How to get an Education at Home
by Pat Farenga


There is a revolution going on in education, but it is not happening in schools. It is happening in the homes of American families in every state. It is happening every time a family decides to help its children learn at home instead of sending them to school. Fourteen years ago there were roughly 10,000 children being homeschooled; now there are upwards of 600,000 children learning at home. If you and your children are not pleased with your schools and you are tired of waiting for them to change, then you can do something now and join the growing ranks of people who homeschool.
It is impossible to generalize about the "typical" homeschooling family any more than you can about the "typical" family whose children attend schools. Homeschoolers include traditional, middle-class two parent households, single parents, low-income families, families with parents or children who have physical disabilities, and two income families. Some homeschool solely for religious reasons; some homeschool solely for pedagogical reasons. Many homeschool for mixtures of both reasons, and many others homeschool simply because they enjoy being with their children and watching them learn. Some homeschoolers live in rural communes; others live in midtown Manhattan. Some homeschooling parents have only high school diplomas, others have doctorates. It is not necessary to have a teaching certificate to homeschool effectively. None of these examples are conjectural; families homeschooling under these and other conditions have been writing to us at Growing Without Schooling with their stories for over fourteen years. All sorts of people homeschool, and you can too.
You might think that homeschooled children are limited by their parents' expertise, experience, and knowledge. If we view teaching as the filling up of an empty bottle with the teacher's knowledge then this concern makes sense. With only one or two people pouring into the child's "bottle" it makes sense that the child will only learn what they pour in. However, homeschooling allows you to depart from the "bottle" model of school learning and follow a different concept of how children learn.
My friend, the late John Holt, wrote about how people learn throughout his ten books about education. He spent the better part of his life demonstrating that we can trust children to learn all the time. John observed that for children under school age, living and learning are interconnected, but once they enter school, the two are separated. Learning is supposed to take place in special buildings called schools, and living takes place outside of school. But from the moment children are born they learn from everything they have access to, not just from special teachers and places. Children learn to walk and talk with little or no formal teaching from us parents. Several studies have noted that homeschooled children consistently test at or above grade level when compared to their schooled age-mates, regardless of the degrees attained or teacher certification of their parents. Washington, Alaska, and Alabama are three states that have studied and reported this. This proves not only that we can trust our children to learn, but that we can trust ourselves to be effective teachers for our children.
"But I'm not good at math," you may be thinking. "How could I be a good homeschooling parent?" First, homeschoolers use a wide variety of resources and learning materials. Some feel more comfortable beginning with a fairly traditional curriculum, and many different ones are readily available. Other families follow a less conventional approach, learning according to their own time tables and taking advantage of individual learning. Many parents find homeschooling greatly stimulates their own thinking and creativity and provides them with new learning opportunities.
Homeschoolers also think very hard about friends, relations, neighbors, and co-workers who have expertise in areas their children want to explore. We hear many stories about how non-family members offer considerable help with a child's home education. One child decided she wanted to learn more math than her mother was familiar with. Her mother found a math tutor for her. Another story is about how a boy learned a great deal about computer programming from adults he met at his church and through Scouts. Amber Clifford, a sixteen-year-old horneschooler from Missouri, wrote to us about her interest in archaeology, something her parents know nothing about. "I was able to do the reading and studying on my own, but my parents helped me find the resource people that I needed and took me to the places that I needed to see. We're in a town with a university, so when I was interested in fossils, my mother called the geology department and got the professor to talk to me. I didn't know how to go about finding someone, and she did, so this is where she was really helpful to me."
Some of you may feel that the children I am describing are special, that homeschoolers are taking the best and most motivated children out of school and leaving school with the dregs. The fact is that many of the children now flourishing in homeschools were not flourishing in school. Some parents began homeschooling children who had been labeled "learning disabled" in school, and they watched their children lose their LD behavior. Other homeschoolers have children for whom school was not challenging enough, and they teach them at home using materials and experiences that match their needs. Some homeschooled children are late readers, not learning to read until they are ten or so. Grant Colfax, a homeschooled. child who graduated from Harvard and is now in medical school, didn't learn to read until he was nine. Woodrow Wilson, who was homeschooled, learned to read when he was eleven. Children like Colfax and Wilson develop other talents and skills while they are young, and when they do learn to read they do so without special difficulty. In school these late readers would be immediately segregated and treated for these academic deficiencies, and they would be held back from other learning opportunities until they could read at their grade level. It is simply not true that all homeschoolers would be winners in school anyway.
Despite the diversity of methods and reasons for homeschooling, there is one thing each and every homeschooler has in common: they all asked, "How will your children be socialized if they don't go to school?"
