Last week I started a series about Becoming a Homeschool Baker, where over the next few weeks we use baking as a metaphor for homeschooling, diving into the lessons we can pull out of both. This week is a focus on the starter. All breads have a starter. Some need to be gently taken care of and fed regularly in order to be used in recipes (like sourdough) and others are pulled together as you dump ingredients into a bowl. Its usually a combination of water and yeast with some sort of food stuff. In some recipes that’s a little bit of sugar, in others its flour… it depends on what kind of yeast or leavening you are using. Not all baking projects use yeast, but there is always some kind of leavening in a baking project, even if that leavening is just naturally there because of the way you handle the goods (ie. creaming, whipping or folding). However for the sake of this series I’m talking about Baking Homeschool Bread and so for this we are going to focus on the use of yeast. Chemical leaveners and other physical leaveners are all going to play a role in next weeks part. For the sake of this week lets focus on what we need to do at the beginning to help the bread grow.
How we approach homeschooling may be as different as the kinds of baked goods found all around the world but each and every one of us are doing something that prepares the environment and the child for learning. We are feeding the starter. Feeding the starter is about preparing your home and your attitude, or your atmosphere for learning. So far this has nothing to do with what you cover in your homeschool, its more of how you approach homeschooling as a whole.
Part 1: The Environment
When baking bread the environment is important. The air needs to be warm, there needs to be space for growth and generally we need tools that will help in the process that have nothing to do with the ingredients at all. I can’t bake bread if I don’t have an oven. I need some kind of flat surface to roll my dough out and rest my bowls, and well, I need bowls or well, a bowl I suppose at the minimum. I can bake bread without measuring cups or spoons, all I really need is my hands. It may not be as precise but I can do it. Homeschooling is pretty similar. Besides the ingredients for the recipe which I will get into next week, there are some basic things that every homeschooling environment needs.
- Love. Love is your Oven. If encouragement is your heat then love is your oven because encouragement is born from love. Homeschooling is a labor of love. It is work. It is hard and demanding. It requires that you give of yourself and that you love more than you ever thought capable, not just of your children during their hard times and good, but of your spouse and mostly of yourself. You will find that in the heat of the oven your impurities will shine. You will discover more about yourself than you ever thought possible. You will grow and learn. You will challenge yourself again and again to be a better you than you were the day before. Sometimes the children are the easy part of homeschooling. The more you are with them and the more they grow with your love guiding them the more fun they become. The more you enjoy being with them. The same goes for your spouse. As you grow and communicate and learn together, your marriage grows as you seek a firmer foundation together. But when you face yourself in the oven, the one person you sometimes have a hard time loving, that can be hard. Personally I found that through Homeschooling and through the growth that comes from consistently challenging myself and my own understanding I found myself turning more and more towards my faith as I grappled with who I am and where I am going. One of the hardest things I had to come to terms with was figuring out how to define myself as more than just mom and wife in a society that praises accomplishments and job positions. But that was my journey, and we each face different hardships when the heat of the oven is upon us. Remember, we need the oven. It is only through the oven that the change from dough to bread can happen.
- Space to be worked on. We need space to be worked on. Our children need it and we need it. When we first start homeschooling we focus entirely on the children and the needs of the children but homeschooling affects the entire family and we all need space. Above I talked about the importance of rest but space is different than rest. Space has to do with your physical location in regards to others. You need a flat surface that allows your homeschool a space to be worked ON. You are the Homeschool baker and your homeschool is the dough, in order to be stretched out and kneaded into the shape most conducive to your health and learning, you will need a place for that to take place. You do not need a beautiful school room. You do not need a room full of books or art materials. You do not need beakers or maps or any other ingredients… you just need space. For some people their space is the local library, for others its a large park with serene pathways for jogging, for others its a beach, for others its a cozy bedroom, for others it is their whole home, for others its a drop off co-op place. For many its the kitchen or dining room table or the living room sofa. You will need space to think, space to write, space to play, space to be, space to argue, space to build, space to create, space to destroy, space to live and space to grow. Sometimes you need spaces that are connected with others and sometimes you need to disconnect. Whichever way it ends up working for you just recognize the this is an important part of building your atmosphere. How you prepare to set up your lifestyle is going to change depending on how you arrange your use of spaces and that is going to affect you, your children and your relationships.
