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Homeschool Prom and Other Oxymorons
How Homeschooling Has Changed Since I "Graduated"

by Erin Hughey-Commers

Homeschool prom and other oxymorons
Photo © Jerry Sanchez/Shutterstock

I was sitting at my desk when the phone rang. It was a parent of one of the homeschooled students in the robotics classes we were offering at the community college, and she was upset. “Robert can’t make it to the class on March 12th,” she told me, with a note of concern in her voice. “And I know for a fact that his friend Bobby also can’t make it that week.” When I asked her what the problem was, I was taken aback by her answer: “It’s Spring Break,” she told me.

As youth programs manager at a community college, I was used to scheduling the science classes we offered so they didn’t coincide with area schools’ spring breaks. In this case, however, I had intentionally scheduled the class to run through Spring Break, knowing that all the kids in the class were homeschooled. In my own eighteen years of life learning in the 1980s and ‘90s, Spring Break existed as one of those items in the list with “homework,” “class period,” and “prom.” Even “summer vacation” was said tongue-in-cheek in our house. My surprise was tinged with a feeling of disbelief: Had homeschooling changed so much since then that Spring Break was now a part of homeschool life?

Around the same time, I was taking a graduate course in the history of American education. One day in class, I raised my hand and asked about how homeschooling fit into the broader educational change movement in the last hundred years. My professor admitted he didn’t know much about homeschooling, but said he thought it originated with white middle class families keeping their kids out of school when the public schools integrated. I was shocked at his answer. For his edification and my own, I proposed an independent study in which I would examine the homeschool movement as part of the broader educational reform movement in the U.S. My own experience as a life learner would serve as a jumping-off point for my study. In this article, I share a few of the insights I gained in that study, as well as my own observations about the way that homeschooling has changed since I was a student.

My parents decided to homeschool after reading John Holt’s Teach Your Own. It was the early 1980s, I was under three years old, and my mom told my dad I wasn’t going to school. That’s how it started. My brother and I were raised in a rural area, where a number of community members got their introduction to homeschooling when they saw us volunteering at the library on Wednesday afternoons. We had access to a modest homeschool co-op for which my family hosted a monthly writer’s club. All in all, we probably knew twenty other homeschooling families, with about forty kids. In ninth grade, many of my friends went to school, while I stayed home. There were five of us homeschooling together freshman year, down to two by the time we graduated. The high school years were quite different for my brother, who, only five years younger, had a much larger homeschool peer group, and at age sixteen started taking classes at the community college along with many homeschooled friends. In contrast, as a freshman at age eighteen, I didn’t know anyone else at the college who had been homeschooled. I still remember the relief I felt when I tested into college-level English.

By the time I returned to the same community college as a staff member nine years later, things had changed. Homeschoolers were recognized as some of the high-achievers at the college and for many, homeschooling was seen as a path to excellence more than a deviance from the norm. The youth programs I developed offered eleven- to fourteen-year olds the opportunity to come onto campus and learn hands-on from faculty and students in classes focused on science, technology, and math. My own hands-on education and real-applications background as a homeschooler informed the design of the program, as did input from area homeschoolers, who were active participants in the program, and frequently offered me suggestions about what classes to offer next. Many homeschooling families saw these youth programs as the start to their students’ transition to taking college-level classes. So while I knew that some things had changed for homeschoolers, including youth programs that could serve as part of a transition to college, I didn’t realize how much had changed.

One day, I was standing at my department’s front desk when a man walked up asking if we rented meeting space to area organizations. “My kids’ homeschool organization has outgrown its meeting space,” he told me. “We have two hundred students who attend classes, and there isn’t enough parking.” I was immediately reminded of my homeschool co-op days when we hosted the writers’ club for two different age groups. On a good day, there were seven cars in our driveway. Apparently, things have really grown.

Today, according to sources cited in Joseph Murphy’s Homeschooling in America: Capturing and Assessing the Movement, it is currently estimated that there are about two million homeschoolers in the U.S. Currently, six to twelve percent of all students are educated at home at some point, according to the book, and homeschooling is considered one of the “fastest growing” sectors of education today. As Milton Gaither reports in Homeschool: An American History, studies about homeschooling show many combinations of philosophies and practices, as well as an intermingling with traditional schooling. Since the time that my parents decided not to send me to school, the broader homeschooling movement has gone from a countercultural movement to a widely-accepted phenomenon with legal support, boasting web sites, curriculum providers, and annual conferences.

