Sunday I had the privilege of talking with Elizabeth Edwards about homeschooling and education in the U.S. I was curious if their experience homeschooling their young children, Jack and Emma Claire, had shaped their views on education and had any impact on John's education proposals. Here's what Elizabeth had to say:
Is homeschooling your youngest children, Jack and Emma Claire, something you had contemplated before the campaign began?
Well, we knew that from our previous experience campaigning was going to require a lot of time away from home. And taking several months for campaigning and seeing the children only every few days, it was not ideal for us. And the way we'd be able to see them more, include them more, let them be part of the experience..., you know they were young the last time, it was easier to pull them out, but in public school, in 2nd grade and 4th grade, you shouldn't be pulling them out willy-nilly just because that's a convenient time for you, even if we could get away with it, it would leave the impression that our children were entitled to special treatment and we do not think that.
So, we thought it was a better idea to just take them out of that environment entirely, although I'm going to put an asterisk next to that word (environment), and home school them for the duration of the campaign, so that they could come with us. They could campaign if they wanted to, or they could see parts of the country if they wanted to while we were campaigning. The asterisk is...that they're not entirely removed from their school. The kids do go over, they periodically have lunch with the classes which they were assigned, they actually visit with their classmates, they still have play dates and things like that that you would normally have whether you were homeschooled or in public school. But they have them largely with their public school friends. So we're trying to keep them in contact.
We're also using the curriculum from [the school] that their assigned teachers have for the year, so that they stay on course. Frankly, I think because [the children] are getting a much more intense experience, they're actually sort of going through the material more quickly than the class itself is. And it has made the traveling not so much of a big interruption in terms of what they can accomplish during the school year.
Do you employ a tutor? How did you choose him/her?
Because we're on the road so much, I could do some things when I'm at home, as I was for most of last week, I can be engaged in things. Or when they're on the road with us, I can be engaged in things, but in terms of somebody there when we're not at home -- which of course is the problem with campaigning. We have employed a certified teacher to teach them. We found someone who uses experiences inside the classroom and outside the classroom... because we thought that was an ideal combination for this experience and he has done an incredible job.
For example, we live on an old farm outside of Chapel Hill, North Carolina and they go out into the woods. A lot of the old farmland is overgrown so they'll go out and catalogue the different plants that are there or take pictures of the different insects and animals and make molds of the footprints or little paw prints they see in the woods. I think it's been an incredible experience for them to have this wide range of ways in which they learn. I don't think it's impossible to translate some of these things into a public school setting, but it's been a little easier of course, because it's just the two children and the teacher who can walk out the door.
Could you describe your children's typical homeschooling schedule?
The kids go, they leave the house every morning, they pack their lunches and go down to a room (part of an extension to the house)... it's got maps all over the windows and it's become their little classroom, so that they're separated from the house itself, which I think probably makes it a little easier for them to get into a school mindset, because they are basically public school kids, with the idea that they have a classroom to go to and that's where they learn. It gives them sort of that same framework.
School starts at 8:00 and it's over at about 2:30 every day. They have a set time when they eat lunch. That does move around if they're working on something or if one of us comes home and we won't be home until 1:00, they'll eat lunch around 1:00 instead, so they can spend some time with us. So, although there is a lot of flexibility, there's a particular time they do everything throughout the day.
The other day, Jack got through with his work a little early and so he came and hung out with me. He did his homework and some reading with me while Emma Claire stayed down and did some work on math that she hadn't finished.
How do you decide when the children will travel with you and John on the campaign trail?
We're the grownups, so we decide when they go. The calculation we make is are we going to be basically in the same place for enough days to make this worthwhile. We don't want to just put them on a plane or in a van and say 'alright we're going to hop from one place to another place.' There's no possibility of that being a good experience for the children. But if we're going to pass a place for several days in Iowa and New Hampshire, particularly because those are the places where we've spent longer periods of time right now, South Carolina, Nevada not far behind, if we're going to spend several days there, the children will come with for those trips. We were in NH not that long ago with the children over Halloween. They ended up trick-or-treating with some new friends that they made, but they also went to Massachusetts and saw the Freedom Trail.
The thing they do get to decide is whether they come to an event or not. I think if they spoke completely honestly I think they'd want to come to no events. I don't know if they want to show solidarity with their dad, but they'll say: we'll come to two events today. Because we've been doing this for so long, they've basically heard most of the stuff (in the speeches) and are not that interested in hearing it, unless a particular place is interesting.
