home school writing advice, tips, and information

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In his article, “Common Core Concerns,” Bob Kellogg states the  Home School Legal Defense Association  policy against national standards. This makes perfect sense.

Most parents choose to home school to avoid the measuring stick used to prod children along in the public schools. To be fair, with 35 students in a class, it is imperative to have a system of measuring progress and ensuring preparation for the next grade level, to keep the conveyor belt of grade level accomplishment moving. But, home schooling is a jumping off of the conveyor belt of preparing 35 children for the next teacher and is an embrace of a unique’s child’s unique gifts and development.

So, can common core standards help home school parents?

As a tutor, I know that looking at grade level expectations, currently in the form of state standards, helps my students and I keep on track with what we aim to accomplish.

For instance, the expectations for writing builds from one grade level to the next. Once students are proficient at writing narratives and summaries, they are then asked to write biographical narratives and literary analysis. Students must be able to write less complex compositions before they are asked to write more difficult ones.

The other useful component of the writing standards is the grade level “writing conventions” included (grammar, spelling and punctuation). Of course, these also grow more and more complex as students move through the grade levels, but there was also an attempt to match conventions with age appropriate intellectual development. As all parents know, rarely do our children match the development charts and maps. Many children seem to absorb proper writing conventions through osmosis, or from extensive reading, and other children must be taught these conventions explicitly with lots of detached practice until they have internalized the rules for writing conventions. Still, a guide for which conventions to tackle when is helpful. It may be best to ignore mistakes in dangling modifiers before learners understand parts of speech.

In both cases, the common core standards can be a useful guide for parents, though should not be taken as a dictum for a synchronized march toward graduation. Even classroom teachers, myself included, understand that standards for learning are signposts and points on a map. The joy is always in the journey, and no journey is completed in lockstep march steps.

To be against the common core standards as a defense to being forced to join the conveyor belt of education makes sense. To embrace they as a map for possible destinations also makes sense.


One reason parents home school is the an opportunity for their children to learn authentically.

What exactly does that mean?

I remember when my own son came home to ask when he would even need to know how to write an essay about a book.

“In college?” I answered.

“Besides school, I mean…” he waited, patiently. I’m sure he was convinced that since I was a high school English teacher and regularly made my own students write essays about books, I would have a better answer.

“The assignment is full of many transferable skills like analyzing themes and critical thinking and -”

He cut me off. “So, never. Right?”

I was tempted to launch into my back up speech about jobs and careers which required good writing skills, but from my experiences with my own students I knew this line of logic would be met with the question: “But essays about books, what jobs will require that I write those?”

Rather than make the case that someday he may become a book reviewer or an English professor who must publish or perish, I nodded. “Right.”

Fortunately, when parents choose to home school, they can allow their children to pursue authentic writing or allow them to write about things which interest them and which are useful to them.

Like Caleb Warner in the article, “Happily Home Schooled,” who explains he is writing short stories and a novel and songs. You might wonder when he will ever write any of these things for a job. Well, if he is lucky enough to become a novelist or song writer… but more importantly, each of these writing assignments falls into the category of a narrative, which is done in any job requiring an employee to write an incident report – most jobs.

Now I admit that I do “guide” the students I tutor to write essays exploring issues or analyzing themes of books, but because the instruction is individualized, the writing assignments are authentic or grow out of the child’s interests and knowledge.

I do have a student who is currently writing a novel, but I also tutor students who write about their own experiences with chronic illness, about their family stories, about the effectiveness of the Israeli West Bank Barrier, and a student who is writing a children’s book.

Authentic writing for Home Schoolers is about helping children to write about what they are interested in and in the genre they are interested in because out of these writing assignments they will learn the conventions of writing.

Here are the steps I take for guiding students to authentic writing.

1. Examine which genre fits the student’s interest and ability. 

For example, a student interested in astronomy may want to write a children’s picture books as a summary for what he knows, may want to write a persuasive essay for why Pluto should be considered a planet, or may choose to write an autobiographical narrative about his first time viewing the stars and why he’s so interested in them. The choices are an endless series of mix and match of interest and genre.

2. Review examples of the genre.

To prepare to write in a particular genre, it is imperative that the writer review how proficient and professional writers are successful. When I teach writing “family legends” I have students read a variety of legends so we can examine the difference between a narrative and a legend.

3. Begin writing but be open to revision of expectations.

Most professional writers have had the experience of sitting down with a writing project in mind only to figure out that the genre does not fit the topic – or at least the treatment of the topic the writer is interested in pursuing. It is a sign of a good writer when she can revise her own expectations to produce the best product.

4. Find an audience.

All authentic pieces of writing have authentic audiences. Whether the audience is a student’s younger sibling, an uncle who works for NASA, the local paper letters to the editor page, or a personal blog, nothing motivates writers like writing for an authentic audience. Usually an authentic audience means someone other than the “teacher.”

Helping your child to write authentic pieces for an authentic audience will help him to be more motivated to write and, hopefully, more successful.


There’s a great website, Homeschooling Programs, http://www.homeschoolingprograms.net/homeschooling-programs/ which gives readers basic information about homeschooling programs, such as what to consider when choosing to home school, types of programs available for homeschooling, and resources for homeschooling. This website, and most home school websites, focuses on children of elementary school age.

All of the students I tutor have been at least middle school and high school age. Actually, I have referred some tutoring jobs to  friends because I did not feel competent teaching writing to younger students since all of my experience is grade seven and above.

The trend toward finding alternatives to traditional high school for students is growing.

Many parents choose to continue to home school through high school though it used to be common practice to home school until high school, then find a more traditional approach to ensuring children were taught all the subjects required in high school.Many parents decide to home school using an online curriculum during high school because of the poor quality of the high school in their area. Many parents choose to continue to home school because they want to ensure their children stay excited about learning.

