September-October 2006 Selected Content
Taking Charge - Larry and Susan Kaseman
Being Part of the Homeschooling Movement
If you're a homeschooler, you're automatically a member of the homeschooling movement. There are no requirements or membership fees, but you can't choose not to be a member either. Like it or not, if you're a homeschooler, you're part of the movement, and what you do affects other homeschoolers and your own future as a homeschooler.
Being part of the homeschooling movement has many advantages and some serious responsibilities. At this time of year, many families are beginning homeschooling and joining the movement, while experienced homeschoolers are planning a new school year and continuing their participation. "Back to school" is such a key event in our society that at this time of year, homeschoolers are often more aware than usual that they are members of the homeschooling movement and not part of the "conventional school crowd." This column explores some advantages and responsibilities.
Advantages to Being Part of the Homeschooling Movement
Friendships--Homeschooling brings us into contact with people we probably would not meet otherwise. Because there is so much variety among homeschoolers, there are, of course, some with whom we have little in common. But we meet others with whom we share important things, concerning homeschooling and other areas of our lives. It's usually easier to make friends in a relatively small group of homeschooling families than in the larger society. Since homeschooling is such an important part of our family's life, friendships among homeschoolers are often deeper and more lasting than those among people who have met because they happen to live on the same street, work at the same place, or share the same hobby.
Support--No one understands the joys and challenges, the ups and downs, the feelings of confidence and times of doubt, the sometimes nearly overwhelming sense of responsibility quite like another homeschooler. How helpful it is to be able to share out doubts and concerns with someone who says, "Yes, I know; it can be tough at times, but it'll get better" instead of "So, don't you think it would be a good idea to send them to school?"
Sharing--Since there are many ways to homeschool, families have to make countless decisions and mid-course corrections. How helpful it is to learn from the experiences of homeschoolers we meet in person, in the pages of magazines like this one, and in other ways, including the Internet. We can share our experiences with them and gain the confirmation and reassurance that come from discovering another homeschooler who's had similar experiences or has come to conclusions similar to ours or the insights that come from people who have traveled a different road. It saves us from having to reinvent the wheel, gives us important information and perspectives, and connects us with others.
Community--Local homeschool support groups show how well homeschooling works as a basis for organizing and sustaining a group. Opportunities abound: Activities for all ages, including sports, crafts, science projects, drama, and informal play. Discussion groups for parents. Special interest groups focused on book discussions, writing, chess, gardening, blacksmithing, whatever. In a society where people often feel lost, overwhelmed, and alienated, many homeschoolers have found or created a place by joining or organizing a support group that is part of the homeschooling movement.
Being a member of the homeschooling movement is often an incredible experience. All we have to do is homeschool. We don't have to meet anyone else's requirements. We don't have to choose a certain curriculum. We don't have to pay dues. We don't have to get anyone's permission. We're part of the group from the day we begin homeschooling. And the advantages and rewards are tremendous.
Responsibilities of Being Part of the Homeschooling Movement
Being part of the homeschooling movement also carries serious responsibilities. We cannot prevent our actions from affecting our own future homeschooling and the homeschooling movement. Here are some specific examples.
Shaping Homeschooling--Homeschooling has been and continues to be created by individual homeschoolers like you. It is not a government program, supported by guided by taxpayers, as public education is. It is not a commercial venture controlled by one or a few or even many companies. No curriculum provider has a monopoly, and many homeschoolers don't rely on material from commercial curriculum providers. It is not defined and led by a national organization or by several regional organizations. There is no founder of the homeschooling movement, no official text, no orthodoxy, no requirements except for legal regulations imposed by individual states, no definition of what homeschooling is.
Because homeschooling is created by individual homeschoolers, what each homeschooler does impacts the movement. This gives us exciting opportunities. We can create and choose approaches to education. The hard work we do and the decisions we make have an effect beyond our families. But with this opportunity comes responsibility.
Setting Precedents--When we interact with public officials or institutions in ways that other homeschoolers (or sometimes other homeschoolers in our local area) have not done before, we set precedents that either help or hinder others. When we act responsibly to break new ground while keeping requirements to a minimum, we are opening doors for others. For example, if we use the minimum documentation necessary to gain admission to a local technical school by convincing admissions officers that we are qualified even though we don't have a conventional high school diploma, we open doors for homeschoolers who come after us. (A situation like this requires careful balancing. Suppose we have extensive course outlines, certificates from correspondence schools, high SAT or ACT scores, and other documentation. It's best to think carefully, assess the institution's usual requirements and the personalities and biases of the people we are dealing with, and set a precedent of submitting the minimum information to meet only requirements that are reasonable.)
