Friday, April 30, 2010

Guest Post by Lisa Rivero: My Homeschooling Education

I am very excited to embark upon the first of what I hope will be many fertile blog cross-pollinations inspired by a “blog-swapping” thread posted earlier this month at She Writes (

It is an honor to introduce to you writer and teacher Lisa Rivero, and to host her post today. Rivero’s blog Everyday Intensity ( is a daily discussion of lifelong learning, living with intensity, creativity, and personal growth. She is the author of four books: The Smart Teens’ Guide to Living with Intensity (2010), A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Teens (2010), The Homeschooling Option (2008) and Creative Home Schooling (2002). Photo: Lisa Rivero, first day of school.

My Homeschooling Education

This week I was returning home from a walk in our neighborhood when I met another mother whose daughter, a college freshman, is the same age as our son. We hadn't seen each other in awhile, so we had the usual awkward but not entirely unpleasant experience of catching up on our families’ changes and growth, much too much information to fit in a five-minute conversation.

An added awkwardness is that, for the last ten years of our son’s elementary and high school education, our family homeschooled, so when my neighbor talked about how our local public high school did such a good job of preparing her daughters for college, I struggled, just for a moment, not to assume that she was making a broader point. However, something I’ve learned from homeschooling is not only to refrain from taking things personally, but also, and, in keeping with another of Don Miguel Ruiz’s Four Agreements, not to make assumptions, especially about what kind of education is a good fit for a child or family.

Perhaps you have considered homeschooling. Or maybe the idea puzzles you. Do you wonder what it looks like? Do you ever wonder if you could do it?

I want to share here a bit about why we homeschooled, how we homeschooled, and some things that homeschooling taught me.

Why We Homeschooled

When we started homeschooling at the end of our son’s second grade year, I had no plans to do so long term. All we knew was that our son, though very bright and doing fine academically in the classroom, was not thriving emotionally or socially. At the time, I didn’t know what the problem was; I only knew he was extremely unhappy at school, and he was beginning to shut down at home as well. The spark was going out.

In hindsight, I understand better why a full-time classroom—even a small one—was not the best fit for him. First, he is an introverted learner. My favorite pithy description of introverts comes from Jonathan Rauch: “introverts are people who find other people tiring.” Introverts don’t dislike other people, and they don’t necessarily lack friends. However, a full day of intense interaction with other students—especially other intense students such as the ones at the school for highly gifted learners our son attended—is simply too much.

Another lack of fit was that our son’s intellectual needs were varied and did not fit neatly into a single grade level. I’m not sure if any child’s learning needs are best met by a single-grade curriculum, but, for gifted learners, who may be extremely advanced in some subjects and closer to grade level in others, or who may have unusual interests that are not part of regular a scope and sequence, the rigidity of a day of third grade math followed by third grade reading then third grade science will inevitably lead to boredom or frustration.

When we decided to homeschool, however, all I knew is that what we had been doing wasn’t working and that we would try learning at home for a year while we researched other schools, as a way to buy some time.

Ten years later, our son “graduated” from homeschooling and was headed to college. We may have begun homeschooling as a way to fix a problem, but we continued because we couldn’t imagine anything that would work better or that we would enjoy more.

How We Homeschooled

One reason I hadn’t considered homeschooling sooner than I did was that I had bought into the usual stereotypes about homeschooling: that families who homeschooled all did so for religious reasons, or that homeschoolers were unsocialized, or that homeschooled children would lack the necessary academic skills and credentials to go to college and succeed.

What I learned is that homeschooling families can truly create an educational approach that fits their individual needs, personalities, and values.

In our case, that meant focusing on self-directed learning, creative thinking, and multi-disciplinary study as much as, if not more than, a more traditional approach to curriculum. We often followed our son’s interests in-depth, staying with one or two subjects for days or weeks, until they had run their course, rather than always fit in five or more subjects a day.

We also did not follow the usual academic calendar. We usually homeschooled through the summer, not in order to get ahead, but simply because that’s what our son wanted to do. Homeschooling and regular life were not that much different from each other. This flexibility of scheduling allowed him to be involved in figure skating for several years and to accept roles in local theater productions, without sacrificing sleep or study or peace of mind.

