Last year, when my daughter was in fourth grade, I began to see that her “learning style” made it hard for her to function well in a class of 25 children. So I made a momentous decision: I decided to teach her fifth grade at home.
I did this with some misgivings. I was quite sure my daughter would benefit academically, but worried that isolation would take a toll on us both. I imagined feeling my way as a teacher, while she spent long winter days pining for the companionship of other children.
Today, we both agree that the first year of our home-school adventure has been one of the most productive and rewarding of my daughter’s life. Through the extraordinary home-school network, we have met many active and intellectually engaged families. Now I can draw on the experience of a dedicated and diverse group of parents — a mother whose halls are lined with her children’s brightly illustrated Latin exercises, a college biology major who plans to dissect a fetal pig with our girls. If I wished, my daughter could be busy every day with writing and nature clubs, gym classes, choirs, Science Museum courses, holiday parties and service projects, and field trips to every imaginable destination.
What works best
Some home-schoolers buy curriculum packages compiled by professional educators. But I chose to create our academic plan myself, using resources like E.D. Hirsch’s “What Your Fifth Grader Needs to Know” and Laura Berquist’s “Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum.” The greatest advantage of teaching my daughter this way is that we can use our instruction time so efficiently and effectively. As a home-schooler, I have a luxury classroom teachers don’t — I can see what strategies work best, and help her pursue her interests as far as she likes. Where she needs help, we can repeat lessons, or explore new instructional approaches.
In previous years, for example, my daughter was indifferent to history. In our home school, we are using Joy Hakim’s superb American history series, “A History of US.” To supplement, she reads scintillating biographies and historical novels, which present figures like Pocahontas and Paul Revere as vibrant and compelling human beings. When we studied the colonial period, I read her Longfellow’s “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” and Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech. Now, history is one of her favorite subjects.
In the past five months, my daughter’s vocabulary and writing ability have improved substantially. Perhaps this is because we avoid the contemporary children’s fiction found in so many classrooms. Teachers often assign these books in hopes that students will find their “relevance” appealing. But generally, their style is simplistic, their vocabulary limited, and their mindset narrow and adolescent.
In our home-school, we are reading classics that have introduced my daughter to the full range of expression possible within the English language. She especially enjoys “Journeys Through Bookland” — a 10-volume set published in 1909 — which features poems by Wordsworth and Sir Walter Scott, and stories that range from a life of Queen Victoria, to tales of buffalo hunting along the Oregon Trail.
Our experience sheds light on why the number of home-schooled children is rising dramatically. Nation-wide, about 1 million children are now taught at home, among them almost 10,000 Minnesota youngsters. According to the Home School Legal Defense Association, these children generally do well academically. For example, in 1994, Minnesota home-schoolers scored in the 83rd percentile on the Iowa Basic Skills Test.
Home schooling families are an extraordinarily diverse lot. Some emphasize religious instruction; others do not. Many are people of average means who make significant financial sacrifices to educate their children at home. Parents sometimes work split shifts, or find self-employment that frees up instruction time during school hours. Nationally, there is even an organization of single parents who home-school.
Leaders, not loners
Home-schoolers generally give several reasons for making the substantial sacrifices their task requires. They want to provide an environment in which their children can develop as individuals, without being overwhelmed by an alienated and heavily conformist youth culture. They want to foster confidence, self-reliance, and independent thought. They seek to make learning a family affair, while accustoming their children to easy interaction with people of all ages — a tall order for youngsters who spend most of their waking hours with peers. In general, home-schooling parents aim to cultivate — not loners — but leaders.
Recently, as I sat in a gathering of enthusiastic home educators, I was struck by the rich common enterprise they have launched — an enterprise which flourishes despite the complete absence of central planning or government assistance. I reflected that our nation was founded on the idea that animates this enterprise — that ordinary people are capable of governing themselves; that they can discern their own interests, through the exercise of wisdom and prudence; and that they have the right to pursue happiness, and the good life, in the way that seems best to them.
In the sweep of history, this is a radical idea, and one still frequently challenged in many corners of the world. Yet in that room — and in the vibrant grass-roots movement represented there — I saw confirmation that America’s founders were right to put such faith in common people. I realized that all of us, whether we choose to educate our children at home or not, should give thanks that we have the freedom to do so.