I met today’s guests back in 2013 at BlogHer and she is a pioneer in our space. I’m so pleased to welcome Issa Mas, award-winning writer, influencer, and homeschooling expert who will be sharing her insights on this topic, which I’m sure is top of mind for many parents right now.
What was Single Mama NYC ?
Issa: In 2007, I called off my wedding, but was pregnant and decided to go ahead and become a single mom by choice. And I was on my own with this, was looking at anything I could find online articles, blogs, and there were surprisingly few blogs written about women who were single from pregnancy, whether it’s through artificial insemination, however it happened.
There were very few at the time, again, we’re talking 2007 and so I was already a writer and I’d not ever blogged before, but I thought I could do this. Right, this was a space that I was looking for. And there were only like two or three out there at the time, Christina Zola from a Solo mom and Rachel Sarah and Kimberley, there were three or four people, in the sea of mommy blogs, they were so few single mom blogs. And so I started in 2007, when I was seven months pregnant with my son. And it just sort of grew from there.
Didn’t you win a BlogHer award?
Issa: Yeah, that was 2012. So every year, BlogHer does these voices of the year awards, where they pick posts and bloggers who win awards in different subjects. My award was in the… Oh gosh, I want to say the identity category. It was about growing up in a family in which, my grandmother was old world Latina and being voluptuous and curvy and what’s considered now plus size, was the thing to be, you didn’t want to be skin and bones. She’s always trying to fatten me up. I was this kid growing up in the eighties where, if you weren’t skinny and a Valley girl who were you. And so that kind of push and pull between those identities and that got selected.
I got to be selected as one of like only, I don’t know, five or seven readers. So I read it in front of thousands of people, which was exciting and scary and nerve-wracking. And then just did freelance writing, from there I was in corporate and then 2008 as you know, everyone knows the economy sort of crashed. And I was at home with a one year old son. And so I just parlayed a blog and writing into a freelance writing and editing thing that I’ve been doing now for going on 12 years.
Sherri: That’s amazing. And I’ve watched you kind of morph into different things and I follow you on Facebook. So I follow the Paleo group that you do. Tell us a little bit more, because you talk very honestly on Facebook.
Why is Facebook important to you now more than ever?
Issa: I find that it’s really interesting because I connect online with some people that I’ve known, again I’ve been in this space since 2007. My kid’s going be 13 years old in September. And so some of these people I’ve known upwards of a decade. We’ve been there through deaths and divorces and all sorts of good and bad things for each other.
My social media is really important to me because it’s allowed me to connect with people all over the world. In real ways, people sort of pooh-pooh social media like, “Oh that’s not real friendship.” I’m seeing social media friendships go the distance and really bridge the gaps in the holes that are on the ground, in real life friends sometimes don’t even fill.
It’s really been important for me as a single mom to connect with other single parents, as a black woman, who’s a Latino woman who is raised in all these different fragmented pieces that make the larger integral whole. A person who at 47 is like, “holy crap”, my metabolism is slowing down. I have to eat differently. I have to work out, like all this stuff and so…
You know the whole 30 Paleo, keto thing, that I helped organize. If I see a whole, a need, I sort of try to fill it because I know what it’s like to feel very alone, and like you’re walking in the dark with this little flashlight that will move six feet ahead of you and you’re doing the best you can, but you’re not really certain if you’re doing it the right way.
Once you have a community of other people who’ve sort of braved these sort of terrains, and have been the Pilgrim ahead of you sort of speak, it helps. It helps in so many different ways, especially if you’re isolated on the ground, maybe you’re far away from your family of origin, maybe you moved after college, you never went back and you’re alone in a city, or there are ways in which social media has filled so many gaps that I’m really grateful for.
Sherri: And I think, touching on that, I’m grateful to you. I’m more of a watcher, like I watch what you post, but I’m shy. I embrace when you’re really sharing a lot of real emotions and a lot of hard topics. I think it’s really helpful on how you’re educating, at least for me, I follow you on Facebook, how you’re educating people and sharing vulnerability. So thank you.
