life learning

We the People: A Community Model for Exploring the U.S. Constitution

We the People: A Community Model for Exploring the U.S. Constitution 

One of the more rewarding learning experiences I’ve had with my 14-year-old son this year has been participating in We the People MN, a series of community teach-ins about the Constitution held at Solomon’s Porch, a Minneapolis gathering space housed in a former church. Run completely by volunteers, We the People MN bills itself as “A Community Conversation to Understand the U.S. Constitution.” I wanted to share a little about our family’s experience with the series in the hope of inspiring other programs like it across the country.

The idea for the series came from Cara Letofsky, a South Minneapolis resident who posted on her neighborhood Facebook group that the 2016 election made her want to learn more about the Constitution. About 60 people responded that they shared that desire to come together as a community to educate themselves politically. A small group of about ten volunteers followed up to plan the series, deciding what amendments they especially wanted to learn about and collaborating to identify community experts who might be willing to tackle leading a discussion of particular amendments. Working their community connections, they lined up a group of highly qualified presenters willing to volunteer their time, including a law professor from a local university, a Minneapolis city council member, attorneys, law students, and organizers from groups that are deeply involved in such contentious Constitutional issues as gun control laws, the right to vote, and reproductive rights.

The organizing committee decided on a format of 10 two-hour presentations, spaced out every two weeks from mid-January 2017 to late April 2017. The first program was a kick-off potluck (because everything always goes better with good food) and a public reading of the entire Constitution, with participants taking turns reading sections aloud at the mic. The organizers also distributed free pocket copies of the Constitution, donated by one of the organizers, Constitutional law professor Matt Filner. Finding free or cheap pocket Constitutions isn’t difficult, luckily. The National Center for Constitutional Studies, for instance, offers a bulk purchase of 100 pocket Constitutions for $40 on their website.

Cara Letofksy, the woman who’d sparked the idea, expected perhaps 20 people to show up to the first presentation. To her surprise, over 80 people attended that first event, and attendance has usually averaged between 100 to 150 participants at subsequent events.

In their initial planning discussions, the organizers knew they couldn’t cover the entire Constitution, so they decided to focus on Constitutional rights that might be most directly challenged under a Trump administration. Other communities might want to choose a different focus, such as looking at ways the Constitution directly impacts local issues and controversies.

The We the People MN series has covered such issues as the branches of government and separation of powers, as well as the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of expression and assembly and the Second Amendment’s guarantee of the right to bear arms (as well as the limitations implied by the wording of the amendment). One program was devoted to the right to privacy (and the limits on our privacy). Another event focused on the Fifth, Sixth, and Thirteenth Amendments and their relevance to criminal justice today. The series’ last presentation on the amendments will look at the right to vote guaranteed by the Fifteenth, Nineteenth, and Twenty-Fourth Amendments—and how that right to vote is being steadily eroded today. The series’ last gathering, planned for the 100th day of the Trump administration, will feature a community potluck and “next steps” discussion.

Each event has included a “TED”-style talk by an expert to set the stage for further discussion, followed by time for participants to talk in small groups and share their thoughts and bring up questions for the expert presenter. Almost every presentation has also included brief talks by local activists working in some way on problems raised by ongoing Constitutional debates. Often, these activists have given participants in the programs concrete ideas about how to get involved. For instance, at the event devoted to Second Amendment issues, a presenter from the group Protect Minnesota passed out factsheets about upcoming gun legislation and tips for creating effective talking points. The group highlighted that the most effective advocates usually find a way articulate their personal connections to proposed legislation.

Each presenter also typically sends out readings ahead of time through the We the People MN Facebook page for participants who want to take a deeper dive into topics, though the readings aren’t required to understand the presentations. The readings have ranged from excerpts from the Federalist Papers to summaries of key Supreme Court cases to up-to-the-minute news articles about contemporary Constitutional controversies.

For my son and me, attending these events has been a bonding, highly relevant way to study civics together. Throughout our week, we often find ourselves still talking about what we learned at the most recent We the People presentation. The series has given us new tools for understanding how the Constitution relates to our everyday lives and the lives of those around us.

I’ve also found the series personally helpful as I’ve stepped up my own game as a citizen this year. I’m calling my legislators and attending more public hearings, meetings, and protests than ever (and when I can, hauling my son along with me). Studying the Constitution in this way has given my son and me a clearer sense of what people fighting for change are up against and how we as citizens can make the best use of our time and people power.

Above all, I love that my son has seen people of all ages and backgrounds getting together every other Sunday afternoon to educate ourselves about our Constitution. To me, that’s been such a powerful example of lifelong learning and civic engagement, one I hope will stick with him the rest of his life. I think another crucial piece of the whole experience has been learning from people who are actively involved in the conversation about how to define our Constitutional rights and who are fighting to preserve those rights.

