homeschool philosophy

Looking Back on a Decade-Plus of Homeschool Life

Our resident Book Nerd is on vacation this week, so while she racks up points for a special double-edition of Library Chicken, we're reprinting one of our favorite Suzanne columns.

Looking Back on a Decade-Plus of Homeschool Life

I can tell you exactly when I decided to homeschool. Kid No. 1 was nearly three, Kid No. 2 was an infant, and Kids No. 3 and No. 4 were years away. I was sitting on my bed next to my husband, reading my way through a stack of library books— not unusual, except in this case, the stack consisted of every single homeschooling book my local library had available. About halfway through the stack I turned to my husband and said, “I think we can do this.” I believe his response was a dubious “Hmmm.”

That was over 10 years ago, and if you ask me why I choose to homeschool, I can give you a decade’s worth of reasons. Initially, it just sounded like a whole lot of fun. I loved school and was a fairly accomplished nerd in my day, so the idea of doing school with my kids (of whom I am also rather fond) seemed pretty great. Academically, it turns out that the one-on-one of homeschooling is such an efficient way to teach that we could take Fridays off and still keep up with what was being taught in our local schools, even as we watched our school-friends deal with bullies, school bureaucracy, and the occasional lousy teacher. I believe that homeschooling supports family relationships and creates life-long learners, and we’ve chosen this course with great care and thought.

Of course, if you ask my kids why we homeschool—and people have—they will tell you that it’s because “Mom likes to sleep in and wear pajamas all day.”

Now, as it happens, this is also true. Which I think illustrates something important about homeschooling: it’s not just an educational choice, it’s a lifestyle choice. I thought I knew this going in. I pictured my kids’ educational journey as just that, a road trip, where instead of taking the interstates like most other folks, we had decided to take the back roads, enjoying the scenery and confounding the GPS.

We’re still on a journey, but it’s not enough to say that we’re driving the back roads. I think we’ve left the car behind and are doing something radically different— more like taking a trip in a hot air balloon, with an entirely different view of the scenery.

But I’ve since realized that metaphor doesn’t go far enough. Once I decided that ‘school’ didn’t have to look anything like the model I grew up with, I also started thinking about happiness, and success, and what I really wanted for myself and my husband and my children as we grow up together. We’re still on a journey, but it’s not enough to say that we’re driving the back roads. I think we’ve left the car behind and are doing something radically different— more like taking a trip in a hot air balloon, with an entirely different view of the scenery.

I didn’t quite know that’s what I was signing up for, halfway through the stack of library books, and it can get a bit nerve-wracking up there at times, but I have learned a few things I can share with my fellow balloonists.

Be flexible. You’re in charge up there, but you’re not in control. Health, financial, or other family issues may mean that the best choice for your family today is not the same as it was last year, or even last week. Give yourself permission to change course.

Keep your destination in mind. Whether you’re planning to homeschool for a year, until college, or for as long as it works, at some point your child will have to deal with the more traditional expectations of the rest of the world. This can be a rocky transition, but there’s a lot you can do to prepare and make it easier.

Teach the kids how to steer. When it’s appropriate—and as often as possible—let them make the decisions about where to go next. And, of course, enjoy the ride. Skip math and grammar and spend the day in bed with the kids and Harry Potter. Take a family trip when everyone else is in school. And definitely, always, wear the pajamas. 


Best of HSL: Our Favorite Advice for Homeschooling High School

Best of HSL: Our Favorite Advice for Homeschooling High School

Expensive doesn’t mean better, but some things are worth paying more for. Do your research before you commit your resources.

Take lots of pictures. You may not run into as many obvious photo opps as you did during the early years, but you will treasures photos of your high schooler at work. 

Don’t feel like a failure if your teenager decides to try traditional school. Giving him the freedom to come to that decision on his own totally counts as success.

Keep quarterly records of classes and reading lists.

Let her stay up late. Let her sleep in.

Travel as much as you can, as many places as you can. 

You will realize sometime during your child’s senior year that you left a hole somewhere in his education. Let it go. Everyone’s education has some holes.

