The children grow increasingly excited as they spy the tracks of three different animals. Questions soon fly as freely as the snow. Mom knows she'll be busy for the next few weeks, possibly months, immersed in the study of weather patterns, drawing and photography, animal tracks and tracking, and the Native Americans who originally lived in the area. She'll soon shop for materials that compliment her children's natural curiosity and keep the wonder alive in their eyes - and hearts.
This family, like an estimated million others, delights in a revolutionary approach to learning. Known as homeschoolers, they have, for myriad reasons, decided to take responsibility for their children's education into their own hands.
"Some teach their children at home for very clearly defined political, religious, philosophical, or pedagogical reasons, while others - perhaps even a majority - would be hard-pressed to say why, exactly, they teach their children at home," say Micki and David Colfax, authors of Homeschooling for Excellence (Warner Books).
Wait. It gets even more complicated: "Some teach their children at home because of what is being taught in the schools, while others choose to homeschool because of what is not being taught," the Colfaxes continue. "And some regard homeschooling as a radical action, while others see it as an essentially conservative undertaking."
Our family chose homeschooling, spurred by meditation and a deep examination of our own schooling which led to the realization that public school education would not complement or support our simple and spiritual lifestyle.
"The highest function of education," wrote Krishnamurti in Education and the Significance of Life (Harper & Row, San Francisco), "is to bring about an integrated individual who is capable of dealing with life as a whole." So as public school focuses intently on only intellect, we nurture equally the spiritual aspect of our children at home.
DIVERSE, SUCCESSFUL, EMPOWERED
During the decade we've taught our children, the ranks of homeschoolers have grown 15-20% each year. While no one can ascertain an exact number of practitioners, national trends analyst Gerald Celente predicts "the number will continue to climb, fueled by a rise in home-based occupations and dissatisfaction with the public education system." Whatever the original motivation, this large and growing group takes full advantage of the freedom to do their own thing. Tending to shun the educational "trend du jour" in favor of pursuing routes that work best for individual children, it's not surprising that a July 17, 1995, Publishers Weekly feature identifies homeschoolers as a "splintered" market.
"When large numbers of private, religious schools lost their tax-exempt status, you had a lot of Christian 'schoolers' who claimed the homeschool banner," says Mark Hegener, who with his wife, Helen, publishes Home Education Magazine and runs Home Education Press. Supported by networks already well established, and bolstered by "political maneuvering," this act "temporarily skewed the balance," at least in the eyes of the media. "But homeschooling has always been a very diverse movement," Mark explains.
Indeed, the Wall Street Journal highlighted this diversity in May, 1994, when it reported a "new breed" of homeschoolers, one represented by sophisticated and well-educated "families who...think they can do a better job teaching their children themselves."
Studies indicate they are doing a better job. Late last year, the Riverside Publishing Company released the scores of 16,000 home educated students on the spring, 1994, Iowa Basic Achievement Tests. Children taught at home averaged in the 77th percentile on tests "normed" at the 50th percentile.
Critics' concerns for the children's lack of "socialization" are proving baseless with research, too. University of Florida College of Education doctoral student Larry Shyers compared the behavior and social development of two groups of 70 children, ages 8 to 10, one homeschooled and the other educated in public or private school. The study revealed no major difference between the two groups when measuring self-concept or assertiveness. However, Shyer noted that the homeschooled children behaved better, concluding that the homeschooled children tend to imitate their parents, while traditionally schooled children model themselves after other children in the classroom.
For homeschoolers, time not spent in school is devoted to true education, or the "leading out of that which is within." Following this natural, loving approach, children involved in community service, volunteer work, and apprenticeship opportunities build experience, increase maturity, and find connection with the greater world. "What appears to be unfolding is nothing less than the creation of energy where none existed before. Homeschoolers are discovering and bringing forth their own energy, their unique creative intelligence. They have summoned forth the necessary courage and trust, and empower themselves, their children, and their communities." (The Art of Education)
NOT DOING SCHOOL-AT-HOME
As collective buyers of books, audio and video cassettes, games, computer software, and miscellaneous resources used in educating both parents and children, homeschoolers have a voracious appetite - and keen eye. Even though it's a recently recognized market, information to assist booksellers is increasingly available. Last year the American Library Association publishedHomeschoolers and the Public Library: A Resource Guide for Libraries Serving Homeschoolers. The February 1, 1995 edition of Library Journalfeatured scores of books and periodicals recommended for library shelves. In July, Ingram created a 45-page trade catalog,Home School Resources, which it mailed to 10,000 booksellers. And publisher Jane Williams' special report, The 1995 Home School Market Guide (Bluestocking Press), provides access to 164 newsletters and magazines as well as 238 conferences and workshops.
Additionally, this diverse market, says Publishers Weekly, is "linked by a network of national organizations, support groups, newsletter, magazines, numerous conferences - and even the Internet." Attending local or regional conferences or joining in computer discussions provides the chance to meet homeschoolers "up close and personal," and points the way to materials and services you can offer them. Expanding homeschoolers' awareness of a book store's ability to fill their varied needs is an important step in this environment where Jane Williams recommends thinking of homeschooling "as a small town where word-of-mouth can make or break" the success of a title in this demanding marketplace.
