In Russia, more and more families are moving their children to a family-based form of education. And it raises many questions for parents. For example:
- What can homeschooling give a child?
- Will the child develop at a higher level, or will he only waste his time and energy?
- With the family rid themselves of the stress associated with school, or will there be new stresses – how to keep the child from falling behind, how to cope and fit?
- Are parents motivated by a fear of causing their child discomfort, or by the desire to teach him to defend his right not to be like everyone else?
There is no one definitive answer to any of these questions. We offer you three stories of families who decided to take this step and teach their children at home.
Of course, the parents must make decisions about their children’s education together, including the decision to home educate. Most likely, especially if there are several children, one of the parents will have to become a teacher, and the other will take full responsibility for providing financially for the family. At least, this is what happened in these three families. For this reason, we are talking only with mothers who have taken on the responsibilities of teaching the children, while the fathers are at work.
In Russia, the Federal Education Act provides for several forms of education in which a child does not attend school, or attends only during limited times and activities. This is part-time in the school, and part-time in a home education program. In the part-time school programs, the child remains attached to a particular school, and the school remains responsible for the student’s performance; therefore, the school is obligated to provide guidance, textbooks, testing, and certifications. The child has the opportunity to work on an individualized plan, but the plan still depends on the school’s curriculum plan and education program and on the teacher’s program and lesson plan.
In the family-only form of home education, maximum distance from the school is assumed. This places the entire responsibility for teaching the child on the parents. In this case, the school only provides the student with the possibility of certification. In accordance with the law, the child is not obligated to pass an intermediate certification – that is, exams and tests at the end of each school year – but is only required the final testing after grades 9 and 11.
In some regions, local legislation provides for the payment of compensation to parents if the child is in a family-based homeschool, and does not depend on a government school. Thus, the state returns the money that the educational institution has not spent on the student.
Marcel Proust and Educational Walks
The Drozdov family has five children: two schoolchildren and three small children. Alexander Drozdov works as a programmer. Julia Drozdova graduated from the Faculty of Philosophy, and did not return to work after the birth of her third child. The form of teaching children is primarily family-based, but this year both girls who studied at home also went to school.
When there were only two daughters in the family, Sonya and Stasia, Julia had the idea that it would be great to teach the girls herself.
“I remember when I read about Marcel Proust, how he spent his childhood, how he was taught at home, how much time he spent with his grandmother, who walked with him in any weather, told him about everything, and made such an impression in his life,” Julia says. “I tried to do a lot with the girls, walk a lot, and fill these walks with teaching. And when school time came for Sonya, I didn’t want to bring such an interesting approach to an end. I thought that I could give her much more than she would receive in a classroom.”
However, Julia and her husband Alexander were still hesitant to send the eldest daughter to school. Sonia went to her first year of school, but then the family was forced to leave for a year in a provincial town. So that they would not have to withdraw their daughter from her Moscow school, Julia put in an application to transfer to family-based education.
When the family returned to Moscow, Sonia did not return to school; the girl continued to study at home. The second daughter, Stasia, did not attend school either. She immediately took great joy in helping her mother with the home and her younger siblings, becoming what the Russians call a “family girl,” much like Beth of Little Women.
Exams, Neighbors, and Finances
The Semenov family has five children. 12-year-old Nastya, 10-year-old Polina, and 9-year-old Marina are studying at home. 7-year-old Kostya and 5-year-old Katya are just on the threshold of school age, and are not yet studying formally. Alexei Semenov works as a driver. Tatiana Semenova has a higher pedagogical education, works part-time as a site administrator, and is engaged in teaching the children. The children learn through correspondence in a private school, and the older children take online classes in subjects that are more challenging.
Tatiana and Alexei Semenov’s children have not spent a single day in a school. For several years, the parents thought about the best ways to see to their children’s education, and they finally decided that homeschooling was the best thing for them. For ten years, Tatiana had taught Russian literature at a government school. So the disadvantages of a school, and her own possibilities as their teacher, were obvious to her.
The family chose a Moscow school that offers distance education. The children are supported by online lessons, and the testing and verification is also done online.
“When we made this decision, we thought about how to spare our children’s nerves. None of the children were easy for me; pregnancy and childbirth was always very difficult, and so I always think that every child of mine is a medical miracle,” says Tatiana. “Children have specific problems, and the school would have only aggravated them. In any case, I am a teacher, and I know that 90% of children come to school healthy, but only 10% remain so. We were afraid of the big lads at school.”