- The mixing bowl is your relationship. You need relationship to to homeschool. This is foundational. The relationship is where you rest, its where you grow, its where you mix in new ideas that will take root and it holds everything together until it is ready to be solid enough to sit on its own. The relationship you have with your children and with your spouse before you start homeschooling is going to take the stress of the ingredients and the stress of the mixing and hold it all together. Make sure your relationships are strong before you start. Make sure they have a solid foundation before you start mixing in the ingredients. Fix them if they aren’t. I have scratched and chipped bowls that are solid, they’ve been through some stuff but they are my favorites and I reuse them over and over because they hold the materials just right and allow for just enough growth. The also look pretty on my counter. But I wash them with care, I’m cautious when putting them away, and I don’t use metal utensils when mixing because it scratches too easily. What are you doing to keep your relationships solid and in the best conditions?
Part 2: The Yeast
Now that the environment is ready, the next step is figuring out how you are going to give your dough lift. In baking you get to choose this part but with homeschooling this is more of a discovery. Some homeschools have one kind of yeast…others have a combination, that doesn’t make things impossible, it just means that you’ll be working multiple doughs at the same time. Not impossible at all, difficult yes, but variety is its own kind of adventure. Remember, yeasts are alive. They have minds and wills of their own and feeding them means different things depending on their different natures. Feeding your starter requires that you figure out what kind of starter you are working with…
Sourdough Starter: Sourdough starter is a little bit more persnickety than most other baking starters. There are rules to follow and the feeding needs to be regular and precise. You are working with a law of equivalent exchange and what goes in must come out, but even more than that, the environment as a whole needs to be just right. Mold will grow if it’s too warm, but if it’s too cold then the growth stunts or even dies. This is one of the hardest Starters to work with but the results are amazing and even very forgiving once you’ve had a few mistakes under your belt. Some children are like this too. They need to have their environment just so. Their schedule can not be too packed or too loose. They need space to grow but they need structure and rhythm. The possibilities are endless once you find the right groove but getting started can feel intimidating. These are trial and error children. You just have to keep trying. You’ll find what works but what works may not be what you imagined working or it may be exactly what you imagined and nothing else. Like with sourdough, sometimes you have to discard perfectly good materials because it helps the growth in the long run. The thing about a sourdough starter is that it is great for years and is full of possibilities that are as different as pancakes and artisan loaves. The outcome is based more on what you end up putting into it … but that gets into next weeks topic. The main thing to remember is that is is just the starter, you are preparing the stage for what is to come.
Yeast: When making a recipe that includes yeast there are different kinds of yeast and how you use it will change based on the kind that you have, but generally you add it in when you are ready to begin baking. Yeast, unlike sourdough, doesn’t need a lot of time to be prepared before the baking begins.
Fresh Yeast: Fresh yeast is a living organism that hasn’t gone through any processes other than to be packaged and sometimes formed into a cake shape. This needs to be kept cool, wrapped well, and must be dissolved in a warm sugar water solution to activate. You also generally need more of it than some of the other kinds of yeast to get the same kind of rise out of your baked goods. So, if this were a child, they might need a little time to warm up new ideas, they might need fun hands on activities to persuade them into enjoying themselves and you might need to go at a relaxed pace but generally you can just ease into whatever style or philosophy or curriculum you have. The hardest part of setting the atmosphere is starting out. Like most new things you just have to get used to the process of working together. It doesn’t necessarily get easier over time but as you get used to going through the motions, and it becomes routine, then the motions become second nature and it feels easier.
Dry Active Yeast: This yeast is still alive but its been put on standby. All it needs to get started is some hot water. This is the child that just needs the resources and encouragement. The process isn’t difficult but that does mean that it has to be more intentional. Cold water won’t work. Room temperature water won’t work either. A child left to their own devices with resources available may understand some but that doesn’t mean they will be capable of deep learning. The encouragement is the heat of the atmosphere. Its what will make it bubble and grow. Don’t forget the heat. This child still wants you alongside them and building the atmosphere is still an important part of the process.
Instant Yeast: Instant Yeast is already ready to go. Just throw it into the recipe and it works. This is the child that is already demanding learning opportunities and creating them for themselves even when you are not with them. This is the child who teaches themselves to read and suddenly asks you “mommy? what does unattended mean?” while you are standing in the bread aisle at Target because they read it off of the shopping cart or says “wow, the sun is 92 million miles away from us and it still made today 110 degrees so those gasses are really hot” and you are just left there wondering how on earth did this child know that? This child is not as easy as that all sounds but creating the atmosphere is more about not letting the desire to learn die than it is about helping it grow. You still need the atmosphere and the heat, but you also need time for rest and space for growth without you once you’ve added other ingredients.
Part 3: The Rest
Once you’ve realized what kind of yeast you are working with, you’ve activated it or fed it, and gotten everything prepared; the next step before you do anything else (unless you are using Instant Yeast), is to wait.
Just because the you know how to get the atmosphere prepared doesn’t mean you need to jump in whole hog right away!
