What inspired you to start homeschooling, and what were some initial concerns? The idea to homeschool came from the Ortons’ eldest daughter, who found that her school wasn’t offering what she needed as a learner. At first, Erik and Emily were concerned about homeschooling in their small NYC apartment and about how much time and energy the undertaking would require, but they ultimately found that these issues faded away in practice.
What paperwork or permission is required to homeschool? There are four parts to homeschooling paperwork in New York:
Send a letter of intent to the NYC Office of Homeschooling
Create and submit an individualized home instruction plan (IHIP).
Submit quarterly reports on your IHIP progress.
Complete testing or narrative assessments.
Templates for all of the required documents can be downloaded free of charge on Erik and Emily’s website.
What does homeschooling look like on a day-to-day basis? Erik and Emily quickly learned that it wasn’t necessary to make their home look or feel like a classroom—rather, it just needed to be a place where learning was actively nurtured. They soon relaxed into a routine, which generally consisted of waking up together for reading and games before splitting off into solo learning time or collaborative learning (e.g., one child reading to another). As the kids grew older, they became increasingly independent learners, and the oldest three now largely manage their own learning, with Emily taking on a supervisory role.
What training or skills do I need to be my child’s “teacher”? New York State law does not require any specific credentials, and there’s no need for you to acquire special training before you start homeschooling. Erik and Emily consider the child to be the greatest teacher, letting their kids take the lead to pursue what they’re legitimately interested in. Modeling is also key, and by showing your children that you’re still in the learning mode as an adult, they’ll come to understand the value of curiosity, accepting mistakes, and learning by trial and error.
How does homeschooling fit with working from home? It depends on the realities of your job and the makeup of your family unit. Some families school their kids in the evenings or on weekends; some work early morning hours and then school their kids later in the morning. Erik and Emily have sometimes swapped shifts, meaning that one of them works in the morning, one works in the afternoon, and both work in the evening while the kids are having free time. It’s also important to note that homeschooling doesn’t mean you have to be teaching your child for seven hours each day. You may find that children can accomplish much more in a shorter period of time than they would in a traditional school setting, especially if they’re able to help instruct and mentor each other. As long as the learning gets done, it doesn’t have to line up with the timeframe dictated by traditional school.
Can I homeschool my older child if I also have a baby? Yes! Erik and Emily were initially worried about homeschooling with a baby, but they found that those became some of the most treasured times in their homeschooling journey. Babies don’t need to be doing flashcards or structured activities to grow developmentally and intellectually; simply being in the vicinity of older children who are focused on their studies teaches younger kids that they’re a part of a household that values learning.
What are some of your favorite things about homeschooling? Erik and Emily have found that homeschooling has played a huge role in bringing harmony into their home. They love having freedom from the school calendar, meaning that they can travel in the fall without being hampered by deadlines or traditional classroom hours. By encouraging customized learning while having a variety of adventures, they’ve been able to turn homeschooling into “world schooling.”
What are some of the challenges of homeschooling? One challenging aspect has been letting go of traditional paradigms—e.g., the school day must be seven hours long, or there must be X amount of homework. Given that Erik and Emily attended public school themselves, they’ve had to overcome the impulse to recreate school as they experienced it. That said, there are an infinite number of ways you can create a homeschooling experience that works for you, and it can be an exciting challenge to figure out what resonates with your family.
What are some of the benefits of traditional school that you miss for your kids? One gap that was more challenging to fill was extracurriculars and sports. You can request to have your kids continue participating in after-school activities at their old school, but your principal may not be amenable, in which case finding extracurriculars will take a little more footwork. However, there is no shortage of nonschool-based extracurricular programs and activities on offer in Brooklyn. Everything from youth choirs, orchestras, and bands to theatre programs, sports teams, and leadership clubs can be located nearby.
How do you manage screen time in the home? This is a question that can be renegotiated on an ongoing basis, considering the age of your kids and the shifting realities of the world. In general, the smaller the child, the less screen time is ideal. Erik and Emily like to have screens put away at the dinner table, before chores, and before bedtime. As a rule, they prefer screens to be used to create rather than to consume—e.g., using a screen to draw and bring to life animated characters is preferable to vegging out in front of an animated show.
How do you avoid isolation (in non-COVID times) and encourage social-emotional learning, especially for younger kids? The strongest foundation for social-emotional learning comes from having a loving and supportive family, which can certainly be demonstrated and reinforced through homeschooling. Beyond that, Brooklyn and NYC have a wealth of co-ops and organizations to help you and your child connect with other homeschooling families. Erik and Emily’s kids have enjoyed taking part in theatrical workshops for homeschoolers and taking part in educational co-op activities—one that stood out was visiting the places of work of various professionals, including a portrait painter and a neuroscientist, to learn about their work and gain skills in interacting with adults outside the family.
How do you deal with a homeschooler who tends to resist taking direction or listening to instructions? Though it may sound counterintuitive, it helps to let your kids take the lead as much as possible on their own learning. Children can only push back and create a power struggle if someone is pushing them, so Erik and Emily’s strategy has been to negotiate collaboratively with their kids to find a learning plan that all parties are comfortable with and excited about.
Is it difficult to homeschool in a small apartment? Homeschooling in a small apartment can actually be a benefit, as it makes it easier for parents to keep an eye on what everyone is up to and for kids to notice and get involved when their siblings are doing something exciting, like a science experiment. If everyone is focused on their own self-directed play or work, there’s not much of a noise issue, but it’s important to respect each other’s privacy and allow kids to take their work into their room if they need some time apart. For Erik and Emily, the biggest challenge involved with schooling in a small space is having to use the dining table for both working and eating!
Will homeschooling my kids make it harder for them to get into college? In a word, nope! Each college has their own requirements for homeschoolers, so you’ll need to check their websites and call their admissions offices. Depending on testing requirements at the schools where your kids are applying, they’ll likely need to self-study or work with a tutor to prepare for the SAT or ACT. But in general, colleges tend to like homeschoolers, as they’re used to managing their own time and self-directing their own education. There may be a few extra hoops to jump through for the specific schools in terms of showing grades and academic ability, but you don’t need to be concerned that colleges will discriminate against your homeschooler.
What’s your homeschooling philosophy? Emily describes her philosophy as child-led and interest-led; she looks for hands-on experiences and considers it her responsibility to invite her children to learn. Erik was inspired by a quote from Robert Massie’s book about Catherine the Great: Gradually, guided by her own curiosity she was acquiring a superior education. Your philosophy will be unique to you and your family. Emily advises that you write down your reasons for homeschooling when you first start, so that you can return to them later, remind yourself why you embarked on this journey, and remember to hold true to your principles.
Further reading and resources:
The Awesome Factory: Erik and Emily’s new website with online courses and resources
New York City Home Educators Alliance: A vibrant secular homeschooling community of about 700 families with lots to offer in terms of both academics and the arts
HomeschoolNYC: A site for families and educators
- Homeschool New York online forum: HSNY members share information about workshops, trips, classes, curricula, meet-ups, etc.
- New York Home Educators' Network: New York State homeschoolers past, present, and future, from seasoned veterans to newcomers
- Park Slope Playgroup: Includes homeschoolers, traditional schoolers, and alternative schoolers
PSP recently welcomed Erik and Emily Orton to our webinar on homeschooling, where they shared some of the wisdom they’ve gathered over 13 years as homeschooling parents in NYC. Erik and Emily are co-founders of The Awesome Factory, co-authors of Seven at Sea—a memoir of their year living on a sailboat—and parents of five children aged 13–23, with the oldest having just graduated from college and the youngest homeschooling at her own pace with Down syndrome.