For Bethany Cooksey, school starts as soon as she wakes.
She rises at 6 a.m., by choice, so she can take her turn using her mom’s iPad to access Duolingo.com, a website offering free foreign language instruction. As soon as she finishes her German lesson, the 12-year-old turns the electronic device over to one of her older siblings, who’s studying French, and moves on to another subject.
Whether she’s studying foreign language, history or math, it’s both work and joy for Bethany and her fellow students in the Cooksey home school program. “You can still be productive and have fun at the same time,” said brother Joshua, 15.
He, Bethany and siblings Hannah, 17, and Matthew, 13, can choose to study in their own rooms. Or they can spend part or all of the school day in the family room, where mom Kathy Cooksey oversees lessons for a younger brother and sister.
“If we have questions, we come in here and ask Mom,” said Hannah, 17.
Their mother may know the answers, or she may work with her children to learn more about the topic. Admitting she’s not an expert is one of the joys of being a home school mom, Cooksey said.
“We learn together,” she said. “Sometimes the things we learn the most about are ones I don’t know about to begin with. I get excited about learning, and we learn together.”
Cooksey said her own education didn’t include a lot of information about history, for instance. As a parent, she has really enjoyed learning about World War II and other topics along with her kids.
“And they love history. It’s exciting for them,” she said.
Cooksey knew she wanted to home-school her children long before she became a mother of eight. In fact, she knew it even before she married Valley Baptist Church Pastor Ronny Cooksey.
“I’d met home-school kids,” recalled Cooksey, who attended public school herself. “They were very polite, holding the door for me.
“I thought, they look like teens, but they’re not acting like teens. What’s the difference?”
Cooksey started a career as a public school teacher. Then she and her husband became missionaries. They spent a decade in Japan before moving to McMinnville in 2006.
While in the mission field, she said, they didn’t want to send their kids to boarding school. So they began teaching them at home.
Home-schooling makes sense, any way you look at it, Cooksey said. “Parents are more concerned about their children’s education than anybody else,” she said.
Home is the perfect learning environment, she said. A home classroom is filled with love and the student-teacher ratio is low.
There’s no peer pressure and no negativity toward students who fall behind or excel. When a student finishes an assignment, he or she can move on to something else immediately, rather than wait for the class to catch up.
Siblings encourage each other and help each other understand concepts. They are competitive, too, but in a healthy way.
“We all have goals to pass a sibling,” said Matthew, 13.
For students, learning at home sets a pattern. Learning can take place anywhere, at any time. No formal setting is necessary.
“We’ll be learning all our lives,” Joshua said.
Like his siblings, Joshua eagerly started his education when he was 3. His mother taught him phonics five minutes at a time, gradually increasing the length and scope of the lessons.
Joshua was the third Cooksey in the home-school program. The first, eldest son Micah, earned his high school diploma at home, then started college via the Internet. This year, he received his master of arts in theological studies through Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s online program.
Hannah, the second eldest, will graduate next year. Joshua, Matthew and Bethany have a few years to go.
Two younger siblings are still in elementary grades. Their youngest brother, 2, can’t wait to start.
The Cookseys are part of the CHERISH Network, short for Christian Home Educators Rejoicing in Serving Him. It’s a local group of like-minded home-school families.
Cooksey said members share ideas about teaching strategies and curriculum. They combine resources to offer band or plan some special activities. And moms in the network meet monthly to pray together, encourage each other and discuss successes and challenges.
The network also holds an annual graduation ceremony at which kindergartners, eighth-graders and seniors are honored and every student is recognized. It will be Saturday, June 8, this year.
Cooksey trusts her children to take responsibility for their own learning.
She allows them to keep flexible schedules. She doesn’t require them to get up at any certain time, but encourages them to be “up by 7 and eat at 8,” offering the incentive of jelly with their toast if they rise promptly.
Jelly is an example of the motivators she works into her family’s home-schooling life. She also looks for opportunities to challenge her kids and give them extra learning experiences — a trip to a national monument, for instance, or a chance to make a movie (Joshua’s film about Scotland) or write a book (Matthew’s historical novel based on Viking culture).
