At the kitchen table, Andrea Manroe pauses her reading from The Story of the World and asks her three children a question about what they’ve just heard.
“How did Shamshi-Adad get the people to obey? Do you guys remember?”
Joel, the oldest, answers first, though his mouth is full of broccoli. “By chopping their heads off.”
“That’s right, by cutting their heads off,” Andrea says in a lighthearted voice. “He killed anyone who wouldn’t do exactly what he said. When he conquered the city, he chopped off the heads of all the leaders and put them up on stakes around the city. No wonder everyone in Mesopotamia was afraid of the Assyrians!”
When she resumes reading, the two boys, Joel and Noah, ages nine and six, sit draped in their chairs, listening without looking at her. Hannah, the three-year-old, sits up on her knees, coloring quietly in a Disney princess coloring book. Every few seconds, one of the children reaches for a piece of raw broccoli on a plate in the middle of the table, and dips it in a small tub of ranch dressing.
“Soon, Shamshi-Adad didn’t even have to fight battles to conquer cities,” Andrea reads, pausing to ask, “Why do you think this is? If you saw a Tyrannosaurus Rex coming to your window, would you be all ‘I’m gonna defend my house?’ Or would you go hide under a table?”
The two boys ponder the question. Again, Joel is the first to answer. “I would hide,” he says.
“Yeah!” Andrea says. “I think by this time everyone was afraid of him, huh?”
“And I would go hide under the table!” proclaims Hannah. “I would go hide under my bed!”
Andrea laughs and continues reading.
This past August marked the start of homeschooling in the Manroe household. During the prior year, Andrea read everything she could about programs and curriculums. Eventually, she settled on The Learning Choice Academy, a public charter school not far from their Chula Vista home. The school provides materials, a $70-per-month/per-child allowance for extracurricular activities, and certified teachers to support parents and help monitor the children’s progress. Every 21 days, Andrea and the boys meet with their Learning Choice teacher for approximately an hour per child. The family must provide one work sample per child for each of the days between visits.
“They give me a list of curriculum to choose from,” she says of the charter school. “I use about 70 percent of that. The other 30 percent, I bought myself.”
A credentialed teacher (with four years experience in kindergarten, first- and second-grade classrooms), and the daughter of a retired school principal, Andrea had the advantage of knowing what she was looking for in her curriculum. But she’s changed her mind about some of her choices. Joel’s spelling program, for instance, isn’t working for her. So the school is ordering a new one.
Andrea continues reading from the history book, while the children suck water from their water bottles and listen. The boys begin to drift, fiddling with pencils, dipping and double-dipping the broccoli. Their mother amps up the drama in her voice, attempting to reel them back in. It doesn’t work. She stops and puts the book down.
“Before I read the next part, you guys need to do your — ”
“Narration page!” Noah shouts.
“ — your narration page,” Andrea says. “You need to do a summary.”
She instructs them to get their schoolwork boxes from behind an end table. They return with plastic boxes filled with workbooks, paper, and other supplies. She tells them to get out a piece of paper, then pulls out her own box.
“This is my teacher box,” she explains. “When we started, I didn’t want to be the typical homeschool family who has crap everywhere.” She lowers her voice until she’s mouthing the last two words.
Hannah closes her coloring book and says, “Mommy, I want to do schoolwork, too!”
“You want to do school, too?” Andrea asks.
“Yeah,” Hannah says.
“Yes, please?” Andrea corrects her.
While Hannah cleans up her colored pencils and the boys open up their boxes, Andrea explains that each of the children has one box with all their subjects and supplies. She has three for herself: one for history, one for science, and one for everything else. She teaches history on Mondays and Tuesdays, science on Wednesdays and Thursdays. The two subjects have their own boxes so she can keep one in the garage when it’s not in use.
When Andrea turns back to the boys, she has to repeat the instructions.
“Would you get out a piece of paper, please?” she says in a firm voice.
Hannah, meanwhile, is chanting, “I want to do schoolwork! I want to do schoolwork! I want to do schoolwork!” and all but tugging on her mother’s pink shirt.
“Just a minute!” Andrea says to her daughter in an exasperated whisper.
She sets the boys up with their paper, making sure they both have sharp pencils and open books.
“Name and the date,” she reminds them. And then, “Noah, on your bottom.”
