Monday, April 29, 2013

Get Real: Learning at Home

Clay Dog

I recently read a series of blog posts titled "Get Real: Learning at Home" including a particularly moving piece by Heather Fontenot, co-founder of the online magazine, Rhythm of the Home.  I like this idea of "getting real" about certain topics on the blog, especially because we all know that the world we create on our blogs is not "real" life.  Not one bit.  Real life is much messier, much louder, and much more wonderful than life on the blog.  But I still like it here.  I like this place where I can reflect quietly, meditatively.

However, maybe sometimes I'm a little too meditative and not "real" enough; so, inspired by a group of brave bloggers, I'm going to write a "get real" post of my own.  Learning at home seems like a perfect place to start.  So here is a real peek into our homeschooling story.

Water Colors

Jeffrey and I were always planning to homeschool.  Before Amabel was born, when I was pregnant, he and I read classics by John Taylor Gatto and John Holt.  Their ideas about the essence of learning really resonated with us.  And way back then, when our children were mostly still dreams, we hoped to structure our family so that we could do lots of our learning together.  Then when Amabel was a toddler, I discovered Waldorf Education and thought I'd found the perfect philosophy.  I loved the idea of Waldorf: the focus on natural materials, fairy tales, play, and wonder.  I think I would have been a very happy Waldorf child myself, and yet the truth is that the philosophy wasn't a good fit for young Amabel.  I read and tried five different Waldorf homeschool curriculums—one after another.  I kept trying to fit our family into what I thought was a Waldorf rhythm and failing . . . and wondering why homeschooling wasn't working.  

The summer before Amabel turned six, we moved to a new home, which was just a few miles away from a small charter Montessori school with a great community of families.  I was thrilled and thought this was the answer to my homeschooling woes.  We would try school and this would be good for all of us!  School would help us become a part of our new community; school would help Amabel make new friends and gain confidence; school would be an exciting adventure!  Ever the optimist, I enrolled Amabel even though she was less than enthusiastic. 

The first year was okay.  Amabel went to the primary classroom half days (thanks to her flexible teachers) even though all the other children her age went full days.  She didn't love school but she didn't hate it.  She made a few good friends—and one very close friend.  We did get to know some families in our new community, and we were grateful for the connections we made over the course of that year.  I never felt completely settled about Amabel being in school, because I knew she didn't love it.  But at that time I believed that she and I needed a little space from one another.  And I believed that the school was a nurturing environment in which Amabel would grow.

However, last fall Amabel entered the next level classroom and it became apparent, very quickly, that she was deeply unhappy at school.  She was not thriving.  After many heart-wrenching mornings and long conversations, Jeffery and I decided that we wanted to homeschool again.

But we would homeschool differently this time.  This time we would use an assortment of books, resources, and philosophies—gathering a bit of this and a bit of that to create an eclectic sort of learning at home for our family . . . which is why I have both The Well-Trained Mind and Project-Based Homeschooling next to my bed, as well as the latest issue of Alphabet Glue, Workshops Work, Ottoline and the Yellow Cat, The Story of the World, and All-of-a-Kind Family.  I still do treasure a couple of my Waldorf-inspired books, though admittedly I've passed most of them along to other families.


I list my books because they help to explain the type of homeschoolers we are: not so easy to pin down.  I think once I embraced my liberal-artist self and realized that we could homeschool the way we already lived our life, learning at home at last seemed not only possible but wonderful.  I'm not sure why it took me so long to figure that out.  I'm not sure why it took me so long to understand that I could pick and choose from very different education philosophies and create something completely unique to us.  But I do know that writing on this blog over the past four years has helped me a good deal to hone in on how we want to shape our life as a family.  Because when it really comes down to it, homeschooling is about spending our lives together.

My biggest challenge with teaching the girls at home is trying to strike the balance between formal, structured learning and self-directed, creative projects.  Jeffrey and I have great respect for learning certain subjects systematically.  We like the consistency of following a curriculum and practicing fundamental skills.  But we also understand that essential learning happens when our girls are engaged in projects of their own choosing!  And most of that choosing (especially for Ellen right now) comes in the form of play.  (Let's admit it, when was the last time Amabel chose to sit down and do a reading lesson with me?)  So we strive for balance (work and play), but it isn't easy.  Some days are better than others.  Some days seem to flow: our structured couple of hours in the morning go smoothly and then the girls move naturally into their own self-directed projects and play.  I have time to work and get things done around the house.

Other days, I get thrown off track.  A meeting takes longer than expected, and then there are errands to be done.  I feel like I've shortchanged the girls by not reading from the history book and practicing math facts (or whatever I was hoping we'd accomplish), and by evening all I want to do is crawl into bed—instead of preparing for the next day.


Homeschooling at our house is really messy.  I know it might look nice in the bloggy photos, but sometimes we have so many projects going in various rooms, on every available surface, that I think I might explode.  Ellen has a recent fascination with sewing.  I made her a special little sewing kit to try to encourage her interest (and keep her occupied while I'm focused on Amabel), but after finding one too many pins on the floor and cleaning up endless fabric scraps (minuscule pieces!), I'm beginning to wonder if she is still too young?  Also—I have a weakness for clay.  I love making things out of clay and so do the girls.  I buy lots of clay and they use it all the time, which means that we have little bits of clay all over the house.

Pin Cushion

World's Tinest Dolls

Work Table

Clay Doll

How do I work around the inevitable messiness of a creative space?  Well, for one thing, I think we've moved furniture and rearranged rooms more times during the past five months than we have in our entire marriage.  Jeffrey has been really patient with me—brainstorming new configurations and hauling things up and down the stairs.  We're still trying to find a system that works.  And maybe our space will always be evolving.  For a while we did a lot of "school work" on the kitchen table.  But then I stopped liking that.  I wanted a designated work space.  So we brought a desk downstairs (our downstairs consists essentially of one main room).  That worked for a while, but now Amabel seems to dread sitting down next to me at that desk.  Yesterday she said, "Not another page of writing!  It's just copying!  I want to write something of my own!"

