Shea Harasymiw, who is homeschooled in Hinton, copies words out of a dictionary she inherited from her late great-grandmother.
Local Journalism Initiative
As parents consider a traditional in-school return or online learning, there are some locals touting the virtues of organized homeschooling
Parents were thrown into at-home and online school this past spring due to the pandemic.
While many struggled with the sudden change, it was nothing new for several local parents who were already formally homeschooling their children before COVID.
“I have a lot of compassion because they were thrown into it. I have all this time where I’m allowed to plan and prepare and I feel a lot more secure with that plan in place,” said Andrea Sommerfeld, one local homeschooling parent.
“That must have been really tough, but my number one piece of advice is to read your child. Nobody knows them better than you and that’s the main reason why I love homeschooling.”
Alberta parents have the option to choose how children receive their education, this includes school-controlled learning, parent-controlled learning, or a blended program.
This past spring, parents supported their children through their school-at-home arrangements and made sure their children did the school mandated lessons.
This online schooling is still considered school-controlled and is much different from true ‘homeschooling.’
Homeschooling or parent-directed learning varies widely depending on the parent’s chosen education style or curriculum. Traditionally, the parent is in control of all decision-making and curriculum choices, and some parents involve their children in choosing their own curriculum. Homeschooling gives parents the freedom to choose what, who, when, where, and how anything is taught.
Sommerfeld is going on her third year of homeschool teaching in Hinton and now has two school-aged kids.
“I really wanted to be in charge of what my kids are learning, and 100 per cent I am. I get to pick every single thing, and it’s wonderful, I love it,” Sommerfeld said.
She recently ordered their curriculum online for the next school year and her kids sat down with her to pick what they wanted to learn about. She loves the flexibility of being able to choose things they are actually interested in but also to see how they learn and what works best.
“Sometimes your kids can get a little frustrated or whatever and you just read them and take a day,” she said.
Each day, they start school at 10 am and they work through that day’s work, with the focus on doing the work and understanding everything properly instead of focusing on the time.
Sometimes the work can take an hour, sometimes two, and the rest of the day is filled with activities.
They started with a five day work week and halfway through the year they found that four days was better.
The kids had more attention on Monday morning when they had three days off rather than two, and they could easily make up for the extra work in four days.
“There are so many families in town now that are homeschooling that the one downside everybody is always worried about is socialization, but let me tell you, these kids make friends so easy, they’re very social. It’s just a really positive experience for us,” Sommerfeld said.
Sommerfeld ordered a curriculum through her registered school board for her first year, but then switched to a curriculum ordered through an online organization called Learning House. The school board sent a complete pack with subjects, but Learning House allowed her to choose specific subjects.
In Alberta, home education provides each child $850 per year to offset the cost of resources, such as the curriculum, musical instruments, or anything to better a child’s education, according to the Alberta Homeschooling Association.
A child needs to be registered with a school authority partner by Sept. 30 to access the funding. That school authority doesn’t have to be the school board in their specific location but can be any school board that suits their learning style in Alberta.
A certified teacher facilitator is assigned to them through that school board partner to help select curriculums and make sure a child is learning properly. Curriculums can be chosen through the school but parents can also select a curriculum online. Everything has to be approved and the facilitators will help if anything is missing.
“We have to write up a lesson plan with all the curriculum and all the outcomes, the facilitator has to approve that,” Sommerfeld explained.
Twice per year, the facilitator comes out to visit and meet the Sommerfeld kids.
They look through their books and schoolwork together and assist with any questions they may have. Throughout the year they have continuous contact as well. Sommerfeld didn’t have any prior teaching experience and hadn’t heard about homeschooling until she met her husband. He was homeschooled by his mother until graduation, Sommerfeld explained, and his whole side of the family was also homeschooled.
“It never occurred to me until my daughter was getting closer to school age and I thought what we really wanted was to have a faith based learning. We wanted to introduce and incorporate God into our schoolwork,” Sommerfeld explained.
Seeing how her children learn has made their connection deeper and teaching her daughter how to read was incredible, she said. At the end of the year, her daughter took her grammar, writing, and spelling books with the instructions and said she would figure it out by herself, giving her some time to focus on her sons’ lessons.
Sommerfeld’s biggest piece of advice when considering or starting homeschooling is to reach out to other homeschooling parents and ask for help.
“There’s so many people going through the same thing that can help,” she said.
Listening to other moms talk about their experience with online schooling in the spring sounded more complicated than it needed to be, she added. While the impacts of COVID-19 on Sommerfeld’s family were different than those who are in school, the social aspect of their lives was hit hard just like anyone else.
They finished school much sooner than expected, but they couldn’t go see their friends or play in the park.