Do you consider yourself like an influencer?
Issa: It’s so funny there have been moments in my online social media writing career in which, I’ve either written about something or discuss something and I can see that it’s had influence and that’s always sort of a moment of like, wow, that’s kind of fascinating to me. I wouldn’t call myself an influencer only because it just sounds, I don’t know, self aggrandizement maybe, and I’m not comfortable with that.
I just think that I’m good at a couple of things.
I’m good at really being authentic and vulnerable around things that are hard to talk about and refusing to allow myself to stay in the dark because that’s where shame thrives.
Shame thrives in the dark, so if you’re feeling ashamed about being a single parent or you’re feeling ashamed about struggling with depression or anxiety, or you’re feeling ashamed about whatever it is you’re going through, that shame sort of thrives in the dark but once you bring it to light and you sort of outside and you’re open with it, that shame sort of dissipates and you find that you’re not alone.
That’s been really important to me. I think that people value that, I’ve actually also been told that maybe I talk… I go a little too far and I’m a little bit too open and honest. I don’t share everything, I’m very circumspect about what I share, especially when it comes to my kid.
But I think that it’s really important to be honest and authentic.
I think that, that’s what people know me for. They know that if I’m going to say it, I mean it. I’m not going to BS anybody. And so I think in that way I may influence people, because if I talk about something, it gives them the sort of suspension of disbelief to say, well if she’s talking about it, at least she’s not, BSing me here. She’s not trying to sell me on anything. She’s just really discussing this. She’s having this conversation with me, that I’m willing to sort of entertain, but to call myself an influencer it feels, I don’t know, I just, it feels sort of…
Sherri: No, I hear you. I feel like we’ve come a long way since 2007. Maybe that is when we first met, I don’t know but, I’m fascinated with your whole life in New York. You’ve lived there your whole life. Right?
What is it like to be a single Mom in New York City right now?
Issa: On March about 11th or 12th, I started seeing the writing on the walls. I started seeing how the pandemic was sort of about to play out. And I decided to go up to my mom who lives in Pennsylvania, in gated community, very secluded. I grabbed my kid and we went up there and quarantined up there. So he hasn’t dealt with the pandemic in the city all, but I came back to the city in May, at first it was really overwhelming because it was still in May, but still sort of in the thick of things and it was still very anxiety producing to be out and about in the midst of the pandemic all around you.
Issa: I’ve had to give thought about what the fall’s going to look like. And to be honest, I don’t know if I’m going to bring them into the city. I don’t know if I’m going to go back up to my mom’s and home school in Pennsylvania. I worked best when I’m in my own apartment, at my own place. My mom was an amazingly gracious. She housed us and still is housing my son, her grandchild.
Issa: Anyhow I’m 47, who wants to live her mom and her husband? Nobody wants to do that. You know what I mean, my mom and her husband have their own way of being, and I was just sort of feeling… It’s so funny because my mom has this huge house and I have this tiny apartment in Manhattan, but I was starting to feel claustrophobic with all these people in this house and having to live in someone else’s space. It just feels best for me to be in my own space. But I don’t know if I’m comfortable bringing Theo back into the city just yet. I don’t know, I don’t know the answer to that.
Sherri: No, I get it, my parents are in Canada, so I can’t see them, but when I do go home, it’s like, what did you eat for breakfast? Where are you going? I’m going to go to the ladies room, so it’s very different. Okay, so now I know you’re doing something new, which is really what reconnected us.
Tell us about your experience homeschooling and what is the Homeschool Starter Set?
Issa: My homeschool experience actually started back in 2015. I had put him in a charter school in New York, in Manhattan where we live, and that charter school, it’s now actually it’s come to light with multiple abuses and negligence on their part, especially with alternative learners. It was an awful experience for my kid, he was in there for first grade and before the end of second grade, I pulled him out and homeschooled him for the remainder of second grade. For third grade, he really wanted to try going back into a brick and mortar school, and so I thought I would just put him in the local public school. Who had undergone an administration changes, so they had a new principal. There was a lot of good things being said about him. So I put my kid in there and it actually turned out to be really, really good.
