I’m going to write today about What We Did In The Homeschool, but it’s ironic I’m doing it the morning of M’s first day in a brick-n-mortar school in four years.
I’m a little melancholy, but also hopeful. Meet the teacher day was a success, and my intuitions were confirmed. It was absolutely right that we homeschooled for that “elementary” part of life and quite right – I think – that he’s going back for middle school in this school. The teachers all seem to be working at a level that’s challenging and interesting, but imbued with caritas, as their motto says they should be. Religion will be Old Testament and history is Ancient History, and the material will be integrated in creative ways by a great teacher. Science is in a new, up-to-date lab, taught by a Ph.D (who incidentally taught my daughter in a public school International Baccalaureate program several years ago). Spanish is taught by an experience native speaker. We had good experiences with many of these teachers two years ago with my older son, so that’s no surprise, but I was still concerned that this one’s extraordinarily deep and frankly, unusual for his age – imagination, level of interest in and openness to learning might be constrained in a school environment. I’m not thrilled with presenting “1.5-2 hours of homework a night” as a feature, either, but I’m hoping that it won’t be the case for M, and if it is…we’ll recalibrate. Life is too short for an 11-year old to spend 7 hours a day at school and then have two hours of homework. But as I tell them both frequently – if it doesn’t work for you, we’ll do something else.
This morning I said to the older one, “Do you have any advice for your brother?”
He shrugged. “You’re going to be hungry and you’re going to be tired.”
All right, so you’re going to homeschool. What next?
I hear Europe is nice. Let’s go there.
Yes, that’s what we did. Spent the fall of 2012 in Europe.
I’m not going to relive that experience and go over it in detail, but I’ll just focus on what that absolutely crazy decision was about in the context of the decision to homeschool.
In short, it really was a way to force my own hand.
If I made us leave the country, there was no way I could, come August 1, change my mind and race back to school, registration forms in hand, begging for them to open the doors.
Yes, I was in a privileged position. But it was a privileged position that came out the fact that my father had died the previous year and I was an only child. Frankly, I would trade my father being not dead at 77 from the effects of 60 years of heavy smoking for that fall in Europe, but it was what it was, and as I contemplated what he would want me to do with part of what he had left behind, I was sure he would be just fine with it. This was something he could give these kids through me and this moment, so it happened.
So we went.
Oh, and I should mention that this time in Europe was also a trial run. I was seriously toying with the idea of moving to Europe for a time. Didn’t know where, but it struck me as another solution to the American-education-is-mostly-terrible dilemma. Before we went, I spent time studying the possibility of life in various mid-sized cities like Turin, for example – looking at homeschool rules, the experiences of American kids going to school in European schools and so on.
Well, that almost-four months cured me of that notion. Not in any dramatic fashion, and not in negative terms, but I simply came to understand that as much as we all like visiting European countries, my kids are American kids, they like living in America, and I like raising them in America. With all the stress of being a little family whose husband and father had died, I saw very clearly that taking us to Europe to live would just be…stupid.
So yes, we were in Europe, doing the Roamschool thing, and here’s what we did:
First, I said from the beginning of this that they would be perfectly free to return to school in January. It was going to be completely up to them. And I wasn’t joking, and I wasn’t playing psychological games. I meant it, they knew it, and the school knew it.
With that in mind, we did some formal “schooling” in Europe, mostly with the curricula that their school used in the basics, so that in case they did return, they would be on track with their classes. That meant the second-grader did his class’s spelling words and math program. The sixth grader did the same, plus the vocabulary book. I have photos of them sitting at tables in a gite in the Pyrenees with their books open, pencils going. I am insufferable and awful. But you know…I meant well. And really, I had no expectations that they would want to keep homeschooling come January – I thought they would be thoroughly sick of me and my constant, insufferable teachable moments, and if so, they wouldn’t want to “be behind.”
