Homeschooling During COVID-19: Lessons Learned from a Year of Homeschool Education
Home School Researcher, Volume 37 No. 1, 2021, p. 1-10
Assistant Professor of Education, Franklin Pierce University, Sudbury, Massachusetts, email@example.com
The purpose of this autoethnographic study is to describe certain ways in which homeschool education can nurture the needs of the whole child. The fact that many parents for the first time chose to homeschool their children in some manner due to COVID-19, suggests that traditional schools were ill-prepared to meet the social-emotional and academic needs of children. This study reveals five epiphanies I experienced about education while homeschooling my own children during the pandemic: 1) Families and schools need to be in close communication and collaboration to address the mental health of children for them to be able to thrive academically; 2) Being in nature has profound benefits on children’s emotional well-being. Joy of learning matters. When joy is prioritized, it becomes the foundation for taking on challenges, inquiry, and meaningful study within a curriculum; 3) Intentionally integrating social justice and exposing students to the perspectives of others develops their empathy, critical thinking, and humanity; 4) When teachers develop close relationships with their students, they can give them more freedom to direct their own learning. From that freedom, they discover their creativity, develop inner confidence, and find meaning in exploring their curiosities; 5) We have collectively been socialized from our own educational experiences to believe in traditional notions of education that include standards-based learning, test taking assessments, homework, and teacher-directed curriculum. This study suggests that homeschool education has many benefits and may provide some thought-provoking ideas for ways traditional schools could evolve to better serve
students and to explore new ways of approaching the growth and development of children.
Keywords: autoethnography, homeschool education, COVID-19, whole child, social-emotional, social-justice.
In March, COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the K-12 education system. Overnight, students went from seeing their teachers and friends in-person five days a week to a completely remote experience. Technology suddenly became the predominant provider of the learning experience for most children. In my home, the daily routine became about websites and passwords, Zoom meetings, poorly explained assignments, immense confusion, and exasperation for both my children and me as we tried to navigate this new reality together. My once highly engaged children who loved going to school and learning became despondent, bored, and uninspired. The confusion and frustration was palpable, and the work assigned seemed of little value. While my husband and I were both working all day from home, we struggled immensely to tend to the academic and emotional needs of our children. As a middle school teacher, I, too, was trying to create meaningful learning experiences for my own students remotely, while also trying to help my children engage in their schoolwork. I knew I wanted to — and could — do better for my children.
Over the summer, I found out that when school resumed in fall 2020, I would be required to teach five days a week in-person, while my children would attend their public school two days a week in-person and three days remotely. This reality forced me to quit my job teaching middle school because we would have no childcare three days a week. I was sad to leave a job and community I loved, and I was highly concerned about the potential impact of remote learning upon my kids. As other families in our community were negotiating similar realities and were also dismayed at more remote learning, several families reached out to me about the possibility of starting a homeschool pod. Ultimately, I decided to homeschool my two children with another family who also had two children. I would spend the year homeschooling four students, one each in grades 4, 5, 6, and 7, respectively. The purpose of this study is to reveal certain epiphanies from my personal experience homeschooling children during the pandemic, which perhaps illustrate certain facets of public education that fail to meet the social-emotional, cognitive, physical, and intellectual needs that are essential for personal growth, individual development, and learning. First, I present a literature review to provide context for the data collected, then I utilize two theoretical frameworks to offer a lens for examining the data, next I describe my methodology and present my data via themed stories, and lastly, I set forth a discussion of the data and possible implications.
Review of the Literature
This literature review first examines the history of homeschooling and reflects upon its ability to support the academic and social-emotional needs of children. Next, it assesses the efficacy of remote learning for K-12 students. Lastly, it explores the impact of COVID-19 upon the school experience.
History of Homeschooling
While homeschooling in the United States has roots dating back to the founding of the nation, the contemporary homeschooling era is commonly accepted to begin with John Holt and Raymond Moore (Murphy, 2013). An education reformer from the 1960s and 70s, John Holt had ideas about “unschooling” that were generated from the progressive education movement. Unschoolers believe in child-centered learning, based on precepts that children have a natural ability to learn, the needs and interests of the child should direct their education, and the learning environment should adjust and be flexible to each learner (Murphy, 2013). Raymond Moore was also frustrated with the institutionalization of education, but he encouraged homeschooling in response to the influences of secular education (Murphy, 2013). He advocated for learning that promoted Christian religious beliefs and conservative, right-wing values such as parental authority and traditional family values (Murphy, 2013). The basic idea that one group of homeschoolers did so for religious, paternalistic reasons and another in protest against institutionalism and the regimentation of childhood has been confirmed in several research studies over the years (Kunzman & Gaither, 2020). According to both polarized perspectives, homeschooling was a counteraction to America’s public schools (Murphy, 2013).
