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!

 

 

Homeschooling In A (Very) Small House

 

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Sometimes, it feels like we live in a dollhouse.

Our family of four people and three pets currently lives and homeschools in a 768 square foot home. No, it’s not easy. But yes, it can be done.

We moved from a larger, basement rancher into this wee space for two reasons. The first was simply money. We have always tried our best to avoid excessive debt, and we knew we could reduce our mortgage drastically if we were willing to sacrifice space. My commitment to homeschool our children meant that we’d probably remain primarily on one income for many years, and my husband wanted a short-term mortgage that he could manage while still contributing to savings and retirement.

The second reason was philosophical and spiritual. Our family disagrees with society’s apparent obsession with keeping up with the Joneses by accumulating more and more stuff in larger and larger spaces.

In moving into such a small house, we aspired to teach our kids to embrace simplicity in a world that celebrates excess–a level of excess that can have negative consequences for one’s health and happiness, finances, and the environment.

We might have gone a little Henry David Thoreau.

But Thoreau didn’t have a family to squeeze into his little cabin, and he didn’t homeschool his kids all day. Sometimes ideals must crash into reality, just as one’s big toe might crash into the corner of the two-foot-long hallway of one’s absurdly small house as one rushes to the single bathroom that is, of course, occupied. What were we thinking?!

I can’t sugarcoat the reality of squeezing four people and their stuff into a home that is so much smaller than the average American abode. What I can do is try to stay creative and diligent about managing the space we have.

Here are some strategies for making homeschooling in a small space work:

  • Streamline your curriculum

While books and learning materials take priority in our house (we have sacrificed extra seating in our home for bookcases), I make sure to keep only the resources we actually use or will use in the near future. This means I don’t buy giant science kits “just in case” or purchase the entire cannon of Charles Dickens because I’d love to have my kids read them in high school.

Books and supplies that we use daily or weekly live on a small bookcase near our kitchen table, and all other carefully curated books live on a larger bookcase near the couch. Extra craft supplies are tucked into drawers in our computer desk.

I try to follow a “one in, one out” rule for new curriculum purchases. If I purchase a new math workbook, I recycle the old, used one. I love how keeping our curriculum fairly simple also instantly reduces overwhelm by visually showcasing only our real work for one school semester instead of cluttering up our shelves and minds with materials that may or may not be used in the coming years.

  • Utilize the library

Though our space for curriculum materials is limited, we take advantage of our library’s almost unlimited resources. A small bookcase placed (okay, squeezed) into a corner of our home houses constantly rotating library books. Nonfiction tomes enhance our history and science studies, while picture books and novels keep my kids bathed in language and literature. We never feel deprived when we know we can simply return our library books and get a fresh crop of new material.

  • Cuddle up on the couch

Every school morning, my kids and I start our day with me reading aloud. We snuggle together on our tattered yet comfy couch while I read. I love this time for physical closeness as I share the joy of literature with my kids.

My older daughter finds that doing her mostly independent math work on on our comfy sofa is more pleasant than working at the table. When we’re nearing the end of our day and I need to cover one more subject, the prospect of relaxing on the couch as they listen can often entice my kids to calm down and work through one more lesson.

  • Use old-fashioned clip boards or lap desks

Clip boards allow my kids to take their work anywhere in the house with them while still having a sturdy surface for writing. This allows one child to retreat from working near a sibling if they are getting distracted. My kids often find that working on mom and dad’s bed near our sleeping cat can actually help them to calm down and focus. I find this to be further evidence in support of the magical, calming power of felines.

  • Strive for gratitude

In a world of constant comparisons and Google images featuring the “perfect homeschool room,” it’s easy to feel inadequate or abnormal for living with less. By the way, don’t ever Google “perfect homeschool rooms.” 

I often worry that I might be cheating my kids by not providing them with their own desks or special workspaces, but I remind myself that my kids are doing well and learning just fine. They even like our house, at least most of the time. I also remind myself that these days of cuddling on the couch and squeezing in at the kitchen table to practice handwriting are very precious and won’t last forever. It’s easy to get mired in routine and daily stresses and to forget how spectacularly radical and special it is to be free to educate my kids in the loving, safe environment of our home.

 

Ultimately, it’s holding on to a sense of gratitude that makes homeschooling in a small space possible, no matter how many times I stub my toe.

Lessons in Shame

Earlier this week, I visited a science museum with my daughters. We happened to look at an exhibit on America’s oil resources that included a map showing shale oil deposits. The states were outlined but not labeled. As I stared at the map of my homeland, trying to identify the various squares, rectangles, and blobs, I was reminded of how I still somewhat struggle with U.S. geography.

I find my difficulty with locating certain states (hello, Midwest!) to be embarrassing, maybe even a little shameful. After all, wasn’t there a TV show that made fun of adults who couldn’t answer questions likely to appear on a fifth grader’s homework?

Many of us are familiar with educational shame.

We trudged through school struggling with certain disciplines, yearning for math class to end so that we could head into English class where we felt more confident and competent. Or perhaps our experience was the opposite, and we would have happily solved a hundred equations instead of being forced to write an essay. We may have been labeled as “behind” in a certain subject and told we needed to work harder. Yet instead of prodding us into improvement, such admonitions just made us want to avoid the subject and cling to what we were already good at.

When given a choice between working on something difficult or preserving one’s self-esteem, nearly everyone will choose the latter.

I believe this is why so many students hate math or can’t find enjoyment in reading: at one point or another, they became convinced they weren’t any good at these endeavors, so they stopped trying. Trying, in the context of low test scores, negative labels, and perhaps even teasing from peers, was simply too risky. Too shameful.

As I embarked on homeschooling and began studying various philosophies of education, I began to question whether learning, even learning subjects that were quite difficult, need involve any embarrassment or shame whatsoever. What was the point of placing children in a learning environment that only seemed to reward easily coming to the right answer? Maybe wrong answers and stumbling were sometimes a necessary, natural step in discovery. Perhaps providing children with a safe place to experiment and to fail without shame was as critical, or even more so, than teaching them the three R’s.

What if I had been able to play around with maps the way my own children do, learning history and geography side by side, being fascinated by Washington’s strategy of crossing the Delaware at night or tracing my finger along Lewis and Clark’s trek westward? What if math had been presented as a challenge that I could tackle at my own pace? What if I had felt joy when it finally clicked and I grasped the lovely logic of numbers? What if learning happened for learning’s sake and not just to raise the peak on one’s standardized test summary graph?

As homeschoolers, we have a unique opportunity to break the cycle of shame and avoidance that all too often accompanies learning in our society. We have a chance to say to our kids, “I don’t know, but let’s find out together” instead of feeling embarrassed that we aren’t experts at everything.

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