Homeschool (un)planning, part five

How we spend our days, of course, is how we spend our lives. :: Annie Dillard

Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all. :: Aristotle

The benefits of parental authority are substantial. When parents matter more than peers, they can teach right or wrong in a meaningful way. They can prioritize attachments within the family over attachments with same-age peers. They can foster better relationships between their child and other adults. They can help their child develop a more robust and more authentic sense of self, grounded not in how many “likes” a photos gets on Instagram or Facebook, but in a child’s truest nature. They can educate desire, instilling a longing for higher and better things, in music, in the arts, and in one’s own character. :: Leonard Sax, The Collapse of Parenting (emphasis my own)

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Philippians 4:8 (KJV)

Allowing my children to engage in meaningful work. Cultivating in them a sense of belonging. Giving them opportunities to create connections. These were the three big goals I outlined in my first homeschooling post. Since then I’ve talked about taking the long view, finding the homeschool subject matter hidden in it, leaning into rhythm to support us, and the “other” part of homeschooling, skill-training. That leaves room to consider what I believe is the largest part of homeschooling: the education of desire, the informing of tastes, the molding of hearts.

The bulk of what I do as a parent and as an educator is this. It goes beyond choosing the best books to the heart of what it means to be a person, the core of who I hope they become. How we spend our days really is how we spend our lives, and that begins in childhood. Just as no one else’s chocolate chip cookies can ever compare to the ones our moms baked for us when we were eight, as parents, whether we like it or not, we are creating the blueprint for our children’s lives every day. Where will they seek comfort when they are crushed and hurting? How will they celebrate the joys of their lives? Will the strains of commercial jingles haunt their internal ears (my own lingering problem from childhood!), or will it be the strains of birdsong and rushing water and wind in the trees? Will their in-jokes be about television shows or Shakespeare plays? Will they be constantly avoiding punishment, or will they know the joy of doing the right thing for its own sake?

All of us as people seek comfort and joy in the things we have known before, especially the things that first gave us comfort and joy when we were young, and we didn’t have the big picture. We are creating not just a family culture, but a way of life to carry them forward into adulthood, a toolbox of experiences to help them forge their own way. As homeschoolers, we have a unique burden because so many of their experiences are at home, but this is true of all parents. Keeping this in mind helps to inform not only what books or experiences I include in our school days, but all of the things I exclude from our lives, the things I say no to.

Helping to create the map of someone’s desires is a weighty business, but it has power in it, too! It allows me to be free to say no. No to the offer of a free television. No to the gifts of dollar store plastic toys. No to terrible books. It also gives me the strength to say yes! To hours spent outside even when it is muddy or rainy, to extra church services even when I don’t feel like going, to huge craft messes all over the house. The same way that thinking about my long-term goals for their education allows me to see how to get there, knowing that the choices I am making every day are truly important takes the mystery out of them. I can feel confident and peaceful in my choices to prioritize the lovely, pure, and true.

I know you are probably wondering, but what do you actually DO during school time? I promise, I am getting there!

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Homeschool (un)planning, part four

So far in this series, I’ve covered long-term goal setting, breaking that down into homeschool subject matter, and creating a routine and rhythm for our days. Now I can begin thinking about what will comprise our academic work time in the mornings, and which of the subjects I’ve brainstormed earlier can better, or will primarily, be served in our lives outside of that time.

First I think it is important to make a distinction between skill training and the more esoteric work of education, which mostly consists of informing their tastes. Skill training is important and has its place in the framework of education, but it really works in service of becoming fluent in the means to understand and communicate their ideas. I think when people think about “homeschooling” they are mostly envisioning this type of skill training, what is often referred to as the “three Rs” (is there any more annoying misnomer than this? I ask you). In the middle grade years, I am thinking grades 3 through 8 or so, this is the main daily academic work. Learning how to read and write fluently, becoming familiar with arithmetic.

