Have You Ever Set Goals for Your Homeschool?

Although our homeschooling is very fluid and does not fit neatly into an academic year like a typical school, I still feel a tug in the fall to tidy up the previous 12 months so that we may move on into a fresh year. The activity that helps me make this transition each year is writing progress notes for my kids which, as I detailed here, is a personal letter that I write to each of them listing their studies, accomplishments, and activities over the past 12 months and commenting on how they have learned and grown.

This year I was finding it difficult to write a progress note for my daughter. What has she learned about science? Math? History?   Has she completed any workbooks, textbooks, or curricula, to somehow prove what she has studied and learned? I was stuck – I was thinking very conventionally and my daughter is not conventional. I thought perhaps if I set some goals for my homeschool it would help me write my progress notes. But I’m not good at setting goals–they feel rigid to me. Homeschooling is something that simply unfolds for us, and in so many unpredictable ways. How could I anticipate where this path would lead?

Yet I think that considering our homeschool from a more objective perspective could be a very good exercise. I just need different, less-limiting terminology. I asked myself, “Why did I choose homeschooling? Why do my kids want to continue to be homeschooled?” To write my kids’ progress notes, I needed to know, “What are our reasons for homeschooling?   What are my jobs as a homeschooling parent to these two unique individuals?” After all, I don’t homeschool so that I can make my kids learn like kids learn in school but rather so that I can support them as they learn and grow in their own ways and toward their own potential.

Once I started thinking less conventionally, writing my kids’ progress notes came easily. I would like to share with you how I started my daughter’s note, which I am copying with her permission.

I guess if my job as a homeschooling parent is to make you learn what kids your age who go to school are learning, then perhaps I am not doing a very good job. But, if my job is:

  • to expose you to a wide variety of ideas and activities,
  • to give you the time and space you need to explore, think, and reflect,
  • to support you in your chosen interests and give you time to pursue them,
  • to help you learn to live a healthy lifestyle,
  • to give you the opportunity to learn and practice life skills, and
  • to give you the nurturing time you need with me, your brother, and with friends,

 then perhaps we are doing alright…

The letter goes on from there and outlines our past year of learning and living together. One thing that really stood out to me were some of the activities that I decided to put under the category of science. While my daughter has not completed any science curriculum, she is clearly learning about the natural world around her. Through books and asking questions, she has taught herself about the plants on our land with a special interest in finding wild edibles. She has spent time volunteering at the local veterinary clinic and has helped me care for several sick animals this past year. At age 12 my daughter could give injections and set up an IV to deliver subcutaneous fluids to a sick rabbit. She could help put a tube down a chicken’s throat, test to make sure it was in the crop (and not in the chicken’s lungs) and deliver fluid and medication. Through her own interests, initiative, and real life experience, my daughter is becoming confident and competent; at the same time, through casual reading and general activities, she is also absorbing most of what kids are learning in school as they work through a science curriculum. (And I just want to say that, although I mentioned science, I do not feel that what we do needs to fit into school subjects. Overall, most of what my kids are learning does not fit neatly into some schoolish subject area and, often, those hard-to-categorize things are the most important lessons they are learning.)

I wish I had set some goals years ago – if not rigidly adhered to, goals could be enlightening and fun to look back on. What I see now is that my kids are not cynical about learning. Instead of needing bribery or threats to make them learn, they are self motivated and enjoy learning. That would have been a great goal, way back when I started along this path of parenting and homeschooling. And because my kids have always been involved in the learning process and have made, with guidance but not coercion, their own learning decisions, they are able to set their own learning goals now. I’m here to support them, not tell them what to do or make their learning fit into neat categories.

The Alchemy of Unconfined Learning

I recently finished reading The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. In the story the main character, a boy named Santiago, decides to leave school and become a shepherd. After traveling and caring for his sheep for two years, he reflects on his time with them and thinks about all that they have taught him. But he goes on to think, “maybe it wasn’t that they were teaching me, but that I was learning from them.” I love that subtle shift in perspective and, with it, the clear contrast in meaning between being taught and learning. I’ve written before that “I don’t teach my children (and yet they are learning)”. I’m still exploring what that means to us and as part of that I want to write a little about a recent experience we had. It makes for a rather long post, but I hope you’ll continue reading to the end because I think this topic is important.