The volunteers who set up We the People MN are hoping to export the model elsewhere. They have plans to create a curriculum to help other people set up their own series, ones that will be relevant to their local communities. If you’d like to learn more, see videos of the presentations, and keep apprised of curriculum developments, you can visit the group’s public Facebook page.


52 Weeks of Happier Homeschooling Week 2: Learn Something New

52 Weeks of Happier Homeschooling Week 2: Learn Something New

One of my favorite things about homeschooling is the way that learning becomes a core family value—not just for the kids but for the parents, too. Curiosity becomes a way of life—and if you’re not nurturing your own curiosity, you’re missing out on one of the great pleasures of homeschool life.

Maybe you’ve always wanted to understand opera, or learn Spanish, or write that novel. Maybe you’d like to learn how to knit socks or improve your mathematical thinking. Maybe you wish you could take better photos or just indulge your interest in the history of video games. Whatever piques your interest, there’s never been a better time to be curious: Self-paced online classes make it easy to pursue what interests you, even if you’re still dreaming of getting 10 minutes of actual peace and privacy to use the bathroom. If you can cobble together a couple of hours a week, you can be happily on your way to learning something that interests you. And yes, that does make you a lovely life learning model for your kids, but more than that, it makes you a person who knows how to make her own interests a priority.

Your challenge this week: Choose your own learning adventure for this year, and commit to making the time to pursue your personal life learning goal each week. 


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!


Getting the Education I Didn't Know I Craved

How homeschooling my kids is giving me the education I wish I'd had

We often write about the cool things our kids are doing as they receive a home education — an education fueled by their passions and interests yet curated by the adults who know them best.  As a parent who loves learning, I have my own ideas for what makes a great education, so while I give my children's interests a priority, I do not "unschool."

Perhaps part of the reason I don't unschool is a bit selfish. Not only are there topics (besides reading and math) that I believe every student should have a basic knowledge of — history, world religion, a foreign language, and art, just to name a few — but I want to learn more about these important topics, too. In my traditional public school education, I only skimmed the surface of some of these subjects, and others were not part of a traditional school curriculum. Now that I’m homeschooling my kids, I can give them the education I think they should have, and I can benefit from it, too.  

I should note, however, that if I introduce a topic to my kids, and they moan and groan, we just skim it too. I'm not going torture them. But I feel as we link these bits together, it will someday complete a strong chain of knowledge that will enhance their lives and personal endeavors, and they may come back to it at a later date.

There are also times I introduce something to my kids, and they want more, so we dive in! This happened when I introduced space exploration and weather science to my eldest son when he was little. We have the time and flexibility to spend as much or as little time as we want on a subject, which I treasure about homeschooling.

Whether or not my kids want to learn more about a subject, I have learned that I can have my own projects! Even if they don't join me, I can keep reading, exploring, and creating. In fact, this is a crucial part of homeschooling... I should be modeling the behavior I want them to have, right? This has been a very liberating aspect of home education that I didn't realize would happen when I started.

Perhaps even more delightful are the subjects that my children have brought me to. In them, I have found some of my passions. I think these passions were always there, but they were not fully realized. My sons were the keys who opened these doors for me.

Whether or not my kids want to learn more about a subject, I have learned that I can have my own projects! Even if they don’t join me, I can keep reading, exploring, and creating. In fact, this is a crucial part of homeschooling... I should be modeling the behavior I want them to have, right?

For example, when my eldest son was four I discovered that nature brought him alive. I accompanied him to several nature and science classes at our local nature center, and his shyness fell by the wayside as he hiked on the nature trails and listened to the naturalists. As for me, I fell in love with the whole atmosphere. I fell in love with science!

Science was my most dreaded class in school. (Perhaps second to P.E.) I never understood it. My teachers were horrible. As a result, I had huge misconceptions about science. And worst of all, I thought I was bad at it. But seeing science through my son's eyes, and being reintroduced to it through the nature center programs, I am hooked. I even developed a deep appreciation for snakes and amphibians through my son's first love.

Without my kids, I now read science articles, nature memoirs, and I began my Year of Citizen Science projects. I share these things with them, if I think they would be interested in them, but I consider these endeavors part of my own education that I'm pursuing while also home educating my children.

