Getting an umbrella education

From classical education to the more controversial unschooling, the term “homeschooling” is actually a catch-all for a variety of alternative schooling methods.

| 06 Jan 2020 | 11:51

By Nicole M. Wells

“Super religious, super weird, super antisocial ...”

If the term “homeschooling” calls to mind Vitamin D deficient pupils clad in Little House on the Prairie garb, fixated on the flight patterns of migratory birds, you’re not alone.

“Definitely the perception is homeschooling is strange, homeschoolers are strange,” Beth Hogan, 43, of Milford, Pennsylvania, said.

A former Army firefighter turned Christian homemaker, Hogan said she worked hard to ensure that her five children – all homeschooled – didn’t fall victim to the stereotype.

“My kids are very socially well-adjusted and they have been known to get frustrated with homeschoolers that actually fit that bill,” she said.

Photographer and military spouse Lindsay Askins, 38, of Campbell Hall, New York, said she remembers the negative stereotypes about homeschoolers from her childhood.

“When I was growing up, anyone I knew who was homeschooled was super religious, super weird, super antisocial,” she said. “Some people associate that with these crazy people who lock their kids in the basement.”

In the public consciousness, homeschooling is often a little understood anachronism in an increasingly high-tech, fast paced world.

To be fair, the term itself is somewhat misleading, as “homeschooling” is actually a catch-all, umbrella term for a variety of alternative schooling methods.

Askins couldn’t agree more.

“You can say, ‘Oh, we homeschool,’ and that can mean 25 different things,” she said. “Some people really stick to a curriculum, and they’ve got textbooks, and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. they do schoolwork, and this day they do math and this day they do English, and some people plug into an online school. And then there’s an aspect that we fall under, which is called ‘unschooling.’”

“Do you want to do science today, do you want to work on your handwriting, do you want to read a book?”

Unschooling is a form of homeschooling that is student-driven, in that it dispenses with the formality of a structured curriculum and allows the student to determine what he or she is learning.

According to Homeschool World, the web site of Practical Homeschooling Magazine, unschooling, “uses everyday life experiences as the building blocks for education.”

An early pioneer in the homeschool movement, John Holt believed that children’s natural curiosity about the world and a natural desire to learn should be the motivating factors in their education. Children ought to be allowed to explore the things that interest them, and learn at their own pace.

For Askins, unschooling allows a sense of freedom to orient learning.

“We wake up when we wake up and we have a relaxing morning,” she said. “We try to do some kind of adventure once or twice a week, which could be just gallivanting in the woods – we went hiking to a waterfall in the Catskills the other day. We go to the city a lot and try to do museums. It’s really different from day to day.”

A former public school teacher, Askins said she became disillusioned with the public school system’s educational methods and what she believes is its misguided emphasis.

“We are completely missing the point of why we’re all here,” she said. “We are so distracted by all this bureaucratic crap that doesn’t matter.”

The mother of two, Askins said her oldest child is 7 years old and is an active participant in her educational experience.

Giving her the ability to choose, Askins said she will ask her daughter things like, “Do you want to do science today, do you want to work on your handwriting, do you want to read a book?”

In addition to the variability of the curriculum, a large part of unschooling involves broadening the mind through travel.

Travel provides countless educational opportunities, Askins said, and added that her husband’s occupation helps.

“I feel lucky that I can do this,” Askins said. “It doesn’t matter when you move, and my husband’s time off is super random and spontaneous and not in alignment with normal people’s time off, so, if he’s off and we can go do a four-day weekend, I want the flexibility to do that.”

Hogan said her decision to homeschool her children was made while she and her husband, who is a pastor, were “church planting,” or, starting a new church, in her hometown of Boston.

The neighborhood was a little rougher than she would have liked, so Hogan began to homeschool when her first child was 4 years old out of what she believed to be necessity.

Sixteen years and four more children later, Hogan’s homeschooling days have finished up, as her youngest two are set to begin their high school years at Delaware Valley High School at the end of August.

Looking back, Hogan said it was often difficult to separate home time from school time, despite her admittedly rigorous classical education curriculum and regimented day schedule.

Up between 7 and 7:30 a.m., Hogan’s pupils were at their desks in the family’s homeschooling room by 8 a.m., she said.

Drawing from the schooling styles of ancient Greece and Rome, Hogan said she designed the curriculum herself and favored teaching the trivium, or the three stages of learning: Rote memorization in elementary school, analytical skills in middle school and rhetoric in high school.

