Posts

Thoughts for the Overwhelmed Homeschool Parent

This space has been so quiet lately, allowing some much needed room to sort out bits of my heart and home. Time feels so tenuous, doesn’t it––the practical substance of our days, yet impossible to grasp. Yet I have been grasping still.

It seems our home is always moving these day, balls bouncing, doors swinging, water boiling. Our home rhythms have shifted drastically in the last few months, and honestly, I have felt generally overwhelmed accommodating it all. Perhaps it’s the weight of all Mark and I are trying to accomplish raising and educating children. Maybe it’s the context of building our own businesses from home or the lingering home projects waiting to be finished. Maybe it’s more simply that delicate crossroad of self-preservation and self-sacrifice. Most likely, it’s a bit of everything, but the fight for a peaceful spirit in the midst of it is real.

I recently woke up in the middle of the night, crying, my chest heavy and cheeks wet. I don’t consider myself an overly emotional person, so when tears come, I know they are a little note delivered from deep within me whispering, pay attention. For all I understand about our human need to pause and listen to those around us, I find it sometimes hardest to prioritize this sort of nurturing for my own person. My heart is prone to hiding beneath accomplishment and TO DOs, so when I wake up in the night, heavy with emotion, I know my heart is searching for connection, searching to be heard.

Bluntly put, I haven’t felt happy with this school year from the start. In spite of much prayer and thought on the front end, I didn’t really have clear vision for the year ahead. So many factors have changed for our home, leaving our routine hurried and task-oriented this fall, a constant shifting of roles, expectations, and places to be. I love lists, but I don’t love when life feels reduced to one. Sometimes when I am unhappy with life circumstances, I need to intentionally iterate gratitudes to shift my heart/thought focus. Other times, I need to shift the circumstance altogether. This moment required the latter.

That night, I left my warm bed and headed for the sofa, a pen and paper in hand. I flipped on a lamp, folded the paper in half, and titled two single columns: What I Love in our Homeschool Day and What is Needed in our Homeschool Day. I needed to see our day in simpler terms, written more concretely on paper. I reserved the first column for activities, moments, and studies that connect me with our children and our experience at home together. It’s vital for me to preserve those things. The second list are needs I’ve noticed in our home or in my children, activities necessary to our day regardless of my affection for them. This list acknowledges the parts of this journey that are less fun for me (or them); it doesn’t mean they’re not important.

Looking at the two lists side-by-side, I began to see more clearly ways to simplify our days again, even if just temporarily. I noticed there were tasks or studies or activities occupying our time that weren’t on either list at all. I immediately made notes to eliminate those things. I also realized there were too many things from our days on the need to do list consuming the things I love list. So I began to reevaluate the opportunity-cost, adjusting or removing again. My heart began lifting.

The next morning, the boys went to their weekly class, and the girls and I made tea together. We read aloud and sketched maps and looked at books of art. The girls spoke in their best British accents as we discussed our day and what we read. I was gaining simple vision for our home, and likewise, connection to it.

I know most circumstances will vary home to home or that the lifestyle or academic path that overwhelms me will be different for someone else. You may be feeling overwhelmed for different reasons altogether––with little ones or a new baby in the mix. You may be in your first year of homeschooling or dealing with children crying over math problems or reading lessons every day. You may be a single parent or feel like you’re in this journey alone. I hope you will find comfort here somehow in the very least knowing you’re not alone.

I hope you will also find solace that there’s no perfect way or timetable for accomplishment in homeschooling. There’s no magic moment when you arrive and it suddenly becomes easy or without effort. There will be moments of grace, where lessons––of books or the the heart––are delightful and light in spite of difficult circumstances. I am always humbled by how much my children learn even with my own shortcomings. These parts are a gift. But there are also the accompanying days that require effort, fortitude, and so much prayer. They require me to remember promises and speak light into darkness, and even at times to write lists in the middle of the night. Wink. I’m learning, even a decade on this path, to receive all of it as a part of our journey, our story. The sweet parts are savored because of the bitter ones, not in spite of them.

Still I don’t always have that perspective in the moment, and when I find myself weighted by emotion or heaviness in this journey, there are a few practices I return to again and again, practices good for healing broken rhythms and spirits alike, practices that lift an overwhelmed heart.


light a candle and make tea / There’s something about the warmth of a flickering candle and a drink in hand that massages the soul. When our days become frayed or fruitless, making tea (or hot chocolate) is a balm. I pull out art supplies and a book to read aloud. Sometimes we read something silly just to laugh. Either way, it is connecting and healing for broken rhythms and spirits.

head to the outdoors / Sometimes it’s as simple as sitting in the backyard or on the porch. Sometimes we need to move and head toward a local trail, park, or field. Either way, the divine order and beauty of nature always soothes heaviness and helps create perspective.

plan in 6 week increments / Sometimes an entire school year or even a semester can be too much to forecast. Even if you purchase a full-year curriculum, commit to working through just six weeks, and see how it fits within your home. Some homes that school year round, find it helpful to operate in six week blocks of time and take a week off.

make a list / I’m obviously a list maker; it’s how my brain begins to synthesize information. When I feel clouded by too many swirling thoughts or emotions, it helps bring clarity. Perhaps creating a list like the one I mentioned above may help. For those of you who aren’t list-makers, perhaps jotting down 2-3 small goals you have for the day may be enough to help keep you focused, and to let the rest of it go.

create mental space / Sometimes the root of overwhelming emotion for me is simply the way my brain toggles between diverse thoughts so spastically. We are managing so many things right now, between our own businesses and growing children, and at times it causes my brain to function a bit like the puppy in UP–– squirrel! When I recognize this, taking a moment to close my eyes, breathe deeply, and reminding myself to focus on the task at hand is so helpful.

meditate on simple, uplifting thoughts / Having good and noble words accessible is SO helpful. When my mind feels swirly, sometimes it can be hard to remember or change my thinking to uplifting and positive truths. Keeping a few favorite quotes and Scriptures on hand in my journal, on my phone, or around my computer is a helpful tool to read aloud and train my thinking toward good and true things again.

prioritize personal time / When I become overwhelmed, it helps to create so space for myself, specifically to connect with my thoughts. Although this step seems obvious, getting up early in the morning, while the world around me sleeps in quiet, always helps clarify noisy thinking. If you have younger children in bed early, maybe making space at the end of the day works better. Either way, make some time for yourself, to nurture and listen to your thinking patterns, to your emotion. Always remember to speak aloud something simple you know you always need to hear: you’re enough.

