Finding a Fit

Well hello again, it’s been a while hasn’t it? Thanksgiving feels like a lifetime ago yet here I sit at my keyboard only now realizing that it’s been that long since I put my thoughts out there. So much has happened in such a short time. The curriculum that worked fabulously stopped working fabulously after the newness wore off, I started a job and then finished it, we’ve had some sickness, some weather craziness, a birthday and a diagnosis – but that will have to wait for its very own post.

findingthefitTo say that things have changed again feels so repetitive and yet it has… perhaps I should name this blog the House Change called Home. Maybe Change and I are just too familiar with each other and so he feels comfortable being himself in my life. I envision Change as a five-year-old boy with a temper tantrum problem. He wears overalls and tracks mud everywhere but sometimes he smiles a crooked missing tooth smile, and in that moment he is the most welcomed face possible. He must live nearby because he always seems to dump all of his issues on me…maybe he just always visits near his bedtime and this is how he responds, I am his brain dump.

Well anyway, he came, he saw, he conquered and I was left standing with towers made of china precariously balancing in my clumsy hands while trying to dance the tango.

So this is how it all breaks down, two weeks before Christmas I get an email offering the diamond of all opportunities… the chance to possibly be hired as an Adjunct teaching  Western Civilization at a community college. My dream job being lobbed gently right into my glove. Well, as long as I could get my resume and application turned in by the close of business tomorrow because the whole school was being shut down for winter break. The last teacher couldn’t take the position, they needed someone now and I was recommended.

I, by the grace of God, pulled it off.

Holidays come, Holidays go. Schedule, school…what’s that? Craziness ensues.

Job offered, job accepted, official transcripts ordered, materials handed off and class starts…all in one week. Well, class was also supposed to be happening for my four little hooligans but it did not because said job, at said community college was taking place near grandma and grandpa’s house…two and a half hours away. So my week looked like this: prep for class, write quiz, pack for trip with children, drive two and a half hours to grandparent’s house, teach class, pick up kids, drive home, go to OT, fit in volunteer work, try to get the kids to any nature center possible, go to Piano lessons, go to AWANA, and try to fit five days worth of homeschool scheduling into three days. Well, all of that structure that worked so well for us in the fall made me feel like a failure every single week.

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We were always behind in something. Sure we found ways of learning every day but none of it was on my schedule! All of those science and math podcasts, the audio books we listened to, all of those great books Grandpa read to them on his day off, all of the comic books they created or the sentences they copied or the documentaries that they watched…all of the unschooly type stuff that I know is great learning, not a single part of it made me feel better about the fact that we were three weeks behind on our scheduled readings and falling more behind every day. I knew that it was a problem with me. Apparently, I just have the kind of personality that turns any recommendation into a checklist of requirements. So while I still love Ambleside, I cannot use it as it was intended.

Enter good friends and homeschool retreats.  I am so thankful that I have found a group of like-minded homeschooling friends who just get it. I opened up about my issues to a few of them and they reminded me of the atmosphere part of CM homeschooling. I had lost it in my busy-ness. I lost my fit, again. I allowed that beautiful environment that I had created in the beginning of the fall to erode into a lifestyle ruled by a timetable and just as I was feeling at my worst about it all I attended a local CM retreat.

IMG_0546I am not exaggerating when I say that three days of pure CM goodness being poured into me changed not only how I felt about schooling at that moment but it also really helped me focus my overall plan for schooling the littles. Not that I even know what’s happening next year but I feel better about the blips and bumps along the way because I can see how the whole picture fits together. I can see how life is a part of the process and part of what makes things fit overall. So that documentary on life in the Galapagos ended up fitting in nicely when a family member went to the Galapagos Islands and flooded my Instagram feed with the most beautiful pictures imaginable, and that ended up fitting in even more nicely with the geography book that I picked up and just so happened to start with Archipelagos.

Best of all was that I didn’t need to make any of those connections. The science of relations worked on its own and the children pulled it all together by themselves. Also, it didn’t matter that I was still reading the first chapter of Robinson Crusoe to Little Man. Turns out he had kept up with the reading schedule but barely understood his own narrations and needed me there to help him break down the language. So we started over and worked on it together. On the positive side, I finally found a book that was challenging to him!

I still use a lot of the resources from the Ambleside curriculum, they are good, solid books and I don’t want to completely reinvent the wheel but I also figured out that the Schedule Cards put out by Sabbath Mood are far more helpful to us in this phase of life. Right now, I need the flexibility of movable cards based on a set amount of time more than a week by week list of chapters to be read. But just two months ago that weekly breakdown worked so perfectly, what happened to me? Am I that flighty?

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Maybe, the problem isn’t me?  I know that the problem isn’t the curriculum because I know so many who thrive while using it. Maybe, the problem is with how I’m trying to view the problem itself. I keep trying to find a fit like I’m a puzzle piece trying to find my spot in the jigsaw, but what if I am not a part of a puzzle at all. What if I belong to Jenga instead? What if I am not a piece at all but rather the whole game?

What if, I don’t fit right now because my tower is growing and as it grows it becomes unstable, requiring me to move one piece at a time as I get closer to the end? If I stay as is my tower may crumble, but if I move things around I will get just a little bit closer to my goal. Eventually, everything will fall down just to start over again. My role in my children’s lives will get rebuilt. They will start building their own towers, leaving me with a whole new tower to build, a whole new purpose. The awesome thing about Jenga is that every piece is me. Every piece fits in one way or another but how I arrange those pieces decides what kind of game I get to play and how long I get to play the game but in the end, the result is always the same. The tower always falls.

