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Learning at Home What it's like to homeschool in Beijing


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Learning at Home What it's like to homeschool in Beijing

  1. 1. GInstead of gaining knowledge from a lecture, 15-year-old Emelia eager- ly takes charge of her own learning. She studies mainly through a national Finn- ish online school. She and her two sisters, Rebekkah, 14, and Amanda, 11, are able to finish early in the day without homework. These sisters then pursue their interests in hip-hop, ballet and soccer; participate in their community; spend extra time with their mother by playing tennis and socialize with friends from all over the world. Even with everything that they’re able to accomplish within a short day of homeschooling, their mother, Johanna, says: “Life is simpler.” Beijing families often face a conundrum with schooling. American expat Liora found that her affordable and nearby international school did not challenge Rachel, 10, in reading. “She came home saying, ‘I didn’t learn anything new the whole year.’” Americans Julie and Jim decided to homeschool their daughter Laura, 16, “in part relative to cost of inter- national education.” Other parents interviewed chose to homeschool because of deficiency in Mandarin, concern for spirituality or desire for a robust educa- tion. Homeschooling comes as a fresh breath of air for many expat parents looking for educational op- tions Beijing just doesn’t offer. Structure and setting “The term ‘homeschooling’ refers to the edu- cation of children outside the formal setting of a school, private or public,” explains Maria Hadijcharalambous, a family therapist at Vista Medical Center. In China, it is legal for expatri- ates to homeschool, as long as that child is not a Chinese citizen. Even with this concern aside, homeschooling your child every day for a full school day is daunting. “I think people are in- timidated by the responsibility of their children’s education,” Liora says. “They want to do it well.” Sticking to a routine is essential for suc- cessful homeschoolers. “We designate a struc- tured portion of our day as school time,” Julie says. Having a start and end “helps us actually accomplish the task at hand.” American expat Glenna’s two children, a 16-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter, have one hour for each subject and a lunch between 8am and 2pm every school day. “They are quite indepen- dent in their studies at this point,” she says. Glenna sees herself more as an “ac- countability partner and facilitator” rather than a teacher. The biggest praise Beijing parents have about homeschooling is unanimous. “We love the flexibility of being able to travel and cele- brate holidays as we choose by creating our own school calendar.” Julie says. The homeschooling schedule freed another family to attend a lan- guage school together the first year they lived in China. Johanna agrees, “We’re able to have a more carefree life and more time for hobbies.” Beijing parents have also found success with blended schooling, particularly parents overwhelmed by the thought of a full day of homeschool. Expat mother Liora can relate: “I’m not the type of person who can be with my kids all day.” Every day, her 10-year-old goes to school for half of the day to study Hebrew and Chinese, but then she comes home primarily to progress in English reading. Even at such a young age, she’s able to make “some really smart decisions” in what she chooses to learn for the day. Daviana, a Beijing parent from Argentina, and her husband, Luke, chose blended schooling out of concern for the needs of their 4-year-old son. “We don’t feel it is right for our child to be at school for so long, considering his personality and who he is,” she explains. “We feel four hours in the morning is enough for him.” Daviana sends her son to Beijing SMIC Private School in the southeast, which offers a Montessori- inspired Chinese kindergarten. SMIC gives parents a price cut in tuition if children attend for only half the day. (Chinese kindergartens EDUCATION Learning at HomeWhat it’s like to homeschool in Beijing “Our kids will not be living at home forever, and there is so much we want to teach them and experience with them” Beijing Parents & Kids | 47
  2. 2. vary in their policy on half days, however; two kindergartens in the same area will not decrease tuition for half days or require one parent to at- tend with the child for the half-day program.) The importance of co-ops Like many other Beijing parents, Daviana takes advantage of this part-time homeschooling to instill the family’s Christian values in her son through Bible stories, songs and crafts. “[That] happens twice a week, and the other afternoons are playtimes if he doesn’t take a nap,” she says. Johanna’s three daughters start their day with a daily Bible reading before they begin their online studies. Both expat mothers Glenna and Julie deliberately integrate faith into their home- school philosophy. “We include spiritual devel- opment that sees and values the worth of self in relation to others and the benefit of compassion- ate service to family members as well as those outside of our home,” Julie says. Glenna was thankful to find a homeschool co-op that provided common faith friendship for her and her children. In the weekly gatherings, she says that “kids have two hours of classes followed by a free hour when moms are able to [have] fellowship with one another and hear speakers address a variety of topics.” The con- nection with these families is one of Glenna’s favorite resources in Beijing. When Hong Kong citizen Jack turned 15, he and his mother, Iris, joined a homeschool- ing co-op located on the north side of Beijing. Iris enjoyed the experience. “International and Chinese families join together so that kids can learn two languages,” she says. Jack is now a sophomore at a community college in Maryland and plans to attend the University of Maryland for his junior and senior year. But joining a co-op is a time commitment and decreases some of the flexibility afforded to homeschoolers. “You can’t join last