Tales of Alternative Education
A Different Type of Homeschooling: Nancy Ruiz

A Different Type of Homeschooling: Nancy Ruiz

Tales of homeschooling 5 children: the why, the how, and finding your local Santero priest

I really wanted to have my mother-in-law share the way she began homeschooling, because I feel like the way that she ended up homeschooling 5 kids over the years and the creativity with which she approach it has really captured my imagination. Here’s a transcript of our conversation!

A Different Type of Homeschooling: Nancy Ruiz 

Nicole: [00:00:00] Hi, this is Nicole Ruiz and I'm here with my mother-in-law.

Nancy: I'm Nancy Lataif Ruiz, and we have three boys and two girls. And they are ages 26 now to 13. And we have a beautiful daughter in law, and a gorgeous, award winning baby grandson, so we're all looking forward to being part of his education and working with him on all the joy of learning and hope he's a lifelong learner like his mama and papa. 

Nicole: So I would love to hear the initiating story of why you decided to homeschool and how you started to approach it after that. 

Nancy: Well, the short answer is I started it with fear and trembling and a sense of [00:01:00] panic. But, I was always interested in pedagogy because I liked elementary school so much and I loved reading and writing.

 (Nancy's own education) 

Nancy: And I liked teaching reading and writing, and I used to joke that I had kids so I could have someone to teach to read. Because I was taught to read at home and I was the only one of my siblings because they thought there was some evidence I would have a learning disability, and my parents were going to circumvent that.

So I was taught to read at a young age at home by my mom's best friend. And that was a very significant and formative experience for me because I just loved it. I loved reading from a young age.

Back then, my parents thought ‘we'll just stave off some big learning problem.’ But when I had my kids, it really was not in my head to homeschool them, although I did teach them to read at home.

And we also had a beautiful Peruvian woman, [00:02:00] Luz Elena, whom you know, who taught the kids to read in Spanish along with Diego. She taught them their letters in Spanish at an early age. So they were very good, early readers.

 (School options) 

Nancy: But the kids were school age in Sacramento. We didn't have great options and the kids couldn't be in the same school because It was very competitive to get into a private school and I was kind of alienated by the public school option we had out there.

It was pretty poor. And so I had met this dear friend who had older kids- she was homeschooling, and her older girls became babysitters for me. I kind of got inducted into their community because all those available babysitting girls were all homeschooled. It was two girls and then their friends.

They were super capable young women and I really admired them. And I used to talk to the mom a lot about homeschooling because I was just curious about her writing curriculum and reading. And I [00:03:00] read Susan Weiss Bauer's book "The Well Trained Mind" about classical homeschooling and that absolutely captured my imagination.

Nancy: It still was not in my head to do it myself, because I didn't want the responsibility. It was just overwhelming. 

 ("The Well Trained Mind" & the theory of classical education) 

Nicole: And what in that book did you like? 

Nancy: I just wish that I had been educated that way. I always liked history, but I learned it just in little silos, a little bit of this history, a little bit of that. I never knew the story of the world as it all hung together. And I thought, oh, this makes sense. You can just actually be so much more educated when you know things this way. And it's not any harder. 

It made sense to me that what grown ups call, “the drill and kill method” would be drill and kill to us adults, but actually kids like memorizing things. It was a coherent pedagogical approach, and I had never seen that before. I like to learn, but I didn't have a very systematic way of [00:04:00] learning things, and it was so charming and so interesting and valuable and the whole idea that you're teaching kids how to learn, so that when they go forward in life they can learn what they want.

I just loved it. I loved giving them the mental pegs of things that they could hang other knowledge on. I look back at my pretty strong public school education and I think, but I don't know what I got out of it. I don't know what I had at the end of it all. There's a little of this and a little of that. Instead of a coherent story of the world, great literature all along, how the West was founded, what those, what the origin of those significant ideas were about, you know, democracy, equality and all that.

Anyway, so it just seemed really very cool.

