molly dunham

Mindful Homeschool: Embracing Your Roots

Mindful Homeschool: Embracing your roots

My husband asked me to go to the bike shop with him the other day to try out some mountain bikes. This was one week after he asked me to go on a trail ride with him and deemed my twenty year old mountain bike unfit and unsafe. 

“You need a new bike so we can ride more trails,” he said.

“But I’d rather buy an unlimited membership at the yoga studio,” I said. For the price of the bikes he is looking at, I could buy several years worth of unlimited yoga classes and a car for our daughter. Today’s bikes cost as much as my first two cars combined. Two wheels for the price of eight.

I must admit that the new bike felt great, and I was tempted to let him plop down our credit card so I could ride the bike home. Ultimately we decided to think about it and shop around a bit more.

Biking is my husband’s thing, yoga is my thing, and when I think about it, each of our preferred activities is suited to our different lifestyles. As the sole financial provider for our family, my husband is get up and go go go. Flying down mountains and climbing back up them is the training he needs for, and the relief he needs from, his physically demanding job. 

As the sole care provider for our family, I am get up and stay stay stay. Struggling to stay on my yoga mat, balancing on my hands and feet, and listening is the training I need to be present for my demanding job as mom/counselor/nutritionist/home-economist/emergency-responder. An hour of not talking and just moving in a hot studio keeps me from being a hot mess at home. 

You know as well as I do how much work it is to stay in one place and focus on the task at hand. There are days when the idea of getting up and leaving the house to go to work seems like the ideal vacation. More than once I have wished for a performance review and a bonus check as an indicator that I am doing a good job. As homeschooling parents, we don’t even get the little validation from a satisfactory report card and a written comment from the teacher about what a good little student we have. Teaching our own is a way of living, but certainly not a way to make a living, and while our labor is unpaid, it is certainly not without benefits.

Trail riding is fun, and there will be a day when I will say yes to a bike. If do my job well and my kids learn to take care of their future selves, my current job will become obsolete and I will have the time to hit the trails on two wheels. For now I’m going to stick to two hands and two feet, or no hands and one foot, on my yoga mat. It takes a lot of work to stay in one place, but the place I’ve chosen to be is the best place for me, for my family, for now.

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.

We All Know Self Care Is Important—But Where Do You Find the Time?

We all know self care is so important -- but finding the time to fit it in when you're a homeschool mom can be a real challenge. Love this advice for making me-time and making it count.  PHOTO: DEATH TO STOCK

A decade ago, I began homeschooling my children for selfish reasons. Sure, I thought homeschooling would be good for them too, and I read a stack of books about childhood development, learning styles, and homeschooling methods to back up that belief, but ultimately my reasons to homeschool were selfish. I wanted my children to learn free of negative social influences, gold star grading systems, and hours of pointless homework, but mostly I didn’t want to wake up early every day to rouse my sleeping children, pack brown bag lunches, and hurry them out the door. Waking up naturally and snuggling on the couch to read books before we began our day of curiosity driven learning was my romanticized fantasy of homeschool life.

When exactly was this “me time” supposed to happen, and what was I supposed to be doing for myself?

There were many days that we lived out my fantasy, but many more days that I lost myself in the service of parenting and homeschooling. When mothers with more experience than I had counseled me to take some “me time”, I didn’t even know what they meant. All the hours not devoted to the enrichment of my children were spent cleaning up from said enrichment, planning for the next day’s enrichment, and recovering from all the enrichment, plus the usual business of running a household. When exactly was this “me time” supposed to happen, and what was I supposed to be doing for myself?

I recently listened to an interview with a 107 year woman and when asked for the secret of her longevity her answer was to eat well, exercise, sleep, and avoid stress - four of my favorite things to do now, but not my priorities during those early years of homeschooling. Hearing it from a woman with a tremendous amount of life experience affirmed that taking care of myself is my definition of “me time”, and hopefully it will buy me even more time.

As the new school year approaches, and you thoughtfully select and prepare curriculum for your children, consider the enrichment of yourself as well. Schedule “me time” in your daily planner, and keep the lesson plan simple: eat well, exercise, sleep, and avoid stress.

