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Recently, presented with a question we thought many people might find relevant, we decided it might be fun to use it to kick off a new “Ask Skepchick” column for the blog. So here goes.
I’m thinking of homeschooling my 5th grader but am a little
put off by the religious overtones of home schooling. Any ideas of
non-religious, free-thinking approaches to homeschooling? I
appreciate any input. Thanks.
To help answer this question, I contacted Jenny Wadley, secular homeschooler extraordinaire, and she very kindly obliged me with an interview.
Why did you choose to homeschool your child?
A combination of my son’s personality and needs, my husband’s negative experience with the public school system in Florida, and a philosophical problem with some of the methods of public schooling in Florida, including its emphasis on standardized testing. My son is a seemingly-intelligent, energetic and inquisitive child. He also has a lot of energy. He learns best when he can talk, move his body around, and experience things first-hand. Those types of learning experiences are difficult to achieve in a classroom of 20 children, with one teacher trying to make sure all students learn to a minimum standard.
My husband has a high I.Q. and ADD. His public schooling experience was frustrating, to say the least, and it led to a rejection, on his part, of formal schooling. Having noticed some similarities in our son’s early learning styles and behaviors, my husband was concerned that our child’s natural love for learning would be replaced with a resentment of the restrictions placed on his body and mind in a large classroom.
Finally, although I am a satisfied product of the Florida public school system, I have major philosophical problems with the current climate of education here. There is a huge emphasis on testing, and on teaching students to pass the test, not to think critically and learn organically. My experience in public school was improved by my inclusion in the Gifted Program, so I had the small group, critical-and-creative-thinking experience I would prefer for my child.
At this point, our homeschooling experience has been rewarding for our child. We plan to continue. However, we constantly evaluate whether this is the best method for his education, and we keep ourselves open to other options as he grows and his needs change.
What type of homeschooling do you use? Is there an organization that oversees what you’re doing (setting curricula, administering grades, etc)?
Homeschooling requirements vary from state to state and sometimes by county within states. We live and homeschool in the state of Florida, in Seminole County, and our requirements are few. When I chose to homeschool my son, I had two choices – I could either register him with the county as a homeschooled student, and comply with all requirements put forth by the county/state to ensure successful completion of each school year, or I could enroll him in an “umbrella school”. Umbrella schools are largely online private schools. They vary greatly in what services they provide, from a full curriculum complete with teacher-supervised testing and tutor sessions, to a simple tracking and reporting structure that allows you to submit you child’s “attendance” and grade records.
Many secular homeschooling families I know choose to use an umbrella school so that they do not need to bother with the state requirements. However, I did not choose this path, because according to the state, my child would be a private school student, not a homeschooler. That meant he would not have access to the resources of the public school system (special education testing, special needs accommodation, extracurricular activities). But, more importantly, it meant that my son wasn’t counted in the ranks of homeschoolers. I’m proud of our decision to homeschool in a secular manner, and I want to be counted as a successful secular homeschooling family.
Since I chose to register my son as a homeschool student, I must meet the requirements each year to demonstrate his successful completion of a year’s worth of progress (note that he does not have to achieve all of the state standards for each grade and subject area, but he must show appropriate progress). The State of Florida requires that I do one of three things: 1) Keep a portfolio of work samples, academic achievements, list of books read or used, field trips, etc., and have the portfolio reviewed by a certified teacher at the end of the year to prove progress; 2) Have the student successfully pass a standardized test; or 3) Have the student evaluated by a licensed professional (psychologist, etc.)
I chose option 1. I keep work samples, a list of our activities and materials, and a diary of sorts, of the homeschool work we do each week. At the end of the academic year, I have a certified teacher review the portfolio and interview my son briefly, then she fills out an evaluation form I submit to the county.
Within those guidelines, I am able to freely choose what and how I teach my child. I can use any curricula, or none at all. I have no requirements as to hours spent on schoolwork or subjects covered. In my case, this freedom is essential, as I generally use a child-led, eclectic, unschooling method with my first grader. We do not use a complete curriculum for any subject, though we do have a curriculum for math that we supplement with other materials. We use some workbooks, but more often we use literature, reference materials, and resources available at the library or in the community to develop unit studies around the subjects that interest my son. For example, when he was fascinated by mummies, we found some internet sites that showed the steps of mummification, read several books about Ancient Egypt, did a science experience that involved making an apple mummy, did a couple of art projects involving mummies, and I led a co-operative class on mummies for our local homeschooling group.
I look up the Sunshine State Standards online, which clearly state what the State of Florida thinks each child should learn in each grade. I use that list to make sure we’re not missing big things. We also take a lot of field trips, and we do a lot of life learning – Allowance math, grocery store sorting, LEGO play, reading signs, cereal boxes, and everything we see. We read books every day – my son reading independently and parents reading aloud. We read classic literature in addition to comic strips and children’s books. This week we’ve read The Wizard of Oz, Calvin and Hobbes, and Bunnicula, to list just three.
We also participate in local groups. We are active members of a secular homeschooling group in our county that organizes weekly co-operative classes and frequent and field trips, organized by parents. Our son also participates, through that group, in a program called Odyssey of the Mind, which has students use critical and creative thinking skills to solve long-term and short-term problems.
I realize that a great deal of my response to this question is specific to my geographical location, so it may not be helpful, but I give you the information as an example of our situation.
Are there any good secular homeschooling organizations out there?
There are, but I have found that they are often a bit hard to find. It really depends on where you are located. Our area has at least four local secular groups, organized by parents, and at least one statewide organization (SHEAF – Secular Home Educators Association of Florida). I’m aware of national organizations that are secular in nature, such as Unschooling America, but I may not have all of the latest information. Since my son is still quite young, and we have excellent local groups, I have not sought out all of the resources I will likely need as he grows. However, a quick google search for “secular homeschooling” brought me to some interesting resources.
Thanks again, Jenny, and thanks to Amy for the great question.
Some relevant links:
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