Orthodox Home Schooling

by Sarah Loft

A nationally growing "home school" movement is an attractive alternative for Orthodox Christian parents. We have been home educating our eight-year-old daughter since kindergarten and have found it a rewarding experience. I would like to share some of the positive benefits of this experience as well as provide some concrete resources and information for others who would like to consider home-based education.

Surveys and studies of home-educated children have shown them to be not only academically advanced, but better adjusted emotionally and socially. This results, perhaps, from the more natural and secure home environment, freedom from negative classroom peer pressures, personal attention, greater personal freedom, and an individually tailored learning program. Generally, home-educated children become self-directed learners, have higher self-esteem and are more independent and (surprising to many) better socialized than their peers.

An Orthodox Christian Education

The benefit of a home-education program for Orthodox Christians, however, extends beyond the usual advantages over institutional education. When Orthodox Christians take on the responsibility of educating their own children, they have the unique opportunity of providing an Orthodox Christian education - Orthodox in context, content, and presentation.

Briefly, our approach has been as follows: Our academic calendar follows the Church calendar, beginning on September 1 with a prayer service. We observe all major Feast Days by attending services, discussing the Feast and doing appropriate reading such as the Gospel accounts of the Nativity at Christmas, the life of a saint, or selections from the Church Fathers. We reduce the academic workload during Lent and take off all of Holy Week and Bright Week. While it is necessary (in order to meet most state requirements) to have "school" a certain number of days per year (usually 180), there is no requirement to follow a secular or state calendar of school days and holidays. In addition to regular attendance at services, we begin each day with morning prayers and usually have some form of religious education every day. The rest of the day is spent doing projects, reading, visiting the library, working on math, etc.

There are many resources for homeschoolers, I get dozens and dozens of catalogues from companies whose only or primary business is supplying textbooks, manipulatives, or visual aids to home-educating families. I will add a list of resource addresses at the end of this article, but here I want to concentrate on the "religious education" aspect of home education. Religious education can (and does) take many forms for us, including reading the Bible. (The International Children's Bible has a third grade reading level, the Living Bible paraphrases an eighth grade reading level, and the King James Version, a twelfth grade level). We have used OCEC and DRE materials intended for Church school use, icon reproduction art books, and Bible atlases. We have studied frequently using liturgical texts, the sacraments, or Church history, etc.

[Ed. Note: Consult with your parish priest before using the Living Bible. Since it is a paraphrase based on the Protestant denomination of the author, the text is questionable in areas. The Orthodox Study Bible, which is a New King James Version, should be used in any study of the Bible because of the footnotes and articles.]

A surprising amount of material is available for adults. (Rebekah read and appreciated St. Cyprian's The Lord's Prayer in a very simple and clear translation by Edmond Bonin.) We have also found many useful books in the children's section of our local public library, not only Bible stories, but books such as Costumes of Old Testament Peoples (Philip J. Watson), I am a Greek Orthodox (Maria Roussou), My Best Friend Elena Pappas (Phyllis S. Yingling), and even a recounting of the Nativity story as told by a fourth century bishop of Cyprus illustrated with reproductions from 18th century Ethiopian manuscripts in the British Library (The Road to Bethlehem by Elizabeth Laird).

In addition to study materials and participation in prayer services, we have felt that religious education requires an active dimension as well. Children can be encouraged to sing, serve, learn to make prosphora, visit monasteries, participate in social programs (such as nursing home visitations), watch an icon painting course in progress, etc. The activities serve both to reinforce and to fulfill and express the child's own personal faith.

Academic and Religious Dimensions

Much of the religious education just described has an academic dimension: it involves reading, writing, oral expression, music, study of history and geography, exposure to various cultures, discussion of ethics and "values." The reverse also applies: for an Orthodox Christian family the academic "subjects" can have a religious dimension. It is not necessary, for instance, to go with the public school dehydration of history that carefully removes or twists the role of faith and the Church. Too often the textbooks are written to offend no one and emphasize secular cultural values. Byzantine and Orthodox Christian history and culture are marginalized, if presented at all.

Home educators are not obliged to use textbooks at all, although it may frequently be easier to go to the textbook as reference, but on the whole have found it more satisfying to use other sources, such as biographies, visits to museums, and primary material. Rather than reading about the American Constitution, it makes sense to simply read and discuss it. This route also makes it possible to have a more integrated curriculum. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Robespierre, William Blake, Goya, Beethoven, Robert Burns, Samuel Johnson, Hadyn, and Catherine the Great were all, roughly, contemporaries of St. Seraphim of Sarov and St. Herman of Alaska. St. Seraphim and his younger contemporary, St. Herman, can be read in the broad context of the American and French revolutions and the writers, artists, and composers of that time.

