I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. -- Thomas Jefferson

Thursday, October 1, 2009

How We Homeschool:
Some Nitty-Gritty Details

A friend who is seriously considering homeschooling recently asked how we actually do our homeschooling, on a day-by-day basis.

And, of course, I had trouble giving a coherent answer: like so many homeschoolers, we do not clearly demarcate our homeschooling from dance and piano practice, from our vacations (we do try to make our vacations “educational,” but not in the sense of studying textbooks), from going swimming at a friend’s house (isn’t that “physical education”?), etc.

But I’ll try here to be a bit more coherent for the sake of our friend and anyone else interested in the general approach we try to take to our homeschooling.

We homeschool seven days a week, twelve months a year.

But that does not mean we actually do homeschooling all 365 days of the year.

The kids officially get their birthday and Christmas off. For obvious practical reasons, we also do not do “official” homeschooling (textbooks, workbooks, etc.) when we are out of town on vacation (I tried a few times taking textbooks with us on vacations – the only result was to strengthen my arms carrying the heavier luggage).

And, naturally, in the course of our lives, things happen.

If we spend a couple hours one day at a friend’s house or at a musical or theatrical performance, we can still get in a fair amount of schoolwork. But, if we spend the whole day at a friend’s, or go to some day-long event such as the state fair, that day is pretty much dead for “official” schooling.

So, realistically, I estimate we do about 240 days a year of “official” homeschooling.

That is still about thirty percent more than the number of schooldays for traditional public-school students.

Except… traditional students do often have homework on weekends. All of our schoolwork is “homework,” so if you include public-school students’ “homework days,” there may not be a dramatic difference here.

In short, I think we may have more “official” schooldays than traditional public-school students, but not dramatically more.

The big advantage we do have is flexibility in our schedule: we can go to Hawaii in October, Legoland in March, etc., without worrying about officially missing school.

How many hours a day do we do school?

Well… I consider piano practice (each of our kids practices between half an hour and a hour and a half a day), dance and piano class, and going to the library to be part of school. But, kids in traditional schools do those things too, and they are not counted as “school.”

So… excluding such activities, I estimate our kids average from six to eight hours a day on “official” schooling (more on some days, less on others, depending on the other activities that are occurring on that day). That may seem to be a bit more than kids in traditional schools; however, kids in traditional schools have homework, not counted as part of their schoolday, and, as I said, our “homework” is part of our schoolwork (in fact, by definition, homework is all of our schoolwork).

So, our kids might spend slightly more time each day on schoolwork than traditionally schooled kids, but not dramatically more.

Did I mention that our official homeschool time includes time for daydreaming, staring out the window, and squabbling with each other?

No. I didn’t mention that to the kids either, but these are kids – it happens. (They do have “official” permission to go to the window and watch an interesting new bird when one happens by.)

I do try to keep them relatively focused, especially when we are working together, but my main concern is that they are actually getting significant work done over the course of the day – I know they will not be focused every single minute.

While we do have times of the day that are officially “schooltime,” this varies somewhat from day to day, depending on our schedule. The kids have had a pretty broad choice from the beginning as to exactly when they do each particular subject, how many pages they complete in a particular workbook or reading book each day, etc. Within reason, they choose for themselves where to do their work: they're not confined to the kitchen table, the desk in their bedroom, or whatever.

I make sure they are not simply skipping a subject day after day, and, if it becomes clear that their progress has slowed to a snail’s pace in some subject, I encourage them to focus more on that subject.

What do they do the rest of the day when not “officially” doing schoolwork?

They have an hour or so after they get up to do “serious” unassigned activities – recreational reading, writing fantasy stories on the computer (which they love to do), writing computer programs (they are just beginning this), etc.

Since they are not rushing off to school in the morning, they can usually get as many hours of sleep as they need and can also eat a leisurely breakfast (sometimes a bit too leisurely!). They have various non-academic activities that they have chosen to commit to, such as piano and dance class.

And, of course, they play and goof off.

Their television viewing tends to be limited to the news and, occasionally, science or nature specials or the Food Network (how can any homeschooler not love Alton Brown?). We have no video games, and computer gaming and Web browsing are severely limited.

I hope this does not sound utopian (or dystopian!): I think they have a fairly normal childhood, except, like most human children throughout history, they learn at home, rather than at some official site outside the home with dozens of other children who are the same age.

Is there any way then in which this differs dramatically from traditional schooling, except that, since we are at home, I know in detail how they are doing in their schoolwork?

Yes, our “curriculum” differs rather dramatically from traditional schools’.

Since they started kindergarten, we have not yet used a single traditional textbook designed primarily for the American public schools. We may bend a bit on this as they reach high-school level (I like the BSCS biology “Blue Book,” for example). But, by and large, textbooks designed for the American public-schools are high in meaningless glitz and color and very low in interest and content: they encourage mindlessness and short attention spans and breed boredom.

I’m not real keen on workbooks, but I find them sometimes necessary – I am not willing to spend my time making up a bunch of math word problems or grammar exercises. But, I try to be selective about workbooks, and try to find ones that will encourage thinking rather than simply repetitive drill.

In math, we’re using Singapore Math and Life of Fred and trying out the “Art of Problem Solving” series. Our main “language-arts” book has been the Editor in Chief workbook series, and we will soon start sentence diagramming. They are also working through Julie MacIntosh Johnson’s Basics of Keyboard Theory workbooks.

