Outdated Excuses for Why You Could Never Homeschool

The following article was written by Jennifer Morrison Leonhard, a light-hearted homeschool graduate who believes life is what you make it. What she usually makes it is funny!

“I’m not smart enough to homeschool my kids.” A typical answer from me is that you do not need to have the encyclopedia memorized, and you do not have to be a former valedictorian — you can simply learn right along with your kids. You start with colors and shapes and letters and from there you grow one day at a time. Lessons are usually fully explained in their textbooks, so you can read along and learn it all just ten seconds before your student does! It is now 2011, and I could argue that yo’ momma and her smartphone could homeschool your kids. (Bet you weren’t expecting a good momma joke, were you?) You do not have to buy a single book or even own a library card anymore. Like the popular commercial says “There’s an app for that” — whatever it is that you want to know or do. Science? My phone can take my pulse through the camera! Or try Google Sky Map to learn the stars. Music? I have a drum kit on my touch phone, and I’ve never had so much fun with an instrument! Not to mention that Pandora allows me to experience a wide variety of music styles. Learning directions is no longer something you have to do with a laminated “placemat” map and crayon (yep, that’s how I learned when I was still in public school) — now you can use Google Maps on your phone. For teaching math there are applications to teach formulas, offer practice math problems, flash cards, and math games. You can get an application for reading ebooks, search random questions with your browser, and document your findings with a “notepad” application and your camera feature. My mom always told us that as long as we knew how and where to find information, there are very few situations in life that require you have everything memorized.

“I do not have the time to homeschool my kids.”
Yeah, you’re probably too busy telling them to stop texting, get off that computer, and put away that video game. Again, in an electronic age, if your biggest hurdle is getting them away from electronics, you can probably find ways to substitute actual learning into those same gadgets — gadgets that frequently fit into a pocket and go everywhere anyway. It really doesn’t require a lot of time to homeschool. Once you cut out standing in line for this and that, waiting for the other students to catch up, or waiting for everyone to be quiet, you can see that only a few hours of real learning time are necessary. Unschooling is currently popular, so if electronics aren’t something your family indulges in, you can simply learn from Life. You can’t exactly avoid Life, and there are plenty of lessons to be learned each day, with or without 21st century electronic assistance.

“I could not stand to spend that much time with my kids.” Fine, send them to their rooms, and then Facebook friend-request them, and message their lessons to them. No face to face contact needed. They can chat with you when they need individual help, and message back or post photos and videos of their work. You, in turn, can post back their grades using the “Comment” feature, or for pass/fail there is a “Like” button included. The “Like” button would also give you feedback from their peers and other parents if you felt that you needed an outside opinion on a subject in which you are not an expert. Your children can also use the privacy features offered on Facebook to prevent certain friends and family from seeing their schooling, if that option is preferred. The Facebook photo albums are also a handy way to maintain homeschooling records if your state requires a portfolio for legal reasons. There it is: photographic documentation, all neatly packaged, and no fear of fire, flood, or other natural disaster wiping it all out, such as you would have had in the age of paper records only. And it all stores much more neatly, too. For added security, you can back up your files on flash-drives or with Carbonite.

“Socialization.” Did I mention electronic devices? Smartphones? Facebook? I think I did. Oh, and if you prefer actual human contact, go outside. There are still a few people left out there who aren’t busy on Facebook or their smartphones. There may also be some out there that are probably still on their smartphones and Facebook, so please drive defensively.

A Homeschooler’s View of Education

My view of academics and education changed significantly throughout my years as a homeschool teacher. Once upon a time, I thought of education as something that ended with 12th grade graduation or was extended by some people with a foray into college. During my stint in college, there was an older gentleman whom we younger students joked about as being a “professional student” because he had been taking a class or two each semester for years. I did not realize then that education could be a lifelong endeavor; I just assumed he did not know what he wanted to be when he grew up. Now I can look back at my foolish naivete’ and be grateful that maturity eventually replaces youthful ignorance and its accompanying arrogance.

Education is merely the process of learning, and I continue to learn every day. Learning is learning, whether one is studying a foreign language or making a mental note to avoid the pothole down the block. Learning is the reason why we read the newspaper or watch the local weather forecast on television. We become more educated when we try a new recipe: at the very least, we learn whether or not we want to make that recipe again. Learning, education, and academics take on new, more personal meanings with the advent of homeschooling.

