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 kids and their homeschoolers (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 Homeschooler 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.
Living in small town Cobourg, Ont, and pregnant, Desirée Fawn began buying up home-school lesson plans at the same time as she was stockpiling onesies. By the time her daughter, Gretchen, was born, Fawn had refined an arsenal of home-schooling resources and a vision of teaching her daughter at home.
“I just felt that I didn’t want to be away from her,” Fawn says. She knew this in spite of the fact that there were years to come before Gretchen would be old enough for school.
Fast-forward a few years and, when it was time for Gretchen to head to kindergarten, Fawn was in the midst of building her own business, a digital media company that consumed her attention. If she wanted to keep her momentum, she would have to rely on the public system to educate her kid. But when it came time to register Gretchen, Fawn balked.
“I just couldn’t bring myself to sign her up,” she says. Fawn was daunted by the large class sizes and worried what kind of impact that atmosphere would have on her daughter. “The thing about kids is they crave knowledge. You can’t stop them from learning. But you can stop them from loving to learn,” Fawn says. “And I think that can happen in a school system where teachers are under so much pressure and there are a lot of targets to reach. You can’t follow 30 children everywhere because it’s chaos.”
Fawn’s compromise was to enroll Gretchen in a Montessori school, where she stayed for three years until Fawn’s business was beyond its infancy. Last September, Gretchen and Fawn embarked on their rookie season of learning from home.
Immediately, the pace of their days improved. “We’re no longer getting up, packing lunch, running out the door. I hated starting every day like that,” Fawn says. Instead, she and Gretchen, now eight, ease into things. Equipped with fresh coffee and breakfast, the pair read books or listen to an audio book in their living room or back yard. “This morning tradition has been one of the best changes in our lives,” Fawn says.
To give their schedule some structure, Fawn purchased a curriculum from Oak Meadow, a popular US-based home-schooling resource. With that as a guide, she and Gretchen spend some mornings doing lessons at home. On other days, Gretchen might work on a project, read or write. Afternoons are generally devoted to independent learning, so the pair head to a café with good wireless. Gretchen might use a digital app that guides her through a French lesson while Fawn knocks out emails or works on a client project—work that Fawn admits she simply wouldn’t be able to do if Gretchen was younger or couldn’t read on her own. Through this lens, her decision to hold off on homeschooling for a few years was critical in order for her to be able to both teach and run her business from home.
I home-school my five kids to prepare them for the real world
The flexibility that home-schooling affords is the grease in Fawn’s wheels. Although she follows a curriculum, she doesn’t necessarily do “school” from Monday to Friday. “Maybe a lesson comes up on a Sunday and we dive right in. A lot of people have the impression that home-schooling is taking that six-hour school day and plunking it into your house. Absolutely not,” she says. While some lessons take as little as 30 minutes, others may be stretched out for a whole week if it feels right. This freedom is a luxury both Fawn and her daughter appreciate.
Still, their schedules are full, with most days including a meet up with one home-school group or another. “We go to a gym class with some families, we have another group at the library and another group that we do an art class with on Fridays,” Fawn says. “There’s this persistent notion that Homeschooler’s kids are unsocialized weirdos. But Gretchen meets more people than she would at school because we’re always doing something.”
That includes a recent science fair put on by a group of home-schoolers, a track meet and even a visit to an Alpaca farm. The meetups have helped build a community that Fawn, too, can learn from. “Just like you can’t raise a kid completely on your own, you can’t school a kid completely on your own,” she says. “We all connect, we have the same sorts of problems. There’s always going to be someone one step ahead of you who can help.”
As Fawn struggles with how to help Gretchen cope with some tough feelings around competitiveness, she’s leaning on the adults around her. “She feels really upset about anything where there’s going to be a winner and a loser. She would like it all to be very fair,” Fawn says. “She didn’t really want to participate in the track meet because she knew there was going to be a first and last place. I’ve reached out to my community to ask ‘What do I do here?’”
And of course, with all the long hours they spend together, there are bound to be hiccups. “There’s the foot stomping. The pouting. Homeschooler or not, those moments are going to come up,” Fawn says. “When you’re with your kid all day long you get the worst of them. But you also get the best of them because you’re there for all those small moments.”