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Best of Homeschool: Self-Guided Education

In pursuit of a good education for my 6 children, I tried several avenues:

1. Let the schools take care of it;

2. Send them to school but keep in touch with the teachers;

3. Send them to a small hands-on private school;

4. Teach at the small hands-on private school;

5. Send them to a big expensive private school;

6. Volunteer-teach at the big expensive private school;

7. Take them out of all the above and educate them at home.

No one child went through all of these phases of mine, but the last few got the best education…

The decision to take them out of school was in part due to my being really tired of putting up with all the collateral guff of having a kid in school. I’m talking about missing homework, report cards, detention, parties invited to or not, friends good and enemies bad, competition, teacher conferences, testing, silly rules, sensible rules, and lots and lots of spin.

Another nudge toward keeping them home came the day I stood in the middle-school office waiting to talk to the principal before we transferred our daughter there. The bell rang, kids came racing out of classes, lockers banged, girls combed their hair in front of their locker mirrors, smacked gum at each other, and ignored the late bell – and I realized 10 minutes had gone by, all wasted.

The final straw was an opportunity we had one year to travel extensively. Except the kids were in school. But what if…?

What if they didn’t go to school, but came with us? Or more realistically, what if they didn’t go to school, and we could do that traveling (because we would never have left them behind)?

I began to take that question seriously. I heard of a university that had a program for the children of traveling professionals, at an affordable price. The trouble was that the program was for grades 9 through 12, and our kids were then in grades 7 and 8. Fortunately they were given an interview and accepted.

In this program they did worksheets, studied, read, and when they were ready, they sent a portion of what they had done to the appropriate university instructor. At the end of the course they took a test monitored by an official testing center. Most of the work they were to do was not going to be seen by anyone – it was just there to teach them the principles of the course. The grade depended on only the few required assignments, plus the test.

So we headed out on our travels with the first several courses in hand, and really quite unprepared in any other way to administer a formal education. The children did have their instruments, a cello and a violin, to practice, but no teacher to report to for the next year.

But a formal education was not our intent. We were more interested in their pursuing their passions and taking the lead for their learning, rather than answering to a teacher’s requirements, and the courses were just there to meet college entry requirements. The prospect of college, a clear goal of theirs, gave structure to their academic pursuits.

We told the children from Day 1 that they could do as much or as little daily schooling as they chose, based on how fast they wanted to be done with high school, and once they declared themselves done for the day, we would not heap more work on them, or give them chores, or make them do something just to fill the time. In other words, they could decide for themselves what level of progress they would like to make, whether to do half a page of math or 5.

This was the first time they had had any autonomy over their education, and it was a big experiment to see what they would decide to do – to goof off or to get on board with taking charge of the rest of their lives. Just because we parents were eager adult learners did not mean that our children at ages 12 and 13 would be!

Most of the early weeks of this version of home education was spent not at our house but in the car. We drove across the country, stopping to see relatives and friends, and local sights. They also were in attendance when their father gave scientific lectures at each of 21 universities. On travel days we got up early and after a quick breakfast hopped back in the vehicle. What would they do as the miles spun by, or in the odd moments between activities?

At first they asked a lot of questions, most of them unnecessary ones. After several days of this, I told them that I was neither the student nor their teacher, that if they needed help understanding something, they could ask, but otherwise it was their work.

Their response to that spin on things was interesting. I think that until that moment they deep-down thought that it really was about what the adults in their life wanted and could be made to pay for or tricked into doing. I know I was a major contributor to this attitude in former years because I love to do math and all they had to do was ask and I was all over it. But no more – we all had changing to do to make this work.

In short order they settled into a routine. They had written down all the courses they needed for college and calculated how many they needed each year, each semester, each month, each day. Then they did that day’s allotment, which usually took them both about two hours. I heard them discussing how old they’d like to be when they went to college, and they settled on 16. The routine continued for the entire trip of several months, and they passed off many courses.

The most fun for us sitting in the front seat of the car was to hear the discussion of history or geology as we drove along. They were taking many of the same courses and enjoyed sharing what they were learning. One was stronger in math and helped with that, while the other had suggestions about writing better compositions. It was chummy, and delightful for the parents to hear.

In their spare time they played their instruments – yes, right there in the car, if necessary. They read a lot of books. But even still their days had many gaps in them, and after a while they began to fill them with interesting projects. One wrote novels, the other wrote string quartets!

One challenge kept arising in our minds despite all the good experiences: what about lab science? We found a solution only after about a year: the local community college didn’t require a high school diploma for a student to take classes, and they could take whatever courses they wanted.

As they continued at the community college, which they adored, we realized the high school diploma and correspondence courses were not necessary for them to go to the university, just good grades at the college. That was not difficult for them, and after a short time of regular study there they were able to fulfill their ambitions: they graduated at 16 and entered the university as juniors, where one majored in physics, the other in history.

This was our version of homeschool, or I should say home-based education. It was never a ‘home classroom’. Whatever its name, it is probably not for every kid, though I’m not sure of that. The success of it came when they took charge of their own educations and were allowed time to explore their interests and make what they would of their hours saved not changing classes and going to their (non-existent!) lockers. They are out of school now (except for one still-in-progress PhD) and are self-motivated, energetic, eclectic learners, the success of any type of education. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.