An Interview with the Campbell Family
Our second homeschooling interview is with Stephanie Campbell, who lives on Seattle's Eastside with her husband and daughter. Here, Stephanie shares her family's homeschool experience...
Please tell us a little bit about yourselves.
We’re a family on the Eastside and have been homeschooling our first grade daughter since kindergarten.
What do you think are the primary benefits of homeschooling?
● Just-in-time learning: At a fairly precise level, we’re able to teach our daughter the topics and skills she’s ready to learn. That’s just not the case with larger classes -- certainly they can approach that with differentiated learning or pullout classes but it’s still not optimal.
● Adaptable/Flexible Curriculum: We can change a standard curriculum to meet our interests by going deeper in particular topics we’re interested in, tweak exercises to appeal better to our daughter’s learning style, and omit or reduce exercises that are less interesting.
● One-on-one tutoring: She can have as much or as little attention from me as she needs to best learn the topic.
● It teaches our daughter the value of being responsible for her own learning path: She gets to observe and participate directly in not just the learning but also the selection of what she learns and from whom. As learning continues to extend farther into adulthood and we can customize our education to a greater extent than ever before, We're hoping this will allow her to take a strong ownership of her own education. Learning isn’t something that should just wash over you.
● The homeschooling community is very broad, diverse, and super-nice. We’ve met some great people with very diverse backgrounds and interests. Of course, that’s the case at any school but the homeschool community is much broader and diverse than you might think.
● Quality of life: We do keep a relatively traditional calendar and schedule but still have more flexibility when scheduling vacations, get to spend less time commuting, and are able to adjust our hours as needed.
Why did you decide to homeschool?
I’ve covered the primary benefits of homeschool above and so, given those benefits, perhaps another way of asking the question is “Why wouldn’t we homeschool?” I suspect the main reason people don’t homeschool is that it’s simply not the traditional, default choice. Being non-traditional isn’t a big barrier for us. It makes things more interesting.
Another reason to not homeschool is that the gap between your areas of expertise and your goals for homeschooling is too great to effectively bridge. Fortunately, academics in general and core subjects like math, science, language arts, and social studies and academics are a strength for us. With that strong academic foundation, it is much easier to find specialists in the fine arts and athletics.
So, at the end of the day, when we compared the benefits to the concerns, the benefits were strong enough that we wanted to try at least one year of homeschooling. That was successful, this year was successful and we’ll continue into our third year in the fall.
How do you answer friend / family’s questions about your choice?
Anytime you color outside the lines, like coloring your hair purple, questions tend to fall into two categories. One is some flavor of incredulity and amazement, “Wow, did you really color your hair purple?!?”. The other is sincere interest, “Hey, you colored your hair purple -- how’s that going? I’ve thought about that myself.” You try to be patient and tolerant with the former category and honest and helpful with the latter.
How does child feel about homeschooling? Does your child ever ask to attend traditional school?
She likes it. We do ask her about going to traditional school every so often, just in case, but she prefers homeschool.
How do you deal with traditional parent / child conflicts that teachers might not have to deal with?
We deal them with them just like we would under any circumstance. You might be asking “Isn’t that too much time to spend with your child?” But I don’t think so at all. And twenty years from now, I think I’ll be even more confident in that answer.
You might also be asking, “Doesn’t having a parental relationship get in the way of teaching academic topics?” I think that enhances it since I’m much more aware of her preferences, her learning style, what she’d like to do more/less of than if I were monitoring 20 students. Parents already teach their kids so much, it seems arbitrary to not extend that to multiplication and the solar system.
Do you encounter any resistance from your child regarding particular topics or work?
Not really for any particular topics. She enjoys nearly every topic and most kinds of work, whether project-oriented or worksheet-based.
However, a tricky part to remember is that when it’s one-on-one learning, it’s either right where it needs to be or overly challenging. When it’s overly challenging, I’ll definitely get some resistance and then we’ll have to change the approach or the content.
Another item to remember is that for things like one-on-one reading discussion, she’s always the student getting called on. When you’re in a class full of kids and are having an off-day or didn’t get enough sleep you can just not raise your hand. That’s a healthy kind of resistance I need to acknowledge.
What requirements do you have from the state?
For this age range, there are no requirements. Next year, there will be a few but the bar is relatively low. I do keep a close eye on core competencies just to make sure nothing’s slipping through the cracks.
What resources did you use to figure out what concepts / subjects you were going to cover?
It’s a fairly traditional set of subjects. If you looked at our weekly class outline, it’s probably not that different from any elementary school. In terms of math, science, language arts, social studies, fine arts, and athletics, it’s all there.