Andrea retrieves a workbook from Hannah’s box, sets it on the table in front of Hannah, and begins reading the instructions aloud to her daughter. They start with a story about two children bouncing a ball inside. Hannah must trace the ball’s path up and down.
Meanwhile, the boys have written nothing more than names on their papers. Andrea admonishes them, taking a toy from Noah. Just then, Hannah cries, “Mommy, Joel hit me!”
“I did not,” Joel mumbles.
“It hurted. Like this!” Hannah demonstrates the hit.
Andrea tells Joel to move his chair away from Hannah’s. She says to me, “She’s probably my biggest issue. She wants to be part of it, but she just turned three.”
It takes another half hour to get the summaries written, though they’re both only three sentences long.
When I apologize for being part of the distraction, Andrea says, “Please. It’s kind of nice to have another adult in the house.
∗ ∗ ∗
Even though the Manroe family thought over their decision to homeschool for a year before they bought their first books, they’re still not sure it’s something they want to do forever.
While the children take a break, Andrea tells me, “We haven’t committed to homeschooling next year, although Chris [her husband] and I go back and forth. Sometimes it’s hard, and sometimes I want to put them back in school, just to have a break.”
Before homeschooling, she was a housewife who spent mornings at Starbucks with her friends, ran errands, and watched Grey’s Anatomy in the afternoons. She lived most days at a leisurely pace, with only the baby in tow. Still, she dreamed of the day when her youngest, too, would be in school, so she could have time entirely to herself. With the introduction of homeschooling into their lives, Andrea’s time alone diminished, and on some days disappeared entirely. She’s “on” from the time the children wake until she puts them to bed at night. Many days of the week, she does it without her husband, Chris, a fireman who works 24-hour shifts.
“He works every other day for four shifts, then he’ll get six days off. And then again four 24-hour shifts, followed by four days off. So this week, he works, Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday.”
Not every day off means Chris is going to be home. Though a former captain with the La Mesa Fire Department, he went back down to fireman when he chose to move to the Chula Vista Fire Department in 2008. These days, in addition to studying and testing for a position as engineer, he also sits on the union board, and teaches classes at Southwestern College.
“If we need any materials from the grocery store or Home Depot, I text Chris, and he picks them up,” Andrea says. “When he gets home, the kids are hopping around him like fleas, and he ends up doing the projects with them.”
Recently, he helped the children grow brine shrimp from eggs for science, and build bows and arrows out of pipe, string, and dowels to supplement a history lesson. When he’s not helping out with the schooling directly, “he tends to just help where he sees a need. Washing dishes, preparing lunch, switching out the laundry, or putting Hannah down for her nap.”
Andrea calls Chris the “enrichment-class instructor,” but it is she who maintains the day-to-day school life of their children.
“There are some things that have gotten crazier, and some things that have gotten easier. Crazier? I’m busy all day long,” Andrea says. (She never does tell me what has gotten easier.)
“But from the beginning,” she adds, “I enlisted the children’s help.”
It’s 10:30, and she leads me to the den wall, where a framed bulletin board hangs, outfitted with pockets holding little squares of paper.
“This is one way that I maintain the house. Both boys have a chore pack. They get it in the morning.” She pulls a stack of two-inch-square cards out of one of the pockets. Each has a clip-art picture on the front.
“These are Noah’s. When he gets up in the morning, the first thing he does is feed and water the dog.”
Andrea flips through the cards, explaining as she goes. There’s a step-by-step guide for Noah’s morning routine, which includes dressing himself, putting his jammies away, and making his bed. Then, he comes downstairs with an empty laundry basket, picks up out-of-place items in the family room, and puts them where they belong. After that, he brushes his hair, brushes his teeth, and cleans up the bathroom after himself.
“Joel’s, you can see, are a little more developmentally appropriate for him.” She shows me another set of cards that bear words instead of pictures. “The green ones are weekly. He sweeps the front porch, brings in cans from the curb, and,” here she groans with relief, “he vacuums! Love it.”
At night, before she goes to bed, Andrea puts the chore packs in the children’s rooms. When they wake up, they can come downstairs to eat, but then it’s back upstairs to get chores completed before they do anything else.
The bulletin board also holds a long receipt from the library in Bonita.
“This is our library-book list. When we go to the library, I take a laundry hamper. Two people have to carry it. We check out a lot of books.”