It takes Tatiana’s children about the same amount of time to complete all their work, as it takes the schoolchildren to complete only their daily lessons, because when homeschooling, separate time is not needed for extra homework after school.
“A schoolchild will stay at school for 3-6 hours before coming home, and after all his energy has been squeezed out like a lemon, he still has to spend a few more hours on homework,” Tatiana says. “Where else does this happen except in school?”
Tatiana shows us thick folders, like portfolios for each of the children. “Here are their creative works: Drawings, applications, and even photography, which my mother taught them, and their various certificates.”
“It is important for the children to not only go to clubs and activities, but also to be able to entertain and occupy themselves,” says Tatiana. “Now that they know how to do it, they are happy to sculpt or to draw. The older children involve the younger children in these activities. If my children went to school, I would not be able to provide them with such good developmental skills.”
To Tatiana, good development means both extra classes and activities and the benefit of the unique way the parents think of their children.
“I remember when the older children at the age of six and seven explained to our neighbor, a biology teacher, why a spider is not an insect and a dolphin is not a fish. They had not memorized the big words, but they explained in simple, small words, about six and eight legs, about breathing through gills or lungs. I am not sure that children in schools would be able to figure out those answers quickly and easily state the concepts.”
Another consideration for a large family is financial expenses. Tatiana estimated the cost of the school uniform (which must be changed constantly as children grow), transportation, food, school supplies and stationery, and various other school fees. She found out that these things cost more than online lessons, additional classes for the children, and gasoline for the car.
Are Your Children No Longer Yours?
The Panteleev Family has four children. 13-year-old Ksyusha and 8-year-old Anya study at home, in a family-based model of home education. 16-year-old Katya is completing her last two years at St. Dmitry Orthodox School, in the School of the Sisters of Mercy at the First City Hospital. The parents searched for a long time for a school for her, and are pleased with this choice. Four-year-old Timosha is still waiting for his parents to decide how he will be educated, after seeing the educational outcomes for his older sisters. Alexander Panteleev works as a department head in a large IT firm. Natalia has a degree in economics and is engaged in the training and development of her children. The form of education for the students at home is a family-based homeschool.
Natalia is the sort of mother who is deeply involved in the schools and the experiences of her children. When her oldest, Katya, was studying in her previous school, her mother carefully monitored what the child was doing, even going so far as to look over the curriculum in advance. The more she investigated, the more she realized that this school program did not suit Katya. The school was not quite ordinary. Although it was a municipal school, there was a Russian ethnocultural component, formed in an Orthodox gymnasium at the parish church.
“Take literary reading for example. First of all, many works are given that are not age appropriate. What I was forced to read at the age of seven, I would not read with a four-year-old,” explains Natalia. “I mean, I have to sit down with the child and dismantle each story or tale, because, in my opinion, what they are taught is not enough, or it is something that I, as an Orthodox Christian, disagree with.
For example, why is only a half a year given to the history of the Middle Ages, but multiple years given to a certain lifestyle or social science? Why does an elementary school child need to know what is going on in modern speleology (the study of caves), or in focusing on how the spleen functions? Can you see how this would confuse the students about the world around them?”
Natalia also disapproves of teaching and study methods such as cramming, drilling, and imposing meanings to work out with fixed materials.
“No, of course, I understand that at seven or eight years old, a child’s brain is more capable of memorization than reasoning,” Natalia explains. “But I do not like the mechanism of suppression, etching away all life from a child. Modern school is not very different from Soviet schools who taught children to ‘sit, be silent, and fear.’ As a parent, I am very worried about the position of the teachers: ‘You gave us the children. They are no longer yours, lest we tell them that they are unique.’”
According to Natalia, her family was always ready for dialogue, trying to establish communication with teachers in regards to their approach to the children. But the teachers, no matter how open and understanding they are, work in classrooms with thirty different students, who need to be seated and forced to listen to maintain order. Not every child is able to easily adapt to such a system.
The Panteleevs’ oldest daughter was a creative outside-the-box thinker, and she had a hard time at school because her desire to prove herself caused a rebuff from her teachers which created tension.
The school where Katya is studying now is full of children with common interests and similar views.
“Katya has blossomed,” says Natalia, “the first thing she said about this school was, ‘Finally, I have teachers who are interested in what I think.’”
