I've wanted to homeschool since the first time I met a homeschooling family, nearly 20 years ago. Since Gareth was born, I've read books from all across the political and pedagogical spectrum of the homeschooling movement, and some of my favorites have surprised me.
The first homeschoolers I met described themselves as "Unschoolers," committed to completely student-directed learning. The five kids in the family were free to immerse themselves in whatever new line of inquiry caught their fancy, and free to abandon whatever subject or method they thought wasn't working for them. Just for the record, for the sake of my Gravely Concerned Relatives, I am precisely not planning to Unschool--but since the Unschooling kids I've met over the years since have been, like that first family, extraordinarily intelligent, courteous, brave, and well-rounded, I decided to give the case for Unschooling a fair hearing.
The two best books I've found about why and how people Unschool are David Albert's And The Skylark Sings With Me: Adventures in Homeschooling and Community Based Education and Grace Llewellyn's The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education.
Albert's book is partly a memoir of his family's own homeschooling practices. It's a gentle, and often funny, account about what worked and didn't over the years when he and his wife helped and encouraged their daughters to school themselves. (Those daughters are now in a Ph.D. program at Princeton and an MBA program at Wharton, respectively, so the drifty hippy Unschooling of their youth seems not to have set them back.) There are some moments when Albert explains what he finds problematic in mainstream education, but there's nothing of the guilt trip here for parents who make other choices. It's one case study, revealed from several angles over decades.
Llewellyn's Teenage Liberation Handbook is an exuberant manifesto written for teenagers themselves, with no apologies to adults. For such a confrontational book, it's surprisingly joyful, probably because so much of the text is in the words of homeschooling kids and their parents. Llewellyn quotes from hundreds of letters and interviews to show as complete a cross-section of the Unschooling experience firsthand as possible. Full disclosure: about halfway through the book, I started skipping a lot of the letters from the kids and parents. For a teenage reader who needs not to feel alone, all those letters may be necessary, but for the adult reader more curious about Llewellyn's argument, the evidence may feel excessive. A lot of the young people in the book did time in public and private schools before they took up Unschooling, and the author herself used to teach in public schools, so there's a fair amount of anger over things that don't work so well about the dominant paradigm.
My surprise favorite among these books, though, is Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise's The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home. The authors are a mother-daughter team, explaining and refining the method the mother used for teaching her daughter (and other kids). Susan Wise Bauer grew up to be a professor at the College of William and Mary, where she found that even her brightest students often had no framework within which to organize all the stuff they knew. Without the classical tools her mother had given her, Bauer's students "have to dig with their hands." I've seen that with my own students, and--to overuse Bauer's metaphor--although my parents made sure I got a really good hand spade and knew how to use a posthole digger in case I ever found one, I regard Bauer's archaeological brushes and industrial backhoe with overwhelming envy. This book describes the education I wish in retrospect I could have had, the education I like to think I would have pursued for myself if I'd had the freedom to Unschool as a kid. Somewhere in Rockville, my parents are laughing their asses off, recalling how stubbornly I resisted various requirements. But if there had been more flexibility in how those requirements could be met... The thing about homeschooling, even relatively structured and systematic homeschooling like what Bauer and Wise advocate, is that a family can keep pursuing the same educational objective while switching methods, textbooks, times of day, study conditions, etc., until the content sticks. Bauer and Wise lay out a general philosophy of education, a detailed set of objectives for grades 1-12 with the rationale for their inclusion and sequencing, and recommended resources for meeting those objectives whatever the student's learning style or the family's political/religious leanings.
The book I'm most surprised to find myself recommending is Leigh Bortins's The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education. Bortins writes generously for an audience she knows spans the political spectrum, while spelling out her own position as a committed Christian and political conservative. It's an admirably concise book, very accessible--which is a remarkable accomplishment, considering how much ground she covers in her philosophy of education, suggested curriculum, and practical advice on preserving order, sanity, and happiness when you have school age children at home most of the day, most every day.
And that brings us to the question everybody likes asking homeschoolers: What about socialization? I'm so grateful to Rachel Gathercole for writing The Well-Adjusted Child: The Social Benefits of Homeschooling. She starts by pointing out the hidden assumption behind that question and its particular historical background. In our society, now and for the past few generations, school has taken up so much of our childhoods that we have come to see school not only as the central organizing principle of a normal childhood, but as defining childhood itself. Once you consider that compulsory schooling is a very recent development in the life of our species, and how broad the range of childhood norms is across history and cultures, what we take as normal in the US right now starts looking really weird. That, along with an examination of mainstream stereotypes about homeschooling and of the real variety and vibrancy of socialization available to homeschoolers, makes the book extremely helpful.
The two books I most fervently wish my worried, well-intentioned relatives would read cover to cover before they badger me again about my plans to homeschool my kids are Gathercole's The Well-Adjusted Child and Bauer and Wise's The Well-Trained Mind.
Oh, one last note from B&N about how to make sure that little percentage of your purchase gets credited to the Unitarian Montessori School, the only school yet that has been awesome enough to make me second-guess my crazy homeschooling plans:
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Our bookfair number is 10770006. You can use it with almost anything you might buy online from B&N, through June 7th.