Friday, February 24, 2012

Homeschool 5.0

Wow. Nearly a year since my last post. Between the busy-ness of life and getting on Facebook, I've been swamped. I've been thinking lately that it is about time that I write up another homeschooling post. We are winding down with our fifth year at homeschooling and I think my views and experiences have evolved some. It's time to do some more thinking out loud to share where we are now.

We started homeschooling officially with the Pillowfight Fairy when she was four and a half and a kindergartner. We also had a two year old Adrenaline Junkie and a baby Happy Boy. When we began, I was about half exhilarated and half desperately researching how to go about teaching our daughter. My own experiences in public schools and both public and private colleges were my baseline and I had a vision in my head of how school at home would work. Tim was very supportive and did a lot of the theory and philosophy research to help us get a good foundation for what we were trying to accomplish. I was more focused on researching curricula and the practical aspects of doing school at home. We complemented each other well in that way.

So far, it has seemed like each and every year has been the most challenging. Each and every year presents new situations and challenges. As a result, I think we have adapted and grown. First, though, let me say what has stayed the same.

We are still committed to homeschooling our kids. The more we do it, the more it feels right. We see more and more benefits all the time. We like having our kids with us. We like having that time together whether work or play. We like being able to answer their questions when they come up. We like being able to address behavior issues right away. We like to be able to explain to them our perspectives on what they are learning and how our opinions have been shaped. We like to incorporate our faith into our school day instead of keeping it "separate and apart."

We still like our choice of educational philosophies: classical/eclectic. Besides the fact that it fits our personalities well, we find that it provides a strong foundation and yet is flexible enough to our family quirks and, yes, weirdness to be beneficial. We like sharing the old traditional stories handed down through the ages. We like teaching history and literature in a complementary way. I once said that I never really learned English grammar until I studied French. Now I can say that I never knew my English grammar so well as when I had to teach it and Latin, too. I am enjoying learning some of the things that I didn't get in school myself, whether from my inattention to lessons or simply because it wasn't taught anymore. I like seeing the change in my kids as they start to gain a good foundation in math, reading, and writing. They become more confident and ambitious. They begin to dream up ideas of what new things they want to do and challenges worthy of conquering.

Another constant is that although our kids are getting older, they have the same personality traits we noticed early on. The Pillowfight Fairy is still a high-strung serious kid in many ways. Right now she is nine going on "teen." She loves poetry and art, sports and space. She is predictably unpredictable. The Adrenaline Junkie has trouble focusing on one thing for very long. She is full of ideas and plans. She is constantly trying to improve whatever she is doing at the moment. She talks constantly, wants to meet everyone and make them her friends, and can not stop in one place for long. For those of you familiar with Bellwether, by Connie Willis, I can describe her by saying that she's got "itch." If anything, they aren't changing so much as deepening their personalities and becoming more defined. We are more familiar now with the Happy Boy's personality. He's our do-it-yourselfer. He is very independent and head-strong to the point of extreme stubbornness. He is still very much a happy kid. He just is less so, since he doesn't get his own way so much. The Chunk is a bit of a charmer. He is more of a people person than his brother. But I see some signs of an independent streak in him too.

We still still care enough about these kids to do what is in our power to give them the best education we can. As I say this, I know that someone will want to take that sentence and twist it into something I do not intend, namely a judgment against someone else. Let me elaborate for clarity. Our caring for our kids is our motivation. This motivation prompts us to act and make decisions in regards to their education. We can only act and decide in the framework of what we have power over. The education that is best in our eyes is the education that suits them and allows them to advance and be challenged in ways that bring out the best in them.

The final thing that stays the same is that I always seem to agonize every year about how much to teach, whether I'm over scheduling, and whether there is a better way to accomplish our goals. I usually make a very ambitious plan. I never complete absolutely everything that I plan, but I do get us through most of it and more of it than people generally expect us to do. I think it is healthy to keep asking myself if there is a better way. It keeps me from getting too complacent.

So, what has changed? We have four kids now and have said goodbye to another who was with us all too briefly. We have even busier lives than five years ago because we have chosen to not put some dreams on hold while we raise our kids. Some of those dreams have been remodeling projects, raising food, Tim's multitude of hobbies (Musical Theater being the currently active one), sewing projects, being hospitable, and keeping ourselves fit. The older our kids get, the more circles of connection intertwine through our lives and provide more and more commitments.

