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The Freshman Year of High School: Keep It Real

By Jeannette Webb
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #81, 2008.

How to have a successful freshman year of high school.
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Jeannette Webb

Most of us waltz merrily along through the early years of homeschooling. Adulthood for our children seems so far away. Then, abruptly, sometime in the eighth grade year, we realize in a panic that high school starts NEXT YEAR!!!!

I personally began waking up in a cold sweat. I bargained with God. Surely it was time now to put my eldest in "real" school?

Now that I am on the other side of the high-school mountain, I am thankful we stayed the course. My children began high school with the immaturity of most freshmen, but over the course of four years they became my adult friends, co-laborers, business partners, and advisors.

Eliminate Distractions

If you haven't already, this is the time to take stock of your lifestyle. More than anything else it is critical that you eliminate distractions from your child's life (and possibly from your own).

Some distractions that keep our teens from "real" living are things like mall crawling, recreational dating, spectator sports, etc. Add to that major electronic time wasters like video games, television, Facebook, iPods, cell phones, and blogs.

Even many homeschool teen groups or church youth groups encourage this distracted mindset that focuses on the trivial. These groups can also foster a deadly peer dependency. Our students begin to have the expectation that the world exists only to entertain them.

When people ask me what I did to help my children be successful, I have to be honest that it is not so much what we did, but what we didn't do. We walked away from the distractions to focus on what was real - real work, real academics, and real service.

Real Work

Because of our financial situation, both of my children had to begin working outside the home at an early age to pay for their school books, classes, and personal activities like Boy Scouts, music lessons, instruments, etc. At the time, I was grieved that they had to work so hard, but in hindsight it was the best thing that could have happened. They learned early to efficiently manage their time and they truly appreciate the privilege of getting to sit down and study. Perhaps most importantly, they did not have time to get caught up in frivolities like their friends did. Work experience taught them to take nothing for granted and gave them a solid sense of discipline.

It is very difficult for any child to be successful away from home unless they are able to control their use of time. I think work experience and the discipline of playing a musical instrument were crucial in forging this awareness for my students.

Who Can Work?

Simple neighborhood tasks such as raking leaves or snowshoveling can be done at almost any age by children who are physically fit enough to do the work. For actual company-paid employment, however, state and federal labor regulations apply. Some laws prevent young children from working during public-school hours, even if they are working in the family business and they are homeschooling. (Exception: a school "work study" program where the child learns skills and puts them to use, but receives no pay.) Other laws specify exactly what types of work preteens and young teens can do-it varies by age. Complete coverage of this issue can be found in PHS #69, or check out www.youthrules.dol.gov.

These lessons from the working world are best learned in middle school up through the freshman year. After that point, it is more important for college-bound students to focus on academics and test preparation during the school year and leave paid employment (away from home) for summer break.

Real Academics

As we move into the high school years, it is important for a parent to take the time to plan the remainder of the journey. Four years will go by in a heartbeat! Take time to read and research on the front end. Where might your children be headed? Is college in their future (and what type of college) or do you need to think about apprenticeships? Perhaps you need to think about including both. What career fields do you think they might be headed toward? What are their strengths? What are their weaknesses?

I always encourage parents to plan as though every child will go to college - for the simple reason that many kids will change their minds toward the end of high school and suddenly want to pursue a degree. Even if they don't go on to college, they deserve an excellent and thorough high-school education to prepare them for life and for educating their own children.

When facing the high-school years, many parents who have been creative up to that point suddenly grasp for things that seem safe, like homeschool co-ops or highly structured homeschool curriculum. What has been an innovative environment of learning suddenly becomes regimented and boring.

In my observation, many homeschool co-ops produce a slacker mentality. Bright students will soon see through a dumbed-down textbook or classroom busywork. They don't have to work hard, so they mentally drop out. This habit will be devastating in a competitive college environment.

Unfortunately, these teen classes that we adults have created to help us feel more secure (and look more like the rest of the world) encourage a teen culture that entraps our young people into thinking they are less capable than they truly are. For a thought-provoking piece from one of the country's most respected educators on this subject, see the PHS #37 interview with John Taylor Gatto.

When possible, my family chose to learn through real-world experiences, not classes or textbooks. We covered high-school history, government, language arts, and some science in a real way. My children wrote for publication, experienced government at the State Capitol, did science in a university research lab, learned history by taking field trips and reading living books, and honed communication skills by giving speeches to various groups. For upper-level or AP science and math, textbooks are necessary, but because my kids loved to learn, the rigorous textbooks proved to be a fun challenge.

Many students need the freshman year to get caught up in math. If you think your students have the potential to apply to a top tier college or might want to take AP classes, they need to have completed Algebra II or geometry (depending on the order you take them) by the end of the ninth grade year. I also recommend tackling Biology this year (which means you need to be covering Earth Science or Physical Science in eighth grade). This gives you the freedom to advance quickly into tougher high school classes, AP courses, or college classes in the next few years. While there are some highly gifted students out there who are ready for AP and college classes at the freshman year, my two children were not.

Real Service

In my experience, most freshman are still a little rough around the edges. We were working hard at this age to overcome weaknesses and volunteering as a family in things that would help my children develop needed skills. I looked for leadership opportunities that would "stretch" them, even though I knew my students would fail sometimes.

This will be the most flexible year in high school, so try to concentrate as much leadership in this year as possible. For example, my son pushed hard and completed his Eagle Scout project by the end of his freshman year because he knew that it would become increasingly difficult to invest that much time at a later date.

If you are going to experiment with different kinds of activities to see where your student's strengths might be, this is the year for that. Unfortunately, many activities, contests, and clubs are fun, but pretty trivial. You can spend inordinate amounts of time on contrived situations that don't really teach your kid much academically, don't develop needed skills, don't benefit anyone else, and do disrupt your family life. Treat this kind of thing as a distraction and eliminate it. Pursue real service in which your child impacts the community or another life.

After the freshman year, a college-bound student won't have time to do a great deal of experimenting. It is a hard reality, but there are only so many hours in a day and to be successful, you will have to begin narrowing your focus.

The freshman year is an exciting beginning. I honestly believe that the high school years are the most important ones we will spend with our homeschool students. The choices we make now will determine whether those students enter the world as peer-dependent chameleons or as seasoned warriors. That is horribly blunt, but there is too much at stake to sugarcoat the truth.

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