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.

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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.”

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

Methods vs. Philosophy: Inspiring Purpose for your Homeschool

Some people find an educational method that is so in line with their personal philosophy of education that it perfectly describes how they want to teach their children. Others are more complex and don’t quite fit into any one box.

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There are so many posts out there about educational methods that I won’t take the time going through all of them. Instead I am going to write about finding what works for me.

Some call this the eclectic approach. For us that sums it up but I prefer to call it Unschooling Charlotte Mason because the two methods that best describe our learning environment are unschooling and Charlotte Mason. In reality the truth of the matter is that no matter which method you choose there will always be purists or radicals that stick almost dogmatically to the tenants as written about by the original authors. I have no ill will towards these people, I am simply not one of them. I will never ask what Charlotte Mason would say about xyz and I will never be called a radical unschooler. Like pretty much everything, there is a scale, and I am a centrist.

Philosophically, I identify with unschooling more than any other and use unschooling as the foundation of our schooling style. We are entirely child-led and we strongly believe in respecting the child as an autonomous entity that is capable of understanding and communication at developmentally appropriate levels. There are some misconceptions about unschooling out there that bother me, such as the idea that parents who practice unschooling don’t parent at all or that it is a lazy way to school. Neither are true, at all, even the most radical unschoolers are parents to their children who are teaching and imparting wisdom in very deliberate ways, it just looks different. When it comes to parenting we are more traditional than most unschoolers but that doesn’t mean that we respect our child less than others, it is simply a construct of our family dynamic. We personally do not reject social constructs but rather strive to build an understanding regarding the necessities of certain social constructs and to logically and respectfully decline the necessity of others.

Where unschooling is our foundation, Charlotte Mason provides our tools. Philosophically, I also identify with many of the concepts and reasonings behind the Charlotte Mason Method but what I use the most are the methods. I love the focus on literature, the arts and nature. I find that the short lessons fit well with our sense of respect for the developmentally appropriate needs of curious children and that copywork is a light introduction to a lifestyle that incorporates literacy in communication. I am not a fan of the schedules or rote memorization as they are used in some of the more strict CM households but I understand why that works for other families, this is where our foundation in unschooling is most apparent. followtheleader.jpg

The following are other influences on our educational philosophy that I don’t often mention but are equally important in understanding where I come from.

The Waldorf method uses natural or nature based materials as well as focusing on handicrafts as an important part of understanding your role in the greater world around you. We really like this aspect as it speaks to our more simple outlook on life. I love that it focuses more on creating than our more materialistic society with its need for more stuff.

Maria Montessori espoused the idea of allowing children to do everything adults did but at their own scale, which I think really aids in developing a self sufficient and confident child.

The Thomas Jefferson method has the seven keys of education, and I honestly agree with every one of them. They just seem like practical nuggets that make sense and they fit well with most of these other philosophies.

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My husband laughs and says that I am a hippy, with love of course, but I don’t feel like I fit into that category. Each of these aspects speaks to my desire for a more simple life. I prefer to follow in the footsteps of my great grandmothers who raised families almost a century ago. The raisers of the “great generation” to me did something right, something I wish to recreate in my own children. There is a sense of entrepreneurial spirit, strength in faith, respect and self discipline that I see in my grandparents and admire.

I can sense my own materialism, I can see my own self indulgent lack of discipline and my Vitamin D deficiency is proof of my need for more time in nature (which surprisingly, has lately been far more relaxing to me than a pedicure) and I want more for my children. I am not naive enough to think that I can return to that time or that I would even want to, I’m too much of a feminist for that. As a Puerto Rican Woman there is no way that I could have the kinds of opportunities that I have now, then, nor would my daughters. I do, however, want to take the aspects of that simple life, the freedom, the simplicity, the focus on respect and use them to balance out the indulgences of our hyper technology driven (automatic) present, while keeping in tact some of the more progressive improvements.

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I enjoy taking the time to make our food from scratch, even if I don’t do it that often, because I want to eat real food and I want my children to see the effects of hard work. I enjoy spending three hours out in the woods because it allows my children to organically learn in a way that just doesn’t compare to reading a book (that almost feels like sacrilege to write!). I want to teach my son and daughters how to sew because it is a valuable lesson that can be used later in life. I want them to be able to see art from around the world because it is culturally relevant and creatively fulfilling. I want them to have a deep love for great books but I refuse to force them into reading monstrosities they are not interested in, which is why reading aloud works so well for us.

I will not force my children to study history chronologically but I will offer them a timeline when they want to see how things line up. I will not force my children to practice piano but I will show them inspirational videos of famous pianists who talk about the importance of practicing. I will not tell my child that they must finish that book, but I won’t buy them a new one in the mean time and I won’t let them ruin the ending by watching the movie version.

