The Ghost of Public School Past

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As our final read aloud of  2018, my kids and I enjoyed reading Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The story has all the perks of classic literature–rich usage of symbolism and metaphor, complex sentence structures, and challenging vocabulary. If you can believe it, no one in a Dickens’ novel ever once says, “LOL!” My kids knew the basic story, so they were able to get what they needed from the text even when Dickens’ writing got very, well, Dickensian.

After the swell and noise of the holidays died down, I began to ponder the symbolic device of Jacob Marley’s ghost’s chained figure. I had also been thinking about the atmosphere I wanted to create in our new homeschool semester, and soon these two trains of thought began to connect. Marley’s chains were most decidedly his greed and his disregard for the needs of his fellow beings, and Scrooge was also similarly chained to his stinginess and isolation.

The metaphor of chains is a great one; who isn’t at least sometimes weighed down by bad habits, old wounds, or just unhelpful patterns of thinking? We often call it “baggage.” So I asked myself if there were any chains in our homeschool life that needed loosening.

One of my big struggles as a homeschooling mom is comparing our homeschool to the public education system. This is one of my chains. No matter how much Peter Gray or John Holt I read, it still bothers me now and then that our days just don’t often look much like a public school day. I know the constant fears and comparisons only rob me of joy in the task of educating my kids, and they also take up a lot of mental space that could be used for creativity, spontaneity, and openness to my children’s interests.

Learning might be hard work, but unlearning is so much harder. Year by year, I have had to work to unlearn the methods and ideologies of public education, and I’m nowhere near “untaught” yet. I’m not even going to argue that those methods and ideologies are wrong; it’s just that my family has chosen a totally different path. Instead of walking that path with confidence, I often look over my shoulder at the other path. And, of course, I worry.

But chains are best broken slowly, link by link, and that’s my plan for the new year. Slowly, I need to challenge and break the assumptions that so many of us blindly hold about education. How many of the following beliefs sound familiar?

  • It can’t be considered school if the kids are enjoying themselves.
  • Quantity equals quality (that is, 50 math problems are always better than five).
  • It doesn’t count if the kids don’t fill out a worksheet or take a test to prove they have learned something.
  • Learning has to be standardized, and all kids should learn the same things at the same ages/times.
  • Kids have to be sitting still and have to be quiet in order to learn.
  • Children shouldn’t question why they need to know something.
  • The point of school is to get good grades, get into a good college, and make lots of money when you grow up.

Please don’t mistake me. I do strive for a measure of order and structure in our homeschool, and learning goals are important to me. However, none of these things requires a public school environment to accomplish, and I’m not doing myself or my kids any favors by trying to force a public school “feel” on our days at home. I still cringe to remember that I once tried ringing an actual school bell to let my kids know that it was time to sit down and hit the books. Yeah, that one worked really well.

So this semester, over and over as needed, I’ll be saying to myself, “It doesn’t have to look like public school, it just has to look like learning.” No bells, no super strict schedules, no “learn this now or else.” Just a gentle moving forward in each major subject area in the ways that work well for my kids and for me.

Whether my kids learn from a great read aloud, a field trip, cooking, working at our own pace through a math book, or simply observing and questioning the world around us, it’s the learning that counts, not the schooling.

Here’s to a new year of throwing off the chains of old, unhelpful ideas and embracing courage and freedom.

Conquering Homeschooling Worries

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If worrying was a sport, I’d have a black belt by now. Over the years, I’ve worried circles around my pregnancies, parenting choices, and the ingredients in our breakfast cereal. As a homeschooler, I must make daily choices about how to structure my children’s education outside the framework of institutional schooling. Such choices provide plenty of fuel for my worry prone mind to burn. 

We homeschoolers think we have such good reasons to worry. After all, we’re educating our children…at home! We might as well be performing open heart surgery or manning a spacecraft! 

In all seriousness, of course, we are taking on a big responsibility. Homeschooling requires a great deal of faith, and it can take time to develop this faith in our children’s God-given ability to learn and in our own strength to meet the challenges that often arise in homeschooling. 