I hear that; I really do.  But handwriting is important and copying really isn't so horrid (in my old-fashioned, humble opinion).  Yesterday, however, I gave in.  We went upstairs into my office instead of sitting down at the homeschooling desk, and she wrote her own book about Jane and the mermaid.  And she wrote on paper without lines because she "doesn't like lines."  My girl?!  (I couldn't live without lined paper.)  

Finally, this is probably obvious, but I couldn't homeschool without Jeffrey.  He and I brainstorm together constantly.  Last week I said, "I wish I could find a book that Amabel would actually pick up and want to read all by herself—with no prodding."  Within a few minutes he had filled a page with titles for me to find at the library.  And thanks to him, we found just such a book!  I watch him do a lot of great math lessons, games, and logic puzzles with Amabel and I admire how he makes even very simple things interesting for her, and how he thinks up creative ways for her to practice.  Amabel cherishes her one-on-one time with Jeffrey.  And Ellen often sneaks into his office when he is working and asks "Can we play a game, Papa?" in her sweetest little Ellen way.

One evening last week Jeffrey pulled out a game book that Gommy lent us.  We played a few logic and word games at dinner with the girls.  Then he and I continued bantering back and forth as we cleaned up the kitchen, carrying on one of the games long after Amabel and Ellen had left the table and gone upstairs to play.  That sort of sums up how we are as homeschooling parents; we are, to use a Lori Pickert phrase, "relentless learners."  And I truly hope that our enthusiasm for learning is the most important thing we have to offer our girls, because everything else we're certainly learning right along side them!

Wire Doll

Monday, April 22, 2013

An Unhurried Spring

Pussy Willows

This slow spring has primed us to be grateful—ever so grateful—for each gradual change as it happens outside.  New birds visiting the feeder.  Spring peepers!  Shy bulbs peeking up out of the earth.  Swelling buds on sleepy trees.

In a month, the grasses in front of our house will be up to Ellen's shoulders.  The shrubs and vines and trees will be thick with leaves; it will be a virtual jungle for little people.  But today, the meadow belongs to them.  With the snow finally melted and the sun warm, our meadow has become a place of new-found wonder.  What freedom!  This afternoon the girls discovered new stumps to play on, new places to hide, and new trees to climb.  While they wandered about, I noticed details that got lost in last year's incredibly warm March and April.  See the girls in the orchard—exactly a year ago!    

This is a different sort of spring.  An unhurried spring.  And it is exactly the sort of spring we need.  

Little E goes exploring


Spring Meadow

Spring Smells

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Spring at Last

Down the Trail

What a joy to be outside in the sunshine and warmth this afternoon!


The girls took off their hats;


Ellen spotted a robin;


Harry rolled around on the dry grass and pine needles;


Amabel said she never wanted to go inside again;

Bird Watching

And we all admired our garden bed full of garlic shoots . . . spring at last!


Monday, April 15, 2013

A Little More Winter


Did I forget to mention our ice storm last weekend?

Icy Pine

Icy Meadow

Red Bush Ice

Out in the Ice

It was a beautiful, magical world outside with all those delicate spring buds encased in ice!

Buds Encased in Ice

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Water and the Future of the Great Lakes

I'm posting from work today, hoping to get the word out about our upcoming speaker event!  If you are local (or even if you live far away!), I hope you'll take a look at the Leelanau Conservancy website where you can learn more about our speaker series.  I've been working closely with the speakers, panelists, and other participating organizations, and I'm very grateful for the enthusiasm shown by so many people as we coordinate all the pieces of this event!  Here on my blog, I would especially like to thank Jeffrey (that's my Jeffrey, of Jeffrey Schwaiger Design) for designing the poster.

I have spent a wonderful few months, working at the Leelanau Conservancy.  I mused about my work in January, and since then I have grown even more appreciative of the people who work for this thoughtful organization.  It is truly a privilege to be a small part of this incredible group.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Maple Sugaring


My brother-in-law, Aric, let me follow him around last week as he collected sap from his beautiful forested land.  His enthusiasm for tapping trees and making syrup this year has truly buoyed me through these final weeks of late winter/early spring.  What wonderful motivation to get outside!  Inspired by Aric, and recent sugaring posts from Amanda and Nate, I asked if I could take a few photos.  And not only did Aric let me take photos (and humor my requests to bring jars of golden syrup outside into the light!)—he demonstrated the sugaring process from start to finish.

Sap Collecting

First he showed me how to make a spile from a staghorn sumac branch—fascinating and amazing to watch!  I had no idea such a simple, natural tool could be used for tree tapping.

Preparing the Spile

Shaping the Ends

As soon as Aric pounded his homemade spile into the tree, the sap started flowing.  I knew that was how it would work, of course, but I didn't realize it would happen so instantaneously!

Immediately Running

After visiting a few trees and collecting sap, we returned to the barrel stove: the heart of his sugaring operation.  I was only there for a few minutes, taking photos, but Aric has spent hours and hours tending this fire over the past few weeks, watching the sap turn . . . 

Keeping Watch

. . . into liquid gold.  Pure maple goodness.

Maple Goodness

Meanwhile, the chicks and goslings were enjoying their first day out in the sunshine.  Ellen learned how to hold a chick from Aric and her expert cousins Philena and Tait!

Chick Hand Off


Philena's Chick

And little Charles too! 


Brotherly Hug