Here are some more examples of the endeavors I have started since I began homeschooling: 

  • My eldest son spent a long time learning about carnivorous plants when he was seven. Now he grows them, and I help him. I think they are so pretty that I'm sure I'll be cultivating these plants long after he moves out of the house.
  • My younger son has a great passion for birds, and this has been contagious for the whole family. In fact, I have a little morning ritual of observing birds out my window before my boys even wake up! (And now I have this book on my wish list.)
  • Through my younger son's love of drawing, I started a sketchbook habit that I hope I'll continue the rest of my life.
  • Recently, I began a project all of my own. That is, no one else in the house started this interest, though they’re all reaping the benefits. I am on a mission to learn how to bake bread with natural yeast, and I’m taking it little by little as I have time.

I think more than anything, homeschooling has taught me that if I want to do or learn about something, I can do it slowly and in increments. A little bit goes a long way! Reading for 15 minutes... finding a few minutes to sketch every week or month... finding a new YouTube video about bread baking every once in a while... I don't have to accomplish my goals this week or this month. 

It's about giving my interests attention on a regular basis. 

I share these things with them, if I think they would be interested in them, but I consider these endeavors part of my own education that I’m pursuing while also home educating my children.

I never realized that this is what it looks like to have discipline. While I was capable of finishing what was required of me when I was younger, I rarely finished those things that I wanted to do... those personal goals that no one was making me do. 

Sadly, I don’t think traditional school teaches children how to have self-motivated discipline. Because kids are having to work so hard to accomplish goals set by other people, they don’t have the time or energy to explore and develop their own interests. At least, I didn’t.

But in homeschooling my own children, I have learned that real learning happens slowly. I have learned to manage my time better (because I have to!), and I have learned that I can have many projects going at once. While I try to focus on just one or two at a time so that I can make progress, it is liberating to have no deadlines. Those things we do for ourselves should be joyful and stress-free, though certainly a steady progression forward is what brings happiness and fulfillment.

Watching my children work on their interests in a slow and deliberate manner — and how they do more as their capability increases — has taught me these things. I feel extremely lucky for the education I’m receiving while homeschooling my kids!


Read more from Shelli

Tips for Setting and Achieving Homeschool Academic Goals

Great post on how to set and meet academic goals in your homeschool. Good ideas for unschoolers and project-based learners as well as more traditional homeschoolers.

On the home/school/life Facebook page, a reader named Liz said she was new to homeschooling and would like to hear how other families approach their academic goals. Do they set daily goals, weekly, quarterly, or yearly goals? I thought I would begin by trying to explain how I set academic goals for my boys, and then I invite you, other homeschoolers, to please explain how you do this in your homeschool. Hopefully it will help Liz and many other homeschoolers starting out on this journey.

My boys are still young, but so far, I would say that I have set certain priorities – one or two academic goals – for each year. In order to do this, I have to remember that my boys have a long education ahead of them, and we don’t have to teach everything at once. If I were planning to put them in school, I might have to change tactics, but even while focusing on a few core subjects each year, I don’t abandon all other subjects, so that’s still not much of an issue. Let me explain…

By focusing on just one or two subjects each year, I give myself plenty of time to experiment, try different resources and see what works. And it alleviates the panic I might feel, if I were trying to teach every subject in depth. By giving myself a whole year to, say, make sure the study of art is part of our homeschool, it slowly becomes part of our weekly routine, so the next year when I’m going to focus on incorporating more Spanish lessons, I’m not worried how I’m going to do art. That’s already there. I’ll explain more about this later.

Before I did any of this – before I even began homeschooling “officially”– I sat down and considered what my priorities would be for my boys. At that time, they were only five- and two-years-old.

What surprised me is that this list of priorities is still my core priorities. It has given me something to come back to when I worry about a bad day or week. It reminds me that in actuality, I have created a daily life that incorporates all these things, so even on the worst homeschooling days, we’re still doing pretty good.

Here’s that initial list I made:

  • Imagination/Play/Motion– Let them use their imaginations and be in motion as much as they need to be.

  • Literature – Immerse them in books and storytelling.

  • Exploration/Nature – Let them explore the world and get into nature as much as possible.

  • How to find answers – Encourage them to ask questions and teach them how to find answers.

  • Spend quality time together – Use our time wisely. Don’t over schedule the kids or myself. Allow for plenty of time at home for free, unstructured playtime.

  • Teach responsibility– Explain why we (mom and dad) need to work and why we all need to take care of our home.

This may not look like it covers many academic goals, but it does. When you create an environment where learning is part of your daily life, and exploration, questions and creating are honored, your kids will cover many points in a typical course of study by themselves. For those homeschoolers who choose to unschool, this will meet their goals very well. For homeschoolers like us, who don’t unschool, I find it fairly easy to fill in the gaps with a few hours of formal lessons each week.

