Home Education Magazine
September-October 1998 - Columns
Taking Charge - Larry and Susan Kaseman
User Friendly Homeschooling Records
Ah, the questions that arise at the beginning of a conventional school year! Families new to homeschooling are deciding how they will start the whole exciting but sometimes intimidating process of homeschooling. Experienced homeschoolers are taking a fresh look at what they have been doing and wondering what modifications and mid-course corrections they want to make.
For both new and experienced homeschoolers, questions arise such as: Should we keep records, and if so, how? Is record keeping worth the time and the effort it requires? Can records increase our children's self-confidence and our family's confidence in homeschooling? Will keeping records make our home more like a conventional school than we want it to be? Will they interfere with our children's freedom to explore the world and pursue their interests? Should we keep records just in case we are contacted by school officials demanding proof that our homeschooling is going well and our children are learning? What records should we show to local school officials and/or the state?
Homeschooling records serve two separate and very different purposes. One purpose is to meet the personal needs of our own individual and unique family. Personal records show how homeschooling is working for our family. They help us learn to trust our children and ourselves and offer reassurance and perspective when we have doubts.
Some of us homeschoolers also need records for a second purpose, to meet the requirements of state law and/or to avoid or resolve legal challenges. These challenges may arise because we are unlucky enough to live in a school district where officials are suspicious of homeschoolers and are threatening and intimidating them. Or perhaps someone we know has told school authorities or social service workers that they are worried about our children and think our homeschool should be investigated. Or we may be involved in a custody dispute.
Although there may be some overlap, basically we need different and separate records for these two purposes. Each family needs to decide what kinds of personal records will best serve their approach to education and their unique situation. These personal records may have a strong impact on individual families, but they generally have little effect on other homeschooling families. However, the records we give to the state, either as part of our regular reporting as required by law or in response to a legal challenge, can affect other homeschoolers and their ability to maintain their homeschooling freedoms. When we are careful to give to the state only the minimum records and reports needed, we are making an important contribution to maintaining homeschooling freedoms for our families and other families. Conversely, when we give the state more records and reports than are required by law or are necessary to deal with a legal challenge we are facing, we threaten the homeschooling freedoms of our family and other families.
This column will explore reasons for keeping personal homeschooling records and ways of doing this that support learning and do not interfere with it. A subsequent column in the near future will discuss ways of dealing with requests or demands from the state for homeschooling records or reports and pitfalls to avoid in dealing with public officials.
Reasons to Keep Personal Records
Homeschooling families keep different kinds of personal records for a variety of reasons. Some have extensive records; some have few. The biggest advantages to homeschooling itself and to the process of keeping homeschooling records is that each family can make its own decisions, based on its own unique character, needs, goals, and situation. To be sure, at times it may seen overwhelming to have to make our own choices among so many different options. We may wish someone would just tell us exactly what to do, so we didn't have to think any more. But in our calmer, more realistic moments, we realize that the choices and flexibility are exactly what our family needs so we can select the approach to record keeping (and to homeschooling itself) that works best for us.
This is not to say that record keeping should be a major preoccupation of homeschooling families. It is obviously more important to enjoy spending time together as a family and to have a wide variety of experiences than it is to worry about trying to record them all, especially if the record keeping interrupts the activity or becomes such a chore that it takes the fun out of the activity. However, many homeschooling families find that personal records, kept in moderation, with a light touch, and in whatever way serves their needs, are worth the effort.
Among the reasons homeschooling families keep personal records are the following:
* Records highlight and celebrate what we have done. They also preserve memories we might otherwise lose. Putting together some kind of presentation can be a way of making part of learning visible, tangible, and appreciable. The presentation may be a recital or show, a collection of pieces of work assembled on the dining room table, a scrapbook, a video, a written report, or whatever else we decide is appropriate. We may want to record the presentation itself by taking photos. This kind of tangible expression is often especially important to homeschoolers who do not receive the conventional kinds of public recognition that their conventionally schooled peers receive through grades, awards, etc. Glad as we may be to not be involved in these superficial rewards and the problems they often generate, it still is often important for homeschoolers to receive some recognition, even if it "only" comes from themselves and their families and friends. (Actually, many homeschoolers think that recognition from oneself and people one is close to is the most important and meaningful.)