The class was a short one and its over now but it was an amazing experience. My role as teacher to someone other than my own children fueled me. For the first time since I moved to the East Coast, I did not have a real winter depression. I was starting to feel the effects of winter but just when it usually hits the hardest everything changed. In the end, I was a better mom for it, a better wife and a better homeschooler. There is no saying how long this solution will last. With each new problem, there is a new solution. I don’t know what that next problem will be but based on the Change that I know, it is time to prepare because bedtime is coming.

Onward!

It’s been a while since I last wrote and honestly the only reason why I’ve taken a step back from blogging is because I’ve been elbow deep in living the life.

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I have spent more time reading up on a philosophy I thought I knew while trying to concurrently implement elements that I have always cast aside in favor for other styles than I thought would be necessary. I knew I was going to have to change things up when I started the switch from mixing unschooling and Charlotte Mason to full on CM and I guess I was a bit naive regarding just how much unschooling I had taken on. I dropped Unschooling because I noticed that my children needed the structure more but I didn’t want to lose the atmosphere that we had created in the process.

When something’s not broken you don’t go trying to fix it and the one thing we had really accomplished with unschooling was that the children loved learning! The last thing I wanted to do was make them feel like they must do this checklist worth of subjects and to reduce learning to a chore when we had spent so much time building an atmosphere of learning. After thumbing through multiple free sites, I built my own curriculum for all three of the school aged children mixing sources from multiple grade levels to reach each child where they were at… or so I thought.

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After one six week term with my own CM styled curriculum I realized that mixing them just wasn’t challenging my oldest at all and my younger two really needed to be separated, so I switched things up again. For the first time ever, I moved towards using someone else’s curriculum. At this point I needed something that I could pull together within one week but that also didn’t micromanage my time with too many instructions and so I decided to stick with Ambleside Online‘s free curriculum. I knew that most of the books could be found in the public domain so I didn’t have to spend a fortune pulling together my resources and many of the ones that are not free I could find in one of the three counties that I have a library card for.

We have been at this now for 6 weeks- we should be taking a break this week but using someone else’s curriculum has been a HUGE adjustment for us and instead of being ready for a break, we are two weeks behind. It’s not that this curriculum is hard for us, instead its exactly the kind of challenge we needed, but trying to juggle the items listed on the weekly syllabus (which I LOVE the format of!) with the things that used to be considered electives has been a bit of a challenge.

I used to focus on Math, Phonics, and Reading and everything else just kind of fell into place and because we are always on the move everything fell into place easily. Now I am trying to read 35, 15 minute long, readings a week (years 1,2 and 4- the on demand non-structured preschool readings are not included in this number), regularly make sure we are adding in Nature Study, Hymn Study, Composer Study, Folksongs, Handicrafts, Geography, Mapwork, Plutarch, Shakespeare and Poetry all while continuing Piano Lessons, Science Classes, regular Field Trips and while adding in an engineering class, doctors appointments and our own fun readings every night.

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Dude, I can’t even express how stressed out I was getting over it all during the first two weeks. I read so many blogs and listened to quite a few podcasts trying to figure out how families larger than mine manage to keep this all together!  I was trying so hard to keep the atmosphere that we had created while trying to add in all of this structure because I could see the value in every single part. I knew that together we could have something pretty awesome but I also knew that how things worked for other people wasn’t going to work for me. I don’t have the energy to keep house along with all of this other stuff and keep up with friends or volunteering- all of which are important to me and I don’t want to cut back on- but something had to change. The kids loved school but I was getting too stressed.

So I looked at it from another angle.

Mornings don’t work well for us- at least not for readings. Mommy reading everything out loud, doesn’t work well for me. Schedules, well, I still can’t keep them, so I work with my own version. Routine…not my cuppa tea. So how do I fit it all in without making a schedule or routine, without me reading everything out loud and without bombarding our mornings with lessons?

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While daily checklists and scheduled routines do not work for us, loose weekly requirements do. What does work is making a big list of everything I want to do across all three years during the week on our big blackboard, choosing a handful from each year and fitting those in everyday. Somedays don’t work as planned, either stuff comes up that is just too awesome to miss out (like free children’s day at the Aquarium) or we are so out of it that school just cannot go on, but the system still works for us. All in all, it has allowed us to keep the atmosphere, find a rhythm, and it keeps the boredom from settling in. On the downside, we don’t always get everything to fit into one week, but we are doing so much regularly that it no longer bothers me.

I do not read everything out loud anymore- Man was this killing my voice and my daily productivity! Not enough tea or coffee to keep me from getting sleepy while reading out loud for hours on end. Only one of my four is a strong enough reader to read on their own but too much reading assigned to even him meant that his reading for fun habits were disappearing and I didn’t want that either. Instead we started finding audiobooks through our library (who uses hoopla) or Librivox  and we now listen in the car or they listen during quiet time on their own. If we are not listening together then I’ll read ahead on my own so that I know what they are learning too and narrations are always done with me so we haven’t lost the one on one time in the process.

Also I don’t do all of the readings in the mornings anymore. I spread them out throughout the day in between our other activities. What used to be scheduled from 830 am to 1230 pm now is broken up on the way to science or piano, in the morning before math/ copywork / nature study/ handicrafts or in the evening after dinner. This way we keep the fun feeling of reading with mommy but it doesn’t turn into a chore. Sometimes it’s outside under a tree, sometimes on the couch, sometimes while we eat breakfast… but most of the time we read when I know it will keep their interests.

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I was overthinking it all. I was guilty of overthinking again. I do this a lot. I compare what I’m doing with what I read and I wonder if I am doing it wrong or if I need to add such and such… in a matter of 2 weeks I lost my focus. I went into this school year with a relaxed attitude. I wasn’t stressed, I wasn’t over burdened…but then when I adapted to someone else curriculum I fell into the curriculum trap. It is a guideline, it is a philosophy, it is a lifestyle, it is not a how to. I needed to go back to how I viewed the curriculum; looking at it more like a booklist/unit and less like a manual. I am too literal to look at it like a manual. I stress out too easily. I overthink it too much and I forget that education is an atmosphere, a discipline and a life.