We did an event in Iowa at this wonderful old barn that had old farm equipment in it and the kids stayed for that entire event because they were so intrigued by all the farm equipment that was there -- not because they were intrigued by what their father was saying in particular.
The following question comes from OffTheBus correspondent Mayhill Fowler: How does homeschooling fit it in with your treatment schedule and periodic doctor's visits?
My spectacular scheduler makes sure that we can make it work with other parts of the campaign. It takes priority, making sure that I get the treatment takes priority, but it does mean sometimes for example the kids may be in NH and I may have to go home. The kids will stay with John and I'll go home for a treatment . It honestly more often works the other way, in that they're at home and the treatment means that I can actually be with them, as opposed to away from them.
Did you experience a "deschooling" period in the beginning with Jack and Emma Claire, a resistance to formal instruction at home? Some parents have experienced this when their child comes to homeschooling, after having been in school for several years.
Even coming off of a summer, they were very excited about homeschooling, they were very excited about the prospect. There was sort of an initial period of excitement of this new way of doing things. They loved setting up their classroom, that kind of stuff. Then they became, I think, a little bit lax in terms of 'well, this is really my house and I have more leeway here than I would have in the classroom. I can speak to this teacher in a way that I might not speak to a teacher if I had a classroom full of my peers sitting around me.' I actually took a few days off the campaign to go and sit down and deal with this. You would never walk out of your classroom in the middle of the day, but somehow if it's your own house it's easier to walk out of the classroom. So, we had to make those kind of adjustments so they understood.
After sitting down with them and asking them questions about how they would expect to perform in a regular classroom setting, I think they really understood, such that it has been almost heavenly in terms of their taking the best of both worlds. We worked out all the problems by talking about it. It honestly helps that I've had children over so long a period of time. So I'm a lot more relaxed. Things that would have thrown me for a loop earlier are pretty easy to just take in stride this time. So when I have a child that walks out of the classroom, I don't think 'Oh, my goodness, it's the end of the world.' I think 'Oh my goodness, I think we need to have a conversation about this.'
How long do you and your husband plan to continue homeschooling? For example, if your husband won the general election and you found yourselves headed to the White House?
At any bet, we'll go through the school year, because we committed to this process. My recollection of 2004, is that [campaigning after the primaries before the general election] is an incredibly time consuming process that will keep us on the road a lot. I'm honestly thinking that because I know what that schedule looks like, we'd be jumping from place to place and though they might join us on weekends, it may be that they would return to public school next fall. That's certainly the present idea -- that nomination or no nomination they'd return to school next fall.
The following question comes from OffTheBus producer Neil Nagraj: Are there specific benefits of homeschooling accomplishable via public schools, and if so - what and how?
We'd take with us, I think a lot of the ideas that we've seen about getting outside the classroom. I'd like to see it happen for the entire school, but certainly we'll make sure it happens for our children. I'll give you a great example. In 4th grade in North Carolina, I think in most states, you study state history. And the children spent the night at the Indian mounds in the central part of the state. They went to Roanoke Island where settlers landed when they first came to this country and spent the night there. So, they could wake up, camp there and look out at what settlers saw, because it's still pretty undeveloped there. And that gave them, I think, a unique perspective when they were learning the stories of what happened. They had a real sense of what it must have been like. We'd love to see public schools in general find those opportunities, but we want to make certain that we do it for our own children, those kind of enhancing experiences.
Have you received messages of support from other homeschooling parents? Criticisms? People voicing misconceptions about your choice to homeschool?
Not so much support, I have a lot of interest in it [from other people]: how it's going and what I think of the homeschooling experience. And honestly, I came into it with some trepidation about it. I think the combination of the fact that we have a good physical facility in which to do [homeschooling], that we have this great young man [to tutor] who is assisting us, that we have great cooperation from the school system, in terms of making sure that they have socialization opportunities.
We have the best of all possible worlds, I could not speak highly enough about it. I am going to put my children back into public schools. We're believers in public schools. I guess I could teach literature and history, I'm pretty certain I could teach literature, since that's what I intended to do for a living, but there are a lot of things I know I can't teach them, when it comes to math. I have a very good math student in Cate, she was really a spectacular math student, she lost me at about 6th grade. Even when I would try and sort of pick up on what she was doing so I could be of some help to her she was so far past me. I remember when John used to coach soccer, at some point he could coach them for a while and teach them what he knew, but he hadn't really played soccer and what he learned from watching tapes...at some point they needed somebody who really understood. I'm hoping that my children will need someone who's better at math than I am to help them learn everything they need to be successful adults.