Over the years I’ve learned that worry is, actually, a choice, and it doesn’t have to be our constant companion in homeschooling.  Just as we can choose our curriculum and our homeschooling style, we can also choose peace over fear. 

Here are three common homeschooling worries and some thoughts on how to let them go.

Worry #1: We Aren’t Doing Enough

Homeschool parents everywhere can probably identify with this vague, nail biting anxiety that hovers over us as we go through the school day with our children. We craft lovely, organized lesson plans and schedules, only to realize that we might accomplish barely half of what we planned on a really, really good day.

We look at the clock and imagine that the public school kids down the street have been working diligently at their desks for hours while our family has only managed to eat breakfast, enjoy a read aloud, and work out a few math problems.

We seem to forget about all the hours we ourselves spent in class as kids when we passed notes, doodled in our notebooks, or simply daydreamed as we prayed for the bell to ring. The institutionalized schooling mindset does not die easily, even after we’ve rejected much of its ideology. 

One of best antidotes to the “we’re not doing enough” worry is to clearly define your educational goals for your children. Do you want to raise independent thinkers? Passionate readers? Does a spirit of exploration rule in your household? Once you know what you want for your kids’ education, you should ask yourself whether you are doing the right things to support those goals rather than enough things or simply forcing your kids to log in a certain number of hours each day doing busywork. 

Recently, I had felt like we weren’t putting in enough time each week towards our science studies. Then, we got to the insect unit of our science curriculum and began to study butterflies. We purchased a mail-order kit of caterpillars and watched metamorphosis unfold. My kids were fascinated and excited as we savored this project over three weeks. Releasing our butterflies was one of my favorite homeschool moments so far, and I know my kids will remember it for many years to come. Since I want to encourage a love of nature within my children, this project was far more valuable than trudging through science worksheets that held little meaning for my kids. 

Try to follow a formula of “passion, progress, and perseverance.” Spend lots of time on kids’ passions with books, classes, experiences, and so on. Aim for progress in the basics (math, reading, grammar) by doing a little bit every day. Persevere in areas that are more difficult for your child by implementing regular, short practice sessions that end before you and your child become frustrated. This method maintains a sense of discipline and hard work in the homeschool environment without forcing hours and hours of busywork on kids.

And just keep going. You’ll be doing enough.

Worry #2: Socialization

I imagine that every homeschooler on the planet has fielded concerns from family or friends over the issue of socialization. Our culture espouses the belief that children learn social skills best from other children, preferably other children of the same age. How else will children know what music to listen to, what internet videos to watch, and how to be liked by the crowd either in real life or on social media? 

Yet do these skills really constitute socialization? Socialization involves many subtleties and values that are usually best conveyed by responsible, loving adults who have more life experience than children. Call me crazy, but I would much rather my children learn how to carry on polite conversations or how to be respectful towards people of all ages, colors, and creeds from their parents and extended family than from schoolmates.

To me, true socialization is a gradual process of learning how to live peacefully and respectfully with and around other people in our increasingly diverse world; narrowly focused, cliquish interactions with same-age peers will not be likely to give kids an advantage at getting along socially in the wider world.

Kids definitely do need some time to play or just be social with children from outside their own household, but the vast majority of homeschoolers provide such opportunities for their children through church, co-ops, or simple playground visits. If you’re making an effort to get your kids around other children somewhat regularly and your kids seem happy, then they’re most likely doing just fine.

And let’s not forget that a strong sense of identity and security within a family unit is a huge factor in a child’s self esteem and overall well being. Kids who spend lots of time with parents and extended family will hopefully grow up knowing how special and loved they are. Perhaps these positive experiences can, to some degree, make our children more resistant to the peer pressure, stress, and mental health crises that seem to plague so many young people today.

For an interesting perspective on the topic of children and peers, I recommend reading Hold On to Your Kids by Gordon Neufeld, Ph.D and Gabor Maté, M.D. 

And finally, let the critics in your life carry on a conversation with your (usually) articulate and polite homeschooled child. That will likely put everyone’s worries to rest.

