"My opinion is that young children need a lot of down time," Ann, a paid consultant for 25 home-schooling families, tells the concerned mother on the line. "I don't think you need to put him in a lot of activities. He's only in second grade, right? ... Different kids have different needs, and he may not need as much of that as your girls did. I think he's doing fine."
She hangs up, and they turn to spelling, then grammar. Peter finished the eighth-grade spelling book in sixth grade and is studying the most commonly misspelled words in the English language. He leaps up from his adverb exercises when the mail comes, hoping new archery equipment has arrived. No such luck.
Peter picks up two dirty butter knives from the dishes in the sink and starts waving them.
"Would you stop?" Ann asks.
"Sorry," Peter replies. "Too much pent-up energy." He slept 12 hours last night after going to a Ravens game with his father, an administrator for the University of Maryland medical school's pathology department.
"Go run in the rain a little," Ann tells him.
Nah. "At least I have a soccer game tomorrow." A member of indoor and outdoor teams, he plays the sport year-round.
While Ann prepares lunch, Peter asks if he can start taking daily study breaks to play his new computer game. She tells him to write her a persuasive essay and asks if he's been wearing his retainer. ("Yes." "Really?" "OK, not last night.")
Over the meal - hot chocolate and grilled cheese for him, tea and two rice cakes topped with peanut butter and jelly for her - Ann beats Peter in the card game Five Crowns.
1:55. Time for a science experiment. Ann majored in biology at the University of Scranton, and science is her favorite subject. She is organizing a science fair for home-schooled students in a statewide umbrella group. Today, Peter has to build helicopters from three kinds of paper and cardboard and drop them from the ceiling, sometimes weighed down by paper clips. He has to hypothesize which will stay in the air longest and why.
Sitting atop a step ladder, Peter takes the tape off the ceiling from, Ann says, "the other thing we did on the ceiling last week." She tells him, for the third time today, to stop clipping his pen onto his bottom lip.
The experiment, which shows that having a little weight on the plane is best, counts as the sixth of seven Peter must complete for 4-H. He is a member of Howard County's 4-H chapter.
At 2:37, Ann takes out a tape player for Peter's music lesson. To start a unit on Beethoven, she reads biographical data aloud before playing part of his Ninth Symphony, pointing out the rhythm and use of rests.
As he listens, Peter does a backward somersault.
At 2:55, he can at last play his computer game while Ann gets Sarah, 16, from her job. But the most difficult exercise of the day, writing a letter to the bishop about the meaning of his coming confirmation, lies ahead. He struggles with writer's block for nearly an hour before joining his mother in the kitchen.
When Peter drops a chocolate chip on the floor and Ann tells him to throw it away, he and Sarah yell together: "Five-second rule!" Ann has never heard of the rule that food on the floor for less than five seconds is still edible. It is, they tell her, a generational thing.
To home-school their children, Maryland parents need only sign a consent form and demonstrate that they are meeting the state requirement of "regular, thorough instruction" in the subjects usually taught in public schools. They go through an annual review with a representative of their public school system or an approved nonpublic agency.
The Severances meet with a consultant from the Learning Community, a Columbia umbrella group affiliated with a nondenominational church. As a consultant, Ann makes annual visits and has phone conferences with each family four times a year. She answers questions all the time.
Learning materials are widely available over the Internet. Some parents use a prewritten curriculum, such as one sold by Baltimore's Calvert School. Ann, whose only previous teaching experience was as an art class volunteer, is among those who plan their days themselves.
Ann wants her school days to have structure, but not so much that it stifles experimentation. She doesn't give her children grades. They take tests when they are ready. She scales back on formal schooling during the summer, but never stops entirely. The goal is to make learning a part of daily life. At the same time, she wants her children to have time to be kids. Peter gets frustrated when his friends who go to regular school have too much homework to hang out.
Overall, the Severances have deemed their educational experiment a success.