Why Homeschool?by Kavita Daswani
LIKE most parents, I had always looked forward to the day when my children would finally enter school. During those early years of infancy and toddlerhood, when mothering feels like such a full-time job, I would assure myself that I would have a glimpse of my old life back when my sons Jahan and Nirvan – now 5 and 2 – would be in school.
And then we decided to homeschool.
The decision came to us in a roundabout way. When Jahan was three, and I was pregnant with Nirvan, we enrolled Jahan in a small co-op preschool. But despite being there for over a year, he felt alone and adrift. He missed being home with my husband and me. He just wasn’t ready, and no amount of cajoling or pleading or reassuring on my part was going to change that. More than that, he came home angry and resentful, repeating words and mimicking behavior that astonished us – and not in a good way. I think the breaking point was when he pretended to stab my husband’s leg, yelling, “I’m going to kill you!”
It was around this time that we attended a homeschool conference in Woodland Hills, California. I had heard a fair bit about the practice, but always assumed that it was mostly adopted by religiously orthodox families who didn’t want to expose their children to beliefs outside their own, or that it was something done by families in the most rural parts of the country who would otherwise have to walk four miles to get to school. Still, I went along with an open mind. We sat in on talks and picked up numerous books on the subject. But the one thing to emerge for me was this: homeschooling could certainly prove a successful alternative for families who felt that the system, for whatever reason, and at whatever level, had failed them. From preschool to high school, parents clearly wanted to take control of their children’s education.
That seems bourne out by the facts. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were 1.1 million homeschooled students in the US in 2003, up from 850,000 in 1999. This figure extends to children aged 5 to 17 – or kindergarten grade 12. The study defined homeschooled as “being schooled at home instead of at a public or private school for at least part of their education and if their part-time enrollment in public or private schools did not exceed 25 hours a week.”
Diane Flynn Keith, a noted columnist and author on homeschooling, who runs the www.homefires.com and www.carschooling.com websites, said that while it was difficult to ascertain the exact number of families choosing that path, the figure was on the rise; she estimates that the number today is closer to 2.2 million nationwide, with a projected increase of 7 to 15 per cent per year.
“The real truth is that there is no such thing as a "reliable" or "accurate" account for the number of homeschoolers,” she says. “That's because homeschooling is legally done in a variety of ways that are not tracked by government. That's changing, but it will be years before there's any reliable source."
This is largely due to the fact that ‘homeschooling’ takes on so many different forms: some families do it through their school district, others through a public charter or private school program. Some families file paperwork with the state, others don’t. Some are teachers, some hire tutors. Some simply ‘unschool’, which is essentially where children learn organically, through daily life, and don’t use any curriculum or work books. There’s a dizzying maze of options, and a million ways to do it, and it’s always a matter of finding what’s right for your child.
I recently asked Flynn Keith – who was a speaker at the pivotal conference we were at 18 months ago – the most common questions that I, as a homeschooling parent, am often asked.
1) What is the number one reason most families choose to homeschool?
The reasons are as varied as the people who homeschool. Some homeschool for academic excellence. Some want to protect their children from the desocialization taking place on traditional school campuses in terms of drugs, gangs, violence, and risky social behavior. Some homeschool because their personal beliefs are out of sync with the local public or private school. Some parents have gifted children or children with learning disabilities who thrive in the one-on-one, custom-tailored environment of a homeschool.
2) What are the biggest misconceptions regarding homeschooling?
That homeschoolers sit at the kitchen table and do school work from 9am to 3pm every day. When you eliminate the time-stealers that are inherent in classroom crowd control, then studying academics only takes a couple of hours a day at the most. That means that homeschooled children have copious amounts of unconditional time each day to do what they enjoy. They explore their interests and learn about things that have relevance and meaning to them. They explore apprenticeships, volunteer opportunities, civic duties, and work. It is why so many homeschoolers become generalists (having a lot of knowledge about a variety of things), and/or specialists (having a great deal of knowledge about a particular topic.) They often spend that time out in the real world community, and that contributes to the development of their exceptional socialization skills.