Worry #3: The Future

Worries about the future are universal, especially for parents. A quick internet search can provide thousands of articles pouring over the parenting conundrums and fears we face today: Should we free-range parent to help our kids build confidence, or is hover parenting more appropriate in our supposedly violent and socially fractured times? Are our kids getting enough STEM education, and will it even matter since robots will take everyone’s jobs anyway? Will it be possible to get through even the most modestly priced college without a mountain of debt accumulating for children and/or their parents?

I don’t have the answers to these questions, and I do have concerns for my children’s futures in a troubled and rapidly changing world. However, I have to lean on faith here and put most of my energy into the present. We know that life has never been easy, and our children will face challenges no matter how much we try to protect them and prepare them for adulthood.

Homeschooling can’t insulate our children from all the harsh realities of the world, but it might just give our kids the advantage of having spent their formative years in a low-stress environment where family connections, lifelong learning, and moral development are core values. 

Like many of the homeschooling families I know, my family makes financial and material sacrifices to homeschool. In doing so, we don’t model a material form of success for our kids. Rather, we’re trying to live out our values  and principles and doing the best we can with limited means. We aren’t keeping up with the Joneses, but rather forging our own path. Even at their young ages, my kids understand that our small home and modest vehicles give us the freedom to live and learn the way we want. They understand that more stuff doesn’t always equal more happiness. They don’t see education as a fast track to an economic rat race in which the winner receives the nicest, newest stuff.

Home education lets our kids know that it’s okay to question the status quo and choose an alternate route for education and life. While the future is not mine to see, I can only imagine that the ability to think for oneself and to live modestly will be helpful skills in any economy.

Most importantly, in the battle against worry we have to commit to focusing on gratitude for today. I am grateful that homeschooling is legal and better understood than in years past. I am grateful that I can cuddle with my children every morning for our read aloud. I’m grateful that, like most homeschoolers, we’re stubborn and we don’t give up. So pour a cup of tea, take a deep breath, and let confidence and peace guide you in your homeschooling journey.

 

 

The Courage to Homeschool

One of my favorite quotes comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson: In Self Reliance he states, “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.” I can remember the inspiration I gleaned from those words as a young college student. As an offbeat, formerly homeschooled person who preferred spending time with her husband and cats to keg parties, I found a lot of comfort in them.

In twenty-first century language, I might restate Emerson’s gist as “Whoever wants to become a full person and live an authentic life must possess the courage to be different.”  In no other area of my life does this hold more true than in homeschooling. And yet, it is in this very area that I find summoning the courage to be different and also confident so very difficult. 

Homeschooling is radically different from the way the majority of the world lives and pursues educating children. It requires that the homeschooling parent spend a great deal of time alone with her children, parenting, teaching, and constantly making important decisions with minimal or no input from other adults. For these reasons, homeschooling can easily become lonely and stressful.

Sure, I can look to homeschooling friends and blogs for support and inspiration, but we homeschoolers are a mixed bag of free spirits with wildly varying styles, philosophies, and schedules. We’re like scattered islands that all belong to the same country but may have stark differences in culture. We all stand under the “flag” of homeschooling, but that might be where our similarities end. Largely, we’re on our own, trying to figure it out as we go.

When things go well in our homeschool, I’m just fine. “Look how great this homeschooling thing is going!” I say to myself. But the minute we struggle or someone criticizes the way we educate, I get a little philosophically wobbly. “What if the system could do this better? What if I’m not doing enough? All the other homeschoolers are doing it this way, but we’re the only people I know who do x,y,z.”

The public school system’s flaws and failings are no secret, but saying what I don’t like about traditional, institutional education doesn’t take a lot of courage. We all know that finding fault is easy, but finding solutions is damn hard work. We homeschoolers can’t just reject public schools; we have to create a viable alternative that can nourish our children’s minds and hearts in the absence of institutional structure. Moving toward a new vision of education and life is what takes real courage.

Many days I’m just shaking in my boots over this whole homeschooling thing. However, when I come out on the other side of those fears and peel away each insecurity, each nagging worry, I see that conviction is still there. Certainty, no. Conviction, definitely.

