Homeschooling for the Curious
What happens if you don’t put them on the yellow bus?
“How do you do that?” Any way you want.
“Why do you do that?” Lots of reasons.
“What about socialization/academic rigor/character/etc.?” How’s that working out for school kids?
“Can they go to college?” Of course they can, but should they all go to college?
“I could never do that.” Yes, you absolutely can.
I’ve heard it all, and more, throughout decades of homeschooling four kids. The newbies want blueprints, rules, a map. When I was starting out, I stumbled around in the wilderness asking all the same questions. There are no clear answers, however, no one ringing truth for everyone. There are as many ways to homeschool as there are homeschoolers and as many reasons for it. And, if you choose it, your own path will twist and turn back in on itself many times. You will question and doubt, rejoice and thrill to the vision of your own distinct chaotic creation. I won’t delineate the many reasons and methods here — I don’t think I could, even. But I can give you an idea about my own three-ring experience.
First, a word about parenting, because everything that can be said about homeschooling is really just about parenting.
Let’s not kid ourselves. This parenting gig is the hardest job in the universe. At times, backbreaking, mind-numbing, madness-inducing work. Just facing their shining, needy little faces in the morning can be a trial. It’s also the most important job in the universe and, often, quite fun and fulfilling. I wouldn’t trade it for anything, but let’s be honest — being home, alone, with your kids, all the time, is tough and gets exponentially tougher with each extra body. The world doesn’t tell you this. It doesn’t tell you about the difficulty or the importance. And it doesn’t pat you on the back for a job well done.
The truth — about homeschooling and parenting — is complicated, ugly, and beautiful, like most things worth the trouble. It’s a lot, it’s messy, sometimes it just sucks. It’s a constantly evolving maelstrom of emotion and worry, pride and joy. I’ve had moments when I’m sure homeschooling is the most brilliant thing I’ve ever done. I’ve also had periods of pure panic — what have I done? What about geography and science and history? Penmanship? Did she really just ask me if west is left or right? Maybe that’s okay — but what if it’s not? And is spotty, half-hearted engagement for long periods of time really enough?
Whatever it is that I’ve done, in whatever hodgepodge, organic, ever evolving way, seems to have worked. (Perhaps the jury is still out on that, though — the doubt and the second-guessing may cripple me. But isn’t doubt and second-guessing a very large part of parenting, regardless of school choice?)
Always, if memory serves, there is some sign that this wacky existence leads to something that can be called success. Sometimes it is the clear result of hard work in the trenches and sometimes it makes no sense at all. Serendipity, magic — call it what you like, but learning really does just happen sometimes. In the right environment, with the right props, and a somewhat sunny attitude (even if it’s a little fake), bodies and brains just grow.
Feed them, throw them books and sunshine, chase them around a bit, be as nice to them as you can, even when they’re jerks (and they will be) and — presto! Great big, relatively functional, frustratingly opinionated, adequately educated and very hungry humans.
I have many examples, I’ll give you two.
#1 — My oldest son was never much of a reader or, it followed, a writer. He could do both, for sure, but didn’t care, didn’t practice, didn’t choose reading or writing as pleasure activities. I worried and nagged (the first homeschooler in a family suffers the most, endures the shrill parental panic in its early, pure state). I pushed projects that were neglected and rejected. Fast forward to college. He was asked to work in the writing lab as a tutor. He was, as it turned out, the strongest writer in the freshman class. Well, call me gobsmacked. I don’t know why, or how, but there it is. He worked in the writing lab until graduation, helping other kids write their papers and manipulate the language. Kids who had been writing essays and book reports for a decade or more, taught by my son, who had never been assigned an essay or a book report (or had ignored such assignments). I don’t know, don’t ask me. He grew up in a house tipsy with books, drunk with words. Lots of arguing and opining, debating and critiquing. Maybe just an immersion in the language will magically build writers — maybe writers are really just talkers who take the trouble to transcribe. Whatever, I’ll take it.
