If you think homeschooling is all about sheltered kids and overprotective parents, think again. Debora Kitchens took her daughter, Suzanne, out of the public system not because she was picky, but because she saw it as a necessity.
“When we came to Beijing we didn’t want to put her in a public school right away, because she didn’t know any Chinese. The only other option seemed to be a private school, which wasn’t going to happen on our budget,” says Kitchens, a part-time teacher from Arkansas, US, who scrambled for other educational options upon arrival in Beijing.
As Kitchens dug into the details of modern homeschooling, what turned up was pleasantly surprising – electronic curricula instead of dusty dog-eared books, flexible schedules rather than rigid timetables, and online forums for families instead of isolation. But before Kitchens’ kids could hit the books, they hit a wall of logistical hurdles.
Buy the Book
Kitchens’ first homeschooling struggle seemed pretty basic: getting her hands on proper textbooks.
“Every company I talked to said shipping them would be extremely expensive,” Kitchens says. Shipping alone exceeded USD 300. But she adds that wasn’t the worst of it: “They also said it could take anywhere from two to four weeks, and that there were no guarantees we’d be compensated if they got lost. They pretty much said, ‘Do it at your own risk.’”
But Julie Johnson, a fellow homeschooling mom, says the reward of ordering such texts or heaving them in your luggage is well worth any hefty shipping or weight charges.
“Sure, it can be expensive. But relative to what?” says Johnson, who also moderates the Homeschoolers Group, a Yahoo forum where parents can login and post comments and questions about setting up a learning environment at home. “A few hundred dollars a year is my whole expense in terms of curriculum and books. If you were looking at school tuition, you wouldn’t think twice about paying that much.”
Johnson purchased all her homeschooling texts in the US. Titles include Making Math Meaningful, Serl’ Language Lessons for English, and The Story of the World for History. But she adds that some full-fledged programs that feature one-on-one digital evaluations, can cost USD 2,500 per year. She says that parents who feel overburdened by such expenses can join Homeschoolers Group forum and peruse the amateur library its members have amassed. Members lend and share a variety of titles informally.
“It’s nice to have homeschoolers lend and share books – not only to build a little community, but also to help with costs,” she says. “Cheap e-books have alleviated the pressure a bit, but workbooks and curricula are not so widely available digitally, so when it comes down to it, you still need paper books.”
Unlike Johnson, Kitchens used an online curriculum called Global Student Network that met most of her needs. “It was cheap, with a set price of USD 575 for the whole year, no matter how many courses you take. It’s all online, so you don’t need any books or anything, and it even includes the Rosetta Stone [digital language lessons]” she says, adding that she has also dabbled in other online curricula like the BJU Press Christian Curriculum. “The most important thing about Global Student Network was that it had a diploma that [my daughter]can show once she starts applying for programs after she graduates, because we’re not really interested in homeschooling her all through university.”
Kitchens says the diploma was a huge bonus, but it didn’t help with her biggest challenge: consolidating the curriculum with state and college requirements. She has spent countless hours fretting about whether or not her daughter’s homeschooling lessons are up to par. After extensive research, she found that her home state of Wisconsin requires every student from the eighth grade and up to take and pass annual standardized tests – for which her husband had to order, print off, and take a course to become eligible as an administrator for their daughter. Even more detailed records were required for Suzanne’s transcripts, including lists of what subjects were taught and for how many hours per week, to ensure that her lessons aligned with prior knowledge needed for university courses.
“It’s quite taxing,” Kitchens says with a sigh.
But other Beijing homeschoolers have found more holistic curricula. Michelle Hinson homeschools her son Casey (age 8) and daughter Sophia (11), and they use an online program called Calvert that handles most of the logistical details that Kitchens laboured over so extensively.
“They have transcripts already prepared for you, you can email assignments to evaluators; they provide day-to-day evaluations and unit tests after every 20 lessons,” she says. All that documentation makes the transition to public school or university, and the day-to-day lesson routine easier.
Homeschooling for the Hinson children doesn’t occur at home. Casey and Sophia pack up their laptops and accompany their mom to Fangcaodi’s Wanghe Cheng branch, where she works as a corporate English trainer.
“The school provides me a conference room to work in. I help teachers at one end of the room, and my kids work on their lessons independently at the other end of the room, where I can help them whenever they need it,” says of the highly convenient, albeit ironic situation.
She notes that modern, electronic homeschooling is not only
convenient for the location of children’s studies, but also the timing.
“I’m trained as a teacher, so in the beginning I had them follow a very strict timetable at home,” she says. She mapped out hour-long periods for her children’s lessons, as if they were still at a regular school; but Casey had trouble with the quick switches between English and math lessons.