This is one of the greatest things about homeschooling and in an effort to create more structure I momentarily forgot that structure does not have to look like school to be effective. I don’t need to have blocks of subjects. I don’t need to have to do lists written out for each child. I don’t need to do it all. The children still need to be responsible for their own education and they need to work with me like they always have if we want to pull this off. I can homeschool in an organic way without being an unschooler and I can find freedom in a rhythm that is full of discipline.

I am, I can, I ought, I will.

This is our life.

This is not school.

We are individuals who were created in the image of the Almighty, we are each unique and in that uniqueness we are different from others so our school may not look like others do. We may have aspects that are similar. We may follow the same philosophy. We may even have many of the same struggles but what works for one does not necessarily work for another.

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So onward we move down this road, focusing on enjoying this journey because the destination leaves me with an empty nest, a thought I am not ready to rush into.

Make Way for Breaks: Scheduling around Chronic Illness

Ah the beloved break. Spring Break, Winter Break…Summer vacation. Many of my favorite childhood memories are inextricably linked with the nostalgia of school breaks. A nostalgia that I do not want my children to miss out on even though we have the freedom to break away from the school schedules that accompany them. I love the idea of traditions that make their home within a specific break. The feeling of adventure as you look forward to days or weeks of unscheduled freedom, which is why I schedule my entire year around such breaks.

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I absolutely love that as a homeschooler I can control how we set up those breaks and how often we get to have them. I love being able to plan special breaks around family birthdays or events happening in our life. The children love knowing that if one week has been especially hard on us, there is always the option of having a slower week soon after. However, there’s another reason I love being able to schedule breaks whenever I need them at this season of my life. Quite frankly, my health demands it.

My body physically demands some kind of reprieve from the responsibilities that go along with being a homeschooler. I just cannot do it all, all of the time. It is too much for me. Trying to homeschool, keep house, volunteer, be a wife, a writer, feed my creative hungers and intellectual curiosities all while fighting my own body and it’s limitations absolutely requires that I prioritize my time. For me it is a constant battle between the chronic fatigue and body pains of fibromyalgia, the eye fatigue, headaches and migraines of IIH and the debilitating effects of seasonal depression that absolutely demand that I listen to my body and be proactive rather than reactive.

Reactions mean days in bed with no ability to meet the needs of myself, let alone my children. Which  I feel is not fair to them or my husband, who is wonderful enough to pick up my share as well as his own during those rough patches. That is not the kind of mother or wife I want to be, my own personal expectations are far too high for that. So instead of reacting to piss poor planning, I actively schedule and prioritize my time, knowing my limits and abiding by them. Knowing that I need a certain number of down days per week and not over scheduling my time. Knowing that certain situations, lightings or atmospheres trigger headaches. Knowing all of these things and above all, planning for them- which is especially hard when you also enjoy being spontaneous and adventurous.

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First things first. My first step in planning out my time is to plan out a rough yearly schedule based on the times of year that work with me and not against me. We choose to school year round in order to best accommodate my needs in this regards.

For us this looks like a year round schedule that is broken up into six terms. These terms are very loosely based and can last anywhere from six to eight weeks. At around six weeks I evaluate our current mood and condition; if all is well we go ahead for two more weeks, if not then we stop and take a week off. This way we don’t overdo things trying to just push through. However, unlike most term based schedules I make one slight distinction – we have what I call our Holiday Term and Summer Vacation built into the term system.

Our school year looks like this:

Term 1: July &August

Term 2: Sept &Oct

Term 3: Nov &Dec- Holiday term

Term 4: Jan & Feb

Term 5: Mar &Apr

Term 6: May & June – Summer Vacation

During the four regular terms we do the vast majority of our studying, we take field trips, go to plays or performances and take part in local classes. The short breaks between terms allow for little reprieves that are just right for clearing our minds from time to time. On the other hand, the two  middle terms are our big breaks. Rather than me preparing everything and laying everything out we go with what feels interesting. We follow passions and build our independent study ability because my children love learning so much that they just don’t stop, even if I tell them that we are on vacation. I still record our progress during this time but I don’t set up any requirements. I don’t ask the children to do math or copy work, we don’t read off of our scheduled readings. We do check out science books at the library (usually because someone wants to know how something works), we do go to museums, create art, watch documentaries…all things that I record through pictures, receipts and end products but any thing that happens during this time is occurring spontaneously and is done out of pure curiosity or desire.

As much as the kids love all these breaks, the best part about this schedule is that it allows me time during my hardest months to move into survival mode without affecting our overall year.

November and December are very hard months for me. My mind has a horrible time adjusting to the light changes, and the weather changes affect how my body moves as well. During these months I just cannot keep up with everything so instead I plan for my focus to shift away from schooling to things like dishes, laundry, and meals. I know that I can spend the time with my children baking and reading without worrying that I have enough written down for the reviews. The children also love the freedom to enjoy the first snows and the changes of the seasons outside without worrying about written math lessons. In addition, because it coincides with Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, and Three Kings Day this break allows us to focus on traditions and joyful holiday fun rather than finishing up a test.

On the flip side of this May and June are my best months. The weather is perfect for spending the entire day outside. Gardens can be planted. Nearby nature preserves are full of life waiting to be explored. Most schools aren’t out yet so it is also a perfect time for a family vacation or special outings. We love having the freedom to use these months (and my extra energy) doing the things that are harder to do the rest of the year without thought to school. It also works out nicely that our last few weeks of summer vacation perfectly coincide with the schools release so that we can have fun with cousins as well.

