Some realistic advice for new homeschoolers from a veteran

I know what it is like to be a homeschooling acolyte. You are following 50 homeschooling groups on Facebook and the too-wholesome-to-be-real selfies of hip, young homeschooling mothers on Instagram. You’ve spent hours trying to make sense of the various cliques and their homeschooling philosophies. You’ve read endless manifestos about why people should homeschool. You’ve finally figured out what DD and DS stand for. If you aren’t willing to be part of an online cult, homeschooling can start to feel isolating and intimidating. It shouldn’t be that way, for you or for your children.

I have fallen down some of those rabbit holes and watched many other people fall down their own rabbit holes, and I honestly can say almost none of them have ultimately proven helpful. In fact, I’d say following some of them have turned into tremendous wastes of effort (for both parent and child) and money (because most of these people want to sell you something). There’s nothing worse than spending a lot of money on books and trying to trust someone’s process, only to find out it’s not going to work.

This is the realistic advice on homeschooling that I wish I had when I started out:

Invest in professional curriculum. Make sure it is strong on phonics and math.

There are a lot of voices on the Internet advising homeschoolers to shrug off all the trappings of a formal education. You have unschoolers who think nature walks are the same as a science education. You have Charlotte Mason folks who think reading a bunch of novels every year to the peril of STEM pursuits is well-rounded and diverse. Most of these folks think that a formal curriculum involves drilling children on “mindless facts” and that it will “destroy their love of learning and curiosity.”

There is a difference between being educated and being in possession of general knowledge, especially general knowledge that is clustered within a narrow range of subjects.

What I have found from following people pushing all of these different philosophies is that they mostly want to teach their kids what they enjoy reading about and studying themselves. People who chose to study the humanities get excited about teaching their children Shakespeare and less excited about economics. People who love engineering don’t see the value in studying the history of France. In this sense, they are not providing their children with an education. They are trying to produce a mini-me.

Purchasing a solid, well-rounded, professionally compiled curriculum will help you provide your child with a bona fide education. Your child will reach maturity with all options open to them. And you will have the confidence that nothing fell through the cracks.

The most important thing you can do for your child is establish strong foundations in reading and number sense very early on. This will allow them to excel in the other subjects. The easiest path to becoming a strong reader is a combination of phonics, sight words, and lots and lots of practice. I developed a practice of writing words our daughter did not know on flash cards and going through a stack of them every day.

One of the dumbest habits I have seen develop in homeschooling groups (and education groups in general) is the excessive use of audio books and “educational” video games to teach basic content. Physically reading a science book does not only help your child with science, it helps them with reading and spelling technical terms. If technology is taking the effort out of learning, it is not serving an educational function. This is part of the reason why schools have seen test scores rapidly decline as more and more screens have made it into the classroom. Don’t underestimate the role of muscle memory in learning.

I’m not saying avoid audio books altogether – as having a story that you follow along as a family can be a lot of fun and there are some excellent supplemental resources in audio / video format – but this is certainly an area for moderation unless your child has a diagnosed learning disability.

Have a plan and stay organized.

Having some semblance of structure and stability (though not overwhelming structure) is good for your child’s emotional well-being. The fastest path to a child hating a subject is not practice problems, judging from the people I have talked to. It’s having a disorganized and chaotic teacher that has no fixed goals in mind. It is wise to pre-read your child’s lessons and have all the materials you need on hand before you launch into the school day. The easiest way to do this is to have a nightly ritual of setting up for the next day.

Likewise, it is important to have an idea of what you want to accomplish in the academic year in each subject. Set goals, write them down, hold yourself accountable as a teacher at regular intervals. Evaluate the resources you are using periodically. Do they suit your child’s learning style? Does your child have a different learning style for different subjects? Do they grok literature easily but need flashcards and timelines for history? Schedule times for this sort of reflection and you will not be sorry.

Make your child take tests.

These are fighting words for some homeschoolers, but I see several advantages to the experience of test taking, assuming it is not overbearing like it has become in public schools.

First, you have no idea how much of a crutch your presence is when it comes to evaluating how much your child really knows. Merely talking through content is unlikely to give you a complete understanding of where your child is and it certainly does not encourage retention beyond that moment. A lot of those “meaningless facts” that educational hippies deride could also be called “culture.” Being able to communicate competently about basic events and concepts is essential to succeeding in society.

