Advice for 1st Time Homeschooling Parents?
July 24, 2009 6:59 AM   Subscribe

For those of you who home school your children, why did you choose to home school? What teaching approaches and strategies work best for you? Any mistakes to learn from?

My wife and I have decided to home school our 4 year old son and we are completely new to the concept and looking for tips and guidance. Our son is very energetic, eager, quick to learn and seems to prefer active, hands-on methods. While we've come to realize that there isn't really any certain method or plan that fits all families, we are very curious to hear about other home school experiences in hopes to help develop our own plan. So, for those of you who home school, why did you choose to home school? What works best for your family? What mistakes have you made that we could perhaps avoid? We are particularly interested in Unit studies and would love to hear other's experiences with this method. We'd also love to hear about the early years as we will be home schooling from the start.

A little background information: I attended public school most of my life and my wife has attended both public and private schools. We both have liberal arts degrees, and I have a bit of teaching experience, mostly on the community college level. We have an older son who is 14 who has attended public school his entire life, in both good and bad school districts, and who has done quite well. The main motivator is not that we have horrible public schools, but that formal school is not, in our opinion, a good fit for our youngest son.

We are not interested in arguments against home schooling as we have already made the decision, but we would love to hear stories and advice from past, present or future home schoolers. Thanks in advance!
posted by Otis to Education (15 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I was homeschooled from fifth to twelfth grade, having attended a private school for the first four years. My parents had never thought I would be sufficiently challenged in public school and after four years of relative boredom in private school, they kept me home to do things themselves. Looking back, they made the right decision.

We started out with a packaged curriculum, Calvert, as the decision to homeschool was made rather late in the summer after my fourth year, so there wasn't adequate time to prepare a curriculum from scratch. We used this for about two years, until my parents were confident enough to put things together themselves.

We had a few advantages on that score, as Pennsylvania, my home state, is one of the single most organized and supportive places to homeschool your kids. Central PA in particular is a goldmine. We were part of three co-ops, two extra-curricular, one academic, and I have to say those played a pretty critical role in my school experience, both as a social outlet and academically. One extra-curricular co-op was formed entirely by families at my parents' church; YMMV on that front obviously, but with over two dozen families, the opportunities for socialization and friendship were pretty incredible. The academic co-op met every Tuesday, all day. I started there in high school, as lab sciences are harder to do individually, but if enough families pool their resources, things get easier.

In addition, Harrisburg is home every May to one of the country's largest curriculum fairs. We're talking 6000 plus people with well over a hundred vendors. It's obviously over this year, but I'd highly recommend making the road trip if you can't find anything more local. You can always throw in a quick stop at Gettysburg while you're out there.

While we're on that subject, allow me to highlight one of the primary advantages of homeschooling: flexibility. Almost anything can be educational if you treat it that way. Want to road trip out to the curriculum fair next spring? Hit Gettysburg, the state capitol, and maybe stop at Fort Pitt on the way back. There's at least three days of school, right there. Need to visit family towards Chicago? Take him to the aquarium. Business trip in DC? US History bonanza. Vacation in the Carolinas? Jamestown and Yorktown. The Southwest? Geology. All of these things can be done whenever is convenient for you, not when the school district dictates. You will need to put in as many school days in a given year as everyone else, but use your summer productively, doing things you were going to do anyways, and you can seriously tailor your schedule once you hit September. I've known families to knock out an entire subject over the summer, making their load lighter for the rest of the year.

Those are some of the more obvious things to do, but I can't stress enough that as long as you meet the requirements of your state--and you will want to check those--and are convinced that your child is learning what he needs to know, anything goes. Want to do school year round but only four days a week? Fine. Want to take a month off for Christmas to do a road trip? Nothing stopping you; bring your books or work your schedule so you don't have to. Want to do subjects sequentially instead of simultaneously? If you think that'll work, go for it. Want to start school at 6AM? Noon? As long as you put the time in, no one's going to say "Boo." Want to do school on the weekend but not on Tuesday and Thursday? Whatever. Get offered a temporary position in Hong Kong but don't want to leave the family? Hell, bring 'em along!