#2 — My daughter, the baby, was the laziest homeschooler on the planet. I don’t know why — probably because she’s the baby, the cliché spoiled baby, left alone with the burned-out, laissez-faire parents. Maybe it was all the wine (mine, not hers). Anyway, she was dropped — an untested innocent — into the local 9th grade (don’t judge, it was her idea), where she instantly became a hard-working bright shining high-school star. The girl who previously was not well-acquainted with noon was suddenly popping up in the dark, eating the healthy breakfast (forced on her by grouchy morning mom) and trotting off to high-school success. There was some eye-rolling and grumbling for our benefit, but the repeated chorus at school was, “she’s amazing!” And she really, truly was. She worked hard, her grades were great, she made many friends, she even ran cross-country for a minute. We were stunned. Impressed, but stunned. She ultimately returned to homeschooling, where she did some very cool things, but where she remained astonishingly lazy. To each her own, I suppose. She showed everyone, including herself, that she could play that game — win that game, even —whenever she wanted. Now, she’s successfully tackling a university chapter. And sleeping.
How do you do it?
Honestly, I’m not sure. I do it the way you do it, whatever ‘it’ is that you do — one day at a time, haphazardly, with intermittent thoughtfulness, reaching for the stars and hoping for survival. There often isn’t a plan and when there is, it’s inevitably altered or abandoned. For me, it was an ongoing experiment, open to change and interpretation, guesswork leavened with research, furious activity balanced by profound boredom. It almost never mirrored my fantasy, the one that goes something like this —
We will homeschool, because I can do so much better than the ‘system’. We will eat organic, local, homemade meals daily. We will be fabulously creative and almost magical in our connection to all that is good. Our pets will be healthy and well-trained, our house will be a model of beautiful artistic chaos. We will study Latin and Euclid and plate tectonics and pentatonic scales. Archaeoastronomy, urban planning, and fashion design. We will build and paint and sing and our little angel spirits will shine through our bright faces.
I would not say that it has been an unqualified success.
It was qualified.
It was, however, wild and fun and stimulating and interesting. And it worked. I think. Depending on your definition.
“Sometimes getting away from school is
the best thing that can happen to a great mind.”
― Ken Robinson
If you want to homeschool, the first thing you must do is throw out your fantasies. Have goals, sure, ideals, maybe — but know that the universe, and the kids, will have different ideas. Your fantasies will be stomped and trashed and you will be forced to start anew — every day. Lean in.
Gather supplies. Here is a helpful list —
- Books. More books than you can accomodate. Go to libraries, book sales, yard sales. Let the kids bring all the books home. Even Garfield.
- Food. Fill the pantry and cook. You have to eat anyway, make the meal the lesson. There’s math, history, science and dinner in that exercise.
- Art supplies. Anything and everything. Make giant artsy messes, every single day.
- Cleaning supplies. Because food and art. And chores.
- Music. Lots and lots of every kind. And instruments.
- Wine. For you.
- Globes and maps. The whole world.
- Toys. Specifically, Legos.
- Games. Board games, card games, computer and video games. (This last one is controversial for some, but there is brilliance in there and they come in handy when you need a break — and you will. Plus, technology.)
- Sports equipment. All of it.
You probably already have most of these things, because this is LIFE, after all.
(Side note: why homeschool? Why not lifeschool, or worldschool, or carschool).
You’ve tossed your fantasies, high expectations, and good intentions. You’ve gathered your supplies. Pour a glass of that wine, sit back and watch.
Okay, not really, but kind of. In my version (unschooling, with plenty of carschooling and a dash of ‘school’), you want to follow each child’s interest. I know what that sounds like (he’s interested in Final Fantasy and cake) and, sometimes, that’s what it looks like. But, if you throw them the books, put them in the car and show them the world, they find things that lead down very interesting paths. You just have to trust the process.
“Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion has no hold on the mind. Therefore do not use compulsion, but let early education be a sort of amusement; you will then be better able to discover the child’s natural bent.”
One of my oldest son’s interests — let’s call it an obsession — was skateboarding. You’re probably thinking what we were. Really? But watch what following an interest, or as Plato says, a “natural bent,” can do.
He was physically active every day, and if you can keep a teen boy body moving in a legal way, every day, you’re halfway home. Then, it blossomed. He became part of a skateboard film crew, starring in and learning how to make videos. He studied various skatepark designs and started designing his own. He became active in the movement to build a local park, attending town board meetings, petitioning strangers, submitting designs, and being interviewed by the local paper. He ordered a batch of blank skateboards, painted each with a one-of-a-kind design, and sold them, shattering his initial investment. He worked with a local architecture firm, initially around skatepark design, but ultimately interning. All of this between the ages of 13 and 16. He is now, over 30, a successful industrial designer who skates.
Another example of a blossoming interest is my second son’s obsession with everything Japanese. It began when he was very young, probably encouraged by video games and anime, and turned into a fairly serious study of Japanese history, cuisine and martial arts. He was reading about Commodore Perry and Japanese economics before he noticed girls, and it was HIS IDEA! He has since studied the language and just returned from a month-long solo trip to Japan, fulfilling a dream. (And by the way, lest you get sucked into that “I can’t teach that” trap — I don’t speak Japanese and sushi represents the largest part of what I know about Japanese culture. He taught himself because he was interested.)
So, encourage their interests. I can’t emphasize this enough. Jump on them like a wild cat on its prey. If your kid says, “I love bees,” you go find books about bees, movies about bees, you try every kind of honey, visit an apiary or start one yourself, apprentice the child to a beekeeper. You fill the house with bees and see if the interest is real. It may die out, but it may end up in an architecture firm, or Japan. (You know what I mean.)
“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” William Butler Yeats
Next, you need to find your community. This is very important — we are, none of us, islands and I would’ve gone well and truly mad if left completely alone with the little monsters. It really does take a village.
Most towns have an organized (or roughly organized) group of homeschoolers — find yours. I made many lifelong friends, as did my kids, through my own local group and we discovered classes, sports, lectures, concerts, potlucks, dances, and parties through the network.
Anyone you can tap becomes part of your community. I became fairly adept at ferreting out opportunities for my kids, just by exploring the people around me. Ask them to help you — don’t be afraid to haunt the experts if your kid is looking for something. Professors, business owners, artists, farmers — whatever interests you are chasing. Pick their brains, ask if they are willing to run classes or give tours or take apprentices. You’ll be surprised by how many embrace the project.
Community doesn’t have to be the neighbor, however. My kids had distant pen-pals and I have several close friends who live far away and shared the home education experiment with me. A phone call can really help when it feels like the walls are melting. I have definitely been talked off some ledges and have done the same for others.
Find your path. Find the particular mad genius that sets your little group on fire. I could fill books with all the examples I’ve seen — it will be your own creation, built stick by stick, day by day as you figure out what you need and where you’re going. I know homeschoolers with working farms and family businesses, kids in the city and the woods, children of artists and writers and musicians and professors. I know families who unschool exclusively and parents who use strict curricula. You will find what feels right. I started unschooling, but found that using textbooks for some things gave me some, perhaps artificial, comfort. The methods may come and go, will morph according to interests and tolerance — as long as everyone is alive, marginally active and occasionally thoughtful, your little boat is still afloat.
It doesn’t matter what you know — you’re not always there to teach but rather to facilitate, to build an environment rich with possibility. I’m not particularly artistic, yet several of my kids are. I sure didn’t teach that, but I found teachers and books, programs and artists to guide them. Same for the Japanese and music — another of my sons is a genius with improvisation and can play any instrument he touches. I can’t. But he grew up in a house with lots of music and instruments and found his passion, found his people (or maybe I found his people, who remembers at this point).
