July 6, 2008

Advice for First Year Homeschoolers

The school season will soon be here, and I'm sure most homeschoolers are planning and buying curriculum for the fall. If this will be your first year, I congratulate you. You are about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime!

I'm an interest-led or an unschooler or a relaxed schooler, so I like to give my kids every opportunity to follow their interests without the restraints of a prepackaged curriculum. But I know not everyone is ready to jump into that type of schooling right from the start, so I suggest a somewhat relaxed approach to your first year of homeschooling, one that will take some pressure off and allow you to truly enjoy this new world of learning as you develop your own convictions about the best way to educate your children.

So, based on all my years and all the families I've known on this journey, here's my advice for your first year of homeschooling:

1. Know your state's compulsory education law. If children are to be educated beginning at age 7 (as in Illinois), then don't fret about requirements until then. Even though your local school district wants five-year-olds to start school, it may not be required by law.

2. Know your state laws in regard to notification and assessment. Once your child hits compulsory education age, you might have to notify the school of your intent to homeschool (Illinois doesn't require that). You also might have to show a portfolio or meet with a public school representative throughout the year. Do your research and be prepared. To keep records and "proof" of what we were doing, I've kept a manila file folder for each child each school year. Examples of their work (coloring pages, handwriting, worksheets), library receipts and mementos of their life (museum tickets, photos, participation certificates) went into those files. As an Illinois homeschooler, I never had to prepare a portfolio, but I wanted some back up in case anyone accused me of not educating my children.

3. Remember, you don't have to replicate the classroom in your home. It's very tempting to buy school desks and lots of books for your first day of school, but unless your child craves that sort of structure, use your first year of homeschooling as an experiment. Buy some workbooks at the local department store if you want and get lots of library books. Take your children everywhere you go and include them in your daily schedule--life is a field trip. Even if you have older students when you begin, try waiting until December to decide what (if any) curriculum you want to buy.

4. Keep the goal in mind at all times. What are you trying to accomplish with homeschooling? Your goals must be bigger than "getting through this curriculum before June." How about nurturing a lifelong love of learning? Now there's a worthy goal, the stuff of happy and successful adults. If that's your goal, it's OK to abandon curriculum, no matter how much you paid for it.

5. Become a student of your child. Try to discern his/her interests, learning style and strengths. Choose a schedule and teaching materials that motivate them. Motivation is 99% of the learning process and makes for a much less stressful home environment. Check here for resources to help you discover your child's unique learning style.

6. If you are starting in kindergarten or 1st grade, begin with trying to teach them to read. See my post, Teaching a Child How to Read for more on that.

7. Rejoice in the fact that you are in control of your child's education and you can change things anytime you want. Each year (or month) can look different from the one before. If you buy teaching resources and realize they are not working for your child, sell them on Amazon.com and move on with your life. And you don't have to stop learning for the summer, especially if you follow an interest-led structure like we do. We've never had an "end of the year" point. For us, learning knows no calendar.

8. Communicate the joy of learning to your children. If everyone is grouchy and complaining about what they have to do in school, maybe it's time for a little break and reassessment. Humans have a natural desire to learn. Try not to kill it.

9. When you finish the first year you will have a better understanding of what it means to homeschool and how your family functions in this role. You will probably figure out how structured you want you homeschool to be and which curriculum (if any) will work well with which children.

10. Enjoy the journey. And remember it is a journey, not an assembly line. You aren't trying to stuff your child into a predetermined mold with a guaranteed end result. Adapt to your child's interests and internal motivation and you will love homeschooling.

The photo is Melissa around age 8. Notice the science-enhancing lab coat and glasses. A little friend is in the background exploring our ancient computer (which probably wasn't so ancient at the time).


Heather said...

Excellent post, and right on--almost exactly what I tell new home schoolers every year. :)

G.Dowell said...

Just to reinforce your thoughts on homeschooling. Each year of homeschooling that we have done in our four years is a little more relaxed than the previous year. I'm a "let's get things done" personality; I like my to do list and lots of structure. But, I've found that we enjoy the learning process more if we are more spontaneous and dive into things that we find interesting at the time. So now we "chase rabbits" through our set curriculum and discover new paths along the way. It's much more fun!

Thanks for posting your thoughts on homeschooling!

Anonymous said...

Great advice! I often wonder how many folks give up after the first year, because they try to do too much or are frustrated by a program that isn't working for their children. It took us three years to finally discover how each child learned best and how to go about teaching them so that none of us felt like pulling our hair out:)

Knittingmama said...

I always tell people to RELAX! Those who are new to homeschooling think they need to do school at home, for several hours a day, but I tell them to ease up. I find that there are days when my kids are in the zone, and days when there is no way we're going to get anything done. I go with the flow. Hard and fast doesn't really work with us. Some days consist of a lot of home ec - that would be baking cookies!

Julie said...

oooh - I love, love, love the term "organic schooler!" Great post.

At A Hen's Pace said...

Hi! So nice to meet you through our mutual reader, Lillian!

It does sound like we have a lot in common. I read your "About Me" post, my second child and oldest daughter is also very serious about theater, and she's drawn in the rest of the family.

We've been pretty eclectic homeschoolers, more structured with my two oldest, since it suits them, but they're both starting public high school this fall, and I'm looking forward to doing more of an unschooling year with my two middle boys. It feels weird not to be ordering curriculum, but we already own so many good things that we never seem to have time for. I'm looking forward to playing educational games, doing science experiments, reading books and looking things up on the internet instead of just trying to get them through the assigned work.

We knew a couple of artists who lived in a church in a small town in Ohio, where I grew up. A couple times a year they'd open it up to the public. It was so cool! I'd love to see your place.



gina said...

Always good to have my instincts reinforced- trusting the process is sooo difficult in the beginning (where I am). Thnaks for the thoughts.

Valerie Chng-Lim said...

Thank you so much for this. I am a first time homeschooler of 3 kids, an advanced 8 year old, a hyper 6 year old and a focused 3 year old. My older 2 kids are boys and my youngest is a girl. We had a great start the first 3 days and then it was going downhill and I was feeling like a failure. My oldest and youngest are actually easy to homeschool but my middle child has been the one that drives me insane. Thank you for your great advice - it's been wonderful to discover your blog. I am now working on letting go and learning to understand and accept my kids for who they are. Hopefully I can help them find their voice and passion as I grow and develop myself.

Unknown said...

This post is so helpful! I will be homeschooling my son, who would be in Kindergarten this school year, if he were going to public school. It's nice to know that I don't have to have all the answers right off. THANK YOU!

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