It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Ten Things I Learned from Homeschooling

Stolen from Sheri.

I homeschooled each of my three kids until they were in fourth or fifth grade (ten years old or thereabouts); I’ve homeschooled Emma this year. She has decided to go back for next year. This is fine with me. I am not anti-institutional school, I just don’t believe it’s the only, or even the best, venue for learning. Emma had her reasons for taking a year off institutional school; she has her reasons for deciding to go back.

What have I learned?

1. Education is something you do for yourself, not something that is done to you.

2. Thus, education is in the child’s hands. We assist. They learn.

3. Thus, a good education doesn’t require a lot of direct teaching. Put the child in the way of all the fascinating stuff there is to know, and they will want to know it, and will seek it out!*

4. The “Real World” is where you do your real living. (Am I the only one who appreciates the irony that those who say children need to be “out there in the Real World” (by which they mean school) are the very same people who grumble that recent graduates have no idea of how things work in the Real World?)

5. It doesn’t take a whole lot of time to get a good education. (Certainly not six hours a day.)

6. Your every waking minute is part of your education.

7. A whole lot of learning goes on when you’re “doing nothing”.

And I think that’s it. Guess I don’t have ten. Which leads me to my eighth and final Top Ten:

8. You don’t always have to follow the rules!
*Unless they’ve been poisoned by the anti-learning atmosphere pervasive in every school I’ve ever known. Which atmosphere, I hasten to add, is not the fault of the teachers, but generally of the other students. (So much for the much-vaunted socialization value of schools…) If you decide to pull your child from school to educate them at home, you often have to allow for a six-month detoxifying time in which they do nothing overtly ‘educational’ at all, before they will grow to see learning as a positive, fun, vibrant thing.

June 8, 2007 - Posted by | my kids


  1. Hey Mary…thanks. (though you just called me Sheryl again) 😛

    Comment by Sheri | June 8, 2007 | Reply

  2. Just gotta comment on #4

    The interesting thing to me about the Real World is that, no matter where I’ve been, the Real World was always somewhere else.

    Comment by addofio | June 8, 2007 | Reply

  3. Very cool post; yet another nut to squirrel away in the “..should I homeschool or not…” sector of my brain. I grew up with a school psychologist mother, an assistant principal father, and several school teachers in my family. Attended public schools from pre-K to 12th grade (we had 7 hours a day, btw!) I don’t know if I agree 100% that an anti-learning atmosphere is at fault with other students. Most of my peer group was intelligent and interested in learning…as long as what they were learning was interesting and the teacher was sharp. Does that make any sense?

    I think it boils down to personal interests combined with the quality of the curriculum. Most of my high school experience was geared toward passing Advanced Placement, SAT, or other standardized tests, and I know that the coursework suffered as a result. The classes were deadly dull, and your entire year was spent learning how to take the test; learning the material you’d be tested on was secondary. Even if I found the subject stimulating (English, history, astronomy), this type of testing made sure that you had no time to get into anything truly interesting. No time, no time, the test is in three months and we have 20 chapters to cover…!

    Final question from a long-time lurker on your blog 😀 As a home-school educator, how in the world do you make graphing secants and cosines interesting? Or the Pythagorean Theorum? I thought I would waste away and turn into dust in the majority of my math classes, no matter how fascinating the word problem. “If John is hiking in the Grand Tetons and wants to see a mountain peak 30 miles away, how high will he have to climb in order to see it? Assume that the earth is a smooth sphere.” Err….assume that I would rather be reapplying my bug spray if I was John, instead of worrying about trigonometry on a hike.

    Comment by Kendra | June 8, 2007 | Reply

  4. Mary – “Which atmosphere, I hasten to add, is not the fault of the teachers, but generally of the other students. (So much for the much-vaunted socialization value of schools…)”

    I’ve made that point before as well, public schools are a predominately peer based environment. This means that children are spending the better part of their day exposed to, interacting with and being influenced by kids their own age. And we all know, kids CAN, and WILL, be very cruel to each other.

    Comment by Sheri | June 8, 2007 | Reply

  5. >>Final question from a long-time lurker on your blog As a home-school educator, how in the world do you make graphing secants and cosines interesting? Or the Pythagorean Theorum? I thought I would waste away and turn into dust in the majority of my math classes, no matter how fascinating the word problem.

    Comment by Deanna | June 9, 2007 | Reply

  6. Kendra,

    I meant to quote your question and then answer it; in fact, I typed a rather long answer to it and apparently some machine somewhere ate it. So let me try again!

    It seems to me there are some things that can make even subjects like math interesting. The key thing is, all the way along, to show kids how math can be used in a practical way. I can’t speak to secants and cosines – I never studied them myself and will learn them along with my older daughter when she gets to that point . (We will use a computer course with access to college staff when we get to that point – I’ve already identified the program I like and we’ll be using it for pre-algebra next year.) But there are practical applications of the Pythagorean Theorem that a high-schooler can understand. Let’s say you are remodeling your basement, as we are right now, and you need to drywall the area under the stairs. By recognizing that the area is a right triangle and measuring the height and the length of the area, you can use the Pythagorean Theorem to determine the length of the under-stairs slope. Other geometry concepts can help you figure the correct angles, so you only have to cut the drywall once.

    I believe there are certain things about school – especially about math – that are not necessarily going to be fun for most kids. Memorizing multiplication tables, for example, is one of those things that just has to be done. You can make it more interesting with music or games, but ultimately they are going to have to memorize. But if you can show the kids how most of math, especially in elementary and junior high, has practical uses, you can at least provide them with a sense of purpose in doing it. Those word problems become more meaningful when kids realize that situations like these do arise in everyday life; the more they see the situations happen, the more they recognize they may have need for math concepts themselves.

