Lessons from Homeschooling with Chronic Illness

As the country turns to a home-based education, it seems like a good time to share what homeschooling has taught me this year.  We embarked on our homeschool journey last September.  Since then we have both discovered a great deal about learning, cooperation, and ourselves. 

Making the decision to homeschool was not something I considered lightly.  Before taking the plunge, I turned it over for years, debating with myself if a classroom education, with all the social benefits and resources I didn’t have access to at home, was worth the stress it was obviously putting on my non-conformist youngest child.  I told myself he would eventually adapt and learn to sit and learn, to do the work for the sake of getting the work done, to trudge through the monotony of it all.  I told myself that for 5 years.  Five years during which my son learned that he was different, less than, unable, unfit, and an outsider.  All of which is untrue, well except different, he certainly is that! 

Last year I began to see the toll it was taking on him.  His frustration with school was being internalized.  He didn’t fit the mold and he felt like the problem was him.  As someone who has often toyed with a career in education and spent a good deal of time in that realm, someone who is not an educator because she can’t play in that broken system, I knew quite well the problem was not him. The problem was the box they were trying to shove him into.  The problem is this kid doesn’t fit in that box, like so many others.  The problem, at the end of the day, was that they were attempting to change the kid instead of giving him a better box for who he is.

My youngest kid is stifled by paperwork and monotony.  As I often told his teachers, this child is not going to grow up to be an office worker, he isn’t built for such things.  He craves novelty and information; he carries a curiosity and imagination that demand to be fed.  Curiosity wants nothing to do with a workbook.  Curiosity wants to explore, to do, to try, to learn.  And imagination, well imagination is like a puppy, give it the attention it demands or try to ignore it while it nips, nibbles and bumps you.  School wasn’t feeding either of those aspects of my son, and they honestly are a huge part of who he is.  In fact, if you asked for two words to describe his personality, those are the words I would choose, curious and imaginative. 

Imagination is like a puppy, give it the attention it demands or try to ignore it while it nips, nibbles and bumps you.

So, I watched as struggling lead to hopelessness and low self-esteem. I listened to the ever-increasing list of negative beliefs my son was building around him.  My heart broke as he told us he was “stupid”, “Bad at math”, “weird”, “friendless”, the list continued to grow as I watched my child sink into depression.  Then one day he uttered the words that sealed the deal.  My 10-year-old told me he wanted to die.  Life had grown too heavy, constantly buried in work, missing recess for years on end, he was not thriving in public school, and it had become so heavy, he was seeking the ultimate out.  I knew immediately what I had to do, whether I could handle it or not.  I had to throw him a lifeline, literally.  Suddenly a difficult decision seemed not that hard at all.  Even if I didn’t know how I would manage it physically. 

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

So, I started looking into what homeschooling looks like, began gathering resources, and soon gave my son the news, this was his last year of public school. In the fall we would begin homeschooling.  He was relieved and excited.  The promise that this was the end of the struggle helped him get through the last month and a half of school.  He finished the year with honors.  Because you see that child who was learning he was stupid, was not dumb at all.  Five years of struggle, five years of good report cards.  Proof enough for us that the problem was not the kid.  The kid was smart, the system was going to drown him anyway.  So, the lifeline was tossed, and we began our new life in September.

I’d be lying if I said it was all smooth sailing.  As many of you have discovered, transitioning to schooling at home is not easy!  You aren’t used to formal teaching, they aren’t used to you being the teacher.  Kids must test any new dynamic, repeatedly, until they are really sure it can’t be broken, like really, really sure if they are stubborn like my youngest son!  I spent three months constructing a learning plan, making a daily schedule, gathering worksheets, books, websites, and lesson plans.  Within the first two weeks of school I would throw most of that right out the window. 

Daily schedule?  Yeah, no thanks, that was not working for either of us.  The schedule was making failures of us both.  Worksheets?  Unless its amazingly fun, my child would rather stare at the wall all day.  Something I knew but ignored at first.  He quickly reminded me; I’ll never forget the body language the first time I handed him a worksheet.  Like a balloon someone had just let the air out of, he flopped into his chair, defeated.  Luckily, there is no reason workbooks need to be part of a homeschool education.  I began to tweak the plan, I kept the bones, the master list of what he is expected to learn in grade 6, and reinvented our schedule as needed.  Slowly, he settled into the routine of home-based learning, as I adapted to having someone home all the time. 

Over the next few months, both of us slowly transformed.  He began to be more like his old self, quick to joke, full of ideas, happy, friendly.  I watched his confidence grow and listened as he discovered he was amazing at fractions, history, and science.  We moved away from the daily tackling of all the subjects and into a block schedule, tackling two to three subjects a day, but giving them more time, allowing for the deep dives my son prefers to take into a subject.  

I learned that the chronic disease I thought may hinder my ability to teach, had actually prepared me for this journey in surprising ways.  RA has taught me to be adaptable, to be patient, to accept the days I can’t, and go for it on the days I can.  Bringing all of that to homeschooling, has worked brilliantly for us.  I’ve also learned to be gentler with myself on bad days.  Rather than push through because we are “in school”, I’ve realized I can take a down day still.  My sweet student is more than happy to read and write and let me take the nap I need to get through on the hardest days.  For the first winter in years, depression didn’t eat me up.  Not rattling around alone all day, has kept me focused and feeling useful.  Providing a physical education for him, means more exercise for me too.  In fact, he’s the one most likely to instigate our walks.  A push I often need as walking is not my body’s favorite exercise.  Feeding a growing boy who is capable of helping create meals, means we both eat better.  The transition has been bigger than I had imagined, for both of us.

As we approach the end of our first homeschool year, my son is confident and happy.  He’s blossomed into a voracious reader.  He absolutely loves creative writing and spends as much time on his stories as I will allow, often picking them back up long after I’ve declared our daily schooling “over”.  That is perhaps the most beautiful thing about homeschooling, the learning never stops.  Now that teaching and learning have been woven into the fabric of our lives, any moment may be a teaching moment.

He no longer fills his time with as much screen time as I will allow.  In fact, I rarely need to tell him that is enough video game time.  He chooses more enriching activities now, because we have chosen to weave his learning into the things he loves.  We use books, games, and interactive websites.  We build, make, and create.  We ask questions, suggest solutions and seek the answers.  All day, every day.  In a way, our homeschooling schedule is 24-7, 365. 

Homeschooling field trip at Roque Bluffs, ME

Other than history, which we’ve decided to work through chronologically because “the way school jumps around is stupid and confusing” (his words), we are wrapping up that list of things 6th graders “need to know” ahead of schedule.  For a kid who was chronically behind for 5 years?  That in itself is some sort of miracle.  When I add in all the books he’s had time to read, all the words he’s written for fun, and the learning games and projects we’ve done outside of school, it is really quite amazing.  Seeing how much he has grown this year, I know we made the right choice for him.  Seeing the ways it has changed my life, I can say it was also a wonderful choice for me. 

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