In the golden glow of a rural September morning, a gaggle of fresh faced children bustles onto a big yellow bus. The door closes and the bus rumbles off down the road, past redwoods and apple orchards, toward school in Occidental.
But down the lane, eleven year old Ethan is still home. He peers intently into the bowels of a computer, readying a screwdriver as his dad strains to push stiff metal parts together. His dad has been away at work for three days, and they have both been looking forward to this day of catching up on projects together.
On a hillside twenty miles away, in Kenwood, twelve year old Ramon lets his goats out of their pens and joins his mom inside at the kitchen table, to play with logarithms in their favorite math book.
And over in Santa Rosa, nine year old Allegra and Ashley break away from their reading to help their mom pack up lunch for today's field trip. They will be joining seven other families for a tour of the Petrified Forest in Calistoga before they rush off to ballet class.
These are some of what could be as many as two million children in this country who do not go to school.
Parents choose to educate their children outside of the traditional setting for a variety of reasons: academic goals, religious beliefs, social philosophy, personal needs and any number of issues. Patrick Farenga, publisher of the popular national homeschooling journal, Growing Without Schooling (GWS), has seen dramatic change and expansion over the past twenty years, "We have seen the homeschooling movement grow from its alternative schooling and back-to-the-land roots in the late seventies, to its popularity with religious fundamentalists in the eighties, to its current gradual acceptance by 'mainstream' families. Homeschooling is clearly not only growing, but flourishing."
How do parents know what to teach and how to go about teaching it? There are almost as many answers to this question as there are homeschoolers. The HomeSchool Association of California (HSC) points out that the home setting allows for direct personalized attention. "The teacher," they remind us, "possesses deep knowledge of each child and can individually tailor teaching methods to the child�s learning style. Studies have found no significant difference in the achievement of homeschooled children when grouped according to whether the parent was, or had ever been, a state-certified teacher. Children of homeschool parents with only a 12th grade education have scored above the national norm on the Stanford Achievement Test."
In fact, many homeschool parents think of their role as more facilitator than teacher. Some of the most popular books in homeschooling libraries, such as those by the late educator and homeschool advocate John Holt, encourage a relationship and atmosphere where parents support children in finding and pursuing their own interests. Traditional skills and knowledge are best garnered in a natural way that embraces a love of learning. The love of learning is held as an ultimate goal which can open any door.
Albert Einstein, who homeschooled for a time and was known to have had his difficulties in school, is often quoted: "It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry ...which stands mainly in need of freedom... It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty."
Resources are plentiful, and there is plenty of enthusiastic sharing and comparing among homeschoolers. Besides books and periodicals, newsletters, local social support groups and big state conferences put on by state organizations like HSC, there are even electronic networks found in services such as America Online, where homeschool parents (and kids) chat and post notes about everything from algebra programs to Greek curricula and college admissions.
"The world is our classroom" is a favorite theme of homeschoolers, who are often on the go. There are outings with Scouts, classes with 4H, visits to historical sights and museums , farms and factories, choirs, plays and the world at large. Kids' classes are offered at Lawrence Hall of Science, at Sonoma State's Excel program and at an increasing number of "after school" programs around the county. Days can be easily filled with social gatherings, drama groups, and with science or Spanish clubs at one another's homes. If homeschoolers have a common complaint, it is the driving involved in taking advantage of the many tempting opportunities for enrichment.
While providing a wholesome educational setting is important, being the primary influence in their children's lives is often of paramount importance to homeschooling parents. As tempting as all the outside enrichment opportunities are, most homeschooling families find that the times they value the most are the quiet times together around home. There is time to meander in the outdoors, to take in the sights and smells of autumn, or to snuggle together under a quilt on a frosty winter morning to watch a favorite film, or to stay up deliciously late on a spring night to finish a few more chapters from a beloved book. Homeschool children also have lots of time to be alone, and to daydream.
Gretchen McPherson, a Sonoma County homeschool mom, appreciates the gift of time that allows her children to pursue many varied interests in the community, " we have time to focus, to learn to truly concentrate on something. Time to read classics by the hour or Winston Churchill's memoirs, time to bake bread together and keep nature journals; time to do chores! But the most precious times to me are the unplanned 'gab sessions' with my three teenagers, when we sit up late enjoying each other's conversation and sifting through all the world's and our own problems. All this time with my children has knit our hearts together. That is a crucial benefit of home education."
Mark and Helen Hegener, publishers of Home Education Magazine, a favorite resource for many homeschoolers, are moved by this account. They also have homeschooled their children through the teen years. "When I was a teen," Mark remembers, "there was a big deal made about a 'generation gap.' We were all going through the same type of emotional flux. There were new kinds of relationships, responsibilities, questions and quandaries...but the peer group one had to draw from had no experience in dealing with these new situations. A teenager could feel very lost and lonely. All too often, when an adult tried to share his or her wisdom and experience, friction was the result, because the teenager was more used to relating with other teens. Thus the 'generation gap' was almost inevitable."