Issa: Those three years, third, fourth, and fifth were really good for him. And then in sixth grade he went to middle school, and I don’t know if you know, your boys is really young, but middle school is a gauntlet. It’s like, a lot of hormones and emerging awareness of self and of your surroundings.
And now with smartphones, it’s all these pressures and sex gets brought onto the table whole lot sooner than anybody could even think about and all of these challenges and pressures and add on to that.
If your kid is an alternative class or if they’re being bullied and it became quite a nightmare. Every day was just worse than the one prior, and I was watching my kid lose this light and this fluency that kids have, and he wasn’t that kid anymore.
Issa: I didn’t want that for him. I grew up in a household in which my mom’s a teacher, a retired teacher and school administrator, my father was former law enforcement. And so there was very little margin for error and things were done in a very sort of strict authoritarian way, and education was of high value. But I was realizing that that wasn’t how my kid works and the pressures of being in a brick and mortar school, with the bullying and with all these other expectations was proving to be really detrimental to him and to his overall wellbeing as an 11 year old kid.
Issa: And so I realized that I was going to have to pull him and not send him back for seventh grade. I almost pulled him for the remainder of sixth grade, but for whatever reasons, I felt like I wasn’t quite ready at the moment. This was in April 2019, I didn’t feel prepared. I knew that this was going to be a much larger undertaking than when I did it at seven years old, when he was in second grade, this was a bigger endeavor. So I needed to feel like I knew I was doing, so I let him finish out the remaining two months of sixth grade and knew then in April that I was going to homeschool him. So at that point started the information gathering and it’s an enormous endeavor. There’s a lot of information out there and you can get really overwhelmed and paralyzed by it all. I know I did several times and it took me from April to August to sort of distill everything and figure out what I thought was best for him and for us.
Issa: But you can really be doing that work for a really long time. And still not know, feel like you can move forward with it. And at one point I said to myself, my God, if there was one place where I could have all of this information, I would pay for this. I would pay for somebody to have done all of this work for me, like I would be happy to do that. And I guess, hearkening back to the blog, I looked there was nobody doing that. So I said, I guess I’m going to have to do it myself, and so I got the domain name in October. After, we started homeschooling, so the first month, we got ourselves under way and little by little started gathering the information because all 50 States, including DC have different requirements and parameters.
Issa: I went through all of the States to figure out, what are the things that you need to do just to start your process? So there’s state requirements and there’s copies of the template of the letter of intent. The letter of intent is something that you have to submit to your school district, to notify them that you intend to homeschool. You can’t just not send your kids to school, truancy knocks in your door and says, hey what happened? So in order to withdraw your child from the school district that they’re in, at the brick and mortar level, you have to submit a letter of intent.
Issa: There’s a template for that, there’s templates for the quarterly reports that you’ll have to submit to your school district. So you can stay in compliance. It’s like a report card, so they know that your child is doing what he or she needs to be doing. A copy of the annual assessment, like the year end assessment that you have to submit, copies of… There’s a short list of curriculum, so there are so many curriculums out there, that you can choose from. Everything from middle of the road to the gifted and talented, to children with [inaudible 00:16:04] learning disabilities and everything in between. And it’s hard.
Are these schools state-based, like if you said, okay, I’m in New Jersey, I’m going to choose this state or it’s a school that’s nationwide and you just sign up for the New Jersey New York curriculum?
Issa: Well, it’s not even in New Jersey or in New York. Usually these curriculums are nationwide and certain States have certain curriculums that are required to be taught. And so you would find out which curriculums, adhere to those requirements.