 (The deciding moment) 

Nicole: So the seed was planted with this book, but you weren't decided? 

Nancy: No, no, I was decided not to because it was just, I really, [00:05:00] really did not want the responsibility or the work. And I kind of didn't have a vision of what it would actually look like with my kids.

But then one day, I went over to my girlfriend's house, who's the mother of the babysitting girls, and our kids were all playing together. And she said, why don't you homeschool? And I said, ‘Oh, I have no interest.’ And she said, ‘But you do have interest. You always ask me about it. You always want to see my curriculum.’

And I said, ‘Oh, well, no, I mean, this thing is interesting, but I couldn't do it. And I don't even think that kids would want that.’ And she said, ‘Well, why don't you ask the kids?’ And that was just Santi & Nico at that point. And they were in kindergarten and second grade. And I said, ‘Ask them!?’ And she said, ‘Well, it's your decision, but you may as well just see what they say.’

And so the kids came in from playing and on a lark, I said to the boys, ‘What would you guys think if it's, it's not your decision, it's a papi's and my decision… but what would you think if we homeschooled you next year?’

And Santi looked at me and said, ‘Would I learn [00:06:00] something new?’ And I said, of course. Just like you do in school. And my precocious seven year old said, ‘97% of what they teach me, I already know.’ Which shocked me and also horrified me because it was a very expensive 3% of new information. And just the way God would have it, I was so stunned when he said that, and, I put the kids in the car, and I drove them home, and I was mulling it over, and I was thinking, 'Please, God, don't make me homeschool. Don't make me homeschool.'

And we pull up to the house, and I get the mail. And in the mail that day was the tuition bill from this expensive private school where Santi was learning 3% new material, for the following year, because it was April when we got to the house. And I just thought, no. Something in me just totally revolted and rebelled.

So, we really prayed about it and just decided, okay, we'll just try it. And I thought, one semester, you know, what's [00:07:00] the harm gonna be? 

 (The beginning of it all) 

Nancy: So that September we started and that sweet friend who had the four kids who she'd been homeschooling and they were older than mine, she said, ‘You know, you don't have to have a traditional first day of school, Nancy.’ Because I thought you had to say the Pledge of Allegiance and sit at desks and, and she said, ‘why don't we do something fun, which will surprise the kids.’ And so we decided to change it up.

And I was committed for the rest of my homeschooling career, that I'm revisiting this every semester. I am not committed for the long haul. I just needed to have an out. And so, I just always thought there's lots of ways to get kids educated. I'm not gonna tie myself down to something if it's not working. And, we’re taking the kids horseback riding on that first day of school, out in beautiful Sonoma. 

And it was so fun and and that was, Nic, that was huge.

 (Flexibility in homeschooling) 

Nancy: That you get to actually get educated, not [00:08:00] necessarily sitting behind a desk. And you can kind of do it on your schedule. Learning is a lifelong project. You do have a lot of basic information, but you can do it efficiently. You can do it with lots of free time. You can do it with lots of adventures.

You can travel off-season and it's so much cheaper. You can go to museums after Labor Day when they're much less crowded and you don't wait in lines. And I would say once we started homeschooling, that was a huge revelation for me that the world just opened up and I began for the first time to develop an imagination about what was possible for family life and what was possible for learning.

And I would say, I think I made every mistake in the book, so I am an expert on what not to do. But I also just look back with a lot of gratitude for how it changed me and my life. 

 (Pulling in experts in the community) 

Nancy: You can learn [00:09:00] things because you have a neighbor who's passionate about World War II, and you can ask him to teach your kids. Or a friend has just married a woman who's an expert on China, and she can come over and talk to your kids and tell them about The Chinese Revolution and it's so fascinating.  You know, we definitely had a curricular spine.

We definitely had structure. I had goals, but I just began to see the whole world is a learning opportunity and you can pull people in and develop community and life can be much richer than the sitting behind a desk, being bored, for a lot of money, model. 

