Exploring Homeschooling Diversity
An Open Letter to Journalists
© Ann Lahrson Fisher
Just who are those homeschoolers, anyway? Answering that question can be tough for those outside the homeschooling community. If the research leaves you cold, or if you seek a more personal view, try hanging out with someone who has "been there, done that." It is unlikely that busy homeschoolers will begin to invite curious strangers to tea anytime soon. As a seasoned and trusted insider, with more than twenty years as a homeschooling parent, writer, workshop leader, test administrator and support group founder, I cheerfully volunteer as your guide.
Presently, I serve my local community by administering the Oregon-required achievement test to homeschool students and offering homeschool consultation to parents. I often visit families in their own homes and realize I enjoy a rare and treasured privilege. Parents generally talk freely about their successes and trials. In every case, families have been proud to show me what their children are learning,
and the interesting projects their students are working on. It is these times that continually build my faith in families as the first and best teachers for their children. Lucky for me to know all these people!
Let me tell you what this litany of homeschool involvement has purchased for me: trust, plain and simple. People tell me the truth when asking for my help. In addition, I am a keen observer. Without betraying anyone's privacy or trust, I can speak frankly about my observations in homes, at conferences, and with homeschooling families in their daily lives. And because I keep current on the literature and research regarding homeschooling, this personal experience with individual families is coupled with a broad knowledge and understanding of homeschooling trends, giving me a balanced view of actual homeschooling practice.
Homeschoolers are a diverse and interesting community. If you study some of the contributing elements, that diversity will become apparent.
Ann Lahrson-Fisher is the author of Fundamentals of Homeschooling: Notes
on Successful Family Living, published by Nettlepatch Press. This is the best book on getting started and continuing with homeschooling that Beverley Paine has ever read! Her book
is available in Australia from Always Learning Books
Do not assume that the homeschooling population is wholly dominated by the Christian "right." I know of many homeschooling families who are Christian Protestant "middle" and "liberal." Many others are Catholic, of both liberal and traditional parishes; Quaker; Unitarian; Baha'i; Seventh Day Adventist; Mormon; Jehovah's Witness; Muslim, conservative and liberal; Jewish, liberal and conservative; Pagan of varied approaches; Native American spirituality; New Age spiritualism. Some are
For most, homeschooling is an educational approach, NOT a religious mandate, not even for those who teach a religious curriculum. It is true that some vocal elements of the conservative Christian homeschooling community have separated from the general homeschooling population, which may lead the public to assume them to be the dominant force. Respect for "Freedom of religion" and for the tenets of the faiths
practiced by different families are simply a part of most families' homeschooling lifestyle and a natural part of a diverse community. I suspect that, over time, the various faiths will be represented in the homeschooling community in the same proportions as they are in the population at large.
Do not assume that homeschooling is a "white bread" activity. Families attending conferences or coming into my home bear surnames, skin and hair color, and physical features that suggest a rich mix of Native American, Asian, African, and European ancestry. It may be true that homeschooling has been slower to catch on in ethnically diverse communities. If so, it is also true that, once convinced that homeschooling works for their family, an ethnic minority family often becomes a strong advocate for homeschooling. The voices of non-white parents have sounded loud and clear in the larger homeschool community.
Homeschoolers live in cities, towns, suburbs, rural, and remote areas. Physical location has little influence on whether or not homeschooling is a valid option for the family. Location may affect the kinds of activities families choose for enrichment. For example, rural families drive their children to towns and cities for cultural and social
experiences. Urban families drive their children to the country for nature experiences. Suburban families often joke that they car-school, always driving to and from activities. Homeschooling networks successfully help families experience diverse lifestyle and cultural activities.
Are homeschoolers more likely to be found in one region of the country than another? While there are some hot spots where homeschooling flourishes - generally on the "outer edges" of the US (the West Coast, Minnesota, Illinois, Texas, Florida, New York, Maine, Virginia, for example) - the phenomenon is growing nationwide and is legal in every state. It seems to be growing in other First World countries as well,
with growing populations in Canada, England, Australia, and New Zealand, for example. Non-English speaking countries such as Germany, France, and Japan also boast growing homeschool populations.
Most homeschoolers find themselves, financially speaking, somewhere between the working poor and the working wealthy. Few people shout out their income range! Still, circumstances of housing and work opportunity suggest to me that people of all income levels can find ways to homeschool their children if they choose to do so. I have visited homes that suggest a broad range of financial circumstances.
Some homes are tiny and/or worn, filled with threadbare furniture, scrubbed to shine like a new penny. Parents sometimes show me the second-hand school desks where the children do their paperwork and shelve their library books. I am introduced to the pets they care for. Albums of photos show trips they have taken are on the shelves, and plans and fund-raisers for future trips are enthusiastically discussed. The computer and favourite software are among other resources that create a healthy learning environment. Supplies and resources seem plentiful, if perhaps older or used.