Take your time. The worst thing that can happen is that your child graduates later than his public school peers. That’s not so bad.

Sign up for a community college class, just to get a feel for what it’s like.

Stick to what has worked. Don’t feel like you have to break out hardcore curricula or make your daily work time serious business just because your child hits high school. 

Give your teen freedom to set his own goals and schedules. Let him mess up.

Make everyday activities, like budgeting for groceries or doing laundry, part of your curriculum. Your teen will thank you later.

Plan like your teen will be going to college. Expect that he might decide to do something else. You’ll cover your bases and minimize senior year stress.

Do not stop taking field trips and baking cookies together.

Give lots of feedback. Your high schooler needs to know how her work measures up. 

Don’t panic. Yes, suddenly it seems like there is so much to do and so little time. There will be even less time in six months when you realize you just spend the last half-year freaking out.

Take a few SAT prep tests. Don’t take an SAT prep class unless your teen is applying to a super-competitive school.

Invest in what your child cares about most. If that means scavenging free math curricula and grammar lessons to pay for drama lessons, that’s okay.

Do not get so caught up in the this-should-be-on-your-transcript checklist that you suck all the fun out of homeschool.

Keep quarterly records of classes and reading lists.

Find a way for your child to do real labs. Even if she’s not a science person.

Visit lots of colleges.

See as many concerts, plays, ballets, poetry readings, films, and other performances as you can.

Plan ahead for timing-matters issues, like college applications and driver’s license testing.

Make plenty of one-on-one dates with your teen. These years fly by so quickly, and you’ll be glad you made the time when she’s not living at home anymore.

Help your child define what a successful high school experience for her would be. Then help her find ways to achieve it.

Talk seriously about technology and social media. Give your teen freedom to find her way and information to guide her.

Bask in your own glory. You did it. And you did great. 

 

This list is adapted from a feature in the summer 2015 issue of HSL.


Related Posts

Best of HSL: Our Favorite Advice for Homeschooling the Middle Grades

Best of HSL: Our Favorite Advice for Homeschooling the Middle Grades

Between 5th grade and high school, your child will discover her passions and her own voice.

Provide plenty of physical outlets for your child’s energy. Organized teams, private lessons, or even a new bike can help set tweens on a healthy route toward adulthood.

Give your child plenty of freedom now so that he can learn to use it responsibly. Now is a good time to make mistakes.

Give your child lots of opportunities to express himself. Write papers, make movies, create petitions.

Set deadlines and goal without serious consequences. These are the years to teach your child how to follow through on a project or assignment, but you don’t want to create homeschool stress by setting the stakes too high.

Some days, your child will act like a toddler. Some days, he will act like he’s in college. This is normal.

Your child is navigating big emotional changes. Try not to take it personally.

Schedule plenty of time for hanging out with friends. Kids this age care about social relationships more than almost anything else.

Let your child set up and decorate her learning space however she wants.

Plan lots of hands-on projects and activities.

Take dance breaks.

Travel whenever you can, wherever you can.

Make rules together. Talk about them. Enforce them. 

Try lots of different activities. See which ones stick. 

Keep reading together.

Make time for volunteer work.

Be as patient with yourself as you are with your child — and vice versa.

Explore other options, like charter schools or private school, to see what they offer. You can borrow some of their good ideas.

Take more field trips. By high school, scheduling will be a challenge.

Focus on teaching your child how to learn, not on teaching her a set of facts to memorize.

You will have bad days. Move past them.

Take some personality tests — such as the Myers-Briggs test or an emotional intelligence test — together, and compare your results. Use the opportunity to get to know each other and the best ways to work together.

Keep a reading log. Looking back at it will remind you that you really are doing a good job.

Resist the urge to compare your kid’s progress to anyone else’s.

Listen to your child’s favorite music in the car.

Take the day off sometimes, just because you can. 

Hug your child every chance you get. These years will fly by. 􏰅

 

This list is adapted from a feature in the summer 2015 issue of HSL.


