When I was growing up, I viewed home school with suspicion — something for people who pushed stifling homogeneity of thought upon their helpless children. This idea was entirely derived from a photograph I saw in the late ’80s of a home-schooling family. They were dressed in drab-colored clothes, sitting in punishingly upright chairs, and staring into yellowing books. It looked grim.
Why then, 30 years after shaking my 8-year-old head at this photo, did I decide to home-school? There was, in the end, no single reason, only a tentative but growing curiosity. Today, as parents find themselves home-schooling, juggling work with remote learning, or managing other difficult educational choices in the face of COVID-19, I hope the story of my four years on this unconventional path is useful.
School was always an unquestioned fact of my existence. Then, in the winter of 2001, I found myself seated at a dinner party next to a woman with a long career in education. She mentioned that the word “education” has a Latin root meaning “to bring forth.” A child, she believed, is not a blank slate, but a person entire. This conception of a child as a whole person — with natural proclivities that require time, knowledge, and experience to develop — was central to her sense of how education ought to proceed. Any process too narrowly focused on filling a child with information or a set of standardized skills risked dulling that child’s intrinsic appetite for knowledge and disrupting the rightful course of her education. These ideas seared some questions into my mind: If education is about “bringing forth” a person, how is this done? Is schooling, in its typical form, the optimal way?
Years later, with a son approaching kindergarten, these thoughts echoed. As I visited schools, read, and talked to teachers and parents, I became attuned to the dissonance between what I imagined education could be and what happened during large parts of a school day. At about this time, our neighbors began to home-school their children. I saw how learning could happen without many of the school constructs that troubled me. By weaving education into life, there was no need to cultivate competition nor silo by skill. Their studies were broad and balanced as was their conception of what constituted achievement. They valued freedom of movement and thought. This variety of home school looked far from grim.
I was intrigued by what was happening next door, but my husband and I still had reservations. Our conversations ranged from the logistical to the financial, the feminist to the moral. Home schooling isn’t for everyone for reasons of temperament and interest. It also can’t be for everyone for deeply unfair, historic, racial, and economic reasons. Does this make it a dubious endeavor? I don’t have easy answers, but when I look at our country’s schooling options — from elite, private institutions to a public system tethered to real-estate values — I sense that all paths are fraught. Being attentive to the problems and questions that any route raises seems the only honest way forward.
What finally pushed me over the hump was looking at my sons. I’d see them and think: “OK, so I’ve just spent a bunch of sleepless years singing nursery rhymes, wiping butts, and speaking way slower than I can think. Now that my children can finally talk about cool stuff — like how fish breathe and how the past keeps getting bigger — now is when I turn them over for the best part of their day?” I also noticed how my sons’ relationship with each other was evolving into its own dizzying, costume-wearing, fort-building organism. If our leap into this off-road territory of learning lasted only a year, it would be a memorable one.
Like many people starting out, I began by reading books like What Your First Grader Needs to Know. I met with a curriculum person at a nearby school. Soon I learned that angling myself toward these programs made me feel bad. Partly this was early jitters, but mostly it was my sense that the material I was encountering wasn’t designed for me. I didn’t firmly believe that a “first-grader” existed let alone agree about how he ought to spend his time.
Finally it struck me that what I didn’t need was another “how to” book. What I needed were interesting books — books full of vivid tales and fascinating lives, histories, and adventures — books my sons wanted to hear and I wanted to read. I also learned that by better understanding my children, I’d equip myself to help them. For example, one son (methodical, energetic, goal-oriented) learned to read with a lot of intense high-fiving and orderly stacks of sight words, while another (silly, soulful, song-writing) appreciates working at a slower pace with heavy doses of nonsense and rhyming.
I eventually figured out that subjects, as they are typically conceived, need only exist when useful. One book that gathers dust on my shelf is about teaching “language arts” to children. Instead of its dreary lessons, we pull a favorite sentence from our reading, talk about it, spell a few words, and notice the punctuation. Later we may copy the excerpt as a way of tipping our hats to the author and practicing handwriting or typing.
Learning can lead to caring just as often as caring leads to learning. The two impulses nourish each other.
Relevance tends to spark interest. A mysterious find from a nature walk serves as a fulcrum for further study; a child’s fascination with sumo wrestling is a springboard for exploring Japan. My 8-year-old’s obsession with lawn mowing led us to books about machines and climate change. As British educator and reformer Charlotte Mason wrote: “Education is not about how much a child knows but about how much he cares.” Learning can lead to caring just as often as caring leads to learning. The two impulses nourish each other.
Lately one of my biggest challenges as a home educator is not what to do, but how to fit it all in while preserving unscheduled, autonomous, quiet, or outdoor time. Figuring out a viable routine based on the exigencies of one’s life can be an acrobatic feat full of trial and error. Short, focused learning blocks have been instrumental. Establishing a go-to daily rhythm that doesn’t ignore realities (toddlers, jobs) also helps. Being free to experiment is both the work and reward of this learning model.
For anyone beginning with a single child or a gaggle of them, a few grounding principles may hopefully serve as guideposts.
1. Put the “big picture” questions first: What kind of atmosphere do you want to cultivate? How do you understand your role as a guide? What defines success? Whether or not you are home-schooling by necessity or choice, clarity about larger ideals will shine light on the details.
2. Listening matters more than everything else: Fred Rogers said it best, “Listening is where love begins.” Despite the most carefully considered vision, cracks will inevitably emerge as you and your spirited children coexist daily. The cracks don’t mean you should hide under the table or change everything. They are there to be acknowledged. Only by listening to the child and yourself and exploring those cracks will you figure out the next step.
3. Reflect (and formalize this reflection time): Set a monthly calendar reminder, divide the school year into thirds, or make a habit of jotting notes throughout the day to build reflection into the process. It’s all an experiment. Ritualized reflection time helps you remember to experiment.
4. Find people: Home schooling works best when isolation is actively avoided. Do what you can to create community in whatever safe ways possible. It is worth the effort — for the conversation, co-ops, differing ideas, resources, and humor.
5. Celebrate and play and find joy where you can: Attend to the things that bring joy — the madcap lunches, the mermaid-boy walking through the room, the way your child converses with a friend, or the dance your son invented. Paying attention to these moments develops an instinct for how learning best happens — through delight.
For parents who find themselves suddenly schooling, or remote learning, or engaged in some hairy hybrid headache, I imagine starting out is hard. Every year that I begin again, I’m also vulnerable to feeling overwhelmed. Are we doing the right things at the right times in the right order? No one can know the answer to that. What we can do is dedicate part of each day to engaging with ideas, spending time outside, and building rich relationships with our children, books, communities, and environment. That, for now, is enough.
Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better. —Maya Angelou
Home Education, Vol. 1, Charlotte Mason
The Brave Learner, Julie Bogart
The Whole Brain Child, Daniel Siegel
The Philosophy of Childhood, Gareth Matthews
Mathematical Mindsets, Jo Boaler
The Underground History of American Education, John Taylor Gatto
Give Your Child the World, Jamie C. Martin
Charlotte Mason Educational Center
LibriVox, Free Public Domain Audio Books
Getting Started with Homeschooling Q&A
Here Wee Read
Cathy Duffy Reviews
Secular, Eclectic, Academic Homeschool (Facebook group)
Charlotte Mason Inspired Homeschoolers (Facebook group)
Working Homeschool Mom Club (Facebook group)
Math Curricula (a brief list):
Right Start Math
Singapore Math (Standards Edition)
Math U See
Math Mammoth (Light Blue Series)
Homeschool laws by state