The illustrations I have used (history) for integrating Christian and 'secular' learning also applies to other areas. Our daughter learned to read (after an initial phonics stage) by hearing Mom read aloud from C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia with frequent stops to discuss vocabulary, make predictions about the plot and talk about religious themes developed in the stories. I read aloud all seven volumes (during baby Zachary's nap time) and gradually (in volume 3) let Rebekah read aloud, first a few sentences, then the first and final paragraphs of each chapter, then every third or fourth paragraph, and finally several pages at a time. By the end of her kindergarten grade she re-read all seven volumes and has been reading and rereading them ever since. In the context of home education we can make the learning of reading a process of absorbing good literature, Christian values, and the texts of the Bible itself.

I would like to conclude with some general guidelines and suggestions for home educators.

  1. Find out what are the specific laws and requirements in your state. Frequently school superintendents themselves are not well informed on the subject, but people further up in the education establishment will be able to give you accurate information. Home schooling is legal in nearly every state, but requirements vary widely. In New York it is necessary to notify the local school district in writing that you intend to home educate, to submit a curriculum, to make quarterly progress reports, and to test the child at certain grade levels to assure that normal progress is being made.
  2. I recommend that all homeschoolers join the Home School Legal Defense Association, even in very accommodating states (such as New York), both to support the work of the Association (which helped draft the New York state statutes and many others) and for the service they provide in the form of free legal advice and representation and their quarterly report. The cost is $100* per family per year. They will help even with the small things. When regulations changed several years ago in New York and our local superintendent was unsure of what his responsibilities (and ours) were, a lawyer in the Association contacted our local authorities and cleared the matter up quickly. The Association is also a good place to go for accurate and up-to-date information about guidelines and requirements in any state in the Union. Write to: HSLD, Paeonian Springs, VA 22129.
  3. I recommend contacting a school or network or other organization that can provide advice and help in developing curricula. We use the services of the Clonlara Home Based Education Program. For the cost of $300* per year per family, Clonlara provides a newsletter, a curriculum (which can be modified or adapted), keeps school records, submits (and types) our quarterly reports for the state, and provides access to publishers who will normally do business only with schools. It thus becomes possible to order a single text or a single manipulative kit for mathematics. In addition, the Clonlara staff and teachers are always available for phone consultation and will deal directly with the school district on behalf of member families.

    Clonlara is itself a school, and if necessary, can arrange for contact with local private schools for consultation, and testing. While there are a number of schools and organizations which will offer a similar program, most are more expensive, and most also require use of their particular program including textbooks, worksheets, etc. Clonlara tends to be considerably more flexible in allowing for curriculum modifications. It is traditional to study certain countries in social studies in a particular grade, for instance, but this year we've opted to study Romania (an Orthodox culture) not usually studied at all in American schools. We have elected, for the most part, not to use textbooks. None of our adaptations have been a problem with Clonlara which, in fact, encourages families to avoid textbooks, emphasize activities, and adapt education to their own unique traditions, cultures, religious faith, intellectual inclinations, and personal dispositions. Write to: Clonlara HBEP, 1289 Jewett, Ann Arbor, MI 48104 / (313) 769-4514.

The periodical Growing Without Schooling (and others like it) provides a continuous source of educational ideas adapted to the home learning environment, as well as contacts with other home-schoolers, suggested books and learning materials, and pen pal lists of other home educated children. The cost is $20* for a year's subscription. It is published every other month. Write to: GWS, 2269 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02140.

Two useful books:

Mary Pride's The Big Book of Home Learning ($17.50*) is a massive listing of catalogs schools, correspondence courses, resources, and just about everything and anything a home educator might need.

John Whitehead's Home Education and Constitutional Liberties ($6.95*) is an essay on the legal and moral basis for home education. "The facts," he says, "are these: Historically our national literacy rate was higher 150 years ago, before the advent of public education. And legally, any basic constitutional liberties-including freedom of speech and belief, freedom of religion, and the right to privacy-support your right to educate your children yourself."

Both of these books can be ordered from: The Sycamore Tree Educational Services, 2179 Meyer, Costa Mesa, CA 92627.

