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Homeschooling - It's A Wonderful Life!
Lillian Jones and family

A chapter from the book See, I Told Me So!, a compilation of homeschoolers' stories edited by Tammy Cardwell

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My homeschooled son, Ethan, is now 22. Long ago, when he was seven, I thought about all the wonderful things we could be doing with our time if he didn't have to report to school. You wouldn't be reading this if you didn't already know about the many kinds of frustrations that school can bring, so I'll skip that part of the story - and I'll tell you some of the things I started to dream of during that last school year, because those things all came true and then some.

I dreamed of our family having freedom to make our own choices. I dreamed of evenings free of useless homework and agonizing study for senseless tests. I dreamed of being able to go out into the world together to see and learn from fascinating historical places and museums. I dreamed of being able to read what we wanted to read when we wanted to read it - late at night, in the morning snuggled under a quilt, or while traveling. I thought about providing opportunities for Ethan to learn comfortably and joyfully in his own style and at his own pace. I also longed for him to be able to have more time with his dad, whose job as an airline pilot kept him away a lot and often gave him days off when Ethan was in school.

My mind was exploding with possibilities, and it was clear that the world was about to open wide to a new way of life. I thought I could probably provide a much better education than a school could - but I was to find that I could do a lot more than I realized. More to the point, my son could do a lot more than I realized!

We should and could have pulled out of school right away, but didn't yet realize that there was no reason to wait for the end of the school year. We later realized that learning obviously doesn't need to come in organized, systematic chunks of time - but at that time we were still intimidated by what we saw as the enormity of the undertaking. In the fall we enrolled in a new home study program with a local public school. It was a friendly program with supportive staff; but it didn't take long to realize that we really didn't need a school to help us figure out how to help a child learn what he needs.

Schools, as we observed in both the public and private ones we experienced, are well intentioned but tend to have ideas that I've since found to be limiting and unfortunate. They put far too much focus on teaching and trying to orchestrate the learning process; while they have far too little respect for the child's natural ability to learn, his curiosity for all kinds of knowledge, his personal learning style, or his own internal knowledge of how he learns best. They're limited by the educational traditions they've inherited in which children are not seen as independently capable and naturally curious learners but as empty vessels that need to be methodically coaxed, controlled, and filled with a predetermined body of facts. They're also trying to provide the same education to rooms full of children at the same time, and are therefore a lot more limited in what they can provide for individuals.

Homeschoolers discover that there really isn't one neat package of information that our children need to learn or one neat way of learning it. There's a whole big wonderful world of possibilities, and the basic skills needed for learning can be easily mastered in a fraction of the time required in a school setting, especially when a child is able to learn on his own developmental schedule.

When we started homeschooling, I soon found, to my great surprise, that my son was rapidly learning things on his own that I couldn't have dreamed of. I had thought I'd be a good teacher, what I hadn't realized was that he would be his own best teacher.

One day, for example, we started out on a long drive in the car, and I handed him some little books I wanted him to read to me while I drove - Little Bear, and Frog and Toad books. We hadn't been "working with reading" for a while, and I was getting anxious about it, so I thought we could make good use of the time on the road to "catch up." He was disappointed, and said he'd planned on reading his Nintendo Power magazine on the trip. I insisted that we needed to "work on" his reading. We went back and forth. If my anxiety had been registered on a meter, the needle would have been banging on the high end! We were "behind." I wondered what had ever made me think we were capable of homeschooling? Finally, he whined, "Well, can't I just read you my Nintendo Power?" Anxiety rising, and assuming he was just looking at pictures in that magazine, I called his bluff with, "Fine! You do that!" Well, he did. He opened the book and began to read long, relatively technical passages with multi-syllable words. He had taught himself to read beyond the Little Bear, and Frog and Toad, level because he wanted the information he could find in books that required more advanced reading. By the way, I've heard a number of other moms share almost identical stories.

And that's the way it works - our minds learn easily from our natural inner pursuit of knowledge. I saw that dynamic demonstrated for the rest of our homeschooling years. About the time I'd start to wonder how best to provide ways for him to learn a subject, I'd turn around and find that he'd already learned it. I read to him a lot - wonderful books that we both loved - and provided lots of stimulation, interesting materials, and fascinating field trips. Rather than being a teacher and lesson planner, I was his facilitator.

