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Early this past summer, Cardinal Sarah gave a talk at a conference in London in which he suggested that priests take another look at the ad orientem posture during Mass.

Many, many blog posts and articles have been written and passed around since, and I’m sure there are more to come if, indeed, some priests and bishops have been inspired by Cardinal Sarah’s gentle suggestion that if one is going to revisit the practice, the First Sunday of Advent would be a good time to do so.

I have written quite a bit on this matter before, and in a minute, I’ll link to some of those older blog posts, but for the moment, I just want to share some of what I’ve been thinking about on this score in the wake of the Cardinal’s talk and the fallout from it.  I offer these points in the hopes that they’ll be a help to the people in the pews who might be seeing this posture for the first time and are confused by it, as well as for priests who might be considering it.

  • This shouldn’t be a big deal. Both postures are permitted – and ad orientem is even assumed by the rubrics in the sacramentary.
  • If you see a priest celebrating Mass this way, don’t be shocked or offended. It doesn’t mean he hates you or thinks he’s better than you are. He’s praying. For you.
  • Celebrating Mass in this posture – facing the same way as the people in the congregation – was the norm for most of Catholic history. It is still the way the liturgy is celebrated in most Eastern Catholic Churches (not Maronite Rite, in my experience), Eastern Orthodox Churches and even in some High Anglican parishes and some Lutheran churches. Here, for example, are photos of  Lutheran services:
  • Source of photo on left. Photo on right. 
  • To flesh out this last point – here’s a blog post from a Lutheran blog on liturgy expanding on the logic of ad orientem.
  • So why did versus populum become the norm in Latin Catholicism? Many reasons, but when you read the literature of the liturgical movement on this score, the idea was that in turning the priest around (in conjunction with the vernacular) , the people would understand more of the Mass and feel more connected to the action at the altar. There is more, but I think that is the simplest way to look at it.
  • But as is always the case, change produces unintended consequences. We can argue about this all day – and who knows, we might! – but in my mind, the primary and quite negative consequence of versus populum has been pervasive expectation that the personality of the priest has an important and even central liturgical function.
  • In other words, ironically, the act which was supposed to involve the people more rendered the person of the cleric more important.
  • In the Mass, the priest is, of course, of central importance because he serves as in persona Christi. But the genius of the Roman liturgy historically is that the ritual supports his role at the same time as it buries and subsumes his individual personality under vestments, prescribed movements and words, not to speak of the roles that other ministers play. He does not wear his own clothes or say words of his own choosing. He must be present, but everything about what surrounds him in the moment points us to Christ, not this individual human being.
  • Which now brings us to possible complaints about this posture. These are simply an intensification of the complaints one hears about priest-celebrants all the time, and are reflective of the misplaced expectations congregations sometimes have of priests and which, in turn, I think are fed and enabled precisely by the versus populum posture, especially if a priest encourages it by his own liturgical stylings.
  • This childish notion that one’s experience of the liturgy is somehow dependent on whether or not Father is looking at us when he is praying to God is just that. Childish. Add to that concerns about how much he smiles, how friendly and welcoming he is, the jokes he tells and how relaxed he is, and you have, not The Most Well-Educated Laity in History at Mass, but a bunch of needy infants.  It also puts an inordinate amount of pressure on priests. Not only are they shoved up on pedestals, they are considered deficient if they fail to  warmly crack jokes and make eye contact in the process.
  • I’ll also be so bold as to offer some suggestions to parishes and priests considering incorporating this posture into liturgy.
  • Don’t make a huge deal of it. Explain things simply. Emphasize historical continuity, that the rubrics assume it, and that many, many other Christians experience worship in this way. Explain the purpose is to help everyone focus on God as a community. Extra points for mentioning that this is the way Thomas Merton celebrated Mass.
  • Consider making a joke or two about how the congregation might be relieved not to have to study your face through the entire Mass or something. I know! A joke!
  • Start with daily Mass, school Masses or special Masses for smaller groups.
  • Don’t elevate this change to The Most Important Thing About Our Parish. If it is a new initiative, consider coupling it with another new mission-oriented, Work of Mercy-type  initiative for the parish. (or 2!)
  • Catechize, explain thoroughly, but don’t clutch the podium, heave deep apologetic sighs, and generally act as if you expect the worst.

 

"amy welborn"

 

As I said, I’ve blogged on this before. Here are some links.

From a previous iteration of the blog, I crowdsourced for feedback on ad orientem in non-Catholic Christian traditions. 

Back in 2008, I had three days in a row of focused discussion of this issue.

First – and actually, this is one of my favorite blog posts – I posted a photograph of a TLM, and just asked people to respond to it. I called the post “Necessary Conversations” because I wanted to encourage people on all “sides” to express their responses and listen to each other.

The next day, I reflected on those responses. At the end of the post, I highlighted one of the responses to the photograph, a response I still think about when I’m in the pew, and the priest in chasuble passes me in the entrance procession:

I see a man offering a sacrifice. The man has a cross on his back.

The third day, I reflected a bit on clericalism in this context.

Finally, I’m going to reproduce part of a two-year old blog post here, just because I like it and it encapsulates so much of what I want to say pretty succinctly:

As it happens, last weekend, we attended Mass in South Carolina, and this happened:

"amy welborn"

It was at Stella Maris Church on Sullivan’s Island. Stella Maris is a lovely, tiny church.  I had hoped that it might be a little less crowded this time, since the summer season was, of course, over, but it was not to be.  The place was packed, with, I believe, the overflow area packed as well.  Fortunately, we got there just in time to get a seat in the main body of the church – which, as I said, is tiny and historic.  It can’t be physically expanded…so they just have to pack them in in whatever way they can.