To find out more about these differences, I asked a home educated colleague of mine, Ben, about the differences he saw between his own experiences homeschooling and homeschoolers today. Ben is close to my age, and has a sister twelve years his junior, Kristen, who has just finished homeschooling and is now attending the community college. Ben’s family followed a curriculum for each student, and his mom wrote up what they called a “sheet” for him each night with everything he needed to do the following day. Although Ben was involved with other things, like helping his dad build their new house, for many of his school days, he noted, “It was just me and that sheet, and outside of that any social interaction I got was from friends I made on my own or from the youth group at church or from community sports.”

In contrast, Ben’s sister Kristen joined a homeschool co-op while she was in middle school, and played on an all-homeschool traveling basketball team throughout high school. She also had the option of attending a homeschool high school prom (although she chose not to). In addition to the co-op and basketball team, Kristen benefitted from the large homeschool network that now exists in the area. Ben noted that some resources that were available he simply didn’t know about because his family wasn’t as connected with other homeschooling families at the time, for example: “I don’t think it ever dawned on us that taking classes at the local community college was an option.” In contrast, Kristen took classes there her senior year while balancing classwork at home and in the homeschool co-op.

This difference in homeschool networks over time has been noted here in Life Learning Magazine. In 2011, parent Debra Elramey wrote about having started a homeschool support network in the 1980s when she was unschooling her older children, then returning to the group twenty years later with her youngest child. While her daughter enjoyed many of the structured activities of the organization, including a piano recital, Elramey noticed that the organization she had started as an unschooling parent years before had evolved to a structure very similar to that of a private school, with membership in the organization requiring monthly dues and so many volunteer hours at homeschool events each month. As someone who embraced a life learning philosophy, the dramatic change in the structure of the organization came as a surprise.

My parents also called what we did “unschooling.” This was because we weren’t simply “doing school at home,” as my mom used to say: We didn’t use a set curriculum (although for several years my mom ordered a curriculum that we used as a resource). The term “unschooling” was a term coined in the 1970s by John Holt, an educator and educational reformer who eventually came to believe that the American public schools were beyond reform. “What children need,” said Holt, “is not new and better curriculum but access to more and more of the real world; plenty of time and space to think over their experiences, and to use fantasy and play to make meaning out of them.” This philosophy of allowing children access to the world and time to explore it still prevails among many homeschoolers today.

In the early days of unschooling, Holt started a magazine called Growing without Schooling (GWS), in which homeschoolers wrote about their experiments with taking their kids out of school, creating a dialogue that reached hundreds of families between the late 1970s and 2001, at which point the publication was discontinued. As Pat Farenga, who worked with Holt in the 1980s and published GWS after he died, later noted, Holt used the term unschooling to include families who were homeschooling for a variety of purposes, and who used a variety of methods. In the second issue of GWS, John Holt wrote the following: “GWS will say ‘unschooling’ when we mean taking children out of school, and ‘deschooling’ when we mean changing the laws to make schools non-compulsory and to take away from them their power to  grade, rank, and label people, i.e., to make lasting, official, public judgments about them.”

As Milton Gaither reports in Homeschool: An American History, studies about homeschooling today show many combinations of philosophies and practices, as well as an intermingling with traditional schooling. For example, a study of seventeen families in Ohio showed that in general during their first year of homeschooling, families used a prefabricated curriculum; during the second year they were more “eclectic” in their approach, including outside activities, and in the third year, parents became more like facilitators of learning, with students taking the lead. Gaither noted that as the lines between those who homeschool for religious and pedagogical reasons have blurred, so have the lines between families who homeschool with a set curriculum and those who do not.

Two primary differences that I see between content in the earlier publication GWS and current homeschooling magazines such as Life Learning Magazine, are that (1) the language around making the decision to homeschool is much less oppositional and (2) homeschoolers can now take for granted the right to homeschool their children. I believe they are connected. Theo Giesy wrote about this in the September/October 1997 issue of GWS. Giesy, whose family was involved in a court case in 1979 which then “set a legal precedent for homeschooling in Virginia,” talks about homeschooling a “second time around” with a much younger child: “Now, with Ellen, we don’t have to debate whether or not to go against the system. Homeschooling is simply one of the options available. With our first round of homeschoolers, we had to spend a lot of time talking to the press, to the legislature, to groups…it is really nice to be able to just live our lives, raising our child as we want to.”