Legal homeschooling in our state required that we submit documents annually to the state Department of Education. One form had boxes to check to indicate your students’ participation in various extra-curricular activities. At first, I viewed those activities in much the same straightforward way that any other educator would. After a few years of homeschooling, however, my viewpoint had shifted, and I began to see things a bit differently — from a homeschooler’s point of view.

Regular library visits? Well, we had never experienced an irregular visit, no matter how infrequently they occurred, so, yes, we planned regular library visits.

Field trips? Yes, we participated in field trips, whether to the grocery store or with more structured, group activities.

Music lessons? Yes, group singing would be taking place at church. There would also be the intermittent “Happy Birthday” choruses and Christmas carols, singing along with children’s videos, banging on the pots and pans, and singing the latest catchy advertising jingles. (It does not have to cost money to be a real lesson.)

Sports activities? Most definitely! You cannot make these children sit still for long! I did not see this as requiring us to join the local soccer club; to me, it could also mean playing horsey with Dad, riding your bike, or splashing in the wading pool — getting off of the sofa and out of the house.

Other planned social experiences? This must have been listed just to satisfy those weirdos who think that homeschoolers never leave the house, but, yes, we did plan to experience society from time to time, and Wal-Mart was typically a melting pot of society in our community.

Another required document was our “plan” for the year’s lessons. I learned to view that with the same earnestness with which I viewed preparation time for dinner each night: we would eat dinner each night, so therefore there would be some type of preparation for it. One night’s dinner may require several hours of hands-on preparation, while another night’s meal may only require phoning the pizza delivery guy. Either way, we ate. Similarly, some lessons received intensive, hands-on preparation, and others were delivered by flipping open a book, but either way, we learned. My Plan of Instruction did not list detailed lesson plans, but did list the approximate amount of time each student would spend per day on each subject (per week for lower grades). [See also Guilt-Free Lesson Plans and Scheduling] If we spent more time or less time on any certain area on any certain day, what did it matter? Some lessons were fast-food snacks, and other lessons were seven-course-meal events. The learning itself was what mattered, not the speed of the delivery, and there were many times when we learned more from the spontaneous, quick-snack lessons than we did from the this-took-me-all-day-to-prepare lessons.

Information of academic importance obviously means different things to different people. Another mandate on our annual report stated that a revised form was to be filed if any of the listed information changed during the year. Throughout the years that my children were enrolled in public school, we were rarely informed of changes to the routine, including some important changes in the staff. After we had been homeschooling for a few years, we were (again) not notified when the district’s Homeschooling Coordinator left on a two-week vacation, leaving a letter of resignation and two weeks’ notice on her desk, a gaping hole in the district’s staff, and many confused families in a state somewhere between shock and limbo — during the busiest time for the district office, the month before the fall semester began. Therefore, based on their precedent, I concluded that most of the changes I could make to our plans would be of minor significance to the district, and I switched textbooks and materials whenever I felt the need to do so, Guilt-Free, without bothering to inform them of such trivial details.

My view of the ideal teaching methods for individual subjects also changed. Once my students were reading well on their own, I allowed their “reading” course to be done in bed at night as a “decompression” time before Lights Out. I found that I was able to monitor their reading ability in their other subjects well enough that I no longer bothered to keep track of their personal, pleasure reading for a “reading class.”

Education, learning, and academics mean different things to different people. “Professional” educators view learning as an activity that takes place under their highly trained supervision. I, as a homeschool educator, see learning as more of a 24 hours a day, 7 days a week pursuit. We do not always need books or plans or even a stone-faced serious attitude in order to come away from something as a smarter person. Education and learning can and do take place in the garage or on the playground, while doing chores or while having fun, early in the morning or late into the night. Education is the process of learning. Learn something every day.

Standardized Testing

Many readers live in areas where annual testing is mandatory for homeschoolers. One such reader sent me the following email: I would like to hear just about everything you can think of on the topic of standardized testing! This is an expansion of my reply to her.

