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Home Education Magazine

July-August 1997 - Columns

Older Kids by Cafi Cohen

Less Is More

Hundreds of exhibitors lined the aisles at the last homeschooling conference I attended. There were educational games; nifty self- instructional computer math programs; complete lab science kits; history and art and music videos; all the "basics" of K-12 education on CD-ROM; even some wonderful books.

It all beckoned, promising to make my life easier by selling me the tools for The Perfect Homeschool Program. With unlimited funds, I would have had no trouble spending thousands of dollars. Good thing, with both kids in college, we are no longer in the homeschool shopping mode.

The growth of home education has created an explosion in use-at-home educational resources over the past 10 years. "Find a need and fill it," is a siren call American enterprise is answering by catering to the "needs" of homeschooling families.

Contrast this with the 1980's, when our research yielded only two programs in which we would have considered enrolling our older kids (others existed but philosophical differences precluded us from considering them). Now there are 10-20 programs that look interesting among more than a hundred "independent study schools" nationwide.

Previously it was difficult to find hands-on laboratory science and workable foreign language programs for older kids. Now these these materials not only exist at reasonable prices, homeschoolers have choices.

The growth of homeschooling has also led to a similar explosion in the number of support groups in many areas. In the 1980's the single inclusive group in our large town (Albuquerque, New Mexico) was geared towards younger children.

Metro Denver, where we completed most of our homeschooling - as of last year - had twenty-plus active support groups, including two specifically for those families homeschooling teenagers. Support groups have grown to point where they sponsor basketball teams, bands, choirs, yearbooks, hands-on science classes, spelling and geography bees, graduation ceremonies, skating and bowling parties and other social events, and much more.

In addition, technological advances over the last ten years put current information about all these programs and resources at our fingertips. On a recent tour of the Internet World Wide Web, I read a high school homeschooler's self-devised program, downloaded a practice SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test, a college entrance exam), and perused the "getting started with teenagers" recommendations of a popular homeschooling program.

These changes - businesses catering to the homeschool market; large, active support groups; and instant information access - seem like plusses. Too often, though, the plethora of information is daunting. New homeschooling families, especially those families with teenagers, feel the problem acutely.

With adulthood around the corner, those parents want to do the right thing, the right thing often defined by the statement: "I don't want to do anything that will wreck his chances of....." You fill in the blank: getting into college, finding employment, joining the military, living on his own, etc. It is easy to be scared into trading big bucks for the assurance that you are doing the right thing.

So back to the exhibits. After cruising the hall and eyeing the dazzling displays, I found a comfortable perch and watched other homeschooling parents intently quizzing the vendors about products and schools and programs. And, gradually, it came back to me. I remembered what was Really Good about homeschooling in the 1980's, when we began: we had few options.

What I learned from homeschooling in the old days, when large conferences, indeed any conferences, were unheard-of and when finding resources was like pulling teeth, is that you really don't need the glitzy stuff to succeed. In fact, avoiding glitz may be the key to more productive home education.

How is it that Less Is More? Could refusing to spend $500 to $1,000 on new instructional materials not only save you money but also result in a better homeschooling experience for your family? The short answer is "Yes."

First consider that your community often provides better outlets for your kids' explorations than any program you could buy. For example, our daughter Tamara completed 4-H's Public Speaking Project two years in a row. This project required her to deliver a prepared speech, memorize and present a poem to an audience, speak extemporaneously on a topic, and compile a record of the experience, including an essay. Great "hands-on" Language Arts. Membership in 4-H was a fraction of the cost of many language arts programs; and 4-H yielded many other opportunities for education, socialization, and entertainment.

Second, looking first to the community for resources encourages autonomy and creative problem solving. A young homeschooler I know trades housework for pottery and Spanish lessons. Another teenage homeschooler attends her church's adult comparative religions class because she has a consuming interest in the topic and nothing is offered for her age group. A third has taught herself to sew, using a neighbor's machine and occasional help. Yet another has found algebra help through an online web site. And so on.

Third, searching the community models learning how to learn. Kids not only learn the subject, they learn how to locate resources to help them research any topic - an invaluable skill for adult life, one too often overlooked by schools.

So, before you pull out your checkbook at the next curriculum fair in response to a vague, panicky feeling, consider some of my favorite Less Is More resources from "the old days":

Public Library

At the top of the list is the public library. This is where all information searches begin. Our public library has, seemingly, almost everything. Any book (including any text) not on the shelves I can order inter-library loan and generally have within two weeks. Reference librarians are the unsung heroes at the apex of the library information retrieval. Start there first.

