this homeschooling life

I haven’t written much about our homeschooling life lately, and it’s feeling like a good time to do that. After all these years, living and learning with kids feels like the most natural thing in the world to me. It is a seamless process, without artificial distinctions between “learning” and “everything else”. We’re all learning, all the time. My job is to create an environment that nurtures my kids’ desire to learn, to provide balance and boundaries when needed, to know when to step in and when to get out of the way.

Sometimes learning looks very organic and natural, particularly when kids are young. As they get older, sometimes learning looks more formal or traditional. There are an infinite number of ways to live without school, but I’m sharing what it looks like in our family. We are not very structured, I have no desire to recreate school at home, but we do have a rhythm to our days and I’m willing to do whatever seems right for my kids without worrying too much about labels.

I see a spectrum of homeschooling, from radical unschooling to school at home, and we fall somewhere between unschooling and relaxed homeschooling. There is great disagreement over this in unschooling circles, with many unschoolers claiming that there is no real gray area, that you are either a radical unschooler or a relaxed homeschooler. If anyone is reading this and has no idea what I’m talking about, try to imagine some other group of people that share common values and ideals or hobbies, something that brings people together yet also divides along ideological lines. Say, Christianity. It’s a big tent, really, but there are some bitter divisions and disagreements over what it means to be a Christian. I consider myself to be a (very) liberal Christian, and my parents wouldn’t have acknowledged that there is any such thing.

It’s not so much that I have a problem with saying I’m a relaxed homeschooler, but my life and the way I raise my kids are so imbued with unschooling philosophy that it’s not quite accurate to leave that part out. I have ideals that guide me, but I also want to remain open to change, to new ideas and ways of doing things, to the fact that my kids are not me and I need to respect their journey without putting too much of myself and my own past into it.

Parenting is a work in progress, and each day has something to teach me if I’m willing to listen. My younger boys are very different from me in some ways, from the child I was and the adult I am now. I was calm, quiet, easily entertained, independent, a model student. I didn’t need much guidance when it came to learning. My older two were a lot like me, and I figured it was just the normal way to be. Then my younger two came along, and life got interesting.

It’s still interesting, but it’s getting easier. They need a lot more input from me, and they do better when we maintain a consistent rhythm, when they have an idea of what to expect. We have eased very gradually into formal learning- for Nick at age 10 it is only a small amount of math and writing. He reads well now, despite being my “late” reader, and he loves to read. This is another area though where I’m not completely hands-off, not even close. I let them both come to reading when they were ready, and I didn’t push at all, but I read to them all the time. It was a huge part of our life, so books and language were already an integral part of who they were, long before they figured out the mechanics of reading.

Now, I pick out books that I think they will like- I actually spend a lot of time doing that. Nick is reading the Missing series by Margaret Peterson Haddix, and Jesse is reading the James Herriot books. I’m thrilled that he’s reading the Herriot books because I loved them so much. We still read aloud, typically a more challenging book that they might not be eager to read on their own. I’m reading a Landmark book about Abraham Lincoln to Nick (here’s a great link if anyone is interested- I just discovered these recently and found that I can get many of them through interlibrary loan), and The Red Badge of Courage to Jesse (he isn’t crazy about it, but I can get him to sit still for a chapter occasionally).

Jesse has started to talk again about going to high school, which would happen next year, so I’ve agreed to help him prepare for whatever it is that he wants to do. Full-time public school is definitely not my preference, but I’m going to focus on one day at a time and trust that it will all work out. In the past he’s been resistant to doing more work to get ready for a school environment, but lately he’s gone through a big period of growth in all kinds of ways and seems to be willing to do more academic work.

So he’s been getting up early each morning, doing what I suggest without too much fuss. This is the thing about unschooling- Jesse knows what unschooling is, and he specifically says that he doesn’t want to live that way. He wants to feel that he is on par with his peers, that if he were to choose school he would be okay. And I understand that. I think unschooling can work just fine for teens, and they can study certain topics when they become relevant to their interests, but if they decide to go to high school they will benefit from having certain skills in place. I’m not worried about my boys and reading, if anything they’re way ahead there, and their math ability is good. Better than mine ever was, despite years of good grades in school. But they rarely write- it’s just not something they’ve developed an interest in. I don’t get it- I’ve always loved to write- but I think it’s okay to push a bit as they get older because it’s an important skill.

