Homeschool Diaries: How 3 Families Teach Kids at Home

Nearly 2 million kids learn in the living room instead of the classroom. Find out why these families decided to homeschool -- and how they make it work.

  • Jami Saunders

    Most kids hurry out the door, hop onto a big yellow bus, and spend the bulk of each weekday inside a classroom. But there's no morning rush for the nearly 2 million homeschooled children in the U.S. They work at their own pace and might spend their time studying in the backyard or at a museum instead of at a desk. And Mom (or Dad) is the teacher. Why opt out of traditional school? For some parents the goal is to make their religious convictions a central part of the curriculum. Others feel their local schools fall short academically, think their children require individual attention, or simply prefer spending more time with their kids. Meet three families who believe learning at home is best.

    Kendall Watkins / Atlanta, Georgia
    Kids Ansley, 9; Reese, 6
    Homeschooling since 2003

    Why we do it: I had planned to send my kids to private school. But after attending some open houses when Ansley was entering pre-K, I realized I could cover the same material -- with greater variety and creativity -- in a fraction of the time. Plus, I'd get to spend more time with my kids and save money. I bought a book on homeschooling, decided to give it a go, and I've never looked back.

    Lifestyle advantages: It's nice to be able to decide when to start our day and what we're going to study. And if we're traveling, it's easy to pack up the books and teach on the go. When my husband had a business trip to Birmingham recently, we all came along. I taught the kids in the morning, and we went to museums and the zoo in the afternoon.

    My approach to education: I follow a literature-based curriculum, but I'm not a slave to it. When we studied medieval times, the kids enjoyed it so much that we decided to explore the topic in greater detail than I'd planned. I call it "following the rabbit trails" -- wherever their interests lead, we'll follow.
    The benefits of being flexible: I taught Ansley to read when she was 4 using a phonics-based system. I tried the same program with Reese, but he didn't respond. Eventually I found an approach that emphasizes music and games, and he's made a breakthrough with that. I try to find products that fit my children's individual learning styles. Teachers who have 20 students in a class can't always do that.

    How we meet state requirements: We filed a declaration of intent to homeschool, and each month I mail in attendance sheets. The kids take standardized tests every three years, starting in third grade.

    Dad's role: Brian jumps in whenever I need help. He also does a lot of informal teaching -- he'll build bows and arrows with the kids, or they'll plant a garden together.

    Making sure my kids have a social life: We go on a field trip to a different location every other week with a group of friends. The kids also play organized sports, and they attend a local fine-arts academy once a week to study art history, music, and drama.

    The very best things about it: I like the fact that we don't waste a lot of time studying things they already know. The kids are happy that they don't have homework. But the real beauty is that they're learning for the love of it. They're not doing schoolwork because someone tells them they have to.

  • Jami Saunders

    Julie Sadler / Wake Forest, North Carolina

    Kids James, 8; Allee Rae, 5; Hannah, 2; Faith, 1 month
    Homeschooling since 2006

    Why we do it: When my son attended public kindergarten, we felt there was something missing from his education. Then I read some verses in the Bible that explained the importance of teaching your children about the Lord when you rise up in the morning, when you're at home, and throughout the day. That was my epiphany.

    Dad's role: I wouldn't have taken on such a big challenge without my husband's support. John teaches the kids Spanish, which he learned recently for his job. And I often have him help out with math. He is able to explain things in a way that makes sense to James.

    My approach to education: Because James learns best with things he can feel and touch, I've avoided workbooks. My multisensory approach to math uses blocks to help him grasp basic concepts like addition, subtraction, and multiplication. For other subjects, I've borrowed from a number of different unit studies. But for third grade, I decided to use a full curriculum.

    The role of faith: Obviously you can send a child to traditional school and discuss faith on your own time. But homeschooling lets us mix religion into secular subjects as well. We study Christian heroes as part of history lessons. Every month we focus on a new virtue, such as courage, honesty, or responsibility. James reads a story that displays the value in action, then memorizes and writes a verse about it for his handwriting practice. We also incorporate Bible lessons, such as "The Lord is high above all nations, and His glory above the heavens," when we're studying geography.

    How we meet state requirements: I keep track of attendance, and starting in second grade the kids are tested annually in grammar, reading, spelling, and math. James had his first exams this past June.

    Making sure my kids have a social life: Every Wednesday five to 10 homeschool families organize an event so the kids can play together. James takes an art class and plays sports, while Allee Rae does ballet and gymnastics. We also belong to a co-op that meets every other week. It takes a lot of time to coordinate all these activities, but we want our children to be around other kids, and they love it too.

  • Jami Saunders

    Jenny Griebenow / Taylorsville, Kentucky

    Kids Zachary, 13; Helena, 8; Beren, 4
    Homeschooling since 2000

    Why we do it: Zachary was advanced as a preschooler. For example, he taught himself to read. And he knew the scientific names of all the dinosaurs and would correct anyone who said that pteranodons were dinosaurs (because technically they weren't). When I visited a local kindergarten class, I noticed that the teachers emphasized doing things one specific way. The goal seemed to be to get all of the students to fit into a nice, round hole. But Zach was such a square peg. I didn't think he'd fit in -- and I didn't want to make him try.

    My approach to education: Zach is an auditory learner, so instead of giving him math worksheets, I read math problems aloud and have him solve them in his head. He also focuses better in the evening, so that's when we work. Helena prefers to study during the day. She's very imaginative. She makes wonderful 3-D creations out of cardboard, so I try to incorporate her interests into the lessons.

    The plan for advanced math: I might use a computer-based program to teach Zach, or I could let my engineer husband, Greg, take over. The beauty of homeschooling is that you don't have to justify your method to anyone. You just need to find a way that works for your family.

    How we meet state requirements: It's simple where we live. I keep attendance records and teach 175 days during the school year, just as they do in our public system. I also keep track of the subjects we study. There's no statewide testing for homeschooled children.

    Making sure my kids have a social life: A lot of families in our area homeschool their children, so there are plenty of group activities for the kids. We also belong to a homeschool co-op that meets every other week at a library, and friends often come over to visit.

    What I really want people to know: Some people may think homeschooling is just an excuse for letting your children do nothing all day. That couldn't be further from the truth. Being responsible for my kids' education is a huge undertaking. I'm constantly rethinking the curriculum and my approach to make sure I'm not missing anything.

    Originally published in the October 2008 issue of Parents magazine.