Our Experience with Homeschooling
Chris and Ellen Baird, 2014
Several people have asked us about our experience with homeschooling, so we thought we would consolidate our comments into one place and refer people here. For some background, both of us attended public school, but we have homeschooled each of our five children since birth. Although homeschooling has its challenges, we have generally loved homeschooling, have seen it bear wonderful fruit, and would recommend it to others. Using our experience with homeschooling as a basis, we will relate its: I. Benefits, II. Misconceptions, and III. Challenges, as well as IV. Our Approach. Note that we feel strongly about homeschooling, and our comments below are therefore strongly worded. But we do not want to give the impression that we believe that public schooling is uniformly ineffective. Like homeschooling, public schooling has its own set of benefits and challenges. Private schooling is completely omitted from our comments below because neither of us has any experience with it.
I. Benefits of Homeschooling
Benefit 1: Homeschooled children can pursue their own interests.
In public school, children have to follow a set curriculum. In contrast, we have found that homeschooling allows children to personalize their education and explore their interests as soon as they arise. They come to love learning because they are able to explore whatever topics interest them, when they interest them. A child that loves learning is a happy, self-confident child that works hard at his education. For example, we steered several science classes towards zoology when we discovered one of our son’s interest in this area. As a result, this son repeatedly handed in science reports he had written that were several pages long, when we had only asked each report to be a paragraph long.
Benefit 2: Homeschooling is very efficient.
Children attending public school have to pack their backpack, walk to the bus stop, wait for the bus, ride the bus, wait in line to enter the classroom, wait for their turn to get a drink, wait for everyone else to finish the spelling test, wait in line to buy their lunch, etc. In public schools, a significant amount of time is unavoidably wasted through-out the day; time that is not spent learning. In homeschooling, we have discovered that a child can do the same day’s worth of work as in a public school, but in a fraction of the time. With a greater amount of usable time available each day, homeschooled children can get ahead in their core coursework. Our children are several months to several years ahead of the public school curriculum in mathematics, spelling, and reading because of the efficiency of homeschooling. More usable time also allows homeschooled children to develop their talents. When we first started meeting other families that homeschool, we were amazed at how talented their children are. Gradually, we realized that these highly-developed talents were largely a result of the efficiency of homeschooling. Our children are able to practice the cello, violin, and piano in the morning when they are still fresh, without it setting them back in their schoolwork.
Benefit 3: Homeschooling allows a God-oriented education focused on service.
Because public schools must serve children of all faiths, we have found that God is largely removed from the classroom. Furthermore, some teachers even avoid teaching common religious values such as humility, forgiveness, and modesty, in the name of religious neutrality. Through homeschooling, we have discovered that we can teach our children faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love and Christian doctrine at the same time we are teaching them anatomy, fractions, and adverbs.
We believe a big part of a God-oriented education is service. In public schools, the education focuses mostly on the child just improving himself, which is an ultimately selfish approach. In contrast, homeschooling allows us to focus the child’s education on giving him information and skills so that he can better serve others. For instance, cookies that our children baked in cooking class were given to a friend in need, and were not just greedily consumed by the children themselves. Songs that our children learned in choir were sung to the elderly in nursing homes. Quilts that they made in crafts class were given to a homeless shelter. Greeting cards they made in art class were given to a sick friend. In this way, we have found that homeschooling allows our children to see that their education has a purpose: it enables them to better serve, help, and lift others. And as a bonus benefit, seeing the smiles on the faces of the grateful recipients of their service becomes another motivator for our children to work hard in their schoolwork.
Benefit 4: Homeschooled children can control their own daily schedule.
