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A Field Guide to Homeschoolers

Unexpected encounters with homeschoolers outside their enclosures can be disconcerting. They typically start with generalized anxiety induced by seeing children outside during school hours and quickly progress to a host of questions the startled observer feels need to be answered. What about socialization? Is that even legal? What about the prom? This pushes the wary homeschooler into a defensive posture and her answers may signal aggravation. Don’t be concerned. They’re rarely dangerous. But I’ve spent 13 years studying the elusive homeschooler and wrote this guide to help cautious observers like you interact more comfortably with these fascinating specimens.

what is homeschooling

What is a homeschooler?

A homeschoolers ia peculiar species who has opted to take over the primary role of educating her children herself. I refer to them as “she” for ease of reading and because the primary teaching role does tend to fall on the female of the species. This is not to downplay the role of the male in the education of his young, nor to discount the number of stay at home fathers who have taken on the responsibility.

How can I recognize a homeschooler?

Homeschoolers once had a kind of unofficial uniform. A denim jumper and a line of similarly dressed and perfectly behaved children were tell tale signs of a homeschool family. Recent protection efforts, however, have allowed the population to grow. It is therefore becoming more and more difficult to recognize a homeschooler on the street. They tend to move casually through their environment with a gait designed to not arouse suspicion or unnecessary attention. When they run into each other, they generally greet one another with a warm smile and possibly even a hug. Shouts to their “homegirls” across the aisles are unlikely.  Seeing a parent with minor children out and about during school hours remains the most reliable marker. Turning everyday things like nutrition labels at the grocery store into lessons can also be a strong indicator. Exercise caution before labeling. A mother discussing the label with her child may simply be a good parent. If she then launches into a history of where the 2,000 calorie diet originated, she is very likely a homeschooler.

Is homeschooling even legal?

Homeschoolers were once hunted nearly to extinction in many parts of the United States. They lived largely in the shadows, forming underground networks for support and as an alert system against those who would do them harm. They proved tenacious fighters, however. They successfully expanded their range and have since received protected status in all 50 states. They maintain strong local, regional and national networks to maintain these protections.

What is the homeschooler’s natural habitat?

It is a common misconception that homeschoolers reside predominantly at home. They have been known to participate in almost any activity that parents have been known to engage in, though they are somewhat less likely to attend PTA meetings and parent-teacher conferences tend to be somewhat one-sided. They frequently congregate at libraries and office supply stores. When planning excursions into the wild, some homeschoolers deliberately choose to be most active during school hours when lines are shorter and exhibits less crowded. Others prefer to camouflage their activity by venturing out when most other humans are active.

What about socialization?

Many casual observers are highly concerned with the socialization of homeschooled children. Before approaching a suspected homeschooler with this question, however, it is important to be sure you understand what you mean. If you mean “social skills,” it is important to note that social conventions frown upon confronting strangers with their differences. Staring, drawing attention to them and interrogating them are generally considered rude and will lead the homeschooler to muse later on her blog about your social skills. Whether or not the homeschooled family you are observing has adequate social skills to be productive members of society can generally be noted without confrontation. Any behavior you see, however, is most assuredly also present in the public schooled population. I have noticed an increased likelihood that children will look you in the eye while talking to you and that they will answer your questions without that apathetic “Why are you still here?” look about them. This, however, is purely anecdotal.

If you mean socialization as it is most often understood by sociologists, i.e., the process whereby the social order is involuntarily (and at times coercively) imposed on us, you might be stumbling into one of the primary reasons the homeschooler you have discovered has chosen this path. This might also make more sense of the varied, sometimes sarcastic and often annoyed responses homeschoolers give to this ubiquitous question.

What about prom?

Homeschoolers have a number of social venues open to them. This may seem counter-intuitive to the outsider, but many homeschooled children actually meet each other through homeschooling. How does this happen when they don’t all go to school in the same building? Homeschoolers tend to be more intentional about their socializing and networking. They organize park days, co-ops, field trips and even dances. Many communities now have homeschool formals that act very much like a prom, though with less of the “twerking” plaguing public schools. Being homeschoolers, these, too, are subject to becoming learning opportunities. At the event I observed, the homeschooled youth were taught dance moves prior to being expected to actually dance. This resulted in near universal participation.

How should I approach a homeschooler if I see one?

