Federal Relations

Bright Spots in Home Schooling

October 19, 2004  

Colorado homeschooler writes prizewinning essay

Rachel Shafer accepts award from NEH Chairman Bruce Cole

Homeschooler Rachel Shafer didn't learn about the National Endowment for the Humanities' Idea of America Essay Contest until about a week before the entry deadline on March 15, 2004. Despite her busy schedule, Rachel wrote an essay on the assigned topic of the Gettysburg Address. "It took a while to get just the right words and to organize my thoughts," she says, but her hard work paid off. Seven months later, at a ceremony held at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., Rachel learned that her essay had been selected out of more than 1500 entries to receive the grand prize of $5000.

At the October 18 ceremony, NEH Chairman Bruce Cole read a message from President Bush applauding the leadership demonstrated by Rachel and the five other finalists. As Rachel stepped onstage to receive her medal, she was personally congratulated by Cole, who read a portion of her essay to the audience.

A high school senior, Rachel looks back to a family study of the Civil War as the source of her passion for the contest topic. In 2002, after reading Michael Shaara's Killer Angels aloud together, the Shafers left their home in Longmont, Colorado, for an extended trip to Civil War battlefields on the East Coast. Rachel believes that her love for the ideas expressed in the Gettysburg Address helped her write a prizewinning essay. "I was excited about trying to express those feelings and that admiration in the essay," she says. "I focused on reading the Gettysburg Address over while I was writing [the essay] because I admired his clarity and the way that Lincoln just sets out these grand, profound ideas in a simple way and quickly goes from one to the other with such brevity and clarity. That's something that I was hoping to be able to emulate in my essay."

Homeschooled through all grades, Rachel credits her personalized education with allowing her to thrive academically. "I think the biggest advantage of being homeschooled was that I was free to do things at my own pace and learn about things that I was most interested in and in the way that was best suited to me," says Rachel, and her mother, Roberta Shafer, agrees. "We were able to really tailor [Rachel's] activities to her interests—so that when I saw that she had such a logical mind, she should try debate, and she loved it," Roberta recalls. "With this contest especially, this one being on the Gettysburg Address—I knew how busy Rachel was but I knew she had a passion for the ideas in that document. It's been easy to direct her to where she could succeed because I knew who she was and what she was interested in."

Rachel's parents first became familiar with the idea of homeschooling when her father, Steven Shafer, heard about it on a Focus on the Family radio broadcast. "I originally was not very excited about it," says Roberta, an electrical engineer. "As time went on, it became my conviction that it was the right thing to do." Although Roberta considered putting Rachel in traditional school when she was about to enter 9th grade, Rachel begged to remain at home, promising to study diligently. "And she has been faithful to that promise," Roberta adds. "She took responsibility for her education at that point."

Rachel, who has two younger siblings, keeps busy with a wide range of activities. She participates in debate and has played the piano for 10 years. A year ago, she took up the viola, and has enjoyed playing ensemble music. Rachel lists reading as her number-one hobby. "I think that reading a lot helps you to write well, especially if you're reading good books and good literature," she says, describing the influence of books on her writing as osmosis—"soaking in that writing style." Rachel's post–high school plans include attending college and possibly studying political economy.

The excellence that Rachel has already demonstrated in day-to-day responsibilities has rippled beyond her award-winning essay. "The National Endowment for the Humanities is very interested in having homeschoolers participate in this essay contest," says Rachel, pointing out that another homeschooler, Caitlin Carroll of Marietta, Georgia, was one of the other five finalists. "I think that they realize there's a high quality of possible entrants in the homeschool community." In fact, Chairman Cole specifically invited homeschoolers to participate in next year's contest. Thanks to Rachel's leadership, homeschoolers have received the special recognition they deserve for their high-caliber achievements.

 Other Resources

To read Rachel's winning essay, click here.

To read more about the 2004 Idea of America Essay Contest, click here.

Click here to access the question and guidelines for the 2005 Idea of America Essay Contest.

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