homeschooling 101

Secular Homeschooling 101 with Kate Laird

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So, you’re considering homeschooling? Most of us felt nervous (panicked?) as we made the decision. Can I do this? Do I have enough education? Will I be able to work with my child? Can I balance work / family demands with homeschooling?

Some reasons for secular homeschooling:

  • You’ve always known it’s what you wanted
  • You live in a geographically remote region
  • Work or travel demands make it difficult to match a 9-month school schedule
  • You move frequently
  • You live in a district with failing or dangerous schools
  • You live in an area where teachers are allowed and sometimes even encouraged to teach materials that are not secular.
  • Your children aren’t thriving in school
  • Your child is gifted and/or learning disabled
  • Your child is bullied at school
  • Your child has an illness or disability that makes school hard or impossible

If you’re in the first four categories, you’ve probably have a bit of time to plan, but if you’re in the latter categories, you may have made the decision yesterday, and are faced with the child at home today, without much time to think about it. Either way works – don’t worry.

The other thing to remember is that homeschooling isn’t an all or nothing decision. Some families have kids in school and some at home; others have children do a year or two at home, then back to public school, and back home again. You usually aren’t required to finish out the year before making the transitions.

Stage 1: Deschooling

If your children have gone to bricks and mortar school for a few years, deschooling is important. Forget about assignments and worksheets and take the time to re-discover the joy of learning. Do things that your child hasn’t been able to do while in school. Take the time to meet each other.  Encourage free-reading – visit a library if you can. Sometimes libraries have free passes to local museums and other events. As a rule of thumb, many people recommend a month of deschooling for every year a child has been in school. To be honest, I don’t think I could take off 8 months with an 8th grader without freaking out about it, but the ultimate message is – don’t rush into school. Your child can take an extra year if need be; it won’t do any lasting harm.

Deschooling is part of homeschool so you can tell inquiring family members that you have, in fact, started school. If you’re starting with a preschooler or a kindergartener, you don’t have to worry about deschooling, but consider the philosophy – don’t start “school” too early. Kids need time to be kids. The number one thing you can do to improve preschoolers’ future academic ability is to talk to them, read to them, and let them play.

Stage 2: Planning

If your child is elementary-aged, you may do most of the planning, but if your child is in middle school or older, you may wish to involve them more in the planning stages.

Homeschooling styles are on a continuum from radical unschooling (let the kids do what they want and continue the deschooling style through the school year) to a structured, rigorous, “school at home” education. There is no wrong way to homeschool. The style used can vary by child or subject. What matters is how well the method used work for your child.

Personally, I’m somewhere in the middle – I think of it as “unschool when I can; teach when I must.” I always taught from a math curriculum, developed a structure for history, and let the kids unschool in reading and science in elementary school, and about 50% of middle school and 25% of high school.

Where do you see yourself on that continuum? Where do you think your child would fit best? (This can change over the years – it’s not a binding commitment.)

First Questions

  1. What are your local laws? What, if any, reporting/testing requirements do you have?

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  1. If there are no testing requirements, will you have your child take tests?
  2. Is there money available to help you through state public school homeschooling charters and/or funding for children with disabilities? Are there tax credits available for homeschool purchases (never on US federal taxes, but sometimes at the state level)?
  3. Do you have family support?
  4. Are you confident in your mastery of the subjects you plan to teach?
  5. If you are a working single-parent, do you have a place for your child to be while you work? Do you expect caregivers to supervise school or not?
  6. Do you suspect your child is gifted and/or learning disabled (LD and gifted children are sometimes called “Twice Exceptional” or “2e”)?

Shopping for curricula

While you’re deschooling or waiting out summer vacation, explore the different options. Good curricula offer samples online, so you can look at the style of the program before you buy. Think about yourself and what you want school to look like. Consider how you can teach to strengths (“my child likes hands-on work”) as well as shore up weaknesses (“my child hates reading.”)

Make sure you vet the materials to make sure they are academically secular. That is that they present facts, theories, models, and principles as would be recommended by a majority of participating experts in the field being studied. The best and easiest  way to ensure materials meet this criteria is to ask in a trusted secular academic Facebook group like Secular Eclectic Acacdemic Homeschoolers.

Should you buy a full boxed curriculum?

Oak Meadow and Calvert are two secular full curricula. You order a box and that’s everything for the year, including schedules and the optional add-on of teacher supervision and an accredited transcript.

This can be a great option if

  • You dislike planning
  • You don’t have much support (or you need to prove to a custody judge that you’re meeting agreements)
  • Your children are relatively on the same ‘grade level’ in each subject
  • Your children are in high school and may go in and out of public school (in this case, you may need to pay extra for teacher support to receive an “accredited transcript” – be sure to talk to your school district before buying curriculum)

Should you mix and match different programs?

Every year there are more secular homeschooling programs available in individual subjects or groups of subjects. You can buy pre-made programs in every subject – or buy some and make up your own curricula for other topics. This route offers the most flexibility.

This can be a great option if

  • You like planning
  • Your children are asynchronous (in different grade levels in different subjects)
  • You’re on a tight budget
  • You’re planning on unschooling but want to teach a few subjects

Planning the year’s curriculum

I love planning: it’s the moment when everything is going to be perfect, and no one is going to whine about finishing writing a paper. When I look through curricula online, everything looks fantastic, and I want it all.