My heart and soul want to do this. This is the path that entices, that frightens, that challenges me to question every thing I thought I knew about learning and life. This is the gift I want to give my children–the gift of something unique and uncharted. I want them to view learning as a lifelong process, not as a grade or a standardized test score.

I want them to grow up and think for themselves about what is worthwhile and true in a world fraught with consumerism, competition, and egotism. I want them to have the time and space to learn who they really are before peers and the media can tell them what they should pretend to be. Maybe they will be so accustomed to being themselves that it won’t be so difficult for them to resist laying down their beautifully unique selves at the false alter of “fitting in.”

My children will see me mess up plenty in the coming years as their mother and teacher, but I hope they will also see me trying to bless them with a life outside of the walls of institutional learning and prepackaged lifestyles. I hope they will see me trying to be brave enough to be a nonconformist.

 

Welcoming the Fall Semester

forest-868715_1920It’s only late July, but the back to school buzz is in the air. The stores are stocking pencils and backpacks, and the local schools are reminding everyone that school begins next week. Even an independent, slightly rebellious homeschooler like myself has to face the facts: summer won’t last forever.

It’s time to get to work.

Work can pull you out of bed in the morning and give you a purpose, or it can make you groan and want to hide under the covers. This summer, my kids and I got a lot of experience with the former. We did meaningful work with shelter animals, we worked on reading and times tables in a relaxed and fun way, and we read books that made us laugh.

I worked on, quite simply, trying to become a better parent. A parent who plays a little more and worries a little less. A parent who means what she says when she says it. I even worked on resting and being okay with wide open days. I worked on simply shrugging when my kids said they were “bored.” “It’s good to be bored,” I often replied.

And it was.  My kids dressed up as their favorite book and movie characters and played around with stage makeup. My oldest daughter made homemade lip balm and worked up the courage to sell it at church. We started a flower garden, and the kids made fairy houses. They practiced the work of childhood.

And, quite magically, much of the work that used to induce groans and complaints got a little easier, and I marveled at how (finally!) household chores and routines were no longer family landmines. We have a ways to go, but we’re all getting a little better at doing what we need to do without making a fuss about it, at least most of the time — Mom included!

So, the challenge for this school year is continuing to enjoy meaningful work while disciplining ourselves to make the best of work that isn’t necessarily our favorite. As Charlotte Mason explained, this is all a matter of habit. Mom gets up early and has the house and her person in order because it’s her habit. We do our math work without complaining because it’s our habit. We exercise our bodies outside because it’s our habit.

And when those doubting voices creep in about why on earth we’ve chosen this crazy, hippie idea of teaching our own kids, when we’re exhausted and demoralized and lonely, when we’re humbled by a learning challenge or the collapse of well-laid plans, we simply keep going. We get up, change what isn’t working, and move on in our homeschooling.

The habit of moving forward is the most important work of all.

A happy fall semester to everyone!

Reflections On Our School Year: Regret, Hope, and Scrapping My Plans

If there was one quality that our school year centered around this year, it was this: flexibility. Over and over again, I was required to bend, twist, and leap around my own expectations and plans in order to create the kind of education that my kids needed while meeting each family member’s needs for self-direction, joy, and rest.

This year, in the name of flexibility, I chose to embrace field trips and real-world experiences in our homeschool over rigidly adhering to my beloved schedule, which usually revolves around a good deal of book work.

We explored state parks and historic sites. We raised crickets and plants. My older daughter desperately wanted to volunteer at our local animal shelter, and I set aside my fears over dog bites and heartbreak and said “yes.”

I will admit that I started off the year in typically rigid fashion. I adhered to the curriculum I had chosen, even when my kids were clearly miserable and not thriving with the given format. I pushed my youngest when I should have pulled back. But, eventually, I realized the error of my ways and began to hand the reins to my kids from time to time. I began to trust that I didn’t have to force learning to happen. We still did traditional academic work, but I began to see how much my kids could learn outside of my perfectly planned, academic boxes.

