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We just quietly finished our seventh year of homeschooling. We didn’t have an award ceremony or any large posters or completed books or projects to show off this year.  Instead we simply wrapped up our lessons–some of them neatly at the end and others midway–and decided we were done for the summer. I write a lot publicly about homeschooling here and elsewhere and I think it unfair to only talk about the beautiful and successful parts of this journey (and there are many) without noting the adversity, too. And it should be noted:

Last week, I hit a wall.

Perhaps it is easy to sit with pen and paper and draft the way you expect and hope home education will occur, and in some seasons and years, things have gone generally as such for me. In previous years, I’ve spent part of my weekend planning for the week, reviewing what lessons we’d need to cover. A natural balance between planned and unplanned learning occurred. I even shared some of that process here and here. But this academic year, I didn’t really plan much at all. I felt exhausted and almost adverse to it. In our more formal studies, like math or reading, we’d simply turn the page to find another lesson and work from there. We had a few regularities in our routine, mostly surrounding our mealtimes, but in between, our days seemed more in-the-moment, an unorganized journey through books and ideas and play and life-work (daily chores, yard+gardening, cooking).

Sometime a few months ago, I began referring to this as our water table year–the place in the marathon where you pause and drink and use the latrine. This sounds theoretically lovely (minus the last part), but what that meant was: I threw out most of my original plans for the year. I love this journey, even the hard parts, but I also felt mentally exhausted by it. I needed to find a new pace, to continue but in a much smaller way. We struggled to keep up with most of our planned lessons for most of the year, and by early spring, we had stripped our days down to the basics of math and spelling lessons and reading. We still read a lot and often but we didn’t produce much writing (ironic, I know). We did an assortment of random projects and continued with outdoor play and work. We shelved our formal science and history studies, leaving these discussions to whatever they were reading in stories or learning outdoors. We researched bugs and plants in our yard/garden, and while this would be an excellent journal of its own, we haven’t yet recorded it. In short, our learning has been practical and somewhat random. We’ve allowed our routines to breathe a bit, something I desperately needed in the seventh year.

I realize some of you will read this as an affirmation that you shouldn’t homeschool, that somehow you would be like me, too disordered or lacking in simple routine. Trained by traditional education, you might perceive non-linear learning as a lack of progression. Regardless of style and method, this journey is certainly not linear–and perhaps this is what causes myself and other homeschooling parents the most doubt and conflict. Lessons, formal and informal, build upon the other, but not always in the way we expect. The nuances of home-education are innately more holistic and organic, they ebb and flow with life seasons. Like a run through the hills or a mountain climb, the terrain is varied, and progress can feel downward, wayward, or challengingly upward. Still, it progresses. I hope this encourages us, all of us, to remember sometimes in life we run these figurative races with steady breath and strength, and other times we crawl, sucking wind. Either way, we must keep moving. We must cross the line.

It is difficult to discuss homeschooling without discussing the rest of our life. It seems one always gives and takes from the other, one of my favorite aspects to our learning. Last week, I figuratively hit a wall, but this was only in part due to our homeschool. It was more an exhaustion of soul, a stretching of my heart over too many things, too many concerns. I’m looking forward to pulling back a bit in every area this summer, to some travel, to some quiet. I need the space to listen, to more fully reflect and set new goals. I will be posting here in the process but more sporadically during the summer months. Last week, I remembered this short film I had seen a few years ago, the image of a runner crawling the finish line and a parallel story of her running coach battling ALS. I watched it again and felt so inspired by her finish, her will to follow through. I felt stronger listening to his perseverance, his fortitude and determination against a degenerating body. Take three minutes to watch it. I’m sure it will inspire you, too.

The Finish Line 2 – Short Feature from Evolve on Vimeo.

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I recently read a Twitter chat between a cluster of homeschooling moms mourning that one had recently been asked which curriculum to use for a three-year-old. Although these moms were well-intentioned in their encouragement of one another allowing young children to learn naturally, their very public chat seemed to simultaneously outcast a different group of homeschooling parents, possibly the ones who lean toward a more traditional approach or who are new to homeschooling in general. Although I tend to agree with many of these women’s philosophies now, I felt compassion for this anonymous woman asking about curriculum. At one point, I would have asked the same. I didn’t have a clue about homeschooling when we began, and although I felt confident as a parent, my traditional public schooling had created a sort of dualism within me regarding education: things I learned at home and things I learned at school. Over the last few years, these artificial walls have been crumbling, and I’m becoming more relaxed and confident with my own style and my own children’s triumphs and struggles. But it hasn’t always been this way. In the beginning, I planned and organized and used more formal curriculums at younger ages. I wanted my kids to be school-educated–an isolated category in my mind at the time. Most importantly, I wanted to alleviate that nagging question, “had we done the right thing?”