Homeschooled children do not have to wait for a teacher to tell them it is time to start learning. They can start learning the second they wake up. Our two oldest children have caught the vision of this and often wake up at 5:00 am and jump right into their schoolwork. They often have all of their core math, spelling, and reading schoolwork done by breakfast and can spend the rest of the day on science, history, sports, art, music practice, cooking class, choir, etc. Instead of dragging themselves miserably through a slowly-grinding day of schoolwork, they spring into their schoolwork with enthusiasm, because they have control. Being in control of their schedule builds self-confidence, independence, and diligence. Note that letting each child control his schedule does not mean we let him do as little work as he wants. In our family, we tell our children that they cannot have any free play time until they have done their schoolwork for the day, and their daily schoolwork involves a certain minimum amount of workbook pages and assignments. If they stall and mope around because they don’t want to do schoolwork, they discover that such behavior leads them to having no time left at the end of the day to play.
Benefit 5: Homeschooling has a flexible curriculum.
In homeschooling, we have found that we can try one school book, and if we don’t like it, we can switch to a different one a few months later. In a public school, once the teachers order the books, the kids are stuck with it for the year (or the decade). The flexibility of homeschooling allows us to try many different books, curricula, and teaching approaches and quickly hone in on the ones that work best with our children.
Also, the flexibility of homeschooling means that the children’s education is less impacted by the ups and downs of life. For instance, a child with a minor infection has done schoolwork in bed rather than miss an entire day of school. A child that needed to attend a dentist appointment in the morning switched his math test to the afternoon, rather than entirely miss it or have to wait days for the teacher to give a make-up test.
Benefit 6: Homeschooled children can work at their own pace.
Children experience a lot of frustration when forced to work at a pace that is not natural to them. When I (Chris) was in public school, my math classes moved too slowly for my skill level, leading me to be bored and frustrated. In contrast, our children have been able to proceed with their math coursework as fast as their skills allow because they are homeschooled. On some days, our children do six or even ten pages in their math workbooks, when the standard curriculum only requires two a day, because they reach a topic that they understand well and enjoy. At the same time, working at their own pace also means that children can go slower in the subjects that challenge them. For instance, one of our daughters began struggling with spelling and often ended up in tears upon failing spelling tests that she had not been able to prepare for. Because we homeschool, she was able to slow down the pace of her spelling coursework and add a few days of extra practice to each spelling chapter. This change allowed our daughter to master the content and not feel frustrated. While a slower pace may mean that a child falls behind the public school schedule, it is worth it when needed in order to help maintain a constructive learning environment and build self-confidence. In our case, our daughter was already ahead of the public school schedule, so even with the slower pace, she still ended the year ahead. We believe that the purpose of education is not to rigidly follow another person’s pace, but to have the children learn the material, and enjoy learning the material.
Note that, for us, letting children work at their natural pace is not the same as letting children work at any pace they want. Telling a child, “Go as slow as you want, it does not matter,” will lead the child to do no work. Rather, we have found that letting children go at their natural pace means that we as parents set an initial minimum pace for each child in each subject, and then occasionally adjust the minimum pace according to their skill level. For instance, our family’s initial minimum pace in math is two pages in the math workbook per day, as this is the amount of work required to complete the whole book in one year. When we realized that one of our children was not being challenged enough, we increased the pace to a minimum of four pages a day. In this way, we as parents decide and enforce the minimum pace, but do so according to the abilities of the child. The children are of course free to go at a faster pace than the minimum that we set, and often do.
Benefit 7: Homeschooling protects children from immorality.
By their nature, public schools must be open to everyone. As a result, a child in public school may end up permanently seated next to a drug-addict, a sex-addict, or a violent bully. Moving to an affluent town with a good school system may help, but even rich kids make poor choices. Even many of the generally-decent children at public schools swear, tell crude jokes, are cruel to each other, and are over-indulged in unwholesome entertainment, as we have unfortunately discovered through personal experience. The immorality in public schools can come from the teachers as well as the students. At an increasing rate, immodesty, promiscuity, and homosexuality are being integrated into the official curriculum. Sadly, an English-teacher friend of ours lost his job because he refused to teach homosexuality to his students. He had to move across the country to find a new teaching position. In contrast, a loving home built on gospel principles can be mostly devoid of this immorality.