It must be quite an experience having been a parent to your two oldest children when they were in school and parenting school age children again now. How have schools changed throughout the years from your experience?
In Raleigh, where we lived before, the Wake County public schools were experiencing an enormous amount of growth and there was the almost constant shifting of students around. That wasn't going to be a problem for my children because we lived very close. But, I saw so much movement in the schools. My father was in the Navy, I moved around my whole life and one of the things I wanted to provide for my children was stability and a single home and a single high school that they were going to root for instead of a constantly changing landscape.
What I found in these school systems was that in order to meet the needs of this increasing population. Schools were in constant flux and the school system because of [money] was working to find other ways to meet the needs of the students because of the budget constraints they had. I didn't see that with my first set [of children], I saw a lot more stability in the school. So, I think that as money has become harder to come by and with rapid growth, I think there has been a lot of stress on the public school system. You hope that in the end, after the growing pains, [public schools] end up in a good place. But, I think that at the present time, when we moved from Raleigh to the country, the Chapel Hill school district seemed a lot more stable.
Your husband's education plan proposes open-ended essays, projects, and hands-on experiments over standardized tests to measure student success. Also in the plan: longer school days and extra learning time for struggling students. Homeschoolers make use of similar activities. In your experience, have your children had success with these types of learning activities?
I think John had this opinion before we had this experience [with homeschooling], but it solidifies his commitment to the advantages of hands-on kinds of teaching: that education doesn't just reside in the four walls of a classroom or just between the covers of a book, that you can expand that as much as possible. I don't think he feels any differently about this than public school teachers do, but then again we talk often about the constraints that lack of money in education cause. With so many things being cut, I know in our schools in Wake County, field trips became almost impossible. It used to be that they were funded by the schools ...by and large they've pretty much eliminated those kinds of activities because of costs associated with it. It's the wrong direction in which to move. We want to make sure that children's learning experiences, whether in a private school, home school or public school environment, are as rich as they can possibly be. My older children benefited in a school system, where they had those opportunities and my younger children are benefiting in the home school setting.
Access to Universal Preschool at age 4, is a major part of John's education plan.
Some homeschoolers both conservative and liberal get nervous about Universal Preschool. They see it as a step toward taking away the right of parents to homeschool their children, leading to one day instituting mandatory attendance rules.
The problem is that [high-quality preschool] is available only in some communities, in some populations and if we're talking ... you're talking about whether or not you're creating a learning-ready child and we want to make certain that those opportunities are available regardless of the community in which you live or the means with which your parents come to the table. We need to be treating children equally which means giving them equal opportunity to be in the position to take advantage of school.
When you think about the long term consequences, they're to create learning ready children, not just in terms of our graduation rates but in terms of their life long prospects, it makes sense to make sure that it's available. It doesn't have to mean that you have to use it. I think the fear that something becomes mandatory: this is the same kind of fear that's often used to keep us from making opportunities available. It's hyperbolic, I think.
Is the growing trend of children being homeschooled in the U.S. a good thing for education in this country?
I don't have an easy answer on this...and the way I feel about homeschooling is the way I feel about charter schools in that there are some great charter schools. We have a charter in my original hometown and it's always on the list of the best schools in the country. And then you see charter schools where they are simply not prepared to meet the needs of students. And I think you probably have that same expanse in public schools. You'd probably get the same experience in homeschooling. Some homeschooling experiences being truly spectacular and some that are considerably less so. You have to be impressed when your spelling bee winners or your geography bee winners are increasingly those kids who are home schooled. I've noticed that in the last several years.
I'd like to think that people who are doing [homeschooling] think 'you know I have a unique ability to create learning experiences for my children'. And I think because of traveling [John and I] do have a unique opportunity with our kids this year. I'd be concerned if I were the one teaching my children math, and I'm highly educated and actually did great on the SAT's but, I'm many years away from that and maybe I could teach myself to do it but, the answer's too complicated because you're talking about too wide a range.
Cross posted at Huffington Post's Off the Bus.