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October 17, 2016

Sophie Miller

Homeschoolers in the Spotlight: Part 1

Topics: Learning at Home, Learning Through Play

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Raeca, now 6, was in Kindergarten last year when her mother Chantel started wondering whether she might benefit from a different learning environment. Chantel, who received her Bachelor’s degree in education, visited Raeca’s classroom as a substitute teacher and saw firsthand that an institutional environment didn’t seem to be the best place for Raeca’s learning style. “While she enjoyed going to school and loved being around her friends she was also obviously a little bored,” Chantel frankly states. “Teachers need to teach to the middle-to-lower end of the class” in order to make sure that even the slowest of learners don’t fall behind the rest of their schoolmates. In this environment, brighter kids like Raeca won’t be “challenged or pushed to grow,” resulting in a feeling of drudgery and an increasing resistance to go to school each day. With her background in teaching, Chantel decided to try homeschooling Raeca and her three-year-old son Ephraim.

Currently, the National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI) estimates that around 2.3 million children are homeschooled in the United States. Homeschooled children have been found to score just as well, if not better, than public-schooled children on a variety of standardized tests (Brian Ray, “Progress Report 2009: Homeschool Academic Achievement and Demographics”). In her book A Sense of Self: Listening to Homeschooled Adolescent Girls, Susannah Sheffer finds that homeschooled children, and particularly girls, develop a stronger sense of self and individuality than those educated in a traditional setting. But what does the growing phenomenon of homeschooling actually look like? What does it mean to have sole responsibility for your child’s education? And what struggles do homeschooling parents - and children - face?

Why Homeschool?

When asked about the driving reasons behind the decision to homeschool Raeca and Ephraim, Chantel cited her desire to provide the best learning experience possible for her children as individuals. “We wanted to give our children the biggest educational advantage we could,” Chantel says, and she felt that by designing a curriculum to cater to her son and daughter’s exact needs, she could provide them with the best education possible. While many American parents choose to homeschool for this same reason, NHERI cites several other common motivating factors in homeschooling one’s children, including:

  • The freedom to use unconventional teaching methods that are not utilized in an institutional educational environment
  • The freedom to spend more time with one’s children and allow siblings to form better relationships
  • The ability to protect children from any unpleasant or unsafe situations that might arise in an institutional school environment

Many American parents also choose to homeschool their children because they wish to impart a specific set of beliefs or morals on their children, and they believe that these values will not be emphasized sufficiently in a school setting. This was one of the driving causes behind Chantel’s decision to homeschool her children. “We want to teach them good character and morals,” Chantel confides. By spending time with them every day and deciding how to teach them different skills and lessons, Chantel gets “more opportunities to develop this character.”

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A Day in the Life

Chantel feels that being able to organize her childrens' days in a way that suits their learning styles positively impacts how much they can learn and the way they learn it. In the morning Chantel, Raeca, and Ephraim can “head straight into math to get that done while our minds are still fresh.” Another benefit of this flexible schedule is that it allows days off during the week to pursue physical activities like swimming, and the chance to take part in local organized activities with other homeschooled kids. Chantel's freedom in deciding on curriculum has led to “a heavy literature based program so when we want to learn about something we request a stack of books on that topic from the library.” This means Raeca and Ephraim are boosting their reading skills no matter what they’re learning about. Part of Chantel's approach is focused around “learning by doing", which lets her incorporate everyday activities into education in a productive way, for example, "teaching the kids fractions as we measure in baking.” Board and card games also help with teaching some trickier skills like counting and math, and “often the kids have no idea that they are even learning while they play.”

Pros and Cons

One thing that appealed to Chantel about homeschooling was the chance to spend more time with her children, but importantly it also gave Raeca and Ephraim the chance to spend more time with each other. Chantel reports that she could never have predicted the strength of the friendship that has sprung up between her two children. “Ephraim will ask Raeca to teach him something or she will start reading him a book or teaching him something she has been learning.” In this way, while Ephraim learns about new material, some of which he wouldn’t have learned for several years in school, Raeca is learning through teaching, an educational tool encouraged by this Time Magazine article. While the pressure of spending every day together “can be a struggle at times,” Chantel considers it a welcome cost for the new depths that Raeca and Ephraim’s relationship has reached. “The friendship my children have formed since we started homeschooling has been by far the biggest benefit and something I am the most proud of.”

One of the largest concerns that prospective homeschoolers report is that their children won't experience enough social interaction. Chantel has managed to avoid this problem with Raeca and Ephraim, however. Both are involved in church groups and activities like gymnastics. Chantel also makes sure to set aside plenty of time for the children to play with other kids their age in the neighborhood. And even something as simple as playing board or card games can reinforce the social skills that Chantel wants to ensure Raeca and Ephraim learn and maintain. While a board game can serve as an educational tool, it also teaches “taking turns…how to be a good sport and [it] encourages cooperation.”

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Am I Qualified to Educate My Child?

While Chantel received her Bachelor’s degree in education, she doesn’t feel that this is necessarily what makes her a good homeschooler. “My university education only prepared me for crowd control in the classroom,” Chantel explains. The skill she felt was most needed to educate her children was knowledge on “how to teach children to love to learn.” To gain these skills, she turned to local and online homeschooling resources. Books and online research provided a lot of tips, but the most important lessons came from “other homeschooling mothers I admire and have observed online and in our local community.”

Many parents who choose to homeschool their children have no formal education or background in teaching. Interestingly, NHERI found that the academic achievements of homeschooled children do not hinge on their parents’ educational backgrounds or even levels of education. In fact, in his study “Homeschool Progress Report 2009: Academic Achievement and Demographics”, Dr. Brian D. Ray found that while “critics of homeschooling have long insisted that parents who want to teach their own children should become certified teachers first,” the homeschooled students in this study “received slightly higher scores if neither parent had ever held a state-issued teaching certificate than if one or both parents had.” 

Chantel advises that aspiring homeschoolers learn as much as possible about homeschooling and teaching their children before they dive into the experience of homeschooling them. Above all, she cautions, don’t treat it as a necessarily lifelong decision. “Just because you choose to homeschool doesn’t mean you have to do it forever,” she advises. If homeschooling doesn’t work for either you or your children, you can always put them back in school the following year.

The Perfect Style

Chantel reports that since beginning homeschooling, “Raeca has really developed a love for learning.” To be in the classroom constantly held back from her potential by the limits of a standardized curriculum drained her enthusiasm for school. Homeschooling has refueled Raeca’s passion for learning and particularly, because of Chantel’s heavy focus on literary education, for reading. “While her former classmates are sitting in their desks learning letter sounds Raeca recently discovered a love for reading chapter books to herself and after we are officially done school for the day she can often be found throughout the house reading more chapters of her current book.” Chantel has also observed an enthusiasm for learning in Ephraim that she hopes will grow as it has in Raeca. Homeschooling isn’t the right choice for every student but Chantel feels confident that, for her family, it's perfect.

This post is the first installment in a series on homeschooling families.  Over the coming weeks we will be writing several more stories on other homeschoolers and how they educate their children.  To read more of Homeschoolers in the Spotlight, subscribe to our blog or follow ThinkFun on social media.

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