If you try keep your homeschooling experience as close to a public school environment as you can, I think you're going to be frustrated. Not only will you be sacrificing most of the advantages of homeschooling, but even in the public school context, the arbitrariness of scheduling and rules is pretty obvious, even to the students. When it's just you and your kid, that just doesn't work. Yeah, you are going to need a schedule; nothing gets done otherwise. But you're free to make that schedule rational and convenient. So do it.

I could go on for days, but I'll leave it at that, for now. In summary: find and get connected with other homeschooling families, and use the flexibility of homeschooling for all it's worth. MeFiMail me if you want to talk more.
posted by valkyryn at 7:26 AM on July 24, 2009 [5 favorites]

I ended up deciding against home-schooling my own children but when I was seriously researching it I found the book The Well Trained Mind, a guide to classical education very impressive.
posted by saucysault at 7:30 AM on July 24, 2009

At dr with soon to be homeschooled child so need to make this quick. We are doing the K12 consumer direct option. I've been very impressed so far with their approach and materials. I'm a former teacher getting my masters so I have experience in this area. Check out their website and they have a yahoo group. Good luck, I'm starting to wish we had done this from the beginnng!
posted by pearlybob at 7:32 AM on July 24, 2009

I sort of wish I was someone else's parents. But I wasn't, went through the usual public school hell. Hated it.

That said, I've met a lot of adults who have been homeschooled. Of course this is a broad generalization, but I'd say on average, they seem to have quite a bit of difficulty with communication skills, at least with your sort of average Joe. I met them through a mutual interest where many people have sort of poor communication skills but the homeschoolers are always about 25% weirder than everyone else. I don't see them as necessarily more confident or knowledgeable for their experience.

My irrelevant, anecdotal $.02.
posted by sully75 at 8:07 AM on July 24, 2009

My oldest son is 8, homeschooled from the start. On the advice of a trusted, experienced homeschooling friend, and because of his temperament, we didn't do any organized academics until this past year. Amazingly, he learned everything he needed anyway: some phonics, how to add and subtract, etc. And I am so glad we had those happy, relaxed years for him to explore, explore, explore.

(My 5yo, on the other hand, likes doing workbooks, so we do some. This is the glory of homeschooling.)

We homeschool because I have a low opinion of schools. Sometimes when people say, "Why do you homeschool?" I just reply, "Well, I've been to school." But we love the flexibility, the freedom the kids have to spend a whole day building with Legos, playing imaginative games, or enjoying a Dragonball Z movie marathon. We love the way homeschooling can foster better relationships between parents and kids.

We're on the relaxed/unschooly end of the spectrum, and love it. It really takes very little time for kids to pick up the academic basics, and beyond that we enjoy exposing them to as wide a range of experiences, media, stories, and stuff as possible. Unit Studies is great for that, too--you can really follow your families' interests (and drop the stuff that just doesn't click), though Unit Studies ended up feeling too structured, even, for my older son, and for me.

We tried Five in a Row when he was little. It's a unit studies curriculum, cheap to implement, based around works of literature. It failed for us because my son didn't want to read the same book five days in a row, but I can see why a lot of people love it

I would say the most important thing is to respond to your kid, and be willing to let go of things that aren't working. We've used three phonics curricula, for instance (all of them cheap or from the library, so I wouldn't get too wedded to them), with my older son, and tried two math curricula. This is really typical, and getting involved with a homeschool group in your area where you can hear in detail about people's experiences with different curricula and methods, and know their kids so you can have some idea of whether what worked for them might work for your son, is a big help. This might also give you the opportunity to examine or borrow materials to try them out before you buy.
posted by not that girl at 8:14 AM on July 24, 2009

