Homeschooling 101: The experts weigh in on how to begin
This story first appeared on MiniBury.com.
We were sitting in the car at A&W, waiting for milkshakes — while our daughters wreaked havoc in the way back — when my husband said, “I think we should think about homeschooling.”
It was back in July. Back before we knew about Mary Hogan’s hybrid plan for the fall. When all we had was the Vermont COVID-19 guidelines for K-12 schools. Reading that document made me weep, but I still wanted my daughters to go to school.
Daniel couldn’t stand the waiting — the not knowing exactly what school would be like, and the fear that a second COVID wave might send us all back to remote learning partway through the fall. That we’ll have to face the crushing loss of last March all over again.
I get it. But homeschooling? Where would we even start?
Debi Waters, who lives with her husband and 5-year-old son up in Ripton, shares many of the same fears. “I’m feeling really uncomfortable with Emmett having to wear a mask the whole day,” she told me. “That seems like an awful way to embark on his school journey.”
She said she’s still “coming to terms” with the loss of her son’s preschool year at Quarry Hill School last spring. “I can’t really bring myself to let Emmett start kindergarten and then have it taken away from him, again. He’s fairly resilient, and he could probably handle it. But I don’t know if I could.”
On top of all that, Ripton Elementary School is one of the schools that the ACSD is considering closing for good. “So, what do I do?” she mused. “Does he go to kindergarten in Ripton this year and then the next year it shuts down? How much loss can we handle?”
Waters and her husband have decided to homeschool.
They are part of a groundswell of Vermont families who have opted for homeschooling this fall. VTDigger reports that “according to the Agency of Education, 1,634 families filed paperwork with the state by July 15 to enroll in homeschooling for the upcoming year.”
Last year only 932 enrollments had been received by that date. And applications are still coming in; the state accepts homeschool enrollments on a rolling basis.
Waters acknowledged that homeschooling won’t work for everyone. It doesn’t provide the childcare that many parents need to continue working. But it feels right for her family. “We live a pretty simple lifestyle, and we can swing not working two jobs for a while,” she said. “That’s not the norm for everyone.”
Still, Waters acknowledged that she’s not living in the lap of luxury either. “I’m not going to lie, we don’t have the most secure life,” she said, noting that she doesn’t currently have health insurance, and her husband’s job at Camp Keewaydin will wrap up at the end of the summer.
But Waters has been earning money during the pandemic providing in-home childcare for a couple other families, and that will probably continue into the fall. “We’ve saved enough money to survive the winter,” she said. “It just feels like it’s going to be OK.”
Is she worried about feeling isolated? “I think we’re going to continue spending time with the small circle of friends we’ve been with [during the pandemic so far]. I feel like since we’re not going to mix in with the school we can continue to have the relationships we have,” she said. “We have a very social existence. We have family close by, we have a neighbor who Emmett’s really close to.”
Waters said she is feeling pretty calm about the start of school now that her family has a clear path forward. “I’m dipping into the news, of course,” she said. “I can’t believe the choices that our school administrators have to make.”
But opting out has afforded her family some calm. “I’m not going to be yanked around emotionally,” she said.
To get a better picture of what homeschooling looks like, I turned to a couple local moms who have been doing it for years.
First I asked Faith Gong, who has been homeschooling her children since 2016, if it was crazy to make this seemingly massive decision during a time of crisis. Don’t homeschooling parents know they’re going to be homeschooling parents from the moment they became parents?
“No,” Gong told me. “And here’s why: The number of [homeschooling parents] I know who really planned it from the start is maybe half. Everyone else, it was kind of a crisis.”
Gong herself got into homeschooling due to extraordinary circumstances. Her family was heading to California for a sabbatical semester. She and her husband had four children at the time — now they have five — and the two oldest went to Mary Hogan, “and happily so,” she pointed out.
“It just didn’t make any sense to navigate the public schools [in California] for six months,” she recalled. “I thought [homeschooling] would be horrible, but we can survive if for six months.
“But then it wasn’t horrible.” When they returned to Vermont, she said, they all wanted to keep doing it.
Have the kids ever asked to go back to “regular” school?
“If they did I would send them back,” Gong said. “I love homeschooling but it’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of effort. If they weren’t willing to do it, I don’t have such a philosophically deep belief in it that I’d want to keep doing it.”
Chelsey Giuliani, a Middlebury homeschooling mom of three, said she’s been acutely aware of the swelling interest in homeschooling among parents this year. She has already helped nine other families navigate the application process for this fall, she told me.
Guiliani started homeschooling five years ago, when her older daughter was about to enter kindergarten. “It would be too strong to state that homeschooling is something I have always wanted to do,” she wrote in an email. But two of her cousins homeschooled their kids, so she had seen it in action, and seen the results. “These children are competent, compassionate, curious and have strong relationships with their parents and extended family as well as a strong sense of self.”