The animal shelter ended up being a tremendous source of joy, learning, and yes, heartbreak for our family. We gave love and elbow grease, we realized our limitations in helping so many animals, and we developed a tremendous amount of respect for the workers and rescue groups who slug it out day after day trying to make animals’ lives better.

My kids, my husband, and I experienced profound loss as we realized that we could not provide the right environment for a newly adopted dog with aggression issues, no matter how much love we had to give. Upon the advice of our veterinarian, we sent our beloved friend into a rescue situation where she would be homed properly. Having always had a “pets forever” ownership mentality, we felt like we had failed this special animal, but the dangers were real. Our hearts are still aching.

There is no curriculum for learning to deal with sadness, guilt, and regret.

There is also no curriculum for teaching hope and resilience, but we are learning nonetheless. Despite our family’s devastating feelings of loss and “what ifs,” we’re headed back to the shelter to do our best to help as many as animals as we can. There are cats to pet, dogs to walk, and cages to be cleaned. We are considering fostering, despite the tremendous emotional risk involved.

More than mastering the multiplication tables or phonics (though we’re definitely working on those!), my kids have learned that life can be incredibly hard and disappointing, but we can’t just give up and stop trying. We can’t judge people or animals until we really get to know them and their stories, and there is always more to learn.

Mastery is a myth. Life requires constant learning and that magic word: flexibility.

Here’s to a hopeful, healing summer.

 

Taming the Math Monster

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Math is a common source of anxiety for many homeschooling parents. In fact, one of my only reservations about homeschooling my first child was, “But I’ll have to teach math!”

Thankfully, my desire to homeschool was stronger than my fear. I vowed to refresh and strengthen my math skills so that I could become a competent teacher.

In our first school year, I purchased an “advanced and rigorous” math curriculum that was heavy on instructor input and student practice. I believed I could spare my child the years of frustration and math anxiety I had experienced if I just pushed hard enough in her early years.

Boy, was I wrong.

It turns out that insisting your five-year-old listen to long math lectures and complete seemingly endless worksheets is not the way to foster a love of math, or even a tolerance for it. By the middle of first grade, my daughter was dreading math lessons and proclaiming “I hate math!”

I wasn’t enjoying math much myself, either. The long, drawn out lessons were draining and stressful for the entire family. I remember my toddler sitting on my lap as I prodded my oldest to “just listen” to me explain the 43rd example of number bonds for that day. My toddler probably wondered why everyone got so sad and grumpy when we pulled out those yellow and orange books.

After a particularly tearful lesson–perhaps tears are God’s way of saying STOP in our homeschools–I realized something had to change. Math was making both of us miserable, and I feared that my daughter was destined to hate math for the rest of her life if something didn’t give.

After a few weeks of hand wringing, soul searching, and investigating several new homeschool math programs, I had come to a few conclusions:

  1. My daughter hated being “taught” math. Children who are bright and creative (sometimes labeled “right brained”) often resist a lot of lecturing and overt teaching, and our old math program required both.
  2. Our very “teachy” math program also ate up too much of our day, leaving less time for my daughter’s true interests like art, history, and exploring nature. Oh, and playing in the mud with her sister!
  3.  Forcing my poor kid to work through a program she hated was damaging her spirit and wasn’t yielding much true learning.

Mostly, I had to let go of the public school model of teaching math. My own public school experiences had emphasized lecturing, rote memorization, a great deal of repetition, and speed and breadth over understanding and depth. As a kid, I’d often felt lost in math class, so that style of teaching had definitely not worked for me. Without even realizing it at first, I had been following this model in our homeschool.

With these ideas in mind, I purchased a new, more user friendly math curriculum and set out to make math a better experience for our family. I brainstormed ways to be more creative about math sessions, and I adopted the Charlotte Mason method of short, timed lessons. I also got some great ideas on the blog Kate’s Homeschool Math Help.

