- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 3, 2006

When Bill Sheffler’s daughter, Grace, entered her teen years, it was decided she would be home-schooled. The rural Illinois family purchased a curriculum package, and Grace dutifully turned in her lessons, but it really wasn’t what she or they wanted to accomplish with home-schooling.

Grace loved horses, so the family bought a horse at a bargain price and worked out a deal with a local stable so she could house the horse there. Each day, she exercised and groomed the horse and mucked out the stalls.

Her dad, an organic landscaper, advised her to bring the horse out to graze in the afternoons, when the plants were at their most nutritious, and to watch carefully for which plants or weeds the horse chose to nibble on. She kept a record, and would report to him each day. From this record, they worked out which minerals the horse was seeking in his diet, and they would discuss the composition of the plant cells, the delivery of minerals from the roots to the new cells added through the overnight growth, and the dietary needs of the horse.

When she called the veterinarian about a long gash on the horse’s leg, he taught her how to tell if the tendon was torn. Through such experiences, she learned anatomy better than through dissecting a frog or baby pig in a high school biology lab. Her science preparation was gained through hands-on work with vets and trainers, and through her self-study.

She turned her passion for horses into a business by age 15, buying untrained horses, training them, then selling them at a substantial profit. At the same time, she took opportunities to travel overseas, staying in different countries and supporting herself financially by caring for horses. Meanwhile, she learned the local languages, history and customs.

On a trip to Ireland, she also visited London, then took the tunnel train to France, where she visited the Louvre, studied the history of Paris, and got lessons in currency exchange and navigating the transportation routes in several countries.

Despite the success of her “unschooling,” she grew tired of trying to explain to people how she could “get a real education” through such life experiences. So, she took a GED course, breezed through the books and earned her diploma. Now, she is preparing for a degree in equine studies and is attending a local community college.

“The degree doesn’t affect how successful you’ll be in life,” her dad advised her, “but it affects how people view you.”

Her goals are to run her own business, managing facilities or working closely with horses.

This type of education relies on a combination of working with the young person’s own interests and desires, while developing innovative strategies that allow them to pursue those interests while gaining the instructional knowledge they need. Parents must be on the lookout for mentors who can supply essential instruction and guidance. Opportunities for internships and apprenticeships for foreign home-stay situations can be sought. Competitions or accomplishments in various fields can be recorded to show the level of knowledge attained through the activity.

Alternative educational routes may cause some to look askance, but the results can be seen as the youth enters adulthood. Often, college professors and employers remark on the difference in work ethic and learning habits of the students who have been home-schooled, because they are accustomed to taking responsibility for their own learning. Ultimately, education is about life preparation, and as more home-schoolers enter the work force, they are becoming the best advertisement for educating within the family unit.

Kate Tsubata, a home-schooling mother of three, is a freelance writer who lives in Maryland.

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