In early April, we went on a trip out west. After we returned, an adult asked my son if, when we travel, he takes along his homeschool schoolwork to work on. When my son hesitated, I jumped in, bristling. “I don’t homeschool that way,” I said. “I don’t separate out education and learning from living and life. I don’t do school at home.” And what I was thinking was that I certainly would not ‘do school’ while traveling because my kids would miss out on too much real learning! But I decided, based on the person’s horrified expression, that I was best off not continuing the conversation. My son mentioned that he had taken his Latin along with him, and the woman nodded and smiled approvingly.

After that encounter, I decided to write down all the things we did on our trip, and I spent time thinking about what my kids (and I) had learned. My kids spent some time outdoors with their grandpa learning about the native trees in Western Montana, and the next day when we were hiking near Kalispell they told me the names of the trees, talked about their needles and bark, and looked over pinecones while trying to figure out which one came from which species of tree. They speculated as to the age of trees and wondered whether the forest we were in had been clear cut or selectively cut and when, and how the lack of canopy was affecting what young species were coming up. Later in the trip we hiked in old growth coastal forests along the Puget Sound, reading all the information signs and taking in everything the forest had to show us from the soil on up to the canopy. (Wow, those are some big trees!) We spent time at an aquarium, just like school kids on a field trip except that, without any distracting work sheets to ‘prove’ we were learning, we were able to engage with the displays and soak it all in. We attended a play put on by a local homeschool group, giving us the opportunity to reflect on how differently this group handled various aspects of theater compared to our own experiences in theater. We attended a discussion on Buddhism and a lecture on rights of immigrants. We talked with adults over meals on the train and heard their life story. We visited gem shops and were fascinated by all the information the shop owners shared with us. We asked questions and talked about everything. Together. We investigated and learned. Not only was no pre-planned curriculum needed, it would have hemmed us in. And if we choose to pursue any of our questions further, I have no doubt that we can find the resources we need to help us.

Yes, we brought books along to read, but why in the world would I have brought ‘schoolwork’ along?

It’s disheartening to me that our society has lost its collective memory of how children learned prior to the rise of institutional (confined, top-down, teacher-controlled) schooling. Years ago I watched a documentary on John Adams and his family. The mother, Abigail, taught the children to read and write at home (in English and Latin). Both parents taught the children mathematics and they were all extremely well read. The oldest son, John Quincy, began his French studies in earnest by teaching himself from books while crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a ship. During his two stays overseas with his father, his mother continued his education from afar via letters while his father educated him by immersing him in the real world of politics. He experienced formal schooling for about a year beginning at age 11, and was enrolled in school again briefly at age 13. At age 14 he served as secretary and translator to the U.S. emissary to St. Petersburg; after, he traveled (alone) through several European countries, learning the languages and customs along the way. From there, he was on to Harvard.

Certainly John Quincy Adams was a remarkable person, but his education was not markedly different from that of other colonial children. The early colonial schools were only open for six months of the year, and they were considered to be ‘available’ for children to attend as needed and as time allowed. Children did not enroll in school and attend full time for 13 years like they do today. Instead, education was pieced together from a variety of resources such as learning from parents at home, learning from immersion in the community and from a variety of adult interactions both casual and as tutors, and sporadic enrollment in schools. While schools could provide learning, “school” and “learning” were not considered synonymous like they are today. It was ALL learning, and it all ‘counted’, and non-school learning (experiential learning) would not have been frowned upon as irrelevant the way it was after our trip.

Why is it so preposterous to think that children today are capable of learning in the same way that colonial children learned? When someone tells me that homeschooling, especially homeschooling without a formal, purchased curriculum, may work for my kids but it wouldn’t work for most kids, what are they saying? If children are no longer capable of learning without being taught, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves why? What has changed in our society and our families and our parenting so that now children must be sorted into peer groups, placed in a facility from age 4 to 18, and told what they are going to learn, when they are going to learn it, and how? I think that our society has changed, and has changed in ways that make it easier to give in to superficial distractions rather than do the real work of learning, but I don’t think the capacity of the human mind to learn on its own has changed in a mere 200 years. What has changed are our assumptions and expectations about what children are capable of accomplishing. And while most schools purport to have a mission of graduating ‘lifelong learners’, everything about their methodology instead promotes passivity and dependency in learning. These school attitudes and methodologies have also crept into our homeschooling.

