How My Parents’ Homeschooling Methods Empowered Me to Follow My Dreams

I recently strolled down homeschool memory lane, googling the titles of fondly-remembered novels, asking my mom for an inventory of her closet stuffed with educational board games, recalling how one co-op teacher tied calculus to cryptography. My amble through the past reminded me that successfully homeschooling children — as my mom did with my sister and me — takes work, skill, creativity, and drive. But it also reminded me of the myriad resources that can facilitate the sort of responsible homeschooling I experienced — and the importance of sharing those methods, mindsets, and materials with current or prospective homeschooling parents, as I hope to do here.

Before describing how my family homeschooled, I want to note that even successful homeschooling looks different for different families. Indeed, one advantage of homeschooling is the ability to tailor education to kids’ individual needs, personalities, interests, and learning styles. This post should not be seen as prescriptive or limiting, though I do hope it will furnish ideas and motivation.

I should also provide my “homeschooling worked for me” bona fides, along with a caveat. After being homeschooled K-12, I attended and thrived at Princeton, graduating from there with highest honors. I am now a Ph.D. candidate in the humanities. However, I hope readers will not interpret what follows as “how to homeschool your child for the Ivy League” or “how to homeschool your child for a career in academia.” There’s no way to ensure selective college admissions or pre-ordain a child’s career path, and more importantly, I don’t think “homeschooling for the Ivy League” is a healthy ethos. I believe that homeschooling responsibly entails pursuing academic excellence, encouraging kids to dream big, and supporting those dreams — and where that leads will be different for every child.

So how did we homeschool? My mom describes us as “unschooler wannabes” prior to high school. (More on high school in a bit.) We were “looking to be as flexible and freedom-loving as we could be without sacrificing the basics,” she told me. “In fact, ‘cover the basics, pursue their passions’ came to be the operative phrase.” Since we mostly followed a traditional academic year schedule, she used our summer vacation to comb through catalogs — Timberdoodle was a favorite — and research next year’s materials. Mom always tried to place large orders by July 4, which gave her time to make changes if something disappointed her or her kids once it arrived. When considering new options for the upcoming year, she gravitated toward books and curricula that sounded “playful” rather than dry and boring.

All this ordering and experimenting was expensive, but not prohibitively so: our yearly homeschool budget was around $1,500 during the 1990s, not counting the (significant) opportunity cost of my mom giving up her previous career as a film animator.

As part of our daily routine, my mom, sister, and I kicked the morning off with a game — usually involving math, wordplay, or critical thinking. Favorite start-the-day games included Quiddler, Set, Yahtzee, Bethump’d with Words, Upwords, Oh Scrud!, Connections, Triology, Fictionary (no materials required other than a dictionary), educational games from Aristoplay, and educational versions of the game Concentration  adapted to our unit study of the moment – e.g., matching presidents and first ladies if we were doing a unit on presidents.

Following our game, we usually had a math period that involved both independent textbook work and puzzles or word problems that we did together. Go-to resources for math included Family Math, Miquon, 30 Wild and Wonderful Math Stories, and word problems drawn from books we were reading or whatever unit study we were doing (more on units in a moment). Beginning around middle school, we also used Saxon for cover-the-basics, which worked well for me personally, though it was less successful for other homeschoolers I knew.

After math came language arts, which also involved both independent work and activities we did together. Much of my language arts education happened as I developed passions for reading and writing on my own — voraciously gobbling novels, scribbling stories, and writing a history column for a local newsletter. (We owned mountains of books, often purchased used at library sales or garage sales, and spent ample time at the library.) But we also followed curricula for writing and grammar. Favorite resources included the Wordsmith series, Learning Language Arts through Literature, and the Editor in Chief series. My mom says she gleaned additional ideas and activities from Any Child Can Write,  Books Children Love, and If You’re Trying to Teach Kids How To Write….  One of my favorite writing exercises, though I am not sure where we got the idea, was the “wild write.”

After language arts, we shifted our focus entirely to whatever unit study we were currently doing. (Though my mom did not share Valerie Bendt’s main reason for homeschooling, she says she got the idea and some of the structure for unit studies from her.) Unit studies meant immersing ourselves for approximately six weeks in a topic that my sister or I chose: checking out stacks of library books on that subject, play-acting or building or experimenting, exploring relevant museums and cultural centers, sampling new cuisine where appropriate. Subjects we chose at various stages of homeschooling included baby animals, aviation, the French Revolution (including a memorable role-played Marie Antoinette trial), the Russian Revolution (I was obsessed with the Romanovs), and dinosaurs.

For our final unit of the year, my sister and I always wrote, illustrated, and bound our own books — mine tended to be historical fiction and mysteries — with my mom using Bendt’s Creating Books with Children as a guide. Writing and crafting these books every year remains one of my favorite childhood memories, and I still enjoy pulling the final products off the shelf and rereading them when I visit my parents.

