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Cafi’s Commentary: Hitting The Wall

by Cafi Cohen

Marathon runners talk about “hitting the wall.” It happens about 20 miles into the 26-mile race. Despite months or years of intense training, some runners find their energy and resources depleted just a few miles short of their goal. They cannot feel their legs. Vision blurs. Desire is there, but their bodies will carry them no further. They drop out. Other racers learn to run through the wall. They ignore what seems like an impossible situation and find a way to cross the finish line.

Like marathoners, most parents who homeschool children through high school also hit the wall. Their son needs to learn algebra, or their daughter wants to study French. It happened to us when our son Jeff reached age thirteen and announced that he wanted to learn to pilot an airplane. Both my husband and I avoid flying whenever possible so the thought of helping Jeff earn his wings appealed to neither of us. Because we lacked interest and knowledge, we hit the wall.

At similar points, some families seriously consider discontinuing homeschooling. Parents fear tackling trigonometry or chemistry or Spanish, and they enroll their teenagers in school. Take Marta. Both she and her husband confess to severe math phobia. Now their 15-year-old son – having mastered arithmetic, including fractions, decimals, percents, exponents, and square roots – is ready for algebra and geometry. Marta dreads the thought of opening an algebra text.

Joyce finds herself in a similar position – not because of lack of expertise, but instead because of a lack of equipment and facilities. Joyce is a retired nurse and her husband Jim is a practicing physician. They feel confident doing biology, chemistry, and physics at home – except for the laboratory experiments. How will they explain teaching “a lab science” on college applications?

Elizabeth and Bob face a different challenge. Like Joyce and Jim, both have math expertise and love science topics. Elizabeth has a degree in biology, and Bob owns an electrical engineering firm. Both were computer geeks before anyone knew what that meant. Their wall? Elizabeth explains, “While I love biology and look forward to dissecting fetal pigs on the kitchen table, I do not see how we can possibly cover writing and foreign language with our teenagers.

All of these families can learn from experience home educators. Pick and choose from the following headings – ideas derived from the comments on various online homeschooling bulletin boards – and create your own bag of tricks labeled, “What to do when you hit the wall.”

“Do we need this?”

Sometimes homeschooling parents worry about their ability to cover chemistry or physics or Latin or Spanish without first evaluating the need for the subject. Yes, you can blindly follow a typical high school course and sequence and do four years of English, three years of math, a year each of history and geography and government, two to three years of science, and some foreign language. Surprisingly, though, you do not have to follow a college preparatory sequence for your teen to succeed with college admissions – or in life, for that matter.

You say you and your teenager don’t want to do chemistry? Then don’t do it. If astronomy or meteorology or horticulture sounds more interesting, let that be your science. Does studying a foreign language seem like a complete waste of time, given your teenager’s other pursuits? The answer is simple. Skip foreign language.

Experienced home educators say that if you decide to tackle a subject you find impossible or your teenager finds distasteful, make certain you have good reasons for doing so. Also exhaust all acceptable alternatives.

Self-Instructional Courses

Compared to ten years ago, home educators now have a wide range of self-instructional courses to select from when it comes to difficult topics. You can buy self-instructional books that teach everything from algebra to biology. Some of my favorites are the Wiley Publishers’ Self-Instructional Guides on more than eighty topics – from geology to grammar to Spanish. In addition, self-instructional computer programs on many topics now line the shelves of software outlets. Finally, online you can find self-instructional courses in everything from Spanish to music theory – many of them free. Just enter the phrases “self instruction,” or “self teaching” into any search engine.

Self-instructional courses are specially designed for use without a teacher. The course teaches. You, the parents, play your role by signing checks and cheering on your child’s efforts. While building an entire curriculum around self-instructional courses might prove tiresome, using these learning materials for one or two subjects works well for many families homeschooling teenagers.

Self-instructional courses provide a hidden benefit. Teenagers learn not only the course content, they also learn that – given the right materials – they can teach themselves, even difficult subjects that people think must be learned in a classroom. Completing self-instructional courses builds confidence and educational competence.

Just Read

This is a variant of self-instruction. One homeschooling mother explains, “We have shelves of books by creative people who have done it better than we ever could on our own. Our homeschooler learns science from real scientists – Mendel, who grew peas in his garden and Gerald Durrell whose first scalpel was a razor blade.”

Community Networking

Find experts for difficult subjects all around you. Ask you friends, neighbors, and relatives for help, and you will find that many enjoy difficult subjects, like writing, math, chemistry, and even foreign languages. Ask for their advice, and many will offer to help. One homeschool mother reports that her teenagers got interested in running through their cousins and got coaching from their uncle, who also works with a high school cross-country team. Another homeschooling moms explains, “We live in town with a population less than 700, and we still find resources galore. Our small church has a jazz musician, an accountant, an artist, and older citizens who have lived history. Our pastor knows twelve languages and has a passion for ping-pong.”

Beyond your immediate circle, explore community groups and classes. The sky’ s the limit here. Our son studied electronics with a local amateur radio club. 4-H clubs sponsor Dale Carnegie public speaking classes. Church or community education classes may offer Spanish or American Sign Language.

Many homeschooling families enroll their teenagers in junior college classes for biology or chemistry or physics. The only real difference between college science classes and challenging high school classes is that the college classes move more quickly and go into subjects in more depth. Once homeschoolers understand this, many complete “difficult” college courses in their mid-teens. As our son pointed out when he took community college geology as a 15-year-old, “They started right at the beginning. If you could read and do basic math, you could handle this course.”

Co-op It

Sometimes parents homeschooling teenagers pool their efforts and form successful co-ops to handle difficult subjects. A homeschooling mother in Missouri writes, “ I set up a homeschool high school co-op. We began with just band, drama and art classes. We started with thirty children. Now we have one hundred-ten and offer biology labs, microscope labs, drama, choir, band, jazz band, Spanish, five art classes, home economics, and more. We filled a real need, and the co-op has succeeded far beyond expectations. I’m thrilled because I had no intention of cutting up a cat on my kitchen table!”

Co-oping works even on a small scale. One homeschooling mom with three girls gets together monthly with another mother and her daughter simply to discuss the books they have been reading. All involved look forward to the activity, and it has spurred interest in reading a wider variety of fiction and non-fiction.


Another family solves the foreign language challenge with volunteer work. The mother writes, “Our homeschooled teenage daughter works with children in the Head Start program. Most of the children speak Spanish, and very limited English. They learn, she learns.”

Our daughter learned both science and drama as a volunteer. For science, she volunteered for a year at a local veterinary clinic. She took vital signs on cats, dogs, and horses; made up inoculations; learned to identify common parasites; and watched biopsies and autopsies. She had a far better lab science course than anyone attending the local high school. For drama that same year, she worked as the property manager for a local community group. They staged a quality production from which she learned a great deal.


Occasionally homeschooling families hire private tutors. This can be an expensive proposition. Even then, sometimes it is worth it to get through a brick wall. For cost-effective tutors, call the subject offices of any local college. Call the physics department for a physics tutor, the French department for a French tutor, and so on. Often they can recommend undergraduate or graduate students who will work for a reasonable fee.


These are just a few ideas. Yes, you will hit the wall, indeed you will hit many walls if you homeschool your teenagers. And, like many families who have preceded you, you will find that you can climb obstacles or even run through them. The only people who don’t make mistakes are those who don’t do anything.

Copyright © 2006 Modern Media