I may not look like a CM’er and I may not look like an unschooler either, because I’m both with bits and pieces of others mixed in. On some days I may sway more towards the side of CM, with my focus on living books and narration (usually in the Spring when we have the most energy), whereas others are purely unschooled with the children entirely leading the way (mostly in late autumn when it is darker out but the weather is still decent). Even on those days I’m still practicing both methods, in fact I am always practicing my own special mix of all of these because the method in which we homeschool is based on my philosophical understanding of life, the universe and everything. (42?)

I am influenced by my faith, my relationships with my family, my relationships with traditional schools and school teachers…everything that I am is a combination of experiences and ideas that have solidified themselves as a part of my personality. I am me today because of it and I should expect that it will influence my parenting, my community association and yes, the way I feel about education. As will everyone else’s experiences shape how they approach education (as teachers, supporters or homeschoolers). I would go so far as to venture that most homeschoolers are eclectic which, I will define as being educationally influenced by multiple educational methods. Yes, there are the purists who hold true to a single view point out there but I think that people are probably more inclined to pick and choose aspects from multiple sources, even if they only claim their main method.

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If you know someone who is struggling with homeschooling but doesn’t want to throw in the towel, or can’t, remind them that the stylistic options are as numerous as the sun. Keep what works and tryout something new for those things that don’t. No two homeschool families will look exactly the same because no two families are exactly the same. Whether you are going to pick up curriculum or not, how you approach learning as a family will be directly linked to your families philosophy of education.

When your in those beginning phases of planing for next year (or if your just reassessing this year) make sure that your asking yourself the following questions.

What is my purpose, why do I homeschool?

Why do we school this way?

How is this helping our family grow academically, spiritually, and socially?

What am I expecting out of our homeschooling experience?

Is this realistic?

Who am I doing this for?

Where do you find your purpose and inspiration?

Are you inspired or are you just trudging along?

Behold the Power of Subtitles!

I am a geek.

I am a nerd.

I am a borderline otaku.

I love to escape reality and I love to challenge ideas and conceptions via fantastic scenarios. I love building worlds, I love realistic romance, I love watching/ reading characters develop slowly.

I raise my children in this manner as well, because it’s Awesome!

My seven year old son loves RPG video games. My five year old daughter could spend all her time with Legos or Minecraft. My four year old daughters favorite movie character is Darth Vader. My two year old daughter is in love with Dr. Who and recognizes the TARDIS instantly. … All because we, their parents love it too. My husband is an avid Gamer, manga reader, and computer tinkerer. I will watch a sci fi action packed cult classic over a trendy romantic comedy any day of the week and I often spend entire weekend evenings binge watching Anime in Japanese with English Subtitles.

It’s how we roll.

We don’t speak Japanese and I’ve never tried watching a show that wasn’t subtitled so Imagine my surprise, when visiting Washington DC last week, at my sudden understanding of a language that I have never tried to learn.

I have been actively trying to learn Spanish for almost 20 years. I think I have a mental block based on a combination of perfectionism and heritage. I’ve often been told (by native speakers) that I should be able to speak Spanish and that I have no excuse not to, which in turn makes speaking it badly socially unacceptable. I also tried to actively learn Latin and Ancient Greek in college. I was pretty decent with Latin but forgot most of it as soon as I stopped using it regularly. Ancient Greek… Let’s just say I never could remember that alphabet and u was lucky to scrape by with a D! This background made me think that I was just linguisticly challenged.

I thought that I would never be one of those people who could pick up another language. I also thought that the only way to learn a language was with a book and grammar lessons. However, my ideas are changing. I am beginning to realize that there are stages to learning a language.

1. You have to be able to recognize the language when it’s spoken. Even if you don’t understand what’s being said, the first step is to recognize what language your hearing. I can now sit in a room and pick out the differences between Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Italian. I can not fully understand what’s being said in those last three but I can tell which language is which.

2. Grasping the gist. The second phase of learning a new language is just being able to roughly understand a conversation. To understand the main idea even if you don’t know the meaning of every single word. I sometimes am at this level even when others are speaking English from another region or with a thick accent and I can do this with Japanese.

3. Understanding the spoken word. This is where I am with Spanish. You are able to roughly translate, understand complex conversations in a variety of dialects or accents and you feel comfortable with your comprehension.

4. Speaking in another language. At this point you are learning how to string together the words you have learned and put together coherent conversation (this can be as simple as my “name is” or as complex as describing how a refrigerator works). For some people 3 & 4 are interchangeable or happen at the same time. To each their own.

5. Writing. Once you have gotten comfortable to understand and speak casually then comes the task of learning actual grammar, rules, and proper constructs. I think this is why I’ve always had such a hard time with language classes. The writing and grammar portion is being taught alongside the introductions but there is no actual foundation in the language itself.

