The Freedom To Express Themselves: Cheryl Westra's Interview

If there's one thing Cheryl's family loves to do to, it's expressing themselves through the power of costume. The picture below was taken several years ago when they were headed to a Story Book themed homeschooling "UnProm."

But, trust me, you haven't seen anything yet.

Throwing flour on blue jeans doesn't even come close to what you are about to see. Sit back, relax and have fun learning all sorts of interesting things about this fun-loving family I found playing dress up in Kansas City, Missouri.

1. How long have you been homeschooling (or if finished, how long did you homeschool)?

We have been homeschooling for 15 years. We started after checking out all the local school options for kindergarten for our eldest son; we decided that we were having too much fun at home and did not want to give up our freedom. We graduated our second son this year and are now only officially "homeschooling" two.

2. One of the main benefits of homeschooling is the freedom and flexibility it allows. Can you give us a few examples of how this freedom and flexibility benefited you (your family)?

When I think of the freedom of homeschooling I am overwhelmed at all that encompasses. Freedom to follow our own daily rhythms to sleep, eat, use the bathroom, etc. We rarely leave the house before 10 am and are usually up til midnight or later.

Freedom to stay involved with an activity for as long as we want and not having to switch gears after 50 minutes is up. In our house that may mean hours of Legos creations, days spent laying on couches/floors/beds reading, hours spent playing the same song over and over to master the fingering, or counting & recounting babysitting money to readjust how long it will take to purchase the much coveted netbook.

Freedom to take advantage of opportunities as they arise such as dropping everything to catch and hive a swarm of bees, house sitting for a friend and experiencing a touch of adult independence, stopping to watch a building demolition, accepting a friend's invite to go swimming or horseback riding, or driving to the state capitol to watch a favored bill be debated. Freedom to participate in evening activities without worry that homework had to be done first or that it would take away from family time.

We love to travel. Traveling and visiting sites off season, or when school is in session, allows us to spend the time we want looking at things and being able to actually interact with the exhibits and people.

In May & June of this year my two youngest & I took a month long road trip. While most of our destinations were planned around visiting family & friends, we took many side trips and visited many sites that interested us.

The campgrounds in DC & Cape Cod were empty and wonderfully quiet - we actually got to commune with nature! We had a very personal tour of the Louisa May Alcott house in Concord, MA. The beaches we went to were sparsely populated; the museums were ours to explore and we felt no compunction to move along because of the line of people behind us.

We've frequently traveled in winter to enjoy the snow and winter activities that our home climate precludes. I coordinate a biannual autumn group camping trip to St Louis that is scheduled so as to take advantage of the lack of school field trips. We have the entire City Museum to ourselves for the bulk of the day!

As I write this it occurs to me that the field trips I took in school were unsatisfactory & unmemorable (well, except for the time my face was so swollen with poison ivy that I had to keep applying calamine lotion throughout Plymouth Plantation - I remember that one), while those spent with my family are the ones I remember.

School field trips are great at exposing children to the idea that there are cool things out there, but the reality of large groups of same aged kids all trying to see/do the same thing at the same time means that little learning/experiencing actually occurs and certainly none with any depth.

I hope that my kids remember the time in DC when we stood for an hour watching the beekeepers work the hive on the lawn of The White House, or the time we compared the eras and styles of the First Ladies' inaugural gowns at the Smithsonian Museum of American History for so long that we ended up getting kicked out because the museum was closing, or the time a conversation with an Iowa naturalist about the effect of flooding at their site turned into a side trip to the nearby town to see first hand the devastation wrought by flooding and trying to imagine that on a citywide scale such as New Orleans experienced, or the hours spent watching the marine life in aquariums in Monterey, Dana Point, Omaha, & Boston, or the biweekly volunteer hours we work at the local food pantry.

Lastly, I think of the freedom to express ourselves and to explore parts of our personalities in a supportive environment. My then thirteen year old son had no second thoughts about his safety when he chose to go to our Spring Formal wearing a dress and heels, or when he decided to explore fashion design as a career. He was comfortable with his identity as a heterosexual male and felt comfortable within our homeschool community to try on different roles. I have a hard time imagining this happening in tradition middle or high schools. (NOTE: Yes, that is her son, Cam in this photo. He thought it would be fun to include this. Doesn't he look great?!)

Or the freedom of my 11 year old daughter to dabble in grown up things on her schedule & comfort level, and to be a little kid the rest of the time without premature sexualization of her clothing/music/language/interactions.

3. Another benefit of homeschooling is the fun factor. Can you give us a few examples of some especially fun times you had as a result of homeschooling?

Road trips and group camping with other homeschooling families is great fun! For 13 years we've had group camping trips to St Louis. There is nothing like exploring fun places with friends and then hanging out at the campfire while the kids toast marshmallows and the adults enjoy a cold beer.

Earlier this summer we joined other families we had never met for a week's camping on Cape Cod organized by a member of the Secular Homeschool and UUHomeschool lists. Despite the rainy cold weather, we had a blast (perhaps remembered slightly more fondly than experienced at the soggy time).

Our homeschool group has a yearly all ages UnProm that is a themed costumed party with live music and carnival-like theme-appropriate game booths. This year is Mythology. Costume planning & plotting has already begun with lots of research.

The year it was "Walk Like An Egyptian" as we studied ancient Egypt and created Coptic jars from paper mache & carved hieroglyphics into "stones" of insulation.

The Renaissance themed one inspired an exploration of lepers & leper colonies when mom decided to buck the Noblewoman or Peasant woman attire most were adopting, to wear burlap and sport latex lesions.

The past themes & activities are remembered fondly and the creative juices churn as we explore possible future themes.

For several years we had members who were Girl Scout Leaders and we would rent the nearby Girl Scout Camp during the week. We had a wonderful time ziplining, rappelling, and creating nature crafts. I miss rappelling.

4. We all have funny experiences while homeschooling. Can you share one of yours with us?

The most recent was at the Speech & Hearing Clinic at our local children's hospital. My youngest, 8, was participating in a study that was exploring hearing loss issues among children who were critically ill postnatally and had received a specific treatment. His participation involved a hearing test, which he passed with flying colors.

As we were being his results the Audiologist said something that triggered my talkative son to blurt out (oh so loudly it seemed) "well, you know I can't read".

Both clinicians whipped their heads to look up to me and one asked "Is this true?"

Why, after 4 late readers (with one a very late reader), 3 of whom now read fine and who choose to immerse themselves in the world of literature, do I still stumble when unexpectedly faced with a stranger's judgment?

I watched myself give too much information in a rush to reassure them: that I was not negligent (in my eyes, although maybe in theirs), that he was not learning disabled, that he did recognize many words, that I believed he would catch on when he was ready, that late-readers generally were not distinguished from early readers once they "got" it, etc.

As I rapidly babbled all this I was acutely aware of what I was doing, how guilty my justifying made me seem, and yet, no matter how loudly the rational me yelled SHUT UP in my head, I could not lol. Of course, dear son thought nothing of it and had moved on to the stamp collection, trying to decide which one to choose to put on his shirt. Sigh.


Ruralmama said...

Wow. That was a fantastic interview. I cannot believe how nicely her son's costume turned out! He's a good lookin' girl! Brave to boot.

What a neat family!

MamaTea said...

Gorgeous picture of your son, and fantastic interview. Sounds like you are experiencing life to the fullest!

Evelyn Saenz said...


You and your family epitomize all that I have always loved about homeschooling and what education should be about.