Before you start implementing curriculum or resources, or any other ingredients, you need to just wait and allow that atmosphere of your new life to take hold. How long you wait is dependent on your family but every kind of yeast or starter requires a rest time. Very few people jump into homeschooling without fully considering all of the different aspects of it and how its going to affect them financially, emotionally, socially and as a family. Very few adults who consider homeschooling decide to homeschool and then start the next day. There is a rest period naturally where you begin to process what you are doing and how you are going to logistically and realistically make everything work. Before you start looking for curriculums and before you start trying to find books on homeschooling, there’s still that time of process.
Children need that too. They need a time period where they can start to feel how life will work without actually doing school lessons, but where the way the family talks and responds to life is similar to how it would be as a homeschooling family. When a child asks a question, how do the adults in the room respond? Is it an immediate I don’t know with no room for more questions or is it a yes here’s the answer don’t ask any more? Or is it an I don’t know with plenty of room for questions or an answer that ends with another question? Are there spaces in your routine for curiosity? Are there places in your routine for fluidity? Do you ask questions at home? Do you write? Do you read? Do you have time for games? Do you have materials for building? Is your atmosphere one that encourages growth? Growth is messy… is there room for messes? Do you have space for responsibilities? When everyone is home for long periods of time there is room for building responsibilities into our rhythm.
There are natural changes that occur in a families dynamics when a family chooses to stay home with their children through the school age years, even if they’ve always been at home. When a child is brought home from a school environment this rest period is called deschooling but children being brought home from brick and mortar schools are not the only ones who need this rest period. Even children who have always been at home develop ideas regarding what school should be based on the books they read and the cartoons or movies they watch. If they have older siblings or cousins that have gone to school then that is a source of information for them as well. Many children mention that they want to go to real school when they first start homeschooling but often this has nothing to do with mom, dad or even schooling itself and instead has to do with something they’ve associated with schools, like a lunch box, or backpack or riding a school bus. The rest period between starting the process of building the homeschool atmosphere and starting your homeschooling materials is a time of rest that allows the whole family to acclimate to the new rhythms and routines without the added stress of lessons and philosophy or homeschool style.
Yeast needs time to grow. Starters need time to process what’s being done to them, fresh yeast needs time to eat, dry active yeast needs time to activate, instant yeast will need their time after they’ve mixed in with their other ingredients… the amount of time needed changes for each and the way they rest is different but they all need rest.
Creating and working with an atmosphere that fosters learning means also understanding that your family is going to need ample rest periods once you’ve begun. Actual rest. Time when they are allowed to process what is going on. Different children will need a different kinds of down time. Some will need to be outdoors, some will need to be physical, some creative, others immersed in make believe while others will need to zone out, some may just need sleep. Finding what kind of down time fits the members of your family is just as important as finding the right curriculum and the right style of encouragement. Telling a child who needs to zone out to play with friends is not actually going to help them process what they’ve learned. Telling a child to go outside and play who needs to create without giving them a license to create while outside is also just as counterproductive. Finding the time to build restorative rest into your daily schedule is an important part of creating your overall atmosphere. You could have the best yearly schedule, the best subjects, the best ingredients, and all the right attitudes but if there’s no rest built in your growth will stagnate.
Setting up your schedule is also a big part of this. Do your children need smaller processing breaks throughout the day? Throughout the month? Throughout the year? Would a six weeks on one week off schedule fit better than a semester on and holiday off schedule? What about your actual day to day? Do you have a child who hates mornings but is really focused after lunch? Perhaps trying to do your more focused lessons right after breakfast isn’t right for your family, perhaps after lunch should be for explorations and after lunch should be for focused lessons? Does your child get an energy burst right before bed? This might be a good time to do math or history. You don’t have to do all of your lessons in the morning, you could spread them out so that its 30 mins in the morning, 30 mins after lunch and 30 mins before bed. The idea is that you are taking into account the rhythms and cycles of your family as a part of the process of building an atmosphere and you are making sure that there are built in breaks that allow time for growth to take place.
Homeschooling is a lifestyle choice. It is more than just a way to educate your children. You will be with your children all the time. The education will happen as you pour into it but before you begin to mix in the necessary ingredients for a finished product you need even more basic foundations laid down and focused on over time. Here’s the thing with being a baker, a baker doesn’t make just one loaf of bread. To be a Homeschool baker is to Bake. Its a verb, an action, that happens again and again. One term may be a flop, maybe it never rose and you had discard the dough. Thats ok. You can start again with the next term. Maybe the recipe was bad, maybe you added a little too much water. Maybe you live in a higher altitude and that changes how it turns out. There are so many variables! Don’t let that stop you. Just take it one step at a time and start with feeding the starter.
Next week we will continue the series with the next topic, Ingredients Matter.