At first we worried that homeschooling would protect our children too much, making them fragile and ignorant of the world around them. But we have discovered that this is not necessarily the case. Homeschooled children have plenty of opportunity to be exposed to physical challenges, diverse cultures, and differing worldviews through activities such as field trips, boy scouts, sports, service projects, community events, and neighborhood friends.
Benefit 8: Family Unity and a More Personalized Learning Experience
We have found that learning together and working together has helped our family grow closer together. Homeschooling simply gives our family the chance to have more quality time together. Because we as parents are teaching students that are our own children, we experience their successes on a deeper level. Furthermore, we are better able to personalize the learning experience to the particular personality of each child because we know them so well. Last of all, when handled the right way, school is fun! Through homeschooling, we as parents are able to take part in the fun alongside our children.
II. Misconceptions About Homeschooling
Misconception 1: Homeschooled children have less opportunity for extra-curricular activities.
We worried about this misconception when we first started homeschooling. We have found that homeschooled children can have just as much opportunity or even more opportunity for extra-curricular activities, compared to public school children. The efficiency of homeschooling gives children more time each day for extra-curricular activities. Also, the flexibility of homeschooling allows the child to pursue activities that occur at odd hours. Lastly, the homeschooled child has access to public-school activities and community activities in addition to homeschooling activities. To give you an idea, our own children have participated in the following structured activities outside the home:
- children’s choir (through a homeschooling group)
- fencing lessons (from a private instructor)
- gymnastics lessons (from a private instructor)
- ballet lessons (from a private instructor)
- art classes (through the Whistler Museum)
- cooking classes (through the Boys and Girls Club)
- regular trips to museums (through a homeschooling group)
- hiking group (through a homeschooling group)
- boy scouts (though church)
- piano lessons (from a private instructor)
- violin lessons (from a private instructor)
- cello lessons (from a private instructor)
- swimming lessons (through the Boys and Girls Club)
- community service projects (through a homeschooling group)
- cultural events (through the local library and community events)
- soccer teams (through the town’s recreation department)
- basketball teams (through the town’s recreation department)
- baseball teams (through the town’s recreation department)
Our point is not to boast but to demonstrate that we have found that the efficiency and flexibility of homeschooling allows a child to enjoy many extra-curricular activities. The title “homeschooling” can be misleading because it gives the impression that homeschooled children sit at home all day. A more accurate title would be “parent-supervised-schooling”.
Misconception 2: Homeschooled children have insufficient social interaction.
As the previous section should have made clear, homeschooled children can have plenty of opportunity to be social with other children through their extra-curricular activities. And even if a child is not interested in structured activities, the flexibility of homeschooling makes it easy for him or her to have free play time with other homeschooled friends. Furthermore, we don’t believe that “healthy socialization of a child” is exactly the same as “a child sitting all day at school next to a lot of kids his age”. A socially-healthy adult interacts with people of many different ages, from many different backgrounds, and in many different settings as he fulfills his career, family, church, and community responsibilities. Therefore, healthy socialization of a child involves learning to interact with people of different ages, from different backgrounds, and in different settings. Homeschooling excels at providing these types of real-world social opportunities. For instance, our children attended a homeschool trip to a nursing home. All of our children did a good job of talking and playing games with the residents. One of our daughters discovered an elderly man there who could not talk and could hardly move. On her own initiative, she helped this man play a board game by asking him questions, interpreting his nods, and moving the pieces for him; all while patting him and cheering him on. We see such social interactions as more valuable than chatting with a bunch of similarly-aged kids about video games for a few minutes before class starts, and far more valuable than other social interactions that go on in public schools such as bullying, ridiculing, popularity contests, and peer pressure; as well as the stigmatizing of intelligence, morality, and innocent fun as “not cool”.
Misconception 3: Homeschooling does not provide enough structure.