Nicole: I think the idea that you can find all these people to teach your kids in so many new places is so invigorating. How did you find those people over time? Did you go in with the curriculum, and then add people as you found them, or did you just pull them into [00:10:00] things as you met them? 

Nancy: I think we pulled people in as we met them, and I was really influenced by my girlfriend Cecily, who had started homeschooling before I did.

We didn't live in the same town, but she always has been out of the box in her life. And she's the one who really helped spark my imagination about what was possible by calling in neighbors and friends. She would just meet somebody who had an interesting talent and then talk them into teaching the kids. And half the time, the people were opposed to homeschooling for their own philosophical reasons.

They thought it wasn't good for kids. But boy, they all sure became converts because... Her kids were so engaged and so interested and seemingly very well adjusted and happy and had friends and also had an ability to talk to people who weren't their exact age. 

 (Miami, Santero, and Cuban-American Culture) 

Nicole: I've heard a story about being in Miami and finding both a religion lesson [00:11:00] and a Salsa lesson 

Nancy: Oh, that was a great, that was a great time. Yeah. We were on spring break and we took our kids to Miami to hang out with our dear Cuban-American friends.

And while we were there (because this is my friend Cecily, with the Big Imagination) she said, what if we, along with all the fun and going to the beach, we make it kind of Cuban American Week, and we help the kids with Spanish and we help them with chess. So we enrolled the kids in a chess camp because Cubans are chess fiends.

And there was an old Cuban man who taught the four oldest kids chess every morning. The younger kids went to a Spanish camp. And then we would pick them up and take them out for Cuban hamburgers and Cuban ice cream and just sort of introduce them to Cuban culture in Miami. They got to see a cigar factory, Domino park with all the old Cuban guys, all of little Havana.

And one of the things we did was she had a... I think he was actually a landscaper who was a Santero, which means his religion was Santeria, which is kind of a mix of voodoo and some other [00:12:00] things that's grew out of some Caribbean countries and it's popular in Cuba to some extent. So he was a priest of this religion. And we wanted the kids to be exposed to lots of different worldviews and religions and to learn to ask good questions and to compare things.

And so we hired him to come over to the house and he did a whole big lesson on Santeria and what they believed. And our kids asked really good questions about what they believed about the afterlife, what they believed about, you know, man's nature, what their rituals were. 

Being a practicing Christian myself. I was not interested in having him perform any rituals, but he didn't do that. He just explained everything, and it was really interesting. We all learned so much, and you can see signs of Santeria around Miami, if you know what you're looking for. Outside houses, there are certain signs, and you know that a person who practices Santeria lives there.

In any case, At the end of the lesson, he also mentioned that he was a salsa [00:13:00] instructor, and we just said, ‘Oh, we didn't, we didn't know that--let's do salsa!’ And so we just pushed stuff out of the way, and he gave us this awesome salsa lesson. The kids were one to thirteen, and they just learned salsa in the garage, and it was so fun, and he was amazing.

I mean, he was just incredible. And then we also took the kids out to hear live Cuban music. Later on that week.

But, yeah, that was a great example, Nic, of just thinking who do we know and what could they teach? And a lot of it was just exposing the kids to all of the amazing ways to live and all of the different cultures and me being ethnic and my friend being ethnic and... That was kind of important to us and also a lot of fun. 

Nicole: Did Cecily find him through his landscaping? 

Nancy: I think he did. I think he, I think he cut her grass.[00:14:00] 

But it, it really is just having eyes to see. And I think my friendship with her helped me a lot to develop. Wait, this is a fascinating person. Let's invite this person over and they can talk about stuff with our kids. And the more different from us, the better. That was always really important. That was always really important to us that we befriend people who had a different life experience or worldview so that they could learn, you know, just how varied the world is and to be respectful and also to test their own convictions against other things.

 (Other inspiration and where to find resources) 

Nicole: So jumping back to where we were earlier, what else inspired or really helped you along the way? 