The shepherd at the beginning of my essay learned from his sheep “that there was a language in the world that everyone understood… It was the language of enthusiasm, of things accomplished with love and purpose, and as part of a search for something believed in and desired.” As homeschoolers, we have the opportunity to maintain an open-minded attitude toward what learning can be, and to embrace any approach to learning that is fruitful and joyful to our children and our family.

Progress Notes for Homeschoolers

When I first started homeschooling, I decided I would write monthly progress notes for each of my kids. Wow, was I ambitious! The monthly notes lasted about three months; I switched to quarterly notes. That didn’t last long, either.  Nowadays I usually write my kids’ progress notes in the form of a single end-of-year summary for each child, although some years I manage to also write a mid-year progress note.

Just to be complete, I’d like to say that I do write daily notes throughout the school year. While useful, those notes are short and not very descriptive. A daily note might say something like, “Math, Chpt 6 lesson 4; French homework; hammered dulcimer lesson … etc.”  In those daily notes, I also write down new tasks learned (recently we butchered some roosters and I taught my daughter how to clean the gizzards – you BET that went down in her daily notes!) and books read, along with other things like nature walks and other outside activities and extracurriculars (we have a LOT of extracurriculars!) I look back at those shorter notes occasionally as they can be useful for various purposes, but I find that my progress notes give me a much better picture of how my children are growing, learning and changing.

Since I am finally writing their progress notes from this past school year and summer, I’ve spent time in the past week looking back over some of my kids’ notes from past years. I love reading them — they bring back so many memories and they show me how far my children have come. Often they are several pages long, and nearly all are hand-written. I write them in the form of a letter to my child, making the notes feel so special and personal. While of course I comment on their progress in various academic pursuits, I also reflect on other things that have happened in their lives. I may write about some of the challenges of the past year and how they have faced those challenges and grown emotionally. I record things about our family life together. I mention their quirks, their interests. Perhaps I might write down something about them that drives me nuts. (Maybe I should let them write progress notes on me! One year my son was frequently feeling frustrated with me and he came up with a graph showing my daily approval rating!) I also always write down some of the special things that I appreciate about each of my kids.

I don’t know what first prompted me to write notes like this, but I do know that I am so grateful to have started.  At the end of most days I find myself wondering, “Why do they call it homeschooling?  We’re never home!”  And I often wonder if my kids are learning anything.  But our progress notes help me see the Big Picture. Reading them helps me appreciate not only where we have been (not just geographically but also emotionally) and how much we have accomplished, but I can also see the varied experiences that my kids have had that are helping them grow into confident and capable people.

Even though I have taken on some new responsibilities in my life and am feeling busier than usual, I have been working diligently on this year’s notes. I honestly don’t feel I can go into the new year with a clear head unless I have spent time reflecting and have written certain things down.

I love watching my kids’ expressions as they read their progress notes, and I welcome their input, corrections, and additions. They form the perfect springboard for discussing the new school year to come, giving us a starting point to talk about their short- and long-term goals, and to make decisions together about what they want and need to learn and how to go about learning it. There was one busy year when I had my son write one of his own progress notes (he was in fifth grade). It’s pretty good, and I think having children evaluate their own strengths and progress in a formal manner is a good and useful idea. I might do more of that as my kids get older, but I’m not going to give up my own writing. Why should my kids have all the fun??!

What about you? I would love to hear ideas about this topic from other homeschoolers.

2016 WPA Homeschool Conference – All Lit Up!

My kids and I returned Sunday evening from the Wisconsin Parents Association 33rd Annual Conference and Resource Fair and all I can say is “Wow!  That was amazing!”  It will take me weeks to digest all that I learned there.  The sense of community that was created was just what we needed to help us continue to feel supported and nurtured in this journey of homeschooling.  My kids and I thoroughly enjoyed staying in the dorm where we met and hung out with homeschoolers from all over the state.  We made new friends and we can hardly wait to see them again at next year’s conference!  For those of you who could not attend or who have never attended a WPA conference, I urge you to consider going next year.  You will not be disappointed.