* Personal records boost confidence. As homeschooling parents, we are alert for ways to increase our confidence and that of our children. Assuming so much responsibility for our children's learning is a serious undertaking. It can be difficult to feel sure about what we are doing especially since most non-homeschoolers assume that children should attend conventional schools. Keeping records that we want to have, records of activities and ideas that we feel are important, can be a big boost to our confidence.
Personal records also help us develop and keep long-range perspective. They provide an overview and show us patterns in learning and development that we might otherwise miss. They demonstrate that more learning is taking place than we might recognize without records. They are a wonderful support at times when we doubt ourselves, our children, or the very idea of homeschooling. They help us learn to trust our children and ourselves.
Many families include in their records areas of special concern. For example, if a parent, a young person, or someone outside the family is concerned about socialization, the family can simply note each time they interact with other people, including visits with others, outings, phone conversations, and letters and email. Similarly, if there are concerns about math, the family can record each time they work with numbers, spatial relationships, and other aspects of math. In most cases, the records are very reassuring; if not, they provide additional information on problems to be addressed.
* Personal records help families set their own goals and move toward them. Deciding what to record is really an exercise in goal setting. Knowing an activity will be recorded gives extra incentive to do it and makes us more likely to notice and remember it when it happens. Records also show progress toward goals. Choosing our own goals gives us the opportunity to meet our children's needs more effectively than conventional schools can; to choose for our children an education consistent with our principles and beliefs; and to affirm and appreciate the fact that our children do not have to acquire knowledge, skills, and beliefs chosen by the state.
* Personal records provide valuable raw material for applications and credentials. As homeschoolers we often have the opportunity and the responsibility to develop our own diplomas, transcripts, and other credentials and to convince employers that they should hire us and volunteer programs and colleges that they should accept us. Records are invaluable in stimulating our thinking, creativity, and confidence at such times. These records can be as simple as a list of highlights of the past year jotted down each January or June, or they can be as elaborate as the family chooses.
As our children are pursuing their interests and actively engaging the world around them, it often is not clear which activities will prove to be important or even invaluable to them later. Older homeschoolers and their parents are often surprised and fascinated to look back over their childhoods and discover important first steps they took when young that eventually led to their current vocation, career, or special interests. Therefore, many families keep records of all sorts of activities and interests and don't worry about whether people committed to conventional education would consider such activities "educational" or "worthwhile" or "meaningful."
Usually the raw data collected in personal records needs to be translated into descriptions of skills, abilities, and experience that employers and others are looking for and will recognize as what they need. We homeschoolers need to do the translating. Others, especially people who have not had experience with homeschooling, have to have pointed out to them the significance and applicability of what our children have done. These people often cannot figure this out on their own and will tend to underestimate or fail to appreciate homeschoolers' abilities and experiences.
It sometimes works well to begin with a list of the requirements and expectations of others, and then figure out ways (however unconventional they may be) that our activities and experiences fit these requirements. Books such as Bear's Guide to Earning College Degrees Nontraditionally by John Bear provide valuable suggestions for how to translate and specific ideas for a wide variety of activities and interests that can be translated, whether you want to earn college credit or simply feel better about what you are doing and help other people recognize its value.
As an example of how records can be translated for a job application, suppose young people have earned spending money by convincing neighbors to hire them to mow lawns, do child care, take care of pets, or shovel snow. These young people can legitimately tell prospective employers that they have organized a business of their own, provided reliable service, increased their customer base, and received letters of recommendation. At first such claims may sound extravagant, partly because our society tends to assume that young people can't do "real work." But further reflections reveals that these young people do have real experience, a proven record, and a solid foundation on which to build.
Or suppose a homeschooler who has not attended college wants to apply for an internship with a computer company that is seeking college sophomores and juniors. The homeschooler could explain that she is an independent student who is used to taking responsibility for her own learning and who is learning from direct personal experience including designing and maintaining a web site for her public library, developing a system for keeping her own and her family's financial records on computer, entering six projects in computer science at county 4-H fairs and having one chosen for state fair, and scoring well on CLEP tests in math and science. When homeschoolers select from their personal records the experiences they have that are relevant to the position for which they are applying, they are usually given serious consideration. (And any organization that is so rigid that it will not even consider a homeschooler may not be the sort of place that homeschoolers would enjoy working anyway.)
