This is Part IX of the series Kindergarten Considerations in which I have been discussing (and wrestling with) the considerations behind the seemingly innocuous decision of where to send my four year old son to school in the fall. Some of our top options have included Montessori education and Waldorf Education. Today we are talking about homeschooling.
Homeschooling certainly isn’t what it used to be. As I child of 11 or so, I knew one girl who was homeschooled. It was for religious reasons and it seemed strange to me. I think we often envision homeschoolers as shunning society in general, studying by light of an oil lamp in a cabin far from any possibility of the negative aspect of socialization. When people mention homeschooling, one of the first responses is often related to the child’s need to play with peers. That and “I couldn’t do it – my kids drive me crazy!”
Let’s begin by saying that homeschool has evolved far beyond that stereotype. For one thing, mainstream culture seems much more accepting of homeschooling, perhaps not as an option for themselves but at least as an option for those who choose it. The Canadian magazine Today’s Parent actually had a feature article on homeschooling in their May 2010 issue. Secondly, it’s much more widespread than it used to be. The article above puts the number of Canadian homeschoolers at 80,000 and at 2 million in the US. Perhaps this is why the average person no longer regards homeschooling families as freaks – many people know at least one family who is homeschooling and realises that they have legitimate reasons for doing so and also, that their kids are thriving.
Beyond that, what does homeschooling look like these days?
In BC, provided you follow some kind of educational plan, you can school your child at home in any way you choose. That might mean registering at the local school but teaching at home and having access to resources at the school (if your local school is open to working this way). As the Today’s Parent article points out, there is financial incentive for schools to work together with homeschooling families because the government provides funds to the school to cover homeschool students registered there.
Alternatively, you could register your child in a distance education program where the child will follow a specific curriculum but complete it at home. In the past this was done via correspondence with workbooks and texts received through the mail. Technology has revitalized this system but it remains essentially the same. However, there are increased opportunities for interacting with virtual classmates and teachers with the advent of chat rooms, message boards and Skype. There are multiple programs that fall into this category of learning including those that follow very closely the public school curriculum and those that use unit based learning for instance which might involve learning science, math, English and history all through the lens of a particular theme. These programs may also be religion based if that is important to you. In these programs you are responsible to follow the curriculum as set out by the program you have registered with which includes meeting deadlines, completing tests and reports (if there are any) on time etc.
You can also register your child as an independent learner and then you can choose how you want to teach. On this side of things, you then have the option of registering in a program that supports independent learning or going it completely on your own. From what I understand, if you choose the latter option, you are then responsible to report to the ministry about your educational goals and progress.
The sheer number of possibilities can actually be very overwhelming. Luckily, homeschooling was demystified for me 7 years ago when we began living with my sister the first year she started homeschooling her 4 children. I’ve had a chance to see up close how it works and I have an excellent person to ask for help and advice. Nevertheless, I should also say that one of the reasons I’m currently considering it as an option is because we’ve found a program that would potentially work for our family.
There are many programs available but I’m going to discuss Self-Design today because it is the program that I know the most about and seems the most appealing for our family. It works like this: the child is registered as an independent learner through Self-Design. Self-Design provides us with a learning consultant (LC) who helps us plan for the year and set goals. We are then responsible to submit weekly reports to our LC regarding how we are working towards these goals. There is also a vibrant online community for children to discuss and interact with peers and for parents to find support and ask for help.
The cool part for me is the fact that we have the flexibility to follow our children’s interests and learning styles and teach in a way that works for our family (even using unschooling if we choose) and yet, we are still accountable to someone. I think that last bit is part of what makes homeschooling daunting to families who consider it: that fear that we’ll fall off track, won’t know what to do, will lose motivation. The learning consultant seems like a wonderful solution to those kinds of worries.
For other families, the idea of trying to follow a specific curriculum could also be overwhelming or off-putting. Depending on the reasons for choosing to homeschool, it could feel counterproductive to try to implement a very rigid curriculum and parents might wonder if they possess the control and structure to make that work at home. My attraction to homeschooling is partly to get away from the formulaic and rigid nature of school curriculums so I am very interested in the flexibility that seems available through the Self-Design program.
Furthermore, by registering with a program in BC, we are also eligible to receive a portion of the funds the ministry normally sets aside for each child to attend school. These funds can be used to purchase supplies, curriculum, books, art materials, musical instruments or even athletic equipment like bikes. They can also be used to pay for classes or lessons like swimming, painting, violin, robotics, theatre etc. This means that homeschooling doesn’t have to be a completely daunting prospect financially. Despite the decreased income involved, at least there is financial help to make various types of learning more accessible.
Another important aspect of the decision for me is having local interaction with other homeschooling families. We are lucky to live in an area with a very active homeschool community. This means we can organize field trips, outings, picnics and play dates with other kids. This means we have access to a supportive community of people who know what we’re experiencing. In the wider community, it might mean having access to programs planned specifically for homeschool groups during regular school hours like swimming lessons, gym time at the community centre or a special painting class. It might mean being able to take advantage of group rates for museum or gallery tours and it provides children with a place to play and interact with other children of various ages.
Which brings me back to the socialization argument. Depending on where you live, choosing not to send your children to school doesn’t automatically mean that they will have no chance to be with other children. Some of the homeschooling families that I’ve met through my sister have very busy schedules rife with peer interaction.
I would however, like to make two important points about socialization. Firstly, one of the benefits of socialization through homeschool groups is that the children get used to playing with children of various ages rather than being segregated by grade as regular school kids are (with the exception of Montessori). This means that they learn how to be leaders and followers, they experience being the oldest and the youngest depending on the activity and they get the chance to occasionally teach and learn from each other. This more accurately reflects the real world that they will enter after the school years and in my opinion (and experience) results in really sweet, friendly kids who don’t get as easily caught up in ageist hierarchies (I’m bigger/older/stronger than you so I can do this/make the decisions/have the power and you can’t) when playing.
Secondly, I’ve been reading Hold Onto Your Kids by Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté and to be honest, I agree with them that socialization does not happen from peers. Adults teach children how to behave in the world, what is acceptable and what isn’t. Adults teach about sharing, truth-telling, communication, etc. Children do not learn these from each other. Yes, they need the opportunity to practice these skills and I do get a kick out of watching my son begin to make friends but I can create those opportunities for him without sending him to school for six hours a day. In fact, Neufeld and Maté argue that relationships with adults are actually more important and instrumental for children than are peer relationships. That said, I really don’t find the socialization argument against homeschool to have much merit or weight in my decision. Perhaps it’s actually a benefit of homeschooling – avoiding the negative aspects of peer socialization and attachment?
Let’s talk more about the benefits of homeschool and some of the reasons I’m considering it in my next installment of Kindergarten Considerations.