Wednesday, September 14, 2011

How An Education is Really Free

In most places kids are either going back to school soon or already have. Yesterday, Facebook was lit up with the back-to-school discussion. I even saw one person comment that it was her "favorite day of the year", I assume because her children were back in school, and she didn't have to worry about what to do with them anymore.

I don't talk a lot about our homeschooling. It's just a part of our every day life, at this point - one of those things that we just do - like our local diet.

If my girls went to public school, Big Little Sister would be starting high school this year. She has never gone to a regular school, and her two younger sisters haven't either. All three girls have enjoyed all sorts of classes, both indoors and out, both formal (with worksheets and homework) and informal, and they are, of course, familiar with the whole school concept, because they have friends in school, or because they've streamed some television series on Netflix and the kids on the show go to school. Interestingly, the only part of school any of them have ever expressed interest in is riding the school bus, and so when they were very young, we took to calling our SUV our "home"school bus ;).

The general demographic of homeschoolers, at least here in Maine, is a two-parent, one-income, mid-to-upper middle class family with at least one parent who has a college degree. The decision to homeschool can be motivated by religious ideals, but more often, it's not. More often the decision to homeschool has more to do with a very strong dissatisfaction with the public school system. I see a lot of parents concerned about issues like bullying that their children have experienced, and so those children are pulled out of school and homeschooled.

As parents we want the best for our children - obviously. Unfortunately, a lot of the opportunities that school kids get as part of the school offerings, we, homeschoolers have to pay to get. Paying for classes and supplies can be incredibly expensive ... but it doesn't have to be.

Over the past few years, the common theme among many of the homeschooling families I know has been the "money" issue. Classes for homeschoolers can be rather pricey, especially if there are multiple children in a family. A ten week science class can, easily, cost $160 per kid. When one considers that's only $16 per child for a class that's two or three hours long each day it meets, it's not such a bad deal, but when one realizes that the payment in full is expected at the start of the class and one has three children who will be in attendance, it can be a lot all at once. We've had more than our fair share of sticker shock ;).

Classes are a popular choice among homeschoolers, but sometimes the cost (and/or scheduling difficulties) sends the parents looking for alternatives.

One alternative some parents choose is a packaged curriculum, of which there are, quite literally, hundreds to choose from (a Google search for "homeschool curriculum" yields 2.2 million hits). And the choices can be overwhelming. Do I want a "cover school"? Do I just want the materials? Do I want a religious-based curriculum or a secular curriculum? Do I want just math or science or reading ...? It can be a lot, and in the end, even the materials for one single subject can be rather expensive (one popular math program homeschoolers often use costs $70 for the "starter set", and that's only good for one year. The Algebra II set for just the teacher materials and the student books is almost $100).

What's a homeschooler to do?

Like all parents, homeschoolers really do want the best possible education for their children, which is why we decided to homeschool, but we don't do it without a great deal of trepidation and questioning of our ability to impart all of the wisdom our children may need to gain over the span of their "school years." Ask any homeschooler. She'll tell you. It was a tough decision.

And these leaner times don't make it any easier. As more people turn to homeschooling as an option, the first thing they'll need to know is that homeschooling doesn't have to be expensive. It doesn't require lots of classes, and most states don't require a packaged curriculum.

Homeschooling for free is possible, but it also takes some work to find the resources.

The Internet is an invaluable resource for homeschoolers. Everything ... I mean E.V.E.R.Y.THING ... can be found on the Internet, and there is a plethora of free lesson plans, worksheets, whole books (many of the "classics" are available for free online, as they are not subject to "copyright" laws that prohibit scanning because of their age - check out Project Gutenberg), audiobooks, free online courses for everything from herbal beauty (my teenage daughter took this course) to foreign language. A homeschooler could cover every subject for free just from doing an Internet search (and wading through the millions of potential websites ;).

There are other products useful to homeschoolers that are also free. One of my favorite "free" online resources for homeschoolers is this record keeping software called Homeschool Tracker, and I've been using it for eight years. The Basic Edition is still free.

True, neither computers nor the Internet are "free" ... although, through freecycle free computers can be found, and access to the Internet is "free" at any place that has a WiFi connection ;).

But what if one does not have unlimited access to the Internet?

The most obvious free resource, and one that's already heavily used by most homeschoolers I know, is the library. There are all sorts of treasures to be found there from books and magazines to videos to books on tape ... to free (with a time limit) Internet access using the library's computers. We've also found that our librarians themselves are wonderful - free - resources. In fact, our Juvenile Services librarian agreed to do a class for us on the Dewey Decimal system. I just asked, and she was thrilled to help out. She organized the class, provided most of the materials, and did all of the work. I sat back and enjoyed myself ... and actually learned a little about the Dewey Decimal system.

The community, at large, is also an incredible resource, and most of the businesses I've dealt with have been pleased to be asked. We've toured the fire station (in two different communities), a local restaurant's kitchen (which was way cool!), the local newspaper facility (and we were given a bunch of really cool stuff, too), a grocery distribution center, two local dairy farms (one small family owned and the other a "corporate" facility), a nursery/greenhouse/family-owned vegetable farm, a marine animal rescue facility, and our local water treatment facility. These were all free, and all we had to do was call and ask. Most of them were eager to show us around.

