Who knew that putting happiness on your priority list could increase your homeschool's joy level so significantly?
I’m so happy to introduce you to Cate Olson, the newest blogger to join the home | school | life team. Cate will be writing about her experiences homeschooling her four kids, the oldest of whom is now in high school and the youngest of whom is 6. I bet you’re going to love getting to know her as much as I have!
If you happen upon these words after the sort of day in which each and every last excruciating diphthong and consonant blend had to be coaxed out of your emerging reader or the sort of day in which your young teen spent the better part of his day dawdling through an impossibly short lesson on multiplying exponents, demanding unnecessary hand-holding, I have something radical to say:
Homeschooling is not supposed to be like this.
Please, indulge me a moment. Think back to when you first made the decision to homeschool. Remind yourself of how you might have naïvely imagined every day spent under the warm sun, plopped on a picnic blanket atop lush green grass with attentive, well-groomed children itching to read the works of Aristotle by age five and with a functioning understanding of trigonometry by grade six.
Well, okay, homeschooling isn’t supposed to be exactly like that either, but behind our wide-eyed, simple daydreams were two kernels of truth: First, we understood that the learning process itself could— and should!— be extraordinary, and, second, we wanted to experience those almost transcendent moments of comprehension and understanding alongside our children. We guessed what we now know to be true, that learning something new is an astonishing feeling, and practically the only other feeling that comes close to beating it is being the curator of that moment for your child.
Now, of course we are going to have bad days, even no good, very bad days where we have online enrollment forms filled out for local schools and we are one mere whine, catastrophe or dropped pencil away from clicking submit. Being imperfect beings, these days are inevitable, but in my experience, they happen with diminished frequency when we focus less on the nuts-and-bolts of how we homeschool and give ourselves more freedom to daydream boldly and recapture whatever it was that initially inspired us to homeschool.
Example. The sun is out and the temperature is above fifty. You live in the Midwest where, if you are lucky, you might string together two spring-like days in a row before the next blizzard rolls in. It’s late morning and you’ve spent the past thirty minutes (has it really been only thirty minutes!?) on the cusp of a mental breakdown while your child continues to struggle to sound out the word d-o-g for the eight hundred and seventy-fifth time of the day, a word she read fluidly just yesterday, and you have already started wondering if lunchtime is too early to crack open the Merlot that you were saving for cocktail hour.
This is the moment where you need to harken back to your doe-eyed homeschooling daydreams and just quit for the day already. Do you see the sun out your grimy, fingerprint-covered windows? Do you hear those birds chirping over the din of the dog barking? The best cure for a bad day at the homeschool table is to put away the workbooks. Go for a hike. Dig in the garden for some worms. Go build a snowman, or even make some tea and read a book to yourself while your children tie pillows to their stomachs and pretend to be sumo wrestlers.
The curriculum will be there tomorrow and the next day and the day after that, and one day soon— and this is a promise— your child will have the breakthrough that you were earlier trying to force.
Anecdotal evidence: One of my daughters was struggling to learn long division. Divide, multiply, subtract, and bring down; she could recite the process in her sleep, but she just couldn’t remember what to divide, multiply, subtract, or bring down. We let math go for a day or so, or we worked on multiplication fact worksheets when we did do math. As she seemed receptive, we practiced a long division problem together here and there. She can do long division now with the best of them, and all this was achieved with no tears or fighting, and, most importantly, she does not hate long division.
I think that the farther away we get from our homeschool daydreams of yesteryear the easier it is to forget that learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Children don’t learn math because they finish the math text; they learn math because they understood the concepts the math text taught, and it’s up to us to be able to discern the difference therein.
Confession: Of course I do not always remember to take my own advice. Just last week I locked horns with my six-year-old over a phonics lesson that, in all likelihood, was reinforcing a concept she had already mastered. I persevered. There were raised voices, a thrown pencil, and no thoughts on my part of doing anything other than winning the battle of wills in that moment.
Yes, I ultimately “won,” but what was gained in that episode with my six-year-old? Certainly she did not gain an increased understanding of words starting with “th” and “sh,” but she did learn that maybe she didn’t much want to see her phonics workbook for another few days.
