An Experience In Homeschooling (Or How I Snuffed The Fun Out Of Learning)

Kassia…can you please get off Mama’s back and sit in your chair? You haven’t finished your letters.

Okay.  Slowly, and with feigned difficulty, she makes the partial circle that is a ‘c’.

Good, now can you make an uppercase ‘C’?

C says ‘kuh’…like cat…I want a cat. Can I get one when I’m six? Some cats are nice, some cats are mean. I want a nice cat.

Kassia…please get off the table and sit in your chair. You haven’t done your uppercase ‘C’.

I don’t know how to make a ‘C’…and besides, I’m hungry.

Homeschooling was never the plan. Just one of those things that evolved out of circumstance and chance.  We spent Kassia’s first five years of life on a 400 acre ranch in Southern New Mexico. The natural world had been her teacher.

Concepts of wind and physics explained themselves in dust devils that move eerily across the plains. By the age of three, she knew the word erosion, fascinated by the intricate labyrinth of sand formations left behind in the dry arroyos that finger out from the Pecos River. She knows that where the wash appears sandy, a small pick and shovel can find red and green stones of jasper, Pecos diamonds, quartz, and yes, once, an arrowhead.

And perhaps the greatest educators of all, the animals that share her world, both wild and domestic. The geometry in the formations of Sandhill Cranes that fly over the ranch every morning and every evening in late fall and into winter. The early lessons on lifecycles and reproduction taught by the goats, chickens, donkeys and cows (“Mama, what is he doing?) We watched the barn swallows that nest under the eaves, steadfastly making trip after trip from food source to baby. Teaching that when something is dependent on you, you work your tail off to care for it. Then there are the rattlesnakes and scorpions. A lesson in reverence? Or at least caution. Not everyone in this world is your friend.

Trying to grow flowers and vegetables in the dry, nutrient depleted desert earth, Kassia learned tenacity, and in turn, the agony of defeat.

And not to be overlooked, the New Mexico sky. Perhaps worthy of “teacher of the year”.  An expanse of space so consuming you want to hold your breath. In the afternoon, lofty cumulus clouds pile on top of one another over the mesa, and after dark, it all turns blue black in preparation for the show. The constellations.

Then Kassia turned five. It was time to start formal school. The kind with yellow buses and lunchboxes and people who are paid to impart information to her brain. The problem…the recession had stalled our out of state move. We were stuck for a time in a place you don’t want to send your kid to public school. Or any school.

And so it was that I found myself undertaking the strange new task of homeschooling our kindergartner. She had insatiable curiosity and I had taught remedial reading. How hard could it be?

I turned to my cousin who had homeschooled three children. Very much against public schools, where “your kid will be a robot”, she touted all the benefits of teaching your child yourself.  What I really aspired to were the claims of the Montessori philosophy. Provide a child with the right materials and adequate time to explore those materials, and she will almost spontaneously teach herself to read and do geometry.

Feeling ill equipped to go that route, I purchased a basic phonics book and some math workbooks. Kassia was excited initially by all the new notebooks, pencils, ladybug erasers. She dressed up for “class”, filled her backpack and asked “so, where’s my cubby?”

Things went okay at first. Until the novelty wore off. I tried to keep it dynamic with things like a reading lesson in our “spaceship” with a flashlight. A scavenger hunt to find new words. But before long our reading lessons were met with the kind of dread usually reserved for well child boosters. Kassia could no longer sit still. Not for five minutes. She dutifully read what I asked her to while she hopped on one foot, hung upside down on my lap, set a record for the number of ways a human being can (literally) fall out of a chair. After every sentence… “are we done yet?” And one time, “am I free now?” as if her learning experience were a prison. I was frustrated. I didn’t want to have to construct a spaceship every morning for a thirty minute reading session. And I wanted Kassia to develop some measure of self discipline so she could integrate into school when the time came. So I forced her to sit.

“Don’t worry”, my cousin assured me, “Nathan didn’t sit down until the third grade. He would stand at the kitchen table to do his math and take a book up into a tree. Now he’s a computer whiz”.

I did, I think, get a few things right. When Kassia had questions (Why are people different from each other? How do mosquitoes suck blood? Before they were extinct, did saber tooth tigers swim?) I wrote them down. Then, on our weekly trip to the local library we would check out books we thought might hold the answers. She liked that. And my big score – a huge coffee table book on China, with photographs so beautiful we were both lost in the book for hours. It was this book that sparked her interest in calligraphy.

But I always brought her back to the phonics. To the worksheets. To the prison. Honestly, I’m not quite sure of the process. I still don’t know how a child learns that ‘s-h’ makes a ‘ssshhhh’ sound, unless you tell them. Directly.

One particularly rough morning I managed to get my daughter in tears. “No baby, you’re making your ‘2’ backwards”

“That’s how I like to make it!” she told me, and from there we engaged in a battle of wills that I assure you I did not win. Time for a break.

We walked out into the New Mexico sun; the brightest, purest, most unobscured anywhere. When you live in the desert you learn to appreciate the many shades of brown, as it is the variations in this color that mark the seasons. Honey, pale saffron, wheat, espresso. A Meadowlark called and Kassia answered. Under the cottonwood trees the leaves were dry. The color of adobe bricks. Kassia kneeled to inspect something. “Look Mama!”  A baby grasshopper resting on its mother’s back?  Both of them the color of the dead leaves. How she spotted them I can’t imagine. It took me a few seconds to find them when they were pointed out.

“They’re camouflaged”, she told me. She stayed to examine them for a long time. She was very still (hadn’t fallen once) and I realized that maybe for that day it didn’t matter what her ‘2’ looked like. Probably it still wouldn’t matter tomorrow. I was reminded of author Anna Quindlen and her observation that “people don’t talk about the soul very much anymore. It’s so much easier to write a resume than to craft a spirit”.  And maybe sometimes, even with my own child, I emphasize the former to the detriment of the latter.


Kelli lives on a ranch with her husband and five year old daughter.  Aside from homeschooling, she spends her time teaching at the local college, raising miniature donkeys, and writing.

avatar Kelli Wallner (1 Posts)

Kelli lives on a ranch with her husband and five year old daughter. Aside from homeschooling, she spends her time teaching at the local college, raising miniature donkeys, and writing.


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