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

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