Perhaps that word right or best is the most confounding when removed from a specific context. For instance, what is right in relation to how we each learn or manage our family? The beauty of parenting is the unique journey. As parents, we will always have something to teach and something to learn. This is how we come to need other people in our lives–even when we choose different paths. Even within households, parents will vary in degrees, and children can be as different as moon and sun, connected and individual in purpose and disposition. At five, one of my children balked at math lessons while another at the same age requested them. One of my children learned to read fluently at four and another not until age seven. I have friends whose older children still struggle with reading for various reasons. They have learned other ways to inspire their children’s learning in the process.  I know parents who formally structure their days and others who allow their children to choose the day’s agenda. I know amazing parents who homeschool, who particpate in part-time homeschool programs, and plenty who send their kids to school and find ways to enrich their education during breaks and summers. Is there a right way? Certainly not. And I hope that in this process, we are always generous with grace for one another and our children. Educational preferences and learning styles are as personal as any other family routine. There can be overlap with another family’s choices, but in the end, it’s your story; be courageous and considerate when sharing your own.

*I took this image on my phone, so it’s a little grainy.

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In every case, the remedy is to take action. Get clear about exactly what it is that you need to learn and exactly what you need to do to learn it.
– Miguel de Cervantes

When I first stumbled into homeschooling, my dear friend Amy introduced me to Handwriting Without Tears’ products and songs, something she had used for years working as an OT in local elementary schools. I’m forever grateful as it has provided a common thread for all of my children to share and has taught me how to teach my children handwriting. Naturally, I now want to pass on these tools we’ve loved so much to help other young homeschooling families on their own journeys. That said,  I know the HWT website can be difficult to sort through. So instead of just referencing the sources, I’ve shown the real products we’ve used (and enjoyed) in our home the last five years with the appropriate links for the website. In our home, I store all of the non-jarred items in the top section of the photo in that clear plastic bin (from IKEA); this makes for quick access during our mornings and easy storage when we put it away. The bin also helps make the tools more portable to grab if we’re heading out-of-town or more likely — to the backyard.

{things to note}

+ I forgot to include the I Know my Numbers booklet Blythe is coloring in the first picture. This give kids extra work with writing and understanding numbers.

+ The HWT crayons and chalk bits are not necessary, as you could use alternative ones from a store. Their tiny size and the double-sided crayon is what makes those products unique.

+ They also make Touch & Flip alphabet cards (not pictured or linked because I already had sandpaper letters).

+ The teacher’s guide has changed since I purchased my own, so the picture in the link won’t match the image above.

+ If you can’t afford to buy everything at once, start with the wood pieces, laminated wood piece cards, chalkboard, Mat Man book, and the student book. I often make copies of the student book, so they can work on a letter more than one day.

+ Pay attention to the videos on the product pages. Each one will give you a sample lesson using that particular product — so helpful if you have no experience using this curriculum.

Good luck!

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If you’re new to homeschooling or trying to figure out where to start with your 3-5 year old (beyond play), two of my very favorite curriculums are Handwriting Without Tears (handwriting and literacy) and All About Reading (reading, phonetic/phonemic awareness, comprehension, and puppets!) .  Both programs use a multi-sensory approach to learning language (ideal for this age group and beyond), meaning your children practice and learn language with all of their senses (and often their whole body). Also, both programs offer teacher manuals, ideal if you’re intimidated about homeschooling and prefer a more directed approach to education — BUT if you prefer to simply offer your children quality materials to play with and introduce more indirectly (child-led learning), they both offer several quality products all of my children enjoy.

In short, both of these programs easily adapt to whatever style of education you choose for you home. I’m somewhere in the middle, often borrowing ideas from several different styles and programs and adapting them to our family style. I’ve always loved the Montessori approach to education, especially for young children who are so eager to learn and work independently — “I can do it by myself!” If you’re interested in Montessori at home, this book is simple to read and follow. I’ll link to Montessori materials I use in addition to these program. They are not necessary, but I/my children love using them.

For a while now, I’ve wanted to show little glimpses of our homeschool here to help encourage/inspire other families.  Here’s one of last week’s morning activities with my daughter Olive (4) and nephew Shepherd (3). We are practicing the sounds of E.

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We pull out my box of HWT materials. The kids are excited and immediately begin pulling out the wood pieces. Olive grabs the small container with our sandpaper letters from the shelf. I open the alphabet poster . We sing the alphabet together, pointing to each letter as we go. I ask them what letters we’ve already talked about (A-D); I point and they tell me the names and sounds. I place the A-E sandpaper letters on the floor, scrambled; Olive puts them in order while Shepherd watches.

