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.

Meet the Team: Patricia

Meet Patricia Zaballos, a columnist for home / school / life magazine. She has written her column, The Wonder Files, since our second issue. She has homeschooled three children. One of them has already graduated from college. A second is in college, and her youngest is still being homeschooled. She says she has spent twenty years teaching herself how to write, and if you've read any of her work, you'll know she has mastered her craft. Her columns are a favorite in the magazine not only because they offer comfort and guidance to homeschooling parents but because they are so beautifully written. She also writes on her blog Wonder Farm.

Me in 100(ish) words: I am a writer, a knitter, a beekeeper. A greedy reader of essays and memoir. An aspiring photographer. A vegetarian for 29 years and a wife for 26. I’ve known my husband since we were eleven, but we didn’t date until our last year of college, when I chased him down because I know what I like. I'm the mother of three kids, aged 22, 19 and 13; nothing has defined me as much as being their mama. I love little in life more than gathering around a table to eat, drink and talk. If I like you, I will cook for you. And if I really like you, when I laugh at your jokes I will sometimes snort.

How I started homeschooling: When my oldest was three, a friend asked me to go with her to visit and interview some homeschoolers she knew. The family was warm and wonderful, but I remember the mother saying that the year before, when one of their daughters had gotten very ill, they had done little in the way of formal homeschooling beyond regular trips to the library. At the time, being a recent elementary teacher, I thought: That's crazy!

 (Of course, I totally get it now: Homeschooling allows you to focus on what really matters as a family, it keeps you close during difficult times, and you can learn an awful lot from time spent happily reading.) Anyway, crazy as what they were doing seemed to teacher-me, I couldn't get homeschooling out of my mind. I read all I could find, and started taking my young kids to a local homeschool Park Day. Soon there was no turning back.

My homeschool style: I’ve never found a prevailing style that felt like a fit for us. We found our own way. We’ve had a regular time of working together most days. My kids’ learning has always centered on their interests, but I guide them too. They have a say; I have a say. We start with what they’re worked up about and move out from there.

What a typical day looks like in my homeschool life: It’s changed from the days when all three kids were at home. (Now one is in college and one has graduated and is making a career as a cinematographer in New York.) Still, from the beginning our days have almost always started with me asking, What do you want to do today? 

The kids would offer suggestions, I’d offer mine, and they’d be off, either with me or on their own. I read aloud lots, always. The older two loved making things; my youngest is more of an idea guy. He’s been designing games of one kind or another since he was small, and he tells me about them. Big chunks of our day are devoted to simply talking. Our time together tends to go for three hours or so, with time for reading, computer-surfing and trampoline-jumping along the way. Ideally, we have three or four days home each week, plus a variety of activities outside the home on other days, and some afternoons. Every Thursday has been Park Day with our support group—for seventeen years! That’s sacred.

Favorite readaloud:  Frances the Badger books by Russell Hoban when my kids were little because Frances’ parents were such wise badgers. Also, the Alfie and Annie Rose books by Shirley Hughes. The Milly Molly Mandy stories by Joyce Lankster Brisley with my daughter. My boys particularly liked the The Great Brain books by John Fitzgerald, and Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl books—and my daughter and I enjoyed them too. And Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events books have served as an epic literary subtext for my kids’ childhoods.

Favorite driving music: My kids and I have always been such audiobook fanatics that we hardly ever listen to music together in the car. When I’m on my own: Conor Oberst, Wilco and other alternative folksy stuff. Give me strummy guitars and lyrics like poetry and I’m a goner.

Things I like: Funky shoes, laden fruit trees, hip restaurants. Quirky indie romance films. Spicy condiments, knitting lace, honeybees. Dancing with my husband. Essays with collaged bits that come together at the end. Old churches. My family of five around the kitchen table.

Guilty pleasure: The Indian dive where I eat every Wednesday night before I go to write, where they just smile and write down my chana masala and roti order, and all I have to say is hello.

What I love about homeschool life:  That there has always been so much time to watch my children unfold before me, and so much freedom to allow that unfolding. This sounds like hyperbole, but I mean it: the grand joy of my life has been helping my kids become who they want to be.

What I love about home/school/life magazine: That it exists! Eons ago, when my oldest was three, I looked for a magazine like this. One that spoke to a range of homeschoolers, covering a variety of approaches, and not pushing a single agenda. And was it too much to ask for beautiful layouts, fonts and photos? Apparently it was. It’s been a long wait, but I’m so pleased that home/school/life is here now, and I’m delighted to be part of it.