Check out The Pioneer Woman and the portion of her site dedicated to homeschooling. (She's got 4 kids and they live out on a ranch. All of the sections on her blog are a great read, and there's some great homeschooling advice and product recs.)
posted by firei at 8:21 AM on July 24, 2009

Just one relatively minor thing to be aware of going forward: I was homeschooled growing up staring at age zero, and I've consequently met a lot of other homeschoolers. Some 80% of them are weird, weird people. Now, I don't think this is a consequence of homeschooling itself (unless you're doing it wrong), but rather of the motivations of some of the parents who choose to homeschool and of the sorts of kids who get pulled out of the school system later in life because they have behavioral or social problems. Your motivations sound like good ones, though; my parents similarly decided to teach us for the best of reasons (thinking that they could give us a more flexible and intellectually stimulating environment) and I had a wonderful time. I wouldn't have wanted them to do anything differently in retrospect, except for maybe not encourage me to make friends with lots of other homeschoolers. That's something I think it's easy for parents to do, because they have something in common with the other parents and schedules are more flexible, and they think their kids won't be shunned. It's easy for the homeschooling community to become insular, since a lot of times people feel like they're going against the grain and they want their kids not to feel like outsiders. But I'm not just saying this as an uneducated knee-jerk reaction: make sure your kid has a lot of social outlets growing up (band, camp, sports, etc.), that are not just with other homeschoolers.
posted by you're a kitty! at 9:03 AM on July 24, 2009

Mrs. Deadmessenger and I homeschooled our daughter part-time for two school years (the 2nd and 3rd grades), and full-time for five more (4th through 9th). Our reason for doing so was simple: our local public school was an unmitigated disaster with a principal who was utterly indifferent to anything but discipline and order. (there was a longstanding joke among parents that the only way to get a meeting with the principal was to tell your kid to start a fight) My daughter had a FANTASTIC teacher for kindergarten and first grade (the same teacher, no less!), but fell behind quickly in the second grade, and it got WAY worse for the third. We originally started homeschooling part-time in an effort to make up for what she wasn't learning in her public school. Once we realized that she was doing far better learning at home than at school, it really didn't make sense for us to waste our time and energy by sending her to school.

A few things we learned that you should probably keep in mind:

Here in our home state of Georgia, state law is very favorable to homeschooling families. Your state might not be, so make sure you're following state requirements to the letter. The HSLDA has some fantastic resources here.

If our experience is any guide, you will likely experience a fair bit of hostility from any public school teachers in your social circle. What we found is that professional educators tend to feel very threatened by successful homeschooling. If you have any teachers in your social circle, be prepared for that hostility, and be prepared to defend your decision constantly. You may also lose friends over it.

I don't know about your family's religious beliefs or political background, but if you're not hard-right-wing evangelical Christians, you may have difficulty finding a homeschooling support/playgroup that will accept you. Again, this could be unique to the prevailing conditions here in the Bible Belt, but we definitely had some problems here.

Going back to public school is hard. When we began homeschooling full-time, we had always decided that we would send her back to public school for high school, as there was no real way to substitute the social experience. What we didn't anticipate is how difficult the public school bureaucracy would make it for homeschooling families transitioning back to public school. I could write a VERY long comment about what we experienced here, but suffice it to say that they stack the deck against homeschoolers when it comes to placement in public high schools. To give you one example: we had to bring our daughter for a placement test at a testing location 45 miles away from our home, at 8am on a weekday morning, on just 16 hours' notice. Rising public-school 8th graders got to take the test at 10am, with two months' notice, at their local school.