Journaling and doing Envision Math in Appy, Montignac and Lausanne. Crazy. Not the journaling part, but…
The rest of the education was absolutely, er, teachable moment from one day to the next – but I did prepare and I did teach. I even sort of designed the trip to hit the high points in chronological order. We started in the Montignac area where there are a lot of prehistoric sites. Then moved to Provence (with Lourdes in between) where we took in Roman Gaul. Then Paris for a month..well, Paris. Then to Italy. Well, okay, it was all over the place. But it was all very intentional and how can you not learn tons in that context?
And today, I look back, and I think…I did what? I planned four months in Europe with these two and we did it, and every day we did this thing and saw everything…and we lived?
It wasn’t that long ago, but I swear..I can’t imagine undertaking that kind of trip today. It was mostly glorious and amazing and I prayed for my dad – and everyone else – at every shrine.
As the end approached, the question started coming up.
Well? Do you want to go back to school?
Most of the time while we were over there, the answer was either that they didn’t know or “probably.”
But then we actually got back home, we went to the Homewood Christmas Parade they saw their friends, saw that they would be able to be thick into basketball and scouts with these friends and didn’t need school to see them, then considered the reality of waking up early every morning, putting on uniforms and sitting in classrooms, compared it, not to Europe, but to what I suggested we would be doing – work, sure, but also science center classes, zoo classes, “school” done, if everyone cooperated, by noon every day at the latest….
We’ll stay home. Homeschooling will be fine.
And it was.
Now, I’m not going to go into great detail on our days. If you want to see how crazy that was, you can click on these links, which should take you to most of the posts I wrote on homeschooling over the past few years.
What I am going to talk about will also be a bit limited because I don’t want to go into too much detail about my kids. There was nothing bad or problematic, but I just don’t think it’s my right to write about the particulars of their personalities in relation to education. That’s their business. But what I’ll try to cover is what we did and how it worked without crossing that line of privacy.
First, what did I envision?
To be honest, I really did envision being far more Unschoolish than we ended up being and I do harbor regrets that I never could pull it off. I had hoped that they really would take charge of their own learning and I would just facilitate, and it would be a glorious, busy little hive of self-directed learning, projects and entrepreneurship, but it didn’t work out that way for reasons having to do with them, and having to do with me.
It’s hard to explain, but I think part of it was that the compliance that school demands had…worked. They were perfectly cooperative with authority to the extent that they – especially the older one who had been in school longer – were in the mode of “Learning is about doing what a teacher tells me to do.” I knew this before we went, and indeed, it was something about him that I had discerned and hoped homeschooling would break. But perhaps it is just his personality. As the years went on, he really just preferred to be taught and get it over with for the day so he could go on with his life – and I never could work the “go on with his life” into some sort of educational path. Eh, it was fine.
And secondly, well, there’s…me. I’m not a control freak, but you know, there were some things I really thought they should do. Yes, we’ll unschool. We’ll be roamschooling unschoolers!
But you know, you know…you have to know how to write properly. Oh, and you’re not going to get out of homeschooling without some Latin. And this math program is fantastic. Oh, and here are some poems to memorize. Look, Shakespeare!
Yeah, I know some unschoolers, and I admire them. I wish I could claim the mantle, but I just can’t.
I guess I should also mention my own personality and how it worked into the homeschooling paradigm. This might be useful to readers, since this is something you have to consider as you get into this. I’m not a robot. I’m a person with certain characteristics and a particular personality. Forget the kids. How am I going to fit into homeschooling?
I mentioned before that I’m an introvert and that the surge of relief I feel when I’m finally alone is probably felt three houses away. I usually explain it by telling a story:
For a time, a few years ago, one of my older sons was living with us, right after he returned from some time teaching English in Rome and while he was going to graduate school. At the time, the younger ones were in school. The day would dawn. They’d go to school. I’d come back, and my older son would be in his room with the door closed. I’d sit at the my desk, ready to work, but finding it difficult. I’d fidget, find distractions and generally feel not quite settled. A couple of hours later, my up-to-then invisible and silent son would come out of his room. “I’m going to class now, Mom,” he’d say, and he’d leave.
Finally, I’d think. Now I can concentrate.
Pretty crazy, huh? Well, that’s an introvert for you.