Second, your homeschool should not be a womb. Your kid is going to be tested eventually whether it hurts their feelings or not. If they want to get into college in most states, they are going to have to sit for a test. When they get to college, they are going to have to sit for final exams. If they want to be a stockbroker, doctor, lawyer, or accountant, they are going to have to take high-pressure exams. The only way you learn to manage your emotions in such circumstances is to have some sort of experience in a lesser sense beforehand.

I think there is a lot of virtue in varying the form of testing you have too.

Multiple-choice is a meaningless form of testing, and it’s sort of ironic how much schools depend upon it. Some schools actually try to teach children how to guess on tests, which I find absolutely hilarious. One of the biggest complaints I have heard from people who switch to homeschooling from public school is that they have to condition their children out of the practice of guessing, and it’s mind-blowing. One mother told me that her child was taught to guess what words were based off of the pictures in books – as an alternative to decoding words phonetically – and she had to explain to her child that eventually the books he was reading would not have pictures. It is no mystery why 2/3 of the kids in public schools are not proficient in reading.

Make your kids show their math work on tests. Have them write thoughtful essays. Have them do oral presentations. Make the test be a project. It will be abundantly clear whether they have mastered the material or need more time.

Start your child on Latin in elementary school. It will improve their writing and grammar immediately and is the gateway to learning several other languages easily.

Enough said.

Take record-keeping seriously.

As I mentioned above, record-keeping is a source of accountability for you. But it is also the single most important thing you can do to protect your right to homeschool. If, heaven forbid, anyone were ever to challenge legally what your are doing for your child, it matters that you have a daily log, samples of your child’s work, a list of the resources you are doing, a catalog of field trips you’ve taken and camps your kid has attended. That is not the sort of thing you can manufacture on the spot, and in this politically insane world where school choice is under attack by presidential candidates, you should not minimize the risk of being harassed for choosing to homeschool at some point in the future.

Join the Home School Legal Defense Association and support statewide school choice lobbying groups.

On the last point, another way you can protect your right to homeschool is to support the groups in Washington DC and state capitals that are out there on the front lines making sure terrible regulations at both the state and federal level are shot down and representing homeschoolers in court. If you do find yourself being challenged or harassed by your local school district, all you need to do is call the HSLDA and they will appoint an attorney to intervene on your behalf. It’s good for your general peace of mind too.

Focus on friends and avoid the haters.

In my social media days, I have been on the receiving line of a lot of trolling and nasty remarks, both from people inside and outside the homeschooling community (if such a thing exists, because honestly homeschoolers are far from a monolithic group anymore). I’ve had homeschoolers chew me out for valuing academic excellence over sentimental concerns. Gosh, your kid must be so miserable having to do all that work. (Our homeschooling day only lasts a few hours, but to radical unschoolers that’s oppression.) I’ve had retired school teachers question whether I am qualified to teach my child third grade content, even though I am objectively better educated than they are. (I’ve worked as an economist and bond analyst, but sure, I should probably outsource long division to the experts in elementary schools.) It’s all worthless banter, and trust me, you don’t need it in your life. Bless their hearts and walk away.

You will eventually find a niche of like-minded homeschoolers – and like-minded people who make other educational choices for their children – through extracurricular activities, church, neighborhood gatherings, or random days at the playground. Get their numbers, schedule play dates, attend each other’s birthday parties, host a barbecue. Focus your energy on doing what you need to do during the day and then focus your spare time on positive interactions with people who share your manners and values.

You don’t continually need to engage people with negative worldviews. In fact, I’d say the more you engage them, the more likely it is that you are putting yourself and your children in a dangerous position. I have had two friends who have had people they met in virtual space try to cause them trouble in real life. Just. Don’t. Do. It. Leave fighting in education forums with 50,000 users to the savages. That’s time you could be spending with your family.

If you are having a bad day, go catch your breath and remind yourself how lucky you are.

There are going to be days where your children have a meltdown (they are children, after all) and you start to have a meltdown too. Get up and take a walk. Pack everyone up and go kick a soccer ball around for an hour. Get some ice cream and watch clouds. Realize that you get to watch these little humans grow up and that’s a miracle. Even the bad days are precious gifts from God.

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