All in All: Homeschool Pros and Cons, Part II

Potomac School, 1910

Every so often we get phone calls from someone who is interested in homeschooling. (We're kind of inadvertently on a community homeschool resource list.) Some folks are new to the area or seriously contemplating homeschooling. Occasionally though, the caller, in a pique, has spontaneously decided to pull her child out of school because the teacher is not being nice to Junior. While we're trying to dissuade such a caller from teaching her child at home, she typically interrupts to say, “So where do I go to pick up my books?” Sorry, it's not that simple, dear.

The freedom homeschoolers have in choosing materials for their children, setting the path for their family and for each individual child, is one of the wonderful benefits of teaching children at home, but, as do many other perks, it comes at a price.

Let's start with the drawbacks. First, the number of options for homeschool materials is overwhelming and growing every year. Back when we started homeschooling in the 1980s, it was easy to decide which direction to go because there were few choices. We didn't want to replicate school at home, so I steered away from the workbook/textbook materials. After surveying the few methods out there, we decided that the unit study approach sounded good, and we went with KONOS as our primary curriculum, adding in math and reading materials. So simple!

Now, there are umpteen different philosophies – unit study, Charlotte Mason, classical, neo-classical (or is that just an art movement?), Latin-centered (not to be confused with the two just mentioned!), traditional, unschooling, Principal Approach, literature-based, eclectic, Waldorf, Montessori, Thomas Jefferson education, and on and on and on.
All these choices can make a parent's head swim and create feelings of incompetency. After some research, often the best thing to do is to just jump in and try something. It's not the end of the world if you need to make a few directional changes along the way. As you begin teaching, you'll discover your teaching style and what methods work best with your individual children. Also – beware of the quest for the best. With so many new products continually coming out, we can sometimes feel that we need to jump ship try out that new program. If it is working – be satisfied.

Other problems associated with mapping out a plan for your children are that it can be hard to know where to start as well as difficult to determine if you are hitting appropriate targets. The answer here lies in both some self-education and experience. I used to fret mightily about whether or not my older children were getting an adequate education. I went to the school system and obtained copies of what they expect in each grade. What a waste of time! Undoubtedly you will leave gaps in your children's education. But if you teach them how to learn, help them grow in curiosity and skills, they will thrive in all kinds of situations.

OK, if the sheer volume of philosophies with their accompanying materials is the biggest drawback to parental choice, being able to tailor the education to the bent of each child is the biggest plus. It is the rare child who neatly fits the mold of “average” student, but in a classroom of any size, the teacher needs to pick a mark and aim for that center. Good teachers can work with children of varying abilities, but still the overall flow has to be tempered by the fact that he or she is teaching 25 (or 10 or whatever) children at once. At home this isn't necessary. So, if your child excels at math but stinks at spelling, an all too familiar scenario in my house, he can work a grade or two ahead in math, but behind in spelling. If a child is struggling with reading, you have the ability to find a program that would address his issues and work intensively in teaching him to read. Theoretically this happens in public schools, but for a child who has mild learning issues, all too often they fall through the cracks.

But the most important time for a tailored education comes in the junior and senior high years. Here you can allow your children to begin to explore areas of particular interest. Our son Jonathan began taking computer programming classes in junior high and discovered he has both an interest and aptitude for writing code. Peter tried out accounting at a community college and decided that would make a good college major. In our family we have both core requirements and areas of flexibility. So for science in high school everyone must take biology and chemistry. But other science courses can be selected by interest. Andrew took Advanced Chem and Physics while Kara became a Master Naturalist (similar to the Master Gardener program) and studied a bit of Vet Science. Kristen took Anatomy and Physiology as well as Nutritional Science. Each of these courses prepared those teens for future ventures - Andrew in engineering, Kara as a wife of an ecologist, and Kristen as a nurse. 

Side note: I've been reading a fair bit about Finnish education in preparation for an article I just wrote for Practical Homeschooling magazine. The Finns, who have had remarkable academic success with a system that is antithetical to that followed in most U.S. schools, but not all that dissimilar to many homeschools, also believe in highly individualized education in the high school years.

Here are a couple of things I don't mean when I talk about individualizing education. For starters, it doesn't mean cosseting your child. At least by junior high, you need to be giving firm deadlines on assignments. None of this, “Oh, I know you've been busy, Johnny. Take an extra week,” baloney! Second, it doesn't mean you focus exclusively on strengths. No, you should also have a strong push on the weak areas. We knew early on that Andrew would be studying engineering in college, and that he would not have much room for electives. So in high school we made sure that he had plenty of good literature and history studies. Turns out he liked history enough to take a fair amount in his undergrad years anyway, but somehow a whole lot of his history courses started out with “History of Technology ...” as he covered the span of history from ancient times to the present. 

Next up in this series: Fun and Fears


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