Homeschoolers are passionate, but not generally dangerous. If you meet one in person, simply passing by while looking at your phone is acceptable. If you happen to make eye contact, don’t panic. A smile and a nod before returning on your way will likely be accepted in kind. If you say “hi,” they very likely will return the greeting. Curiosity is generally warmly received. The children are frequently asked math facts and state capitals by observers. Try mixing it up a bit by asking them what their favorite subject is. They’ve likely been asked if they like their teacher before, but when asked in a gently teasing tone and with a warm smile, it is also as well-received as most other small talk. Think of the length and depth of other conversations you have had with complete strangers in an elevator or in the check-out line. Use this as a model for the length and intensity of your questions. Most homeschoolers are happy to discuss their educational choices, even with strangers. That’s why so many of them blog. Still, try to keep it to one question and always maintain a polite, curious air rather than an obnoxious, judmental one.

Keep these observations in mind and your interactions with the homeschoolers you meet will likely remain pleasant. If you have further questions, feel free to drop me a note in the comments below and I will be happy to assist you.

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I homeschool to give them just enough

Parenting is a tough job and homeschooling is like parenting on steroids. You have these llittle beings in your care that you love more than life itself. You strive to guide them, to teach them, to encourage them, to inspire them. You want to help them build strong foundations that will carry them through the storms of life. And sometimes you just need them to stop fighting over who is touching whom fifteen minutes into a four hour drive.

why I homeschool

 

I don’t have this parenting thing figured out. Not by a long shot. It seems like it should be about time. After all, my eldest ist 18, left for farrier school and is transitioning to adulthood. All I know is that it takes a lot of prayer and a whole lot of faith. Mostly, I feel like I’m parenting in the dark. When there is conflict, I still don’t always know exactly what constitutes “normal” and what is cause for concern. It’s complicated by having lost a child. Some things I see in my children I trace back to that night. And the accuser entering my thoughts is always ready to blame my own grief and years of struggling to be present at all.

But I know what I want my parenting to look like. I want it to be “just enough.” Not in a lazy, get out of the hard parts of parenting way. To me, “just enough” is harder.

I want to give them just enough freedom to fail, but enough support that getting back up is easy.

I want to push them just hard enough that they surprise themselves at what they can do, but not so much that their victories are no longer theirs.

I want to work them hard enough that they learn discipline, but provide enough unstructured free time for them to get bored and begin to daydream.

I want to answer enough of their questions for them to learn how the world works, but leave enough unanswered questions to allow them to ponder and to wonder.

I want to give them just enough direction that they don’t feel lost, but not so much that they never learn to find their own way.

I want to give them just enough responsibility to develop their character, but enough grace that they can just be kids.

I want to give them enough instruction in our faith for them to build a firm foundation and just enough liberty to meet Christ on their own so that their faith is theirs and not just an expression of how they were raised.

And as I strive each day to be enough so that I can give them enough, I fail. Daily. So I cling to a simple prayer . . . that love really does cover a multitude of sins. Both mine and theirs. Then each day can start new with just enough strength to get through.

This is part of the Blogging Through the Alphabet Challenge, where I am sharing some homeschool encouragement, from A to Z! Check out what I’ve written so far!

A is for Adventure
B is for Boredom
C is for Christ
D is for Daydreaming
E is for Every day
F is for Failure
G is for Grow
H is for Homework
I is for Impromptu field trips
J is for Just enough

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On letting them grow and letting them go

You birth these precious cherubs. Bring them into the world and for awhile, they are your world. And you are theirs.

You teach them to read,

homeschool learning to read

to create

homeschool art

and to explore.

exploring the creek

You’re with them in their valleys

homeschool field trip stream

and on their mountain tops.

homeschool field trip Pike's Peak

You nurse them when they are sick, serving them Sprite and bouillion and toast. You try to let them rest . . . as much as anyone can rest while having their temperature taken and their blankets adjusted hourly through the night.

homeschool sick day

You laugh with them in their silliness

silly face

and help them through their messes and mistakes.

homeschool messes

You watch them fall in love

kitten love

and know that one day, another will replace you.

wade and dakota-min-1

You hope you’ve taught them enough. That you haven’t made too many mistakes. That their faith and their character will make up the difference. They’re ready to embark on this adventure. You? Not so much.

loading the car for farrier school

But you take them as far as you can. Excited for the next step.

