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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Learning at home


Jan. 20 (Jeju Weekly) If a talented marketer were to imagine the perfect poster children for home-schooling, they would be hard-pressed to improve upon the real-life Nicholes family. Currently residing in Aewol, Jeju, siblings Benjamin (15), Anna (13), Daniel (11) and Abby Lou (7) are bright, personable, and totally engaged with the world.

All four are confident, self-assured without being the least bit annoying, respectful, considerate and interested in others. And none of it is an act, that is obvious from the moment one first meets them. They answer questions easily, taking their time when needed, and are open and welcoming whether showing a new acquaintance through their home or sharing a newly written poem, as youngest Abby Lou did proudly.

But let’s rewind a little. I got to meet the Nicholes children, mother, Rhonda, and family pet, Tag (father Steve was out when I visited), because I’d been told they were home-schooled and I was interested in what that involved.

And I admit to having some preconceptions about home-schooling - that the parents who chose it are usually heavily involved in religion or a cult or simply want to disconnect from the world, and that the children risk receiving an inferior education or, conversely, being pushed too hard academically, and probably lack social skills.

Ben, Anna, Daniel and Abby quickly proved me wrong on most of those points. They are more adept socially than many adults I know, obviously well-educated (mother and teacher Rhonda has a degree in Education), and in no way disconnected from the world. Only one of my assumptions had any grounds, whatsoever, as the family is proudly religious.

“We are mission-aries,” Rhonda said, and it is their mission that first brought Steve to Korea in 1988. Rhonda joined him in 1991 after their marriage and the three youngest children were all born in the country (Benjamin was born in the United States). It is also that mission that brought the family to Jeju Island on Aug. 1, 2009, where they will build a bible study school. (For more on that, see an upcoming Religion series in the next issue.)

And their religion is a large part of why the family chose home-schooling, but far from the only reason. “The biggest [reason] is that it allows us to be the greatest influence on our kids and to pass our values on to them,” Rhonda said. “But also, home-schooling is just so flexible. You can be anywhere and you can do it. It’s totally not dependent on your location or what educational options are open to you.

“We are not anti public education. That’s not where we’re at. If we needed to send the kids to a school, we would do it. If what we were doing at home wasn’t working, then we would do whatever we needed to do.” Neither Rhonda nor Steve were home-schooled and Rhonda uses her own experience at public and private schools in her teaching. “Because I’ve been in a formal school setting, I am able to tell the kids what they can expect in college or if they ever do go to a school before that time. Sometimes I incorporate it by sharing experiences that I had that they should follow, or try to avoid.”

Another reason they chose to home-school is the high cost of international schooling, something that Rhonda and Steve could not afford on their salary, which is provided by “friends, family members and churches in the States.” “I spend about $1,000 a year on curriculum,” Rhonda said. She buys the curriculum once, for Benjamin, the oldest, then uses it for his younger siblings also. “Over the course of 12 years, that’s $12,000,” she said.

“The international school near where we were in Gyeonggi-do, the last time I checked, was $6,000 a year for one kid.”

The curriculum is provided by a U.S. company called Sonlight, and includes lesson plans that make Rhonda’s role as teacher easier. “It was originally started for missionaries but a lot of other people are using it now,” she said. “It takes more of a world perspective.

“Most U.S.-based curriculum companies, it’s American this, and American history, and that doesn’t have a lot of practicality for where we live. This company takes a much broader world view and shipping overseas is not unusual to them.”

And although the Nicholes’ family’s home schooling is flexible, it is not sloppy. “There are lots of different types of home-schoolers,” Rhonda said. “There’s the free spirit home-schoolers who wake up and if they don’t feel like doing it that day, they don’t do it. That’s not our style. We do take it very seriously. There’s a certain number of weeks a year that we have to do, and we get behind if we don’t keep up. So we do have a structure.”

In terms of exams and moving up grades, Rhonda assigns the grades but also keeps portfolios of the children’s work and detailed records. “They need to take a standardized test every year” she said, “which we order from the States.” And from the beginning of the 9th Grade through 12th Grade, essentially the high school years, the records become more important as they will count toward acceptance to college. “We’ve got a college transcript worksheet that we’re working off,” Rhonda said. “Because I only have one high schooler, even that aspect of it is new to me.”

She and her husband are very conscious of providing opportunities for their children to socialize with others outside of the family, and view church as an important point for that. Before moving to Jeju, the children also had a lot of involvement with young adult Asian students at the school their parents started.

“I do think friends are important, so we do work on that,” Rhonda said. “But I will say that in public school or even private school situations, often the socialization they’re getting isn’t necessarily healthy. We do want to protect them from that, but not to an extreme.”

Asked if they can see any disadvantages to being home-schooled, the two oldest children, Benjamin and Anna, considered it carefully.

“I think being home-schooled and living overseas, there is a bit less opportunity to socialize with kids,” Benjamin said, “but I’ve got friends in several different places around the world - in the U.S., in Japan. Actually, when we get the school started, I’ve got two friends I know who are college-age who will be coming here.”

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