Unexplored Territory: Writing Instruction in Pennsylvania Homeschool Settings, Grades 9-12, Part II1
Elaine Huber, Ph.D.
379 Long Road
Manheim, Pennsylvania 17545
Homeschooling parents recognize the challenge of teaching their teens to write. Some of these adults have been taught little about writing, feel overwhelmed by the task of choosing instructional materials, or wonder what writing skills their students may need as they enter colleges or careers. Pennsylvania parents may feel these pressures more acutely than others since they appear more likely to continue homeschooling through the high school years than do families in several other states (H. Richman, 2001).
Mapping Unexplored Territory
After Jeff Archer (1999) termed homeschooling territory “unexplored” by education researchers, one 16-year-old Pennsylvania homeschooler responded by sharing that she had for months been “cogitating experiments to assess the effects of homeschooling” (M. Richman, 2000, para. 5) since what researchers were avoiding lay “literally in [her] own back yard” (para. 5). Mapping aspects of one of homeschooling’s virgin areas—writing instruction—is the objective of this study.
Although interpretive background for this exploratory-descriptive case study comes from numerous informant interviews and many published and private homeschool documents and artifacts, homeschool newsletters, listservs, e-mails, electronic documents, and personal observation of and participation in homeschool events, the study’s primary data originate in 1.5 to 2 hour semi-structured parent and student interviews shaped by elements of Weiss (1994) and Rubin and Rubin’s (1995) qualitative models, and Seidman’s (1991) phenomenological model.
During these interviews, parents detailed what it is like to direct the education of their own children, how writing figures into their student’s education, the history of at least one extended writing experience, and the instructive or supportive roles they or other persons played in its production. Students shared what it is like to learn at home, what writing means to them, and how they engaged writing processes to produce one extended text. The following sections document and analyze these data in accordance with the continuum of structure discussed in Part I of this report.
I found the DeCous’ newly remodeled, spacious farmhouse at the end of a long lane. Inside, I met Darlene DeCou, a slender, neatly groomed mother. When I returned several evenings later, Dylan, a soft-spoken 17-year-old shared with me. The next evening it was Reba, a vivacious, newly graduated teenager. I heard but saw few of the nine other children in the family.
The DeCous as Family
For the first 17 years of their marriage, Darlene DeCou’s husband, John, taught history and science in a small private Christian school. By the end of those years, however, he was so troubled by school “problems” that he resigned and took his children—who were students there—home with him. His wife, Darlene, was neither shocked nor angered. She had chosen elementary education as her college major with the possibility in mind of someday homeschooling her own children. Also, she was comfortable under her husband’s leadership.
Although the oldest child, Joe, had been immersed in extracurricular activities, he adjusted to 10th grade at home. However, ninth-grader Reba intensely missed her friends, and it was a year before she could acknowledge her father’s rationale. Though she never protested the decision, she spoke frankly about the challenge of studying alone in her bedroom, learning by reading rather than listening, and writing without talking topics through with a peer. Seventh-grader Dylan was content. Even though Darlene conceded that not everything was ideal, she was satisfied that her children were developing targeted life skills and character traits.
The DeCous as Learners
Prior training and many students prompted Darlene to select a structured, traditional curriculum and a supervisory pedagogy. Trusting language professionals to know what writers needed, she chose a Bob Jones University package curriculum (BJU, 1986) that linked grammar, research, or writing skills to Christian worldview scenarios. She added her own reflective writing assignments, each one carefully tailored to Reba or Dylan’s personal or spiritual development.
Analysis of the interview data confirm that Darlene’s academic concern was not that she use a contemporary approach but that her students become functional and proficient in basic communicative skills. Protocols mattered—outlines, note cards, drafts, and revisions—as did punctuation, spelling, coherence, logic, and style. Dylan accepted the impositions without reservation; Reba acknowledged her oral learning style and wished for a peer, but compensated.
The DeCous as Writers
Dylan’s 10th-grade science, geography, and literature curriculum involved short chapter review or unit test essays. Every chapter of his language textbook linked a moderate-length writing task to a review of grammar or writing style. His mother added occasional personal growth assignments. There was also a 2,500-word research project each year for diploma credit.
Reba’s 12th-grade year of writing was similar: short personal development assignments and the annual research theme. Her textbooks included fewer review or test essays, and her writing-and-grammar text assignments shifted from genres to social correspondence. As we interviewed, Dylan detailed writing one extended text; Reba chose two.
When the DeCous purchased two dogs, Dylan’s father asked him to research dog training techniques. So Dylan adapted the topic to meet diploma requirements. Though his writing handbook was very specific about notes—100 note cards for 10th-grade students—it offered no protocols to govern his thinking processes. Not sure how to transition from one dog-training problem to another, Dylan separated his juxtaposed topics with headings: (a) How to Choose a Dog; (b) How to Properly Care for a Dog; and (c) How to Train a Dog. Drafting was routine, but he turned to his mother for editing help. She marked all grammatical errors; he corrected them, then handed it back for grading and considered it done.
Reba, on the other hand, was more intense about her writing. To satisfy a short interview assignment, she spent time with an older friend who had long taught children (Reba’s dream). Defaulting to her oral learning preferences, Reba (a) wildly took notes, (b) wrote a very rough “facts” draft, (c) used that draft as the basis for a second interview, (d) wrote a second draft, (e) re-interviewed the friend, and (f) re-drafted a third time. It was quite obvious that preserving 14 pages of a friend’s memories affirmed Reba as a learner and writer.