Hegener contrasts this with his present experience, "As homeschool parents, we don't see this big space between parents and their kids, at any age. When the time has been taken to communicate openly, it can be just as natural and comfortable for your teen to come to you with questions when they start dating as it was when they needed help with a model airplane. Families become close through living together, and build a foundation that will last down through generations."
An unfortunate popular misconception is that homeschoolers are rather homogeneous, sharing common religious affiliations. To the contrary, there is a broad range of beliefs, lifestyles, and ethnic backgrounds within the homeschooling community. Somewhere within that range there is a niche for everyone. There are as many ways of homeschooling as there are homeschoolers--with no "right" way. At one end of the spectrum families use packaged curricula or follow a fairly structured plan, while those at the other end support their children's interests in a spontaneous way. Most fall within the many variations in-between.
Every family is homeschooling--including those who send their children to school--but some do it for more hours of the day. Reading about other families' homeschooling experiences in good books and magazines is very helpful in understanding the struggles, joys, and potentials in taking on the responsibility of your own children's education.
Allowing children to pursue their interests as a basis for education is a philosophy widely encountered in homeschooling circles. After awhile many parents recognize the wide, interrelated expanse of research and problem solving skills, as well as valuable knowledge, that can naturally grow from this approach. While the state of California does have general "course of study" requirements listed in the Education Code, there is enormous freedom of choice for pursuing your own priorities and interests, even when following a more traditional structure.
Parents thinking about starting to homeschool for the first time with older kids often worry about being inadequate as teachers, but there are some very helpful resources for empowering the teens to educate themselves. To name just a few, Grace Llewelyn, a former teacher, publishes a catalog of intriguing learning resources called The Genius Tribe, for older children, teens, and adults, as well as two books on teens: The Teenage Liberation Handbook, and Real Lives: Eleven teenagers who don't go to school.
Jeremiah Gingold, one of the teens featured in Real Lives, remarks "Homeschooling has opened up a virtually unlimited array of possibilities in my life. I've never felt as if there was anything I couldn't learn, couldn't do. I've often run up against practical limitations from living in a rural location, but I've never felt limited by my self, by my age or my abilities. Perhaps this is because I've always been free to explore and interact with the world on my own terms." This seems like a the kind of outcome that would please any parent, and homeschooling is one good way of pursuing that goal.
There are as many reasons for homeschooling as there are families who make this choice. Homeschooling offers freedom along with responsibility -- freedom to make our own decisions regarding how we wish our children to live and learn.
After all enjoy their fill of oatmeal and fruit, and the last child laces up his boots and adjusts his hat against the winds, a mom and her three school-aged children wave at the school bus lumbering by and head off for a walk in the woods, instead.
The children grow increasingly excited as they spy the tracks of three different animals. Questions soon fly as freely as the snow. Mom knows she'll be busy for the next few weeks, possibly months, immersed in the study of weather patterns, drawing and photography, animal tracks and tracking, and the Native Americans who originally lived in the area. She'll soon shop for materials that compliment her children's natural curiosity and keep the wonder alive in their eyes - and hearts.
This family, like an estimated million others, delights in a revolutionary approach to learning. Known as homeschoolers, they have, for myriad reasons, decided to take responsibility for their children's education into their own hands.
"Some teach their children at home for very clearly defined political, religious, philosophical, or pedagogical reasons, while others - perhaps even a majority - would be hard-pressed to say why, exactly, they teach their children at home," say Micki and David Colfax, authors of Homeschooling for Excellence (Warner Books).
Wait. It gets even more complicated: "Some teach their children at home because of what is being taught in the schools, while others choose to homeschool because of what is not being taught," the Colfaxes continue. "And some regard homeschooling as a radical action, while others see it as an essentially conservative undertaking."
Our family chose homeschooling, spurred by meditation and a deep examination of our own schooling which led to the realization that public school education would not complement or support our simple and spiritual lifestyle.
"The highest function of education," wrote Krishnamurti in Education and the Significance of Life (Harper & Row, San Francisco), "is to bring about an integrated individual who is capable of dealing with life as a whole." So as public school focuses intently on only intellect, we nurture equally the spiritual aspect of our children at home.
DIVERSE, SUCCESSFUL, EMPOWERED
During the decade we've taught our children, the ranks of homeschoolers have grown 15-20% each year. While no one can ascertain an exact number of practitioners, national trends analyst Gerald Celente predicts "the number will continue to climb, fueled by a rise in home-based occupations and dissatisfaction with the public education system." Whatever the original motivation, this large and growing group takes full advantage of the freedom to do their own thing. Tending to shun the educational "trend du jour" in favor of pursuing routes that work best for individual children, it's not surprising that a July 17, 1995, Publishers Weekly feature identifies homeschoolers as a "splintered" market.