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Now that my year is planned out (roughly), I move my focus on to my weeks and terms. Before this year my terms were based entirely on our interests at that time. I would ask the children what they were interested in and then we would explore those things together- taking every rabbit trail along the way. However, because this year is so different I’ll keep it short and sweet. First of all, because I am following a Charlotte Mason education this year, this part of my planning process is very specific to this style. I have my list of subjects and my topics within each subject for each child that I want to complete over the year. I then break that list into the four terms that I have going on during the year. Because I know that each term can last from six to eight weeks I plan for eight weeks from the get go knowing ahead of time that we may be starting the next term picking up at the unfinished end of the last one. As for subject matter…well that is a whole other post and one that relies heavily on mixing and matching what works for us based on established resources like Ambleside Online, Simply Charlotte Mason, Charlotte Mason Help, A Modern Charlotte Mason, Sabbath Mood, A Delectable Education, and AfterThoughts. This year I spent about a month preparing for our upcoming year but even then I only prepared down to the weekly level of each term. I stop my lesson plans at the week level specifically because I know that each week will require a different rhythm to best fit my health at that time.

 

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So, moving onto the how. How do I plan ahead regarding my day to day when I also know that I am no good at keeping schedules and when I have to plan ahead for any possible unknown flare ups? For me, it means multiple open plans. I never have just one schedule or routine, instead I have a cycle of options that fit together making up the perfect week or term or year.

For this year these are the options for my days.

  1. The out of the house day, Full Day: Basically these are the days when we leave the house. We wake up earlier than usual, we need to have planned meals for the day, outing bags need to be packed the night before, weather needs to be checked… this also means that no other schooling will occur, dinner needs to be easy and tomorrow needs to be at home because this kind of day is exhausting, for all of us.
  2. The out of the house day, part day: These are the days that include some kind of outing that is close to home and less than 3 hours long, including driving time. Piano lessons, Art class, Science class, Playdates, Nature Study, Library trips… all of these options are part of our school day and the rest of our day flows around them. Readings, math and copy work still happen although when they happen depends greatly on the schedules required by outside forces such as other people, open/close times, weather issues, etc…
  3. The home school day: This is a typical homeschool day and normally only lasts 3 hours. We wake up when we wake up and follow a basic routine, which often look like this: breakfast, readings together, math and copy work, lunch, tea time, outside time, free afternoons, tidy up, dinner and family time.
  4. The home chore day: These are the days when I just can’t stand the mess any longer and I need to deep clean. We still do math, copy work and about half of our regular readings but the focus is on our house… these days usually precede house guests and are the reason my children ask who is coming to visit when they see me pull out the cleaning supplies.
  5. The lazy day (I name this with a warm, fuzzy attachment to the term lazy, not at all a negative one): When we have had a particularly harrowing week or weekend we throw one of these days in (usually on Monday or Friday) just to help us refresh. These are usually an anything goes kind of day and we rarely get dressed on them. You will often find mommy in yoga pants, the middle girls in tee’s n shorts (regardless of the weather outside), Itty bitty running through the halls in underwear (her preferred mode of dress) and Little Man is usually in pj bottoms with a tank top (he would also prefer to be in underwear alone but alas being the only boy in a house full of girls requires that he be clothed at lest marginally). You will almost always see a slew of art supplies scattered across our living room, a stack of books beside a crumb filled tea set and more than one electronic device huddled with a blanket. Mommy’s nose is most likely firmly stuck in the pages of a book for a good portion of the day. These are our favorite days.

Mixing and matching these different kinds of days into a week , month or term allow us to focus on the atmosphere of our learning. The flow we had as unschoolers stays intact even if I now have readings or assignments that we want to finish within a specific week. I try to have at least two #3 days and no more than one #1 or #5 days per week. Most weeks we have three #2 days and two #3 days and occasionally we will have a full week of #3 days, these, though not often enough, are often what I feel are my most productive weeks.

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While certain aspects of this plan are specific to CM, it has not always been. This is the same plan that I used when I unschooled. The only difference between this schedule and our unschooling one was that our homeschool days were entirely child led and sometimes looked similar to our lazy days. I didn’t come by way of this over night either. Over the years I found our rhythm. There were seasons where I pushed too hard and crashed shortly after. There were times when I over scheduled our weeks and sometimes months, leading to an in ability to get out of bed. If you look through my past posts its easy to see where depression took over, where fatigue left me empty, where I just couldn’t handle the day to day of life. Every one of those hard or dark times was taken into consideration when I built this schedule over the last three years.

Last year was my first full year without a complete burnout. For me that means I found what worked. What worked was this. As of now this is the way that I can schedule things in the most productive way while also being aware of my own limitations. This is how I get everything to fit without burning myself out. I have to create blank spaces in our year. I have to schedule in room for wiggling. To put it in a nutshell, scheduling for me, is all about how I Make Way for Breaks.

Dropping the Un from our SCHOOL

Over the years I have transitioned, tweaked, mixed and done whatever was necessary to find a system that works for us. I mixed together what I loved and created a Philosophy of Education that works for us and that philosophy hasn’t changed but my methods of implementing it has.

In the beginning I tried so hard to make classical work. It was just too much all at once with kiddos that were just too young for that kind of style. I then rebounded into public school which is far more of a traditional style (or what most of us see as traditional) and that was a miserably failed experiment as well. That was when I found Unschooling, Charlotte Mason, Waldorf, Thomas Jefferson Ed and Montessori.

I read everything I could find on these. I immersed myself into the theories, methodologies and implementations of each one using our deschooling period as my research time. I fell in love with so many aspects of each one that I ended up even more confused than when I began; but the two that spoke the most to my fancy were Unschooling and Charlotte Mason.