For her senior diploma credit theme, Reba defaulted to her favorite genre—biography. Her father had spoken so often and highly of Teddy Roosevelt’s work ethic that she researched why and how he had persisted despite obstacles. Like Dylan, Reba followed preliminary protocols: gathering and skimming resources, then drafting a working outline. After recording facts and major impressions with Elbow-like freewriting (see Elbow, 1973), she moved things around until a clear thesis with supports emerged, not consciously targeting grammatical issues until after the second draft. Her mother was surprised to learn that Reba revised by repeatedly reading her paper aloud to herself. I was intrigued that Reba did not view herself as her own reader and could not articulate what brought her closure. Still, she finished the project in 2 weeks—during non-school hours.
Making Sense of the DeCous as Writers
The sole distinction of the DeCous’ writing instruction is that it doubles as a strategy for family problem solving and personal character development. Though the DeCous are obviously intense about family harmony and spiritual health, a pragmatic understanding is that a mother with nearly a dozen children has few other time slots than school hours or venues than bedrooms to pursue such goals. It is noteworthy that Darlene academizes spiritually motivated writing and that—regimented to learn at their bedroom desks under the mastery of the clock—Dylan and Reba felt free to occasionally bend some of the prescribed protocols. Whether DeCou pedagogy, especially in writing, would evidence less stenosis if the family were smaller is something that cannot be known until more DeCou students graduate. The data clarify the need to research further how student population and learner isolation impact writing instruction.
While making interview plans by phone, I discovered that the Sutters and I had worked briefly together in a writing workshop but had not seen each other after that. When I did step inside the house and met a short 12th grader with shoulder-length brown hair and a tall, middle-aged woman with dark hair, I immediately recognized Amy and Sarah Sutter.
The Sutters as Family
Through much of her conversation Sarah Sutter wove the idea of togetherness. She perceived that as the force that melded them into a family and a school. Yet it was not Sarah’s maternal tug that caught my attention; it was her passion to keep her two daughters with her. Becoming their teacher not only assured that attachment, it also made homeschooling necessary.
In many ways, the Sutter home and homeschool were synonyms. Though Sarah ran a normal academic calendar, she found year-round ways to turn family life into school. Still, the one experience Amy did not consider integrating was writing. After interactive conversation, she could articulate that she most disliked writing about topics that were not personally appealing.
The Sutters as Learners
Perhaps one reason Amy found writing almost distasteful was that although Sarah kept her children with her as they learned, she did not consider the family a co-learning unit. If she had, she would likely not have chosen traditional textbooks, workbooks, and tests. She was an adult who had mastered functional skills and figured it was her daughters’ turn. The perspective allowed Sarah to remain emotionally close to her daughters but to distance herself somewhat from their learning processes. Her pedagogy assured at least functional writing skills, but did not connect Amy with a human model of in-progress composing done with skill and enthusiasm.
Sarah considered her primary task one of supervision—first, of the curriculum choices her supplier offered, and second, of how her daughters used those materials. After cycling through several curriculum providers, she had enrolled Amy in Pensacola Christian Academy’s video program. Sarah made sure that Amy viewed videos of English classes and that she wrote in the modes assigned. However, Amy had no communication with the video teacher and no obligation to complete writing assignments as he specified them. Writing tasks that Amy found distasteful or over-challenging Sarah sometimes modified. Just before Amy’s senior year, Sarah enrolled her in a free composition course offered by a local Christian college.
The Sutters as Writers
Amy did not actually resist developing her writing abilities in functional ways. Rather, she struggled with academic writing tasks that did not involve family-oriented topics. For example, she wrote vividly and excitedly about claustrophobia under Niagara Falls and seasickness on a whaling boat—in the company of her family—but she admitted to frustration organizing a junior year theme on glass making. Her grammar-based A Beka textbooks (Chapman, 1995, 1996) were explicit about outlines, note cards, and drafts, yet Amy’s drafting was a struggle to avoid plagiarism and coordinate disjointed information. Finally, in her senior year—as she worked with a real live college instructor—Amy encountered strategies for constructing a thesis statement, framing an outline, and transitioning from section to section. Though she was disappointed that her first paper came back marked for fragments and the second one for run-ons occasioned by over-correction, her instructor shared that Amy’s clarity and correctness slowly improved.
Making Sense of the Sutters as Writers
Writing was something Amy did because it had to be done. One causal factor appears to be A Beka’s approach—encouraging writing processes but grounding its strategies in grammar handbooks and workbooks. However, Amy’s progress in an equally traditional college course suggests that basic writers can develop under varied approaches to writing if they establish scaffolding relationships with discerning instructors or mentors. Sarah considered video eavesdropping a sufficient developmental strategy and opted away from academically supportive roles. However, because the education-long emotional enmeshment was a transparent issue, Sarah’s pragmatic vacillation between parent- and learner-based pedagogies kept Amy’s homeschooling comfortable but fostered functional writing. As a result, the highest goal seemed to get transferable college credit. It would little matter, then, whether learning to write had been easy or demanding.
As Bethany Greer greeted me warmly, I identified myself, aware that her limited vision made it hard to see me. We shared across a well-lighted table. Three weeks later, newly graduated Kevin—so curly-haired that he had an unintentional Afro—squeezed an interview among his three part-time jobs.