Disclaimer: Please, please, please check the HSLDA website (http://www.hslda.org) for the specific laws in your area before following my personal example. Homeschooling laws vary from state to state, and local school district administrators are usually not a reliable source for what those laws include. I am an advocate for homeschool education and view everything from a homeschool perspective. Standardized tests have been developed for use in public schools and therefore do not transition well to the homeschooling environment. For those who may believe testing is an accurate form of evaluation, please remember that I am sharing my personal experiences with standardized tests and how we used them in our homeschool atmosphere.

I live in Iowa, where annual testing is one of several options for legal homeschooling. We began homeschooling by using the Supervising Teacher method with a homeschool-friendly teacher. However, the multiple required visits felt like a disruptive waste of time for me, since the teachers we tried knew nothing about homeschooling, often took notes from me for ideas they could use in their classrooms, or suggested things that I considered inappropriate for my children. We struggled through that for many years and several different teachers until we finally switched to once-a-year testing. Being the fiercely independent sort that I am, it was a tremendous relief to me to deal with testing over a couple of days and be done with it for the rest of the year. We did “official” testing (as our legal accountability) for 3 years — by then we had passed beyond the required age limit and were free from government supervision (hooray!).

After our first two years of homeschooling, I thought perhaps I should test my children to see where they were weakest. I purchased my own tests [Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS) — the standard around here] from an independent curriculum supplier, which I will vaguely disguise as Billy Joe’s Unusual Pantry, intending to use the information strictly for my own purposes of evaluation, not for legal accountability. [ITBS can be purchased and administered by any 4-year college graduate, regardless of degree field, through Billy Joe’s.] Since no one in our family had the 4-year degree required for purchasing the tests, I ordered them in the name of another homeschool dad. His wife had made the offer, assuring me it would be okay with him; I later found out she had never told him. To skip over the nightmare part of this story, he (hearing about this for the 1st time) refused to sign the required document stating that he had personally overseen the testing, even though I assured him it was only a formality since no one outside our home would ever see the scores. However, a wonderfully sympathetic woman at Billy Joe’s listened to my story in full and phoned me back with the results, saying she was not allowed to mail them to me (and I suspected she was giving me the scores orally from the broom closet!).

Before administering those tests to my children, my husband and I wrote out what we felt were the correct answers — giving me an answer key to use in scoring the tests for my purposes of evaluation before mailing them back to Billy Joe’s for their official scoring. (Returning all materials within a certain time period is a required part of the purchase agreement.) From that key, I could see what types of questions stumped my students and know what areas we needed to work on. Mostly, they tested poorly on what I call “non-subjects” like Social Studies (strange questions that were not really history and not really geography) or areas we had not covered yet (science, history, and geography for my 3rd grader; higher math for my 7th grader). The “official” scores did not match my calculated percentages at all, showing me that the questions were not ranked equally: a 20-question test did not score as 5% per question. Also, there was a question on the 7th grade social studies test about the political philosophies of Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, and Malcolm X that I have yet to find anyone who can answer!

Based solely on this experience, I found the tests to be a poor method of evaluating my children’s academic status. The subject areas tested, the types of questions used, the confusing scoring methods, and the added frustration of the uncooperative dad left me with a really bad taste in my mouth whenever the subject of standardized testing came up. My children later convinced me to allow them to take the tests under better circumstances, just for practice, and their successes there did improve my outlook. I eventually came to appreciate annual testing strictly for its simplicity in legal accountability.

I much prefer testing in a home, whether it is mine or a friend’s, with a familiar church classroom as my next choice. One year a friend and I swapped children during the testing days: she tested my son while I taught her daughter in her home. My son had visited her home often enough to feel comfortable, and she and I used widely-separated areas to ensure quiet during the testing. I abhor public schools and prefer to stay as far away as possible. If I were in a situation that required testing my children at the public school, I would prefer that a) my children be tested by themselves, or b) any homeschooled students be tested together, but most of all c) my homeschooled students be tested in a separate area from the public school students. The time limitations of the tests do not allow extra time for acquainting oneself with a new environment: strange room, strange teacher, strange students. Therefore, the more familiar the situation, the better it will be for the student, enabling him to concentrate on the tests and do his best. However, Moms usually have more test anxiety than their students do, especially since homeschooled students seem to look upon testing as an interesting break from the normal routine.

