Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Letter To a Friend

A friend recently asked me for some information, suggestions, and links on homeschooling. Sort of like asking for a little information on the topic of the Middle East; where do you start?

Dear G.,

Joy of Advent to you also, and I'm glad to hear you're looking into homeschooling! It's hard to say what homeschooling entails, especially in a place like Texas where the lack of regulation means that "homeschooling" has developed organically to encompass a dizzying array of different kinds of family-led education. Let me try to give some kind of overview of your choices.


There's "school-in-a-box" (or "canned curriculum"), such as Calvert, Seton, Kolbe, and Sonlight, with options for the homeschooling mom (or Mr. Mom; how's that, George?) ranging from distance enrollment in accredited school programs; grading, testing, and counseling by telephone; or Just Send Me the Box and Leave Me Alone independence.

There are homeschool co-ops, themselves ranging from once-a-week workshops taught solely by parents of the children involved, and focusing on elective-style subjects, to what are essentially three-day-a-week private schools with standard core curriculum classes taught by paid teachers as well as qualified parents, with other subjects taught at home. (Here are some local ones--scroll down to "co-ops" in the last link.)

There's cyber-schooling, actually (legally) public schooling but done at home, such as Bill Bennett's K12 program. Despite predictions a few years ago that this would be the wave of the future, it seems not to be a popular choice.

There are unschoolers, whose philosophy I won't attempt to describe since it seems to mean something different to every unschooler, but which in practice seems to run the gamut from a serious attention to the child's own interests in choosing subject matter and learning practice, to something scarily resembling educational neglect. I'm a bad person to ask about unschooling as it is very different from my own educational philosophy; but if it interests you, I can put you in touch with some very helpful people whose success with unschooling is unquestionable.

There is "classical education," formerly the province of the Reformed Protestant strain of Christian homeschooler and a scattering of Catholics, but recently popularized by The Well-Trained Mind and now common among secular as well as religious homeschoolers, particularly among those whose unhappiness with the public schools stems in great part from a perceived dumbing-down of academic standards and neglect of traditional liberal arts subjects, such as Latin and classical history.

Most homeschoolers will describe themselves as eclectic, which in my experience means that they are in fact categorizable within one of the above styles, but flexible enough to borrow ideas from other styles. This is the default state. For example, there is nobody in the country actually following the insanely rigorous course of study laid out in detail by The Well-Trained Mind; there are no unschoolers who shrug their shoulders happily when little Cuthbert decides math or reading is simply not something he chooses to do.


From a legal point of view, there's nothing to worry about. Throughout the country, with the exceptions of Pennsylvania, New York and certain fascistic school districts in California such as Berkeley, the requirements are simple, non-intrusive, and easily met, with no real harassment from the state or schools. (I gather from the homeschooling boards and blogs that if you live in New York, you just lie on the paperwork; and if you live in Pennsylvania or Berkeley, you move somewhere else.)

Here in Texas, as in a few other states, homeschooling is basically restriction-free. A 1994 court ruling clarified that homeschools are private schools, which will be utterly unregulated so long as the Southern Baptist Conference exists. There are certain "required" subjects, but there seems to be no legal mechanism for determining if you're actually teaching them. No state or local official will ever be permitted to examine your curriculum or lack thereof or require any proof of anything, any more than they could require such things of other private schools, unless you are so unfortunate to end up in front of a family law judge in a messy divorce, in which case all bets are off. If you're withdrawing a child from public school, you must inform the school that you're doing so, but don't have to show the school officials your curriculum, tell them your plans, or answer any of their questions; you don't even have to tell them that you're planning to homeschool.

Unsolicited Advice, for Free

1. Don't spend a penny. Don't rush out and buy curricula, or books on homeschooling, or anything else until you are really, really clear on exactly what you want. I remember a new homeschooler coming to a meeting I was hosting (on the topic of organization) with a $60 piece of software she had just bought that promised to pull all academic subjects together in a convenient, super-organized way. It was almost identical to a simple binder system I use and whipped up for free with Microsoft Word. Kind of depressing.

Check out books on homeschooling from the library, read things for free on the internet, ask homeschooling parents if you can look over their materials (I host an annual Curriculum Show & Tell for this purpose), and hold on to your checkbook. We've become a niche market now, and there is no end to the overpriced got-to-have-it homeschooling stuff companies will be happy to sell you.