The Greers as Family
Bethany expected to do the “normal” thing and send Kevin to public school. However, with a friend’s persistent encouragement, she and her husband Carl chose to homeschool, using the character-based curriculum provided by Rev. Bill Gothard’s Advanced Training Institute (www.ati.iblp.org/). However, after several years of extensive and constant educational and spiritual micromanagement by the Institute, eighth-grader Kevin became so frustrated that he openly questioned his parents’ endorsement of the manipulation. Slowly Bethany and Carl concluded that Kevin was acting out his desire (a) to relate to his own mother, not to ATI; (b) to learn in ways he learned best, not as ATI prescribed; and (c) to develop his relationship with God, not report to an organization. They decided that their son was doing what teens are good at doing—perceiving things parents overlook. They agreed that they had been operating on unwise premises.
The Greers as Learners
After Kevin’s trauma, Bethany and Carl adjusted their patterns of living and learning. First, they switched to Education Plus (http://www.edplus.com/Curric.html), a new high school level interdisciplinary curriculum with flexible lesson plans keyed to Bob Jones University Press textbooks and reference materials. Then, because Bethany’s vision was further deteriorating, she nudged Kevin and his siblings into progressively self-regulated learning by introducing them to a simple, dual-question strategy: “What do I want to happen and what do I have to do to make it happen?”
Writing was a part of that calculated control/release strategy. Bethany repackaged Kevin’s middle-level journaling, narrative, and responsive writing tasks as an invitation-only, managed homeschool writer’s group where parents took turns doing mini-workshops and where deadlines and peer responses added unique motivations. Then during his senior year—with his parents’ encouragement—Kevin enrolled in a college freshman composition course. Bethany hoped to learn how well their undulating writing programs had prepared Kevin for written communication. Kevin was excited to be able to test his preparedness for college writing.
The Greers as Writers
Even though he was a high school senior, Kevin had never learned in a formal classroom and was momentarily apprehensive about taking on the role of college freshman. Soon, however, he was surprised to learn that some of his classmates depended on the instructor to interpret their reading assignments. He had grown used to directing his own learning processes, asking for help only when he could not strategize his way out of a learning dilemma. Now he was obligated to The Macmillan Writer (Nadell, McMeniman, & Langan, 2000) and the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (Gibaldi & Achtert, 1999). Largely unaware of contemporary writing pedagogies, Kevin considered these resources and the instructor as final authorities.
As Kevin detailed the comparative literary analysis he wrote about Lewis’s (1970) The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe and Herman Melville’s (1962) Billy Budd, Sailor, I heard him defaulting to his homeschool strategizing. When he found it hard to unravel Lewis and Melville’s Christ-figure symbols, he settled for what would not “tear apart” his paper. To work within the rhetorical bounding his professor imposed, he reverted to his mother’s strategy—”What do I want to happen, and what do I have to do to make it happen?”—and used short biographies to frame what drew each author to a Christ-figure type of writing.
Kevin’s homeschooling habits also exerted their pull as he revised. As his mother’s student, he had drafted by himself, then gone to his mother for first critiques and to his father for final editing. He repeated these strategies to make sure he produced his best work.
Making Sense of the Greers as Writers
Analyzing how life circumstances and relationships impacted Kevin as a high school writer in college is an exercise in discernment. One explanation of the seemingly contradictory flip from 8th-grade rebel to 12th-grade enthusiast is that Kevin stoically resigned himself to bad circumstances made tolerable by a few parental concessions. Another is that both parents and child had a change of heart—Kevin by submitting to the concept that God was directing his education through the choices of his parents, and the parents by acknowledging that ATI’s interventions were inappropriate. A phenomenological analysis of the data suggests the first possibility—a shift in instructional strategies. A relational analysis strongly implies the second explanation—a definite attitudinal shift.
Greer homeschooling was grassroots private research. As parents, Carl and Bethany minutely analyzed Kevin’s intense reaction to micromanagement. Then Bethany—as teacher—slowly mentored Kevin through dependent to independent learning and slowly relocated his writing center of gravity from home through peer writing group to college writing classroom. Had either parent been less attentive and flexible or Kevin more resistant to attitudinal modification, any venue or pedagogy may have imploded.
As I completed this study, Kevin enrolled in a geographically distant college. I learned that he was as content there as he had been in a college classroom during his senior year of homeschooling. Certainly, Carl and Bethany’s emergent homeschool living, learning, and relating must be credited. But so must Kevin’s responsive maturation.
Sarah Elton was a woman comfortable in her dual role. She juggled our conversation and seven children, punctuating everything with quick chuckles or quiet laughs. I found her daughter Emily such a prolific 11th-grade writer that I had to limit her interview to only her high school writing. Brother David shyly talked his way through his ninth-grade portfolio.
The Eltons as Family
After Sarah and Scott graduated from the same college in July 1980, they yielded to the insistence of church friends and, before they got married in September, attended an Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts. Neither of them was aware that the leader had embraced the theocratic politics of Christian Reconstructionism. So when Rev. Bill Gothard attacked public schooling, although they agreed that many schools pushed anti-Christian agendas, they felt he discredited their Christian worldview with his dogmatic delivery (Seelhoff, 2000, pp. 68-70). Ironically, they still decided that the children they planned to parent would not attend public school.