Tons of servers, good music, solid, focused preaching. Post-Mass prayers, which, in my limited experience, are becoming more and more common in the southern Catholic churches.

And, of course,  the Eucharistic Prayer prayed ad orientem. The fact is, the sanctuary is too small to accommodate another freestanding altar, and that is just fine.  It was all done matter-of-factly with no fuss and it didn’t seem that the engaged, loudly-singing congregation felt excluded, alienated and crushed by clerical privilege, but who knows, I could be wrong.

 

 

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I never try to do much on Labor Day weekend.

Once, in 2011, I did.

I stupidly rented a house down on the Gulf – as one does in this part of the world  –  then spent a couple of days in the week leading up to the weekend emailing the owner, my nervousness mounting by the day as I watched the weather turn, and turn badly, since with rentals that close to the booking date, you’re generally stuck no matter what. I got the boys out of school early that Friday, started down 65, and then got the call from the owner. Don’t bother, he said, it’s coming. (I think the storm was Lee?) But he was also very generous about the whole situation and offered another weekend to me   – which he absolutely did not have to do.

Oh, well, the point was that ever since then I’ve not bothered to even think about making big plans, especially in this part of the country where Labor Day means not so much “end of summer” as “beginning of hurricane season.”

At first, this year, I had another reason to stick around as well: the boys were scheduled to serve at the convent Sunday morning. But early last week, Sister called and said that someone wanted to switch, and would that be possible? Since the weekend to which we’d switch was a weekend we had to be in town anyway for a piano recital…sure!

So, what to do? Friday night was high school football, and someone wanted to go to the game – as it ended up, both of them went. I toyed around with spending the next couple of nights away…but where? North Georgia mountains maybe? We’d done that one November and it was lovely. But this time – Nah. Too far. Nothing available for a reasonable price. Too much trouble. Besides, with both of them in school, hanging out at home and getting to sleep late in your own bed is a welcome change from days of early rising. “Vacation” would just not be restful, and I had to accept that.

(The son who has just come off four years of homeschooling said the other day, “The days seem so long now! Why do they seem so much longer?”  I said, “Considering you used to sleep until 9 or 9:30 and now you get up at 6:30…yes, your days literally are longer.  That might explain it.”)

But we managed to get out and about anyway.

Saturday morning, we started out at Pepper Place Market near our house, a farmer and crafty market which happens every Saturday from late April through November. I didn’t buy anything, but they like to wander and taste things and see the dogs people bring along.

(Huh. Thought I had pictures. Nope. Reason for everything.)

I then suggested Ruffner Mountain, where we’d not been in a while. It used to be quarried and mined, so there’s that attraction, as well as the views of the city. There are no creeks or other water features and not that many rocks to climb, though, so it’s not the first place that comes to mind for an interesting hike, but it’s about fifteen minutes from the house, plus there was an estate sale just a few houses away from the preserve’s gate, so that was what we settled on.

(We didn’t get much at the sale – just a few toys for the soon-to-be visiting grandson/nephew – and I picked up yet another empty, unused photo album. I hate spending ten bucks on those things, and these days, since hardly anyone actually prints photos anymore, I usually find at least one at most estate sales, and never pay more than a dollar. Because you’re fascinated, I’ll also tell you that the day before, I’d picked up  two very good, heavy, barely used frying pans for two dollars each at another sale as well as a never-used door-frame pullup bar for ten, so I could finally fulfill a promise I’d made months ago to the boys. About a pull-up bar, not frying pans.)

Then a good walk.

"amy welborn"

 

Which took us to about three. Back home for a bit, then Mass, then…what? A movie? No, it’s football season now…so it was shifting between the Florida, Alabama, and Indiana games.

(Speaking of football. My daughter just started graduate school at Alabama. She said, “People here really do say “Roll, Tide” instead of things like “Heck,yeah.”  So of course I sent her this:)

Sunday, I declared the Day We Would Find Martha’s Falls.  The younger one had been there with a friend last year, and had been bugging me to go back ever since. I kept forgetting, and every time I would remember, it would be about 1 in the afternoon, and it’s an almost two-hour drive. But Sunday, I remembered earlier, and sleeping until ten was accepted as late enough, so up 59 we went.

(I am not a fan of that stretch of road, the interstate that takes you from here up to Chattanooga. It always brings to mind those months and months I drove it so many times back in late 2011 and 2012, when my father was sick and then died and then I had to go up to Knoville and back to settle things again and again. I also drove it into Birmingham when we first moved here in 2008- I must have been in Knoxville before the final leg. Every time, I mentally note the convenience store where I got gas. So I-59 always makes me think of  death and the weird places life takes you. But again, I think about that every day, so no really a big change there, just in intensity.)

We had been to Little River Canyon and DeSoto Falls a few times before, but never to this section. If you ever have a chance, you really should check it out. It’s a gorgeous part of Alabama, and a really interesting land feature. What you have is Lookout Mountain – a loooooong mountain that is really part of the foothills of the Appalachians, and on top of that mountain and down into it is the Little River and the canyon it has carved, which is truly beautiful and not that developed. There are just a few spots to access the river and this one – Martha’s Falls or the “Hippie Hole” takes more than just a stroll from the car to get to. You park, and then you have to hike about a half mile through the woods, and much of the path is strewn with large rocks. The last few hundred feet take you down a fairly steep bank.

img_20160904_153013.jpg

 

But it’s gorgeous!

