Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Homeschooling 101

by Marty Layne

Imagine going to school in your pajamas. Or staying up late to finish that exciting book you started reading just after supper because you don’t have to get up early the next morning. These are just two of the options available to children who learn at home.

Why do parents decide to homeschool their children? Angela, a mother of one, found that the private school in which she had enrolled her son was not tuned to his learning pace or style. She spent each day at the school with her son to help him adjust to the demands placed on him. She decided that it would be easier to just keep him at home and teach him there. Now that her son is seventeen, she is ever so thankful she did. “We had the opportunity to explore his interests in depth and meet people he never would have met had he been in school. I also built a close relationship with my son.”

Beth, a mother of three homeschooled young adults, made the decision to homeschool after her oldest child had been in school for two years. Kindergarten worked fine, but first grade was a disaster. Her six-year-old son was reading college chemistry and physics textbooks. The teacher was irate because Matthew wasn’t sticking to the reading curriculum that consisted of simple stories about ducks. After a few months of trying to find a compromise by sending material in for Matthew to work on, Beth realized that it would be better for all concerned if she homeschooled her son and his younger sisters.

Like Beth and Angela, many parents homeschool because they want their children to learn in an atmosphere that is responsive to their individual learning styles. Back in the 1970s, homeschooling was called unschooling by the late writer and educator John Holt, author of myriad books, including, How Children Learn, How Children Fail, Teach Your Own, and Learning All The Time. Holt defined a method of education that was child-centered, using the interests of the child as the curriculum.

By 1985, about 50,000 children in the United States were homeschooled. Many parents in the first wave of homeschoolers chose to homeschool for pedagogical and philosophical reasons. The next wave came when private religious schools were closed down and parents found themselves looking for alternatives to the public schools. These families tended to use curricula provided by an outside source. Presently, about 1.5 to 2 million children, or 3 to 4 percent of school-aged children, are taught at home. Their parents have chosen to homeschool for a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with pedagogy, philosophy, religion, and/or safety. They homeschool in a wide variety of ways.

In some families, children spend a certain number of hours each day following a set curriculum working under the guidance of a distant supervising teacher. Some public school districts offer correspondence or homeschooling programs complete with supervising teachers in place. There are also many private correspondence courses available. Some, like the Calvert School programs, have been around for many years. Others are fairly new and trying to establish themselves in a burgeoning homeschooling market. Many of these new companies offer interactive Internet-based learning programs.

Parents make the decision to homeschool their children at different times in their children’s lives. Some parents, such as Angela and Beth, make the decision after a school experience that didn’t work for a child.

Others make the decision before their children are of school age. I made the decision to homeschool my children before they were born. My husband, who is a public school teacher, had also decided that homeschooling was a good idea, even before we met. Ours was a philosophical and pedagogical decision based on our personal experience working in public schools and the research we did in the fields of education and child development. We were part of the liberal movement of the sixties and seventies that wanted education to be more child-centered, as described by various educators such as Ivan Illich, A.S. Neill, and in particular, John Holt.

Our four children have never gone to school. Instead, they learned at home, following a curriculum of their own design. Let me give you an example. When our oldest two sons were seven and five, paper airplanes held a particular fascination for them. They made a variety of paper airplanes out of different types of paper. Whenever it wasn’t raining, they took their large paper bags full of airplanes outside to fly them.

They kept mental statistics of which ones flew the best and how far they flew, and also related the results to the atmospheric conditions present. In this way they learned a lot about arithmetic, statistics, and statistical analysis as well as geometry, paper quality, and weather. My husband and I gave them the vocabulary to use to describe what they observed and they took it from there.

Many homeschooling parents have noted how much learning takes place while the children are playing. It is one of the main motivating factors for parents to continue to homeschool. Let me give you another example of the kind of play I mean. At a recent homeschooling workshop I led, two mothers from British Columbia described the hours their children spent playing in the woods. The children had created a complete world with special tools, costumes, and a social structure. In the process of the many hours of imaginative play, these children learned about the environment around them. They became aware of the animal and bird life around them (biology and ecology) and used reference books to identify the creatures they saw (study skills). They learned about how a society works and how each society has its own rules (sociology, history, and psychology). In their play, the children laid down a wealth of real, interactive experiences which will become a basis for their understanding of how things work as they grow older. “La experienca es la madre de la ciencia” (Experience is the mother of knowledge), said Cervantes.