I personally feel that pushing skill training too early is not necessary or useful; third grade is a good time to begin the meaty work of this, though clearly in the course of living full lives at home they are getting exposure to the concepts of reading, writing, and math all the time! You cannot avoid it, because these are the tools that we all use to communicate and connect with one another, to move about in the world. In my experience, the longer that children are allowed to move freely and joyfully through the world as partakers of this great interconnectedness, the more easily and more beautiful their academic work will come later, their own contribution to the world of ideas.

So, skill training takes a priority for my third and fifth grader. I use a variety of simple games, problems, and, yes, worksheets for math. I am primarily concerned with creating speed and ease in the four operations; we go over time, money, measurement, simple geometry, and spatial geometry, casually and circumstantially. I love math and find it enjoyable to interest them in all the ways we use math, all the time! For a few resources I use you can check my homeschool resources page (this is always a work in progress, so check back periodically!). I try to keep things very simple, and work intuitively to fill gaps in their knowledge or work more closely on things that challenge them. I don’t plan, nor do I use one particular curriculum, but rather use common sense to shift and do things that will be useful to them at the time. Lesson time is kept short, because it can be intense work on their part, even as it is enjoyable. This is something we usually do early on in the day when they are freshest.

As far as skill training in language arts goes, we have used, and are still using, and enjoying, Emma Serl’s Primary and Intermediate Language Lessons, but we also have fun with language, have discussions about forms of language, write codes, they write stories of their own and letters to friends, we do copywork of beautiful and edifying pieces, we recite poetry and read immense amounts, the list goes on. I find that work in language arts comes very easily because as people, we are all interested in communicating with one another, telling stories, being understood! Again, I think it’s important to keep things simple and to rely on your own common sense. You don’t really need a curriculum to accomplish the end goal of having children who are varied, clear, and interesting communicators.

Having the end goals in mind allows peace, common sense, and simplicity to rule our homeschool days, instead of me constantly worrying that one curriculum is better than another, and maybe I should buy this or that new thing if I want my kids to be Learning Enough or Getting Smart. I am finally reaching the point in my homeschool teaching years that I can see the big picture and not be constantly grabbing at the shiny and new, or the reassurance of something pre-assembled, whether ideology or curriculum (which I would always alter to suit my tastes anyway!).

What about the other portion of their education? All of the other subjects I’ve brainstormed? What about the influencing of tastes, the parent’s work of acculturation and education? I’ll address that in the next post. I also wanted to let you know if you’ve left me a question on any of the posts in this series, I will do a Q&A post at the end and answer your questions, so fire away. And thank you for all the support you’ve shown both here and on Instagram! My greatest hope is that you find something in these posts to give you a little bit of peace and joy in your lives.

Homeschool (un)planning, part three

So far, I’ve talked about long-term goals and envisioning the homeschool subjects imbedded in those goals; today I’d like to talk a bit about beginning the process of translating that into everyday living.

My first priority in thinking about any type of schedule for our days is the concept of rhythm. Rhythm helps us all to relax into the security of knowing what comes next, and cuts down on decision fatigue for me as a mother. It allows both for stimulation and relaxation, for refreshment in change and the heart-warming qualities of regularity.

When I think of rhythm, I think of music! Musical rhythm consists of activity and rest in alternating regularity, and this is what I strive for in our home rhythm as well. Activity, then rest. Consistency. Sometimes the rest is an actual rest or break; sometimes it is just a change in activity or location. If the activity (mental or physical) is strenuous, I try to keep it short, and anticipate needing a change sooner rather than later.

I also want to honor our own family’s natural rhythms. We have consistent meal times and bedtimes, with their own routines, and schooling and life must fit around those. Spending time outside is important to me, as is a consistent rest time after lunch, and I know that my children are not up to challenging academic work after lunch. Just acknowledging the natural rhythms of our family allows me to see a framework coming clear, as the subjects I want to cover in our school time became clear with the acknowledgement of my bigger priorities.