I attended one of Erich Moraine’s talks about unschooling and in it he asked the participants to share how they know when their homeschool is ‘working’.  One person spoke up and said she can tell when things are going well because her child is “all lit up!”  Well, if “all lit up” is any indication of success, then this conference was a huge success; I saw happy, lit up faces everywhere we went, from Meet & Greet to the halls in the dorms, from shared meals to the various sessions and workshops.  The general session speeches were insightful and inspiring and served as a reminder of the hard work families did in the 1980’s to secure my right to homeschool my children; this right is precarious and we all need to continue to work together to safeguard our homeschooling law.  We had the privilege of hearing graduation speeches given by seven homeschool graduates and some of their parents.  Their words of hope for their future and gratitude for their upbringing were a beautiful inspiration to my own children.

If you are not a member of WPA, please please consider joining.  If you are already a member, please encourage other homeschoolers to join and consider volunteering your time – there are many ways to help out.  Below are some words from their facebook page (our facebook page – WPA is us):

Many thanks to all who attended, supported and created the 2016 WPA Conference. This year’s theme was “Homeschooling with Integrity.” To have integrity means to be undivided. To have integrity means to act according to strong moral principles. The Wisconsin Parents Association is a grassroots organization dedicated to preserving the rights of WI parents to educate their children according to their own principles and beliefs. This year’s conference reaffirmed our commitment to this goal and challenged our members to take this message to their own local areas. If you are homeschooling in WI you are already taking advantage of the work of WPA. Become a member and make us stronger.

WPA provides legislative watch–we’re paying attention to politics every day so you don’t have to. This organization works hard to maintain Wisconsin’s very reasonable homeschooling law that allows each family to educate their children in the way they see fit. What is that worth to you?

Learning Outside The Box

Yesterday evening found me in the chicken coop trying to install latches on several windows. I was annoyed. I needed to be in the house getting dinner started, but I had gone out early to close the chickens in due to yet another day of snow and wind and winter, and while in the coop I felt a breeze coming in over my head. The temporary storm windows had all fallen off, the wind had changed direction, and suddenly the coop was cold.

So there I was, lugging a ladder outside and fumbling around in the garage trying to find latches and tools. I couldn’t figure out the drill; clearly I am hopeless with tools. I found myself thinking, “Why didn’t I learn anything useful or practical in school?” I had taken a shop class in which I’d made a decorative wooden shelf and a piggy cutting board; basically I had spent a semester hand sanding. My home economics class was equally useless; we baked muffins, a pie, and cookies but did not learn how to actually prepare a meal or make anything even marginally nutritious. I came out of school with A’s in algebra and trigonometry but unable to care for myself or my home. (Although my life is continuously affected by other people who use math all the time, I’ve never used my high school math as an adult, even when earning a Master of Science degree – too bad there was no class on statistics, now THERE’s something universally useful). I stood in the garage, muttering about “all those wasted years”.

I suppose mostly I couldn’t think straight because I was mad. And cold. My mood was going downhill and dinner was not getting made. But the beauty of the situation was this: my 11-year-old daughter voluntarily came outside, calmed me down, and coached me through it. She helped me find things and reviewed with me how to use the cordless drill. She stood at the foot of the ladder and handed me things and held things for me. When the screws I was using kept falling out, she said, “You need a smaller drill bit, Mom!” and ran to the garage to get one (while accidentally and temporarily locking me in the coop). I have no doubt that I could have turned the job over to her and she would have done just fine.

This isn’t a particularly profound post; we didn’t accomplish anything great or amazing, although the windows are snug now. I’m embarrassed to reveal to people how lousy I am with tools (I’m a really good cook, though!). But the situation reminded me of something: when most people think of homeschooling, they think of time at the kitchen table or at a desk, working through a curriculum. Yet homeschooling to me has little to do with methods or worksheets. It may at times include those things, but it isn’t about them. More important, by being present for all that life has to offer, my kids are picking up skills – often times skills that I don’t even know about – and they don’t need prepackaged lessons to learn them. My kids have been present for everything from restoring our 115-year-old farmhouse to building pens for chicks and raised beds for gardens; they’ve hung around watching or helping friends or carpenters with a bazillion little projects. They’ve been present in the day-to-day happenings in our home and community that most kids miss because they are in The School Building all day. My kids even went with me to vote yesterday and none of the ladies working the polls asked them, “Why aren’t you in school?!” Instead they commented positively on how important it was that kids be exposed to and start thinking about being involved in the election process.