Unlike a child learning a first language (who spends a year just listening!) we expect a new learner to go from never having heard the language to speaking reading and writing simultaneously within three months. We do not look at breaking down the language, we do not try to introduce it, and we rarely hear other languages actually spoken.

That is why I felt like a failure when learning foreign languages. Yet here I am, eavesdropping on a family from Japan as they encourage and guide their children through a hands on craft project at a Museum in Washington DC. Sitting here, understanding the main gist of their conversation even though I have never taken a class or read a book with the intention of learning Japanese.

I lived in Japan for one year, I watch Anime in Japanese with English subtitles, and without realizing it, I have been learning Japanese, just like I learned Spanish and English as a kid.

I am in no way saying that lessons, software, or books are unnecessary. I believe that they are absolutely necessary for certain learners who want to be completely fluent eventually but they are not required to begin learning and they are not required for all learners. I would even go so far as to say they are not the most important thing you need to start learning a language.

I am not the first to say this either. Immersion language learning is well known as the most effective way to learn a new language but for some reason I never considered watching something with subtitles as a part of the immersion process. I never once considered that my fun, mindless activity would be my gateway to something as awesome as learning a new language and I certainly never believed that I could learn so much. I want to encourage others out there who may have believed the lie that they too couldn’t learn other languages because they couldn’t afford the classes or because they were not good at studying. Sometimes we just have to have fun and allow learning to happen naturally!

So before you spend hundreds of dollars on a language system, get on YouTube or Google and get used to hearing the language you want to learn. Then find movies or tv shows with subtitles in that language (they really exist in most languages!) and have fun. Listen to the music, watch a play and do things that get you comfortable with regularly hearing… Then start the formal work. After you can pick it out of a crowd.

Maybe this is just my unschooling philosophy at play but the truth is that it works. That is why we watch movies that we have memorized in Spanish as a family…even my non-readers know what words come next and then begin to associate Spanish words for the words they already know. This is why we list to Spanish music in the house. It is my fault that my children are not already fluent in Spanish but I plan on remedying that problem. I want them to speak the language of our heritage proudly and so my children are learning more and more all the time. Then one day, once they get comfortable with the two languages, we will add a third and they too will start watching Anime with subtitles.

Why?

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A Do Nothing Day

Everyone needs down time.

Everyone.

As an Unschooling Mom of Gifted Kids who usually drive learning of their own accord, I sometimes forget this. I worry that I’m not doing enough. I worry that I’m not challenging them enough. I worry that I am holding them back.

I forget that just because my 7 year old can read The Hobbit (and enjoys when I read it to him) doesn’t mean that he always wants to be reading at that level. Sometimes the only thing he wants to pick up is Click Clack Moo.

Just because my 5 year old enjoys learning about ancient peoples and is usually entranced with their lives doesn’t mean that sometimes she just wants to play Minecraft and watch Peep in the Big Wide World or Pokemon.

We Unschool so our days are very relaxed compared to those of others but in our house teachable moments and learning is an everyday activity. It’s how we live our lives. Not just Monday through Friday, not just during certain hours. Holidays, weekends… every single day is a school day. Yet even then there are periods of intense learning followed with periods of completely random acts.

Gifted Kids, Gifted adults… We enjoy learning. It’s an obsession. It’s a part of who we are and yet even for us there are times when we want to do nothing and learn nothing. There are times when no one cares if the moment is “teachable” and no one wants to ask or answer why.  Sometimes we just need to watch TV and not analyze the character development or the interpersonal relationships. Sometimes we want to play video games for the pure sake of playing video games, or play outside just to have fun. We need to do things that do not require any thinking.

I know this because I need it too. There are times when I don’t want to read college textbooks for fun and instead I find a handful of young adult Sci-fi/Fantasy novels and I loose myself to other worlds. I will read manga from the time my kids fall asleep to the moment they wake up. I know this and do this for myself but I often forget that my kids need this too, because we learn through everyday life and actions I forget that they need breaks too.

Of course not everyone looses themselves in the same way but there is always something. Something that a person does that is mindless, unorganized, and would otherwise be considered a waste of time and yet they love it.

I think we all need these activities.

We need these breaks from ourselves. Little breaks from our own inner dialogue to help us clear our mind.

Before the advent of modern technology human beings had the ability to do nothing. To sit in silence. To think without thinking about thinking. I believe that many of us have lost that ability. We have lost the ability to do nothing and in exchange we have found activities that become mindless. We need that time of nothingness, of mindlessness. I believe that it is an integral part of the learning and growth process.