Our homeschool co-op group provided testing for several years, but I did not submit those results to our school district, since at that time we were still under a supervising teacher. My children both voluntarily participated in the tests for practice purposes, theorizing that eventually they would need to take a college entrance exam (ACT or SAT) and wanted to be prepared for that type of timed, fill-in-the-oval test. The homeschool co-op testing was a decent way to go: familiar moms with the proper degrees administered the tests in the church where we met for other homeschool functions, while we non-degreed moms played in the nursery with the younger, non-testing children. Incidentally, the tests were acquired through a nearby Christian school who submitted our group’s tests with their students’ tests, calling us their “satellite school.” The group-rate price discount was a wonderful blessing for us! For my son’s final two years of testing, our pastor administered the tests in his office area — the pastor volunteered and thought it was great fun.

Each testing service considers its product to be the one and only good test. Here in Iowa we hear repeatedly that the ITBS is the standard across the nation — yet I have not heard that from anyone living outside this state. Since the tests are designed by “professional educators,” specifically to judge how their own enterprise is doing, I see the tests as hopelessly flawed for homeschool use. (Remember, I broke the cardinal rule of testing and read through the tests myself!) Public schools routinely “cheat” by teaching specific test material ahead of time, filling in correct answers for the students, or posting correct answers where testing students can easily copy them during the test, thereby skewing the results to improve their school’s scores. (Not rumors — I have this from the participants.)

Because the tests cannot cover material identical to what every school teaches, standardized tests are nearly impossible for homeschooling parents to use for academic evaluation. The descriptor “standardized” implies that it is covering a core area of curriculum, but in this case, it is the supposed core of public school curriculum, plus some added questions from higher academic areas to point out higher achievers. Obviously, a public school test is not going to cover Biblical topics, creation science, or other specific areas valued by many homeschoolers, but it will cover evolution and similar subject areas that homeschoolers often avoid.

If your children take the tests, look over the resulting scores to see how each child ranks in general subject areas. Then shove your master copies of the scores deep into your filing cabinet and forget about them. [For legal accountability through testing in my state, copies of the results must be sent to both the local district and to the state Dept. of Education.] Do not put too much credence on the tests — they are designed for public school students, not homeschooled students. Your students will probably score quite well — after all, it is the students who score lower than 13% who are considered unsatisfactory. Homeschoolers usually score above 50% nationally (often much higher). The scores indicate how your student compared with all other students nationwide who took the same grade level test during the same month of the same year. [Note: make sure that your students understand that the scores do NOT reflect how many questions they answered correctly. The number of correct answers is never given, which is why I made my own answer keys — to determine exactly what information my students did not know.]

For my own purposes of academic evaluation, I read the official scores using the 50% mark as my guideline: below that level meant we might need to work on that general subject area (unless it was evolution-heavy science); above that level meant we were doing just fine. Make sure your students understand that their goal is to do their best, not to score 100% — a near impossibility on this type of test. Most of the pressure disappears once the children realize they are not supposed to know the correct answer to every question on the test, since many questions are purposely included that are far above the grade level of each test. Normal math or spelling tests that you may give in your homeschool usually only cover material you have already taught.

My personal opinion on annual testing is to do what you have to do in order to maintain compliance with your state’s laws. Check with Home School Legal Defense Association — http://www.hslda.org — for the exact wording of the laws in your state — there may be suitable non-testing options that the public schools do not know about or will not tell you about. Finally, relax, assuring yourself that your students will do the best they can and that the testing process will be valuable practice for college. If Mom is relaxed about the situation, the children will be more relaxed as well.

Guilt-Free Lesson Plans and Scheduling

Each state has its own requirements for homeschooling accountability, so please check out your state’s legal requirements and be sure you comply with them. That said, let me share a few tips from my own homeschooling career that may help to make your homeschool planning a little more Guilt-Free and easier to handle.

My “lesson plans” consisted of a check-off sheet for each subject, with numbered blanks for each of our 150 days of school. The minimum requirement in our state (Iowa) is 148 days; 150 is a nice round number. If we exceeded that number — it was not a problem; we did not have to feel compelled to keep schooling until we knew we had reached 180 or 200 days. As I have stated before, every day is a learning day, not just the days spent with noses in books, so I knew my children were getting a well-rounded education, regardless of the time occupied in tedious lessons.

