Joshua and Margot Harris, Janesville, have been homeschooling their four children ever since the oldest, Sawyer, 16, became ready to learn.
When he was 18 months old, Margot, a nurse practitioner at the Mercyhealth Women’s Health Center in Janesville, said she began researching various homeschool programs leaning towards those using traditional learning materials.
Today, Sawyer and his siblings, Eva, 14, Isaac, 8, and John, 6, learn at home using a prepackaged K-12 curriculum called “My Father’s World,” which, Margot said, uses books and physical learning aids rather than online programming. The family invests between $500 and $1,000 in curriculum supplied by the company annually.
While the family uses some online offerings, like science lectures and foreign language lessens, Joshua and Margot – identified in the state of Wisconsin as homeschooling parents, and therefore, as administrators of their home-based private school — prefer traditional materials, which, Margot said, they believe encourage reading while limiting the use of screen time.
The couple chose homeschooling, Margot said, out of desire to strengthen bonds with their children.
“We wanted a relationship with our children and we wanted to help them love the Lord,” Margot said.
Joshua, a self-employed home-based computer programmer, is the primary teacher and took that role from the beginning, Margot said.
“It’s a lot of multitasking,” Joshua said of working with four children at home. Much of his time is spent moving within the house from workspace to workspace, assisting his students as needed.
The children find learning space in the living room. For the older two, study time is often spent in their rooms.
Learning space is integrated with living space, Margot said, with subtle adaptations: there is a world map on the wall and a US map underneath a plastic cover upon the dining room table.
“We are a reading family; we have a lot of books. Our piano is flanked by bookcases,” Margot said, adding that each child has space on the bookshelf where they keep learning materials.
“We call those work boxes,” Margot said.
While the older kids work independently, Joshua teaches his first- and third-grade students.
The two younger brothers study science, history, Bible and literature together. Individually, they do spelling and math, Margot said.
Online, Sawyer and Eva find self-paced lessons. For Sawyer, there are video lectures teaching math and science that are graded online by the lecturer, and for Eva, an eighth-grader, there is online French.
The older children learn to follow their syllabuses. As they grow more independent, the adults “check in” periodically, Margot said, making sure they are comfortable with their assignments.
The couple said they noticed their children became more self-sufficient right around seventh-grade.
Joshua and Margot employ an organized six-hour weekday curriculum schedule. The day begins with a family breakfast.
Between 9 a.m. and noon, the children are focused on academics. In the afternoon, the focus switches to electives, which might include guitar or piano, or -- fulfilling physical education requirements and before COVID-19 social distancing practices -- karate lessons or playing league kickball.
With homeschooling, Margot said, everything is done at home, so there is no work specifically labeled “homework.”
After their work is done, the children can spend time doing other things they enjoy.
The process is efficient, Margot said, adding that the family usually completes the year’s curriculum by early May.
A sophomore, Sawyer plans to finish high school in May of 2022.
Upon graduation, he will not receive a public school-supplied diploma, but as his school’s administrators, his parents can make one for him that colleges and the military will accept, Margot said.
In Wisconsin, Margot said, students must show a total of 875 hours of study in six subjects — English, history, math, science, health, and physical education – with curriculum providing scope and sequence.
“I keep a calendar of classes and time spent on each subject by hour for the year,” Margot said.
When the children complete the requirements, Margot and Joshua will create transcripts.
Thinking about changes brought to her family as a result of COVID-19, Margot said: “The instructional part at home, it’s not hard for us because it’s a piece that was already in place.”
Describing her neighborhood as teeming with children, she said, usually her kids would be outside interacting with other kids.
“I’m a nurse, I’m keeping them at home, they can’t go outside and they miss their friends,” she said.
COVID-19 has brought new challenges.
Said Margot: “All life is learning, right?”