Here’s a few examples of how I’ve prioritized our learning each year:

  • When my eldest son was six, seven, and even eight, my first priority was helping him learn how to read. This doesn’t mean that I pushed him. On the contrary, I went at his pace, but we worked on it first and a little bit everyday. We also studied math, science and various other subjects. (My son loves science, so it feels effortless to learn a lot about science.) What I’m speaking about is that I put more of my efforts into finding the right resources for reading, which didn’t come as easily to my son. Now that he’s nine, he’s reading quite well. I think it’s because he was ready to read, but it helped me to make that my focus. I wasn’t panicking trying to teach everything at once.

  • Before my eldest turned six and my youngest three, I didn’t do any formal art lessons with them. My boys are very creative, so they had fun painting and doing projects of their own, but I wanted them to learn the fundamentals of art and also about the most significant artists. So that year, I decided to build it into our schedule by making Fridays “art day.” I spend just a little time “teaching,” and then we make some art. Right now all I require of them is to listen to me for a few minutes and look at some artwork online. The art making is completely optional. However, they usually want to make art, and even if they choose to do something of their own design, I’m very happy that art is now a regular part of our routine. We’ll continue to use Fridays as the day we delve into the arts in a formal way. Over the duration of their entire education, I know we’ll cover a lot of ground.

  • Now that my son is reading well, I’ve decided my priority this year will be math. Again, it’s not that we haven’t already been working on math, and he is not behind in math, but I am putting more of my efforts into math. I started this summer. I made a list of math games we would play, I found art lessons that incorporated math, and I checked out some math books from the library, such as The History of Counting and Mathematicians are People Too. Since the new school year began, I have done math lessons with my son everyday, and we do more of it too. (I used to do it two to three times a week.) If I’m going to spend time researching strategies to teach, it’s going to be on how to teach math, and I’m not going to worry as much about the other subjects. (But remember, we already have a good footing in reading, and we have literature and art embedded into our schedule. And science is covered because it’s my son’s first love. We also get a lot of social studies through reading, watching documentaries, and going on field trips.)

  • For my six-year-old, my priority this year for him is teaching him how to read. I’ve started the same program with him that I used with my older son. If it doesn’t go well, we’ll try something else. I also do math and handwriting with him, but we usually do reading first in case he has an off day, gets grouchy, and loses concentration. I don’t push. But by keeping reading as his priority, I feel certain we’ll at least accomplish one significant thing this year.

  • This year I am also making more effort to do Spanish lessons. This is mostly for my older son who wants to learn another language, but my younger son benefits by listening in when he wants to. Like the year I incorporated art, this priority is just about making the effort to carve out a little more time in our schedule. Now that my son is nine, he seems ready to take on more. So this is another benefit of doing yearly priorities – the ones that my son hasn’t been ready for usually slide to the back burner.

I can see ahead where I will have a year when we study writing and grammar more in depth, and another year when we will focus on history. Maybe one year when my son is older we will take on a more rigorous and systematic curriculum in science, especially if he is going to continue in this direction for a career. Though we’ve made strides in all these areas, by putting my focus on one or two subjects each year, I feel good that over time, we’re incorporating a wide variety of lessons. And just because we shift focus, that doesn’t mean we are abandoning all other subjects. It’s just a subtle shift and a little more concentration in one area, and once we gain momentum in one subject, it’ll be that much easier to continue with it.

Now, please, share how you approach your academic goals. Because one size never fits all. :)


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.

Growing Through Traveling: Independence, Confidence, and What We Become Away from Home

Growing Through Traveling: Independence, Confidence, and What We Become Away from Home

I didn’t grow up in a traveling family. Besides the yearly ritual drive down to a cabin for a week every summer, my parents weren’t big on trips of any sort.

But in my later teens, that started to change, mostly because of my sister and me. We started wanting to connect with the unschooling community more, and traveling as a trio of sisters and mother (my father’s job doesn’t allow for much traveling) to unschooling conferences and camps. And pretty soon, the friends I made at those places had me craving more time spent away.

In the past six or so years, I still haven’t been off this continent. I haven’t even made it to the opposite coast! But I have made many, many trips to visit friends, most within a (sometimes long) days bus or car ride. And though it might not be as exciting as backpacking in Europe or hiking in Peru, I have learned and grown a lot from the experience of traveling, not to mention having some of the best times of my life. Here are just a few reasons why I love getting away from home every now and then for a good adventure.

Independence

When I first started traveling by myself, at a time when I was just starting to be more independent, it felt like a very big deal to be the only person responsible for getting myself over long distances and handling whatever problems came up while I was gone. While parents have definitely been called in a panic time or two, when they’re not within an hours drive you still have to fix things yourself, with just advice (and the occasional emergency loan or bus ticket) to get you through. I haven’t needed either of those last two in a while, and the panicked phone calls have become few and far between. But travel has marked some of the times in the past that I first started to feel like an adult because I did manage to solve problems by myself, get myself to the right destination, deal with emotional upheaval (both my own and that of friends), and otherwise keep it all together. And managing to do that while far away from my parents meant so much to me.

