Home Sweet Homeschooling

By tj wierenga

Do you love being an active part of your children’s educational development? Not only watching, but researching curriculum, learning styles, and developmental milestones? Rejoicing and celebrating with your kids when they reach a new goal or accomplish a skill? Do you have the time to dedicate to teaching your children at home?

With estimates of between 200 and 400 families in the Yellowstone valley homeschooling, the education method is definitely increasing in popularity, not only locally but most definitely nationwide (estimated 1.2 million nationally). Teachers in public and private schools teach based on printed curriculum. Homeschool parents can use the same curriculum, or choose from a variety of alternatives. Even more than curriculum choices, parents who homeschool educate themselves in child development, learning styles, and organization. With a huge support network of other homeschool families, internet support including Yahoo! groups, magazines and websites dedicated to homeschool support, and an abundance of printed books, workbooks and other material, homeschooling today is far less cutting edge frontier-style than it was even twenty years ago.

Parents list the benefits of one on one instruction, concentrated individual attention, academic success, customized education (even for advanced or special needs children), flexible scheduling, choice of curriculum beyond the basics to match the child’s specific interests, more time to develop special talents and interests, and earlier development of a sense of responsibility and work ethic as their individual reasons for homeschooling. “We’ve chosen a home education path because, simply, it works for us,” said Carol, homeschooling parent of three in Billings. “For us, the benefits include more family time, time flexibility: matching school schedule to Dad’s work schedule and off-season travel opportunities, and having control over what the girls learn and at what pace. Also, we can choose to teach our children to study the world through a Christian worldview. Other advantages include being able to pay attention to different learning styles and to focus on the interests of each child.”

“We’ve chosen a home education path because, simply, it works for us.”

Carol, homeschooling parent of three

One of the questions that homeschooling families are challenged with by friends and family is the issue of socialization. Homeschooling proponents feel that there are two choices in this opportunity – for children to be socialized and bonded to mainly their own age group through public school, or for children to be socialized to the variety of ages, stages and levels of society itself in the atmosphere of homeschooling. To develop the latter, Carol reports, “Some of the activities we’re involved with, either currently or in the past, include 4-H, choir, church activities, soccer, basketball, drama, piano lessons, and art classes.” Other parents include homeschool and learning groups, Scouts, interest groups such as astronomy and math clubs, theatre programs, music lessons, summer camps, and of course local friendships.

In Montana, homeschool students must follow applicable laws; basically stating that students age 7 – 16 (or the completion of 8th grade) must receive at least 720 hours of instruction annually (grades 1-3) or 1080 hours (grades 4-12) of the same “basic instructional program” as public schools. The definition of a home school is “the instruction by a parent of his child, stepchild or ward in his residence.” The home school must: maintain attendance and immunization records which must be available for inspection by the county superintendent on request; be in a building that complies with local health and safety regulations (for homes, not schools); provide at least the minimum aggregate hours of instruction as indicated above; annually notify the county superintendent of intent to home school; and provide an organized course of study.

Creativity is one of the hallmarks of most homeschooling families, and they use just about everything (a method called “Life Learning”) to work into their current studies, choosing a specific topic and then working it into all aspects of education. “Some of our most favorite and memorable experiences in homeschooling have been trips we have been able to take and relate to what we have been studying, like the Grand Canyon, California coast, Washington DC. Also, doing group projects with other like-minded families – a Shakespearean play, building a medieval castle, international night, and Greek Olympics” enthused Carol. Barda, mother of now-graduated homeschooled daughters in Helena, adds, “We played board games, traveled, read books, walked, explored, watched insects, had mice and more mice, had spiders with webs and all, a real microscope that we bought at a garage sale. Our youngest BJ danced nonstop for 7 years. Cooked, baked, worked with wood, went to zoo’s, fished, etc... swimming in the summer, skiing in the winter.” Ann Marie, parent of four in Billings, notes, “It’s just a regular childhood… the kids have lots of friends and are involved in many activities. The difference is that we make a concentrated effort to use not only our curriculum, but also our life experiences to learn from – life skills, and also math, reading, writing, science, social studies, language. My husband and I approach life as a learning opportunity and take advantage of every chance to both learn and teach. Our kids’ education is not restricted to classroom time.”

Carol explains her family’s teaching methods, “We’ve used a variety of curriculum over the years. The only true textbooks we currently use are for math, science, and grammar/language arts. The rest of our studies are grouped together through a common theme. Let me give you an example. This year our theme has been world geography and current events. During our group time most mornings, we do mapping and learn about a country or people group, including culture, environment, government, etc. We always have a related fictional work and a biography I’m reading aloud and discussing with the girls. I give each girl research questions to figure out the answers to, and we have group discussion time. We also play a geography game, look for current events in the newspaper, write reports, and have theme nights when we invite friends for dinner to experience what we’ve learned. The girls work individually on math, spelling words, grammar, typing and spend a lot of time reading.”

What do the kids think? Erica, age 13 and homeschooled from the beginning, remarks, “Homeschooling with Mom I get feedback on how well I’m doing or (not doing), and supervision which I hate to admit I still need, but then I’m only 13. What I like best is that when I mess up on something, Mom is right there right away to help me figure out what I’m not getting and we can fix it NOW, not a week later. That way I am not practicing and learning errors.” Carol’s daughters mentioned, “being a class of one (or two), there’s no getting away with not doing the work!” although Carol herself sees that more as a benefit.

Academically, students who have homeschooled are scoring significantly higher on many standardized tests such as the SAT, the ITBS and the TAP. Almost one in four homeschooled students are enrolled at one or more grades above age level due to the child-specific instruction and attention they are able to receive. Additionally, “on average, home school students in grades 1–4 perform one grade level higher than their public and private school counterparts. The achievement gap begins to widen in grade 5; by 8th grade the average home school student performs four grade levels above the national average,” states the Home School Legal Defense Association website (HSLDA.org).

In summary, it appears that homeschooling families are producing academically sound, socially oriented, happy adults while saving the government money… and this while maintaining close family relationships and encouraging individual strengths and growth. SFM

TJ Wierenga is a Billings mom in the early stages of the homeschooling adventure with her two young children and husband.

**See page 14 in our online virtual edition to check out many local homeschool activities and opportunities that are available! ***