I ask them what letter comes next in the song, “E”! So I make sure they have the right wood piece to build E: one big line, three little lines. I pull out the capital letter card and we look at the picture of the E. I trace it with my finger — “one big line with one little line at the top, one little line in the middle, one little line on the bottom.” They build their letters on the floor. I ask them if their E looks like the E on the letter card. They make adjustments. I congratulate them for making an E! We then sing the Leap Frog song for E, “E says /eh/, E says /eh/, every letter makes a sound, E says /eh/.”

I ask them to get their pointer finger ready for writing E. Where do we start our letters? At the top! (We sing the HWT song, “Where Do You Start Your Letters?”) I dictate the strokes and they trace their E wood pieces. ” We start at the top with a big line down. Now, frog-jump back to the top. Make a little line at the top. Jump to the middle. Make a little line. Now to the bottom. Make a little line.” They repeat a few times. Again, big hoorays, “you made an E with your fingers!” “What does E say? “/eh/”

“Now let’s read a short story about elephants. Elephant starts with /eh/ E.” We read the three page story a couple of times. And then they’re ready to play outside, so we clean up our materials (throwing the pieces back in the box and returning it to the shelf). This took about 20-30 minutes.

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It seems winter went on strike at some point this month, but we didn’t mind. Instead we did what all of you with real winters will do several months from now while we’re profusely sweating and mosquito-ridden — we moved life outdoors. After the new year, Mark of course went back to work and began another semester of graduate school, and we slowly slipped back into our own school routine again, only often taking our books and snacks to the backyard. I’ve realized, some subjects work a little better than others in the outdoors. Since we use a lot of manipulatives for math and a large magnetic board for spelling, I now know they just manage easier indoors. Otherwise, most of our days fill up with reading and writing and playing (and cleaning), and that we can take anywhere. And we do.

We spent our weekends at home (locally, I mean) this month, hanging out with friends gathered around our large table, eating a weekly Sunday brunch at our friends’ house, or even out in the backyard (it was that warm!). As for family time, we went hiking, ate meals together around the firepit taking turns telling stories, and of course simply played (tag, catch, board games). Our housemate, Kenny, often joins us or helps by playing with the kids in the backyard.

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Because I have several people ask what we’re doing or reading at home school-wise, I’m hoping to include a monthly educational synopsis with our outtakes each month. Here’s a start:

memory work (with Classical Conversations)

  • facts each week in history, science, math, English grammar, Latin, geography
  • 21/160 major points in our historical timeline (this month between 1400-1800)
  • Exodus 20:1-17 (v. 13-15 this month)

I have almost altogether stopped poetry memorization with the kids (something eventually gives), but because it’s so valuable for complex language learning and patterns, I’m hoping to re-prioritize it this next month. Sigh.

the kids

Liam (age 9) read Hatchet, The Mysterious Benedict Society, several short stories by Rudyard Kipling and other small books on plant life, rocks, and ancient history. He also wrote one paragraph on the Greek Olympics and is working on a mini-research paper on the Roman Empire (Institute for Excellence in Writing).

Burke (age 7) read the Adventures of Tom Bombadil (a collection of poetry written by Tolkein), Who Was Abraham Lincoln?, Who was Ferdinand Magellan? , Who were the Beatles? (We love this series of biographies!), along with several shorter books on plant life, rocks, and ancient history.

Blythe (age 6) completed level 1 of the All About Reading program and is reading several small stories and readers each day. I’m currently reading Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland to her and Olive (age 3) each night. We also read a variety of picture books we have collected in our home or that we can borrow from the library.

Olive (age 3) is still learning her letters and sounds. Since she is a very busy little person, I’m mostly trying to teach her how to be still and listen for 10-15 minutes at a time. (Smile.) It’s harder for her than you would think. Ollie the Stomper is still Olive’s favorite book, naturally. She hunts for it every time we’re at the library. I’m still not formally doing anything with Oli, mostly because she’s just not ready. So she spent most days this month playing dress-up, building puzzles, reading books, or practicing letters and numbers on the iPad.

myself (we’ll leave age out of it – wink.)

This month I finished or am still reading

burke in the trees

handmade tepee

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Life is pure adventure, and the sooner we realize that, the quicker we will be able to treat life as art.
— Maya Angelou

This warm winter weather has continued, allowing for countless hours outdoors this week. During the first part of our typical morning, we usually complete our group work or other work we can do alongside one another: memory work, math, read-a-loud. Ideally, we spend the back half of the morning with various language lessons (reading, writing, spelling, handwriting), and since these lessons require more one-on-one time with me, the kids often get a lot of free-play during this time. No one complains.