During the window repair, I went from feeling annoyed to being appreciative, and I was given the opportunity to not only enjoy my daughter’s company but to reflect on our learning. I love how the pieces of our lives fit together, if we just let them. (Perhaps this post is a little bit profound, after all.) And somehow, I eventually got dinner on the table.

An Ease of Being Together

Today I found myself repeatedly reminded of why I homeschool.  It was a lovely day – sun shining, snow melting, chickens gleefully expanding their foraging into the newly uncovered grass – I have no doubt that, if I had been driving, every traffic light encountered would have been green.  Maybe I would even have been driving a new car!!  Have you had days that felt like that?  It was a day where the path behind me lined up perfectly with the path in front of me, and I was able to see it and marvel at this life.

Apparently my kids had a few discussions over the weekend and decided that they would like to make lunch together once a week. Without me.  They informed me of their decision today, their persuasive reasons at the ready if necessary to convince me.  It’s not a huge leap — they already help with most meals.  They set the table, chop vegetables, warm leftovers, and bake independently.  The new thing here is letting them handle raw meat, not an easy thing for me.  But they convinced me and immediately set to work (at 10:30 in the morning?!), consulting their Nourishing Traditions Cookbook for Children, taking stock of available ingredients in the fridge and cupboards, consulting with me regarding substitutions.  I found myself drawn into helping, so I decided to excuse myself from the room while remaining close enough to listen to their discussions.  It was such a joy to see them work together so well.  (And the turkey meatballs and homemade guacamole turned out really good, too!)

Later we went to the nursing home to visit our former neighbor, Beverly.  The kids got to know her when we lived in town.  They had a path through a wooded lot to her house, and, not being in school, could run over to her house at any hour and visit when they saw her outside.  Beverly is 95 now.  When we entered her room today she looked at me and said, “I don’t know who you are.”  But then she saw the children and her eyes sparkled in recognition; she was so pleased to see them.  We spent nearly two hours with her, chatting and putting a puzzle together.

Neither of these situations is remarkable, really.  And yet I felt a connection to my kids, and watched them connect to one another and to Beverly in ways that did feel remarkable.  I wondered, if they went to school all day, would they get along so well and work together so sweetly?  Would they have had time to develop such a special relationship with Beverly?  I found myself thinking about my first exposure to homeschooling.  I was working at a Shriner’s Hospital for Children in Spokane Washington in the early 90’s as a pediatric physical therapist.  I met so many wonderful children there, and so many caring parents.  But two of the the families that I met there stood out to me, and they were both homeschooling families.  I saw in them a relationship that was more connected than most families.  There was an ease of being together and an understanding of one another to an extent that I did not observe in other families.  They seemed to take such pleasure in being together.  I hoped that, should I ever have children, I would have that kind of relationship with them.  Today I realized that I do.  And while my past self may have thought about my future relationship with my children, I didn’t consider their relationship as siblings.  I never imagined the strong bond that my kids would develop with one another.  I can’t imagine them apart all day.  In fact, I can’t imagine them apart ever.  I am forever grateful that I am able to homeschool my children.

A Real Relationship Makes Us More of Who We Are

I recently picked up a copy of Time magazine in a waiting room and read a story about all this blogging that is going on.  The author of the article asserts that “people are being highly selective about what they share” and that “many of them are posting an impossibly pristine, accomplished version of their family lives on the web.”  (Time, 10/26/15 p. 39)  Well, I don’t want to be guilty of that!  I do tend to write when I am in a good mood, but today we had a rough morning and I have decided to do a bit of writing and sharing anyway.  It’s good to keep some balance and perspective.