The first child to test that resolve was a wildly active boy who taxed Sarah’s energies as she worked through a serious bout with depression. So as Jonathan neared school age, though Sarah felt pulled in two directions, her husband’s encouragement and Dr. Raymond Moore’s (1979) arguments for delayed education eased the struggle. She made the commitment, however, only after adding a personal rider. Homeschooling could never cramp their family life. That may have been her salvation because at the time of this study, there were seven children, ranging from ages 20 to 2. Sarah chose what she felt was right and made it happen by going with what worked.
The Eltons as Learners
When 5-year-old Jonathan accidentally showed his mother how to use their clumsy iron house key, Sarah realized she needed to capitalize on each child’s learning processes. So quite early she transferred Jonathan’s busy fingers to a computer keyboard to relieve his atrocious handwriting and to short-circuit his emerging distaste for composing. By 6 years of age, younger sister Emily was using the same touch typing lessons and composing on the computer. When 7-year-old brother David got impatient waiting for his turn, he started writing on his own.
As Jonathan, then Emily, and then David became comfortable with composing—between 6 and 8 years of age—Sarah assigned them the simple routine of writing something every day. She did not specify what to write and she did not correct what they wrote, so they did things like personal journals, letters to Grandma or a friend, occasionally a two- or three-page family newspaper. Then Sarah systematized their composing week by specifying stories, letters, and personal choice “whatevers,” but allowing them to choose the order.
Since Sarah enjoyed writing novels, she was pleased that each one preferred writing stories. However, she wanted them to be able to “do things” with words. So in the elementary grades she assigned two short reports a year—one on a science topic of their choice, the other on a history subject they enjoyed. Around sixth grade, she added a weekly essay and created reading and writing lists centered on history, literature, and science. By their senior high years, each one was systematically yet independently reading and writing across the curriculum. In 11th and 9th grades—the years for which Emily and David shared their writing—they were writing four different things each month: one history or literature, one science, one life-issue, and one “whatever” essay. Grammar and protocols were important but unstressed.
Such arrangements looked like the Classical Learning Approach. However, careful analysis of Elton data indicates more divergence than parallelism. Sarah made grammar reviews and writing protocols available through handbooks or happenstance conversations, but she intentionally avoided prescribing anything, allowing Emily and David to choose their own ways to learn to write as they wrote to learn.
The Eltons as Writers
Eltons first learn to read, next write, then compose at the keyboard. After that, writing becomes a regular assignment. Progressively, it moves from stories and personal reflections through short reports and essays. From sixth grade on, Emily and David analyzed and critiqued, wrote essays and researched themes for homeschool diploma and potential college credit.
Perhaps because their mother modeled by writing novels, narratives quickly became Emily and David’s favorite. Emily laid them aside only when her 11th-grade essays crowded them out. Personal writing allowed each one to preserve and reflect on events in their life and family. David’s ninth-grade digression was an intrigue with the conversational possibilities of e-mail. However, each year reports became longer and focused less on narrative or personal expression and more on analysis and research.
Because they were independent learners, Emily and David shaped their own composing processes. For example, as David developed his ninth-grade diploma credit theme on fighting forest fires, he sifted through resource notes looking for details to expand his outline’s cryptic keywords and sentence fragments. These details became quick sentences. Then he quickly checked what he had written, changed what he knew to be incorrect, and took the draft to his mother. After he made her suggested corrections, the paper went into a portfolio for a yearly review by an evaluator.
A bit more of a perfectionist, 11th-grader Emily struggled her way to an overview of early American volunteer firefighting by collapsing duplicate notes into a “general gist” outline, encapsulating the topic as an introduction, expanding its eras of development in the middle, and summarizing at the end. As Emily shared a comparative analysis of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, I heard customized composing processes.
Making Sense of the Eltons as Writers
In a limited sense, the Eltons represent composing as something that both happens and is caused. Emily and David are the product of Sarah’s testing such dual writing assumptions: Writing makes a writer. More writing makes a better writer. Constant writing makes a comfortable writer. A comfortable writer is a thinking writer. A thinking writer is a critical writer.
To help her writers reach three goals—fluency, clarity, and correctness—Sarah imposes intense reading and writing. There is little question that Emily and David have profited. Their mature writing, however, has come at the price of exertion. Both write well but articulating how they accomplish that was a metacognitive challenge. During their separate interviews, both Emily and her mother partially faulted perfectionism for Emily’s intensity—unaware that the data sketch Emily as a writer comfortable with primary discourse but puzzled as she grasps for textual and interpersonal metadiscourse. Less driven though just as serious, David also reached toward comprehension of his composing processes. Yet no Elton appears to feel that understanding how they write is essential to writing well.
In some educational settings, curriculum eases that seemingly instinctual stretch toward process awareness. However, Sarah is concerned that homeschooling not overshadow her family obligations, so she limits her interventions and cares more that her writers function well than that they understand why they do. The option is, of course, only one of many available to parent-educators. However, it draws attention to the need for more focused research on the rationale and effects of self-education in writing cognition.
The pleasant woman who answered my knock greeted me by name, invited me in, and ushered me to a soft living room chair. As Maggie Veit detailed life as a learning disabilities specialist in a public school and then as a reluctant homeschooler, 15-year-old Joe was only an occasional distant voice. I met the lanky teen when I returned 3 weeks later.
The Veits as Family
Maggie Veit preferred public school for Joe. As a professional herself, she had helped to make good things happen there. However, when nothing relieved the chaos of his second grade classroom, home seemed a better resolution than Ritalin for massive allergies, developmental delays, and coordination problems.
