I have been hesitant to write about our first year of home schooling because I don’t know if my insights offer anything new, but nonetheless, we’ve done it and as anything else goes in life, it was a learning experience for us all. We are not home schooling zealots; we have public-schooled, parochial-schooled, and even home-schooled before with my oldest two children. Life has taught us not to approach education as if there were one right way. If something isn’t working, keeping trying and changing until it is fixed. Expensive private schools are permanently banned from the list of possibilities though, on principle.
This was our first year to home school the younger children. It was my first year to use a Catholic curriculum since I was just beginning conversion when the older two were educated at home, and I was ignorant of such curricula.
I hadn’t planned to homeschool, but that changed rather suddenly. We had no choice but to move last year, and thus found ourselves leaving behind a cul-de-sac neighborhood in the Boston suburbs, where the kids were established in a wonderful parochial school, to an old restored lodge on 20 remote acres of woodland in the Adirondacks. It was a radical change.
It seemed like a logical step to home school, with nature as our classroom. So I ordered the Kolbe Academy curriculum and we set out last August. On reflecting, here are five things that made a difference. These are pretty random, but they are the things that got us through, things I wouldn’t have been able to write down ten months ago, things I didn’t expect.
I will never be an unschooler, I can’t do it. I need some structure and some routine, not that unschoolers have no such thing, but I need more definition than that. I like curriculum. On the other hand, I am not overly organized. It helped to think of our schedule as a framework, like the metal frame that a building is built around, a skeleton. We did not follow a strict daily routine, but we did follow a weekly routine. If someone didn’t finish by Friday, she worked on the weekend. If she didn’t finish by Monday, we called her “behind” and pushed her to catch up.
I know some people support more flexibility than that, but concern for a slippery slope kept us on schedule. I know myself, I am tempted to anxiety or laziness if I let things slip too much. If I had let a week slip, I feared I’d let two, and I couldn’t have operated under the stress of being two weeks behind. Thinking in terms of framework spares you from over-complication though, it forces you to decide what matters most. Figure out how much framework you need.
Did we stay in pajamas all day and start working at 3:00 pm? Yes, sometimes, but not on days we knew we were falling behind. Did we skip a week here and there? Yes, but when I realized I had three weeks to finish three weeks worth of work, that framework told me to work harder now, take a break later. Did we do all the work in three days and take off the last two? Occasionally, but not that often. The girls naturally preferred a steady pace, seven days a week, and our framework allowed us to settle into that, even if I told them they were falling behind on the weekends.
“Try” Not “Try Your Best”
It hit me about three-quarters of the way through the year. I was saying “Try your best” way too much, and that left wiggle room for what “best” really was. I don’t know about other kids, but my kids will argue with a rock, and look for all kinds of ways to avoid work. I started saying just, “Try.”
I told them, “What is the one thing that will upset me?”
“If we don’t try.”
“That’s right. I will always be happy with you for trying. If you try, I will help you. There is no possibility that you will fail, we’ll work through this together. If you don’t try, I can’t help you. As long as I know you are trying, we’re good. Keep trying. If you want me to shut up, then, you know…try.”
If the child needs a break, grant it, but expect the child to work when you say to work, and encourage the child to keep trying until she is done. That means sometimes you have to break things into smaller bits, but I kept the constant mantra. “Try.”
And I frequently added, “If you are trying, of course you are trying your best, otherwise, you aren’t really trying. You are being lazy.”
Ask Specific Questions
In the beginning of the year, the girls learned very quickly that asking questions was a way to get out of doing work. Sometimes subconsciously, sometimes intentionally, they would ask so many questions that I was overwhelmed and they were shutting down.
“I can’t do this.”
I would explain.
Thirty minutes later…
“I don’t know what to do.”
I would explain again.
An hour later…
“Why are you still sitting there?”
“I don’t know how to do this.”
I would yell. The child would cry. Nothing got done.
So I started refusing to answer vague and random questions. I insisted, absolutely insisted, on specific questions. After all, that’s a life skill we all need.
“I can’t do this.”
“Go sit back down and do not come back to me until you can ask a specific question. I can’t help you if I don’t know exactly what you don’t understand.”
That changed everything. It made the child think, it made the child figure out what she knew and didn’t know. It allowed me to give a useful answer or instruction. It put the child in charge of the learning.
“I don’t know what rhombus means.”
“I forgot what to do if the top number is smaller than the bottom number when I’m subtracting.”
“I don’t understand what the instructions mean when they say to ‘unscramble’ the vocabulary words.”
It turned the learning-teaching experience into a child-focused experience. My children started learning how to learn for themselves, how to teach themselves. And they asked fewer questions, but got more work done. If they couldn’t figure out how to ask a specific question, I told them to (see above) “try”.
Make Friends With the School District
I never even saw our school district contact in person, but I let her know up front that I understood she had a job to do, that the state required certain things from us, and that I would comply by email. She was grateful. It established a relationship of trust, and although I have to scan work samples and submit standardized tests (a pain in the rear), I realize it’s not because she is trying to make my life difficult.
Don’t get me wrong, I think it is absurd for the state to require these things and I am all for standing up and demanding fair treatment (even if you make the papers). But it’s better to fight the fight with the people who have the authority to change things and get along with the ones who don’t.
Also, I actually found that I appreciated having to send in work samples and standardized tests, which surprised me. Why? Because there were times when “Try!” and “Ask specific questions!” just didn’t work. As a last resort, I would remind them that we are all accountable to the school district, whether we like it or not, the children are required to be educated and if they didn’t do a good job, the state wouldn’t let them advance to the next grade level. I know there are reasons to reject too much state intrusion on education, but I honestly found this to work in our favor. I may change my mind about that later, but that’s where I am now.
I’ll just advise the same thing my friend and author, Val Bianco who is a father of ten homeschooled grown children, “Give ‘em all wiffle bats.” We hardly left home because it’s too hard with so many small children, and plus, we like being home. No, it’s not the same kind of socialization you get in a classroom with kids the same age, but I actually question whether that’s appropriate socialization anyway. Maybe it’s good to fight it out in earnest once in while, and get real.
Here’s something I noticed. When the kids were in school all day, they behaved (well, mostly), but when they would get home they would go bonkers and fight until bedtime. I’m convinced it was because they expended a lot of mental and emotional energy all day trying to behave, the stress of trying to fit in, and they needed to release the stress at home, which was doubly bad since they were also so tired.
When we are all home together all the time, we socialize in much deeper ways. Yeah, we get on each other’s nerves, we fight, we get angry and annoyed — we say so, we work through it. You have to work through it. There is no “school’s out” hour where everyone separates until the next day. At the end of ten months, we’ve broken through to new relationships, relationships I don’t think we would have formed only seeing each other at night when everyone is spent.
Do not assume I never had a meltdown and threatened to open the door and run hard and fast. I did, but I apologized, and to my surprise my daughters did all the laundry the next day, on their own without being asked, after doing their school work without complaining. Then we went to confession on Saturday. We reached a new level of understanding each other. I’m an authority, but I’m Mommy, and Mommy’s not perfect, but she’s also not a push-over.
In fact, the dryer is running as I type. They were out of clothes and wanted to go out to play so they did a load of laundry themselves — an eight and a nine year old. They also learned to make oatmeal muffins this morning. Yesterday we cut up our own rotten wood and built a fire to roast chicken over at night. You just don’t get that in school. Plus, we have a connection with nature now that we never had in the manicured cul-de-sac. We needed to see the trees and the sun and the stars, not the walls and the ceilings. This connection is profound, without a doubt it was the most important thing. We lived together in God’s glory.
What will we do differently next year? I want to find ways for them to take responsibility themselves for managing a week at a time.
What are our plans for college? At this point, I’m thinking we will buy them a business and help them run it. If they want to go to college, they’ll have to earn the money themselves. More on that another time. I have a lot of thoughts about “home-college” though. A lot.