Here are some facts about me that I don’t often share: in middle school, I was a finalist in the National Spelling Bee and competed in the State Geography Bee. In high school, I won piano competitions, placed third in a national consumer education contest, took classes at the local university and community college, and achieved a near-perfect score on the SAT. After being waitlisted at Stanford, I graduated with honors from a selective public liberal arts college on the East Coast, and have since earned a Ph.D. in U.S. History. Oh, and one final fact: my parents homeschooled me K-12.
None of this makes me a poster child for home education – far from it; academics aren’t the only part of a child’s upbringing, after all. But though I tend to keep many of these achievements quiet – several of them I haven’t mentioned publicly in years until this article – I’d be hard-pressed to deny that my background represents a record of achievement. My own drive and interest in academic excellence are partially responsible for my success, as is my family’s middle-class socioeconomic status and high level of education – they had three masters’ degrees between them before they began homeschooling me. Yet in my experience, none of these things was the deciding factor that made me a homeschooling academic success story. Instead, my mother and father made a series of choices that determined how well our home school would function. These choices are available to every homeschooling parent, no matter their circumstances or educational background. I’ve listed them below.
1. Extending the Definition of Education Beyond the Classroom
My parents viewed virtually every experience as a potential educational opportunity. A museum visit, a book of historical fiction, a conversation with my father about aerodynamics, an impromptu physics experiment involving raisins in a glass of soda – all were as much a part of my education as were workbooks and textbooks. Don’t get me wrong – I had hours of “traditional,” sit-down instruction every day, to ensure I learned the basics and to prepare me for college. Nevertheless, my parents worked hard at finding educational value in even the most mundane or purely entertaining activities. They’d encourage me to perform literary analysis on a movie in order to better understand its meaning, or to explain the physics principles demonstrated by a fort I was building. There was no such thing as being “in class” or “out of class” in our family; our classroom was everywhere, and everything was part of my education. This facet of my parents’ teaching style made my whole life rich with educational content and taught me how to analyze ordinary occurrences for their deeper meaning, a key skill in higher-level humanities work.
2. Drawing Connections Between Activities
In addition to turning non-academic activities into learning experiences, my parents created informal educational “units,” without really saying they were doing so, to connect different types of learning with one another. A conversation with an astronomer at a science festival might lead to a visit to an observatory, a night-sky observation through my dad’s telescopes, a book on astronomy, and finally an episode of NOVA about astrophysics. My mom programmed our nightly movie-watching to correspond with things I had recently learned; she also planned outside activities such as museum trips to match things we were reading or learning at home. This ability to integrate outside learning content into a cohesive educational agenda helped me learn deeply in individual subjects, contributed to a multifaceted learning experience, and taught me to see connections between events and activities – another key humanities skill.
3) Creating Innovative Learning Opportunities
One of the great benefits of homeschooling is the ability to integrate innovative teaching techniques into the learning process. Unlike many of my friends growing up, my family didn’t use a formal curriculum; instead, my mom created one by picking up educational materials at homeschool conventions, educational supply stores, and libraries. (Today, she would have used the internet to achieve much the same goal.) Sometimes this meant I had a dated, substandard text instead of an up-to-date book, but usually it meant she had picked the best parts of the various curricula and combined them into a learning system all her own. Picking and choosing in this way also enabled her to tailor my curriculum to my strengths and weaknesses, rather than pursuing a “one-size-fits-all” approach.
In addition to the materials my mom purchased, many of the most rewarding educational activities we did were ideas she either made up or gathered from reading homeschooling magazines or alternative education books. She created a “Math Olympics” where we competed in a variety of math-based activities (I chose half of them) to learn math and win prizes; we followed that up with a more extensive “Social Studies Olympics” the following year. She put the names of historical figures in an envelope and had us pull a name at random and write a poem about that figure; when the envelope was empty, we created a book of our poems. We then did the same thing with creative non-fiction topics and finally with fiction, though we ran out of time to finish the last group before I graduated.
The key here is that my parents were not satisfied with simply purchasing educational materials and administering them to me. Instead, they worked hard to craft an individualized educational experience for me, inserting themselves into the teaching and learning process. It was that dedication to innovation, as much as any specific activities or materials, that enriched my education.