Use the world. Museums and libraries, parks and playgrounds, universities and community centers. What lights you all up during the summer and on the weekends? Do that.
It’s not all daisies and sunshine (real life, remember?). You will have bad days. You will have very bad days. You will question your sanity and your place in the universe and you will not like anyone including your students.
But, here’s what you need to regularly remind yourself —
What are they doing up there in that school building, right now, while I’m having this very bad day?
While your children are sleeping/fighting/screaming/refusing to do anything that you deem valuable/necessary/important — what do you think they’re doing in school?
“Public schools were not only created in the interests of industrialism — they were created in the image of industrialism. In many ways, they reflect the factory culture they were designed to support. This is especially true in high schools, where school systems base education on the principles of the assembly line and the efficient division of labor. Schools divide the curriculum into specialist segments: some teachers install math in the students, and others install history. They arrange the day into standard units of time, marked out by the ringing of bells, much like a factory announcing the beginning of the workday and the end of breaks. Students are educated in batches, according to age, as if the most important thing they have in common is their date of manufacture. They are given standardized tests at set points and compared with each other before being sent out onto the market. I realize this isn’t an exact analogy and that it ignores many of the subtleties of the system, but it is close enough.”
― Ken Robinson, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything
Often, they are engaged in herd management. Notes are being passed, lines are being formed, social politics are bubbling away like so many toxic science experiments. Kids are very tired/stressed/bored. As it turns out, ‘school’ doesn’t work out so great for everyone, every day, either. For sure, sometimes brilliant things happen in that building. But brilliant things happen in your house and in the world, as well, and maybe not during the school day. Maybe on Saturday morning, or late Wednesday night; maybe in the summer or when the school kids are on break; maybe in the bath or in the midst of a fight or in someone’s little head where you can’t see and you never really know what’s going on.
“What is most important and valuable about the home as a base for children’s growth into the world is not that it is a better school than the schools, but that it isn’t a school at all.” — John Holt
On the bad days, the children will say things that make it worse. Here are some gems from my own radiant stars:
- “This is the most boring house in the most boring town in the world.” (This isn’t true, actually. A friend assured me that, no, she has the most boring house. Her daughter told her.)
A word about boredom: Boredom is a wonderful thing — embrace it. Amazing things can happen when boredom is afoot. My daughter created a lovely and very popular photo blog when she was dying of boredom. Things have been written, composed, cooked and created when everyone was bored. Give it time — brains are busy, you just can’t see it.
- “History is nothing but mystery and myth. There is no way to prove that any of these ‘stories’ we tell ourselves about our past are true.”
I love history. They’re driving me crazy.
- “Geography is a waste of time. We only name things so that we can control them.”
Why did I teach them to think for themselves and question authority?
- “I hate math.”
Me too. Muddle through — perhaps you’re running an arts and music school.
You will also say regrettable things, but that’s just parenting. You’re allowed. Apologize and move on.
Along with the bad days, you will also need to manage the naysayers and the judgy trolls. Everyone has an opinion and they have the nasty habit of popping up just when you absolutely can’t deal. Some people take the business of other people’s children very seriously — how they eat, dress, speak, behave, and learn. We should all be concerned with the basic welfare of all children, but lines must be drawn. There are many ways to parent — it isn’t a committee decision.
You’ll get snark and superiority, disbelief and outrage from clueless busybodies. This happens to all parents about all sorts of things, but tell the wrong person that your kids don’t go to school (gasp!) and settle in for raised eyebrows, questions and maybe a lecture (these people may be your in-laws). My advice is to deal with this on a case-by-case basis, and according to your mood. I have gently informed, dismissed, and given a few lectures of my own. Bottom line — they’re your kids, you’re doing your best, and everyone else can just go fish, unless they’d like to help. There are many choices, homeschooling is just one.
In the beginning, I was very much an advocate, an activist, even. But it was tiresome trying to convince the world to agree with me.
