Home schooling teaches kids an important virtue, intellectual self-reliance. Home schooling, well done, permits a child to “learn to learn” as well as learn to learn … by himself. A home schooled child, for example, does not learn in peer groups, a common practice in schools today. Rather, by himself, the home school child reads a text, sorts through conflicting facts and information, and makes judgments that ring true to his experience and understanding. A home schooled child struggles intellectually without turning to peers, teachers or authority figures. In short, he thinks for himself.
Critics of home schooling often claim that home schooled children are less socially adept than kids in same-age classrooms. This may be true. But social suspiciousness and reticence to engage in typical kid behavior, verbiage and antics should be seen as a strength, not a weakness. For when home schooled kids don’t think like the herd, they’re intellectually self-reliant.
As an Ivy-educated professor as well as a mother of three home-schooled kids, I’d like to share some observations and offer some practical advice to home schooling parents who want their children to attend good colleges and universities.
Primary school goals and methods are different than that of older children so I’ll discuss home schooling younger children first.
Primary school kids have one overwhelming goal – to read. Once he’s reading, you need to introduce your child to increasingly interesting (and difficult) books. This is a natural trajectory. Your child will want to read more interesting books because the simple ones are boring. During these young years, roughly to age thirteen, here is some unvarnished advice on reading:
1. Make home schooling fit into your schedule and life — do not make home schooling your life. Teaching your child to read is not difficult and can be done whenever convenient for you. When you take a break from your daily grind, pull your child in your lap and read together while sipping tea. Home schooling can be seamlessly sewn into the fabric of daily life. Make it so.
2. There are oodles of books on teaching reading. Ignore them. In them, you’ll discover a pedagogical war between supporters of phonics and those of “look-say.” Do both! As you read with your child, sound out the words and point out other words that act the same. That’s phonics. Remember, though, that about sixty percent of words in English do not follow spelling and sounding rules. Memorizing, then, must happen. As your child reads, he will become familiar with new, odd words and eventually remember them.
3. Put books on end tables, next to beds, in shelves and, of course, in the bathroom. Make books visible, like art. Books should be seen, not heard, that is, you shouldn’t talk about reading, but do it.
The other major goal for a primary child is math. Unfortunately, teaching math isn’t as intuitive as reading. Flash cards are a good way to start. After the facts are learned, buy or make sheets of problems and get a timer. By eight to ten years of age, a child should be able to do 100 math problems in five, three and finally two minutes. Some advice:
1. Math will not fit into your schedule as easily as reading. You’ll have to make time for it.
2. The grand pedagogical debate in math, which parallels that of reading, is whether math should be taught as facts or as theory. The trend, today, is to teach your child how to think about math, and only afterward, to actually do math. Teachers and curricula spoon-feed the thinking behind the problems. In contrast, in the past, the goal of math was solving problems. The child was expected to figure out the patterns and connections in these problems by herself. In my opinion, the old ways of teaching math are better. As your child learns how to do math, she will see the wonderful way math works. That “aha moment” should be discovered, not taught. Please don’t take away that glorious moment when the logic of math becomes clear. Math trains the mind to be orderly and systematic. So let your child think. Don’t think for her. This fosters intellectual self-reliance.
3. Regarding curriculum: I’ve used Saxon in the past, and eventually ditched it. Curriculum does, though, offer a structure if needed. Again, be flexible. There are times in your life when you’ll need structure and other times when your child zooms along without it. Go with the flow.
4. Here’s a simple ordering of the math your younger child needs to learn:
Counting to twenty, then one hundred
Counting backward from twenty
Addition facts to 12
Subtraction facts to 12
Adding two, then many digit numbers
Subtracting two, then many digit numbers
Multiplication facts to 12
Multiplication of many digit numbers
Fundamental idea of fractions
Adding and subtracting fractions
Multiplying and dividing fractions
Fractions as decimals
Adding and subtracting decimals
Multiplying and dividing decimals
Fractions to decimals to percentages
Adding and subtracting negative numbers
Multiplying and dividing negative numbers
Negative decimals, fractions and percentages
5. When your child understands the above, he is ready for algebra and will need a more structured environment. I recommend this textbook: Algebra 1 by Ron Larson, Laurie Boswell, Timothy Kanold and Lee Stiff; written in 2004 and published by McDougal Littell. The Geometry and Algebra 2 books in this series are also good.
With teens, home schooling becomes more challenging … and fun.