Other homes I visit are large and beautifully appointed. Sometimes these homes have designated "school" rooms that are spacious, airy, and filled with wonderful learning materials. Expansive views and/or large acreage further suggest comfortable financial circumstances. Here too, parents point out their children's learning activities and classes, pianos and music lessons, animals, projects, use of tutors, scheduled trips, and so forth. Supplies and resources are plentiful.
Most homes that I visit are what I consider to be typically middle class. Ordinary neighbourhoods, ordinary yards, ordinary families. Some have set aside a portion of the house - family room or spare bedroom - for schooling activities. Soccer, baseball, piano, reading, math, science projects, or dance and art lessons may dominate the schedule. Children have chores, swimming lessons, computers, trips to the library
or bookstore, and summer vacations. Supplies and resources are plentiful and frequently exchanged at swap meets and used curriculum sales.
When visiting homes where homeschooling has become a lifestyle, regardless of wealth or circumstances, one immediately understands that the entire home is geared towards learning, whether or not there is a designated work area. Activities and projects might be found throughout the home and yard. You could find ant farms on the TV, hamster cages in the family room and Legos dominating every square inch of the living room floor. Child-drawn paintings, writings, and math sheets can be
found on any wall, chalk boards hang in hallways, paint sets occupy the dining room table and science projects dominate the kitchen counters. Computers and software often occupy the "nerve centre" of the home, providing both learning opportunities and communication tools. Complex and densely scheduled calendars, chore lists, and learning tasks hang in every kitchen, coordinating the comings and goings of busy families.
I have met families who choose to travel as a primary method of educating their children. For those choosing this approach, it seems apparent that travel is either part of an employment opportunity, or the family has financial resources that make travel feasible. Some families travel internationally, while others may take six months or a year to travel the US, Canada, or Mexico.
Do the very wealthy choose to homeschool their children? Some celebrities choose to homeschool, particularly those who travel a great deal, such as the young members of the rock group Hanson and singer LeeAnn Rimes. Can we assume that other individuals of wealth are quietly making the same choice? I don't see why not.
Can welfare parents homeschool? I've spoken with welfare parents who were considering homeschooling. I have second-hand knowledge of welfare parents who found homeschooling to be the best choice for an individual child. Homeschooling succeeds best when the parent receiving aid has the energy, determination and motivation to work with their child while at the same time dealing with government bureaucracy and seeking sound financial footing. It is my sense that individuals in dire financial or personal circumstances may have little energy left over for homeschooling their children. For those who do have that energy, welfare is usually a temporary solution for the family.
Here again, you have to love the diversity of occupation in the homeschooling community. Some parents I know are doctors, lawyers, and other professionals. Several families successfully run cleaning businesses. Some parents are farmers, chemists, foresters, park rangers, accountants, housekeepers, cooks, computer programmers, web-based business owners, retailers, writers, publishers, teachers (yes, even school teachers!), artists, grocers, ministers, singers, musicians, researchers, business people, mechanics, nurses and other health care workers, college professors, - need I go on?
The stereotype of a stay-at-home mom as homeschooling parent while dad goes to work is not as typical as you might think. Many stay-at-home homeschooling parents work in or out of the home part time, either for pay or as volunteers. A growing number of dads stay home either full time or part time if mom earns the bigger pay check. Home businesses are popular among families who want to teach their children work ethics and business practices, or perhaps they merely want to spend more time
together as a family. Many parents have found ways to share the responsibility of earning income and homeschooling their children.
Family Size and Makeup
There is no typical family size. I have met families with anywhere from one child to eight children; birth children; adopted children; some adopted, some birth children; single mom or single dad with children; divorced parents sharing both child rearing and homeschooling.
Sometimes what appears to be a typical family is anything but typical. One parent I know adopted, and homeschooled, two sibling groups of older children - hardly typical! Another couple has four homeschooled children and two other adult family members that live with them. Still another couple has adopted drug-affected babies who absolutely thrive in the rich environment their parents provide. Some families homeschool some of their children while other of their children attend school.
Grandparents are getting more involved in their children's home education. Several single moms have involved Grandma or Grandpa in homeschooling their youngsters. One grandparent supervises math games and computer activities. In another family, grandparents drive children to activities while Mom works. Sometimes grandparents supervise workbooks or other routine schooling activities. Some grandparents with
custody of their grandchild choose homeschooling as the best option for that child. When I meet these caring grandparents, I have to beam. They are delighted to be able to play such an important role in the lives of their grandchildren.
Age of Students
Homeschooling is effective with children of all ages, from birth to adulthood. Some families choose to homeschool as a lifestyle, so children are actually homeschooled from birth on. Others discover homeschooling as a solution to a particular school-related problem and begin homeschooling when students are older. Some parents choose to homeschool their children during the early years and introduce them to
traditional schooling for middle or high school. Others feel that sending children to school during the early years is important, but ithdraw them for homeschooling during the middle and high school years. Thus, all ages find homeschooling to be a benefit.
Judging from current literature and the trends in my own state, I surmise that a good majority of homeschooled children are under age ten or twelve. However, there is a growing population of teens who thrive on the independence that homeschooling offers.