We love to be outdoors and the kids really enjoy creating and building most anything. So as we were cycling through our daily schoolwork earlier this week (a day when school work had prolonged into the afternoon– it seems to happen more in the Spring), I honestly paid little attention to what exactly they were constructing in the backyard. “Come see our tepee we created,” they chided, and I agreed (maybe wishing to see my bed for a rest instead) and followed the crew to our backyard, expecting to find a piece of cloth draped between the trees. Instead, I was surprised and entirely impressed to find they had created a real tepee with leftover wood from home projects, burlap from backyard parties, bungee cords, and safety pins. They had whittled sticks to create spears for hunting and wars between the tribes and created their own fire (no flames included). My heart smiled as I watched them run and climb in the warm January sun, inside the imaginary world they had established, and then I quickly went to snatch the camera, recognizing the art of their wild adventures.

 

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identifying fungi

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exhausted

As I mentioned last week, lately we’ve been indoors more than usual, and while I value indoor activities in their own manner, there’s nothing quite like exploring the outdoors, especially with children. We spent all day Saturday inside cleaning in spite of the beautiful weather (ugh), so when Sunday arrived with glorious sun expected to warm us to almost 70 degrees, Mark and I agreed that a daytrip and hike in the nearby pines would be the best way to enjoy some quality family time and the weather. So we all filled our water bottles, threw some PB&J sandwiches and fruit into a backpack, piled into our old ‘Burban, and headed to Huntsville State Park. We upturned rocks, climbed through thickets, studied the layers of tree bark, and watched for various wildlife and young trees sprouting the park floors. With the sun trickling down through the tree-line, we noticed the various fungi growing along some of the trees — “Oh! That’s one of the kingdoms of living things!” Blythe exclaimed. (Thank you, Classical Conversations.) As the kids continued to touch and observe and breathe in just a few of the things they’ve learned through memory work or books,  I was reminded of this quote by Charlotte Mason, a 19th century educator:

The question is not — how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education — but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?  

One of the greatest gifts to me through my children and home-education is re-discovering wonderment. Wonder is easy for children. Everything is new, and if isn’t new, they will find something new to do with it or learn about it. But what about we adults? Often confined by our responsibility and practicality, we forget. Isn’t that what Barrie was addressing in Peter Pan? As grown-ups we forget to dream? To play? To discover? We even use the adjective childish in a condescending manner, as though immaturity and wonder and carefree-ness all equate. I get it. I know as adults we cannot literally live as children (nor would we really want to), but as I do live and learn alongside my children, I am understanding that I cannot live fully as an adult without wonder either. Exactly how full are our lives and how large the room where we tread? I’m still finding out.

blythe

Some of you have already read how we formally started on this homeschooling journey 5 plus years ago. (If you haven’t, you should read it first.) There, I share many of the facts and resources leading us to our decision, but what I’ve shared little of is the emotion in this process. The fear. The doubt. The faith. I’ve now met many mothers and fathers who knew they would educate their children from home before they even had children. That was not me. Until Liam was three, I had never once given it a thought. I didn’t really know anyone who had been educated this way and sadly I still subscribed to the same generalizations and stereotypes many people do concerning homeschoolers: awkward, culturally out-of-touch, geniuses. (Isn’t that embarrassing?) Without even pausing, I had assumed school to be a necessary rite of passage for anyone wanting to be — well, normal. Afterall, didn’t it work for me?

The truth is, no matter how many persuasions or successful accounts you read or hear in defense of home education, in the end, YOU still have to do the work. You have to determine what it looks like in your home, for your children, for your budget and your time. The glory and freedom [gratefully] allowed to home educators in the US can equally cause paralysis and fear, especially when you haven’t experienced it yourself or through observing another family close to you. That was me. For every bit of my idealism and enthusiasm about home education, I felt the equally lurking doubts and fears of can I really do this well? Will my children hate me for it? Am I depriving them of a necessary social responsibility? I wish I could say these feelings have obliterated and I’m completely confident and carefree about my abilities as a parent and educator; I’m not. Regularly, we pray and ask the Lord for discernment about all of these things, and honestly, this is where we have landed each time. Although I work hard, researching and planning and teaching, I’m aware of the Lord’s grace over me in this process. We didn’t choose to homeschool out of fear of public school rather because we asked for wisdom and agreed together this is where the Lord was leading us. I’m mindful of an excerpt from Walt Whitman’s poem, Pioneer, O pioneers!

We detachments steady throwing,
Down the edges, through the passes, up the mountains steep,
Conquering, holding, daring, venturing as we go the unknown ways,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

I am not a pioneer in terms of the homeschooling movement itself, but I am for our little family. And with each step forward in faith, venturing unknown ways, persevering, self- educating, staring down the fear and doubt, I am hopeful our children will inherit something greater, even if it is unknown to me right now. At the very least, in all of this, they can also discover that education is more than a class or a worksheet or a book; it’s a life-long process, and we never outgrow it.