I try to get them to write a couple book reports a month, with my helping them to correct organization, grammar, punctuation, etc. (they are on their own for the first draft). And, they write fiction stories (basically to amuse each other) outside of my supervision.

We are seriously trying to learn Chinese and dabbling in some other languages – I’m not sure if they will attain fluency in anything except Chinese, but a bit of knowledge of Latin and Ancient Greek (starting with Karen Mohs’ grade-school workbook series, Hey, Andrew! Teach Me Some Greek! and Latin’s Not So Tough!) is both fun and, I think, worthwhile. I’ve written a computer program to help drill them on language vocabulary (it’s basically an automated flashcard program).

The biggest respect in which our curriculum differs from traditional schools is that we put a heavy emphasis on serious science and history.

I consider science and history to be the real core of our curriculum: science is the sum of the knowledge we have of the natural world; history is the sum of the knowledge we have of the human past.

That covers pretty much everything.

As I said above, we are not using any US public-school textbooks in those areas: science textbooks below the high-school level are often factually wrong. Even at the high-school level, many are disasters (check out the reviews from the Textbook League ). And history texts for US public schools tend to be utterly boring and bloodless: how they manage to transmute the reality of history – heroes and villains, nobility and murder most foul – into stunningly unappetizing pabulum is a great mystery.

So, our science and history texts are generally books we get from the library, published by non-textbook publishers: Dorling-Kindersley, Usborne, Lucent, Benchmark/Cavendish, Rosen Publishing Group, etc. – much more interesting and much more accurate than public-school texts.

My own direct interaction with the kids is focused on whiteboard work on math (I teach them stuff not in their books or material that they have not yet reached in their books), on working together on Chinese, and, most importantly, on science and history.

We try to spend ten to fifteen hours a week together reading science or history books out loud or discussing what the kids have read on their own.

My own total time spent directly interacting with the kids therefore tends to range from fifteen to twenty hours a week – not counting my time planning things, choosing books, reminding them to do their work instead of staring off into space, etc.

Our friend asked me how carefully I plan our long-term schedule.

I’d say it is a “conceptual plan”: I have in mind (often in hand) books I know I want us to get to in the next year or so; I know what topics I want to teach them in math that are not in their books; etc. Our plan is subject to revision on the fly if we find a new and better book, if we find some other topic that deserves some real study, or if we find that we are going faster or slower than anticipated.

Our kids have been fairly consistently testing at twice their grade level in the “three Rs” (according to tests administered by a local school district, not by me). That gives me some flexibility: I don't really need to worry about their performing at “grade level” – I can focus simply on what is worth learning and on what makes logical sense in terms of what they have already learned.

E.g., we have never formally done spelling, but, as advanced readers who learned phonics, they test well on spelling.

Perhaps the single most important goal of our curricular approach and of my planning is to be radically “developmentally inappropriate” – to steal E. D. Hirsch’s phrase.

Learning should be rewarding, but it is hard work. It is made unnecessarily hard if basic concepts are kept hidden until, all at once, they are unveiled and the student is expected to grasp them immediately.

No one can fully grasp algebra or calculus, chemistry or relativity, world history or the history of life, in one huge gulp swallowed over one nine-month period during one school year. So, I started explaining evolution in kindergarten, black holes in first grade, calculus in fourth grade, etc.

No, they did not fully “get” those ideas at those ages. But, then, few adults fully “get” those ideas either.

But my kids did start being “eased in” to those ideas at an early age. As the years roll past, we re-visit all of that, they understand more and more, and, by the time they are ready for college, I am confident that they will have a real mastery of calculus, world history, etc.

Most of us adults know a lot about pop music and entertainment, the historical events that transpired during our own lifetime, etc. Yet, we did not study all that in one huge marathon effort: we simply lived through it.

I am trying to see to it that science and history are subjects that my kids have “lived through” since kindergarten, so that they can no more forget who Oliver Cromwell or Erwin Schrödinger or Felix Mendelssohn was than most Americans could forget who Oprah or Michael Jordan or O J Simpson is.

Yeah, quarks, genes, and the curvature of spacetime are more complicated than basketball, rock music, and the Oprah show. All the more reason to start learning about them from an early age!

I’ve given a pretty exhaustive description here, and, yet, I still have left out a lot of details as to textbooks, math, etc. I hope eventually to post much of that in my “Math Interludes” on this blog, in lists of all the books we have used on my central (and currently empty) Website, etc. I hope other homeschoolers will do the same.

Anyway, I think many homeschoolers are following a course not that different from ours. On the whole, for over half a decade so far, it has been fun and rewarding. Of course, we do have our days… but the storms come and pass.

Again, I think the most important point that is distinctive about our approach is the emphasis on teaching significant content about science and history as early and as fully as possible. This would be very hard in the public schools because of the “urge to test.” Someday, I suppose, my kids may have to take a test on black holes, but they did not need to take a quiz after we first discussed black holes in first grade. They could focus on grasping the idea and slowly improving their understanding of the subject, and I could probe, through direct personal interaction, their understanding of the subject and help them correct misconceptions.

And, for that reason, if and when they do take a test in college on black holes (and evolution and world history and molecular biology and all the other things that we started casually discussing early in grade school), I am confident that they will be very well prepared.

Besides, black holes are fun.


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