While there is a danger of this happening, the truth is that parents can make their homeschool as structured as they want. We have found that public schools are unavoidably over-structured, which dampens a lot of the curiosity and enthusiasm for learning that is innate in children. At the same time, we have found that children do need some amount of structure, otherwise they will idle away the day, accomplishing little. One extreme approach to homeschooling is to avoid all workbooks and schedules so as to let children explore the world according to their whims. The other extreme is to completely structure every minute with pre-defined books, drills, and routines. We have discovered that a child needs a mixture of both approaches.
We have found that for the core skills of phonics, writing, and mathematics, a child needs a formal curriculum in which he or she is required to complete a certain number of pages per day. As a physics professor, I (Chris) can attest that math is hard and that a student cannot master mathematics unless he or she does math exercises over and over again, every day. A child will not master the times table by reading a biography about Euclid. Rather, he or she must solve multiplication problems, again and again. Euclid himself told the Macedonian king of Egypt, “There is no royal road to geometry.” For all other subjects besides phonics, writing, and mathematics, we try to follow the motto, “structure time, not content”, which is promoted by the book, A Thomas Jefferson Education by Oliver DeMille. For instance, our science class time is an hour a week on a certain day. The content of our science class, however, is whatever interests the children. Similarly, cooking class, art class, and history class are just certain times of the week set aside where our children our required to work on these subjects. But the topic of these classes is decided by everyone as we go. The content comes from public library books we have checked out and from educational books we already own.
Misconception 4: The successful homeschooling parent has to be an expert in every field.
We have found that one strength of homeschooling is that the children teach themselves to a large extent. The parents play the roles of inspiring their children to learn, keeping them on task, acquiring the curriculum, and setting up extra-curricular activities. But the actual learning comes mostly from the books, exercises, activities, videos, and outside mentors; and not from the parents. For instance, our math curriculum comes with DVD’s containing a video for each chapter of an expert math teacher giving a lecture on the corresponding material. We as parents never have to give our children any math lectures, because they already receive the instructions they need from the DVD’s.
When children get far enough along in a subject, or in subjects that require hands-on skills, we have discovered that the children do need expert mentors to help them progress. But we have found that we as the parents don’t have to be those expert mentors, since mentors are available. For instance, one of our sons is taking a Latin class through an online school that includes real-time interaction with a skilled teacher. Similarly, some of our children are taking Spanish and choir classes from other home-schooling parents that are experts in those subjects. You may worry that such an approach is too expensive. But it does not have to be. For example, our son’s online Latin class is offered for free by VLACS to New Hampshire residents and is paid for by the public education system. Most other states have similar programs set up. Similarly, our children’s Spanish and choir classes are taught for free.
Misconception 5: Homeschooling parents never have a break from their children.
While this is a potential problem, the truth is that homeschooling parents can indeed have breaks from their children if approached properly, although they certainly have less breaks than if the children are in public schools. As we mentioned above, homeschooled children are largely self-taught, meaning that they do a lot of their work off in a room by themselves. Additionally, involvement of the children in various extra-curricular activities gives parents a break from their children. Breaks can also be realized by swapping baby-sitting with another homeschooling family.
Misconception 6: Homeschooling costs a lot of money.
From our experience, the main physical resources a homeschooled child needs are pencils, paper, and books. Expensive lab equipment, extensive curriculum packages, and paid private tutors are mostly unnecessary. For instance, we tried the Hooked on Phonics reading program, which can cost thousands of dollars if you do the whole program (we borrowed it from a friend). But we found it was more effective to teach each child how to read using a single book containing all of the English phonics rules and corresponding reading exercises (Phonics Pathways by Dolores G. Hiskes, available for about $20). Furthermore, many of the books a child can learn from can be borrowed for free from the local library. Some extra-curricular activities, such as private piano lessons, can indeed get expensive. But this situation is no different than for public-school children. Excluding private music lessons and sports, the amount of money we spend on homeschooling is about $90 per child per year. Sending your child to public school is usually far more expensive than homeschooling, when you factor in the price of a new backpack, new binders, required calculators or computers, registration fees, supplies fees, hall locker fees, bus passes, and the mandatory class fees that are increasingly common. In some school districts, the total out-of-pocket cost to parents of sending one child to public school is now running in the hundreds and sometimes even thousands.
