January-February 2011 Selected Content
Interviews - Helen Hegener
An Interview with Tamra Orr
Interview with Tamra Orr
Tamra Orr has written for this magazine for many, many years, and she's been a regular columnist since 2005, when she sent me this query in the middle of a writing discussion we were having at the time: "I was thinking about a piece that talks about how easy it is to believe that since we homeschool (and nurse and family bed and all that stuff) our children will turn out perfect, i.e. we will have no problems with them as young adults and how there are other influences that can make a difference in their behavior. It is an idea I don't see covered in a lot of magazines. We tend to think that since we are doing it all 'right,' then we won't have any problems."
Tamra's 'Learning 101' quickly became one of my favorite parts of every issue, because it was easy to see that she was homeschooling from the heart, clattering along and learning with her kids, as I suspect most of us do in one manner or another. But Tamra had a gift for sharing that learning with her readers, and she shares it not only as a columnist, but as a writer and editor of hundreds of books. Her current homeschooling title, Asking Questions, Finding Answers (HEM Books, 2010), is a helpful guide to discovering what works for homeschooling families.
Tamra and her family make their home near Portland, Oregon.
Helen: I'd like to start with an introduction: You're a prolific writer and an editor of nonfiction and children's and young adult books. Tell us a little about your writing beyond what your HEM fans are familiar with.
Tamra: I have actually been in the writing business for more than 20 years. I started wayyyy back in the early 1980s with an alternative parenting newsletter that I wrote, typed, printed, stapled and mailed across the country to my handful of subscribers.
Since then I have continued to write, although I found that it is much easier to be successful if you write what editors need instead of only what interests you. I've had my own column in a half dozen publications, including this one, plus I've authored more than 250 nonfiction books for all ages and written thousands of items and passages for educational assessment tests my kids don't take. (smile). I've written a number of ACT/SAT test prep books, plus board games, audio presentations and much more. At any given time, I am juggling a preschool rhyming book with college test questions and a book on a country I've never been to.
Helen: What formed or inspired your interest in writing and editing? Do you see connections between that and your interest in homeschooling?
Tamra: I have loved writing since I can remember. I was thrilled when we were assigned a research paper (and shuddered in math class). I wrote letters, stories, poems, homework assignments and then, when I "grew up," I found a way to keep writing but get paid for it. I don't know if I see a direct connection between my love of writing and my passion for homeschooling but one certainly has encouraged the other.
Helen: On the dedication page of your book, Asking Questions, Finding Answers, you briefly but intriguingly describe your family: "Jasmine, the first; Nicole, the miracle; Caspian, the son and Coryn, the prize; and Joseph, my partner in life who made it all possible." Please tell us more!
Tamra: Heck, I never thought anyone read that! Jasmine was our first child, Nicole was our second, who I had after years of trying and then a miscarriage, so she was a blessing. Caspian was the first son and Coryn was the Surprise since we weren't planning on anymore at the time. Of course, Joseph has been my life partner/husband for 28 plus years now and none of this--or those four children--would have been possible without him.
Helen: You describe your family's homeschooling at length in your book, can you explain your approach - and how it's worked out for your family? Are there things you - or your kids - would do differently now?
Tamra: When we started homeschooling, I entered with my teaching degree sitting squarely on my shoulders and complete confidence in what I had learned about how to TEACH children. That didn't last long. It only took a year or so before we completely accepted unschooling and have been with it ever since. As to what I would do differently, I would have relaxed sooner and worried less. I would have spent the money on magazine subscriptions and books and memberships to organizations instead of curriculum.
Helen: In his Foreword for your book, Patrick Farenga wrote, "I can't hide my smile when I remember how many school officials, friends, writers, and media commentators considered homeschooling a passing fad in 1981, when I began working with one of the most famous advocates for homeschooling and unschooling, the late John Holt." I'm sure you also have many good memories of your early years with homeschooling...
Tamra: Oh yes . . . . I have good memories but I think they have only improved over the years as I've continued to learn more and more from my children. They really are the teachers--not us. When I first started homeschooling in the mid-1980s, I was considered crazy. Then I was considered a religious nut--ironic for a secular person--and it wasn't until we moved to Oregon in 2001 that we found total acceptance.
Helen: What were the biggest challenges your family faced in homeschooling, and what would you consider the biggest challenges facing new homeschoolers today?
Tamra: The biggest challenge for us personally was finding a place where we were accepted as homeschoolers and non-religious. The environment where we started was all extremely Christian and intolerant of those who were not. That created a great deal of unhappiness and even trauma for my children. Another challenge was finding other unschoolers to connect with. Today, my biggest challenge is finding ways to pay for all of the classes, workshops, field trips and conferences my teens want to go to. As for other's challenges . . . I think unschoolers still struggle to explain their philosophies and will continue to do so. I think legislation of homeschooling is one of the greatest enemies to battle and I think putting divisions between us of religious vs. secular, homeschool vs. unschool, etc. serves to hurt only ourselves. As the minority already, we need to be each other's best advocate, not quibbling over approaches.
Helen: Your book is written in an engaging question and answer format; are there questions which parents ask for which you've never found good answers?
Tamra: Goodness yes . . . my own, for instance! You know--the ones that occur to you at 3 a.m. I tackled one of my biggest questions in a recent column--how do I handle it if/when my children choose spouses who are not attachment parenting friendly/willing to explore options? What if they fall in love with someone who is totally anti-homeschooling? Other questions I've grappled with at home and with other families--how important is popularity and why does it exist in the homeschooling world too? Is time spent doing games like World of Warcraft beneficial? If so, how much? What happens when our homeschooling children don't turn out anything like we had thought and go down pathways that don't include us?
Helen: One question we hear very often concerns older kids, diplomas, going on to college - or not - and that's an area you have some experience with through your own kids. Can you talk about the challenges faced as homeschooled kids get older, and where they might find support and assistance for whatever they're hoping to do in their lives?
Tamra: I have four children who probably won't go to college, although that option is still open to them. I'm amazed at our culture's belief that without a college education, you cannot be successful. I cringe at the thought that anyone equates a degree with success, as I think it is found in many things that have nothing to do with time spent in college--elements like falling in love, having a family, making friends and so on. I would completely support any of my kids who wanted to pursue a college experience, but I equally support one who wants to travel or work or do any of a number of other pathways. Right now, I have three children who are involved, in varying degrees, with social/community services and one who, at 14, changes interests more often than his socks. I go along for the ride, trying to guide, encourage and listen.
Oh, and pay for it.
Helen: I've always loved your continuing references to homeschooling as a journey, which it has certainly been for our family and many others. It's a road that never ends, isn't it?
Tamra: If you equate homeschooling with learning as most of us do, I would hope that it is absolutely a never-ending journey. Why would anyone, for a moment, want to stop learning? I can't even imagine it. I'm staying on this journey until my feet decide it's time to stop traveling and accept the final rest.
© 2011, Helen Hegener