Nancy: I also read another book that was very beautiful and very impactful called, “Family Matters.” I’ve got to think of the author's name. [David Guterson] And he was homeschooling his kids out in the northwest, but he was actually a public school teacher, and he had [00:15:00] just noticed that in his school, the kids he taught, had sort of lost the ability to engage with people who weren't their own peers. And he wanted his kids to have a more holistic view of life and learning and time outside when the weather was good and a chance to go fishing and, and still learn.

And so that book really influenced me. I did have a curriculum. And my girlfriends who weren't homeschooling, who were intimidated by it, you know, as I was initially, thought you had to sort of make up everything and that's absolutely not the case. There's so much curriculum out there.

You could, with one click, purchase an entire curriculum that tells you what to do every day. Or you could kind of piece it together, which I kind of did. I went to the homeschool convention and looked at all the tables and, I thought it was super interesting. Of course, it made me want to, like, teach everything.

And you can't do that, so, I owned much more curriculum than I ever taught. Yeah, I had kind of a spine curriculum. We did Story of the World for [00:16:00] history, which was absolutely my favorite thing and how I learned all of my history. And then we had a writing program that kind of shifted over the years, but we'd do grammar and writing.

And then usually the writing was based on what we were reading. We had a ton of read alouds. You know, rich literature. That was just wonderful. I feel like I grew a brain by reading all this great children's literature. A lot of which I had never heard of before. And then we picked a math program. And I think we picked Math U See for those early years.

I really liked that. They had these cool manipulatives. And not being a math person it was helpful for me. And and then we just picked a few other things that we wanted to do. 

I met other women who were homeschooling and sometimes they would say, Hey, I've got a girlfriend who would love to teach art. Do you want to do a joint art class?

And so we'd have eight kids in the basement twice a week and they would do art history and art and it would be all ages and they would just love it. And sometimes we did a [00:17:00] Shakespeare class where the moms would trade off teaching it.

And then for many years we did once a week, we did a co-op called Classical Conversations, which is basically a memory program of all the math facts, parts of speech, history, and the kids loved it. There were a lot of songs and games for the memory work, and, and there was also an afternoon writing program that was very rigorous, but, but really excellent for the kids if you wanted to sign them up for that. So we had a once a week co-op.

We would do... classes with friends just in the community. We do sports and piano lessons and, and I, by the end of my homeschooling career, I really just taught the things I wanted to. And I used to joke that outsource was my middle name because I realized kids can take an online class every once in a while, you can send them to homeschool co [00:18:00] ops for a few classes.

 (What is a co-op?) 

Nicole: Can you talk about what a co-op is? 

Nancy: Sure, co-ops come in all forms but typically it's a group of parents getting together and either teaching (having the parents as the teachers) or having other people hired teachers teach a bunch of the kids so it's a little bit more of a classroom setting.

It can be, but it's also feels a lot more organic than a school with, you know, bells and sitting at a desk for 50 minutes and, there's all kinds of co-ops in the Northern Virginia area and around the country, actually. So there's co-ops that are based on just the core subjects and or specials like art and music or theater or debate.

Or sometimes they just have the extra stuff where it's chess and other interesting things. But usually there's some core component like a writing class. There's also larger co-ops where you can [00:19:00] just pick which classes you’d like. I'd like my kid to learn French and English. And those co-ops usually happen once a week or twice a week and the kids eat lunch together and run around and play and then go to their classes and it's usually something that the mom maybe doesn't want to teach or thinks someone else can teach better or just it's a it's a fun time for the kids to you know be with other homeschool kids.


Nancy: An enormous number of wonderful curriculum programs came from moms who We're solving for problems.

So, for instance, my favorite grammar program a homeschool mom had developed. She happened to have left handed kids like I had. I had two of them. And so the workbooks had the spiral at the top. Which I just thought was so nice. For my lefties. And she had also developed that curriculum because she [00:20:00] wanted a clear grammar curriculum but she didn't want a lot of bells and whistles and she didn't want a whole lot more.