For choosing the course materials, I’ve drawn from as many resources as possible. I try to keep tabs on the curricula a variety of area schools use, ask other homeschooling parents what’s been successful for them, and do a lot of research online both to see what other schools around the country use and what other homeschoolers around the country use.
From there, it’s really a process of selecting the best of breed curriculum for each subject that works for us. I might purchase samplings of a variety of math curricula and select which one works best. For science, I might switch back and forth between FOSS, Delta Science, and STC kits depending on which has the best set of experiments for a particular subject matter.
This rapid iteration over a variety of materials let us hone in quickly on what works for us.
It’s a similar process for the outside-the-home classes we take. We’ll try to cast as wide a net as possible and throw back whatever’s not working for her.
Do you use any online resources?
For teaching, I try to avoid that. The learning becomes very impersonal. How would someone feel if they hired a tutor and the tutor sat them in front of a computer to learn the subject?
For curriculum research and purchasing, I use it all the time.
How do you plan what material will be covered?
It depends on the subject -- for math, it’s a fairly linear path. For science, we try to cover some life, physical, and earth science each year. We’ll research the various kits and topics and choose ten weeks worth of material in each area. For social studies, I’ll spend about six weeks on each of the main areas -- government, history, geography, community, and economics (for kids!). Similarly for reading comprehension and language arts. Writing is a little more flexible since she’ll just have a general topic (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, etc.) to work on and can go from there. Language arts might be the most challenging to plan for since there are multiple parts -- reading, writing, grammar (parts of speech, punctuation, etc.), spelling, and handwriting. I generally emphasize the reading comprehension and the writing with the idea that the other parts follow.
And we also have a period of independent project every day. She chooses the project area, what’s involved in creating the project, and when it’s finished. It’s definitely her favorite part of school.
How far in advance do you plan?
For specific material, I’ll fill out a weekly spreadsheet every Sunday that details what pages/experiments/readings/writing/etc. we’ll cover. But in terms of curriculum, much of the year is planned out over the summer and adjusted as necessary -- I could probably say now what she’ll roughly study in each month of 2016-17 with regard to math, science, language arts, and social studies. Of course, flexibility is one of the key benefits of homeschooling so we’re not afraid to change things up on-the-fly if it looks like there’s a better path.
Do you homeschool in tandem with a typical school calendar? Do you plan for breaks (ie Spring break) or holidays?
As closely as possible. We’ll do 36 weeks of school between September and June. Holiday, winter, and spring breaks might all be shifted by a week or two to avoid crowds and save on travel costs.
How much time do you spend per day “schooling”?
Over the course of a week, we do about 20 hours at home on core subjects and another 15-20 outside the home...so on average 7ish hours per day.
What does a typical week look like? Do you try to keep a routine or schedule?
Definitely -- did I mention the spreadsheet? I’ve found if we don’t have a schedule, the day ends up pretty amorphous. Which isn’t intrinsically a bad thing but not what we’re aiming for with our school.
Monday and Friday are co-op days where the bulk of the learning is done outside our home. Tuesday through Thursday are mostly home-based where we cover the core subjects.
Summarize your educational philosophy in a few sentences.
Learning isn’t a product that is placed in front of us for our consumption we then review and rate on Amazon. It’s something that we actively produce, create, and assemble throughout our lives.
Fortunately, we live in a time where melding that philosophy with reality has never been more possible.
Do you feel you need to choose between covering a breadth of concepts vs depth in fewer areas?
Definitely breadth -- by our choice. She’s 6. It’s a little weird to focus on depth at elementary ages. Generally, we all move from breadth to depth as we age but we rarely move in the opposite direction. So, I’d like to build as broad a base as possible while we’ve got the opportunity.
Unfortunately, society seems to increasingly push children towards depth at an early age. It’s the Williams sisters or Tiger Woods we read about on CNN but we don’t hear much about burnout or the narrowing limitations of that approach -- which saddens me. College admissions doesn’t help with their mantra of “quality over quantity”. They’re talking about high school kids but that mentality tends to detrimentally percolate downward as the admissions process becomes more competitive.
For us, at some point, we’ll put more wood behind fewer arrows. But not yet.
What instruction do you provide? What do you hire others to provide? Any exceptional resources or providers you’ve met along the way?
We handle all the core topics, math, language arts, science, and social studies, primarily at home. Our external classes are things like art, music, drama, and athletics along with some other interesting classes that have crossed our path.