As a professor, I’ve seen many public and private schooled students woefully unable to think, write and study. Though your home schooled child will be far better prepared than most students, don’t expect college admissions staffers to understand intellectual self-reliance. Admissions staffers need a bit of hand-holding and appeasing. This is your responsibility, not your child’s. You are responsible for getting your child into college: your child is responsible for learning.
So, starting from around age fourteen, you’ve need to think ahead. These are crucial years. You must assume that admissions staffers will judge home educated kids harshly. Thus, you’ll need to be wise and clever to combat their bias and bigotry.
Now that he’s a teen, your child should have one goal – getting into college. Though it is your responsibility to get him into college, it is still his goal. He needs to understand that the days of leisurely learning, sadly, are over.
During the early teen years, you’ll have many, heart-to-heart talks with your teen about her goals, interests and expectations. Even teens unsure of what they want to do with their life understand that, at some point, they’ll need to make a choice. At least, come up with a short list. With her, imagine life as a teacher, business owner, homemaker, farmer, lawyer … whatever. Realistically discuss what it takes to achieve that life.
Take a four-pronged approach to getting into college: taking community college classes; scoring high on an ACT or SAT; finding compelling references; writing great essays. Here’s some advice:
1. Don’t even bother to come up with a transcript or grades. Admissions won’t believe your grades anyway, so why bother? In lieu of grades, I suggest keeping a list of books read including completed textbooks.
2. As soon as your children are ready, enroll them in a community college distance learning class, around age 15 or 16. These are graded classes, taken for credit. But before your daughter takes college classes, you must sit her down and read her the riot act. Tell her that from now on, there is neither mercy nor second chances. Tell her that every grade goes on a permanent transcript that will follow her for the rest of her academic career. Tell her that learning has to be purposeful and grade oriented. In short, tell her she needs to strive for “A’s.” Holding her to this standard doesn’t make you a slave driver but a truth-teller – so feel guiltless. The reason you enroll your child in a distance learning class is so you can help. This is a huge step for your child. Be there.
3. The sad truth is that learning, suddenly, is not the goal. Grades are the goal. He needs good grades. Part of preparing your child for self-sufficiency is showing him the bar that he needs to get over. At this point, the bar is a high GPA. Your son, then, needs to find his own way to reach that bar. This is a worthy lesson in itself for life has hurdles that must be overcome even when he finds them distasteful or unimportant. To put it bluntly, there are times when he’s got to suck up to reach his goals.
4. College testing, even if not required, will be important as a marker of accomplishment and potential. Take this seriously. I do not think expensive classes are worth the cost because relatively cheap software is almost as effective. Note: It is easier to raise a math score than a verbal score. The verbal score is more of a proxy of intelligence as well as a marker of an avid reader, which is why it is so important to instill a passion for reading in young children.
5. References are tricky. You have to find referees who the admissions staff will respect. This isn’t about you and your values but rather about the college and its expectations. If your daughter wants to be an engineer, for example, a reference from an engineering professor or successful engineer (on letterhead) will go a long way. Unless your child is going to a Christian college, avoid references from pastors and youth leaders. If your child volunteered, try to get a reference from the leader of that organization. Remember, assume that admissions staffers are secular and biased against home schooling, and choose your references accordingly. Another helpful reference could come from the community college that your child attends. Working as a Teacher’s Assistant (TA) or lab assistant is good both as experience and as a source for references. Try to get academic references.
6. Essays, the final step, can make or break an application. I’ve heard that admissions staffers are finding more and more ghost-written essays. Thus, to make your child’s essay believable, he’s got to include personal, anecdotal information. Here is where a savvy applicant can sneak in information about home schooling. Home schooling obviously sets an applicant apart from the crowd. If made to sound exciting, then the admissions counselor will think your kid is eccentric and interesting. My kids emphasized their travel (which was a big part of their home schooling experience) and the bizarre places and things in their past. It worked. They disguised their faith in the application, choosing to emphasize other aspects of their upbringing that the admissions counselor would be expected to appreciate. In short, give them what they want to hear and set your child apart from the herd.
As parents, we’re raising the best kids in the nation. Our kids are self-reliant and grounded in positive, moral values. For some, Christian faith undergirds morality – it does for me. But as Christians or seculars, it is incredibly important that the best kids are trained to survive and succeed. The two-to-three percent of the nation’s kids who are home schooled will lead tomorrow’s nation, and perhaps save it. Thus, getting those paper credentials from name-brand colleges and universities is a small step toward returning our country from a culture of dependence and weakness to that of individualism and self-reliance.