Confidence

As I write this, I’m sitting in a cafe in rural Maine, many hours from my home in Montreal. Some things may have changed in the years since I started spending more time away from home, but what hasn’t changed is how much more confident I feel when away from my familiar haunts. Counter-intuitive, perhaps, but being somewhere unfamiliar, meeting lots of new people and going to new places, gives me a freedom I feel few other times. I’m more outgoing, and though it’s still scary, I’m more likely to introduce myself to someone, joke around, and be more myself than I often am with anyone other than close friends. Maybe it’s because my immersion in the social life of wherever I am is so temporary, so that I don’t feel as concerned about how other people view me. I can be less self-conscious when I’m leaving in just a week. But whatever lets me push my social boundaries when away definitely stays with me when I head home. I’m reminded of all that I’m capable of, and that I can be an outgoing person at home, too, if I want to. Stretching my comfort zone when away gives me that much bigger a zone when I get back home.

Familiarity

If I’m to be confident and independent, I need to first feel secure. This has meant learning, through trial and error, how to find or create situations where I can be comfortable far away from my usual surroundings and routines. For me, this has meant that I now stay only with friends (whether at their houses, or camping with them, or staying at a less familiar place with a good friend) and not friends of friends or casual acquaintances. I need to feel safe wherever I am, and for me that means being with at least one person I really trust. It also means that I keep my routines. I might be away from home, but I can still do the same things I always do before bed and when I get up in the morning. I can still use the same methods to calm down when I’m stressed. Bringing familiar routines away with me helps me stay calm and grounded, no matter how unfamiliar a place I am. It’s thanks to that base I can try scary new things and meet so many new friends!

I head back home on Monday, after over a week of adventuring in Maine. I’ve already met a lot of new people, tasted a whole bunch of different food and drinks, slept at two different houses, walked around Portland, and swum in a lake. Plans for the coming days keep unfolding, as my good friend and host thinks of more places she wants to bring me and more people she thinks I should meet. It’s been a really good time so far, with more good times to come I am sure. And through it all, I feel myself stretching, testing my current limits and finding new ones, and feeling better and more centered within myself.

No matter how near or how far we venture, I think travel can help us all to learn and grow!


What's So Special About Homeschooling?

what's so special about homeschooling? one mom's answer to the "homeschooling must be so hard" misconception

A few weeks ago I gently ripped open a little paper packet, tipped some seeds into my hand and dropped them into the earth in an even line. Using the flat of my palm to pull some soil across the row, I breathed in the sweet smell of dirt, bathed in birdsong and allowed the sun to drape itself across my shoulders like a familiar shawl. In a few moments, the children came tearing out into the garden, rolling over each other like a pair of lion cubs, tugging at each other’s ears, pressing their thumbs into the other’s arm pits, cackling wildly. Soon the youngest was in tears, as red in the face as the radishes I’d just sown. Their play-fighting had inevitably, painfully, turned into real fighting.

It was time to stop parting the earth and start parting the children. No longer could I crouch and sow, pushing aside worms and soil. Sighing deeply and brushing the dirt from my hands, it was time to return to the other ‘dirt’ of my life—the sweet and fertile soil of being with my children all day, every day, with all the laughter and tears that brings.

In the UK, homeschooling is still very much a novelty: it’s something unusual and special. There are only two homeschooling families in my town, and at home ed meet-ups we see the same faces, the same handful of families who are striking out on this uniquely less-trodden path. When I tell other people we meet that my children are home educated, their eyes fill with wonder and they usually breathe, “That sounds hard.”

Maybe they think I’m ringing a bell in the morning and teaching my children subject after subject of material I haven’t seen since my own days in primary school. Maybe they’re wondering how I manage to teach two children of such different age and ability. Maybe they can’t figure out how I can stand being with my children all the time. In their eyes I can see what they’re thinking: I must be incredibly patient, intelligent, even martyr-like. I must be able to do things and maybe I even know things that they don’t know. I must somehow be special.

Yes, being with children all day is demanding. The intensity of being forever on call, available, responsible is tiring. In some ways, things were easier when my older children trotted off to school and I could canoodle with my baby. But I missed my children; oh how I missed them. When they came home with their tales of playground pettiness and teacherly impatience, I’d suffer and seethe with indignation and impotence. Now that we are homeschooling the responsibility firmly resides with us. I prefer it that way.