"When large numbers of private, religious schools lost their tax-exempt status, you had a lot of Christian 'schoolers' who claimed the homeschool banner," says Mark Hegener, who with his wife, Helen, publishes Home Education Magazine and runs Home Education Press. Supported by networks already well established, and bolstered by "political maneuvering," this act "temporarily skewed the balance," at least in the eyes of the media. "But homeschooling has always been a very diverse movement," Mark explains.
Indeed, the Wall Street Journal highlighted this diversity in May, 1994, when it reported a "new breed" of homeschoolers, one represented by sophisticated and well-educated "families who...think they can do a better job teaching their children themselves."
Studies indicate they are doing a better job. Late last year, the Riverside Publishing Company released the scores of 16,000 home educated students on the spring, 1994, Iowa Basic Achievement Tests. Children taught at home averaged in the 77th percentile on tests "normed" at the 50th percentile.
Critics' concerns for the children's lack of "socialization" are proving baseless with research, too. University of Florida College of Education doctoral student Larry Shyers compared the behavior and social development of two groups of 70 children, ages 8 to 10, one homeschooled and the other educated in public or private school. The study revealed no major difference between the two groups when measuring self-concept or assertiveness. However, Shyer noted that the homeschooled children behaved better, concluding that the homeschooled children tend to imitate their parents, while traditionally schooled children model themselves after other children in the classroom.
For homeschoolers, time not spent in school is devoted to true education, or the "leading out of that which is within." Following this natural, loving approach, children involved in community service, volunteer work, and apprenticeship opportunities build experience, increase maturity, and find connection with the greater world. "What appears to be unfolding is nothing less than the creation of energy where none existed before. Homeschoolers are discovering and bringing forth their own energy, their unique creative intelligence. They have summoned forth the necessary courage and trust, and empower themselves, their children, and their communities." (The Art of Education)
NOT DOING SCHOOL-AT-HOME
As collective buyers of books, audio and video cassettes, games, computer software, and miscellaneous resources used in educating both parents and children, homeschoolers have a voracious appetite - and keen eye. Even though it's a recently recognized market, information to assist booksellers is increasingly available. Last year the American Library Association publishedHomeschoolers and the Public Library: A Resource Guide for Libraries Serving Homeschoolers. The February 1, 1995 edition of Library Journalfeatured scores of books and periodicals recommended for library shelves. In July, Ingram created a 45-page trade catalog, Home School Resources, which it mailed to 10,000 booksellers. And publisher Jane Williams' special report, The 1995 Home School Market Guide (Bluestocking Press), provides access to 164 newsletters and magazines as well as 238 conferences and workshops.
Additionally, this diverse market, says Publishers Weekly, is "linked by a network of national organizations, support groups, newsletter, magazines, numerous conferences - and even the Internet." Attending local or regional conferences or joining in computer discussions provides the chance to meet homeschoolers "up close and personal," and points the way to materials and services you can offer them. Expanding homeschoolers' awareness of a book store's ability to fill their varied needs is an important step in this environment where Jane Williams recommends thinking of homeschooling "as a small town where word-of-mouth can make or break" the success of a title in this demanding marketplace.
The single most important thing to remember is that, for most families, homeschooling is not school-at-home. Less inclined than their traditional counterparts to worry about when children learn specific information, homeschoolers focus more on how, seeking materials that present information in interesting and relevant manners. Forget textbooks, graded readers, and workbook series. Homeschoolers use real books for everything from teaching basics to exploring subjects across the curriculum.
Pat Farenga, president of Holt Associates, which produces Growing Without Schooling magazine and a book and music catalog, believes that many of the books his firm carries can easily "spread out to other markets at the same time."
Free to approach learning in innovative, creative ways, home educators don't put much stock in separated subject areas and often choose the unit study approach to learning. "We try to maintain an even flow of basic academics while concentrating on child-led topics and projects - that is, zeroing in on the kids' present interests and incorporating them into our daily school sessions," writes Becky Rupp, author of Good Stuff: Learning Tools for All Ages (Home Education Press). "We throw a few adult-led topics out there every so often, too, just in case someone is eager to grab new bait."
Hence, the homeschooling mom at the beginning of this article might tote a shopping list that includes Earthsearch (Klutz Press), Peterson's Field Guide Coloring Books (Houghton Mifflin) on forests and mammals, The Kids' Nature Book (Williamson Publishing), and The Double Life of Pocahontas by Jean Fritz (Puffin Books/Penguin). If available, a video on weather, a compass, drawing supplies, an Indian corn husk doll kit, and a flower press just might catch her eye. She's ready to strike while the kids' curiosity is hot, so as supplier you need to be ready, too.