We took advantage of homeschooling groups and found one that was a good fit for us: a mixture of families of different religious backgrounds (including Muslims, Christians, Jews, and atheists) and who had different approaches to education. What united us was that we all saw the value that homeschooling has for strengthening the family, especially the relationship between parent and child.

When the high school years came, our son considered going to the local public or a private high school, but decided to continue at home. He took the SAT once—early—which allowed him to enroll part time in college during his sophomore high school year. He made the decision on his own not to take the SAT again just to improve his score, and to bypass the college preparation frenzy he watched many of his schooled friends go through. Instead, he used his high school years to continue to take advantage of time for hours of leisure reading, study of subjects that were outside of most high school curricula, and even daydreaming.

What Homeschooling Has Taught Me

Now that our son is nearing the end of his freshman year in a college honors program, I find myself looking back, not on what he learned from homeschooling, but what I did:

I learned that it’s okay to go against the grain, and that other people can make assumptions about me and my family without the world’s coming to a stop. A big question among homeschoolers is how to deal with the inevitable assumptions about why we homeschool or whether we even should. Having to face these assumptions has led to much personal growth for me, finally allowing me to begin to face and overcome a lifetime of people pleasing. Now I allow others their assumptions. In fact, I listen gladly to them without the need to be defensive. Homeschooling has helped to make this possible.

I learned that there are more “good fits” in education than we realize. Every child and family have unique needs that require unique solutions. Sometimes a school is a good fit, whether public or private or a hybrid. Sometimes learning at home is. Sometimes it’s a combination, or even another option we haven’t yet considered. We might not know what works until we try it.

I learned that there are many ways to approach education that work well, such as doing away completely with grading, allowing students a true choice is what they study and when they study it, and even taking time off from subjects when roadblocks occur.

Finally, homeschooling rekindled my own love of learning. I remember very clearly my own first day of school and the excitement of finally being able to learn everything the world had to offer. As with so many of us, somewhere along the line, I lost that feeling, and began to approach learning as a chore rather than a passion.

My spark is back.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Notes from the Dream Lab: El Beso, Women Scientists, Outer Space

Sometimes, at night, I wish I’d married Norman / Mailer and just once would like to make a man / riding by on a bike lose his balance / and die...Rachel Zucker, from Museum of Accidents, Wave Books, 2009

I dreampt I was at conference, preparing to read. Only to discover the poems had been written so long ago I felt no enthusiasm for them. The woman next to me had decided to use the venue to display her other talents (besides the poems she came to read), in this case, her replica of Rodin’s El Beso, masterfully reproduced in bread dough. Baked.

Would you consider that a negative reduction of El Beso—from the high art of sculpture to food? Or maybe an honest elevation: when you are raising a family, what you produce, create, should translate to bread on the table.

I don’t have a clue. When I’m tired, I worry, my favorite adrenal-tapping habit, and fret over the old divisions, like the one between men and women, consider the opportunities my daughter will or will not have. Having birthed sons and a daughter, I understand on a cellular level my responsibility to rift-healing, shock-mending, for what good are divisions, blame, or complaining about who gets what when. Up to all of us to shape the possible future. Set a good example. Maybe get along with my spouse, that kind of nitty gritty: deceptively simple, pretty hard to do, absolutely worth the risk.

Or publish a book like Museum of Accidents, by Rachel Zucker, unflinching in its poet’s look at the female psyche under duress of childrearing and marriage, witty, sparse and full at the same time, as in poems like “The Day I Lost My De Ja Vu:” "now all of me but this is gone and I was never a girl./ never but mother never/ every same day new again. every way is without a way out or/way to look back, to be back, to bring the fabric into a tight/pucker or pocket or foxhole or hem, some little space to fall into a breath/like an open grave or little death. instead I learn bird names….” (p. 3).

My friend Sandy, who in fact sculpts, talks me down out of my anxiety: There are more women scientists now; our girls will be fine. She agrees with me when I protest, “shouldn’t we still ponder questions of women, charisma, power, and how far they do or do not get in pursuit of their potential?” I can’t help but glance over at my counter, where, coincidentally in alignment with what Sandy would say 24 hours later, just yesterday at the library, I’d scored 4 thick books to feed my son’s love for outer space, and one I grabbed as an afterthought, at eye-level when I stood up to leave the star section: Extraordinary Women Scientists, by Darlene R. Stille.