I could go on and on about our experiences homeschooling, but I've run out of time to type. If you have any specific questions about our experience, feel free to MeMail me, I'd be happy to share what we learned.
posted by deadmessenger at 11:33 AM on July 24, 2009

We homeschooled our son all the way - from the very beginning up through high school and now he is a freshman at a local community college. We were unschoolers though - we used no formal curriculum and gave no grades. We spent a lot of time in the company of other homeschoolers, early on, having theme day type activities and play days, sharing meals and ideas and doing campouts and trips together (a standout was a trip to California's gold country). As he got older it became clear to us that the kids needed more unstructured time to play and exercise their imaginations so our park days became less structured (fewer theme days), so they could wander and play the types of games they all enjoyed so much.
It really is amazing how much they pick up and absorb, living in an environment that is rich in resources. We read all the time together and when I ran out of voice, turned to books on tape - as a consequence, he is the best listener I know. We spent a lot of time in the car, traveling to various get-togethers and that was some of the best "learning" time we had. He always enjoyed doing math things out loud, so early on we'd play little games like, how much is 3+4, then how much is 5+2, then how much is 9-2 -- that was so much fun for him and laid a foundation for loving numbers. (I was terrrible at math growing up and vowed to do no harm in that respect, and it seems to have worked.)
We also attended lectures where ever we could find them. We are lucky enough to live close to JPL and they have a monthly series that he and my husband have attended since he was very small. We also used to attend the travel film series at the performing arts center where my husband works, until the schedule stopped working for us, but that was a great way to see interesting things for free.
We always said we would do it one year at a time - if for whatever reason it wasn't working out, he could always go to school. We always asked him every year, if HE was interested in going to school but he never was.
I also think that we have a great, close relationship that we would not/could not have had if he were in school.

On a side note, we have a really terrific Community College system here in California, and many of our friends kids started classes there early, some as young as 13 and have since gone on to 4 year schools. Some kids start earlier, but I personally don't think that's a great idea for a lot of reasons.
Obviously, I could go on about this for a long time. Me mail me if you have more questions, or want to talk on the phone about this stuff. I'm fine either way.
posted by jvilter at 11:43 AM on July 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

I can't let this one go - some people choose to homeschool to protect their kids from perceived outside influences - we homeschooled (among other reasons) to provide better access to the outside world.
As someone mentioned above, each state has different regulations concerning HSing. I participated in a small way in this website, and their goal was to provide secular information about HSing in every state, as opposed to HSLDA, which provides a Christian POV. I see NHEN is down now. I know there is a re-vamp underway, so keep checking back if you're interested.
There are conferences for all different flavors of homeschooling. For many years we attended and participated in one of our state cons and it was a great boost, to see all those kids and parents together, doing what you're doing. For several years now there have been unschooling cons too, more and more all over the country.

I have Sandra Dodd's site linked in my profile and she was the first (and best, IMO) to write extensively about unschooling. She has one book out and another one out this summer.

Also, and last for today, I promise; you don't have to pick a method and stick to it forever. A LOT of people start out with a more structured plan in mind and gradually see that their kids are learning tons on their own and just by living a rich life, and back off of the workbooks and fill in sheets. Think about the school groups you've seen at museums, running around filling in blanks on some piece of paper - not really looking at the exhibits, but just doing what's required before they rush on to the next one, so they can be free to play a bit before getting back on the bus. Much better, I think, to visit the museum and not worry about seeing the whole thing in one day, but to look at and discuss what you're really interested in, and leave the rest for another time. Memberships to zoos and aquariums and museums are great for this, so you don't have to feel like you have to cram it all into one day, but can come back when the school groups have gone for the day, and take you time and really savor to content.
Okay, really really the last for the day; no matter what method you choose, don't feel compelled to rush into the academics. Children's play IS their work, so don't discount it. (not that I think you will).
posted by jvilter at 12:58 PM on July 24, 2009

Why did you choose to home school?

First of all, because we are both teachers and we know that the best education is a one-on-one, fully individualized one. Every teacher knows this. At most, group learning should involve no more than 8 students. Classrooms like this do not exist in our society, for the most part.

Also, as teachers, we knew something that most homeschooling parents struggle with: You do not need to know everything or know every subject to be a good teacher. What you need to *be* is a good, encouraging learning facilitator--willing to admit when you don't know, and demonstrate how to find out.

