A bird in the Grooms' screened sunroom?
"Hold the door," called Arryn Groom, cupping her hands around the excited creature.
The Smithton home-school mother of four is used to adventures -- like the time her two oldest mastered the science of exploding things.
"They did this at 4 o'clock," said Arryn, of Smithton. "I was gardening. I come around the corner of the house and see scorch marks on the brick wall."
"Dad does not like fiery explosions or anything like that," said Emma, 16, of Dad Clayton, a data warehousing and analytics consultant.
But she and brother Liam, 13, do.
They've tested the flammability of substances in the basement, learning that brake cleaner is a flame thrower, and that you can cook with hand sanitizer and a lighter.
"It puts out a blue flame about this much," said Emma, showing a small space between her fingers. "It's perfect for untraceable fires."
Emma's "homeroom" is her bedroom which she shares with creatures in aquariums. One is an anemic-looking axolotl, an amphibian that can regenerate limbs.
"I found him on craigslist," said Emma. "I was looking for something else and axolotl came up."
He's in with a catfish named Fred, tropical fish called gouramis and some anonymous snails.
Emma likes science, writing and art.
She's taking classes -- some college-prep --through Southwestern Illinois College. Her goal is a college-level chemistry lab class.
Once Arryn's students show interest in a subject, she and Clayton help them "dive deep" and explore. Emma's early fascination with dinosaurs led the family to visit natural history museums across the United States.
"Their dad is really good at science and biology," said Arryn, who met her husband when both were on a college archeological dig in Tel Aviv. "He's given the kids a good foundation for their love of science. He's always challenging them not to spout facts but to go deep and understand things. He's more than happy to invest in their investigations. Say you are interested in anything and Clayton will throw the books at you."
Or buy you the book.
"When Emma was in sixth grade, we got her a college text in herpetology and she just devoured it."
How it works
"At the beginning of the school year, we work out schedules," said Arryn. "First, we have Bible class for a half hour. We read Scripture and talk about it. I have a bachelor's in theology. I try to pass that along. Then we get into math or the higher thinking subjects."
They take a 15-minute break midmorning and an hour at noon. Sometimes, they go for a walk.
"After lunch, the younger ones do their reading and piano, then we will do art or science."
Down the hall and around the corner from Emma's room, Liam, 13, and Tegan, 10, work at computers (the Grooms have four) in a classroom setting. Textbooks arranged by subject overflow bookcases. Posters and hand-painted equations decorate yellow walls.
Liam, wearing earphones, concentrates on a Minecraft Homeschool Mayan unit. His project that morning? Building a temple.
"They are not easy, but not too difficult," he said, quickly movng bricks across his computer screen. "It takes a long time."
He got so involved he almost missed geometry. Arryn saw that he didn't.
"I found Minecraft in January," she said. "You have different options, different subjects (such as) The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. You watch videos, take quizzes, do building...."
During a midmorning break, Tegan sunk into the living room couch to watch TV's Animal Planet.
"'River Monsters' and 'Cake Boss' are her favorite shows," said her mom.
Tegan's favorite thing to make?
"Cookies. I made a giant one about this big," she said, hands spead wide. "It turned out good."
"Tegan is my social butterfly," said Arryn. "Liam is my budding architect. He's into engineering and architecture. He noticed architecture from the time he was 3. He'd say, 'That's a nice-looking building. He would walk in, and look it over to see how it was built."
Kellan, 7, filled in missing numbers on a computer addition and subtraction quiz.
"She's become a pretty good reader and can independently read directions for work," said Arryn. "The beauty of home school, is once they learn to read, they are more on their own. What I do, I'm like the supervisor in an office. I make sure everybody is doing what they should be doing."
When they are, she runs downstairs to do a load of laundry. Sometimes, her students need an assist.
"Help, please," said Kellan. "What's the missing number? I put in 2. It didn't work."
Mom talked her through the problem.
"Kellan is interested in everything, and game for everything," said Arryn. "She has the intellectual capacity to do anything she wants. She will be a fun one to educate."
Arryn planned to find the best schools for her children, then send them.
