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Forum: What I learned as a home-school parent

With New York City as the classroom, Jane Blotzer spent a year teaching her two children about . . . everything. Here's her report card

Sunday, July 30, 2000

Nora is an expert on the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority system. She will tell you - whether you want her to or not - what train stops where, which buses run crosstown and which run uptown and downtown, and how and where to transfer from one train or bus to another to get where you are going.

  Jane Blotzer is a Post-Gazette associate editor. Her e-mail address is 

Ben, against his will and despite his best efforts, can tell the difference between art deco and beaux-arts architecture at 100 paces (although he is so offended by the phrase beaux-arts that he believes anyone who utters it deserves a whap upside the head). And during the scores of hours we spent watching classic movies borrowed from our local branch of the New York Public Library, he has learned that we don't need no stinking badges ("The Treasure of the Sierra Madre") and you don't need to talk to be funny (Charlie Chaplin).

These are hardly the outcomes I anticipated when we began our one-year adventure into the world of home-schooling last August, and they will not be easily measured by any standardized test. But I don't underestimate their importance. Figuring out how to get around so that you can feel comfortable and in control of a new environment, particularly one as overwhelming as New York City, is an invaluable skill. And developing a personal aesthetic, an appreciation for beauty in all its manifestations, can help you get through a lot of the ugliness in life.

When my husband was offered the opportunity to study for a year in New York City, and the Post-Gazette allowed me to write editorials long-distance, our first consideration became - what about schools?

In all my years I had never considered home-schooling. For one thing, our community has a fine school system, funded by my tax dollars. For another, I have neither the patience nor the temperament to be both mother and teacher (just ask my kids). And for a third, I work five days a week and don't have a lot of extra time or energy to take on another full-time job.

But while I never imagined the possibility, I was not appalled at the prospect. I know several home-schoolers and respect the effort they make at opening up the world to their children in a way that is uniquely appropriate for them.

So when our lives veered unexpectedly, the unimaginable was suddenly on the table for discussion. We had been granted the gift of a year in one of the most exciting and fascinating cities in the world. While sitting in a classroom in Manhattan would have been an experience of its own, it still would be formal schooling, and my kids were going to have more than a decade of such experiences. They might never have another year in New York, however, and I was determined to make the most of it.

They were at ideal ages to appreciate the city without falling behind in the regular school program. Nora was going into fourth grade and Ben was entering eighth. They both read constantly, so I knew that however inadequate my own efforts, they would still learn a lot on their own. And they hadn't yet completely dismissed my worth as a human being, so I figured we could survive nonstop quality time together.

Since prior planning prevents poor performance, as my uncle used to say, I spent a lot of time preparing for this new adventure. The Mt. Lebanon School District was very accommodating, giving us curriculum guides and text books and all the information we would need to get credit for the school year. Basically, we had to state what we would study (in general terms), keep a daily log of activities, compile a portfolio of student work, and have a licensed educator interview and evaluate both children when it was over. Because Ben was in eighth grade, he also had to take a national standardized test.

I talked to people who home-school and relied on one friend in particular for material, advice and soothing words. I put together reading lists and started keeping a notebook of ideas. And a wonderful professor at Carnegie Mellon University gave me an armload of books and a headful of ideas about teaching science.

As these meetings and plans progressed, my enthusiasm and excitement grew. Home-schooling would allow us to explore the city on our timetable and on our terms. We would eat in ethnic restaurants and visit museums and historical sites, tour neighborhoods, go to plays and concerts, and take in the sights and sounds of the city. Of course we would study math and science and history and literature, but the city streets would be the primary classroom, and urban living would be the core subject.

The idea was intoxicating and, frankly, it made me a little loopy.

My expectations so far exceeded the available time, energy and discipline that I came perilously close to ruining the whole experience.

