The week before we officially started sixth-grade homeschooling, I was up all hours trying to craft the perfect schedule, the perfect lesson plans and the perfect assignments. It was like cramming for college, except this time I was a student and a teacher!
I started homeschooling with high hopes. Not only would I cover the required material and then some, I planned to integrate key ideas across disciplines, giving my daughter a holistic understanding of our world and its development.
There would be none of the confusion that I experienced in school when reading about the American Revolution and the fall of Rome at the same time (did Jefferson know Caesar?), or learning that mixing baking soda and vinegar could make quite a mess, but having no idea why it mattered. I vowed that under my direction her education would “connect the dots” in ways that mine hadn’t until well into college.
Teacher: expert or guide?
Call me naïve, but it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be qualified to teach my daughter. Only when others raised the issue did I realize how controversial the idea was. People asked how I knew what to teach her, and wondered whether she would actually learn anything. At the heart of these concerns are differing ideas about what a teacher is and how kids learn.
I believed then, as I do now, that being passionate about learning is the most critical prerequisite to effective teaching and that it is more important for a teacher to be a guide who inspires curiosity then an expert who dispenses facts. These tenants in mind and a copy of John Dewey’s seminal book Democracy and Education under my arm, I went forward, idealistically and enthusiastically, intent on opening up worlds of knowledge to my daughter.
Developing a curriculum
Although middle school is more rigorous than elementary school, it is about developing organizational skills and surviving puberty as much as it is about actual academic content.
First order of business? Create a curriculum. I started with the educational standards from the Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and distilled the main ideas into a manageable list of learning objectives. Then I browsed the curricula of the private schools where my daughter was waitlisted to develop a blueprint for the subjects we would focus on.
In the end, identifying subject-matter content and learning skills was the easy part. Harder was developing the specific lesson plans and assignments, and hardest of all was sharing the information in a way that inspired learning. Pre-packaged lessons didn’t appeal to me, so I crafted my own, finding a motherlode of resources in the process. Various museum websites, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress have been particularly inspiring.
My own fascination with the subjects helped me stay committed in the face of setbacks related to illness and holidays (forgot about those), my daughter’s aversion to actual work (yeah, I should have seen that one coming) and competing assignments from her other tutors.
Although middle school is more rigorous than elementary school, it is about developing organizational skills and surviving puberty as much as it is about actual academic content. A schedule with wiggle room has been our best friend.
A diller, a dollar, a 10 o’clock scholar
People often wonder what time we start school and whether we’re in pajamas all day, as if a strict schedule equals legitimacy. I don’t blame people for thinking that; I did too during my first year of homeschooling. I tried desperately for a routine that would keep us running like clockwork. Unfortunately, I forgot that the dogs had to be walked and that travel time ate into lesson time. Toss in classes with other tutors, my daughter’s first job and some swimming lessons, and the schedule began to fall apart within the first two weeks.
In our first semester, my daughter was lined up to study 11 subjects — far more than in public or private school. This didn’t even include music, theater or athletics. Truth is, however, it was overly ambitious and totally unworkable.
I made adjustments. By year two, we settled into a more reasonable class load. By year three, I finally learned the lesson that veteran homeschoolers always share: Don’t try to replicate school at home. Take time to just think and “be” versus always being on the go and “doing.” I relaxed the curriculum even more.
Transitioning from a predetermined schedule to finding our own rhythm of learning took some time. Thankfully, Washington state homeschooling laws offer the latitude to create a curriculum and schedule that fits our passions, abilities, values and energy — and meet state requirements even if we are still in pajamas at 10 o’clock!
Homeschooling is less structured — at least it is the way we’re doing it — but the lack of (obvious) structure belies an important shift that my daughter is making, slowly but surely, toward self-motivation and self-education. Everyone comes up against this at some point in their lives, usually in college or maybe in a first job. Homeschooling just starts it earlier.
Yes, you can
We live in a world of specialization that discourages people from taking on tasks that prior generations did without a second thought. The idea that only “experts” can teach is ingrained in us, but isn’t necessarily true. Don’t get me wrong. Teachers have my utmost respect and admiration, especially now that I have experienced the challenge firsthand. But as a homeschool parent, I am not in competition with certified teachers.
Teaching my daughter and managing a class full of kids, collaborating with colleagues and working under a principal within an educational bureaucracy — they’re apples and oranges. Instead, armed only with a desire to guide my daughter’s education and my own healthy curiosity, I have found resources and skills I didn’t know I possessed.
Read part four of this four-part article: The Home Stretch