Yesterday my youngest child and I tipped his little troop of caterpillars into a tray and sat side by side with our chins resting in our hands. We watched them wiggle about and crawl over the leaves. My nine year old, reciting her seven times table under her breath, stopped to watch the caterpillars too. “Wow, those are amazing,” she said.

“I know,” my son replied with shining eyes, resting his cool hand on the back of my neck. “They’re so beautiful I can hardly resist them!” Then he made two little fists and squealed in a way that made my tummy cartwheel.

I’m no martyr. Being with my children, taking responsibility for their education, guiding them into a life of contentment: it’s what I choose and enjoy. That’s not to say it’s easy. But it’s definitely something special.


Curriculum Review: Resources for Young Entrepreneurs

Curriculum Review: Resources for Young Entrepreneurs

Greetings! I am the Curriculum Junkie at home/school/life magazine, where I have the privilege of reviewing the absolute best of homeschool materials. I am also mom to 3 young homeschooling boys and a writer at www.steampoweredclassroom.com. I love my jobs; there is truly never a dull moment! It is a great joy to write about resources that help enrich the time we spend learning with our kids. There are so many treasures out there that I can’t possibly present them all in the magazine, so I’ve jumped on board at HSL’s blog for some more fun and sharing.It’s my hope you’ll glean information from this feature that truly enriches your homeschool experience. If there are particular subjects or themes related to curriculum that you would like to read about, let me know at rebecca@homeschoollifemag.com. For more in-depth looks at curriculum, check out my column in home/school/life’s magazine. Now on to the review!

The homeschooling lifestyle is ripe with potential for learners endowed with an entrepreneurial spirit. Hands-on opportunities to learn the basics of developing and operating a business can be made abundant. However, for those children wishing to deepen their understanding of the subject, it is helpful to have a guide that provides financial and business vocabulary, terms and concepts and that also guides the development and implementation of strategic thinking.

If your child is asking for such a resource, you might consider Y.M.B.A’s series of business workbooks designed for students ages 9 and above. The 5-volume set includes the titles, Marketing, Finance, Business Law, Business Math and Accounting.

The workbooks, which are approximately 70 pages, contain easy-to-read text with good-sized font and are made all the more user friendly by their many graphs, cartoons, and illustrations explaining key concepts. A motivated child could easily enjoy and work through this program independently, if they wished.

Each concise lesson begins with a one-page introduction to new concepts such as the history of money, how to write a check, loans and invoices and investment strategy to name just a few. The page that follows each lesson is called the “Drawing Room.” These worksheets provide readers a chance to engage with the new terms and concepts presented on the previous page. In completing each of these lessons, a wide use of skills are practiced; computation, creative and strategic thinking, exploration and application of ideas. Examples of Drawing Board exercises found in Marketing and Finance include writing a check, creating an organizational chart, word searches, making a comic strip, identifying the features of a saving bond, pricing a series of items for a shop, identifying a target market, and designing an eye-catching box for a specific sales item. A complete answer key follows at the end of the books. Each workbook is $9.95 and can be ordered on Y.M.B.A.’s website at www.YMBAgroup.com.

In the end, there is no better teacher than experience itself. This series is a comprehensive accompaniment that will reinforce the many concepts and skills a child encounters as they work to establish their own exciting business venture.


Sorting through Subjects in an Everything-is-Connected Manner of Homeschooling

Sorting through Subjects in an Everything-is-Connected Manner of Homeschooling

Once when my middle kid was about nine, she came home from playing with friends and said, “I must be stupid.”

“What?” I was floored. The friends were public school kids, but they’d always been kind and accepting of my homeschooled kids, as far as I was aware. “Did the kids say that? Did someone call you stupid?”

“No,” she shrugged. “They didn’t call me anything. But they were talking about their favorite subjects, saying I like social studies, I like science, I don’t like language arts, and I didn’t even know what any of those things were, so I guess I must be stupid.”

And so began one of our “formal” lessons.

Our family takes an “everything is connected” approach to life, but some people prefer to break the world into subjects, perhaps for the sake of being thorough (or because the setting of school requires it of them). It gives you more of a checklist approach to life. Have we done our math today? Have we practiced reading? Have we learned to spell a few words today? Have we spent some time with nature, making sure we are learning about the way of the world? Have we contemplated cultures, people, or methods of governing?

These are all things we encounter daily, and the flow of life naturally takes us there.

Coming from a subject-oriented education myself, I found it surprisingly hard to turn it into words my nine-year-old, unschooled kid could relate to.

Okay, so when you write a letter to Grandpa thanking him for your birthday present, and I show you the way letters are typically structured, with the date in the top corner and “Dear Grandpa,” at the beginning…  that’s language arts, or English. Those are lessons in how to write.