Our public library, in our small Ohio town, has tapes and other materials for twenty-plus foreign languages, instructional videos for everything from algebra to zoology, historical documentary films, Internet access, science project idea books, announcements about cultural events in town, reading groups for all ages, magazines, and, of course, books!

The real attraction may be the books. Don't feel that because you are relegated to the public library rather than privy to all the "goodies" at school that your kids will be shortchanged. Just the opposite. Public libraries have Real Books, not just textbooks. Real Books have several advantages: they represent many world views, are not dumbed down, and generally are more interesting. (Books produced by committees for school board approval can be incredibly dull, not to mention being so politically correct that they contain almost no information.)

For traditionalists, I would have no problem putting together an almost-free curriculum for teenagers entirely based on material available at the local public library and at home (See sidebar).

Other Homeschooling Families

Second Less Is More resource I love: other homeschooling families. Generally you will find these individuals through support groups. From our first support group experience, I learned quickly several important and money saving techniques. For example: we did not have to buy a full-service curriculum to succeed; source books and magazines contained resource reviews; local homeschoolers directed us to community team sports, drama groups, and much more.

Also, consider looking beyond your local group. When I first began doing beginner homeschooling workshops in the early 1990's, people would ask me how I "knew so much." The truth was that I had no original ideas, I simply read a lot (back to the library here) and, primarily through magazine subscriptions and some early WWW bulletin boards, I learned from homeschooling families nationwide. So many free or very inexpensive resources - especially on high school programs and college entrance - have come to my attention as a result of communicating with people this way.

In addition, attend statewide conferences to hear speakers from other parts of the country and listen to vendors, many of whom are homeschooling parents; even if you don't buy their products, you will pick up invaluable tips. If you cannot attend, order tapes on the topics that interest you. Just as important, strike up conversations with strangers sitting next to you at these conferences. "How long have you been homeschooling?" is a good opener. You may learn more from them than from the speakers.

Community Groups

My third favorite resource is . It seems there are special interest groups for everything. Some my teenagers liked were church sports teams (basketball and volleyball and softball), skiing clubs, ballooning groups in Albuquerque, drama groups, special interest groups for environmental and other political causes.


And resource number four is catalogs from homeschooling suppliers. Some catalogs are full of information for beginners, most notably the catalog from The Elijah Company (; 615 456-6284). It describes various homeschooling approaches and coordinates them to resources. It also has outstanding age-appropriate reading list recommendations.

Other catalogs I like for their reading list and alternative learning materials recommendations are Holt Associates (617 864-3100), The Drinking Gourd (800 TDG 5487), and Grace Llewellyn's Genius Tribe (541-686-2315). The reviews are brief, but thorough, and I can usually find the titles at the library. When I'm in the market for a title, I try to support these catalog suppliers, rather than the local bookstore.

What to do with all the money you save from using the library, talking to experienced homeschooling parents, joining community groups, and reading catalogs? Here it is, the exception that proves the rule, Less Is More: buy a computer and join us online! The computer is the key to information access, and information can save you frustration, money, and time.

Additionally, having a computer in your home probably guarantees computer literacy for your kids, a skill second only to reading, writing, and basic math skills for survival in the 21st century. I have met one young lady recently who had a computer at home and claimed, despite that, to be computer-phobic. But that's rare. More often, I see kids' computer skills surpassing those of their parents. This certainly happened in our house.

In addition to encouraging computer literacy, a computer and modem will connect you to the national homeschooling community through bulletin boards, mailing lists, email, etc. Receive daily support and talk with other parents experiencing difficulties similar to yours.

Of course, with a computer, you risk addiction, information overload, and dangerous Internet sites. And given the resources of the library, you can assemble an excellent almost-free, Less Is More homeschooling program without a computer. After all, there's no reason your kids cannot use the library computers to build computer skills.

So I can see the Less Is More argument applied to computers and online access, just as it is applied to, say, television. In general, though, I think the risks of the Internet are avoidable and that the advantages of having a computer in the home outweigh the disadvantages.

Less is more. Take advantage of local, free resources before you attend that next curriculum fair. Interview more experienced homeschooling families - especially those who homeschooled a decade or more ago - to learn how they addressed the challenges of homeschooling older kids. You will increase your options, save money, and model invaluable research skills for your teenagers. 1997 Cafi Cohen

....(articles list) | columns list)....

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