An Interview With Home Educator Barbara Shukin
Barbara Shukin is an Orthodox Christian wife and homeschooling mother of 5 children with ages ranging from 18 years of age down to two. She and her husband Paul of 21 years, and their children, live in Illinois and attend Saint Innocent of Moscow Russian Orthodox Church. After receiving her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she taught for several years at the college level, and continues to teach by offering art classes for homeschoolers. She is the author and publisher of the History Portfolio books, the new Nature Portfolio, and the most recent book entitled Journaling Throughout the Liturgical Year.
When did you begin homeschooling? How did you come to that decision?
My husband Paul and I started homeschooling from the beginning. That is to say, none of our children have been to school. Frankly, in the years between 1990, the year our first was born, and 1995, the year she would go off the Kindergarten, I never met anybody who was currently homeschooling. I had a student in 1989/90, when I was teaching sculpture at Barat College, who homeschooled in the late ‘70’s. Believe it or not, that was my closest contact with a real homeschooler. I wanted to find other homeschoolers, but kept running into moms locally who said things like, “I can’t wait for school to start.” When I was feeling quite the opposite, I wondered, “Am I the one with the problem… or is it you?” Well, that critical summer arrived, when children are enrolled in Kindergarten, and … I didn’t enroll my daughter. I didn’t have a plan, and didn’t know anybody who homeschooled, but I had made a decision not to send her to school.
That very September, I picked up a parenting newspaper for Chicago and discovered a homeschooling support group! I called, and the leader put me in contact with a local group. Wow! I felt that I had found my people. From then on I began moving towards homeschooling, and it was tangible and good. I was not simply moving away from something I had rejected. And, I have never looked back for a moment. Homeschooling has been an awesome learning experience.
What are the particular advantages of homeschooling that you value most? How about the major challenges you face?
I just love this first part of the question because to be honest, painfully honest, I really just plain like homeschooling. It is very nourishing to me. I just can’t imagine not having acquired the education I have gained through homeschooling. But, expanding my focus beyond my own personal self, I will quickly move on to the advantages for my family as a whole, and for my children.
As an Orthodox Christian, the image of the family struggling together towards salvation is dear to my heart. It’s the work we are supposed to do. So, when we take a trip, perhaps to be a vendor at a homeschool convention, and we’re all crammed together in the van, I view it as on opportunity to work on our salvation. The challenges that we face are really blessed opportunities. I guess, to me, the greatest advantages in homeschooling have been that it has allowed my family to grow together as a unit.
Now, I haven’t even mentioned that I think homeschooling can provide an excellent education. In a way, because I have been in the company of homeschoolers for so long, I just take that for granted. Especially in the last few years, as my friends have sent their children off to college, I have seen so much evidence that homeschoolers are doing well in college that I pretty much rest any case I might have tried to present in favor of homeschooling. The evidence is speaking for itself.
As far as challenges go… well, I have my share. We’ve had some big events happen in our lives over the years, like we all do. And, these things have taken my mind away from the day to day of homeschooling. Plus, I tend to be rather project oriented, and my projects pose a great distraction away from homeschooling. So, I would say my own temperament is my greatest challenge. But, on the other hand, I am not one who believes in spoon feeding. In my house, if you are a child, you need to want to learn. You need to take your education seriously, and take it upon yourself as much as possible. To the best of my ability, I have stressed that an education is an opportunity, not a chore. And, I have stressed that “It is not for ‘me’ that you need to buckle down to your responsibilities. You need to find your own reasons why.” And I am more than happy to dialogue about that with them. I can only say that my two oldest, 18, and 15, are proving that they are self-motivated, and despite my shortcomings as a teacher and as a mother, they have at least developed self-discipline.
Have you seen Orthodox homeschooling develop much in the years you’ve been involved in it?
Orthodox Christian homeschooling is certainly growing just as it is all across the US. When I formed the Yahoo group, OrthodoxClassicalHS, in early 2002, there were no other Orthodox homeschooling Yahoo groups. I certainly would have joined one if I could have found it. But, because I wanted, or should I say “needed” a group, I started one. Now, because there is a cyber “meeting” space, people find it and join. So, we have some 600 listed members. The numbers reflect a real solid population of Orthodox Christian homeschoolers, because the members of this group, like any given online group, only account for a percentage of the total number of homeschoolers out there.
I am excited for the future of Orthodox Christian homeschooling, especially because there is so much to be done in terms of developing curriculum. I think because Orthodoxy warns against pride and values modesty and humility so highly, Orthodox Christian homeschoolers tend to say, “I am not a theologian, and I am not an expert… I shouldn’t dare to write curriculum.” These thoughts reveal modesty and humility. It is a good thing… but only to a point. If we as experienced homeschoolers don’t work to create curriculum for each other and for future homeschoolers, it simply will not get done at all. It is my opinion that the unique curriculum needs of Orthodox Christian homeschoolers are best met by experienced Orthodox Christian homeschoolers.
The recent St. Emmelia Orthodox Homeschooling Conference has been described as an “historic” event. Can you explain this and tell us what significance you feel this event has?
I think “historic” is the perfect word. Orthodox homeschoolers have wanted this for a long time. Through the years, new homeschoolers have so often joined the Yahoo forum I mentioned above, and asked, “When is the next Orthodox homeschool conference?” This question has always resulted in a long awkward silence, but thankfully this will no longer occur. Thanks to Barli Brown in program development at Antiochian Village, who originally pitched this whole idea, and thanks to Paul Finley and Antiochian Village in general, we no longer have to feel that vacancy. I guess the greatest significance is that the first step has been taken.
What were some of your favorite parts of the conference?
Wow! There were a lot of favorite parts. First I would say that just being at Antiochian Village was an incredible treat. To see and experience an Orthodox Conference center which was built for the benefit and edification of us all, and to have it located in such a lovely area, just really blew my mind. The chapel and the iconography within the chapel were just gorgeous. The grounds outside, on the pathway to the shrine to St. Raphael, were idyllic. I felt that I didn’t know what I had done to deserve it all. So, I just felt very blessed.
It was also a blessing to simply gather the community. It’s enough of a treasure to be gathered in a room of Orthodox Christians, but add the qualifier “homeschooling” and you’ve really got a “happening”. Of course, meeting so many cyber pals was such a treat, and also gathering after-hours with some of the other workshop presenters where we discussed Orthodox curriculum and the unique needs of Orthodox homeschoolers. But, one of my most cherished memories was hanging out with Barli. We had worked together organizing the conference and had ample opportunity to talk on the phone over the months of planning, but hanging out in person is so much better.
Do you see the conference expanding in future years? In what ways?
I’m already excited about the St. Emmelia Conference 2010, and I began jotting down session ideas a week after we arrived home from PA. The goal is that this will be an annual conference hosted by Antiochian Village. And, with 95 lodging rooms available, there is still room for growth. But, Pennsylvania is not accessible to many people. So, I do like to imagine that we will have more St. Emmelia homeschooling conferences. Maybe there will be a St. Emmelia Orthodox Homeschooling Conference in Nevada, and Missouri, too. Just looking at the map, those look like great locations.
What would you say to a family just beginning to homeschool?
I would say congratulations. But if I could condense my thoughts into three tips, I would say:
Get out and meet other homeschoolers. (Make friends and keep them. Be active in a support group.)
Plan activities and invite other people. (Help out and be a blessing to people.)
Immerse yourself in homeschooling. (By doing so, you will find a wealth of learning opportunities not only for your children but for yourself.)