Best of HSL: Our Favorite Advice for Homeschooling the Early Grades

Best of HSL: Our Favorite Advice for Homeschooling the Early Grades

From kindergarten through 5th grade, your goal is to instill basic skills and cultivate a love of learning.

A schedule is great, but don’t tie yourself down. Some of the best homeschool adventures happen spontaneously.

Play outside. A lot.

Read books. Kids can learn math, history, science, philosophy, grammar, and everything else from stories — and some of those lessons go down a lot easier than they would with workbooks and bubble tests.

Keep a homeschool joy journal. The time flies by, and your memories of hatching butterflies and visiting Cherokee pow-wows will start to fade.

Let your child take some tests. Don’t make them a big deal. Don’t even grade them if you don’t want to. But give him the experience of sitting down to communicate his knowledge

It’s okay to stop doing it if it’s not fun. You can always come back to it later.

Find a library system that works for you fast, or you’re going to be paying a lot of fines down the road.

Don’t spend a lot of money on curriculum items for the future. You will change your mind at least a dozen times about what you want to do before then.

Take every field trip you can. Making time for field trips gets harder as kids get older.

Forget grade level. It’s okay if your 2nd-grader isn’t ready to read or if your kindergartner is reading 4th-grade books. Don’t pin yourself down with a preconceived list of things your child needs to learn at a certain time.

Make me-time. It’s essential to your wellbeing. 

You will screw up sometimes. It’s okay. Be nice to yourself about it.

Play audiobooks in the car. 

Pay attention to what your child enjoys. There’s a good chance that the activities she engages in with the most enthusiasm are indicators of her natural learning style.

You will sometimes waver between feeling like you are doing way too much and like you are not doing enough. You are probably doing just the right amount.

Buy more pencils than you think you need.

Don’t be afraid of screen time. Documentaries, interactive games, and even Phineas and Ferb can be learning opportunities.

Once in a while, take a day off for no reason.

Buy more bookcases.

Accept that you will sometimes succumb to the midwinter blues, when everything about homeschooling makes you feel tired, depressed, and unsuccessful. Promise yourself to take time off and not make any big decisions till the daffodils bloom.

Incorporate housework into your daily routine. Your kids can help. Your kids should help.

Resist the urge to move on to the next thing if your child is in love with a particular subject or activity. You don’t need to rush.

Some day, you may have to push through difficult subjects until both you and your child are reduced to tears. That day is not today. There is no need to force a piece of learning at this stage.

Write down your child’s stories and poems. You will forget them, even though it seems impossible that you could ever forget a poem about a renegade cat with a band of angry inkblots.

Some days, your children will be annoying. Some days, you might not like them much. That’s okay. Tomorrow will probably be better.

Remind yourself that homeschooling is a lifestyle, not just an educational plan.

Your child will amaze you. Pack tissues. 􏰅    

 

This list is adapted from a feature in the summer 2015 issue of HSL.


Growing Curiosity

Homeschooling is a lot like gardening -- you plant a lot of seeds and practice patience while you wait for them to bloom. Love this!

“How you do one thing is how you do everything,” I read on the back of a shirt. The quote has been running through my mind all summer as I’ve been inventorying my life thus far, a process inspired by turning forty and having a child graduate from high school. Milestones have a way of tripping me up and making me look backwards to see what I tripped over.

The quote rings most true when I sit on my back porch and contemplate my garden. How I garden is how I do everything. I plant seeds, add water, and hope for the best. Last May we relocated our garden to a different part of our yard, built a fence around it to keep the dog out, and constructed several low and long garden boxes. My husband installed an automatic sprinkler system, and I planted a variety of seeds and seedlings.

For the first few weeks of summer, I’d go out every morning and check how many seeds had sprouted and how much taller the tomatoes had grown inside their cages. Then I started to notice seeds I hadn’t planted sprouting in between the garden boxes. Some I recognized as edible - purslane, tomatillos, borage, squash - so I left them to grow rather than weeding my rows.

