When the back-to-school transition simply means a quick stroll to the kitchen classroom, it takes a smart family to make the grade. Denise Cortes homeschools her brood of six and wouldn’t have it any other way, despite the challenges. “When I tell people that I homeschool, they say, ‘Wow! Really? All six kids? You must have the patience of a saint!’ Which, of course, is laughable!” admits the California mom.
But there is a method to the madness. When Denise realized that teaching individual lesson plans for all the kids was too much to take on, she decided to stick to the same subjects for everyone and be flexible with each child’s working level. And because there is no such thing as one-size-fits-all when it comes to homeschooling, she also reached out for help.
While the bulk of the Cortes kids’ education takes place at home, she has also enrolled them in a charter school where the high schoolers take a few advanced-level courses, like biology and algebra, and the younger ones enjoy fun classes like hands-on science and cooking. Denise is also quick to admit to her weak spot as a teacher: “Our math tutor is my savior!” He instructs the children once a week, and Denise has found that this combination of homeschooling with outside assistance is a formula that works for them. “I wish I had known years ago that I am not the most organized person. It would have saved me a lot of stress and heartache,” says Denise. “Now I surround myself with people who support my kids in their education and help keep us on track. It’s a relief that I don’t have to do it all.”
One thing Denise has given up on is her “Pinterest fantasy of having a ‘homeschool space.’ ” While she has tried to set up shop in a spare room, the children usually end up where the action is: in the kitchen.
Denise makes sure to keep her kids active with hikes, trips to the beach and sports. This helps burn off some steam from all that group time. She admits there are occasions when little schoolwork gets done because of too many squabbles and too much drama. “Those are the days I’d like to pack them all off to a faraway boarding school and go live on an island in Tahiti. But I can’t, so we just write ‘I will not call my brother an idiot’ 100 times until they love one another again. That’s the crux of this homeschooling life: We are always home. Together.” Denise laughs, “People can get crabby!”
Describe your family in three words.
Loud, creative and outgoing.
How does teaching your children influence your relationship with them?
It's hard to turn off teacher mode. There are moments I just want to relax with them, but in the back of my mind is the biology project that's due and the Ted Talks speech they have to memorize. It's a delicate balance, but I think we're all closer because of homeschooling.
Do both you and your husband teach? If so, how do your teaching styles differ?
My husband will pop in every now and then. He's very dynamic and hands-on—the kids have fun. Mom is much more boring. I make sure that workbooks get completed, online math lessons are done and spelling is correct.
Do the children have many activities outside of the home? We're involved in student council, church youth groups and sports. I've learned to scale back our involvement over the years because it gets too hectic very quickly, especially when you have a large family and one mom driving everybody around. (Hello, taxi!)
What are the advantages of homeschooling?
We get to decide what we want to learn. If we want to spend all week learning about Japan, studying maps, making sushi and writing haiku outside in the sunshine, we can.
How do the kids feel about being taught at home? Did any of them express interest in a more traditional education?
Our kids have always participated in co-ops [classroom settings with other homeschooled kids led by other moms], charter school learning centers and independent study groups, so they get a taste of traditional education and meet other kids in the process. My three youngest children have expressed an interest in attending a "regular" school and it's something that I plan to look into, now that my work-from-home business is growing.
How do you and your husband make time for your art and writing?
I've been blogging since 2006, and I was one of those middle-of-the-night writers because I had to wait for everyone to go to bed before I could get some peace and quiet. Now that my kids are older and I'm no longer chasing them around and changing diapers, I have more freedom to carve out solid work hours. My husband is a night owl and uses his precious sleeping time for his creative pursuits. I'm getting too old—I can't do that anymore!
How do you handle any criticism of your choice?
Over the years, I've learned to brush any negativity off my shoulders. My kids may not grow up to be neurosurgeons, but they're happy, friendly, polite, kind and creative. We all have our own definition of "successful."
Is there anything you’d like to tell parents who are thinking of homeschooling?
You are the parent and you have the freedom to make choices for your child's education. Also, don't compare yourself to the homeschooling family across the street. We all function differently and are still successful in our own way.