a practical guide to inspiring academic excellence
Helen woke up at six and ate breakfast while reading about Neanderthals in Scientific American, before starting on algebra. Anna appeared at about eight, read a couple of chapters of Wild Swans on her Kindle, while dripping jam on the table, and disappeared to write a page or two on her novel, which she won't show anyone but Helen. (She will return, briefly, to wipe up the jam after being asked twice.) Helen has just finished eighth grade, Anna seventh.
Now in middle school, their days sound a bit like unschooling or child-led education, but it's not. They have long-term assignments, non-negotiable reading lists, independent choice reading, math classes, history and literature discussions, and a lot of writing assignments. With every passing year, they've become more independent in their work -- my description of our school day five years ago would have included my reading aloud to them from a history book, looming over them to make sure they did their math, and checking off a list of daily assignments -- handwriting, typing, science experiments, Spanish exercises, and history summaries.
Their four portfolios of written work a year, lengthy list of books read, and the absence of discovery learning "projects" sound like classical education, but it's not.
This book chronicles my experiments in homeschooling, trying to find a balanced education for my children, demanding yet interesting, academic yet practical. In the end, I found it came down to teaching, whether in the form of hands-on, detailed instruction, or invisibly behind the scenes, writing a good syllabus and handing out deadlines. It came down to figuring out how I had learned, in grade school, at home, and afterwards at Phillips Exeter and Harvard, and breaking down those techniques into teachable skills. It came down to answering the question, why should we learn this? in the clearest possible way, because teaching is only possible when students want to learn.
In our first year traveling with the children, ages 4 and 2, a mother of school-aged children warned, "You are so lucky not to have to deal with school." She, like many parents we have met, was giving up on her dreams because the demands of teaching her children were so great. "We must get them back to school for third grade / for sixth grade / for high school," is a common refrain.
In towns, we meet people who have been utterly failed by the local schools, whose children aren't taught, suffer bullying, or parents who are working crazy hours and never see their children in order to afford private schools. "I'm not as patient as you are," they say. "I could never teach my children. I can't even get them to clean up their rooms."
Or perhaps school seems to be going pretty well, but the parents aren't sure. "I don't really know what's going on. The teachers seem to be good enough." Their child has a bit of trouble with math or writing or reading, but they don't want to interfere. "I'm sure the teachers know what they're doing. I wouldn't know where to begin to help them."
The successful homeschool teachers I've met are not all patient. They shout sometimes. They need vacations. I certainly can't get the children to clean their room. Successful homeschool teachers do share a commitment to education and a dedication to whatever it was that made them choose to homeschool.
There are three general types of homeschoolers -- long-term, short-term, and afterschoolers. Long-term homeschoolers plan to teach through many or all years of the child's education, whereas short-term homeschoolers do it for a year or two to avoid a difficult school situation or to enable the family to travel. Another common type of homeschooling is what I refer to as afterschooling, when the children attend a regular school, but receive extra help or the opportunity to advance after school or on weekends and vacations, or perhaps receive extra instruction in the home language, while attending school in a second language.
My husband Hamish and I run a charter boat, which means we are working for six-month seasons and could fit in, at most, six months of bricks and mortar school a year for the children. My own schooling was a paragon of security: the same rural-becoming-suburban school district from kindergarten to eighth grade, but I had heard enough from my father of what it was like to move in the middle of nearly every school year to know I didn't want it for my children.
Our work has taken us from the US to Greenland, Britain, Argentina, Chile, Antarctica, New Zealand, Japan and Alaska. Over ten years of homeschooling, our daughters Helen and Anna have had school in remote regions where we spent weeks without seeing another person, in urban areas, and small towns where they can roam freely. They've studied in countries with busy, friendly libraries, and in places with no English-language books available at all.
Your children can learn at home, and with work on your part (and theirs), they can learn just as much as they would if you put them into a great school. I hope this book helps you plan your own homeschool, gives you someone to argue with, and helps give your children a better education.
In ten years of homeschooling, I have made my share of mistakes, banged my head against the wall (sometimes literally), but for the most part Helen and Anna are where I had hoped they would be as we near the end of middle school. They are voracious readers, with the stamina to read adult-level novels and histories as well as high-school level science texts. They have prodigious vocabularies, not from workbooks, but from reading. They write serviceably and fluently. They have strong backgrounds in science, and they've recently begun ninth grade math, while still in seventh and eighth grade. I wish we were farther along in studying a second language, but any lack there is my fault entirely. They are interested in their studies, hard working, and self-motivated.