Don’t buy too much too soon. If you’re piecing together your school from a la carte options, don’t buy all at once. Concentrate on core classes, and then if you find you have time for more, add on later in the year. I usually budget 10% wastage – great programs that I buy and never use.

Stage 3: The first weeks of homeschooling

Start slowly

There’s no reason to go from summer vacation or deschooling straight into seven subjects. Schools do that, but we always preferred a soft start. In my family, I’d announce the start date with a couple of weeks’ notice and for the first few days, the kids would do math, and then disappear off outside for the rest of the day. (In Kindergarten, we started with reading first.) Once we were into a rhythm of math, I’d add in history.  A couple weeks later, we’d start writing, then science, and second language. In our family, I didn’t assign literature until late middle school. I offer this schedule as a sample, not as a directive. Your family is different – your children may need more encouragement to read and less to do math.

In our family, I took this “slow start” approach and spread it out over years in early elementary school. In the “Kindergarten” year (which was age 5 for one, age 6 for the other), they studied reading, a bit of handwriting, and a bit of math. By fifth grade, they were formally studying math, history, and Spanish; they did occasional writing assignments and science labs, and by eighth grade their program looked very like most typical US middle school programs, although I still assigned very little literature.  In high school, their work became more in line with conventional requirements, although I have tried to keep as much flexibility as possible, while still covering the material and exams expected by selective colleges.

It won’t be easy

Most people find the first year or two of homeschooling to be a challenge. It seems to be true whether your children are 5 or 15, whether they were begging you to homeschool, and whether they were considered great students or disruptive troublemakers at school.

I found it very helpful to decide beforehand what would be negotiable, and what would not.  In the early years, I didn’t have much of an online or real-life support network, so it has been wonderful to find so many like minded homeschool teachers in the SEA Facebook group.

Rabbit holes

You’ll often hear homeschoolers talk about “falling down rabbit holes” – meaning they come to an interesting question or subject in their studies and plunge into it like Alice in Wonderland. This is one of the enormous benefits of homeschooling – don’t fight it, even if your full curriculum is saying, “on Day 87, you must …”  Homeschooled kids are often excellent independent researchers and love learning for the sake of learning, not just doing well on the test. Sharp time transitions from one subject to another teach students that their interests and projects aren’t important, and that mastery isn’t as important as checking off boxes.

To help this authentic learning happen, I have a rough idea of what we’ll accomplish over the school year, but I scheduled individual assignments on a day by day basis in elementary and early middle school, and in weekly chunks in high school. Even in “fixed courses” – such as trying to fit in everything for AP Biology – I schedule it out roughly, but keep a month’s padding before the exam, and then if something amusing comes up, we aren’t constrained by too tight a schedule.

Imagination time

One of the reasons I’m homeschooling is to let my kids have time to be children. US schools have pushed their “grade expectations” back a year since I was a child – kindergarteners are expected to be well on the way to reading, and many do hours a day of seatwork.  I want my children to have the joys of exploration and playing that I did – and I think that play is actually a key component of learning to be a good writer and reader: if you don’t know how to do imaginative play, pretending to be someone else, it’s going to be a lot harder to fall into the world of a novel and really appreciate literature.

The two most important parts of my “educational program” were allowing plenty of time for the kids to play outdoors with as little adult supervision as safely possible and allowing plenty of time for free reading with no attached school work.

Stage 4: Mid-year slump

Everyone needs vacations and breaks.  There are certain times of year when almost everyone in the SEA Homeschoolers Facebook group posts something like “I’m a complete failure at homeschooling.” When this happens with my kids, I often use this time to start researching next year or take time off – sometimes a vacation is needed, sometimes dropping a few subjects and focusing on a single large project can renew everyone’s enthusiasm.

Finishing the math book

One of the virtues of homeschooling is that even when you’re following a premade curriculum, you can adjust the schedule to your child. There is no timeline for learning. Each individual learns at his or her own pace. We never once finished a math book “at the end of the school year.” Some years, my children did half a year’s worth of math. One year, they did almost two years’ worth. Often students and teachers rush at the end of the year, and the students may not fully understand that material, leading to problems later. With homeschooling, you can continue through the summer – or not. You can continue one subject and drop others. You can save up history lessons for nice days in the summer when you visit local sites. Even states with heavy restrictions on homeschoolers generally allow for flexibility in how you schedule your days.

Stage 5: End of year evaluations

In some states or countries, you’ll be required to do some sort of year end evaluation. This may be standardized testing, it may be a portfolio evaluation, or you may have a choice. In other places, you may have no requirements at all, but wish to draw a line between each school year or evaluate your children to see where they are in comparison to their peers. Unless your state/country requires it, there is no need for an evaluative process. It is up to you and your children decide.

In the early years, I never did any math testing during the school year, so I’d administer an old New York Regents exam for their grade level at the end of the year. In high school, I began seeking out final exams or used practice SAT subject tests as a final exam.

In many years, I asked my children to pull together a portfolio of their best work from the year. In middle school and high school, they did this formally for our umbrella school; they’d collect work samples from each subject and submit them as a pdf. In early middle school it took them a week to prepare the document. By high school it was the work of a couple of hours.

Stage 6: Congratulations! You’re an experienced homeschooler

Of course, the next child will be completely different….

Kate Laird has been homeschooling for the last thirteen years, and she’s the author of Homeschool Teacher: A Practical Guide to Inspiring Academic Excellence for grades K-8; ages 4-14.