By mid summer, my garden was a jungle. The raised beds were no longer visible. The tomatillos grew taller than me and competed with the cucumbers for vertical growing space on the trellis. The purslane made it impossible to walk between garden boxes, and the borage grew so bushy that I had to hang on to the fence to edge around it, careful not to disturb the dozens of bees buzzing among the purple blossoms. The single zucchini seedling I planted crowded out the bush beans, which in turn grew at an angle, seeking sunlight, and crowded out the beets. The beets didn’t stand a chance when the lettuce in front of them bolted during a particularly hot week in July.

All of this is to say the way I garden is the way I homeschooled. I planted seeds, added plenty of supplies, space and time, and hoped for the best. Some of the curriculum I carefully selected was crowded out by interests discovered by my children, such as the state by state unit study I purchased online which they rejected in favor of collecting commemorative state quarters to fill up a coin collector’s map of the United States.

Some topics popped up out of nowhere and grew with us for years, like the Percy Jackson book we listened to on a road trip which inspired a deeper study of Greek mythology, culture and language. Our interest in geology began similarly, with a single unusual rock found on a walk along the railroad tracks, a discovery which prompted us to collect and study a stack of books about rocks and minerals, go on field trips to mines and rock shops, and spend countless hours rock hunting to amass a large collection of unusual rocks.  

My daughter texted me while on break during her first college math class to say, “I finally understand scientific notation!” A seed planted years ago had finally sprouted.

Other topics grew steadily, occupying exactly the space we had allotted, never overshadowing other topics, but occasionally surprising us with growth spurts, like the math curriculum we tended to every day, which grew into a solid foundation for my children to advance their math skills when they transitioned into traditional school. My daughter texted me while on break during her first college math class to say, “I finally understand scientific notation!” A seed planted years ago had finally sprouted.

It’s now late summer. As I survey my garden I see ten foot tall sunflowers so heavy with seeds that they’re bent over, their tired blossoms touching the ground. The yellowing cucumber vines have conceded to the tomatillos, which are bursting from their chartreuse green, paper like wrappers. The tomatoes are so overgrown I can no longer see the metal cages which once dwarfed them. It’s time to harvest the fruit, save a few seeds for next summer, and start planning and planting our winter garden.

It’s also time to sort through the cabinet full of homeschool curriculum my children have outgrown; recycle the math notebooks, keep a few samples of writing for posterity, and pass along the state by state curriculum, never used, to another homeschooling family. Perhaps I’ll pop the coins out of our state quarter map and pass the map on as well, see which one sprouts interest in their children. It will be like sharing seeds with fellow gardeners, who, like me, grow curiosity.


How to NOT Teach Your Kids Shakespeare (But Do Something Else Really Important Instead)

When your child's passions take you somewhere you'd never go on your own, wonderful things can happen. Love this! #homeschool

This spring a fellow homeschooling mom I know mentioned a book she was planning to use with her family, Ken Ludwig’s How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare. Ludwig, an award-winning playwright and Shakespeare aficionado, believes that the best way to truly appreciate Shakespeare is to memorize passages from his plays and poetry, so he’s selected a wide range of kid-friendly Shakespeare passages and laid out a step-by-step method for breaking the passages into manageable bits. 

As a literature geek, I was immediately salivating at the thought of sharing Shakespeare this way with my son, who’s thirteen, and my daughter, ten. I knew it might be a stretch for us: my kids tend to be stubborn autodidacts who resist any activity that casts me in a “teacherish” role. But they’ve also enjoyed seeing outdoor Shakespeare performances in our local parks since they were little. I figured they might surprise me and agree that memorizing some Shakespeare together was just the thing our summer needed.

I broached the subject with the kids, pitching it as a way to get in the mood for the Shakespeare performances we’re planning to see this summer. They said “Uh, sure, I guess” in the lukewarm, shifty-eyed way they say yes when they don’t want to rain on my parade but are clearly hoping I’ll forget the whole thing.

Still convinced that they’d get sold on the project once we started rocking our mad Shakespeare skills, I set aside some Shakespeare time on our calendar. Week after week, something always got in the way of us taking a crack at Shakespeare. It was time to face facts: My kids really didn’t want to memorize Shakespeare with me.

