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. 

Celebrating the feast of Pentecost

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Celebrating the feasts of the Church helps us to connect deeply to the spirit of the season, and helps us to grow spiritually. Remember, doing one thing with intention is better than pressuring yourself to do everything, and feeling distracted and anxious. Embrace the season in joy and peace!

Learn more about Pentecost:

Some simple ways to celebrate the feast with your family:

  • Attend liturgy
  • Bake a birthday cake for the Church and decorate it with a peony (also known as the Pentecost rose) and twelve pure beeswax candles to represent the the twelve apostles
  • Create some simple paper doves to decorate
  • Sing O Heavenly King at meals and in prayers
  • Wear green!
  • Listen to Chrissi Hart read The Feast of Pentecost
  • Talk about the gifts of the Holy Spirit that we received at baptism into the Church
  • Use beeswax candles instead of artificial lights
  • Wouldn’t it be pretty to wear flower crowns to liturgy? Even a very simple one with inexpensive baby’s breath or carnations would be lovely. With a little florist’s tape, ribbon, safety pins, and some cuttings from your yard, you could make sweet boutonnieres for your whole family.

This has traditionally been the time to bless the first fruits of harvest; a great way to acknowledge this is to make an effort to recognize the bounty of summer in your meals. Attend farmers’ markets, seek out opportunities to pick fruits locally.

I hope you have a blessed feast day!

 

Our week in books, week three

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Transparency: every book link you see below is linked to my Amazon Associates account. Thank you for the support!

Here’s what we’ve been reading this week. Kind of a light one, as we have been wrapping up school for the summer!

Me:

  • The Experience of God: I picked this one up on Lila’s recommendation and have not been disappointed. I stopped fairly soon in because I want to save it for my husband to read to me. He used to read to me every night, but somehow we lost steam during Bel Canto, neither one of us really wanted to finish it, we both felt so meh about it and that somehow extended into the read-aloud habit. So the habit has languished. This book from contributing editor of First Things is, I think, just the thing to resurrect it. So much to sink our mental teeth into here.
  • Switch: How to change things when change is hard: I am currently trying to change some bad habits (my summer project for reals) and so obviously I needed to read a book about changing habits first. This book posits that we are of two minds: the rational and the emotional. The rational mind wants to make the change, the emotional mind still feels the same way it always has. The trick is getting the emotional mind to support the rational one. Here’s hoping.
  • Original Mind: I picked this one up last year but got distracted by some other books. This happens more frequently than I would like to admit. I saw it lying about and was suddenly seized by a need to read it properly. The subtitle of this book is “uncovering your natural brilliance,” which must be something the publishers slapped on there to make it sound like a self-help book, but this isn’t a self-help book. In fact, this is a book that is very much in line with the books I list on my homeschool resources page: a book about how people learn and see the world. I may end up including this one on the list. In an alternate reality I am a brain/learning researcher. In my mind.

Still reading:

  • The Folded Clock: Okay, are you tired of hearing me talk about this book? As I started reading it, I thought, I want to write like this woman. Then, I think I could write like this! Then, I definitely can not ever write this well. Then, I ordered a journal. Then, I started sending texts of photos of pages from this book to people. Mere quoting was not enough. Last night I stayed up until 2am reading it. Now I have just a few pages left and I had to put it down, as I am getting worried that it will eventually be over. I hate to be the person who has read everything in the Amazon recommends list (frequently bought together: The Folded Clock, H is for Hawk, My Brilliant Friend!) but there it is, and I genuinely loved all three of those books and felt bereft when they were over, so thanks for making me feel predictable and middle aged, Amazon.

The girls mostly share/swap/read each others’ books (and the older girls definitely still read all the picture books), so I split their reads into chapter books and picture books. These are the free reading choices that have gotten the most love this week. The girls are currently aged 11 (Maya), 9 (Cassidy), 7 (Willa), and 5 (Molly). The younger two do not read on their own yet.

Chapter books:

  • Cast Off: Honestly, I know nothing about this book. My husband found it amongst the new books at the library, brought it home because: girl stowaway on ship in 1663. Maya read it in one night, then passed it on to Cassidy. I kind of love it without knowing much about it simply because the author is an etymological geek.
  • Redwall: I think they are actually reading both Redwall and Triss right now. The older girls have read every book in Brian Jacques’ series several times. They’ve inspired countless games, full-fledged characters, stories, maps…truly beloved. Side note: the audio versions are awesome. Also: these books will make you hungry.

