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March 24, 2010

The Family Who Has School in Their Living Room

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This article originally appeared in the March 18, 2010 edition of the Swedish newspaper Uppsala Nya Tidning.

By Anna Hellberg
Uppsala Nya Tidning

Home education is as far removed from school as you can get. Never any tests or homework. No classroom and no classmates. The Himmelstrand family in Storvreta have schooled at home and can’t imagine a better teaching environment.

“I understand my children better than anyone, and our children love being at home,” says Tamara Himmelstrand.

“There isn’t one school for all children,” says Jonas Himmelstrand. They have three children ages 6 to 15 who are taught at home. Everything started when their eldest son Jakob Himmelstrand was going to start first grade. He had been diagnosed with autism, and the parents noticed at once that it never would work for him to go to a normal school.

Rebecka Himmelstrand, who today is 11, started in pre-school class but didn’t like it. For her, it is more suitable with a calm environment, according to the parents.

The youngest son Mikael, 6 years old, benefits greatly from having his siblings at home and can already read and write thanks to the family finding a functional lifestyle with teaching in their home environment.

In the family’s home there is also Karna Eriksson. She is a personal assistant to Jakob and participates in the teaching. When we come to visit, there is a huge puzzle of Europe lying on the living room floor, which they have been busy with earlier this day. This is where a lot of learning happens, but also on excursions, in museums and at the library.

“We looked at the puzzle and decided that each one of us could share something we know about the country. Then the others would guess what country it was. As a result a whole lot of new questions popped up. Moldavia, for example—we don’t know so much about it. So now we’ll go to the library and borrow books about it,” says Tamara Himmelstrand. She does the biggest part of the children’s home education, where the pedagogy builds on the children’s questions and curiosity.

Tamara Himmelstrand shares about when her daughter was going to learn to read. She started by teaching one letter at a time, like one does in school. But that didn’t work so well.

Rebecka Himmelstrand, who is sitting in the sofa surrounded by masses of books, laughs and remembers how it was.

“Daddy and Mummy read a whole lot of books for me, and first I only saw a lot of words. Eventually I started reading along by myself. I learnt to read because I wanted to,” says Rebecka Himmelstrand.

In her opinion, the best thing about home education is that one can do what one wants.

“And that one can get up in the morning a little later.”

The day starts with some gymnastics. Tamara Himmelstrand puts on an instruction DVD on the TV that gets everyone going. Then it’s time for breakfast.

“We eat rye porridge with minced meat. That may sound strange, but it’s very good,” says Rebecka Himmelstrand and Tamara explains that the dish was invented out of the eldest son’s need for a sugar-free GI-diet.

Jakob Himmelstrand has set routines in the morning when he plays the piano and the electric bass. Then it’s time for the day’s French lesson. Tamara Himmelstrand, who speaks several languages, has grammar books and French children’s books out on the table as a support. Rebecka sits along and sometimes Mikael too. In this way the others pick up a whole lot of the foreign language.

“The challenge is to find appealing doors of entry,” according to Tamara Himmelstrand. “It has to be interesting and fun to get the children along with me. The Internet is a very good help,” she says. She even uses some Swedish school textbooks in maths and Swedish language.

“Our pedagogy is based on the fact that we have children who are difficult to motivate. And so it is even more important to build up their knowledge by being sensitive to the children’s interests.”

To be able to keep up with subjects like chemistry, biology and math Tamara Himmelstrand prepares before every new unit study. Jonas Himmelstrand, who has studied mathematics at the university, can take over and add with his knowledge when the levels get higher.

“I learn a lot of fun things with the children, and we do this together. And there are advantages with learning from one another. Mikael learns a lot from Rebecka and Rebecka learns from Jakob, or the other way around.”

The structured part of the teaching ends at lunch. Then the children get to choose their activities.

“Rebecka is artistically talented. She paints and writes a lot, and we see that she does very well when she gets to develop at her own speed,” says Jonas Himmelstrand.