Things that fall within this subject:

  • When we read fables, talked about them, and then made up some of our own.
  • When you asked why words ending in –ough had different sounds (I think the examples were cough and bough) and so we made a list of all the –ough words we could think of and talked about how some pronunciations didn’t necessarily make sense, you just had to learn them through exposure and memorizing.
  • Pretty much anytime we are in the car for longer than a few minutes playing rhyming games or alliteration games or those word games we just make up on the spot to keep ourselves entertained.
  • When we write our own stories. And especially when we go over those stories that you have written and we talk about the things you could do to make the story more readable for others. That’s grammar. Punctuation. Sentence structure.

The more I spoke, the more puzzled she seemed to get.

“I don’t get it. What about science? Do I know any science?”

Science:

  • When your sister collected all the different leaves and looked them up and pressed them in a notebook. She wrote the names of the trees they came from on the page. She took photos of the whole tree.
  • When we tried to raise Betta fish. When we talked about their genetics and colors, that’s a branch of science.
  • When we collected water from all the different sources and looked at little drops under the microscope. We found the water fleas and you drew pictures of them. And we looked up the parts of their little bodies and read about the way they lived.
  • When we followed the ant trails and tried to distract and deter them by placing different types of foods along the way.
  • When our friend took us to the lake and showed us all the different fossils and told us stories about what those creatures once were.
  • When you planted seeds and watched them grow…

Though she insisted it still didn’t make any sense when I suggested that every single thing she did each day could be categorized as a subject (or many subjects) if we took the time to break things down that way, I could see that she was beginning to understand.

“How am I ever supposed to figure out what my favorite subject is?” she asked.

How is a child to learn to detest when they are given a life focused on the joy of exploration?

That was a tough question, I had to admit. And I thought the first question she had to ask was how important was it to have a canned answer to such a question available. There were times, we both had to admit, when it was easier to just throw out an answer that the questioner understood than to have a discussion on the merits of a life-is-learning approach anyway.

She does love to read, so I suggested reading or English might be an appropriate answer. But she reminded me that reading seemed to cover the gamut of subjects and she didn’t want people to think she limited her reading in any way.

I thought maybe saying she loved all the subjects would be a good response. She thought that might be bragging.

I don’t know that she ever came up with an answer to the question. Today, at 16, she tends to spend her time sewing (mostly clothes, both upcycling from the thrift store and creating original costumes), reading (young adult, general fiction and fantasy), following Chinese culture and history, learning Mandarin, and drawing (computer illustration, but freehand). She’s a competitive shooter and a Disney animated movie aficionado. She loves to roller blade and bike (last year she even trained for a 200-mile ride, but an injury kept her from the actual event).

Of my three children, she’s the most likely to approach a subject with a drill mentality, the idea of doing something over and over again until she’s mastered it. She knows how to play the guitar, but hasn’t picked it up in months. She has to work at spelling, but has the most legible handwriting of anyone in the family.

When I asked her this morning what her favorite subject was, she furrowed her brow and looked at me like I must be confused. “Do you mean like, in school?”

She then looked thoughtful and took a minute to answer. “Traditionally speaking, I guess I would say Chinese, language and culture. Any other answer is too abstract.”


Education for a Different Version of Success

education for a different version of success

“How will they ever learn to listen to their boss if they don’t have to listen to teachers?”

“They’ll never make it in the workforce, you have to do things you don’t like to do and deal with jerks.”

“In the real world you don’t get to do what you want.”

There are a lot of ways that many people seem convinced unschoolers will fail, and most of those reasons lead back to the belief that unschoolers just have it too good. They get to be too happy, too playful, too independent, too creative. If they’re used to living such full and interesting lives, how will they ever manage to knuckle down, obey their superiors, and resign themselves to a job that’s unfulfilling at best, and nearly intolerable at worst?

I think this attitude is an indictment of the current education system (as well as the typical workplace environment and maybe even the current economic system). Unknowingly, people who express concern that unschoolers won’t be able to function in such unpleasant situations are saying just what they think schools are good at: namely, teaching people to function in unpleasant situations.

I should hope that school free learners aren’t holding up, as their greatest vision of success, that their children become good at resigning themselves to unhappiness. I’d hope, instead, that life learners are raising children who will seek to build lives that make them happy.

Is it important to be able to deal with unpleasant people and situations at times? Of course. Sometimes you’re going to have to take a job you don’t like so that you can put food on the table. Sometimes you’ll have to deal with a bully to get something you need.

I’ve always thought unschooling was a good way to help individuals develop a strong sense of what is and isn’t right for them, and to make choices that support the type of life they want to be leading.