Since the 1960s, homeschool education has evolved into a legitimate, formidable movement that is the fastest growing form of education today and is a catalyst for change in the public school system (Murphy, 2013). Homeschooling as a concept moved from an aberration to a legal, socially acceptable means of educating children in a fast-growing number of families (Murphy, 2013). Technological advances, coupled with significant increases in availability of online content, have bolstered the ability to homeschool more students; in fact, the Department of Education reports that from 2003 to 2012 the percentage of homeschooled K–12 students in the United States increased from 2.2% to 3.4%, and the raw number of homeschooled children increased by almost 62% (Heise, 2017).
Although that rapid growth subsequently stagnated prior to 2020, the normalization of homeschooling in a relatively short time frame highlights a perceived need for education alternatives beyond what the public sector provides. While homeschooling was conceived from the political far left and far right, and just two decades ago it was mostly comprised of white families, now homeschoolers are 32 percent Black, Asian, Hispanic, and other non-White, non-Hispanic students (Noel, Stark, & Redford, 2013). As a movement, homeschooling has become increasingly diverse and attracted an ever-growing number of families who are unsatisfied with the public school system (Murphy, 2013). Racism and lack of opportunity are just two reasons for opting out of public schools (Hirsh & Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), 2019). LGBTQ students may homeschool to escape the bullying, peer pressure, and shaming prevalent in many public schools (Hirsh, & CRPE, 2019). Even among families who homeschool for moral/religious beliefs, they are more likely to reject public school in part based on concerns about the quality of the education environment than concerns about secular teaching (Thomas, 2019).
According to the National Household Education Survey: Parent and Family Involvement in Education 2012, over 2 million U.S. students were either homeschooled or “flexischooled” — that is, partly homeschooled and partly enrolled in school or homeschooled (Schafer & Khan, 2017). Flexischoolers are demographically more similar to traditionally enrolled students in that they are more likely to be minorities, have disabilities, and live in low-income families (Schafer & Khan, 2017). Flexischoolers have played an important role in the economic and racial diversification of the homeschool movement (Schafer & Khan, 2017). The myriad of ways families are “curating and blending a variety of education and social learning opportunities” speaks to how education needs to be more responsive to better meet each student’s needs (Hirsh, & CRPE, 2019).
Numerous studies show that homeschooled students develop at least as well as, and often better than, those who attend traditional schools as it relates to academic achievement, social development, and relative success in adulthood (Ray, 2017). Although there has been much criticism of homeschooling, the broad appeal and relative success of its learners demonstrate that there are legitimate concerns with traditional schools and lessons to be learned from the home-educated community.
Efficacy of Online Learning
Online courses first appeared in 2008 and initially focused on adult learners in a post-secondary setting (Koutsakas et al., 2020). Since 2012, the significant number of K-12 students taking classes designed for tertiary education led to the development of online courses explicitly targeted for K-12 learning environments; however, to be beneficial, the online course must be adapted with pedagogical methods more appropriate for Κ-12 students (Koutsakas et al., 2020; Bai 2019). Additionally, research has demonstrated that online courses are most beneficial as a supplementary resource for K-12 learning when embedded within existing school infrastructures in a blended approach that combines online learning with a teacher’s presence, face-to-face instruction, social interaction, such that students are provided personalized and engaging learning experiences (Koutsakas et al., 2020). Online content for K-12 students is successful at supplementing, extending, and enhancing the existing school curriculum, particularly for: STEM (Bano et al. 2018; Buckner and Kim 2014; Kantar and Dogan 2015; Song and Kim 2015), motor skills (Hsiao and Chen 2016), language arts (Sung et al. 2016), and history (King et al. 2014). Additionally, K-12 remote schooling is not uniformly suited for all students or all families; individual students need to be motivated, organized, and supported (Black, 2021).
According to the Bai (2019) study of pedagogical practices of mobile learning in K-12 settings, technology must be merged with both pedagogy and subject content to foster meaningful learning experiences that enrich students’ learning, help learning occur outside of classrooms, and support differentiated learning. However, the Popov et al. (2020) study highlights that mobile learning has been used to reinforce traditional pedagogical practices; research has not yet fully explored mobile learning’s ability to reach its full potential by innovating within this learning context. Challenges for mobile learning include: how to use mobile learning in a pedagogically sound and informed way; the digital divide and equal access; policy, infrastructure, and professional support for integrating mobile learning (Popov et al., 2020). To effectively educate students through distance learning, preservice teachers need specific competencies including: personalized learning with an emphasis on pacing, curriculum, scheduling, and learning styles; classroom management skills; assessment; technology; and instructional design (Pulham & Graham, 2018). For online learning to reach its full potential, it must evolve so that teachers can respond to their students, enact what they teach, and students can express ideas verbally and interactively (Ward, 2018).
Impact of COVID-19 on Children and the Potential Appeal of Homeschooling
The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic had global implications that drastically impacted healthcare and educational systems. In the United States a wave of school closures began in early March 2020, closing down almost all of America’s 130,000 school buildings, affecting more than 56 million public and private school students and about 3.7 million teachers (Vanourek, 2020). Mass disruption of education persisted in some capacity throughout the 2020-2021 academic school year (EdWeek, 2021).