Picture books:

  • The Magic Porridge Pot: We are great Galdone fans here, but this is a perennial favorite. “Enough, Little Pot, enough!” “No more, Little Pot, no more!” Giggles ensue.
  • The Little Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge: This reminds me so much of the beautiful Boats on the River. Originally published in 1942, it has the look and cadence of books by Marjorie Flack, or Margaret Wise Brown. It would be a lovely addition to the library of a little boat lover.
  • Frog and Toad all Year: I love Frog and Toad. The girls love Frog and Toad. They are just lovable. I’ve been pulling Frog and Toad back out recently because I think Willa is on the verge of reading, and these are nicely set up for early readers. No particular concession made besides having type that is large and has wide spaces between the lines, allowing eyes to move over the words more easily. In this same vein, I’ve recently pulled out our Little Bear books as well.
  • Fairy Tales for Mr. Barker: There are some books that turn fairy tales on their heads in a sarcastic, frankly disrespectful way. And then there are some that play with fairy tales in a fun, lighthearted way, and the Ahlbergs are masters of this. The illustrations, here, are just delightful, with lots for children to look at and a few little wink/nods for grownups, too.
  • The Quiet Noisy Book: Margaret Wise Brown was a genius, in my eyes. I consider each of her books to be a little treasure, a prose poem. I can’t even talk about Little Fur Family. I will, one day, probably cry over no longer being able to read that one aloud. I will probably one day start reading it to the cat. Though let’s be honest, I can recite it.
  • The Indispensable Calvin & Hobbes: Ah yes, the days have come for the reading of Calvin & Hobbes. Does this not scream summer to you?

Book that doesn’t fit in the above categories:

  • Cabinet of Curiosities: I just randomly ran into this on the shelves at the library. SCORE. There is information here about creating, even making your own cabinet, about the classification system, lots of great information about different things you might find and put in your cabinet. I can see this being a great option to spur a whole nature study program. It’s directed at middle-graders, FYI.

Commuting listening:

  • Winter Holiday: We skipped Peter Duck, which is okay, but probably our least favorite of the series. Ransome takes a flight of fancy with Peter Duck and all of what we love about the Swallows and Amazons books (resourceful, independent children doing things that could, if not actually, then in one’s imagination, be accessible to any child) flies out the window. Thankfully he picks the stream back up with Winter Holiday.
  • The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: I was against this book from the start, for no real reason. I mean, really, no reason at all. And I still find the series a little galling, as she keeps leaving Important Clues all over the place and there is no resolution to be found anywhere. I mean, wrap it up, woman. There are little sidetrails and random characters and not everything seems to be necessary or to add up. However, now that I have given you reasons not to like it, I will tell you that we have actually learned a lot from this series about poetry, Shakespeare, idioms, all sorts of things. This series made them beg to memorize William Blake’s Tyger and has been the source of so much great play with language. The protagonist is charming, and the weird howling language of the children grows on you. I promise. We are eagerly awaiting the release of the next book (we have listened to the entire series that is currently available). Of note: Katherine Kellgren took some getting used to for me (she is Very Enthusiastic and does All The Voices, I believe this is referred to as being a dynamic reader) but I’ve grown to just love her. And she does make the Incorrigibles quite endearing! I don’t know if I would have liked this book without her reading. She has won awards for her narration, so I think most people love her straight out of the gate.

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.

Our week in books, week two

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Transparency: every book link you see below is linked to my Amazon Associates account. Thank you for the support!

Here’s what we’ve been reading this week:

Me:

  • The Intelligent Gardener: As I have admitted, though I live in constant admiration of and in thanks to all of my farmer friends, the only garden I have is in my own mind. However, in my mind garden, I implement everything Steve Solomon says, because he is very convincing. Weirdly, I love all the chemical soil analysis stuff. I have the best mind garden ever.
  • Art of Simple Food II: I was so happy to accidentally stumble across this when I was buying Art of Simple Food for a wedding gift for some young friends of ours. This is the exact perfect time of year to have this book in hand, and makes me wish that my mind garden was food-producing (thank you God for CSAs).
  • Bare Bones Broth Cookbook: I love and am a huge advocate for healing and nourishing broths, and this cookbook is the best I have ever seen on the subject. All types are covered here, as well as some great variations of soups that can be made with them. I am so trying the pho recipe.
  • How Children Learn: A re-read, and an oldie, but a goodie. Holt says in the foreword: “All I am saying in this book can be summed up in two words–Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple–or more difficult. Difficult, because to trust children we must trust ourselves–and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.” You speak my language, Mr. Holt. Also the language of the best of all natives, if you catch my drift.

Still reading:

  • The Moonstone: Still loving it. Especially with the current rain we have happening, this is my comfort reading happy place. Well, this, or A.S. Byatt.
  • The Folded Clock: Expectations were low, as I didn’t really know what to expect. Return has been high. It’s like being able to binge-read a really great blog.