Finally, because our little guy wanted to. He hated the worksheet blizzard that materialized when he hit 3rd grade. Great school, by all accounts. But not for a kid who wanted to draw for three hours a day, or spend major time learning to use computer programs. Every year, when kids are excited about heading back to school in September, he entertains a fantasy of going back, and every year, he realizes it's a *fantasy* idea of what school is that draws him. He's now entering 8th grade. He'll be going to a small charter for high school, by his choice.

His sister chooses school. We have watched her turn into someone who resists learning, doesn't challenge herself, and flounders in subjects that are actually her strong suits. Boredom and time-wasting are a major property of school. As a substitute teacher, I see kids every single day who gave up on learning somewhere in elementary school and have spent the rest of their years killing time. This is not what I want for *any* child. The homeschooled kid, on the other hand, has turned into an independent learner, willing to challenge himself, and is a relaxed and pleasant person to be around.

What teaching approaches and strategies work best for you? Any mistakes to learn from?

Since he had been schooled, our student had been somewhat indoctrinated into school culture, subject separation, and schedules. So, we started from that point. We (together) used iCal to schedule his day. But we didn't stick to it religiously, and always amended it afterwards to reflect what *actually* happened. Now, five years later, we don't use a schedule, but we do make sure to hit on a wide variety of subject matter.

The biggest mistake homeschooling parents make is being too caught up in their *own* ideas of what homeschooling should look like, to the point of losing track of their individual child. Some kids like structure. Some will resist it til the cows come home. The point is not to force learning on anyone, but to show them how to love it, to want to know things, and how to find things out on their own. Loving learning comes naturally to a child of 4. It has not been schooled out of them. So take advantage of that, and don't make it a drudgery, or set up tasks that, if they don't work, will lead you to believe you and your child have Failed. A good teacher knows that 9 times out of 10, the idea you had for teaching will not jazz the student. You have to let go of your ego, shrug your shoulders, swallow your disappointment, and move on to something that *will* turn on the kid you've got in hand--not the kid you wish you had, not the kid you thought you had, but THIS CHILD where he is right now. You need to ask your child questions about what they like to do, what they liked about a given activity, and what they didn't like. And you need to make sure not to shame them for having different tastes than you do. They need to not be afraid to tell you they didn't enjoy something. You need to be willing to hear it.

Schools are structured they way they are because they have to herd kids through a given place/time construct. Don't be fooled into thinking that subjects neatly divide into parts, or that every kid needs to know their times tables by 3rd grade or how to read by age 6. It's great if they do. But a whole lot of "learning disabilities" (not all), are simply the result of kids being pushed too hard too fast when they weren't ready in an environment that wasn't conducive for learning in the first place.

Let your kid sleep in if they are tired. Let him spend hours drawing if he wants. Let him watch educational television (without commercials--TIVO is the second best homeschooling tool ever). Let him lie about in the yard and discover things. Be lazy on days where laziness makes sense. Take him places, a lot. Join homeschooling groups, but also give your kid the freedom to have plenty of alone time. Invite homeschooling friends over during the day to play football. Garden. Involve him in home repair, and do the math together. Explore the neighborhood and your local history together. Go to the library a lot. Read out loud, all the time. And when he's ready, read classic books that are too hard for him, together, every other paragraph out loud. (We've gone from War of the Worlds in 4th grade, to just finishing Robinson Crusoe this year... all most definitely *not* the kids versions. He reads now at a college level, with a natural cadence that is the envy of any adult.) Invest in a home computer that ostensibly belongs to your child. (Well-supervised, of course. But with lots of fun programs and the Net. Start using it with them at age 6 or so.) Too many parents have a weird idea that the computer is for adults, and the kid ends up having to compete with adult pursuits for computer time.

Enroll him in classes outside the home where you're not the primary adult. (We've done music, robotics, cartooning, computer programming, ceramics, soccer, tae kwon do, foreign language...) These activities should satisfy anyone curious about whether he's learning to "work in groups."