The Hours of Becoming

I have been feeling nervous––anxious even––about Liam transitioning into high school years of homeschooling. I have a loud inner-critic and a long memory for naysayers, unfortunately. And while I look back at the last decade without a single regret of our choice to homeschool, I find myself facing new giants as we turn this corner into high school transcripts, standardized tests, more advanced studies, and university in the near distance. I cannot count the amount of wide-eyes I receive when I tell people Liam we are continuing to homeschool next year. “Are you sure you can handle it?” they ask. And the short answer is no. I’m not sure at all.

I am certain that I’ve never been sure though. It is easy for me to feel confident now about our choice to homeschool, to reflect on the beginning years in the context of today, but I felt anything but confident then. I felt curious, idealistic, passionate, motivated, but never certain about our decision. The irregular days of babies and toddlers in the mix, the tears through math, the lack of concrete proof that we had actually accomplished anything at all in those first years was on some days enough to want to quit, to label homeschooling a failed venture and move on. But somehow––miraculously––I never did. I took breaks, tweaked approaches, asked for help, researched weak areas, talked with the kids, but I always got back up and tried again.

I have been reading Grit: The Power and Passion of Perseverance this month––a book I highly recommend to anyone, especially parents, entrepreneurs, homeschooling parents and teens––jotting down timely encouragements and challenging lines I’ve needed to hear in many areas of life right now. But this one in particular struck me yesterday, “Nobody wants to show you the hours and hours of becoming. They’d rather show the highlight of what they’ve become.” I realize as the online homeschooling community grows and more resources are made available remotely, it is these hours spent becoming that are most often lost. Even for newer homeschoolers reading this blog filled with highlights, it would be natural to miss the life between the lines, the hours expended in working through hard circumstances or questions, the hours spent becoming.

I have always honestly described homeschooling as the hardest and most rewarding thing I have ever done. And it’s true. It is not hard in every moment or even in a way that might seem like drudgery; there are so many cumulative and deeply satisfying moments of discovery, contentment, accomplishment, and pure joy. There are also many logistical aspects that have eased up with time as our family has grown older. What I mean by hard is that it is a journey that requires continual study of your children and home. It requires you to pay attention, to consistently problem solve and initiate honest conversations. It is hard because you regularly encounter your shortcomings, whether academic, character, financial, energy, or time. It is hard because you have to choose this path again and again. But these moments are the hours of becoming, the hours not always recorded on Instagram, editorials, or this blog. They are the unwritten parts that have intrinsically formed who I am. These hours are rewarding because they are hard, because I have fought for them again and again.

I truly don’t exactly know what the next year will look like for our home as we walk down this path. Our children love homeschooling. They are eager to do it again, and so again, I am stepping forward in courage. The boys will both be in Challenge programs with Classical Conversations, and we’ll build from there. I’m still not exactly sure what I’m doing with the girls. I’m patiently listening and talking with the girls, thumbing our bookshelves, and researching right now. It will come.

What I hope to say in all of these thoughts here is this: it is not the easy paths that form us. They delight us. They enchant us. They are rest for us. But they do not form us. We are formed by what and how we endure, by the amount of times we fall and get up, by the way we help and receive help from others along the way. This part of homeschooling––or living!––isn’t always beautiful in the ways we want it to be, but it is beautiful. And purposeful. Whether in homeschooling, business, family life, health, or in whatever endeavor you find yourself working toward––keep going, friends. These are the hours we are becoming.

Homeschooling | Encouragement for the Little Years

Our four children are five and a half years apart, meaning when we began our first formal year of homeschooling, I had a kindergartener, two preschoolers, and an older infant. I also had a calendar grid of all of the curriculum and plans I had researched and assembled for our learning––music, handwriting, math, reading, art, spelling, history, science and so on––I was optimistic, enthusiastic, and full of ambition. I had put so much thought and time into our decision to homeschool, I felt sure that with all of my plans in place, we could do it! And then, as happens with a home full of children under six, plans fell apart. Just a couple of months in, I found myself frustrated, sometimes only crossing one “school” plan off in a day and on the hardest days, not even crossing off one. I began doubting whether I actually could homeschool. Mark would come home and ask how the day went. Some days I could run him through some activities we had accomplished, but most days, I could only shoulder shrug: what had we actually done? I would rehearse the day aloud, at times feeling defeated by the mundanity: meals/snacks, laundry, nursing? Toilet training, tantrums, sibling squabbles? Read aloud, Legos, painting, play outside? Did we finish our reading lesson, have tears during math, practice our handwriting?

I was looking for check marks, for progression through my plans for our year. I was looking for affirmation, signs that I wasn’t going to screw up my children.  I needed a sign that what we were doing mattered. Like many parents, I wanted so much for our homeschool experience and was working hard to tweak and  improve. I wanted to have an answer when people casually asked about science or history or spelling, to prove that I really could do this, even if it was simply proving it to myself. Homeschooling worked so neatly together in my head, and yet in action, it seemed to be a mess! Some days our home life felt smooth and in sync, in spite of their busyness and our slow academic progress.

