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A Homeschool Primer
By Nathanael Schildbach
Issue 126, September/October 2004

My five year old is at the kitchen sink, designing and conducting experiments on which things float and why, when suddenly my nine year old rushes in after studying the world map in the bathroom (where else would it be?) to inform us that besides London, England, there is a London, Ontario and an East London, South Africa. Inspired by this find, he goes on to enlighten me about issues of colonization and immigration. The five year old, during a pause in this conversation, begins telling his brother about Archimedes and the golden crown.

Is this a typical day in our home? Is it typical of our homeschooling experience? No matter how many times Ia^?(TM)m asked, ita^?(TM)s still difficult for me to define what is a^?oetypicala^?? about homeschooling, and exactly what it is that we a^?oedo.a^??

With homeschooling becoming more visible and with more people considering it as an option for their childrena^?(TM)s education, the number of inquiries I address has increased. But whether Ia^?(TM)m being asked by the merely curious or those just embarking on this journey, their questions seem to be the same:

  • What, exactly, is homeschooling?
    Not having any other reference for homeschooling, many people envision literally that: a school replicated in our home. Somewhere, there must be a room with a couple of desks, a flag on the wall, and some alphabet charts. Our days must be broken down by subject into specific amounts of time. Maybe we even have some of those industrial tiles and the scent of floor-cleaning supplies. Some homeschoolers do structure their learning like this, while others subscribe to a^?oeunschoolinga^??a^??hperhaps the least formally structured, most learner-driven model there is. Most homeschoolers fall somewhere in between these two models, although many call what they do a^?oehome learning,a^?? abandoning the baggage that comes with the word a^?oeschoola^?? along with many conventions of the institution.

    Homeschooling is really what learners and parents make of it. Hopefully, it is education that begins with the learners and keeps them in control of their own learning. It allows for investigation into subjects beyond what could be accommodated in most school settings, and takes advantage of the integrated nature of learning instead of assuming that learning is broken down into discrete subjects. In studying the world map in the bathroom, my son touches on geography, history, spelling, science, politicsa^??hthe list goes on. It is this basis in the needs of the individual and the attempt to deinstitutionalize the learning experience that makes homeschooling difficult to define.

  • What do you do all day?
    Not every day finds my children following in the footsteps of Archimedes or Howard Zinn. Some days ita^?(TM)s Marie Curie or Paul Gauguin or Rachel Carson or Frederick Douglass. Most times, they follow their own paths. We might get together with other homeschoolers, whether for fun or an educational activity, whom we network with through a local homeschooling support group. We might, and often do, spend time at the library. My children might be enrolled in a class, whether dance or music lessons or Spanish. We might read together or apart, or write articles for our homeschooling groupa^?(TM)s newspaper. In warmer months wea^?(TM)re outside gardening and playing, and in colder months wea^?(TM)re outside playing and thinking about gardening. Whenever wea^?(TM)re outside therea^?(TM)s usually a biology lesson underfoot, and math is used more often than you might think, as are reading and writing. History is the house and neighborhood we live in. (My son noted on the map that our town is named after one in England, and through our civic association he found out why.) Our days are rarely dull, and never seem without something to do, even if ita^?(TM)s just Home Economicsa^??halso known as doing the laundry and dishes.

    We dona^?(TM)t follow the usual school model of a rigidly set schedule. Without the need to organize and manage a large group of twenty or thirty pupilsa^??hlining up for events, distributing work, playing UN Peacekeepera^??hour time can be apportioned freely. We may feel compelled to cover a topic that our children arena^?(TM)t otherwise getting to, but it can likely be done in minutes, not weeks. Daniel Greenberg of the Sudbury Valley School, for example, was able to teach six yearsa^?(TM) worth of math to a dozen students, 9 to 12 years old, in 20 weeks, with one hour per week of class time (see I can attest from my own experience that this sort of learning is not limited to math. When I was young, I was suspended from high school for several months and required to continue my studies independently from home. I found I was able to complete all of my work for a full class load in less than two hours a day. (I did have to repeat a semester of physical education.)

  • Why do you homeschool? Did you hate school yourself?
    Despite my own vice principala^??gmandated homeschooling experience, I had an academically successful time in school. There was nothing, except for my distaste for the stifling culture of public school, that made the experience unusually unpleasant. My wife had the reverse experience, being tracked not into advanced courses but into those whose subtext was a^?oeWe dona^?(TM)t expect you to go to college.a^?? Now working on her second mastera^?(TM)s degree, shea^?(TM)s proved how inept and damaging such tracking is.

