I was homeschooled from kindergarten through high school. Upon graduation, I was accepted to Ball State University with a full tuition scholarship. I graduated in three years with highest honors and went on to earn a master’s degree. I am now a Ph.D. candidate at Indiana University, and will soon have my doctorate. As each of my siblings has graduated in turn, he or she has likewise headed off to university on scholarship. How did my parents achieve these results?
In the eight years since I graduated from high school, I’ve had time to think about the homeschool education I received and what parts of it were most successful. Based on this reflection, I’ve pinpointed the ten things I think were most critical to my parents’ successful homeschooling.
We children knew from a very young age that my parents placed a great deal of importance on learning. They were always learning themselves, always trying new things and going new places. Dad would read history books on his own time, catching some peace and quiet in his room, and then act out what he had read at the supper table, whiteboard marker in hand. My parents took us to museum after museum and historical site after historical site. We were interested because they were interested, and that interest rubbed off.
Fostering an internal love of learning is probably the most important thing homeschool parents can do. After all, learning at home tends to involve a lot of independent study, which makes self-motivation a key ingredient to successful homeschooling.
Up through middle school, my mother taught history to all of us children together. She would read historical fiction aloud, but that was only to start. She also checked out books full of historical crafts and activities from the library. We made a sarcophagus, assembled a Viking ship, and played at Greek gods and goddesses. History was full of adventure and discovery. We held a medieval feast for my father’s birthday one year, in full costume and complete with mead and trenchers made from bread.
During those same years, science was similarly hands-on. We did experiments out of Usborne science books and watched tadpoles turn into frogs and caterpillars into butterflies. My mother would send us outside to explore, and explore we did. When my mother read aloud, she would get out the playdough or legos and we would put our imaginations to work. As I grew older and the subjects became more advanced, my learning became more textbook-based and less hands-on. Yet those early years fostered a love of learning and kept my active childhood self interested and engaged.
My parents read to us children constantly. Even before we were school-aged, Mom read us book after book after book. When we begged for her to read another book, or for her to read the same book again, she rarely turned us down. Once we were older she read chapter books aloud to us, choosing works of historical fiction and integrating her reading schedule with our history curriculum. My father read aloud to us too, and I have many fond memories of family reading time after supper on winter evenings.
We visited the library multiple times each week, and we children always came away with stacks of books. Our appetite was insatiable, and we devoured whole series. My parents created a culture where reading was not a burden or a chore but rather a favored pastime. This had a tremendous impact on our academic progress and planted seeds of lifelong learning in each of us.
Over the years I have become more and more appreciative of my parents’ dedication in teaching us how to write. For a few years, my mother used materials from the Institute for Excellence in Writing. At the time, I found the program nitpicky. Today, I can see how much it benefited me. But mostly, my parents just had us write. My mother believed that the key to improvement was practice, and practice we did! We wrote stories in elementary school, copying them into blank books my mother bought for us. In fifth grade or so, my father paid us to write reports on each of the fifty states, working out of the encylopedia. I remember an entire summer spent researching and writing about each state, painstakingly typing up each report and proudly receiving a few dollars for each one. During our middle school and high school years my mother had us write timed essays. She would sit us down with paper and pencil, give us a prompt, and tell us we had forty-five minutes to write.
My mother was a bit fuzzy on how to use footnotes and I had to learn many of the skills needed for writing research papers once I was in college, but she provided me with a sound foundation in good writing. While it is true that copious reading can contribute to a student’s writing ability—and I’m sure it did—my mother never assumed that that was enough.
Throughout high school, I participated in debate through the National Christian Forensics and Communications Association (NCFCA). I learned about logical fallacies and gained experience with research. Participating in debate also gave me confidence in myself and provided me with a social outlet. While NCFCA is only for Christian homeschoolers, homeschoolers in some states may also be able to participate in a debate club at a local public high school.
Debate is not the only extracurricular activity that provides this sort of opportunity. Several of my siblings have been involved in Civil Air Patrol, which has offered experience with citizenship, service, and leadership. These sorts of extracurricular clubs provide opportunities for gaining confidence, creating new social networks, and broadening both interests and skills. Whether it is NCFCA debate or CAP, 4H or a robotics club, club activities like these have a lot to offer.
Starting when we were each twelve or so, my mother asked every summer about what we were interested in studying the following year. While there were certain core subjects that were mandatory, our interests had a definite impact on our curriculum. I had an interest in ancient languages, so my parents found a tutor to teach me Greek and Hebrew. My sister had an interest in art, so my parents found her a correspondence school art program. That we had input in what we studied made us feel more invested in it.
When one of my younger siblings was born with Down syndrome, my mother immediately embarked on years of research into how best to care for, raise, and educate her. Books on teaching children with Down syndrome how to read, among others, graced our kitchen counter as I grew up. This approach was not limited to this one sister. For as long as I can remember, my mother has checked out books on pedagogy and teaching from the library, poured over a huge variety of curricula at homeschool conventions, and asked other homeschool parents or teachers she knew for advice when she got stuck.
Even though the state we lived in (Indiana) did not require testing, my parents had us each take a standardized test after sixth grade to see how we were doing. They wanted to be sure that they weren’t missing something, and to have a good idea of our strengths and weaknesses and how we compared to other students. I spent a few hours each morning for a couple of days completing the test, with my father as proctor. My parents didn’t take my education for granted.
My mother kept careful records of our educational progress. At the beginning of each year she created an educational plan for each of us, complete with what we were going to study for each subject area, and at the end of each year she edited that as needed and collected samples of our work to create a portfolio for each of us. None of this was required by state law, but my mother wanted to have a record of our education. This was especially helpful to her when creating my high school transcript and when planning out the younger children’s education.
My mother became known in our homeschool community as someone who could show new or prospective homeschoolers the ropes. In fact, today she speaks at regional homeschool conferences on homeschool record-keeping and homeschooling through high school.
My parents have worked hard to prepare each of us for college, taking into account our interests and future plans. When one of my brothers was interested in attending a military academy, my parents found a sports league that gave him athletic experience. My sister’s correspondence school art program and supplemental art tutoring allowed her to put together the portfolio she would need to apply to an art school. Another sister’s involvement in a summer program for students interested in medicine helped her gain early entrance to a nursing program. My parents sought to ensure that our present education prepared us for our future ambitions.
In the years since high school graduation, several of my siblings and I have given my parents additional feedback, feedback they have taken seriously and put into practice with our younger siblings. For example, as teens we older children learned math and science from textbooks without the benefit of a class or a tutor. Based on our feedback as adults, my parents have engaged tutors in these subjects for our younger siblings, or have had them take community college courses. I’ve appreciated my parents’ willingness to listen to this feedback and to continue striving for excellence as they homeschool my youngest siblings.
Homeschooling offers parents the opportunity to create an ideal learning environment for each of their children, but that does not come automatically or without effort. I look back on the hours my mother spent reading to us each day, the hands-on learning environment she created for us, and the way she took our interests into account when planning out our school year, and I am very grateful for her time, effort, and commitment. My father, too, contributed to my education through his love of learning, with the supplemental education he provided—teaching me long division, for instance—and through his support of my mother and her efforts.
My parents weren’t perfect, and I don’t agree with every resource or method they used. But I appreciate the work they put into homeschooling, and they did do a lot of things well. It is my hope that this reflection on the things my parents did right—the things that most contributed to my success—will be encouraging and insightful to other homeschool parents.