One more prevalent misconception is the idea that the homeschool parent has to do it all. The goal in homeschooling is to create self-directed learners; kids who love learning and will pursue it on their own. Parents show their children how to research and find answers, so that eventually their child can facilitate their own learning. Parents rely on other homeschool parents as well as mentors, tutors, and educators found in the general community (such as at museums, corporations, local businesses, and the community college) to help their children learn.
3) Once families make the decision, what is the most significant hurdle - in your experience - that they come across?
Student feedback. In a homeschool environment students can tell their teachers exactly what they think about the curriculum and activities. They may refuse to cooperate. That can lead to quarreling, and that can undermine homeschooling. Parents, more than anything else, need to have good parenting skills that include effective negotiation and communication techniques.
Most kids don't resist learning, they resist schooling. Some parents attempt to recreate school at home because it's the only model for education that they know. That model doesn't work as well in the home where there is no coercive power. So, parents have to rethink that school model, and become very flexible. They have to adapt the learning to suit the interests, needs, abilities, and learning style of their unique students. Through that process they gain the student's trust and good will. Then, learning happens almost effortlessly.
4) What is the greatest joy?
Our children have magnificent quantities of time to wonder, engage, and reflect in order to figure out who they are, what they are good at, what they want to contribute, and how to be happy. There is a sense of utter fulfillment and infinite joy in watching your children become self-directed learners who are the authors and editors of their own lives. There is deep satisfaction in knowing that you have bonded with your kids in the most profound and heartfelt ways that will last your entire lifetime -- and it is far more meaningful than whether or not the kids can name all of the states and capitals or solve quadratic equations.
5) To what do you attribute the rise in numbers of people choosing to opt out of the traditional school system?
To the flaws deliberately built into the traditional school system. It was designed to create a dumbed-down population that can be managed, quantified, and calculated for profit down to the last penny, without regard for the dignity of human beings who desire to live responsibly in freedom and liberty. It doesn't work, and as a result it breeds malcontent, resentment, anger, frustration, and hopelessness among students and their parents. The school system works exactly as it was designed to work. It's not broken, and it won't be "fixed" with more money. Compulsory education is a social experiment gone terribly wrong.
6) Is there a tangible difference between children who are homeschooled and those that are in the public school system?
In terms of academics, religious and secular homeschooled students who are tested score (on average) in the 80th to 87th percentiles on standardized achievement tests. That's higher than public school students who typically score in the 50th percentile, and it's similar to performances by private school students. Because homeschoolers are eager, self-directed learners, college admissions panels have adapted their application processes for the home educated. Homeschoolers have been recruited by and accepted to major universities and colleges including Harvard, Yale, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, all of the University of California campuses, and even the U.S. Military Academies. Overall, homeschooled students have a higher rate of acceptance to competitive colleges than students entering from traditional school institutions. (For more info visit: http://www.LearnInFreedom.org.)
Getting into college is not the only measure of success. Like the rest of the population at large, homeschoolers are a diverse group, and some will find their life's work not on a college track, but in the arts, sports, vocations like carpentry, plumbing, mechanics, etc. Others will be entrepreneurs, developing their own businesses. The beauty of homeschooling is that students can structure their day so that they have time to find out what they are good at and what they enjoy doing, so that when the time comes to make decisions about college and work - they have a keen sense of the direction they want to go in.
7) What do you say when people ask you about ‘socialization’?
There is a prevailing myth among the general population that children who are homeschooled will not be well socialized. People unfamiliar with homeschooling seem to think the only place a child will learn to act in a civilized fashion is confined in a school - surrounded by the same four walls day-in and day-out, sitting elbow-to-elbow with 30 other children who are the exact same age and on the exact same academic track. This school scenario does not replicate the real world, and does little to prepare a child for coping in the real world.
Typically, homeschool parents want what's best for their children - including how to be well socialized. They provide all kinds of social opportunities for their children, creating cooperative classes, organizing field trips and play dates at the park, and even participating in spelling bees, geography bees, math olympiads, science competitions and more. They also participate in 4-H clubs, AYSO soccer, Little League, Pop Warner football, ballet, gymnastics, music, and martial arts classes in after-school programs with other traditionally schooled children. They play with kids in the neighborhood who attend public or private schools. Homeschooled children are exposed daily to a wide range of people in the real world, who are of all different ages, ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds, etc. Because of that, research studies by the U.S. Department of Education and other public and private organizations consistently show that homeschoolers are better socialized than their school-going peers.