In addition to area businesses, chances are really good that the area where you live is ripe with "historical" sites. Every place is, and everything you ever wanted to know (and some stuff you probably could have lived without knowing) is available at your local Chamber of Commerce or the Visitor's Center. There are many small, local museums that are free, but because they're free, they don't do a lot of advertising, and many times the "locals" don't know they're there. Go find them. Afterall, why should the tourists have all of the fun?

And speaking of businesses, did you know that many corporate entities offer "educational incentive" programs to schools ... and many of these programs are also available to homeschoolers? For example, General Mills has a "Box Tops for Education" program. Homeschooling cooperatives are eligible to participate in this program (the coop must have at least fifteen students to be eligible). Pizza Hut also has an educational incentive program called "Book It!". It's available to individual homeschoolers. Read some books, get a free pizza. If you're not a rabid locavore and you eat Pizza Hut pizza, it's a great deal :). Other corporations offer "rewards" programs. For example, Staples has a Teacher Reward program that is open to homeschoolers (buy supplies, "earn" points, get a coupon, use it to get free stuff = good deal).

My area has a lot of natural resources, as well. There's the beach, the saltmarsh, and all sorts of lovely trails through the woods. In the past we've been avid geocachers (which, admittedly, kind of costs a little at the beginning ... for a GPS, but after that, it's free :). If buying a GPS isn't in the budget, letterboxing might be more your style. Depending on the "stamp" you chose, it can be costly or free, but it offers all of the fun of "treasure" hunting that geocaching offers without the purchase of high-tech electronics.

The best free resource, though, is other homechoolers. We have organized half a dozen classes with other homeschoolers: art, science, reading/literature, history, etc. The classes are free, because they are parent-taught, and we all share the "teaching" duties. The possibilities are limited only by the imagination, education, training and experience of the other community members. In addition to providing information, though, classes with other homeschoolers provides that one thing that is, as one homeschooler put it, "the bane of all homeschoolers" - socialization.

Patti Moreno, a.k.a. Garden Girl, started a discussion forum on her website a few years ago. One of the topics open for discussion back then was homeschooling. Patti stated, "I think homeschooling is going to be the most important challenge for humanity in a post peak [oil] world." In our not-too-distant future, I don't disagree that homeschooling will become the norm rather than the exception. In fact, a few years ago, when I was serving as the local School Board secretary, it was been interesting listening to the budget talks - interesting in an objective kind of detached way, but if I were dependent on the school system for my children's educations, I would have been terrified.

It's likely that we will be forced into homeschooling our children as municipal budgets get tighter and tighter, and frankly, if I have to choose between a fire department and a school, I'd rather have the fire department. In that uncertain future time, community will be what enables us to provide our children with a solid "academic" background. It will require lots of people with lots of different talents being willing to donate a little time and teach a class to a group of kids in someone's home or in donated "public" space (many churches provide space to homeschoolers, but as fuel prices soar, this may also come to an end).

In the meantime, for those people who are already out there homeschooling, it doesn't have to break the bank. Homeschooling can be free AND enriching. Finding those free resources isn't as easy as pulling out the packaged curriculum study guide or signing up for Math/Jr. Engineering, but if free is the goal, it can be done.


  1. What a wonderful, informative blog today. When my boys were school age the community we lived in was very small with a mediocre school system. Thirty years ago homeschooling in this community was almost impossible. So, hubby and I decided to supplement at home. We asked at the library, in the next town which was 5 times the size of our town, for help and they were wonderful. Besides making lists of all the local resources of museums, parks, open to the public commercial places (a bakery was a big hit)etc, they even ordered books on homeschooling for us giving us even more resources.

    If I had to do it over again - I would have insisted on being allowed to homeschool my boys - not for religious or s bad social environment, but just for a much better education.

  2. I have always wondered how you deal with teaching high school science without access to a lab? Particularly, A.P. level chemistry (with its hoods for safety etc.).

    Also, how do you teach calculus or even a foreign language you don't know yourself? I could easily teach my children Greek, Latin, French, Irish and Welsh (and have taught them Greek). But they learned their Chinese in school from our wonderful Chinese teacher. I could in no way have taught them that or even much about Chinese (despite my wide knowledge of historical linguistics).

  3. @ Tory - I'm not sure if you're asking me how we "teach" those subjects, or if I answered that question and you're just sharing your experiences :).

    There are a lot of ways homeschoolers have of finding those classes that might seem are only teachable in a classroom setting. I have one friend who adopted two children from China, and neither she nor her husband spoke a word of Mandarin, but they have found an incredibly active Chinese community here - yes, in Southern Maine - and their whole family is learning the language :).

    In short, I'm not the "teacher", I'm the "facilitator", and I help my children find the materials, resources, and classes they need to learn what interests them.

  4. Let me know if your kids would ever like a tour of and discussion about a professional woodworking shop!

  5. Ralph and I were just talking about homeschooling this morning, at the breakfast table. Great article, Wendy - you gave us a really good picture of what it's all about, thank you! If you're ever in for a road trip, and want to tour a Canadian family-run farm, give us a call ;)