Our current daily rhythm looks like this:

  • Breakfast (early, and the girls like to read/look at books afterwards)
  • Taking care of our home, getting ready for the day
  • Academic work, alternating activities for rest and refreshment
  • Free time for younger children as the older children finish up their day’s academic work
  • Lunch (around noon)
  • Taking care of our home, clearing up
  • Rest time
  • Outdoor time (realistically, errands also happen during this time period, but I try to keep them to a minimum, and the girls still get time outside at home before dinner. we definitely do not have daily errands)
  • Dinner (around six in the evening)
  • Bedtime (they are getting so much older! they used to have bedtime at 6:30, but the younger girls now have final lights out at 7:30, and the older girls at 8:30)

That has been our rhythm really for all of their lives, with changes to accommodate younger people when they were younger. A morning tea time and an afternoon tea time, for littler bellies, for one! Naptime has shifted to rest time, and our academic work used to look like singing songs, doing fingerplays, and reading picture books. Bedtimes have edged later as they need a little less sleep. In the summer time, we shift the academic work time to more outside time, or free play, and we have the added routine of swimming lessons, but this framework has guided our days happily, in all seasons, for years. I was so glad to read that one of Fr. Hopko’s guidelines for living a Christian life is to “have a daily schedule of activities, avoiding whim and caprice,” because I believe that having a daily rhythm is a major component in cultivating a peaceful life.

Lifeschooling: A guest post


A guest post today from my husband (who is also a blogger!):

I wanted to write about Kyrie’s homeschooling from my perspective. It’s a pretty good one. My evenings and weekends with my family are the most important part of my life, and I see the evidence of her work in happy, healthy, curious children. I see it in the burnish of sun on their faces, and in the stories they can’t wait to tell me, simultaneously, as soon as I get out of the car. I see it in the projects they have laid out from the day, in the books across their laps (and stacked precariously on every surface), and in the baskets full of pinecones and flowers and eggshells and stones. I hear it in the questions they ask and the insights they unfurl at the dinner table. I know that whatever she is doing, she is doing right. I would not want their education to go any other way.

I work as a “parenting educator,” a title I will speak as well as type in quotes. The truth is that everything I know about parenting I learned from Kyrie: from her reading and her posts (hers is the only feed on my Instagram page); from the many links she shares with me; from the words she uses and the way she moves her body. The routines she has put in place I regard as sacred: I can only hope to help them run smoothly. In fact, I would be satisfied to work as a sort of machinist to her inventions; an acolyte; a bureaucrat of nurturing.

But I am much more fortunate than that. I have been in a unique position to see the evolution and the struggle of her schooling, in long conversations on the porch or in the car. I know that Kyrie has been building her curriculum from any and every material she can reach for (and many that are hidden, or obscured, or even broken). I have seen the strands of Waldorf, Montessori, Charlotte Mason, John Holt, Orthodoxy, unschooling, subschooling, counterschooling and just plain schooling, as they braid and unspool into new configurations, new structures. I know her struggles to come at content from historical and natural and philosophical perspectives. I know enough, from my foray into high school teaching, to grasp how difficult it is to scaffold material and to differentiate by age, ability, and developmental level. I know that much of the last year she has been occupied with finding the right rhythms and that she has often felt it simply is not working.

Recently we talked about what lies beneath all of this painstaking planning and restructuring, and that has been the subject of her recent posts: it is the day-to-day movement of life in our family, and the opportunities presented to our girls in such seemingly nonpedagogical routines as going outside, playing in the river, trips to the library. It is in cooking, chores, music, Church, and play. I see that regardless of the content that hangs on this bough, the roots of their days go deep, and the branches yearn their way into space. I see that homeschooling is not a structure, nor an ideology, nor a machine. It is simply life.

And my goodness, it is work.

Homeschool (un)planning, part two

In my last post, I talked about considering my long-term priorities. They will, and have, changed and evolved as my children (and myself, as a parent) change and grow, but it’s so helpful to me to revisit them over and again throughout the weeks, months, years. But how do we interpret these grand, sweeping statements into action? I like to begin with thinking about the subjects I’d like to cover. Revisiting my larger goals, how might they be served by the subjects I choose to cover in our homeschooling?