Meanwhile, the Panteleevs’ second daughter, Ksyusha, also had a difficult time at school, despite having an easygoing and pleasant nature. Ksyusha was a good student, but she had many complaints: Teachers would often change just as students got used to them. Conflicts arose with the several aggressive boys in the class, leading to a very tense atmosphere in the classroom. She was often hungry, as the nimble young boys in the school got to the food in the cafeteria before she could, and she would often be left with only tasteless food for lunch.
The Panteleev parents listened to all of this while considering the issues of family education and homeschooling. Finally, they offered her the option of studying at home. Ksyusha hesitated for a while. She was sad to part with her classmates. She put off leaving her school for a long time, but she ultimately did so.
Tretyakov Gallery and Skype lessons
The first years of homeschooling for Sonya and Stasia Drozdova went very well. Julia enjoyed the process of teaching her children. It was easy for the inquisitive girls to learn, and everything that their mother gave them beyond the required curriculum was interesting to them.
“If we approach learning with creativity, we can embrace so much of everything, and highlight any topic from different angles,” said Julia excitedly. “Take, for example Ivan the Terrible. You can go to the Tretyakov Gallery and find paintings by Repin and Vasnetsov, go to Alexandrov, read the novel by Alexei Tolstoy, and write dictation notes about the Tsar.
At first, the girls read a lot, went to museums, and watched educational films. But then, other children came along: Stesha, who is now six, Kesha, who is three, and Stepa, who is a year old. With each new baby, Julia had less time to help her older daughters study. The curriculum was demanding, and learning was becoming routine anyway. At one point, Julia thought about attaching the girls to another school. In order to do so, Sonya and Stasia needed to pass their intermediate exams. Studying for the exams occupied a lot of time. Something special would be ending. The girls would have less time with their mother.
When it became very difficult for Julia to manage both the younger children and the older ones, the family made a very difficult decision: to allow the oldest, 13-year-old Sonya, to go back to school. Sonya agreed and had high hopes. She had started learning complex physics and chemistry in the seventh grade, and Julia was afraid that she couldn’t handle Sonya’s education alone.
School was difficult at first for Sonya, since she was such a homebody. On the first day, as if by design, the teacher summoned her to the blackboard. She was confused by a simple task, and she burst into tears. For a while, there lingered an idea that everyone thought she was stupid. She quickly adapted, though, and since she had learned so much while studying at home, she soon had the best grades in class.
“Now, Sonya is a beloved student,” smiles Julia. “She has exemplary notebooks which are full of her graded homework.”
Sonia adjusted well to the school community. Thanks to her kind and sympathetic character, the class fell in love with her. Her mother had prepared her well by teaching her to forgive and to help everyone.
As for 11-year-old Stasia, she is going to school for the first time and is in the fifth grade. She goes to school now for the same reason: her mother does not know how to spend enough time with both her older children and her toddlers.
“If I could, I would not have sent the girls to school. I just couldn’t manage it all,” explains Julia. “But I hope that I will be able to homeschool the younger children in the future.”
With all of that said, Stasia’s homeschooling went very well. For a small fee, she took some lessons on Skype, and she went to school for English classes. She did well and passed her certification as her older sister Sonia had done.
Catching Children “In Flight”, and Practicing Fractions with a Cake
The day starts later for the Semenov children than for schoolchildren, starting around 8:00 AM. At 9:30, as a general rule, they have classes in blocks: Sculpting (plasticine for the younger children and polymer clay for the seniors), drawing, gymnastics, English (each of the five students has an individualized lesson). After the age of fourteen, the seniors have music school.
In between these classes, they are able to study other subjects. It is rare, since the school is ungraded, for Tatiana to sit down at the table and have a class as in a small school. She does not consider this the main task, though. The art is to catch a child “in flight” when he does not realize that he has been taught!
“We are walking in the forest, looking at the trees, comparing aspen and spruce, and the children have already learned what the difference is between coniferous and deciduous trees,” Tatiana shares. “At school, it will take 45 minutes just to teach that, and there will still be more to go, more moving from one lesson to the next.
Or take math. With multiplication and division, it is easy to let the children lay out pieces of candy or tangerines in groups of five. The same goes for fractions. We cut a cake and count the pieces: one eighth or two eighths. With these real life examples, it is easier for them to work out the problems in their books.”
Time: Win or Lose?
