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Getting Started with Homeschooling

Curious about homeschooling? How to get started? What's it like? Does it work? Will I ruin my kids? Can I handle it? So many questions, so let's get to it! I've been homeschooling for 22 years officially, 28 years unofficially. My oldest is 28; in California, you don't have to legally start until the child is 6 years old. However, like a lot of homeschoolers, I see homeschooling as an extension of what I was already doing as soon as each child was born.

One of my jobs as a mom is to teach my children all kinds of things. Or maybe a better way to look at that I introduce them to a lot of things and then facilitate their learning. I showed them how to eat, walk, talk, get dressed, clean up after themselves, along with a million other things; homeschooling is just continuing on that path. I taught them the names of things, shapes, colors, letters, numbers, how to count, how to add and subtract, how to sound out words, we read lots of great books together, and just generally learned how the world works. We went on nature walks and visited the zoo while learning about plants and animals. We went on trips and learned about reading maps and how people live and what it looks like in different parts of the country (and eventually the whole world!) with oceans and mountains and deserts and prairies and cornfields. We planted gardens together and learned that food grows from the ground; it doesn't just magically appear in the store. I taught them how to cook from scratch and how to shop wisely. We figured out ways that they could earn money (by paying them for jobs around the house) and then taught them about saving and eventually about investing their hard-earned cash.

None of this stuff is difficult to teach, and it's really fun to see it through a child's eyes for the first time. This is the essence of homeschooling - teaching your child all about this wonderful world we live in and how things work. What if you don't know everything? Well, nobody knows everything, so you're in good company. That doesn't matter. The most important thing I learned in graduate school is this; you don't know everything, you can't possibly know everything, it's ok to not know everything, and the only thing that really matters is that you can figure out how to find out what you don't know. Most of graduate school was spent on researching things I knew nothing about, and the more I learned, the more I realized just how little I really knew. Once I recognized this, I was able to relax a little and focus on working together to find answers.

If you love your child, then you're going to do your best with him, so you're not going to screw up. Part of homeschooling is assessing your child's progress as you go and then redirecting as necessary (also known as teaching to the child). One of the beautiful things about homeschooling is that you can go as fast or slow as your child needs without worrying about the pacing of a classroom full of kids. With homeschooling, your child won't fall through the cracks because you won't let him. You will know whether or not he can actually read. You will see if he is stumbling over his multiplication tables or is unable to spell, and you will adjust what you are doing accordingly until he is able to understand and learn the concepts. You won't have to worry about him staring out the window, bored to death, waiting for the rest of the class to finish. Nor will you have the pain of watching him fall farther and farther behind the rest of his class because he can't keep up. Every child is different, they all have different strengths and weaknesses, and they all have different styles and speeds of learning. With homeschooling, you can adjust as you go so the pace is the right one for you and your child.

Nick, Joey, and I doing some read aloud time together

Next, let's talk about legality for a minute. Homeschooling is legal in all 50 states in the US, but each state has different rules regarding homeschooling, so you will want to get familiar with how it works in your state so that you are within the law. There is a wonderful organization called HSLDA (Home School Legal Defense Association) that can answer all your questions about how to homeschool in your state. Some states require testing, some don't. Some require being enrolled in an umbrella school, while others let you register your homeschool as a private school. Some states send someone out to check on your work on a regular basis, others never check a thing. Some require a portfolio at the end of the year, others require nothing. So before you dive in, be sure to check out first and get the lowdown on your state.

As far as methods of homeschooling, there are almost as many methods as there are homeschoolers! There are school-in-a-box companies that will send you everything you need for each grade, and there are people like me who prefer to choose our own books and personalize our programs to our families' needs. There are programs with a classical bent, based on the ancient trivium and quadrivium, and there are the free-wheeling interest-led unschoolers. And then there is everything in between. Rather than get into all of them (there are already numerous articles on the web about different styles of homeschooling), I want to introduce you to the ones that have influenced me the most, with a few notes on how those have worked out in practice.

Homeschooling books

Some of my favorite books on homeschooling

Unschooling was my first love in homeschooling. I loved the idea of the complete freedom of totally interest-led learning, so we started our homeschooling adventure as pure unschoolers. I seeded the atmosphere with books on my coffee table that had beautiful pictures and told great stories, and I would read aloud to my young children for about two hours every day. They loved this time together, and they would climb up on my lap and eagerly bring me one book after the next saying, "Read this one, Mommy! Read this one next!" They learned colors and shapes with blocks and Legos, and they loved sorting them into piles by color and shape.

Alex at age 4 with his train tracks

They learned to count and practiced on everything from toys to grapes to chicken nuggets in a Happy Meal. We went on walks around our neighborhood and picked up rocks and leaves and pine cones. We raised kittens and puppies, and observed the deer, coyotes, raccoons, rattlesnakes (!), scorpions (!), and tarantulas (!) that lived around us. When we played on the swingset, I taught them some French. I learned how to make the most wonderful homemade play dough, and they feasted on fresh raspberry muffins made from scratch. We also had loads of free time to pursue outside activities like gymnastics, dance and karate. It was pretty idyllic.

My unschooling influences were books by John Taylor Gatto, John Holt, Howard Gardner, Thomas Armstrong, and David Colfax. These books point out the shortfalls of the institutional learning found in traditional schools and were very reflective of my own experiences in both public and private schools. I would highly recommend reading any of the books by these authors.

Where unschooling started to fall down for me was when my oldest hit about 9 years old (when he was nine, he was the oldest of six children). He was definitely great at pursuing his own interests, but he didn't have a natural interest in taking math any farther than basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. He also had zero interest in learning anything about the English language, including how to write. Some of his younger sisters, on the other hand, loved to write, and would write stories and poems all day long, but they had no interest in going any further with math either. At this point, I could see that we were going to have to modify things.