Meaningful work:

To me, this has a wide variety of practical applications. In order to engage in meaningful work, we must be supplied with the tools and knowledge to make that happen. Some ideas:

  • learning all types of handwork (both of the more artistic and the more practical variety)
  • exposure to and appreciation of great art and music
  • exposure to and exploration of techniques of creation (different mediums, varying techniques)
  • learning how to read and write clearly
  • learning how to speak clearly
  • chores and learning how to do them well
  • discussion and strengthening of virtue and faith
  • participation in the sacraments and services of the Church
  • cultivating a healthy relationship with numbers, money, time, problem-solving

Cultivating a sense of belonging:

I am looking to cultivate a sense of belonging in our family, in our faith, in our corner of the world, as children of God, and as people within a context of history and world culture. Some ideas:

  • learning about our local flora and fauna
  • learning about great men and women in history
  • learning about world and local history
  • exposure to and celebration of cultures world wide
  • acknowledging and celebrating our family history: culturally, with stories from our families, reminiscing about both our (parents’) childhood and the girls’ baby and childhood, thinking about how world events have shaped our family, enjoying photographs of our family, celebrating family milestones
  • acknowledging and celebrating the seasons, holidays, saints days, feast days
  • reading great literature
  • striving to be a good example
  • cultivating my own continued learning
  • enjoying the company of my children and husband
  • cultivating an atmosphere of joy and wonder

Creating opportunities for connection:

The most fruitful connections are the ones we make ourselves: between ideas or between people. We cannot make good connections without taking care of our bodies and minds, or allowing space for those connections to be made. Some ideas:

  • enjoying the company of friends and family
  • cultivating loving relationships between siblings
  • ensuring that the greatest portion of ideas and images that they are exposed to honor truth and goodness
  • allowing plenty of rest time during the days/weeks
  • protecting good sleep habits
  • learning about how to take care of our bodies nutritionally and physically
  • learning good manners
  • cultivating a spirit of service
  • encouraging repetition in the recitation, listening, reading of great works

I am sure there are so many things that I am leaving out; these are just a few examples of how I tie subject matter to larger priorities. Looking above, I can see several more traditional subjects represented: reading, writing, arithmetic, elocution, natural history, history, social studies, literature, nutrition, health, physical education. But there are also some that are not traditionally covered that are important to me: virtue, faith, manners, family, creating a healthy lifestyle and healthy habits. As I brainstorm, more ideas about how to serve my overall goals and priorities become apparent to me, and as I have more ideas, my overall plan for daily living becomes more clear. I hope learning more about my process is useful to you! I’ll be back soon with more about my planning process.

Homeschool (un)planning, part one

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Two roads diverged in a (not so yellow) wood…

Everyone, it seems, is winding up school for the year, both public and private. We had our last school day on Thursday, and it was very much the way I remember public school last days: cleaning out our school baskets, putting away the math books, reorganizing the art supplies, making sure everything we wanted to save got into our binders. We even rearranged our main room (which serves as living room/family room/dining room/craft room/art room), so now everything feels different. I laugh a little bit because there is, in actuality, very little difference between our school year and our summer break, but there is definitely a shift in energy, and it’s nice to recognize that, and put an endcap on our more concentrated learning days.

I’ve been asked a lot about my homeschool planning process. I think it’s the part of homeschooling that stymies people the most, and is the most interesting as a homeschooler, to look at other peoples’ processes. In a lot of ways, I’m not a planner in the sense that other people are. I have no binder, no printouts, no spreadsheets, although I ogle other peoples’ just like everyone else (and I did just get a homeschool planner at the end of this year, I will talk about that soon!). There is just something so soothing about what is essentially a long set of checklists. But while I embrace the appeal, that is a process that has never really worked for me. I’m going to try and share with you what has.

If you read my last post about homeschooling, you will remember my (hard won) list of three priorities:

  • allow them to engage in meaningful work
  • cultivate a sense of belonging
  • give them opportunities to create connections

You will see that these priorities do not include subjects, benchmarks, or anything else I could reliably plan out in advance. They are by their very nature changeable and must be thought through with sensitivity to their individual application. I spend a lot of time questioning convention (such as it exists in homeschooling) and questioning myself about what is really important or necessary, and I measure against these priorities.

