Thursday, October 17, 2013

Upstate NY visit: Homeschooling!

For years I’ve been wishing to visit family friends who home school and learn more about their thoroughly intentioned choices. I timed it perfectly with the riotous fall colors, where my mother and I spent days experimenting with new ways to process the bumper crop of apples from her modest orchard (I made apple cider in a food processor! Just puree and strain through cheesecloth! Delicious!). In between canning apple sauce & jam, I visited two nearby families and was very inspired by what I saw. Enjoy!

Home School 1: Organic Farm Life                       
Early afternoon, I pulled into the farmyard after waiting for a few beautifully plumed guinea hens to stalk out of my way. Two little tow-headed boys raced around on bikes, out-doing each other with tricks. (I later saw their father grab the smallest bike and ride it in a quick circle, to the delight of the boys—“Do a wheelie, dad!”— instead, he hopped off the tiny thing, laughing).

The mother/teacher, who I’ll call K., graciously invited me to visit their farm and her “classroom”. A successful and eager student through an advanced degree, she opted to home school not out of a negative experience with schools, but rather as both a practical choice to enable more time with her children, as well as a desire to surround them with as much loving care as possible. As successful entrepreneurs and farmers, she and her husband are at their busiest during the summer when schools are out, and have the most free time during the winter, when the children would otherwise be in classes.

The school day starts at 8am around a table in the family’s cozy living room. At noon, the four children are free to explore on their own. On the afternoon I was visiting, the oldest girl, a 5th grader, was snuggled on the couch deeply engrossed in her book, the two boys were practicing tricks on bikes, and the littlest girl wanted desperately to tag along with us, but K. convinced her to go spend time with the horses.

In this 4-hour block of daily lessons, the children follow a Waldorf-inspired home school curriculum called Live Ed. The curriculum maps out lessons for each child, as well as a chunk of math & spelling words for the week for the older children. Each child has a blackboard to keep track of their work, chores, etc, as well as various notebooks to organize their different lessons. On Wednesdays, the three youngest head out with a group of 14 other homeschoolers with an outdoor adventure group, exploring the county by rock-climbing, canoeing, and other escapades. During this time, K. has the time to focus more closely on studies with her eldest.

We spoke a bit about the vast range of the structures possible in homeschooling. Some families have very structured lessons but complete time flexibility: children are free to complete their workbooks, online lessons, etc. at their leisure. Others have structured times for home school lessons, but the lessons themselves are completely open-ended, following the curiosity of the child. K.’s approach is fairly structured both in terms of time and content, in that children have a four hour daily block for lessons, and she follows a curriculum. That said, she clearly has tremendous flexibility to tailor lessons to each child’s needs.

We were on the same page about easing back on the push for aged-based milestones. K.’s one big regret was giving into the pressure of reading too early with her oldest child. After a family member trained as a reading specialist offered to work one on one with the oldest girl when she was 5, K. gave in (generally with a Waldorf approach, children begin reading much later, around 2nd grade). The result was four years of “I can’t do it, I’m not a reader,” and it was incredibly painful. Happily, the child is now reading avidly (she’s the one I saw tucked away with a book), yet this lesson has stuck: pressuring a child too strongly and too early can result in insecurity and pressure that are antithetical to learning. 

I learned that in New York State, homeschoolers are required to take the same standardized tests as their public school peers, beginning in 4th grade. The 5th grader took the exams last year for the first time and came in on all subjects at an 8th-11th grade level. With one exception: she (the daughter) was horrified to find that she was spelling at a 2nd grade level. It did encourage her to redouble efforts on spelling, a subject that doesn’t come easily to her, and as she did exceedingly well on everything else, it wasn’t a crushing blow.  

Some friends of K.’s in the homeschooling community are intentionally not teaching their children to type or use computers because they don’t want their child to be stuck at a desk job later in life. However, K. wants to keep all options open. While the children currently use no media whatsoever (except for a little football around Superbowl season), K. wants them to be ready for college-level work by age 18, which will involve some computer literacy and typing skills later on.

Like myself, K. has many questions as answers about the “best” way to educate. She is scrupulously thoughtful about the choices she makes as a teacher/mother. It’s plain to see that there’s a lot of joyful and authentic learning and time spent in the family and on the farm, and she has gives herself completely as a teacher & support to her children. It’s inspiring.


  1. Hey Dorna!
    So funny you should post this, because just a week ago I left high school so I could live a life in which I could choose what I learn, how much I learn it, and when! I'm almost 17 so I'm doing the work as opposed to my mum in directing my education. I'm going to be going to a Self Directed Learning Centre for teens in Ottawa called Compass ( It was a really hard decision for me, seeing I am in my last year of high school, I have a lot of friends, and I am involved in student council. Before starting school I thought that this intense involvement would make me happier because I was choosing so much of what I do. I found however, that all my time was taken up with doing homework for my other classes, and that I couldn't really dedicate myself to anything I cared about. This was frustrating, and something I had been experiencing since middle school. I was always either doing homework, procrastinating doing homework, or if I was doing something I enjoyed, I had this tiny voice in the back of my head telling me that I should be doing homework.
    I'm not new to homeschooling however, until grade 4, I was unschooled. To anyone who is unfamiliar with this term, I basically played with my toys, climbed trees, went on nature walks, and took french and swimming lessons once a week. When I got to school, I really wasn't behind any of my peers. I think that young children - well everyone - needs time to play and explore and learn naturally, instead of in desks for long periods of time. And teenagers have so many natural interests and curiosities, so many talents, that they too should be given the space to learn what they are interested in with time and trust.
    Thanks for your wonderful blog!


    1. Hi Willow! That's so exciting! Congratulations on your decision and I look forward to learning more during my visit to Ottawa in February! All the best.