2. Talk to homeschoolers. We love questions, and we can't shut up about the subject--some people even have entire blogs about homeschooling--so you can get all your questions answered easily at a homeschool Park Day or two. Though you'll get a dozen different, and often conflicting, answers to any one question.

3. Don't get overwhelmed. Related to Advice Items #1 and 2, there is an avalanche of information out there about curriculum, educational philosophies, support groups, and pedagogies. There are endless resources; off the top of my head I can think of half a dozen major math curricula available, and the venerable Rainbow Resource Catalog is now the size of the Houston yellow pages.

Think about why you might want to homeschool; what you like and don't like about schools and approaches to education; in general, what kind of an education you want for your child. As he gets older, you'll be able to think more about how he seems to learn best, how you interact as a family, and what his strengths and weaknesses are, and all of these will also factor into your decision-making. As you and your husband work out your ideas, hopes, and concerns, you'll find yourself settling naturally on the right style and curriculum.

Don't get overwhelmed by thoughts of the future, either. It's always amusing to see parents of toddlers agonizing about how they'll prepare a high school transcript should they decide to homeschool! Don't think too much (at this point) about whether you can teach him all he needs to know; you certainly know enough to handle Kindergarten. Take homeschooling, if you decide to give it a try, as a one-year-at-a-time commitment, knowing you can always enroll him in a public or private school if you decide that that would work best after all. Many people just homeschool for a while. And things will change: just in the five years we've been homeschooling, there have been seismic changes in homeschooling demographics, cultural acceptance, standard college admissions policies, and availability of resources.

More links

Of course there is this wonderful and informative blog itself, and a quick trip through the archives will find musings on socialization, pseudo-homeschoolers, and other interesting subjects. Other sites of interest are:

-- Homeschooling in Austin, with helpful stuff, whether you want to affiliate with AAH or not (be sure to check out the Newcomer Information Packet).

-- Catholic homeschooling resources (including a few reviews by Yours Truly).

--Family Matters by David Guterson. I don't generally agree with most of what I read in books on homeschooling, but this book, I liked.

And this is where I ask blog-readers to chime in with more links, comments, and suggestions. Thoughts from those homeschoolers in more rural environments are especially desirable. Non-homeschoolers like Yahmdallah are welcome to chime in; I like prospective homeschoolers to hear the input of good parents with kids who are happy in public or private schools, and may have their own doubts about or criticisms of homeschooling "from the outside." Discussion of homeschooling is often defensively one-sided, and shouldn't be; I predict that within the next few years, now that homeschooling is in no danger of being made illegal, we will see a lot more critiquing from within the ranks.


Blogger Suzi said...

This is a blog entry I wrote on the topic. Very different from yours, so I thought I would throw it up here.

11:57 AM  
Blogger MrsDarwin said...

Boy, when's your curriculum show and tell? I'd be interested.

6:23 AM  
Blogger The Opinionated Homeschooler said...


Thanks for that addition. Prospective homeschoolers should get all the info and viewpoints they can, so I appreciate your link.

I gather from your mention of the group you weren't allowed to join that you're referring to CHEACT? It does floor me that they require a statement of faith that's tailored so as to exclude Catholics. It seems like while the rest of the conservative Evangelical world is beginning to see Catholics as not just fellow Christians but cultural allies, the evangelical homeschooling movement becomes more eager to distance themselves from Catholics.

6:25 AM  
Blogger The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

Mrs. Darwin,

I like to have it towards the beginning of summer, when most hs'ers are starting to think about ordering curriculum, and the Rainbow Resource Catalog has just (or is just about to) come out. I'd be happy to copy you on the e-mail announcement.

9:53 AM  
Blogger sixandthecity said...

I love your advice and your summary of the homeschooling philosophies out there. I would add one more, though, especially for those with children under 6, but for older kids, too, there are lots of families using a Montessori style homeschool environment. The pros are that the traditional Montessori classroom and materials are multi-age, so they are well suited to a home environment, the philosophy is to "follow the child" so this can also work well for many "unschool" families. Many Catholic families combine secular montessori work with either the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd or Natural Structure, which uses Montessori methods to prepare for a Classical education.

2:13 PM  
Blogger The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

How could I have forgotten Montessori? Thanks for that.

4:51 AM  

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