Choosing a Focus That Does Not Interfere With Learning
Record keeping works best if the personal records we keep are consistent with and support the approach to learning we are following.
Families who choose an approach to learning similar to that used in conventional schools and who either purchase or develop a curriculum similar to those used in conventional schools often choose to organize their personal records according to conventional school subjects such as reading, writing, math, and social studies. Organizing records in this way has the advantage of demonstrating to parents, children, and other people to whom the family decides to show the records, that homeschooling includes the kind of academic work that people assume children do in conventional schools. This can be very reassuring to people who worry about whether homeschooled children will be as well educated and prepared for adult life in the real world as their conventionally schooled counterparts.
However, organizing records by academic subjects also keeps families tied to the school model, but many families are homeschooling because they want an approach to life and learning that is different from that of conventional schools. Records that emphasize or are organized around conventional academic subjects keep pulling us back into the school mind set, with its stress on grade levels, testing, "time on task," and the idea that children will not learn unless someone tells them they have to and then teaches them. Emphasizing academic subjects may make it more difficult to encourage children to explore the world themselves, to pursue their passions and special interests, to learn from hands-on experience, to learn in their own way and according to their own timetable. In short, it may be more difficult to trust our children and ourselves. Records that emphasize academic subjects also imply that academics are the most important learning children do. However, many families feel that learning such things as how to get along with others, to accept responsibility, and to develop moral and spiritual values are more important than academics. Therefore, families who choose an approach to learning that is different from that of conventional schools often keep records in the form of a list of activities, a journal, a description of various projects, or some other format that allows them the opportunity to include activities, questions, and learning that is often not part of a conventional curriculum, such as learning how to relate to people of differing ages and backgrounds, discovering the importance and rewards of serving others, and discovering talents, skills, and special interests early in life.
Actually most families use a combination of these two approaches. Families using conventional academic curriculums include ways in which children learn in addition to the planned academic studies, such as things they learn from hobbies, travel, involvement in church and volunteer organizations, and other activities. Families that emphasize alternative approaches to learning find that some of their activities inevitably include conventional academic subjects such as reading and writing about all sorts of topics, using math to figure out how to build something from wood, and using science resources to help understand phenomena they have observed. However families approach homeschooling, they can include whatever they do in their records. It would be too limiting for families who emphasize academic learning to exclude activities and learning that occur outside their planned academic curriculum just as it would be too limiting for families who want to learn from life experiences to avoid a worthwhile activity simply because people in conventional schools also do it.
Ways to Keep Personal Records
Possibilities for keeping personal homeschooling records are limited only by homeschoolers' creativity and imagination. Many families begin by getting rid of preconceived notions and wiping the slate clean, as it were, by realizing that personal homeschooling records do not need to be modeled after conventional school records. Conventional schools keep records so they can keep track of students who encounter new teachers each year, so they have information available on students that few if any people in the school may know well, so they can convince legislators and voters that the schools are doing a good job and problems arise from students and their families, so they are covered in case someone takes legal action against them, so they can determine who is the valedictorian and who is eligible to play on the school's sports teams, etc. Homeschoolers by and large don't need records for reasons such as these. It's certainly to be expected that homeschooling records can be very different from conventional school records.
Flexibility is a key to keeping homeschooling records. Many families try different approaches, building on what works and discarding what doesn't. They keep different kinds of records as children grow, needs change, and their ideas and approaches to homeschooling and record keeping change. They may keep records for a while, quit for a while (deliberately or accidentally), and then resume again later. Enjoying family life and homeschooling is far more important than keeping personal records. If record keeping is interfering with a family's enjoyment or bogging them down, they can try a different approach or simply stop keeping these records.
Here are just a few suggestions for the kinds of personal records that homeschoolers can keep. * A daily journal can record children's activities. It can be a narrative, a brief list of activities, or some other format. Some families make a "to do" list each morning, check off what they do, add unplanned events that occurred, and use this as a record.
* Some families who want records by subject area use a weekly chart. One approach is a grid with days of the week listed across the top and subject areas listed down one side. In the rectangles, notes are made about activities and perhaps the amount of time spent on each, if that is a concern. For example, the rectangle for reading on Tuesday might say, "Little House in the Big Woods, 1 1/2 hours." Language arts on Thursday might say "Wrote to Grandma, 3/4 hour." Of course, not every subject area needs to be covered every day, unless a family chooses to do that. Families choose the subjects they want to include and need not limit themselves to subjects their children would be studying in a conventional school.