They said “Uh, sure, I guess” in the lukewarm, shifty-eyed way they say yes when they don’t want to rain on my parade but are clearly hoping I’ll forget the whole thing.

I like to make the most efficient use of my mama-energy, and what I’ve found is that I just don’t get a very good return on my effort when I push a project that neither kid is enthusiastic about. On the other hand, I’ve seen many times how powerful the results can be when I back off on my agenda and follow the kids’ interests instead. The learning is deeper and longer-lasting. There’s a flow and an energy that just isn’t there when I force things.

So I put aside my Shakespeare dreams, at least for now, and asked myself the million-dollar question: what had my kids actually been saying they wanted to do this summer? That’s when it struck me: the big thing that my daughter had been saying for months is that she wanted to redecorate her room.

This is a girl who loves design, who constructs dream houses for make-believe clients on Minecraft and revels in mid-century modern consignment stores, a girl who adores thinking about colors and patterns and how they interact. The thought of tackling a room redecorating project intimidated me, but I knew that following through on helping my girl create a new space for herself would mean a lot to her. 

Exit, stage right: Shakespeare memorizing scheme. Enter, stage left: room redo. 

Together, my daughter and I set a budget for our project. We slapped paint samples on her wall and changed our minds about a half-dozen times (we finally decided on Turquoise Twist, a gorgeous shade reminiscent of a robin’s egg). We checked out online painting tutorials and conferred with the friendly folks at our neighborhood hardware store. We applied painter’s tape to baseboards and wooden trim, sanded rough spots, scraped off remnants of stickers and Scotch tape. We calculated how much paint she’d need to get the job done. And finally—deep breath—we started painting. 

Neither of us had ever painted a room before. After swiping a paint roller across her wall for the first time, my daughter frowned and said, “Maybe we should hire someone to do the painting for us. I’m afraid it won’t look good if we do it ourselves.”

I couldn’t help wondering if she might be right, but I assured her that if we followed the painting pointers we’d studied and took our time, we could do a fine job. Maybe not as good as a professional, but good enough. I didn’t want her to miss out on the delicious feeling of competence that comes from trying something you want to do but fear you might not be able to do. (I also wanted to keep her project under-budget.) On this point, unlike memorizing Shakespeare, I was willing to push a little. 

We finished the painting a few days ago. It’s not perfect, but the overall effect makes my daughter really, really happy. I think the room means more to her because she was so involved in making it look the way it does. It’s her ideas and work, made tangible.

We’ve spent the last couple of days assembling a storage unit and a desk. There have been many times when we’ve realized we have a part oriented the wrong way and have to remove all our screws and start a step of the process over. We had to problem-solve with her dad when her desk drawers didn’t line up right. 

Instead of trying to be an authority who has all the answers, I get to learn with my kids and be surprised alongside them. In the process, I get to show my kids what learning looks like, in all its messy glory.

Thinking about all the times that she saw me messing up and starting over during this project, it struck me today that one of the very coolest things about doing this kind of a project with my daughter is that she got to see me being a rank beginner. She watched me looking up answers when I needed them and asking for help when I hit dead ends. She saw how I paced myself to get the job done, taking breaks when I needed them, getting my hands dirty and doing the work alongside her to help turn her daydreams into reality. 

In other words, I got to model being a learner right there in front of her eyes. For me, that opportunity to model lifelong learning is one of the most wonderful things about homeschooling. Instead of trying to be an authority who has all the answers, I get to learn with my kids and be surprised alongside them. In the process, I get to show my kids what learning looks like, in all its messy glory. That’s definitely a part of homeschooling I treasure—even if it means I often end up putting aside projects that sound really cool to me in favor of what most interests my kids.

Which brings me back to Shakespeare. If you and your family think Ken Ludwig’s Shakespeare book sounds fun and you decide to memorize some Shakespeare, could you please let me know? I’d love to hear how it goes and find out what you discover along the way!


