Advocates for Home Education in Massachusetts, Inc.

Give and Let Give: Homeschooling from the Ground Up

SETI Exhibit at Science Fair

By Sophia Sayigh

Twelve years ago, my then 14-year-old son was in a book group, and explored math and foreign languages at home. He volunteered at the library, American Friends Service Committee, and Food Not Bombs. He took piano and guitar lessons, studied music theory, and took a jazz class at the local community college. He played in a couple of bands and was starting to learn about modern digital multi-track recording.

My 11-year-old daughter read a lot, took violin lessons, sang in a chorus, and took a dance class. She created a line of creams and balms to sell at the homeschool craft fair. She started volunteering to take care of foster kittens and took a workshop at Middlesex Community College to get certified in American Red Cross Pet First Aid.

A lot has changed in the last dozen years. And a lot has stayed the same.

Today my son freelances as a Recording Engineer in New York City. My daughter works as an RN at UMass Memorial Medical Center.

Twelve years ago AHEM was started on the floor of an indoor gym that parents chipped in to rent so families from our local support group had a space to regularly hang out in when it wasn’t playground weather.

It was empowering for us, starting an organization from the ground up, creating a vision and working to make it reality. It was empowering for our kids, especially our daughters, to see their mothers make it happen. I remember mine, returning from the AHEM PO Box with a thick pile of envelopes, grinning, Mom, you created a monster! But then, we did a lot of starting stuff and making things happen ten or so years ago.

The founders of AHEM were lucky enough to start homeschooling (for me, 20 years ago) in a world where we desperately needed each other. If our kids wanted or needed something, we made it happen.

Milva and I met in the mid-1990s when her daughter, then 11, and my son, then 7, both went to weekly small group meetings to learn Italian with a native speaker. Families opened their homes for weekly science clubs, knitting circles, reading groups, you name it. The Puddlejump Players, a homegrown group, put on an annual play for years, involving dozens of homeschoolers. My kids were never in the shows, but we went to the performances to support their friends’ efforts. Just like we went to the homeschoolers’ Fall Fair year after year. I remember the first one we went to when my kids were seven and four, and how inspired and excited they were by all the child entrepreneurs there.

My kids enjoyed history and geography fairs, science fairs, craft clubs, book groups, math classes, bands, and more, all activities and events that I or other mothers and fathers organized, or that the children organized themselves. As with AHEM, we made stuff happen.

Today, homeschoolers represent a market to museums and businesses. Judicious use of these offerings can be a wonderful way to enrich your child’s life. But buyer beware—when I started homeschooling, we had to ask if a museum or wildlife sanctuary would be willing to accommodate a group of homeschoolers at off hours. As our numbers expanded, everyone got the idea, and now there are offerings for homeschoolers everywhere you look. Some places have regular classes during school hours. Some organizations sponsor ongoing “homeschooler” days, with reduced admission and special activities. Even retailers are opening their stores to offer classes for homeschoolers during the school day.

What might be lost by spending some bucks, and spending the day in the car driving from one activity to the next? Overcommit to prepackaged opportunities, and you might not have the time to spend a day in pajamas reading and cuddling, or the space in a day to make a serendipitous discovery born of nothing-to-do, or to experience a lush afternoon extending to sunset hanging out at Walden Pond in the spring or fall, when everyone else is cooped up in school. Or lingering at the park after a Frisbee game, or playground hopping week to week, or hosting a potluck or meeting at your house. Organizing events or get-togethers yourself is one of homeschooling’s best kept secrets.

If you didn’t sign up for those pre-packaged classes, you might do what we had to do—put time and energy into a home grown experience for your kids and other local homeschoolers. Then what happens? Your child meets other kids who share his or her interest, and you make connections with other adults who are homeschooling their kids. Those parts of homeschooling were, for my family, very important parts, because we built a community of people who cared about each other and were there for each other, and that’s what it’s all about really, right?

Ten years later, that’s what abides.

Our lives are happening now, not something we’re getting ready for later. So are children’s lives. That remains one of the things I am most grateful for—my children living their lives at every age, blossoming in their own time, having the time to figure out who they are and build relationships and connections over years.

Those relationships weren’t just with other kids. Some of the people they count as friends today are the other adults in their lives who took an interest in them, mentored them, looked out for them, taught them, encouraged them, advised them, and cheered them on. In his book The Healing Wisdom of Africa, Malidoma Patrice Somé talks about mentoring: “Recognizing the presence of genius… in a young person… begins with paying careful attention to the young person. One becomes a mentor when one is found by a pupil. We need to know each other in order for such opportunities to present themselves.” I would add that children need the time and freedom to find and choose their mentors.

Somé says that people must work at becoming better connected to each other by giving: “Someone who believes that community exists in order to provide for his or her needs without having to give anything in response will probably never find the right community…” Homeschooling creates the opportunity to give to others. In so doing, we become better connected to them, and thereby gain witnesses to our whole selves as individuals, which is the ultimate fulfillment. In a world rife with networks, online and off, homeschooling provides us, and especially children, with the landscape to be whole people in the real world, not fragments, and from that to reap the benefits of community.

