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 tell.
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 homeschooling.
“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 homeschooling community.
"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 wonderful.”
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 weekends.”
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 peers.”
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 recalls.
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 arts programs..
Biggest homeschooling joy: “I love just being with my kids. They grow up so quick and it is such a privilege to be with them.”
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,” Comer says.
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 being together.”
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 Meisenheimer.
The family goes to The Learning Vine in Naperville on Fridays to take advantage of enrichment classes like pottery and photography.
“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,” she says.
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 everyone else.”
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.