Homeschooling, homesteading and hockey

Children benefit from tailor-made learning programs administered by their parents

Olivia Marocco empties buckets of sap on her family’s farm in Onchiota. As a homeschooler whose family homesteads, she has lots of chores around the house to keep the garden, sugar maple system and animals healthy and running well. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

While the majority of children in the North Country, and around the country, are educated through public and private schools, many families choose to take education into their own hands and teach at home.

Homeschooling is a growing trend in the United States, with 2.3 million children being taught by their parents in 2016, up from 1.5 million in 2007 and 850,000 in 1999, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Around the North Country there are several 4-H groups and co-ops, and dozens of homeschool families striking out on their own to educate their kids.

Homeschooling and hockey

Eastynn, left, and Wyatt Sanford practice goaltending on a Thursday afternoon at the Tupper Lake Civic Center while other Tupper Lake students were in school. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

Eastynn and Wyatt Sanford carved circles in the ice of the Tupper Lake Memorial Civic Center on a Thursday afternoon. Usually they would be in class at this time of day, but since they started homeschooling last April they have been able to work on drills on empty ice.

Their mother, Traci Goff, said she started teaching them at home after Eastynn was diagnosed with a non-convergence binocular issue, meaning her eyes focus on objects separate from each other. Goff said Eastynn was getting a hard time from her teachers for resting her eyes and was struggling academically.

“One of the things that happen with these kids that have this issue is their eyes get so tired they are seeing double vision from reading small font,” Goff said. “They might be able to focus on it for a minute or two, but then they lose track.”

At school, she was reading at a second-grade level, but when they put the same books on an e-reader with larger type at home, she could read it fine. Goff wanted to set up a phone conference with the school, but it never happened, and she wasn’t satisfied with the response she was getting from the administration.

There were still many aspects of the Tupper Lake schools that she appreciated, like Wyatt’s math teacher accommodating his approach to math when Common Core made his otherwise high grades fall apart. However, as Goff started easing her kids out of public schools in April, she started to like the educational atmosphere of homeschooling.

Joe Marocco stokes the fire of his maple syrup evaporator in a barn while his daughter, Olivia, and wife, Samantha, do homework and keep an eye on the boiling sap. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

“When they were in school, it was like the moment they got home they wanted nothing to do with anything educational,” Goff said. “I have found that since they haven’t been in a classroom setting, everything is a learning experience.”

When they go shopping, they add up the cost of all the items as they walk through the store and compete to see who can get closer to the cashier’s total. Goff bought a microscope so they can look at the small details of their blood, pond water or bugs, and when they raise tadpoles now, they are home to watch them hatch and start to grow for hours on end.

Eastynn and Wyatt read maps when they drive to hockey games, they shoot BB guns with their mother, who was an officer with the Tupper Lake village police department, and they raise chickens on their property.

They even do a bit of “car schooling,” learning and discussing topics like history or Greek mythology while on the road to hockey games around the state.

Goff said she has learned that all the education subjects are connected. A discussion about history can easily lead into learning about history, literature or mathematics.

She said taking on the responsibility for her children’s education has not been challenging for her as they are eager to learn about all aspects of the world, and she is able to always find curricula or information online to feed that hunger for knowledge.

“[Eastynn] has grabbed things and goes, ‘I want to learn that. I want to learn that,'” Goff said, “Wyatt has his goof-off periods where he watches funny things or Minecraft, but then he turns around and watches other things, learning, hacks.”

She said Wyatt has a very mechanical and mathematical-centered mind, experimenting with electrical kits, doing addition and subtraction with Roman numerals in his head and learning about “life hacks.” He takes a self-guided approach to learning, loosely jumping from topic to topic.

Eastynn was falling behind in math at school, so when she began homeschooling, Goff said, it was time to get back to basics. She went back to multiplication and quizzed Eastynn until she mastered it before moving on. She takes as much time as needed to make sure she can grasp the concept before moving forward.