However, I believe that people are best prepared for challenges such as these when they have a core of self confidence and self respect instead of just being accustomed to putting up with discouraging situations on a daily basis. I’ve always thought unschooling was a good way to help individuals develop a strong sense of what is and isn’t right for them, and to make choices that support the type of life they want to be leading.

There are certain qualities in myself that I try to cultivate and encourage.

  • A lifelong fascination and excitement about whatever catches my interest at any given time. In other words, a passion for learning that never ends.

  • A strong ethic of self care and firm boundaries, skills and practices that help me to stay healthy and grounded in a world that can often feel overwhelming.

  • Caring and empathy for other people, and a focus on educating myself about important issues, seeking with my words and actions to make the world at least a little bit better.

  • Trust in my own instincts.

  • Confidence and a feeling of self worth, no matter how much I’m struggling at any given time.

  • Striving always to keep my passions, dreams, and plans at the forefront, working to build my life based on what I truly want and think is right for me.

I share this because, when I think about my own future children and what I’d want for them, I don’t think about college acceptance or an ability to conform to the values and pressures of the dominant culture. Instead, I think about what I want for myself, and I hope that my someday children will have those qualities in even greater abundance than I’ve managed so far for myself.

Figuring out how to live a life in line with your ideals and values is hard no matter what your educational background. But I like to think that unschooling helps. It’s certainly helped me to trust myself because as I child I was never taught that I was untrustworthy. It’s taught me to value the perfection of flow in learning because having experienced it, I know I need to always seek that out in my adult life as well. It’s taught me to question the supposed “common sense” of the dominant culture, and to develop my own thoughts on various issues for myself. And it’s taught me to always follow my passions because doing so will almost always lead me in the direction of the greatest happiness in my life and the greatest contribution to the world.

Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
— Howard Thurman

Let’s cultivate in our life learning journey a version of success based on what makes you come alive.


Three Words Every Homeschooling Parent Should Know

The holiday break for our family included two trips to the build-it-yourself store (lumber yard), at least four (I lost count) trips to the hardware store, three trips to the recycling center/dump, and one big trip to Goodwill. In short, we built a wall for Christmas (and got a little spring cleaning in as a bonus). All hands were on deck for a remodeling job that turned our small, three bedroom home into a still small, but four bedroom home.

But why… some of our friends and family have questioned… when you have one kid with one foot out the door (perhaps) and two more closer to on-their-own than just-beginning would you bother to add a fourth bedroom now? I have no better answer than that it simply seemed to be the right time. All five members of the family were in agreement, so we spent our holiday building a wall.

In fact, our family has talked about creating more space in this old house for years. We’ve spent a considerable amount of time talking about moving to a bigger, or at least a different house, altogether. So many options have been considered. The back porch could have been converted into a small bedroom or perhaps the side “deck” (which isn’t really a deck at all, but does have a small roof overhang). We’d even talked of a tiny bedroom in the spirit of the tiny house movement, parked in the yard and within easy commute.

But in mid-December, when I mused— “You know, we could move the kitchen table into the (imagine this) kitchen and move the living room furniture into the room where the kitchen table now resides and then put a wall right down the center of the living room with a door and, voila, we’ve got a fourth bedroom!” —that’s when the plan came together.

Anything is possible when the whole crew is on board.

Perhaps I should back up a bit and admit that we aren’t typically a family for whom construction, in the literal sense, is a standard pastime. We read books, we love movies, we take walks and we sometimes hike. We’ve been known to go camping, though travel most often requires a motel room and a hot shower at the end of the day. It would not be unusual to drop in on us at some random point in time and find someone knitting or weaving or sewing or playing a video game or writing a story... Our kitchen is often in use as we are bakers and love cooking from scratch so much that we often chose eating in over going out when we want to treat ourselves to a special meal.

But actually changing the configuration of our house? Not so much. Our tool selection is limited and our skill set, admittedly, on the shy side. In these situations, I close my eyes and do my best to channel my father (the house I grew up in was in a continual state of remodeling) and perhaps consult a how-to book or a wiki-how site.

“Sure. Why not?” I said. Those are three very powerful words, I have learned.

Can we build a wall?” the members of my family asked. “Would it remain standing? Could we put an actual door in it?”

“Sure. Why not?” I said. Those are three very powerful words, I have learned.

When the wall was complete, middle kid, recipient of the bedroom that was the product of the construction, said, “Wow. Do you know how empowered I feel? If I can build a wall; I can do anything.”

When I look back on my years as a parent, these are the words that have triggered some of the most worth-while, most memorable, and yes, most educational events of our lives. Can we stay up all night? Can I dig a big hole in the yard? Can we sleep outside? Can I cut my brother’s hair? Can I make up my own recipe? Can we make our own video game?

Sure. Why not?