I have written before that my relationship with my children is the foundation of my homeschool.  Today was one of those days when I needed to remind myself of that.  After a rough patch this morning with my daughter, I had to stop and remind myself of one of my favorite relationship quotes.  I’d like to share it with you here:

A real relationship is a dance among willing participants who give what they wish, as they wish, when they wish.  It inspires present and future intimacy, present and future understanding of the other and the self.  It nourishes those involved.  It makes us more of who we are.1

The quote is from Sun Magazine and it is actually about zoos and our (not-so-real) relationships with animals when we visit zoos.  But I find it to be relevant to human relationships, also.  Perhaps for relationships between people I would change the wording somewhat.  People have all kinds of relationships with one another and they are all ‘real’ in their own ways, from superficial acquaintanceships to close friendships to a variety of family relationships.  For me, I find that a relationship that makes me more of who I am is a rare gem and is a relationship worth a tremendous amount of my time, thought, and life-energy.  My relationship with my children definitely falls into this category.

Now, on to our rough morning, or, “what is Kim getting at here?”  One goal that my daughter has set for herself is to improve her spelling.  Today I felt bored with our usual spelling and writing activities and I decided (without her input) to write up a short assignment for her.  She was to ‘interview’ Destiny, our recently-adopted cat (“What are your favorite foods?”) and one of our chickens, Bertha, (“Where are your favorite places to scratch for bugs?”) and then write out their ‘responses’.  I liked my idea; I thought it was fun and would give her a chance to show how creative and funny she can be.  My daughter, however, did not like my idea at all!  She told me flat out that she did not want to do it, she requested a math assignment instead, and when I wouldn’t give her one she went into her room.  Wow, suddenly I was really crabby!  I confronted her.  I went through the usual “I need to see that you are learning” and “I am your mother and you need to do what I tell you to do” and “You know, I don’t ask that much of you and you sure have a lot of free time”.  I told her she could either do the assignment or do the dishes.  She did the dishes.   This type of exchange went on for a while.  Finally, I took a shower and had a cup of coffee and settled down.

What was going on here?  I realized that I needed my daughter to do something ‘schoolish’.  Why?  To assuage my own fears that she might not be learning the right things, fears conditioned by my own years of being schooled.  Also, I needed to be the authority figure, to have my daughter unquestioningly do what I told her to do.  I suppose I could have used some sort of coercion to force her to do my assignment, like take away a playdate or fun outing if she did not comply.  In school, I remember the teachers telling kids that they had better do the assignment or they would “get a big, fat goose egg”.  (It took me years to figure out that meant a zero.) But fortunately I remembered something crucial.  I remembered that my relationship with my children is the most important thing in my life, and their relationship with me, at least for now, is the most important thing in their lives.  And a good relationship, for us anyway, makes us more of who we are.  It does not diminish us.  It does not pit one will against the other.  I talked to my daughter.  I apologized.  So did she.  We spent some time together doing chores outside.  I gave up on the writing assignment and made my daughter a math worksheet, like she had requested.

Does this mean that unschooled children do whatever they want to do?  No.  For me it means that my unschooled kids have input into their learning, a LOT of input and control.  And that my need to see them learning needs to be in constant balance with maintaining a positive relationship.  Later my daughter and I talked about her spelling/writing goal that she had set for herself; it continues to be a goal for her.  She told me that, while I may be bored with her spelling assignments, she is not.  So we will keep things the same.  We have several activities that we do, but the most typical one is that I come up with three words for her to spell and she writes out a sentence or two using them.  She does this whether or not she feels much like writing.  She still has some control, though.  Tonight she told me, “When I’m in a good writing mood, mom, you can tell because I’ll write more and embellish more.  And when I’m not in a writing mood, I just write less.”

1 Thought To Exist In the Wild, by Derrick Jensen, Sun Magazine, November 2007 Issue 383

Remember to File Form PI-1206

This is a reminder that if you homeschool in Wisconsin, you are required to file form PI-1206 with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction by October 15 of each year (DPI form here).  For families new to homeschooling, you do not need to file this form until the year your child turns 6 on or before Sept. 1.  If your child is enrolled in public or conventional private school and you withdraw your child from school, you will need to file the form before you start homeschooling.  Please note:  if your child is enrolled in a virtual school, your child is not homeschooled and you do not need to file form PI-1206 for that child.  Wisconsin Parents Association has accurate information about filing this form here.  For parents of younger children, information about the 2010 Kindergarten Law can be found here.