It was also pretty busy, and I’d hate to see how busy it would get if it were easier to access. So they can keep the way it is. That’s fine.

There was swimming and jumping. He also jumped from one higher level on the bank than this, but I wasn’t quick enough with the camera to get it.

It was a typical Alabama scene. I hate to shatter your stereotypes, but a “typical Alabama scene” means that there are all different types of people there, enjoying themselves and getting along. College students, high school church groups, white, black, lots of Hispanics, South Asians, a group of Chinese families sporting Georgia Tech gear and a couple of dozen bikers.

Besides whatever you’re doing to amuse yourself, the major entertainment is watching people jump off the highest point on the bank. Some don’t hesitate, but more than a few do. We watched, for probably fifteen minutes, as a teenage girl considered the drop. She got to the edge half a dozen times, urged on by her friends below, looked as though she might do it, then backed away every time. Did Chloe ever jump? We’ll never know, because it was time for us to go.

Of course, I was boring and declared it to be a metaphor of sorts. I asked mine what it takes to do something you’re scared to do. “Just do it,,” they said. “Just stop thinking about it and what’s going to happen and just go.”

Like I said. A metaphor.

 

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I finished this over a week ago, but am just now getting some time to write about it.

A thoroughly enjoyable, even absorbing book.

Long. So be prepared. The copy I read was 640 pages.

The story fills those pages, though, and it was great to have a book to settle into in the evenings, knowing that I’d be carried along but with more to look forward to tomorrow.

As I mentioned before, The Good Companions was an enormous best-seller in England when it was published in 1929. It’s the story of a “concert party” or pierrot troupe, which was a variety traveling entertainment company, very popular and common between the wars.

It takes a bit – about a third of the book – before we meet that troupe, named the “Dinky Doos” at that point. No, before that, we are immersed in the stories of three very different people whose paths will cross with each other, and eventually with the performers, changing their lives in the way chance encounters at the end of winding paths do.

Jesiah Oakroyd is a Yorkshire worker – a mechanic of some sort with a challenging family life and a hankering for the road.  Fear that he’s being accused of a crime and the actual reality of being fired from his job inspire him to set out and see what he can see.

Elizabeth Trant is a woman in her mid-30’s who has spent her adult life caring for her "good companions"recently deceased father. We meet her as the estate is being auctioned off and she senses the opportunity for change. This potential change is moved along by a visit from her nephew Hilary (whose accounts of his intellectual set – the “Statics” – is priceless), who leaves her his car.

Finally, there’s Inigo Jollifant, a young man with literary aspirations and musical talent who teaches in possibly the worst public school in England. After offending the wife of the headmaster one too many times, he, too, sets off late one night, determined to experience The Road and write something Literary about it.

These three experience various adventures, misfortunes and accidents that bring them all to the same place, which happens to be the same place that the members of the Dinky Doos are sadly gathered, having been abandoned and financially wiped out by their former manager.

And so, within a short time, characters respond to their inner promptings: to be of use, to do something brave and different, to meet a need, to have a lark – and The Good Companions are born.

Now, this isn’t a deep work of social commentary or the most profound character study ever penned, but it does pain a detailed picture of the England between the wars as well as the lives of a bunch of quite different people, all clearly and affectionately drawn. To get a taste, here’s a minor character who’s courting one of the female members of the troupe. His name is Dulver, and he’s a hotelier:

He was a bachelor about forty who liked to clothe his pink plumpness in sporting tweeds, wore a fair clipped moustache, and looked at the world out of prominent light-blue eyes that had about them a kind of hard amiability. His manner and phraseology suggested the confidential, but his voice was loud and carried far and he made full use of it, so that he always gave the odd impression that he was bellowing out his innermost secrets. Actually, however, he had no difficulty in keeping to himself whatever was best known only to himself, and was in reality a far more astute man of business than he appeared to be, like all the Dulvers, who for several generations now had been ordering drinks all round and slapping everybody on the back and talking at the top of their voices while they quietly contrived to feather their nests….

I can’t tell you how much I love, admire and envy that kind of quick sketch of character-drawing, and this book is full of that sort of thing.

I found The Good Companions a very satisfying read, and not without moments of authentic human emotion. The end is very satisfying, with a bit of closure, but also a reminder that the future and even the present is a mystery for all of us, whether we live in flesh and blood, on the stage or in a book:

In this place, whether we call it Bruddersford or Pittford Falls, perfection is not to be found, neither in men nor in the lot they are offered, to say nothing of the tales we tell of them, these hints and guesses, words in the air and gesticulating shadows, these stumbling chronicles of a dream of life.

(The novel has been adapted many times for film, stage and television. There’s a 1933 version with John Gielgud as Inigo that you can watch in chunks on YouTube. There’s a 1950’s film adaptation in which the action is moved to the present day, and the trailer is one of the more deeply painful things I’ve ever watched. I’d like to get my hands on the BBC series adaptation – it looks sort of fun, but then I don’t think I want to spend 9 hours watching it…life does go on, after all.)

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Fourth in a series. The others are here: My family background in education; the decision to homeschool; the basics of homeschooling for us.

This entry was going to be one entry on resources, followed by a “what I learned” post tomorrow. But I think I’m going to split the resources post in two, post the other half tomorrow, and save “what I learned” for Monday. Or maybe Monday and Tuesday. Every time I start thinking about it, I get all rant-y about education and can’t think in less that 5000 words, and that’s not fun for anyone.