Eagerly awaiting:

  • How to be a Tudor: When I learned that the passionate historian Ruth Goodman had written a book, I might have actually squealed a little bit out loud. Not to worry, my children totally understood, not least because they have watched Tales from the Green Valley about fifty times.
  • Lord Peter: Remember that time when I couldn’t figure out why I had never read Dorothy Sayers? Well, say hello to my library holds list.
  • Those who leave and those who stay: It’s as if they are DARING me not to like it with these covers. I am at the point now where I am beginning to believe it’s some sort of postmodern commentary. I stopped reading The Story of a New Name, not once, but twice (if you’ve read it, you know what I mean here). Then it was due back at the library, so I sat down and rushed through the end of it. It rushes itself towards the end, if you know what I mean. And then there is the kind of cliffhanger in the last sentence that makes you wonder why they even bothered. This type of manipulation is not to be tolerated! So now I am waiting for my hold to come up on this one and slowly becoming resentful over that last sentence.

The girls mostly share/swap/read each others’ books, so I’m going to split their reads into chapter books and picture books. These are the free reading choices that have gotten the most love this week. The girls are currently aged 11 (Maya), 9 (Cassidy), 7 (Willa), and 5 (Molly). The younger two do not read on their own yet.

Chapter books:

  • Beyond the Pawpaw Trees: Another of our NYRB collection, Rob is reading this one to the younger girls at bedtime. The older girls have both loved it in turn, the sort of fantasy book that has just the right amount of adventure and whimsy for a seven-ish year old. A review compares it to Alice in Wonderland, but that book still creeps me out, and this one is lovely and charming. I can’t even link to Alice in Wonderland in good conscience.
  • The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow: Maya (and now Cassidy) went through a major Clyde Robert Bulla phase, and Allen French is sort of the older version of those. I recommend both authors for children who love historical fiction. My children really, really love historical fiction. Case in point: though I am not listing them here, Cassidy read another two Dear America books this week. I think many consider this book to be Allen French’s best, but Maya is indiscriminate in her affections for his works.
  • Stories for Nine-Year Olds: I adore these compilations put together by Sara and Stephen Corrins. There is one for under-fives, five year olds, on up through this one. They make especially good read-alouds for children who aren’t reading yet themselves, because there aren’t really any pictures gumming up the works. Each book is a selection of stories, folk tales, and myths that have the perfect appeal for their age range. I loved them so much over the years that I bought them, which is what you should do, because they are crazy cheap on Amazon.
  • A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys: Because apparently if you’ve read one adaptation of greek mythology, you have not read them all, not even a little bit, and you should definitely go on to read as many as you can get your hands on, according to my children. Who all by themselves decided Riordan was distasteful, thank you God.
  • The Outcasts: Brotherband Chronicles #1: It appears that Maya is having a semi-Viking themed moment here. She picked this up at the library and read a bit there, then asked if she could bring it home. She was quick to point out that the cover does not match the contents (oh she knows me so well). I had no clue what these were about, and all I have discovered so far is that they are semi-Viking-ish, that they were originally released in Australia, that they have been recommended for readers who like Lord of the Rings (guilty as charged in Maya’s case), and that she hasn’t stopped reading it since she picked it up.
  • Greek Myths: See above. Though I have to especially recommend this version, which I find comparable to this beautiful and engaging Odyssey.

Picture books:

  • Rapunzel: I am always on the lookout for fairy tales that are beautifully illustrated and not ruined by revison. I feel like I should add a disclaimer here and note that the girls all heard these tales first out of our big, fat, picture-free Grimm’s, or from other similar compilations like the Fairy books, and I do still believe that is the best way to introduce them. However, there are some lovely, sensitive, truly beautiful fairy tale picture books out there. This is one.
  • Sindbad: This is the book pictured in the interior shot above. I know you want to read it now, how could you not? Imagine what it would be like if Barbara Cooney had a fever, and then illustrated an Arabian pirate book. Winning.
  • Snow White: Story taken straight from Grimm, but the illustrations are extraordinary, and the dwarves look like real-life little people, which makes me strangely happy.
  • The Princess and the Lord of Night: The copy on this does not sound promising, but rather priggish and stuff it in your face moralizing. Let me assure you, it is neither of those things. I was surprised to find it wasn’t an old folk tale after all.
  • Atlas of Adventures: I am guessing when you buy things through your own Amazon associates link, they don’t give you credit for it. I thought maybe we really did need it, after all. I am very convincing. Turns out I’m right.

Commuting listening:

  • Swallowdale: Well, we finished Princess and Curdie (I could have listened forever, we all loved it so much), and we are back to a re-listen of Swallowdale, book two of Swallows and Amazons and pretty much the best pre-summer camp listen ever. S&A books go with summer like peanut butter goes with chocolate. Is there a way to squeeze Alison Larkin and Arthur Ransome in that belongs-together simile? Because that is also true.