We studied other subjects on certain days of the week rather than every day; these electives included French, Latin, and logic. My mom had studied French and Latin in high school and college, which made things much easier, though we were also able to learn some Spanish from another homeschool mom who was a native speaker. For French, we used Learnables and read French novels once we were able to do so, including translations of books like Harry Potter. Favorite logic books included The First Honest Book about Lies and books from the Critical Thinking Company. I do not recommend the dry and error-riddled Latin curriculum we used (by the Logos School), but I did enjoy this supplementary Latin book.

A quick note on differentiation: though my two-years-younger sister and I did most of the hands-on, interactive activities — games, brainteasers, creative writing exercises — together with our mom, our use of more traditional curricula like Saxon and Wordsmith for the basics of the three Rs allowed us to use different books and therefore be on different levels in these areas, reflecting both our age gap and our varying learning paces. Our approach to foreign languages, logic, and unit studies lent itself to learning together, which we usually did, but we sometimes differentiated in these areas too — e.g., I remember researching quasars at length during an astronomy unit, while my sister did a shorter project about Pluto.

Outside-the-home extracurricular activities were also part of our weekly schedule; these included piano and figure skating lessons, drama classes, choir, summer programs in creative writing, and play groups when we were younger. By high school, I was also doing a lot of self-directed experiential learning, such as giving tours of our state Capitol building to local school groups, interviewing veterans for an oral history project, and serving as a page in our state legislature. Finding these activities was not difficult but took initiative — sometimes simply calling an office or group and asking if there was a role for an interested teenage volunteer.

High school also differed from K-8 in terms of my class schedule. To her great credit, my mom wanted to ensure that we would be able attend quality colleges if we chose that path, so we planned grades 9-12 according to college admissions offices’ expectations for a rigorous high school program. (For instance, based on what seems to be the “rigorous” standard, we added a separate year of geometry, which meant abandoning Saxon for a year and using Harold Jacobs geometry.) We continued some of the same traditions that defined K-8, such as starting the morning off with a game, but otherwise my schedule would shift from day to day depending on my outside-the-home activities and the work I needed to complete for my external classes.

Indeed, external classes dominated my high school academic education. I took correspondence courses in essay-writing through Johns Hopkins CTY, calculus with a local homeschool co-op teacher (who used Saxon as a textbook but added his own creative cryptographic flair), French with the local Alliance Française, chemistry correspondence courses through UNL, and several online AP classes from Pennsylvania Homeschoolers. I highly recommend that last item in particular; in addition to preparing me very well for the AP exams, the PA Homeschoolers classes featured delightfully offbeat learning exercises — we became burger tycoons in AP Economics, for example — and vibrant online discussions, allowing me to connect (albeit virtually) with academically-focused homeschoolers from around the world.

All of this pre-planning streamlined the process of applying to college as a homeschooler, which my mom had rightly recognized would be a major undertaking. As she put it, “Suddenly I was the principal, guidance counselor, and sometimes the teacher.” To ensure that I had solid applications, we used Loretta Heuer’s excellent Homeschoolers Guide to Portfolios and Transcripts as a primary resource, supplemented with Cafi Cohen’s And What About College?. Though not specifically for homeschoolers, we also used Michele Hernández’s A is for Admission in order glean guidelines on essay-writing, activity lists, and competitive admissions. In addition to providing all the standard components of a college application that a high school would normally provide (transcript, guidance counselor’s letter, test scores), my mom wrote a “homeschool profile” explaining how and why we homeschooled. I also included a portfolio of some of my creative writing.

Though my external classes provided grades and letters of recommendation from non-parental teachers — crucial for homeschool college applications — I also needed more outside verification, so I took several SAT IIs and AP tests at a local public high school, in addition to the more widely-taken PSAT and SAT I. To prepare for these tests, I used free guides and practice tests from the College Board, as well as guidebooks from the Princeton Review and Kaplan. I also enjoyed a quirky SAT prep book called Up Your Score.

My homeschool experience was not perfect. Despite some of the fun science units we did in the early years (Bernoulli’s Principle with paper airplanes!), I missed out on the full-scale lab experience in high school, and I ended up with an unscientific biology textbook due to recommendations from some other local homeschoolers. I also wish I had experienced more unstructured peer socialization during my teen years. But as I learn more about the range of homeschool and public/private school experiences, I am more convinced than ever that I was incredibly lucky to receive the K-12 education that I did.

During our recent “interview,” I asked my mom about her mindset and attitude during our homeschool years. She mentioned that it took confidence and enthusiasm, words that stand out as I reflect on what went right. My mom was not arrogant — she acknowledged her limitations and sought help where she needed it — but she felt comfortable cobbling together curricula and methods based on what her kids needed, and on what suited her own personal teaching style. She also read widely within homeschool “theory” — everything from John Holt to the Colfaxes to Susan Wise Bauer — but, precisely because of this eclecticism, avoided dogmatically following any one figure or philosophy. She had her own vision, informed by her kids’ vision.

Homeschooling is not for everyone, but it worked well for us. My family’s way of homeschooling is not for everyone, but I hope this description of what we did sheds some light on what homeschooling responsibly can look like. The effects, after all, are long-lasting: I can still kick butt in a game of SET or Bethump’d With Words — and when you have lots of free time, ask me about the Romanovs.

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