The unexpected disruption affected the behavioral and mental health of children, changing the way they typically grow, learn, play, behave, interact, and manage emotions (Shah et al., 2020). Children experiencing stressors such as isolation from their families and friends, seeing or being aware of individuals critically ill with the virus, the passing of loved ones, or considering their mortality from the virus can cause them to develop anxiety, panic attacks, depression, and other mental illnesses (Shah et al., 2020). Because some children have parents who work on the “front lines” in healthcare, others have parents who have lost their job, others are food insecure, and still others are isolated without access to technology, there will be youth who develop major depression and anxiety or whose psychiatric disorders will be exacerbated (Wagner, 2020). Based on parent reports, 45% of children are more stressed now than before the pandemic, and understandably a higher proportion of children (58%) feel even more stressed living in households where a parent’s employment has been affected by the pandemic (DiPerna et al., 2020).
Schools were forced to implement remote learning, provide essential services such as access to food, contend with plummeting teacher morale, and address children grieving loss — the loss of loved ones, stability, and safety (EdWeek, 2021). The immediate transition to remote learning presented many challenges to the U.S. school system, including the scramble to create online instruction, millions of families did not have high-speed Internet access or devices suitable for learning, teachers were unfamiliar with online learning platforms and on average provided instruction two hours a day, districts that lacked a centralized curriculum had no feasible way to shift to digital materials, and many students were simply unreachable by educators (Vanourek, 2020). In large school districts like Chicago, leaders needed to adapt emergency structures from more typical interruptions such as snow days and teacher strikes for a much longer, undetermined time (Center on Reinventing Public Education, 2020). Teachers had to abruptly adapt to virtual teaching without adequate training, relevant skills, or resources, a particularly overwhelming task for veteran teachers who had to quickly learn a wide landscape of educational technology with minimal support (Birch & Lewis, 2020). Additionally, remote learning exacerbated existing inequalities in the U.S. education system which greatly disadvantaged students from low-income and high-poverty districts (Vanourek, 2020). Students suffered immense deficits due to stress, anxiety, significant loss of instructional time, being forced to learn in a vastly different method, lack of access to materials, and varying levels of instruction (Middleton, 2020).
With COVID-19 forcing an almost overnight transformation of the entire U.S. school system into remote learning with little to no preparation, and the resulting challenges faced by school districts and teachers as described in the preceding paragraphs, many of the shortcomings of traditional schools were brought into sharp relief. Remote learning in this historically unprecedented time revealed significant inequalities for low-income, high-poverty students, and overall student learning was viewed as gravely deficient, which further facilitated the rapid development of homeschooling. Many families, including my own, were motivated by these concerns to choose a homeschooling experience. Once viewed as a space for reformers on both the far left and right margins of society, homeschooling has grown in appeal to a larger, more diverse portion of society. Remote learning in the K-12 learning environment has demonstrated immense benefit when used in tandem with more traditional pedagogical practices.
This study utilizes the theoretical frameworks of Moll’s Funds of Knowledge and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to provide a lens to examine the data and assess the extent to which homeschooling was able to create an educational environment that met the developmental needs of its students. The Funds of Knowledge framework suggests that families and students have “abundant knowledge” from their homes, communities, and culture that can be used to engage families and to support students in their learning. When teachers know the communities their students come from, they can develop classroom practices that promote trust, encourage dialogue, help students find meaning in activities, and expand ways that children can demonstrate their intellectual understanding (Moll, 2019). The Funds of Knowledge framework sees families as a resource for creating a richer learning experience for students. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a five-tiered pyramid of human needs for motivation and growth. From the bottom of the hierarchy upwards, the needs are: physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Maslow believed the orders of needs may be flexible based on circumstances and individual differences and that most behavior is determined by more than one basic need (McLeod, 2020). Educational applications of Maslow’s theory look at the physical, emotional, social, and intellectual qualities of an individual to understand how they impact learning (McLeod, 2020).
Autoethnography is a research method that aims to describe and analyze personal experience to ascertain cultural experience (Ellis et al., 2011). COVID-19 brought a surge of new families who never homeschooled before to break from their traditional school systems. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s experimental Household Pulse Survey, in the spring of the 2019-20 school about 5.4% of U.S. households with school-aged children reported homeschooling, by fall that number doubled to 11.1% (Bureau, 2021). What brought such a dramatic shift in the shared attitudes and values about education? When complex social phenomena are being investigated, context including the personalities, backgrounds and biases of those who undertook it is essential for providing a complete account (O’Connor, 2011). Autoethnography understands that stories are meaningful for broaching unique ways of thinking, deepening our capacity to empathize, and making sense of phenomena (Ellis et al., 2011).
