The Homeschool Learning Curve
Pop quiz: Which of the following describes homeschooling?
1. Girls in long denim dresses, workbooks at the kitchen table, classic literature, and violin lessons.
2. Science experiments, basketball tournaments, nature hikes, and Lego education.
3. American Girl history club, archery, religion studies, and family-run business.
You guessed it…all of the above. Because learning takes place in a million different ways, home educators embrace them all. And that’s what’s so liberating — and frightening — about deciding to teach your children at home. The choices can be overwhelming, making the transition from a school classroom to home instruction commands a learning curve in itself. If your family is joining the nearly 2 million American students who are learning at home, you’ll be glad to know plenty of resources are available to help you navigate unfamiliar waters, from local support groups and co-ops to national organizations, online schools, and more.
Your Child, Your Style
Some say it takes a whole school year to discover your children’s unique learning styles, your own teaching style, and to establish new routines at home. Others say you really never “arrive.” Home education is a fluid thing because learning and growing up is about constant change. What was fun and challenging last year may be too easy this year. And workbooks might be perfect for Billy’s grammar, but disastrous for his math. While standard curriculum is available for each grade, most homeschoolers choose an eclectic assortment of resources, customized to each child. Homeschooling is about mastery — making sure the child learns each subject well — so grade levels aren’t as important as true comprehension and readiness at the child’s pace.
My own daughters have been taught at home as well as in public school over the past nine years. I remember when a respected friend told me I was “schooling at home” rather than “homeschooling” because while we were pursuing our own educational goals, I was also trying to stay in step with the public school frameworks. It’s difficult to follow both, even if you teach the same subjects, because every curriculum is unique, but if you want to track with your school district, you can find their objectives for each subject and grade on their website. Another option is online public schools, which offer enrollment with your school district at home for free via computer. Subject to state funding and regulations, they are not always available to homeschooled students, so check with your public school for more information.
Homeschooling on the Rise
The National Home Education Research Institute says homeschooling is growing at a rate of between 7 and 15 percent per year. According to their reports, studies over decades show homeschooled students (in general) rank above average in standardized test scores, including SAT/ACT. Colleges now actively recruiting homeschoolers, but academia isn’t the only motivation for home education. Some parents want their kids to be more grounded in their religion or family relationships. Some are addressing special needs, including learning disabilities and giftedness. School safety is also a legitimate concern, and the cost of private schools is prohibitive to many.
But parents removing their kids from a negative school experience should approach home education positively. “Sometimes parents present (homeschooling) as a punishment,” says Dell Self, vice president of Memphis Home Educators Association. “Present it as an opportunity where (your children) can really flourish.”
“Make certain that your parenting skills are in place,” says Self, who is also founder of Ebony, a Memphis homeschool support group. “If you cannot convince little Johnny to obey you or clean his room, there’s a slim chance that you’re going to get him to do his math when you ask him.” She also stresses breaking up the routine. “Have school in the park, be creative. Get out of the house!” Self advises swapping subjects with other moms (or dads) to help lighten your load and give your kids some peer interaction.
Balance is also important. Make sure your student has some variety in her studies, including social activities, independent study, family time, and teacher-led learning. Mix books, technology and hands-on learning for a well-rounded curriculum. Whether you’re teaching one child or 10, different ages require slightly different approaches. Here are some tips to help you accommodate your family:
Make learning fun. Says Tonya Richard, graduation coordinator of MHEA, “Read a book together and do fun activities so school does not become a workbook and a piece of paper,” she says. “What is wrong with taping the spelling words to the stairwell and having him run up and down the stairs with the spelling words?” she asks. “Think outside the box!” She and her husband Bill, who is president of the MHEA, have homeschooled their four kids.
Be sensitive when reviewing assignments. The 20-year homeschool veteran says to be careful about how you critique your children’s work. Kids sometimes internalize it as disapproval from their parents, Richard says. She suggests trading papers with other moms to correct and critique, and gradually grade a few back and forth. Richard also started doing more oral learning together with her kids. “This showed them that I was not looking to be critical, but looking for improvement.”
