Unexpected Homeschooler Overcomes Obstacles

by Kimberley McGee
Homeschooling wasn't on the horizon, but signs continued to point to the freedom of a wild education.
autism weighted vests
Lara Magdzinski is a hardworking mom of two adventurous boys who started homeschooling on the fly. I love her posts and asked if she’d share her homeschool journey as part of our How We Homeschool series. Her journey from public school to unexpected homeschooler is inspiring and deeply honest. We’ve all had those midnight worries if we’re doing it “right.” I talk to homeschoolers around the globe for the Worldschoolers and Roadschooling series as well. Come back each Friday for a new homeschool family’s triumphs, lessons and favorite resources.
I am an unexpected homeschooler to say the least. Never in a million years would I have imagined we would be where we are now—homeschooling two children—and I will admit that’s because of long-standing misconceptions and unfair judgments that I had internalized. Not only did I, as a child, love school myself—to the point where I used to lie when I wasn’t feeling well so I would never have to miss a day—but I also worked in education. For as long as I can remember, the rhythm of my life had been defined by the school calendar: fall was a time of excitement and eager anticipation, spring brought a sense of accomplishment and growth, and summer was a time to rejuvenate and refuel before moving onto the next great academic adventure. And then I had children of my own. Homeschooling wasn't on the horizon, but signs continued to point to the freedom of a wild education.

Early Days and Signs

From almost day one, it was evident that my firstborn would be a mold-breaker. He walked at 9 months, much to my baby-proofing-procrastinator dismay. By 18 months, the only way to keep him happy in his crib was placing a stack of books at one end, which he would contently pursue both morning and night; they were his comfort blanket. Well before 3, he was reading full books, even though I never thought such a thing was possible (and certainly didn’t force it). And for every one of these milestones hit prematurely, for every one of these unbelievable successes, there was an accompanying struggle along the way. Emotions were more intense—both good and bad, I would note—and typical “toddler” behaviors persisted well past the norm. He was a case study in extremes.

School Days Lead to Discovery

Quickly, school (and even daycare) became a constant struggle caused equally by his strengths as by his weaknesses. On the one hand, he was being handed chapter books and sat in the corner to read while the other students practiced their ABCs. On the other hand, was your stereotypical hyperactive kid: excitable, loud, constantly moving, overly eager to share, etc. By kindergarten, I was beginning to see the writing on the wall. I increasingly saw the signs that my eager learner was starting to hide his gifts to fit in with the crowd. I also saw the impact of internalizing the negative messaging being hammered in day in and day out for a kid who, frankly, is just not meant to sit still and quiet in a classroom all day.
Being an unexpected homeschooler comes with its surprises.
It was half-way through kindergarten when I finally had an epiphany. I either needed to make a drastic change, or I would run the risk of losing all that made my boy so exceptional. I also knew that I, as the person who knows him and loves him most, am uniquely equipped to help him grow in the areas he needs growth and to utilize his strengths to build up his weaknesses. Homeschooling wasn't on the horizon, but signs continued to point to the freedom of a wild education.

Becoming an Unexpected Homeschooler

Around that time, I discovered Ainsley Arment’s “Call of the Wild and Free: Reclaiming Wonder in Your Child’s Education.” I immediately downloaded the audiobook, and for the next six hours (until my kindergartener’s bus arrived back at the corner) I listened, and I cried. I’m talking ugly crying. While our stories of how we came to consider homeschooling weren’t identical, the overall impetus was: “The light went out in his eyes.” That night, when my husband came home, I told him that I wanted to homeschool. While I’d braced myself for the “you must be crazy” reaction, it never came. On the one hand, he saw the earnestness in my face. On the other hand, I think he knew, somewhere inside him, that this was the answer we’d been looking for all along. It was the gift my son deserved, and we alone could give it to him.

Dealing with Doubts and Decisions

To say that I never looked back after making that decision would be a lie. I lost sleep many nights. I was ashamed I’d/we’d failed; I was afraid to tell people. And, as it turned out, my nervousness was not without reason. While my parents embraced the decision wholeheartedly and asked how they could help, others were not as supportive. My sister-in-law, in particular, held nothing back in voicing her disapproval. As a public school teacher, I understand, to a degree, where she was coming from. But, I could not buy her argument: that he needs to be in school to learn social skills. Of course, I agree that social skills are just as valuable as academics, if not more so.
I was ashamed I’d/we’d failed; I was afraid to tell people. And, as it turned out, my nervousness was not without reason.
However, I struggled to see the value in the socialization that was going on day in and day out for him in traditional school: being made to sit alone so as not to chat with peers, being spat on while riding the bus by upperclassmen, being told—by a teacher’s assistant no less—that “boys don’t cry.” No, I could do better than that. To beget kindness, I would show him unending kindness and love. To teach acceptance, I would accept him without reservation. To reinforce patience and self-control, I would model those skills in our daily lives.
As an unexpected homeschooler, support was important, and hard to find.

Moving On with Confidence

While I faced some pushback, what mattered most was not what others thought of my decision or whether I would have to go-it-alone (in the end all the nay-sayers came around); I focused only on the well-being of my family, and I forged ahead. Homeschooling has been the best decision I could have ever made, in so many ways. I have found my purpose. My son has found a “school” where he can be challenged and met where he is. My youngest, now two, has his best friend home to play, teach, and grow alongside him. We could not be happier. Of course, not every day is easy, and it took us a while to find “what works.” So, if you are new to homeschooling, or an unexpected homeschooler, and feel like giving up after Day 1, Week 1, or even Month 1…don’t! The beauty of homeschooling is that you can continuously change and adapt until you find exactly what works for your family, for your lifestyle, and for your goals. Homeschooling wasn't on the horizon, but signs continued to point to the freedom of a wild education.

