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Cafi's Commentary

by Cafi Cohen

Someone recently asked me, "Your first year of homeschooling, what surprised you most?" Before reading on, think about your own response to that question. What do you find most surprising about home education? What - good or bad - has come to pass that you did not anticipate?

First, a little background. My husband and I began homeschooling our sixth-grade daughter, Tamara, and seventh grade son, Jeff, in the late 1980's. We had recently moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico from San Antonio, Texas, courtesy of my husband Terry's affiliation with the United States Air Force.

Both our children had always done well in school, earning A's and B's in honors and gifted tracks. While not the most popular kids in their classes, they both had many friends. In addition, they took music lessons, swam competitively, and sang in a church choir. A full life. If you saw Jeff and Tamara then, you would have said, "They have everything going for them."

One evening at dinner, I mentioned seeing a homeschooling family on a morning talk show. Of course, home education would never work for our family. It just seemed like something interesting to discuss. Imagine my surprise when both kids said, "We want to do that, and we want to start tomorrow."

Something clicked in my mind. It was an "Aha" moment, coupled with what educationists call cognitive dissonance. Something did not make sense. Why should two kids with everything going for them want to leave school? Two day long school visits - where total on-task time each day amounted to less than one hour - answered that question. School was boring.

For several weeks, we researched homeschooling - learning about legalities, reading books and magazines, and interviewing the few local home educators we could find. Finally, we picked the day and packed up the kids' school belongings. We said goodbye to all their teachers, two of whom privately told me I was wrecking my children's futures.

The next day, with snow outside and a roaring fire inside, we nestled in our family room to read. I thanked God my kids were not on the school bus navigating slick roads and hilly terrain.

What surprised me most about homeschooling that first year, now over a decade ago? Three ideas gradually coalesced in my mind and have influenced every aspect of my life since.

Successful Homeschooling

First surprise? There are many ways to succeed. If you talk to one hundred home schooling families, you will hear them describe one hundred different ways to homeschool. Surprising to many educationists, few homeschoolers follow state-approved curriculum. And many never get within mile of a standardized test.

That said, some homeschooling families think that traditional methods work best. They use textbooks, schedules, and grades. Many of these families closely follow a scope of sequence, a list of who learns what when.

Others love the interdisciplinary nature of unit studies. They pick a topic - academic or nonacademic - and do everything they can with it, thereby covering typical school subjects. If the topic were, say, "Birds," they might
  • read and write about famous ornithologists (language arts)
  • study the migration patterns and pathways of birds (math, geography)
  • diagram the life cycles and anatomy of birds (science)
  • draw birds (art)
  • cook birds (home economics)
Still other homeschooling families prefer child-led learning, also called unschooling. In unschooling situations, the parents say, "Life is Learning". They encourage their kids to follow their interests. Cooking is home economics and math. Watching a PBS documentary is history. Raising turkeys for 4-H is science and math. Self-selected reading and emailing friends is language arts. Designing a WEB page is computer science. And so on.

Finally, many experienced homeschooling parents prefer eclectic approaches, using a mixture of traditional materials, unit studies, unschooling, and anything else that works. These families focus on the child rather than on a particular educational philosophy. One child might need a lot of structure. Another might teach himself so efficiently for 12-16 years that there is no need for anything more than gentle guidance.

Interestingly, all of these approaches work. What matters most is that homeschooling families experiment and decide what works best for their situation. Homeschooling is not a math problem with one right answer. Families across the nation show us over and over that there are thousands of ways to succeed.

Homeschooling As A Process

My second surprise our first year was the flexibility of home education. Was it really all right to plan a curriculum and then change the plan? Or even plan unschooling and then decide to use textbooks? Could it be that responding to my children's interests and learning styles would work better than covering the prescribed seventh grade curriculum?

Homeschooling means freedom - freedom to choose what, when, and how your children learn. It is listening to experts (other homeschooling parents) and then making your own decisions based on your experience with your children. With teenagers, homeschooling becomes a collaborative effort, as you and your children negotiate what to learn and how to learn it.

We made so many changes that first year and moved in so many directions that many professional educators decry. Examples? First, I did away with literature and grammar textbooks. Instead, we raided the public library twice weekly. I did not worry about what the kids were reading (so long as it contained no morally objectionable material). Whether they chose third grade reading or books written for adults, fiction or non-fiction, I encouraged their choices.