The fact is, it’s all hard. Parenting is hard! The path is never clear, and it’s constantly evolving. Own it — you don’t owe anyone an explanation, it’s not your job to make them feel better about your choices. Maybe it’s your job to make them a little bit uncomfortable, even. Revolutions come with a bit of discomfort, yes? Give them something to think about.
Now I will give you my very best piece of advice:
Oh, how I wish someone had impressed this one true and simple thing on me, years ago. I spent entirely too much time worrying, fretting, dreaming up worst-case-scenarios when my kids were young, charming, healthy and busy (yes, they were awful and snotty and lazy, too, but REAL LIFE, remember). The gift that I can give you now, as I look back over all the years — now that my kids are fine young adults — is please just relax. It will be okay — if you love them and feed them and help them to live in the world, if you model kindness and curiosity and as much enthusiasm as you can muster, they will be fine. No matter how you define school — public, charter, private, Montessori, military, boarding — or just life. They will be fine.
One of my sons was a late reader — a very late reader. He was at least 11 years old before he was truly proficient. I worried, dramatically, in spite of all the comforting research; in spite of his brilliant, exuberant spirit and his astonishing verbal acrobatics. It became a thing. I begged and contorted both of us into various programs, hired a tutor, wrung my hands raw about this child who will not be able to function in the world because he will never read! He hated, and rejected, all attempts to make him jump through my hoop. I finally forced myself to (try to) relax.
Ultimately, he cracked the code in his own time and became, not only a reader, but an incredible wordsmith. He writes constantly, is fascinated by language, teaches himself (and the rest of us) new words daily, and is perfectly, fabulously functional. He went to school in the 10th grade and — here it is again — was one of the best writers in the class. His first assigned essay (the first real essay he had ever written!) was displayed in the school as an example of stellar craft.
I think the key is: in his own time. That’s the bedrock of the successful, relaxed homeschool. Give them the tools and the space, the support and the food, and they will figure it out in their own time, on their own secret internal schedules. Just trust. I wish, so much, that I hadn’t wasted time trying to make him read before he was ready. He was too busy scanning the horizon from the tops of trees, scaling rock walls and dreaming music — building his own perfect little machine. He got there in his own time, in his own way, in spite of my interference. He’s built to his own specifications and moves to his own score.
Isn’t that the goal?
Here is what I would do differently, if I could. You can learn from my mistakes, so pay attention.
I gave up too much of myself in the service of this project. I wish now that I had taken better care of me, because — and I’ve learned this the hard way — you are no good to anyone if you don’t tend yourself. I didn’t start writing or discover yoga, solo hikes, foot cream, and epsom salt baths until my kids were old — until I was spent, taxed, and drained by my laser focus on everyone else’s needs. A little downward dog would have helped me through the bad days. I would have been a better mom, a better homeschooler and a much happier, healthier human had I paused and noticed myself. Had I just relaxed.
The children are not, in spite of what they may believe, the bright shining center of the universe. In fact, you are the bright shining center of their universe, so take care of yourself.
I can’t emphasize it enough: relax and tend yourself! Take a bath, take a walk, take a class, read a book, pursue your own passions. Yes, you are busy and your project is important, but if you don’t close the door and unscramble your head for a minute, honor your interests along with theirs, you will burn out. Trust me, I know all about this. I’m currently in recovery.
Homeschooling is a very personal journey. You may try it for a year or embrace it for a lifetime. I know a family that homeschools through 4th grade and a kid who homeschooled only his senior year. Middle school (the armpit of hell) is a good time to try. I viewed it as an experiment with the option to adjust at any time. It’s a boundless project with unlimited possibility, an exciting and somewhat scary adventure. If it doesn’t work, the big yellow bus goes by every day.
If you choose homeschooling, know that you are not alone. More than 2 million American kids are currently on the same journey. With so many voices out there, you will find your people and be on your way.
“Thank goodness my education was neglected.”
― Beatrix Potter