Books about Education: Schools on Trial

Our schools should strip away every element that they are known for: grades, tests, compulsory classes, periods, bells, age segregation, and homework. And then we should craft institutions that are grounded in the attributes we want to see in citizens in our society and designed to foster critical thinking and lifelong learning.

Many homeschoolers, including myself, will not have trouble understanding the points Nikhil Goyal makes in his new book, Schools on Trial: How Freedom and Creativity Can Fix Our Educational Malpractice. Following in the footsteps of John Holt, John Taylor Gatto, Ivan Illich and others, Goyal believes that our current public school system is seriously flawed and wants to change it. 

In the beginning of the book, Goyal viciously attacks the current public school system, calling it a prison. It’s important to note that Goyal recently graduated from a well-ranked high school himself. This 20-year-old journalist seemed to have fared well despite his schooling: he was named as one of Forbes’ 30 under 30. Though extremely critical, he gives a reasoned and well-researched account for his views.

The best part of the book, however, is the extensive research Goyal did on alternative methods of education. He only briefly touches on homeschooling. Most of the book is about his visits to several private, democratic schools around the country. A democratic school is one in which the students have control over their education and voting rights when it comes to the administration of the school. He makes the case that public school should give kids more control over their education as well. In this book you’ll learn the philosophies of such schools as Tinkering School, Sudbury schools, Summerhill School, Philly Free School and more. 

This was extremely interesting to me. While I would not consider our style of homeschooling “unschooling,” I do rely on my children’s input when deciding what to put most of our efforts into. While I had heard of alternative schools, I didn’t know what democratic schools looked like, and it was inspiring to read how these schools operate. Seeing the good that they’re doing for students made me feel good about what I’m doing at home, and living in a culture that seems to value conformity more than the freedom to pursue intellectual interests, I don’t get that kind of reinforcement very often.

I found Goyal’s vision of setting up more community programs and investing in libraries and maker spaces a great idea. I think many homeschoolers are already utilizing many community resources, and I wholeheartedly agree that involving more of the community in educating our youth would be a win for everybody. But, of course, making this happen seems like an impossible task and Goyal understands what he’s up against. 

While I know there are unhappy parents and teachers out there trying to make a change, I don’t think enough people are unhappy enough to take a stand against the current state of our public schools.  Perhaps this is because they don’t understand the alternatives and that they can work. This is why Goyal’s book is invaluable.  While these schools may not hold all the answers to the problems our public school system faces—I think any school is hard pressed to help a child who doesn’t have a supportive, loving family at home—they do offer a new way of looking at things. So whether or not parents could afford to send their children to one of these schools (we couldn’t), every parent should at least be aware that there are alternatives and how they work. They may inspire parents to get involved with their local schools, or they may even inspire a new way of parenting (or homeschooling technique). 


Taking a Step Back to Embrace Change in Your Homeschool

Great homeschool inspiration read: Sometimes you need to take a step back to move forward. Love this essay. #homeschool

The jet lag is tough. Four days ago we flew home to Great Britain, after a long holiday in North America where we visited friends and family. We’ve unpacked the suitcases, thrown several loads of laundry into the washing machine, been to the supermarket, and are now trying to get back into the groove. Well, almost.

Taking a holiday has always been an opportunity for my family to reevaluate our rhythms and routines. Stepping away from our various projects and commitments, leaving behind the pile of homeschool books and resources, is a chance to think about what we want for our family. Usually we don’t discover new goals, we simply come back to our family’s core values. Time together. A love of learning. Curiosity. Discovery. Fresh air. A concern for nature and our fellow human beings. Helping others. Love.

It’s not so much that we stray from these values and need to come back them; more that I forget that they’re there, and they become buried beneath the making­-breakfast­-practice-­the­-piano­-where­-did­-you­-put­-my­-shoes­-ness of daily life. I like it that I get wrapped up in the everyday, because to me that means I am present to my family. On the other hand, I don’t want to lose sight of what we as a family believe because I want everything in our lives to draw us closer to our core values.