I made my share of mistakes, and spent far too much on materials, as most of us do. Not only can it be a waste of money, but the investment adds the stress of feeling that the child should use those things, when it's so often not at all necessary for learning a subject. I would urge anyone starting out to refrain from immediately buying a packaged curriculum or a host of other materials. It takes very little to learn the basics, and an amazing amount can be learned from interesting books, films, software, educational TV and videos, conversation, field trips, games, colorful websites with activity ideas, free printouts you can also find on the Internet, and eventually special interest clubs or classes. It's much most important to relax, enjoy your child, trust yourself and your child, and have fun exploring and learning together. For more on this, see the article, The Relevance of Learning Materials and Classes to Homeschooling.

It's great to have a few good books to refer to occasionally to help ease your mind when the inevitable anxieties arise, and some of my favorites are the ones by Linda Dobson, Rebecca Rupp, Donn and Jean Reed, David Albert, and the classic The Unschooling Handbook, by Mary Griffith. Home Education Magazine was always a great resource to have coming to the house every other month - it's so nice to have a friendly reminder on the coffee table that you're not alone.

You'll find that there is no common agreement on "how to do it," and that's a good thing, because your family is like no other. Great support also comes from getting involved in homeschooling support groups in your local area and on the state level - that's where my son found a very active social life.

I really think the best person to tell about a homeschooling experience is the homeschool grad himself, so I've posed some questions below to Ethan - but first a few words from his dad:

I had more trepidation than my wife as we began homeschooling. I had come out of a very traditional schooling regime. I well remember my concern when Ethan was not obviously reading at a very early age. I would become worried each time I felt he was missing some aspect of his education, then relax as it became clear that he had indeed learned what was needed. As I watched Ethan and his friends mature, one of the satisfactions was noticing how short the adolescent period seemed. They appeared to have long childhoods followed by a very short adolescence, and then moved smoothly to being adults. To my knowledge, none of them have had problems with drugs, alcohol, or the other traditional escapes of the early years. On several occasions I have watched as they solved interpersonal problems as a group in a remarkably mature fashion. There seems to be very little of the cliquish behavior I remember from my school years. Homeschooling has worked very well for us, and I now have absolutely no regrets about our choice.

Observations and a few words of advice for you from Ethan:

What did you find to be the greatest benefits and drawbacks of homeschooling?

I enjoyed having so much time with my family, and time to pursue my own interests without the feeling of constant pressures that schools present. I think homeschooling is a much more relaxed and healthy environment. I always had the freedom to follow my interests, so it gave me confidence in being able to accomplish whatever I needed to accomplish later in life. The freedom gave me the ability to easily learn whatever I need to learn - I never got burnt out on the idea of learning.

What, if anything, did you find most lacking? Do you think there were gaps in your education?

"I can't think of anything I found lacking in my experience - it's given me an appreciation of all the possibilities in life and in the world, and the confidence to go out and find them. I think homeschoolers can have some gaps in their education that might not be there if they went to school, and some might have no gaps at all - but most of my gaps in knowledge were not things that I consider very important. On the other hand, I think kids who go to school usually have bigger gaps than homeschoolers in terms of information that's important for living in the real world. I think homeschooling provides a superior education to school in almost every way.

My homeschool friends and I didn't think about learning - we just lived and learned. Friends in school thought of learning as a separate activity from life that was usually a burden or a chore - they thought of learning in the same way that people often think of work.

When I started junior college classes, because it was my first experience since the first grade of a classroom, I was expecting it to be a big challenge and something that would take a lot of getting used to. But I found it was actually effortless because I was interested in what was going on, and I thought of learning as something fun and interesting; whereas many of the other kids in class had a really hard time because they were just trying to get the grade to move on to whatever was next for them. They didn't think of what they were doing as gaining knowledge, they thought of it as just another hoop to jump through - that's how burned out they were by high school."

What about socialization?

