Sunday, May 11, 2008

Beginning Home Schooling

The most frequently asked question that comes in is, "How do I start to homeschool?"


One of the first steps is to investigate your local legal situation. This will give you an idea of rules that you must comply with and hoops you must jump through. Happily, most countries and states have fairly reasonable policies in this regard. You can start by checking out my ever-growing 'Around the World' section, or by searching for your country, state, or province's name along with 'homeschool laws.' It's best to look until you find the actual text of the laws. When you find this, print it out and put it in a folder by your door, so that it is available to show to curious relatives, neighbors, tradesmen and authorities. Also keep any written contact with authorities in this folder,

Now it's time to start planning your school. What is your child's learning style? How well do you get along? Will you have a school at home, collaborate with your child, or let your child direct his own education? Will you have traditional school curriculum, or use mostly library books for unit studies? What other forms of media will you use?

It's best to start simply, especially if you don't have very strong feelings about the direction of your child's education. Remember also that many kids need a few months to decompress after a rocky school experience. That doesn't mean that they should do nothing but play World of Warcraft and watch Spongebob, but it does mean that taking it slow in the beginning can be a wise choice.

Next it's time to begin selecting materials. This can be very confusing, but, here again, simplicity is the key. It is possible to avoid having a closet full of unused curriculum! Keep in mind these things:
  • Your core beliefs.
  • Your child's learning styles and preferences.
  • The amount of time you have to invest.
  • If you wish, you can find out what kids usually learn in school and use it as a general guide.

Make a list of the subjects that you wish to teach in the next few weeks. Keep it simple! You can always add more later, when you've gotten a bit more experience.
Then make a list of the resources that you have at home: books, DVDs, computer sites, hands-on activities, etc. Are there any resources in your community that could be helpful? Classes, museums, friends, etc? It can be really nice to use different types of materials to reinforce the concepts that you're teaching. For instance, to learn about cells, reading a book or three, looking at a good website and watching a Bill Nye video would all be good choices. Looking at different cells under a microscope would be excellent!

Then look at the possibility of textbooks. They can be very useful, or a noose that strangles your homeschool. I prefer to use them a guides rather than main sources. In other words, if we're studying chemistry, experiments, DVDs and websites might be more important than the books. Why? First, science books in particular are full of scientific errors - as many as two or three per page! (Finding the errors can be a useful activity for an older child, though!) Second, they don't keep up with what's going on. A good guide for science (and other subjects) for 4 to 10 year-olds is Nebel's Elementary Education.


Obviously a subject like Math doesn't need to be rewritten much. You could use a textbook from 1899 if you wished, though some of the language might be a bit foreign, but many of us prefer workbooks. Keep in mind, though, that kids aren't obligated to do every problem on every page. Much of it is busy work for classroom use, so if your child understands math quickly, then let her go as quickly as she's comfortable. Remember to add the games! Both math board games and math computer games can teach math skills much more happily (for most kids ) than endless pages of drills.

I really have never used English textbooks, or Spelling ones, either. My kids just write a bit every day. We did Grammar in a unit for about four weeks when the child was about twelve. We all did Mad Libs. They learned to spell when they needed it. Funny thing is, the four older ones (ages 25, 22, 17 and 13) are all excellent spellers and grammarians.

Reading textbooks are pretty unnecessary. Just make a wide variety of books available, and don't give up reading at bedtime until they're teens...if then! Reading workbooks are mainly used for a teacher to make sure that the kids have read the assignment and interacted with the material in the way that some textbook writer thinks is proper. It takes away from the wonder and enjoyment, and is mainly busywork. Save your $15.

Handwriting books can be useful when a child is beginning. After that, keep a chart around and let the child practice when he does his writing time. Consider whether you want to spend the time teaching cursive if your child is less than excited to learn. The College Board reports that less than 15% of students use cursive when writing their essay on their ACTs. Learning to read cursive is imperative: learning to write it is optional, and can be learned quickly if the child wants it later. Keyboarding is very important, so have a good program ready for the child to use to teach himself.

Geography is best taught with DVDs, websites, maps, and some books. History can be quite a bit of fun with the right books, or a chore that both you and your child dread. Borrow the books you'd like to try, or buy them and resell them on Amazon if you don't care for them.

The next issue is your schedule. Loose or structured? I've found it helpful to have a general time frame for things, but if I try to stick too closely to it, we miss out on important windows of interest. We are what I call 'semi-unschoolers', which means that we do have a short lesson time every day, but most of our time is spent on the kids' areas of interest, whether it's building computers or building Rube Goldberg machines. Of course, our time at homeschool gym is scheduled, and so is Brownies, soccer, basketball, College for Kids, art classes, and whatever else the kids attend. All the kids go to homeschool gym/swim time at the Y once a week, and they each have one other activity at a time. This keeps us from becoming swamped!

Some people prefer more structure. Just remember, rule your schedule - don't let it rule you!

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