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What's All This About Homeschooling?

Words of Life!
Volume 7, Number 2
March-April, 1996

by Frederic Clarke Putnam
Biblical Theological Seminary, Hatfield, PA

My wife, Emilie, and I have home schooled our daughter Lydia (10) for the past six years, and Abigail (8) for the past three. This has involved a lot of work, especially for Emilie, but we feel that this has been the best choice that we could have made. We did not make it lightly, but after much thought, discussion, and prayer.

We have found that the response to homeschooling ranges from approval to fairly strong disapproval, but that people all along the spectrum tend to raise the same basic questions. This article has two parts. In the first, I try to explain why we have chosen to homeschool our daughters, and, in the second, answer some of the most frequent questions that we and other homeschoolers are often asked.

They are Our Children

Our primary reason for deciding to homeschool our daughters is that we believe that they have been entrusted to us by our heavenly Father for their care and upbringing. We feel that we can best fulfill this trust by teaching them ourselves, for several reasons.

We know our daughters better and love them more than anyone else. We know many good teachers, and are ourselves teachers (I teach at Biblical Theological Seminary; Emilie has a state certificate, and has both directed and taught at preschools). Even the very best teacher, however, cannot give our daughters the individual attention that we can within the setting of our family. Nor can the very best teacher—who, after all, sees his or her students for only 180 days—know them as well as we, who have known them from birth and seen them every day of their lives.

Our understanding of them is thus based on near-exhaustive knowledge of the details of their lives. Our shared experience of life also enables us to work together on the basis of a strong and positive relationship, and means that we can encourage strengths and address weaknesses in ways which are best suited to their personalities and development. We have found, for example, that one daughter prefers to have goals set out for her so that she can work on them individually and at her own pace, whereas the other needs personal involvement, and prefers to be physically involved in whatever she is studying.

This "theological" reason does not mean that parents who choose not to homeschool are sinning. I want to be quite clear about that. The Bible does not command or condemn any particular setting for education; it does hold parents responsible for their decisions and for the ways in which they implement those decisions.

Individuality

Closely related to this is our belief that every person is unique, made in the image of God, and endowed with individual characteristics, aptitudes, and abilities. Homeschooling gives us and our children the flexibility to explore and develop these aptitudes, etc., since we can work with them as individuals, as mentioned above. Children are ready to learn at different ages and stages of their lives. [A professor of mathematics at Temple University has said that he thinks that most people are not really ready to study math until their mid-twenties!] Some children are not ready to read until they are ten or even twelve years old. They are not stupid, just not ready. And such "late" readers tend to catch up with their peers in a relatively short period of time. One is not necessarily smarter than the other, but their abilities have surfaced at different points in life. Homeschooling frees us to flow with our children's abilities and interests, and to develop personalized means of help and encouragement where they are struggling. We can also use modern insight into learning to adapt lessons to each child's learning style.

This freedom has another side as well. We are able to pursue interests in depth, and according to our own schedule, so that our study of Greek geography, history, politics, drama, myth, &c. is as advanced as they (and we) can handle. We can read ten library books on the Declaration of Independence, rather than a brief summary (from the summarize's point of view), or all of Louisa May Alcott's novels instead of a one-paragraph biographical summary and one novel. There are limits, of course, but we try to be flexible and see how the interests of the moment can fit into the year's goals.

We are also free to fit schooling and learning into our family's schedule. For example, when I was on sabbatical several years ago, we were able to spend two full days exploring Old Sturbridge Village as part of our "unit" on early American history. Home-schoolers also tend to go on quite a few field trips, especially when they live near a city with its museums and other cultural opportunities.

Goals & Values

Along with Christian schools, homeschooling allows us to approach history, literature, music, science, &c. from an explicitly Christian point of view. Learning that J.S. Bach, for example, wrote S.D.G. ( Soli Deo Gloria) on his manuscripts gives us quite a different perspective than we would have by learning merely that he was one of the world's greatest musicians, who happened to write a good deal of beautiful religious music.

Robinson Crusoe is undoubtedly one of the world's best-known books. Few, however, realize that Daniel Defoe wrote it as a spiritual autobiography of his conversion to Christ and growth in grace. This is because nearly every edition available has removed all references to God and Christ, thus transforming it into a "pioneer" adventure story. This is the version that children will read in nearly any school setting, largely because it is the only one available. Not being required to use a particular edition, however, frees us to find the edition that is faithful to the original, and to use it as Defoe intended—as an extended treatise on the life of the Christian. We have read children's editions of Pilgrim's Progress several times, and will move on to the complete text as our daughters grow.

In the field of science, we can use materials by Erica DeJonge on the wonders of God in nature, by Philip Yancey and Dr. Paul Brand on the marvels of the human body, and many other materials that reflect both an excellent understanding of our world and of the Scripture. We also set our own agenda for the questions of science and the Bible (creation vs. evolution, &c.).

Non-Stop Learning

Homeschooling teaches children—and reminds their parents—that learning is part of life, not something confined to a classroom between 8:30 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. We never say this aloud, of course. But life alone is made up of "teachable moments".

