At first, we thought we were crazy. And everyone else that we talked to didn't disagree. But after 5 years of homeschooling our four children - initially because we had no choice, and now even where we have great local schools available - we think we've made the right choice. In fact, anyone who has at least one parent home most of the time can do the same. Not every homeschooling family approaches the process of education in the same way that we have - some are more structured, and some are less structured - but the mature and confident children that we've met in our homeschooling community here have given us confidence that we're on the right track.
My husband and I began homeschooling in Tokyo, Japan where we were living for a year as our oldest son was 5 and his younger brother was 3.
There were no Jewish schools in the area and we felt it important that we teach our son the rudiments of a Jewish life. So before we left we asked our school teacher friends what skills they thought 5 year olds should have - basic reading in Hebrew and English, addition and subtraction, and so on - and set out a rough guide for the year. It was fun to work on art projects, to teach the aleph beis, and to take field trips in the Kanto region, and we thought the year went reasonably well. When we returned to the States, the nearest Jewish day school was over an hour away each way, and we decided to keep homeschooling. This time, we were fortunate to discover a treasure trove of free materials available to us, ranging from the very deep and broad Chinuch.org website (which has literally thousands of teacher created lesson plans), the Chicago-based Walder Education Pavilion, and a number of schools willing to share their curricula with us.
Now (in January 2012) we homeschool even though we live in the DC metro area and have a number of excellent schools nearby to choose from.
As time has gone on, we've certainly experienced challenges, ranging from simple ones (which should take priority: learning Japanese or Latin?) to more deep ones (days when our kids simply don't want to do work, and we have to cajole them or abandon plans for the day). But we've found benefits from our homeschooling lifestyle and approach that we find lacking in the standard approach.
First, we can set the philosophic foundations for our childrens' education, and don't have to spend time either explaining why we don't agree with their teachers (always a dangerous line to cross) or allowing them to be influenced by approaches not representative of our own hashkafa. So if we think that our children should go to college, we can make it clear to them what our goals are; alternatively, if our target is several years of post high school yeshiva learning, we can create an environment conducive to it. For families hoping to do both, parents can accelerate the high school track so that 16 or 17 year olds can head to Israel - as several of our family friends have done.
Next, we find the homeschooling lifestyle to provide tremendous flexibility. This is important because we have made a number of choices in sports, activities, and extra curricular activities which would simply not fit into the standard 8 am-4 pm, school day and homework encountered by most observant families. Our oldest son has time to attend kendo (Japanese fencing) lessons late in the evening with excellent instructors, our middle son can walk to tae kwon do practice several times a week (during the middle of the day), our daughter can attend ballet lessons nearby (in the late afternoon), and our kids can also do jobs that we think important for building up personal responsibility (like walking dogs for families in our neighborhood). We also regularly travel domestically and internationally, and we can move our curriculum and our school wherever we need, whether Honolulu, West Lafayette, Silver Spring, Tokyo, or Chicago (all places we've lived in the past few years).
Third, we think that our school approach provides our kids with a strong education - not because we're trained or licensed teachers (we're not), but because we have thought about what skills we want them to have and have worked with others to do our best to provide training in those areas. We also don't have to waste time getting classes to settle down, teaching to the middle of a class of 30 kids (where is that, exactly?), or teaching to the test. We teach the kids davening (with the older ones attending davening nearby with minyanim), Chumash and Rashi, Mishnayos, dikduk, and Jewish history, along with a curriculum of reading and writing, history, science, English, and mathematics (using a self-paced program). We have "checked" our oldest son's progress against the rest of the world, and thank G-d found that he was doing fine (in a number of the categories on his standardized test, he received PHS, or Post High School, as his evaluation). We generally start our day by 9 am and have most of the work done by 3 pm with an extended lunch break. On some days, the kids mess around, and the work gets done later, and we're willing to work on Sundays and continue working during the summer and winter times when kids in standard schools might be "on break." We go to museums, have social activities with other families, serve as rabbi and rebbetzin for a local shul, and participate in a chesed group. Our homeschooling also means that the kids spend time with adults, children, the elderly, and people from a number of different age groups - just like real life.
Finally, and this is perhaps the least important part of the decision for us, homeschooling is less expensive than typical day schools. It is not free, and I would also caution parents from imagining that they're going to be able to provide a "costless" education to children. If we lack skills, we have to hire others to teach them things like music, art, dance, and so forth. Next, we have to buy books - and we purchase a lot of them. We also have to spend money on school supplies just like normal school attendees. But, as you can imagine, home schooling costs considerably less than typical approaches - but it requires that at least one parent be home most of the time, and hence the family has to survive on a single salary. We know a few families where a parent can work a part time job and still invest in home schooling, but it requires a lot of focus, patience, and attention.
We recognize that homeschooling is not for everyone, but it has worked for us, and we'd encourage parents dedicated to their childrens' success, frustrated by their own experiences in school, or worried about their children being pushed by peers and teachers in an uncomfortable direction to do two things. First, I run a national home schooling support group called jewishorthodoxandhomeschooling through the Yahoo groups system, and we have roughly 200 families on who can answer your questions. Second, on May 6 2012 we'll be having a Torah Home Education conference in Baltimore MD which can provide additional insights to potential homeschooling families.
UPDATE: We have opened registration for the Fourth Torah Home Education Conference!
You will spend the day learning from veteran home educators, meeting other Jews interested in living a family-based learning lifestyle, and
be able to peruse and purchase homeschooling materials from local and national educational vendors.
We are proud to bring you:
Evelyn Krieger, the author of the popular new novel, One is Not a Lonely Number, and veteran homeschooling mother.
Mrs Deborah Beck talking about Integrating Kodesh and Chol: Secular Subjects and Torah - Two Sides of the Same Coin.
Mrs. Robin Alberg presenting Remaining Focused In an Age of Digital Distractions.
Mrs. Susan Lapin teaching us the idea of VeShinantam Levanecha: Defining Torah Home Education.
A Veteran Homeschoolers Panel: Addressing Key Questions Including "How Can I Teach What I Never Learned?"
Mr Max Masinter leading a group discussion on Whether the Homeschooling Community Should Promote Homeschooling
as a Lifestyle Choice to Address Communal Issues.
and several speakers/topics TBA.
Shabbos hospitality is available with the possibility of a melava d'malka afterwards.
The conference will be Sunday May 6, 2012 at the Park Heights JCC in Baltimore, MD. Registration will begin at 8:15am and the conference will begin at 9 am.
To find out more and register for the conference, please visit http://torahhomeeducation.
We look forward to meeting you at the conference!