Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
It's May! Summer's just around the corner, which means that we have officially survived our first full year of homeschooling. This is a big milestone for us. As a lazy procrastinator with zero natural knack for teaching, I was a little worried about how this endeavor would turn out. Fortunately, things have gone better than I expected, and we managed to perpetuate only a few of the worst stereotypes about homeschoolers.
Some friends who are currently discerning school choices for next year have been asking how it went, so I thought I'd write up a hodgepodge of lessons I've learned while educating my kindergartener and second grader at home. (Keep in mind that my kids are young, so my experiences are probably different than that of folks with older kids.)
1. There's a lot of work, but you don't have to deal with homework
Planning and teaching homeschool lessons does take time, and that was definitely a sacrifice I had to make in order to homeschool. However, back when my oldest child went to public school, I also had to spend hours each week helping him with homework -- and in those cases, it was often frustrating to try to figure out what the teacher was looking for. Even though homeschooling requires more time from my schedule, I enjoy being able to control the type and quantity of work my kids do. More than anything, I love it that we can get it all done during the day, so that we can have relaxed family time in the evenings without having piles of homework hanging over our heads.
2. It's helpful to start each week with a plan
I made it a habit to set aside time each weekend to sketch out a schooling plan for the week, and this turned out to be critical. On the weekends I couldn't get around to it, our weeks always felt disorganized, and we often didn't get much done school-wise.
3. You don't have to be a great teacher
I thought that my nonexistent teaching abilities would be one of our most difficult challenges. I tend to be impatient and scatter-brained, and I worried that the kids would revolt by the end of the first week. However, I found that modern curricula make teaching a breeze. They had instructions so simple that even someone like me could follow them (e.g. "Tell your child to count the coins. Now ask, 'How many quarters do we have?'") Surprisingly enough, this didn't end up being an issue at all.
4. Especially when you're first starting out, it's ideal to buy curricula in person
When I first set out on this path, I was overwhelmed by all the great lesson planning options. For any topic imaginable, there are all sorts of curricula, each which focuses on a different learning style and/or worldview. I found it very helpful to go down to school supply stores like Mardel and look over everything in person. After I had flipped through various materials, it quickly became clear which ones were right for us.
5. There are a lot of active homeschooling communities
This one undoubtedly varies by region, but here in Central Texas I was delighted to find a large and active Catholic homeschooling community, as well as many good Protestant and secular ones as well. Far from feeling like we were going out on our own, getting involved with these groups made us feel a great kinship with other like-minded local families.
6. It's helpful to anchor homeschool times to outside events
One of my biggest challenges as homeschool teacher was simply sticking to a schedule. With no urgent reason to get everyone dressed and out of bed, it was easy to drift around in the morning, not get school started on time, then throw up my hands and decide that we might as well skip it since it was too late to begin. When I anchored school time to other events in our schedule, everything changed. For example, we started doing a lot of work when the toddlers were at the parish Mother's Day Out program, or would aim to get a couple of lessons in before Scouts on Wednesdays. Having to do school within pre-set, fixed times that I couldn't change was the motivation I needed to get everything moving on schedule.
7. You don't have to stick with one schooling philosophy, even from day to day
When we first started, I thought we would only do only a traditional schooling model (i.e. kids seated at desks, working methodically through carefully designed programs, doing worksheets, etc.) as opposed to the more loose "unschooling" style. What I found is that both worked for us: We fell into a schedule where certain days we would do traditional school, and certain other days the kids were free to do what they wanted, as long as it was at least somewhat educational. I found that combining structure with freedom to explore really benefited our family, and gave us the best of both worlds.
8. The pros and cons of homeschooling vary widely by the parents' temperaments
I did find it difficult to make sure my kids were getting enough quality social time with other children, but that's probably because I'm an introvert. On the other hand, my extroverted friends who homeschool find socialization to be a non-issue, but do sometimes struggle with spending so much time in the house. I've found this especially important to keep in mind when getting advice from others: Your friend might find a certain aspect of homeschooling to be easy or difficult, but, depending on your personality, you could have a totally different experience.
9. You don't need to match the hours they'd spend in school
One of the things that initially intimidated me about home education was the prospect of being in "school mode" seven hours a day. I was pleasantly surprised to find that, especially for the elementary grades, you can keep your kids at or above grade level by putting in fewer than half the hours they would spend at traditional schools each week. With the small "classroom" sizes you have with homeschooling, in addition to the freedom to cut out busywork, you can cover a lot of ground in relatively short amount of time.
10. There are exciting new options for homeschoolers every day
It seems like every time I turn around I hear about new educational options that would benefit homeschooling families. Regina Coeli. Khan Academy. MIT for high schoolers. Locally, there are now lots of extracurricular activities that meet during the day, as well as countless classes. I am excited to see the field of education flourishing with such exciting innovations, not just as a homeschooling parent, but as someone who loves learning.
I don't know if we'll homeschool all the way through 12th Grade; we try to take it a semester at a time, and not predict what may or may not work for us years into the future. But it's a good fit for now, and as much as I'm looking forward to summer break, I also look forward to the Fall, when another year of homeschooling will begin.