Autoethnographers view their research goal is to produce analytical, accessible texts that are evocative and aesthetically compelling (Ellis et al., 2011). They believe research can be rigorous, theoretical, and analytical as well as emotional, personal, and embracing of social phenomena (Ellis et al., 2011). When researching as an autoethnographer, validity means that the themes evoke in readers a feeling that what was told is true, believable, and possible (Ellis et al., 2011). The work should be coherent and connect the reader to the author’s perspective (Ellis et al., 2011). However, due to the very nature of autoethnography the results should not be generalized or projected onto larger populations. Rather they are meant to simply share a perspective within an analytical framework. My hope is that by writing, telling, and reflecting on my stories and their context, I will deepen “an understanding of the connectivity between self and others within the same context” (Faith et al., 2010).
Data collection included journaling, memory-work, writing down stories of my experiences, rewriting, and reflecting again on the experiences, reviewing and reflecting on artifacts like lesson plans, student portfolios, progress reports, and pictures taken throughout the year. The stories are a synthesis of textural descriptions with the purpose of revealing the essence of my experience homeschooling.
To construct my self-reflexive account, I did an initial review of all my data to re-remember my experiences and highlighted stories that stood out to me as moments of epiphany. In my second round of reading, I chose five distinct themes through which to construct a personal narrative account. Personal narrative accounts are stories by authors who view themselves as the phenomenon and propose to understand some aspect of a life as it intersects with a cultural context (Ellis et al., 2011). I then retrospectively and selectively analyzed each theme within the context of my chosen theoretical lens, methodological tools, and research literature to interpret the connections between my personal experience and the broader phenomena of those homeschooling during the pandemic. By situating my experience in the wider socio-cultural context, my purpose was both to develop understanding of homeschooling during COVID-19 and to share lessons learned that may be meaningful for traditional schools. Each theme ends with the epiphany that emerged from my storytelling.
Theme 1- Mental Health
March 11, 2020 was a Thursday. In just the past week, news of coronavirus escalated with a sense of fear and imminent unknown danger. The week prior I had been in New York City with 40 middle school students for our annual Montessori Model United Nations Conference, and at the time the coronavirus still seemed like something happening to other people in faraway places. I went to pick up my kids from after-school, and as I was chatting with one of the teachers everyone’s phone started dinging. School would be cancelled for two weeks, and everyone was expected to quarantine. News spread quickly, and on the playground you could hear kids cheering and screaming with joy. My own kids came rushing in from outside bursting with excitement. Who knew that this moment, which they thought was going to be like an extended snow day, would actually be their last moment in public school for a year and a half?
Reality set in quickly as grocery shelves emptied of food and toilet paper, school and workplaces went remote indefinitely, email inboxes were flooded with updates, sports ended, and stress and anxiety skyrocketed. The next few weeks our entire lives were transformed. My husband and I had to work from home. I was expected to transition my entire curriculum on-line and teach remotely while having to care for my 9- and 11-year-old children.
In a very short amount of time, my children’s very active social lives became isolated, and their school experience became about Zoom calls, accessing websites with logins and passwords, uploading busy-work assignments, sharing devices and being told to stop arguing while we were on work calls. Two weeks became the rest of the school year and words like “social distancing” and “bubble” became part of the everyday lexicon. I was ordering desks and office chairs from Amazon, putting them together at night, and rearranging all the rooms in our home to create a workspace for everyone. My dissertation defense on April 29 for earning my doctorate in education loomed as my family and work life were being pulled at the seams.
It seemed the mental health of everyone in my world — coworkers, students, neighbors, friends, family, children, and me — took a collective nosedive. One afternoon, I ended a Zoom class with my students around 2:00 p.m. and went to check on my son in his room and he was fast asleep in his bed. I gently closed the doors and tried to push back the tears as they came falling down my cheeks. Typically, my son was easy-going and affable. He loves sports, acting in musicals, and anything social. Now, he was depressed. Sleeping was his way of escaping. The daytime naps kept coming, and I felt helpless to change his situation. He was without school, friends, sports, and life as he knew it was “less than” in every way. My once very studious daughter who loved learning begged not to go on Zoom calls with her class. “They’re so boring,” she proclaimed. After much negotiation, she would attend and just fifteen minutes in ask me if she could get off yet. She was unengaged, unmotivated, and believed the whole thing was pointless. I saw firsthand what the schools were providing and what little actual teaching was happening, it was tough to argue with her. If there had been more of a relationship between the school and our family experience, we would have had the basis to exchange knowledge and potentially create a better academic experience (Moll, 2019). As a schoolteacher myself, I was in the midst of figuring out with my own students how to create meaningful learning experiences remotely and knew this was a disaster and doing more harm than good. March through June was an emotional rollercoaster. And the stress took a toll. I got shingles in May, as my body was breaking down from the stress of the situation. I felt powerless as my once happy children became withdrawn, started hating school, and were overwhelmed with ennui. COVID-19 was threatening the basic and psychological needs of my children, and so their learning was suffering (McLeod, 2020). As we came into summer, the only thing I knew for certain was that this situation was not sustainable for our family, and we had to regain control. We needed a holistic, humanistic educational approach.
