What Does the First Day of School Look Like in Homeschool?

September marks the return of the school season, but how is it different when your home is the classroom? Check out this homeschooler's firsthand account.

It’s that time of year again. The center aisles of stores are filled with notebooks, pens, and erasers, while Facebook feeds are filled with cute kids in new clothes posing on front steps for back-to-school photos.

As of fall 2015, we’re entering our 16th year of schooling, but none of our four children have ever set foot in a classroom. This year, I’m down to just two, and the process looks very different than it did 10 years ago.

A Matter of Educational Philosophy

So, what does starting the school year look like for families that homeschool? There’s not a single answer to that question, and those who pose it often don’t understand that the biggest difference between homeschooling and institutional schooling is not location, or methodology, but philosophy.

It's not that we’ve traded rows of desks for the kitchen table, a minivan for the big yellow bus, or 25 kids for four. It’s that we believe education can be something entirely different, and more fulfilling, than what institutional schools have within their power to offer.

Because homeschooling is such a personalized endeavor, there’s no way to paint it with one broad brush. You can’t define what the first day of school looks like for all families that homeschool, but in general, it’s safe to say that it’s a lot like last Tuesday, only, perhaps, with more books.

Education Every Moment, Every Day

Education at home doesn’t happen between bells, but falls neatly into the cracks of real life in action. For our family, this meant reading poetry at the breakfast table, reading history over lunch, and a chapter or two of good literature after dinner. Mornings were for book work. Afternoons were for projects and lifestyle learning. Wednesdays we took entirely “off” from our regular schedule for field trips and adventures, music and art lessons, or laundry and grocery shopping.

During the seven years that we spent traveling full-time with our kids (for the express purpose of their educational benefit), we designed their curriculum around each journey. We replaced history and geography texts with long slow meanders through Vietnam, the occasional school field trip for a special exhibit with visits to every major museum in Europe, and listening to recordings in a language lab with Spanish fluency developed on the ground over several winters in Central America.

This year, with just two high school-aged kids left at home, they are, largely, creating their own paths. One of the most exciting parts of educating our kids outside of the system has been watching them take control of their own destinies and propel their learning process forward.

This year, my 15-year-old has it in his head to return to Guatemala, alone, for a month or two, to intern with a nutrition project that he supports there. He’ll continue his study in Spanish, take his book work with him, and do humanitarian aid work that’s important to him with kids who have become his friends over the winters of our travel. In his mind, education isn't for the classroom — it’s to make us useful in the world, and what better way to become educated than to already start making an impact? My two kids who are in university are pursuing their passions and applying what they learned in our living rooms, scattered around the planet, to their bigger dreams of humanitarian aid work and charting their own course.

Understanding What You Are Seeing

If you live next door to a family that homeschools, you may notice their children outside playing midmorning on a Wednesday. Or, you may see them doing yard work before your kids are off the bus. It may appear to you that they aren’t getting enough book time. You may wonder how it’s possible for kids who are ALWAYS out goofing around to be making sufficient progress on their very important academic work. It may seem “neglectful” to you for them to appear to be unsupervised as much as they are. It may feel like there is no structure and as if the parents are using “homeschooling” as an excuse to do nothing at all.

I encourage you, in that case, to go next door and have a friendly conversation with the parents, not about methodology and why their kids are out playing, but about philosophy, and what they believe about education. There are many philosophies of education, and some may include giving ample time for play and exploration to delay academics for the express purpose of improving a child’s cognitive capacity for academic study later that day or week.

Don’t assume that dirty kids in the front yard means an inattentive mother. Sometimes what appears to be a waste of time, is, in fact, carefully crafted learning time. Give that family the benefit of the doubt. Most families who are educating differently have a thoughtful plan and are intentional about their process, even if it looks very different from what you are used to.

Our “First Day”

This week, we have a family with seven children under 14 years old staying with us. They homeschool their children as well. This is the kids’ first international trip; they are visiting our cottage in Canada. We’ve been busily trying all things “Canadian," discussing the international boundary, having a look at the windfarm on our island, visiting the old British Fort, touring the original capital of Canada, and taking boat tours through the 1000 islands region to visit castles. The kids are fishing and sailing, studying the invasive species that hang out under our dock, and discussing conservation efforts. In between, there has been ice cream.

They’ve helped feed all of my probiotic creatures in the kitchen: kefir, sourdough, ginger bug, and kombucha. They’ve fed the cows, tested the apples on every tree to see if they’re ripe yet, ridden bicycles 29 miles in one day, and learned about General James Wolfe, for whom our island is named. Tomorrow, we're going to sail out to Hinkley Flats and go snorkeling on the wrecks of old ships left from the days of sailing commerce on the Saint Lawrence River. School is, most definitely, in session.

The Spirit of Summer in our Schooling

One thing that I love about the homeschool community, and one thing I think the traditional educational community has lost sight of, is the understanding that education and adventure need not be mutually exclusive. The idea of the end of summer being the end of the fun, that the return to the classroom is a return to the dull, mundane world of “schooling,” the image of bored kids looking longingly out windows at the real world — these are an unnecessary sadness to me. And our continued adventures are the aspects of beginning a new homeschool year that are least understood by regular schoolers.

As homeschoolers begin the school year, expect things to look very much the same as they have over the summer. Expect kids to be outside adventuring. Expect dirt and yelling. Expect roving groups of kids asking a million questions, and parents peppered between them handing out books and investigative materials. Expect projects that are kind of messy. Expect interested intelligence. Expect kids who don’t always know how to line up, form a circle, raise their hands, or wait for someone else to direct their educational process, but who do know how to learn anywhere, view everyone as a fellow student and a potential teacher, understand that the world is their classroom, and remain excited about discovery.

Instead of asking why they aren’t in school, why not celebrate their expansive educations with another question, one that I think we should be extending to all children, regardless of where and how their formal education is taking place: “What are you learning that you’re excited about today?”

Interested in trying homeschooling out with your children? Check out this article about five steps to get started homeschooling.

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