When I look back to those early years of mothering and homeschooling, what I needed most was encouragement––little reminders to keep going, perspective from a mother just a few steps ahead. I realize that every parent and home is different. Our goals vary and the texture and nuances of our days will too. That’s exactly as it should be, but today, I want to speak specifically to the readers with littles at home, those who are considering or trying out homeschooling for the first time, for families who have younger siblings at home with you. Here are a few things I wish an older homeschooling mother would have said to me in those years when I was about to quit because I couldn’t reconcile our family logistics with all I had hoped in my head or my plans.

You are exactly who your child needs. Your children are a gift to you, and you to them. Wisdom, counsel, and troubleshooting are so helpful on this journey, but in the end, you have to make choices for your home. Pray. Observe. Listen. Use your intuition. Ask for wisdom from people you trust. And just go with it.

You do not have to do it all to be successful. And neither do your children. Focus on a few important goals each day and let go of the rest for now. I wrote more specifically about this here and here.

Be present. The little years are so demanding, but you will miss them. They are foundational for who your children are to become, for how you will relate as they grow. Don’t worry about what you will do or how you will make it through tomorrow. Work patiently and connected with your children today and you will be prepared for it.

Build your day’s activities around your natural home rhythm, not an academic agenda. When I look back now I notice how often I was fighting our home rhythm. My plans were good plans, but aside from meal and nap times, they had omitted our daily living practices, the personal nuances that make our home work.

Be patient with yourself, and with them. As your children grow, their capacity and attention will grow, too. They’re not interested in a writing yet? Focus on reading and letter recognition and offer them play to strengthen writing muscles. Tears everyday in math? Try a more hands-on approach, like here, or wait a bit longer to begin lessons. Your child is eager for academic lessons, but your home schedule or routine doesn’t consistently allow it? Invite them to help with home tasks for a time and set a specific time for you to work one-one-one with their “school” work.

You do not need an academic checklists to validate your days. For list-makers and high-achievers (raises hand), put aside your plans and study your children. If you must make lists (raises hand again), list books you might enjoy together or a few craft ideas for your week or month. List questions they ask or topics them mention for your next trip to the library or museum or nature walk. Make your lists responsive to the conversations in your home, not burdensome tasks. The early years carry enough tasks and burdens of their own. Wink.

Play more. Play more. Play more. The gift of time and play are one of the best gifts for homeschool families. Here is a favorite book list for ideas to encourage play at home and some of the ways it benefits children of all ages.

Let them be messy. And teach them clean up. Wink. But seriously, the little years are busy and messy. That’s okay. Regular practice of cleaning up together with help them learn a bit about respecting spaces and how to care for one another and our things. It takes time. Our family is still learning this skill.

Save lessons that require more focus for a quieter part of the day. Most children need a quiet time for reading lessons or math. Consider how younger sibling activity and interruptions affect lessons with older children. Look for quiet windows of time, and consider using one of those instead.

Home care and self care are important, too. Teaching your child how to care for the home and themselves is an important lifeskill.  Perhaps your child loathes sitting still but loves helping in the kitchen or with chores. This won’t always be the case, but consider the ways busy hands might prefer to learn.

Everyone has opinions. Smile at strangers who glare or who give their opinions in the grocery line. Also have a short response in your mind’s pocket for the “what about socialization?” question. Wink.

Take care of yourself in the process. Some days you will need to just enjoy coffee on the back porch, while your children play. If you start to feel frustrated or overwhelmed, stop and breathe. Let the kids play. Put the baby in the crib. Turn on a brief educational show for a bit. Make space for yourself to breathe and regroup. Mothering is hard work and you matter, too. Don’t feel guilty about carving space to take care of yourself in the process.

OTHER FAVORITE RESOURCES TO ENCOURAGE + LEAD

Wild+Free | A beautiful homeschool community full of rich wisdom and varied experience.

Whole Family Rhythms | Seasonal guides for the preschool years at home, inspired by Waldorf methodology.

The Peaceful Preschool | A gentle literature and project-based curriculum, inspired by a variety of methodologies.

Play the Forest Way | Several activities/projects to encourage parents and young children to play in the woods.

The Life-Giving Home | A wonderful encouragement for mothers about the beauty of home in each month and season.

 

 

Choosing to Homeschool

National School Choice Week | How We Began HomeschoolingNational School Choice Week | How We Began HomeschoolingSeveral times in recent months, I have been quieted by the thought that Mark and I can choose how we educate our children, not simply the methodology we follow but to homeschool at all. Even on the hard days––and there are hard days––it is such a privilege. The choice itself is a privilege. For a week each January, National School Choice Week, a non-partisan, non-political effort, seeks to raise public awareness about the variety of educational options for children. Schools, organizations, homeschool groups alike host events nationwide hoping to empower parents with the positive educational options for their children. Last year they hosted nearly 17,000 events, and next week, January 22-28, 2017, one will more than likely be happening near you. If you are interested to know who is participating in your area, here is an event map for you. Today, in my own effort to celebrate the freedom of educational choice, I thought I’d share a bit of our own family’s story, how we arrived at homeschooling these last nine years.

It sometimes surprises people that I never intended to homeschool. In fact, not long after Liam’s birth, on a day when I sat nestled in a bookshop corner reading with him sleeping on my chest, a clerk paused me for brief conversation, wherein she asked if I planned to homeschool him. I politely laughed. Homeschool? Probably not. Truthfully, I hadn’t even thought of school options yet. At that point, I was more concerned with showering regularly and sleeping through the night again. I didn’t know anything about homeschooling, let alone whether I was committed to that choice yet, and what little I had observed until that point seemed altogether unappealing. How could I do it with children at different ages? How could I have a life outside of it? How would I know what to teach them? Aren’t homeschooled children socially disconnected? Aren’t they a bit weird?

