Why and how I homeschool my children

My wife Kimberley and I decided to homeschool our children. There’s only one reason: we think they learn better this way. Since people are curious about homeschooling, I’d like tell you how it works.

Homeschooling is a personal preference. My intention here is not to change anyone’s mind or win anyone over, but simply to explain myself. I am not hoping to change the world or the educational system, but only to give my children the education that will be best for them. But I do hope my explanation causes you to question the tacit assumptions you have made, if you’ve never considered anything but a traditional education.

Homeschooling parents choose this option for a very diverse set of reasons — this is not a homogenous community. But they share one thing:

[tweetthis twitter_handles=”@jbernoff”]Homeschooling families believe they can help their children learn better than they would in school.[/tweetthis]

Homeschooling philosophy and experience

To understand our philosophy, refer to the diagram. For every child, in the center, there are the things they have already learned. Around that and built upon it are the things they are ready to learn. And outside of that are the things they’re not yet prepared to learn.



For example, a math student who has a firm grounding in arithmetic, fractions, ratios, and other math concepts is ready to learn algebra. But that child is not yet ready to learn calculus.

With school, the challenge is that each child’s bullseye is different. The teacher must aim for the average level of the class. This means that lots of students are learning stuff they already know and are bored, while others are learning stuff they’re not ready for and are confused. If only the teacher could challenge each student with the concepts that are just within their reach, then each student would constantly grow and move ahead. That’s just what the homeschooling teacher — often the parent — does.

Teaching this way is much more time efficient for both the student and the teacher, because it eliminates waste.

How we started homeschooling

Here’s how this worked in my house.

When my kids were small, my wife and I both taught them. (If you have small children, you already do this. Who taught your child to eat with a fork, to recognize the alphabet, to count, to sing? We all homeschool up to kindergarten, but for homeschoolers that process continues throughout childhood.)

When they were “school age,” my wife did most of the teaching. With so many museums and books available in Boston, we exposed the children to every possible source of knowledge available, including, of course, the Internet. As they got older, she organized classes for our children and others; they also went to classes at other people’s houses. For example, Kimberley was a scout leader and ran classes on history, geography, and physical science, complete with experiments. I had a full-time job and helped in specific areas, but her full-time job was to homeschool the kids. There was plenty of social interaction; homeschool kids spend lots of time with their fellow students in both schooling and social interactions. There are hundreds of homeschooling families in the Boston area who became our children’s social community.

When my children became high-school age, they took different paths. The paths they took reveal how homeschooling creates different experiences based on the needs of the students.

Homeschooling a facile learner

My older son Ray is very bright with a quick and agile mind. He learned to read very early and then devoured everything from a science encyclopedia to Harry Potter. A child like this learns rapidly with just a little guidance — and would be bored into a stupor in school. When Ray turned 13, he took his first community college class. He continued with classes at community college and Harvard Extension in Biology, Physics, Chemistry, Astronomy, Photography, Philosophy, History, French, German, and Statistics. I taught him algebra (he mostly taught himself) and writing, in a non-fiction writing class with five other teenagers. We helped him prepare college applications for six schools. It’s a lot more work to prepare college applications for homeschoolers, but Ray got accepted at five of the six schools and chose Tufts University, where he is a successful sophomore now.

Ray’s experience with college classes and with adult students prepared him well for school, and his transition was easier than it is for many students. It also helped that he entered a year later than most kids his age, a choice we all supported because it was right for him.

Homeschooling a diligent learner

Isaac, who is three years younger than Ray, turned out to be a very diligent student, but is also dyslexic. When Isaac didn’t learn to read by osmosis, as Ray did, we knew we needed a different approach. Kimberley, who has a masters degree in special education, took a weeklong training class in the Orton-Gillingham method, which is the standard method for teaching dyslexic students to read. Orton-Gillingham emphasizes helping students attain mastery in specific skills before going on to other skills, just as my diagram above indicates, and she used it to teach Isaac to read.

At high school age, Isaac was not ready for college courses. We turned instead to Minuteman Tech, our local vocational high school, where Isaac took academic classes in English, History, Algebra, Biology, and all the usual subjects along with training in programming and web design.

Not having been programmed into passivity like the other students, Isaac was highly dedicated to his studies and earned all A’s, moving up from first year college prep level to honors classes in sophomore year. But although the teachers were excellent, Isaac and we became increasingly frustrated with the busy work and test-score focus of all the classes. At the start of junior year, we took stock and decided to go back to homeschooling.

Now I am teaching Isaac algebra and writing , and Kimberley is teaching world geography. Isaac is also taking a literature class at someone else’s house with other homeschoolers. My algebra class focuses attaining skills and mastering them, along with review to keep skills solid. My writing class — in contrast to the high school’s — involves progressively more difficult weekly assignments, lots of feedback and rewriting, and the principles in this blog. (In school, Isaac had been getting frustrated with the overwriting and rigidity that teachers reward, which conflicted with my focus on writing that is short, direct, and matched to the piece’s purpose.) I’ve been pleased with Isaac’s rapid progress in writing. While not the fastest writer, Isaac has become an excellent and passionate essayist through practice and feedback.

Having matured a lot in the last two years, Isaac is now ready for college classes and is already taking (and loving) a graphic design class at a local college. I have no doubt that when it’s time to enroll in college, Isaac will get into a school of his choice and eventually, become a successful web designer.

What this means for you

I don’t expect or want you to homeschool your children.It’s a lot of work for parents. If you are a single parent or if both parents in your family work, then you shouldn’t homeschool. But regardless of what you choose, think about this.

The objective of education should be to help children learn, not to get them to pass tests and get on some preordained path to success.