Please remember that the language we use is important and helps us maintain our homeschooling freedoms.  By filing this form, we are simply reporting the enrollment of our homeschool.  We are not requesting permission to homeschool or registering or enrolling our child in our homeschool.  Our child is enrolled in our homeschool when we begin homeschooling – there is no enrollment form or additional form to complete.

How is it that I unschool yet feel comfortable signing a form that reads as follows:

Wisconsin Statute 118.165(1) specifies that a home-based private educational program must provide “… at least 875 hours of instruction each school year.” In addition, the program must provide a “… sequentially progressive curriculum of fundamental instruction in reading, language arts, mathematics, social studies, science and health.”

I am perfectly comfortable signing this form because I know that I have the right to raise and educate my children according to my principles and beliefs.  Children have learned for thousands of years without the imposition of compulsory schooling; indeed, schools as we know them have only been around for the past 100 years or so.  (To learn about the fascinating history of compulsory schooling in the U.S., please read some of John Taylor Gatto’s books.)  As homeschoolers, we can use a packaged curriculum, make our own curriculum, unschool, or use any combination of those in whatever way works for our individual children.  The Wisconsin statute does not require our children to spend equal amounts of time on reading, math, science, etc., so we can emphasize whatever we choose.

I have no doubt that my children receive well over 875 hours of instruction each year.  I know that my children are learning all the time as we talk, explore, and work together as a family.  They do not need to be sitting at a desk working through a pre-made curriculum for learning to take place (indeed, the statute simply says “instruction”, not ‘seat-work’ or ‘time at a desk’).  When we cook together and I share information with my children about a book that I am reading on the importance of Vitamin K2 and the foods that contain it (like eggs from our foraging chickens), my kids are learning more about healthy eating than they will ever learn from a unit on nutrition in a workbook manufactured by a publishing company.  When we spend a fall day hiking at Copper Falls and my children pause to read the signs along the trail about the geology of the area, they are receiving ‘instruction’ in science, no chalkboard, worksheet or test required.

When learning is viewed more broadly than time at a desk is it clear that we are covering all the required subjects and many more and that learning is taking place for far more than 875 hours per year.  And the requirement that my children be presented with a “sequentially progressive curriculum…?”  My children continue to learn very much as they did when they were young, before the ‘magical’ age of kindergarten.  For the first five years of their lives they absorbed vast quantities of information about our language, culture, and environment.  They learned things according to their own abilities, taking in what they understood for their level of development and building upon what they already knew; this type of ‘sequential, progressive’ learning continues today.  For example, my kids are two years apart and when I read aloud to them, they are each absorbing what they are ready for.  When they both read Little Women and Little Men a couple of years ago (and then had cute little book discussions with one another) I have no doubt that because of their age difference they understood and interpreted the books differently but at the level each child was ready for, not at the level that some curriculum publisher chose for them based on their age.  Honestly, is there any other way to learn?  Isn’t all learning sequential and progressive, even if we start in the middle of something?

Wisconsin has one of the most reasonable homeschooling laws in the country, but you are not legally homeschooling in Wisconsin unless you have filed form PI-1206.  Some of the information on the DPI website is not accurate, so if you need further information, please contact WPA.  Enjoy this beautiful, colorful fall and the start of this new school year!


A Fresh Start

It has been a summer of chores and chickens for my kids and me.  There have been many days when I have felt that my kids spend more time on chores than I am comfortable with.  But things have gotten easier in recent weeks.  Thanks to my boyfriend, Roy, the coop is up and, while not done, is usable.  Some of the chickens are in the freezer (I know, I know…).  We’ve pretty much given up on the garden, and the growth of our ridiculously large lawn has slowed and no longer requires regular mowing.  There is no snow to shovel, (yet).