In a 2003 republication of Holt’s book Teach Your Own, Pat Farenga defined unschooling as “interest driven, child-led, natural, organic, eclectic, or self-directed live and learn together, pursuing questions and interests as they arise and using conventional schooling on an ‘on demand’ basis, if at all.” It is interesting to note that this definition is in many ways more refined and significantly less oppositional to schools than Holt’s earlier definition of unschooling referenced above. While Holt talked about removing kids from school, Farenga here discussed using school “on demand” if desired. While for Holt unschooling was removing a child from school, for Farenga unschooling meant having choices, including school as needed.

In an era in which homeschooling is legal in many countries, it makes sense that there isn’t the same culture of “going against the system” as there was before. In general, unschooling as a movement has evolved to the point that many unschoolers do not appear to feel threatened by the idea of traditional schooling. I see an evolution toward a more integrated outlook that views homeschooling as one of a multitude of resources that can be utilized as part of a child’s self-directed learning.

I also see this difference reflected in the way that Ben and Kristen talked about their experiences, and the way I think back on my own experience as a homeschooler. When asked about the benefits of homeschooling, Ben talked about the ability to get his work done and have time left over to do things like helping his Dad build their house. For Ben, homeschooling was about pros and cons. He traded the opportunity to go to prom and play on school sports teams for the freedom to learn when he wished, and to pursue other interests in his spare time. His friends were an eclectic group of people from different parts of the community, rather than people he met in school. For me as well, homeschooling meant trading “normal” experiences for other ones. A few examples: hiking in the woods with older friends who taught me the names of wildflowers instead of running on the cross-country team with my age mates; spending hours reading Thoreau and writing in my journal instead of attending English class; teaching dance to eight-year-olds at the elementary school at a time in the afternoon when I would have still been sitting on a bus at the high school.

Ben and I both had an eclectic group of friends growing up – diverse in age, geographical location, and in interests. In high school in particular, when most of my homeschooled age-mates went “back to school,” I didn’t have a single group of friends that I did everything with, but instead a large array of people that I interacted with for different reasons. In contrast, many of Kristen’s friends during her high school years were people she met at homeschool co-op, or through the traveling homeschool basketball team, or at events organized by homeschool families. Today, homeschoolers like Kristen have the option to learn with groups of people their own age as well as the freedom to seek out diverse learning experiences in the community at large. This represents a significant difference in homeschooling then and now.

For Kristen, the primary benefit of homeschooling, she said, was “diversity.” She was able to choose from among multiple curriculum providers for her at-home learning, classes at the homeschool co-op, and courses at the community college. She saw homeschooling as giving her a greater variety of options than she would have had in public or private school.

This, I believe, more than Spring Break, speaks volumes about the ways in which homeschooling has evolved in the last three decades. While Ben and I experienced homeschooling as not-school, for Kristen homeschooling offered a variety of choices that included school, not-school, and things in between. She had the experience of choosing how much structured learning time she wanted, and how much at-home time. She could do all this without fear that she would miss prom or lose her peer group, or that by participating in organized learning she was not truly a homeschooler.

Seeing life as an array of learning opportunities has been a motivating factor for homeschoolers for many years. Although I value the distinctly eclectic array of learning experiences I had as a homeschooler, I am thrilled to see so many more options open to homeschoolers today. Just as early homeschoolers didn’t allow school to limit learning opportunities, current homeschoolers don’t allow “not school” to circumscribe their learning options. Homeschooling is no longer a black-and-white choice, but filled with infinite grays. Let it be celebrated that homeschoolers haven’t become set in our oppositional, unconventional ways.

Learn More

“Whatever an Education Is” by Deborah Elramey in Life Learning Magazine, September/October 2011

Homeschooling: an American History by Milton Gaither (Palgrave MacMillan, 2008)

Family Matters: Why homeschooling makes sense by David Guterson (Harcourt, Inc., 1992)

Teach Your Own: the John Holt book of homeschooling by John Holt and Patrick Farenga (Perseus Publishing, 2003)

Homeschooling in America: Capturing and Assessing the Movement by Joseph Murphy (Corwin, 2012)

Erin Hughey-Commers was unschooled through high school in rural Virginia. She then attended Piedmont Virginia Community College, where she was selected as Student of the Year and named the Virginia Centennial Scholar for being the top Virginia Community College student in 2001. Erin graduated from the great books program at St. John’s College in Annapolis in 2005, and has since earned a Master’s in Education from the Curry School at the University of Virginia. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, traveling, and writing.

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