by Jessica Mesman Griffith on March 5, 2015
I started collecting books about homeschooling before my daughter's first birthday. I imagined she and I would spend our days in the beautiful library at the college where my husband worked, reading on blankets in the fields, playing in the surrounding Virginia countryside, pressing flowers into nature journals. I didn't want her going to public school in the county, losing her taste for hobbits and her strange, adorable elevated diction and vocabulary. I didn't want her to lose touch with her imagination. I didn't want her heart and soul to be formed by Taylor Swift.
It's hard for me even to remember when I could have been so idealistic about so many things at once —my own patience as a mother, my capacity for spending so much of my time with children, my daughter's capacity for living in a previous century. Plus I love Taylor Swift.
By the time she was three, my daughter was in preschool, but I still read all the homeschool literature and followed the blogs. Now, homeschooling has become almost mainstream — last year, 2.2 million American children were homeschooled, according to the National Home Education Research Institute. But even just a few years ago it was still transforming from something only wacko homesteaders and religious fanatics did into an aging-hipster hobby. I wanted in on what seemed like part of a larger (sub)cultural movement toward DIY sustainable living. I was so tempted by what looked like a bohemian-artist-intellectual dream life: no early rising! No carpool line! No PTO meetings! No lunches to pack! Museums on Wednesdays and vacations in March! All those blogs with pictures of happy, close-knit families making their own kefir made me swoon with envy and admiration.
So when my daughter's school "issues" began — and her teachers pressed me to get her diagnosed (with Asperger's and ADHD) and medicated — I was almost happy. I felt I had confirmation that traditional schooling wasn't meeting her needs. I withdrew her from first grade, and we got started at home.
I'd researched for years. I'd read all the books and all the blogs. My husband was a professor. I had this, right?
Turns out I had no idea.
1) Before I could homeschool, I had to de-school
Some parents, often the ones trained as teachers, attempt to replicate the classroom in the home — desks, chalkboard, and all. But most of us wanted to homeschool to get away from what we see as the restrictive trappings of the school environment, which was designed not for learning but for the management of large numbers of children in a single room.
It took me at least a year to stop thinking in terms of grade levels, test scores, class periods, recess, and even desks and classrooms, and to stop worrying about what my daughter was missing in her old school. I had to mourn those moments parents of schoolchildren enjoy: wouldn't it have been sweet to see her in her class's production of The Tale of the Gingerbread Man?
I worried there would be holes in her education, stuff I'd forget to teach her — like geography, or her phone number. But I quickly learned there were already gaping holes in her education that her school wasn't addressing. She was many grade levels ahead in some subjects and behind in others. When ordering curricula, she didn't fit neatly into any category, and it took time and trial and error and money to choose from several grade levels and companies to get the right materials for her.
"How will your children learn to make friends, respect authority, and get along with all kinds of people?"
I also worried about how I would teach my daughter math and science or other subjects that don't come easily to either of us. So far, this hasn't been a problem, but if it becomes one, my plan is to hire a tutor or send her to classes or co-ops to learn material I feel less confident teaching. Some school districts also permit part-time enrollment for homeschoolers, or allow kids to attend "specials" such as art, music, or gym, and even play on the sports teams of their local school. As homeschooling becomes more prevalent, laws are evolving and school systems becoming more flexible and welcoming.
I wasn't the only one who needed time to adjust to the transition from schooling to homeschooling — my daughter did, too. I faced much skepticism when I stepped in as the teacher, and I heard plenty of, "But that's not how they do it at school."
2) Still, I had to create structure for the day
De-schooling didn't mean getting rid of rules altogether, though: I learned that despite my bohemian fantasies, routines are important for kids (and for the sanity of the homeschooling parent). As a homeschooler, of course, my schedule won't look like a school schedule. It has to be flexible to accommodate the dinner that needs to go in the oven and the errands I need to run and the baby's diaper that needs changing and the freelance story I have due in the morning. Not to mention the tantrum my daughter throws when I try to make her do math.
Our current schedule looks like this: math, language arts, reading, and religion every morning — these are the nonnegotiables — and a flexible afternoon that might include clubs, field trips, park days with other kids, nature study, music, art, or theater. I quickly realized that even "down time" could be used constructively. My kids read books on everything from van Gogh to Tut's mummy throughout the day. In the car, we listen to audiobooks or a series like Classical Kids, which teaches age-appropriate music appreciation. We take long walks and collect samples from the woods to draw or research. We cook dinner together. After a few months of homeschooling, you get the hang of weaving education into all the day's experiences, until it becomes second nature.
3) The homeschooling world is not monolithic — and that makes it difficult to decide how to teach
Homeschooling is fraught with competing and contradictory philosophies. Here's a crash course in the major factions:
Traditional homeschoolers recreate school at home with textbooks and tests, or enroll in correspondence schools like Seton or Calvert or the K-12 programs available through the public school systems in their areas.
