I hope that this will be the first in a trilogy of posts on alternative education on Shinemama. This one is perhaps the most practical and sticks to the facts, looking at how my family handles home education from day to day. There will be more philosophical thoughts on alternative education coming soon.
I started home educating my two daughters four months ago. A is nine years old (grade 3) and M is six (grade 1). The choice to HE came suddenly and was somewhat pushed onto us after difficulties at school.
We suspected this might happen and had our ‘plan’ mostly worked out, but it was still a big plunge into the unknown, and like opting for a home birth, it felt like a maverick move. Surely education, like birth must be handled by professionals.
Well, the first thing we did was discuss it with the children. I wanted them to be fully involved in the decision-making (and they were both certain they would prefer home schooling). Legally and technically speaking, home schooling is simple in California. There is a small amount of paperwork to fill out and file and then you can call yourself a private school. There must be a curriculum and attendance records must be kept but the curriculum can cover whatever the educator chooses. There are other options such as enrolling in a charter school or in ‘CAVA’ the Californian Virtual Academy, an online public school.
We opted for the K12 computer-based curriculum. CAVA also uses K12 and provides not only free access to K12 but also free computers for your children. However it comes with the drawback that you must answer to a supervising teacher. We felt we needed a little more space than that to ‘deschool’ the girls and figure out their needs.
I love the theory of unschooling and learning from life experiences, but I think within unschooling, children will still choose to learn about certain topics which will require reading and studying. Therefore, I really don’t have any concerns about providing a structured curriculum to cover the basics. The girls seem to enjoy this style of learning.
Currently, they are both taking Maths, Language Arts (English), History, Science, Art and Music. They are also taking Spanish through the K12 ‘Powerspeak’ add-on, a program which cleverly awards them play money for activities which they can spend on accessories for their avatars. I don’t think the music module is helpful – they learn far more in private piano class, but history, science and art are wonderful for introducing a huge variety of topics with lovely materials and activities.
Our days are pretty relaxed. The girls go to an outside activity five days a week – riding, gymnastics, dance and piano so that they see other kids and experience other teaching styles. I know there are several home school groups around but we just don’t seem to find time! So many places offer home school classes too. The science museum has excellent ones and private teachers love the fact the children can take classes in the daytime.
At home, we usually spend a couple of hours a day on computer-based classes. Generally we always do maths and English then pick from the other subjects. It’s flexible so we can have a day off or do extra. When we work, I tend to sit on the sofa with M and the laptop. We talk and read and complete activities. A is pretty much autonomous but I don’t want her to feel bored or abandoned so we talk and check in with each other and go over her assessments when she tells me what she learned in each lesson.
I also share the teaching with the other adults in the house. This tends to work out pretty well. We’ve found it has given us all more of an insight into how exactly the children are doing – there are no surprises or unpleasant phone calls from school. We also have a good understanding of their learning styles. Homework had become such a stresspoint for us at school – we only saw half the picture.
The rest of the time, the children play around the house or help out with cooking or shopping. A likes lego, building and science. M likes stories and dressing up. They both read. And read. And read. We’re lucky in San Diego to have so many museums and the zoo on our doorstep. There are always places to go and we never seem to be bored.
We don’t have many rules but I had to lay down a few guidelines. The girls’ computers are restricted so that the girls can only use approved sites during the day. Education City, Mathletics, BBC Schools and so on. No Club Penguin before 5pm! We also had to put a restriction on comic books and ‘Rainbow Fairies’ during ’school hours’ – there are so many other books to choose from.
In reality, our school hours are very flexible. We tend to sleep in and stay up later. This leaves evenings free for guilt-free dinner out or activities like laser quest. There’s none of the ’school night’ worry. Lessons are fairly short so we fit them around our activities.
There is a downside to HE. Sometimes I would love more time to myself and I wonder what the future holds. Ideally, I suppose I would like to have work based at home so I can both work and HE. The issues which I thought would worry me most have worked themselves out though. Socialisation is no problem – we seem to be out and about more than ever. The girls insist they have no wish to return to school.
I was concerned about keeping up with grade levels but it amazes me how much work we can do in a very short time. I feel M in particular can do more work in a day at home than she did in a week at school. The classes on K12 are very focussed with specific and clear learning objectives. They’re not endless worksheets and repetition. I find the curriculum very thorough too. Occasionally a little too thorough.
M desperately needs one on one attention and when she has it, she can soar but this just wasn’t feasible at school. At home it is no problem.
And what I love is that the children can explore subjects in as much detail as they choose. If something catches their interest, we can pull out books, visit museums and drift off on a flight of adventure to learn more whether it’s cooking or crochet or computer programming or Mandarin!
Overall, it’s been easier than I expected. It’s not for everyone as not everyone wants to be tied to the home like this (sometimes I question whether I do!) but I do think anyone could do it, especially with a good curriculum and teaching guide (such as K12) to help. We have also worked hard (with a little help from the IKEA Trofast shelving system!) to provide an organised, Montessori-influenced environment where the girls have access to materials and activities so that they can explore whatever they choose when they want.