"When Emma got to be 3 or 4, I could not imagine turning her education over to somebody else and making her one of 30 in a class," she said. "I wasn't ready to leave that to chance. I just continued."
At 6, Emma enrolled in first grade at a public school.
"It was more fun than a party for a week," said Emma, "then it was boring. I was technically a grade ahead. I was redoing stuff. It was noisy."
Halfway through the year, Arryn decided homeschool might be a better fix. She's been at it ever since. Guidelines give her an idea what to cover.
The Grooms are part of SHARE a home school group based in South St. Louis County. That night they planned to attend the group's art contest. Each spring, SHARE offers Missouri ISAT testing.
"I don't like testing," said Arryn. "My husband said, 'Arryn, I want to know where they are.' I stressed over it. ... The two oldest took it two years ago. In math, they score their age. In everything else, it was post high school."
Arryn enjoys teaching, whether it's find a new way of presenting grammar (Role-playing makes it fun and interesting.) or explaining diamantes poems (They're shaped like diamonds and use parts of speech to build a poem around a theme.)
"I doubt myself every day," she said. "You want to do your best. This is my kids' future on the line. The proof's in the pudding. You don't know till you are done."
But you have an idea.
"As they get older, you begin to see fruition. I don't have the doubts anymore. It's fantastic what they are able to do.
"By the time they're 18, they will have general studies (college classes) out of the way. When Emma decides what 4-year college she wants to attend, we'll have snipped off two years at community college rates."
Homeschool is flexible at the Grooms.
"On days when it's not working for everybody, we take a field trip," said Arryn. "We went to Shaw Nature Center last week. We got an arrowhead. In February, we went to Hawaii for 12 days."
They do school six weeks on, one week off. They have extra time at winter break and over summer. They even acknowledge snow days.
"Other kids are home," she said. "Their neighbor friends are home. I tell them, 'You get it done and you can go out and play.'"
During spring break, the family plants a garden. Name the vegetable. They grow it.
After school activities include fencing and Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts. Tegan and Kellan play softball.
Liam learned the basics of beading and leatherworking through scouting, then went off in new directions. He uses paracord to make survival bracelets.
"In an emergency, you can take them off, unwind and have a huge length of paracord," said Arryn.
"180 feet in 10 seconds," said Liam.
During summer, Arryn conducts a cooking camp for 15 to 30 kids. She teaches food safety and how to make several dishes.
"We do a lot of cookies and brownies. I teach them how to cook in the morning and we swim (in the backyard pool) the other half of the day."
The comfortable Groom home invites exploration.
An easel and art supplies are set up just inside the front door. Originals by artistic extended family members fill the home's walls. A table laden with science equipment is across from the art area.
"This is our science table," said Arryn. "We can do experiments. We get expensive science curriculum that comes with experiments. (Emma and Liam) had done all the experiments possible to do in the home by the time they were 11. They want to take it to the next level."
In late summer, they will have that chance.
The family has developed a friendship with folks at Asymmetric Solutions, a firearms training business in Farmington, Mo. It's where Arryn's brother underwent special forces training.
"They're getting to know Emma and Liam and their proclivities for liking to blow up things," said Arryn. "They invited them to come down and make an explosion."
Thinking about homeschooling?
Here are tips from Arryn Groom, of Smithton, who homeschools her four children, ages 6 to 16.
Start at Home School Legal Defense Association, HSLDA.org. "It tells you all of your requirements for the state you are living in and has links for resources. You have to find what works best for you."
Think it through: "This is your children's education. Are you passionate? Willing to take your time? If you can say 'yes,' then consider it. It's a huge sacrifice of your time. There are lots of things I'd like to be doing. Unless you're willng to trade 15 years for each child, don't do it. You have to stick with it. It's huge commitment."
Consider your child or children: "If your child is not thriving in school, it's worth taking an economic hit."
Favorite programs, online learning sites and educational TV and films:
1. Khanacademy.org, online learning program 2. Coursera, online college classes that are free. It's not accredited, but gives a certificate of completion.
3. Teachingtextbooks, a DVD program for teaching math, very independent.
4. Netflix for documentaries as well as the historychannel. Puts out a curriculum with DVDs and lessons.