Last week my son started two online courses that he has decided he wants to take (I always think it is funny that my unschooled son loves to take classes – I guess he knows how he learns best) and it forced us to start getting into a routine for the fall, or, as my son put it, a “rhythm”.  I like our rhythm.  We are home most mornings, working on projects or studying as we choose.  I have some rules that help guide us, like “No recreational reading, hiding in your room, or listening to music between the hours of 9 am and noon!”  Today as I packed a dinner to take along on our weekly trip to gymnastics in Superior, I stopped and watched my kids doing their after-lunch chores.  My son was folding laundry, my daughter sweeping the stairs, and for a brief moment my heart felt full and content.  My kids didn’t notice me watching them, and I smiled as I thought how nice it was that we all contribute to this family and to creating a comfortable home.  Sometimes there are too many monotonous chores that just have to be done, but chores can also be about learning life skills that will help my children live healthy lives after they leave home.  Today my daughter asked me “How did you get to be such a good cook, mom?”  She knows that I didn’t learn to cook when I was growing up.  I had to really stop and think before I could answer her.  I thought about all the hours I have spent reading and learning, asking questions and questioning what we are told about healthy eating.  I thought about all the mistakes I made along the way (stewed turkey for Thanksgiving, anyone?) and the number of times I radically changed our diets based on new information I was learning.  When it comes to cooking and nutrition, I now think for myself.  For my kids, folding and sweeping are just mundane chores, but learning to grow, raise, and prepare their own healthy food is important – as is learning to think for themselves.  It is this type of learning, learning for life, that forms part of the basis of my reasons for homeschooling.

I received an encouraging email today from Wisconsin Parents Association on this topic of finding our reasons for homeschooling.  For those of you who are not members and therefore did not receive the email, I’d like to share part of it with you here.  Pamela Roland spoke at the 2014 WPA conference on how to simplify and invigorate a homeschool.  Here is a quote from her speech and a link to the full text:

Some people go through a formal process of creating a family mission statement, but whether or not you’ve done that, I imagine that back when you made the choice to live your homeschooling life, you had a reason in mind. You may have wanted to create a life where family was at the center, or a life where there was time and space for the pursuit of things that were meaningful to your family. Maybe you wanted to make sure that you provided a life where faith was the cornerstone. You might have wanted your children to be surrounded by an inspirational environment or to be able to focus on the unique needs and abilities of each child without comparison. Maybe you wanted to focus on academic excellence. For most of us, there is a combination of things that make up our underlying purpose. Whatever is at the heart of your homeschool, see if you can articulate it. If it doesn’t seem clear to you, think about the most important things you do each day, each week, each year, and see how they reflect the values at the core of your homeschool. Once you have that purpose in mind, you may be able to see what you have done already that reflects that purpose. In fact, I’m sure that it can be found in your homeschool and in your life.  (More WPA conference speeches here – check out who gave the speech in 2002).

Good luck to you and your family as you head into a new year.

A Final Word About the 2015 WPA Homeschool Conference

I’ll leave you with one final issue to consider.  At the conference, I learned that there are over 19,000 homeschooled students in Wisconsin alone.  Assuming that any given family that homeschools has on average 3 children, that means that there are approximately 6300 homeschooling families in Wisconsin.  Of those, only 700 families are members of Wisconsin Parents Association.  If you homeschool in Wisconsin, please take the time to educate yourself on the history of homeschooling in Wisconsin.  (Brief version here to get you started). You can join WPA for just $35 per year.  While I understand that there are some families that are on a very tight budget, most of us can handle spending $35.  Join WPA and protect your freedom to have the choice to educate your children in the way that is best for them and for your family, free from unnecessary regulations and useless, hindering oversight*.  Seriously, read the history of homeschooling in Wisconsin.  Reading about the misuse of power that some families had to suffer through might just make your blood boil.

*The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction would love to regulate homeschoolers.  Do you really want the DPI to saddle you with requests like the one below? This is just one small example and comes from an actual letter received by a family prior to the passage of the Wisconsin law that protects our homeschooling freedoms:

The DPI responded to one family’s submission of their curriculum, schedule,
lesson plans, etc. with a two-page letter that included this: “The written curricular
materials should include philosophy, goals and objectives, instructional activities to
be used in attempting to attain the identified goals and objectives of the respective
subject areas, bibliography of print and non-print materials, and evaluation mea-
sures to be used for each subject.” The letter went on to require a detailed daily
schedule for each subject and copies of written curriculums for subjects including
art, music, and physical education. The letter also asked the family to explain the
parents’ work hours and relate these to the homeschool calendar and schedule.
The family had to show that their homeschool program would be “substantially
equivalent to that of public or private schools in the area of residence.” This letter
was just one in a series of DPI requests.