Jesse is doing Thinkwell math (8th grade). We’ve used a variety of math curricula over the years, and this is our first time trying this. So far, so good. He was doing Teaching Textbooks but it was a little too easy for him, and this program is more challenging. Nick is doing Singapore math, but at a super relaxed pace. He didn’t do any formal math until he was about nine, and I still let him explore math in his own way most of the time. Jesse is doing Easy Grammar Plus. It’s his first time studying grammar in a formal way, and I really like this book. He’s also doing a workbook called Wordsmith. He fusses about doing it, but he’s not been very receptive to all the other ideas I’ve suggested for writing either (writing prompts, letters, journals, stories), so I think sometimes a straightforward approach works better.

Nick does an Italic series workbook to practice handwriting, and Jesse is watching Crash Course history videos. I’m not rigid about any of this- some days they just do what they want, and they always have the option of saying no. Ultimately, I don’t believe learning can be forced upon anyone. You have to want it, and it has be meaningful. You have to be able to put it in context. So much of what I learned in school was quickly forgotten, nearly all of it. I was being the good girl, doing what I was told, pleasing the teacher. I didn’t even mind the academic side of school, but I can’t say that it was deep or meaningful learning. Real learning is something different, and I’d like to think that I’ve given my kids the opportunity to understand that difference.

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11 thoughts on “this homeschooling life

  1. I’m fascinated by families who make homeschooling work. It’s something that I could never do. Just not in me. But I find the idea of it really interesting. How do you build in the “social” component that they get at a mainstream school?

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    • Well first I would say that not all school socialization is a positive thing. So there’s that…

      At this point, homeschooling has become mainstream enough that there is no lack of opportunities for social interaction. And homeschoolers have always been very good at networking, finding ways to come together for support and activities. Social media (and technology in general) has helped tremendously- Facebook groups abound, many of them local with hundreds of families. It really is a big tent, with all kinds of people doing it for all kinds of reasons. And homeschooled kids aren’t really that different from schooled kids, despite a few lingering stereotypes.

      There are many activities designed specifically for the homeschooling community- in my area there are popular wilderness/outdoor programs, learning co-operatives, 4-H, etc. Field trips, park days, classes. Homeschooled kids do all kinds of things, both with other homeschoolers and with others who share their interests. Drama, music, gymnastics, martial arts, sports, skateparks, church, scouting…the list is endless. Most of the families I know are incredibly busy, in fact we tend to be more low-key about activities but my kids still spend plenty of time with other kids (and adults).

      It’s not for everyone. I have many friends who homeschooled and have now put their kids in school for various reasons and are very happy with that decision. The availability of charter and online schools provides more options. To me, it’s all about having options. Technology is rapidly changing the way we learn, and what it is important to know, and the way we think of school and learning will continue to change.

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  2. Homeschooling is not very common in Europe – in fact in some countries it is almost impossible to get permission to do it. I sounds fascinating and the idea of doing everything in your child’s own pace is really appealing. I do not think I would be patient enough to do it though. Maybe with my older one – he is a bit like you describe your older two. It is rather easy and also enjoyable to teach him things. Little one, now that is another story. Bright, headstrong… I sometimes call him our little volcano. He is a quick learner but absolutely hates it to make mistakes. So he gets angry and then wants to quit. Sigh. He is very sweet with his teacher though. So I am happy that most of his learning happens at school and I only have to deal with minor homework battles at home. We try to work at “it is not necessary to throw a fit if mummy says there a letter wrong in this word…” 😉 Ok, maybe that is exaggerated, but only a bit. 😉 So…. I am happy they are attending a good school, a school they like, with teachers that apply methods I can support. 🙂 But I know a lot of stories about other schools, about teachers driving the joy of learning out of the children… that’s a sad thing.

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    • I used to have a blog reader from Germany (not sure if she is still around or not) who said she would love to homeschool (unschool actually) but it was illegal. So she did what she could to help her kids learn more organically within the confines of the system.

      The thing about being with your kids rather than sending them to school is that (a) you can design learning to suit their needs, and yours, so if something isn’t working you can change it, and (b) you develop a foundation of trust and respect when they’re young so by the time they get older you’ve built a relationship that makes it enjoyable to spend time together. So it’s not really that difficult to be with them and help them explore the world, in fact it is a joy and a delight most of the time. I like hanging out with my kids, it’s as simple as that.