You know, there's no, you don't have to do much ‘make work’. You're not in homeschooling because you can just learn it and then move on to something else. And so she developed this really clear, excellent curriculum that really taught grammar well, gave you enough practice, but it was very effecient.

And had the spiral at the top of the notebook, so I love that. So a lot of excellent homeschool curriculum has been developed by homeschooling parents. Who realized there was a hole in the market for something. And then there's groups like Sonlight, which is I don't know if Sonlight was originally just a homeschool curriculum or an actual school. There's great curriculum that grew out of good schools where they would then tailor their whole package program for homeschoolers and help you [00:21:00] with a schedule and help you figure out what level your kid was at and you could piece it together from their offerings from sort of one catalog.

 (Challenges of homeschooling and learning) 

Nicole: And what were some of the harder parts or learnings from homeschooling as you went on? 

Nancy: Well, I'm not super organized as I mentioned so I would say organization was always a little bit of a struggle for me. And then I would say one of the harder things about homeschooling is homeschooling kids of different ages and keeping everybody, you know, profitably occupied.

 (Kids learning about domestic life) 

Nancy: So one of the blessings of homeschooling in a family with kids of different ages is that the older kids really do learn a lot about domestic life, and I think that's especially great for my boys. Having married one of them, Nic, you know, my oldest is a great cook, and he's great with kids, and he changed a ton of diapers as a early teen, and I think that's, that's good for kids. And my second son is also a great cook, [00:22:00] and great with kids. So to me, there's just something priceless about that.

But on the other hand, there were plenty of times where if I wasn't really organized, those kids weren't as occupied as maybe they should have been with learning because I wasn't as prepared and I was working with the younger kids. And sometimes the younger kids were just super distracting. Because they're little kids, they're toddlers.

 (Unrealistic expectations and chaos) 

Nancy: And so you would hear these homeschool moms talk about how, well I just hold my toddler on my lap while I teach, you know, long division. And it just never worked that way for me. So there is a fair amount of chaos that I think I just had to be comfortable with. As it turns out, there still was a lot of learning going on. And I would say I think my kids would wish I had more stores of patience for everyday.

And there were great books around all the time. And the kids did have to take some initiative as they got older in pushing through. But I always think I could have been more disciplined [00:23:00] myself. But anyway, I kind of started to enjoy the chaos and that probably wasn't as good for our structure.

I did try different things on different years, and there's just so many different options and ways to do it and I would say homeschool moms are brilliant and an incredible resource. So between the blogs and the online forums, you could come up with many different ways to structure and many different ways to test your kids learning so that by the end of the year you could figure out what did we actually learn.

And then because of the state regulations, every year my kids did get tested one way or another. So I did have some accountability about if they were progressing.

 (Efficiencies of homeschooling) 

Nicole: I will say it was also neat to come over occasionally and hear you and Cecily sort of finding these different efficiencies in sending off a group of kids to one person's house for one lesson for the day and them all learning together and then you [00:24:00] having a little bit of time to go do one thing and efficiency in that way, which maybe is a mini version of co-ops?

Nancy: I think that is and it's just the sense of community among homeschoolers. That really develops all over the place, because if there's a couple of homeschoolers in a neighborhood, you will end up banding together to do just that, just what you described. Like, let's take the older kids. If you want to take the older kids and do Shakespeare with them, I'll take the younger kids and we can do our read alouds or something else.

And it's a lot of fun for the moms to team up and it's just, it's fun for the kids. It's just fun to look forward to schooling in small groups. It doesn't have the institutional feel of a large classroom, but it has some of the benefits of kids being together. Just making it, you know, fun and social and giving them break time and letting them run around together.

There were so many nature clubs. That's another kind of co-op [00:25:00] Where, you know, the mom who loves the outdoors would say, ‘Hey, let's do once a week science nature club.’ And then you'd all go on treks and look at things and come back and one of the moms would have organized a little lesson or discovery about the things we'd found, and that was super fun.