Jakob Himmelstrand is musically talented and likes to spend more time playing the piano or the electric bass in the afternoon. Beatles songs are among his favorites.

When we sit in the living room and chat the classroom feels very far away. Maybe there are more books and painting materials here than in most family’s living room. But no school benches or chairs—and empty of other children. A question that almost immediately comes up is the question of peers.

How is it to not have classmates?

“I like it best at home with my siblings and parents. When I went to the pre-school class at age six, I couldn’t concentrate. I got quite dizzy in my head. This is much better,” says Rebecka Himmelstrand.

Jonas Himmelstrand explains that the family is closely connected and enjoy their lifestyle of being able to control their own time.

That home education would be the same as social isolation, Jonas Himmelstrand rejects. Rebecka goes to dancing lessons twice a week; she sings in a choir and participates in theatre. And then she has friends she plays with in the area. The family is often out on different activities and meets other home educating families.

“Adults presume that children should only socialise with peers in school. There is no evidence that school is the best learning environment. The opposite can be said to be true. School isolates children from their safe family environment. With the social climate today, there is psychological ill health and bullying in school,” says Jonas Himmelstrand.

Tamara Himmelstrand did have certain fears about social isolation before the family started home educating.

“But now I see how outward-going and keen to learn my children are. They manage conversations with other adults in a whole different way than their peers, and we have many strong relationships outside our home with friends and other home educating children.”

Jonas and Tamara Himmelstrand don’t mean that all children should home educated.

“But for us there are special pedagogical reasons, as we get calmer and better balanced children,” says Jonas Himmelstrand.

They are aware that the lifestyle isn’t possible for most people. Jonas Himmelstrand is management consultant and runs his own company. Tamara Himmelstrand is a violinist but hasn’t worked as a musician since her eldest son started to demand a lot time and work. Besides home educating she helps her husband in his company and gives consultations to other parents who have children with special needs.

They are convinced that their children learn best in a home environment. Learning doesn’t end like it does at the end of a school day. It’s continuously going on. The family hasn’t yet decided how the future looks when the children start high school. But it seems that Rebecka has her plans clear.

“I want to be an art student go to an American university,” she says.

Home Education Facts

Difficult to get permission—There are about 100–200 children being taught at home in Sweden today. Families usually don’t get any of the money allotted to each pupil that otherwise follows each school child. Most of the children are formally inscribed in a municipality school or a free school and in some cases one can borrow school books.

To get the permission to home educate an approval is required from the municipality, but already today it is difficult to get a permission to home educate, and permission is granted mostly if there is a medical reason or other special reasons.

In the government’s proposal to the new school law compulsory schooling is even more enforced. This means that hardly any home education will be allowed. There is no need, the government argues. Public school is comprehensive enough to suit all children.

Critics contend that homeschooled children become socially isolated, are placed at the mercy of the parents’ views and see risks with not discovering children who are being battered or in other ways maltreated in the home.

In the United States at least 2 million children get home educated. In Canada and Great Britain home education is also big.

The Himmelstrand’s application has been turned down—The Uppsala kommun (municipality) have had two applications of home education in the last two years. Both of them have been turned down. The Himmelstrand family is one of these families who have been turned down and later lost against the municipality in Kammarrätten (a higher administrative court).

As home education is applied for every school year, the Himmelstrand family have also applied for this school year. The case is presently in the hands of Förvaltningsrätten (the lower administrative court).

The Himmelstrands see themselves as having the right to home educate and refer to the school law chapter 10, paragraph 4:

“A school-aged child shall be allowed to fulfill the school obligation in other ways than what is stated in this law, if it appears to be a fully satisfactory alternative to the education otherwise available to the child according to the law.”

The Himmelstrand family considers that they fulfil the compulsory schooling “in other ways” and they thereby are not breaking the school law.

Note: This article was translated for HSLDA by Tamara Himmelstrand