Monday, May 3, 2010

A FunSchooling Guide to Homeschooling

Comment moderation note for this post: While I warmly invite comments from homeschoolers, would-be homeschoolers and non-homeschoolers, I will not include comments from advertisers. Thank you for your understanding.

I don't really mean to make this Homeschooling 101-style post sound like it's coming from a how-to expert. Well, it is a how-to article of sorts, just that I'm no expert. But I would like to share some thoughts for anyone considering homeschooling as a choice for your elementary-school-aged child. 

I get asked how to homeschool very often, and find that many parents have so many what-if scenarios running around in their heads that their imagination alone makes them decide not to homeschool. I'm not saying home-learning is an option for everyone. Only that you won't know if it is the best option for you if you don't try. I hope that this post will help dispel some of your worries.

I also hope that if you are already a homeschooling veteran, you'd be willing to add some of your own thoughts and tips to this post (by pressing comments)...anything important you disagree with, or feel I have missed, will be so very useful to me to pass on to friends who are planning to homeschool in the coming years.

There are also lots of better-written how to homeschool articles out there :) If you scroll down to the footer, you will see a whole bunch of links for new homeschoolers. I wanted to write this anyway to give you an idea of how natural it can be to homeschool (but it can feel overwhelming in the start too and that's entirely normal).

First, you are possibly already homeschooling if...

So many folk don't realize that they are already homeschooling their kids. You were your child's first teacher the moment you taught her her ABC's, helped her learn to walk, to feed herself, to tie her shoes etc.

Other folks are even better candidates for homeschooling if they follow their passions for science, nature, math, animals, gardening etc. on a regular basis with their kids. Do you go hiking together every weekend or once a month? Do you help your child find answers to his pressing questions? When your child wanted to learn to ride a bicycle, did you help him buy a helmet, explain what it is for, how the brakes work etc.?

All of these are "homeschooling" in their way.

Even if you didn't do all these things, it doesn't mean you are not going to be successful at it. I didn't do any of the examples mentioned. But we gradually fell into it when our whole lifestyle became one of learning and discovering together.

Homeschooling is not school-at-home...

Not as often as you may think any way. This is why the word "homeschool" tends to be regarded a misnomer by more experienced families. This brings me to two salient points:

#1 - You don't have to be an expert in every subject to homeschool. That's what enrichment classes, homeschooling co-ops, online learning sites, documentaries on cable or Netflix, that wonderful neighbor of yours who teaches in a community college and wouldn't mind answering your kids questions in the weekends etc are for.

#2 - You don't have to re-create a school atmosphere to teach at home. Many parents start out doing that and find they are preparing themselves for burnout. We did that too. What you can do is focus on subjects you feel are essential. Start out slow and once you are comfortable, add subjects as you feel the need to.

In our home, the only assigned subjects are Math and English/ Foreign Language. The kiddo does some Math every day (about 30 minutes, sometimes an hour if interest is high). For English/ Foreign Language, he picks one area a day and spends about 20 minutes on it. He may choose Grammar/ Mechanics on Mondays, Greek on Tuesdays and either Spelling or Vocabulary exercises on Thursdays. We are out the whole day on Wednesdays for a co-op. We try to spend some time doing some silly writing on Fridays. I've found this to be a lot more enjoyable for him since he has some choice over what is assigned. And we read LOTS of good books (read alouds and his own free reading), so he gets tons of real-life practice with and listening to high quality English usage.

This is just an example of what works for us.

Get your feet wet by specializing in a subject...

Regardless of why you are thinking of homeschooling, start simple.

Identify one topic your child is truly passionate about. And after school or during weekends, pursue that topic diligently with your child. Read together about it at bedtime. Find websites that if possible, incorporate that subject with well-designed, interactive and age-friendly games or videos. Research field trips in your city that you could take together during non-school hours to learn more or if you are fortunate, find experts in the field in your own family or extended family who will talk about it cheerfully/ frankly with your child. Look for books and videos in the library to supplement. And then, a couple of months to a semester later, gauge how much your child (and you) have learnt about that topic.

You may find the results to be absolutely shocking. This is how I personally realized (my hubby had known forever that it was the best way) that homeschooling was the answer for my son. All the questions the kiddo would ask and we'd answer, bewildered about how interested he was in diseases and death and yet not wanting to stifle him, all the reading he'd do on his own when given the chance, all the documentaries that thrilled him to bits...had nothing to do with the run-of-the-mill academic subjects introduced in his expensive private school (that he went to for only 3-4 weeks). His obsession with death eventually petered out (as developmentally it tends to do for many kids) but his interest in diseases is still fresh and strong. And together, we have learnt so much about infections, illness, immunity, and overall, how the human body works...much more than a typical elementary science or even middle school biology curriculum could have taught us in the same period of time.