National School Choice Week | How We Began HomeschoolingNational School Choice Week | How We Began Homeschooling

A few years later, after two family moves and with two more children, I found myself in another conversation with new friends about homeschooling. Liam, my oldest was three and attending a two-day week preschool we loved, a godsend for me in the new transition of three children [in three years]. Kindergarten was growing closer by the day, and suddenly, the school conversation seemed more relevant. Listening to my friends’ conversation and excitement around homeschooling, I couldn’t help my internal naysayer. Do people really do this? Is homeschooling really an option for our family? I understood why people might be drawn academically to homeschooling. At that point, I worked part-time at a local college tutoring in writing and grammar. I experienced the callousness of classroom learning in the students’ attitudes, their lack of preparation and skill. I met many students who had only read one or two books in their entire high school experience, and others who hadn’t been required to read anything more than excerpts from anthologies. With access to computers, most of them didn’t understand the point of reading or of literary analysis. Many didn’t even know why they were there. I certainly understood the academic allure of homeschooling. But what about team sports and school lunch? What about recess and school plays? What about my own time for self, for errands, for personal work? For the most part, I had a positive school experience; wouldn’t my children? I felt stumped.

The following year, Liam returned to preschool two days a week, but sometime mid-fall, he began asking to stay home with us. His teacher, an absolutely precious woman who adored Liam, assured me he was enjoying the days there, but all of these previous conversations began to rattle in me. Was homeschooling an option?  With Liam’s first school years nearing, I began doing my homework, reading books from the library, beginning with The Homeschool Option, a wonderful overview of different ways to homeschool, and then onto John Holt’s How Children Learn and  Teach Your OwnSusan Wise Bauer’s The Well-Trained MindLeigh Bortin’s The Core, and Karen Andreola’s A Charlotte Mason Companion eventually so many more in Montessori and Waldorf methods. I looked into our state requirements for homeschooling, surprised to discover how homeschool-friendly our state is. My ideas about homeschooling were evolving. I began doing a reading lesson with Liam a few times a week, which he loved some days and hated others. I immediately had to deal with my own expectations and how this journey would look in our home. I was pregnant with our fourth child and could for the most part only imagine napping during the lulls in our day, not making space for a reading lesson. But we kept at it anyway.

National School Choice Week | How We Began HomeschoolingNational School Choice Week | How We Began HomeschoolingNational School Choice Week | How We Began HomeschoolingDuring the preschool year while we deliberated about what to do, Liam continued at his two-day preschool, supplemented with afternoon reading lessons with me, and plenty of art time and outdoor play with his brother just 17 months younger. I used Teaching Montessori in the Home: The Preschool Years to help guide a few simple hands-on activities. Mark and I also set up tours with several local schools, inquiring about the language immersion program versus the traditional classroom at our local neighborhood school. We visited a few private schools, too, talking with teachers and directors, observing and wondering where our son fit best. I was amazed by the variety of options and diverse experiences. There were schools I quickly crossed off the list, like the one where we were escorted on a tour by a woman in a fur shrug and stilettos. I knew quickly that environment wouldn’t complement our casual, relaxed home atmosphere, no matter how beautiful the classroom or how advanced the technology. There were schools with open concept classrooms and multiple teachers and children working on the floor instead of a desk. There were classrooms that included a child-sized kitchen and personal gardens, where the children were encouraged in independence. There were schools that included daily lessons in French and Spanish, and different schools that issued each child their own laptop or iPad and focused on STEM learning. There were classrooms with igloos made of milk cartons and others with international flags sprawling the walls. Classrooms with traditional desks or tables and ones with only carpet mats.  Uniforms. No uniforms. Neighborhood schools. Schools on the other side of town. I realized, even in our small town, there were several options for us to choose from, options that would require us to know our budget, our family goals, and ultimately, our children. Where would they thrive best? We had to make a choice. Based on Liam’s kinesthetic learning style, difficult time with traditional worksheet methods of learning, and his love of play and art, we chose to homeschool him, knowing three more siblings would be following close behind, too. He loved being at home and was as excited as we were for this option.

I would love to tell you I began homeschooling confident of my abilities, or even confident that we had made the right choice. I didn’t. We began homeschooling as an experiment, with more questions than answers, more ideals than facts. But nine years later, with many soul-searching moments, conversations, research, and prayer, we’re still here, finding this path meandering and growing right with us. While in the early years, I wavered often, especially on the hard days, wondering if we were doing the right thing. I can see the gift of those years now, how precious the experiences with my children are to each of us now, especially the more challenging obstacles. My children have seen me at my best and worst, and likewise for them; they have watched me try new ideas and encourage their own. The beauty of beginning something new together is that the journey has a way of growing us together. For us, this journey is about more than academics and social protocol. Homeschooling is about relational connection, about enjoying their childhood and young adult years together.

The Choice to HomeschoolLast week, we began our school routine again, awkwardly fumbling to find our rhythm for the new year. I grabbed my camera on Thursday afternoon, a random day with nothing extraordinary planned outside of our home. I watched each child toggle from independent artwork or play toward connection with one another, sharing a book or baking a pie together. They don’t always get along. Some days our lessons are more focused on serving one another, on kindness, on attitudes of the heart. These too are preparing them for independent lives outside our home one day, and I’m grateful. Other days we have rich dialogues about ideas and stories we’re reading together. We practice difficult skills in language and mathematics and more practical ones in wood carving or in learning to sew. It is an eclectic path, the most unexpected gift. I will never romanticize this homeschool journey for others. It is hard work and demanding of every resource, but it has empowered me as a parent, taught me how to trust instinct, an instinct that a random bookshop clerk seemed to intuit in me so many years ago.  