So…what did we use for homeschooling?

As I mentioned before, there really was no way I was going to do a boxed curriculum. I couldn’t see the sense of it. There are so many great resources out there, I saw no reason to confine the boys to a certain way of learning, and while I wasn’t going to tie us to a specific style either, I did lean towards Charlotte Mason, which emphasizes “living books” (as opposed to textbooks) and experiencing nature/life/journaling – anyway.

OH..I should mention this. I probably should have mentioned it a couple of entries ago, because this played a huge role in my decision to homechool and how to go about it. Yes, this post will definitely get split into two sections now. Geez. How could I forget this.

What did the state of Alabama require us to do as homeschoolers?

Not much.

Alabama has very, very loose homeschooling rules. It even veers to..”almost none.”

Here’s how it works.

You make a decision to homeschool. The next thing is that you have to find what they call a “cover school” with which to associate. A cover school is the entity that mediates between the homeschooling family and the state – you register with the cover school, and the cover school tells the school system that you are enrolled.

At the end of the school year, you tell the cover school, “Yes, we had school for 180 days.”

AND THAT’S IT.

"amy welborn"

That is all you have to do. INFP dream life. You don’t have to report curriculum. You don’t have to test. You don’t have to inspected or certified or provide any more detailed documentation. All you have to do is report attendance.

It’s great. And honestly, I don’t know if I would have homeschooled if we had to provide a lot of detail to the government about what we were doing. One, having to do so really would tick me off. Secondly, I’m so disorganized lazy such an INFP it would be a lot of hassle, and I suspect it would have tilted that equation back in the direction of school.

Not kidding. As I considered this, I was all about the “sacrifice” and yes I was willing to sacrifice my time alone and creative energy that could go for work projects, but when you start talking “student portfolios” and “year-end evaluation” – I’m out. Jesus, take the wheel, because that cross is too heavy, and if I could think of one more metaphor, I’d use it.

When I was first learning about this, I also found it odd that the cover schools have to be church-associated. That got my dander up, and I was all about diversity and down on backwards Alabama, but then I realized that there’s a purpose for that.

First, the “church” can be any religious association you can dream up, so there are cover schools that are run by, oh, I don’t know, the Sisterhood of Transcendentally Aware Unicorn Seekers as well as First Church of the Blood of the King and Lord Jesus Holiness Tabernacle In the Piggly-Wiggly Parking Lot.

The purpose of it is to keep the state’s hands off of homeschooling activities, since in Alabama, chuch-related schools don’t have to operate by state standards. They can if they want to, and most do, but there’s no requirement.

So it actually makes sense – if you value your homeschooling independence. But I guess you could be against that.

If you’re a fascist.

Cover schools in Alabama provide more than just that letter to the school board, of course. Many sponsor activities and all provide transcripts when requested and the information is supplied by the parent. There is a diocesan cover school here, but I was a part of Everest Academy, which has a great, helpful website and sponsors good activities – last year, for example, M did a rock-climbing course and we went to a very nice program on Japanese art at the Birmingham Museum of Art.

So now…back to the specifics.

I didn’t want to use a boxed curriculum. There are no hybrid schools in the area and I was not aware of any co-ops that I might want to join. I had heard about a couple in outlying communities, but that would not be worth the drive. Last year, a fabulous local Catholic homeschooling mom began a homeschooling “academy” working out of the Cathedral. It did very well, and is expanding this year. M really enjoyed it, taking classes on drama and the history of science. Here’s the website.Here’s the website.

I also did not want to do online classes. I considered it, and looked into it, and if we had continued to homeschool in high school (or if we do in the future), I’ll look into it again – although as I considered homeschooling high school, my thoughts were leaning more towards hiring tutors for science, math and language rather than doing online classes.

Why not? I know many find them very useful, and I’m sure they are. But I really am not enthusiastic about kids in front of screens, even at home, and I don’t know what I think about my kids establishing even casual friendships with others online. We just don’t do that – don’t do online gaming, etc.

I did think about my older son doing an Art of Problem Solving math class, but when I looked into it more closely, I decided the pace was just too fast. He’s sort of math-y, but not that math-y, and there was really no reason to put him under that kind of pressure.

So. No online classes. No preset curricula. So…where does that leave us?

Well, the first place it leaves us is trying to figure out where we have been left. There are a zillion books and websites on homeschooling. What your homeschool is going to look like is completely up to you and your children. But getting ideas from others helps. Here’s where I looked:

  • Homeschooling blogs and other websites. This can be overwhelming, because there are so many of them and people going about them in different ways. It’s very easy to feel intimidated, but don’t. That said, after the initial decision was made, I didn’t spend a lot of time on homeschooling blogs unless a search on a specific question took me there. Everyone is just so different, there was no reason for me to use another person’s experience as a permanent reference point.
  • Discussion boards – now these are useful – and not just in terms of homeschooling. I tend to find discussion boards one of the most useful information sources on the internet. Even if I don’t enter the fray with my own question, what I find is that someone out there probably has the same question as I do and someone else has an answer that applies, no matter what the topic: Why won’t the stupid snake eat the stupid thawed out rat? Why won’t the Ipod turn on? How can I unclog my dishwasher? Bologna or Ferrara for a base? How can I help the hummingbirds stop dive-bombing each other and all get along?
  • So with homeschooling, my go to resource has been the discussion board at the Well-Trained Mind website. The Well-Trained Mind is the homeschooling community and resource center that has as its core the work of Susan Wise Bauer, known for her texts on history and writing and advocacy of classical education. If you are considering homeschooling – or even if you are not and are simply looking for ideas for enrichment as a parent or teacher – use this website. I got so many ideas on books and curriculum, I can’t tell you – the give and take between board participants, sharing their opinions of various books and curricula was so very helpful.
  • REAL PEOPLE. IN REAL LIFE.

