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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.

One of my natural writers, Lauren at age 2

A true unschooler would say that you can learn all subjects through any interest. For instance, if you were interested in cars, you could learn the history of cars and tie that into the history of what was going on in the world when cars were invented and even go into the Industrial Revolution and the development of engines and machines. You could learn physics as you learn about how the engine works, and some chemistry as you explore different types of fuel and the other materials that make up the car. Math would come into play when discussing horsepower, torque, price of a car, cost of buying a used car and then fixing it up, how to calculate the payment based on the different interest rates on a car loan, etc. You could get into the economics of how cars are made, and you could even learn about the history of the labor union movement. Geography could come into play as you find out where Ferraris, Mercedes, Astin Martins, Peugeots, Nissans, and Hyundais are all made. You could explore the role of the automobile in commerce. I could go on and on; you get the idea. I love the idea in theory, but with 6 kids 9 and under and more to come (I eventually added 5 more in quick succession), it was too much for me to coordinate such in depth projects with each child having completely different interests. So I shifted. I did, however, keep the unschooling lessons about flexibility and interest-led learning as we changed course.

My next favorite homeschooling style came from the writings of Charlotte Mason and Maria Montessori. Charlotte Mason was a teacher from the turn of the last century who believed in living books instead of dull textbooks combined with short lessons, after which the student narrates back to you what he has learned. She wrote a wonderful series called Home Education, which I have read many times. Her many ideas are timeless, and I have used her standards for choosing books to make the learning of each subject as interesting as possible. When you have the right books, a whole new world can open up to the student. A dull textbook, on the other hand, won't inspire anyone. My favorite way to use her narration method is when we are driving somewhere like swim practice or guitar lessons. I will simply say, "So tell me what you're reading lately...," and off they go. I can tell quite easily whether they are understanding what they are reading. From there, I'll ask questions like, "What do you think about that?" or, "Why do you think that happened?" or whatever takes the discussion deeper. These conversations can be wonderful! On my birthday this year, some of my kids were saying that some of their fondest memories with me were talking about all kinds of things in the car. Tip: don't approach it as an inquisition. Keep it conversational, like you would if a friend were telling you about a book she just read. In addition to her ideas on living books and narration, Charlotte Mason shared her basic programs of study for various grade levels, her ideas on nature study, and a whole lot more in her writings.

Maria Montessori had some great ideas for the little ones in particular. She ran a home for very young underprivileged kids in Italy (also around the turn of the last century), and she developed some wonderful methods of teaching them not just early academics but life skills, too, that would help them climb out of poverty. She liked to teach the children how to do chores with child-size tools, like a small broom and dustpan, washing dishes with a dishpan on a low table instead of a big sink, and so on to help build character, work ethic, and self esteem. She developed her own tactile learning tools like sandpaper letters, a bag full of things that feel different (soft, hard, furry, scratchy, smooth, etc), and she had her students learn to distinguish between fine gradations of weights and colors, play memory games, and she exposed them to beautiful music and works of art. There are Montessori schools all over the country today, but I personally enjoyed going straight to the source and reading from Maria Montessori herself exactly what she learned from working with these children and how she came to develop the methods that worked so well for her.

The classical method of homeschooling is an adaptation of what the ancient Greeks did and is focused on reading the classics and learning according to the maturity level of the student. In a nutshell, the youngest students do a great deal of memorizing, the middle level students start to learn more of the how and why of things, and the highest level is all about logical thinking, argument, and debate. The beginning of the revival of this movement was an essay in 1947 by Dorothy Sayers called, "The Lost Tools of Learning" which is absolutely brilliant, and I highly recommend reading it. Susan Wise Bauer wrote a book called The Well-Trained Mind, which explains the method behind classical education, and there are several other books available on designing your own classical curriculum. Adding another element to the classical style of learning is another favorite book of mine by Oliver de Mille called, A Thomas Jefferson Education, which presents the argument that all children need to be classically trained, just as our Founding Fathers were, to become strong leaders of the future.

Dani reading

My 16 year old, Dani, doing her reading

My own method of homeschooling has evolved into an eclectic mix of all of these. I have developed schedules over the years for each grade with all the books and assignments for the entire year laid out at the beginning of the year. With eleven children, this has been very helpful for me, as I can take the template for one child and tweak it as need be for another child. For instance, while I have many classic books assigned for literature, there are some that I know my girls would prefer and others that I know my boys would prefer. Some are voracious readers while others are not. They could all read the same books, but why not tweak the program according to their interests and abilities? There are plenty of great books out there for everyone!


A page out of Christian's 10th grade schedule

I like to structure our days so that all the bookish stuff happens in the mornings, and the afternoons are available for other interests, like music, art, or whatever (my 15 year old, for instance, is learning computer programming languages right now, and my 16 year old is designing and sewing her own clothing). The late afternoon is usually taken up with sports practice (year round swim team, flag football, or basketball). Dinner is together as a family most nights, and I don't assign homework outside of what is done in the morning, so the evenings are relaxing.

Christian coding

My 15 y/o son, Christian, learning programming

Joey swimming

My youngest, Joey (12), at a swim meet

My six daughters were able to leverage their free time and develop themselves into an internationally acclaimed singing group on YouTube with over 1 billion views between their two channels (Cimorelli and CimorelliVEVO). They were signed with Island Records UK (the iconic label of U2, Amy Winehouse, and Bob Marley, among others, and a division of Universal Music) for five years, and now as independent artists, they have parlayed their musical success into touring around the world, performing in South America, China, the Philippines, most of the countries of Europe, and all across the US. Touring has become its own kind of education, teaching them about geography, different cultures and currencies, different political systems, history (castles and cathedrals much older than anything in the US), and of course, all the wonderful different kinds of food! They have seen abject poverty and some of the playgrounds of the wealthy. Best of all, they've gotten to meet their fans all over the world and see that people are people no matter where you are. Their accents may be different, and their skin tones and hair colors may change, but they have the same human experience and hopes and dreams of teenagers and young adults anywhere.

Cimorelli concert

My daughters performing in Buenos Aires, Argentina

For me, the bottom line is to be able to help my children become independent, educated, productive citizens of good character, and just plain kind and interesting people. Homeschooling has been the best vehicle for us to do just that. Take a deep dive into some of the recommended books by clicking on the links, and discover your own homeschooling style! Read more in 8 Reasons to Homeschool.

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