The single most important thing to remember is that, for most families, homeschooling is not school-at-home. Less inclined than their traditional counterparts to worry about when children learn specific information, homeschoolers focus more on how, seeking materials that present information in interesting and relevant manners. Forget textbooks, graded readers, and workbook series. Homeschoolers use real books for everything from teaching basics to exploring subjects across the curriculum.
Pat Farenga, president of Holt Associates, which produces Growing Without Schooling magazine and a book and music catalog, believes that many of the books his firm carries can easily "spread out to other markets at the same time."
Free to approach learning in innovative, creative ways, home educators don't put much stock in separated subject areas and often choose the unit study approach to learning. "We try to maintain an even flow of basic academics while concentrating on child-led topics and projects - that is, zeroing in on the kids' present interests and incorporating them into our daily school sessions," writes Becky Rupp, author of Good Stuff: Learning Tools for All Ages (Home Education Press). "We throw a few adult-led topics out there every so often, too, just in case someone is eager to grab new bait."
Hence, the homeschooling mom at the beginning of this article might tote a shopping list that includes Earthsearch (Klutz Press), Peterson's Field Guide Coloring Books (Houghton Mifflin) on forests and mammals, The Kids' Nature Book (Williamson Publishing), and The Double Life of Pocahontas by Jean Fritz (Puffin Books/Penguin). If available, a video on weather, a compass, drawing supplies, an Indian corn husk doll kit, and a flower press just might catch her eye. She's ready to strike while the kids' curiosity is hot, so as supplier you need to be ready, too.
LEARNING IN A DIFFERENT LIGHT
If you are accustomed to supplying adults with alternative material, serving the homeschooling market simply means bringing a fresh eye and the same open mindedness to children's education. "New breed" homeschoolers are separating the artificial school institution from the very natural act of learning. Homeschooling releases the institutional limitations on education the same way holistic medicine unravels the bond between health and hospitals, meditation releases spirituality from religious institutions, or homesteading unfastens the chains of consumer culture.
"Stock books that help people think about children and learning in a different light than mainstream society currently does," suggests Mark Hegener, "books that help them develop their own ideas and philosophies rather than strictly 'how-to.'" This assists families in finding original paths toward health and happiness for their children.
Rather than using "brand name" suppliers exclusively, seek out some of the informative, economical, and popular materials created by cottage industries, usually homeschooling families who found a materials "gap" and filled it for themselves and others. "Read our classified ads," recommends Helen Hegener, "and those in Growing Without Schooling."
TIPS ON A HOMESCHOOLING SECTION
- Materials are an investmentHomeschooling is a lifestyle centered around family. Purchases aren't made with disposable income, but are well-researched, long-term investments in the health, happiness and success of the children.
- Your buyers are finickyThey probably have already bought lots of materials that turned out to be useless, boring and irrelevant. Provide space and opportunity for examining materials. Better yet, have something for the kids to do so Mom or Dad can really focus.
- Bargains attract buyersHaving one parent stay home to teach the kids often represents an economic sacrifice for families, so dollars must stretch as far as possible. Consider offering "home educators' discounts," as you may already offer to certified teachers. Try a unit study special: All books on Ancient Egypt 15% off. Paperback is preferable to hardcover.
- Become a resource beyond booksHomeschoolers, aware that they cannot fill all their children's needs alone, welcome help from the community. Sponsor classes and events to supplement their education. For example, a customer who has visited Egypt can share information, photos, souvenirs and answer questions during the Ancient Egypt sale (possibly in return for a discount on a few books, or just for the joy of sharing). Craft classes are good, as are mini-introductions to everything from astronomy to comparative religions to American Sign Language, subjects for which you should have a nice variety of resources. (Homeschoolers won't be able to resist browsing before and after class!)
- Help home educators networkContact local and state support groups and keep their brochures or newsletters available for customers. Stock a few of the national home education magazines as well as the books. Start a homeschoolers' mailing list. When feasible, create and send your own newsletter announcing new titles, upcoming events, support group meeting dates, and names and phone numbers of new homeschoolers who would like contact with others (always with permission).
- Attend homeschooling conferences and workshops"Get to know this market," advises Helen Hegener, and let them get to know you. If attendance is impossible, contact the organizers and ask how to get your sales material included with conference hand-outs.
According to Krishnamurti, "The right kind of education is of the highest importance, not only for the young, but also for the older generation if they are willing to learn and are not too set in their ways. What we are in ourselves is much more important than the traditional question of what to teach the child...".
Homeschoolers find that the simple act of accepting educational responsibility opens wide the door to freedom unique to a family-centered approach to learning. We receive the gifts of time and opportunity for all of us - children and parents - to discover what we are in ourselves. You can provide welcome assistance and support as homeschoolers follow an educational path that is transforming life and learning - one family at a time.
Linda Dobson wrote a news column for Home Education Magazine, presents workshops and talks on homeschooling, and is author of The Art of Education: Reclaiming Your Family, Community and Self (Holt Associates, 1997) and The Homeschooling Book of Answers: The 88 Most Important Questions Answered by Homeschooling's Most Respected Voices (Prima Publishing, 1998).