minute,” says mother-of-three Johanna, who has participated in two co-ops (and taught in one). “We missed the deadline for registering this year.” Johanna’s daughters enjoyed the experience of a weekly co- op meeting, but “they don’t get a lot of studying done on that day.” The first co-op they partici- pated in was smaller and met in their apartment complex. “It was just for the neighborhood and was less organized,” she says. Choosing a curriculum Beijing parents who need an alternative to inter- national middle and high schools often turn to online resources. Iris recommends Homeschool- and for Chris- tian parents unsure about how to teach certain topics. Members of the Yahoo! Group Beijing Homeschoolers have recommended online pro- grams such as K12, The Keystone School and Calvert School. With two teenagers at home, Glenna says she is in college-prep mode. “I use an online resource called The Homescholar, which has taken the worry out of writing course descrip- tions, making transcripts, preparing for testing and college applications,” she says. Expat mother Liora recommends She has also scoured the Internet for free homeschool- ing resources and created a torrent, which she is glad to share with others. (Readers may contact Liora through the Beijing Mamas Yahoo! Group, which she moderates, or the Beijing Expats Face- book Group.) American citizens can take advantage of free online high school programs, depending upon their state residency and that state’s virtu- al classroom availability. States with top-notch high school education—such as Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut—have programs that are fully subsidized for state residents or at least partially subsidized in conjunction with enrollment to specific public schools. New Hampshire’s program, found at, is available to non-citizens and non-residents at US$920/full credit and US$460/half credit (plus a US$30 registration fee), while Vermont’s pro- gram, found at, charges US$450 per half credit. Other countries, like Canada and Finland, also have virtual online schools avail- able to citizens for a small tuition fee. For curriculum, Liora has used books from Scholastic and A Beka Book. Glenna gets her fam- ily’s textbooks in the U.S. when they’re on break during the summer. “As much as possible, we learn by reading, exploring and discussing our discoveries,” says the mother of two teenagers. “I try to encourage critical thinking and problem solving in all subject areas.” American mother Julie orders educational material online and has it shipped to her. “It includes ready-made lesson plans that we customize minimally.” Sonlight is a popular Christian curriculum organization that ships its materials to China. In addition, the Comprehensive Curriculum of Basic Skills se- ries is available on for kindergarten through sixth grade for ¥122/grade. What’s after school? Many expat families in Beijing enjoy childcare support at a lower cost than back home, and tutors are no different, which makes homeschooling even easier. Johanna’s three daughters have enjoyed the variety of profes- sional, private and low-cost tutors. They have tutors and coaches for Mandarin, painting, tennis and soccer. Glenna’s teens have time to work and play. “My son plays club soccer one day a week and plays with other expat kids on another day,” she explains. “He also teaches soccer to a group of younger kids and has a computer programming internship with a Chinese small business.” Both of her kids tutor Chinese nationals in English, and her daughter also babysits. Homeschooling challenges The homeschooling experience in Beijing isn’t perfect. Internet connectivity is the most frus- trating aspect of homeschooling here for Glenna. Family therapist Hadjicharalambous points out other possible factors to consider are cost, time, ability to instruct, lack of contact with peers and development of social skills. “Teaching and par- enting at the same time is difficult and can be emotionally and physically draining,” she adds. Dr. George Hu, a clinical psychologist at Beijing United Family Hospital and Clinics, agrees that parents who homeschool should help kids foster the ability to develop friendships with children their own age. “Children need to learn how to establish and maintain social relationships with peers, and to develop and utilize skills such as conflict resolution, working together, and how to assess the effects of one’s own behavior on others,” he says. Both agree that parents who homeschool must provide op- portunity for conflict resolution to develop these important social skills. Dr. Hu also says that some families may need extra support from outside the home. “[F]or children with certain special needs, a consultant may be necessary to train the parents on how to teach to children with those needs.” On the other hand, Hadjicharalambous believes a well-orga- nized and tailored homeschooling program has the potential to be a better program for children with special needs since it could provide a one- to-one ratio and avoids traditional classroom obstacles. Despite the potential drawbacks to home- schooling in Beijing, Johanna says, “We’re able to have a home base. There is an element of re- laxation—we’re able to share life.” It’s clearly the right choice for Glenna’s family as well. “Our kids will not be living at home forever, and there is so much we want to teach them and experience with them,” she ex- plains. “Since we have the time and the opportu- nity right now, homeschooling is a great option for our family.” Homeschooling provides flexibility to explore the sites that expat living offers. Expat mother Julie says she and her family love going to museums, parks and other famous landmarks in Beijing and beyond. “It is a joy and a privilege to walk with our children on the Great Wall, ride camels in Xinjiang, visit nomadic tents in Tibet, browse medicinal markets in Guangzhou, river raft with water buffalo in Yangshuo, and much, much more," she says. “At the end of the day, watching our children love life is an irreplace- able reward.” EDUCATION Vanessa Jencks is a freelance writer and a mother of two 48 | October 16-November 12