We had, at one point, hired this biologist to bring over different kinds of reptiles and amphibians.The kids watched a snake eat a mouse. And that was a fabulous lesson in the backyard.. There were just so many fun activities with the kids.

Nicole: Where did you find this biologist? 

Nancy: You know, I can't even remember. In the homeschool community, you see an ad or somebody... mention something and then you say, ‘Hey, I'll do that too.’

 (Great fire of london) 

Nancy: But I remember once, we were learning about The Great Fire of London. I think that was in 1666. And so we tried to recreate it and we had buildings, little cardboard buildings, and we got to set them on [00:26:00] fire and we got to see why London was so susceptible to fire as were a lot of those medieval towns because their homes were made of wood and they were very close together.

And poor little Nina, who is not officially in the class, but we had borrowed her Playmobil horse for the demonstration, was crying in the background as her horse was melting and we we weren't paying attention because we thought the fire was so interesting and exciting. And the kids loved that lesson, but not little Nina, so her her horse was collateral Damage in the Great Fire of London.

 (Inefficiencies & tradeoffs of homeschooling) 

Nicole: How did you think about trade offs or benefits and working with different kids’ strengths and interests and weakness and how homeschooling was or wasn't suited to those things? 

Nancy: Oh, that's a good question. That is kind of the ongoing assessment in the... homeschooling parent’s head.

You know, is this working for this kid? I think at a certain point for [00:27:00] me, we made the decision that high school was definitely more efficient and more fun in a small private school rather than homeschooling because it just was much more efficient than me trying to be an expert and I didn't love the idea of the kids doing online classes all day.

I don't mind one online class, but not all of them. And I think the different kids, it's just a very interesting question. Some of them say they loved homeschooling because they did get to find their own interest because they had the gift of time.

So with lots of books around and a library nearby, they developed real interests. And they had the time to keep reading about them and try lots of different activities because the homeschool community is incredibly varied. So Irish dance or certain kinds of art or other kinds of sports were all, you know, super available in the community.[00:28:00] 

So, some of the inefficiency of homeschooling turns out to be a blessing. Because kids get to learn. But, if they've got lots of books, or lots of time, they could explore their own interests.

And actually develop their interests. We did homeschool tennis. That was a blast. So I got to, by seeing the kids more often during the day than I would have otherwise, I think I became attuned to what they were good at in a different way than I would have if they were in school and I was just hearing about it from someone else.

Sometimes, just having five kids, however, I just wasn't able to capitalize or provide for kids and I always felt badly about that, that they had a particular interest that I wanted them to explore. 

 (Advice for those considering homeschooling) 

Nicole: Do you have any other immediate advice for people who might be considering homeschooling? 

Nancy: I would say if somebody were considering or intrigued by homeschooling, absolutely do it. Do not hold [00:29:00] back.

It made me a much braver person in my entire life. For the rest of my life, I've just felt much, much braver about all the possibilities by sort of stepping off the very conventional path. of educating my kids. And I also would say, you know, there were times when we were very stressed. We were moving, I was newly pregnant and sick, sometimes at the same time.

And at that point I also realized, you really had to do very little. We could do math, and reading, and put everything else aside, and the kids were just fine. And, as often happens in those unexpected gifts of time, they develop other interests, because they've got a stack of books in the library. And they, they do a lot of learning on their own just from time.

So, I would say, I would say to my younger self, don't be scared. Don't waste a second being scared. Just go for it. And it will evolve over time and it's fine. You don't have to be perfect. It's so exciting and it [00:30:00] just joins you and your kids on this great adventure and makes you a team, I think, in a way that you're not necessarily otherwise.

Please drop any questions you might have in the comments!

Tales of Alternative Education
Welcome to the newest section of Nicole Ruiz's substack. This podcast, Tales of Alternative Education will be about new experiments in learning. Interviews with people who I admire and are educating in new ways, inside and outside of a classroom.
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Nicole Williams Ruiz