Here’s how we currently approach math in our home:

  • We use a more independent, self-teaching math book. The Math Mammoth program employs the brilliant strategy of placing explanations and examples right above the workbook exercises so that a child can try to teach themselves a concept before asking for help. I definitely go over new concepts with my daughter, but the lack of emphasis on teacher lecturing works really well for my daughter’s “just let me try it myself” style of learning.
  • We set a timer for math time, and when the timer beeps my daughter is done for the day. The next day, we pick right back up where we stopped.
  • I don’t assign every single problem in every lesson. If it’s a pretty easy topic for my daughter, she may only do half to three quarters of the problems. If the topic is challenging, she might need to do all of them plus a supplemental worksheet or two. Use the book; don’t let it use you!
  • We focus on covering and mastering topics in math rather than on finishing an entire book in a given school year.
  • I don’t worry so much about math anymore. Even with short lessons and a slower pace, if we’re moving forward, we’re doing okay.

Math time is much more peaceful in our home these days, and I’m pleased to see how certain topics are really clicking with my daughter. Math might never be a favorite subject in our homeschool, but it doesn’t have to be a monster. Even with something concrete like math, creative, fluid thinking about how we approach a subject is always helpful in homeschooling.

No, We Don’t Play Soccer and Other Musings on Extracurricular Activities

I once overheard a fellow homeschooling mom explain that she enrolled her daughter in as many activities as humanly possible, whether the daughter liked it or not, because she felt that extracurricular activities would help her daughter become a successful adult. The mother was convinced that her own lack of involvement in sports and other activities as a child had caused most of her adult failings.

Wow. This extracurricular activity stuff is, apparently, quite serious.

Maybe Johnny’s wanting to stay home and dig around in the dirt rather than play little league clearly indicates that he is doomed for a life of mediocrity and social ostracism. Maybe Suzy’s assertion that she has no interest in softball means that she’s lazy and won’t ever get into college.

Or perhaps our 21st century adult anxieties have the potential to hijack our children’s lives and schedules. When is a soccer ball not just a soccer ball? When parents view it not as a source of fun but as a tool for allaying their fears about their child’s popularity and future, that’s when.

We homeschoolers may be especially susceptible to the tendency to push our kids into lessons or activities that they don’t really enjoy or find meaningful. We may fear we’ve already made our kids a bit weird by homeschooling them in the first place, so we need them to play some normal, all-American sports to even things out, right?

Also, sports and other activities can help us to feel that we are giving our kids opportunities for socialization. However, as I’ve noticed from observing some of my own children’s activities, kids often have little time for developing meaningful friendships when they are in a highly structured, adult-led environment such as a gymnastics lesson or karate class.

Informal play at the park or casual meetings with other families are often much better ways to let our kids spread their social wings.

A few years ago, I became convinced that I was failing as a parent because my kids were not enrolled in any sports-type activities. Much like their (admittedly) non-sporty mom, my kids showed little interest in team sports. As a compromise, we settled on ballet lessons.

The kids liked their instructor, but the required recitals proved nightmarish for everyone in the family. I know that many children love ballet and greatly enjoy performing, but to my kids, the recitals seemed like a dog and pony show they had to perform just to make adults happy.

We stopped the lessons after a year. I realized that my insecurities about providing the perfect childhood, not my kids’ interests, had been the motivating factor for beginning lessons in the first place.

Team sports and other activities can be wonderfully fun for kids and their families, but we do need to make sure that we’re following our children’s lead and not pushing them into things we feel they “should” enjoy.

We need to trust our children to discover activities of their own choosing and to tolerate a little boredom. As Peter Gray asserts in his book Free To Learn, free play is essential for self mastery and self discovery. Keeping kids too busy with structured activities can rob them of the freedom they need to fully develop as human beings.

A child who chooses to climb trees or draw is not missing out; they are enjoying the precious freedom of childhood where the self and personality have room to blossom and grow.

As for our little family, in addition to plenty of free play and family time, we’ve finally settled on lessons and activities that suit our kids’ unique interests and personalities. We’ve had great success with art classes, swimming lessons, and volunteer opportunities at church and at our local animal shelter.

I’ve learned to embrace our family’s preferences and passions and to ditch the impulse to enroll the kids in more conventional activities that just aren’t right for them.

It looks like I’ll never be a soccer mom, and that’s perfectly fine by me. My kids are happy, thriving, and having fun. So, goal!