I would be happy to hear from any Orthodox Christians who are - or are contemplating - educating their children at home. If there are enough of us it may be useful to form a network for sharing ideas and materials and for providing mutual support. Contact me at: Sarah Loft, 100 Bennett Ave., Apt. J, New York, NY 10033 / 212-927-0596.

Sarah Loft attends St. Mary Magdalene Mission in New York, NY.

*1991-1992 prices are listed from the original article. Fees may have increase slightly.

The Resource Handbook Editor's Note

Sarah loft's article brought to mind several questions. They follow, with her answers, giving the reader more insight into the practicability of home school education.

When parent and child are together all the time, what about behavior problems? How readily do they want to learn from their parent(s) when all the other kids are going off to school?

There are potential problems if a parent tries to replicate "school" conditions at home: giving lectures, assignments, etc. This is not necessary. School conditions are designed to meet the needs of a classroom of children, all of whom have to be dealt with by one or two adults in some necessarily organized way. The home situation is much more informal. It does require a good and open parent-child relationship. Keep it informal; no grades, honest evaluation, input and direction from the child, even the young child. Follow their interests.

We have never known any home-educated child (although there may be some) who wanted to go to school. The exception we occasionally hear of is the athletically-inclined teenager who wants to play high school team sports. Even so, apparently there are school districts willing to accommodate these families. The usual response of Rebekah's friends is, "You're lucky!" They (almost universally) want to be home-educated, too.

Parents should have a life, too. They should think of themselves primarily as parent, rather than teacher. Discussion and projects go a lot further than lectures. I explain a concept in math only when Rebekah can't figure it out herself and asks for assistance. Every child is different, but most people don't want another person (teacher, parent, or anyone else) "breathing down their backs" constantly. Respect for the child, his/her inclinations, interests, limitations, feelings, and learning style are critical.

Where does the child find friends? How does the child engage in extracurricular activities or sports?

There are a lot of kids out there, and they aren't in school most of the time. Rebekah finds friends in the neighborhood (playground, library), at church, in classes and clubs, in her Junior Chorus and Ensemble. There are a variety of extracurricular activities and sports available: Boy/Girl Scouts, clubs (a local chess club, Camp Fire Girls, 4-H), Little League games and other organized sports through local churches and other organizations. There are also the commercial and organized "after school" activities such as art, dance, music, classes at the YMCA's, local churches and civic organizations, museums, libraries, and zoos. Homeschool associations also organize group activities.

The difficulty is not in finding activities (in most areas) but in selecting among the myriad of options. Rebekah made the painful decision last fall to drop out of a girls' soccer team organized by a neighborhood Lutheran church because of schedule conflicts with chorus and orchestra.

Does this set up assume that at least one parent is at home all the time? What kind of educational background and teaching skills does a parent need to be able to do home teaching?

We have heard of homeschooling situations where there is a single parent or where neither parent is home full-time. but it seems to us that the optimum situation is for someone to be home on a regular basis and for both parents to be involved in the process.

Parents of many different educational backgrounds teach their children at home. What's needed?

  1. Basic literacy
  2. A willingness to learn (by the parent), curiosity and interest. You don't need to be an expert in every possible subject (e.g., Rebekah and I are learning French together). It is also not necessary for the parent to teach every subject personally (e.g. Rebekah goes to a Greek class with other children two times a week and takes violin lessons). Parents may also elect to hire a tutor for a specific subject or subjects.
  3. Flexibility and patience. Your child's learning style is his/her own. One idea may be a bust, so you look for another one. There is no need to be isolated. Look at the Growing Without Schooling listing of certified teachers or speak to your "school" (e.g., Clonlara) for help in any area of difficulty.
  4. Think of yourself as parent first, then as "educational coordinator," and follow the child's lead. I think of my role as primarily one of keeping a balance, seeing that her education is not too lopsided in one direction or another. But I let Rebekah initiate, help select materials, and discuss curriculum.

An Update on Sarah and Rebekah

In a recent phone call to Sarah Loft I learned that two years ago Rebekah passed the entrance exams and studied at one of New York City's specialized science high schools. Currently Rebekah is living in Spain with her grandmother and studying at a Spanish high school. Sarah is home schooling 12-year-old son Zachary, as well as soon-to-be-adopted 9-year-old Luke and 8-year-old Catherine. - Phyllis Meshel Onest

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