Here are a few sample assignments:

  • Eat vegetables with your breakfast, because at the end of a long day when the idea of making a salad seems as monumental a task as  teaching Latin to a preschooler, and you wonder if the marinara sauce on your pasta counts as a vegetable, at least it won’t be your only vegetable that day.
  • Station your kids on the front porch with a timer and have them record how long it takes you to walk (or run!) around the block multiple times. Find the mean, median, and mode of your times and call it a math lesson. Extra credit if they cheer you on.
  • Schedule a twenty minute power nap for that particularly stressful time of day when you begin to consider packing a lunch for your children and dropping them off at the nearest public school.
  • Replace a “should” with a “want”: I should (insert an activity that stresses you out), but I want to (insert an activity that feeds your sense of self). You can’t avoid all shoulds in life, but if you’re not careful you may successfully avoid all of your wants.
  • One of the greatest lessons I learned and passed on to my children is the importance of taking care of oneself. If you don’t make yourself a priority, who will? A bonus to this lesson is that others often benefit from your acts of selfishness. My selfish desire to homeschool was a selfless act of service to my children, and an inspiration for friends to choose alternative educational paths.

Families make great sacrifices of time, energy and resources in order to homeschool, but caring for yourself does not have to be part of that sacrifice. This school year, make “me time” a mandatory subject. What is good for you is also good for your children.

Living the Homeschool Dream... in Real Life

Homeschool dreams vs homeschool reality--great read about loving the life you're in!

A friend recently joked, “I’m living the dream! It’s not my dream, but it’s somebody’s dream!”

Years ago, when my children were still in elementary school, I dreamed about moving my family to Central America for a year. Complete and total immersion. We’d all become fluent in Spanish. We’d see flora and fauna we’d never before seen. We’d eventually make friends with the suspicious locals. I would wear embroidered tunics and learn to cook in a whole new way. Never mind that our family has never traveled outside of the United States, or even east of the Rocky Mountains, we could become, at least temporarily, expatriates!

“But what about my job?” asked my husband.

“But what about our friends?” asked my children.

“But what about my dream?” I responded.

I truly felt happy for the family who experienced what sounded a lot like my dream. If I didn’t have the experience, at least somebody else did.

My dream never made it further than a stack of books from the library and a mini lesson on the geography and culture of Central America. I only have one embroidered tunic, which I found at a thrift store and never wear. It’s not really my style. Travel isn’t really my style either. I’m a homebody. Vacations longer than three or four days make me a bit panicky. My solution to seeing more of the world without vacationing was to make a home somewhere else.

When I ran into an old acquaintance at yoga, my dream to live abroad came rushing back as she told me about her family’s adventure. They had lived in South America for six months, during which time they homeschooled their three children, and exchanged work for a place to live. Her eyes lit up as she told me about the incredible places they visited, the experiences they had, and the people they met. “You lived my dream!” I told her.

I have a saying that helps me to live a more minimal lifestyle: Be happy that it exists without needing to possess it. “It” being whatever that thing is I find myself wanting - usually a material item - but squatting on the floor of the yoga studio, hearing about living and learning in South America, I realized “it” can also be an experience. In my sweat drenched, post yoga euphoria, I truly felt happy for the family who experienced what sounded a lot like my dream. If I didn’t have the experience, at least somebody else did.

As homeschoolers, it doesn’t always feel like we’re living the dream - our children may balk at our carefully crafted lesson plans; the dining room table is always a cluttered mess; we wake up in the middle of the night worrying that we’re doing it all wrong. Chances are, however, that we’re living someone else’s dream. There is a mom at work right now who wishes she was home with her children. There’s a dad teaching a room full of students who dreams of staying home to teach his own kids. There might even be a family in Central America wishing they could live and learn in California for a year. If you know them, I’d love their contact information. Maybe they’re interested in a house swap. Some dreams don’t disappear, they just take longer to become reality.

The Pleasures of Summer Homeschooling: How to Have a NorCal Summer

Homeschooling summer break: A to-do list for a laid-back, life-enhancing summer holiday

When my kids were younger, I always intended to maintain some of our homeschool routine throughout the summer. Maybe we’d do math lessons three days a week, or finally listen to those “Learn to Speak Spanish” discs I bought at Costco. At the very least, we’d participate in the summer reading program at the library and earn free ice cream cones. But inevitably, the math books stayed close, the Spanish discs remained unplayed, and the books we read were never logged. Summer seeped in and took over, and we were all grateful for the break. 