Life is full of unexpected decisions and opportunities. Students who learn how to learn and make their own decisions are well prepared for life.

Children love to learn. Just about the only thing that can extinguish that is the traditional schooling experience.

When you help children learn, you form a relationship with them that is based on trust and collaboration, not just love. That’s a good thing to have as they enter their teenage years.

The Internet is filled with resources for learners. So is your community. If you think education is about school, you’ve got blinders on.

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  1. I love my children but having to spend time with them outside of work and the very rare times I get to do my own thing, is more than enough. If I was wealthy enough to employ a teacher to school them at home, then I would. Most parents aren’t though and have to do it themselves. It would drive me bonkers! By the time the weekend is over, no matter how much fun I’ve had with my kids over the weekend, I can’t wait to get back to work for some respite. Very few people have the energy, patience and discipline to teach their children. They just want to drop them off at school and let someone else do it. I hate having to try and make sure they get their homework done! It feels like school has given me homework and I’d rather just spend some quality time with my kids rather than having to force myself and them to do a chore. Well done to you though! 🙂

  2. The attention you give your children is far superior to what they’d receive even from a great teacher in a classroom of 20 or so pupils. Undoubtedly you approach your kids with love and great respect for their individual tendencies. Those they would rarely get in a classroom. My point is that the differences between home school and classrooms are wide and deep. The economic realities within the families which require two breadwinners just to pay the bills means that home schooling is out of the question.

    In the meantime, public education (and even many private schools, I will suggest) do not properly prepare the students for life and living. The solutions are a matter of great debate. Until the US society understands the value of education—and respects and values real knowledge—education will rumble forth, producing the same mediocre outcomes.

    Certain schools have added the practice of Transcendental Meditation to the curriculum. The results have been very good: the atmosphere in the school becomes softer as tension decreases and violent tendencies drop. The rest and inner calm TM provides both students and teachers transforms the classroom, making it a place conducive to learning—which kids, as you note, instinctively enjoy.

    Teachers should be superbly trained, paid very well, and schools should be designed to look and feel welcoming and inviting to children. Never should school buildings look like fortresses or prisons. May the day come soon, as the bumper sticker reads, when the military has to hold a bake sale to buy planes and bombs and all that.

  3. Excellent blog post. It sound like you and your wife were well prepared to develop a curriculum and to teach your children in a way that worked for each one individually. As you’ve said, it’s not for everyone. Some parents don’t know what or how to teach their children or how to gauge if they are learning it well. Another option that combines the best of both homeschooling and traditional schooling is virtual school. Kids learn at home with close parental involvement, and they connect to real teachers and a professionally developed curriculum via the Internet.

    I am a copywriter for Connections Academy, which has virtual public schools in more than half the United States. Since working there, I’ve interviewed hundreds of parents about their experiences with the school. Some families were previously homeschooling, others were dissatisfied with their local schools for social or academic reasons, while others wanted more flexibility in scheduling. I don’t know if this is true for all virtual schools, but the vast majority of Connections Academy families are tremendously pleased with the personalized attention their children get from their teachers, with the progress they are making, and the great curriculum and lesson plans. They also appreciate how their kids can work at a pace that works for them, and how their kids learn to be proactive about their own educations. It’s a great solution for many families.

    Sorry to sound like a commercial, but it is great to talk to and write about these real-life families who have found virtual school to be the answer they were seeking.

  4. Well done, thank for sharing your experiences.

    Curious if your kids are entirely appreciative for the sacrifice made? Do they regret in any way not having a traditional social experience at school?

    I love how you speak of the trust built between you (& your wife) and your children, that’s such a wonderful result as well.

    1. I did not consider it a sacrifice. My kids liked being homeschooled but it’s normal for them, they appreciate it like they appreciate getting a good dinner and a ride to karate practice — it’s what their parents do.

      However . . . when I made Isaac aware that it was possible to start homeschooling again after two years of school, that was a big deal. We have a contract now . . . Isaac promises to work hard and be diligent, and I promise to be a good teacher. I would say that Isaac definitely appreciates for my effort and having an alternative to school. A grateful kid, that one.

  5. Typo: “I’d like tell you how it works.”
    Love your stuff, you’re a great writer, thanks for sharing so much of your expertise.
    As a designer, writing is critical to communicating effectively. I plan on incorporating your valuable guidance into my promotional writings.

  6. “If you are a single parent or if both parents in your family work, then you shouldn’t homeschool.” I was a single mom for five years and continued to successfully homeschool my children. There are currently three moms in our homeschool group who are single moms and are successfully homeschooling their children. Just sayin….

    1. I completely agree! I’m a single homeschooling mom as well. It can be done. I also know of a homeschooling family where both mom and dad work. They work opposite shifts that way there’s always someone home to help teach the kids. It’s wise not to tell parents whether they should homeschool or not. If there’s a will there’s a way. It all comes down to priorities and what’s best for you and your family.

      1. Exactly, I was like why would you discourage single parents from homeschooling. As a single parent of 5 children I’ve done it successfully with my oldest now in college. Now I’m not going to tell you it’s not hard, because it is. But stay focused on your why and the goals you set for your family and do it. There’s plenty of us that have and are doing it everyday!

  7. How do I get started? I live in NC and my daughter HATES the highschool she attends and cries sometimes because she don’t want to go and this breaks my heart because she is so smart, she is in all honors classes and does great in school. I just refuse to let her go 2 and a half more years at this school where she is miserable when I can do something about it. I need to know what to do! Help!

  8. Why shouldn’t you homeschool if your a single parent? I’m a single parent and I’m homeschooling very well