They practice writing and research skills in contests such as those sponsored by the Daughters of the American Revolution or Veterans of Foreign Wars. “We jump on those as a way to get the kids excited,” Cooksey said, adding that she appreciates such organizations that “work so hard to support kids.”
Several of her children have entered and won the Yamhill Chapter DAR essay contests over the past few years. This year, both Bethany and Hannah progressed to the state level in the DAR competition, while Matthew won at the VFW’s local and regional levels and placed second in state.
The Cookseys participate in the home schooling version of the National Geographic Geo Bee, as well. Joshua won two years ago, Bethany last year and Matthew this time around.
During the summer, they take part in Bible Bee through a website, Biblebee.org. Participants compete to memorize and recite Bible verses.
The Cooksey children all read the Bible before breakfast every morning, year-round. The family holds devotions every night.
Their math books include Bible verses along with story problems. All their curriculum is based on Christian beliefs.
“Our learning is from a Biblical perspective,” Hannah said. “Science, history, math — everything points to a designer. As you look around and see the intricacy, the diversity, you realize, wow, how could this have been an accident?”
That includes science, she said. Science is not the opposite of religion, she said; rather, it helps to prove the Bible.
“In our science book, the author’s goal is to show how amazing and intricate creation is. It’s important for everybody to be able to see that,” Hannah said.
Her remark sparked a family discussion, just as it would have during a home-schooling lesson. Sisters, brothers and their mother discussed the theories of creationism and evolution, scientific principles and the Bible.
“People say they don’t believe in the Bible, they believe in science,” Matthew said, shaking his head. “But creation IS science.”
His mother said it’s important to realize that we were designed by God. That gives us hope, she said.
Hannah added, “There would be no meaning if were were all derived from pond scum.”
Like students in any educational program these days, the Cookseys use computers and the Internet in addition to books and encyclopedia. Cooksey keeps strict controls over the websites her children access, though.
“We’re careful,” she said. “We have strong filters.”
The family has a television set, on which they sometimes watch historical movies or educational videos or historical movies. But the TV isn’t a main focus of their lives, or even the living room, and is usually covered with colorful fabric.
“We don’t do video games,” Cooksey said, and the family set isn’t hooked up to any cable, antenna or dish. “Screen time makes the brain shrink,” she said.
Her children said TV fare wastes time they could be spending on pleasure reading, studying, creating art projects or chores, all of which are more enjoyable and important.
Most important of all, TV would interfere with family time. When others might stare at a screen, Hannah said, they like to play games and talk to each other.
She and her siblings laughed at the idea that they might miss television or other activities many people consider typical for teens. “Our parents do a good job of explaining why we do things or don’t do things,” she said.
They also laugh at the notion that home school students might be isolated or miss out on socialization.
First of all, they said, that wouldn’t be a problem in a family of eight children. And they have plenty of social contact outside the family — through church, their homeschooling network and family friends.
“I want my kids to learn to be adults,” Cooksey said. “I want them to learn to interact with people of all ages.”
That might not happen, Hannah said, if she were in a public school filled only with students her age. But it happens naturally when her family interacts with another family.
Joshua said he and his siblings have no trouble conversing with others, whether they’re younger children or adults. And Bethany added, “adults have fun stories.”
Earlier this year, their dad oversaw an internship for Matthew and Joshua at their church. The boys helped with activities such as the Lord’s Supper, led prayers and gave sermons at Wednesday night events.
As part of their internship, both memorized the entire book of Ephesians.
It was good practice, since both plan to become missionaries. Sister Hannah also is interested in a career as a missionary. So is sister Bethany, although she also mentions the possibility of playing in a symphony.
The girls also dream of raising — and home-schooling — big families. All four say they will do whatever God has planned for them.
“We know God is real,” Joshua said. “We have our own personal relationships with him. We really talk with God, not just because our parents tell us to.”
Their mother is not at all surprised to hear her children witness, but it still pleases her. “The Bible says, ‘I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth,’” she said, quoting 3 John 1:4.
“As Christian parents, it’s not enough just to take our children to church,” she said. “When you teach them at home, kids see that God is real in their parents’ lives. They see that relationship.”
Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. She’s always looking for suggestions. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.