8) Is unschooling the same as homeschooling?
“Unschooling" refers more specifically to interest-led learning. Instead of following a curriculum of any kind, parents follow their children's interests. Parents act as facilitators who help their children find the resources, information, and mentors they may need to satiate their interest in any given subject or topic.
9) When you were homeschooling your boys, what was the one thing you disliked the most about it?
Fear of failure. I took the responsibility of educating my children seriously. The old "school" tapes played in my head, causing me to question decisions I made about our methodology and the curriculum we used. I constantly evaluated our purpose and our progress. Homeschool parents will tell you that anxiety attacks are common when you buck the system. You wonder if you are capable and up to the challenge. The noise from our culture is deafening. It screams at us to conform to one way of getting an education. When you make a decision to defy conventional wisdom, you can be plagued by doubts. This is especially true in the early years of homeschooling. Eventually, you learn to trounce negative self-talk. You experience enough successes that you marvel at your children's ability to learn, and your own ability to facilitate it. You can laugh at yourself for doubting the process and marvel at the incredible and capable human beings that your children have become.
10) Are there some families that just shouldn't even try it - and how would they know who they are?
I don't think homeschooling is for everyone. It's simply a viable educational option and lifestyle that works for some families. However, I do think that more families should consider it, because it is not as difficult as people tend to think, and the results are profoundly rewarding for both parent and child.
Parents who have the most difficulty are those who are either fearful by nature, extremely authoritarian in their parenting style, and/or generally inflexible.
You have to be fearless to homeschool. You have to be willing to take risks and make mistakes. You have to be willing to evaluate your circumstances and get rid of what isn't working and try something else. You have to be willing to do research, to seek out the resources that will best facilitate your child's learning. Homeschooling is the scientific method at work. It's not linear. It's chaotic and messy. You have to embrace the chaos. You also need a sense of humor. If you can do that, then you can create an environment that supports learning in a joyful way that is fully integrated with your family's life, work, and play.
THAT, FOR US, is what it came down to; that Jahan would be happier, more secure and more comfortable at home – and that state of mind would be crucial for his education. He could show us what he wanted to learn.
Given that he was only four at the time, and still technically at preschool age, it wasn’t a difficult thing. We simply incorporated ‘teaching’ him as part of our daily lives. Inspired by a talk that Flynn Keith had given at the conference we had just attended, we did things like weighing groceries at the market, buying post cards of famous paintings and replicating them at home while talking about the artists. We filled our days with art projects and field trips and independent classes ranging from everything from music to space travel. There’a wealth of online resources: we did art projects on www.talenteacher.com, and friendly maths and word games at www.funbrain.com. On days he felt curious about science or the environment, and asked me questions I couldn’t answer, we’d go to www.howstuffworks.com. In many ways, homeschooling was easier than I thought it would be.
Now that he’s technically in kindergarten, we noticed a need on his part for a little more structure, more ongoing socialization. So I was thrilled to find out that Las Virgenes, our school district, was launching something called the Homeschool Partnership Program, where children from kindergarten and up could use a resource library, take advantage of classes and field trips, receive on-site tutoring. Brenda Harari, the program’s education director, said that the program was “designed to acknowledge and support homeschooling families who have chosen alternative strategies for education.” She described it as a “hybrid model of schooling”.
The program is part of a growing trend towards district-run, homeschool plans, but it is still, according to Harari, “a unique phenomenon.” It is linked to an adjacent classroom-based program, sharing the same teachers, resources and philosophy – but still operated under the aegis of the state.
Jahan has taken some music classes within it, and we’ve enjoyed the resource library. But on our way home the other day from a class, he turned to me and said: ‘Mommy, I want to go to school.”
He has never said this before, so it’s something we’re looking at. If, indeed, he does end up in school, it will be one that embraces the philosophies that my husband and I have strived for at home: where the child is respected, stimulated and given a choice.
And if it doesn’t work – well, we’re relieved to know we’ll always have homeschooling.
Kavita Daswani is a Los Angeles-based journalist and the author of the novels, For Matrimonial Purposes, and The Village Bride of Beverly Hills.
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