Epiphany From Theme 1: Families and schools need to be in close communication and collaboration to address the mental health of children for them to be able to thrive academically.
Theme 2- Discovering Nature and Joy
There was so much uncertainty and discomfort all summer regarding what the fall would bring for our children’s education. My phone was constantly ringing from parents in distress. Ultimately, I was forced to quit my job because I would be required to be in-person five days a week and my kids would only be in-person two days a week. I thought I would be one of the one-in-five Americans not in the workforce because COVID-19 disrupted childcare arrangements (Bureau, 2020). Ultimately, I decided to homeschool my two children with another family who also had two children. We were among the 4-5% of families creating a learning pod due to COVID-19 (McShane, 2020). The two kids I committed to homeschooling were also struggling emotionally and academically. The 12-year-old boy had a long history of learning challenges that were exacerbated during quarantine. According to his mom, teachers had unreasonable expectations for what could be accomplished remotely and provided too little support. When he started school with me, his frustration for school was palpable, and he lacked the tenacity to persevere through academic challenges. For example, when writing and illustrating a children’s story, I needed to hold him accountable through every step so that he could see learning as a process. His younger sister was an exceptionally mature fifth grader, academically strong, and bored by remote learning. She clearly craved being engaged and allowed to explore her own curiosity. She loved participating and sharing her opinions. I remember one project, where the kids were asked to make different styles of boats and see which one could hold the most weight before sinking. She was eager to keep redesigning her boat over and over so that it could hold more weight. Her mom would text me at night some of the comments from her children, “It’s so interesting the projects we get to do, you forget you’re at school” and “She plans such fun activities, you can tell she really cares that we like learning.” Her kids were naturally curious and excited by the opportunity to rediscover the joy in learning.
The needle was constantly moving that summer as we were confronted daily with new information about the virus, schools, and my work situation. Change was constant. Days after I decided to create a homeschool pod, I was offered a job as an education professor teaching undergraduate education courses which would require me to be in-person two days a week. The mother of the other children I would be homeschooling agreed she could take on one of those days if I did the lesson planning for it, and my mom could take care of my kids on the other day. I wasn’t sure about how this would go, but I felt better knowing that I had more control over the physical and emotional safety of my children. I also hoped that their experience of predictability and control would give them the emotional security needed to thrive academically (McLeod, 2020).
Having taught in a Montessori school for seven years, I believed in the importance and power of nature and play in the lives of children. Knowing how much anxiety and stress the pandemic was putting on our children, I consciously integrated nature into our homeschool curriculum. We went on nature hikes, field trips to Walden Pond, apple picking, and took frequent movement breaks outside. Daily dog walks were put into the formal schedule. The smiles and laughter as the kids waded waist deep in pond muck trying to catch frogs revealed a recovery of their spirit and renewal of their inner joy. Yes, they were learning, but more importantly they were connecting with each other, their environment, and their sense of self. The other mother, not a K-12 teacher, got in the spirit and would ask throughout the year., “Do you mind if I do a unit on transcendentalism? On plants? On the art of bird watching?” “Yes, yes, yes!” I responded. We studied art, weather, nature, climate change, poetry, and became students of the world. Amid so much uncertainty, we were able to create stability, build relationships, and develop deeper understanding. On a field trip to Decordova Sculpture Park and Museum, the kids left the museum and spent thirty minutes climbing the rock wall over and over again, having races with each other and discovering new ways to surmount the wall. The next activity was rolling down the grass hill, the boys at first too cool, quickly joined the girls to see who could get the furthest down the hill. They climbed the trees and made music together on the outside xylophone, they explored and laughed, and were in the moment. The amalgam of the natural environment and being with each other fostered genuine happiness through exploration. In all my years teaching in all sorts of K-12 education settings from public to charter to private, I have not come across a curriculum goal or standard for joy. What a miss!
Epiphany From Theme 2: Being in nature has profound benefits on children’s emotional well-being. By connecting with the environment, it helps them connect to each other and to themselves. Joy of learning matters. When joy is prioritized, it becomes the foundation for taking on challenges, inquiry, and meaningful study within a curriculum.
Theme 3- Political-Social Landscape
Although the pandemic presented the most immediate threat to my children’s education and was the primary reason for my decision to opt out of the school system, other critical social and political events were occurring during this study that contributed significantly to the overall climate of the country. The timeline in Figure 1 as defined by the BBC. (2021, January 20). United States profile – Timeline provides a historical snapshot into the timeframe during which this study occurred.
|2019 December||President Trump is impeached by the House of Representatives on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. His trial is set to begin in the Senate the following month.|
|2020 January||US drone strike kills leading Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani at Baghdad Airport, promoting Iranian threats of retaliation.|
|2020 March||National emergency declared over the Covid-19 pandemic|
|2020 May||Nationwide protests break out following the killing of African-American George Floyd by Minneapolis police.|
|2020 November||Democrat former Vice-President Joe Biden defeats Donald Trump in the presidential election.|
|2021 January||Joe Biden inaugurated president amid unprecedented security, a week after Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in Washington DC.|
FIGURE 1. Timeline of socio-political events.