Hannah comes running into the den. “Mommy, I’m hungry!” Noah’s right behind her. “Mom, did you hear Hannah? She says she’s hungry.”
“It’s not time to eat yet,” Andrea says.
The two groan and then run off together, apparently having decided that complaining further might mean a return to schoolwork. The 15-minute break has already become 25. Andrea takes note. She shouts for the children to reconvene in the kitchen.
∗ ∗ ∗
Five minutes later, Hannah lugs a large Ziploc bag over to the counter and climbs up on a stool. She pulls cans of Play-Doh, a rolling pin, and three cookie cutters from the bag. Then she takes a lump of bright pink dough from one of the cans and uses the rolling pin to flatten it on the granite countertop.
Joel rifles through his schoolwork box, while Andrea and Noah look over a checklist.
“Okay,” Andrea says to Noah, “you have already finished your history reading and your summary. What’s next?” And to Joel, “Please don’t fold up your paper. This is work we have to turn in to your school. We keep it neat, okay?” Then back to Noah. “We have math to do today, and we have your primary phonics, your workbooks, and your flash cards.”
She instructs Noah to get his math workbook out while she retrieves the teacher edition from her own box. Once she has flipped to the right page in her book, she sees she’s made a mistake. Noah needs his practice workbook instead. Yesterday, they took a sick day, so she’s a little off schedule.
After she gets Noah set up with his workbook and reminds him to write his name “small so it fits on line,” she realizes Joel is waiting for her.
“Joel is going to be doing English right now. This is one of the curriculums I chose for him that I have a love-hate relationship with. The hate side for me is that I have to do it with him. He can do a lot on his own, but there are still certain parts that are very teacher hands-on. It’s known for being rigorous. I don’t want my kids to be able to write like Judy Blume. I want them to write like Dickens.”
But before she can get started with Joel, Noah complains that the math is hard.
“That shouldn’t take you long at all,” Andrea says, “unless you’re playing around and goofing off.” She says to me, “Which is an issue we have sometimes.”
She tells Noah to get his abacus from his box and get to work. Then she apologizes to Joel and asks if there’s anything on his checklist that he can do by himself. He chooses independent reading. She sends him upstairs with a book and a timer set for 30 minutes.
“This is a dilemma I’m running into,” she says. “What I need to do with Noah right now, I can’t do with interruptions.”
She turns back to Noah, leans over his shoulder, and walks him through the first problem.
“Count out eight blue ones,” she says of the abacus beads. He does. “Okay, now, on the second row, how many are you going to count out? What does it say?”
“Six,” he says.
“Okay, good. Now count them.”
He begins with the first row at “one.” Andrea reminds him that he already knows how many blue beads he’s starting with. “Eight,” he says. Moving down to the row of orange beads, he continues, “Nine, ten,” and so on, until he stops at 14.
“Write it down,” she says.
For the next ten minutes, Joel reads upstairs, Noah counts on the abacus with gentle prodding from his mother, and Hannah pounds, rolls, and cookie-cuts her lumps of pink Play-Doh. The peace doesn’t last long. Soon, Hannah whines that she’s hungry and that she’s all done with the Play-Doh. Noah has moved on to another practice page, and Andrea is helping him with the instructions. She tells Hannah to practice patience, but it doesn’t work. The little girl continues to whine.
“Can I put something on the iPod, Mommy?”
“No,” Andrea says. “Go upstairs to your room and play.”
Hannah whimpers. Within two seconds, it’s full-blown (yet tearless) sobbing.
“Go upstairs and ask Brother to put on a movie for you,” Andrea says. The sobbing stops and Hannah runs for the stairs. Her mother calls up to Joel and asks him to put Annie or Alice in Wonderland in the DVD player.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the percentage of children in the United States who are homeschooled rose from 1.7 percent in 1999 to 2.9 percent in 2007. Andrea says that, in her experience, that 2.9 percent is divided into two distinct categories: “the Christian families, and,” she pauses to search for the right word, “um…green families.”
Her family, she says, falls somewhere between the two.
“We’re pretty mainstream. Most homeschool families don’t have a TV. We have three,” she confesses. “We even have a PlayStation.”
