The Journey of My Two Free Spirits

By Marie Cosgrove

I’ve always valued being different but now my girls say they just want to be ‘normal’…

My home ed journey began long before I had children. I was first introduced to the idea by my sister–in-law, who was home educating my two nieces. At the time I was teaching in a primary school and struggling with a system I felt didn’t suit the needs of the children (or the teachers).

Two main areas bothered me. One was the incredible waste of time in moving children around the school, lining them up and getting their attention, disciplining them. I also didn’t like the way subjects were compartmentalised into units. When the allotted time was up, children had to pack up and switch to the next ‘subject’. This seemed, even then, to be a false way of learning, even though it was all I was used to from my own many years of institutions.

I had a long interest in alternative schools and had done a few projects on these at teachers’ college. I preferred this approach of student input and more relaxed timetabling.

I decided in those last years of teaching that I could, one-on-one, do all the ‘school work’ in two hours, leaving lots of time free for other things. I never really thought about the implications to me of having my children home all the time – financially, career-wise or any of that. Home-ed looked good and I thought part-time school could be another possibility. Community schools were few and far between in those days and we couldn’t afford Steiner so I didn’t really look seriously at those options.

So, I madly began saving any worksheets left over from classes. I had quite a good collection of private resources and I photocopied others. I was PREPARED. However, when my eldest daughter was about six and we had moved beyond story reading, craft activities and furniture labelling, to the more serious stuff of bookwork, I came up against the brick wall that many home educators have also been confronted with. I had created a free spirit and that free spirit was not interested in sitting at the kitchen table ‘working’.

Excuse me for a moment if I travel a well-worn path. I had it all planned. My daughter could watch Play School from 9.30 until 10.00 while I prepared our work for the day. The way I saw it, we could get all the Maths and English out of the way between 10.00 and 12.00. We would have lunch and then, bingo, a free afternoon! So began the journey of unschooling myself and learning to trust… another story I don’t have to tell as it’s been so well-documented in Otherways over the years.

What I do want to talk about are some of the less explored repercussions of leaving the mainstream path. I did it in a big way and my daughters are now showing me what a big impact that has had on them.

Not only did we leave mainstream school, we left the mainstream altogether. We built a mud brick home, grew our own food, lived without power for a while and then installed a solar power system. We shunned conventional medicine and junk food and, horror of horrors, we had a composting toilet! Not something your seven-year-old friends might comment on, but teenagers? It may be a different story when you’re trying to impress a certain boy!

Another big impact was not living near a railway station, causing the children to be totally dependent on us to get them wherever they wanted to go. My eldest daughter was quite old, relatively speaking, before I was happy for her to catch a train to Melbourne and hang out with friends.

My kids have often told me over the past few years that they have felt ‘different’ on so many levels and now they just crave to be ‘normal’. Stabbing stuff for a parent who has given a lot of thought to their upbringing and who believes being different is desirable! There was no point in telling them that many teenagers (including myself) have suffered from this syndrome. After all, coming to terms with who you are and how others see you is a part of adolescence. Notwithstanding all this, I could see where they were coming from. On no level could they fade into the background and just feel part of things.

A few years ago, my eldest daughter decided to do her VCE. Sarah was 17 and still not ‘doing’ anything so I had started to panic and said that she had to find some course of study to do or alternatively, get a job the following year.

So she began by doing a couple of Year 11 subjects through Distance Ed. Over the course of that first year, we had many arguments as I could see that I hadn’t prepared her in any way for this course of action and was trying to cram in the advice.

She, on the other hand, had decided she was now TOTALLY independent of me as far as her schooling was concerned and wanted me to butt out thank you very much.

It was a huge learning curve for me as I came to realise that Sarah had a very different way of approaching her work to the way I would do it and again it was all about TRUST. However, at this stage, it was scary stuff. I really struggled to let go.

Somewhere along the way, we realised it could take a very long time for Sarah to do her VCE this way (and I was still trying to persuade her to use it as a form of practise) so she picked up some more subjects and took on a three-year plan to get it finished. However, she’ll be 20 by then – not really ideal now that she’s decided on a six year course to get where she wants to go career-wise.

So now I feel that I should have pushed her into doing something earlier, but I still don’t think she was ready at the time. Hmmm.

The current plan is to finish VCE this year while also doing some Open University subjects to give her a kick start into the course she is hoping to get into. RMIT, who runs the course actually prefer students who have done Open Uni as it indicates how the student copes at University level. The student still has to apply through VTAC and their results need to be fairly good, but it opens up another avenue. Sarah will get credits for some subjects and a background in the studies she hopes to take up.

Sarah and Liz, a home-ed friend who is now at university, recently discussed the difficulties they have had moving into mainstream academia.

Sarah felt that time management was something she struggled with for a while. She had never had to organise her time schedules before, never had ‘homework’, and never had deadlines for getting work in on time.

Another disadvantage she experienced was due to doing her VCE through DECV. She had to go to a local school, where she didn’t know anyone, to sit her exams. Arriving on exam day, all the other students knew each other and had done lessons together all year, and were able to swap notes before and after the exam.

Liz found it hard adjusting to Uni even though she had done a few other courses over the years.

Socially she is able to adapt quickly, so there weren’t any issues with making friends or even with course work for most of her subjects. However, there were times when she felt out of place or ignorant. Sometimes, an approach to a subject threw her; and essay writing was completely new.