This post is sponsored by National School Choice Week, a non-partisan, non-political awareness effort about the variety of educational options. All thoughts and images are my own. Thank you for supporting the organizations and businesses that help keep this space afloat.

on doing less

doing_less_homeschooling-5doing_less_homeschooling-3 I have a personal drive and eagerness to try and do everything, and of course also to do it perfectly (some of which I wrote about here). It is our cultural assumption that more is always better, that quality and quantity can pleasantly co-exist. And perhaps in some instances they can. That is not my story. More often, doing more things taught me how to skim well, how to cut corners and brush over details. Sometimes that type of learning or living is necessary and fine, but this was the whole of my living. And after while, the lack of balance left me wanting and exhausted, even at times, isolated from my own need.

How does one ever do it all? Sitting just outside my back door, I watch the leaves break loose and float through the sky. How frustrated the trees would be if they tried to accomplish their annual cycle in a single season.

I mentioned on Instagram a couple of weeks ago in regards to homeschooling “what I wish I could tell my younger self again and again is: do less. You don’t have to conquer everything at once, to learn all the things in a week or a month or a year. Keep some room in your day for the unexpected, and watch how your children grow and flourish with room. And watch, Self, how you will grow, too.” I’d like to say that I live daily from this revelation, that I am always confident in what we are or are not doing, but the truer statement is I still have to encourage myself in this truth. 

I don’t have to do it all to offer my children a quality education. And neither do you. There are and will be areas of learning we skim and some we skip entirely. There will be areas that feel organic to our home culture, easy to expand on and delve into more deeply. There will be areas that I will always need and prefer a scripted path to follow (math). But in different weeks and months and years, we will have capacity to learn something different. What I can now understand on this journey is that as my children grow so does their capacity to learn. 

There is freedom in this journey for everyone to bend as each home needs it, whether your family uses a boxed curriculum or none at all. But on occasion, I begin to lose heart or soul or patience and need to reevaluate what brings quality to this journey in our home. Here are a few small thoughts that I have returned to when I have lost perspective or possibly my way: 

  • Teach your children to read as soon as possible. This may take one year or four, but in the process you will introduce them to more teachers and also show them how to learn. 
  • Open the door to nature and you will teach them about order in chaos, and also how to restore their souls.
  • Leave space in the day for them to make something with their hands–maybe a meal, a fort, a puzzle, a garden–and you will teach them about purpose the joy of creating.
  • Practice something hard daily, and you all will learn something about perseverance. 
  • Talk about all of it often.

You don’t have to do it all. You don’t have to measure yourself by someone else’s standards, even your own. You simply need to look your child in the eye and listen. In response, you might offer them a book, a pencil, an encouragement, or even perhaps a door outside. When in doubt, take a gentle look into the mirror and do just the same.

an open letter to a homeschooling mother

durango-4

Dear mother,

I’ve been thinking lately about the looming school year and also about this oppressive heat, how every living thing seems to wither under it. “And consider, always, every day, the determination of the grass to grow despite the unending obstacles,” my favorite poet, Mary Oliver, wrote in her Evidence poem. And I can relate, as a woman, as a parent, as a homeschooling mother. In August, the air will buzz with talk of school supplies and routines again. Beautifully organized school rooms and books and curriculum will appear everywhere again––in our texts, emails, social medias, and blog feeds. Perhaps at this point, you know which books and methods your own family will be working through, or how you will schedule (or un-schedule) your days. Perhaps you feel incredibly confident in your decision to keep you children home and confident in how you want to learn together. Or perhaps you haven’t a clue what lies beyond August or even how you’re going to do it all. Perhaps you doubt your decision and question your ability to teach them at home altogether. Where ever you find yourself on that line, it’s okay. I’ve been there, too. Take a deep breath and be encouraged: you are not alone.

I’ve learned over the years that after surveying what others are doing it is possible to feel at once both inspired and insufficient. I can admire someone else’s space and ideas, while also picking apart my own, wondering what I need to do differently or better. I can feel excitement about our own choices, and yet also question it in the context of other options. So before you open your Pinterest boards or favorite Instagram accounts or talk with friends, do this: make it a quest this month to be gentle with yourself. It is after all something new, and should be treated as such. Regardless of how much previous experience you’ve had on this journey of parenting or homeschooling, you have yet experienced this new one. Some parts will feel familiar, and some will be entirely different. Your circumstances will change, and what wisdom you hold from the past will shift you a little. Your children will also be in a new place, whether practicing school at  home for the first time or learning/experiencing new material or even physical growth and change. But first, before opening your inspirations, open your eyes and heart to see yourself and your home in a fresh way. Open your planner and books, not with someone else’s home in mind, but first with your own. For a moment, close your eyes and imagine your family, your home, your current resources at hand, and give thanks for all of it. What is best for them? What great adventure awaits you this year?

I will repeat again to you what I have to regularly tell myself: it is impossible to do everything, but it is possible to do a few things really well. Like most everything else, this is simpler written on paper than it is practiced. I spent my first few years of homeschooling trying to do everything, organizing elaborate lesson plans and fully scheduled days, and I can assure you it left me exhausted and buried with the feeling of not measuring up. I felt inconsistent, because I tried to have a school experience at home. It took me a few years to realize although order and some structure is really good for our home, I needed some time untethered. So I encourage you, regardless of your curriculum choice or love of schedules: leave some blank space in your day, or as stated again in Evidence, “Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.” If you are a planner and prefer to label different hours in your day (raises hand), reserve and label one part of each day as “the unimaginable” and everyone in your home might be happier.