She says, “You know what’s funny? If you write that I put a video on, half the homeschooling community is going to be all ‘Lynch her!’ But I don’t really care what you say. I’m just laughing because I know how most people are. It’s not only the homeschool community that frowns on using TV as a babysitter. Lots of moms do.”
She shrugs. “Sanity first.” Then she laughs.
∗ ∗ ∗
After Andrea gets Noah settled in with his next workbook page, she takes a large pot from the refrigerator and puts it on the counter. “I hope you like spaghetti. I made this yesterday.”
Noah turns around at the word spaghetti.
“I know you don’t need help with this assignment,” Andrea says, “So I’m giving you ten minutes to finish it.”
She sets a timer and tells Noah that if he works hard for the full ten minutes, he can eat when it’s over. But if he plays around, he’ll have to wait until he’s all finished with the math to eat.
She takes a large serving bowl from a cupboard and begins to fill it with spaghetti. Once the bowl is in the microwave, she goes to her box and comes back with a clipboard.
“This is our lunch menu,” she says, “and these are our snacks.” She flips through papers on the clipboard. “I do this, and it helps me to have an idea of what’s going on for the day, instead of standing in front of the refrigerator.” She mimes standing with the refrigerator door open and a perplexed look on her face.
The snacks, she explains, have changed dramatically from when she first began homeschooling her children.
“They’re hungry all the time,” she says, opening a drawer. She drops a handful of clattering forks to the counter. “You can’t exactly tell kids you’re not feeding them when they genuinely are hungry, but if I gave them granola bars and Ritz Crackers all day, they’d probably gain weight.”
These days, it’s broccoli and apples, or any other type of vegetable or fruit, though once a day she does give them “one fun snack.” To her surprise, she claims that even with the kids home all day every day, the grocery bill has gone down by $200 per month.
“I guess it’s because I’m not buying all the granola bars and Capri Suns,” she says.
Even with the chore packs, the checklists (which she created to help keep the kids from asking over and over how much more work they had to do), and the menus, Andrea claims she’s not as organized as she seems.
“My husband would laugh to hear you call me organized.”
∗ ∗ ∗
The National Center for Education Statistics website claims that in 2007, the desire to provide religious instruction (36 percent), concern about the school environment (21 percent), and dissatisfaction with academic instruction (17 percent) were the top three answers parents gave as reasons to homeschool.
Andrea Manroe says the reason she chose homeschooling was to “force” herself to spend more time with her children. A common response when she tells people she homeschools is “What are you talking about? Public school is six hours of free child care!” And while she confesses that she longs for more time to herself, sending the children back to school is not an option she takes lightly.
“Do I really want to have the attitude of ‘I can’t wait till you go to school so I can have some time to myself?’ I had to face the fact that I did feel like that. If I’m going to be real with myself, then yeah, I want to come home and watch Grey’s Anatomy and eat bonbons. But I started asking myself was it okay to feel like that.”
The children eat their spaghetti and garlic bread at the table. Andrea eats hers standing across the counter from where I sit on a barstool.
“There were a lot of things I had to change when I decided to homeschool,” she says. “I had to deal with my PMS. I realized I can’t be moody for a full week if I’m at home with my kids, trying to teach them. I don’t have that luxury. So I went and saw my doctor. And my migraines. Normally, I would take Advil and come home and lie down and watch a movie or go to sleep. I don’t get to do that anymore.”
Hannah asks for another bowl of spaghetti. Andrea fills the bowl and hands it back.
Chris, she tells me, wasn’t excited about the idea of homeschooling when she brought up the idea. She asked him to do three things before making up his mind: pray, seek the counsel of three other men, and read about homeschooling, rather than base his opinion on stereotypes. Andrea was surprised to find that the conversations he had with other men are what tipped the scale in favor of homeschooling. Still, she believes he “agreed to it, even though it was out of his comfort zone.”
Their conversations about homeschooling continue.
“My husband and I, whenever we make a big decision, we fold a piece of paper in half, and we write down all the pros and cons,” she says. “So we’ve been making lists. And all the cons so far for homeschooling are very selfish.”
She ticks them off, lowering her voice to a whisper.
“Con: I’d rather be at Starbucks. Con: I don’t have enough time to do laundry. Con: I have to sweep more frequently because they’re home all the time. Another con would be: I don’t get enough time to watch all my shows.”