That last point requires emphasis.

When I got started, I didn’t know many homeschoolers. I think I might have known one homeschooling family here in Birmingham. But just about the time I started, a Catholic unschoolers group started meeting on a monthly basis – and I attended only a couple of times because the meeting place was a good distance from my home. But through that, I made some initial connections, got on some email lists and started getting to know people. Then what happens is that folks start organizing activities, and you go to the activities and you get to know people and make friends. When we returned from Europe, the boys also started doing classes at the science center and the zoo, and I made connections hanging out and talking to other parents in those settings, talking curriculum, home dynamics, activities, and the question every conversation would end with….

So…what are you going to do about…high school?

And we would all just sigh.

I think what I’ll do is just go through a few subjects today, talk about what worked and what didn’t, finished up tomorrow with more of the same and a list of some of my other favorite resources.

Well, I typed that sentence thirty minutes ago, at which point I interspersed a few other paragraphs, and now I’m running out of time – I have a book proposal to work on that I promised “this week because I won’t have the kids at home anymore” – and THIS WEEK is almost over, so I guess I had better get on that.

So I’ll start with one subject: religion.

This really isn’t fair or representative, since I have an MA in religion and have taught it and written books about it, but that also means it’s a good one to get out of the way.

Religion

Didn’t use any texts consistently. Religion instruction (for 2nd-5th grader and a 6th/7th grader) was centered on the following:

  • Daily prayer which was a mash-up of Morning Prayer and the daily Mass readings.
  • Saint of the Day.
  • After prayer proper, I would spin out interesting themes from the prayer, readings and saints. We’d talk more about the saint. We’d look at geography or history. We’d talk more about the liturgical season. We’d look at art related to the saint/feast, etc.
  • I used the Universalis site for prayer and readings.
  • For saints, I used this book and this one as a start.
  • That’s mostly it, in terms of our school-day religious instruction.
  • For specific seasons, I would pull out some old vintage Catholic textbooks and have them read chapters like this one.

 

  • I did get a couple of Faith and Life volume and had the younger one read here and there, but nothing consistent.
  • They serve Mass regularly at the Casa Maria Convent and Retreat HouseCasa Maria Convent and Retreat House and I confess that one of the reasons I have them do it is that since the priests saying Mass and preaching are either experienced retreat masters – and well-known, like Fr. Paul Check, Fr.Andrew Apostoli and Fr. Brian Mullady – or Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word – they always hear good preaching with solid instruction. And since they are sitting right up there six feet from the preacher, facing a couple of dozens sisters and a bunch of retreatants and their mother, chances are good that they will listen to at least some of it.
  • Of course, our travels include churches, monasteries and shrines. Daily.
  • Every once in a while I would lift my head up from this Rich Holistic Teachable Moment Catechetical Tapestry and think of the younger one, “Wait..he does know that there are seven sacraments, right?” And I would quiz him, and he might forget Anointing of the Sick, but other than that, he was good.
  • And our conversations about Scripture were always peppered with me quizzing them on how to do Scriptural citations properly and little things like, “Okay…this reading is from Isaiah. Old or New Testament?” or “Name the Gospels. What comes after the Gospels? What are most of the other books in the New Testament about?” “List the first five books of the Old Testament. What are they called all together?”
  • I don’t see any need to do a lot of theology with kids. Teach them the faith via the Scriptures, the lives of the saints and the liturgical life of the Church, be involved in that life of the Church and the Works of Mercy and make sure they understand the basics. I think that’s a good, solid start. Because all you really need to know  is:

"amy welborn"

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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.”

#Truthteller

#Tradeoffs

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.

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Here.

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.

 

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“I have to tell you it has been fun.” Haha.

 

 

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.

Homeschool Daily Report

Learning Notes.

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.

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Fancy. 

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.

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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

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Dominicans in Benin, courtesy of the always interesting and inspiring African Catholics Instagram feed. 

Here’s Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on the saint, in one of his General Audiences, part of the series that focused on great figures in the Church, beginning with the Apostles:

This great Saint reminds us that in the heart of the Church a missionary fire must always burn. It must be a constant incentive to make the first proclamation of the Gospel and, wherever necessary, a new evangelization. Christ, in fact, is the most precious good that the men and women of every time and every place have the right to know and love! And it is comforting to see that in the Church today too there are many pastors and lay faithful alike, members of ancient religious orders and new ecclesial movements who spend their lives joyfully for this supreme ideal, proclaiming and witnessing to the Gospel!

Many other men then joined Dominic de Guzmán, attracted by the same aspiration. In this manner, after the first foundation in Toulouse, the Order of Preachers gradually came into being. Dominic in fact, in perfect obedience "amy welborn"to the directives of the Popes of his time, Innocent iii, and Honorius iii, used the ancient Rule of St Augustine, adapting it to the needs of apostolic life that led him and his companions to preach as they travelled from one place to another but then returning to their own convents and places of study, to prayer and community life. Dominic wanted to give special importance to two values he deemed indispensable for the success of the evangelizing mission: community life in poverty and study.