The most important trait for successful homeschooling parents is the ability to RELAX and let their child be an individual. Don't worry about kids who appear to be learning to read Shakespeare at age 9 while your kid struggles to muster interest in Goosebumps. And never ever EVER threaten to send them back to school as a punishment for failure.

And read a lot, but don't necessarily get hung up on self-proclaimed homeschooling experts. Sandra Dodd is famous for shaming people who don't share her philosophy to the letter. She's just a mom who's talked to a lot of people. You can be a parent who's talked to a lot of people too. YOU are the BEST expert on your child.
posted by RedEmma at 4:02 PM on July 24, 2009 [3 favorites]

For a facinating and detailed overview of how different families approach homeschooling, try Nancy Lande's books Homeschooling: A Patchwork of Days and Homeschool Open House. The first book presents in-depth interviews with 30 families of various sizes, backgrounds, religions, ages of kids, homeschool approaches, etc. They very candidly talk about what has worked and not worked for them on their homeschooling journeys. The second book contains interviews with different families, and then also provides new interviews-five years later-with the original families from the first book. Very interesting to read about their perspectives on their homeschooling experiences now that all their kids are five years older.

I don't have any direct experience with homeschooling--in fact, I was a teacher in the public schools for nine years--but I found both books very interesting and thought-provoking.
posted by bookmammal at 4:18 PM on July 24, 2009

Something else to point out, just for the record: the overwhelming majority of families that choose to homeschool--at least in my experience--are conservative Christians of one stripe or another. Religious reasons figure in pretty highly in many families' decisions here. If you're expecting your local homeschooling community to be a representative sample of your local metropolitan area, you should abandon that notion immediately: homeschooling families are overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly Christian, and overwhelmingly conservative. It's just the way things are. If this bothers you, you should go in with your eyes open, because finding like-minded families, or even just friends for your son, is going to be difficult.

RedEmma has the right of it in many respects though: the point of homeschooling is not to replicate the experience of public school. Not only can you really not do this very effectively, but you're missing the whole point of homeschooling, which is the ability to radically tailor your child's education to his own particular needs and interests. If someone who isn't speaking for the state tells you you must do things a certain way, don't listen. The state gets to tell you that, because otherwise they get to take your kids away, but everyone else can go fly a kite. By all means, take what seems to be wise advice; you're going to meet people and read books by people who have done this for years with great success. But none of them know your kid, and what works for one family may or may not work for another. Try to find people with experiences similar to yours and see what works for them.
posted by valkyryn at 9:57 PM on July 24, 2009

Thanks for all the great responses everyone. Just what we were looking for.
posted by Otis at 7:41 AM on July 26, 2009

If you're interested in a second-hand perspective:

I have no kids and I attended public schools, but I got interested in home schooling because as an adult, I'm interested in homeschooling MYSELF, picking up some of the history and science I missed in public school.

I used to read the Usenet newsgroup, and there was a guy on there who homeschooled his three kids using a very challenging curriculum - lots of math, lots of science, demanding literature, foreign languages, art and music history, music lessons, and more. He wanted to make sure his kids all completed studies in calculus before going to college. He wrote a detailed account of what his children were studying when the oldest were 8 and 6 and another about what they were studying when they were 12 and 14. I read those and I was so jealous. I wish I had been studying physics and Latin and poetry when I was that age! (Even at that age, I would have loved it. What can I say - I'm a geek.)

He had a much stricter schedule for his kids, but noted that - although each of them went through a phase of dawdling all day - once they grasped the notion that their time was their own as soon as their schoolwork was done, they typically all finished up by noon, and spent the rest of the day doing whatever they wanted, whether that was playing video games or practicing guitar.

He strikes me as an AskMeFi kind of guy - he's a small-l libertarian atheist physicist who can offer up a well-reasoned argument on any side of any debate - and I can't wait until I retire and have the time to implement his homeschooling curriculum on myself.
posted by kristi at 10:57 PM on July 26, 2009

« Older Running errands in NYC   |   Wheat-free deliciousness? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.