  I think that’s the trap for all new homeschoolers. Overload you with information and send you on your way with a simple phrase like “you’ll find what works for your family” and leave them contemplating each and every aspect as if their child’s entire future hinges on this one decision.

Unschool your children and you’ll either have these amazingly self-directed teens that know exactly who they are and where they’re going or you’ll have a lazy, entitled brat who can’t read. Use Charlotte Mason and you’ll have a well read, nature lover with a wicked dry brush who is ready for anything college will throw at them or a burnt out teen who can’t stand the idea of one more dusty old book and doesn’t know what they want from life. Maybe I should memorize more like the classical style or spend more time outdoors like Waldorf or …

Dude, this train of thought is exhausting and debilitating!

I was so tired of trying to over analyze every single aspect (which was totally unnecessary!) that I ended up Unschooling with a pocketful of Charlotte Mason tools for when the kids said “I’m bored, what can I do now?” and it WORKED!

Honestly it still works.

It never stopped working. But that’s not why I’m writing this. I am writing this because I decided to change things up. I started last year as we added more structure to our rhythm but instead of fixing things I started to notice some behaviors or aspects that I didn’t like and that is why we are dropping the un from our school.

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I still believe in the power of respect and freedom. I still believe in building a cooperative environment where mom and child work together towards creating the kind of education that is best for the child. I still believe that the child should feel responsible for their own education. I’m also still all about spontaneous trips or rabbit trails.

But,

  1.  I’m a history nerd and I really didn’t like how haphazard their historical knowledge was being introduced. When my 7 year old asked me if Pocahontas came over on the Mayflower too, I knew that I wasn’t doing something right. When we visited Valley Forge two years before learning about George Washington and they couldn’t connect the two on their own- that was a problem for me.
  2. Electronics were playing too big of a role in all of our lives and none of us were able to self regulate- myself included. One of the tenants of unschooling is that if you let them have all that they want they will eventually not want what is bad for them and learn to self regulate. Maybe that works for some people but addictive tendencies run in my family. We have a serious history of drug abuse, alcoholism, being workaholics and generally being unable to self moderate that runs through almost every generation of both my family and my husbands. In our family this was becoming a problem.
  3. As a part of our movement towards facing underachievement I have to require that my children do certain things they don’t want to do. This is completely contrary to unschooling and completely necessary for my family. This isn’t about pushing them to do more but rather about teaching them perseverance and grit. This is something that I wasn’t forced to do and now I struggle with this absolutely necessary part of life- I want better for my children and its far easier to break a habit when your 8 than when your 18 or 28.

This is why I am officially leaving behind the method of unschooling. However, before I completely write all of this off I want also say that unschooling gets a bad rap. Below are what I see most commonly as misconceptions of unschooling:

  1. Unschooling is not UnParenting. Choosing to unschool does not mean that you stop being a child’s parent. There are varying styles of parenting found in all styles of schooling and the same goes for unschooling. It is just as easy to find a parent with bedtimes and house rules who unschools as it is to find a free range, yes parent. That said, it is also just as easy to find a free range, yes parent in classical environment. Parenting style does not dictate schooling methods. The trick here is that if you are an unschooler with rules, usually you have conversations with your child about the reasoning behind the rules and you keep the communication open and flowing. Teaching a child boundaries is just plain safe and unschoolers do this too (even if the methods vary).
  2. Unschooling does not mean that your child does nothing! An unschooled child can take a mathematics course or use a language arts curriculum- or play minecraft, read fantasy for hours, and build forts in the woods. What makes the child unschooled is that they, the child, are the ones who choose that path. If the parent says, “I think you should take this class” or “here choose between these curriculums or this class” then that is not unschooling, but if you’re at the library and your 10 year old sees a poster for a math in minecraft class and then proceeds to tell you “hey that looks fun, can I do that?”- well that is unschooling. On the flip side, if your 6 year old wants to learn french after reading Matilda and you offer a french tutor that is also unschooling.
  3. You can’t unschool part time. You’re either in or out. You can set up Montessori stations in hopes that little fingers will choose to sit and play (and eventually they will). You can lay out great books on table tops or displays silently praying that one of your children will be attracted by the illustrations that graze the front. You can have easels, paints, paper, crayons or tools out and about enticing young eyes with their shiny gleams or colorful rainbows. You can drive to the park with a lunch and watch as your child explores and adventures. You can even lay out that handwriting book and leave it there in the same spot, religiously dusting its cover over the years until the moment when the 8 year old picks it up and uses the instructions to write herself a story. Or you can join in as your child plays their third hour of Minecraft and actually ask questions so that you too understand why they love playing this so much. You can bake or cook or garden or read…but you’re either in or out. Telling your children that they must complete one lesson in each book before free time is not unschooling. Eclectic is a wonderful word, so is interest led, use those instead. You can’t school Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and the claim to unschool Tuesday and Thursday. This is akin to someone saying “Oh, I’m a vegan too, well except for eggs and cheese.”- No. Just No. Choosing to unschool is a lifestyle choice. It is choosing to let your child be responsible for their entire education. Not everyone likes it. Not everyone wants to live this way. And unschooling doesn’t have the copyright on freedom of exploration and interest led learning. It’s ok to choose to use curriculum on certain days and learn through life on others, but it is not unschooling.

Unschooling can be an amazing path for some children and some families. I will never regret our years unschooling because out of this stage in our journey my children learned to love asking questions and searching for answers. We will still have a place for this as we move on but things from this point on will be planned out and led more by mom. Their opinions are valued, but I will have the final say. We are all growing and moving in and out of our metamorphosis as we move towards the unknown. Choosing to use certain methods to further your philosophy is great but don’t feel tied down by them. As a wise homeschool mom who has been in the trenches far longer than I told me, “Live what you love and leave what you don’t.”