dropping off at school

Excited for the hopes and dreams of the future. Praying that they’re ready. Praying that their faith is strong enough to see them through.

forge

And then they don’t answer your calls. They don’t answer your texts. You know they are busy. You know they are being asked to work harder than you’ve ever asked them to. You know they are tired. But you want to know how they are. You want to hear it from them. But you go on, making plans for a field trip that won’t include them. Knowing their plans don’t include you.

sandhill crane

You know they are OK. There WOULD have been a call if they weren’t. And somehow, you know that this, too, is right. Because it’s their life now and you are no longer the center. Still, you don’t feel quite right until that first text comes in. “Sorry, mom. I was at the forge all day but I finally got my hoof pick made. It’s hard!” And then you finally find a bit of peace that they are where they belong and that they know where you are if they need you.

homeschool freedom

Because they’re growing up and you’re letting go.

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I Homeschool For The Impromptu Field Trips

Like the homeschool field trip we’re on right now to see the sandhill cranes.

homeschool field trip sandhill crane

This is an almost annual tradition in our family. One day in March, usually at the last minute, I look to see if there are any hotel rooms available and we head out to Kearney to watch the sandhill crane migration. We drive around the outskirts of town looking for cranes. We watch them dance. We watch them eat. We watch them in their family groups and in their larger flocks.

And at sunset, we watch them descend upon the Platte River, filling the skies with their calls.

It is the familiarity of the annual event that makes it special. The children look forward to different parts. There is always excitement when we spot the first flock just outside of Grand Island, And even more when we get to the river and they can finally just run. Their favorite is walking under the highway bridge to get down close to the river.

Why is it so fun to just poke sticks in the water?

And I always enjoy looking at the pictures they took when we get home. Like 15 different views of this sheet of ice on the shore.

homeschool field trip Platte River

Impromptu field trips are the best because I have no specific plans or objectives in mind. We are just here to explore and take part in the annual migration of the sandhill crane. They’ve never had an assignment about the birds. We have no lapbooks on the subject. All we have is a love for being out in nature, listening to their calls and sharing just a moment in their life journey.

And yet they know why the birds sleep standing in the river. They know how important this stop over is to birds that need to be able to start nesting and raising young as soon as they land in the far north. They know about their family structure, diet and migration pattern. They know about the Platte River, how significant it is to Nebraska and how significant it is to this migration.

And of course they know about the dance of the sandhill crane. We drive around the countryside outside Kearney, looking for flocks close to the road just so we can watch them dance.

I enjoy this freedom homeschooling gives us to just notice what is going on in the state and go out to take a look. Sometimes, our field trips have something to do with what we are studying. More often, we just take a break from our lessons to be travelers for a day.

They give us the opporunity to just explore.

This is part of the Blogging Through the Alphabet Challenge, where I am sharing some homeschool encouragement, from A to Z! Check out what I’ve written so far!

A is for Adventure
B is for Boredom
C is for Christ
D is for Daydreaming
E is for Every day
F is for Failure
G is for Grow
H is for Homework

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School vouchers do not equal school choice

Over the last week, I’ve seen a lot more support coming out for school vouchers under The Choices in Education Act (H.R. 610). A common thread in discussions I’ve had on facebook is, “So you object to something you are afraid will happen?” No, not really. This isn’t a hypothetical. It isn’t just “a foot in the door” or a “slippery slope.” It is simply what will happen . . . what is happening . . . what has happened. Only instead of applying solely to private schools accpeting vouchers, it will extend to homeschools as well.

school vouchers do not equal school choice

School vouchers do not equal school choice.

Issues in Education, a conservative Christian radio program discussing issues in education (as the title might suggest) ran a two part series supporting vouchers. (I heard the re-airing Sunday). They come out in strong support, quoting Milton Friedman,

“Choice doesn’t take money from public schools but gives the money to schools that teach the kids.”

And claiming that these vouchers will help parents get their children out of poor performing public schools and into private schools which do a better job of education at a lower cost. They see it as an opportunity to not only stop Christians from having to pay for a secular institution, but as an opportunity to take state money to evangelize secular youth.

But we now have 14 states plus the Disctrict of Columbia with a voucher system in place. Issues in Education highlights Nevada as the first state to give universal free choice to all students. Which isn’t even true. I think they mean that Nevada is the first state to make vouchers available to all students, but tax money is not the same as choice. The choice was there before, the only difference was the funding.

