Story and Photos By Richard Sachs
ach year in America, nearly 1.7 million children get their education at home. Why spend so much time and energy doing this when public school is available for everyone in this country?Many home-schooling families cite the poor quality of available local schools as their main reason. Others point to religious or moral objections to parts of a public school curriculum. Some reject evolution as it is taught today, or reject commonly read literature, such as Huckleberry Finn, Lord of the Flies and much of Ernest Hemingway, on philosophical or moral grounds. So it was refreshing to discover Eastman home-schooling families who teach at home for what they love about the process and what it does for their families rather than for what they wish to avoid. In fact, one Eastman family, already committed to home-schooling, chose to settle their family here because the Grantham Village School (GVS) had better standardized test scores than other alternative towns.
Ian and Jennifer Drummond, of the Spring Glen Special Place, love being able to let their children progress at their own rate, moving more slowly when working on skills they have less aptitude for, and sailing through material that comes more naturally. In this way, they are never on a schedule pegged at or a bit below the average learning speed of 25 or 30 other kids. The Drummonds use the Ambleside curriculum, one of many all-embracing school programs that follow a particular educational philosophy and structure and are widely available online. Among many alternative options are the Montessori, Waldorf, School-at-Home and Calvert programs.
The Ambleside curriculum was the late 19th century development of a pedagogue named Charlotte Mason. It prescribes appropriate learning goals for each grade and suggests readings in history, social studies and literature, with an emphasis on approaching some of the same material every few years, each time in a more advanced way, appropriate to a child’s age. Thus, American history or the Iliad could be taught with very simple and illustrated readings to young children and then repeated a few times during the 12 grades, each time with more challenging material. One of the hallmarks of the Ambleside philosophy is that after mastering a unit, a child must present the material back to his or her parents in some form, be it verbally, written, or in some pictorial or craft project. Catherine Drummond, age 7, proudly showed me a scroll on which she had drawn many of the bird species she was learning about.
Some home-schooling families do not commit to a single integrated teaching philosophy or technique. There are published guides showing what material is appropriate or necessary to be mastered at each grade level, so they can pick and choose their own materials. There is an endless array of teaching materials available on the internet and an exploding spectrum of available applications for tablet computers and smart phones. ABCmouse.com is a website that has all kinds of available learning games, printed materials and craft supplies.
Many families supplement instruction for children when they don’t feel that they have the personal resources to teach all subjects to their kids. In fact, Ian Drummond teaches at just such a school, where home-schooled kids can come for instruction in Latin or history or any subject in which parents don’t feel they could do as thorough a job as they would like. One Eastman family brings in a music teacher each week to teach the stringed instruments to their kids with an eye to creating a classical string quartet. Some kids join after school sports teams along with the public school students.
Catherine and David Drummond, age 4, are too young for a full school day of instruction. They participate in several 20-minute lessons, usually in the morning. Learning sessions will gradually lengthen as they mature. Most families follow the usual school calendar, skipping formal teaching on weekends and holidays and taking off the summer months as well. Though one Eastman mother, whose kids get tested formally outside the home, says she does a little consolidation teaching during the summer so the kids’ skills don’t backslide. Of course, any situation at any time can become a “teachable moment.”
Ezra Munholand, an engaging 9-year-old living in the Bright Slopes Special Place and taught at home with three younger siblings, was asked if he has friends who go to school every day.
“Yup,” he said.
“And who’s the lucky one?”
“I’m the lucky one.”
Community resources are available for home-schooling families. Billings Farm and Museum in Woodstock, Vt. the Vermont Institute of Natural Science in Quechee, Vt and the Montshire Museum in Norwich, Vt. all run programs for groups. The public libraries and public schools can lend books and other supplies. Some families enjoy getting together in a weekly support group for younger, home-schooled kids and their parents, meeting at a dance studio in West Lebanon. When asked, the local town historical societies will make presentations for home-schooled children as well as for public school groups.
Home-schooling regulations vary by state. New Hampshire has few requirements, but requires that any private instruction be monitored by professionals. This can be as simple as personal interviews and review of accumulated portfolios demonstrating appropriate progress or could involve regular formal testing of the kids, or even some of each. The Munholand children are tested twice a year in reading and math at GVS.
Home-schooling is not for everyone. It requires time, organization, attention to detail and incredible discipline. But those who do it successfully say it brings them the satisfaction of family bonding and the reward of a personally controlled, individualized, high quality education for their children.