One great resource for navigating homeschooling though high school is Home School Legal Defense Association’s page “Homeschooling Thru High School” at http://www.hslda.org/highschool.asp. The site provides an overview of considerations and frequently asked questions about graduation and university preparation.

I especially appreciate the advice that parents might want to hire a tutor. As a tutor, I tell parents to be thoughtful about two things. When hiring a tutor, be sure that he 0r she is going to be responsive to your needs as the parent guiding your child, and be sure the tutor has the required knowledge of instructional strategies to meet the needs of your child. Referrals from other parents or from home school associations is a good way to find the right tutor.

Home school programs are no longer just about young children being taught by their parents, but now includes young adults learning the skills necessary to succeed in the larger world.


Another school district has decided to offer an online curriculum option (http://www.livingstondaily.com/article/20120712/NEWS01/207120321). I’m all for online learning just as I am all for finding what works best for each student. As a matter of fact, I have applied for a grant for my public school classroom to purchase what is considered an e-course in writing. But this all reminds me of…

Many years ago, my husband, Bill, went to the doctor. He had been sick for awhile and kept thinking that it was a virus and if he rode it out, it would go away. It didn’t so he finally got an appointment with a doctor to see what was up. When he got home, he was a bit concerned. He had a prescription and planned on taking it, but he was still a bit worried.

“The doctor had this book, like the encyclopedia of medical symptoms.” Bill’s eyes narrowed before he continued. “I told him my symptoms. He flipped the pages and would ask questions like, ‘Is it a dry or wet cough?’ then flip some more until he came up with a diagnosis, wrote me a prescription and sent me on my way.”

He held up the prescription bottle like it was snake oil.

And isn’t that what an e-course does? At least the smart ones. You do some work. It has a program which will diagnose where you are having trouble and it sends you on a path to practice those problems until you “get it”.

The trouble is the program is flipping through a book, its program. Bill could have looked up his symptoms and diagnosed himself, like many of us do today on the internet. But we still end up going to the doctor to get confirmation and a course for getting better. Only a person trained in the field is able to do this.

As I said, I think on-line courses are great, but not a complete picture. To really improve in any area, you have to go to someone who knows more, who can diagnose what is going wrong with your writing.

This week I am attending the Tin House Writing Conference because I need help. Some of my essays are not getting accepted for publication. Something is wrong, and my workshop leader – Stephen Elliott – pointed it out to me immediately. Okay, many things were wrong, but the major thing – he saw it right away and told me the course to take to make it better. (He didn’t solve my acne or my aching back.)

If you are going to use an online curriculum with your child, student, learner – be sure to augment it with a tutor, someone who is an actual audience reading your child’s writing, someone who has enough experience to see exactly what is ailing a writing project, and someone who can send the writer on a path to making things better.

Improving one’s writing is always what we want, as writers and students. A tutor or writing teacher will always send you on the path to improvement.


Today in the Star Tribune, Asha Anchan examines the approach of some home-schoolers to “unschool” in her article, “The DIY Approach to Education” http://www.startribune.com/local/161685515.html. It’s an interesting look at the idea that children do not need a set curriculum to be able to “learn”.

As a public school teacher, I recognize that the reason we work with a curriculum is to be sure that we have met the needs of all students through exposure to key concepts the powers that be have deemed important for future success. Remember, in the public arena, teachers are no longer in charge of their curriculum. Instead state standards and common core standards dictate what we need to teach and curriculum companies put together books to ensure that we teach these concepts.  Then students are tested to be sure teachers have taught these concepts to our classrooms full of 30 – 40 students… but I digress.

As a tutor for students who are homeschooled, I do not work through a set curriculum. I basically use the technique of”unschooling” my pupils. Does this mean I let them write what they want? Of course. As a writer myself, I get to write what I want. Granted, sometimes what I want to write is something that will earn me money – and it’s important for students to write sometimes for a grade, but still, I tailor all my writing to projects I want to complete, money or no money.

Yet, I do have goals in mind. As a trained public school teacher, I know that if my home-schooled pupils ever transfer to the public school, there will be certain expectations for them. I also can’t shake the notion that all students should have certain aptitudes, especially when it comes to writing.

So, how does this translate into “unschooling.” The student and I discuss what he or she is interested in and then we craft a writing project geared toward helping the student further explore the topic. I set up the parameters by guiding the student to selecting the type of writing which would best fit his or her interest and skill level.

One of the key elements of making a writing project successful is choosing the right genre for the project. The expectation is that younger students understand narratives (stories) because they are used in so many other genres of writing. Writing a narrative requires that students be able to summarize and describe, both essential elements of all other genres.

Once the student has mastered narrative, we work toward mastering persuasion and compare/contrast essays. These types of essays require that students analyze subjects and explain their ideas. Finally, we move onto complex essays which include literary or research analysis.

And this is where a writing curriculum fits in. Following a curriculum for writing a persuasive essay is so much easier than attempting to muddle your way through it. Setting up clear expectations for the assignment using a grading rubric http://www.rubrics4teachers.com/writing.php, using specific examples for models, providing ways of thinking about drafting an essay with graphic organizers or outlines http://www.eduplace.com/graphicorganizer/, and reviewing key transition words or vocabulary used in the genre is the curriculum. It’s possible for anyone to hobble together this curriculum, but it makes more sense to use one already thoughtfully put together – hopefully by an expert.

Does using a curriculum contradict the idea of unschooling? That’s like saying using a GPS contradicts driving.


After twenty-five years as a public school educator, a published writer and a writing tutor, it is time for me to share my perspective on how to teach writing.