Saturday, March 14, 2009

Homeschooling: Advice on Getting Started

One of the other young mothers at our church has been considering homeschooling, and asked Tonya for advice.

It's rather odd to think that we're the experienced ones here. After all, we're only getting near the end of the Pillowfight Fairy's first-grade year; and somehow, we've started finding that other young mothers are coming to us for advice! It's as though they see us as old pros or something.

Of course, we've been doing it for--depending on how you count--two or three years now. We started formally teaching the Pillowfight Fairy her basic reading skills the year before she started kindergarten; then her kindergarten year we expanded the list of academic activities, and this year we've been doing full-time day school. Since our family hasn't self-destructed yet, and the Fairy is now reading her science texts for fun, we have to think we're doing something right.

And if you think about it, you can learn a lot in three years. After all, a college degree only takes four....

(Or six, if you attend San Jose State University. But we won't get into that just now....)

Anyway, Tonya thought about it, and wrote out a very detailed email about how we got started. A lot of what she says is good general advice that could apply to any starting homeschooler, so with her permission, I've decided to reproduce it here--with appropriate redactions to protect the identities of the innocent. I've also added links to the resources she mentions, and to earlier posts on this blog that describe episodes she mentions in more detail.

So if there are any parents of young kids out there who are looking for advice on getting started in homeschooling, and stories of what it was like, here's my wife's take on it:

Hi K,

I finally got around to sending you an email. The book I wanted to suggest to you is: 100 Top Picks for Homeschool Curriculum: Choosing the Right Curriculum and Approach for Your Child's Learning Style, by Cathy Duffy. We found it very helpful. It not only talks about the student's learning style but also the teacher's teaching style. It also has a questionnaire near the beginning to help guide you through figuring out what kind of homeschooling goals and philosophy are important to you. Once you figure out that, it is a lot easier to figure out how to go about homeschooling. The rest of the book gives descriptions of curriculum that is available and rates it according to many criteria such as learning style focus, amount of teacher involvement, amount of writing, preparation time, grade level, ease of teacher use, philosophical lean, and suitability for religious audience. I still refer back to our copy of this book once or twice a year to figure out where we want to go in the future.

We have decided to follow our own path with a "Classical" philosophy. But every homeschool family does their own thing, so don't feel pressured to follow what someone else is doing. Focus on what you think is best for your kids.

When we started our homeschool journey, I started when [the Pillowfight Fairy] was in preschool. She had started reading before I was ready and I didn't want to discourage her. These are some of the things I did.

1. I picked up a few preschool workbooks from Target to see how she would do with them. She was still pretty wiggly so I wasn't sure she would sit still long enough to do workbooks. I found that if I kept her to only one or two pages a day, it worked for both of us. In the process, I got to see how well she was understanding different concepts, so I knew what we needed to work on.

2. Tim found a free phonics program on the internet that would require only a few minutes a day. It taught a different phonics rule in each lesson and provided a list of practice words that I could write on a doodle pad to give her practice sounding out words. It worked well and I'm using the same thing for [the Adrenaline Junkie] right now.

3. We tried teaching [the Fairy] sight words and that was a disaster. I strongly recommend following some phonics method. We were unintentionally teaching her NOT to sound out words but to guess instead.

4. We had her practice sounding out words while we read to her.

5. After she was making good progress on sounding out words, I used McGuffey's Eclectic Primer which was given to us by Tim's parents. This was an old standard that used to be used in schools all the way back to the 19th century. The primer is for starting readers. There are also graded books to use later on, but they use a different numbering system than what we recognize from the current school grades.

6. I got some inexpensive computer games that were intended to supplement school or encourage "school readiness" called JumpStart. The kids like them and it helps them practice skills in a fun way.

7. With [the Adrenaline Junkie], who learns differently than her sister, I bought some Leap Start videos: The Letter Factory, The Talking Words Factory, Code Word Caper, and The Math Circus. Tim hates the videos (he finds them very annoying), but the two younger kids learned their alphabets with the basic phonics sounds using them. The Math Circus helped [the Fairy] with some of her math concepts.

One of the best pieces of advice I think that I got when I was starting out was that Reading, Writing and Math are the foundations for everything else that kids learn. At the very beginning, that is what needs to be focused on. So I have made that the focus of Kindergarten for my kids. And now that [the Fairy] is in first grade, I keep reminding myself to be sure that she gets plenty of practice at those subjects even as we study other subjects. The more fun for her the better, so that she will want to do it more.

We have found the stores nearby that have been useful for us are A Brighter Child located at Greenback and Fair Oaks (for most curriculum needs and a few other things like lesson plan books, or general homeschool books), Lakeshore Learning on Douglas Ave. in Roseville (for teaching supplies like paper, crafts, and toys), and other general stores for office supplies. We have gotten some things off the Internet. For literature, religion, art and music, Tim and I have been making our own curriculum. The more you do yourself, the more work it is. That is where teaching style comes in. I am a planner, but I don't do well thinking on my feet. So, I plan my whole year in advance and print out a complete year lesson plan that gives the details of what we will be studying on each day. Then I check my plan the night before and get everything ready for the next day's work. After the day's homeschooling, I put away the completed work in binders and keep track of what we have gotten accomplished. From what I've heard from others, I am very odd. Most people have a much more relaxed method. Find a method that works for you.