At first, Maggie discounted her LD expertise and tried structured curriculum. However, a year later, after sister Suzie began second grade at home, Maggie reverted to their preferred lifestyle—togetherness and collaborative learning—as a way to scaffold Joe’s communicative competence into performance. Since 2 years of age he had been quite verbal, speaking in complex sentences and acting out elaborate story lines and plots with his sandbox, blocks, and toy figures. However, weak coordination skills complicated his writing. So Maggie combined gymnastic therapy, family reading and conversation, and affirmation in a peer writer’s group.
The Veits as Learners
To craft an approach somewhere between the polarities of managing learning and letting it “happen,” Maggie looked beyond her professional knowledge and began reading about, reflecting on, and experimenting with alternatives. She considered radical unschooling tantamount to “doing whatever you want to do and then filling in a reporting log after the fact.” Yet, although she insisted that Joe learn certain basics (including functional grammar), she generally allowed him to ignore applying it until he was ready to share a draft. As a result, Joe’s primary motivation for writing came from a homeschool writing group. Discovering that peers liked his full-of-action stories, Joe paid close attention to such things as what made a good story line or useful dialogue. When one writer left listeners dangling at the “good part” of a story, the rest began doing the same thing. As mothers modeled, open-ended response questions became a regular feature. Listeners could only compliment what was read, so Joe knew he would hear only what was working. He found it easy to infer what was not.
Recognizing that narrative was Joe’s passion, Maggie grew ambivalent about what role writing should play in his senior high curriculum. She wondered—without easy answers from either her professional training or her years of homeschooling—whether, how, or when she would need to alter her approach or relationships so Joe could blossom as an academic writer.
The Veits as Writers
Each year after Joe’s third-grade assay into the world of writing, he generated story after story, each one loosening another layer of the tales Maggie had seen building up at the sandbox. Characters fleshed out, plot crystallized, and dialogue increased. The required yearly essay and report, however, Joe labeled “boring” and “mind-numbing” because their required content was rarely a part of his lifestyle. Instead, he turned to fiction because, even though he couldn’t live it, he could create what did not exist out of things he had experienced. He liked “playing God”—his supreme verbal delight.
Joe volunteered his ninth-grade incomplete novel, “The Assassin’s Tale”—a deadly political intrigue executed by animals. The characters were caricatured government leaders, the circumstances, historical and realistic. Joe claimed he did little conscious planning as he developed characters and plots, shifted voice, and switched between intrigues so animal assassins and counteragents could chase each other around an ocean liner steaming toward disaster. He saw himself as a verbal avatar realistic enough to keep his verbal “shears” handy.
Making Sense of the Veits as Writers
Maggie was more aware of Joe’s composing processes than he. That was not surprising since she was the one who pedagogically nudged him. Joe explained his verbal development as the accident of invention. Maggie credited much to his adolescent maturation. With pleasure, she said that she no longer had to supervise Joe’s studies. He knew what was required to remain a Veit homeschooler—acquisition of content knowledge and enough credit hours for a diploma. That was just enough imposed discipline to help him endure the “boring” and “mind-numbing” parts so he could satisfy his urge to create verbally. As of ninth grade, he was just not as metacognitive about things as he was likely to become in a few more years.
Not all homeschools are staffed by trained professionals like Maggie. She easily interprets Joe’s development. However, probably because she is a mom who knows her student outside of the classroom, she hesitates as a writing instructor—less over which lifestyle adjustments to choose than over how emergent to let her writing pedagogy become. The benefit of emergence appears to be allowing a “verbal avatar” to warm up to academic writing; the danger is trading personal affect for academic rigor.
Though Joe’s earlier learning challenges may slightly problematize Maggie’s eventual resolution, the dilemma is inherent—though not evident—in all homeschools regardless of lifestyle, pedagogy, or writing program. The challenge is another area of homeschool writing instruction ripe for focused research.
As the Mossflowers shared their unschooling experience, Corrina supplied lots of detail and occasionally rearranged her bouncy red curls. Deluvian intermittently propped his bare feet on the sofa, stroked his groomed, pristine white beard, and, at one point, diverted to the fears of a parent as children come to driving age. Smalleton, a short 15-year-old, momentarily climbed onto his mother’s lap and then wandered off to other seating. Smalleton’s lanky, 17-year-old brother Nordstrom reflectively shared his convictions about the way he loved to learn.
The Mossflowers as Family
Outside the classroom, young Nordstrom was intrigued by magazines like Smithsonian, Natural History, and National Geographic. He listened to his mother read novels aloud, brought her his favorite books, and memorized their dialogue. His Scout troop nominated him as their scribe because he was so verbal. Still, he was a poor reader and a worse writer, and that mattered in the classroom. So by fifth grade, Nordstrom was an unhappy learner.
Corrina and Deluvian knew that no public school could long focus on just one student’s needs. So before Nordstrom could feel the blunt end of institutional frustration, they investigated and then chose what the school psychologist recommended as a resolution—homeschooling. However, bringing a frustrated learner home merely relocated the difficulties. Corrina was terrified to do what she felt like doing—forget curriculum and let Nordstrom learn what he wished, if he felt like it. Still, neither she nor Deluvian felt school should interfere with their life as a family. So after hearing Micki and David Colfax (1992) detail how three of their four sons had paced their own learning from unschooling to Harvard, Corrina was convinced and ready to try the same approach.