It is precisely in these darker homeschool moments where I think we need to allow ourselves more daydreams about backyard hammocks and lazy grammar lessons going hand-in-hand. We need more stargazing and less navel gazing. We must remind ourselves that homeschooling is a way of life, and not just something we do for a few hours every day. In short, it is essential to rediscover the joy and the beauty of learning that brought our kids home in the first place. Once the joy of learning is rightly realigned at the top of our homeschool priority list, abundant, deep, and real learning will—nay, must—necessarily follow.
I’d love to hear about it. If you’d like to reach me, I’ll be cuddled up in bed with a messy-haired, dirty-kneed, disheveled kid who is, inevitably, teaching me as they learn.
This week I took my daughter to an appointment where we happened to run into a family from her old school. The mother was always someone I could chat to in the playground, but I haven’t seen her in a long time because my kids are no longer there. As she was leaving, she said, “Lisa, I’ve hardly spoken to you! And how aaaaarrrrrreee yoooooouuuu?” She said it in such a pitying sort of way, I realized that she assumed that the everyday life of a homeschooling mother must be a truly terrible and exhausting thing.
Homeschooling is an every day choice. If we wanted to, we could sign our children up for school tomorrow. But we don’t choose that. We actually CHOSE home education because, when you scrape away the arguments and irritations of daily family life, we LOVE it as a way of learning and as a lifestyle.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t some drawbacks. Dealing with those takes a little more care and consideration. Prioritizing my own wellness has been one of our greatest challenges. A letter for a routine medical test came in the post and all I needed to do was make one phone call. But who makes phone calls when there’s home education to be done? It took me over a week to deal with that letter and make that appointment.
I’ve had a sore throat this week, and really wished I could have a duvet day, snuggled in bed with a good book. But I can’t do that either. I’ve tried, but eventually find that the needs of the family draw me back and demand attention.
Making time for wellness practices has been integral to maintaining a sense of groundedness and joy in our homeschool day. We homeschooling mothers can be experts at putting our own needs last. I have found that, when I put myself last, I feel last and that eventually turns into resentment. Instead, giving myself small but significant wellness breaks throughout the day makes a bigger overall difference than handing the kids over to my husband for a day and heading out on my own (although I wouldn’t say no to that, now and then).
My tiny wellness practices are simple but meaningful. Every morning I pour myself a big glass of water before the children and I sit down to read together. When they have screen time I make a point of ignoring the chores for a time. Instead I sit on the sofa and read my book for a while. Sometimes I go out to the garage and ride the exercise bike for a quarter of an hour. First thing in the morning I try to get up at least 15-30 minutes before my husband has to leave for work and practice some Yoga and meditation in my room (sometimes alone, sometimes with the other four members of my family milling around looking for socks). I add little inexpensive treats for myself to the shopping list: a chocolate bar, cut-price flowers, a new box of pencils (Yes: geek. Guilty as charged.). I spend three or four extra minutes in the shower when I’m doing nothing but enjoying it.
We all need to feel valued and nurtured. My children don’t necessarily know how to give me that, and to some extent it’s not really their role. As an adult I have to look after my own needs. It doesn’t have to be something time-consuming or expensive, just something for me. What do you do to nurture yourself? How do you prioritize a wellness practice amongst the busyness of homeschool life?
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. :)
In the Northern Hemisphere, it’s caterpillar season. The leaves are bursting forth from the trees, grasses are growing taller, birds are building nests, bats are waking up and they’re looking for food for their young. My youngest child’s insect project is ramping up and we are spending more time with our hands in hedges than sitting down and holding a pencil.
When we first started home educating, I kept a mental checklist for most tasks we’d do. Running around in the park? That counts as PE or recess. Baking a cake? I’m sure that counts as math. Making bracelets? Definitely good for fine motor skills. Looking for caterpillars in hedgerows? That must be science. It felt good to think that every aspect of our lives could “count as school.”
If my five-year-old son was in school, his teachers would be helping him work on his pencil grip, form letters and understand phonics and the basics of mathematics. At home, my son only holds a pencil or pen for about 15 minutes every day. Maybe I should worry. Maybe he will never learn to write his name!