Homeschooling allows children to participate and learn in the real world. It allows them to mix with much younger and much older people, take courses as they want or need them, and apprentice with people they can learn from in the community. Homeschoolers play with their friends in their neighborhood and make friends with other homeschoolers. A young homeschooler in Pennsylvania wrote to us about their experience volunteering at a home for disabled kids; a family from California wrote to us about their son's work in a soup kitchen. Many families write to us about how their children participate in community theater, give music lessons to younger children in their neighborhood, share hobbies with fellow enthusiasts of all ages. Homeschoolers have apprenticed at historical societies, veterinarian's offices, architecture firms, nature centers, and many other places. Serena Gingold, a homeschooled youngster from California, wrote to us about her inolvement in local politics: "I've written letters to the editor about my opinions. You really learn a lot about opinions when you publicly voice your own. I've also been publicly criticized, and my county fair projects were censored because they were 'too political' (actually because I was too political for a kid). One letter in the paper criticized me for being a kid and having opinions! People always say I should go to school so I learn about the real world, but I'm living in the real world!"
Certainly group experiences are a big part of education, and homeschoolers have plenty of them. Homeschoolers write to us about how they form or join writing clubs, book discussion groups, and local homeschooling support groups. Homeschoolers also take part in school sports teams and music groups, as well as the many public and private group activities our communities provide. For example, Kristin Williams of Michigan recently wrote to our magazine, Growing Without Schooling, about how they meet many different types of people. "We're a black family living in a racially and economically mixed neighborhood," she writes. "...We don't really go out looking for people who are different from ourselves. Many come through the family: a cousin has an Arab-American girlfriend, another had a Japanese mother-in-law, another is married to an Afro-Canadian, one to a Polish-American, still another to a Jamaican and one to a Nigerian." She writes how through church, 4-H club, and neighbors they have encountered and enjoyed many different types of people. At home they play tapes of foreign music, listen to overseas shortwave radio broadcasts, cook ethnic foods, go to international fairs and multi-cultural worship services.
Horneschoolers can and do experience other people and cultures without going to school.
The flipside of socialization is solitary reflection. Homeschooling allows children to have some time alone, time to pursue their own thoughts and interests. Children, like adults, need time to be alone to think, to muse, to read freely, to daydream, to be creative, to form a self independent of the barrage of mass culture.
A British man once remarked to me how amazing it was to him that Americans expect schools to socialize their children. "I always thought the social graces were taught at home," he said. This observation is supported by a recent study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. This study tracked how childhood experiences - in and out of school - affected adult development over a 36-year period. The study concluded that the only factor that showed a significant effect by itself on children's social maturity and their later social accomplishment as adults was "parental warmth and affection."
You may find that you teach your children at home for just a semester, for a year, or forever. The choice is yours, not school's. The entry or reentry of homeschooled children into the classroom appears to be no different than for those who transfer into a school from another district.
Homeschooling works because schooling is not the same thing as education. School is not the only place to learn, to grow up. Universities and colleges recognize this fact whenever they admit homeschoolers who have never attended school. Homeschoolers who never attended, or rarely attended, any schools are currently students at Harvard, Boston University, Rice University, and the Curtis Institute of Music, to name a few. In addition, homeschoolers who decide not to go to college are finding adult work without special difficulty. Some of the homeschoolers I know who fall into this category are currently employed in the fields of computers, ballet, theater, movies, aviation, construction, and overseas missionary work.
Consider these famous people who were homeschooled for some or all of their school years: Authors William Blake, Charles Dickens, Pearl Buck, Agatha Christie and Margaret Atwood; social and political figures Benjamin Franklin, Woodrow Wilson, Winston Churchill, Samuel Gompers, Charles Lindberg, Florence Nightingale; artists Andrew Wyeth, Yehudi Menuhin, Sean O'Casey, Charlie Chaplin, Claude Monet, and Noel Coward; inventors Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers. One of the world's richest men, the man for whom this hall is named, Andrew Carnegie, was homeschooled until he was nine. He was coaxed into attending school after that, but by the age of thirteen Carnegie left school and never went back. School attendance is not the only way to become a successful, sociable adult.
Vita Wallace, a homeschooler from Pennsylvania, wrote these words when she turned sixteen and officially graduated from homeschooling: "The most important thing I think I have gained through my education is that I know what I love to do. I think if I had gone to school I wouldn't have had time to find out. I know it's awfully confusing for people when, after graduating from thirteen years of schooling, they still don't know. I've been able to make friends with all kinds of different people - people younger, the same age, and older than I am; my teachers, colleagues and students; my neighbors young and old; my parents' friends, my brother's friends and teachers; and most important, my brother. He's been my best friend all along, and I am so glad we didn't go to school if only for the one reason that we might not have been able to be such bosom buddies otherwise..."
Homeschooling is not a panacea to all our educational problems, but it is part of the answer. It is a proven option for any of you who wish to try it.

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