First of all Dominic and the Friars Preachers presented themselves as mendicants, that is, without vast estates to be administered. This element made them more available for study and itinerant preaching and constituted a practical witness for the people. The internal government of the Dominican convents and provinces was structured on the system of chapters which elected their own superiors, who were subsequently confirmed by the major superiors; thus it was an organization that stimulated fraternal life and the responsibility of all the members of the community, demanding strong personal convictions. The choice of this system was born precisely from the fact that as preachers of the truth of God, the Dominicans had to be consistent with what they proclaimed. The truth studied and shared in charity with the brethren is the deepest foundation of joy. Blessed Jordan of Saxony said of St Dominic: “All men were swept into the embrace of his charity, and, in loving all, he was beloved by all…. He claimed it his right to rejoice with the joyful and to weep with the sorrowful” (Libellus de principiis Ordinis Praedicatorum autore Iordano de Saxonia, ed. H.C. Scheeben [Monumenta Historica Sancti Patris Nostri Dominici, Romae, 1935].

Secondly, with a courageous gesture, Dominic wanted his followers to acquire a sound theological training and did not hesitate to send them to the universities of the time, even though a fair number of clerics viewed these cultural institutions with diffidence. The Constitutions of the Order of Preachers give great importance to study as a preparation for the apostolate. Dominic wanted his Friars to devote themselves to it without reserve, with diligence and with piety; a study based on the soul of all theological knowledge, that is, on Sacred Scripture, and respectful of the questions asked by reason. The development of culture requires those who carry out the ministry of the Word at various levels to be well trained. I therefore urge all those, pastors and lay people alike, to cultivate this “cultural dimension” of faith, so that the beauty of the Christian truth may be better understood and faith may be truly nourished, reinforced and also defended. In this Year for Priests, I ask seminarians and priests to esteem the spiritual value of study. The quality of the priestly ministry also depends on the generosity with which one applies oneself to the study of the revealed truths.

Dominic, who wished to found a religious Order of theologian-preachers, reminds us that theology has a spiritual and pastoral dimension that enriches the soul and life. Priests, the consecrated and also all the faithful may find profound “inner joy” in contemplating the beauty of the truth that comes from God, a truth that is ever timely and ever alive. Moreover the motto of the Friars Preachers contemplata aliis tradere helps us to discover a pastoral yearning in the contemplative study of this truth because of the need to communicate to others the fruit of one’s own contemplation.    More

Then, in 2012, on this feast at Castel Gandolfo, he focused on Dominic and prayer:

There are, then, nine ways to pray, according to St Dominic, and each one — always before Jesus Crucified — expresses a deeply penetrating physical and spiritual approach that fosters recollection and zeal. The first seven ways follow an ascending order, like the steps on a path, toward intimate communion with God, with the Trinity: St Dominic prayed standing bowed to express humility, lying prostrate on the ground to ask forgiveness for his sins, kneeling in penance to share in the Lord’s suffering, his arms wide open, gazing at the Crucifix to contemplate Supreme Love, looking heavenwards feeling drawn to God’s world.

Thus there are three positions: standing, kneeling, lying prostrate on the ground; but with the gaze ever directed to our Crucified Lord. However the last two positions, on which I would like to reflect briefly, correspond to two of the Saint’s customary devotional practices. First, personal meditation, in which prayer acquires an even more intimate, fervent and soothing dimension. After reciting the Liturgy of the Hours and after celebrating Mass, St Dominic prolonged his conversation with God without setting any time limit. Sitting quietly, he would pause in recollection in an inner attitude of listening, while reading a book or gazing at the Crucifix. He experienced these moments of closeness to God so intensely that his reactions of joy or of tears were outwardly visible. In this way, through meditation, he absorbed the reality of the faith. Witnesses recounted that at times he entered a kind of ecstasy with his face transfigured, but that immediately afterwards he would humbly resume his daily work, recharged by the power that comes from on High.

Then come his prayers while travelling from one convent to another. He would recite Lauds, Midday Prayer and Vespers with his companions, and, passing through the valleys and across the hills he would contemplate the beauty of creation. A hymn of praise and thanksgiving to God for his many gifts would well up from his heart, and above all for the greatest wonder: the redemptive work of Christ.

Dear friends, St Dominic reminds us that prayer, personal contact with God is at the root of the witness to faith which every Christian must bear at home, at work, in social commitments and even in moments of relaxation; only this real relationship with God gives us the strength to live through every event with intensity, especially the moments of greatest anguish. This Saint also reminds us of the importance of physical positions in our prayer. Kneeling, standing before the Lord, fixing our gaze on the Crucifix, silent recollection — these are not of secondary importance but help us to put our whole selves inwardly in touch with God. I would like to recall once again the need, for our spiritual life, to find time everyday for quiet prayer; we must make this time for ourselves, especially during the holidays, to have a little time to talk with God. It will also be a way to help those who are close to us enter into the radiant light of God’s presence which brings the peace and love we all need. Thank you.

From Word on Fire , by Fr. Paul Murray, O.P.:

Dominic, it is clear, possessed a strong instinct for adventure. He was daring both by nature and by grace. Dante calls him ‘il santo atleta,’ the holy athlete. No matter how difficult or unforeseen the challenge of the hour, he was not afraid to take enormous risks for the sake of the Gospel. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that within a few years it could be said of the young friars who followed in his wake, and whom he himself had dispersed far and wide to preach the gospel, that they had made the ocean their cloister. But was this spirit of risk and adventure reflected in the intellectual life of the first Dominicans? Study, we know, was given a place that was unheard of before in the history of religious life. It was no longer simply one exercise among others. It was now a central and sacred task. But, in terms of actual content and imaginative range, how striking and original were the studies of those first friars? The principal point to be made in answer to this question is that the early Dominicans were not attempting to be ‘striking and original’. Their studies were shaped by the needs of others, and given the nature of the crisis at that time, what was most urgently required for the task of preaching and the cura animarum was straightforward moral and doctrinal catechesis.

