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The Right Way to Homeschool
by Leslie Murgatroyd

Before I pulled my eight and ten year old children out of the school system, I had become friends with a neighbor who was already homeschooling. I asked her if I could come over one day, to “watch” so I could “see” how they homeschooled. When I arrived, my friend was folding clothes on the kitchen table and one of her sons was lying on the floor (in his pajamas, mind you!) doing some sort of “school work”– math, I think it was. The other boy was sitting on the couch reading. They would occasionally ask her questions and she would occasionally remind them of something else they needed to “do”. And that was about it! Not at all what I had pictured in my mind!

I came away thinking, “I can do that!” I also still had this mental picture of us sitting around the kitchen table (not on the floor!) “doing school.” So, that's where we started...at the kitchen table...eventually.

Initially, we just had fun! We went on hikes, picked wild flowers and pressed them, had picnics in our front yard, read lots of books aloud, frequented the library, baked, experimented with baking soda and vinegar... One day we walked to the local cemetery. There, we studied “math” as the kids tried to figure out how old the people were when they died (1916 − 1995 = 79). We also discussed the differences in our lives now and in the life of someone who was born in 1916 (the beginning of “unschooling”? Nah...there is no way I could do THAT!).

Then I decided it was time to DO something. So, I started looking at curricula. One of my “complaints” about the public school system was that it had not been academic enough. Too much time was wasted teaching the kids how to recycle, how to wash their hands and tie their shoes, and so forth. I wanted those academics! I wanted my kids to memorize the multiplication tables and diagram sentences! After all, that's what I did when I went to school, right?

I ordered books from a popular curriculum publisher after attending one of their “motel meetings.” My kids now had language books, books to improve their reading speed and comprehension, history books, health books and reading books. We were all set! I also got a popular set of math textbooks, with the company's box of manipulatives and all!

I even made up a schedule, allowing the kids to sleep in a little, of course. We started our “school day” at 9 and ended by 1 or 2. This was the life, as far as I could tell! The best of both worlds my children were getting the proper instruction, and the one-on-one attention they needed, yet there was still plenty of “free time” for them. I smugly sat back in my chair to watch.

Lo and behold...the kids came to me one day and said, “This is just like 'school.' We might as well still be in public schools!” (insert a whiny tone of voice). Imagine my complete surprise! I had thought I was doing everything “just right.”

“Okay,” I thought, “so we'll toss out some of the 'books' but not the math book!” My son started watching a lot of TV. Things like the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet...and I mean, hour after hour...and he started to read...book after book. I was amazed at what he was learning. I was frequently heard saying “WHERE did you learn THAT?” It might be an absolutely gorgeous day outside, but instead of wanting to go out and play, he'd often be inside...watching tv...usually, the History Channel.

My daughter started taking a quilting class. She had never learned that lost art of “sewing” before...didn't have the time. I was amazed at the fabrics she selected for her quilt–absolutely gorgeous and very creative. I could never have put those fabrics together in my own mind to come up with a quilt like that. She's made two more since then, and always dazzles me with her ability. She has also made herself clothes, and adorable pillow shams for her bed.

Meanwhile, it wasn't long before the math texts produced tears in the eyes of my kids. They learned to hate math. So, out went those books along with the others. I was starting to get a very nice collection of slightly used curricula!

We decided as a family to start going places and doing things. We spent time in Yosemite, walked across the Golden Gate Bridge, canoed, ferried, went to museums, zoos, to Canada, interesting factories, and every water park we could find. We also attended our state homeschooling organization's family camping trip and The California Home=Education Conferences. We were having fun...and the kids were learning.

They might not have been learning the same things as their peers in the public schools, but they were truly learning–not just memorizing for the next test. They were learning about things they wanted to learn about–not just what some government employees decided they should learn. Hmmm...maybe this “unschooling” thing was something we should consider?

My kids became even more involved in the 4-H Program. They took projects in: model rocketry, dog obedience, market sheep, horse, breeding sheep, quilting, small engines, rabbits, leadership, dog agility, horsemanship, arts & crafts, market beef, babysitting/CPR, and electricity. Their 4-H Record Books became our language program! Weighing animals, increasing and decreasing feeds, became part of our math program.

At some point in there, I had my first major PPA (Parental Panic Attack). I decided that the kids really needed to “learn” math. So out came the math textbooks again. And out came the tears again! I was forced to find something different, and I discovered some workbooks (Key Curriculum) that went over much better than the other textbooks had.

My son is an unschooler by nature. He has proven this to me over and over again. Despite my interference! He does not learn from reading a textbook–he is still allergic to textbooks...any size, any shape, any form. He can learn, however, by reading the maintenance manual for his Yamaha dirt bike! He can learn from watching TV shows. He learns from all the books he loves to read! He learns from life itself. He knows a lot about auto maintenance, just from watching his dad! And I guess that's what unschooling is all about! I don't tell many people that he “unschools” because most people don't understand what that means. I still don't understand exactly what that means. I just see that it works...for my son.

My daughter is a little more eclectic. She doesn't have allergies to textbooks, although there aren't many that appeal to her. She has occasionally asked me to purchase some for her, and I do. She's more likely to want to be like her peers. They have books, they do assignments...and she'll give that a try. I'm wondering how far she'll get with the Basic College Math book I recently bought her... But, she's happy to know that if she doesn't like a particular book that I've bought, she won't be made to use it. (Someday, I'm going to get rich from the Recycled Resource Room at the state homeschool conference!) But she also learns from life. She volunteers at our local vet clinic...says that she might want to be a vet some day. She is taking on more and more leadership roles in 4-H...last year treasurer of the club...this year president!

I used to be very supportive of the public school system... I volunteered in classrooms, was treasurer of the PTA, headed school fundraisers, was on Site Council, etc. I even worked as a teacher's aid for several years! All this was part of trying to make it better for my children. Then I realized that it wasn't going to work. It was time to bring them home, where they belonged in the first place. I had always been one of “those” parents...you know, the one who looked forward to spring, summer, and Christmas vacations...the one who was sad in the fall when the kids went back to school. You know the type...we are far and few between! I quit my job as a Medical Assistant so that I could be home with them. My husband works overtime, so that I don't have to. It's not always easy being a one-income family but it is worth it!

So that's how we have homeschooled in the five years since we began. We've gone from “School at Home” to being eclectic unschoolers. What I have learned from all of this is that there is no right or wrong way to homeschool. It gets back to my basic philosophy in life: “whatever works!” It's been hard, for me, because I'm the kind of person that wants to be sure I am doing things “right.“ It was hard for me to realize that there is no “right” way when it comes to homeschooling. But, my kids are teaching me that. Loud and clear!


Leslie Murgatroyd is the mother of 3 children (22, 14 and 12). She and her husband, Jim, have made homeschooling a lifestyle for the past 5 years. She spends many hours volunteering for the 4-H Program as a Project Leader, Community Club Leader and as Council Treasurer. In her “free time” she enjoys camping and traveling with her family. She is currently learning more about scrapbooking, dutch oven cooking and digital photography. She shares her daughter's love for animals and often smells like either sheep or horses! Her son's share their father's enthusiasm for the “iron horses”, aka motorcycles.


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