Home-schooling American kids in a Chinese village

An American family tells Mark Graham about the joysand challengesof home-schooling in a Chinese village while volunteering at an orphanage

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 August, 2012, 6:29pm

Home-schooling children is a tough challenge, even with a support group in the neighbourhood and the help of internet resources.

American doctors Bill and Ana Moody made it even harder by moving to an out-of-the-way Chinese village where, despite the many obstacles, they successfully home-schooled their sons.

The upside of being in an isolated environment where little English is spoken or understood was that their boys learned to speak fluent colloquial Chinese. The eldest son, Matthew, is now at college in the US, where fellow students are dazzled by his command of the language.

"Looking back, moving to China was a very enriching experience and changed the course of my life," he says. "The convenience of being home-schooled allowed me to learn Chinese, which is going to be very valuable in the future. Also, the very structure of home-schooling has helped me because it has taught me to be self-motivated.

"At first, the transition from the United States to China was a bit choppy. The general concepts and methodology of home-schooling stayed the same. The main change was that we no longer were really part of a larger home-school organisation.

"That meant that for sports and managerial questions we had to find new sources. For sports I started to play with local kids, for questions about managing curriculum and charting high school graduation, my mum had to rely on e-mail and occasional trips to the States."

The nature of their parents' jobs meant Matthew, now 21, and his younger brother, Joshua, 19, were reminded every day of how fortunate they were to be in a close family.

Bill Moody, a paediatrician, and his wife, a family doctor, work at the Shepherd's Field Children's Village, an hour outside Beijing, helping disabled and sick orphans from all over the country. The children, who typically might have heart problems or cleft palates, stay in the orphanage until they can be operated on, before being matched with potential parents in the US and Europe. The couple's strong Christian beliefs led them to volunteer for the posting.

After seven years of living in the sticks as a home-schooling mother, Ana has a wealth of experience to offer others going down that route. But she admits it caused her to miss the signs of dyslexia in her younger son, a condition that might have been diagnosed earlier had he been in a regular school environment.

"He is smart but he has trouble processing words," she says. "I would say to home-schooling parents that if there are problems, have the child tested. We identified the dyslexia two years ago and are working on it and making progress."

She also acknowledges that as English is her third language - her parents are Polish and she grew up in Spanish-speaking Argentina - the finer points of grammar may not be her strongest suit. But on balance, Moody has few regrets about home-schooling her youngsters from kindergarten until their late teens.

"I wasn't planning to home-school them originally," she says. "We lived in a little town where people were home-schooling and they were very nice, and I just kind of got involved in that. I enjoyed spending time with my kids - I had them later in life - and the more I found out about home-schooling, the more I was drawn to it.

"When the child is older, you have to be very disciplined and make sure they carry out assignments. I did not do many exams for my kids, but some people do. Sometimes they would do classes with the support group - it is hard to teach science topics properly at home."

The moment of truth came when Matthew sat the SAT reasoning tests, necessary for college authorities to gauge his education level. He passed with distinction, meeting the strict entrance requirements for Wheaton College, a Christian university in Illinois. One of the hardest, and most time-consuming, parts of the process was not the exam itself but compiling detailed documentation to show which home-schooling classes had been completed over the years, and when.

One detail on Matthew's résumé has proven to be a novelty. He attended a wushu school near the Chinese village where they lived. Any idealistic or romantic notions he had about the sport were quickly banished: like many schools of that kind in China, whether it is gymnastics or martial arts, the discipline is strict, the schedule punishing and the physical contact potentially injurious.

"Overall the wushu experience was positive," he says. "It was a big deal for me at the time because I had never lived away from home; I boarded at the school from Monday to Friday. It really immersed me in not only martial arts but also oral Chinese."

The youngster also spent a year studying Chinese with a fellow foreign student - a Korean - at a local school, but other than that, his main teacher has been his mother. The materials she used came from various sources, including Alpha Omega for subjects such as history and English, Apologia for biology and chemistry, and Chalk Dust Company for algebra. In China, Moody used the internet only occasionally for teaching purposes, as the connection was patchy.

Now that one son is at university and the other one has reached his late teens, Moody is free to spend more time on the orphanage project, which is sponsored by the Philip Hayden Foundation. Funds raised in the US and elsewhere go towards helping give sickly orphans the chance of a healthy, happy life.

At any one time there are 80 children living there, from babies to toddlers, either waiting for surgery or recovering from operations. During 15 years of operating, the orphanage management has organised more than 3,000 operations or medical procedures and seen more than 800 children adopted.

"It's a busy job," Moody says. "My job is to oversee the therapy department and see how they are doing developmentally, basically, helping with anything that needs to be done. All of the children, despite their many health problems, are so beautiful, and full of joy and potential. It is a privilege to be part of their lives and help them to have a bright future." familypost@scmp.com