasture to feed and water our miniature flock of friendly fluffy animals. We don’t lovingly shave off their wool, hand card it, spin it ourselves, and dye it using all-natural concoctions that we have made out of flowers we picked on our last forest walk around our property.

No, we haven’t got any of that around here.

Sometimes I ask myself, “Why is it that I know so many homeschooling families that live in the city, and I have the hardest time finding any city homeschooling blogs?” Sometimes I would like to kick back and read some stories from another mom or dad whose kids spend their days riding scooters up and down the sidewalk and take weekly trips to the museum, because while it might be nice to have acres of land on which to turn my kids loose, that’s not my family’s reality. It’s not my family’s goal or desire. We like having a rec center down the block and around the corner. We like having a dozen friends within walking distance. We like having pools and spray parks in our neighborhood. We like sharing a fence.

So, here we are, a handful of families who have also made the decision to educate their children, not removed from the hustle and bustle of city living, but right in the heart of it. It’s exciting, exhausting, and LOUD. It’s frustrating, annoying, and entertaining. It’s dirty, smelly, and friendly. There’s a lot of broken glass. It’s home.  ~Foster

Welcome to the Neighborhood

Welcome to Neighborhood Homeschool, a collaborative blog established by a group of homeschooling friends who love educating their children in urban settings.  Together we imagined an online space where we could tell our stories in our own unique voices.  We wished to showcase the exciting and ever-changing locations where homeschooling can take place in urban communities.  Our families are different; our reasons for homeschooling are different, but we share the desire to narrate our families’ lives and celebrate the urban setting.

This is the inaugural post!

I’m Erica, and I’m going to kick off this new blog with an introduction of my family and a look into our week.

I was not the parent who brought up the issue of homeschooling.  Nope.  My husband was drawn to the idea first.  We were both educators at the time, and we were in love with our first child, a little son.  Contemplating the big kindergarten questions–when ,where–my husband brought up home education.  I hesitated.  I admit I carried some negative stereotypes about homeschooling and homeschoolers, and I’ve never been one to go too far outside of the norm.  I didn’t think I could face the questions, the stares, the potential criticism.

But then something kind of magical happened.  After moving 1000 miles away, I kept meeting families who were educating their children at home, and I saw that they weren’t actually home much at all.  I was reminded of an article that I read years before–a piece that really stuck with me and probably represented the true beginning of my homeschool journey.  It appeared in the May-June 2008 issue of Mothering magazine when I had one almost-three-year-old at home and a baby on the way.  “The Never-At-Home Homeschoolers” by Patricia Zaballos sparked my interest and allowed me to contemplate what learning could look like with many of the traditional boundaries taken down.  (You can read a pdf version here.)  I pulled out that article again during the big kindergarten contemplation, and even though we ultimately found a good kindergarten class for our son at a small Christian school, homeschooling stuck in the back of my imagination.

We finally made the choice to educate our children at home in the winter of 2012, and we officially began homeschooling in the fall of that year.  I was the parent-teacher of a second grader, a preschooler (who still attended a preschool a few days per week), and a one-year-old.  That was our beginning.

Today, our school holds a fifth grade boy, a second grade boy, a preschool girl, a two-year-old boy, and a baby due this summer.  We’ve moved, created a new home in a new city, and transitioned through several homeschooling methods and styles.  Yet, through all that change, the exciting possibility of learning at any time and in any place still holds a joyful appeal.

This week, the beautiful weather drew us outside more and more.  We explored a local art sculpture that inspired a fun, rather math-y discussion about polygons and division and colors and motion. As a homeschool mom who worries a lot (far too much) about math and lack-of-math, I was totally thrilled!  The sculptor Guy J. Bellaver created this piece called “1970.” This is the beginning of a little project that we are doing as we explore outdoor art.  ~*~Erica

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