Justine Henning

Thursday mornings we usually start with our most school-like activity: the weekly spelling quiz. This is probably 8-year-old Rachel’s favorite part of the week, greeted with “Yay!” and a rapid scrambling about for paper and pencils. The other kids might not be quite as excited but race just as quickly to their parents’ bedroom afterward, to show them their scores. These are the only grades I give my students, and they seem almost hungry for them.

Jack has been working on the 11th chapter of the college-level Latin textbook we’ve been using, so I quiz him on personal pronouns. He groans whenever we pull the Latin out but volunteers all sorts of etymological information whenever he notices us using any English cognates, completely foiling his own attempts to convince me and his parents that it’s a worthless subject. Today he does well on his quiz, as do all his siblings with their spelling. Clio proudly earns the top score: 110 percent, due to “chocolate,” her extra-credit word.

Later, Clio and I sit down to start reading Jane Eyre, which I’ve chosen both for its relevance to our relationship (I often wonder whether I’m more like Jane, Mary Poppins, or the home-schooling parents’ favorite, Ma Ingalls) and because this girl reads so much and so well that she’s ready for a new challenge. My old boss was aghast when she discovered that I’d suggested to a member of my sixth-grade English class that she try Charlotte Brontë’s book. She doubted whether a girl that age could understand the language at all and felt that because she wouldn’t be able to put it in the proper historical context, the student’s late-20th-century values might be corrupted. Remembering that struggle with some glee, I have Clio, who would only be in fourth grade this year, open the book. Noticing that she has trouble pronouncing certain words and that she often skips prepositions while reading aloud, I make a mental note to have all three of the older kids read to me more often. Overall, though, I’m impressed with her easy understanding of the language and the interest she immediately takes in the book, moving ahead on her own each time we are interrupted by a brother or sister.

Because they did so well on their quizzes, Rachel and Jack have moved on to the day’s focus: the senses. We’ve been studying human biology all year, using several textbooks of different levels. In the fall, we invited Jack’s friend Dan over to help us dissect a couple of calves’ hearts supplied by the local butcher. Last year we covered some plant biology, growing corn and beans and learning all about their anatomy while we tracked their progress. I found that unit and others on measurement, camouflage and color-mixing, and all sorts of other scientific topics from the folks at TOPS Learning Systems, whom every math and science teacher and parent (home-schooling or not) should check out. Unfortunately, they don’t have any material on human biology, so most of the science we’ve done this year has been a bit dry and book-oriented.

“I call taste!” yelled Rachel, when I described the new assignment (to use our textbooks and the encyclopedia to learn everything possible about one of the senses and then prepare a lesson for the other kids, to be taught next week). “Seeing!” added Clio. That left Jack with hearing and John and me to combine resources to figure out how people smell stuff.

We probably won’t have time for the kids to teach each other tomorrow, since once everyone’s finished with Spanish (taught by a woman who joins us Friday mornings), we’re planning to head to Coney Island for a tour through the aquarium, a look at the ocean, Russian food in Brighton Beach, and a chance to get to know the new teacher better. I gave notice a few months ago, having decided that it’s time to move my career along. Three years ago I started wondering how school administrators would view this experience when I applied for jobs at their schools. It’s ironic: I’ve learned to teach math, science, Latin, and even a bit of art at this job, not to mention all the elementary stages of reading and writing. My education as a teacher started with tutoring: As a high-school student, I taught Hebrew to my younger sisters’ peers and prepared a few of them for the bar miztvahs and bat mitzvahs. When you teach one-on-one, you see just what works and what doesn’t, since you’re never fooled into believing 24 kids grasped the concept you just explained just because one raised her hand with a correct answer.

When I told my son that I would be leaving my job, his face clouded over. Then I promised that we would visit Jack, Clio, Rachel, and John frequently: They’re practically family to us now. Rachel came to our apartment for a “sleep-over” recently. Who knows … she may be teaching my children one day.