One night at dinner, I asked what country's flag was red and white with a large red maple leaf in the center. When Lydia said, "Canada", I went on to describe as many flags as I could, most of which she either knew or was able to figure out with clues. Then we got out the atlas, which had more flags, and went around the world. We talked about their colors and their significance, and the countries' history. We also reviewed where each country was located, etc. Part of the reason for this is that we enjoy flags, and a poster of flags of the world hangs in her bedroom. We have never formally studied vexillology, but have learned by virtue of our common interest. Not every dinner is like this, of course, but we do try!

Again, when a friend recommended Skyglobe, an astronomy program for personal computers, we learned the winter constellations by looking at the computer, then going outside to identify what we saw (a laptop would be a big help with this!). We also printed star charts and compared them to the sky—good practice at reading a different type of map. By spring, both girls could pick out eight or ten constellations, name a dozen or more stars, distinguish planets from stars, and even identify some planets (we also learned that stars "twinkle", planets don't). We will "work" on this again this winter. I say "work" in quotes because, for us, this is fun! They get to go outside at night (winter works much better than summer, since it gets dark so much earlier), and we each have favorite stars and constellations, and enjoy figuring out what we're seeing.

It's Fun!

Being with our children is one of the great privileges of homeschooling, especially seeing them grow and develop. When children take music lessons their progress is obvious to everyone who hears them practice. Intellectual progress is not as apparent, since a child may "get" reading, multiplication, or any of a hundred other skills at nearly any time and place. This is probably the greatest immediate benefit of homeschooling—spending time with our children during the best parts of the day, and rejoicing, sighing, even getting frustrated along with them, but, most important, simply being together, sharing life.

When they are studying and learning with us, however, we share not only the joy of "Oh, now I get it!", but the joy of having "gotten it" together. Any parents who have spent time reading to their children have certainly seen this happen as they begin to recognize letters or words (especially when they ask to hear the same story many times per day!). Homeschoolers see it happen again and again, in many areas of learning and growth.

We learn right along with them, so that we can encourage them, which also means that we pursue all sorts of things that we've never had time or reason to study. I have often said that I would like to learn Latin. Now, with Lydia studying Latin, I have to learn it, so that I can help her. We use the same materials and take the same tests (we quiz and grade each other). Emilie greatly enjoyed studying ancient Egypt last year, and is enjoying learning about classical Greece this year (next year Rome!). Emilie also attended a one-day workshop on archaeology for teachers—something that she would probably never have done if not for being their teacher.

As I type this she and Lydia are watching a videotape of Oedipus Rex, ancient Greece's most famous tragedy, as part of our "Greek" year. Part of watching it is to notice the staging, style of acting, use of masks and stylized costumes, so that their reading about and "experience" of Greece reinforce each other, part is realizing how different their conventions were, and part is trying to grasp the story.

These are some of our reasons—as you can probably tell, we think that homeschooling is great (the name of our group is Learning Is Great! Homeschooling Together [L.I.G.H.T]). Is it for everyone? Perhaps not, although I think that parents should consider it as an equally serious option when making educational decisions. It is a legitimate and viable option, and has advantages which may not be apparent at first hearing. Christian parents should prayerfully consider whether or not this is the route that God would have them follow for their children's sakes.

Common Questions

I have picked out several questions that are frequently asked. If your question is not here, please feel free to write me.

Question #1

"What about socialization and social skills?"

This is far and away the most frequent question, sometimes phrased almost as an accusation, sometimes posed as an observation, but nearly always brought up. Some people, it is true, ask in genuine astonishment — one young woman who was very socially oriented throughout her own schooling could hardly imagine life without that constant social interaction.

The socialization question usually arises out of genuine concern, but it also reflects a misconception of homeschooling. Those who ask usually assume that home-schooling means that the children will stay in the house with their parents, rarely if ever venturing forth. There may indeed be homeschoolers who take this approach, although I have neither met nor known anyone who has met such a family.

This stereotype is reflected, for example, in claims that only people who do everything themselves — within their own family unit — can be genuinely called home-schoolers. In contrast to this "Lone Ranger" approach, most homeschoolers are active in local homeschool groups as well as in a church or some social or civic organization (more than 75% of all homeschoolers in this country consider themselves evangelical Christians). Our daughters attend Sunday School, girls' club, and junior choir at our church, a homeschool choral group, a homeschool drama group, and meet weekly with three other families to study a period of history (above), as well as monthly with a large group for special speakers and programs. They also go on field trips with this larger group.

This question also reflects a misconception of "socialization." Several sociological studies show that the primary socializing effect of a school environment is to teach children to conform to peer pressure. By the same token, sociological studies show that homeschooled children tend to be more mature socially, interacting with both their peers and those younger and older in a more mature manner than other students. The main reason for this seems to be that in the homeschool environment, the child's primary interaction is with an adult and other children of different ages, rather than with a peer group all of the same age. We rarely, if ever, spend time in large "horizontal" groups of exactly our age. Once we finish school, we live in "vertical" groups of people of all ages at work, at church, in every social setting. Spending those growing years with adults prepares children for life in that "real world".