Everything I know about mothering I learned from children’s literature

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Transparency: every book link you see below is linked to my Amazon Associates account. Thank you for the support!

Everything I’ve learned about being a mother comes from children’s literature. Take the best of all natives, Mrs. Walker: her unflappable cheer, her willingness to take part in their games without taking over their games, her breadth of understanding and love for each of her children individually, her emotional sensitivity, her willingness to hand over important responsibilities to her children, her ability to tell stories about her own childhood.

Or how about Dickens’ mother? She is so poor she can’t afford three square meals a day for her children, yet her house is the most emotionally warm, charming, and clean, and the one everyone wishes to be in. When she has a little extra money, she buys a jump rope for a child she doesn’t know, but believes to be spiritually and physically ailing. She holds firmly in the belief that being outdoors as much as you can will bring health and vigor.

Who could forget Marmee’s gentle guidance, unwavering devotion, and selfless example? 

Trusting your children with important responsibilities and with entertaining themselves is a common theme: The Railway Children, Milly Molly Mandy, Noisy Village, included with the books above. I’m sure there are many others in this vein, but these are the ones I know and love the best.

In the Railway Children the mother must endure the hardship of making ends meet, and earning money, while her husband is falsely imprisoned. Though she is clearly saddened, she does not despair, but sets to work doing her best.

The gifts given in these books are of a pleasingly practical nature. What joy when Milly Molly Mandy’s little attic room is revealed, or likewise, Lisa’s Noisy Village bedroom, away from her pestering brothers. The utter thrill over torches and a pocketknife in Swallows and Amazons! The heartfelt devotion over Marmie’s gift of the “little books” that lead the girls on a path of righteousness!

The mothers in these books are unfailingly kind, loving, perceptive, trusting. They believe in wholesome foods and the wholesomeness of being outdoors, and that children are interesting, capable beings, always striving to be better people. They bestow affection, calm, confidence. 

Everything good I know about mothering, I learned from children’s literature. My greatest hope is that my tombstone reads: “Best of all natives”.

Celebrating the feast of Ascension

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Ascension, one of the 12 Great Feasts of the Orthodox calendar year, occurs 40 days after Pascha. “While they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.” (Acts, 1:9)

We see the repetition of forty throughout the Bible: forty is a number of completion, of fulfillment. Thus forty days after Pascha we see the fulfillment of Jesus’ life here on earth, His ascension into heaven. This is such an important event, we even hear about it in the Creed. “(He) ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father…”

The ascension of Christ is not only the fulfillment of His physical life, but a promise of our own ascension to “sit at the right hand of the Father.” We also see a foreshadowing of the feast of Pentecost, when He tells His disciples that He will send the Holy Spirit to guide them. This is reflected in the prayers in liturgy and also in our personal prayers; during the 40 days between Pascha and Ascension, we replace the “Heavenly King” prayers with “Christ is risen”; after Ascension, we no longer include “Christ is risen”, but we also do not include the “Heavenly King” until after the Holy Spirit has descended on Pentecost.

Christ has Ascended! Truly He has Ascended!

Some simple ways to celebrate the feast with your family:

  • Attend liturgy
  • Bake a cloud-like and delicious pavlova! I use this recipe (use the leftover yolks in an egg custard; they keep well in the fridge, so go ahead and double it)
  • Go cloud-watching or kite flying
  • Release sky lanterns (I have always wanted to do this, but they are actually illegal in Oregon, so be sure to check with local ordinances)
  • Refresh your icon corner with a bouquet of white flowers
  • Wear white, or your special Pascha clothes
  • Listen to Chrissi Hart read The Ascension of Our Lord

I think this is also a nice time for moms to consider how we are taking care of our physical bodies. Christ could have ascended to heaven spiritually, but chose to ascend in his physical body. We are created in the image of Christ! We strive to ascend spiritually, but also need to give energy to taking care of our bodies in a way that lifts us up. Taking vitamins, eating wholesome foods, taking care over bathing and dressing; we can use our self-care to glorify God.

Continuing with the theme of taking care of our physical bodies, it’s also a good time to think about putting together a summer first aid kit that you can carry with you on your summer adventures. I’ll share more about what we pack in ours in another post! 

In the Northern Hemisphere, it is nearly time for summer solstice, and as our Lord ascends to heaven, so the days become longer, the energy more expansive. The sun rises in the sky, giving light and heat, causing all things to grow. I’m meditating on the light of the risen Christ, how my heart can ascend, Christ-like, to the Father, and on how I can embrace the growth and joy of the season. 

I hope you have a blessed feast day!