Your child's special area could be anything...there's no such thing as an area being not good enough...there's just so much to learn about in our world, after all and who knows where her interests could lead her?

Treat this one-topic strategy as your opportunity to try out homeschooling after school or on weekends for a semester or more. It could be very valuable to give you the confidence and experience you need to homeschool full-time.

Socializing with other kids...

I can understand how anxious new homeschooling parents must be about socialization opportunities, especially if you homeschool an only child like we do. To begin, perhaps your child is already very well socialized through close bonds with siblings, cousins, and neighborhood kids. Perhaps your child attends many after-school activities, or at least one or two a week where he meets and interacts with lots of kids his age.

Or perhaps, your family tends to be quiet, not very-outdoorsy. Perhaps you are a shy parent with a very sociable kid. Or vice versa.

I would say our most difficult challenge has been finding a balance (and peace of mind) with the socialization choices we've made. The kiddo meets kids regularly at least three times a week through classes, a co-op and field trips. We try to have at least one playdate every week if not every two weeks.

Why not more? Well, we live in an area where kids tend to be very active and very participatory in sports like baseball and soccer. My son's preference has been for more "solo"-style sports like swimming, golf and walking. He isn't the sort of kid to shine in a team. So to overcome this, we actively seek out other families like us...I join area-specific support groups to regularly ask about families with kids who would like quiet play, playground and park-day-style meets, kids who don't necessary like vigorous activities. We don't normally find lots of them, and sometimes we do encounter personalities that we are not comfortable with but we also do find families who are like us in some ways and things work out well between the kids and parents. Also, we are quite happy to be private too. We don't feel like we need tons of socialization just for the sake of it. Meeting a few good friends, a few times every two weeks, works out very well for us. And my boy is generally polite and well behaved, thank you very much :)

By this example, I hope to convey that socialization can be anything you want it to be as long as it is healthy, safe and leads to happy relationships. If you invest a little time looking for the opportunities you seek, you will find it.

What curriculum to use...

This may not be the popular view but what has worked for me is to try everything I could for the first 2 years. I spent a lot of money (but also managed to make some selling the curriculum back to others) on my search for perfect curricula but found none. I don't regret this because I am not sure I could have learnt all I could any other way, being the too-shy-to-ask-others-in-real-life type of person I am. I would say try anything you want to. If you are curious, go research it. If you can afford it, buy it. If you can't, try it at your library or at another homeschooler's before you buy. If you need to switch, switch. If you don't, don't fix what's not broken (something I have huge trouble dealing with myself LOL). Join homeschooling support groups (I've listed a few below that have helped me tremendously) for been-there-done-that ideas.

Here are a few support groups I have found very helpful:
(Please note that we are secular homeschoolers. Although I read messages from groups named CM, Well Trained Mind etc, we no longer follow these homeschooling methods exclusively).

There are many types of support groups out there. Ask around or spend some time googling key words like "homeschool support group" or "homeschool yahoo group" etc.). I also like regional support groups that organize field trips, park days and the like. If you do some dedicated googling, you may be able to find a few of these in your area too. Check the group's policies and always remember to show courtesy when asking and replying to questions.

If you really feel you need some sort of "just pick up and teach" curriculum, there are many boxed-curriculum providers. Any search for "homeschool curriculum" will lead to hundreds of thousands of hits. Check out this link for common homeschool curriculum abbreviations. As more new curricula are written, newer abbreviations always crop up. There are several guidebooks you could read first to get an idea of what style of homeschooling you want to pursue. Or whether you want to just find your own style (like many of us end up doing).

Here are a few guide books I'd readily recommend to any new homeschooler. But take what they say with a very careful pinch of salt because not everything will apply to your family's situation. Don't feel like you have to do it all:

You could also keep these books handy solely for the very helpful reading and curricula lists many of them contain.

Although I've spent many nights reading such books, eventually, we have become very eclectic in style, choosing to pursue topics that the kiddo is passionate about (diseases is just one of them) and reading as much as we can from well-written (frequently well-illustrated books). I often get him lots of books to read on his own, and in some cases due to his age, I try to pre-read the higher level ones to screen for inappropriate content. We also choose about 2-3 books to read aloud from every day.

 There is some really good advice on curriculum and what homeschool supplies to buy here.

How about testing?