Even though the kids were older, we also began reading aloud, contrary to the practice of most public school teachers, who generally do not read to children over the age of eight. I read to our teenagers. Everyone found this relaxing and entertaining. And it was a good way to sneak in classics that they would have otherwise avoided.

We also did away with grammar exercises, spelling, and cursive handwriting. Instead, our kids wrote (primarily using the computer's word processor) for real purposes - 4-H project reports, newsletter announcements, letters to friends, contest entries, and short stories, if they felt like it.

With math, we adopted techniques usually reserved for younger children. We created manipulatives (pennies, M&M's, pizza, fraction bars) to model almost every word problem. And we played games, like Monopoly, Yahtzee, and 24-Game, in an effort to completely automate not only the four basic arithmetic operations, but also fractions, decimals and percents.

As a homeschooling parent, I had observed that the kids had difficulty with algebra every time their basic arithmetic skills slipped. So we honed those skills constantly, placing just as much emphasis on arithmetic review as on the advanced math topics they learned with textbooks. I also felt that most of the United States population had too many difficulties with mental math - figuring out the results of ten percent off, for example. So we found good mental math books (Dale Seymour Mental Math) and looked for opportunities to practice.

My purpose here is not to suggest that you copy my methods, only that you think of homeschooling as a process and make changes whenever your current approach seems like a waste of time. You have complete educational freedom. You need not wait for a new teacher or new school year. Instead, you can adapt and evolve your approach and materials as needed.

Home schooling is a process, an experimental process, at that. Be willing to make mistakes. The more things you try, the more mistakes you make. The more mistakes you make, the faster you will find what works for your family. An example? Read Hard Times In Paradise, David and Micki Colfax's account of homeschooling on a remote California ranch. When I finished that book, I thought, "Wow, they really made a lot of mistakes!" Nevertheless, their results included sending three homeschooled sons to Harvard.

Beyond Educational Choice

When we first began homeschooling, I thought of it as just another educational choice. Third surprise. Homeschooling affected more than just which textbooks our children used or how many hours per day they spent studying. Home education affected how we learned and how we lived. Homeschooling radically changed our lifestyle.

First of all, we finally had time with each other and for each other. Where an intense round of activities and projects - including school attendance - had sapped our energies, we now had hours every day to talk, to play, even to be alone.

We loved the opportunity to plan trips at any time of year. Better yet, on beautiful days, we frequently cancelled all work and projects to hike or hit the cross-country ski trails. The freedom from school schedules also meant we could respond to family emergencies, flying out of state at moment's notice.

On leaving school, both of our children visibly relaxed within a week or two. You could see it in their facial expressions and the set of their shoulders. As they relaxed, they began to talk more to us, their parents. And they got to know each other. Even today, grown and living in different states, they remain each other's best friend.

Home education created time and encouraged flexibility in how we used that time. Homechooling also enhanced our family relationships. Bringing our children home to learn, we changed not only how they learned, but how our family lived.

Our Family Today

We homeschooled for eight years - all the way through middle school and high school. I began writing for homeschooling publications and speaking at conferences. Both Jeff and Tamara won substantial scholarships to their first choice colleges. I wrote my first book, "And What About College?": How Homeschooling Leads To Admissions To The Best Colleges and Universities and created the website, Homeschool-Teens-College;

Today, Jeff, 24, is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, one of the most selective colleges in the nation. Stationed at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, he now lives his teenage dream, flying F-16's. He often says, "I cannot believe they are paying me to do this." Tamara, 22, with three years of college under her belt, sells display advertising for an alternative community newspaper in San Luis Obispo, California. She fills her off hours with hiking, gardening, music, and throwing pots.

We are pleased with the results - more than pleased. We see or talk to our grown children several times each week, both of whom live full, productive lives. We continue to implement the many important lessons homeschooling taught us all that first year -
  • Success comes in many forms.
  • Homeschooling, indeed all learning, is an experimental process.
  • Homeschooling is a lifestyle.

And one more. Homeschooling is fun! Homeschooling teenagers is the most fun of all - read my future columns to learn why you don't want to miss it.

Copyright © 2006 Modern Media