That is exactly what I am doing. I’m following what works for my family, even if that means changing things again, but as my husband says,

‘It’s all good, kids bounce anyway. They’re flexible like that.”

Quitter

I am a quitter.

 

I am a quitter, and that’s a good thing.

I have been Jonah for far too long. I have run away from that which I know in the depth of my heart to be absolutely right for me.

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I have transformed over the past few years. My desires and ambitions have been strong and I am finally letting them go.

I will not be a working mom anytime soon. I have grieved this realization for too long, holding on to any tiny glimmer of hope that may have presented itself to me along the way. I have quit this before, but for some reason just when I think I have quit for good, I relapse and begin the process of guilt and denial once more. I quit. I quit trying to chase down dreams of something that just isn’t going to work out for me right now. Children eventually grow up and I am a young mother, I still have plenty of time to chase ambitions once my work here is done. I am a quitter.

I am not ready to be a full time novelist. I am not ready to give myself the kinds of time that I need to get an idea out of my head and into my hard drive. Time is precious. I can set apart some time because I need it as a part of my self care regimen, but I recognize now that I have other uses of my time which I value more. I will eventually finish my novels and I will continue to write down the ideas that flow from my mind but I will do so in my own time, not because I want to meet an arbitrary deadline. So, I quit. I quit feeling guilty about how I order my time. I am a quitter.

I am tired of feeling like I need to conform to some imaginary ideal. I don’t fit the mold that I keep trying to fit into. I am creative and artsy but I hate crafting. I like big ideas and in depth conversations, not small talk or superficial relationships. I am deeply empathetic, socially moderate but also religiously conservative. I am an introvert who enjoys social interactions in small quantities. I don’t fit, I never have and I am tired of trying to help people understand me. So, I quit. Yes, my hair is now blue and green and purple and grey and I love it so back off. I am a quitter.

My children are important to me. They are my everything, but the world does not revolve around them and I am still a separate person from them. I need to practice self-care. I will not sacrifice my health or mental well being in an effort to be a self-sacrificing mother. I am not selfish, I am recognizing that I am just as important as them. It does them no good to have a mother who can barely function, or a mother who can’t concentrate because of pain and depression. I suffer from several chronic pain conditions and I require a certain amount of self awareness to keep my whole family moving. Hospitalizations should not be my check engine light. I need to be aware before I break down. So, I quit. I quit trying to convince myself that its selfish to get a day alone or to take a nap when I need it. I am a quitter.

My children desire challenges. They thrive off of new information but they also have some areas where they really struggle. I am done trying to politely explain this to pediatricians and outsiders. Those who have met my children never doubt it. I will continue to focus on what challenges them and I will continue to challenge them to think deeply about the things that they love but I am not worried about whether or not they are “on track” with ridiculous things. The schools standards are not my priority and so I will not explain why my child can tell you fun facts about dark matter and chemical compounds but not name the state capitals. I quit. I will continue to teach them big ideas with little interest regarding your checklists or “what a third grader needs to know”… blah, blah, blah. I am a quitter.

The great thing about philosophies are that they are fluid. Methodologies don’t change but philosophies do. Right now my educational philosophy is in the midst of a metamorphoses. At the core, what I believe is the same, but in practice some philosophies have switched places. I’m beginning to lean a bit more CM than I have in the past and a whole lot less Unschooling. Not because I don’t believe in the message but rather because I’m finding that the structure of CM fits better with my focus challenged offspring and the others enjoy the flow. I’ve been making this transition over the past several months and I admit that I’ve been grieving the loss of our unschooling nature. I thrive in that natural learning environment, but I am not the one who needs to be thriving and coming to terms with that realization has been a slow transition.

As a form of early childhood education, that philosophy has been wonderful for our family but now a new style is fitting better and so I must say goodby to my favorite shoes that just don’t fit and break in a new pair. I hate breaking in new shoes. I am not ready to quit, but I must because I am a quitter. I quit when things just don’t work and I move on, I move forward. This past year has been so full of change and so full of quitting that its almost as if I am growing. Why else would I need so much newness? Or maybe, like Jonah I am just tired of running away and ready to face my calling, even if it is one I swore I would never do.

I quit. I quit trying to be someone I am not meant to be. I quit trying to create the life of my dreams and instead I want to dream of the life that I live. I am proud to be a quitter, how about you?

 

Inspiring Curiosity a la Mason

Curious minds breed curiosity but often that curiosity comes in varying levels of intensity and trying to plan around an intangibility like curiosity can drive anyone to madness. So how can you plan ahead when everything seems so inconsistent? In order to answer this question while trying to find some structure for Little Man’s focus issues, I delved back into the world of Charlotte Mason. I have always loved her philosophy of education but for so long the tug of child led unschooling was stronger than my respect for Mason’s teachings. Here I will talk about how I’ve melded the two with a bit more of a focus on the structured CM and a whole lot less on the Child led.

In other words, how my whole world of planning got flip-turned-upside-down!

Inspiring Curiosity a la Mason

For us it’s never really been so much about planning ahead. Planning ahead has never been our focus. The end is not our goal. Our goal is to have a journey that is full of inspiration. Our focus is an environment filled with seized teachable moments. Our plan is to inspire curiosity.

How you inspire a child will change depending on the child themselves but parents know their children and what makes them get excited. Some children have their own innate passions. Subjects that need no outside inspiration. Little Man has these burning passions that lead him to constantly explore specific fields while leaving him little to no interest in everything else but Little Miss and Curly Que are bit more like me…just generally curious about EVERYTHING!

In our house inspired curiosity starts like this. Mommy gets fascinated by a new show or subject. The children try to stay up late to see what’s so interesting or catch glimpses of articles that I’m reading over my shoulder. I find something suitable to their age with similar subject matter and if they also find that interesting then we find books to supplement, all while trying to find museum exhibits, shows or local classes.

