This post reviews Laura Brodie, Love in a Time of Homeschooling: A Mother and Daughter’s Uncommon Year
(New York: HarperCollins, 2010).
Brodie, mother of three, part-time English professor at Washington and Lee, and author of other works of fiction and nonfiction, here offers a memoir of her one-year experiment in homeschooling with her eldest daughter Julia. Brodie also has a blog on short-term homeschooling that has dealt a lot with school bullying as motivator for homeschooling. Back in 2007 Brodie published a fine article in the fascinating (if hubristically titled) Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers, titled “One Good Year: A Look at Short-Term Homeschooling” [available here]. This book is an expansion of the article. Love in a Time of Homeschooling has been reviewed at many other blogs, so I won’t repeat basic descriptions provided elsewhere. If you’re interested, there are good summaries and reflections on the book here and here. The Washington Post ran an interview with Brodie about a month ago, available here.
For this review I’d like to stress the elements of Brodie’s memoir that could be of assistance to homeschool researchers. Memoirs, especially those constructed with skill by a talented writer like Brodie, are interpretations of experience and as such must be used carefully as empirical evidence. But with that caveat in mind, what can we learn about homeschooling from Brodie? I’d like to share five insights I gleaned from the book.
1. First, the topic of parental motivation. Brodie is a fascinating case study of several motivators. On one hand she is like the parents described by Gary Wyatt whose own negative school experiences have left them personally scarred and hence biased against public education. Brodie herself is very careful here–she does not want to be labeled as a school hater and has strong words of censure for the great bulk of homeschool how-to lit that is so monotonously anti-school. But she does describe in colorful ways her own “miserable public school days” and “dismal grade school memories.” (79, 29). Late in the book she comes to understand that much of her daughter’s complaints about school reflected more on her daughter’s laziness than on the school, but her first instinct upon hearing the complaints was to blame school and seek relief for her daughter.
Brodie is also motivated by what we might call the “Organization Mom” factor, the frenzied hyper-parenting described so memorably by Judith Warner (who Brodie cites in one place). Here too Brodie is very self-conscious, admitting that despite herself, deep down inside she is a “control freak,” and that homeschooling is nothing if not “an act of control.” “Anything school can do, I can do better,” could be the motto here. After a year’s trial and error Brodie develops newfound respect for what public school teachers do every day, especially as children reach higher grades where subject matter is more complex.
Finally, Brodie was clearly motivated to initiate her one year homeschooling experience by the testing mania that has been unleashed on children with ever-increasing fervor over the past 30 years. She loathes multiple choice tests, mind-numbing worksheets, endless fill-in-the-bubble evaluations, and so on. She despises the hours of homework that invade family life after school. She longs for a curriculum rich in nature study, artistic expression, and especially writing, all things that seem to be cut more and more as schools emphasize test preparation.
2. A second major research item to which Brodie’s book speaks with great power is the day-to-day activities of homeschooling itself. Brodie spends many of the book’s pages (perhaps too many) describing in great detail the various activities she and Julia engaged in throughout the year. Most powerfully, she is not afraid to divulge the stresses and failures she experiences along the way. One distinctive of Brodie’s book is its willingness to dwell at length on failure. So much of the homeschool memoir literature is so fixated on justifying the practice to doubters that real challenges are often ignored. Brodie admits to boredom, to what she calls “maternal rage” when Julia resists correction or drags her feet at every suggestion, to feelings of isolation and futility as she is spending hours and hours trying to get a daughter who doesn’t care to memorize her math facts or pay attention to her spelling. The only parallel to her descriptions here I can think of in the literature are the unflattering chapters in Rob Kunzman’s book that describe how sometimes homeschooling can increase tensions in families with less than ideal interpersonal dynamics.
3. Brodie has interesting things to say about how it takes about a year for a parent to figure out how to homeschool well. Many veteran homeschoolers have described how over and over they have seen newbies go through a process where they begin with a set idea of what they’re going to do, expending heroic effort to stay on task day after gruelling day. But by year two these homeschoolers have mellowed a bit and are willing to be more eclectic in their approach. Brodie recognizes in hindsight that she took herself way too seriously in that first year and that “nine months was not enough time for me and Julia to break our institutionalized habits.” (231)
4. Which brings me to the topic of unschooling. Brodie has many interesting things to say here, born of sincere ambiguity. She admires the unschooling ideals to be sure and recognizes that they would have suited her strong-willed and creative daughter perfectly. She knows that Julia would have thrived if given the freedom she craved, that most of the power struggles between them would have vanished if Julia had been allowed to do what she wanted rather than being forced to practice violin, memorize multiplication tables and state capitols, and learn about U.S. history. But at the same time she doesn’t trust children to know what they really need or like, “much as I understand the need to follow a child’s interests, how does a ten-year-old know where her passions lie unless she is first introduced to the myriad possibilities of the world?” (p148)
Brodie doesn’t have the Theological language of sin at her disposal like Christian critics of unschooling do, but she is well aware that her daughter often rejects huge swaths of human experience simply because learning about them is hard work. Julia is creative to be sure, but she’s also lazy. And math is important. “Math and spelling and science all had to be studied, regardless of a ten-year-old’s habitual petulance.” (153)
5. Finally, and this a minor point in the book but immensely significant for homeschool research, Brodie notes how easy it is for cheating to occur on the self-administered standardized tests that so many homeschoolers use to meet state requirements. I’ll quote this passage at length:
Following the advice of several homeschooling friends, I bought the fifth-grade California Achievement Test from an online service, and when the test arrived in the mail, I was surprised at what an innocuous little exercise it was. The test was comprised entirely of English and math–no science or social studies that Julia might not have covered. In addition, the test was administered completely on the honor system, with no proctor required to monitor the process. In other words, this was a cheater’s paradise. Any parent, sibling, or stranger could have filled in the answers, and althought the test gave clear instructions on how much time to allot for each section, I knew homeschooling families who allowed their children unlimited time. Those parents objected, philosophically, to putting time constraints on children, and justified their practice by pointing to Virginia’s SOL [standards of learning] tests, where students are granted plenty of extra time.” (226-227)
Recently I reviewed Brian Ray’s new study on homeschooler achievement. I didn’t bother making this point then, but it really is an important one. Ray’s study compares homeschooler scores on tests like the California Achievement Test to national averages. But, as Brodie’s description explains, homeschoolers are at a considerable advantage taking these tests. Even assuming that their mothers or siblings are not actually helping them fill out the test or offering subtle hints and corrections over their shoulders (and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if some actually do), such students are taking these tests in the comfort of their homes in a low-stress situation and, conceivably, without the same time constraints. They can also take them at their own pace rather than all at once. Julia took one section of the California Achievement Test per day for an entire week, meaning that she’d be fresh going into each section. Kids in schools are taking them one after the other.
After having read 200 pages of Brodie bemoaning Julia’s persistent failure to remember basic math facts and unwillingness to read even a few pages of books that are not about fantastic creatures, we learn that in the end Julia scored “between the ninety-seventh and ninety-ninth percentile” on all sections of the test (229).
In closing, I’ll agree with most of the other reviews of Brodie’s book that it is beautifully written and full of interesting things. As a memoir I found it a bit more tedious to read than I expected, perhaps because it got bogged down a bit too much (for my tastes) in the minutiae of the mother-daughter relationship and the daily grind of homeschooling. At times I felt like I was listening to someone go on and on about her kid and lost interest. But as my above points illustrate I think, there is plenty of meat in the book to make it worth the time to read, especially for the “thinking mothers” out there .