Homestead Schooled

Kate McCoy, 12, left, mixes alfalfa and hay seed together with her father, Jason, before planting 40 acres on the family farm in Martin County on May 16. Jason later showed Kate how to plant the seeds with a truck, and had her finish the planting with her older brother Harrison, 14. The McCoys are homeschooling Kate and Harrison, and incorporating different activities like working on the farm and playing musical instruments to round out their education. “If they’re able to go out into the world and know how to learn, then I’ve done my job,” Jason said.

Story by Leann Burke
Photos by Brittney Lohmiller

Like most kids their age, Harrison McCoy, 14, and his sister, Kate, 12, study Shakespeare, history and mathematics. Unlike most kids their age, the McCoys’ school day is sometimes interrupted by a dog chasing a peacock.

Harrison and Kate are growing up homeschooled on the 120-acre homestead just over the Dubois-Martin county border that’s been in their family for several generations, handed down through their father Jason McCoy’s side of the family. For them, a typical day starts sitting around the kitchen table with their mom, Robin Brooks, for three to four hours of school lessons. And, yes, sometimes those lessons get interrupted by farm antics — one of the dogs chasing a peacock, a horse emergency or just about anything one can imagine happening on a farm.

After lessons, the rest of the day is spent on myriad projects the two have going around the farm — blacksmithing for Harrison, training a thoroughbred horse for Kate, mounted archery, beekeeping or helping Jason build the additions to the homestead, to name a few — or on music lessons. Both Kate and Harrison take piano lessons, Kate plays the drums and Harrison plays the guitar. 

“We don’t just want them to learn facts and figures,” Jason said. “The most important thing is they learn how to learn. That’s how they’ll be successful adults.”

So far, that goal is being met. The projects Kate and Harrison work on are all things they came up with themselves. Take Harrison’s blacksmithing, for example. He saw blacksmiths working at the first Rosenvolk German Medieval Festival held in Ferdinand and thought it looked cool.

Harrison forges a railroad spike and works to turn it into a knife or letter opener on Nov. 6 at the family farm. Harrison learned the basics of blacksmithing, and now spends time practicing and creating his own pieces in the workshop on the farm. “Being able to figure out stuff on our own is the best way for us to learn,” Harrison said.

When they got home, Harrison asked if he could have some of the leftover wire from building a fence around the farm. Jason said sure. Next thing he knew, Harrison was winding the wire into a spring and cutting it into rings to form links for chain mail. Then, he set about researching how to connect the links into a shirt. Once he finished that project, Harrison thought he needed to be able to heat and mold metal, so he asked Jason how they could make that possible on the farm. The pair connected with the Bumkum Valley Metal Workers of Daviess County to learn how to set up a forge. Shortly thereafter, Harrison had his own forge in an auxiliary building at the homestead. He fires it up every fall and winter, forging various wares. Lately, he’s collected a bunch of railroad spikes to turn into knives and letter openers.

“I like that it’s something they were doing pretty much at the beginning of time,” Harrison said of the hobby, “and to be one of the only kids doing it.”

Kate and Harrison are also some of the only kids doing mounted archery. It’s one of several activities they do with the roughly 22 horses housed at the homestead, which also houses the Dubois-Martin Equestrian Center. There, Kate and Harrison lead riding lessons for customers, along with a staff of instructors. Training the stubborn horses often falls to Kate, who Jason calls “the horse whisperer.” Her current project is a thoroughbred horse that came off the racing track a few years ago. Now, he’s mellow and recalcitrant.

“You can’t get him to move,” Kate said. “He just doesn’t want to move.”

Kate’s been working with him to get him “more peppy.” Eventually, she wants him to handle trail rides and jumping.

Kate picks up bales of hay with her brother and friends at the family farm in Martin County on July 19. “I like hands-on learning,” Kate said. “I learn faster that way.”

In case there wasn’t enough around the homestead to keep Kate and Harrison busy, they also pour a lot of energy into music, spending as much time in music lessons as they do on core school lessons. One afternoon a week, Robin takes the two to Bloomington for piano lessons, guitar lessons for Harrison and drum lessons for Kate. Two more afternoons a week, the two take music lessons in Jasper, and they are often found jamming together in the living room of a house on Jasper’s Jackson Street the family is renting to house some of their activities while they add on to the homestead. Often, Jason joins the jam sessions after he gets off work with Bramwell-McKay Masonry Restoration. Sometimes, Kate and Harrison perform in the community as well, appearing in a couple of Will Read and Sing For Food shows.

