‘I Want to Homeschool, but How?’: A Bare-Bones Guide to Getting Started

July 6, 2020 Updated: July 6, 2020

Of all the silver linings to the tumultuous times we’re living through, one of the most significant may turn out to be the apparent influx of families that are about to give homeschooling a try. 

Over the last few months, I’ve personally received numerous messages from friends of all stripes asking for tips, resources, and advice about homeschooling. Every online homeschool group I’m part of has welcomed a significant increase of new members during this time and countless posts by new or potential homeschoolers seeking information and support.

Almost every inquiry boils down to the same basic question: “I want to homeschool, but how do I actually do it?”

The truth is, there are an infinite number of ways to homeschool your children. One of the very best characteristics of homeschooling is that you can make it what you want it to be—what works for your unique family and what most benefits each of your children.

For the newbie, though, especially one who may have never considered homeschooling before, endless possibilities may be overwhelming. Many unexpected homeschoolers are seeking simple, practical steps to ease their anxieties and get them started. That’s what I have for you here.

A caveat or two: First, you should know that every state in the U.S. has different laws when it comes to homeschooling. While, of course, it’s legal to homeschool in every state, some states mandate specific requirements for homeschoolers—while some don’t. Go to your state’s Department of Education website to understand what’s required of you.

Second, the following should be considered merely a jumping-off point. In practice, over time, you’ll come to personalize your homeschool, gaining confidence along the way to try new things, customize learning to your children’s interests and aptitudes, and let go of what doesn’t work for you.

So, how does one homeschool one’s children?

Start at the Core: Math and Language Arts

Fundamentally, every education needs to have a solid foundation in two basic areas: mathematics and language arts—you know, reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic.

The easiest way to make sure you’re solidly covering math is to utilize a program that does the heavy lifting for you. There are countless curriculum options available that teach (either through text or video instruction) and offer practice exercises and assessment tools. Check out math curricula reviews on CathyDuffyReviews.com, choose one you think your child might enjoy, and try it out. 

Language arts is a term that has come to incorporate reading, grammar, spelling, writing, and penmanship. 

When it comes to reading, I recommend you read “The Read-Aloud Family: Making Meaningful and Lasting Connections With Your Kids,” by Sarah Mackenzie. I think you’ll come away with the understanding that you don’t need a curriculum for “reading,” just a bunch of great books. Make sure those library cards are up to date!

You may want to use a curriculum for grammar, spelling, or writing—or all three. The Cathy Duffy Reviews site also covers many of the language arts curricula on the market. Pick one and give it a go.

Check Your Calendar

Now that you’ve got two programs that will form the backbone of your homeschool year, it’s time to get an idea of how much time it would take you and your child to get through each by the end of the year. (Of course, you don’t have to finish in a year, but this exercise will at least provide a gauge of the workload involved.)

Divide the number of lessons in each program by the number of weeks you intend to homeschool this year. (For reference, a typical public school requires 180 days or about 36 weeks of instruction. Some states mandate the number of weeks you must complete.)

Start the year by aiming to cover the determined number of lessons each week. You can, of course, adjust your schedule at any time to meet the needs of your family.

For your first homeschool year, you can provide your children with an excellent education simply by covering math and language arts—especially if you’re incorporating a feast of delicious and varied books for them to devour.

If you’re feeling ambitious, there are, of course, other subjects you can focus on. I recommend studying the following as a family, as opposed to each individual child working on a grade-level version.

History

The key to teaching history is to tell the story in sequential order. History is simply a story and, for some reason, schools teach it in an ad hoc, very selective, out-of-order way that confuses everybody. I recommend the four-volume series, “The Story of the World” by Susan Wise Bauer as the spine of your exploration into history. Through very basic stories, Bauer walks the reader through history from ancient times to modern days. When you get to a part of history that your family finds particularly interesting, linger there for a while. Watch documentaries, go on field trips, read related fiction and non-fiction books, and go as deep as you’re motivated to before moving on to the next story.

Science

Similarly, see science as an exploration. Science textbooks tend to take super interesting ideas and discoveries and suck the life out of them. Tackling science in units of interest, or unit studies, can be extremely fun. Ask your kids what they’d like to learn about the natural world and go from there. You may find yourselves camping out under the stars, viewing prehistoric skeletons at the natural history museum, or creating a volcanic eruption in the driveway. Pick a topic and run with it.

The Arts

There’s the appreciation of the arts and the practice of the arts—and both should be an absolute delight.

Art appreciation doesn’t need to be a chore. Hang prints of famous paintings, watch videos about the greatest artists, and visit museums galore. Create an atmosphere where your family gets to admire art regularly. That’s all you have to do. The learning will blow your mind.

Similarly with music, we live in a time where the entire canon of classical music (and more) is at our fingertips. Make playlists, check out composer biographies at the library, and go to concerts when you can. Let the very best music ever written be the soundtrack to your homeschool.

As children show prowess in certain aspects of practicing the arts—whether in dance, musical performance, or art—get them outside instruction to explore their potential.

So Much to Learn

Is there more you can teach? Of course. There’s typing and sewing and foreign language and woodcraft and… As you go along, you’ll find time for the lessons that are most important to your specific children. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself in the beginning. Homeschool is an ever-evolving endeavor.

Set the Rhythm

As the summer winds down and your first day of homeschool approaches, give some thought to the rhythm of your days. What time will you start each day? How will you start each day? What routines will move you from breakfast through math to lunch to afterschool activities to winding down at night? (For some great thoughts on this, read Pam Barnhill’s “Better Together, Strengthen Your Family, Simplify Your Homeschool, and Savor the Subjects That Matter Most.”) Schedules can be tricky to stick to, but rhythms keep everything grounded. You’ll likely tweak this for a month or more before you feel like you’ve hit a good rhythm. Be patient.

Set the Stage

Finally, get your home ready for homeschool. Gather supplies, tidy up, do what makes you feel good about the space where you’re about to embark on a learning adventure with your kids. The atmosphere of your home will have a lasting impact on your children’s education. 

Before you start, if you read only one homeschool book, read, “The Brave Learner: Finding Everyday Magic in Homeschool, Learning, and Life” by Julie Bogart.

When the time comes, wake up, start your day with your family, enjoy the successes, forgive the bloopers, and know that tomorrow is another day. 

You’ve started to tend a new garden here, and you’ve only just planted the seeds. While you may not see any fruits or even sprouts, the seeds are nestled under well-watered soil, and tomorrow you can water them again with love, patience, hope, and care. Along the way, there will be weeds, droughts, and storms. But as you continue to tend your garden, after many seasons, you’ll behold what blooms.

Slow and steady.

Follow Barbara on Twitter: @barbaradanza