These past years I have also learned that good planning up front pays off each year as I try to get our lessons completed day after day. Life doesn't flow calmly and seamlessly from one thing to the next. There are bumps in the road of life. The best laid plans have to still deal with sicknesses, injuries, special occasions of many types. It is also true that no matter how well I plan, every lesson plan eventually has glitches and a need to switch to "plan B" to get us to our goals. Our most obvious glitch this past year was that our art lessons weren't lining up very well with when Tim was able to work with the girls (he being the best prepared to teach this year's art lessons). We are a few months behind on the planned art lessons. So, instead of giving up or over working ourselves, plan B is that art lessons will pick up again as Tim's schedule frees up and continue as part of our summer light load of work.

This next year, I expect to do some major shifting of methods as our Pillowfight Fairy leaves the grammar stage and enters in on the logic stage. In the logic stage, she will have more responsibility to work on her own. We will be working more on the whys of things rather than merely the whats of things. She will be learning formal logic and real life problem solving to a degree she has not had before. This will be a fundamental shift in our methods. It will be a shift that is both tricky and helpful as I have two younger kids still working at the grammar level (plus one that will be wanting Mommy to read to him all the time). Partially because of our busy lives and partially because of the many changes coming up, I am later than usual in doing my yearly planning. I have only a simple diagram of what I want to accomplish. Normally by this time of year I'm putting the final touches on my lesson plans and have all needed books and supplies purchased. I still have some major decisions to make about what school will be like for the Pillowfight Fairy. Then, once those decisions are made, I need to plan the reality of how three kids will learn their lessons everyday. When we do school together, we all have to adjust as each member of the family has changes to deal with. Even though I have been pleased with how the girls have been progressing in our chosen curricula during the grammar stage, that doesn't mean I can just repeat everything exactly as it was done before. They are each individuals of vastly differing personalities and we have to find a balance that works for us all.

Another thing that has changed over the years is that I have found that when I talk to people about homeschooling, I am less likely to deal with the usual talking points that come up between homeschoolers and institutional schoolers. I am more likely to talk about goals and results. I suppose that plays to my tendency to focus on practical issues. I care about theory. But, I see the goal as coming first, then the theory is what you pull from to choose your actions. The results are important, because they give you feedback on whether your theory is helping you meet your goals. Since every individual has a different set of goals they are starting out with, you really need to back up to that to figure out if you are speaking about the same things or simply talking past each other.

I am also less concerned that my kids don't like the work that I insist that they do. I don't subscribe to the theory that all learning must be happy and fun. It is nice when my kids enjoy their schoolwork, but I want them to learn some of the stuff they don't enjoy too. An example of this is where we have been making our kids learn piano. They hate to learn piano. They grumble every day they practice. Yet, we have noticed that they have learned and made progress. They were once despairing of ever succeeding, and now they know that they can in fact do it. They have gained confidence and enjoy showing people their skills. They goof off on their own time, playing the piano for fun sometimes. We are not completely heartless in our dictates, however. They have expressed a desire to play instruments other than the piano. We happily will comply with their desires (The Pillowfight Fairy wants to learn guitar and the Adrenaline Junkie wants to learn harp). But, we will do so on the condition that they achieve a particular level of skill at the piano first. As they grow older, I expect we will do more of this sort of thing. Once they have a good foundation in an area, we will allow them more say in what they learn. For the upcoming school year for instance, I gave the Pillowfight Fairy a choice about her language studies. She could continue learning Latin or she could switch over to learning a modern language. Since she had expressed interest in the past in learning Spanish, I had expected her to choose that. Instead she surprised me by choosing to continue in Latin.

Earlier I mentioned that I started out on this journey with my own schooling experiences as my baseline. I was trying to guide our homeschool journey based on that and a vision for something different. Now I find that while teaching our kids, that baseline is shifting. My experiences now include public school, private school, and homeschool. My vision is not merely something in my head anymore. It is a reality that we live with daily. That vision is less nebulous and more concrete with every passing year.