To that effect, I apply my mind every summer to thinking about what we do and how we do it. Do we still want to have family games night on a Wednesday? Do our agreements about screen time still make sense? What direction do our projects seem to be taking, and how could I tweak things to better support the children in their work? Are we socializing enough, or perhaps too much? And the question of questions: are we happy?

Family life changes over time: babies become children who learn to read. Those children become teenagers: all limbs and mobile phones. Husbands turn grey and take up home brewing. For me, life seems too busy and I find myself hatching plans for how I can retreat to my rocking chair with my crochet. It all sounds like a slightly skewed Norman Rockwell painting, but you get the point: what worked for my family last year may not ring true for us now. Though most of us hold in our heads the idea that things are static, in fact they are in a constant state of flux.

The idea is to embrace change. I work at seeing it as my friend. I ask myself what I can change to lead us toward a greater experience of happiness. I attempt to make those changes. Sometimes they work. Other times we go back to the way things were and chalk it up to experience. Change can be hard to swallow and for the change­-averse needs to be gradual and ever so gentle. But if the alternative is to be stuck in a rut, I know what I’d choose. Right now, we are figuring out where our ruts are.


The Wonder-Full World of Homeschooling

Love, love, love Wonder Farm and this gorgeous essay on what homeschooling/unschooling is really like.

I spent three different cafe writing sessions auditioning names for this column. I considered them while washing dishes and watering tiny kale plants in my backyard. I listed the best candidates on the idea file on my computer. Life Outside the Box. (Trying too hard to prove a point.) Learning What We Want. (Weird and too long, according to the 18-year-old.) Life Lessons. (For a homeschooling column? Cliché!)

The Wonder Files came up because I have a thing for the word wonder. Six years ago I named my blog Wonder Farm, and the word still hasn’t grown stale for me. Wonder is the stuff of homeschooling. The best homeschooling days are suffused with wonder—and the most challenging ones, well, they summon it.

Wonder can be a verb, as in: The four-year-old wonders if he can make a cake out of paper. Or: My son wonders why the Greek gods are always so irrational. Or: My daughter wonders what the women did while all those men killed each other on Civil War battlefields. Thoughts like those will take you places.

Wonder can be a noun: a surprise, a phenomenon, a state of amazement. It’s been interesting to see what my kids have embraced as personal wonders over the years. A few favorites: Greek myths, Pokemon, poetry, Broadway musicals, Marvel comics, historical fashion, Alfred Hitchcock, the Periodic Table, the American diet, the Duomo in Florence, the League of Legends video game.

Such wonders can derail a homeschooling day. How can we get to math when there’s a universe of Marvel villains to sort for a chart? When research on Broadway musicals leads to an impromptu mother/daughter sing-along? So we skip the math and hack our way down the kids’ wonder trails. We break out the glue guns. We watch YouTube videos. We dance around the kitchen.

Often these wonders have lasted months; many have gone on for years. They simply morph along with the kids. My two boys each grew out of their Pokemon fascination by the time they were nine, but both applied the game’s appeal of categorizing and sorting by power to subsequent interests, everything from the Periodic Table to military history. (A Roman centurion was more ranked than a munifex, Mama!) My daughter’s adoration of Shirley Hughes’ Rhymes for Annie Rose at three was the gateway to poetry slams and Franny and Zooey and witty rap music at seventeen.

You can build a homeschooling life around this sort of wonder. What starts as a wonder can lead to a calling.

Which is all well and glorious, these homeschooling days of wonder. But there are other days wracked with a whole different sort of wonder, particularly if you are a parent. Why can’t he write a paragraph by himself if school kids his age can? Should I push her to read instead of listening to audiobooks for hours on end? Do I really need to teach long division if it makes him throw things and his mental estimates come pretty close? Does watching back-to-back episodes of MythBusters count as science? Will he always do the least amount of work necessary to get what he wants? And does that prove that he’s lazy—or incredibly smart?

Maybe this isn’t the case for you. Lots of homeschoolers latch on to a particular style of homeschooling that manages to answer all the questions for them. You might find a philosophy that comes complete with online forums aimed at making clear what you should and should not do. That keeps your wondering at a gentle simmer. To you I say, Lucky duck! To the rest of you, who question the online forums, who question the philosophies, who question how to get your kid off that video game when it’s supposed to be homeschooling time, I say Join The Wondering Club.

