Homeschooling is one of the options that savvy parents are considering these days, when planning for the education of their children. Parents that work at home are often homeschoolers, too, as these two activities dove-tail quite nicely for entrepreneurial families. There are many ways to home educate; I feel that even a family using a pre-packaged curriculum is going to add their own touches to the program, simply because family life-style and circumstances will make it impossible for them to do otherwise. Thus, as you consider that each family is unique, so, too, will their homeschool program need to be.
Home educating families come in all shapes and sizes, and have a variety of interests. What works for one may be abysmally boring or repetitive for another. What is wonderful for one child in a family may also prove difficult or frustrating to another child in the same family. One of the beauties of homeschooling is that learning experiences can flex and be adjusted to suit the temperament and learning style of the child, as well as the circumstances and situation of the family.
Many people envision a miniature schoolroom or at the very least, all the children gathered around the kitchen table, with one parent filling the role of teacher. The teacher is pictured with a spatula in one hand and a blackboard pointer in the other, usually with a frazzled look on her face. This is probably a good picture of some homeschool families. However, it’s just one of at least one hundred other accurate pictures of learning at home. Other homeschool families, at the same moment, may be found exploring a hands-on science experiment, gathering with friends to share a visit to a planetarium, children helping parents in a home business or teenagers helping their younger siblings learn how to multiply or cook. There are a variety of labels to describe a number of ways to home educate. They run the gambit from “school-at-home” to “unschooling”. There is a big controversy about which is best, and about what “unschooling” really means. My research into the various types of homeschooling taught me that there are strengths and weaknesses to each homeschool style. My experience over the years has reinforced that belief. Thus, choosing the best parts of each, considering my own children’s temperaments and learning styles, as well as our family’s dynamics has become the basis of our eclectic homeschooling lifestyle.
We started out with the school-at-home model (because that’s the only kind of learning model we’d ever had) richly supplemented with field trips and real life experiences (because we knew that our oldest son, Ryan, was a hands-on learner). Making things, taking things apart, observing and touching and figuring out how things work were important parts of learning for him. And although our second son was a very adept verbal-linguistic learner, he, too, thrived on the experience-rich environment of our homeschool. As time went on, we found that using the “school-at-home” model wasn’t very necessary most of the time. We used some testing and textbooks in learning math, but the basics were learned mostly from life; as measuring in cooking and woodworking, keeping records for our home businesses and keeping track of mileage and gas usage.
We embrace what we call the unschooling model in many areas. While there is a lot of dialogue about what unschooling means, we feel it means allowing the child to have input into what they want to study, using their interests as a motivation for learning and helping them find the materials they need to research an area. In short, we define unschooling as child-led, interest-oriented learning. This certainly doesn’t mean that the parent is not doing their part in providing a safe environment for the child, nor does it mean that the parent is not fulfilling their responsibilities toward the child, as some have suggested. It is important that children have a sense of security, and this can best be provided by parents that model proper behavior and teach by example the way they want their children to live. Allowing children freedom to learn in their own way and pursue their interests doesn’t take anything away from that. We’ve delved into the rich resources of our community to find mentors, teachers, tutors and classes that would fulfill a need that a child had. Volunteer work, modeled by the parents as an important part of life, especially when the parents include their children in that time spent volunteering, produces children that desire to share with others. Learning to give back to the community is a positive, uplifting experience. Our children have found volunteer work in areas they thought of pursuing as a career; it’s often helpful when finding a mentor to volunteer your services while learning. This may lead to a paid position at a later time, as well. We also considered the small businesses our children started as part of a very real learning experience for them. It may not have included reading a chapter, answering questions or taking a test, but it certainly taught them many things that would be difficult to learn from a textbook. Volunteer work and small businesses also provide social experiences for children, along with many other benefits.
School-at-home and unschooling are the opposite ends of the homeschooling spectrum in some ways. In between are many homeschoolers teaching unit studies, or using the Charlotte Mason method, or a purchased curriculum such as Son Light or Oak Meadow.
Unit studies, a somewhat “school-at-home” method, because it is often teacher (parent) directed and planned, can be a great way to move from the typical “school-at-home” rigidity and into more flexibility. It doesn’t have to be parent-directed, but can be planned, designed and implemented by the student, with or without direct parental/mentor oversight. These parameters will depend on the dynamics of the family, age of the student(s), and so forth. Unit studies can include readings, testing and all the rest, but doesn’t have to. Unit studies can be very hands-on and include field trips, hands-on projects such as cooking, building or collecting, learning songs related to the topic and endless variations. That’s why I feel that unit studies can be a type of eclectic homeschooling. If the unit study is one-dimensional, only focusing on reading, it’s more school-at-home than eclectic. But it can be so rich that people looking on aren’t sure whether the kids are “schooling” or “having fun”! When it looks a lot like having fun, you can be very sure the kids are learning!
The Charlotte Mason method is also based on the school-at-home mode, but is richer because the school teacher that designed this method knew that children can learn so much more by doing and participating. It includes nature study (nature walks, identifying plants and animals in the field, keeping notebooks of your observations) and narration (reading materials and having the child tell you what they remember, as opposed to writing it down themselves.) Charlotte Mason was also a strong proponent of “real books” as opposed to “text books”. Again, moving away from the read, answer and test mode, this rich method fits my perception of eclectic. Son Light and Oak Meadow are both based on literature. They have extensive book list recommendations. Just doing the reading wouldn’t put them high on my list, but doing activities based on the reading and expanding on the curriculum provided certainly does so. Both of these methods would lend themselves very readily to an eclectic approach, while simplifying matters by providing a template for the parents to use. This is especially helpful to new homeschoolers, who may feel very overwhelmed at the thought of planning a years’ worth of curricula for their children.
For those who do want to plan their own curriculum, there are scope and sequences available in many places. Some supply catalogs include them, and World Book Encyclopedia’s website has a very nicely laid out one, available for anyone to print out for their own use. I want to stress that any scope and sequence is just a plan someone made up; a scope and sequence (who learns what when) need not be arbitrary nor are they etched in stone. Using a scope and sequence or pre-planned curriculum as a guideline for planning your own curriculum is helpful. Be sure when looking at the grade-level suggested for your child, to also check the previous grade levels to see whether your child has covered the materials in the previous year that may be essential to success this year! However if your child is absolutely ecstatic over Medieval History and that isn’t listed on their grade-level, now is still the time to study Medieval History! World History or American colonization can wait; hook into the interest. Excitement about a subject can make all the difference in how much is retained; the other piece is making learning fun and interesting so the initial excitement isn’t lost.
A freelance writer, Marsha serves as a homeschool resource for her local library and has written articles for Home Education Magazine and a column for Home Educator's Family Times. She has served on the planning committee for her local homeschool cooperative, taught creative writing, edited the newsletter, and been a member of the HUB (Homeschoolers United Building) advisory committee. Her book, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Homeschooling, was published in February 2001, and she has spoken at homeschool conferences and curriculum fairs in Texas, California, and Michigan. She also works part-time outside the home as an office manager for both the family business and at a local church.