I know there are more things to say to you on these topics, more that I have also been processing about this new year that are still forming. But I will give you a hint of my educational philosophy here in a simple list, not because yours should be the same, but to share the ways that homeschooling (and planning) ought to be simplified and allowed room to breathe:

pray and read together

read, write, and draw/paint a little something everyday

practice with numbers

play outside

work with your hands

talk about ideas and happenings in the world

leave some room for the unimaginable

When I feel overwhelmed or like our week or plans are too full, I will return here to this list, and to these words that although written to you are also written to myself. Perhaps you will remember this letter, too, not for the list above, but simply to remember you’re not alone, to remember to be gentle with yourself and your children, to remember the freedom of unwritten scripts on this journey is joy, not enslavement. I will leave you with one final thought from this same poem, “I ask you again: if you have not been enchanted by this adventure–your life–what would do for you?” The year is fresh, and there is still so much enchantment in this adventure. How will this one look for you?

Warmest wishes,

Bethany

real talk real moms | on preschool at home

mom_talk_on_preschool_education_3

One of the greatest gifts in my thirteen years of motherhood has been friendship, having other women in my life to hash out the hard questions and celebrate the victories of this beautiful, complicated journey. I also appreciate hearing thoughts and perspectives from mothers, even when we are approaching motherhood in a different manner. It’s nice to be reminded there’s no one set path. We all have something to learn from the other. On that note, I’m glad to be joining a few other mothers each month to write and share thoughts around a single topic. The series is called Real Talk, Real Moms and today I’m joining them to discuss thoughts on education, more specifically preschool–a topic dear to me.

It may surprise some to know I never planned to homeschool. My two oldest went to a sweet preschool two times a week, and it was in my oldest son’s last preschool year, we decided to homeschool instead of sending him to kindergarten. Perhaps I feel endeared to these years because of the sharp turn in trajectory it took for our family. Or perhaps it is that we are now closing this chapter of life for our family that allows me to see the beauty and simplicity of those years. Children learn so much in those years. Their imaginations and ideas literally gape open to the world around them. Still the preschool years can be busy and overwhelming, too. The changing brain causes shifting emotions and behaviors, too. When it comes to deciding how to best prepare young ones for the grammar school years, it can be intimidating to take the responsibility on at home. Where do I begin? How do I know if they’ll be prepared to leave for school? Will this mean I homeschool forever? Will they have enough interactions with other kids? Can I really do this? Thoughts can easily spiral. It’s normal, especially for your oldest child(ren).

Yet preschool at home doesn’t mean recreating a classroom experience at home. The home and world outside it IS the classroom. As Charlotte Mason famously noted, “education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.” Homeschooling the little years isn’t simply about finding the right curriculum or creating all the right folder games or even making sure they know a certain amount of information before age five. It doesn’t mean you even need to know what to do the following year or how long you will homeschool. It simply requires you to be attentive, to be willing to step into something new alongside your child. As Mary Oliver wrote, “to pay attention, this is our greatest work.” Homeschooling in general is in many ways simply learning to pay attention. For those of you who are considering homeschooling your preschooler or kindergartener next year, here’s a few helpful lessons I’ve learned along the way, often times the hard way.

real_talk_real_moms_education-5mom_talk_on_preschool_education

TIPS FOR HOMESCHOOLING THE PRESCHOOL YEARS

start small / Begin with something familiar, with what you know and already naturally do in your home. Do you love making food or being outdoors or painting? Use those processes to introduce letters/sounds and numbers.

focus on your home / Social media can be inspiring and paralyzing. Don’t work to live according to other home principles, but instead open your heart and eyes to see your own. Work to establish an atmosphere of curiosity and conversation. Children want to learn in the early years. They want to satisfy curiosities and discover causal relationships. And for the most part, they love being with you.

read books often / Reading aloud to your children will not necessarily mean they will learn to read earlier, but it will develop a love for stories and expand their vocabulary. Developing a reading culture at home will create an appetite for a lifelong love of words.

play with various art materials / Purchase a variety of quality art materials for your children to use and explore mediums. Make collages from different types of paper or magazines. Draw with pastels as well as crayons and pencils.

keep a basket for busy bees / If you have multiple children or small children who love to be busy, keep a special basket for them to play with at certain times of the day. Consider wood blocks, stamps, play-dough, doodle books, needling board, a lap loom, and so on. Pull it out during read-a-loud or when you’re needing to make dinner or spend one-on-one time with another child.

observe + study your children / Become a student of your children. Watch them. How do they respond to large groups versus alone time? Do they tend to move to learn or sit still and focus? Do they have trouble holding writing utensils? Understanding who your children are and how they learn will help you parent them, whether homeschooling or not.

consider hiring help / No one said you need to do everything to be a good mother. Prioritize what’s most important and look for ways to delegate other tasks. Do you have room in your budget to hire help with cleaning or a babysitter to help run errands or play with the kids for a few hours a week? If your budget is small, consider swapping children with a close friend or asking a close relative for help.

play, play, play / Children discover so much on their own by simply playing. Allow them time to create their own play, checking in on them occasionally for safety.

choose simple materials / When I began homeschooling during these early years, all of the materials we used fit into a small antique cabinet in our dining area (maybe one square foot of interior space). I kept a stack of drawing paper, watercolors, crayons, colored pencils, a reading guide, and pre-k materials from Handwriting Without Tears. We made weekly trips to the library and our local children’s museum, and I met weekly with a couple of friends to do a few simple activities, have lunch, and play.

MORE I’VE WRITTEN ON PRESCHOOL AT HOME

Other contributors to this series:

AVE Styles

Design for Mankind

The Effortless Chic

The Refined Woman

Sarah Sherman Samuel

 

handwork: a philosophy + practice in the homeschool

homeschool_handwork_waldorf-11homeschool_handwork_waldorf-9

When children are very young, they have natural curiosities about the world and explore them, trying diligently to figure out what is real. As they become “producers ” they fall away from exploration and start fishing for the right answers with little thought. They believe they must always be right, so they quickly forget mistakes and how these mistakes were made. They believe that the only good response from the teacher is “yes,” and that a “no” is defeat. ― John Holt, How Children Fail

I often receive questions from parents, wondering if we will homeschool our children in high school, or how I will teach them more complex maths or sciences. I truly don’t know the answer to either of those questions right now. Yet my years of experience thus far have taught me this: teaching my children from home doesn’t require that I know everything or even be everything for them; it simply requires a willing heart, one that will learn with them, try new things, and adapt when something isn’t working. Generally speaking, I must live in a way that models I am learning, and mistakes and struggle are a part of my process, too.

