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Books To Inspire Homeschoolers

Facts, Advice, and Support From Experienced Educators


Most new homeschoolers eagerly look for stories and advice to inspire them. Books that tell you how to teach at home are great, but sometimes you just need to reassure yourself (or your friends and relatives) that homeschooling is the right choice, and why.

Some titles can be found on every must-have list, but everyone also has their own favorites. Here are the books that helped me the most when I was getting started:

1. "Punished by Rewards" by Alfie Kohn

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How do you motivate children to learn? That's the question Kohn, a speaker on parenting and education issues, take on in his seminal book Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes. The answer, as Kohn explains, is not through testing, prizes, and unrelated incentives, but by providing the chance to work alone or together on meaningful tasks that children get a say in choosing.

Citing numerous scientific studies (there are pages and pages of notes in the back), Kohn makes the case that offering pizzas for reading a certain number of books or telling kids "Good job!" can backfire. As Kohn says, sticker charts and little tokens train kids to respond automatically but don't teach them how to think or give them a love for a subject. Instead, parents and educators should be giving kids "authentic assessments," offering advice and feedback and acknowledging the effort behind the accomplishment.

I've heard Kohn give talks and gotten to interview him many times, and while some of his ideas are challenging to accept, he is well-informed, passionate, and funny. Kohn is also the author of other books about behavior, including Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason.

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2. "Educating Esmé: Diary of a Teacher's First Year" by Esmé Raji Codell

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In the 1990s, Esmé Codell was a new teacher at an inner city Chicago elementary school. This journal follows "Madame Esmé" through her first year, and shows what a difference it makes when children are approached with love and respect and a sense of high expectations. Codell describes her battles against colleagues and administrators who try to quash the creative projects she comes up with and her gentle way of dealing with her students. And she does it with humor and verve.

Her never-wavering campaign in support of her students will inspire any educator. Anyone looking for suggestions for books and related activities for their family will also love her book How to Get Your Child to Love Reading: For Ravenous and Reluctant Readers Alike Codell is also the author of several novels and picture books for kids. After a stint as a school librarian and running her own children's book "salon," Codell is once again teaching in Chicago public schools.

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3. "Homeschooling for Excellence" by David and Micki Colfax

Homeschooling for Excellence book
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David and Micki Colfax and their four sons were one of the first homeschooling families to come to public attention. In the 1970s, after David lost his job as a college professor because of his political activities, the Colfaxes moved to a remote piece of land in the California hills and began building a home and farm. The work took all their time and energy and involved the entire family.

At some point they realized it made sense to teach their sons reading and other academic subjects at home, rather than send them to distant schools of questionable quality. When the oldest son, Grant, was accepted at Harvard (followed by two of his brothers), the family was unexpectedly thrust into the the national news, and they became advocates for the fledgling homeschooling movement.

The Colfax's first book, Homeschooling for Excellence: How to Take Charge of Your Child's Education -- And Why You Absolutely Must is now decades old, and many of its recommendations for resources are sorely out of date. (The family lived without electricity, let alone the internet!) But their experience and philosophy still resonates.

I actually found that their warts-and-all second book, Hard Times in Paradise, which focuses more on the family's day-to-day life, gave a better picture of how homeschooling worked for them.

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4. "Dumbing Us Down" by John Taylor Gatto

Dumbing Us Down book
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Gatto, a former New York City and New York State

Teacher of the Year, has become a homeschooling icon. In his own classrooms, with students from from exclusive neighborhoods and from the ghettos, he ignored rules and encouraged his kids to question everything and find out for themselves.

In Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, Gatto describes the harmful effects public school has on children's ability to think for themselves and put things in historical perspective. And he talks about what is necessary for learning that students cannot find in traditional school -- especially things like privacy and quiet.

Gatto is an unabashed libertarian. He believes -- as he outlines here and in his longer book The Underground History of American Education: A Schoolteacher’s Intimate Investigation Into the Problem of Modern Schooling -- that the public education system was created by conspiracy, as a way for the upper classes to create compliant, uninformed, uncomplaining workers and citizens. And while he makes many good points, his broader theory may be hard for some readers to accept.

However, almost everyone can agree with Gatto's ideas about what kids don't get from school, and what they need to learn and succeed in life.

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5. "Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense" by David Guterson

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High school English teacher David Guterson's book detailing why he chose to homeschool his own kids came out not long before his moving novel Snow Falling on Cedars. And it is written with the same storytelling skill. For me, the book was evidence I could share with skeptical friends and family that even public school teachers didn't think traditional school was necessarily the best place to learn.

I still occasionally quote the scene where Guterson gives his students a quiz on a Friday, and then the exact same quiz the following Monday -- in order to test his theory that while his students do well on tests, the material they learn is almost immediately forgotten.

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6. "The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education" by Susan Wise Bauer

Well Trained Mind
W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
When The Well-Trained Mind was first published in 1999, it caused a minor revolution in homeschooling. Here for the first time was an educational philosophy and plan that could be embraced by both parents who were looking for conservative Christian material and by more secular families who were most concerned with giving their children a challenging and engaging education.

7. "Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything" by Laura Weldon

Hohm Press
A book I wish had been around when I was getting started is Free Range Learning by my friend Laura Grace Weldon. Weldon prefers to think in terms of "learning" rather than "teaching." Part One discusses her philosophy of homeschooling -- the idea of "natural learning," the importance of play, and building knowledge networks. Part Two is full of practical suggestions for cross-curricular learning as well as specific subjects. Read my interview with Weldon for more!

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