Miranda Wulf, another local homeschooling parent, said COVID-19 also changed their daily routine. Her children followed a loose routine around certain benchmark activities throughout the week like piano lessons or gymnastics. When these activities shut down due to the pandemic, Wulf had to create her own benchmark activities at home. Wulf’s homeschool style is called “unschooling”, which she plans to continue for as long as her kids allow her.
“I prefer learner-directed home education. I see myself as the facilitator for my children’s curiosities and kind of infusing school into everything that we do,” Wulf explained.
Unschooling is learner-driven education and is the fastest growing methodology of children learning without power struggles, according to the Alberta Homeschooling Association.
Unschooling empowers children to learn about what sparks their curiosity, this is believed to increase their motivation. Grades one through nine can be taught without any textbooks, workbooks, or paper-based curriculum at all, states the Alberta Homeschooling Association. They learn through projects, sports, games, internet research, socializing, discussions, play, jobs, volunteering, Worldschooling, and self-directed pursuits.
Wulf noticed that part of the recent online at-home-learning struggle for some parents may stem from trying to recreate institutionalized school at home with the added pressure of the parent child dynamic.
“They’re trying to still make it that structure, but the beauty of home is that you can make it whatever you want it to be,” she said.
In Wulf’s perspective, humans learn by following their curiosity and observing what’s happening around them.
“They learn to walk by themselves, they learn to talk by themselves, by being immersed in people who are walking and talking. We don’t have to teach them. They watch and do it. Humans will continue to do that if they’re allowed,” she said.
Her oldest daughter is six and wants to learn to read, so Wulf provided different approaches to reading.
Coming from the Montessori method of learning in her early childhood, Wulf believes having things available for children to explore will encourage learning without having to force them to learn.
In short, the Montessori method is a specific child-centered method of education that involves child-led activities in classrooms.
Wulf added that for many kids, their passion for learning fades throughout school as they are forced to learn and do things they aren’t interested in.
“There’s a punishment reward scenario. Nobody learns that way,” she said. “That’s not learning, that’s just performing.”
Before Wulf had kids she decided she wanted them to receive their education through unschooling.
Wulf’s passion is to keep her children curious about learning, and if they end up asking her if they can go to a brick and mortar school, she will let them choose that.
“But I’m also here to say that their grades aren’t a reflection of their self worth,” she stated.
Wulf remembered she did well in school because she had a great memory but that others were gifted in other ways and weren’t rewarded the same way.
“I’m rewarded for my particular gift with grades, I’m supposed to find self worth in that. But I don’t want my children to, because I can see what a waste of time school was for me,” she said.
Even though she could rush through school work and get good grades, children with great musical or athletic skills were sometimes made to feel stupid.
“It’s an interesting heavy emphasis on one ability. But we all have various abilities. The beauty of home education is that we all know our children the best and what sparks their curiosities and what their abilities are and [we can] kind of let those soar a little bit,” she said.
Throughout high school, Wulf questioned why she was learning certain things that she would never use, and that she wasn’t actually learning but just temporarily memorizing them.
Instead, she wants to encourage her children to learn about things they are passionate about and that will actually stick with them.
Once her oldest daughter was four years old, she began collecting Montessori materials for her to access and included her in certain tasks around the home, like cooking or gardening.
Wulf will be working with a facilitator who interprets what they are doing into learning outcomes.
The school board she chose advocates for unschooling, and their facilitators will help them meet the education requirements in Alberta. If one facilitator isn’t the right fit for their family, they are able to request a new one that understands their learning techniques.
“There are a lot of resources out there and a lot of homeschool conferences online right now,” Wulf added.
One of her homeschooling friends has a fourteen year-old son who worked with his facilitator to map out his education specifically for the university program he plans to take. Some homeschooling parents move to online programs in higher grades with certain subjects that tend to get more technical.
Students in home education can apply for credits to earn an Alberta Government high school diploma. Wulf suggested that curious parents reach out to different families or groups to learn about the different options.
“You were their teacher from [age] zero to five, you’re not ill equipped to be their teacher from five onwards.You know your child best and you have a unique opportunity to really dial in and do what sparks their joy and their curiosity,” she said.
She added that it’s also not a lifetime commitment and that parents can try it out one year only to return them to school the following year. Kids that re enter the school system after homeschooling will be placed in the grade based on their age, and no knowledge testing is done to place them.
The first step to start homeschooling is notifying their current school authority that they won’t be returning the following year. Then they must be registered with any school board in the province before Sept. 30 to receive funding. Reach out to local homeschooling groups, the Alberta Homeschooling Association, or your local school authority for more information.