Reading in PJs meets the dress code just fine; a trip to the grocery store becomes a lesson in addition and fractions; a forest walk morphs into a meditation on the circle of life. Zookeepers have time to answer loads of questions on a weekday afternoon. The same goes for gallery staff, store owners and the guy who drives the Zamboni—he might even take you for a spin on the rink if no one is watching. These are just some of the simple freedoms home-schooled kids and their teachers (usually moms) enjoy on an average day.
Classes happen at or around the home for more than 26,000 Canadian kids, and their ranks are growing. Between 2008 and 2015, that number jumped by more than 36 percent, says Fraser Institute researcher Deani Neven Van Pelt, one of Canada’s top home-school experts. That’s fast expansion for a 50-year-old movement. “Home-schooling is becoming more sophisticated,” she says. “It taps into parents’ imaginations about what’s possible for the education of their children.”
What began as a largely Christian movement (by parents who wanted a religiously informed education for their children) has since become more of a secular pursuit and has definitely evolved. Families who home-school are diverse, not necessarily religious and quite entrepreneurial when it comes to finding novel ways to teach old lessons; they do it because they can, because it gives them more time together and because it’s more practical than ever before.
“We can all be self-educators in ways that weren’t possible even a decade ago,” Van Pelt says. “Digital technology has changed the way we learn and even the way we teach. You can access great programs and instruction for all sorts of topics online, either at a low price or for free. You don’t have to rely on school, look in a textbook and have a teacher teach you a lesson anymore.”
Here’s how one resourceful, tight-knit family is un-schooling their kids.
Alisha Brignall decided to home-school her children during a visit to her pediatrician. It was shortly after her oldest son, Keenan, had finished kindergarten, and his first year in public school had been tough. Brimming with energy, Keenan went in with much excitement, but he had a difficult time settling in class. He was easily bored during lessons and often didn’t seem interested in learning alongside his classmates. He found it hard not to speak out of turn and was constantly in trouble. When he came home each day, Keenan was “off the wall,” running around wildly to let out the energy he had tried so hard to bottle up in class. As the year progressed, Keenan became discouraged. “He was really losing his passion and exuberance,” Brignall says.
At Keenan’s teacher’s suggestion, they went ahead with a psychoeducational assessment, which confirmed Keenan has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Brignall discussed her options with their paediatrician—“We could either start him on medication or change the environment,” she says—and right there, she chose the latter. The seemingly overtaxed public school system, she feared, didn’t have the capacity to address her son’s needs. She was running her own preschool at the time, and taking it on herself made the most sense. Keenan went on to start grade one at home, and his three siblings followed suit.
“I never saw myself as a home-schooler,” Brignall says. “But it was important that Keenan feel supported in his learning and that his self-esteem didn’t go down.” Like his older brother, Ryan also has ADHD, and, after struggling with reading and math for a while, was formally diagnosed with dyslexia earlier this year. Having two kids with learning challenges has heavily shaped Brignall’s approach, which she blogs about and has dubbed “eclectic un-schooling.” While she’s committed to meeting the milestones laid out in Alberta’s curriculum, she takes the kids’ lead on the path to hitting them. “They can’t do big, long sessions of work,” she says. “I give them the freedom to be themselves and learn what they want to learn.”
When each child reaches grade four—the point at which the curriculum takes a leap, and kids are better able to handle it developmentally—Brignall introduces separate math and science lessons, but still resists a hard structure. “Every day is a different day. It’s really hard to explain. People often think a home-school day should start at 9 a.m., when you do math for 45 minutes, have a break, then do English, then lunch, then science. That’s not how it works.”
This is generally how it does work: First, Brignall makes herself a chai latte. The kids quietly journal while she sips, and then they hold their family meeting, during which time they come up with a plan. Most days are built around whatever has currently captivated the kids. A show about tornadoes one evening might spark an entire day of learning about tornadoes the next—one that encapsulates science, art, writing and a field trip. Days, Brignall says, are usually fluid and messy. And that is perfectly all right with her.
“I’m grabbing learning opportunities whenever I can, because [my kids] don’t work well with structure,” Brignall says. “The whole purpose of home-schooling is for kids to develop that love of learning and that intrinsic desire to go out and find the information for themselves.”
Paradoxically, that occasionally means going to class. Home-schoolers in Alberta are required by law to notify their school board, which in turn provides parents with a facilitator who can help map out plans for meeting annual educational goals. Home-schooled kids are also given access to government-approved classes, like weekly math or science lessons, to supplement their home-based learning. These classes can be done at public school or even online—Keenan attends math and language arts classes for home-schooled kids, taught by a teacher licensed by the Calgary Board of Education, and next year, he’ll do a science class online. Both Keenan and Ryan also have private tutors for reading and math.
“It means I don’t have to do 100 percent of my children’s education,” says Brignall. “I have no problem with outsourcing,” she says, adding that it gives her the sense of being part of an educational team that supports her kids.
Sending them out to classes (her daughter attends preschool one day a week) also means Brignall gets a rare—and much-needed—break. “I have two hours every Thursday afternoon to just sit at the farmers’ market and eat my favourite food without having to share it with everybody. And it’s great.”
That quiet market meal might be the only reprieve Brignall gets in a week, as her husband, Christopher, works seven-day shifts as a paramedic in Fort McMurray, Alta., nearly 750 kilometres north of Calgary. He works one week and then spends the next week at home, during which time he’s all in on lunch prep and field trips. The schedule can be grueling, but it also means they all have longer stretches of time together, which wouldn’t be possible if the kids went to public school. The family’s connection is deeper because of it. “Half of the year, he’s gone, but I feel like our kids get more of their dad because we home-school,” Brignall says. “One of my favourite things about it is that we live in another world. We don’t have to live our lives at the same pace as everyone else.”
This article was originally published online in November 2017.