As I look back over what we have done, there are several crucial themes in the design of our homeschool. The most important has been my emphasis on creating assignments that are always difficult, but never impossible. This has helped the children develop an outlook that values challenges over easy successes, and emphasizes that hard work is the key to mastering any subject. In practice, this means that they do no fill-in-the-blank worksheets -- all of their work pushes them, and the reward for doing well is more advanced work.
The second most important element is the development of reading and writing stamina. Stamina is more important than spending time on reading strategies and techniques. The best way to develop reading ability is through hours and hours and hours of reading. Likewise, doing hours and hours of writing (and developing skills like touch typing to make those hours more efficient) is a crucial element of a writing program. The longest chapters in this book are on reading and writing, because they drive the rest of education.
When Helen and Anna were four and three, I started thinking about school. It was obvious I'd have to teach them, but I wasn't having a lot of luck finding good examples of how to do it. A week after my college graduation in 1990, I set sail as the tutor of three children on a sailboat crossing the Pacific, so I had enjoyed a trial run of sorts, but I hadn't been satisfied with their fixed box curriculum, nor my rookie teaching. I began looking through the homeschooling books on the market, and found I could divide most of them into two piles: the conservative classical education families who believed school wasn't strict enough anymore, and the liberal unschooling families who believed children would learn what they needed to know at their own pace, at their own time.
Neither way fit with my understanding of how I'd learned, both in school and at home. The closest I could find was David and Micki Colfax, Homeschooling for Excellence (and one of the boys described in the book had been my classmate at Harvard). But the world of homeschooling had changed dramatically in the quarter century since the Colfaxes wrote their book. Now there were program options -- a bewildering variety of whole curricula, plus individual courses in math, writing, grammar, science, reading, and so on. I had the Internet, replete with forums and reviews, guaranteed successes and solutions. (I count myself lucky that I usually only had about a quarter of the year with regular Internet access at that time, because my mind might have imploded with all the possibilities.)
Around this time, my father sent me an article about the Robinson Curriculum. They offer one of the many curriculum choices out there, and sell a package of materials and a philosophy. A little examination of their website showed that all the materials were off copyright and available for free download, but I loved the image of the Robinson classroom: Mr. Robinson at his big desk, doing his paperwork, while dozens of little Robinsons beavered away teaching themselves at their desks of industry.
I imagined my children would be able to teach themselves in the same way. They weren't. I started thinking back to the fine teachers I had (both in the classroom and out), and how they structured learning and taught me, and also taught me how to teach myself. I stopped reading homeschooling books and started reading teaching books. Over the years, I absorbed the teaching philosophies -- which are generally sharply divided on political lines -- and created my own middle ground, borrowing ideas and techniques from all sides of the arguments.
This book is a summary of the things I wished I'd known when I started homeschooling ten years ago, and a report on some things that went right, and some that went wrong. It's not the definitive answer to all the questions, but rather a starting point to the conversation. Homeschooling has been one long experiment, a pulling together of ideas and research and what actually worked with my children.
I've examined the theory of teaching from specialists and professionals. I'm neither. A homeschool teacher must be a jack of all trades, a good student, and above all, value education. I'm grateful for having had this chance to teach my children, to know them as well as I do, and also grateful for their patience with my "phases" as they call them, and my overly-enthusiastic trials of the next good idea.
A Word of Warning
I find both homeschooling and teaching books overemphasize the positive. Students are eager, happy, and brilliant, and teachers deliver perfectly executed lesson plans, targeted programs, and never waste any time. Let me make it clear right now: it is not always fun, it is not always easy, and it doesn't always work.
Thomas Newkirk, one of the few educational theorists to admit to inattentive students and bad classes, writes:
There is an emotional turbulence and frequency of failure in my own teaching that I do not see reflected in many accounts . . . . In the classes I read about, everything seems to work; student writing is impressive, often deeply moving; the teacher seems to have achieved full participation of all members of the class. And what I find most hard to believe, the teacher never shows signs of despondency, frustration, anger, impatience or disappointment.
If you are signing on for homeschooling, you will have your share of bad days, when you despair of teaching your children anything, and those days are probably going to be worse than if you were teaching in a school, because there's no Staff Room to retreat to, and you have a double role -- that of a teacher unsatisfied with your performance and that of a parent who feels that his or her child is falling short.
Teaching is a job -- a difficult, time-consuming, frustrating, thrilling, overwhelmingly satisfying job. I'd do it again.