Back to homeschool

As the August heat fades, one can begin to smell the crisp leaves and cooler air of September. For most families, that means heading back to school — but first to the mall to load carts with pencils, pens, Jonas Brothers notebooks, and brand-new clothes.

Not every family, however, is getting ready to leave the house to hit the books. For some families, “back to school” means hitting the parks, zoos, and museums, where the usual crowds vanish with the start of classes. For others, “back to school” means nothing at all.

For many homeschooling families, the learning never stops.

More than 14,000 children in Minnesota don’t find themselves inside a public institution after Labor Day, according to Amy Lienen, president of the Minnesota Homeschoolers Association. Instead, parents wishing to homeschool fill out a form informing the nearest district superintendent of their qualifications and intent to teach from home, and then send in a report once a year. With that, homeschooling families have the freedom to start — or stop — schooling whenever they like, making back-to-school preparation something that can vary greatly from one family to the next.

Learning by doing

Erik Riese, a Minneapolis resident who homeschools his teenage son, said he doesn’t let a calendar dictate his son’s learning. “The public school sends their school calendar to us, but we just use that to keep track of when the other kids get off,” Riese said. “My son decides what drives his own interests.”

In the summer, Erik’s son is involved with several homeschooling groups, and will do summer learning on his own. Riese said he doesn’t distinguish learning to do laundry from learning to do algebra. “When I got into homeshooling, I didn’t think about how school would drive my schedule,” he said. “It was more about letting my kids learn what they want all year round.”

One thing, however, the Rieses do come fall is pull out the textbook catalogues and begin deciding — together — what they will learn next year. This could include anything from geometry to English to nature studies.

For Barb Martinez, schooling her two children in her Lakeville home expands through the summer months, but not in the traditional sense. Martinez and her children do a lot of “learning by doing” between June and August. Last year that meant learning how to hatch chickens; this year it means starting a compost bin and charting its temperatures daily.

“We aren’t sitting down with workbooks, but we sure the heck are learning,” Martinez said. “Learning is still really fun for them, they don’t see it as a separate thing. It’s just part of our life.”

Martinez said back-to-school shopping doesn’t hold much meaning for her kids. Every once and awhile they will take a jaunt through the back-to-school aisle to snag deals on supplies, but they are not bogged down by a list sent out by public schools. “It’s ours,” she says of the experience. “It’s what we want to do, as opposed to what someone else has prescribed for us.”

Martinez’s favorite part of the back-to-school season is an annual meeting in the park with other homeschooling families. On the first day of classes for public schools, Martinez and other homeschooling families meet in the park and down root beer floats, reveling in the lack of crowds and watching their kids play. “It’s just our little symbolic thing,” she said.

Getting back into a schedule

For some homeschooling families, following a more traditional schooling schedule allows their children to participate in back-to-school preparation. Blair Loder has been homeschooling her two children for five years from her Moundsview home, and says that although she doesn’t separate life from learning, there is definitely a nine-month span when more classes and activities go on. During the school year, classes are offered at area nature centers and Science Museum of Minnesota, where Loder and her children can enjoy activities without the hassle of summer crowds.

But Loder, who attended public school as a child, said she enjoys the rush of back-to-school preparation. “There is that great feeling in the air during back-to-school time,” she says. “The crispy fall air, new pencils, and new clothes.”

Loder and her children do go out and do back-to-school shopping. “That was a really good memory for me, but after Labor Day we don’t sit down at the table and get on the books like a public school does,” Loder says, “We spend a lot of time in September getting back to reading. It’s a warm, nice time to cuddle up.”

Margaret Berns, an Eagan mom of five with one on the way, writes her own blog called Minnesota Mom, detailing some of her adventures with homeschooling. Berns says she also benefits from a more traditional school schedule, probably due to the size of her family and the rigors of assuring everyone is on track.

“It’s a lot of work, whether you’re in public school or homeschool,” Berns said. “There are subjects they have to cover in a day’s time. My kids have a binder and things that they need to check off.”

Berns also said the nine-month schedule is important in Minnesota especially, where summers are so precious. The family enjoys going out to the lake and spending time outside during the summer. Although the kids do some schooling between June and August, it’s much more relaxed, with classes starting up in full force the Tuesday after Labor Day. And, while some homeschoolers may teach from locations all around their home, the Berns’ have a classroom set up for work — desks and all.

Before school started last fall, Berns’s husband took all the kids to Wisconsin Dells so she could get the classroom set up for back-to-school. “When they came home, they had all these surprises on their desk, and it was good for me because I had a quiet house to get ready,” she said.

For the Bernses, the important part of hitting the books is knowing they will be able to stay together. “The huge difference for me is that my kids don’t go away for back-to-school,” she said. “For us, it’s a lifestyle to be together all day long. Going back to school does not mean losing the kids.”

Briana Bierschbach is an intern at Minnesota Parent.

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