* Monthly or quarterly summaries record in narrative form the activities that each person has done and provide an overview.
* A portfolio or scrapbook that includes samples of children's written work and art, snapshots of projects in progress or completed, pictures or descriptions of places visited, and such is quick and easy.
* Photo albums provide rich and easy records. Just remember to snap pictures of typical activities, special projects, children working with adults, places you visit, people who visit you, etc.
* Parents' and children's memories are an important part of record keeping, even though they are informal and require little conscious effort. Memories can be the mainstay of personal homeschooling records; some families have few if any personal records beyond their memories. Memories are richer and more detailed than tangible records can be. In fact, sometimes photographs and written records may interfere with our memories, as we either subconsciously decide we no longer need to remember an event or a scene because a photograph has been taken, or we remember the photograph but have trouble calling to mind the actual event or scene itself.
Whatever approach to keeping personal records is chosen, it is important to try to record as much of children's learning as we reasonably can and not limit records to the kind of things commonly considered to be "school work," such as reading, writing, textbooks, and workbooks, so those looking at the records (including our children and we ourselves) get as accurate an idea as possible of the large amount of learning that is actually taking place. Thorough and complete recording can be a challenge, since children are great natural learners who learn in many way that are often not recognized as learning in conventional schools. But a homeschooling record that only includes the time that children spend doing conventional school work (such as reading textbooks, following purchased curriculums, and using workbooks) does not do justice to the tremendous advantages and opportunities of homeschooling. It is important to all children, perhaps especially children whose greatest strengths are not in book learning, children who conventional schools often label "learning disabled," that more be included than simply conventional school work.
Sometimes seemingly unconventional learning is included in records as a simple description of the activity itself. Other times experiences and activities that are not commonly considered to be "school work" may need to be translated into conventional school language, either as they are happening or later when credentials are being organized and applications completed. Examples of this kind of translation:
* Children listening to someone reading aloud and recognizing stop signs are learning to read as they understand how words fit together to make a story and how symbols are used to represent words and ideas.
* Children playing with blocks or legos are learning arithmetic and geometry as they discover from direct experience how various shapes fit together, how smaller units can be added together to form larger ones, how numbers as represented by blocks relate to each other, and other important principles.
* Children talking with older relatives and friends about times past or with people from other countries about their cultures are learning history and social studies.
* Children who know something about their state's homeschooling law and about the way in which homeschoolers have worked to protect their rights know a lot about government, civics, law, individual rights, and other legal and legislative matters.
The list goes on and on, and homeschooling parents have many examples of their own to add. However, although it may be necessary to do this translating, it's equally if not more important to remember that children have discovered this knowledge in the course of their daily lives, without being sent to a conventional school or being taught. Don't we get a better sense of the meaning of multiplication by saving our allowance for four weeks to get the money necessary to buy a pet rabbit than from being taught the multiplication tables?
Many homeschoolers find that keeping personal records gives us a concrete, constructive way of thinking about how we are homeschooling, of appreciating and celebrating what we are doing well, and of considering changes we might want to make. We have both the opportunity and the challenge of deciding how we want to keep personal records that will meet the needs and desires of our own unique family and provide us with raw material we can use to develop transcripts, diplomas, and other credentials and to complete applications for employment, volunteer service, and higher education. It is worth our while to consider whether we want to organize our records around conventional school subjects such as reading, writing, math, and science or whether we want to use our records to emphasize and support the idea that we have chosen a different approach to learning than that used by conventional schools and therefore have organized our personal records according to activities, special interests, projects, or in some other way.
Regardless of how we keep our personal homeschooling records, it is important that we work to maintain our own homeschooling freedoms and those of other families by giving public officials only the minimum records and reports required by state statute or necessary to deal with a legal challenge we are facing. If we voluntarily give officials more than the minimum, we will be increasing their power and authority over our families and other families, setting a precedent that we and other families will be expected to follow in the future, and encouraging them to question and investigate additional aspects of our homeschool. This topic will be explored further in a column in the near future.
© 1998 Larry and Susan Kaseman
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