Middle School Age
Go deeper. Somewhere between fifth and eighth grade, brain development allows a child’s thinking to graduate from concrete thought to higher reasoning. Jill Marr, area director of a classical homeschool program called Veritas, says the buzzword for middle school is the logic stage. “There’s a shift in the way the brain begins to knit together information,” she explains. Her advice is to allow for more independent, interpretive thinking by incorporating current events, probing for more open-ended answers to questions, and providing quality writing experiences.
Read the classics. “Reading the classics will give them a base for creative writing,” says Jennifer Ackerman, leader of Oblique Educators homeschool group in Desoto County. Good writers always give one piece of advice to students of writing: read good books.
And as you buckle down with more difficult subjects, don’t forsake science experiments and other tactile learning opportunities which prepare kids for high school labs and open them to career tracks. “They really want to do some hands-on things,” says Ackerman. “Their thought processes are changing. They’re getting a bigger worldview.”
Connect with others. Peer groups become more important to kids at this age. “Get involved in group activities like sports, art, or choir,” says Richard. “Make a fun science or history class together with other families.”
High School Age
Prepare for the future. Ninth grade is when high school credits begin to count, so you have to keep solid documentation of all of your child’s work. Also, begin keeping a portfolio of your child’s classes, projects, activities, and volunteer jobs. Additionally, take college-preparatory classes, including ACT/SAT prep.
Explore career choices. Whether or not your student is college-bound, high school is a time to get real-life experience in a field of interest. “Find an internship for them,” says Richard. “Interview people in various careers.” Area support groups offer sports and many high school clubs like drama, speech and debate, and even honor society.
Light a fire. Many parents feel intimidated about teaching high school courses. Enrolling your child in a local tutorial or class may be costly, but consider the benefits of allowing other qualified teachers to ignite a passion for subjects you’re weak in. The popular adage, “It takes a village to raise a child,” applies here, and with home education, you have plenty of choices about who will mentor your child.
Teaching at home comes with plenty of sacrifice and frustration. It’s not for everyone, but those who adopt it as a lifestyle consider it treasured time.
One of the most important ways to prevent homeschool burnout for parents and kids alike is to get connected. Membership in the Memphis Home Educators Association offers sports, activities and other programs that aren’t available to the general public. There are also individual support groups for just about every geographical area.
The Collierville Homeschool Group, with over 130 families enrolled, is an MHEA-authorized organization with an abundance of activities for every age, as well as monthly meetings for moms. Not surprisingly, although they offer plenty of learning opportunities, the themed parties are the biggest hit with the students, according to co-leader Suzanne Stanford. “Not being in a school setting, that’s one of the first things (they) miss,” says Stanford. As for priorities, they generally emphasize academics first, followed by field trips and then parties. “This group is more teacher-directed than child-directed,” she says.
Ebony Homeschoolers meets at the Hickory Hill Community Center, and provides a unique sense of culture and belonging for African- American families. “Our focus has always been to make certain the parent is on track,” says founder/leader Dell Self. Quoting the infamous airline policy, “Secure your own mask before you try to help others,” she stresses the importance of moms giving themselves the time and space needed to adapt to having their children home 24/7. “Find homeschoolers who are willing to swap kids so you can have a break,” she says.
Although most support groups around Memphis have a Christian emphasis, many are open to anybody. However, there are secular groups as well, such as “Homeschoolers of Memphis eclectic,” which meets in Bartlett.
“There really seems to be a place for every type of homeschooler” including working homeschoolers,” says Stanford.
Bartlett-Wolfchase, the largest group in Memphis, serves about 300 families. Brenda Barrett says their members exchange teaching techniques and organize group activities. “The families in our group seem to enjoy our interactive website the most. It has a forum where communication can happen during the month. It is also where they can find each other’s address, phone number, and ages of their children and share their triumphs and struggles.”
Years ago, homeschooling was a behind-closed-doors movement, but as statistics commend its success, the stigma is fading and local venues, including museums and recreation centers, are getting onboard, offering daytime classes and workshops. Co-ops and tutorials, which offer everything from crafts to chemistry, are also growing. Tutorials are drop-off classes taught by paid teachers. They can be pricey, but worth the expertise they offer to students, and the free time for mom. Co-ops usually require parents to stay and participate in teaching, but they’re easier on the budget and a good place to share talents and build community.