Soon family experience, radical literature, and interaction with unschoolers encouraged the Mossflowers to dissociate from popular concepts of education. Convinced that a meaningful education does not require schooling and that learning is not the inevitable outcome of teaching, both of them lost any sense of obligation to teach. Pragmatically, they engaged the services of a private alternative school willing to monitor their sons’ activities and to interpret or nudge everything into compliance with Pennsylvania’s school law. Knowing, however, that Smalleton was not quick with oral words, Corrina introduced him to cloud map invention and planning, and recognizing that words overtook each other in Nordstrom’s busy mind, she gave him a hand-held cassette recorder so he could capture the swirl that short-circuited his writing.
The Mossflowers as Learners
As a sixth grader at home, Nordstrom began listening to audio books about fantasy worlds associated with the medieval era—dragons, giants, and ogres. Then he created his own medieval warriors and kept a journal of their imaginary comings and goings. However, after filling half a notebook, he laid it aside. Later, unable to forget those characters, he began playing paper-and-pencil Dungeons and Dragons games and thinking in medieval terms. Intrigued, he spent a whole summer creating medieval characters, scenery, dialogue, and dilemmas for his own paper-and-pencil adventure. By 17 years of age, Nordstrom’s metaphor for such writing passions was adding diverse side dishes to a meal. He hoped to be a history professor, but felt no urgency to develop academic writing skills. He was confident that when academic writing became necessary, he could call on the natural creativity and composing abilities characteristic of the Greek Muses.
As Nordstrom became deeply involved in the Society for Creative Anachronism (http://www.sca.org/)—an organization that researches and reenacts periods of medieval history—and then in the Omega Institute (http://www.eomega.org/omega/), a live, role-playing theater, his parents did not immerse themselves but happily provided transportation and homemade costumes. They remained confident that personal curiosity and involvement would prompt both Nordstrom’s learning and writing.
The Mossflowers as Writers
Since the Mossflowers use writing for their individual purposes, it was difficult to discern whether the brothers were experimenting with words or learning to write. As Smalleton shared his ninth-grade theme on what he most wanted—a full body tan—he confided his hesitance. When I asked if he meant that others might think he had poorly chosen or badly written, he claimed both. Criticism from classmates seemed unlikely because he was writing at home and had not yet chosen any formal writing classes at the umbrella school. Then, in Smalleton’s interview data, I discovered him repeatedly judging writing experiences by their fun quotient and I recognized that, for him, if writing did not promise to be “fun,” it did not qualify as satisfying or profitable.
On the contrary, writing was release for 11th-grade Nordstrom. Earlier, his mother had been unable to keep up transcribing the cassettes he had recorded in hopes of winning a role-playing game contest, so he had been forced to compose directly at the keyboard. That triumph enabled him, as an 11th grader, to produce 21 single-spaced pages of a dialogue- and detail- laced novel about magical energy—something he explained as himself in disguise figuring out how to write magical energy into adventure games. He was able to stretch his verbal abilities with difficult writing strategies as well as to articulate the frustration of trying to put into linear text what he created with circular thinking.
Making Sense of the Mossflowers as Writers
Because Corrina and Deluvian Mossflower distanced themselves from their sons’ writing processes, their unschooling approach can hardly be said to have made anything happen. Yet that is exactly the point they wanted made—that learning, especially learning to write, must be allowed to “happen.” However, the data suggest that, other than the evaluations Smalleton and Nordstrom wrote if they wished credit for an umbrella school class, neither one wrote much unless compelled by personal need or strong external encouragement. Therefore, until research fully illuminates this approach, perhaps the best sense to be made is to recognize unschooled writing as an intentional subversion of Elbow’s (1973) theory of becoming less helpless by gaining mastery over words. Unschoolers like the Mossflowers do seek to be “less helpless,” but they have no intention of formally “mastering words” to reach self-empowerment. For them, the pleasure of learning means keeping writing a personal servant, not letting it become an academic master.
Corrina and Deluvian’s intentional construction of a lifestyle where learning is the servant of living and living a venue for learning legitimizes writing only as a tool for personal pleasure or development. That turns academic writing into an option—one typically exercised only when and if it proves personally beneficial. The liberty appears to have stymied Smalleton and freed Nordstrom. Smalleton continues to crave teacher guidance—something his parents consider unnecessary. Nordstrom, on the other hand, has moved from a cassette recorder to a keyboard. He can rather freely translate his circling mind into linear text, though that text appears only at unpredictable intervals and in bursts of frenzied creativity.
Though the Mossflowers historicize their pedagogy as a last resort, it is now a burning conviction. Despite their alternative mix of homeschooling components, they envision their sons as gaining mastery over words—on their own terms and in their own time. Determining the impact of the choice—for them and similarly convinced unschoolers—requires in-depth research.
Holding the Writer’s Pen
In his Hebrew Torah commentary, Nesivos Shalom, Reb Shalom Noach Barkovsky of Slonim (2001) couples writing with personal autonomy. This study appropriates that sense of “holding the pen” to suggest the power of homeschool living and learning choices; they profoundly impact homeschoolers’ writing experiences and composing processes.
Living Choices that Hold the Writer’s Pen
Home-based writing is impacted by the original choice to homeschool and the family structures that maintain that choice. In some families, parents choose; in others, learners gradually assume responsibility. In a few, who decides fluctuates as needs or desires shift.