But I don’t worry. I don’t worry at all about his writing. The reason is not that I’m ultra-confident. I’ve got all sorts of worries about my children. But when I watch my son gently lift a caterpillar from a leaf and hold it with precisely the correct amount of pressure and grip to keep that caterpillar safe from harm in his hand, I know my son has all the fine motor skills he needs to write his name. When he pulls out one of his nature books, turns to the index and asks me to look up that caterpillar’s food plant or when he opens the tablet and pulls up a document about caterpillars, I can see that he understands about letters and language and what they are intended for. He knows where to go to find out what he wants to learn. In short, he knows what he needs to do to find out. That skill—the ability to find out is the key, for me, to being a successful learner. The thing is, he knows what he wants to learn and he knows how to find out. Gradually he will arm himself with the skills to find out, perhaps by asking me for help or by figuring it out himself.
He will eventually learn to write, because he wants to find out.
He will learn to read, because he wants to find out.
He will become numerate, because he wants to find out.
I am here to mentor him, to help him learn the skills he needs, to encourage and support him when it’s hard. I want to nourish his curiosity and support him while newer and more exciting doors open to him.
I used to box-tick and think about whether what we were doing “counted as school.” Now I hardly think about school. I simply wonder what he’ll be finding out next.
By its very definition unschooling is something individual and flexible, something that will look different to each child and in each family. With the cultural idea that people need to Get An Education, as if it’s something that can be pre-packaged for mass consumption, comes the idea that there is one single education to get: a set collection of facts and formulae that will lead to a well-rounded, competent, and productive adult.
I think there are several things wrong with that idea.
Curriculum varies by geographic location, individual schools, available electives, and teachers.
Even the most ardent attempts at standardization can only affect so large a region. There might be Common Core standards in the USA right now, but what you’ll find being taught in Arizona will not be the same as what’s found in a school in Massachusetts. Similarly, my home province of Quebec has different curriculum than British Columbia. And that’s just talking about North America! While the model of industrialized schooling (along with the accompanying ideas about what education means) has been exported to most regions of the globe, the content taught varies widely.
Add to that the difference between what individual teachers focus on or choose to include, whether someone is in a “gifted” program or not, whether a teenager takes shop class or theater or music…
On the spectrum of home education, few families seek to create an exact replica of school in the home, as most want to create something more personalized or rigorous or otherwise different from what a child would be taught in school. No family and no child will receive the exact same body of knowledge and skills as every other child, no matter where they spend the majority of their days. People and standardization just don’t go that well together, no matter what many bureaucrats and politicians might hope.
This means that, since there isn’t one “education,” either everyone has gaps in their education or the idea of there being such a thing as “gaps in education” doesn’t really make sense. I’m going with the latter.
Embracing diversity in education.
One of the first things you realize when you start unschooling is that not everyone will learn the same things, and that that might actually be a good thing.
What’s important in the life of one person won’t be in the life of another. Someones’ family and place of residence, their cultural background, friends, interests and aptitudes are all going to have a strong influence on what they actually learn and remember, regardless of what anyone attempts to teach them. As unschoolers, you really just choose to embrace that diversity!
There is so much in the world that can be explored, studied, and experienced. Each of us will only ever learn a fraction of what there is to know. What a narrowing of possibilities to attempt to teach every child the exact same things.
Learning “important” things.
Despite the appeals of personalized learning, most people still feel that there are some universally important things that everyone should learn. I could say that my important isn’t your important, which is true, but I can’t really disagree that understanding history helps us understand current events, or that an understanding of mathematics is important for everything from budgeting to pursuing scientific careers.
But what history is important will depend on where you live, what you care about, and what’s currently going on in the world. How much and what type of math you need will vary depending on whether you plan to pursue a STEM career or just need to know the basics for your everyday life.
And, as unschoolers quickly learn, the important things crop up in life all by themselves: you learn what you need to learn by living, by encountering the challenges life presents, by pursuing your interests, and by striving to meet your goals. It’s the job of parents and mentors to help young people figure out what they need to learn to get where they want to be, and that works best when the young people themselves are driving things. After all, the best motivation is always internal motivation.
I don’t know what you know, but that’s okay.
In my teens I used to worry that I had “gaps” when compared to schooled peers, but the older I got the more apparent it became just how different everyone’s skills were. I realized that I was better at some things than some people, and other people were better at other things. I knew more about some subjects, and less about others, just like all of my friends, whether schooled, homeschooled, or unschooled.
Who I am and what I’m good at depended on a lot of factors. All unschooling did was give me the space to grow and learn in a more flexible, organic way.
We all have “gaps,” but I feel good about the knowledge and skills I have, and most importantly, I feel like I can continue learning and growing as I meet new challenges and explore exciting new topics!