With state funding comes state control.

Even in Nevada. At the moment, Nevada’s regulations are pretty light. But the State Supreme Court ruling which (at least temporarily) blocked the implementation of the voucher system specifically states,

“We recognize the ESA program imposes conditions on the parents’ use of the funds in their account and also provides State oversight of the education savings accounts to ensure those conditions are met.” Nevada Homeschool Network

And like I said, Nevada’s requirements were light. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, all states with voucher systems in place have accountability measures in place.

Accountability policies that oversee the performance of private school choice programs primarily focus on setting standards private schools must meet in order to accept participating students. Additionally, states may choose to collect and evaluate performance data on students participating in a school choice program. While every state with a private school choice program enforces some level of accountability, states vary widely in what they require from private schools.

Setting standards, standardized testing, collecting data. The exact same things we have been fighting from the beginning. But now because federal legislation mentions “homeschooling” in relation to vouchers, it will draw us under the same accountability umbrella.

The government does not have a monopoly on education. Yet.

Another conservative, Christian homeschool advocate, Mimi Rothschild, also favors vouchers. Enough to start collecting signatures for a petition on Change.org. After a brief description of what vouchers are and how America’s schools are failing, she writes,

“HB 610 effectively breaks up the governments monopoly on education. Monopolies are bad for everyone because when you only have one choice, there is no incentive for that provider to earn your business by building a better, cheaper product or service. Subject to the principles of free enterprise, schools will improve because they will be incentivized and rewarded when they offer a better school.  Schools who fail our children will die as they should. Schools who provide a great education will grow and compete for our business. America wins.”

But the government does not have a monopoly on education. We have private schools in every state. We have the right to homeschool in every state. We have public schools in every state. We already have choice in education in every state. This bill does nothing to expand our choices, protect our rights or expand our liberties.

Like Issues in Education, I believe Mrs. Rothschild is conflating government money with private choice.

Distributing government money not only allows but requires accountability measures to be put into place to guarantee that tax dollars are being spent in accordance with the educational goals of the state. Vice President Mike Pence worked hard on the voucher program for Indiana. Now all private schools receiving voucher money are required to administer the state assessment and are graded according to the state’s school grading system. 

Assessment shapes teaching. And bringing all schools, whether public, private or homeschools, under one test is a monopoly. A monopoly that will be aided by vouchers.

Not to mention the fact that Indiana homeschoolers currently do not even have to report their decision to homeschool to the state. That level of independence is not possible if school vouchers include homeschools.

She is right that the two most powerful education lobbies oppose vouchers. But she ignores the fact that HSLDA, the most powerful lobby in favor of homeschooling, also opposes these vouchers.

Taxes should be about raising revenue, not influencing behavior.

When I read the arguments in favor of vouchers for homeschoolers, I realize I may have a fundamentally different view of government than even many of my fellow Christian conservatives. I keep reading,

“But it’s my money. There’s nothing wrong with getting some of it back.”

But it isn’t mine. Not once it’s withheld. Then it becomes “our” money. Nebraska’s money. America’s money. It is there to do things like defend the nation from attack, build roads and catch criminals. We can debate what exactly falls under “the common good,” but that money is supposed to serve our common interests, not mine personally.

And really, if the government viewed it as my money, why would they take it to begin with? Why are we discussing vouchers and not lowering taxes? Why are we discussing vouchers and not expanding the child tax credit? What sense does it make to take my money just to give a percentage of it back to me?

Because it is about control. Even if the control is minimal, the state wants to make sure I spend it on “appropriate educational expenses.” But why should they decide whether my family is in greater need of a new curriculum or new clothes? In any decent family, an increase in income will result in better conditions for the children. And where that isn’t the case? Well, no amount of government regulation on the direction the money goes is going to help.

What can we do?

Call your representative. Outline your concerns and ask that homeschooling be dropped from the legislation.

Contact Issues in Education or other conservative programs you hear in suppport of school vouchers. They clearly want to increase choice in education, but I don’t think they have looked closely at what has happened to other institutions that started receiving government money.

Stay in the conversation. Discuss the issue on forums and social media. Share posts with good information. Let people know that there is more to school vouchers than just “school choice.”