Every time I assumed I’d nailed it down, daily life with the kids would raise new questions. Were we unschoolers? Not exactly. Were we school-at-homers? Not really. Did I assign work for the kids? Yes, at first. Then yes, sometimes. Then no, not usually. Then no. Then yes, sometimes. Depending.

After we’d homeschooled for a couple of years, I tried writing an essay on how we did it, on (insert deep and serious voice here) Our Homeschooling Philosophy. Every Wednesday night I went out to a cafe and worked on that essay—for a year and a half! I’d finally get a draft to start coming together, and I’d find myself unraveling it. That thing I was calling Our Homeschooling Philosophy kept wriggling away from me, just as I thought I’d captured it, exactly like our rabbit Rue does when she escapes into our neighbor’s backyard. Every time I assumed I’d nailed it down, daily life with the kids would raise new questions. Were we unschoolers? Not exactly. Were we school-at-homers? Not really. Did I assign work for the kids? Yes, at first. Then yes, sometimes. Then no, not usually. Then no. Then yes, sometimes. Depending.

I finally moved on to a different essay.

I began to notice that as soon as something worked in our homeschooling life, something else would change. The morning routine that rolled so well with a six and nine-year-old got knocked off-kilter when their baby brother was born. Leisurely days of homeschooling in fits and starts got compressed for afternoons of dance class and piano lessons. The reading that came so easily to one kid was a struggle for the next. The interest-driven learning approach that was a given for years suddenly seemed questionable when we had a high school-aged kid who would eventually need a transcript for college.

Wonder, wonder, wonder.

We’ve hit on some practices that have held fast for us over the years, regardless of kid or age: Having a regular time of working together most days. Making sure the kids like how they’re learning. Letting their interests be the pulsing heart of all we do.

But mostly, seventeen years into this homeschooling gig, I still wonder plenty. It doesn’t seem to matter that I have one kid who has just graduated from college and another starting in the fall (after childhoods of homeschooling and a mix of homeschooling/high school.) It’s just the twelve-year-old and me homeschooling these days; you’d think after all this time I’d have things figured out. Nope. Still wondering constantly. Why doesn’t this kid like making things like his siblings did? How could he possibly learn so much by simply reading, watching videos, and talking? Will he want to go to high school? Should I prepare him for that—or help him enjoy his learning freedom while he still has it?

Back when I was trying to write that homeschooling essay, all my wondering made me doubt myself. It made me feel confused, inexperienced, indecisive—not good qualities for someone taking on the responsibility of another person’s education. These days I’ve embraced the wondering. If I’d found a homeschooling philosophy that answered all the questions for me, I would have stopped asking questions. I would have stopped searching for cues in my kids. I might not have considered textbooks for some subjects—although they worked for my teenage son, who wanted lots of time for making movies, and also a high school transcript for his film school applications. If I’d known what we were going to do each day, my daughter might not have stumbled on her six-month project exploring how the American diet has changed over the past hundred years. If I’d found that elusive approach I’d sought—the one that would work beautifully day after day, year after year—there might not have been room for my youngest to research and build a complete periodic table of Marvel comic characters. And if I hadn’t continued questioning what learning means, I might not have recognized the depth of what he gleaned from a seems-sorta-silly project.

Maybe I’ve finally written that essay on our homeschooling philosophy, right here. I can sum it up in three words: wonder a lot.

I plan to do lots of wondering in this column. I don’t promise any answers—actually, I aspire to refrain from offering any. I’m hoping that my wondering here will prompt your own wondering, which will lead you toward your own answers.

At least until tomorrow rolls around and you start wondering all over again.


Patricia Zaballos writes about homeschooling and writing on her blog, Wonder Farm and in every issue of home/school/life. (You should subscribe just for her column. Trust me!) She is working on a book of essays. This column is reprinted from the summer 2014 issue.