Somewhere in the middle

Counting John’s year of kindergarten, this is our fourth year homeschooling. In many ways it’s been the toughest year. It hasn’t been a bad year but it has been challenging. Some of this is just circumstances: it’s the first year doing school with two kids, we have a two year old in the mix, and I’ve slightly increased my work responsibilities. But part of it is that it’s been a year of questioning for me. Questioning why we homeschool and questioning my approach to schooling. I don’t think questioning is a bad thing, in fact I think it’s probably healthier than thinking you have all the answers. But it’s not always a comfortable place to be.

People often ask me how we decided to homeschool. There isn’t an easy answer for that. We knew people who did and we started to think about it a little bit when John was only about 3. The fall that he turned three we did not start him in preschool. Not a big deal in some parts of the world, but a biggish deal in our area where everyone (and I mean everyone) goes to preschool. Truthfully, not doing preschool was more of a non-decision than a choice on my part.  I wasn’t sure if he would be ready as he was not a kid who separated easily and then by the time I decided he would be ok, the preschools were all full (in March for the next school year). So he didn’t do preschool and I thought I’d try and do some little schoolish stuff with him. Around that time I read The Well-Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer. I can’t remember now why I read it. If it was recommended to me or I had heard of it somewhere or if was just a whim. Regardless, I read it and it just made sense to me. I felt like it was the education I wanted my kids to have. Then the next fall we made more of a conscious decision not to do preschool which felt like the first decision toward homeschool. And here we are.

The Well-Trained Mind has been our primary guide since we began and for the most part we’ve followed a classical approach. I think one of the reasons this year has been more difficult is that I’ve somewhat been questioning that approach. I question it on the third morning of the week that someone is in tears over a lesson. I questioned it the morning that I heard myself telling John to hurry up and finish reading the book on golden frogs so that we could start school. I question it when I hear about a cool idea for a field trip and then automatically think “we don’t have time for that”.

I should say that this is not meant as an criticism of The Well-Trained Mind or classical education. There is nothing in that book that tells you to stop your child from reading or to not go on field trips. It’s more of a criticism with how I’ve chosen to adopt the suggestions in the book. I’ve realized in the past few weeks that I’ve drifted too far to the “school-at-home” approach. Not so much in the types of curriculum I choose but in the way I see our days. I expect “school” to get done between set hours and that a certain amount of things gets checked off and that certain types of things must get done. Two weeks ago we came to a point where I just felt like both of us were slogging through the school day. So I declared the rest of the week a break and spent some time considering what I want our homeschool to be like.

I thought about what I had envisioned our homeschool days being like when we first started. And I remember imagining a lot of field trips and park days and snuggling on the couch reading. I imagined art and nature walks and music and happy children sitting and reciting Latin declensions. Ok, not so much that last one. I do realize that homeschooling is like parenting: the job is much easier before you actually do it. Even so we’ve come too far from that original vision. I didn’t choose to homeschool so we can spend most of our time sitting around the table trying to “get school done”. And in honesty, that’s what too many of our days are.

I want us to be more relaxed but I also am a believer that things like spelling and math and grammar are necessary. So, this past week we tried two things. First, I made a list at the beginning of the week of what work I wanted to do. Second, I backed off some on some subjects. So, instead of four days of spelling I asked John to do three days or to finish one spelling list. He likes the idea of being able to choose what to do and to do it at his own pace and I think ultimately this is a good lesson in time-mangement.

The first week of this kind of schedule was a success. There were a few bumps. I realized that although John is a mature and responsible third grader he’s also only eight. I had to gently remind him that he was leaving too much work to the end of the week and sometimes guide him in making better choices with his time. We never got to Chemistry, which was a little disappointing because one of the things I was hoping for this week was to have more time for things like Chemistry. However, the reason we didn’t get to Chemistry had less to do with our school schedule and more to do with an unusually busy and social week.

We didn’t do Chemistry but we did read several chapters in Story of the World and John read a few books on the Presidents on his own. We did a solid amount of Latin. We did enough spelling and grammar and a little dictation and narration. We had a math heavy week, with a review test in John’s main curriculum and a good amount of Life of Fred for both boys. I also asked John to pick a Scout belt loop and pin to work on and he picked mathematics. The boys and H celebrated pi day on Wed (3/14) by reading Sir Cumference and the Dragon of Pi, doing some work with circles and making an apple pie together. The boys’ piano teacher asked both boys to come in for an extra lesson this week as David had reached a point that was a bit confusing for him. She also asked them to read a biography of Beethoven which led to us watching and listening to several excerpts from Beethoven’s 5th and 9th Symphonies on You Tube. That was a happy and unexpected rabbit trail. (It was especially neat because the biography of Beethoven overlapped with the time period we were reading about in Story of the World.) We had John’s best friend stay with us for several days while his parents were out of town and there were two other days spent at friends’ houses (where the boys formed a secret club, discovered a “secret fort” and vowed to develop a code). Baseball started and David got his orange stripe belt at Tae Kwan Do. There was as always a lot of reading. All in all, the part of me that needs to check off a list felt like it was a good week.

More importantly, I felt more relaxed. I enjoyed the flow of our days more. I talked to John last night and he felt like it was a good week also. I’m sure this won’t be the end of my questioning (or my last blog post on the subject). But for right now, it seems to work for us. Not unschoolers, not school at home. Not completely structured and not completely relaxed. Somewhere in the middle feels pretty good.

9 thoughts on “Somewhere in the middle

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about homeschooling and all of your questions. I am a teacher of 30 kindergarten children and I also find myself questioning what is working and what is not working as well. Although our classrooms differ it sounds as though all teachers question their instruction and if it is working for the children in their care!

  2. How nice that you’ve found your middle place!

    I think many homeschoolers end up making those mid-course adjustments when they start coming to grips with how their fantasies of homeschooling and the reality of homeschooling differ. Of course, that’s one of the great advantages of homeschooling-the ability to adapt your methods to fit your own and your children’s unique learning/working styles.

  3. Thanks for this post. I’m making just the same kind of rosy plans about how our homeschooling will be the perfect blend of academics and joyful exploration, and I’m sure I’ll run into just the same kinds of difficulties when it is time to actually put them into practice!

  4. I think it is working. “John” (funny calling our son by his alias) chipped away at his list for the week with little prompting, and even David who procrastinated the whole day was quite aware and willing to do his little bit of homework on his own, by himself, minutes before bedtime while I was putting his sister down for bed.

  5. I think homeschooling in the real world (as opposed to the manuals and curricula) has to involved frequent recalibration and adjustment as we assess what works for our kids and for us. Doesn’t it feel good to be able to make the changes you want instead of being helpless in the face of a school’s institutional structures?

    Wanted to mention a book about Beethoven that N. really likes: “Beethoven Lives Upstairs.”

  6. I think we all go through these re-evaluation times. And I have very similar ideas about what I want it all to be like.

    I’ve enjoyed this year. We do a lot more out-and-abouting through nature study, but we still work through the book-work in the mornings — spelling, grammar, math, writing/handwriting, history. I’m not reading aloud as much as I’d like to, but fortunately the girls are doing more reading independently.

    We also decided to school year-round, and that means fewer hours per day are required for the scheduled-curricula learning. I’m comfortable with the proportions of scheduled learning and learning-in-the-atmosphere/spontaneous or self-directed learning this year.

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