      My older two went to high school, and I have to say that it wasn’t really that much easier. There is plenty to do whether your kids are in school or not! And a huge benefit of homeschooling is that you don’t have to nag about homework 😉 I do nag a bit about the academic portion of our day, but it’s only a small amount of time and then the rest of the day is free to do whatever we want to do. Anyway, I’m not trying to convince you because it doesn’t sound like it’s even an option, just explaining that it’s not that taxing, even with a more challenging child. And I’m very glad that you are happy with your kids’ school- it is so important and I completely understand why people can be happy with a good school situation. School is and will continue to be the reality for most kids and good schools are so important for everyone.

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  3. Thanks for sharing this.
    I have tried homeschooling every way possible. I started with Waldorf education, then went to the complete opposite side with radical unschooling. At first, I was upset with falling for the idea of Waldorf education and ranted a bit. I have since found peace with all my decisions. I realized this is a new endeavor, I mean homeschooling itself isn’t new, but for our generation it is, and no one has all the answers. Kind of like life. 🙂 I realized I needed to venture down those roads to get to where we are today.

    I fall somewhere in between the two now. I follow the girls interests, yet as a facilitator I also add information they might not be aware of. An episode of My Little Pony, could lead us to superheros, which could lead us to mythology. Everything has been influenced from something, and we love finding out what that could be.

    I have learned from the girls too. I think for me, that once I opened my mind to see learning is everywhere, the journey became a lot easier for all of us.

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    • Yes, I always feel like we’re kindred homeschooling spirits 🙂 I know that labels shouldn’t matter, and most of the time I can just live my life and not worry about where we *fit*. But I also think it’s natural to want to feel like we have like-minded friends, and sometimes I struggle with where we fit in the homeschooling world. I don’t always have that much in common with some of the regular homeschooling folks, because they just do things differently. Lots of emphasis on curriculum and power struggles over getting work done and just more of a control-based approach to parenting than I have. This is with secular folks too- most of the homeschoolers I know in real life are not religious at all. But they are pretty traditional in their approach to schooling and I am not.
      So then I start seeking out unschooling support, but I can’t deal with the dogma and the “this is the one right way to unschool and if you don’t do this you’re not really unschooling”. I get frustrated sometimes and just have to vent! If anyone can just carry on and ignore all that I admire them for being able to do so 🙂 I guess I accept that I will always be somewhat sensitive to what other people think and say.

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      • Yes, exactly this. Not only do I homeschool differently, but I parent differently too. So, not only do I find it hard to fit in with other homeschoolers, I find it hard to fit in with parents that don’t homeschool. Then again, I never really fit in anywhere, not that I feel the need to, but it is nice to find others that can nod and say, “I understand what you mean.” 🙂

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  4. Thanks for sharing. I’ve always enjoyed reading your philosophies. I like what you said about not wanting to put too much of yourself into it. I can see myself doing that, trying to impose my interests onto my kids. I do think there is room as the mother to pass along a part of yourself. Home schooling will be unique to their personalities just as much as it will be to mine. At the same time, it is good to have that reminder that they need space to explore themselves.

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    • I’ve been able to see, over time, how great my influence on my kids really is. However I’ve also been able to see that they really are their own people and will have interests and abilities that differ from mine… which is the way it should be. For example, I’ve always been drawn to Classical education (which is an actual style in homeschooling, lots of parents follow that model) but really none of my kids are that interested in it, certainly not to the extent that I might be.
      So what I do is just share some of my interests (we’ve read lots of Greek mythology) and then accept that it’s okay- they can be who they are. There is no single right way to live and be happy. Once I learned to be more open to the differences, I found that they had plenty to teach me too 🙂

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  5. Hi, thank you for the post. What you describe sounds so nice! I do wish people would in general get more power over their learning. Traditional schooling seems to send this message that you are not the chooser of what you will learn. But how to get there? For me, the biggest mystery in the whole idea is how to manage time when both parents have jobs. I see now that there is a community aspect to education outside of school that changes the whole picture.

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    • It is nice! Homeschooling may not be the norm, but it is a lovely way to live.
      It’s a different way of thinking about learning, for sure. Because really, the purpose of learning SHOULD be for the learner. But school turns it into something else, a whole bunch of things that are far removed from the basic idea that learning makes us who we are, gives us a richer life.

      There are people who manage to homeschool with both parents working, also single parent homes. It’s not something I’ve done, but certainly people do. I also think it’s important to remember that having kids in school doesn’t automatically free people up for work without constraints, at least not in this country. There is still before and after school care, sick days, vacation days, etc. Even if my kids were in school, I would probably still choose to be a SAHM- for our family it is just easier this way. But I’m okay with that choice, and I know it is not the right choice for every woman.

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