Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda— Homeschooling Better, After the Fact

My middle kid, age 16, went with her dad to the office this morning to take a timed, practice ACT test. She’s been focused on improving her math score. He took over the coaching position a few weeks ago, and I have felt nothing but relief.

Full disclosure—I understand that I’ve been allowing myself to focus on things not done, even though this has been at the top of my “unschooling lessons learned list” for years now.

Don’t focus on things not done; simply do.

Yet I’ve let this argument slip inside my head, and it keeps returning. (She’s not my first to take the ACT test. She’s not the first to feel less than happy with a math score.) So, I will do battle with this beast. Publicly, with my words, as I often do when I need help explaining me… even when only to myself.

There are at least a dozen ways I know I could have helped her prepare more adequately for the math portion of the ACT test. I could have insisted she memorize the multiplication tables. I could have introduced the subject of algebra earlier or insisted she complete worksheet after worksheet, even after she had a pretty good grasp of what was going on and had no desire to go further.

Even though she wasn’t really interested, I could have required formal math work every day. Twenty minutes. Thirty? A little bit, all the way along, surely would have been enough.

No, I didn’t specifically prepare her for tests in English, reading, or science either, but this everything-is-connected, learning-happens-all-the-time lifestyle we have been living, has somehow been enough to assure her competitive scores in those subjects. Once she understood that the test (yes, even the one labeled science) was more about reading comprehension than science you actually know, she wasn’t intimidated. She conquered those sections with aplomb.

Of course, we’ve done math. Everyone does math. It’s part of life. People, especially homeschoolers, say it all the time, don’t they? But the math in our minds and in our daily living doesn’t always look the same on paper. Is that a failing of mine? Or is that a failing of the ACT test?

Counting money was an early focus. She has had her own bank account since she was six or seven. She has worked and earned money. She’s a saver, not a spender.

She knits, crochets and weaves, all of which require patterns and skills that she’s somehow managed to entirely pick up without a lick of help from me.

She knows how to multiply and divide, figure percentages, use tools of measurement. She understands fractions and manipulates them fearlessly. Time in the kitchen quickly makes sense of this sort of thing. Do you want twice as many cookies? Half as many pancakes?

We were early utilizers of Khan Academy, and have gone back time and again for questions that have come up. This is the kid who would voluntarily spend time doing drills, but I could have demanded more. I could have led her through a more systematic approach, making sure we checked off all the math boxes in an orderly manner. Then, perhaps, she would not be frustrated (or is it me who is frustrated?) with the math portion of the ACT test.

Worksheets and numbers for the sake of… I don’t know… drills of speed and accuracy? Those were never really on our agenda, and I find myself thinking that I potentially screwed things up for her by not making this thing called math more of a priority.

Though it did become a priority when she started talking about taking the ACT test, and not, at least not entirely, simply for the sake of earning a score that would declare her college ready (in the eyes of those who rely on such scores). This kid’s focus, for the moment, is scholarship money. She’s motivated by the reality that a high ACT score might mean substantial savings if she chooses to go to college. A high score, in fact, might open up options for college that she otherwise would not be able to afford.

And as I’m being honest, I have to remember that any bit of arm twisting I might have done to prepare her for this test before it was important to her, wouldn’t have done much good anyway. It wasn’t in our repertoire, me making unilateral decisions about what we were going to study and why.

This makes sense to me. And at the same time, NOT going to college, which she also talks about, or at least not going in the traditional way, makes sense, as well.

I don’t have all the answers. My children can certainly tell you that much.

And as I’m being honest, I have to remember that any bit of arm twisting I might have done to prepare her for this test before it was important to her, wouldn’t have done much good anyway. It wasn’t in our repertoire, me making unilateral decisions about what we were going to study and why. Our focuses have always been a team effort. My role has been to participate, assist, and sometimes stay out of the way.

The important thing to me has always been (and still is) that my children were empowered (to make decisions, for instance, about whether or not they were even going to take a test) and confident (that college, for instance, was one of many options for them).

It might be important to point out here that she has not blamed me, or complained, or offered criticism of our homeschool methods in any way. She is simply focused and determined. And yes, she has sometimes been frustrated. Some days, I feel like my biggest success has been in seeing when it might be time to walk away, to encourage her to give herself a little break from trying so hard.

This discussion, these doubts, as I have expressed them, have been primarily internal. How can I get so hung up on a little math score, when I can name at least a hundred ways my daughter has thrived and benefited without having to take a test at all?

I think, like any parent, I just want to know that my kids are happy. I think, like any parent, I tend to take too much credit. There’s a little part of me that wants to claim victory at their successes. There’s a part of me, as well, that worries any failures (that’s such a strong word, but we’ll leave it for now) are because I didn’t do enough.

If only we, as parents, wielded that kind of power. To make it better, to make it easier, to foresee exactly what they would need to know and deliver that knowledge to them in a tidy bundle. Because, yeah, that would be satisfying, wouldn’t it? Can you imagine never having to seek? Never having to stumble? Never making mistakes? Never having to exert extreme effort to accomplish something that was important to you? Never having to decide between one thing or another because your omnipotent parent had already shown you the way?

Yeah, me neither.

It’s just a math test. And she’s up 4 points from where she started. That’s a big jump, I tell her, and in very little time. There are kids who go to school for twelve years and earn a lesser score than that, I joke. And then I remember, that she’s not measuring herself against those other kids. This is her competition. Her deal with herself. And she seems happy, flourishing even, with her dad as coach.

It’s time for me to put aside my guilt. It’s time for me to get over myself. This test is not about me. It’s not a sign of my successes or my failures. I have no apologies to make. I have no victory laps to run. That’s the way it should be. Now my task is to live it.