My mom could get her Ph.D. in pretty much any subject she chose. At least, she could get it after my youngest sibling, now eight, graduates from high school. Listening to seven children over a period of 30 years recite the same Latin declensions and memorize the cellular-meiosis and -mitosis processes would certainly qualify her as an expert in multiple fields of study, and this is true of plenty of homeschooling moms.
Yes, homeschooling. It isn’t a niche lifestyle: As of 2012, estimates place the number of homeschoolers nationwide at over 1.8 million and rising. But when I drop the term “homeschooling” in conversations with people of any age, ethnicity, or educational background, the range of responses and emotions is usually some combination of amusing and insulting. I encounter a large number of stereotypes. Some personal favorites are allusions to denim skirts, raising chickens, the Amish, social awkwardness, and lack of friends. (What, pray tell, are my six siblings?) While these stereotypes are not completely without a foundation, they are never fully justified and tend to be sweeping overgeneralizations.
If you’d like a dictionary definition, Merriam-Webster says that to homeschool is “to teach school subjects to one’s children at home.” But this definition is being challenged, in large part because of new technologies that are making it increasingly simple to create virtual classrooms with endless possibilities.
Connections Academy is one such example. Its virtual programs “are tuition-free online public schools for students in grades K–12,” and its services are available in 29 out of 50 states. It is focused on bringing the classroom to children, giving them access to high-level education while also enabling one-on-one attention between students and their instructors. Because it is a public-school program, it comes at no cost, and it offers ease of use, facilitates parental involvement, and provides a wider community with which to connect, since students from all over the state are engaging with one another daily. Such online K–12 programs are accredited and offer access to college-prep and even college-credit courses. Connections Academy uses a program called “Connexus,” an online platform designed to host classes, schedules, chatrooms, grades, and more. Parents, coaches, teachers, and administrators have access to Connexus along with students, which enables better communication and — since parents can see their children’s grades, lessons, and assignments — greater accountability.
More-traditional forms of homeschooling generally entail parents’ creating their own curriculum, sometimes with the help of programs such as Sonlight, Seton, or St. Thomas Aquinas Academy, my homeschool alma mater. These programs pair parents with an adviser or counselor and often provide detailed lesson plans for high-school-aged students. They do not usually provide instruction, but are rather a support and guide to the teaching parent. Parents take this assistance and use it to create their own schedules and plans, teaching all or at least most subjects themselves. Extracurricular activities abound — despite the pervasive idea that homeschoolers are socially deprived — with many homeschool families forming anything from drama groups to orchestras to speech-and-debate clubs together.
A variety of technological advances are available to such traditional homeschooling families as well, and plenty of homeschoolers make considerable use of them. For example, Connections Academy advertises resources on its website that are specifically aimed at traditional homeschoolers. These are categorized by grade and subject, and include links to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s MetKids program, Starfall.com (a math-games website for younger children), and Stickfigurehamlet.com (an entire site devoted to telling the story of Hamlet through stick-figure drawings and humor). In my family, a Netflix subscription allows Bob Ross to teach art, YouTube provides hours of explanatory science videos, and Amazon Prime gives access to the joy that is Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. These sorts of resources also can be useful to families that aren’t able to practice traditional homeschooling but want to take advantage of certain of its aspects.
Another emerging form is called “hybrid homeschooling.” It aims to take the best parts of traditional school and pair them with the best parts of homeschooling. One hybrid program, the University Model, says on its website that each week children spend “2–3 days in the central classroom and 2–3 days in their ‘satellite’ classroom at home.” Parents like the flexibility and family time provided by this model, as well as the access it offers to extracurricular activities, such as team sports, at schools. In the University Model, the parents’ role is meant to decrease as the age and grade of their child increases. According to the organization’s website, parents are “assistant teachers” for their elementary-school children, “supervisors” to their junior-high children, and eventually “mentors” to their high-school children. There is debate about calling this form of education “homeschooling,” because the parents are not considered the primary educators of their children, but their constant involvement is required.
Many might wonder why parents would choose such a lifestyle. Often, they have done so on the basis of religious convictions, but plenty of families — secular and religious — come to homeschooling for other reasons. There are negatives associated with traditional schools — violence and drugs, for instance — that may lead parents to choose homeschooling as a way to control the influences on their children. Others wish to be more involved in choosing the curriculum and sources through which their children learn. Still others have been struck by the strong family culture they have observed among homeschoolers of their acquaintance and decided to pursue something similar. While children in traditional school settings certainly can have close families and involved parents, there is a particular kind of parental relationship that is built and strengthened through spending very focused time learning together at home. Homeschooling also cultivates a special closeness among siblings, especially if children of different ages are taught together. The younger ones learn by listening to the lessons of their older siblings, while the older siblings are often able to aid in teaching the little ones.
As those who have experienced any kind of homeschooling know, it can be a difficult lifestyle, regardless of how many children are learning at home. The technological advances have made it easier for a wider variety of families to access some of the resources that make homeschooling effective, but the success of any such program ultimately comes down to motivation on the part of parents. No matter how acclaimed these models and programs are or how state-of-the-art their technology is, none of them will work without one vital component: parents who are invested in the outcome of their children’s education.
Parents must be involved. They need to be leaders in shaping the education that best meets their children’s needs, whether they choose a traditional institution, decide to homeschool, or combine the two. Parents who choose homeschooling should understand that there is much more to it than just signing their children up for online Spanish or letting younger children watch Reading Rainbow. Nothing can substitute for personal interaction and the kind of genuine knowledge of children that comes from teaching them one-on-one. Technology should be there to enhance these benefits, not replace them.