Testing is a very personal choice and I am sure you will find more thorough information by googling for it or asking other homeschoolers in your area. If you are very worried about whether or not what you are doing at home matches well with what your child's peers are learning in school, there are several testing options you can choose. You could check with your school district to see what the required tests are and see how they may be administered. If you are signed up to homeschool with a charter school or independent study program, they will normally take care of test administration for you. Or you could sign up for a test like the Johns Hopkins SCAT, or Explore if you want to have an idea of how far ahead your child is working.

In most scenarios, for an elementary-school-aged child, your own observation and confidence in your child's abilities can be a lot more useful than a test.

Am I doing it right?

So you've just started to homeschool and are wondering if you're doing the right thing. I would say, look to your child for the answer. Is he happy? Is she thriving? Are they in love with learning?

Usually any anxiety we parents feel are ours alone. Children tend to adapt easily as long as any decision is made gently and lovingly, always taking their likes and dislikes into account. One look at your kids and you'll know instinctively if something needs to be tweaked or if nothing at all should be changed. Trust your gut feelings!

We are not doing enough!

Or so you think LOL. Honestly, it may not be as little as you think it is. Aim for about 20 - 30 minutes per day initially, gradually building it up to for as many hours as your child wants to happily learn. Sometimes, it can really help to write down or take photos of what you do together and keep some sort of a journal or online photo-record or scrapbook. See this post on record-keeping for ideas of keeping track of your day.

Remember that schools have 20 or more students in a classroom to teach and that's why they need to be in school five or more hours a day. If you're teaching just one or a handful of kids, three, sometimes four hours is usually sufficient.

My child hates it, but I really want to homeschool...

Has your child had time to de-school from his unpleasant school experiences (if any)? Perhaps you are trying to do too much too soon? Perhaps you could try a few non-academic pursuits to liven things up? There's also a possibility that your child genuinely misses school. Have a chat with your child about what's causing her discomfort. She may reveal ideas, feelings you may not have guessed.

I thought I'd share some of my favorite learning strategies (in no particular order) for when my son is just not interested in doing anything academic. I call this our downtime ideas:
Board games/ math dice games/ card games
Web-based games
Walks around the neighborhood
Cooking/ baking together
Quiet time with a book
Weeding (very therapeutic!)
Being silly (looking for jokes online, making up limericks, composing silly pieces on the piano etc)
Researching Amazon together and drooling over books
Reading blogs about cooking, books, science etc.
Experiments (having a science kit around helps)
Creating "inventions" with odds and ends
Cycling/ scootering
Dancing to our favorite music with air guitar

And all of these are very frequently accompanied by chats about the nature of the universe (a.k.a. those incessant 'why' questions LOL). None of which I pretend to know answers to :)

Learning differences...

One of the most wonderful things I've gained from this whole homeschooling adventure is the realization of how my child's mind works. I'm still not done understanding him completely but it's been positively inspiring to see that he learns best when given the "gee-whiz, this is awesome" picture about something first...and finding out basic foundational concepts only if his appetite is really whetted. This style is often linked to visual-spatial learners. I'm not certain if my son is visual-spatial because he does not seem to fit many of its characteristics (example: he is a very visual and also a very auditory learner) but he does share this one characteristic...of wanting to know the big picture intimately first.

I would seriously suggest observing closely how your child learns and using those cues to shape learning opportunities, to make this endeavor a lot more enjoyable for the both of you.

How do I homeschool my gifted child? I am not an expert in the subjects she's interested in!

I strongly believe that a parent of a gifted child will be able to actively learn along with her offspring. That's the beauty of homeschooling...even if it takes 6 months to a year or so to discover how it will really work out for you, you WILL eventually figure out how to do it.

Your life will gradually adapt to include your child's varied, and often complex, interests. There is a wealth of information on gifted children at the Hoagies' Gifted Education Page. For specific information on homeschooling gifted children, see this link.

For an example of one family's typical day homeschooling two gifted boys, be sure to read this article by my friend Lisa.

If you have any specific questions about anything I may not have mentioned here, please ask!


  1. I would LOVE to add your blog to our list of secular homeschooling blogs on our resource page!! If you would be interested, would you email me at Thanks!!

  2. Hi Kerry! Thanks for visiting. I tried sending you an email but it bounced twice! Yes, please add this blog in if it will be of help to others.

  3. Very thoughtful post, Suji. It sounds like you've "arrived" at a very satisfying approach to homeschooling your kiddo. I wish we lived closer, as I'm sure our kids would enjoy each other!

  4. Lisa, my thoughts exactly! Your boys and mine sound like they have very similar interests :)

  5. Great 'getting started' article Suji!


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