Still, this can be the most uncomfortable part of this journey for me, as I learned very young how to be what Holt refers to as an academic “producer.” I learned unconsciously how to diminish the value of process and uphold the end result instead. Right? Good. Wrong? Bad. Yes? Good. No? Bad. Inwardly and almost intuitively, I labeled mistakes as failures and naturally leaned toward the successes, often avoiding the embarrassing words “I don’t know” or “I can’t do that.” I simply wouldn’t. I like knowing. Maybe it’s due to being a first-born. Maybe it’s tied to temperament. Maybe it’s more deeply tied to my humanity, to that fruit Adam and Eve tasted so long ago. I don’t know. What I do know is the slow work of parenting and homeschooling are teaching me about the beauty of process. There are no short-cuts to the end result on this journey. There are adaptations and amendments. There are different styles and ideas to share and learn. There are endless amounts of resources and tools. Yet regardless of one’s personal family ethos or pedagogy, there is no way around the slow, unfolding work of raising and educating a child. It is the hardest, most beautiful process, but it is still a process. In a very practical way, I must choose to step forward without knowing where exactly this road ends.

For our children, these lessons begin with small, concrete experiences. How to crack an egg. How to draw a line. How to form a stitch. By introducing them to specific tools, whether a needle, a loom, a pottery wheel, or a knife, we also introduce them to the value of process. They have eyes and ears, moving bodies and strong voices, busy hands, imaginative minds and curious spirits. This, I have decided, is enough to begin any endeavor if given the right tools. The same is still true for myself. We try new things. We practice. We make mistakes. We learn something new. We meet a goal. We repeat. In a concrete way we are learning a skill. In an abstract way we are accepting a process.

homeschool_handwork_waldorf-8homeschool_handwork_waldorfhomeschool_handwork_waldorf-12

Although quite un-fancy, here are some of the ways this practice in hand and work has evolved in our own home. I imagine it will look different in your own, as it should, but sharing these little journeys somehow makes me feel less alone. Be comforted, dear reader, you are not alone.

HOW TO BEGIN

begin with a specific period of daily time | We generally have a block of time in the late morning or early afternoon, depending on the day. In the morning, my younger children work on a handcraft while I work through a Latin lesson with my oldest. In the afternoon, I set aside time to work through a new skill together. I admit, this is hard to practice. My children might carve or weave at the end of the day or during rest, a way to release the tension of the pencil work. It’s important to find when it will work best for you.

begin where you are | In our early years, we explored color beginning with primaries and blending to form secondaries and so on. Color, like numbers, is infinite. We have explored different artists and mediums of wax, various paints, chalk, charcoal, oil pastels, and so on. We used scissors and made collages or 3-D paper structures, like houses or barns for paper animals. Many of these activities I began with a book or art supplies; the children created the project.

begin with something familiar | It is most innate to begin first with what you know. If like me, it simply providing a time of playing with popsicle sticks and paper and color, begin there. If you are a seamstress or a woodworker or a painter or a ceramicist, begin there. The goal in the beginning is to form a habit of practice.

begin with a natural gift or interest  |When in doubt, begin with something small that you might enjoy and can learn alongside them. Enthusiasm is contagious. Watch how your children play or learn. Observation is the best way to begin gently leading your children in any endeavor. Offering them tools that might compliment their natural gifts can open a whole new world for them. For instance, if your child loves building play dough, try a child’s pottery wheel. If your child enjoys clothing or textiles, introduce a weaving loom or how to sew. I have listed many hand-resources we love or plan to use here.

begin with a gentle guide | Handwork is a major component of Waldorf (Rudolph Steiner) pedagogy. Although we are not strictly a Waldorf family, there’s so much to learn from their gentle rhythms of head, heart, and hands. Also, if you have the budget, consider tutors/teachers who can introduce a new skill to your children.

homeschool_handwork_waldorf-14homeschool_handwork_waldorf-5HOW TO PRACTICE

understand your child’s thresholds | Watch your children. If they seem frustrated, pause and see if there’s a way to adjust the work. When my children and I were learning basic sewing stitches last fall, my youngest was frustrated. When I watched her, I realized the details of thread and needle were too small for her yet, so I moved her to a large needle and yarn so she could control it better. I cut paperboard from a cereal box and poked holes in shapes with a large needle. And she loved it.

participate with them | This is hard. I love releasing my children to independent work, but the truth is it takes a bit of practice to learn something independently. Plus, children love working on projects or handwork with their parents. Consider this a different point of connection in your day.

choose quality tools | Choosing a quality knife or loom or paper, let’s your child know you take their work seriously. If it is a tool that belongs to them alone, and not the family, make a big deal of it. Reinforce that the tool is important to their work, and you trust them with it. (This happened when we gave our children knives.)

introduce slowly | When introducing a new skill, I like to take it in a 4-6 week block to allow practice. It also allows space for weeks we’re off routine for any reason. It also also allow enough time for them to learn to enjoy it (at the earliest stages).

discuss the larger picture | I find it helpful, especially when enthusiasm wanes, to talk with my children about the value of handwork, or a specific craft. How does one fold into another? What might be possible to do after much time practicing? How does this teach them about patience? About themselves? About community? About God? I love showing my children photos or videos of woodworkers, musicians, dancers, painters, designers, and so on. It helps them connect what small things they are learning now to a potential practice down the road.

structured independent work | Now that my children can do a few things on their own. I might assign them to choose their own handwork to do 30-60 minutes on their own. Some days, if the kids are bickering or nagging, I might send them outdoors to work with their hands, whittling or sculpting or painting. It builds structure for them to work through their emotions, but also time for them to work alone. What they produce (if anything at all) may not be useful or perfect, but again that’s not entirely the point.