In addition to textbook studies and countless outings, my children, self-motivated but gently, wisely and unobtrusively guided by me, would undertake some fascinating study in urbanology. When we first arrived, I was convinced that the ideal subject was garbage, especially since the last landfill in the city limits - Fresh Kills, Staten Island - was soon to close.

This was an interdisciplinary study to kill for, but it may have taken that extreme measure to get my kids to do it. Ben wanted to read fantasy books and do whatever it took - and nothing more - to keep me off his case. Nora was having a backyard-deprivation crisis and rejected any idea of getting in touch with her inner urbanite. And I crashed into the realization that working from home was still work and took up much of the day.

I also spent a lot of time in the fall sick, and all my preparation had not touched on the issue of substitute teachers. My husband's educational pursuits consumed an average of 80 hours a week, so any hopes I harbored of team-teaching were quickly dashed.

A journal I kept of the period catalogues these problems and in painstaking and painful detail describes the inner battle waged for the soul of the home-schooler. Rigid vs. free form; traditional vs. free form; organized vs. free form. Perhaps the deck was stacked, but free-form won ... and so did we. I kept my sanity and dumped the journal. My kids learned and had fun. They didn't produce any peer-reviewed publications, but they may actually remember their year fondly.

In the end we were religious only about math. It was during these daily lessons that I discovered one of the greatest academic strengths of home-schooling - one-on-one instruction. I was able to detect and work on any comprehension problems instantly, and could go rapidly through topics that were mastered with ease. They got the material precisely at their pace.

We also tried to set time aside every day for the study of Spanish, but in the end we still could seldom make out the rapid-fire Caribbean dialects that were the music of our streets. Ben and Nora read their other textbooks and plenty of related works as well. They wrote some essays and book reports. They took private music lessons and played in an orchestra and chamber groups, they played soccer and baseball and made a few friends.

Most importantly, we clung to the central focus of this particular home-school experience - life in New York City. We went to all the major, and most of the minor museums, some of them several times. We hung out in Central Park and walked along the Hudson. We gazed from the top of the Empire State Building, walked across the Brooklyn Bridge and toured Teddy Roosevelt's birthplace, Grant's Tomb and Ellis Island.

Since we didn't spring for cable and the teacher didn't believe in excessive homework, our nights were free for movies. Ben appreciated almost every offering but comedy was his preferred genre. He discovered the brilliance of the Marx Brothers and came to worship the do-it-all genius of Charlie Chaplin.

Nora did not take part in our movie evenings, but was won over by the Great White Way. And while she never relented on her negative comparisons of New York to Pittsburgh, her half-price excursions to Broadway plays helped ease the sting of her cruel, cruel fate. Unless she advised you of her distaste for urban living (which she was not reticent to do), you would never guess it from her enthusiastic and encyclopedic knowledge of the city, above ground and below.

It may not be part of a standard curriculum, but all those experiences and the hundreds more collected during a year outside the suburban cocoon merit extra credit and were worth the extra effort.

I do not diminish the difficulties. Working and home-schooling sucked up all my hours. And making the transformation from a highly organized formal school experience to a free-form learning environment requiring some measure of self-discipline is not easy. Nora felt conspicuous riding subways and touring museums when other kids her age were in school. And my lack of patience during lessons would manifest itself sharply and too often. Several times when I voiced despair over yet another sloppy mistake, Ben would comment, "Oh, that just did wonders for my self-esteem."

While I may rank among the worst of their teachers in educational techniques, I made up for my deficit with field trips and free time. Our near-constant contact was occasionally too much for me and often too much for them, but I will cherish our year together always.

We're not a fair gauge of the home-school experience, particularly because we went into it knowing that it was a one-time, one-year occurrence. My friends and family were split between those who thought it was great and those who thought it was insane. But I never once regretted my choice.

I'm ready to turn the job back over to the professionals who have my renewed gratitude and respect. I came away from our adventure more impressed than ever by those who are able to ignite enthusiasm and inspire young minds and with a deeper appreciation for those who pull it off at home.

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