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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Homeschooling is so much work

In Hard Lessons from a Veteran Homeschooler, Larissa Phillips talks about the challenges of educating her two children in rural New York.

Many homeschooling families join co-ops that provide shared learning and social activities.

Her family started homeschooling, with children six and 11, to escape "assembly-line education."

Socially, they fit in best with the "groovy, artsy parents who had moved up from the city and were pursuing child-led unschooling," she writes, though they were unsure about letting children find their own paths with minimal guidance.

Other homeschoolers were "Waldorf-inspired families with a strong homeschool culture" and "Christian families who were mostly replicating traditional school at home."

Some families used online classes, a packaged curriculum or tried to do it all themselves, writes Phillips. "My goal was somewhere in the middle: to piece together an individualized curriculum using a mix of paid classes, parent-run cooperatives, and select purchased curriculum."

The first year, we drove an hour every Wednesday to attend a cooperative group that hosted a wide mix of homeschooling types. There were unschoolers, conservative Christians, and everyone in between. Here, parents taught classes that ranged from basic astronomy to self-portraiture to medieval studies. Those who weren’t teaching sat around knitting and chatting, often in separate groups, and everyone contributed to a giant soup pot to make a shared lunch.
. . . Later in the spring, the group’s brilliant older kids were in an all-teen performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, perhaps the most beautiful piece of theater I’ve seen.

It was wonderful -- but ephemeral. The incredible teens graduated and moved on. Some parents decided the drive was too long or the they wanted a different focus. In a rural area, "building and maintaining groups was Sisyphean labor. Groups fell apart or waxed and waned precariously and had to be rebuilt every year, even every semester."

She helped created a group for elementary-age children, but "it dissolved within the year because a kid hit another kid, and the moms argued about whether their children had to follow rules or not." As her children got older, they craved teenage friends. She started a weekly group for teens at a local "maker space" stocked with art supplies and woodworking tools.

We did discussion and debate and art and hired a biology teacher. An acting coach taught them to curse in Shakespearean dialect and made them memorize sonnets and perform parts of Macbeth for parents. I taught a literature class to a group of adolescent girls; they acted out Steinbeck’s The Red Pony, a haunting and beautiful interpretation. In the discussion group, a Christian girl and an LGBT girl debated abortion kindly and respectfully. A sullen blue-haired boy who’d left school in some disgrace blossomed with us.

But attendance was a struggle. Few did homework. Students lacked a "common foundation," she writes. "We always had about eight kids, twelve to sixteen years old, but they were different kids every semester and their skills and knowledge diverged wildly. I stopped being shocked by how many kids (both lifelong homeschoolers and kids who’d left school recently) couldn’t read well."

The group lasted for three years.

She joined another group which didn't tolerate bad behavior. "By then we were grateful for the rules and the structure. Like the other homeschooling collectives we’d joined, this one required parental presence and was a full day of classes taught by both parents and hired teachers."

"Our years of homeschooling produced so many beautiful moments, but what I remember most was scrambling constantly," writes Phillips. "It was so. Much. Damn. Work. And I haven’t even gotten into choosing curriculum or teaching math or the tests or the quarterly reports."

Her daughter went back to school in ninth grade, did well and will graduate from college a year early. She recalls both good and bad from her homeschool years.

For her son, who'd struggled in public school, homeschooling was no help. "He remained isolated, unregulated, and in need of more structure," his mother writes. He's now 24. She asked him what he thought of homeschooling. “One hundred percent a mistake,” he says. “I’m still catching up.”

More logistical support and less "utopian idealism" would have helped, writes Phillips.

According to the Census Experimental Household Pulse survey, the families of 1.8 million children made the switch to homeschooling the in the last three years: An estimated 4.3 million American children were homeschooled in 2022.

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