The Definitive Reading List if You’re Just Starting Out

Anna Dusseau | 10th March 2020

First off, I want to say that this is not actually a list. Apologies for the title. My blogging guru Elna Cain told me readers love lists, so I thought this would make a catchy title; however, like everything in homeschooling, I found myself writing this post a bit..differently? The list just didn’t come. Because, you see, the journey of education and lifelong learning is different for everyone and, as ridiculous as it was when I was working in secondary schools and would choose the GCSE exam spec and then ‘deliver’ English Literature via the list of prescribed texts, so it would be equally ridiculous to suggest that I could write a comprehensive curriculum for your home educated family. The homeschool curriculum is not linear and it cannot be prescribed. It bends and twists like a river or – perhaps less like a river, then – you could say it climbs and spreads like ivy, creeping into every crevice and eventually covering the whole building in rich green foliage. You cannot ‘deliver’ home education to your children. Real learning is not, or certainly shouldn’t be, a virus that you can develop the vaccine for and deliver immunity against in single shot. That said, here are a few good reads for you and the kids which can help you to find your feet and make sense of homeschooling. Congratulations on your decision! Now, let’s get reading.

The absolute best place to begin when looking into home education and trying to establish your homeschool values and style, is Freerange Education: How Homeschooling Works (2000) edited by Terri Dowty. I first borrowed this book from an awesome and very inspiring mama who simply said: ‘I found this useful’ and handed it to me, as I sat cross legged on the floorboards with my third espresso bleating about exam preparation and interview skills. Man, was she right! I now have my own copy (after thoroughly dog-earing hers, like a true friend) and have probably bought a further 5 or 6 copies for people who I really think should read it. It is the first book I recommend to anyone who is considering homeschooling or, indeed, anyone who really feels like picking a bone with me over my choice to homeschool (my school-gate nemesis, the French government, you know..) My approach, if you want to keep poking me with questions which reveal your own total ignorance of home education, is simple: ‘please go away and read this book; then we can talk.’ Do you have tricky in-laws? Or are the neighbours palpably not on board with your back-brushed bush babies piling into the car at 11am wearing ski goggles with their noses firmly stuck into Book 5 of Lemony Snickett? Of course, not everyone’s homeschool family is remotely like this, and that is very much the point of Terri’s superb collection of parental testimonials. Each chapter is a new experience of, and route into, home schooling and – collectively – the book provides you with an amazing chorus of voices and approaches to home education to choose from, not to mention a supportive and informative chapter devoted to the legalities of homeschooling in the UK. I simply couldn’t be where I am now on this home ed journey without Freerange Education, so I urge you to buy a copy today.

Now then, inarguably, the ‘godfather’ of the modern homeschool approach has to be prolific teacher and author John Holt whose website ‘Growing Without School’ is also a nice place to start for inspiration, as well as a sense of strength and legitimacy in what you are doing. Holt is an academic advocator of deschooling and unschooling approaches to learning and child growth, whose writing in many ways serves as a pillar of belief for much of the homeschool community. There are several texts worth having on your shelf, but my top 2 are Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book of Homeschooling (1981) and How Children Learn (1967). The inspiring approach Holt takes to educating children without school provides an absolute bedrock of knowledge and homeschool pedagogy for newbies and seasoned homeschoolers alike, not to mention a powerful tool to apply if your choice to home educate is ever unfairly scrutinised by your LEA. Holt writes that: ‘a life worth living, and work worth doing – that is what I want for children (and all people)’ which is surely the ultimate goal of any family and healthy society. No, we are not home educating our children in order to disadvantage them or impoverish the world they are growing into, but rather to equip them with the best possible skills set in order to live purposefully and responsibly. I don’t remember this being on the curriculum when I was at school. It should have been.