“Casey takes a long time to engage with a subject, so I have to be more flexible with the lesson’s length of time, based on his level of interest. I have to keep in mind that if I’m more flexible, it’s more of a challenge for me, not for them – which isn’t such a bad thing.”
That flexibility is not only a matter of interest and preference, it can also make the difference between success and failure.
The Hinson’s value homeschooling not only value homeschooling because of its conveniences, but also because of its challenges.
“My kids are fast learners for the most part,” Hinson says. “This way, they can learn as quickly as they want, without having to sit there at a desk for a long time waiting for the teacher to explain it to 30 other kids.”
In fact, her son Casey was labeled a poor student in public school. It turns out that boredom compelled him to hop out of his seat and fall into mischief. Debora Kitchens also found that school wasn’t moving quick enough for her daughter Suzanne, and quicker learning pace suited her best. Suzanne is 15 years old and already wrapping up her last year of Grade 12 in the Global Student Network program.
“We were planning on traveling back to the US for Spring Festival, and I was going to have her enrolled in the public system there, so that she could finish her last year with classmates,” explains Kitchens. However, Suzanne’s preference was to stick with homeschooling.
In fact, many homeschooling parents take advantage of flexibility in arranging their child’s curriculum to accommodate their travels.
The freedom of a homeschooling schedule allowed Johnson to take her children to the dinosaur exhibits in Liaoning, and to visit minority cultures in Guangzhou. “We also had the freedom to make the trips really kid-friendly look at a museum here, take a break and visit a park for a bit, then head to another exhibit, rather than trying to cram in too much information at once. It gave them the time to get a feel for the culture, along with learning about it.”
Before trekking back to the US, Debora Kitchens says her daughter revealed a far different homeschooling attribute: “She decided to stick with homeschooling in part because we can do her lessons at 10am or 2pm – whenever she prefers. She loves that freedom.”
Kitchens says that a lax timetable can be all the more beneficial for students who aren’t so gifted: “If you have to fight with kids to make them get up and go to school, if you’re pushing them every night to do homework, if you’re finding that they just aren’t responsive to anything in the public system at all, then homeschooling might do the trick. My only concern would be the amount of discipline it would take to stay on schedule, to not fall behind at home.”
But School Counsellor Michael Heywood of Harrow International School Beijing explains that a more unconventional schedule may be the right fix for students who seem to be struggling. “Conventional school has all sorts of benefits, of course,” he says. “But I’ve worked with lots of kids that struggle with their lessons because of ADHD, or other learning disabilities – any number of reasons. Having the opportunity to work at home, at their own pace, could certainly help.”
He adds that conventional school schedules can be difficult for students with learning disabilities and afflictions. In fact, the majority of healthy youngsters struggle with an early start, because their brains release melatonin (the “sleepy chemical”) comparably 90 minutes after adult brains do, meaning that they are naturally inclined to learn and study later in the day.
Heywood continues: “There are many aspects of public school that keep parents apart from their kids. Homework, for instance. Many schools are assigning so much homework that parents hardly have time with their children after they get home from school. Homeschooling, on the other hand, would let kids and parents spend more time together working toward those ends.”
But would that added period with parents rob homeschooled children of valuable time with their friends?
Maybe malleable schedules and work paces of homeschooling can help children become well-adjusted individuals. But critics have always been quick to question whether or not those youngsters are being sheltered, and how they could possibly learn to make friends or work with peers?
Kitchens says her church’s youth group helped Suzanne meet friends outside of homeschooling. Johnson adds that the Yahoo forum, aside from curricular advice, is chock-full of suggestions about Beijing groups and activities, ranging from Boy Scouts to calligraphy classes to informal skating dates at Houhai.
She adds: “The forum is good for setting up those kinds of activities. It’s also nice sometimes just to talk to other homeschoolers, or meet with other kids who do homeschooling, because they face some of the same issues and have a similar lifestyle. So it’s important for them to have those friends.”
The cliques and peer groups at conventional schools are not necessarily superior to such forum networks, at least in Heywood’s eyes.
“People say that regular schooling socializes people, and they’re probably right. But what kind of socialization is it, and what is it
preparing them for? I’m not really sure if socialization in a regular high school is the only answer.”
Johnson agrees: “Kids need friends; not 20, but a couple of close ones. Sometimes parents panic and wonder ‘How will I get a social life for my kids?’ Just let them join a club that they’re interested in, and it’ll happen naturally.”
“We’re not talking about taking kids out of society entirely, [by]making them read ancient scripture all day long or something like that. We’re not talking about extreme examples here, but people who want good things for their kids, in a way that suits them best.”
Beijing Homeschoolers Yahoo Group
BJU Press Christian Curriculum
Global Student Network
School Counsellor, Harrow International School Beijing
photo by Mitchell Pe Masilun