While every family is different, here are a few things that have worked well for us during our first year of homeschooling:

Focus on a rhythm, not a schedule

When I started homeschooling, I sat down and created a minute-by-minute plan for our days. That lasted, oh, about a day. What worked: laying out a general idea of how our day would go and using that to help our day flow—not to dictate it. That being said, we ended up with a few fairly strict routines we stick to at almost the exact time every day. For example, from 7-8 AM I work with my older son on phonics, handwriting, and math while my husband plays with the toddler upstairs. That way, no one is distracted and we get these daily subjects out of the way while we are fresh (clearly, we are morning people). This is then followed by “Breakfast & Books” and “Morning Time” with us all back together.

Don’t neglect the littles, and don’t assume they aren’t paying attention

In our first semester of homeschooling, I was so focused on my older son and finding what works for him, that I admittedly neglected to think much about what my youngest was doing. He was seen more as the one to “occupy” while the real learning happens, rather than part of the process. This year that has changed, in part due to his age, but also due to my recognition that homeschool is just as much an opportunity for him as it is for my oldest. So, I’ve set up more learning activities for him, given him more jobs/tasks, created weekly themes for dramatic play and books, etc. The good news: he loves it, and my oldest loves playing right along with him and teaching his younger brother.

“School” itself does not have to be more than a couple of hours a day

You do not need to fill 8 hours a day with academics! Or anything structured for that matter. We are flying through material, and that’s with spending maybe 2-3 hours max on “school” work. Meanwhile, we spend a great deal of our time allowing free play (playing is learning!), running around in nature, getting lost in good books, creating messy and often not-showcase-worthy art projects, baking cookies, etc.

Make it fun…for you and the kids!

I love our days, and my kids do, too. Why? Because we have SO much fun! I refuse to be a drill sergeant when it comes to my kids’ schooling. If something isn’t clicking, move on, and come back to it when they’re ready…or try coming at it from a different angle. Also, when planning, don’t forget to add some magic. What I mean by this is, don’t neglect the memory-making. Your kid probably won’t remember much about the math worksheets you did together or the phonics lessons, but he/she will remember the magical stuff: the afternoon “tea” (or hot cocoa) time with exciting read alouds, the picnics in the yard, thematic relay races to augment something you’re learning about, the getting muddy in the stream, the Friday night movie and pizza nights (a staple in our house).

Homeschooling does NOT mean staying at home

Well, at least pre-COVID. Up until March, we honestly spent just as much time away from home as we did at home. We live in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area and are lucky to have a ton of offerings. We had weekly nature outings with a Wild and Free group in our area. Check out the Wild and Free website, and you can check to see if there’s a group that meets near you: https://www.bewildandfree.org/. My son took regular classes at Discover Place Science and loved every one. Info on those here: https://science.discoveryplace.org/programs-and-classes/homeschool-classes\ Once a week, he participated in a small, nature-based homeschool program through the local YMCA. Info on that here: https://www.ymcacharlotte.org/programs/childcare-education/homeschool. He participated in chess club, science demonstrations, cultural exploration days, and more at the local library. There are others I’ve surly neglected to mention, but all this is to say: there are options! You don’t have to do it all. Spend some time searching for opportunities there might be in your area, and I’d recommend trying on several for size until you find one, two, or a few that are right for you and your kids. And if you don’t find something, reach out to other homeschoolers and start it!

If you need open-and-go, it is out there! Don’t recreate the wheel…unless you really want to

In addition to homeschooling, I work three part-time, remote jobs during some or all of the year. I frankly don’t have the time, or curricular knowledge base, to come up with everything on my own. So, when I was hunting for our curriculum, I knew I wanted something open-and-go. For First Grade, we are finding the following combination to be awesome: Math: Beast Academy Science: Blossom & Root Science/Nature Phonics: ABeCeDarian Social Studies, ELL, etc.: Moving Beyond the Page Handwriting: Handwriting Without Tears Spelling: All About Spelling At least a week in advance, I lay out our plans for a given week in my planner (I’m loving my Big Fat Secular Homeschool Planner from Etsy), and then each night I go through and read/highlight the lesson for the next day for Moving Beyond the Page, Handwriting/Spelling, and ABeCeDarian. Beast Academy is all online, so we simply follow along together.

Find some “me” time

Homeschooling can be a lot sometimes, and you don’t have the luxury of a lot of down time or alone time. But, that doesn’t mean that isn’t important! I’ve found I have to be more intentional, and at times a bit creative, to carve out some “me” time to keep me feeling refreshed, calm, etc. For me, that means asserting that 6-7 a.m. is “Mom’s time.” My husband is “on duty,” while I am free to go for a run, take the dog for a walk, watch the news with a cup of coffee, check my emails, or whatever. It’s so important to take some time to give to yourself, or you won’t have enough to give to your children.

You do NOT need to (and many would say shouldn’t) recreate the classroom environment at home.

I always chuckle when I see new homeschoolers running out to buy classroom-style desks, giant chalk boards, a billion posters for the wall, etc. Of course, if you want to do this, go for it!! But please, please, please don’t think you have to. Do what works for you, and for your kids. We school at the kitchen table while eating breakfast, on the couch cuddled under blankets, in the backyard while getting muddy, or almost anywhere we go. We do have a sunroom that doubles as a playroom/homeschool room set up with a rotating dramatic play area (a theme chosen each week based on the letter of the week). But really, that’s because I enjoy making things out of felt and construction paper! Ha. Don’t make your kids sit at a desk facing a blackboard; if it feels like pulling teeth, opt for a giant beanbag chair or whatever floats their boat.

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