Issa: But for the most part, you can be in pretty much any state and sign onto one of these curriculums. And they’re meeting the national standards, unless you need something that’s required for your state and then you can choose that curriculums. And these curriculums that I chose for the shortlist, of the curriculums are online based. The reason why I chose online based, there’s a wide variety of curriculums, you can choose book based where you get the textbooks for the entire year, and you crack open with the textbooks and there’s work-books and your hands on, you and your student [inaudible 00:17:07].
Issa: There’s also online based, where they go online. They’re in a virtual classroom, or they’re interacting with something that’s experiential, there’s videos, all sorts and different learning modalities. And then there’s hybrids of the two. I chose online ones and also wanted to have a hybrid of the two, but mostly online ones, because this allows the work at home parent to… It affords the student as much independent work as possible.
Issa: You don’t have to sit there, cracking open a textbook, writing out a lesson plan and engage in that way. What you’re really doing is just supervising that time, getting your work done, like with Theo and I. I sit at the same table as he does, and I’m over here doing my work, he’s his work. If he has a question about something, then we engage on that. I get to go into the parent portal and see if he’s meeting the requirements. If his skipped a lesson. If there’s something that he got a little score on, then maybe we should review and I can help him on.
Issa: There’s a wide variety of ways in which to do it. And I chose specifically online curriculums because I know that there’s so many parents who can be working from home now. When I started this, this was pre-COVID. I wasn’t thinking about a pandemic right? I was just thinking about how to make it easy for parents to homeschool. Now, in the context of this epidemic where so many parents are refusing to send their children to school in the fall. I really had to go back to the drawing board and look at the curriculums and felt I had to make the decision to choose online curriculums. So that [inaudible 00:18:46] the child the best education, as well as the parent enough time to get the work done as well.
Visit the website at homeschoolset.com
Sherri: And that’s where you can download the book.
Issa: The starter set. Yeah.
What if I needed more help, I could call you and say, help me? I don’t know what to do, can you create a whole program that I should do for my son?
Issa: I also do that as well. Just as a consultant, people would love to have somebody to… And I would do it virtually obviously, you could walk me through your house or walk me through the space in which the child will do the bulk of their learning. And I can set you up, set the parent up soup to nuts to… For the day before they start homeschooling instruction, they feel like they’re really ready. They don’t feel like they’re flying by the seat of their parents.
Issa: They feel like they’ve had some sort of solid, tangible advice from somebody who’s done this, from somebody who’s been doing this for a while. I also in constantly talking to other homeschooling families, and some of these homeschooling families have started it from pre-K onwards, and now their kids are in high school going into college. I have a wealth of information that I use to help people. And in that capacity, I can be brought on as a consultant. I love doing that, I love helping families get started in that way.
Sherri: I know in my neighborhood, everyone’s trying and scrambling to figure out what to do. What I guess I don’t understand is why can’t I do both?
Why can’t I do the online learning with the school and then supplement that in case, it falls short with some kind of homeschooling program?
Issa: You can, you absolutely can. And here’s the thing, what you do outside of the distance learning. And so distance learning is usually the language around the at home learning that the school administers as opposed to homeschooling in which you as the parent, you’re seeking out the curriculum and you’re either administering it yourself, or you’re supervising that, that happening.
Issa: Now, the distance learning provided by the school district. If you go that route, then all you’re required to do is what they ask of you. It could fall short of what your standards are. It could fall short of what you feel your child can achieve. If you decide and in the starter set, I not only listed curriculums, but I also listed educational enrichments and supplements. Things like coding classes, things like online guitar classes, all sorts of things to give your childhood well-balanced education.
Issa: If there are things in which you feel that would augment the distance learning that your child is getting, you can do that. There’s nothing stopping you, it’s not going to give your child an official transcript of those classes. Those classes won’t turn up in an official transcript, for some families that’s not important. What’s important is if there’s gaps, what those gaps are and can you fill those gaps for them? In what way? Some of these online enrichment programs, are the perfect way to do that, especially now when your kid’s not going to the soccer.