“I think what both of us like about all of our hobbies is they take some skill,” Harrison said.

The plethora of hobbies Kate and Harrison enjoy is part of why the two have chosen to stay homeschooled. Although Jason and Robin give each of them the choice about whether or not to attend public school, both Kate and Harrison wonder how they’d have time to pursue all their projects if they attended public school. And that freedom is part of what attracted Robin and Jason to homeschooling when they moved back to the area from North Carolina less than a decade ago. Robin does most of the teaching, but the McCoys also hire tutors to augment lessons.

Robin Brooks, left, goes over poems by William Blake with her daughter, Kate, the morning of Oct. 18. Kate and Harrison have been homeschooled by Robin since they were young. “I like doing the homeschooling,” Robin said. “If they went to school, I’d probably be a basket case.”

“We just decided that with the farm and all that it offered, we’d try to do homeschool,” Robin said.

Although they are homeschooled, Kate and Harrison have a large friend group that they’ve met through playing hockey at the Skate Palace in Jasper and through activities with the Dubois-Martin Equestrian Center. Harrison also has a lot of friends from airsoft, a competitive team shooting sport similar to paintball that uses plastic BBs.

Neither Jason nor Robin have anything against public schools. Both of them attended public schools, and Jason’s daughter from a previous marriage, Jordan, 20, attended public school before pursuing college at Colorado State University. For Kate and Harrison, though, Jason and Robin decided that since they could homeschool, they’d try.

The freedom to design their own curricula has allowed Kate and Harrison to explore subjects they may not have been able to in public school. For example, when they studied ancient Rome, they also learned some Latin. They’ve also studied some philosophy.

Science lessons are probably the most different from public school. Rather than studying science in books, Kate and Harrison get their science from their hobbies. Robin ties physics lessons into the mounted archery and biology into the farming done around the homestead.

“I like doing the homeschooling,” Robin said. “If they went to school I’d probably be a basket case.”

Now that Harrison and Kate are nearing high school, the time is coming when Robin may have to learn to keep the worrying at bay. Harrison has the option to attend high school starting in either the 2019-20 school year or the 2020-21 school year, with Kate following a couple of years later if she chooses to.

Robin Brooks, left, her niece Ellie Underwood of Jasper, 10, Kate, Harrison and Jason McCoy tell stories while having dinner on Nov. 2 with Mormon missionaries Sister Ashlynn Hall of Twin Falls, Idaho, and Sister Macie Phelps of Payson, Utah, at a house on Jackson Street the McCoys rent in Jasper. Jason invited the missionaries over for dinner after meeting them the previous day.

Right now, it looks like both want to attend public high school. Both plan to attend college, and they agree that attending public high school may make them better prepared for that. Harrison also wants to play team sports, something he hasn’t been able to do as a homeschool student.

Committed to making sure Kate and Harrison have every opportunity, Jason and Robin are supportive of them attending high school. They hired a tutor specifically to help Kate and Harrison prepare for high school, both academically and socially. So far, adjusting to taking tests has been most difficult. As homeschool students, Kate and Harrison never had to take tests, and they’re proving daunting. Harrison knows the information, he said, it’s just difficult to adjust to the testing format.

“It’s more of a mental thing, I think,” he said.

Beyond the academics, Jason and Robin have been working to prepare the kids for the way public education is structured. When they enroll, Jason said, the school will have to determine what level to start them at, putting them in “a slot” that, right now, Kate and Harrison don’t even know exists.

“The cool people in our society are the ones who think outside the box,” Jason said. “Kate and Harrison don’t even know there is a box.”

Jason and Robin also want to prepare their kids for the cliques in high school and the possibility that other students will be mean.

Despite the major change ahead and the concerns Jason and Robin have, they’ve been careful not to try to sway Kate’s and Harrison’s decision on high school either way.

“[Harrison] wants to do it, so I’m not going to tell him no,” Jason said. “We’re not going to hold them back.”

Harrison holds on to the reins of family horses Jax and Pal while he and Kate worked with the horses on June 6 at the family farm. Kate and Harrison started showing horses and taking lessons when they were 8 and 10 years old.

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