In just a few weeks, most kids will be heading back to a school
for a new year. But not all of them. A significant number of
Illinois families are choosing to forego enrolling their kids in
traditional schools in favor of homeschooling or unschooling.
Homeschooling usually involves at-home instruction, outside
enrichment activities and interactions with other homeschooling
families. Unschooling describes a range of educational philosophies
that encourage children to learn through their natural life
experiences rather than a traditional school curriculum.
Many families choosing this path cite dissatisfaction with the
public school system or religious reasons. However, every
unschooling or homeschooling family has their own unique story to
The Becker family
Ages of children: 13, 10, and 6
Homeschooling story: In March 2009, Tracey Becker decided
to take her children out of public school and try
"My oldest was having social and educational issues in school. We
decided that we could do at least as good of a job as the school
was doing," Becker says. "It was such a relief to not have the
stress of people telling me what was wrong with my kids. Instead, I
could tell them what was right about them."
She says the first year was mostly about "deschooling" the family.
"You have to take your brain out of the public school mindset of
grades and time frames for learning skills," Becker says.
Each of the Becker children moves at their own pace when it comes
to learning, and they value the support that they've found in the
"Initially, we said we would take this year by year. Now, I would
do it forever," says Becker.
Biggest homeschooling joy: "We are together all of the time. I
think about how many hours that they would be away from me and each
other and we would have little time together. The freedom is
Biggest homeschooling challenge: "Managing time and getting
ourselves motivated to get going in the morning can be a challenge,
especially on a beautiful day."
Biggest homeschooling myth: "People attack me about the issue of
socialization. This actually usually happens while we are at a
social activity, like my daughter's ballet class. We have karate,
and we go to clubs with other homeschoolers. Honestly, I think we
are actually more social because we don't have homework after
school and we spend lots of family time together during the day, so
we are free to do more activities on the afternoons and
The Langer family
Ages of children: 12, 9 and 6
Homeschooling/unschooling story: Armed with a degree in
elementary education, Brandie Langer knew she wanted to be the
primary teacher for her children.
"At first, my husband wasn't exactly on board with homeschooling.
He didn't know other homeschoolers and he was worried about people
making fun of our daughter," Langer remembers.
Attitudes towards homeschooling were different at that time, she
says. "Ten years ago when we started, homeschooling wasn't nearly
as popular. Everyone said we were making a mistake and screwing her
up for life," she recalls. "Over time, we've brought everyone to
our side as the people around us see that my kids are normal and
well-adjusted," she says.
Langer's approach to schooling has changed over time, too. "When
my oldest turned 5, I bought a very structured kindergarten
curriculum. After 10 months, we both hit a big wall. We took a
break and basically just started playing. After a couple of months,
I pulled out the books where we left off and my daughter said that
she already knew all of the material. At that point, we switched to
unschooling. It was not my original intent to teach that way, but
it ended up working so much better for us," explains Langer.
Langer's approach changed somewhat last year when she was
diagnosed with breast cancer. "When I was diagnosed, my kids were
ahead in some areas and behind in others. I worried, 'What if I am
not healthy enough to help them with these critical skills?' So we
went back to a curriculum approach at that time."
Langer is not sure what their educational future holds. "We are
leaving the choice about high school up to our girls. They are
starting to talk about playing softball or joining the track team.
There is more to school than just classes and that draw intensifies
around the middle school years," she says.
Biggest homeschooling joy: "I love having my kids at home
with me-even more so after having cancer. I feel like I know my
kids really well."
Biggest homeschooling challenge: "Sometimes I fear that
my kids are not going to be on track with their peers. ... At the
same time, I love that they aren't ranked and compared to their
Biggest homeschool myth: "I really think that there is a
stereotype that all homeschooling moms wear their hair in braids
and wear long denim skirts. Not true."
The Whitaker family
Ages of children: 8, 6, and 3
Homeschooling story: The Whitaker family's decision to
homeschool their kids was influenced by their relationship with
family friends who homeschooled.
"When I looked at this family, I saw how much they loved the Lord,
the strength of the sibling relationships, the spirit of service
and a general peace about them. I decided that I really wanted to
look into homeschooling more as an option," Jennifer Whitaker
After sending her two daughters to preschool for a short time,
Whitaker now homeschools all three children. "I value the
opportunity to give them an individualized education. I saw that in
a public school setting, they might not be challenged. Working
alongside them is really exciting because I have the chance to
recover my own education, too," Whitaker says.