Don't worry about that. I had lots of friends of all kinds. You tend to interact with a wide range of ages, which isn't something you get in school and is much more reflective of the real world - I think it prepares you better. You can get involved with other homeschoolers - in my area there was a large group and we did all sorts of activities together: sports days, science club, field trips, and lots of other activities. Outside of that, there are things like martial arts classes, scouts, community sports, drama classes, and neighborhood friends. I think these things tend to work themselves out. It's harder for some people who are more geographically isolated, but I've known some families that were relatively isolated, and they enjoyed homeschooling. If you are isolated, then I think it's important to do what you can to keep your kids engaged with fun and interesting activities, whatever that might mean in your situation.

What are some of your favorite homeschool memories?

"I can't list my favorite homeschooling memories, because homeschooling the way we did it is broad enough that that's almost like asking, 'What are some of your favorite memories from your life.' It wasn't a series of daily class times. It was constant. I went on several outdoor education adventures with other homeschoolers during my teen years, for instance, and we learned a great deal about ecology and the environment - and even mathematics and other subjects. We learned from the trip leaders, but to a much larger extent from one another. We'd get into great conversations and discuss all sorts of topics that were important to various individuals on the trip.

What have you and your friends been doing since you finished homeschooling?

"I have taken classes that interested me at the local junior college and I just finished spending a year in Chicago volunteering full time at a soup kitchen through the AmeriCorps program. I'm going to be applying for colleges, so I'm studying for the SAT right now. I took some practice tests and found that I needed to do almost no work for the verbal section of the SAT, as it came quite intuitively. I always loved reading, and homeschooling provided time and freedom to pursue literature that interested me. Math is something I've been working on. I never concentrated on it when I was homeschooling, but you'd be surprised how much you can learn at my age in a few weeks compared to the few years it would take in your early teens - and I now find that I'm really enjoying it. That's partly because of age, but also because I care about it more now that it has some practical application.

My homeschooled friends are doing a wide variety of things:

As for the ease of getting into college, I had one friend who had trouble getting into a highly competitive technical school of his choice (they wanted to see proof of good grades from outside the home), but he ended up in a college he was perfectly satisfied with. The rest of my friends have had no problems at all. Colleges don't tend to have a problem with admitting homeschoolers, but some want to see proof of good grades earned outside of home - and work at community college can satisfy that need.

Ten or so homeschooled friends and I are in the beginning phase of creating a sort of task force, for lack of a better term, to help with causes important to all of us. We're creating resumes of all our skills, talents and connections, linking them all together to find our strengths as a group and then deciding what we can apply ourselves to most effectively. Due in part to our homeschooling backgrounds, we have all led wildly different lives and possess completely different skill sets."

What is your best advice to someone contemplating homeschooling?

My advice? Just relax and do it, and it will be fine. It's understandable, and in large part unavoidable, that you'll be worried when you make as big a decision as homeschooling. No amount of positive success stories will completely eliminate the fear that you may be making a mistake with your child's education - but give it time, trust in your child and in yourself, and you will find that soon you're the one comforting new homeschoolers, telling them that yes, they made the right decision, and yes, their child will be just fine. Successful homeschooling is something that's hard to describe unless you've seen it and seen it's results, in part because it can take as many forms as there are families. It's not a difficult thing to accomplish. There's a huge community of people out there doing it right along with you and it's important to realize that you can find support in them.

Added note from Lillian: Ethan did well on the SAT he was studying for, was happily surprised to receive scholarship offers, and is now enjoying studies at his first choice of colleges.

Copyright 2005 Lillian Jones

This is a chapter from the book, See, I Told Me So!, a compilation of encouraging stories by a number of homeschooling parents who once asked themselves if they could do it, decided that they could - and have now happily completed the homeschool journey with their kids. The authors' royalties will go to Project Noah (a project that was born out of Tropical Storm Allison that did widespread damage in June of 2001 in Texas) to help homeschooling families in need of books and curricula.. You can read more about the book, and place an order on this web page: See, I Told Me So!.

Lillian Jones, the editor of BestHomeschooling, once trained to be a teacher and taught in public schools for a short time before realizing that she didn't feel comfortable in the system. Later, while homeschooling her son, she found that teacher training was much more of a hindrance than a help. She has long been active in homeschooling activism and online support, especially with the HomeSchool Association of California. Her writing has been published in a number of popular publications and books about homeschooling, most recently in the book, See, I Told Me So!. She now pursues her lifelong passion for art, painting and traveling.

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