With all the changes we’ve been making in our homeschool to help Little Man with his focusing issues this process of inspiring curiosity has helped us to create structure without needing a curriculum and but it also requires that I plan far more than I used to.

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One of the first things that I do are to Analyze the Options out there for growth within an interest that is just starting to bud. We start the process of exploration within the topic to see if there is an interest which can support an inspired curiosity. For example, I really got sucked into BBC’s Merlin (like binge watching through weekends into it!) and of course my children started to see glimpses of dragons, magic, knights and swords. I put on the Disney version of the Sword and the Stone to see if their interest was piqued, and it was so I decided it might be time to study the Middle Ages.

That night I began my night long Pinterest Planning Party. Yep, I grabbed a cup of tea, a snack and gave my husband permission to play as much video games as he wanted without interruption while I spent hours of uninterrupted research via my own planning party. I looked up every aspect that I could and tried to see just how much we could get out of a Middle Ages study at these ages.

Once I discovered possible topics the next goal was Resource Gathering. Sticking true to CM principles, I wanted to make sure that we were reading books that were filled with passion and came alive to the children rather than encyclopedias or textbooks. With some help from Pinterest, and friends of mine who have either studied Medieval literature or had done similar time periods with their homeschoolers before, I was able to put together a list of interesting books to use as spines.

 I also go through Netflix, Amazon Prime and YouTube for a list of possible shows or videos that fit into our over arching theme and I find local shows or classes that are offering options that fit as well. This is one of the reasons that I like to use Pinterest for my planning. There is no need to reinvent the wheel with this and often I can find lists put together by other people where I can pick and choose what works for my family. With our Master List in hand I move from gathering to Planning.

My next step in this process is to take the lists to the Experts. I take all of my detailed notes to the children for confirmation- I may or may not exaggerate the coolness factor and sometimes I even find short youtube videos to back up my claims. They respond with yay or nay and I build a literature/history unit that falls within CM guidelines. Our favorite part of all of this is when we get to attack our favorite second hand bookstore to find what we can at reasonable prices (for me thats less than $3/book- although I did cave in and buy a $6 fully illustrated book of Castle diagrams when I caught my son pouring over every page).

This time around, we settled on a version of King Arthur, Robin Hood, Beowulf, Macbeth and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as our spines with our list of shows, documentaries and a handful of historical fictions set in the middle ages to back them up. I made the executive decision that this would also be a good time to study fairy tales and that we would continue our science study of insects with the show Little Einstein’s as our jumping point for music and art.

Now that the foundation for the plan had been laid, the easy part was up ahead. To plan out our weeks and months I simply Spread Out the Spines so that we would read through three a month over the next three months with the side options there for our enjoyment when we want them. September is King Arthur and Sir Gawain, October is Beowulf and Macbeth and November is Robin Hood. During these months we will also look through descriptions of castles, knights, cathedrals, the crusades, villages vs. cities and anything we can get our hands on- but I don’t need to add that kind of detail to our planner, that would just stress me out, instead we discuss and google when the topic comes up in conversation.

So far this is just basic relaxed planning etiquette, but we want something even more important than planing out a quarters worth of studies, we want to inspire curiosity along the way.

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If you notice, even though I have a unit study of the Middle Ages that spans an entire quarter, each set of books that we read as spines create mini units within the larger context of the whole but we also add Cartoons, Videos and Documentaries into our overall plan because I have four visual learners who need to see it to get into it. This is also why we incorporate Museum Trips (we live outside of DC so they are free and relatively close) and we try to visit at least once a month (if we didn’t have these near by I would be relying a whole lot more on virtual field trips!).

We do not read massive amounts of each book, each day, all at once. I read aloud from a book for a period of almost 10 minutes and I never end the reading in a conventional place but If we have extra time towards the end of our day we might pick up the spines and do it again. Because I always end in the middle of a sentence, or right in the middle of the most interesting scene this allows the curiosity to continually be piqued. It’s a perpetual cliffhanger and my children love it! In fact, all of our lessons are less than 20 minutes total which gives them just enough time to get really into a topic before their focus wanes. It surprises me sometimes how in depth we can get with just a short conversation if the children are interested and engaged.

Then one of the three older children will Narrate (or tell me in their own words what they heard- as they get older this will turn into a writing assignment, but right now we are working on teaching them how to organize their thoughts.) or practice their Copy Work (copy a sentence on lined paper while we discuss grammar or other aspects of writing as written in the original sentence). After about 30 minutes of reading and Narrating or copy work we move onto an activity that requires movement followed by math and that is the end of our formal day. Our school day is finished by 1030 almost every morning and some mornings we finish at 10.

We do not end our learning experiences here but we do end the formal portion of school, which is important for my guys because they get a sense of accomplishment knowing that they finished for the day. The rest of the day is dedicated to nature walks, museums, piano lessons, playdates, cartoons, documentaries and poetry tea times- which in one way or another might remind them of something we read, but I don’t point it out either. If they get it, great! If not, then that’s fine too.

The point of all these extra experiences is not to pull together all of the different aspects of what we are learning but instead to challenge them to see the world from a new angle. I am raising children who will one day be adults and they need to know how to think for themselves, so while they are little and impressionable, I plan on showing them as many different sides of the world as I can- which in practice has morphed into inspiring curiosity.umbrella

This is how we do it, but how about you?

Share your favorite ways to get curiosity flowing in the comments below, I am always ready for more input!