“It’s amazing to watch their minds grow and to see what they’re capable of,” Goff said, “and if you push them just a little bit, how they’re capable of handling it and grasping more.”

Eastynn is more science-focused and wants to learn more about renewable energy. This year she has taught herself how to take notes, and said one of her favorite parts of homeschooling is that science projects happen much faster with only two people conducting them.

Homeschooling has also allowed the two to work on what matters most to them: hockey. They are both goaltenders for the Canton Bears youth team, and Goff is their biggest fan. They travel all over, practice for countless hours and put serious debate and consideration into what brand of leg pads is the best.

The teams, Goff said, are a major outlet for socialization, with kids, parents and coaching staff spending hours playing, talking and watching hockey together.

Wyatt and Eastynn want to eventually attend the Northwood School in Lake Placid and play on its hockey teams. Both have dreams of playing professionally, and Eastynn wants to be the first woman to play in the NHL.

Homeschooling and homesteading

The Marocco family in Onchiota entered peak maple syrup harvest time earlier than usual this year. When the weather warmed up, Samantha, Joe and their daughter Olivia broke out their buckets, tapped around 90 trees on their property and began boiling the raw sap down into syrup.

On Wednesday, 12-year-old Olivia collected buckets of sap from the 20 trees she is responsible for, one of many of her daily chores at the family’s 55-acre farm.

The Maroccos said they decided to homeschool because it fits with their lifestyle. Joe wanted to put the self-sufficient practices of homesteading that he learned in college into action. They grow 30 to 40 different types of vegetables; they raise chickens, goats and, at one point, alpacas; and they produce around 20 gallons of maple syrup a year.

Olivia’s day starts immediately with reading and breakfast, followed by her daily chores: taking care of her two goats, cleaning, and helping with seasonal harvest and gardening work. She usually finishes all her school before lunch and then spends the afternoon doing homework or projects.

“I like being in control of the schedule,” Olivia said.

Homesteading allows for many unique learning experiences, from learning how to grow flowers and vegetables to identifying more than 40 species of birds on the farm. The entire family enjoys birdwatching, observing the swallows that nest near their house, the barred owl that hunted in their backyard a couple months ago and the turkeys that wander around their land.

Joe and Samantha said they try to guide their teaching around Olivia’s interests. She is an avid reader and writer, devouring book after book from the library and even running her own literary blog, “ONM Dreams,” where she posts stories of girls with hidden emerald wings, plays about criminal birds narrated by Al Capone, anagrams (one of Olivia’s favorite ways to use language), poems and spoof fashion magazines.

Her writing has won her a blue ribbon at the state fair’s 4-H poetry competition two years ago for her poem “Song Sparrow.”

Olivia is teaching herself to play the clarinet, reading books about the instrument and taking pointers from her parents, who played the trumpet and French horn.

While there is plenty for her to do around the house, there is also more than enough for her to do off the farm, too.

“There is almost an overwhelming amount of opportunities [for socialization], really,” Samantha said.

Olivia has been in Lake Placid Center for the Arts’s productions of “Peter Pan” and “Dorothy in Wonderland,” takes art classes at the Saranac Lake Middle School and swims at nearby Buck Pond Campground.

Joe said socialization — which he called “the big ‘S’ question” — and ensuring a successful education were two of the main concerns they had when deciding to school at home.

“In the beginning [the biggest challenge] was feeling uncomfortable with doing something that’s not the mainstream,” Samantha said.

Samantha taught in a Problem-Based Learning program at Clarkson University in Potsdam before homeschooling. She said seeing the different take on traditional education opened her up to thinking about alternative education systems that can be tailored to fit personal interests.

She said the biggest challenge they face now is not being overwhelmed by all the things they could learn. Olivia has a thirst for learning that leads them into relevant tangents, learning about all aspects of the world through her curiosity and questions.

“If you have enough books and things piled around to stimulate someone’s interest, I almost feel that they could teach themselves,” Samantha said.

The Maroccos will give other homeschool families in their four-family co-op a tour of the maple sugaring system on March 19, explaining the process for a botany class.