I help run our county’s homeschool group, and I field new member requests. Parents come to us for myriad reasons. They’ve always been curious about homeschooling, but don’t feel confident enough in their teaching abilities to educate their children. Their son or daughter is being bullied at school. Their child is bored, doesn’t seem to fit, isn’t succeeding in the conventional school system. They notice a marked difference between their child’s confidence and happiness during the summer and the school year––some children plead with their parents to let them stay home from day to day. Children who have heard of homeschooling beg their parents to let them try it.
I often speak with these parents on the phone or invite them to attend new member park days where they have a chance to speak with seasoned homeschooling parents. We explain all the avenues and how much easier it is to do than they’ve imagined. As Rahima Baldwin Dancy puts it in the title of her book–– You Are Your Child’s First Teacher. And therefore, you are certainly equipped to teach your child.
The US didn’t even make it into the top 20 countries in math, reading and science PISA rankings, and I live in California, which ranks 37th in primary education scores among the states. So, one of the first things I point out to parents intimidated by the seemingly daunting responsibility of teaching their children: You really can’t do much worse than the education system is already doing, so take the pressure off yourself to begin with. Second, you’ll almost certainly do a far better job of helping your children hold onto their curiosity, develop their critical thinking skills, get more sleep, feel less stressed and actually enjoy learning. Third, in this Age of Information, every type of curriculum imaginable is available to assist our efforts. You do not have to hold a degree in mathematics in order to teach your children about long division, algebra, geometry and the like. Just as teachers in the conventional school system are provided with teaching guides and answer keys, so will you be. In addition, “out-of-school” learning programs and enrichment classes are increasingly available to homeschoolers who want to supplement their own teaching. And finally, human beings are natural learners, provided we don’t mess that extraordinary capacity up!
As teacher, author and speaker John Taylor Gatto articulated in his New York Teacher of the Year Award acceptance speech, ”How will they learn to read?’ you say, and my answer is ‘Remember the lessons of Massachusetts.’ When children are given whole lives instead of age-graded ones in cellblocks––they learn to read, write, and do arithmetic with ease if those things make sense in the kind of life that unfolds around them.”
I highly recommend any of John Taylor Gatto’s books or videos in which he explains the contradictions between learning and our educational system, and where he lays out the history of compulsory schooling here in the US––which is based on the Prussian model of education in which the goal was obedience and compliance––and what he identified as the “6 Secret Lessons Taught in School“:
- Confusion and Fragmentation
- Class Position
- Emotional and Intellectual Dependency
- Provisional Self-Esteem
- Surveillance and Denial of Privacy
Even in well intended, alternative, progressive schools, our primary educational system cannot provide children as rich a learning environment as they can find outside it. Homeschooled children are regularly involved in the world among folks of different ages and generations, encountering the infinite puzzles, problems and opportunities they find in day-to-day living––with the freedom to pursue and build upon their individual interests and passions. The classroom is a contrivance––an artificial, abstract environment which does not resemble the actual world we live in, and which demands children learn designated material at a designated time in a designated time frame in a designated manner.
A theme throughout Gatto’s books and lectures is that children learn easily when they are engaged and interested––and that they/we can learn in weeks what schools take months or years to teach. Timing also plays a huge role in how well children learn. I use a Waldorf curriculum to homeschool my children, and Waldorf education recognizes that sooner is not always better. This excellent article “First Grade Readiness” by Waldorf teacher and curriculum author Donna Simmons demonstrates this point. Her Christopherus Homeschool curriculum has been a joy to use, and her website has been a wealth of resource for us.
I was raised by liberal academics. My mother had a Masters in Education, and my father’s PhD was in the Philosophy of Education. They were both very heady individuals, and my feminist mother deliberately did not teach my sisters and me how to sew, knit, cook––or any of those traditional female skills, as I suppose she and my father felt they were liberating us from what they perceived could be a prison. If we didn’t even know how to do it, there’s no way we’d be “relegated” to housewives. And they sent each of us to a Montessori school until age 11, a pedagogy with a heavy emphasis on math, science and language, and very little on art, handwork or music.
Art, music, handwork, nature, baking, dance, story telling and more are incorporated very holistically into Waldorf education, so you can imagine what a learning curve it was for me to adopt such a curriculum to homeschool my children. And what a joy it has been! What a journey of personal development it has been! And how fun it has been to learn alongside my children in so many ways! When I am learning something, I am curious about it, excited about it, and that translates to the excitement I have in introducing these concepts to my children as well.
This week, we’ve been reading the epic tale The Mahabharata for my son’s 5th grade Ancient India block, and last year, I re-familiarized myself with pre-algebra to keep up with his math progress. Whether it’s history, mathematical concepts, music, literature or anything else, I am confident that I can learn as well as my kids can, and that while I add another skill set or subject to my repertoire, I can help my kids learn it, too. It enriches our lives, and it makes the whole experience of education and learning fun when the whole family is involved. It also keeps us all very connected to each other and with what’s going on in each other’s lives.
