My homeschooling journey began 24 years ago, when my oldest daughter was attending public kindergarten. Like many parents, I was delighted that my little girl was growing up and entering school. I hoped she would make friends, learn a lot, and enjoy herself. It wasn’t long before I realized I’d been carrying around an idealized vision of school. I began to explore options, and came upon a transcript of a speech by former New York City teacher of the year John Taylor Gatto. Reading it changed my life. I committed myself to homeschooling.
There were about eight families at the first homeschooling picnic I attended. I was inspired. These people were as excited about homeschooling as I was. Sure there weren’t many of us, but we didn’t really need more than we had – our families, each other, and the world to explore in any way we chose. Compared to today's homeschooling landscape, it wasn't much, but it was okay. In fact, it was more than okay. We weren’t homeschooling because homeschoolers perform better than average on standardized tests, or because there was a great network in our area, or because we were grooming our kids for the Ivy League. We were doing it for perhaps the best reason of all – because we had to. The promise of freedom for our children and our families was too good to resist.
Fast forward to 2014. The changes in the homeschooling movement since I began make my head spin. Homeschoolers in the United States now number in the millions. In my local support group alone, there are more than 200 member families. Museums, nature sanctuaries, art studios, and all manner of places now offer daytime classes for homeschoolers. Drop-off learning and resource centers can be found all over the state.
The families who contact me regularly to ask about homeschooling can choose the groups they like best and any number of classes they want to use to tailor their children’s educations. Want a scheduled activity every day of the week? No problem. Plug into a few support groups and you’ve got it made. How wonderful, in many ways, that homeschooling is becoming more accepted, and that homeschoolers can now choose from such a wide range of options, including learning centers for homeschoolers. Usually these centers are professionally run, offering part-time or even full-time drop-off options. What a difference from my early days, when our small group of families made our own fun. Libraries, playgrounds, museums, historic sites, the great outdoors, and each others’ houses – we explored them all, when we decided, when we chose. We created our own field trips, started our own clubs, planned our own potlucks, put on our own plays, and if we felt like it, offered or organized our own classes. And although I can certainly see the positive aspects in all the resources now available to homeschoolers, personally, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
I know there are still families who practice the kind of homeschooling I’m talking about, but when I talk to new homeschoolers, their attention is inevitably drawn to all the available resources. Creating complex schedules that fill children’s time with classes, lessons, and days spent at drop-off learning centers takes the place of free play, unplanned trips to the library and park, baking cookies together, or snuggling up on the couch to read picture book after picture book. With my older kids grown and out of the house, and my younger kids teens, our lives are less like that. All my children (even the ones still living at home) are very scheduled, out in the world pursuing rich, full lives which are, in many ways, beyond anything I could have imagined for them. When they were still small, people astonished by their “skills” have asked me point blank, “What did you do?"
My answer was always the same: Nothing.
Why did I say that? Partly, because I was taken aback by the question. Really, I did nothing other than provide love, care, shelter, and support (and hopefully, a good bit of fun). I observed my kids with interest and joy, and provided resources to help feed budding passions. I did my best to act as a guide while trying to stay the heck out of their way. What I did not do when they were very young was sign them up for every math workshop, science club, or whatever activity came on the homeschooling list serve, and I certainly never enrolled them in a learning center. It just wasn’t necessary. Beyond a pottery session here and there, for the most part classes and other structured activities weren’t even a part of my kids’ lives until they hit double digits.
So what did we do? We spent our time at the park, the library, and in play. I was active in homeschooling and community organizations, and the kids always tagged along to meetings, bringing stuff to do, working on their own projects alongside the adults at work. The whole family sang in a chorus together. We read lots of books. We went to concerts, plays, and museums. They loved the Museum of Fine Arts, where they’d wander through the galleries at their own pace, stopping when and where they chose to pull out their trusty sketch pads and render their own version of an awesome masterpiece.
To me, those were the golden days of homeschooling. I’m so grateful for the time we spent together, getting to know and love each other, enjoying the city, the beach, farms, museums, the woods, the playgrounds, and so many other things in the world around us. I never gave a thought to the teaching of reading, math, or any other academic pursuit, not because I didn’t care, but because I didn’t have to. The kids wanted to learn, and did so. It was the lifestyle, and all of the blessings and benefits that came with it, that I cared about.
Perhaps I make the lifestyle sound unbelievably idyllic. If so, it’s because of how I remember it, not because there were no struggles or difficulties. Those come with any life choices. In my experience, what people worry about when they start homeschooling are academics and socialization, primarily. With two daughters who will soon apply to college, I am still not immune to those worries (parents whose kids are enrolled in school don’t escape them, either). Back in the good old days of homeschooling, we had the time, the space, and the opportunity to work out those concerns ourselves, and we learned that, societal messages aside, our kids could, for the most part, thrive without structured activities or centers designed solely for the purpose of “educating” them or providing “learning” environments for them. We learned that the ultimate learning environment is life itself, no didactic trappings required. For me, one of the most important lessons was to savor life with my family.
Recently, I had coffee with a couple other homeschooling parents from back then. We were discussing the influx of learning centers. Things are so different now, we noted. Better in some ways, true, since resources can allow families to homeschool who couldn’t do so otherwise. But what of our experience, the way we homeschooled? Will it become a relic, now that homeschoolers are a significant market, and programs and centers designed for them are popping up fast and furious, touting their offerings, contributing to the notion that professionals of one sort or another are necessary? Slow homeschooling is what we did, we decided, and we even made a tumbler for it: http://slowhomeschooling.tumblr.com/
In our frenetic 21st century world, maybe it will become a fad that sticks, like the slow food movement. At the very least, we hope it can serve as a reminder that choosing a less harried and more self-directed way of life is possible.
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