Stille devotes two pages or so a piece to 50 notable women scientists, from ornithologists to cosmonauts. After the excruciatingly long dance between the laptop on the counter (e-mail) and the fridge (suffering from leftover’s halitosis), stuffing yam shards and meatballs into zip-lock bags for the kids’ lunches, I skim the lives of these women. Every 8 paragraphs there’s a new face to take in. Born, blossomed, died.

By 2 a.m. I’m luke-warm in my conviction we’ve come a long way since the first Greek woman adept at predicting lunar eclipses, or the perfume makers of Mesopotamia 3200 years ago, or the mob-murdered Hypatia of Egypt (mathematician, philosopher, teacher)...Or sisters like Sophio Brahe, assisting astronomer brother Tycho, did he? Or she? discover planets orbit in ellipses…Or the more eccentric, supernaturally guided Mary Anning, fossil hunter (fish-lizard: Ichthyosaurus, near lizard Plesiosaurus, and wing finger Pterodactyl) born in 1799. Legend has it little Mary survived a lightning strike (nestled safely in her pram) that her nurse, the pusher, did not.

I love that biography author Stille and her consultants (Angela V. Olinto PhD and Enid Schildkrout, PhD) took on the task of creating the volume before me. “Although the education of women in industrialized nations, in general, is no longer considered a waste, the message that girls and women are not suited for science and math is still prevalent. One of the purposes of this book is to prove that this negative message is nothing more than a myth. (p.9),” writes Stille in her introduction, more than ten years ago, long before my daughter (and my sons) had the example of Hillary Clinton, or Sarah Palin (should she be your cup of tea) to dream towards.

Later, sitting in the dim lighting by the wood burning stove, I read aloud to my sons from Planets, Stars, and Galaxies: A Visual Encyclopedia of Our Universe, by artist and writer David A. Aguilar. Dennis A. Tito, the first space tourist, writes, “We humans are essentially explorers, so we’ll always be interested in what lies just beyond the next hill or sea or star…” and I can’t help but think, so it is with writing…only the exploration does not involve light years of travel, just a willingness to track one’s night time dreams and the stamina to sit in a chair long enough to record what comes pulsing back through the asteroid belts and supernovas of one’s fractally wired, highly distracted mind.
Celestial "photos": artwork of David A. Aguilar, Planets, Stars and Galaxies
Mary Anning photo: Extraordinary Women Scientists

Friday, April 9, 2010

An Easter Roadtrip: Helicopters, Hefty Bags, and Dinner With Persephone

The tops of my feet ascend to the ceiling. Along with a chisel’s width strip down one shoulder blade, both feet from arch top to toes radiate back the day’s sun, day four of vacation in Coronado, testament to the rushed sunscreen slather (such zeal to get back to reading Dinner with Persephone, all three children busy with their drip castles and maze of wave-flooded highways). The tingling gives a mingled sense of levitation and vertigo, spiritual glee even, goaded by the cadence of the family snoring. Their night ends, mine begins, and I range like a loosed marmot over the day’s beauty: the four foot froth of breaking waves, the expanse of lacey white skimming towards the kids’ ankles, tiny flecks of gold skittering beneath the thin shelf of retreating water, pelicans collapsing beyond the break like umbrellas for the plunge.

With a life-guard tower behind me and two yellow trucks roaming the beach stocked with sturdy, tan, twenty-some-things, I can afford to dip back into my book chronicling a poet’s year abroad in Greece, fantasize someday it’ll be me eating olives and learning a language. Instead I feast on Patricia Storace’s imagery (Dinner with Perspehone) from a stolen statue from the Porch of Maidens, to the “dense pool of wavering emerald shadows, where the darkness was not nocturnal but fertile” to the history of the dreamers of Greece and the years of interpretation and omen.

When Storace writes, “A modern dreamer making a statue, according to several of my dream books, wishes to perfect some aspect of himself, and is preparing for an opportunity to do that,” I immediately think of the parallel to writing poetry. I recognize that striving to capture something in order to bring it forth for love of others, though I hadn’t exactly thought of it as something to perfect in one’s self, heart, or psyche. Daily, as I go about the daunting task of motherhood, there’s always 1% of my brain floating its way towards the next poem, or preparing for the opportunity, which opens up most often at night, like now, feet on fire, thinking of Storace’s world of incense, the vulgar gestures of taxi drivers, oleanders, and the Virgin Mary. Inevitably I will be propelled towards my unlined tiny spiral notebook, waiting for me on the cold porcelain rim of the tub. On such a sun-sated day, it’s hard to rise, but a friend recently reminded me how crucial it is to write when you’re happy.

