Homeschooling: Homeward Bound

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Homeschooling is a great option for families wanting to educate their children in China, but what are the logistics of putting together an effective curriculum? Tania McCartney talks to a homeschooling family to find out

Think 'homeschooling' and perhaps the first thing that comes to mind is a lonely batch of kids holed up in a makeshift classroom in a suburban garage, with a harried mom flailing a meter-rule and attempting to balance her teaching role with housework, shopping and getting the roast done for dinner.

This scenario, however, is far from the truth.

While most regular school environments provide the overall balance required to educate our young effectively, there is increasing argument that homeschooling carries far more credit than we give it, well… credit for. Just ask Jill Anderson, a remarkable mother of four (including newborn Emily) who has homeschooled three children since arriving from the US a year ago.

Jill and her husband David made the decision to homeschool Benjamin (8), Madelyn (6) and Erik (4) out of financial necessity, as David has himself spent the last six years as a student, studying law at Peking University. The family were also concerned about the lack of schooling options for their special needs child, Benjamin, who has Down syndrome. “Home schooling has allowed us to give the kids one-on-one attention,” says Jill, “As well as design an educational program tailored to their interests, needs and abilities.”

Jill began her first year as a stay-at-home teacher by planning her kids’ educational requirements. “We worked on the concepts they were expected to know by the end of their grade level,” says Jill, who used a list of expectations from her former school district in the US. “I brought leveled readers with us and textbooks, workbooks and CD-ROM programs to teach math, reading and phonics,” says Jill, who truly believes all three of her children have made more progress during the past year than they would have in a public school setting. Jill ensured this solid progress via a well-rounded curriculum, and by using online sites for teachers, and organizing regular field trips and science lessons with Dad.

An added advantage of homeschooling in Beijing, according to Jill, is the multicultural saturation. “The language and culture adds enormous interest to my curriculum,” she says. “I also treasure that I was able to spend so much time with my children, getting to know them better and observing their special talents and abilities,” she says. “I have loved watching their growth and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

While this past year was a successful and enjoyable one, Jill does plan to make things even easier next time. “I will definitely be looking for teaching helpers,” she admits, especially helpful with a new baby in tow. “Ready-made lesson plans, tests and record keeping can be found in DVD format online, saving parents a lot of time,” she says. There are also many wonderful websites to help parents plan for homeschooling (see Helpful Websites).

Offering her kids a varied and successful schooling year is not the only thing Jill Anderson has succeeded in since coming to Beijing. She is also responsible for the Yahoo! group – Beijing Homeschoolers. Noticing Beijing’s glaring absence of homeschooling support in a city racked with limited educational choice (either localised schools with no language options or high-priced international schools), Jill quickly gathered interest in her new venture. Since its inception in October 2007, Beijing Homeschoolers now has 33 member families, and it continues to grow.

“The group is only open to Beijing families who are homeschooling their children, or who plan to in the near future,” says Jill. “Right now, the group functions mainly as a question and answer forum. It also helps us organize get-togethers and outings. In the future, I hope we can use it to organize more activities – book clubs, spelling bees, science fairs, play groups, et cetera.”

"We feel that learning at home offers the opportunity for our children to excel"

Beijing Homeschoolers member, Jackie Geist, has always homeschooled her children, Kelly (7) and Alexander (4), and values the support the Group provides. “I like having a place to ask questions and seek reassurance,” she admits. “We've met some of the other homeschoolers and I hope to set up some activities with them.”

Like Jill, Jackie also feels strongly about the benefits of homeschooling. “Since becoming involved in the homeschooling community, we would not choose a private school even if money were no object. We feel that learning at home offers the opportunity for our children to excel, as we can accelerate instruction in strong areas and spend additional time in subjects where they need more help.”

Jackie also says it's wonderful to see the world through her children’s eyes and to recapture a little of that childhood awe. “It's also fulfilling to know I’m providing the best opportunities for my children and doing what works best for our family,” she says.

Nonetheless, there are challenges, like deciding what curriculum and classes to use from the myriad available, yet still having plenty of free time for the kids to just be kids. Jackie also feels the prospect of homeschooling can be scary for some – “Because at times you wonder if you are doing everything you can. We all have moments of doubt, but that's what support groups are for and my regular schooling friends have a lot of the same doubts.”

Jill Anderson also admits homeschooling can be tough at times. “The biggest challenge for me has been having three children at different levels, needing individual instruction at the same time. Madelyn does most of her work independently. Ben, however, needs lots of individual instruction and supervision. Erik, being younger, has a shorter attention span and sometimes creates distractions for me and his siblings.”

Another difficulty, has been her children’s loss of peer interaction. “It has been a challenge,” admits Jill. “We started the Yahoo! group so that we could connect with other homeschooling families. Beijing’s size has made get-togethers difficult but we have been able to meet as a group and for classes like yoga, dance and Chinese culture.”

Jackie Geist, meanwhile, insists her kids’ peer interaction has not been compromised at all, as both children regularly participate in extra-curricular classes from art to martial arts, cooking and science. “My kids have friends in all age groups – everyone from babies to pre-teens are included when we meet up.”

While Jill Anderson believes strongly in the homeschooling model, she also supports schools. “Our kids went to a wonderful public school before we came to Beijing. I really think that the schools and the teachers do the best they can. I am a school teacher by training and have taught in both private and public schools, and there are advantages and disadvantages inherent in all schooling – public and private, and also homeschools.”

"Homeschoolers are a very diverse group and there are many ways to teach and learn"

For those considering homeschooling in Beijing, both moms admit anyone can homeschool. “There are always tutors, classes, video and online courses available if you feel that you are unable to teach a subject,” says Jackie. “If you have access to some good books and join a support group, I think you have everything you need. All the other benefits are just icing on the cake.”

Even though Jill has training as a teacher, she also believes anyone can homeschool effectively. So long as you do your research and plan carefully, a highly effective education is possible from anywhere in the world, especially as the internet offers such easy access to resources. If you do decide to take the homeschooling route, Jill says: “Be patient with yourself and your children. Many, many days are not perfect and do not go according to ‘plan’. Learning is constant, even on not so perfect days.”

Jackie agrees. “Take time to learn about all the different ways to homeschool and keep an open mind. Before I decided to homeschool, I thought it was only for people who didn't want their kids exposed to outside ideas. I've since learned that homeschoolers are a very diverse group and there are many ways to teach and learn,” she says, before adding how lucky she is to have such a supportive family and kids who are so keen to learn. I think homeschoolers and their kids sometimes get questioned about their choices and it can be tiresome. I guess because I'm so positive about our experience, that I only get positive reactions,” she smiles.

One of the Anderson family’s greatest joys from homeschooling has been experiencing a greater closeness between family members. “We have noticed that our kids get along much better than they did before our homeschool experience.” says Jill. “And I have also enjoyed spending my days with my children. Well, most of the time!” she winks.

Interested in signing up to Beijing Homeschoolers? Just send an email to Jill at

Helpful websites:

First published in Little Star magazine.

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