My uncomplicated system for planning lessons consisted of dividing the number of pages in each book by the number of days of school we did. The resulting number was how many pages were to be done per day. Often it resulted in a fraction (such as 2.8 or 3.2), which I just rounded to the nearest whole number, rationalizing that extra pages would get done some days and some pages (such as full-page illustrations) could be skipped. It did not matter if we ran out of work before the year was up — either the students moved on to their next book or they got to relax and rejoice in free time.

Once I had divided each subject into daily segments, I penciled in the corresponding page numbers for each specific day on those 150 blanks of the check-off sheet. I had also numbered school days on a blank calendar, planning time off for holidays and birthdays, so that we knew which day of school we were on. We crossed off lessons as they were done and crossed off day numbers separately as they passed. Sometimes lessons were done ahead of schedule and sometimes we fell behind, but with this system, we always knew where we stood in every subject. An assigned number of pages to do each day does not mean the child should not be allowed to do more if he is motivated to get ahead. Getting ahead in any subject is only a bad thing when the child does not want to do his other schooling as well. When that happened, I required them to do today’s assignments in all subjects first, then they could work ahead in the desired subjects as well.

Begin your school year after Labor Day if you need extra time for a family vacation or to settle into your routine. Start the Christmas break early enough to allow time for housecleaning, holiday baking, even the shopping that may never get done otherwise. My planned schedule would end in early May, meaning that we had “wiggle-room” for illnesses, spontaneous vacation days, and the odd family emergency that was bound to arise every year. Field trips did not have to be organized to be effective. Many of our fondest memories are from taking a day off with Dad and doing something just as a family: visiting the state Capitol and the State Historical Museum, going fishing and taking a nature walk, finding a blacksmith shop or a museum open on our way home from somewhere else. Antique shops can be just as educational as museums, especially if the attendant sees well-behaved children and gets talkative. (Many small towns have museums open during the day with no one else stopping in but your family.)

Yes, I did actually make separate lesson plans for each child. My students were far enough apart (3 years in age, 4 grades in school) that very little applied to both at once, the only exception being books I read aloud to them while they did simple seatwork. My state-required “Plan of Instruction” looked similar for each child (except for time allowances), but my actual lesson plans varied. I was able to write up the Plan of Instruction with a daily, weekly, or yearly schedule, depending on what time segments worked best for the ages of the students.

The Plan of Instruction was a yearly form listing what subjects I would be teaching each child, the books used, time spent on each subject, etc. Guided by suggestions from Home School Legal Defense Association and other homeschoolers before me, I became increasingly vague in my reporting. (The whole concept of “precedent” is very helpful here — what has been accepted in the past sets a precedent for those who follow.) I only listed academic subjects, not Bible or extra-curricular activities, and merely checked boxes indicating that we would participate in sports, music, etc., rationalizing that things like children and sport-activity usually go together like butter and toast — homeschool activities do not have to be formally structured to be educational and/or beneficial. The few years that my children spent in government school clearly showed that those institutions obviously did not take great pains to inform me of everything they were teaching my children, so they had already set the precedent for me — I do not have to tell them everything I am teaching my children either.

I had begun homeschooling by giving too much information on the legal forms (a common mistake made by eager-to-please-with-nothing-to-hide types). Then I found myself caught in a back-order nightmare one year and was not sure which books we would even be able to get. The deadline for filing reports came and I did not have all the books yet, so I cautiously filled out my form with “weasel words” — “This subject will be taught from a variety of sources.” I was sure I would get a phone call from someone checking the forms who would reject my vague “plan,” but the call never came. My plan was accepted. The next year, I bravely expanded my fuzzy wording to cover more subjects, a technique I found extremely helpful in broad areas, such as history or language arts, that can encompass wide-reaching scopes. Math was much simpler to define: this book, this number of lessons.

This is your family, this is your school, and this is your schedule. Make it work to your advantage. Use the schedule as your tool, do not become its slave. Reflect on your reasons for keeping extensive records and simplify if you can. Your time will be much more valuable as a teacher for your children than as a recording scribe, making endless notes that will never be read.

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