And today’s happiness, frankly, hardwon. By the end of our ten-hour drive, the car floor a tangle of plastic Easter Grass, knitting projects for two of the children with more than one ball of yarn attached, power bar wrappers, popcorn, crayons, coloring books, a bag of sand and shells from the overnight stop at Shell Beach oozing its damp contents over socks and bottles of bubbles, should it surprise me Day One would explode with non-stop brawls. 8:30 a.m: two of my children staked out in front of the slider in hopes of seeing again who they claim was The Easter Bunny (one hysterical jack-rabbit we glimpsed skirting the parking lot at dusk the night before) until one of them decided the spot between the beds was prime “fort” real estate, announced it, and the grass couldn’t have been greener or more worth dying for.

After the fray escalates with a frenzy of punches, we make our fury-tag way out of the hotel lobby and out into the sand, where the drone of the motorized raker and the Navy Base helicopter give us better cover. I phone my mom friend Emily, mother of three children mirroring my children’s ages and gender, to talk me down out of the Hefty Bag Fantasy—you know the one—in which you duct-tape together a parachute and head off the Vista Point behind the rest stop while the family uses the bathroom. A serene, quiet float to the valley floor for a cup of coffee alone…

My friend’s gentle laugh, insistence on meeting for coffee when we get back, her offer to put her daughter on the phone to snap the kids out of their fight helps immensely. I’d have put my daughter on the phone, but from the velocity with which the tennis shoes and flip flops erupt over the palm brush, I predict my girl’s more interested in hitting her target than chatting. I say a hasty goodbye, take a deep breath, and hear myself shout, “If you don’t stop and drop to the sand to work this out instantly, I will get a newspaper and hire a sitter for you since you are not listening to me.” Arms reloaded with shoes, they all three stop—eye me curiously, and sit down. Wow. The weirdest things work when we all get pushed to the edge.

Later, I take a second weird joy in standing in the direct flight-path of the stream of helicopters taking off and landing on the airstrip behind our hotel. I never thought I’d ever experience such peace in the thunderous drone, the way all your cells vibrate, especially one’s throat and heart, so that for an instant you forget everything but the grey underbelly of the copter, childhood’s fascination for the perfect arc of spinning rotors, and the thrill of something so heavy defying gravity.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Fairytales, Good for Your Kids or Not? (Little Mermaid? Courageous Princess?)

Sit down. You have a decision to make./ One way will be thorny and full of pain. One way will be orderly and full of pain./ Eventually the heart will be empty and open/ and then you will give back the pain....—Terry Ehret, “Behind Broken Hill Temple”, from Lucky Break

Driving home from yet another evening parent meeting, I catch out of the corner of my eye a deer daintily side-stepping into the brush. The thin flicker of white rimming the black dagger of her tail mirrors the lit borders of the clouds, all of us bathed in that ethereal blue of back-roads on a half-moon night. I’m thinking about REM, specifically Peter Buck writing, “To me, Losing My Religion feels like some kind of archetype that was floating around in space that we managed to lasso.” Because the kids are home with Grandma, I can crank it up and lean over the steering wheel, afford a swerve as I search the sky and ponder a discussion thread concerning fairytales posted recently on She Writes ( that was initiated by writer Allyson Lang (who posts at

Do you read fairytales to your children—given the manner in which female heroines are portrayed, endangered, damaged, in need of rescue? And how might our boy and girl childrens’ psyches be affected? These and other questions were considered.

I am barely emerging from the “blind symbiotic cocoon” passage of motherhood during which one is in the business of teaching one’s child to construct boundaries while still being, as a parent, somewhat merged with that child. My youngest weaned, I’m surprised to find one of my dearly held assumptions morphing: I no longer believe my children will emulate everything they hear, read or see.

I’m not advocating over-loading one’s two-year-old with fairytales. Every parent has to sort out the right time and place to introduce certain stories. But I fare better trusting that my children’s psyches come equipped for dealing with our state of humanity, planetarily. I’m praying they come into their incarnations wired to survive. Eventually they’ll have to sort through the various group-thinks of our people.