    We didna^?(TM)ta^??hand dona^?(TM)ta^??hhate schools. I feel that our children would excel in school, and that, with our advocacy and knowledge of how to work the educational bureaucracy, they would get fair if not exceptional treatment. Inspired by the work of such writers as John Holt and Ivan Illich, however, we realized the limitations of institutionalized education and wanted something better for our own children. We have planned our lives to include the privilege of homeschooling, knowing that it provides our children with advantages and opportunities they would not have in public school.

  • Arena^?(TM)t you deserting public education?
    Although I pay taxes that support the public schools, some argue that instead of divorcing myself from the system, I should work to change it. However, due to political pressuresa^??hlocal, state, and nationala^??has well as the publica^?(TM)s perception of what education should be, I dona^?(TM)t feel that real change will ever happen. I feel that years of reform have failed to make changes to the American public education system, and instead have made it ineffective and unresponsive to the needs of the students it is supposedly designed to serve. Additionally, my children are more precious to me than to be considered part of an experiment in education reform, especially one that I dona^?(TM)t think will happen.

    So youa^?(TM)re working outside the system. What does the school district say about it?
    Each state has different laws regarding homeschooling. Ia^?(TM)ve been told by homeschoolers in other states that Massachusetts, where we live, has some of the toughest requirements around. School authoritiesa^?(TM) responses to homeschoolers vary from hostility to the one I have received, which is one of acceptance and a simple request to fulfill paperwork requirements, such as submitting an annual plan of education and a portfolio of work completed. Nor are our children required to take standardized testsa^??hanother benefit of homeschooling. For more information on your statea^?(TM)s requirements, visit

  • But without standardized tests, how do you know your kids are getting educated?
    We dona^?(TM)t test them, but we know our own children. With only two pupils, why would we need standardized tests to figure out what they know? We can ask them questions, and see them working through problems presented to them. We have an intimate knowledge of what they know, what they want to know, what they want to do, and what they need to know in order to do it. I feel that our species is geared to learn all the time. Whether in school or standing in line at the post office, we constantly take in information, reflect on it, and remember our conclusions for future use.

  • Do your kids want to be homeschooled? Are you doing this for yourself or for them?
    Some people homeschool in order to limit their childrena^?(TM)s contact with outside influences, because they feel the values espoused by their school district, whether conservative or liberal, differ too much from their own. I respect these wishes, but we, like many homeschoolers, began homeschooling not to limit our childrena^?(TM)s access to the world but to provide them access to it in ways not available within the confines of a classroom. We initiated homeschooling feeling that it was the best choice for our children, but agreed that if they expressed interest in going to school, we would allow it. They havena^?(TM)t, and from conversations with schooled friends and acquaintances, many of whom have expressed their wish to be homeschooled too, our children have discovered no reason to envy them.

  • Do your kids have friends?
    Socializationa^??hthe a^?oes worda^?? to many homeschoolersa^??his a concern of many within and without the homeschooling community. Of course my children have friends. They socialize with other homeschoolers individually and at our groupa^?(TM)s events. They socialize with non-homeschoolers when they take classes at a local arts center, join a community sports team, play with neighbors, and participate in community theater. They also socialize comfortably across age ranges, from toddlers up to senior citizens. By not being isolated with members of their own age group, they have more access to a broader range of social situations. In some ways it is odd, with the number of social problems that exist in todaya^?(TM)s schools, that this aspect of homeschooling is still such an issue. Is the socialization that does happen in school all that positive? I remember plenty of examples from my own childhood that werena^?(TM)t.

  • What about when they get older? Can you teach them calculus?
    If we cana^?(TM)t teach our children ourselves, finding the person, persons, or thing that can is far from difficult. With the growth of homeschooling and the many in-person and online continuing-education opportunities that are out there, I feel confident that our children can learn what they need to learn when they need to learn it. It does take vigilance to know what theya^?(TM)ll need to know if they want to be, for example, a veterinarian. We need to know what subjects they should cover, but I would have to do the same if they were in public school.
  • Homeschooling may be fine for now, but what about your childrena^?(TM)s futures? Will they go to college?
    There are many stories floating around about homeschoolers whoa^?(TM)ve gone to Harvard, and many top schools actively court homeschoolers. Homeschooling has been going on long enough that colleges and universities are now accustomed to it. We assume that our kids will continue their schooling into college, and we are making sure that they have the skills and knowledge to function well in a self-motivated environment such as a college or university.