,

Five Ideas for the Introverted Homeschool Mother

introversion_motherhood_homeschool-13introversion_motherhood_homeschool-7

Solitude matters, and for some people, it’s the air they breathe. ―Susan Cain, Quiet

It feels redundant to mention the messy and loud work of motherhood, let alone with the homeschool. Whether by the practical work of our hands or the soulful work of the heart, it is simultaneously the most beautiful and depleting work, requiring  every bit of our reserves, regardless of educational choices or occupations outside of the home. Parenthood will turn our hearts inside-out in the best of ways, and while it is inherently about our children, parenthood is also a journey of self. I encourage you, dearest readers, do pay attention to this less obvious part too.

On a recent weekend, I spent the afternoon in the kitchen on my own, listening to music and working with my hands. At the end of the evening as the kids were bathing and sliding into bedtime routine, I recognized an internal energy that typically isn’t there at this point in the day. I’m more likely in these hours to fall asleep during read-a-loud or slip into my own sheets just after the kids. Our children had played or worked outside all day, taking full advantage of our unseasonable warm weather. The overflow of energy, I realized, came from quiet, from spending a few hours working with my hands, listening to music, and simply allowing my thoughts to drift without the need to talk or explain a process. I had simply worked.

Knowing how much solitude or quiet activity fuels me as an introvert, the choice to live and learn with my four children all the time may seem funny to others. For years I have wrestled with guilt about this personal need. Taking time for the self can often feel secondary and selfish in the wake of all that can be (or should be) done for our children, and we mothers can be hard on ourselves in the process. After reading Quiet several years ago, I realized this need of mine is as much a gift to my children as any other. I can only say it this way:

The point of solitude is not merely to be filled but to be filled often enough to overflow into something or someone else.

Motherhood is not a life of solitude (even though a mother with a newborn or young toddlers might feel differently). It is a conscious practice of living out-loud, of talking through actions and patterns of thought in order to teach our children. This is a tree. This is a book. This is a bed. This is food. We teach them how to handle anger and happiness, how to talk through hurt feelings and where to look up answers to practical questions. This is anger. This joy. This is laughter. This is hurt. Here is how we speak, how we use our bodies to share our emotion. Here is how we ask for help. We show them the paradoxes and contexts for living. This is a stranger. This is a new friend. Here is how and when you greet them.  We teach practical skills in self-care. Here is a toilet. Here is a bath. Here is a toothbrush. We also teach them about boundaries, about the connection between self and others. This is yours. This is mine. This is sharing. This is fun. This is tired. This is a tantrum. This is the need for rest.  Homeschooling simply adds the layer of academics. The same lessons spiral over and over in a new context. Here is frustration. Here is joy. Here is perseverance. Here is respect for others. Here is a need for rest.

introversion_motherhood_homeschool-11introversion_motherhood_homeschool-5

By honestly sharing my own boundaries and limitations, I am likewise teaching my children to recognize their own. I am also teaching them it is okay to say remove myself from people or activities I love in a healthy way. Here are a few ways that I’ve learned to find quiet during my homeschool days and in motherhood in general over the years:

rest time | Take an hour in the afternoon for rest time. This is a time of quiet, where littles can nap and non-napping children can listen to audiobooks or play independently. Quiet is the emphasis for our home during this hour, and the rule is you must choose an activity that won’t disrupt someone else. This last bit gets easier as they grow older, although sharply protecting this time is more difficult. During this time, I typically take care of online work. On the best days, I just grab a book and a cozy spot on my bed.

go outside | Anytime I’m feeling overwhelmed by the noise in my head or environment, I step outside. When my children were young, I would load them in a stroller or wrap them to my body somehow for a journey to the park. Now as my children are a little older, we may take our work outdoors or I may just go and sit in a sunny spot in the backyard for a few minutes. Sometimes emotion and thought need to be free of the physical home.

take a time-out for yourself | Time-out has such a negative connotation, as it feels equated with toddler tantrums or other misbehavior. I realized during those early mother years, that sometimes I was the one who needed a time-out. Some moments I felt overwhelmed, frustrated, or like I might lose patience, I learned it was better to take a ten minute break for myself before addressing them. I might put the baby in the crib or the toddler in a high-chair with a snack or on their bed with a book. I might send pre-schoolers outside for a bit to swing or play. I still do this, no longer because of tantrums, but because some days the work at hand does feel overwhelming. It’s always good for me to find a quiet spot in the home or yard, take a few slow, deep breaths. These moments feel almost trite, but they work wonders for finding perspective.

offer screen time | Let me pause here and say there’s no shame in using a screen for help. Most modern parents are aware it’s best for children to learn with our hands and by human interaction. And yes, make that type of experience the bulk of your day together, but remember to show compassion to yourself, too. Are you dressed or needing a shower? Are you feeling emotionally anxious or stressed? Have you spent more time playing the sibling referee or working through toddler tantrums than normal? Take 30 minutes. When my children were little, they had a daily 30-60 minutes of screen time. They watched (and loved ) the BBC’s Planet Earth, which we still own and watch, and several documentaries on Netflix. They also watched PBS shows or Leap Frog Letter Factory or Math to the Moon.

send the kids outside | As my children have grown older, I often send them outside. I may give them a specific task or the simple imperative to play and enjoy fresh air. As our studies grow more complex and difficult, they need the balance, too.

Also: Rest Time in Our Home