The death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, led to a social awakening on police brutality and racial injustice in the United States. Protests broke out nationwide throughout the summer to support the Black Lives Matter movement and led to a worldwide debate on systemic racism. The political-social reality shaped the conversations happening in our home and the curriculum I would teach. On June 2, our family joined a Black Lives Matter protest happening in our small, predominantly white suburb of Boston. We wanted our children to understand the racial injustice in our country and to become engaged, active citizens. It was important for them to recognize that the horror of what happened to George Floyd was not an isolated incident but was indicative of decades of injustice, violence, inequality, and systemic racism. We witnessed a protester holding a sign that read simply, “Read Black Authors.” I was going back to teach middle school and suddenly I realized I needed to revisit my curriculum: the books, literature, text, and resources that I used in the classroom. Was I doing enough? How could I do better? My son was also processing the reality of racial injustice. Over the summer he drew a portrait of George Floyd. It was his way of coming to terms with what happened and honoring George Floyd’s life. Once I decided to homeschool, I intentionally weaved social justice throughout the curriculum. I felt I had this year, this singular opportunity, to expose my children to ideas and perspectives that I was not convinced the public schools would adequately address. On the heels of this tumultuous summer, I started the school year teaching the U.S. government and the election process. We studied the three branches of government, the rights and responsibilities of citizens, political parties, special interest groups, the electoral process and so on. We talked at length about why democracy and elections were so important. It was exciting to see my children connect the massive injustices in our country to our democratic processes like protests, voting, and elections as a means to address those injustices. The students, not my own, in our homeschool pod talked about how poorly cops are portrayed during the civil rights movement and around issues of race today. Their father is a police officer, and it upset them for anyone to think that he would support racism. Also, frequently, they were afraid for his safety. This allowed us to explore stereotypes and the need for allies within the system. It also gave them a space to process their complex feelings and express their genuine fears.
And then January 6th happened. It’s hard to articulate how emotionally painful it was to watch the U.S. Capitol being stormed by people holding Confederate flags and MAGA hats. The attack on the Capitol screamed to me the utter and absolute failure of our education system. I was saddened and angry by the depth of ignorance of the people who believed this was an acceptable response to their frustration over losing an election. The reality and gravity of that day reignited in me the crucial work happening at home, that my children must feel the tremendous responsibility of both preserving our democracy and using democracy to create a more equal society.
And so, we soldiered on in our homeschool pod. January 20 came, and we made red, white, and blue desserts, watched the inauguration of President Biden, and were inspired by the words of Amanda Gorman. The kids loved her poem and asked to hear it again the next day at school. They were able to both hear and feel her words and connect with her call to action. We held our own indigenous people climate summit, studied the art of Jean-Michel Basquiat and saw it at the Museum of Fine Arts, read stories by authors of color, and challenged each other and our thinking. During the climate summit, each child spoke about their personal responsibility to the planet and the need for the wealthier nations to protect poorer nations. My daughter started bringing a plastic bag on our walks to the donut store in town to collect trash along the way. We read “Red Scarf Girl” and studied communism in China. Throughout our conversations of this story, one student could not let go of how manipulative Mao was and the ways that he would have stood up to abuses against his family, friends, and community. We learned sign language and how to cook. When we hired a chef to teach us how to make a meal for both families in honor of the novel “House on Mango Street,” the kids all invited the chef to sit and eat with us. They genuinely wanted him to be included in the meal.
It can be a lot to spend every day with the same four kids, but they regularly approached conflict and disagreements with maturity and kindness. For example, they were asked to make a Great Wall of China together that displayed all their research on China. There was significant debate about the design and distribution of work. However, in that debate they listened to each other, made compromises, and considered each other’s perspectives. The curriculum was not based on decades of standards designed to show mastery of knowledge and skills. The curriculum was based on giving the kids the space to explore and inquire and to develop our humanity. The way the kids move through the world is with an awareness and concern for others. And they show it in the smallest ways. It’s my daughter’s reaction to needing a diseased tree removed from a yard, “you know you’re killing the environment, right?” and my son’s response to a homeless man playing music for money at the grocery store, “we have to help him, is that really all the cash you have on you, but his sign says he has kids, we need to do more.” And it’s in my other two students’ desire to be more helpful at their home as their dad recovered from surgery. I see in all of them a pause and a reflection of what is just in the many everyday moments.
Epiphany From Theme 3: Intentionally integrating social justice and exposing students to the perspectives of others develops their empathy, critical thinking, and humanity.