    Learning early on that real-life math presents itself in “word problems” most of the time makes them more willing to struggle through word problems they haven’t seen in practice yet. Fortunately in the elementary school years, especially when kids are home schooled, it’s fairly easy to show the real-life application for what they learn. Even in middle school my daughter sees relevance to concepts like adding unlike fractions and of algebra (I want to make a recipe and a half of these cookies – how much is 1/2 of 1/3 cup, and then how much is 1/3 cup plus 1/2 of 1/3 cup?). Actually doing it is much more interesting than reading an artificial word problem about someone else doing it!

    I don’t necessarily think everything kids do has to be fun or even interesting. After all, even in the best careers, we have to do things that aren’t fun and interesting. Some things just have to be done because it’s necessary. At the same time, the homeschool environment allows me to take advantage of the teachable moments to show my kids why the material they’re learning “in school” matters.

    I hope that helps some!

    Comment by Deanna | June 9, 2007 | Reply

  7. Sheri: GAH! Sheri, Sheri, SHERI. Okay, I think I’ve got it now…

    Addofio: Too true, in which case it’s not terrifically meaningful to quote anyone who uses the phrase, since the concept is only used as a negation of a present reality, not as a meaningful descriptor of an envisioned one. But I’m leaving it in, because I do enjoy the irony!

    Kendra: Most of my peer group was intelligent and interested in learning…as long as what they were learning was interesting and the teacher was sharp. Does that make any sense?

    It does make sense. This was certainly the experience of my eldest – once she got into the gifted class in grade 8. It was not the experience of a friend of hers only a year younger, in the same school, in the same gifted stream. A different group of kids made all the difference. But, for her friend, it was the kids, not the teachers, who made the classes places of non-learning. (Which I guess also implies that it was the kids in my eldest’s classes who made them places of fun and lots of learning! With the teacher’s able assistance.)

    Still, I’m a little leery of kids who blame the teacher for their boredom. Yes, some teachers do manage to suck the life out of a subject. My youngest loves science, and was horrified to discover on year just how very boring it can be made. She was shocked. “I never knew science could be boring!!!”

    Still, I think it’s every bit as common, if not more common, that students label perfectly unobjectionable teaching boring because they don’t enjoy the subject (a matter of taste, as you say), and/or because they don’t want to work to like it.

    “Personal interest combined with the quality of the curriculum” – good point. Also the quality of the teaching, and the quality of the learning environment, which has multiple contributors, not least the students themselves. How’s that?

    You mean graphing secants isn’t interesting? Why not? The precision, the order, the satisfaction of seeing it all laid out clearly? What’s not to like?

    I’m teasing, but only a little. I really did enjoy that stuff in high school. Once again, we’re back to your observation about personal tastes.

    But it’s also a good example of the difference between homeschool and teaching to a required curriculum, with an exam. Many homeschoolers do use curriculum, particularly in the early years when parents and students alike are less confident. As confidence builds, many move away from curriculum, which means that students get to follow their passions.

    Me, I loved geometry. Just loved it. It was, in fact, my favourite part of the math curriculum. Had I been allowed to follow my passions, instead of being constrained by the curriculum, I’d have delved much further into it, I’m sure.

    Here’s what I’ve found about homeschooling. When a child discovers that before he/she can find out “Great Thing A”, they have to know how to do “Kinda Boring Thing B”, they knuckle down and learn it – because there’s a reason to need to know it. If that’s how they can get more of “Great Thing A”, well, let’s just do it.

    Anyone who gets to follow their passion learns that even their passion has dull bits! You learn have to do the drudge work if you want to get to the fun – and it’s worth it!

    Sheri: Agreed. Nothing to add. Ayone who’s ever been bullied at school (Frank from grade 4, I still remember you, you creep!) knows how cruel kids can be.

    Deanna: Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I know from our email exchange (regarding the vanished comment) that we were composing these comments simultaneously. It seems that our thoughts were as synchronized as our timetables! Our responses to Kendra pretty much echo each other, point for point. (Kendra, I hope you’ve enjoyed all the attention, and aren’t feeling feeling ganged up on! 🙂 )

    Comment by MaryP | June 9, 2007 | Reply

  8. Mary,

    You are so right about kids being willing to put up with “Kinda Boring Thing B” in order to get more of “Great Thing A.” The trick is making sure that “A” is interesting and exciting enough to make it worth learning “B.”

    And you know, “A” doesn’t necessarily even have to be in the same subject area as “B.” I remember reading about an unschooling family in which one of the daughters decided in high school that she wanted to go to college, though she had studied no formal math at all. She sat down and in a matter of months worked through several years of high school math, including 2 years of algebra, I believe, and made it into college with no trouble at all. (Incidentally I DO still make my kids study math!)

    When kids are properly motivated, they will far exceed what parents and teachers believe is possible. Giving kids a real reason to learn the material, whether it’s a practical application or a college entrance requirement, makes all the difference.

    Comment by Deanna | June 9, 2007 | Reply

  9. Thanks Mary 😛 I hope you don’t know someone named Sheryl who you’ll now be calling Sheri…hehehe

    Comment by Sheri | June 10, 2007 | Reply

  10. I think it would be great if all parents had to homeschool for even one week a year. I would benefit the parents as much as the kids. And it might even get them together in a positive way.

    Comment by Homeschool | June 10, 2007 | Reply

  11. Thanks for your replies Deanna and Mary! I agree that knuckling down is just a part of the learning life . . . and point taken, different classes / years / children can make a huge impact on a student’s learning experience. I was lucky enough to be on the “college prep” or AP track during school; my best friend took a few standard classes and was amazed (appalled?) at how different the atmosphere there was.

    Comment by Kendra | June 11, 2007 | Reply

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