How to Homeschool : a slightly irreverent guide

Number of days we have lost with our daughter due to the negligence of the state of Illinois: 43 (Don't forget to voice your opinion on the adoption reform bill before Thursday.)

I received this question from a reader:

"My son is about to be 2 and I have another one on the way. I really want to homeschool but don't know exactly where to start. What age should I try to start teaching him stuff and what kind of curriculum do you use? Where do you buy it? How do you know they are learning everything they need to know and you're covering all subjects and all your bases? Have you ever looked into online homeschooling or do you use textbooks?"

Since I'm always on the lookout for things to write about and because I thought my answers might be of broader interest, I decided to answer this on the blog.

Dear Reader,

I know the idea of homeschooling can seem overwhelming at first, but it doesn't need to be. While it is good to look ahead and be prepared, my best advice for parents of little ones, is to enjoy them being little. There will be plenty of time for textbooks and lessons in the future, don't rush it. (Even though I know you really want to dive in.) The best school for toddlers and preschoolers is lots of play, lots of stories, lots of snuggling, and lots of "helping" mom. You really, truly don't need to do anything more than this.

Children of this age learn best through playing and exploration. Let them play with water, sand, clay, and dirt. Give them time to investigate things on their own. Show them how to build a bridge with blocks and then let them work out how to do it themselves. Read lots and lots of stories. Play at the park, dig a garden, wash the dishes, shred the lettuce, sweep the floor, and then read some more books. Talk about what you are doing and ask questions. Listen to their questions and take the time to look at them and answer them. Draw, color, paint, glue, and cut. Go to an art museum and look at some paintings. Try new foods. Read more books. Point out letters in the world around you. Invite friends over to play. Count the scoops of flour as you measure it to make cookies. Match the socks. Read more books. Sing songs, bang pots and pans, clap rhythms, listen to music. Read more books. "School" does not require anything more than this during these years. It's as simple as that. You don't need to start teaching your child stuff, because you already are... all the time.

At some point, though, somewhere around age 6 or 7, I start to do more formal work. This is when I begin to teach real phonics (as opposed to letter sounds and doing practice identifying first and last and middle sounds.) I know it seems extremely late to those whose children were/are a part of the whole children need to read by the end of kindergarten or they're behind-thing. That's a lot of hooey, you know. Almost none of my children have really been ready to read before that and almost none of them has read fluently before age 8 or 9. (The exception was the one who taught herself to read early. Her choice, not mine.) And you know what? They are all excellent readers who read well beyond their grade level and enjoy reading. I'm pretty sure there would be a lot fewer reading problems if children weren't pushed to read so early. But if you're homeschooling, why rush things? There's really no need at all.

I do use textbooks for reading and English and math. Choosing a textbook is a pretty personal decision and what works for one family is often the book another family just can't stand. I've also tried a huge variety of textbooks over the years and still change depending on the child every so often. For instance, I've used Rod and Staff, Miquon, Singapore Math, Horizons, and non-textbook, homemade math games to teach math. They all had their place and I felt free to move between them as needed. My best suggestion for picking textbooks is to join a homeschooling support group where you can meet other homeschoolers. Ask what they use and why. Ask to take a look at a book. Try some things and then ask some more questions. The second best way to choose textbooks is to go to a homeschool convention that has a vendor's fair. I find it very useful to spend time browsing to see what's out there and whether it looks interesting or not.

As far as online learning, like textbook and curriculum choices, it really depends on what is right for your family. I tend not to do much of it for a variety of reasons. One of these reasons is that so much of our world these days involves looking at screens, I want my children to spend portions of their day looking at real books, manipulating real objects, and focusing on real people. There are several studies I've read recently that would seem to indicate that learning done via computer looks different in the brain than learning done in a more traditional manner. My children will have plenty of time for screens and computers in the lives, I don't need to add more.

A word of warning, though. Homeschoolers are a huge market these days and everyone and their dog has something to sell us. Often their sales tactics will run towards the fear-based method of selling, as in, "If you don't buy this book from us, your child will be missing out and you will be ruining his life." OK, they don't actually come out and say that, but it is certainly implied. You won't ruin you child because you picked the wrong textbook. Just remember that when the heavy-handed sales pitches start.

Now here's the big question. How do you know they're learning everything they need to know and you're covering all subjects and all the bases? My short answer is you don't, but that's not really very satisfactory, is it? But, really it's quite true. No one can teach a child everything. Parents can't, schools can't, tutors can't. There will always be gaps. I have them in my education and you have them in yours. There is just so much to be learned that no one will be able to learn everything. The best we can hope for is to cover the essentials (how to read, how to figure, a general sense of how the world works, and skills for finding out the answers to everything else) and go from there. Everything past that is golden.

Because we understand that we are not going to cover everything, it gives us permission to not try. Does that sound bad? It's not really. Instead we have a freedom to allow a child to pursue a special interest. I find when a child is truly invested in a subject, the level of learning is significantly deeper and more intense than a more cursory understanding of a subject. There is some strong research to indicate that this type of deep learning is more intellectually stimulating and has greater long-term results than more shallow learning over a broader area of subjects.

If you are really worried about covering your bases, you can easily find scopes and sequences published by school districts, textbook publishers, private educators, and possibly even Clifford the Big Red Dog. While they will be similar in some ways, they will also differ from each other in others. There is really no such thing as a standardized education. So take a look at these documents, if you want. You may find something on them that you hadn't thought of, but there's no need to adhere to them blindly, either.

And you will know if you child is learning something. You will know because you are the one working with them every day. When you are working one-on-one with a child it is difficult for them to hide in the crowd and avoid answering a question. And if your child doesn't catch-on to something, you also have the luxury of working on it until he does. Or leaving it and coming back to it at a later date. Or changing the way you are teaching it. Or going outside and running around for a while and then coming back to it. You'll try different things and you will have a good sense of what works best for a particular child.

I know this doesn't really give you specific answers. The beauty of the freedom of homeschooling is also the terrifying thing. But don't worry. As you grow into this homeschooling-thing with your children, you are going to grow along with them. You will get to know what works and what doesn't. You will meet other homeschoolers and see what they do. You will watch your children grow into interesting people. All of this will gradually give you confidence that yes, you really do know what you are doing. One of the least talked about topics in homeschooling is how it changes the parents. Deciding to take responsibility for your children's education is no small thing, and chances are you will experience at least a little push back for your decision. Going against the crowd, watching your children successfully learn, having to give answers to people who question you, looking at things from a different point of view, all combine to make the parent very different from who they were when they started. You will grow and learn along with your child.

It's a beautiful thing.


sandwichinwi said…
Great post! All very wise words and from one experienced homeschool mom to another, I agree with everything you said.

Sandwich (hsing 19 years. One in college and 4 to go.)

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