Issa: So maybe an online gym class or… My son loved his Wednesday guitar lessons over at the guitar school in Manhattan. He doesn’t get that anymore, but he still has his instructor. They do their Zoom class every week, and so he hasn’t fallen short of anything. His instructor was like, he’s doing so well. He’s just a natural musician. The fact that it was online, hasn’t allowed him to slip in any ways. [inaudible 00:22:51] that’s what I’m saying.
Sherri: That’s amazing. So what do you think, I know a lot of parents are torn. No one knows what’s going to happen.
Should parents be pulling their kids out to homeschool or not?
Issa: There’s as many opinions on that as I can’t even imagine, if my school offered distance learning and I wasn’t already a homeschool kid, I would to be doing distance learning. I wouldn’t be sending my kid into a school, a brick and mortar school, a for his heath and safety and B for my own, I don’t know what he’d bring home to me. And also, a lot of us talk about these kids and their health and their safety, and that’s paramount obviously, but I’m the daughter of a teacher, of a former teacher and school administrator.
Issa: What about all these teachers that are going in… Walking into these brick and mortar schools who could be literally risking their lives? These ain’t first responders, they didn’t sign on to risk their lives. They signed out to teach kids and they could be walking in a brick and mortar situations, that they’re being asked to risk their lives or they’re being asked to bring something home that could risk the life of an elderly parent or immunocompromised family member.
Issa: These are all situations in which I can’t help but think about. And because of all those pieces, if my child were already going to a brick and mortar school and my school district offered distance learning, I would take that first and foremost. And I would also supplement with either online or offline books. As a homeschooling parent already, if I had a child who was already struggling in school in any way, academically, social emotionally, and they found that last year towards the end of the year, the distance learning ramped up anxiety caused them to fall even further behind in their grades was a disservice to them in any way. I would pull them from the distance learning altogether, and seek out a curriculum that’s more along their particular academic needs as well.
Issa: Parents forget I think that, that’s a perfectly well within our right, as a parent thing to do, to determine the level of education for our child. And if we see that, that education is either causing harm, or isn’t meeting standards or whatever the case may be. It’s absolutely right to go out there and say, you know what? This sounds amazing. It’s right up my kid’s alley. They don’t have to deal with this constant stressor of meeting these goals of the distance learning. We can do it at our own pace, everybody’s happy and the goals are still being met. So many parents don’t know that there’s options out there. And there’s so many options out there, now more than ever.
What do you think the future looks like for these kids?
Issa: I sadly think that… I read an article, gosh, I don’t remember, I can’t remember if it was Washington Post and it said that really, there’s no way to expect any semblance of normality until 2022. So that means all of next year’s going to be sort of navigating this new landscape and trying to move the needle towards obviously the least amount of infections possible. And I think that out of all of these kids will weather the storms, probably better than all of us older folks.
I think that’s so much of their lives is online that this trajectory isn’t as jarring for them as it is for a lot of adults. And I think that what we as parents have to do is we have to be more intentional with the time that we’re spending with our kids offline. I think that… Before it was like, when we were hanging around the house, we could just get out our devices or sort of check out. But if we’re doing that all day anyway, we have to figure out different ways to connect that are offline, even if it’s just for a little while every day, just to check in.
What do you think the future holds for you, Issa?
Issa: Oh gosh, I don’t know. I can never see around the next corner, this life of mine, the twist and turns. I’m hoping for lots of abundance, whether it be in finances and love and health, and I want to be able to continue to give to others and help others and be a support to others.
Can you name an influencer you love to follow, but hate to admit that you do.
Issa: That’s a good question. I would say Cardi B, but I don’t even hate to admit it anymore. [inaudible 00:28:11] what it is, she’s just… I love her. She is… Again, like I said earlier, I love authenticity and she’s about as authentic as it come.
Sherri: Well, awesome. Thank you so much. This has been so helpful and we are just, I’m so thankful and I know our community is going to be very thankful to hear all these tips, so wishing you all the best and hopefully, hopefully I’ll get to see you one of these days soon.