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  • Katie Bramhall, Midwife

Homeschooling My Daughters-1991 when my name was Nicki

A VERY PRIVATE SCHOOL For a Dover family, the best learning environment is the home The Boston Globe (Boston, MA) December 12, 1991 | Peter Anderson, Globe Staff   DOVER -- The two Bramhall girls are "doing school" in their stocking feet while seated at a place of study for a more Lincolnesque time, the kitchen table. Devin is working on multiplication, Allison is doing a typing drill. Nicki Bramhall, their mother, is washing dishes in the sink of their little house, a gardener's cottage on an estate where she works in return for reduced rent. Every so often, mother and daughters are caught up in high-pitched laughter over little jokes understood only by the three of them. It is difficult to measure the amount of formal learning taking place, but the classroom atmosphere is wholesome. Nicki Bramhall, 31, a high school graduate, says, "I am totally unqualified except I care for my children as capable human beings." She says the Dover school system is first-rate and she has no quarrel with the teachers or what they teach. But her children are too young to be "ripped away from their mother," something she realized when Allison, now 9, came home from first grade and collapsed in a heap. When she was in kindergarten, Devin, now 8, was in the nurses' office two or three days a week complaining of stomachaches, more likely an ache to be with her mother. Those were big issues, but Bramhall made her decision on the day of a small issue. Devin came home from school and told her mother, "Did you know George Washington never told a lie?" Bramhall recalls saying: "Devin, that's not true. Everybody lies and everyone feels badly after telling a lie." When her husband came home that night, she said she was pulling the kids out of school. Devin and Allison are among an estimated 350,000 to 500,000 children in the United States and 1,500 to 2,000 in Massachusetts attending school at home. Although a large proportion of home-taught children are from Christian fundamentalist families, religion is not a factor in the Bramhall home schooling, where there are no little desks, no blackboard and little or no regimentation. Some parents keep children home because of dissatisfaction with a local school, local manners or morals, but that is not the case with the Bramhalls. Nicki Bramhall keeps her girls home because she feels she can nourish them intellectually better at home. And if she wants to take them on a trip to visit their grandfather, she does. And if the girls spend four hours on a Sunday afternoon designing the inside of their dollhouse, she considers that education, even if a school committee would not. Bramhall does not consider herself a model for other mothers. "Almost no one else does it the way we do it." But she does like talking about how she and her girls "do school." She let Allison finish first grade and Devin finish kindergarten but began studying the state law regarding home schooling while they were in those grades. She told the school principal of her plans, and the principal told the superintendent, Robert E. Couture. Under state law Couture is responsible for the education of children in his district. He was supportive, put up no impediment, but required her to prepare a written study proposal the first year. In each of the past three years they have had a more informal arrangement, conferring on the phone over what she will teach the girls. He offers help; she takes his math books but no other texts. Renee Rubin, principal of the elementary school, says: "I know them {the Bramhall parents} and in their case I think it will work very well. We would love to have the children in school, but . . . I feel one has to respect another's philosophy. I don't think I should judge someone." Nicki Bramhall does not test her children and has no plans to, "not ever," but keeps track of their progress by checking with mothers whose children are in the same grades. And she takes no test herself. If someone suggests she is not a qualified teacher, she answers this way: "I agree. Following the standards of institutional education, I totally agree. However, that is not what I am trying to accomplish. My goal is to concentrate on a whole-life education, a process that honors their feelings, their interests, not mine, as well as honoring their body {meaning that sometimes young girls need sleep more than to get up in time to make the school bus}." Home schooling has several drawbacks, some of them not obvious. "I lost a very dear friend when I decided to do this. In her eyes I'm ruining the children. There was an irreparable rift. It was very sad. My dearest friend doesn't agree either. We don't talk about it much. But losing that {other} friend over home schooling was drastic." It wouldn't work for every family, she says, but then "public school doesn't work for us." She does not think it possible for a public school teacher, as good as those in Dover are, to give her girls the attention she does. "The unwritten rule when you bring children into life is that you make them thinking persons. . . . Our philosophy is they are people but littler." However, she acknowledges her girls probably miss things such as school playground. Devin says she misses nothing at school "beside my teacher. She was really nice." Allison, asked if home school is much different or much better than public school, answers: "Sort of both." Does she read better or worse than her friends in school? "I sort of think I read better, not to brag." Allison is curious about what is going on in regular school, and her friends are also curious. "They ask how much schoolwork we do each day. And do you think about going back next year?" Their mother, turning from dishes in the sink, says: "They know that every year it is their call {whether or not to return to public school}." In the meantime, the children's friends visit regularly, something not always easy to do in Dover, a nearly rural town where houses are far apart and there are no platoons of little kids on every street. It takes planning -- and driving -- to get playmates together. And because so many children in Dover are involved in tennis or