At the kitchen table, Andrea Manroe pauses her reading from The Story of the World and asks her three children a question about what they’ve just heard.
“How did Shamshi-Adad get the people to obey? Do you guys remember?”
Joel, the oldest, answers first, though his mouth is full of broccoli. “By chopping their heads off.”
“That’s right, by cutting their heads off,” Andrea says in a lighthearted voice. “He killed anyone who wouldn’t do exactly what he said. When he conquered the city, he chopped off the heads of all the leaders and put them up on stakes around the city. No wonder everyone in Mesopotamia was afraid of the Assyrians!”
When she resumes reading, the two boys, Joel and Noah, ages nine and six, sit draped in their chairs, listening without looking at her. Hannah, the three-year-old, sits up on her knees, coloring quietly in a Disney princess coloring book. Every few seconds, one of the children reaches for a piece of raw broccoli on a plate in the middle of the table, and dips it in a small tub of ranch dressing.
“Soon, Shamshi-Adad didn’t even have to fight battles to conquer cities,” Andrea reads, pausing to ask, “Why do you think this is? If you saw a Tyrannosaurus Rex coming to your window, would you be all ‘I’m gonna defend my house?’ Or would you go hide under a table?”
The two boys ponder the question. Again, Joel is the first to answer. “I would hide,” he says.
“Yeah!” Andrea says. “I think by this time everyone was afraid of him, huh?”
“And I would go hide under the table!” proclaims Hannah. “I would go hide under my bed!”
Andrea laughs and continues reading.
This past August marked the start of homeschooling in the Manroe household. During the prior year, Andrea read everything she could about programs and curriculums. Eventually, she settled on The Learning Choice Academy, a public charter school not far from their Chula Vista home. The school provides materials, a $70-per-month/per-child allowance for extracurricular activities, and certified teachers to support parents and help monitor the children’s progress. Every 21 days, Andrea and the boys meet with their Learning Choice teacher for approximately an hour per child. The family must provide one work sample per child for each of the days between visits.
“They give me a list of curriculum to choose from,” she says of the charter school. “I use about 70 percent of that. The other 30 percent, I bought myself.”
A credentialed teacher (with four years experience in kindergarten, first- and second-grade classrooms), and the daughter of a retired school principal, Andrea had the advantage of knowing what she was looking for in her curriculum. But she’s changed her mind about some of her choices. Joel’s spelling program, for instance, isn’t working for her. So the school is ordering a new one.
Andrea continues reading from the history book, while the children suck water from their water bottles and listen. The boys begin to drift, fiddling with pencils, dipping and double-dipping the broccoli. Their mother amps up the drama in her voice, attempting to reel them back in. It doesn’t work. She stops and puts the book down.
“Before I read the next part, you guys need to do your — ”
“Narration page!” Noah shouts.
“ — your narration page,” Andrea says. “You need to do a summary.”
She instructs them to get their schoolwork boxes from behind an end table. They return with plastic boxes filled with workbooks, paper, and other supplies. She tells them to get out a piece of paper, then pulls out her own box.
“This is my teacher box,” she explains. “When we started, I didn’t want to be the typical homeschool family who has crap everywhere.” She lowers her voice until she’s mouthing the last two words.
Hannah closes her coloring book and says, “Mommy, I want to do schoolwork, too!”
“You want to do school, too?” Andrea asks.
“Yeah,” Hannah says.
“Yes, please?” Andrea corrects her.
While Hannah cleans up her colored pencils and the boys open up their boxes, Andrea explains that each of the children has one box with all their subjects and supplies. She has three for herself: one for history, one for science, and one for everything else. She teaches history on Mondays and Tuesdays, science on Wednesdays and Thursdays. The two subjects have their own boxes so she can keep one in the garage when it’s not in use.
When Andrea turns back to the boys, she has to repeat the instructions.
“Would you get out a piece of paper, please?” she says in a firm voice.
Hannah, meanwhile, is chanting, “I want to do schoolwork! I want to do schoolwork! I want to do schoolwork!” and all but tugging on her mother’s pink shirt.
“Just a minute!” Andrea says to her daughter in an exasperated whisper.
She sets the boys up with their paper, making sure they both have sharp pencils and open books.
“Name and the date,” she reminds them. And then, “Noah, on your bottom.”
Andrea retrieves a workbook from Hannah’s box, sets it on the table in front of Hannah, and begins reading the instructions aloud to her daughter. They start with a story about two children bouncing a ball inside. Hannah must trace the ball’s path up and down.
Meanwhile, the boys have written nothing more than names on their papers. Andrea admonishes them, taking a toy from Noah. Just then, Hannah cries, “Mommy, Joel hit me!”
“I did not,” Joel mumbles.
“It hurted. Like this!” Hannah demonstrates the hit.
Andrea tells Joel to move his chair away from Hannah’s. She says to me, “She’s probably my biggest issue. She wants to be part of it, but she just turned three.”
It takes another half hour to get the summaries written, though they’re both only three sentences long.
When I apologize for being part of the distraction, Andrea says, “Please. It’s kind of nice to have another adult in the house.