Interview with Carol Barnier

I first became aware of homeschooling mother, author, and speaker Carol Barnier when I attended a presentation she gave on a game she developed to teach children how to read at the 2006 LEAH Convention at the NYS Fairgrounds in Syracuse. I was struck by her commonsense, easygoing, and humorous approach to speaking and educating children, and so I purchased her two books, How to Get Your Child Off the Refrigerator and on to Learning and If I’m Diapering a Watermelon, Then Where’d I Leave the Baby?, for the library’s homeschooling collection, where they’ve spent very little time on the shelf. Her books are popular, I think, because they offer good advice but also because they’re honest, warm, and unintimidating. Carol speaks and writes often about “highly distractible” children and adults, always in the spirit of creating understanding and accepting environments in which everyone can thrive. One of her newest projects, Sizzle Bop!, is an online community “where highly distractible people are celebrated, encouraged, and empowered.” Carol is a busy person, and she went to some trouble to do this interview with me, for which I’m grateful. I think you all will be, too.

Adrienne: I’ll begin with the big question: How did you and your family get started in homeschooling?

Carol: I would love to weave you a tale of lofty thoughts, noble ambitions and great foresight. But the truth is not so grand. Our son sort of flunked kindergarten. Flunked is too strong a word, but he certainly struggled, and he struggled in ways that the other kids didn’t. When it was determined that he was ADHD we began to look at options. Medication wasn’t one of them. It’s not that we were anti-medication, but he had other medical issues that precluded this choice. Next, we began to meet with each of the four possible first grade public school teachers in our local schools. Each one watched him interfacing with her students and her classroom and then declared that without medication, this child would not succeed in first grade. Strike two. Lastly, we checked out local private schools. But this was financially impossible. Strike three.

What was left? Certainly not homeschooling. Homeschooling was for people who lived in Idaho, raised goats and baked their own bread. We were yuppies for heaven’s sake. But we were simply out of options. With no other apparent choices visible to us, we plunged into homeschooling, but assured ourselves that this was only a stop-gap measure. We were certain that eventually we would figure out what we should really do.

But after a year of homeschooling, this child not only succeeded, he thrived. And we never looked back. It’s embarrassing to admit that we sort of “fell into” homeschooling, especially since I’ve met so many for whom this decision was thoughtfully made concurrent with their child’s conception. I’m sincerely in awe of people who have such long term educational planning. For better or worse however, our entry into homeschooling was far less impressive. Nonetheless, since that decision years ago, we’ve homeschooled all our kids, I have visited Idaho and have even been known to occasionally bake my own bread. But goats are still on the “no” list.

Adrienne: It seems to me that this is how it goes for a lot of families whose children aren’t the sort who thrive in a school environment: they arrive at homeschooling out of frustration with institutional options and only then realize that it was the perfect option all along. What kind of a curriculum did you start out with? How has it changed through the years?

Carol: My approach to curriculum has been eclectic at best and non-existent at worst. In the beginning I focused on getting just one subject “right” per year. I created my own reading game that became the focus of our first year. I needed something that was fast, fun, and strong on phonics. I couldn’t find anything that fit the bill. So in the end I modified a game I had seen and made it our learning-to-read program. Probably most significant to my son was that with this game, one could accumulate points that could be redeemed in my “teacher’s store”…translation: a cupboard full of junk from garage sales and dollar stores. The second year I put all my energy into getting the right math program. The third year – history. And so on. What I found was that if we did fall behind in anything, when the right material was found, catching up was almost instant. Homeschooling is a very forgiving educational medium.

I never chose a program that included all subjects because one was obligated to select a grade. My son was advanced in math and science but behind in language and writing skills. To select any one grade level would not best address his needs. So we continued with the subject-by-subject selection method.

We had loads of fun through the pre-highschool years. Science was never a set of materials. We just followed our interests and learned in depth whatever struck our fancy. We studied bugs for over a year. My son built his own trebuchet. We were big fans of The Magic Schoolbus. We built our own crawl-through digestive track and walk-through circulatory system. We made a display board of cloud formations. Science was always fun and hands-on in our house. I was never sure of our approach to science until my kids took their firs achievement tests. Their science scores were terrific. So I breathed a sigh of relief and continued to just have fun.

Then… high school came. And I freaked out. I became fearful that most college committees wouldn’t know what to do with an atypical education. So reverted to traditional education. In 9th grade, our curriculum choices and materials looked for all the world like any public high school. There are some advantages to this. But in the end, I’ve always felt a bit cowardly for not continuing down our path of delight-driven education.

Adrienne: The mystery bags are a particular stroke of brilliance. :) I’m going to remember that one for things we do here at the library.

Today, you’re an active writer and speaker on homeschooling (as well as other topics). How did you get started in that?