When a friend recently shared a post about the homework assignment an Italian teacher gave his students, I was inspired to create a different sort of summer curriculum, free of traditional school subjects. The action items assigned by the Italian teacher encouraged his students to learn outside of the classroom, to take oneself as a subject to be studied, to become more fully present in one’s skin and in one’s environment. It’s an assignment for students - and teachers - of all ages. 

I have yet to enjoy an Italian summer (though I could imagine doing so), but here’s how I plan to enrich our NorCal summer:

1.  First thing in the morning while your dreams are fresh in your mind, write them down in a journal. Better yet, tell somebody about them. This is how you become a better dreamer and storyteller.

2.  Learn new words. Try to use them in writing or in conversation; or just chant them to yourself like a mantra, especially the words that make you feel something. Sophisticated, silly, smart, clever, wise. Words have power. Feel them out.

3.  Read what you want to read, but do yourself a favor and try a new genre. Graphic novels, sci-fi, short stories, travelogues, poetry, books turned into movies. Read outside your comfort zone.

4.  Spend more time with people who make you feel good—about yourself, about them, about the world—and less time with people who make you feel bad, sad, mad, or nothing at all. This goes for the people you spend time with online too.

5.  Remember: the days are long and hot, but the season is short. Create some bright memories and tuck them away for the cooler, shorter days to come. Also, wear sunscreen.

6.  Learn how to stand on your head. Start with a pillow for cushion and a wall for support. Then progress to standing on your hands. Try to take a few steps upside down, walking with your hands. If nothing else, you will learn how to fall.

7.  Fall in love. With a person, a place, a song, a movie, a food, a book, an idea. Love it passionately.

8.  Spend time outside alone, under the stars, facing the rising or setting sun, or just sitting in the shade. Practice not thinking during your alone time. A quiet mind is a gift you give to yourself.

9.  Practice gratitude and generosity. Name three things that bring you joy; it’s an instant mood changer. Give compliments; extra points if you compliment a stranger. Be kind. Assume the best about people (but don’t forget #4). 

10.  Don’t wait for invitations. Be the one who invites. It can be simple - a walk, a swim, an iced coffee. Or it can be big - a party, a day at the beach, a trip to an amusement park. Don’t wait for things to happen. Make things happen.

From one homeschooling mom to another, have a happy summer, wherever you are!

Moving to the Passenger Seat

When your homeschooler starts to become more independent, your role as a homeschool parent changes. Love this!

I am so pleased to welcome Molly Dunham to the home | school | life blogging team! When we first started homeschooling our daughter, her blog (now archive-only) was such a resource and inspiration for me. I’m thrilled to read her thoughts on homeschool life again—and I bet you will be, too.


We circled the parking lot several times before settling for a parking spot a block away from the library. So many station wagons and minivans signaled that today was preschool story time. It had been years since I loaded my preschool aged children into our Volvo wagon to make our weekly trek to the library, where we’d sit on carpet mats on the floor of the community room to hear our favorite librarians read out loud. 

“It seems like just yesterday that we were going to story time, and now you’re driving me to the library,” I said to my daughter as she parked my Subaru.

Times change, cars change, roles change. And just like people tell you when your kids are young, it happens so fast. My little girl is now taller than I am. She has her driver’s permit and has claimed her own set of keys to my car. In a few weeks, she will be done with high school, two years ahead of schedule. In a few months, she will get her driver’s license and begin taking classes at the local community college. If all goes according to her plans, she will also get a job. These are the events she’s been preparing for the last ten years of homeschooling, but it’s hard to believe they’re scheduled on this year’s calendar.

Even though I have one child on her way to college, and another child who has opted to attend a traditional middle school after homeschooling throughout the elementary grades, I am a homeschooler at heart. Some things don’t change. As my kids have grown and chosen their educational paths, our classroom has expanded beyond math at the dining room table, science at the kitchen island, PE at the park, literature via audiobooks in the car, and field trips to historical monuments. Learning together has become our family culture, and I imagine our shared education will extend far beyond their graduation. I look forward to the lessons they have in store for me. There’s so much to see from the passenger seat.