Guiliani had a robust network of support at the time, but she remembers wrestling with many doubts as she got started:
“Do I have the patience to be my child’s teacher?
“What am I going to do with my then 2-year-old (I was also pregnant at the time)?
“Will my child suffer from a lack of interaction with her peers?
“Will my children carry any type of stigma for being ‘homeschooled children?’
“What curriculum will I choose, and what if it doesn’t ‘work?’”
Guiliani admitted that even five years in, she has never felt 100% confident about what she’s doing. But she has come to terms with her initial fears.
“There are, no question, days where my patience is not where I need or want it to be. However, I have the privilege of knowing the learning preferences of all of my children — which then allows for deeper learning opportunities as we do life together.
“I have the great joy to also be the person who gets to witness the victories: to watch a budding reader’s ability truly bloom, finally witness a carrying of the one, independently, to be able to recognize parts of speech in a sentence, or to confidently write a ‘J’ are some highlights, not just of my homeschool journey, but life itself.
“These victories far outweigh the days that feel like we are stuck in the weeds. I have found that the younger children truly benefit from being nearby as the others learn.
“It is hard, but baking soda and vinegar volcanoes have come through in a pinch many times!”
HOW TO REGISTER WITH THE STATE
Debi Waters pointed out that Vermont doesn’t legally require kindergarten. So if your kid would be entering kindergarten this year, you don’t have to register with the state in order to homeschool.
For older kids, here’s how to register:
Faith Gong says the state’s online homeschooling enrollment system — which I found somewhat overwhelming to navigate — is actually “a massive improvement” from how it was when she began homeschooling.
“I know what I’m doing… ish at this point and it still makes me want to cry,” she admitted. “Everything is, like, a pdf and there are all these acronyms, and it’s like what does this mean?!”
The first thing to tease out, according to Gong, is that you do have to have an idea of what you plan to do with your kid(s) before you get started.
And you may see that the website references an Aug. 1 deadline to register.
“That’s not going to apply to anyone who is doing it for the first time,” Gong clarified. “That’s for the MCOS exemption, which stands for ‘minimum course of study.’” It basically means curriculum.
“When you’re signing up for the first time, they want you to outline what you’re going to do,” she continued. “You can be exempted from having to write that out every year, if you’ve been homeschooling for two consecutive years.”
The bottom line is: If this is your first time homeschooling, you can actually register with the state any time before May 1. If you start out enrolled in a school this fall and decide it isn’t going well, you can pull your kid out at any time before May and register to homeschool.
Be aware, however, that kids in first grade and up need to be enrolled somewhere by the opening day of public school — Sept. 8 — or they may be considered truant.
“It can take up to 21 days for paperwork to be accepted by the state,” Guiliani noted. “As school will be starting later this year, most are suggesting that homeschool paperwork be submitted to the state no later than Aug. 15. Also, I would strongly recommend that families file all paperwork online. The homeschool office is located in the National Life building in Montpelier, and the employees are only able to periodically receive mail.”
PLANNING A CURRICULUM
You can find guidance — and age-specific samples — for writing a curriculum on the Department of Education site, education.vermont.gov. “You have to do one per child,” Gong pointed out. “You can’t just say this is what our family’s going to do.
“The mistake that I made my first few years was, I would write out paragraphs, and list out all my books,” she continued. “They want bullet points. You do not need to stress about this. And the reason why you shouldn’t — the point of doing this — is at the end of the year you also need to show that you accomplished everything you set out to do.”
In other words, only include the bare minimum in this curriculum.
The curriculum must cover eight content areas (math, literature, history, natural sciences, music, physical education, etc.). But don’t be afraid to get creative.
“It’s amazing what can be PE,” Gong said. “If you ski at Rikert, that’s PE. If you play in your yard, that’s PE. Health education can be teaching them the importance of washing their hands. Fine arts: that can be listening to some music or looking at some paintings.”
Guiliani offered this nugget of wisdom: “In terms of curriculum, the best advice I received was not to spend a fortune on one. There are many free or very inexpensive curriculums. That way if something is not working for your child, you can pivot without guilt. I’ve personally found Sarah Mackenzie’s books ‘Read Aloud Family’ and ‘Teaching from Rest’ to be the most influential reads in my homeschooling journey. The single best piece of advice I have been given however, is ‘When all else fails, just make brownies.’”
A HOMESCHOOL DAY
When Gong started homeschooling, she and her kids expected it to be more like School At Home.
“My girls were coming from public school,” she explained. “I was a teacher pre-kids. We all had these expectations, and I would talk about my ‘teacher hat’ and my ‘mom hat.’