Another reason that parents continue to homeschool is that it builds strong family relationships. No matter what style of homeschooling is done, homeschooled siblings often spend many hours playing with each other and therefore develop an understanding and appreciation for each other that is unique and unusual in our culture. One mother commented that “I enjoy watching a group of homeschooled children play together. They are so inclusive. I’ve seen thirteen-year-old boys pick up younger siblings and run with them in a game of tag or hide and seek.”

While homeschooling parents are aware of the social skills their children develop in family relationships and with the larger world, the outside world, especially school administrators, often worry about the socialization of children who learn at home. Veteran homeschoolers often smile when asked about that “S” word. While children at conventional schools spend most of their time with only their age peers, children whose learning is based at home interact with people of all ages, depending upon mutual interest.

Homeschooled children also are likely to interact with people outside the institution of school. “My children have gone with me to all our town council meetings. At first, it made the councilors uncomfortable. But when they saw how well behaved my children were and how thoughtful their questions were, the councilors were pleased that they showed such an interest,” said one mother at a homeschooling conference. As homeschooling advocate Patricia M. Lines reports, “...hard evidence suggests that the vast majority of homeschooling families are more active in civic affairs than public school families.”

One teenager I spoke with said, “I like doing my schoolwork this way. I can work hard and be done in just three hours a day. That way I have more time left over to do the things I want to do like take dancing classes five nights a week and have time to spend with my friends.”

So what happens on a typical day in a homeschooling family? When my children were young, we spent many hours discussing topics ranging from where butterflies go in the rain to how to multiply something by zero. Each child participated in the conversation if they were interested. If I didn’t know the answer to a question they raised, we would look in books, ask their dad or someone else, or go to the library for access to more resources.

Now that we have Internet access, we use search engines frequently to find answers to questions we have. The conversations that resulted from the questions they asked formed the basis of a lot of the knowledge my children have about how things work. My husband and I also read to them many hours a day starting with picture books when they were young, progressing to longer books as they grew older and learned to read for themselves.

Donna, mother of one daughter, found that reading to her child many hours each day was a great way for her daughter to learn things about the world and people. It was also a way for Donna to learn about her daughter - her tastes, her likes and dislikes - as they discussed the characters in the books. Many parents comment about how much fun they have as they help their children learn and acquire competence in various skills. Erica, a woman in her late sixties and the mother of adult children (32-44) who were homeschooled says, “My education began when I started to homeschool my children. I read them so many stories. I understood things as we built sundials and tried various experiments that I hadn’t really understood before. And I had a very good education at very well-respected private schools plus a college degree from an Ivy League school.”

First time homeschooling parents are often unsure at first. “I was so scared the first few years. I wasn’t sure that my daughter would ever learn to read or that I would know how to help her if she had problems. But it worked out well. She enjoyed the things we did together and the time she had to play with her toys and her friends. She’s reading really well now.” Many parents are surprised at how readily their children learn a specific skill, if they wait until the child is developmentally ready to learn that skill.

“It only takes fifty contact hours with a teacher for a student to learn the basic skills - after that they can learn on their own,” according to John Taylor Gatto, author of Dumbing Us Down. If homeschooling parents spend only fifteen minutes a day one-to-one with a child, in less than a year, they will have covered those fifty contact hours. This leaves a lot of time to discover and develop other interests.

Yasuko, a violin teacher, encouraged the mother of one of her most promising violin students to let her son learn at home so that he would have more time to practice and not be so worn out from the hustle and bustle of a school day. This young man became a professional musician, hired by a well-known orchestra, at a very young age.

Stacie, a young skater, had the time to teach skating to help defray the costs of her own skating training. Tanya, through her involvement with an international organization, has taken a number of trips to different parts of the world and learned first hand about other cultures and languages.

Homeschooling parents, whether they have young children or older children, continue to homeschool because they find that it works. It works well not only as a method of education but as a way to build a strong, caring family. In another twenty years, it will be interesting to see what impact homeschooling has had upon these young people - and what impact they and their homeschooled education will have on the world.

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First published in Conscious Choice Magazine © Marty Layne 2001, Learning At Home: A Mother’s Guide To Homeschooling

Reprinted with kind permission.