I am aware of two homeschooling groups in the area. S.C.O.P.E. is a group that I think the F's [another local homeschooling family] belong to. It is a Christian group, they have lots of activities, and they usually have a homeschool convention every year at Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church. We have joined C.C.H.E. which is a Christian group following the Classical method like we do. So far the drawback I see to this one is that they don't have much for the younger set. They were advertising a youth choir recently, but it started with age 8. All of my contact with them has been online not person to person. Tim has been following a "Homeschool Carnival" online which is the equivalent of a weekly newsletter or newsmagazine. Each week homeschoolers who maintain a blog online (such as my husband and me) may choose to participate by submitting a post on some homeschool topic. The posts range from how-tos to philosophy to news of the day. The link that I follow to this site is:; This is a great way to locate other homeschoolers online who can give insight into issues that are important to you. Some are just starting out and others are old pros. It can be a very useful resource.

I don't know how much you know about the legal status of homeschooling in California. Basically, there are three ways a person can homeschool in California.

1. Join an umbrella program like a charter school where your children are enrolled but are taught at home. These programs usually have a lot of oversight of your teaching both in curriculum and following your progress. Some people prefer this method, especially if they are not confident in their teaching ability. However, I have heard plenty of complaints that your curriculum is chosen for you and there is a lot of record keeping to follow up on.

2. Register as a private school. This is where you register with the state as a private school where you identify your school to the state by name, identify the administrators and teachers and list number and ages of the students enrolled in your school. There is no other regulation of your schooling methods. You are free to choose what curriculum and teaching methods you wish to follow. You have only the once a year registration to do. All other record keeping is for your own purposes.

3. Hire a credentialed private tutor. This is self explanatory I think and most homeschoolers fall into the other two categories.

We have also joined a legal defense group called HSLDA which gives advice and help to homeschoolers based on the laws of each state. And, the laws do change from state to state.

I hope this is helpful to you. My offer still stands to let you come over and see for yourself what we do and pick my brains. Come to think of it, we should probably have your whole family over some time. After all, homeschooling is a family affair. I'm sure your husband has his own ideas about it and might like to talk to another Dad about homeschooling. I would suggest a time right now, except that [the Happy Boy] is sick right now and I don't know when he will be well again or whether the other kids will come down sick next.

Of course, some of the stuff in this letter is only appropriate for people in the Sacramento area. (And some of it is only appropriate for the specific recipient of the letter--I wouldn't like every reader of the Carnival to decide to crash our place all at once, for instance).

Still, I can vouch for all the links and resources she mentioned. Even those LeapStart videos, which are in fact a little annoying, are very good at what they intend to do: even my two-year-old boy knows his letters now and the sounds they make entirely from watching these videos, and he's not even saying all that much yet.

So if there are any parents out there reading this who are debating whether they should homeschool and who are looking for pros and cons; or any parents who have definitely decided to homeschool, and are looking for advice on how to do it, feel free to write a comment and ask.

After all, we're old pros at this. We have three full years of experience. :-)


Theocentrica said...

Start by reading Charlotte Mason books!

I'm a homeschool graduate and my mother's been homeschooling for nearly twenty years, but she still feels inexperienced and put out when people ask her what to do. I have to keep reminding her she's a wily old veteran. ;)

Anonymous said...

Don't forget starfall - it was one of our two best free resources online for reading (the other was a very nice, comprehensive, well organized and easy to use .pdf phonics curriculum made available by a school that taught using the Charlotte Mason method - for some crazy reason, they make the link available and free, but don't want anyone to link to it. Go figure).

For math we use a combination of Singapore math and Miquon math for our oldest son and Rightstart for our daughter. All three have what I expect in a good math curriculum - a strong emphasis on how to think about math and approach math problems combined with enough drill to instill good basic computation skills.

Beyond that, we do unit studies - specifically Konos for the last year or so, but before that, a variety of unit studies including a few my wife created herself.

Crimson Wife said...

My favorite book for those considering HS is Homeschooling- Take a Deep Breath, You Can Do This! by Terrie Lynn Bittner. It is wonderfully reassuring; the author does a great job demonstrating that you don't have to be a combo of a rocket scientist and Superwoman to be a successful home educator :-)

Wendy said...

Hi, I give you alot of credit for the role you are playing in homeschooling. I have been running an afterschool educational enrichment program for 1st and 2nd graders in the suburbs of Chicago. Our program has been well recieved in this area and we have now made our materials available for purchase. All activities are thematic based and weave in reading,math, writing and geography. The lessons are hand on, creative and fun. Please check out our website at Thanks in advance. Best,Wendy