Here’s one of the many interesting Dominican web sites out there – focused on the Dominican liturgy. 

Godzdogs, the blog site of the Dominicans of England and Scotland.

The litany of Dominican saints and blesseds

Earlier this summer, we traveled to Bologna and enjoyed just a few minutes at the tomb of St. Dominic. We were shooed away by the caretaker because, of course, we arrived right as the gates to the tomb area were being closed for the lunch hour. And we didn’t hang around the church itself because there was a school Mass about to begin…but it was a nice moment, anyway, to be at the tomb of St. Dominic and to see the fruit of his labor – young people gathering for Mass – 800 years after his death.

Tomb of St. Dominic

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(Last image from Snapchat – amywelborn2 to follow)

And….St. Dominic is in the Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints.  Only a page is available in online, so here it is. He’s in “Saints are people who teach us new ways to pray” section.

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As promised, I’m going to be spending this week on the blog writing about homeschooling – how we got there, why we’re hitting the pause button, and what I learned from the experience.

And let me say before I get rolling here that I don’t fancy myself any kind of expert on homeschooling at all. There are people out there – mostly women – who have been doing this for decades. What I’m sharing is worth little in comparison to all of their wisdom and experience – Elizabeth Foss, Maureen Wittmann – and so many more. It’s just my experience that I’m putting out there, not only so I have a record for myself, but so that the curious who might be on the fence about homeschooling have one more perspective and set of experiences to consider.

I think, though, that before (again) you read about what lead me to the point of homeschooling, I might as well set out my bottom-line takeaway from the past four years – things I intuited before, but that homeschooling helped me see and articulate more clearly:

School is only one place where education happens. The problem has become that school-centered professional, predominantly government and corporate funded instructional systems have made themselves synonymous with “education.” This identification manifests itself on the local level when schools and their particular systems and expectations seek to dominate the lives of individuals and families. The growing popularity of homeschooling is an expression of dissatisfaction with this regime, a recognition that enabling and encouraging authentic education of individuals is not the goal of these systems at all and that real education is best found in freeing oneself, one’s children, and one’s family from these false and even damaging expectations. This freedom can take the form of creating or getting involved in alternative types of school more suited to a particular goal, or it can take the form of homeschooling…in all of its various forms.

In other words, what ultimately moved us into homeschooling was a deep dissatisfaction with days, weeks and months of inefficiently used and even wasted time and the expectation that of course we wanted to live a life dominated by the priorities and paradigms of the very institution that was wasting that time, and of course I wanted my kids’ self-image and understanding of what it means to be an educated person and person of wisdom to be formed by the paradigms of those schools, systems, testing companies, textbook corporations and state and federal governments.

And, since it’s private schools we were involved in, paying for the privilege as well.

In other words, after twenty-five years as a parent in these systems, about ten teaching, and of course, my own experience as a student over the years…I’d had enough.

The question would be, though, was I willing to make the sacrifices to do what my conscience was telling me was right?

But today, background:

My parents were both educators.

My Catholic mother (who died in 2001) attended both public and Catholic schools growing up in Maine. The public school classes were conducted in English, the Catholic school classes partly in French, partly in English. My mother developed tuberculosis as a teenager and never actually graduated from high school. She eventually got a BFA from the University of Arizona and almost a Master’s in Library Science from the University of Texas.

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(She didn’t want to write a thesis, so never finished). She spent a bit of time between Tuscon and Austin teaching English to mostly Native Americans high school students down in Ajo, Arizona in the mid 1950’s. She was a children’s librarian for a little while in DC, before she had me.

My non-practicing Methodist father (died in 2011) was public school all the way and graduated from high school at the age of sixteen. All of his college degrees, culminating in his PhD in Political Science, were from the University of Texas. He taught at various state universities, landing at the University of Tennessee in 1973, from where he retired.

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Deep in study at Paris Junior College

His parents were both educators. His mother was a life-long public elementary school teacher, mostly in small and medium-sized Texas towns. His father was a public-school high school teacher who spent summers working for graduate degrees, eventually earning a PhD in History from the University of Texas, then teaching in junior colleges. His sister, my late aunt, was a life-long public school elementary teacher married to a life-long public high school teacher and coach.

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Between them, they taught thousands.

There’s not a similar lineage on my mother’s side – her background was so different in every way. She was older (born in 1924) and her family was all French-Canadian. She was the first generation born in the US (New Hampshire) and the men in her family were all business people with some professionals – the uncle who raised her was a dentist – and the women tended to be homemakers, as far as as I know. Her only sibling, a brother, was an engineer, aEPSON MFP imagend his wife, my aunt, was a life-long fifth grade school teacher, though.

(My mother had ended up in Arizona because of respiratory problems, as one did in the 1940’s and 50’s – producing, as I understand, in the present day in the Southwest, the most highly-allergic demographic in the country, as all those emigrants prone to asthma and allergies intermarried….)

