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.

 

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.