In each family in this study, parents made the homeschooling decision. The DeCous, Greers, and Eltons cited diverse spiritual reasons; Sarah Sutter, emotional attachment; the Veits and Mossflowers, learner and school problems. As a result, the DeCous replicated school-at-home, the Mossflowers abandoned schooling, Sarah Sutter chose a virtual classroom, Kevin Greer turned to a prescriptive college classroom, Sarah Elton created a home-based WAC, and Maggie Veit looked to a peer writing group.
Each homeschooling arrangement distinctly shifted the grip of the writer’s metaphorical pen. Darlene DeCou’s busyness with a houseful of learners turned Reba and Dylan into solitary writers. Sarah Elton’s angst to keep homeschooling a family servant occasioned Emily and David’s incessant writing and experimental strategies. Maggie Veit’s accommodation of fiction disinclined Joe toward academic writing. Corrina Mossflower’s pedagogical withdrawal shifted all communicative decisions to Nordstrom and Smalleton.
Learning Choices that Hold the Writer’s Pen
Contemporary homeschooling is the culture of self-educating families who embed intentional learning into their everyday living. Because they operate as dyads of parent-educators and children-learners weaving webs of personal meaning, their learning perspectives, teaching approaches, and interpersonal relationships are family-specific. Like Hood’s (1990) essentialist parent-educator, Darlene DeCou’s rules and textbooks propelled Reba and Dylan from self-expression to written defenses of their Christian worldview. Bethany Greer’s two-part heuristic, “What do I want to happen and what do I have to do to make it happen?” juxtaposed essentialist parental authority and perennialist self-discipline to nudge Kevin from home- to college-based writing. Despite Sarah Sutter’s essentialist disclaimer, she accommodated a level of emotional enmeshment that challenged Amy’s composing processes and weakened her ability to write comfortably about anything beyond family experiences. Sarah Elton’s detached, perennialist-progressivist pedagogy moved Emily and David from their loved narratives to analytical and researched studies of the classics. Corrina Mossflower’s existentialist withholding of the teacher-student relationship forced Nordstrom to the keyboard and composing, though at the sacrifice of writing experiences beyond medieval intrigues.
Writing Choices that Hold the Writer’s Pen
Of the six families who participated in the study, five used at least token amounts of the modes recommended by Pennsylvania’s Department of Education (1998): narrative/imaginative, informational, and persuasive/research. Elton writers covered the modes each month. With the exception of the Mossflowers, the rest completed one or more cycles each year, though some added more variation or intensity than others. Only two families used materials from schools that offered assessment services. However, neither family used these services, so there was little or no professional text assessment. Darlene DeCou did grade Reba and Dylan’s drafts and final papers, but “editor-in-chief” Sarah Elton only critiqued Emily and David’s drafts. Amy Sutter had family catch “big things,” while Maggie Veit overlooked most of Joe’s errors. Nordstrom Mossflower literally field-tested his medieval adventures and role-playing games. Kevin Greer alone wrote to emulate college level proficiency.
Clearly, learning to write in home-based and parent-directed ways is a consequential instructional activity. Families in this study model significantly different outcomes. However, whether theirs are typical of a broad range of homeschools where parents integrate living, learning, and writing can be determined reliably only as researchers and parent-educators develop an extensive database of knowledge about the living arrangements, teaching approaches, and writing experiences that construct and constrain how writers mature. This study primarily authenticates that altered living arrangements, idiosyncratic teaching approaches, and unique parent-child/teacher-student relationships do idiosyncratically tilt homeschooled writers’ metaphorical pens.
The Last Word
There is no definitive “last word” to be said on a topic as unexplored as homeschool writing instruction. Drawing firm conclusions or making significant pronouncements before further exploring its significant unknowns seems preposterous and arrogant. However, the findings and conclusions of this study can serve as first steps toward a thorough mapping of writing instruction in a full range of homeschool settings—”unexplored territory” (Archer, 1999) for researchers but familiar “backyards” (M. Richman, 2000) for homeschool families.
Because the data of this exploratory-descriptive study of homeschool writing instruction are newly turned spades of information from virgin curricular territory rather than excavations of surveyed educational plots, they serve poorly as material from which to form generalizations about learning to write at home. Doing so would require trimming these case studies of all their differences and distinctions. However, several conclusions are legitimate.
Further research is needed to illuminate how homeschooling impacts learning to write.
Perhaps it is because parents are the most recent educators to act on postmodern concepts of individual autonomy and social empowerment that homeschooling writing instruction remains largely unexplored. The data of this study may authenticate a few contrasts to Pennsylvania’s recommended writing practices or enable limited conclusions about writing as a curricular activity in Lancaster County homeschools. However, it appears prudent to recommend further focused approach before extending conclusions beyond that point. An extensive database of knowledge based on a wider homeschool population and on more diverse programs of writing instruction could expand composition knowledge and make strategies available to homeschoolers as well as offer the discipline alternative ways of teaching and learning to write.
As cultural innovators, customized social units, and educational cooperatives, homeschooling families are positioned to uniquely integrate living and learning in ways that foster writing development.
Families who self-educate are part of a postmodern culture that valorizes personal autonomy and social empowerment. Their alternative ways of learning sometimes disrupt social equilibrium, but they accommodate the traditional as well as the avant-garde and are, therefore, likely to remain grassroots, independent, and as adamant or flexible in their living arrangements and educational practices as family needs and desires dictate.
