A family's commitment to independent learning

Education: After 12 years, Ann and Gene Severance have deemed the home schooling of their four children a success.

January 05, 2004|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

At 10 a.m. on a rainy Monday, with his three rabbits in the garage fed and his mother's cereal bowl empty, Peter Severance is ready to begin his school day.

He lies on his stomach on the beige living room carpet and throws the cat a toy. His mother, Ann, sits on the navy flowered couch and begins reading aloud from Arthur Ransome's Pigeon Post, Chapter 27.

This is Peter's classroom, a two-story tan house at Baltimore's western edge, steps away from the Catonsville line. Like his brother and sisters before him, he goes to school at his Kingston Road home.

Visits to that home provide an intimate look at one family's experiment in education, which includes everything from baking cookies to translating Latin. Ann and her husband, Gene, were prompted by what they saw as traditional schools' inability to cater to individual learning needs.

Twelve years ago, they committed to a major lifestyle change, one that would require financial sacrifices and an enormous time commitment. He would support the family while she educated their four children: Stephen, Rachel, Sarah and Peter.

When the Severances' experiment began in 1992, Maryland had 4,600 home-schooled students. Today, it has more than 20,000.

Through the years, alphabet hopscotch in the driveway gave way to physics projects. A Lego club Ann led became a science club and a book club. With Stephen and Rachel in college now and Sarah getting ready to go, Ann is approaching her last lap with Peter, who at 13 has five years left under her tutelage.

And so, as Ann reads to him from Pigeon Post on this autumn day, Peter is reaping the benefits of lessons she learned over a long journey - not the least of which is how to strike that delicate balance between teacher and mom.

Moments after Ann opens the book, a 1930s British adventure novel, Peter gets up and walks to the adjoining dining room to grab a handful of Goldfish crackers. He comes back, sits in a wood chair across from the couch, gets up, goes back for more - then starts tossing the Goldfish in the air, trying to catch them in his mouth.

Ann, 48, looks up from the book. "Pete, don't do that, please," she says.

He does it again.

Despite early adolescent restlessness, Peter is paying attention to the story, peppering his mother with questions between trips to the Goldfish bowl. After a reference to hay fever, he asks, "How can a fever be a cold?"

They complete Chapter 28 by 10:20. "Math next, then you pick," Ann says.

They head from the living room, where bookshelves overflow with books, binders and games, to the dining room, where the walls are decorated with a map of Canada, hand-drawn in markers, and a chart for a bird-watching project. At the dining room table, oblong and wooden, they open a book called Family Math: The Middle School Years.

Ann reads aloud: Think of a secret number. Add 5. Multiply by 2. Subtract 4. Divide by 2. Subtract your secret number. You should have 3.

"What!" Peter exclaims. He had it. Ann tells him to pick a new number. It works again.

"Does this work with every number?" asks Peter, blond and in a T-shirt imprinted with the logo of the rock band Linkin Park. Though he still has a child's smooth skin, his build is sturdy and, at 5 feet 6 inches, he is the same height as his mother.

"Well, let's figure it out," replies Ann, whose dark ponytail extends halfway down her back. She is in sneakers, jeans and a turquoise "Spruce Lake Retreat" T-shirt.

She lets him experiment with blocks and beans. He tries using negative 5 and a fraction as his secret number. Still works.

"Dude, I'll have to pull this on Nana and Grandpa," he says.

Peter does a problem set, adding and subtracting fractions with different denominators, while Ann looks through a thick file of library stubs to see what's due today. Sitting back down, Ann is pleasantly surprised that he doesn't need her to explain division in algebraic equations.

"That is a concept others in the family have had trouble understanding," she says.

Peter smirks. "Which ones?"

"I'm not telling."

10:47. Time for a break. Peter can pick what they do next, Ann says, but "if we're going to bake cookies this afternoon, we have to get a lot done."

At 11:08, they take out the Civil War novel Across Five Aprils, which Peter is reading on his own. They discuss hate crimes and find the story's setting on a map as Peter does a card trick and balances a book on his head.

Twenty minutes later, it's time for Latin, which Peter set out to learn around age 9. He and Ann, who had no prior exposure to the language, have been learning it together ever since.

11:45. Another break. Ann corrects Sarah's work while Peter plays with Trinity, the black short-haired, yellow-eyed cat.

Noon. The phone rings. Peter answers and hands it to Ann.

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