September-October 2007 Selected Content
Support for Everyone - Diana North
With several years of unschooling and parenting under my belt, a few second-hand issues of Growing Without Schooling magazine and an armful of dog-eared books by John Holt on my bookshelf, I hardly considered myself new to homeschooling. "Teaching my own" in the early 1980s presented some challenges, but for me learning naturally with my children meant plenty of opportunities for joyous discovery. When my oldest children were young, we moved too often to get involved in support groups. So when we finally settled in Florida, I used the GWS directory to locate a homeschool family nearby. Happily, that led to a friendship and my first exposure to a homeschool support group.
Eager for connection with other parents and a chance to find playmates for my children, I accompanied my newfound friend to the evening meeting of an organized religion-based homeschool support group. Only parents were allowed to attend, and there were quite a few of them seated in the large living room of the leader's home. My friend and I sat quietly listening to discussions that ranged from "how to get kids to sit still for a full day of school work" to "are people of other religions allowed to attend." There were several complaints about children resisting lessons that were countered with Biblical verses on discipline. The answer to the question about including families of other faiths made it clear that they would "not feel comfortable here."
The experience is one I can only describe as deflating. I remember thinking where is the joy? and wondering how my experience of fun and unstructured learning compared to something that sounded like such unpleasant work. On the drive home my friend asked if I'd enjoyed the meeting, but I was too confused to do more than mumble my thanks. After all, the support group was large, well organized and the only one in the area. Soon, they even had an offshoot group in my town. Over the next several months I began to feel somewhat isolated and uncertain. Maybe I was doing it wrong. Maybe when it came to finding homeschooling support, I was on my own.
Luckily, with the help of my friend I gradually discovered things didn't have to be this way. My experience was not unique, I learned later. Even today, as the number of homeschoolers continues to grow, I know that support in some communities is not easy to find. And while many families homeschool successfully without support, some families want the benefits that group participation can provide. But not all communities have support groups. Others offer only religious groups like the one I attended that limit membership to church members or families of one religion. In some cases, groups may promote certain teaching methods, such as structured "school-like" settings that may discourage families who need room to explore their options. As I found out, many families wanting support must choose between attending a less-than-ideal group, not joining a group at all or starting their own. For many new homeschoolers, all three choices can be daunting or even worse, discouraging.
My friend and I overcame our situation by starting our own support group, in a roundabout sort of way. Our first "meeting" was actually just a decision to answer questions from parents in one place and at one time. It seemed easier than repeating ourselves to the curious people who stopped us to ask about homeschooling wherever we went. What started as a question-and-answer session turned into a support group that lasted nine years and included as many as 25 families. Loosely organized, the group evolved over time and according to the needs of participants. Together we participated in monthly field trips, holiday celebrations and regular meetings at a local park. Eventually contact and cooperation with other local groups became part of the help we provided to families in our community.
From the very beginning our goal was to help families find whatever they needed to help them homeschool, which was exactly what we would have wanted ourselves as new homeschoolers. Sharing information and support were goals that remained the foundation of everything we did. Even so, our new group was not welcomed at first. In fact on several occasions, I am sorry to say, a few people called pretending to want help, only to end with "we don't need you in this town." It was a bit disheartening, but I think it only made us more determined to help those who didn't find what they needed from existing groups. Previous experiences reinforced our commitment to remaining flexible and focused on helping people. Still, cooperation with other local groups began almost by accident.
The first step toward between-group cooperation came when I began lobbying the county school board for public access to discarded school library books and textbooks, which until that time had been reserved for teachers. Word got around and I started getting phone calls from other groups' members who wanted to join us. The result was a one-day run on the book depository that I can only describe as a convoy of homeschoolers loading up their trunks and having a great time. With a new source of free books and a willingness to share our efforts, it became clear that everyone could benefit from working together.
The second step toward cooperation came when other group members attended one of our monthly field trips. A scheduled appearance by a police canine unit at a local park, complete with drug sniffing and tracking demonstrations by the officer and his dog, drew a much larger turnout than expected. After that we just accepted that families from other groups would attend at least some of our field trips and we tried to make them feel welcome.
About this time one or more families must have shared contact information for the other groups that, like everything else, wound up in our folder of information. Of course newcomers were made aware of this information early on, and during meetings attended by new families we would mention the other groups as well. That way, if what we offered was not what they were looking for, they were free to choose other options. I did contact the leader of the closest local group by phone to let her know we were giving out information about them and to verify it for accuracy. She was pleasant and helpful, and under her leadership a healthy open-door policy evolved between the groups, which meant that families were free to take what they wanted from both.
Clearly, this type of arrangement was ideal because it allowed both groups to grow and adapt in ways that provided real support and encouragement among members. Families who chose one group did so because it worked for them. Therefore, they were more willing to contribute and participate freely. Those who received helpful information, even if it meant they joined a different group, were usually appreciative. They left with positive feelings toward support groups in general, and shared that impression with other new homeschoolers.
By far the biggest benefit was that all homeschooling families got the information and support they wanted in the environment that suited them best. Since the purpose of our support group was to help homeschoolers find what they needed, we realized that between-group cooperation could be an important part of that process. Attempts to establish connections with other groups didn't always work, however. A great deal depended on the attitudes and willingness on the part of support group leaders and members. Over the nine-year lifespan of our group we saw fluctuations in the cooperation levels, depending on changes in each group's leadership. But our door remained open. We continued to mention the other groups and what they offered to newcomers. Some left our group to join others, some attended two or more and some remained with us exclusively. The important thing is that every family was free to choose what worked for them. And that's the kind of support every homeschool family deserves.
Suggestions for Fostering Inclusive Support Groups
• Make contact with leaders of other groups in a respectful, helpful manner. Make it clear that you are willing to give out their contact information to families who want it. Also, allow them to do the same for your group.
• Welcome all people, regardless of homeschooling status or lifestyle, to field trips, meetings and events. Meeting notices should clearly state that all are welcome to attend.
• Stay informed of news, legislation and events that may be of interest and share it with other groups.
• Guard against discriminatory remarks about other families and other support groups during meetings, keeping the focus on offering support for all homeschoolers.
• Hold meetings in public places, such as parks, libraries and recreation centers that allow people to come and go freely.
• Accurate information helps families make informed decisions. Copies of state regulations prevent misunderstandings and inaccurate interpretations.
• Offer a wide range of catalogs, curricula, supplies, books and magazines to help families find what they need.
• Welcome children and teens to participate in all meetings and activities. Some groups request that parents attend without their kids, which can make it hard for some families to participate.
• Encourage all members to offer suggestions on how to keep the group responsive to the needs of homeschooling families.
For More Information about Homeschool Support
Home Education Magazine, PO Box 1083, Tonasket, WA 98855;
American Homeschool Association americanhomeschoolassociation.org
Holt Associates/Growing Without Schooling, PO Box 89, Wakefield, MA 01880 www.holtgws.com
© 2007, Diana North