“It was a little more arduous maybe than just a fill in the workbook education, but I think it was good for them,” she said. “(The thinking was) this is your job right now, so expect at least an eight-hour day.”

Relying heavily on the book, “The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home,” by Susan Wise Bauer, Hogan said a lot of putting the curriculum together involved researching what worked.

As her children moved through the grades, Hogan said that it became more of a challenge for her to keep up with the work as well.

“Once you hit high school, it becomes so intense, and, for me, having five kids, I have to manage all their work and they’re all at different learning levels, and they’re all learning different things,” she said. “Many times, even recently, I was sitting watching math lectures learning the math.”

Perhaps more so than public or private school, homeschooling is an educational endeavor that requires families work closely together to accommodate it.

There are work schedules and instructional schedules to be considered, and the method selected needs to be a good fit for the instructor, the child and the family as a whole.

“I do follow some people on Instagram and I’m starting to think it (the chosen method) has to do with whichever parent is in charge of homeschooling,” Askins said. “I’m just not a structured person in general myself. I don’t need routine and I don’t need a schedule to feel comfortable.”

By contrast, Hogan’s classical education was more defined in the sense of physical boundaries within the home.

“I am thankful I always had a school room,” Hogan said. “I could never be someone to do homeschooling at the dining room table.”

Far less structured, Askins said that, while some homeschooling families set aside a dedicated space for instruction, that’s not something she’s ever really needed.

“They have a homeschooling room, with the bookshelf and all,” she said. “I’m like, ‘Let’s go outside and play!’”

Askins said she gets comments all the time about how other parents don’t think they’re smart enough to educate their own children.

She said most of the time, these parents sell themselves short.

“No really y’all, you guys managing your kids’ homework situation or getting them on the bus on time is way more work than what I’m doing,” she said.

An avid reader, Askins said she is frequently struck by how much information is glossed over or simply not taught in public schools.

Learning more about American history reading on her own than when she was in school does not inspire confidence in mainstream educational methods, she said.

“Having no control over what people are telling my children doesn’t get me all warm and fuzzy,” she said. “’Cause everybody’s got their own bias.”

If the internet and social media can be used for good, and Askins isn’t entirely convinced they can be, their redemption can be found in the form of Facebook groups for homeschooling families.

These groups can be instrumental in helping homeschoolers connect with other homeschoolers for social interactions, but they can also be a needed resource for homeschooling parents, who may find themselves socially isolated from their peers, the majority of whom send their children to mainstream schools.

“I have a hard time connecting with people who are inside the box, doing what the majority’s doing,” Askins said. “I feel like those groups are important in that regard, where there’s like-minded people that I can connect to without having to explain myself.”

Now that her daughter is clearly at an age where she would be in school, Askins said she is increasingly fielding probing questions from well-meaning store clerks and has been on the receiving end of odd looks from strangers puzzled by why a school-age child is out with her on a weekday.

There is an undercurrent of fear in the homeschooling community, Askins said, that, as the movement becomes more mainstream, interference by the government will inevitably follow.

“You already cracked down on and regulated public education and how’s that working out for you?” she said. “I don’t even bring it up that much around people I don’t know.”

With the door to her school room now shut, and her schedule about to open up in a big way, Hogan said she’s about to enter a whole new phase of life.

“I’m kind of in that place now where it’s like, ‘Okay, what do I do?’” she said. “Now I’m probably going to be getting a career and choosing a profession, and it might include going to school.”

For parents who are able, Hogan said there is no greater life’s work than the education of one’s children.

“Teaching your kids to read and giving them an education is probably the most important thing you’re going to do,” she said. “Other than instilling moral fiber in their bones, the most important thing is giving them an education in this world.”

Teaching your kids to read and giving them an education is probably the most important thing you’re going to do,” she said. “Other than instilling moral fiber in their bones, the most important thing is giving them an education in this world.”

The structure of public school strips children of their creativity, ability to think critically, independence, self-confidence, desire to learn and, in many cases, their dignity.

Children are forced to learn what bureaucrats feel is important and on a specific schedule, regardless of the child’s interests or abilities, leading to pigeonholing and labeling for those who choose to think for themselves or progress at a different rate.

The incidence of violence, bullying, drugs, sex and sexual predators in public schools raises questions about exposing a child to this on a regular daily basis.

The learning materials do not lead to an education but rather to indoctrination and programming, along with forced medications for those deemed to be disruptive and mandatory vaccinations for everyone.

The fact that is that, through the schools and social services, many bureaucrats believe they have the ability to control all aspects of a family’s home life.