Carol: It was due to a progression of moves, none of which was designed to lead me anywhere in particular. I started homeschooling my son, which (after 5 years) led me to start a website of ideas for teaching the highly distractible child. Once I figured out how this child learned, it became a wonderful joy ride. We were having a blast homeschooling, and I really wanted to share some of the successful strategies that we had used. So I turned to my husband one day and said, “I wish I had known then what I know now.” And being the techy that he is, he set me up with a website. The response to this website and the subsequent requests for more material led me to write a book. Even finding a publisher was not achieved by a plan. It sort of fell together by divine intervention. The eventually published book led to speaking invitations. And since I’ve started talking I can’t seem to find a good reason to stop. I like writing, but I really LOVE talking. I think I’ve found a niche where I’ll be for awhile.

Adrienne: Good news for the rest of us!

Last questions for you. How did libraries factor in to your family’s homeschool experience? Do you have any advice for librarians and librarians who are interested in reaching out to and building services for homeschoolers?

Carol: I have always had an almost holy alliance with my local library and its librarians. It’s a combination of our homeschooling and my almost compulsive love of books. I don’t need jewelry. I don’t long for furs. I happily drive used cars for 10 years at a stretch. But I’m hopelessly addicted to books, and carried this affliction looooong before I began
homeschooling. But the best part of homeschooling is that it put a noble face on my addiction.

As for the homeschooling connection with libraries, the clearest statement is that homeschoolers simply use more books than the average patron. It is probably best explained by a comment made to me by a non-homeschooling mom. I was lamenting the need for a better method of keeping track of the many books borrowed from one’s local library so as to responsibly return them in a timely manner (not to mention to avoid the accumulation of fines which could easily finance the purchase of several small countries.). A woman nearby offered her solution. When she and her children go to the library, they checked out exactly 10 books, no more no less, always 10, so that when it was time to return them, they always knew exactly how many they needed. I just smiled and said, “You don’t homeschool, do you?” It was a rhetorical question, for I knew that homeschoolers seldom make it out of the building with less than 30 books. I had only 3 children, but at any given time each of them would be working on a science experiment, researching a figure in history, and learning about the various housing structures used in different cultures. This alone would send us home with a hefty load of books. Not to mention that their simple love of learning would toss books on the pile “just because”.

Many non-homeschooling moms use the library to provide materials of enrichment for their children. Others use it to supplement the materials being used in the public schools. But we homeschoolers are getting the most for our tax dollars. Books in the library are, in my opinion, actually part of the curriculum materials. Certainly, we have a base curriculum at home (well… usually) but the books are needed to make it come alive, to round out the information, to make learning a pro-active experience, rather than passive. Only amongst homeschooling moms have I heard the term “living books”… books which are truly interesting, full of people’s lives, colorful, books that compel you to read them. These are the books with which we like to teach.

In the end, I did come up with a way to keep track of our books. When I go home, I stack the books in a pile, turn them spine down on my copier, and make a copy of all the titles, which I put on a particular wall every single time. When I return a book, I just check it off of my list. Now I always know what we have and when it is due. Libraries that have those printed receipts of books being checked out are marvelous. But when we moved into an area that didn’t have this, my new system of spine copies took over quite nicely.

If I were to make suggestions to libraries on how to better interface with homeschoolers, some ideas would be…

  • Have a resource section for folks who homeschool or who are just considering homeschooling. This was available in my Chicago suburb and was not only valuable, but was welcoming.
  • Provide contact info. I’ve assisted two library systems in their development of a handout that could be given to people considering homeschooling or who were new in the area. It listed local support groups and contact information, laws for homeschoolers in that state, and a list of which local retailers gave an educator’s discount to homeschoolers for school materials.
  • Make homeschoolers aware of how easily inter-libary loans can be accomplished. As our children grow older, their research methods and needs can become fairly sophisticated. (So often do I have material arriving for me, my local librarian now has my phone number on her speed dial.)
  • Consider a play area. Homeschoolers often come in during off-peak hours, bringing their 2 to 27 children in tow. Several of these children are often preschool age, requiring more supervision. When there is a child-safe play thing, the attention of the younger child can be held longer, giving the rest of the family more opportunity to find the materials they need. My local library has a train table that consistently grabbed the attention of my youngest.

Now I’m just thinking out loud…

  • Host speakers who address topics that appeal to homeschoolers yet showcase the wonderful materials and services available at the library.
  • Perhaps host a used-curriculum sale? Homeschoolers spend a ridiculous amount of money on materials. So they often try to recoup the costs by selling used materials to someone else. Finding a central location with a large room and enough tables can be problematic.
  • Perhaps set a copier near the check out table and encourage the spine-record method???
  • Last of all, when books are pulled and discarded to be placed on the “Free Table”… absolutely, positively….call me first. :-)
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Explore posts in the same categories: Curriculums and Other Homeschooling Resources, Eclectic Homeschooling, Homeschooling Children with Special Needs, Internet Resources, Interviews

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