Students and their parents may decide to continue to homeschool through college. Most college-bound homeschooled students opt for the traditional college experience, however. It should be noted, also, that many adults who learn about homeschooling have taken up their own continuing education process with great enthusiasm. While this population includes some parents of homeschooling students, a significant number of these autodidacts are adults who have come to the process independently, driven by the belief that traditional education failed them.
Homeschoolers' abilities, in the traditional academic areas as in all other areas, run the gamut. Gifted. Mentally handicapped. Autistic. Average. Dyslexic. Math phobic. ADD. ADHD. Emotional and mental disorders. High achiever. Low achiever. Gifted in one area of study only and struggling miserably in all others. Physical handicaps of all types, including Down syndrome, deafness, and blindness. Speech difficulties.
Not only do parents successfully homeschool these students, special needs students frequently thrive, achieving successes time and again that had been previously deemed out of reach by experts and professionals. I cannot praise the efforts and love of these dedicated homeschool parents enough. And your heart would absolutely burst if you could meet some of the students and see their faces light up as they learn!
You may have heard that homeschoolers fall in one of two extreme categories: school-at-home, where students study traditional curriculum for four to six hours a day; or unschooling, where learning happens on the fly through a flurry of activity, with children learning the basics in the natural process of pursuing their interests.
In fact, the vast majority of families fall somewhere in the middle. Families are alike in that they meet their students' needs as they grow and change, just as all good teachers do. In short, they use the method/s that works best with their children at each age and stage, and the methods often change as the children grow and mature. What that really means is that no two families ever homeschool in quite the same way.
Let's not forget politics! Republican. Democrat. Independent. Libertarian. Conservative. Liberal. Rugged individualist. Socialist. Pro- and Anti- "issue of the month." On rare occasions, belief driven blocs become homeschoolers. More commonly, homeschooling families spring forth from a diverse population one family at a time.
Visit with many homeschooling families and soon you'll soon discover that homeschoolers have a wide range of affiliations, philosophies, beliefs and allegiances. Many are outspoken advocates for their causes and, if you listen carefully, you will learn these truths: homeschoolers are independent, passionate, and avidly committed to preserving their liberties and the right to live the homeschooling lifestyle in whatever
way fits their family best.
So who are those homeschoolers, anyway? As Pogo might have put it, "They is us."
Getting to Know Homeschoolers
Can members of the media build trust among homeschoolers and get an inside track into their world?
Absolutely yes! The easiest way is to homeschool your own children. You will be welcomed into a local group with open arms. If that plunge is not feasible for your family, try these ideas.
1. Make yourself available to homeschool groups as a guest speaker or presenter. Be sure to present a topic you love bring your enthusiasm, and bring the topic to life. Members of the media might offer an introduction to script writing, photography, movie or video making, or tips on investigative reporting, for example. Be prepared to tell your story to eager learners of all ages.
2. Teach a class or start a learning club. Again, stay with a topic that lights your fire. Make a commitment to help students complete a project of some kind: publish a newsletter; make a video production or TV show; create a photo collection; write a column. Whatever it is you do, find the juicy parts to share with students, and watch them slurp it up. If you stay true to yourself and respectful of the children, you will be
astounded by the level of participation and learning of these students.
3. Become a mentor or take on an apprentice. The same guidelines apply here. Stay with what you love, and introduce a student to the ins and outs of your profession or avocation. Mentorships generally require less regular preparation time than classes or learning clubs, but plan to be surprised with how long students stay with the activity. If they decide they hate it, they'll be gone in a flash, unwilling to waste either your
time or their time doing something they don't enjoy. If they love the topic, you may have a friend for life!
To connect with the homeschooling community without direct student interaction:
4. Start a scholarship fund for a homeschooler. Remember that these folks usually educate their children without benefit of the tax dollar. They can use a spare buck or two.
5. Offer printing, publishing, photo services to local support groups. Same reason as above.
6. Purchase advertising space for your business or publication in homeschool newsletters and magazines. Become a regular supporter.
7. Make a SERIOUS effort to include the homeschooling community in the general educational outreach of your organization. Remember that homeschooling publications often have a two to three month lag time, so sending a flyer two weeks before a due date is a waste of paper and postage and only serves to frustrate homeschoolers.
8. Offer tours of your business, office, station, etc.
And finally, for a small taste of what it means to be homeschooled:
9. Begin to learn a new and unfamiliar subject without the benefit of textbooks, classes, colleges, teachers, or tutors. Rediscover your childhood love of learning, in case you've lost it. Learn independently for the sheer pleasure of learning. That, my friends, is the essence of the homeschool experience.
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Beverley Paine with her children, and their home educated children, relaxing at home.
Together with the support of my family, my aim is to help parents educate their children in stress-free, nurturing environments. In addition to building and maintaing this website, I continue to create and manage local and national home educating networks, help to organise conferences and camps, as well as write for, edit and produce newsletters, resource directories and magazines. I am an active supporter of national, state, regional and local home education groups.
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