Oh, and me? Public school up until high school. Diocesan Catholic high school. I had mostly positive experiences of public school growing up. Catholic high school started to get problematic, but that was perhaps more because of the times in Catholic education (1974-78) than anything else.  Public four-year university (Go Vols) and private graduate university (Vanderbilt). I taught theology and some history in Catholic schools. Have not been in a classroom since 1999.

All that is to say that my background does not see school as the enemy – not even public school! My grandparents and parents taught in public schools to diverse populations. My mother’s stories from her time in Ajo were something else. It was challenging and frustrating, like anything else, but they worked on, teaching, mostly supported from above (administration) and below (families/culture/society). My own experience as a public school student in the 1960’s and 70’s was not a burden to me. It was boring at times, but mostly fine, the only hiccup being the construction of an open classroom building where I ended up for 4th

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If you look at the next image..you’ll see the same picture. Almost 50 years later.  

through 6th grade. It was so modern….but I think it sort of drove the teachers crazy even as everyone was on board the New Classroom Model. If you can imagine, the way it was set up was that the 4th-6th grade module was a huge half-circle part of the building – I’m imagining the whole building was perhaps clover-shaped. The library was in the middle – my primary memory of the library being reading Are You There, God, It’s Me Margaret during library time, being too timid to actually check it out.

Anyway, each grade had two sections, each of those arranged in one arc of that half-circle. There was a lot of movement and a lot of noise, but I actually have pretty strong memories of much of the work we did, particularly in 5th and 6th grade – some of it decent (projects on animals and countries that I can still picture), some of just too characteristic of the period – draw a picture illustrating Feelin’ Groovy. We sang Both Sides Now in chorus. We also sang One Tin Soldier , which was SUPER CONTROVERSIAL.

But here’s the thing: It was flawed, as all human activities are, but it served its fundamental purpose well and did not dominate our lives. There was homework, but not too much. There was some standardized testing once a year, but just a few days. There was not incessant, constant communication with home, and there was not, even though in some areas schools were an important part of community identity, this notion that when your kid entered first grade your whole family was becoming a part of a school family that was going to journey together towards human wholeness and mastery of the skills necessary to succeed in the 20th century.

No, there was still a sense that that journey towards human wholeness, the mastery of skills, and yes, even your own level of understanding, knowledge and wisdom – and where you chose to direct that – was on you.

We’ll help you develop the tools. We’ll teach to read, write, compute and point you in the direction of more specific skills and resources. Once in a while, a teacher might change a life and a school might be important to compensate for what was missing at home especially in cultures of low literacy, but really. Most of the time, school was just school.

Now, a caveat. We all know that any government school system has other goals, as well, mostly related to the formation of Good Citizens, and now, compliant consumers. Catholic schools are, and have always been about the formation of the whole person and salvation of souls. So if that pressure to have the school be such an important, formative part of a family’s life and a child’s formation was not felt, it was probably in part because cultural and social institutions were still tending to be on the same page, so there wasn’t the anxiety of a huge job that one of them was going to have to be tackling all alone. And while pedagogical pedants had been hard at work theorizing since the late 19th century, we (parents and others) had not ceded them complete power…yet.

So what am I saying?

My  family of educators were proud of what they did, but they also understood that schools were institutions like any other. They were systems that could change, that were run by flawed human beings with varied goals and agendas. There was nothing divinely ordered or inherently necessary about a school, much less a particular type of school or educational paradigm. And the higher up you got, the worse it could get and the less tied you were to The Way Things Are. There’s a reason the “academic novel” gets a whole genre of its own, and that genre is known for satire, irony, dark humor and the occasional murder.

My family of educators understood that the classroom gave you a start. It gave you a nudge, opened a space, but that one did not define one’s educational level by grades or by how much school one had completed. I mean…my mother was the smartest person any of us knew, didn’t graduate from high school, but still went to college. We lived in university communities, and when you do that, you know many people who have many degrees, but are also idiots.

Most education happened outside the classroom, by reading, being engaged in culture, religion, social life and politics, by creating music, meals, crafts or gardens, by traveling, by immersing yourself in local history, by going to church and Sunday school, through the spiritual life, by talking, arguing and discussing, and simply being quiet and contemplating the night sky, the ripples on a lake, the soft, smooth skin of your grandchild’s plump hand or the thin, spotted skin of your own.

And for kids, in being let loose at 3 pm, doing whatever until dinner, and running out and then doing it some more.

 

So, that’s where I came from, and that’s where I was. Schools and education were in my blood. All of my older children had gone to Catholic elementary schools, and one to Catholic high school, and I believed in Catholic education, but it wasn’t deep in my family background, either as an ideal or something to reject.  I was respectful and grateful for the institutions, but by no means in awe or idolatrous of any system and knew that most of my real learning – and that of everyone I knew – happened outside of the classroom.

In terms of my own life with my two remaining kids at home in 2011, I was not ecstatic with institutional education, but was fairly comfortable with the agreement I thought we had reached. After all, I only had a decade or so left, but who’s counting. I’d send cooperative kids in every day and support what they were doing in school. School was then going to do its part: teach the basics, enrich, inspire a little. School was going to do no harm. School, because it was called “Catholic,” was going to be holistically, counter-culturally Catholic.  I wasn’t asking school to transform our lives, but I was expecting that school wasn’t going to waste my kids’ time or my money. School would do its thing, and then school would step back and school would get  out of the way.

Deal?

amy-welborn9

50 years later, hanging on a different wall in a different time, still amid stacks of books, with different people learning in different, unexpected ways. 

 

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