Some folks are intimidated by the time and energy commitment of homeschooling. As my good friend and prominent homeschool advocate Julie Schiffman points out, “When people say to me that they could never homeschool because it’s ‘too much work,’ I respond with, ‘Do you realize how much work it takes to have a kid in school?'” Between shuttling one’s kids to and from school, packing lunches, managing homework, extra-curricular involvement and increasing requirements for parent volunteerism at the schools, homeschooling feels like less of a time commitment than what most schools require from the family.
And then there’s the oft repeated concern and question, “What about socialization?” Once you start homeschooling, you begin to realize what a non-concern that is. Homeschooled kids are out in the world all the time––interacting with people of all ages, professions and ethnicities. My kids have friends from age 8 to 80, and they regularly run into them at the market, the library and other places in town, often introducing me to folks they know through the open mic or chess club they attend regularly with my husband. My 8 year old daughter has tea dates with some teenage girls she’s friends with. When the kids get together with similarly aged homeschool friends (which is usually several times a week), they spend hours playing and talking, getting deeply immersed and involved in whatever it is they’re doing. My homeschool parent friends and I regularly discuss having to consciously make a point of saying “no” to some of the social events and get togethers in order to have enough time at home for homeschooling and day-to-day tasks. They are definitely not wanting for socialization.
And finally, what about the data on homeschooling outcomes? Homeschooling as an increasingly popular education option has been in place in the US and Canada for long enough to substantially measure the outcomes and get a fairly comprehensive picture of how homeschooled children have fared into adulthood. Homeschooled children score above average on achievement tests, SATs and ACTs and are increasingly being recruited by colleges.
Adults who were homeschooled measure above average in surveys analyzing social, emotional and psychological development, civic engagement and political tolerance. Homeschooled adults are more likely than their conventionally schooled peers to have completed an undergraduate degree, to have multiple income sources, to report income from self-employment, and to have higher average incomes than their peers. They participate more in local community service than the general population, and they report high satisfaction with life.
I’m the oldest of four girls, and after my youngest sister was born, my parents decided to save some money for the year my mother took off from work to stay home with her, pull us out of the private Montessori school we were attending, and homeschool us for a year. There had also been some staffing issues at the school––the teacher in the 9-12 age class that I was in had been replaced by a non-Montessori trained teacher at the time, and my education seemed to be suffering as a result. I had been having difficulties grasping concepts like long division and other subjects that were being introduced to me that year.
So, my parents bought a TRS-80 computer, some other materials and workbooks, and they set up our family room to be the “school room.” My mom was understandably pretty consumed with the new baby, and we spent a lot of that year just playing. I remember kind of secretly feeling guilty that we were “getting away with it,” because we spent so little time on “school work” and so much time playing out in the backyard, the creek, creating Fisher Price villages out on the back porch, designing basic programs on our new computer. My mom made sure we did some school work every day, but it seemed trivial in comparison to what felt like a year-long summer.
And then something funny happened. When my mom went back to work the following year, and we re-enrolled in school, I was no longer struggling at school. I had easily caught up on all the things I had been “behind” in––long division was suddenly a cinch. And I hadn’t even noticed that I had been learning it so easily and efficiently. Ever since, I have always known that if I had children, my first choice would be to homeschool them if at all possible.
Neither of my kids have attended regular school. I have an 11 year old son and an 8 year old daughter who are both curious, avid learners who excel academically, are engaged in their community, and pursue any number of myriad interests and passions including chess, dance, basketball, songwriting, beatboxing, poetry, reading, writing, gymnastics, playing and talking on the phone with their friends. They are generally kind and earnest in their interactions with others, and adults in their lives often remark to my husband and me how “well-behaved” they are. Of course, they don’t see them at home:) But this is a common theme among homeschoolers. Our theory is that because they aren’t cooped up in a classroom all day, they don’t feel the same need to let off steam and “goof off” as much while out at the store, at sport practice, at dance class.
Homeschooled children have more time––to think, to wonder, to sit, to be, to sleep, to breathe. We live in a hectic world, and children are very scheduled. As my kids have gotten older and gotten more involved in extra-curricular classes, teams and hobbies, it strikes me that the only way it’s been manageable is because they have so much breathing room during the day. And the family still has plenty of time together to share meals, have conversations, get chores done, and more. We’ve still managed to maintain what feels like a civilized pace and schedule, even with increasing outside activity involvement.
I enjoy spending time with my kids, learning with them, learning from them, watching them unfold. Parenting is flying by, and in a few years, I’m sure I’ll see less and less of them, as they become more independent, autonomous and more interested in their friends, dating, and outside pursuits. And then eventually, God willing, they’ll leave home to start their own separate journeys. With the state of things as it is in the conventional school system, and with homeschooling’s proven success––why wouldn’t we homeschool?