Whitaker and her husband use the Classical Conversations
(classicalconversations.com) approach to homeschooling. Two years
ago, Whitaker started the Chicago chapter of the national Classical
Conversations organization. The group meets at Moody Bible
Institute and has grown to more than 20 families. Their faith-based
approach emphasizes a developmental model based on different
cognitive stages. The 24-week program provides structure for
participants and includes writing and math goals. Students also
benefit from other activities such as science experiments and fine
Biggest homeschooling joy: "I love just being with my
kids. They grow up so quick and it is such a privilege to be with
Biggest homeschooling challenge: "Homeschooling a toddler
is no picnic. It is getting easier as he gets older and we are
getting the support and resources we need to do this."
Biggest homeschooling myth: "I think that the biggest
myth is that we are completely unsocialized. I actually have to put
the brakes on what we do because we are out so much with ballet,
swimming, church activities and gymnastics."
The Comer family
Hometown: Downers Grove
Ages of children: 7, 5, and almost 3
Homeschooling story: "We didn't just have one reason that
we decided to homeschool," Kara Comer says. "We wanted to make sure
that we were really cultivating a strong moral compass in the kids
and strength of character. In addition, we also feel like we know
them so well, so we know how they take life in and process things,"
After sending her oldest son to preschool for a year, Comer now
homeschools her two oldest children. She follows a structured
lesson plan and tries to stick to a schedule of 9 a.m.-1:30 p.m.
for school. However, she says, "now that I am more comfortable with
our approach, we are more flexible about the schedule." On Fridays,
the Comer family participates in a large homeschooling co-op in
Naperville called The Learning Vine Homeschool Extension Program
(thelearningvine.org) where the kids have access to activities such
as gym, music and art.
As far as the future goes, Comer says that her family is taking it
year by year.
"We do hope to homeschool long term," Comer says. "I trust my kids
enough to be part of making that decision and I want to make sure
that we aren't imposing our preferences on them."
Biggest homeschooling joy: "I love being with the kids.
We still have a great social life and friends, but we get to enjoy
Biggest homeschooling challenge: "It is intimidating
sometimes to appreciate the fact that everything rests on your
shoulders. If something isn't going right, there are resources that
can help, but it is my responsibility."
Biggest homeschooling myth: "So many people come up to me
and say: 'What you are doing is so great, but I could never do
that.' I think that every mother who is invested in her child could
do this. People sell themselves short. Don't be intimidated if this
is something you want to try."
The Meisenheimer family
Ages of kids: 9, 6, 2, 1 and almost 1 (a combination of
biological, adopted and foster children)
Homeschooling story: "I was an elementary school teacher,
so I always figured I would send my kids to public school. My
oldest child went to kindergarten and part of first grade and then
we decided to homeschool. It isn't that we thought that public
schools were inadequate. We saw it as a way to buy back time with
our family," says Murphy Meisenheimer.
She feels strongly that the homeschooling schedule allows for more
time for extracurricular activities for her whole family.
Meisenheimer adheres to Illinois state standards as a guide in her
at-home instruction. "I try to stay in-tune with what the state is
requiring and then I tailor it to each of my kids. I love doing the
research and then adapting to what my kids need," says
The family goes to The Learning Vine in Naperville on Fridays to
take advantage of enrichment classes like pottery and
"Our goal is that our children are able to grow in wisdom and
stature. We make sure that they have lots of chances to interact
with other peers and participate in sports and other activities,"
Biggest homeschooling joy: "I get to be the one that is
first to share those wonderful concepts with them. I love learning
about how a child works, grows and develops. And I love that I am
the one who gets to see that joy or struggle overcome. Also my joy
secretly is that I don't have to worry about competing with
Biggest homeschooling challenge: "I have a guilt that
comes a couple of times every year when I wonder if I am doing
enough. That responsibility is fully on my husband and me to make
sure that they are getting what they need. There is the tendency to
worry and fret over minor things."
Biggest homeschooling myth: "Some people think that
homeschooling families have it all together and are super-organized
and super-patient. The reality is that we are like any other family
and we struggle. We rely on God to help us through."
Caitlin Murray Giles is a freelance writer and mother of three
living in Wicker Park.
Caitlin Murray Giles is a full-time mother of three and part-time freelance writer living in Wicker Park.
See more of Caitlin's stories here.
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