Unschoolers advocate child-led learning, mostly through natural life experiences, and they base all educational choices on the child's interests. If your kid loves dinosaurs, you study dinosaurs. If they want to learn Elvish, you learn Elvish. Younger children learn through play, household chores, and social interaction. The movement's godfather is John Holt, an educator who coined the term "unschooling" in the 1970s.
Radical unschoolers go further than John Holt to oppose all coercive education as counterproductive to learning. No classes, no enforced structures, no formalized learning, period.
The Charlotte Mason method focuses on literature and the study of arts and nature. Charlotte Masonites talk about "spreading a feast" of rich "food" before the child, who then gravitates to what is natural for his age, ability, and temperament. This method tends to be a favorite among Anglophiles and academic types like me. It's also beloved by Christians for its attention to habit-training and the development of virtues. Masonites can be annoyingly wholesome.
Unit studies build an entire curriculum of math, language arts, and science around a single topic. There are unit studies available for purchase on everything from ancient Egypt to Little House on the Prairie. Five in a Row is a wildly popular curriculum for younger kids; it builds a unit study around a favorite children's book each week.
Classical homeschoolers teach according to the three stages of the Latin Trivium, which they believe best addresses the natural development of the intellect. The classical homeschooler's bible is The Well-Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer.
Eclectic homeschoolers borrow what they like from all the other approaches.
With all those competing philosophies and curricula, one of the biggest challenges I faced as a new homeschooler was narrowing my goals to what I could actually accomplish, realistically, in a day. I had big dreams of teaching Latin and French in addition to the core subjects of reading, writing, and arithmetic, plus art and music lessons and extracurricular sports and clubs. I felt there was so much wasted time at school, and that we would use all the extra time to expand and enrich her education. But kids need down time, too.
4) I don't worry about socializing my kids
One of the most common questions I get as a homeschooling parent is, "How will your children learn to make friends, respect authority, and get along with all kinds of people?" Helpful grandmothers who find me in the grocery store with my kids on a Tuesday at 10 am tell me that children need school in order to learn how to be a functional member of society. But consider this: other than school, your child will never again be confined to an environment exclusively populated by people his or her own age. NEVER. Why are we so hung up on socializing our children only with their peers?
And in any case, there are so many clubs, classes, lessons, and field trips for homeschooled kids that they can socialize as often as they care to, with as many different kinds of people as I can imagine. Most of the homeschoolers I know complain that they're never at home.
5) I also don't worry about grading them
Another question I get is, "How do you grade your kids on reading, walking in the woods, and cooking dinner?" The answer is: I don't. My state doesn't require me to report my curriculum, turn in grades, or test my children, so I don't. Some states require testing and reporting, and if we move again we may have to adjust our record-keeping habits, which are admittedly bare-bones. But this laissez-faire approach works for me so far. When you are teaching a child one on one, it becomes readily apparent even without testing where she is excelling and where she needs more work. But for those who are concerned about how their children stack up to their peers, educational testing is usually available through the local school system or through private companies like Sylvan.
To avoid burnout and resentment, I must take regular time for myself to just be a grownup
My children are still of lower elementary age, but if we decide to homeschool through high school, I imagine we will begin to keep records and transcripts for college applications. As homeschooling becomes more mainstream, colleges are also becoming more accustomed to working with homeschoolers' less-conventional applications and lack of standardized GPAs. It's very common for homeschoolers to begin taking college classes in their high school years, anyway.
6) I covet the eight hours my schooling friends have to themselves
When other parents send their kids off to kindergarten and I see their lives returning to the land of adults for several hours a day, I have yet another reason to question my decision to educate my own children. To avoid burnout and resentment, I must take regular time for myself to just be a grownup. It also helps to have a supportive partner who helps bear the burden, or is at least an enthusiastic cheerleader of my choice to homeschool.
7) Homeschooling is not free
Curricula, art supplies, classes, co-ops, field trips, commuting to all those cool homeschool events and conferences — all of it costs money. Depending on where you live, you can easily spend more on homeschooling than you would on a posh private school, especially when you're first getting started and learning by trial and error. My best asset is my library card.
8) The worst thing about homeschooling is my children. And the best thing about homeschooling is my children.
My children. Are with me. So. Much.
But they're also the best thing about homeschooling. A wise mother once told me that we send our kids off to school just as they're becoming really interesting people. When you homeschool, you get to enjoy those interesting little people, not just the exhausted child you meet at the end of the day. I don't have to wonder what happened at school and extrapolate my kids' lives from one-word answers. I know them better than anyone. Family — not their classmates — is the primary influence on the development of their intellects, imagination, and character. I delight in their discoveries and their progress. We have shared interests and obsessions. We are close.
That closeness — though it's a challenge and a frustration at some point each day — is also a gift.
And I can always send them back to school.