This is why I believe that the most important thing you can do as a homeschooler is to ask yourself the hardest question of all: who do you want your children to be as people when they leave your home, and what benchmarks will you use to measure your progress on the way? It is simple to hope your children are kind, loving, inquisitive…it is harder to imagine what you can do to help them on the path of kindness, love, curiosity. I want my children to be confident, to believe in their worth as humans and as contributors to this world, to feel connected to place and people, to be interested both in learning new things and the connection between ideas, to feel capable. I want them to recognize and appreciate beauty, to be able to participate in wonder. I want them to be equipped to live a simple life of peaceful joy.

This is the place you can begin, before you think about math curriculum or whether they need to learn a foreign language or how history should be taught. I realize this doesn’t sound like homeschool planning: at this point it sounds like life planning. But one of the benefits (and challenges) of homeschooling is that you can’t really separate the two, no matter how hard you try. Strengthening these underlying principles in your own heart helps you to be strong and confident, like a storybook mother. It helps you to stay peaceful and focused in the face of the temptation of every new curriculum or appealing Instagram photo or Pinterest pin. Your goals and priorities will be different ones from mine, but it helps to really think about it, talk it out with your husband, brew on it for a while. It has taken me several years to get here! And that’s ok too. Take your time. Take the long view. Look for the big picture. The little stuff will always be there. Give yourself the gift of muddling, puzzling, refining, changing your mind. The process of honing is equally as (maybe more) useful than making a Final Decision. 

Homeschool by heart

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I get a lot of questions about homeschooling, how we do it, what books/curriculum/ideology we use. Early on I very much identified with the Waldorf homeschooling movement; mostly because it rested on the same framework in which I believed most: warmth, rhythm, and natural playthings. For those of you who have known me since those Are So Happy years, you will remember my extensive posts there about warmth, rhythm, and natural playthings: they were my most popular posts in all the years I spent blogging there. I don’t think you need the crutch of Waldorf to cultivate a beautiful early childhood experience, but it can help when you are feeling alone and bewildered to have a little like-minded community, even if just online, and that was once a good way to find other people who could support you.

As the girls have gotten older, the intense need for that experience has shifted. Of course Molly is not quite out of that window yet, but her experience of early childhood is necessarily different from that of her sisters. As each year has come up and I enroll the girls one by one into “official homeschooling” with our local school district, I have alternately tried on many different homeschooling ideologies (Waldorf, classical, project-based, literature-based, Charlotte Mason, sometimes I think you could literally name anything and I’ve tried it) and had moments of terror in which I fear that I am failing them in every way. Vacillating wildly between a strict schedule and despair is exactly what I want to avoid; remember, I’m the world’s biggest advocate for the peace that comes from a regular rhythm. For many people, that sense of rhythm and calm comes from attaching to a specific method, and I admire that! I don’t really think that there is a better or worse way to do things. I trust that children can learn and thrive in every circumstance. However, I love Big Ideas and I hate being Told What To Do (I was a real joy in school myself, obviously), so eventually I had to let go of the black/white right/wrong of applying methods, and come to a place where the ideology of our homeschool was my own.

I came to the realization at some point that what children’s literature had taught me about mothering applied to homeschooling as well. Gentle guidance, trust in my children, doing my best, cultivating a spirit of warmth, all of these things give me strength and courage on this path. In the end, I have three goals in homeschooling, which is to say, lifeschooling:

  • allowing them to engage in meaningful work
  • cultivating a sense of belonging
  • giving them opportunities to create connections

If you know me at all, you know I could write volubly on each of those points, but I am making an effort make this post readable, so I will stop there for now.

I know that most people who ask me questions about homeschooling are looking for concrete answers, not theoretical ones, and I am happy to go more into specifics in future posts, but I wanted to start here with a little bit of my journey. The number one thing I wish I had understood when I signed Maya up for first grade four years ago was that I would not regret any of the choices I made, I would only regret my constant worrying over the choices that I made. If I could give advice to new (or seasoned!) homeschoolers, I would say: have faith. Cultivate your own confidence and your trust in your children. Take your time. Love one another! An atmosphere of joy and camaraderie goes a long way.