Natalia Panteleeva has no complaints. Thirteen-year-old Ksenia thrives in homeschooling. She is perseverant, responsible, and collected.
At first, Ksyusha was primarily educated by her family, but was still attached to the school for testing. At that time, the school had no experience in teaching a child to be “family worker,” that is, to help her mother with the home and her siblings. Thus, it took a long time to get everything worked out.
For example, they struggled to get a clear testing schedule, and to work out a timetable for school attendance. For the most part, the family went to the school, and for a long time, it seemed impossible to escape the requirements of the classroom. Ksyusha had to go and take tests with the class. Officially, she was allowed to take tests on her own, but her teacher was evidently uncomfortable with this, and did not want to allocate time to do so.
At the beginning of the new school year, the family connected their daughter with a more distant school, which promised minimal contact and gentler testing. At the same time, the parents have big plans: Natalya hopes that her daughter will have time to turn in the required work for the mandatory school program, and will still have plenty of time to really dive into the things that interest her, such as ancient history and Russian art.
Ksyusha has taken on more responsibility for her education, and she decided to fill in all the gaps — everything she hadn’t been able to figure out when she had been enrolled in school.
“She just didn’t understand the lessons, and she passed them by because there was just not enough time,” explains Natalya. “But now we have the rare opportunity to really delve into everything we want. Ksyusha sits for half an hour at a time with each theme. She is really persevering and takes pleasure in the fact that she has finally begun to understand some things.”
Ksyusha spends just as much time studying now, if not more, but finds that the quantity of studying has been replaced by quality of studying, which is a real victory for her.
“The child gets enough sleep, eats normally, and has no excess stress,” Natalya rejoices. “Ksyusha and the rest of us just breathed freely,” she said, after the first week that she had the opportunity to study at home.
Open to All
One of the main concerns of those who do not choose homeschooling, or of those who are altogether against it, is that the child may grow up in a “vacuum”, or that there might be a lack of “socialization”.
Of course, parents of homeschooled children look at it differently. Socialization can be arranged outside of school; kids can interact at extra-curricular activities, on the street, and at parties.
In all three of these stories, the heroines are mothers of many children. For children from such families, the issue of socialization is not the most pressing. At the same time, staying with your brothers and sisters does have an impact on friendships with peers.
“It seems that my children have more and deeper interactions than school children,” Tatiana Semenova compares. “Very often children tend to gather in groups, either one class or one neighborhood. In this sense, my children don’t have restrictions. They are inwardly free, liberated as it were, and other children often gather around them.”
Teaching Healthy Ways of Being Alone
Julia Drozdova’s daughters, Sonya and Stasia, are very open, friendly girls, but the daily company of their peers is by no means an urgent need for them.
“It seems to me that the main thing for the development of a child is not socialization at all,” says Julia. “If a person needs a team, he will join one in any case. I think it is important to teach a child how to be alone, to be with himself, to occupy himself. Nowadays, children do not know how to do this. They need a tablet, a phone, a computer game, or at least a playground. I am not against playgrounds, but they are a narrowed space, a limitedness where children jump into it every day, but at the same time do not see how streams flow or ducks fly.”
(By the way, while we were talking with Julia, Stasia was sitting in the next room. During this time, she managed to tinker with the younger children, work on math, draw, and even weave a spider out of beads. At the time, there was a natural quiet to the house. It was clear that the child knows how to occupy herself and that she occupies herself meaningfully.)
The parents also have higher considerations: It is more useful for the children to be with the family most of the time, rather than in a group or class setting. Sonya has a very good attitude toward her classmates, and Julia reluctantly lets her go on trips with the class, though she would prefer that Sonya spend her free time with the family and household members rather than with classmates.
“We need to go to Volograd. We’d be happy to take the whole family. The class went to the Paleontological Museum. We’d do better going there ourselves,” insists Julia. “There will be more benefit from this. She will see more and will be with the family more. I want to cultivate this feeling in the children so that they will want to come home and be with the family as much as possible. I really would not want the school to replace the family.”
Grow and Transplant
Natalya Panteleeva is in solidarity with Julia about the distance from school. The customary Soviet throw-back expression, “School is our second family,” causes her inner protest. Having come home from this “second family,” the child will be overworked and not capable of doing anything with his first family.
Natalya studied this from a psychological perspective and is sure: Not so much for their protection (in order to prevent problems from arising), but for their development, children need to spend as much time as
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