gymnastic lessons, arrangements "become harder and harder and take more creativity." Bramhall and her two girls "do school" in the morning, after housework and, often, after Bramhall administers to one of eight clients she tends as a massage therapist. The Bramhall school day is not rigidly defined, but there are limits. If the girls say a lesson is too frustrating, Bramhall tells them not everything in life can be fun. Most of the time she does not have a formal lesson plan. The subjects depend on the day and, to a degree, on what the girls want to study, but they are exposed to math, cursive writing, reading, spelling, word derivation and an informal treatment of history that does not include memorizing dates. They discuss events on the noon news, for instance civil rights during the Clarence Thomas hearings. "We talked about that almost a week in the context of Thomas being black, and prejudice, and the 1960s civil rights movement and how Clarence Thomas got to where he is today and in a context with women's rights. . . . My kids are not getting clogged up with irrelevant facts." After math or typing on a particular morning, the girls might practice piano on an electric keyboard (Tuesday they practice on a real piano at a friend's house). Thursday they have a one-hour formal piano lesson. Allison takes five hours of dance lessons in Norwood: ballet, jazz and tap. Devin takes two classes a week at The Pottery School in Needham. Allison has a Friday evening Spanish class. One day a week the girls go to the home of a woman in Dover who "makes hot chocolate and gives them cookies" and teaches them spelling and the derivation of words. Some home schooling involves a group of students, especially among fundamentalist families. The Bramhall children have attended a science class organized by home-school parents. Last year they were part of a home-school gym class of about 30 kids. But they are not regularly part of any group; they have one principal teacher, their mother, and one principal school, their home. There is "socialization," as Bramhall calls it, beyond the public school, citing for example that both girls last year were in "Alice in Wonderland," a musical put on by a community group in Natick. Bramhall agrees that public schools brings rich and poor, black and white together (but not so much in a wealthy town such as Dover). She does take her girls once a month to a homeless shelter in Cambridge, where they sort donated clothes and thus gain knowledge of how fortunate they are. Allison learned to read without much effort. But, Bramhall says, "When Devin didn't learn to read, it was scary and a leap of faith to believe in the philosophy that a child would learn when they were ready." But partway through (home) second grade, Devin came downstairs to tell her mother she had just finished a book her aunt had given her. After that, Bramhall just let them be. Fridays, Bramhall works on the estate, mowing lawns, raking leaves, splitting wood, weeding gardens, planting vegetables (but not flowers -- ("I'm a farmer, not a horticulturist") and mending stone walls. Her husband, Gregory, 34, is the systems manager for a computer software company, Symmetrix Inc., in Burlington. They met right out of high school while both were working for the Appalachian Mountain Club in New Hampshire. They were a New Age couple, married on an organic vegetable farm where they were apprentices. They think their children should be apprenticed to many worthwhile things besides an attachment to books. The young couple adjusted their lives when children arrived. They worked as caretakers on an estate in Littleton until the owner died; they took the caretaking job in Dover five years ago. As all good parents make sacrifices for their children, Nicki Bramhall feels she has made a further sacrifice by keeping her children home from school. "There was a really tempting office waiting for me in Needham in a chiropractor's office. Someday, God willing, I will have an office. We could think about buying a house if we were not doing this, but children have feelings, and a house is just a structure. Someday we can buy a house, but I can never be a mother again." All of life is a balancing act, she says. Certainly she worries about the future. "We talk about options as a family a lot. At some point it gets confusing because I don't think long term for my own life. But when they are 13 and 14, we plan to spend at least a year traveling the country together. They can learn more traveling than through books." Devin is keeping up with her peers in cursive writing; Allison is keeping pace with other kids in the math book. Sometimes they do little math, then Allison "blows through 40 or 45 pages in two weeks, no exaggeration." Bramhall keeps tabs on their reading, a certain amount of spelling and English. But no tests. "No, I won't do it." Devin seems to have it right when she says, "Mom, she's her own boss. She's her own teacher. " Gregory Bramhall said he and his wife had talked of teaching children at home even before they were married and that "We're happy with it. We take it year to year. In spring we discuss what to do next year and talk to the kids to see how they feel. I don't think we are forcing them. We try to allow them to choose." Among the things his children miss at school is involvement with cliques, which exist at an early age, especially among girls. Gregory Bramhall says, from what he hears, cliques can be brutal, and he compares early schooling to throwing babies into the deep end of a pool to teach them how to swim. Also, he knows cliques are a part of life and his two daughters will have to learn to deal with such unpleasant things. He figures by building their confidence now, they will be able to handle such problems when they are older. The girls' grandmother had trouble with the idea of home schooling. For that reason, Nicki Bramhall would answer her questions but not discuss it in detail. Last spring -- her grandchildren taking dance, pottery, Spanish and piano lessons -- the grandmother said: "What you are doing is putting together your own private school," which, Nicki Bramhall says, "is exactly what we've done." Peter Anderson, Globe Staff

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