She’s had to make time, she says, and prioritize the important things. To that end, she gets up at 5:00 or 6:00 every day, using the extra morning time to read her Bible and work out on the treadmill. When she can manage to stay up a little later than usual, she’ll catch an episode of Grey’s Anatomy that she’s recorded on the DVR.
“We try to start by 9:00,” she says of the homeschool schedule, “and we finish when we finish. If they buckle down, we finish early. If they’re goofing off, I’ll give them but so much time to complete an assignment, and if it’s not done, they’ll do it during free time in the evening. I’m not going to give them three hours to finish two math worksheets.”
Every week, or every other week, they go on a field trip, often organized by the school. Among the ones they’ve done so far this year are tours of the Queen Mary and the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, a tour of the Water Conservation Garden at Cuyamaca College, and a Gold Rush field trip in Julian.
Hannah asks for a third bowl of spaghetti. The two boys have barely finished their first. Andrea says that Hannah needs to finish her bread, and if she’s still hungry, she can have a banana. Hannah agrees, then shoves half of the bread into her mouth at once.
“She eats a lot,” Andrea says, while she peels a banana.
∗ ∗ ∗
Andrea’s and Chris’s families have been supportive about their choice to homeschool. At least outwardly.
“I suspect that privately some of them might have their doubts, or think that we’re crazy for wanting to [homeschool], but they are considerate of our rights as parents. If they do have doubts, they’re not open with me about them.”
Chris’s mother often buys the children books and has introduced Andrea to some new favorites. Andrea’s mother, a former public-school principal who taught for 30 years, taught the children’s first author study lesson (on Patricia Polacco) and created a chart to help Andrea keep the author studies going. She also participates by taking the children to the library every Monday.
“The occasional praise of something we have accomplished has been great encouragement,” Andrea says. “Whose approval do you want more than your mom’s?”
Then, too, the children’s responses to homeschooling provides another level of motivation. “I thought my kids were affectionate toward me before, but, especially with my boys, it’s grown by leaps and bounds. My kids unanimously don’t want to go back to school. As social as they were, they don’t want to go back.”
One of the criticisms people have about homeschooling, Andrea says, while she cleans the dishes, is that the kids don’t get to be in real-life situations with their peers, to develop social skills.
“To me, that’s the biggest laugh. I can’t tell you how many times my son came home from school and said that something had happened on the playground. I’d ask if he told the yard-duty person, and he’d say, ‘Yeah, but they didn’t do anything.’ And they don’t. I’m not criticizing. There’s only one person out there with 400 kids.”
Andrea may laugh, but she takes her husband’s opinion about it seriously. “He recently told me that, while he agrees that our kids will get a better education at home, he is still undecided about the socialization issue.”
She understands his concerns and makes it a point to see they’re involved with other children on a regular basis. The field trips, however, are not an opportunity to develop social skills. Her kids enjoy the experiences, but don’t see the same children often enough to form relationships. In the beginning, Andrea joined homeschool groups and went out for park days with other homeschool families, but she says she “didn’t click,” and so decided not to force herself “to relate to other people just because they’re homeschoolers.” A self-proclaimed social butterfly, Manroe says she and her children are not lacking friends.
“I decided I’m just going to keep my old friends and let my kids keep the friends they have. And when they do see their friends, it’s not for 15 minutes on the playground. It’s for four hours, so they have a lot of time together.”
Lately, Andrea and her friends have been getting together regularly to do sewing projects. Last time, they made pajamas. Next time, curtains. They all have children of the same ages (most go to public school), and the kids run around while the mothers sew and chat.
“When my kids have an issue with a brother or a sister or a friend, I’m there, and I can say, ‘You’re thinking about this selfishly,’ or ‘You did wrong, and you need to ask for forgiveness.’ They’re getting taught how to be better people.”
At 12:30, after the cleanup, Andrea rounds up the children again. Because they had a long break this morning, they’re going to jump right back into their schoolwork. She gets Joel set up with his English practice, working on open and closed consonants, while Noah copies the days of the week in a workbook. Hannah sings and plays in the den. For the first time today, all seems to go smoothly.
“I try not to be too hard on myself,” Andrea says later, as I gather my things and get ready to leave. “I know I could be more efficient. Some people think if it takes you until 5:00, your kids are at the desk all day. You see! It takes till 5:00 because they take off and play on the swing set.”