So yes, I was going to have to be aware of that – as if I couldn’t be – and take care of myself so that I would, at some point, just lose it because no one ever goes away.
And then there’s the personality thing. I don’t set a whole lot of store by personality inventories, except when I do. Like any of you who have worked in group settings, particularly during the 80’s and 90’s, I had to take various personality tests – Enneagram, Myers-Briggs, etc. They are mostly fantasy, but you know…I actually have always found the Myers-Briggs reasonably predictive of my own personality. I always tested as an INFP, and that introvert/intuitive/perceiver is right on. I like to research my tail off, but I don’t like to plan, and my actions within situations are very reactive – in a good way, I think. I’m ready to go in any direction, and I go in what I perceive the needs of the moment call for instead of imposing my will on the situation.
This means that as a homeschooling parent, there was no way we were going to do a boxed curriculum. It meant that as much as possible, I was going to follow their lead and facilitate – much easier, as I have indicated, with one of then than with the other.
And honestly, what it meant was that I spent a lot of time researching resources of all kinds, often late into the night, seeking out interesting nature and history videos, copywork materials, online math, grammar and language games, places for us to go and information about whatever was the topic of the moment.
My life would have been “easier” if I’d done a boxed curriculum or just depended on textbooks, but that is not why I was homeschooling. At all. And of course, I love researching. I love doing travel research, I love digging up recipes…I’m a library rat, and the Internet is the Biggest Library of All.
At one point, there was an attempt to bring a hybrid Catholic school into the area: kids would be in a school maybe two days a week, I think, then finish up work at home. I love the idea of a hybrid school – it really is my ideal – but every time I would think, “Maybe…” I would look at the curriculum again, and think, What they would be doing that I like…we are already doing at home. And I don’t like some of it. And I would be paying a good chunk of money for it. And we would be constrained in our travel and their other fun classes that they like to do.
So I never signed up for it, and as it turned out, not enough people did in the area, so it didn’t happen.
Homeschoolers are hard to plan for, I tell you. They are an independent lot!
And so that’s how it went for two years for both of them, and then for the younger one alone when the older one went, first to 8th grade in school, and then high school. My goal was to get what I considered basics in every day: a bit of writing practice, math and Latin. Everything else was ad hoc and geared to the moment. If their science center class was on molecules one week, we’d talk about that a lot and do more experiments. If we were going to be seeing a Shakespeare play in a few weeks, we’d be reading that. If it was Lent, we’d be paying attention to that. They took lots of classes in the community, and we traveled in the area quite a bit. “School” took no more than three hours a day.
For you see, this is something I had learned from classroom teaching: You can’t teach everything, so just try to teach what you can, and do it well. For example, I taught Church History to high schoolers, and as I would explain it, holding my arms out as far as they could go, “There’s this much history.” Then I would hold my fingers very close together. “And we have time to study this much.”
In other words, I had to constantly tell myself, THEY ARE TWELVE AND NINE YEARS OLD. THEY WILL READ MORE SHAKESPEARE. THEY WILL ENCOUNTER CHEMISTRY AGAIN. THEY MIGHT EVEN TAKE LATIN AGAIN. CALM DOWN.
So what did I want for them?
To develop a lifestyle of looking at the world with open eyes and open minds, learning from every moment, and learning how to understand that world and communicate what they see. I wanted them to see how fluid life is and how our understanding of the world changes through time, and to understand this, as much as possible via the world itself without the mediation of textbook companies and state curricula guidelines and their narrow, shallow, secular viewpoints. I wanted them to see that the world is beautiful, fascinating, but broken, and to be open to the intuitions within them that are prompting them to contribute to that beauty and heal the brokenness, whether that be as an artist, an engineer, a researcher, a physician, a zookeeper..or who knows what else God is calling them to.
I took this our first full day in Europe in 2012, and it remains my favorite, expressing everything I hoped for them from that roamschool adventure.
Tomorrow, I’ll write about my favorite resources, and Friday, I’ll wrap up with a big “What I Learned” post, so…#rantingahead