Homeschooling: Together on the Journey: An Interview with Heather Shirley

January 9–13, 2017   |   Vol. 129, Week 8

Are you considering joining a homeschool co-op or support group? Today’s guest on Homeschool Heartbeat has worked with the homeschool group Classical Conversations for over a decade—and she’s got some great tips for helping you find the best group for your family!

“We’re not made to do these things alone, and a community makes a world of difference.”—Heather Shirley

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Are you considering joining a homeschool co-op or support group? Today’s guest on Homeschool Heartbeat has worked with the homeschool group Classical Conversations for over a decade—and she’s got some great tips for helping you find the best group for your family!

Mike Farris: My guest today is Heather Shirley. Heather is the CEO of Classical Conversations Multimedia and she’s a homeschooling mom of three. Heather, it is great to have you on the program today!

Heather Shirley: Thank you, Mike. It’s good to be with you.

A community of learning [0:31]

Mike: This week, we’re going to be talking about homeschool co-ops and support groups—and Heather, I would like to ask you: Why should homeschool families consider joining a co-op or a support group?

Heather: Homeschooling families would benefit from joining a co-op or support group for [the] support of weekly encouragement of academics and projects and assignments that you find yourself doing as a home educator.

And then the fellowship you need on the journey of home education. We’re not made to do these things alone, and a community makes a world of difference.

And then probably a third reason is to continue to grow as a learner and educator yourself—and a local co-op [or] support group often [can] help you do that.

Mike: Are there any potential drawbacks you’ve seen for joining one of these groups?

Heather: Well, Mike, probably the drawbacks might be of the same kind of flavor as the strengths. Because of the support and the community, sometimes the drawbacks of being in a group and the compromises you make within a group—like maybe a curriculum choice or a certain book choice—these are things that are often strengths for joining a group, but they can also be drawbacks for independent-minded homeschoolers.

Mike: I understand that. Thank you so much for thinking through these things with us. And homeschool support groups are very important for many families, and it’s always good to know what you are getting into.

Asking bigger questions [1:51]

Mike: Heather, how has participating in co-ops enriched your own family’s homeschool program?

Heather: Participating in a co-op or a support group has enriched our family by teaching us how to learn in community with other and to learn how to continue to practice to love our neighbor in the midst of this journey of educating our kids.

It’s also introduced me to larger conversations about the nature of learning. It’s allowed me to ask bigger questions about the nature of education and learning, and I’ve been introduced along the way to some great thinkers and classical Christian educators. That’s really been helpful.

Mike: That sounds great. How can a parent figure out which homeschool co-op is right for his or her family? Is there anything specific that they should be looking for?

Heather: Well there is a variety of groups out there. There’s a whole lot more than when many of us started 20 years ago. There’s a lot of different flavors of groups. The questions you might want to ask might be “How do I define homeschooling?” “Am I looking to grow as a homeschooling parent, or am I defining homeschooling more by having other people do work or help me get some of my education goal met?” So as you think about the nature of homeschooling, you might want to decide which group you join based on what you need as a homeschooling parent given the season of life that you’re in.

Mike: Heather, we have one of our sons who is now getting a Ph.D. in biochemistry at Notre Dame University because of a class he took in a homeschool co-op, so these things really do matter at times—and I appreciate you sharing with us.

Classical Christian community [3:15]

Mike: Heather, you’ve been with Classical Conversations for about 13 years now. Can you tell us a little about what Classical Conversations is and how it works?

Heather: Sure, sure. Classical Conversations is a network of parents equipping parents through opportunities of growing a community locally, and forming one day a week communities, and offering free learning events for parents—kind of like a parent conference every summer—and we call those parent practicums.

Mike: In your experience, what makes Classical Conversations a great co-op choice for many homeschool families?

Heather: Economically, it helps you kind of pour into your homeschooling, your local homeschooling group. You can support each other and help families continue home educating by financially supporting a local community. You have resources for curriculum that are selected for you that allows you to focus more on how to grow as a learner and an educator. And you have great conversations.

Mike: Heather, I know your founder. She is a wonderful woman and I just think the world of Classical Conversations and I just really appreciate you being a part of their team.

What does it mean to be human? [4:20]

Mike: Heather, classical education has been experiencing something of a revival in the last several years, especially in homeschooling circles. What makes classical education so worthwhile?

Heather: Well, Mike, this is terribly exciting to me and the journey we’ve been on. Being a modern educator, most of us came out of the public school system. Some of us were fortunate enough to come out of a private or even a classical school system, but not many.

And so for many of us, trying to wrestle with what a classical education is has seemed to gain a lot of ground and a lot of interest like you’re saying over the last couple of decades or maybe longer. I think one of the reasons it’s doing that is because we understand as human beings that there is more to life than fragmented atomized world of specialization and reducing humans to kind of a gear in a machine. And I think classical education brings back a synthesis and a conversation about what it means to be human.

Mike: Heather, from my political perspective I look at the Founding Fathers and see how they were educated and saw that the ideas they launched were not just for a short season, but have lasted across generations. So there’s some richness, not only in the content but in the methodology, that we all can benefit from.

“The Lost Tools of Learning” [5:34]

Mike: Heather, how does Classical Conversations incorporate and apply the classical approach to education?

Heather: You know Mike, we are going into our 20th anniversary here and I remember meeting you at our 10th anniversary celebration—10 years ago, almost, now. And as we go into our 20th anniversary, we have had the privilege of a lot of conversations and listening and learning from many educators and thinkers.

And, of course, Classical Conversations was first introduced to the idea of classical education through the [Dorothy] Sayers essay “The Lost Tools of Learning.” And so we have incorporated insights from Sayers as far as the trivium and using language with the trivium art of grammar, the trivium art of the dialectic, and the trivium art of rhetoric, which really—grammar as a fidelity to words and language, dialectic as a fidelity to understanding the relationships of things to each other, and rhetoric as a fidelity to truth and wisdom.

Mike: Well, Heather, that article, “The Lost Tools of Learning” by Dorothy Sayers, is what first introduced me to classical education more than two decades ago and it’s just made a lot of sense. It has been a pleasure having you on the program this week, and thank you so much for your insights and guidance. I’m Mike Farris.

Heather ShirleyPhoto of Heather

Heather Shirley, her husband Ed, and their three children have been involved with Classical Conversations since 2003. Heather began her Classical Conversations journey tutoring abecedarians with Leigh Bortins as her assigned mommy-helper. She has tutored every year since, and insists that CC tutoring has afforded her a real and robust education. Currently, Heather tutors Challenge IV at her local community in Greensboro, NC. Heather believes learning is for a lifetime and inspires other parents across the nation to believe the same. Every year that Heather tutors Challenge, she insists that she learns something new and discovers wider relations of truth. Her learning motto for life is: “A learning life is a life in lessons on humility.”

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