As I pull up the steep, uneven, pitted gravel lane to my house, CD skipping furiously at the last lunge over the deepest pothole, the list of questions goes on. What are we attracted to in fairytales, repelled by, and why? What might be to our specie’s advantage to living steeped in certain agreements about which roles each sex will play? Where is the source of one’s power? Why is it so easy to give away?

And, why so easy to sit in the van, alone between the dank trunks of the redwoods, watching for signs of light through the upstairs blinds, pretend I’m not home yet, listen one more time to Man on the Moon, wonder which songs will obsess my children when they are teenagers.

Thinking about the teenage years (my own) I’m grateful for the grim brutality portrayed in some fairytales (take Bluebeard, for example) for the simple message: you too can survive this or that horrific situation (male/female skirmish, child/parent/relative passage, or some other tale of abandonment or betrayal). I remember as a preteen (burgeoning with the siren’s vibrancy of youth) encountering predatory sexual male behavior (from boys wired with an equal ferocity for the hunt) and how fairytales helped me breathe… precisely because they take the amorphous emotional treacheries we all must navigate and pour them into 3D form, that once named, you can ride along with the heroine and contend with (battle, evade, or succumb): a failed magician, a Sea Witch, a pair of addictively beautiful red shoes capable of dancing their wearer to death.

Clearly, I’m not talking about Disney’s oversimplified versions of fairytales either. As a nineteen year-old exchange student in Denmark, I read H.C Anderson’s Den lille Havfrau (Little Mermaid) in Danish. So rich, in which the choice to trade one’s voice for legs to win a landbound lover is not rewarded—the little mermaid suffers very real consequences. While she garners a dance, a little time with the object of her desire, she does not get to stay on and live happily ever after, but evaporates in the morning to the voices of her sisters singing her soul a pathway to the stars.

Or at least that’s the version I remember, puzzled together with my newbie exchange student’s handle on the language. The shock of the little mermaid’s demise—that depth of sorrow, reflected a far more accurate truth about one aspect of the female experience, often unmapped, unacknowledged. Offset, for me, by the spiritual comfort of the sisters’ voices bordering her journey into the next realm.

And now as a mother, I’m grateful for the whole cast of characters misbehaving in fairytales in varying degrees. For their universal appeal, with the unfortunate hero or heroine suffering a fatal flaw, some common-sense block or predisposition to thinking the best of others…which is the case with most of us ambling through our childhoods. For some fraction of a decision, then, you might side with a “lesser” character, until your moral compass “trues.” At any rate, I love how you get to sort it out in the quiet of your own heart.

When my daughter was 7, my brother’s sweetheart Maria (formerly employed in the comic industry) brought us Rod Espinosa’s The Courageous Princess, a 235 page graphic fairytale starring Mabelrose, a tomboy of a princess who finds herself in the snare of a dragon named Shalathromnostrium. Shal ruthlessly lectures the captive Mabelrose at one point, “No one will rescue you! Not now, not ever. No one will rescue a second class princess from a poor kingdom…You will learn to like living here…You will be mine for a long time.” And…as you can guess, Mabelrose has to draw on her own strength and intelligence to escape and find her way home.

We enjoyed Espinosa’s vibrant colors and his dramatic pacing, from panels of starlight and vast aerials above the thundering waterfalls to a close-up of Mabelrose sleeping in the safety of a tree house in the kingdom of Leptia. You see Mabelrose nestled in the folds of a purple blanket, her legs curving to fit the oval room, books and sewing baskets tucked into shelves made of the tree’s twisting inner branches. In the same black backdrop of the panel, is the forest’s eye view of the bedroom, just a dim orange glow emanating from the porthole window spanning an empty knot in the trunk.

I have no idea how the next generation will re-interpret fairytales, but I love that I can either go to the bookstore (or more likely Google) and scope out alternative choices for my children, or get busy and join the conversation, take some responsibility (lasso my own archetype), by writing something myself.

Not long before I was scheduled to fly back to the states after my stint as an exchange student, my host-sister Ulla and her family took me to see H.C. Anderson’s humble home, and later, in Copenhagen, to a harbor, where just above the slate gray water line, sat a small, unimposing statue of the Little Mermaid. In my mind, she soared colossal, rivaling the Statue of Liberty. In reality, she can’t be more than three feet or so tall, and, I imagine, facing east for love of sunrise.

The Courageous Princess: