Sunday, March 13, 2011

What I Learned in my First Weeks

     Wow, off and running!  It's a real temptation to talk about all the cool stuff we've done-- experiments in Einstein's Theory of General Relativity, using the neighbor's trampoline, field trips to the local Natural History Museum and local Zoo for science classes, starting to learn Latin, drawing a giant map on the sliding doors to add to whenever we encounter a new place in History or literature, or writing on the 5-foot-long timeline on the wall when we encounter new people, events, or other time-bound issues to keep track of so we can compare them with cultures we discover later in other units, kitchen-table experiments with light and color, and awesome dinner-time and car conversations and art projects and music and swimming and gymnastics and karate and hikes . . . whew!  No wonder everyone is sleeping well at night these days!
     It sounds as if we've really learned a lot!
     All of that first paragraph . . . all of those adventures, all of those facts . . . those are great and wonderful things, but all of that pales in comparison, in these first couple of weeks, compared to what we have learned about our children, each other, and what I am beginning to learn about myself and my capacity to absorb and change still, even in my (gasp) 40's.

      1)  Slowing down is good.
A few years ago, my husband was traveling and I required knee surgery.  I had already been through one similar procedure, and knew recovery would be pretty rapid, so no need for him to come home, but with two little ones running around (then ages 7 and 4) his very generous aunt came to stay for several days to see that everyone was fed, clothed, cleaned, hugged, and arrived to and from school on time, and took me to and from surgery, putting her "somewhat hectic" life on hold in the meantime.  Upon leaving, she commented, "I don't know what it is that you always seem to be rushing toward, or away from, but you seem to live your life as if always in a great hurry, trying to cram in as much as possible all the time.  I hope there isn't some great need that we are all unaware of yet for you to get it all in so fast."
     The first lesson I have learned during home schooling is that you easily accomplish far more by not setting a forced march pace.  Son#2 (age 7) was approaching Latin time, and said, "Mom, I don't feel good about starting a new chapter today.  I just don't feel like I really understand all of the last chapters yet, or all of the vocabulary memorized completely.  Can I go back and review today instead?"  Did I have a lesson plan for his progression through the book?  Well, sort of.  When he said that, the lesson plan mattered less to me than the maturity and wisdom that he had just demonstrated.  I told him to go ahead and review, but to please let me know what it was that was giving him trouble, and we could review it together, too, if he liked.  By the end of Latin time that day, he felt ready to proceed to the next chapter the following day.  There is no point in racing through material half understood.  Do it again and again, from a different point of view if necessary, until it is mastered, before moving on.  Otherwise, why did you bother doing it at all?  In home schooling, there is no reason to let anyone proceed with a grade of "C" or "D."  We aren't on an artificial timetable, unless we impose one on ourselves.

     2)  Being flexible is not just for the gym
Our history/geography/Literature/Writing unit is probably my most carefully plotted curriculum.  I don't subscribe to or purchase a "boxed" or pre-written curriculum guide from anyone; I follow a "spine" book, loosely, and we talk about a few pre-planned topics from that book each day for four days per week; during reading time, the kids read literature related to our main theme (right now, it's the ancient Greeks; son#1 might read a biography of Alexander the Great, Heredotus, Archimedes, or Galen; he might read passages from a well-written history anthology; he might read some classic myths, or he might read some fun fiction related to our topic, such as the Percy Jackson books; son#2 might read a child's biography of Socrates, a Magic Treehouse story set in ancient Greece, or age-appropriate non-fiction books about being a child in ancient Greece.  If they encounter appropriate information, they update the wall maps and timelines, they ask questions.  Son#1 read "Spartapuss," and was sufficiently intrigued that he headed to the library and checked out a book on Spartacus, to compare the fictional account to the historical one.
     Because I am not a walking encyclopedia on ancient Greece or any other ancient culture, I read ahead; I plan the lessons meticulously and outline what I want to teach them a week in advance.  I learn the maps and the stories and myths.  I start to feel rather personally invested in this plan!  However, the other week, I realized that one day's plan was . . . well . . . not of any interest whatsoever to two boys.  And it was not really going to further the education of a 2nd and 4th grader to know that women's tunics could be fastened this way or that way and be called by two different names depending on the kind of pin and shoulder fastening.  Really . . . why would they care?  I looked at the other topics that were slated for that day . . . all similarly . . . borrrrrring and irrelevant.  They were on the plan because they had appeared sequentially in my "Spine" book and I'd been frantically racing through my outline.  Whoops.  Now what?  Here's what.  Scrap the plan.  Salvage the one part that was kind of interesting-- architecture-- and put together a guide for identifying different kinds of Greek columns.  Put the kids in the car, go meet Dad for lunch, and then go walkabout on campus at the university, and identify the different types of Greek columns around campus.  Score!  Kids loved it, we found all the major types, and the kids learned a good reason to study these people who lived so long ago . . . a living example of how their lives still influence how we live and build today.  Had I not been flexible in my plan, we'd have had a rather dull and dreary afternoon, with the boys bored, and me frustrated that they didn't like my nice lesson.
     I overheard son#1 telling his buddy, "It's really cool.  I normally start my day by reading for half an hour to help wake up my brain, then do about an hour of math, so I know what to expect.  But if we have a field trip or a doc appointment or something, we might do music in the car, and move math to later on in the afternoon, and can even finish up history after dinner if we want to . . . and if I get really interested in something, I can finish it instead of having to put my book away just because a bell rang.  Mom makes me a list of what she expects from me, and trusts me to get it done.  I know she'll check up on my work later, but she doesn't bug me all the time while I'm doing it, so if I want to do spelling before grammar instead of after, it's okay."
     Coupled with clear expectations, flexibility makes for a dynamic, interesting day, week, and year of learning.

     3)  It isn't really home schooling . . . it's home education.
Sound nitpicky, doesn't it?  But it's a huge leap to make.  And once I made it, I was really off and running with teaching my kids at home.  Schooling at home is really not about recreating the school environment around the kitchen table.  It isn't necessary to do so, because I'm not teaching 30 kids; I'm teaching two.  This idea isn't about being superior to teachers; most are smart, dedicated, hard-working individuals.  But teaching at home allows me to customize the kids' education in a way that schools simply cannot.  son#1 is all over the map in terms of grade level for each subject, as is son#2.  In elementary school, this is simply not tolerated; kids are stuffed into a classroom based on age, not ability level, and they stay in that same classroom for every subject, regardless of whether their abilities are strong in one subject and weak in another.  Sometimes there is some wiggle room for "groups" for reading or math, though that causes social problems, because kids all know which groups are the "smart" and the "dumb" groups, as they are held publicly for all to see.  At home, there are no "groups."  You simply work at your current level in each subject, and make progress at an appropriate pace to challenge yourself.
     Also, there is the chance to throw out entirely a curriculum choice that isn't working.  There are more approaches to teaching math than you can shake a stick at.  My first choice for math for son#2 was a complete bust.  As it was a consumable workbook, resale wasn't an option, and into the recycling bin in went.  He's actually tackling math in a very multi-modal way, and that book was only one component-- the other components are all working beautifully, but that book was the "spine" of the program.  So now we have moved on to another program that, after working with him for three weeks, I can see where it is probably a far better fit.  So on to Singapore Math we go for son#2.  Very little repetition of the copy this example problem type, lots of tips on doing mental math.  We continue on with the Khan Academy, a strong tool, and Hot Dots, a tool he truly loves, as well as manipulatives such as Fraction Stacks, a practice clock, and play money.  It's a rather robust math program, but he will certainly know math!  son#1 is doing really well with Life of Fred, a more literature-based math series, Khan Academy, some logic puzzles, and challenge books that go beyond "typical" math, such as The Number Devil and Penrose the Mathematical Cat, plus 70 Must-Know Word Problems from Singapore Math.  Again, sure, he could go "faster" if I just told him to zip through Life of Fred, but is the point to zoom through so I can brag about how fast he is "doing math," or is the point to let him see math from many sides, so he can learn to truly appreciate it and understand it?
     The same thing applies to their Latin programs.  My life would have been far easier had I put them both into the same elementary Latin program.  However, after researching the available Latin programs, I really felt that my boys learn in very different ways, and chose two different programs, one most appropriate to each.  They probably could have both ticked off correct boxes from the same program, but I feel that each will truly learn more of the language from the programs I chose for them.  I don't want to produce a proud trancript for them that shows off MY prowess as a teacher at the end of each year.  I want them to emerge from each learning unit of study having learned something, learned HOW to learn, and having really earned an education.

     4)  Patience is a Virtue  and Cleanliness is Incompatible with Home Education
One of the most common comments I hear from others is, "I love the idea of home schooling, but I could never do it."  What the speaker most often refers to is not the economic impact (a real enough issue) of having one non-working spouse or a single-parent household; the speaker is referring to the idea of spending all day, every day, with your children, and with your children working with you, not necessarily being shoved out into the yard.  Sounds awful, doesn't it?  I mean, we all love and cherish our kids, right?  And I completely understand their meaning; I once thought the same thing-- gee, I love my kids, but I also cherish my "me time" when they get on that bus in the morning-- and when will ever get to the gym, grocery shop, go to the doctor, read a book, or anything else?  Or enjoy a moment's quiet?
     What I have learned in the last few weeks is that I really, really, really like my kids.  Of course I love them.  I always have.  And I've always loved doing stuff with them.  But my husband and I talked seriously about how I could call for an SOS while I was home schooling when I started to suffocate from never getting a moment's break.  We're not talking about the 0-5 age, when it's non-stop, but you know that eventually they will go to kindergarten.  This is a commitment until they leave for college.  But since starting to school at home, I have really found that I like spending time with my kids.  They are smart, funny, insightful, and have a lot to say that is worth hearing.  They're fun to play, shop, hike, swim, read, and hang out with.
     Schooling at home has changed all of us.  During the day, we are all very busy, and  have assigned roles and tasks.  I have not heard, "Mom, I'm bored!" since our venture began.  We have had some fascinating conversations at mealtime.  My 7YO asked over dinner whether the Greek Tyrants were really able to quell class warfare about the privileges of the aristocracy, and if so, why did they move on to democracy?  And if they liked their Tyrants enough to ask them to come to power, why does Tyrant have a bad meaning now?  My 10YO commented that since home schooling has started, he doesn't seem to watch much TV or spend time playing video games any more.  He concluded, "I guess I've learned I have a lot more interesting things to do with my time now, even though I'm home a lot more."  Both kids are helping to maintain our new compost bin, and are clamoring for us to put in a vegetable garden, because they enjoyed maintaining the one we had in Minnesota on our sabbatical.
     However, being constantly available for questions (Mom, why IS the abbreviation for pound lb?) planning out lessons (trial and error:  not leaving a lesson plan for the boys on the kitchen table the night before causes them to have a bad day for the entire next day-- they get a sense of security knowing that there is a written plan, even if we end up deviating from it) and grading and filing assignments (eventually the kids will take over filing) is not always compatible with keeping the house in perfect order.  Particularly when we move about the house throughout the day as we study, and scoop up and run to a field trip at a moment's notice.  I try to get dishes done, stay ahead of the laundry, and keep the kitchen table and floor cleaned up.  If possible, I try to get dinner planned, and on a terrific day, started.  I can crank laundry through the machine and dryer (I'd love a clothes line for warmer weather) but it might not get folded with a lot of efficiency.
     At night, instead of zoning out in front of the TV, my kids are more likely to approach me with a game of Monopoly, blockus, or Great States and want to play, or read a book together, or even play a game on my ipod such as Stack the States.  Or son#2 gathers up his stuffed animals and re-enacts the siege of Troy while son#1 reads the Chronicles of Narnia.  Or they go play outside with other kids in the neighborhood who have finally finished their homework after school.  But if they want to play with me, instead of, "I'm busy," I have found that even after spending all day with them, I am more likely to drop what I'm doing and say, "Sure, let's play."  The house, the bread, the kitchen, can wait.
     My normal MO is to want to start a task and focus on it obsessively, start to finish.  If I'm going to clean the family room, the family scatters, lest they be scooped up, deposited in an appropriate location, dusted and scrubbed, and left to dry.  I show no mercy when I'm on a mission.  A ringing phone either doesn't get answered, or gets answered with fantastic irritation, because I WAS CLEANING AND IT INTERRUPTED ME.  Home schooling does not work well with this approach.  By nature, schooling at home encourages inquiry, pushes kids to their boundaries, which means they will require help and instruction, and is supposed to foster trusting relationships.  There is no trust if asking Mom for help gets you snapped at.  Hence, my house is not at its tidiest at the moment.  And I have had to learn to be very, very patient, and had to learn that being interrupted (not mid-sentence, but in the course of what else I might have been trying to sneak in) is actually what I signed up for.  The kids weren't interrupting my house-cleaning; I was interrupting their schooling by cleaning the house.  We have one "flexible" day each week during which I can actually get some more done, and on which they are more free to help me.  I have to learn to be okay with that.

5)  You Don't Need to Spend a Fortune to Create Memorable Lessons.  But Gosh is it Easy to Do Just That!
Some of our best lessons so far have been free.  We used the trampoline and playground balls as described above to explain black holes, gravity, and Einstein's Theory of General Relativity in such a clear way that my 7YO was able to dictate a paper about them later, and get it right.  We were able to use paper, magic markers, and an existing science kit (Snap Circuits) to demonstrate color and light.  We cobbled together our own guide to Dorian, Ionic, and Corinthian Greek columns and drove to the local university, and walked around, taking notes on notebook paper, and snapping pictures with our existing digital camera, to learn how Greek architecture looked and was still influencing building styles today.  For one art lesson, we looked at pictures of Greek sculpture in the encyclopedias and online, then used existing modeling clay to make our own sculptures.  It was the first art lesson son#1 has enjoyed since private kindergarten 5 years ago-- he said, "You mean art class can be more than just painting and coloring with crayons?".  None of those lessons cost us a dime.  The Khan Academy is a fantastic resource, not only for mathematics videos and practice exercises, but for kid-friendly videos on all kinds of topics, and it's free (though they do accept donations)!  The local public library is a fantastic resource for many, many books, and the children's librarian is a great resource within the library, for additional recommendations to your curriculum.  Interlibrary loans extend the collection.  And the library can offer many more free programs (we watched a professional storyteller last month, TAHIRA, who was fantastic).  Designing your own curriculum instead of investing in boxed curricula saves buckets of money, if you have the confidence to do so.
     However.  The home education movement has grown by leaps and bounds.  There are religious home schoolers.  There are secular home schoolers.  There are unschoolers.  There are classical, Charlotte Mason, unit study, eclectic, and I'm sure many other schools of thought that I haven't heard of.  And the publishing industry has responded.  Individual entrepreneurs are entering the market almost daily with websites and self-published curricula and kits practically whack you in the head every time you turn around.  A good friend of mine refers to falling into the temptation of these many, often attractive and often very high quality offerings, as "spending accidents."  As a devoted former quilter, I know the feeling.  I have a room full of unused quilting fabric.  It's really easy to suddenly "need" just "one more book, because this one is PERFECT!"
     I am starting to think that the answer will lie somewhere between having a budget for each quarter (yearly or semi-annually could be problematic, if I need a supply and have to wait six more months for the new budget period) and having a VERY  clear list of my goals for each semester or year laid out; when deciding whether I truly need a new book or piece of equipment, two techniques may come into play:  a) let it sit, and see if it's still urgent several days later, or if it's done looking all shiny by then; and b) looking back over the goals for the semester/year, evaluating what we already have on hand, and then seeing if the new item is really necessary to meet those goals.  (See a future post for "Whoa, Nellie!  But, I want to each it ALL NOW!")
6)  In Other Words, it Isn't About Us; it's About Them.
It was funny; this section was going to be the wrap-up for today's post.  And then this morning in church, our pastor kept repeating as part of a particular message she was making, "It's not about me."  Kinda funny!
     Part of making this transition to schooling at home successful has involved making this effort about getting an education, not re-creating school in the home environment.  It has involved letting go of artificial deadlines, and remembering that it is about teaching the kids how to learn, and then giving them the space and the trust to do so, rather than force-marching them towards arbitrary goals.  We are not seeking bragging rights for finishing first-- how could we?  Millions and billions of people have already graduated from every kind of school there is!  It has involved paying attention to their signals, both overt and subtle, and tailoring the curriculum to maximize their potentials.  Over time, this will actually lead to greater independence and an ability to thrive in advance education, rather than a dependence upon me, as they discover the process of how to learn, and how to go and discover the answers to questions that they develop-- after laying the solid foundation on which to build.  Part of this transition has involved letting go of a certain amount of control-- in a planned fashion.  Flexibility, with clear expectations and a long-range framework, fosters trust, curiosity, and enthusiasm for learning.  Part of this transition has involved discovering what is important, and how to balance the rest of what must happen.  It involves juggling wants, desires, discipline, and modeling correct decision-making.
     While I would not call our approach to home education child-centered-- we are not "unschoolers," we use more of the Classical curriculum than any other (see Bauer's The Well-Trained Mind)-- the ultimate goal is still centered around providing a solid education for our sons.  There are no accolades or prizes to be won for the teachers in this curriculum, nor should there be.  The goal should be happy, healthy, well-educated, critically thinking, capable young men who are prepared for the world.  It's all about them.

Thanks for reading!

1 comment:

  1. This one had me laughing from beginning to end. I kept nodding my head, remembering what it was like when I homeschooled my Son.

    What I took away from this, more than anything else, was that you're teaching your children HOW to think. There is no better gift that you can give them. Well done, mom! :-)