When we first started homeschooling in the early 90s, there weren't a lot of resources available. Curriculum was hard to come by. I remember finding a little hole-in-the-wall storefront – I don't even remember what they sold, but it might have been American flags – that had a back room where you could browse a few shelves of A Beka books. At that time, A Beka didn't sell to private home educators, so I have no idea how the storekeeper got the books. I just had the feeling I was in some sort of spy movie, giving signs and countersigns, slipping out with contraband books under my arm.
That was in the spring, after we decided we'd pull our daughter out of the private school where bullying was making her life miserable. In the summer, I went to a curriculum fair and got connected with the Bob Jones University Press. Neophyte that I was, I ordered every single second grade book and teacher's guide. I didn't know any better, and I certainly didn't know how much busy work was built into the courses, to keep a classroom quietly occupied while the teacher gave individual time to each student in turn. We tried to do everything in those books, to the best of our ability. It was a recipe for burnout, even though I only had one child at the time.
When we were contemplating home education in the first place, I looked into all the options I could find information about. I talked to people who used textbooks, and someone who relied heavily on her library card. I read the Colfaxes' book, Homeschooling for Excellence and was encouraged by their story, and their positive results. While discussing the Colfaxes, an unschooler told me, “You can take your children out of institutional school and do nothing with them and have a better result.” It sounded pretty chancy to me. There were, of course, a few conditions attached to that, she went on to say. You had to have a learning-rich environment, lots of interesting books lying around, lots of material that could be used for projects, contact with people who could act as mentors, and most importantly, no television and no computer or video games.
Our state required annual testing. We knew we'd have trouble meeting the minimum score with our special needs daughter, so we had her tested soon after her last day of private school. As we'd feared, her test scores were below the minimum fifteenth percentile (which might mean remediation back into the public school system), but we had a whole year before she'd have to test again. We buckled down to do our best, and at the end of our first year of homeschooling, her test score had doubled, and she was out of the danger zone. Homeschooling was working.
I wasn't quite bold enough to try unschooling, so we started out with textbooks and transitioned to an eclectic approach – lots of reading from Sonlight book lists, in addition to textbooks in some areas (though not an entire curriculum), and frequent field trips. One year we did a literary unit study based on the Little House books with several other homeschool families.
We were managing, with our textbooks and our literature, our field trips and activities, until I found I was expecting our second daughter. It was a difficult time, fighting debilitating morning sickness for the first half (though in my case it was the morning-noon-and-night sickness) and pre-eclampsia for much of the rest of the pregnancy. I spent most of the day on the couch, with my then eleven-year-old sitting by me, doing her math problems and waking me up to check them, reading aloud to me and having to wake me up when I'd fall asleep in the middle of her reading. I felt terrible in more ways than one. I was sure we were failing at homeschooling.
At the end of that year, her test scores went up.
Some years later, I suffered a six-month bout of bronchitis and pneumonia. (I found out eventually that I was making myself sick because I'd developed a serious sensitivity to ammonia, which is found in a lot of store-bought cleaning products. Every time I'd start to feel better and do some cleaning, I'd be deathly ill again for weeks at a time.) School was pretty hit-or-miss during that time. The only mercy was the timing – the illness started just before Thanksgiving, so missing November and December and part of January didn't seem as bad as it might have. However, February rolled around and I was still sick and exhausted, barely functioning, and showing no signs of improvement. We'd gotten a free subscription to an online school for review purposes, and I activated the account, showed it to the girls, and then started another round of illness. When the antibiotics finally kicked in about a month later, I was in despair, thinking we'd lost another month of school time. I went to look at the computer records, and found that while I'd been so sick, the girls had been doing math and language arts on their own, making steady progress through the program.
I've heard the same sort of story from other homeschoolers. One mom, suffering from a medical problem, homeschooled her children while lying flat on her back for months. Other families had their lives disrupted—for months—when grandparents living in another state needed their help and support. Families with economic challenges found creative ways to homeschool for free or almost no cost. A single mom of my acquaintance, with only an eighth-grade education, homeschooled her son all the way through high school graduation. Yet another family lost everything but the clothes they were wearing in a house fire. In all these families, learning didn't stop, even though the textbooks were laid aside for a season.
It is possible to continue homeschooling under tough circumstances, though perhaps not easy. I have found my unschooling friend was right, in that you don't need to follow an institutional model to have good academic results. You do, however, need to provide an opportunity-rich environment (even if it's mostly stacks of library books available for the reading, mentors and projects, service, and lots of reading aloud together) and not just park the kids in front of the television or computer. Good education, most of all, requires an investment of time, love, and attention.