Some fear that homeschool writers may lag as communicators. It is true that schooling as institutionalized, public learning does unify and systematize how students develop as writers. It is possible for Pennsylvania parent-educators to persist with outdated approaches, to scaffold processes ineffectively, or to benignly disregard social elements of communicative interaction. However, there is no assurance that remaining in public educational systems prevents possible undesirable consequences. The state is skirting its own writing assessment challenge and homeschool activists may again lobby for a reduced- or no-accountability homeschool law. Therefore, in which direction both forms of schooling move their programs of writing instruction is for history to clarify. At the moment, homeschool families are foils for public ways of doing things and laboratories for researching how writers mature when families are their own teachers and assessors.
Homeschool living choices and teaching practices idiosyncratically determine the range of writing that students experience and the sophistication of their composing processes.
What and how writers write is the composite of the contexts within which they learn, the ways in which they are taught, and the relationships they develop as teachers and learners. Public school students learn in public places. Schools congregate peers who primarily study together; homeschools team siblings and parents who interact in more than academic ways. Classrooms are led by professionals trained in specific subjects or teaching approaches; homeschools are generally supervised by lay educators. Academic standards and mandated assessments effectively nudge public schools into teaching a range of writing experiences and promoting certain composing processes. Homeschool writing pedagogies are free to range from the ultra-traditional to the radically alternative.
Some feel that Pennsylvania homeschool writers are unfairly exempted from language arts standards and assessments. The logic of the critique is that without governmental supervision parents may either neglect or do poorly what planners recommend. The concern is a valid one; there is that possibility. However, determining whether that possibility has become a reality or remains an unfounded projection necessitates extensive research—research that accesses homeschool families whose living choices range from structured and authoritative to open-ended and self-empowering and whose teaching approaches vary from authoritatively transmitting knowledge to independently exploiting the educational opportunities of social living. Therefore, this study calls for constructing a broad base of knowledge that confirms, extends, or challenges these preliminary conclusions.
Educators and governmental policymakers need to understand homeschooling as an educational alternative in which writing can be learned/taught in a variety of ways.
Self-educating families reintegrate institutions long separated by the American society: family living and formal learning. As educators, parents may dominate in ways that blur their parental roles and diminish their students’ social opportunities or they may so circumscribe formal ways of learning that education becomes almost invisible and social interactions weakly impact students’ educational development. Writing dangers lurk at either extreme.
The problem some educators and government officials have with parents as writing instructors is that finding balanced perspectives, pedagogies, and practices is up to persons they may be unsure are knowledgeable, experienced, or long-term educational planners. However, a related challenge faces researchers who investigate homeschool writing instruction. Public schooling has long been the privileged educational model, so these researchers must discern whether they cherish unchallenged presuppositions. It is easy to negate the need for such a self check since homeschooling is still more tolerated than encouraged. Yet for a postmodern society to ignore, denigrate, or discriminate against any of the educational alternatives it legitimizes is a contradiction and a misdeed.
Given the volatile politics of education in Pennsylvania, it is important to accumulate reliable, trustworthy data that confirm or dispel potential apprehensions surrounding how parent-educators help their writers to develop. One attempt at replacing Pennsylvania’s homeschool law has failed. Before another succeeds, what can be known needs to be learned in as objective, trustworthy, and reliable a way as possible.
Keywords: Homeschooling, homeschooled, home-educated, homeschool, writing, instruction, settings, Pennsylvania
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 Note: Part II ethnographically details what is discussed theoretically in Part I (Huber, 2003)—that homeschooling is a social movement, a family-based culture, and a system of private education populated by persons who forge family-specific living arrangements, teaching approaches, and learning relationships and that these components idiosyncratically impact writing experiences and composing processes. Participating families were selected from a county-wide, survey-generated list of volunteers who (a) live in geographical proximity to each other, (b) have homeschooled for relatively long periods of time, (c) represent a broad range of homeschooling perspectives and practices, and (d) include one or more students who, during the prior academic year of 9th- through 12th-grade studies, completed at least one extended text. Primary data collected from semi-structured interviews are analyzed to determine how the targeted components affect writing development.
 The author’s dissertation on homeschool writing instruction (http://members.bellatlantic.net/~vze4dtms/) details relevant theory, homeschool literature, research methodologies, data collection, analysis, and reporting protocols. Also provided are extended “thick” descriptions of each participating family’s living, learning, and writing choices.
 All data are available in the author’s dissertation (http://members.bellatlantic.net/~vze4dtms/).
 During the summer of 2000, Rep. Samuel Rohrer and other concerned legislators used the Education Empowerment Act (Act 2000-16, P.L. 44) to define the writing assessment out or the PSSA package of tests. However, in June 2001, after five school districts successfully sued in Commonwealth Court for exemption, legislative action restored PSSA status but specified only objective assessment. Act 35 of 2001, SB 485 (P.L. 530). Presently, the Department of Education evidences no intent to comply.
 In November 2002, after 20 months of intense political activism led by PA FREE (a coalition of four statewide homeschool organizations), many families were disappointed that House Education Committee amendments prompted Rep. Samuel Rohrer to table the homeschool bill (HB 2560) he had sponsored in hopes of granting parent-educators the same status and as few reporting obligations as nonpublic schools. At the moment, homeschool activists and homeschool-friendly legislators are silent about reintroducing such a bill in a future legislative session.
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