Home, Sweet School: Homeschooling in Central Pennsylvania

School work

When Julia Paladina’s oldest child, Maximillian (Max), now 12, was in preschool, academics came very easily to him. He had been reading since age 3, and was now doing math. She asked his teacher what he could expect in kindergarten while his classmates were working on skills he’d already learned. Paladina didn’t see him fitting into the kindergarten model.

“That’s when we considered, well, maybe if we bring him home, he can move at his own pace,” says Paladina, who lives in New Cumberland. “He can have more freedom to move around and not stay within the constraints of, ‘OK, we’re doing this now. You have to do this.’ Because he’s always been an out-of-the-box kind of kid.”

Paladina started homeschooling Max the next year, when he was 5 and in kindergarten. She homeschooled him until fifth grade, when he enrolled in St. Theresa’s School in Cumberland. “He needed me as a mom, and not as a teacher-mom,” explains Paladina. She still homeschools her younger children, Dominic, 10, Gianna, 8, and Maria, 5.

Getting started

Although it’s becoming a popular education choice — the U.S. Department of Education reports that the number of homeschooled children has increased by 67 percent in the past decade, and represents 3.4 percent of the elementary and secondary school-aged population nationally — the decision to homeschool can lead to some overwhelming questions like: How do you get started? What does a typical day look like as you entertain and educate your kids all day long? How do you keep toddlers from emptying the cabinets on a daily basis while you teach your older kids? What about socialization?

First things first. Homeschooling is different from cyber (virtual) charter schools. Pennsylvania’s cyber charters (online public schools) are tuition-free and provide a specific curriculum along with the materials, including a computer, needed to access it. Teachers provide real-time instruction periodically, as well as ongoing communication and grading. Parents are not the teachers. This article is specifically addressing homeschooling, when the parent is the teacher and he or she chooses the year’s lesson plan and submits it to the school district for approval.

After researching our homeschool laws (search: Pennsylvania Department of Education, Home Education and Private Tutoring), two things you need to know right of the bat are that Pennsylvania has the second most strident homeschooling laws in the nation (Paladina notes that if you following the required procedures carefully, you should have no problems); and that there is no ‘one way’ to homeschool. Teaching supplies and methods are as different as the families actually doing the homeschooling. Homeschooling parents range from super-structured (starting school at the same time every day; teaching solely from workbooks and textbooks; weekly testing) to “unschooling” (child-led learning; using field trips and outings as real-world experience; not trying to replicate a classroom).

To get started, some homeschoolers buy an entire packaged curriculum to educate their child. This method works well for parents who are unsure about what needs to be taught or where their child is on the academic spectrum, and these packages usually come with a lesson plan that lays out what needs to be taught each day. It’s also great for those who are sharing the teaching with their spouse. Curriculum packages come in a variety of choices, including religious, secular, classical, K12, Latin-centered and more. The choices can be overwhelming, so do some Internet research and join some online groups to discuss what programs others are using and what they think of their packaged curriculum. Even better, find some local homeschoolers and ask if you can come over to check out their curriculum in person.

The homeschoolers referred to as “unschoolers” let their child lead the way (often called “natural learning”). The child, in effect, lets the parent know when he is ready to read, add, write, etc. “Science class” could include field trips to nature centers and zoos, along with walks in the neighborhood simply discovering nature. Grammar is learned not from texts, but from reading books and from real conversations with people of all ages. Similarly, history is learned from stories and historical fiction (or even animated movies … think Prince of Egypt).

Unit studies can be a way for a child to cover every subject by studying one topic. For instance, if your child is a dinosaur fanatic, you would incorporate reading, writing, spelling, history, geography, math, etc. into a unit study on dinosaurs.

Julia Paladina talks about a lesson plan she did called Five in Row. “You read a book five days in a row. But you talk about different things each day. One day it’s the science aspect of the book. The next day it’s maybe something about the way they spoke in the book—so vocab, something to do with language arts. Another day you might be talking about geography. Where did this story take place?”

Field trips, structure, and socializing

Those who homeschool eclectically use whatever works for their child at any given time. They pick and choose from the different methods, incorporating lots of play time and field trips.

“I don’t think we realize how much children learn from play,” says Paladina. “We feed them all this information but the way they process it and the way they make sense of it and how it actually fits in the real world is through play” She also likes to take her children on as many field trips as possible, adding that this year’s lesson plans on Greek astronomy will take them to the Naylor Observatory in Lewisberry often.

“They have star viewing very regularly,” she says. “We’ve already been to one. They have all sorts of information and they show you where everything is, you plot it out in the sky. It’s just incredible.”

As far as the daily job of homeschooling goes, Suzanne Andrews, mom of four, shares, “There isn’t really a ‘typical’ day. The closest we have is up, breakfast, morning chores, then we’re at the table for school around 9 a.m. I juggle the ‘mom’s help needed’ subjects so that while I’m listening to a poem or working oral exercises with one the others are working independently. We lunch around noon, the kids help with prep and cleanup, then we only have a little work left after lunch.”

So how do these homeschoolers handle the challenge of balancing younger and older children during the teaching day? “While our ‘homeschool’ time is not separated from the rest of our life, balancing the needs of the youngers and olders is a persistent challenge,” says Jessica Mattingly, who homeschooled her kids when they ranged in age from 2 to tween. “We employed a variety of strategies. Sometimes one of the kids would play with the baby/toddler while I focused on one or more of the older kids.” Another idea would be to have a special tub of activities just for the younger children for homeschool time. The tub could include blocks, play dough, puppets, coloring books with crayons, lacing cards and snacks.

As for socialization, homeschooled children can mingle with peers through homeschool meet-ups and extracurricular activities: sports, scouting and youth groups. If you want to join a homeschool group, head to the Internet where you can search for groups based on how you homeschool, the ages of your children, where you live, etc. Not every group will be a good fit, so don’t be afraid to move on if you aren’t getting what you need. Other ideas include library programs, parks and recreation activities, playdates with school-going kids in the afternoons and co-ops.

As with anything new, when you first start to homeschool you’ll feel a bit unsteady and unsure. Do what works for you and your children, and keep at it.

“I feel really blessed to be able to teach my kids,” Paladina says when asked if she’s been happy with her homeschooling experience. “It’s not all sunshine and roses. But we learn a lot from each other – I learn as much from my children as they learn from me.”

Kerrie McLoughlin, mother of five, has been homeschooling since 2006 years and is happy to answer any questions at Additional reporting by Leslie Penkunas.

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