If you have any anxiety about the academic rigour of your home ed maths program, then worry no more! Even if your 6 year old isn’t champing at the bit to tackle another page of the ‘Singapore Math Method’ (which is actually extremely good and if they are – figuratively – champing at the bit then – literally – let them run with it!) then look no further than The Life of Fred series by Stanley F. Schmidt. For applied mathematical thinking, these books are superb and, as the catchphrase states ‘..as serious as [they] need to be.’ Which means, rather fun actually. You should begin with the ‘Elementary Series’ and the first book here is Apples (2011), which introduces your 5 year old to basic mathematical principles such as circles vs. ellipses and counting by fives in a totally original way which wraps the mathematical principles up in an engaging and humorous narrative that also covers tangible life learning as wide-ranging as the nature of deciduous trees, meridians and how to dress for cold weather. Honestly, it’s refreshing stuff and kids seem to drink it up. We read one chapter per day and then work through the short questions at the end of the chapter together on paper. My kids would usually far rather be up a tree than ‘doing maths’ but Fred and his funny geometric face has them hooked and sometimes we chomp through several chapters just lying on our tummies in the living room and reading it like a story, doing the calculations on our fingers (Shhhh! Don’t tell Fred!). This may be just a great way to get your youngsters to engage with early mathematical basics, but if you find Schmidt’s approach is right for your family, these books can actually take you all the way through to university level and now there are even Life of Fred books available for Chemistry and financial management. Life long learning, eh? Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it.

For those of you wondering where to start with History, worry no more! The Story of the World: History for the Classical Child (2005) isn’t as scary as it sounds. Written in four volumes and covering an impressive historical wingspan – from Ancient Times through The Middle Ages and Early Modern Times, to ‘The Modern Age: From Victoria’s Empire to the End of the USSR’ – this authoritative historical series by Susan Wise Bauer is actually as digestible and enjoyable as it is comprehensive. When I bought the first book, I felt some apprehension (What? No pictures? How much can I flog this for on Ebay?) but it was an instant hit even with my 4 year old, who has now spent nearly an entire month of car journeys listening to the audio CD from Book 1: Ancient Times. Oh yes, the CDs are great, but they are a pricey purchase compared to the books which are more reasonable. I would suggest you either adopt a vaguely bored American academic drawl (think: New York shrink with a Manhattan loft apartment) when reading them out loud, or ask the grandparents to put it on the Christmas list because at nearly £40 a pop, that’s some serious investment in history. If you have a solid homeschool network, you might want to think about spreading the cost of all these academic purchases across a couple of families and circulating the resources, because it certainly does add up. Hey, homeschooling isn’t categorised as private education for nothing!

Thus concludes my seemingly-random-but-incredibly-useful collection of books to get you started with homeschooling, or to casually place on the coffee table when the arched eyebrow of your mother-in-law reads: ‘And exactly when are they going back to school?’ One final read and then I’m done for today. If you do one thing for yourself this week, do check out The Art of Nonconformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World (2010) by Chris Guillebeau. This guy isn’t a homeschooler himself but, boy, he should be an honourary alumni or something! It’s a quick read, not explicitly linked to homeschooling and, sure, I had a few moments when I wondered how far this guy’s maverick approach to life will take him once he has a pair of ankle biters yelling for Haribo on their way to passport control. But, look, for those of you following my blog, you will know that my homeschool philosophy is that it is just as important for adults to understand and embrace the lifestyle and life choices that go with home education, as it is for the kids to get on board with ‘not going to school.’ Kids are like sponges. They are going to be fine and, more than that, they will absolutely thrive in this luscious new jungle of autonomy and life-learning that you are gifting them. The more important question, especially at the very beginning of this journey, is where is your head at and are you ready to take the plunge? Guillebeau should be helpful in shaping your thinking here and – if he doesn’t have you all immediately volunteering on board a hospital ship in West Africa – he might just get you to shift a few milestones and expectations in your life to better suit a home educating mentality. Happy reading, homeschoolers!

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Published by NotTheSchoolRun

Writer | Educator | Homeschooling Mum

5 thoughts on “The Definitive Reading List if You’re Just Starting Out

    1. Ha ha! Well it just goes to show each to their own, because you guys certainly know what you’re doing. I think when transitioning from school in particular though, some theory is very helpful in consolidating this big decision. Thanks so much for reading! xx

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