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Dancing with Reality

I love to read. I absolutely, love to read. Over the course of the last six years it has greatly saddened me to find that my brain cannot keep up with my interests. I dream of a day when I can lay beneath a Willow tree, upon a soft blanket, lost in the pages of a challenging book. The reality however, is that I sit on my sofa or bed with a challenging selection, read the first three pages and then flip back to page one because I cannot remember what I just read…I will probably repeat this four times before giving up entirely. My mind is lost in a fog of inabilty, one that appeared out of nowhere and has destroyed the hope of once again realizing my ideal.

Whether the fog be attributed to my Fibromyalgia, Depression or just Motherhood, I will never really know but I do know that I am starting to cross that bridge…at least for now, and I relish in the thought. My newest attempt at reading has been the biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which my mother lent me along with some advice “It’s a great book but I really want you to read the first chapter where they talk about his childhood, early education and the atmosphere that his mother created.”

I’ll admit thats exactly what I planned to do, just read the beginning and hand the book back…and in a way I might still. I’m only on chapter two after all and I’m not sure my sensitive nature can handle the subject matter right now (huzzah, I was able to remember everything I read, the first time!) but I didn’t just read the first chapter, I read all the way to the end of the second- in one sitting and again a second time because I wanted to. I poured over it repeatedly.

Immediately, I knew why my mother wanted me to read that section. Bonheoffer’s mother had created my ideal and over the last few years I have attempted to create a very similar environment for my children. Overall achieving varying degrees of success.

The picture painted is that of an atmosphere of freedom and learning with a growing focus as a child grows in maturity and age. A place where animals are welcomed, natural collections gathered and displayed prominently, and imaginations fostered beside strict guidelines in proper or logical speech. Their Mother, Paula Bonhoeffer, held a distrust of the Prussian school system’s ability to handle the sensitive nature of her young children and opted to teach all 8 of them (all born within a decade of each other) at home until they were eight years old. Music was strongly encouraged, readings from the Bible occurred daily (her father, brother and grandfather were all theologians), and scientific thought was expected from all (their father, Karl Bonhoeffer, was a leading scholar and professor). Twaddle, as Charlotte Mason calls non-healthy mind food (otherwise known as ideas), was not permitted and all of the children grew into intelligent, humble yet confident adults with a great deal of compassion and a great sense of justice.

I read this in awe the first time. Nodding my head along as I saw the same kinds of bents and leanings of my own educational philosophy. I found myself thinking that if Paula could do this with 8 children and less education than myself, then there is no excuse for me not to also do this with my four and the Internet.

Then I read it again and paid more attention to the details. Yes she ran the house, taught the children and created a loving environment rich with experiences but she had help. Lots of help! She had a governess, a nursemaid, a housemaid, a parlor maid and a cook. They even had a vacation home where the children went ahead of their parents under the guidance of the governess and nursemaid.

WOW! What I could get done with all that help!

I quickly, realized that I tend to assume an idealistic picture of others based on the superficial picture that is presented to the world without actually knowing how they get it all together. Based on my second assessment, I must be doing an amazing job if I can get though homeschooling, with a decently tidied home and some sort of meal prepared at the end of the day…even if that meal is a frozen pizza. Creating a realistic view of what is attainable within the confines of my expectations is just as important as planning out my day, week, or year. This is especially important for me as I plan out next year and try to meld together the idealistic idea of how I want my home to run with the reality of what we as a family love to do.

For me this means that yes, I can start traditions and build habits that lead to a healthy and wonder filled childhood for my littles while also allowing for their love of junk. I can successfully combine a child-led education with a thoroughly varied selection classical ideals. I don’t need to outlaw things or censor because I think the best way to go about it is to use the dieting adage of 80-20…80 percent healthy 20 percent fun. 80 percent of focusing on habit trainings, reading great books, asking deep questions and searching for answers through play while still allowing for 20 percent of My Little Pony/Ninjago/Lego Avengers binge marathons and Captain Underpants.

This is how child led works in a house that values traditional parenting structures. I say yes more than most traditional Christian parents, I rarely say no to activities unless they are dangerous or lead to unacceptable behavior, but I am still firm in my expectations and will often offer alternatives that sound like more fun (leaving the choice with the children). We don’t allow baby talk unless it is part of a make believe scenario, we expect our children to express themselves verbally and have taught them how to do so… we have also taught them that not everyone is capable of such expression. We havebuilt a foundation where they know that their ideas and thoughts are welcomed here and that they have a safe space for expression and explorations of all kinds. We have blended what works and what we believe to be healthy and it works for us, just as others blend things in other ways that work for them.

There are times when I read things written by Pure CM’ers or Radical Unschoolers and I think “Wow, that sounds so amazing” and then I romantically imagine how I could implement such a thing in my own home only to feel dejected when it doesn’t work because I didn’t take into account the reality of our lifestyle.

I’ve come to realize through excerpts in books like Bonhoeffer and blogs that make it a point to show the behind the scenes view occasionally, that balance is a delicate dance that every one learns over time. Some are talented enough to figure it out on the first try, while others take years of practice. Some can gracefully incorporate the two seamlessly and others fake it till they make it. I am beginning to find my way through the song. Things I once thought were fantasy are starting to become traditions, like reading as a family before bedtime instead of being so completely exhausted that we collapse in front of the TV, and my reality is starting to resemble my ideal…but it took years to get here.

The same thing goes for my Reading… I remember the idealistic times of my youth where I could lay about for days at a time completely immersed in my newest selection. That’s not possible for me anymore. I don’t have the freedom to get lost in a book nor the mental capacity because I don’t have cooks and housemaids to help me along this journey. I do however, have an hour in the afternoon of mandatory quiet time where I can get partially lost or at least begin to challenge myself once again and another hour or two after the children go to bed. It has taken me years to find the my way but I am finally joining in the dance.

I am a happier person because of it.

 How about you? Are there times when you’ve been able to find the harmony between your ideal and reality?

Dancing with reality