Theme 4- Powerful Relationships
One of the most striking takeaways from this year is how much my kids’ relationship developed with my mother, their Nana. Tuesdays were coined “Nana University.” A day I thought would be no more than babysitting while I went to work was actually very meaningful to their learning experience. Initially, my mom took on the one day a week as her opportunity to expose the kids to ideas and experiences that she felt were important for them. It manifested in many ways. For example, my mom felt their penmanship was being neglected with so much typing and had them hand write their reading response journal entries. Great! She also took them on long walks, where she encouraged my daughter’s love for photography. My mom also loves photography, and together they would critique each other’s pictures and discuss their composition. She cooked with them, had them watch documentaries, but she eventually ran out of ideas and let them plan the day. The autonomy and freedom they had on Tuesdays truly reflected John Holt’s philosophy of unschooling. And from that freedom they created. They wrote poetry and short stories, took apart old computers and made them into inventions, they rarely ate lunch “there just wasn’t any time” proclaimed my kids as they raided the pantry when back home, and were coming into themselves. They also developed a genuine, heartfelt connection with their Nana. They speak their minds with her and are truly themselves as opposed to a “be on your best behavior” at Nana’s attitude. They have such a personal connection with her, and I am overjoyed that they have had this time together and know that it will be a component of their COVID-19 experience that they will look back on fondly.
At the end of the school year, I had each of my four students write a letter to each other. They shared memories and expressed their gratitude for each other. We talked about the letters with each other after they had a chance to read each of them, and I asked them if the letters made them realize anything. My daughter piped up. “I always thought my brother and I had a good relationship, but now I think we have a close relationship.” Her brother nodded in agreement. I melted. So sweet. Teaching two sets of siblings, both an older brother and younger sister, I was expecting there to be constant bickering and sibling rivalry. There really wasn’t. They liked being in school together. I think seeing each other in a learning environment they came to respect one another’s ideas and opinions. By working together on projects, they had common goals and were able to see each other’s abilities. They also saw each other’s learning challenges and were considerate of their vulnerabilities. But mostly they had a lot of time to play with each other. There is a significant body of research on the value of play-based learning, with its roots from progressive education thinkers like John Dewy and Maria Montessori. Play-based learning is essential for the growth, development and learning of children across all ages (Isenberg & Quisenberry, 2002). Through play children develop physical, cognitive, and social-emotional skills that give them opportunities to feel competent about their ability to learn (Isenberg & Quisenberry, 2002). Recess was completely unstructured and only mildly supervised. They were outside while I was inside making lunch. They made up different types of tag, jumped on rollerblades and made-up chasing games, renamed the streets around the neighborhood, played new versions of softball, built snow structures, and had fun together. Their collective desire to not have me outside with them, encouraged them to work out problems and be kind to one another.
Knowing that they were essentially in it with each other for the year, all of them developed relationships that were authentic and based on mutual respect. Each child found common ground with the other three children regardless of age or gender. From that common ground developed true friendship. The two girls were already friends from before, but the boys really didn’t know each other. They had whole other social networks from school and sports that they were being isolated from. When I look back on it, the two boys were always laughing together. My son took the lead on academic work and was happy to help with math problems, essays, and projects. The older boy taught my son to fish, rollerblade, and gave him advice with girls. There was no shortage of bad judgment between them that we laughed about all the time. “No boys you can’t hop the railing and jump down a flight of stairs to retrieve your fallen water bottle. Do you see any way to get out once you’re down there?” They all were missing many things from their pre-COVID lives, yet they found support in each other.
Having just four students, I was able to develop an awareness and an insight into each student. I knew when to push, when to back off, when to give them choice, when to give direction, when to be demanding, and when to be supportive. We had a connection such that I could adjust and pivot to better support them as their teacher. For example, each night for homework the kids had to read a book of their choosing for 30 minutes and then write a reading response journal for 15 minutes. My daughter preferred to read aloud with me or my husband, frequently taking turns reading alternate pages. This practice shifted throughout the year, to her reading completely independently, to us doing all the reading and her listening, to alternating pages, and so on. Same with the journaling, sometimes she did it independently, sometimes we were her scribe as she told us what to write, and sometimes she would write it and then read it aloud to us before submitting it. We just didn’t get overly invested in how the reading and writing was supposed to be done, she was enjoying it and based on her changing moods or needs used us for support as she desired. In the midst of this, our son, who was typically very independent, would casually sit on the couch with us from time to time and listen as we read to his sister. At one such time, he really got into the book we were reading, I Am Malala. He proclaimed, “I don’t think it’s fair that you guys read to her and not me. I think I should be able to read with you.” Okay. So, the three of us read the book together. Then when we were done, we all watched the documentary about her life together. Through homeschooling, because I came to have a deeper understanding of their needs through a shared consciousness and profound awareness, I could accommodate those needs.
Epiphany From Theme 4: When teachers develop close relationships with their students, they can give them more freedom to direct their own learning. From that freedom, they discover their creativity, develop inner confidence, and find meaning in exploring their curiosities.