LEARNING IN A DIFFERENT LIGHT
If you are accustomed to supplying adults with alternative material, serving the homeschooling market simply means bringing a fresh eye and the same open mindedness to children's education. "New breed" homeschoolers are separating the artificial school institution from the very natural act of learning. Homeschooling releases the institutional limitations on education the same way holistic medicine unravels the bond between health and hospitals, meditation releases spirituality from religious institutions, or homesteading unfastens the chains of consumer culture.
"Stock books that help people think about children and learning in a different light than mainstream society currently does," suggests Mark Hegener, "books that help them develop their own ideas and philosophies rather than strictly 'how-to.'" This assists families in finding original paths toward health and happiness for their children.
Rather than using "brand name" suppliers exclusively, seek out some of the informative, economical, and popular materials created by cottage industries, usually homeschooling families who found a materials "gap" and filled it for themselves and others. "Read our classified ads," recommends Helen Hegener, "and those in Growing Without Schooling."
TIPS ON A HOMESCHOOLING SECTION
Materials are an investmentHomeschooling is a lifestyle centered around family. Purchases aren't made with disposable income, but are well-researched, long-term investments in the health, happiness and success of the children.
Your buyers are finickyThey probably have already bought lots of materials that turned out to be useless, boring and irrelevant. Provide space and opportunity for examining materials. Better yet, have something for the kids to do so Mom or Dad can really focus.
Bargains attract buyersHaving one parent stay home to teach the kids often represents an economic sacrifice for families, so dollars must stretch as far as possible. Consider offering "home educators' discounts," as you may already offer to certified teachers. Try a unit study special: All books on Ancient Egypt 15% off. Paperback is preferable to hardcover.
Become a resource beyond booksHomeschoolers, aware that they cannot fill all their children's needs alone, welcome help from the community. Sponsor classes and events to supplement their education. For example, a customer who has visited Egypt can share information, photos, souvenirs and answer questions during the Ancient Egypt sale (possibly in return for a discount on a few books, or just for the joy of sharing). Craft classes are good, as are mini-introductions to everything from astronomy to comparative religions to American Sign Language, subjects for which you should have a nice variety of resources. (Homeschoolers won't be able to resist browsing before and after class!)
Help home educators networkContact local and state support groups and keep their brochures or newsletters available for customers. Stock a few of the national home education magazines as well as the books. Start a homeschoolers' mailing list. When feasible, create and send your own newsletter announcing new titles, upcoming events, support group meeting dates, and names and phone numbers of new homeschoolers who would like contact with others (always with permission).
Attend homeschooling conferences and workshops"Get to know this market," advises Helen Hegener, and let them get to know you. If attendance is impossible, contact the organizers and ask how to get your sales material included with conference hand-outs.
According to Krishnamurti, "The right kind of education is of the highest importance, not only for the young, but also for the older generation if they are willing to learn and are not too set in their ways. What we are in ourselves is much more important than the traditional question of what to teach the child...".
Homeschoolers find that the simple act of accepting educational responsibility opens wide the door to freedom unique to a family-centered approach to learning. We receive the gifts of time and opportunity for all of us - children and parents - to discover what we are in ourselves. You can provide welcome assistance and support as homeschoolers follow an educational path that is transforming life and learning - one family at a time.
Linda Dobson writes a news column for Home Education Magazine, presents workshops and talks on homeschooling, and is author of The Art of Education: Reclaiming Your Family, Community and Self (Holt Associates, 1997) and The Homeschooling Book of Answers: The 88 Most Important Questions Answered by Homeschooling's Most Respected Voices (Prima Publishing, 1998).
It's natural, because it's a cultural habit, to think that kids who are high school age will study algebra, English, history, science, foreign language, art, music, and other subjects, and to expect that these studies will lead to a high school diploma and the next step in life. It's natural to think this way, but it isn't necessary. HSC offers extensive information about homeschooling teens.
Homeschooling a child with special needs may seem daunting. We might be lead to believe that psychologists, school administrators, and others have all the answers. Is it possible to homeschool a child with special challenges? Might that child even flourish?
Educating any child is a big responsibility, especially if you’re doing it at home with no public support. Educating a child who is exceptionally bright can seem intimidating, especially if his or her skills seem greater than your own. For parents thinking of homeschooling a gifted child, many questions arise. What if your child wants to know things that you don't know? What if you can't find the right resources? Where will you look for mentors, peers, even classes that will accept your child at a level that is appropriate for them? How will you know when you are doing something “wrong,” or when your child is having difficulty? What can you expect from your child, your community, yourself?
This section will help you find answers to some of your questions, and point you to more extensive resources for further information.
HSC has prepared A Professional's Guide to Working with Homeschooling Families for doctors, attorneys, legislators, judges, psychologists, social workers, librarians, researchers, journalists, or other professionals who may come in contact with homeschooling families.