So while AHEM was created to protect our right to homeschool independently, the act of homeschooling is anything but independent. Homeschooling is more than just freedom to learn. It’s more than just awesome classes or innovative learning centers. It’s time with family. It’s building close relationships with your kids. It’s going through real life ups and downs with the support of your friends, your community. It’s kids finding their own mentors by virtue of living an authentic life. Homeschooling encompasses challenges like the individuality of homeschoolers (often all we have in common is the fact that our kids aren’t in school) and geography (we don’t all live on the same street or even in the same town). But homeschooling also gives us the gift of time, if you’ve resisted overscheduling, and the opportunity to give. These things offer chances to forge real community.

Make it a priority to schedule time to spend with others, to get to know each other. Don’t focus solely on getting children to and from classes and activities. Build relationships with other families, and remember that building meaningful ones takes time. Use existing networks like e-lists, but don’t think you’ll find a ready-made community. Ready-made communities don’t exist, they are an illusion. The only way you’re going to get community is to build it one person at a time from the ground up.

Although I had no idea what would be most important to me in choosing a homeschooling lifestyle, in retrospect, I can see clearly that a hugely valuable part of homeschooling isn’t about the education. Some of my fondest memories are of the get-togethers or groups we created ourselves.

The weekly park day, which we pretty much never missed, and which, for me, evolved from playground hopping with a five-year-old and a toddler, to watching my 6'2" son leap for a Frisbee at practice with the homeschool high school Ultimate team.

The circle of moms on the beach at Walden shooting the breeze on all topics, and when I say all, I mean all, my son sitting off to the side, comfortably fingering his guitar, unfazed. Probably no better education for a young man.

The relationships built in book groups with both of my kids and their cohorts, the shared experience of reading the same book at the same time, my delight in rereading a classic, and experiencing it through their eyes, too. Finding out that it meant a lot to them to be there, enough that they had dragged themselves out of bed and slogged through Melville’s whales, whales, whales to be a part of discussing Moby-Dick with our group, or wrapping their brains around Morrison’s Beloved.

Marking the passage of time through community rituals like May Day, the craft fair, presentation nights, or potlucks.

And of course the precious time spent with my children: Tapping the maple tree in the back yard and spending the day boiling the gallon of sap down to a tablespoon of syrup. Getting up at three a.m. to make hot chocolate and head out past city lights to better view a meteor shower with my son during his outer space obsession. Seeing my daughter enthralled after making water explode in our home chemistry lab, or hanging out on the couch with her, just being with her, as she fussed with her math, that she was determined to get the better of in order to further her goal of going to college.

When our family decided to homeschool, it wasn’t about running from school, although there was an element of anxiety about school. When our son was two, out of curiosity I picked up Teach Your Own by John Holt. Holt described a lot of what had been my school experience as a “good” student for more than half my life at that time. But he also described something I was seeing with my own eyes: the little explorer and scientist, the small boy who very much wanted to fit into the tribe, very much, as John Holt put, it a “loving, kind, serious and purposeful” little boy.

So the choice to homeschool, was, for us, a choice for something. A choice to preserve and build on our child’s curiosity and love of exploring and learning. A choice to continue to put time as a family high on our list of priorities.

In my work with AHEM, I hear from a lot of sad and panicked parents who have children suffering in school and are looking for an alternative. Their child’s needs are not being met, and/or their child is being abused and bullied by peers and/or teachers and administrators. The number has grown over the years. An August 2013 survey from the National Center for Education Statistics found that, Ninety-one percent of homeschooled students had parents who said that a concern about the environment of other schools, meaning safety, drugs, or negative peer pressure, was an important reason for homeschooling their child.

What this means is that for more parents, homeschooling is not their first choice. They don’t choose it because the homeschooling lifestyle appeals to them. They choose it because they are trying to save their child any way they can.

These families come to homeschooling looking for a lifeline, and many do not have a clue what it entails or what they are getting into. They might actually have no idea that the homeschool lifestyle can look like what I have described. They want somewhere besides school to put their kids, and in our free market economy, options are springing up for them, just as the museums and nature sanctuaries sprang to offer classes to homeschoolers in the last decade.

In the interest of protecting the right to independently homeschool, hopefully we can consider whether an offering is necessary or desirable when looked at in the context of our long term goals for our children and families.

Learning centers, homeschool resource centers, self-directed learning centers are springing up all over. They go by many names and take on many forms, from places with an à la carte menu of groups and classes, to stand alone buildings with paid staff where you can drop off your child all day. Some are open a few days a week; others are open Monday through Friday.

A learning center can provide a crutch or stepping stone for families entering a new world that they know nothing about. But keep it in perspective: A learning center, no matter how wonderful, is only one experience out of many at the disposal of homeschoolers. Employ it as a tool if you find it useful, but don’t mistake it for more than it is — a network for sure, and in many cases, a school in different garb.

The use of museums, businesses, and learning centers that market to homeschoolers can drain homeschoolers’ time and motivation for putting into the kind of community building I have described. It’s so easy for newbies to get scooped up by exciting programming and glossy packaging that they never find out about everything else that’s possible, and in the long run, unwittingly change the face of homeschooling from its vast diversity and possibilities to a face that looks a lot more like school. Maybe alternative school, but still, school.

There are some things—family time, community, freedom—that are so true and basic, they are worth protecting and holding onto. It used to be we didn’t have a choice but to nurture those things, and now I know how lucky we were.

Sophia Sayigh is a co-founder of Advocates for Home Education in Massachusetts and author of Unschoolers. This piece was adapted from a keynote she delivered at AHEM’s 10th Anniversary Conference in October 2013.