Tuesday, April 28, 2009

How I Homeschool

The kids took a break from "school" today to build a car for Brown Bear out of masking tape, used CDs, pencils and the place mats off our kitchen table.

When I tell people that we homeschool, I get a variety of responses -- everything from a concerned glance at my children accompanied by an awkward pause to open admiration.

“You are amazing, I could never do that!”

As much as I enjoy being praised, it makes me uncomfortable. I love homeschooling and I don’t want anyone to discount such a rich experience because they imagine it to be out of their reach.

So if the situation allows, I usually tell the admirer how easy it is to homeschool, how little I actually do that resembles “school;” which is then followed by a quiet “oh,” and a concerned glance at my children accompanied by an awkward pause.

I don’t think it takes a trained teacher to take on homeschooling. In fact, I wonder if teachers are at a disadvantage when it comes to teaching outside the classroom. Much of their training has been about engaging an entire class of diverse learners – something I would rather not do.

Homeschoolers focus on kids one at a time, building on the luxury of time and an uninhibited relationship. Learning becomes a lifestyle, an activity so integrated in our life that there is no real barrier between “school time,” and everything else. We all learn -- all the time. We learn together.

Kip and our son fixing the van.

Kip explaining how engines work. I was listening too.

Science instruction is just as likely to happen on Saturday when Dad explains to the 6-year-old how an engine works and later pulls out the science encyclopedia so they can share that information with the 10-year-old.

I’m learning too. Understanding the concept of a keel, that counterweight under our sailboat which should prevent the sailboat from capsizing, was a very helpful bit of information for me. It gave me a lot more peace about sailing. My 10-year-old was the one who explained it to me after spending the morning in a science workshop.

Math is not only a half hour daily lesson, but an ongoing conversation at our house. We talk about math in the kitchen, in the grocery store, in the car.

A few days ago my son figured out that he was approximately 2540 days old. We had just learned about adding equal sums, as in multiplication, and he figured that if he was almost 7 he could multiply 365 times 7 and subtract the days until his birthday. Of course, I helped him with the multiplication, and we didn’t worry too much about leap years, but he came up with the strategy. And understanding strategy in math is more than half the battle.

History at this point in my childrens' lives, is about stories, particularly stories of people. We read biographies together. We listen to books on CD when we are in the car. We read historical fiction, both me reading out loud and my 10-year-old reading on her own. Right now we are enjoying Johnny Tremain, a very exciting story about an apprentice in Boston during the American Revolution. We are all enjoying it.

And the really exciting thing about this learning together is how it expands. I introduce certain ideas to whet our appetites. A few months ago I gave my daughter a simple biography of Hellen Keller. It captured her fascination, so we took the whole family to see a live production of The Miracle Worker. She came home more in love with Anne Sullivan than Hellen Keller.
learning at LACMA

Because I don’t have a particularly strong background in art, music or drama, I take advantage of the many opportunities offered by the urban homeschooling community. We go to art museums and history museums as often as possible. Next month we are going to see Julius Caesar. It will be my kids’ fifth full-length Shakespeare play. The first one I saw was in 10th grade on a school field trip.

I’m not particularly an “unschooler,” those in the homeschooling community will recognize that term. But I do understand that there is a balance between organized academic lessons and giving space to let children explore and learn of their own volition.

Last week, during a particular hot day, I gave up on my intention to “do school,” and let the kids play in the pool all afternoon. After a couple hours of romping around, my daughter grabbed a ball and tried floating on it. She looked kind of like a sea otter playing, but she was staring off into space.



“I’ve been thinking ….

Oh boy

“I know a way people can create electricity without burning stuff.”

She means without creating pollution by burring fossil fuels. We had been learning about electricity, thanks to my 6-year-old's constant questions. We had just read Magic School Bus – The Electric Field Trip, because that is about my level of understanding.


I have told her before that this is one of the great scientific questions of her day, just like the days of Wilbur and Orville Wright when several different inventors were racing to be the first to figure out flight.

“Yeah … and it would solve the homeless problem too because you could give them jobs.”


“You could make this machine, I’ll have to draw it for you later, and people could peddle, like a bicycle and that would create energy.”

She slides into the pool and floats for a minute, and then comes back for the rest of the conversation.

“It would take a lot of people. You could hire homeless people. It would give them jobs.”

She thought for another minute.

“But it would make your arms hurt at the end of the day…. I don’t know if people would want to do it.”

She swam off to swim and think some more.

The conversation made me smile. I love this kid. I love to hear her think.

How much time do kids in school with a zillion extra curricular activities get to think … really think about whatever they want to? I decided we should “skip” school more often. Or at least I should feel less guilty about not “doing school.”

So how difficult is all this really? Reading to your kids? Playing together? Listening to their questions? Going to museums and plays together? Asking questions together? I think the biggest thing you need is just time. And I know that can be expensive. But for me, that is just how homeschooling works.


  1. I wondered what you were writing about as you were furiously typing for three hours last night!