And I’d say they’re all exceptional. Our area has many excellent a la carte classes available to its residents and anything that’s not exceptional tends to not stick around.
What types of programs do you wish were available for homeschoolers in this area?
Hmmm -- it’s really hard to come up with something and our schedule is pretty full. There are a number of great homeschool co-operatives that provide a sense of community and also many great a la carte after school classes in just about any subject matter you can imagine. Even if there weren’t, I’d feel comfortable getting a group of parents together and creating it myself.
Is there any subject or area of education that you find difficult to meet in the homeschool setting, or any that you have been unable to find adequate community resources to supplement?
Probably foreign language has been the trickiest area. We tried one but weren’t super impressed. That said, part of it is prioritization since there are some options I’m aware of but we’ve just never found the time to try them out.
How do you find / create community for your child?
We go to a homeschool co-operative two days a week. It’s a great bunch of parents and kids that provides a sense of community. She also takes a number of classes outside the co-op. Overall, she’s in classes with other kids about fifteen hours a week and we try a fit in as many playdates as we can.
On a side-note, because the number of students is smaller, often her classes are multi-age. Initially, I’d hoped to find a greater number of students the same age but I’ve grown to appreciate multi-age classrooms. It’s more reflective of the real world and provides a more diverse student population.
What was the moment in time when you absolutely knew you had made the right decision to homeschool?
Ha! I don’t think there’s ever been a moment in time where I’ve absolutely known I’ve made the right decision about anything.
If anyone tells you they’ve accomplished otherwise, I suspect they’re just trying to make life simpler than it really is.
Still, I do think my family has made some good decisions and this is one of them.
Do you have an age at which you hope to transfer your child to traditional schooling?
Not really -- though hope isn’t the word I’d choose. There’s not an explicit aspiration on our part to be more traditional. We take it year-by-year and without a strong incentive to be more concrete than that. Our goal is to try to stay at least a step ahead of traditional schooling, both socially and academically, to make sure any transition would go smoothly and also to be awesome. If that goal ever started to slip, I suspect we’d look more seriously at transferring.
What type of program will you look for then?
I’m not sure. There are many amazing schools, public and private, each with their own set of strengths and weaknesses. I’d like to think my daughter could benefit from and contribute to all of them.
How do you document your child's learning either for yourselves, the state, or for when you plan to re-enter traditional school?
We keep nearly everything she works on. We’ve got “art” from when she was 2. But I’m not super-concerned about documentation for external sources. I suspect her work is more strongly documented here than it would be anywhere else.
How do you monitor your child’s skill levels?
We do follow curriculums that are used by schools -- we just choose our favorites. So all our core subjects are still leveled and standardized. Since it’s just-in-time learning, I probably have a better idea of where she’s at than most teachers would for their students.
What is the hardest? What has been the biggest challenge in homeschooling? What do you like least about it?
Relatively speaking, none of this is is as hard or as challenging as a rush-hour commute. It’s all good fun. For me, if there were something I didn’t particularly like that my daughter were interested in or needed to learn, I’d probably just find an outside provider. Or get my spouse to do it.
How has your homeschooling approach changed since you began?
It’s become a little more relaxed and routine. Which can be an advantage or disadvantage. A blank slate is much more flexible and creative but it’s also more time-consuming and inefficient. Once routines and processes are developed, things go more smoothly but innovation and flexibility becomes more challenging. So, it’s important to keep a fresh perspective and always be on the lookout for trying new things.
As a homeschooling parent, what is your own special take on it?
We’ve really been enjoying it. We’ve learned a lot -- myself and my daughter -- about academic topics from raising milkweed bugs to the emperors of China. And we’ve also learned a lot about learning and what we like and don’t like.
Please share 5 tips for parents thinking of homeschooling their child(ren).
1) There are as many good ways and reasons to homeschool as there are homeschoolers. But they’re all like having your own mini-startup. If you’ve got an independent, entrepreneurial spirit and would like to encourage that in your children, then it might be a good fit.
2) Make it your own -- there’s no one right way or reason for homeschooling. Ours has definitely a more academic tilt than most but that doesn’t mean it’s the best or only way. Discover as many options as possible and choose what works best for you.
3) If possible, try to give it at least two years. A good portion of the first year is spent finding your style and it takes a second year to get into a good rhythm.
4) One practical tip is have a dedicated space or table or area for homeschooling only. This creates a physical delineation between school-on and school-off. Having a fixed schedule also helps enhance that delineation.
5) Do it now while you can.
Thank you so much for sharing your journey with us Stephanie!