However, some precedents are harmful. Suppose a school official demands to see our curriculum and progress reports. It may be tempting to provide the materials since this would supposedly keep us out of trouble or help us get out of a tight situation. We might think we'd also be educating the official about the strengths of homeschooling and perhaps increasing our confidence by knowing we have the approval of school officials. But by complying with such a request without further investigation, we risk setting a precedent and encouraging school officials to demand such documentation from other homeschoolers and to demand this (and perhaps more) from us in the future. It's much better to contact experienced homeschoolers (perhaps through a statewide homeschooling organization) and find out if such documentation is required by law. If it is, how do homeschoolers comply with the minimum requirements of the law and thus keep government regulation of homeschooling to a minimum? Finding out how others handle this situation enables us to avoid setting precedents that will increase government control over homeschooling and reduce our homeschooling freedoms.
Presenting Homeschooling to the General Public
The more the general public understands and supports (or at least tolerates) homeschooling, the more secure it will be. It is our responsibility as homeschoolers to educate people; it is unrealistic to think that they will understand or support homeschooling unless we inform them. This sometimes requires translating what we are doing into conventional school terms while at the same time maintaining what is distinctive about homeschooling and not turning it into just one variation of public schooling.
For example, consider the term curriculum. Many homeschoolers think of a curriculum as purchased material that presents everything a student is supposed to cover during a given grade. Homeschoolers who do not use such material sometimes say, "We don't use a curriculum." However, a dictionary definition of curriculum is a plan of study. Defined in this way, every homeschooling family has a curriculum, from those who purchase a complete package to unschoolers whose plan is to learn from life experience. Therefore, it is misleading and unnecessarily alarming to say, "We don't use a curriculum." To non-homeschoolers, this statement usually means that no education has been planned and no learning is taking place, clearly not what the homeschoolers intended to communicate.
Similar problems in communication can crop up among homeschoolers. Homeschoolers who say they do "school at home" are doing something quite different from what happens in a conventional school. They are working with a much smaller group of children in a friendlier and more supportive atmosphere and are paying more attention to individuals' special interests and learning styles than are teachers in conventional schools. At the other end of the spectrum, unschoolers understand that "We don't do anything" really means "We are not following a purchased curriculum" or "I as a parent have not planned what the kids will do each day" or "We are learning from life experience as we go about daily life, welcome a new baby, build a garage, garden" or "We are currently taking a break while we decide what to do next." It's not surprising that homeschoolers sometimes misunderstand each other and become unnecessarily concerned about what other homeschoolers are doing, or not doing.
So we need to choose our words carefully to increase the chances that our audience will understand us, whether they be fellow homeschoolers, non-homeschoolers who are eager to learn about homeschooling, or opponents of homeschooling. We do this in other aspects of our lives. We may have to give more thought to what we say about homeschooling because homeschoolers are such a small and often misunderstood group and because we may be so used to and comfortable with what we are doing that we forget that some ways of describing it may surprise and even alarm others.
Non-homeschoolers are understandably often mystified by homeschooling. (Many of us were surprised and puzzled the first time we heard about homeschooling.) Non-homeschoolers have a tendency to oversimplify and pigeon-hole homeschooling so they can dismiss it as unrealistic or extreme. It is our responsibility to let them know that homeschoolers are a very varied group when it comes to approaches to education, life style, religion, politics, and many other things. Homeschooling works partly because it allows families to choose an approach to learning that works for them. However, if we let non-homeschoolers think most homeschoolers follow one particular approach, we will seriously limit the way homeschooling is viewed by homeschoolers as well as non-homeschoolers. If this were to happen, we would have less support from the general public and become more vulnerable politically. Instead, we can work to let people know about the variety that exists within the homeschooling movement, thereby ensuring that the public, the media, and legislatures don't unfairly characterize us as a fringe movement in need of further regulation.
Giving Back to the Movement
Many homeschoolers think seriously about those who have come before them and have made positive contributions to the movement, making it possible to homeschool with as much freedom as we have today. These homeschoolers remember that the homeschooling legacy we share is a result of the careful work of thousands of people working at the grassroots level, locally and through inclusive state organizations, while well-known national homeschooling organizations have benefited from this work but have often been themselves a threat to the movement or set it back. We can show our gratitude and contribute ourselves in various ways. If we live in a state where a statewide organization has done important work in the past and continues today, we can support the organization by being a member, encouraging others to join, making donations, and attending the organization's conferences. We can support our local homeschooling support groups by participating in activities and offering to help with the work involved. We can subscribe to this magazine and others that have been helpful, purchase books from authors whose work we appreciate, and visit and support websites that we have found useful. We can also introduce all these resources to other homeschoolers we meet. We can extend a helping hand to new or discouraged homeschoolers, remembering ways in which we ourselves have been helped. And we can act in responsible ways such as those outlined in this column.
One of the inevitable results of deciding to homeschool is becoming part of the homeschooling movement. This has important advantages, including friendships, support, sharing, and community. It also has serious responsibilities. Like it or not, what we do as homeschoolers will affect the homeschooling movement and our own future as homeschoolers. In making decisions about homeschooling, it is important to consider not just the effect they will have on our own family, but their impact on the homeschooling movement.
© 2006, Larry and Susan Kaseman