Thursday, November 12, 2015

Tips for New Homeschoolers: You Can Do This!!

As the Homeschool Resources Director for eXL Learning in Denver, I field a lot of questions from panicked parents pulling their kids from "regular" school. They tend to be the same questions, so I thought I'd write up my answers here. These are, of course, my opinion, based on my own experiences as a homeschooling parent, my conversations with other homeschooling parents from many different approaches to homeschooling, my training as a multiage teacher, and my experiences tutoring kids who attend school. If you have any other questions, please post them in comments and I will add them!

How do I choose the right curriculum? 

This is the first thing homeschooling parents ask. They are comparing their ideas of school to their projected ideas about homeschooling, thinking they have to cover EVERYTHING that school "covers" and do it well. Obviously we want our kids to get a good education, whether that means school or homeschool. I remind parents, though, that regular school is about managing 30 kids with divergent needs. Homeschooling is about one kid, or maybe three or seven. These are kids who have grown up with your rules and guidelines. In school teachers spend several WEEKS working on procedures like lining up, turning in homework, and using inside voices before they even get to  actual curriculum. Then their days are divided into blocks of time broken up by recess, trips, assemblies, and those very procedures. Homeschool doesn't have to work like that, and you can get lessons done in much less time, whether you do formal lessons to go through a math book, for instance, or whether you learn mostly from life. So first off, don't think about recreating the hours of school at home. In other words, you don't have to fill up six hours of every day doing "curriculum." School doesn't cover everything, anyway. Not even close. See the section below on gaps.

As a homeschooler, you don't have to teach to any test. You don't have to satisfy Common Core. You do have to make sure your kid can multiply and divide at a certain point in order to move on to algebra and do advanced science, but this can be taught in SO MANY WAYS. At my house for math we cook, shop, play Lego, garden, watch the weather, play games like Speedy Eddy and Cribbage, and do some work with manipulatives and even workbooks. In other content areas, we play outside, read lots of books, watch Youtube, go to the science museum and the Botanic gardens, play Minecraft and Angry Birds, draw, paint, ask questions, clean the house, care for the chickens, take the cats to the vet, and write blog posts. A whole lot of the basics and a whole lot of "extra" stuff gets learned this way.

But I recognize that many parents don't feel safe learning this way, and they want an assurance that they are "covering" everything. What I suggest in terms of choosing more formal curriculum is to discover how your child learns and what he or she is interested in or drawn to, and then go from there. One of my kids learns online, especially visual things that she can do. So she learns a lot of math through Minecraft. Did you know, for instance, that in order to craft things they use grids, which use multiplication and division without the player even thinking about it? Take a moment to have them teach you about the grids, and then point out the math they are using. It's not even hidden or fancy math. I promise. My other kid learns by creating in the real world - Kinex, Lego, cardboard boxes. We learn math and story-crafting and art and science through making things. For instance, the other day they got out his old wooden trains. He played with making a hill that would give a train enough speed to go over the next hill. He pointed this out to me. I said, "Hey, there's a thing in science that says exactly what you are doing. Force is equal to mass times acceleration. What happens when you make the hill taller and the train a different weighted (massed) train?" (By the way, I didn't remember F=ma from my own school days. I was reminded of it from a young adult book I recently read. I find that these "coincidences" happen all the time - I read it in a book or talk about it with a friend and then it comes up with my kids. This happens in school, too, but because teachers are trying so hard to quantify and measure everything they don't have time to follow those tracks of learning.)

Okay, there I go, getting away from formal curriculum again. And yes, I get that you fear that you won't cover things or know enough stuff to teach it. So what I do when I wonder about gaps is that I go to the Colorado Department of Education page and look at state standards. What have we covered just by living and reading? What have we not covered? Then I order books from the library or watch Crashcourse Youtube videos or BrainPOP to poke our toes in those things that didn't just come up. I also like BrainQuest workbooks. You can pick and choose, covering everything from each grade.

One last thing about curriculum: You do not have to cover EVERYTHING right now. This is not like buying a house, where if you get it wrong you're screwed for a good long time. This is more like choosing a restaurant. Try this one, stick with it a while, try another, find out you don't care for it, ask your friend what they like. It's a journey.

I don't know anything about technology/math/art/science...

Learn it together. Watch videos or read books together. Look stuff up online. A recent article in The Atlantic talks about learning technology together and considering yourself a mentor. This goes for ANY subject. Do it together. You will be giving your kids several important gifts: they learn the information, but they also learn that it's okay to re-learn things, that it's great to be a lifelong learner and here's how to go about it.

How do I teach grammar/Shakespeare/calculus?

Your kids do not have to have a master's degree level of knowledge in everything. Dabble, explore, learn together. For things they are interested in and you have no interest in, sign them up for a class. Show them how to find books and websites on the subject. Teach them how to learn.

Am I teaching them to be dependent on me?

Nope. You are teaching them to learn. The kids I tutor who go to school have been told what to do each step of the way. That teaches them dependence on persons of power to figure out how to do just about anything. What a gift to our kids to teach them how to learn on their own as well as with other people.

What do I do about the "gaps" in their education?

Do you remember everything from your schooling? Do the neighborhood kids know everything and know it well? Everyone has gaps. The key is to raise kids who value curiosity and inquiry more than doing well on a test.

What about that whole socialization piece? My kids are shy/outgoing/bossy/something else...

There is socialization - learning the rules of our society - and there is socializing - hanging out with other people. Homeschool kids learn socialization by going to the grocery store, playing at the park, participating in family holidays, just living. They learn manners and how to get things done. They SOCIALIZE with people of all ages and all personality types. Studies were done that found that kids in same-age groups tend to bully and compete, whereas children in mixed-age groups behaved in more positive social behaviors like helping, teaching, and being kind. All people are shy or bossy or anxious or whatever; these traits have nothing to do with homeschooling, and in fact homeschoolers in mixed groups tend to have more authentic interactions that help them balance out any social challenges.

I don't want my kid to suffer because of my shortcomings...

Isn't that what all parents fear? a) They probably will no matter what. b) When you homeschool, you show your kids how important they are to you. You show your kids that you are listening when they say school isn't working for them. You help them find a just-right-sized spot in the world for them. What a huge gift. Life is suffering, but giving your kids a solid foundation of knowing who they are and how to work with their strengths and weaknesses will give them innumerable tools to navigate the big world we live in. And guess what? You will grow as a person by homeschooling your kids. That's another blog post, but let's just say I have become a better person by spending so much time with my intense, smart, lovely, challenging children. Again, we have learned together how to be good people in the world.


Finally...

So many parents, both veteran homeschoolers and those who just pulled their kids out of school of whatever age, fear they have something to prove because they are bucking the system. You have nothing to prove. You have already shown your kid, which is who matters here, that you value him and his feelings and education. Doesn't matter what the school system or your in-laws or the neighbors think. You have nothing to prove to them. This is a journey about your family. It's just as private and important as your religion or your dietary needs or your health. It isn't easy, but the payoff is huge. Don't, however, worry about the payoff. Just take each day, each week, each month, each year at a time, and watch the awesomeness unfold.

You can do this.