It meant having to learn things faster to keep up with classmates. Things they found mundane, she found really hard to grasp.

Liz successfully managed her difficulties and has completed her first year but there are still occasions when she encounters things she has no knowledge of and needs to work harder than everyone else to understand.

I think, from talking to the two girls, that many of the issues they face come from not ‘knowing the ropes’. All the other students have been through 12 or 13 years of school systems and pretty much know how the game works. Our kids may struggle in this arena when they finally join up with their mainstream contemporaries.

Then there is the Reading journey that I have gone on with my younger daughter, Susie. As Sarah was a late reader (around nine or ten before she was reading novels) I wasn’t too worried initially.

However, when Susie wasn’t reading by 11, I decided I may need to intervene and so we got out the Fitzroy Readers. Well, she was far too old for these really and we only lasted a few months before a rebellion set in. I tried many things over the next few years including the 100, 200, and 300 most common words. Surely, with these under her belt, she’d have a chance of tackling a good book. The trouble was, the older she got, the more sophisticated the books were at her interest level.

In a desperate measure, I stopped reading to Susie, hoping that she would miss stories so much that she’d have a much greater DESIRE to read. By this stage she was 13 and not a lot closer to the goal.

It was at the National Home School Conference that I went to a seminar on the Sound Way program. It sounded impressive and I was willing to spend $700 on buying Susie a ‘possibility’ of learning to read.

We struggled through the program with lots of tears and anger and frustration and, after a painful 12 months, there did seem to be some movement, but she was still not capable of reading the desired novel!

The self-esteem had taken a battering; however, one really positive thing did come out of this program and that was neat handwriting! Susie also started reading signs and texting friends so we did feel the program had some value.

Soon after we emerged from this program, I heard about Behavioural Optometry. I had put Susie through a few tests to see if she needed coloured glasses which do help some children in her situation. We gleaned from this that there was something ‘wrong’ but it wouldn’t be helped with the glasses. So I enquired about testing at the Royal Children’s Hospital and that was going to cost mega bucks. Somewhere along the way Behavioural Optometry had been mentioned to me. Then one day I received a reminder note from my optometrist and I noticed the magic words on his letterhead.

I subsequently rang and spoke to him and he said he might be able to help my daughter and to bring her in for some ‘free tests’ (I was later to discover that although the tests were free, getting the results of the tests was not!)

We duly attended and had an hour appointment full of nasty testing. I was asked to go back a week later to hear the results, which I did. After this appointment, Susie was rather cross with me for not taking her and I think she was quite right. I had somehow got caught up in their way of doing things.

Anyway, the results revealed that Susie had all three forms of dyslexia (I didn’t know that there was more than one), and the solution was, you guessed it – another program! Susie was not at all happy with this news but, the way the optometrist explained things made sense. Basically he said that the messages that her eyes were receiving were not going on the correct routes to her brain and therefore she wasn’t able to interpret them. The aim of the Piggyback program was to ‘re-wire’ her brain and it would take several months to go through the nine stages. He estimated her reading age to be about Grade 2.

Susie’s 14th year was spent dominated by the jolly Piggyback program! We went from daily tears to tears and swearing and more loss of self-esteem. There were lots of ‘why me’s? And ‘I hate him!’s (the optometrist). She got headaches most days and we never mastered some of the activities completely. (I had to use my judgement on this quite a bit). The optometrist is a lovely man who really wants to help children with reading difficulties but, unfortunately, we felt he didn’t have a very empathic manner so Susie always felt ‘dumb’ when she went to see him.

Needless to say, she and I also had many fights. While I was pretty patient and sympathetic to how awful it was making her feel, I too am human and had days when I lost it.

We were supposed to spend about an hour a day, six days a week working our way through various activities, moving from level one to level nine. Coming from our natural learning style of home education this was difficult for both of us, to say the least. I think that’s why it blew out to 12 months for us to get to the end. There were many things that got in the way and I wasn’t prepared to be totally dogmatic about it.

At the end of the year, the optometrist said that we should come back in January for our next check-up. However, Susie was turning 15 in January and she put her foot down. She was determined that she wasn’t going into another year with this ‘thing’ hanging over her head. So, we ploughed on right up to Christmas Eve, and by cutting a few corners, we only had one activity left for the new year. This was simply to time her reading and increase the speed. After a session at this she finally spat the dummy and said ‘NO MORE!’ So I agreed that she’d given it a good shot and I wasn’t going to force her any further. Our appointment was on the 12th of January and I’m thrilled to report Suise was half way through a Tamora Pierce book and read all the way to the appointment in the car!

The test results showed that she had gone up three levels in the one year but this wasn’t really of any importance to us. The thing that her whole family was rejoicing in was that she was enjoying reading a novel!

By late January, Susie had progressed onto the third book of the Lioness Quartet and I can’t tell you what a thrill it is to walk into her room and see her lying on her bed reading a book. She is thrilled to bits as well and all that lost self-esteem is flooding back. The family went out for dinner the other night to celebrate as it has been a journey for us all.

Marie is happy to chat to any parents who think her experience might throw some light on their own home ed journey. She can be contacted through the editor

Please note that the Distance Education Centre Victoria (DECV) is now known as Virtual School Victoria.

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