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take the course this is all just my own personal way of looking at things, but I have discovered that during these cycles of nothingness or mindlessness our brains are subconsciously processing the vast amounts of information that we bombard ourselves with regularly. Once fully processed and organized internally we then transform the information into a part of ourselves. Usually this all happens completely unconsciously. We don’t think about how we internalize information and ideas unless they radically challenge us to think differently. So how do we internalize our everyday lives if we are not consciously thinking about our everyday lives and actions? I believe that we do this through down time.

I discovered this while watching my children play.

When they play they act out the things they have learned. I listen to their conversations and hear them using a lesson taught earlier in the week or month. It is how I know they are learning without the use of assessments.This happens all the time, it’s part of our “school” but I have also noticed that during times of nothingness the play changes. They no longer pretend using facts and learned ideas. Instead their play becomes more subdued. Less imagination, less action, less talking all while having more messes, more fights, and more relational subject matter.

After a good week or two we all slowly go back to wanting to learn, wanting to think and do. We return to our naturally intense state and as if a switch has been flipped understanding flows naturally. It’s like we are cleaning the slate and preparing ourselves for new learning…like defraging a computer.

We need this time. It’s not a waste of time. We need to embrace this, regardless of our lifestyles. Regardless of if you homeschool or do traditional school. Regardless of if you stay at home or work. Regardless of if you are insanely busy or not. We all need to do nothing once in a while.

Embrace it.

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“Go Outside and Get into Nature”

Have you ever watched an episode of PBS’ Dinosaur Train?

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Its a favorite around here. We all love it and watch it fairly regularly. The title even came from the Scott Sampson, the Paleontologist who ends every episode. Much like Mr. Roger on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood used to say “Won’t you be my neighbor” with every single episode , Scott Sampson ends every episode with a challenging children to get to know nature. I love this so very much and after watching the show a few hundred times I realized that maybe the reason that I loved the whole thing so much was because Mr. & Mrs. Pteranadon are unschoolers and they practice regular Nature Studies!

How cool is that! With the exception of an adopted T-Rex…and that whole being dinosaurs thing, they are just like us. Ok maybe not, although they certainly reinforce our educational philosophies in fun ways.

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As a part of our weekly schedule we make sure to add in at least some time actively being in Nature as a way to implement an understanding of the natural world in a way that books and movies just can not do. Like the Pteranadon family we believe in thinking like scientists, exploring our world and building relationships. We do this through actively and inactively studying the world we live in.

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1) Think like scientists.

We teach our children to question everything around them. Not just look at the changing leaves of autumn and say “oh they are so pretty” but to question why are they changing? What is causing the changes. What does that mean for the wildlife that lives in these trees? Everything is a question and each child is taught to make a hypothesis to go along with their questions. We want them to know that they can find answers too, that they can create theories, collect data and answer questions…or create new questions. I do not give my children answers…I do not ask them leading questions. I ask real questions and help them find real answers through observing the natural world around them, regularly.

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2) Explore our World

I do not assign or create activities for my children during Nature Study. I bought a Nature Study Handbook once and never used it. We have Nature journals where they can catalogue what they see but I do not restrict what goes into it. We ALWAYS have a pocket microscope available so that we can take a closer look at anything we find. I sit (or stroll) around a central location and let my children roam free. They know to keep me in sights at all times and have basic safety rules to comply with (two feet from water unless mommy is with you) while they are off exploring. We don’t limit ourselves in exploration abilities. Some weeks we explore the parking lot at the Library, others a wildlife refuge (to include hiking trails), while other times it’s a day at a Zoo or Aquarium. The point is to go often, observe constantly and have fun.

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3) Building Relationships

We build relationships everywhere we go. We sit under a tree at the lake with books and art supplies talking to each other and reading stories aloud. At the Wildlife Refuge we have lengthy chats with the volunteers and Park Rangers about the wildlife and local sights. We build relationships with the plants we see and the wild animals we encounter. We are actively fostering a love of the environment and all who live within it. IT’s not just about the people to people relationships that we build but also the people to Earth relationships. We learn the names of the trees, birds and reptiles that we pass by on our walks. We practice healthy habits for a healthy environment, like recycling and reusing as well as reducing our footprint. We learn about natural cycles that affect every inhabitant on the planet.

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We don’t use curriculums or lesson plans, we just live outside as much as possible. We don’t have a backyard, we aren’t able to go out very often but we make the outdoors interesting. We stay up late to watch the stars. We pull over on the side of the road to see the deer crossing. We sit on our balcony and watch the squirrels hoard their nuts. We lay on the grass and try to name the birds singing or soaring above. In the winter we watch the squirrels. We test to see how fast water turns into ice. We watch the world from behind warm windows. We still look at the stars.

The goal is to get into nature. To make it an irresistible wonderland waiting to be explored.

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To build memories and instill a love of the World that needs our love.

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