Another approach to this issue says that Christians should send their children to public schools as missionaries, or, alternatively, warns of the disaster that would follow the withdrawal of all Christians from the public school system. This a legitimate warning, although we need to be careful to allow each other the freedom in Christ that we so fervently wish for ourselves. Parents must be involved as deeply and prayerfully as possible with their children's education, whatever its venue. Homeschool affords the most intimate involvement, but this does not make it the only right choice, since the same God who makes each of us unique also calls us to different spheres of service and life.

To return to the actual question, most people who ask about socialization are more than satisfied when they learn how many activities most homeschoolers are involved with.

Question #2

"Are you really qualified to teach your children yourselves?"

We are rarely asked this question, since most people know that I have a doctorate, and that Emilie is a certified [primary] teacher. Most states have legal requirements.

The legal requirements vary from state to state (homeschooling is now legal in every state). Like nine other states, the Pennsylvania homeschool law requires the parent who is the main teacher to hold a high school diploma. Other requirements in PA are: (1) the parents must not have been convicted of any type of abuse or related crime; (2) we must submit a list of our teaching goals for the coming year to our district superintendent for review (not approval); (3) children must take a standardized test of math and English in 3rd, 5th, and 8th grade (parents' choice from 10-12 tests); (4) parents must keep and submit a portfolio to the school district, which includes a log of the year's teaching, certifying 900 hours or 180 days of instruction, samples of the children's work, standardized test scores when applicable, and the written report of the evaluator; and (5) parents must submit all appropriate medical forms (immunizations, physical examinations, eye tests, etc.) to the school district. [This list is neither exhaustive nor as exhausting as it sounds.] Pennsylvania's homeschool law was drawn up in consultation with PA Homeschoolers, a statewide support group, and several legislators who are either homeschoolers themselves or who strongly support homeschooling. Those who are interested in homeschooling should obtain a copy of the Guide to the Pennsylvania Homeschool Law, published by Pennsylvania Homeschoolers.

Question #3

"How will you teach calculus, biology, physics, and other advanced subjects?"

This is certainly a fair question, and one that every homeschool parent should consider. Some parents use tutors, take classes to educate themselves, or trade skill and expertise with other homeschool parents, so that one tutors both families' children in French while the other tutors them in trigonometry. In addition, it is sometimes possible for students to take courses at a local community college or even by correspondence. Few homes, of course, will have fully equipped biology or chemistry laboratories, but a wealth of material available by mail from scientific and educational supply houses allows homeschoolers to do very nearly everything that they could in a regular school setting. I just read about a family that assembled a robot kit, and is planning to assemble another, which integrates mechanical and electrical engineering, as well as introducing them to simple computer programming.

Question #4

"What do you do for materials and curriculum?"

This is a common fear—how will I know what to do? Our experience is that many people begin by purchasing a curriculum from a publisher, but end up moving in their own directions. We work out our goals for the coming year each May and June, and then use the public library heavily, signing out as many books on a given topic as can be found, and then (usually) reading them all. Some of our curriculum is by design, some by the happy "accidents" of providence, such as the astronomy program (above).

We also attend the annual homeschooling fair, held each spring in Harrisburg, where hundreds of publishers and developers of curricula vend their wares. There the problem is not finding enough material, it is sorting out what is best from so much that is good! This is where the cost of homeschooling comes in. It is not free (we still pay real estate taxes), since we buy all of our own materials, except what we find in the library. It is far less expensive, however, than sending children to private school.

Question #5

"What about college?"

Colleges are much more positive toward homeschool "graduates" now that enough of them have been accepted into enough schools to demonstrate the benefits of their unorthodox education. At any rate, some colleges now actively recruit among homeschoolers. We are not yet at the point of thinking about this, today's troubles being more than enough for us.

Question #6

"When do you find time for yourself?"

Emilie hears this question fairly frequently—she thinks that it has replaced socialization as the most common question among the people who know that we homeschool. Closely related to it is "How do you get everything [or anything] else done?" This is probably the biggest area of compromise which we have had to make. Spending time with Lydia and Abigail throughout the day, every day, means less time for dusting, vacuuming, &c. (although they are now old enough to help). It also means foregoing a second income, and the benefits that that might bring, as well as time to pursue her art and personal reading.

On the other hand, the joys of being with our daughters are real joys, and being an integral part of their growth and development is far more than adequate compensation for any "lost" personal time. And, they will not be with us for all their lives.

Question #7

What can the church do to help?

This is a question that I have never been asked, although I am still hoping! The church's role in its children's education is crucial—they are the church's future. First, the church can pray for parents as they think through their educational options. It can help them explore the implications, cost, demands, &c. of those options, even before their children are school aged. The church can also support and encourage responsible parental involvement in their children's education after they make that choice. In the case of homeschoolers, the church can support a local homeschool group by, for example, making its facilities available at no or a nominal cost.

In Conclusion

Our homeschool group's name is L.I.G.H.T.— Learning is Great! Homeschooling Together. This expresses our own feelings quite well. Although it may not be for everyone, homeschooling is a legitimate and viable educational option that fully deserves serious and prayerful consideration by any parents who are preparing for their children's education.