  • How do you balance your own work and homeschooling your kids?
    Homeschooling is not without sacrifice. I work a varied schedule, often early in the morning or late in the day, and do some work from home as well. My wife is in graduate school, and will be a marriage-and-family therapist upon graduation, working in the afternoon and evening hours. If her workload increases, I will work less. Ita^?(TM)s a delicate balancing act. Some people we know have similar arrangements; many work out of their homes full time, and many live on one income with one parent doing the bulk of the homeschooling. I know that we could send our kids to school and both work full time and be better off financially, but ita^?(TM)s a choice we are fortunate enough to be able to make. We are lucky that we can have these job arrangements, and have survived thus far on one income.

  • How did you get started?
    The first thing we did was figure out if and how we could homeschoola^??hnot whether we were up to the task of acting as our childrena^?(TM)s teachers (which I never doubted we could do and think no one should doubt), but whether we wanted it badly enough. We had to think about schedules, finances, and parental energy levelsa^??hwere the tradeoffs worth it for us? Once wea^?(TM)d worked through this last considerationa^??hprobably the largesta^??hwe could move on to the details of the experience. We had to find out what our state required us to do, get information from our school district, get plans back to them, and meet with thema^??hbureaucratic stuff.

    Then the fun began. What were the kids interested in? What were we interested in? What could we all learn together? We try to focus on spending our resources on experiences rather than things; instead of buying kits and workbooks, we would rather spend our money on lessons, events, or trips. Cello lessons, a hike and critter search in the woods, or a visit to the Bronx Zoo seem like a better investment in true learning than reams of worksheets. Much of homeschooling is a part of this processa^??hidentifying interests, identifying resources, and putting them together.

    Homeschooling has been an enlightening, invigorating, and challenging experience for our family. Every day offers the chance for something new, some way of connecting as learners, and an opportunity for our children to strive to reach their potential. There are myriad reasons people homeschool, and each family has its own story. Many a homeschooler will tell you that the first step in learning anythinga^??hincluding how to take the leap and initiate home learning in your own familya^??his not finding an a^?oeexpert,a^?? but finding resources when you need to, and always believing in your own ability to face any problem and learn from it.

And the Skylark Sings with Me: Adventures in Homeschooling and Community-Based Education. New Society, 1999. An inspiring first-person account of what motivates one family and just how far learning can go. Albert makes a strong argument for unschooling, and gives practical examples of how he has made the most of this learning style.

Dobson, Linda. The First Year of Homeschooling Your Child: Your Complete Guide to Getting Off to the Right Start. Prima Lifestyles, 2001. The perfect book for those considering and those nervously embarking on their first year of homeschooling. Dobsona^?(TM)s account is interspersed with stories from homeschoolers and does an excellent job of capturing what motivates and sustains them.

Griffith, Mary. The Unschooling Handbook: How to Use the Whole World as Your Childa^?(TM)s Classroom. Prima Lifestyles, 1998. As its title suggests, this book provides those with doubts about unstructured learning with ideas on how it can be done, and how to reassure yourself that you know that your children know what they know.

Holt, John and Patrick Farenga. Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book of Homeschooling. Perseus, 2003. Holt provides a convincing case for why children should learn at home and how it can be done. This book is a must-read for anyone starting to homeschool, both for its practical wisdom and its inspirational musings.

Llewellyn, Grace. The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education. Lowry House Publishing, 1998. Ia^?(TM)ve never seen better advice on how to drop out of school, and the possibilities that this much-stigmatized act can open up for teenagers. If all this book did was to reassure teenagers that they arena^?(TM)t crazy for feeling stifled in school, it would be worth the paper ita^?(TM)s printed on. Fortunately, Llewellyn goes on to stuff her handbook full of advice on how and why teenagers can work on their own toward a fulfilling, stimulating education.

Llewellyn, Grace, and Amy Silver. Guerrilla Learning: How to Give Your Kids a Real Education With or Without School. Wiley, 2001. This book asks the reader to consider a^?oeWhat is education to our family?a^?? Written both for parents with schooled children and for homeschoolers, it offers thoughts on how to energize your childrena^?(TM)s and your own learning by getting rid of stale, institutionalized notions of what learning is and what it can be.


American Homeschooling Association;

Coalition of Independent Homeschoolers;

John Holt, Growing Without Schooling;

Information on unschooling;

Learn in Freedom!

National Home Education Network;

The Sudbury Valley School;

Nathanael Schildbach is a writer living in Western Massachusetts. He and his muse, Kimberly, homeschool their two sons.

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