III. Challenges of Homeschooling
Challenge 1: Homeschooling requires a significant amount of time from the parents.
To make homeschooling work, we have found that the parents have to be willing to dedicate large portions of their time to the effort. This statement does not mean that homeschooling parents have to give academic lectures for eight hours straight. Homeschooled children are largely self-taught, as I described above. But it does take a lot of time for us as parents to keep our children on task, run group activities, give occasional explanations, and taxi our children to their various activities. I (Ellen) am a stay-at-home mom and spend most of my time between 8:00 am and 4:00 pm each weekday homeschooling. Additionally, I (Chris) spend about an hour each morning tutoring the children. While we have found this lifestyle to be manageable, it has required that we as parents sacrifice time that otherwise could be spent on household chores, shopping, entertainment, and hobbies. To get the chores done with less time available, we require everyone to help out. Our children do their own laundry, wash most of the dishes by themselves, and help prepare meals.
Challenge 2: Homeschooling is emotionally demanding.
Even the best of children are occasionally whiny, unmotivated, and unkind, which takes an emotional toll on the homeschooling parents as the hours add up. Trying to take care of the needs of our pre-school children while running the homeschool increases the emotional demands. There is no magic solution to make all the emotional demands go away. To some extent, we have accepted that being faced with emotional demands is the price we pay to homeschool. However, we have found that regular small breaks and being involved with other homeschooling families helps somewhat deal with this challenge. For instance, sometimes when I (Ellen) am burned out, I postpone or cancel learning time and send the kids outside to play for an hour. Having the support of my husband has been an emotional relief. On the days when I am burned out, my husband can put the children to bed and take over other family responsibilities.
Challenge 3: Homeschooling requires more planning and initiative.
In a public school setting, textbooks, field trips, schedules, and extra-curricular activities are largely automatic as far as the parents are concerned. In contrast, we have found as homeschooling parents that we have to research out, plan, and arrange all of these elements ourselves. This was especially challenging at the beginning when we did not know where to start. Fortunately, there are many resources available to help homeschooling parents out, and other experienced homeschooling parents are always eager to give guidance.
IV. Our Approach to Homeschooling
Below, we break down our approach to homeschooling into two areas: A. Our Principles of Education, and B. Our Curriculum. Every family is different and will approach homeschooling differently. With this in mind, our comments below are only meant as an example of ideas that homeschooling families should consider, as well as a starting point for new homeschooling families.
A. Our Principles of Education
Our approach to homeschooling is a blend of the principles from the book A Thomas Jefferson Education by Oliver DeMille and the book The Well-Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise. The approach of the Thomas Jefferson Education leans toward less structure, while the approach of the Well-Trained Mind leans toward more structure. As mentioned previously, we use a mixture of structure and flexibility. The main principles from these books that guide our homeschooling efforts are:
- “Parts to whole”. This principle means to us that the best way to learn a complicated subject is to first learn all of the little parts of the subject before trying to learn the subject as a whole. For instance, it is more effective to teach children to read by having them systematically memorize the phonics rules than by just exposing them to a lot of books and hoping they somehow magically guess the phonics rules. For the core subjects of phonics, writing, and mathematics, we apply the parts-to-whole principle by using a set curriculum that includes daily exercises and work problems.
- “Inspire, not require”. This principle means to us that we try as much as possible to inspire our children to learn instead of forcing them to learn. We inspire them by exposing them to the wonders of the world, by asking questions, and by being inspired ourselves to learn. If the parents are genuinely excited to learn about a subject, this excitement can be contagious. Inspiring a children to do schoolwork in a certain subject can also be brought about by taking them to a museum. We have found that certain daily minimum requirements must be set to keep the children progressing, but we try as much as possible to motivate our children to do schoolwork by inspiring them. While the act of learning itself should be the reward that inspires hard work, we have found for younger children that more tangible rewards are needed to inspire them. For instance, every day that a child does their phonics exercises correctly, we give him or her a sticker. After the child completes a hundred pages of phonics exercises, we take him or her out to ice cream. This principle also means that we allow our children to pursue non-core subjects as they feel inspired, which ties in with the next principle.