4) Following My Interests and Encouraging My Love of Learning
While much of my education was directed by my parents, they never failed to support my interests when I became excited by a subject or wanted to expand on something we were learning. When I became fascinated by clouds in elementary school, my parents took me to the library and helped me pick out a series of books which resulted in my learning about weather patterns and memorizing the names of the different cloud types. In sixth grade, they supported me as I kept working for weeks on what was supposed to be a five-page report on Ancient Rome that eventually topped thirty-five handwritten pages. The next year, after I read a fiction book set in Denmark, they encouraged me as I wrote a 20+ page report on that country entirely on my own initiative. This support for self-initiated learning waned somewhat as I reached my high school years – there just wasn’t enough time to both prepare me for college and follow up on my learning interests. Nevertheless, by encouraging self-directed learning, my parents helped me take ownership of my education and taught me that learning is something you can do for yourself, as well as for others – an idea that sustained me through college and graduate school.
5) Not Limiting My Potential
My parents did a good job of not telling me when something I wanted to do was really hard. When I wanted to win the state spelling bee, my mom didn’t tell me it was an extremely difficult thing to do, that I’d have to be a better speller than tens of thousands of kids who were studying too. Instead, we just started memorizing words. Because I didn’t know it was hard, I wasn’t intimidated by the work and was able to reach my goal. Similarly, when I unwittingly chose a difficult Bach prelude and fugue to play for my college piano auditions, neither my piano teacher nor my mother (a former piano teacher herself) bothered to tell me how hard it was. It was only after one of my auditions that the piano professor mentioned it was the hardest piece in the set! Had I known how difficult the piece was, I never would have attempted it, but because I simply worked to achieve my potential without knowing how I compared with others, I wasn’t afraid to accomplish big tasks.
6) Keeping Good Records
As soon as my mom decided to begin homeschooling me, she began keeping records of my academic work. What she called my “school folder” eventually came to encompass three full-size file boxes that contained everything from worksheets to reports to drawings to lecture and concert programs. Anything I had created, and anything that provided evidence for the activities I had done, was included. At the end of each year, my mom wrote a summary of what I’d accomplished during that year and included it in my file. Later, when it came time to create a high school transcript for me, she had only to go back through my school folder to remember everything I’d done. After I graduated from homeschool high school, my mother gave me the entire contents of the school folder – a physical record of my education for me to keep, and an invaluable collection of evidence that proved I had accomplished things as a homeschooler. Incidentally, we lived in states (California and Arizona) that didn’t require any sort of educational standards for homeschoolers, but had the state required an annual portfolio check, it would have been no problem – my mom was already keeping those records for my benefit.
7) Knowing When To Bring In Outside Help
Between the two of them, my parents were pretty well-versed in the major school subjects – my father, an engineer and psychotherapist, was trained in the sciences, while my mother, a writer and teacher, was trained in the humanities. Nevertheless, they took every opportunity to supplement my homeschooling with outside instruction, particularly when I reached the limits of their expertise. As a young child, I spent many happy hours at the local children’s library, attending storytimes and talking with friendly librarians. At the age of nine, I participated in a program called Science-By-Mail which provided me with a scientist pen-pal to oversee a series of educational units in science; I continued to correspond with this scientist until well into my college years. I also participated in a community swim team and had a private piano teacher.
My parents also realized they couldn’t provide me with an at-home experience truly equivalent to a lab science course, and sought to rectify this gap. As soon as the local community college let me begin taking classes there, I signed up to take lab courses in biology, chemistry, and physics. Later, I took additional courses at the local university.
By recognizing that they couldn’t do everything themselves, that I needed access to other teachers and educational professionals, my parents expanded the range of perspectives I was exposed to and ensured that I received a well-rounded education.
8) Preparing Me for College
College isn’t for everyone, but it clearly was for me and was something I wanted to do. Accordingly, my parents worked throughout my high school years to prepare me for college admissions. My mom drafted a high school transcript, creating credits roughly equivalent to the learning I was accomplishing, and then worked methodically to fill the gaps required for college admission; we remedied educational deficiencies through in-home learning when we could, and through college classes when we couldn’t. To prepare me for more selective colleges, my parents had me do a variety of volunteer activities (they look great on a college application!), prepped me for the SATs, made sure I took SAT II subject tests, scheduled and accompanied me on college visits, and even put me in touch with a professional college admissions counselor. Since as a homeschooler I didn’t have grades, it was especially important that my parents did all they could to make sure I’d have a chance at getting to a really good school.
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Though I’ve divided my educational experience into helpful bullet points, taken together they paint a fairly comprehensive picture of why my education was successful. I had an excellent homeschool education because my parents invested their time, energy, and effort into creating one – and because they applied creative, innovative, and responsible solutions to the problems inherent in any educational process. They made sure I learned the basics, met critical benchmarks, prepared well for college, and documented my progress – but they did so while fostering creativity and love of learning. Creating a successful home education doesn’t require specialized training, but it does require a lot of hard work and a commitment to making good choices about your child’s future. I’m grateful to my parents for their involvement and for their good judgment, which helped make my homeschooling experience an academic success.