Theme 5- The Standards Within
Throughout the year I was very aware of this internal tug between what I wanted to do with my kids schooling and what I felt I was supposed to be doing. For example, every day I’d take the older two boys for a 45-minute math lesson and then the younger two girls. I had this feeling of, well if they at least keep up in math when they return to traditional schools next year, I’ll feel like they had a legitimate experience. This fear of having to keep them on grade level in math kept me tied to a traditional math curriculum. And while we did do a lot of math discussion, inquiry, and strategy building, overall, I followed a traditional, standards-based math curriculum with regular tests and assessments. I felt like if we suffer through this each day, then we can do what we really believe in for the rest of the day. Because I had them in groups of two, we were able to plow through a lot of the curriculum, but I felt stunted in my creativity to present math in a more engaging way with real-life applications that would inspire struggle and joy for the kids.
This need to look legitimate to the outside world manifested in other ways. The two other students, not my own children, were applying to private schools. Their mother needed progress reports for her two kids to submit as part of their application. She shared with me how concerned the private schools were that her kids were being homeschooled and that the schools were open in their doubt about the validity of homeschooling. She needed to justify her choice to them by explaining to the schools that I had a doctorate in education and 15 years teaching experience, that this was the best decision for children due to COVID-19, and so on. I assured her that I would submit a thorough, detailed progress report and be available to explain our curriculum. Having taught 7th and 8th graders students at a private school for seven years, I knew exactly what the area private schools were looking for in the progress reports, letters of recommendation, and application packages. Although they were schools rooted in progressive education, ultimately, they wanted to know the kids could compete in a traditional academic environment. There is this sense that when kids are young we want them to be in nature and explore their curiosity and love for learning, but the time comes when we must put all that away and get down to the serious business of learning.
I played the “game” to help get these students into private schools, which they did. But the truth is that even when given the space to do what I wanted for a year, I played it for all the kids as demonstrated in their daily math classes, their math homework, just the reality of them having homework each night. We have been so socialized to believe in these very traditional notions of education that it’s hard to break from them and commit to something very different, freer, and more meaningful. I was reminded of the line from the movie Shawshank Redemption, “These walls are funny. First you hate ’em, then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized.” As a society perhaps we have collectively been institutionalized by our education that we are dependent on traditional schools for our understanding of what the learning experience should look and feel like. I think this year I explored what learning could be, but because I knew that my kids would return to traditional schools, I did not stray too far from an “institutionalized” view of learning.
Epiphany From Theme 5: We have collectively been socialized from our own educational experiences to believe in traditional notions of education that include standards-based learning, test taking assessments, homework, and teacher-directed curriculum. It is challenging to break from these educational societal norms even when we see the value to our children in doing something different.
Homeschool education can be a productive space for exploring new approaches to the growth and development of children. Each epiphany I experienced highlighted an essential benefit of homeschooling. The epiphany from theme one shows the importance of family in a child’s life and how powerful close communication and collaboration between a school and its students can be for their overall health and academic growth. The epiphany from theme two suggests the profound healing power of nature on children’s emotional well-being. It also demonstrated the need to prioritize joy. Theme three’s epiphany explored the ability for homeschooling to address social justice and to help children to develop their compassion for humanity. The epiphany from theme four pushes teachers to allow students to be more self-directed in their learning. When given freedom, children have the space to be creative, curious, and build inner confidence. Lastly, the epiphany from theme five challenges us to be brave, break from our collective socialization, and consider following our heart when educating our children. Future research that examines the experiences of families who have homeschooled for multiple years may further explore these epiphanies and provide new insights.
One possible implication of this study is to embrace the notion that homeschool education has many benefits and can offer useful lessons for traditional schools. Public educator resistance to homeschooling stems from a “faith stance” that prevents education leaders from exploring the possibilities, benefits, and lessons of ways that homeschooling has uncovered in its ability to serve students (Després, 2013). Considering that so many parents chose for the first time to homeschool in some manner due to COVID-19, this study suggests that traditional schools were ill prepared to meet the social-emotional and academic needs of children during a crisis event. This study highlights that homeschool education can create interconnected relationships, work in concert with families to build trust, identify and support the needs of children, and create learning environments that foster joy. The attention and care students receive when homeschooling is a tremendous benefit to their growth and development.
Traditional schools are based on a standards-driven curriculum that focuses on what students should know and be able to do at the end of each grade. Traditional schools believe that this baseline of knowledge and skills are essential for children to succeed in college, work, and life. This study implicitly questions that fundamental precept and explores what if instead of focusing on what students know and can do, education rather focuses on how students learn and why they are learning. Through homeschooling, I was able to root a curriculum in nature, social justice, and freedom for personal discovery. Homeschool education can help children by allowing them to first ask why and how, thus embracing curiosity and a joy for learning. I hope this study will generate future research that explores the benefits of homeschooling and calls to attention the needs of children in their learning environment.
Education has long been viewed as a societal equalizer for individuals to have a means for upper mobility, personal gain, growth, and wealth. A social justice curriculum pushes the notion of education’s purpose to also benefit humanity beyond the individual. This past year highlighted the fragility of democracy, the depth of racial injustice, and the critical need for community action in the face of a pandemic. This study suggests that homeschool education may provide some thought-provoking ideas for ways to better serve students and address the pressing needs of our world.
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