- “Structure time, not content”. This principle means to us that it is most effective to structure a certain amount of time spent on each subject each day, but not predetermine what specific topic will be covered during that time. As stated previously, we have found that this approach does not work well with the core skills of phonics, writing, and mathematics, but is better suited to the subjects of science, history, art, classic reading, scripture study, and cooking. For example, the children who can read are required to spend a certain amount of time each day reading a classic book, but they are free to choose whatever book they want, as long as it is a classic. We are discovering that, at the high school level, textbooks in technical subjects like math, science and languages are an effective way to learn.
- “Learn with your children”. This principle means to us that when the parents are actively learning on their own time, then they are better able to teach and inspire their children. Learning becomes an exciting way of life for the whole family.
- “Read the classics”. This principle means to us that the best sources of knowledge are books written over 50 years ago that have withstood the test of time. For instance, it is better to get an introduction to Special Relativity by reading the original layman’s book written by Einstein himself and not by reading a third-hand, modernized, poorly-written, watered-down account. It is better to learn about American slavery by reading a classic autobiography written by a slave, such as Frederick Douglass, than by reading a sterilized chapter in a textbook. For technical subjects such as grammar, foreign languages, mathematics and advanced sciences, we believe that classic books should supplement textbooks, and not replace them. This is because good textbooks in these areas are organized to methodically teach technical information in a parts-to-whole fashion. For example, the concepts of geometry are best learned in their mathematically logical order, and not in their historical order.
B. Our Curriculum
- Mathematics. We have discovered the Math-U-See curriculum to be excellent and complete. The curriculum includes material teaching Kindergarten Math all the way up to Calculus. Each grade in the curriculum comes with a workbook, a test book, an instruction textbook with test solutions, and a DVD containing videos of math lectures for each chapter. Using this curriculum, a child that is starting a new chapter watches the DVD lecture for that chapter, reads the chapter in the textbook, works through the chapter’s math problems in the workbook over the course of about a week, takes the chapter’s test in the test book, and finally corrects his own test using the solutions section of the textbook. In this way, each child is gaining an excellent math education in a mostly self-sufficient way. Of course, we as parents occasionally help out when a child gets stuck on a new math concept. We consider the Math-U-See curriculum to be so effective because it takes a systematic, parts-to-whole approach.
- Phonics. We have found the book Phonics Pathways by Dolores G. Hiskes to be excellent and all that is needed to teach a child to read. This book systematically goes through every phonics rule in the English language, teaches the rule, and then provides a page or two of practice words and phrases using that rule. We have found that slowly and systematically leading a child through every word in the book, twice, springboards a second-grade-aged child to a middle-school reading level.
- Spelling. We use the Spelling Workout series by Modern Curriculum Press. While we do not consider these workbooks to be exceptional, we think they are sufficient, and we have not yet found anything better.
- Handwriting. We use the Zaner-Bloser series of handwriting workbooks and are very pleased with them.
- Classic Reading. We require each child to read the scriptures for a set amount of time each day as well as a classic book for a set amount of time each day. The book must be pre-approved by a parent to count as a classic. In our approach, classic books include books like Little House on the Prairie, Little Women, Frog and Toad, Dr. Seuss books, and the Chronicles of Narnia. They do not include books like the Harry Potter series, comic books, the Goosebumps series, or the Babysitter’s Club series.
- Other Subjects. For science class, history class, art class, and cooking class, we do not have a set curriculum, as mentioned previously. Instead, we have our children read through books and work on projects according to their interests. Usually these classes are done together as a family, but sometimes they are done separately.