“But with every year that’s gone by, I’ve really loosened my grip on all that because you start to see that all of life is school, and school is life. I wish it hadn’t taken me as long to realize that because it essentially made me feel like I had to be more authoritarian during our ‘school time.’ Like, I can’t be mom right now, I have to be teacher. Everybody learns more and enjoys it more if that’s not the case.”
Homeschool looks different for every family, Gong said. But here’s how it looks in hers.
“We do actually have a schedule. We have breakfast, we start school at around 8:30. We used to go 8:30 to noon. It’s amazing how much you get through when you don’t have, like, 20 kids. You can actually get all the academics done. Three hours is plenty.”
Now that her kids are a little older, they’re planning to do school work until 2 p.m. The rest of the time? They go on field trips, play or read independently or do other projects.
What if you have to occupy a baby or toddler at home while trying to homeschool older kids?
“Sometimes it can be messy for sure,” said Gong. She suggested this trick: “You have a box for that toddler that just comes out during school time. It has inside whatever is age appropriate and will buy you time: A sticker book, a puzzle… When [my daughter] Abagail was 3 she watched a whole lot of PBS Kids on a tablet. Sometimes you just have to get through it.
When your kids are all old enough for school but they’re doing it at different levels, Gong said, “Do together what you can. Because they’ll get something out of it.”
In a normal, non-pandemic year, Guiliani told me she has found Addison County teeming with opportunities for homeschoolers to interact with their peers, including sports, drama, special interest groups, as well as annual events such as Barter Day (where kids bring homemade gifts to trade), the spelling bee, talent shows, group field trips and holiday craft parties.
Her children also usually participate in local recreation department programs and classes at the Middlebury Community Music Center.
“This pandemic has changed the landscape of our fun community,” she wrote, “and my family is already planning to ‘pod up’ with a few other families, so as to create some cooperative environments and to safely interact with the same group of people.
“Despite some opinions, I have found that isolation is not the purpose of homeschooling, but rather it is its enemy. Finding a community of supportive families to surround myself with has been my lifeblood these last five years.
“In terms of children suffering from a lack of interaction with their peers — banish the thought. Across the board, the homeschooled children that I know have a wonderful ability to interact with children of all ages. These children also have a wonderful ease when speaking with adults, and enjoy a deep connection with their families.
“The lack of time constraints also means that many families are able to volunteer, which I have found to be invaluable when trying to create a giving human.”
The local women I spoke to about homeschooling offered a plethora of resources to help families get started exploring the world of homeschooling. They all suggested joining the Addison County VT Homeschool Group on Facebook. And Debi Waters recommended looking into Oak Meadow, a Brattleboro company that creates homeschool curricula, which she described as “Waldorf-y and nature-based.”
Faith Gong gave the following recommendations:
• Rainbow Resource: This company has a huge array of homeschool resources, and I don’t know how they do it (since it’s a family-run business) but their prices are almost always better than Amazon.
• Cathy Duffy is an author who reviews homeschool curricula, and has also devised a quiz so that you can discern what homeschool approach works best for your family’s style. (There are a variety of homeschool philosophies, like unschooling, classical, Charlotte Mason, unit studies, etc.) Ilsley Library in Middlebury has an old (2005) copy of her book “100 Top Picks for Homeschool Curriculum,” so it’s a little out of date but I still found it helpful. She also has a website now, cathyduffyreviews.com, where it looks like you can access her reviews for free and get copies of her updated books.
• The Brave Learner by Julie Bogart is a wonderful, fun book to start with. It’s full of both inspiration and practical suggestions.
• I’ve become a huge advocate for using literature to teach all subjects, and we do a ton of reading literature out loud in our family (both as part of school and just in life — and yes, I even read aloud to our middle schooler!) My go-to in this area is the book “The Read-Aloud Family” by Sarah Mackenzie — about half of which is book lists. She also has a great website and podcast: readaloudrevival.com/start-here.
• “Also on the read-aloud bandwagon, Jamie Martin has a wonderful book called “Give Your Child the World,” which is about using literature to teach your children about different countries all around the world — and MORE than half of this book is excellent book lists, broken down by country and age of children.
• I follow simplehomeschool.net, which is curated by Jamie Martin but is a great clearinghouse of blog posts by a variety of homeschoolers, and helpful links/resources.
• Finally, a book that is not about homeschooling at all, but is a series of (mercifully short) reflections on motherhood: “Mitten Strings for God” by Katrina Kenison (I know it sounds like a religious book, but it’s not). I read this during the height of the pandemic, and found it so encouraging and restorative. I list it here because one of the most important things if you homeschool is making sure that you aren’t stressed, frazzled or empty — if you’re not OK, then the whole thing falls apart, so it’s important to feed your soul!
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