In this podcast episode, I share the events that led to our decision to stop homeschooling and the moment of clarity when it all became evident. In the podcast, I refer to the show notes: you can find them here.
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Episode 001. Discerning Homeschooling. Last summer I gave a talk titled “Homeschooling: is it for you?” and I decided to record it as my first podcast episode. I hope you enjoy it!
Come visit me on my new You Tube channel! Today I introduce myself and answer everyone’s burning question: how do you match socks when you have 18 feet?
What did we eat this week?
Monday was Labour Day. My husband took the children to visit family but it was David’s turn to process our family’s friendly virus. I took a pass and stayed home with the sick and the underage. We had chips and ice cream for supper. Yes we did.
Remember the Thai squash soup with coconut and shrimp I made last week? I usually buy a second bag of shrimps to add to the leftover (because there is soup leftovers but never shrimps). Then we have a second round of squash soup.
Last weekend I mentioned making Spicy Peanut Chicken (with pork) in the slow cooker. I warmed it up on Wednesday and we ate it with fresh corn. My 9 year-old son announced that he was thirsty so I asked him to go get the water jug for the family. Without missing a beat he told me, very matter-of-factly: “No, I’m just going to get water for myself.” Err, no buddy, please bring back the water jug for the family, said I. “Ok then, I’m not thirsty.” he replied. “You can still get the water jug please. Which led to him saying no, me taking away his plate until he came back with the water jug, and he stomping away to get said water. Friends, if you wonder how we can raise such self-centered children in a family of 11, imagine if we had stopped at 2! Believe me, the world is a better place because we have 9 and it’s not because we are superior human beings. Pride runs strong in that gene line.
Spaghetti sauce day. My children and I are not fond of chunks in our spaghetti sauce. I like to put all the veggies and herbs in the food processor and give them a whirl. I don’t puree them to soup level but I find that along not having chunks, it mixes-up the flavours nicely. This specimen has red bell pepper, cremini mushrooms, onions, carrots, celery, garlic, fresh herbs from my potted garden (basil, chive and parsley), dried oregano and sage. I saute the veggie mash in olive oil, add an entire Costco pallet of tomato sauce and 3kg of ground beef. I stir until the meat is all separated and let it simmer forever. Add salt and pepper to taste et voila. That day, I also made orange cranberry muffins and oatmeal chocolate chip muffins. Our homeschool had to be on auto-pilot and we didn’t get around to do history and science. Note to self: you can’t cook up a storm and homeschool at the same time. I use this recipe for the cranberry orange muffins. I use frozen cranberries instead of fresh and it works fine. Just a note about the streusel topping: it’s a simple mix of sugar and orange rind. I prefer to put the orange rind in the muffin batter. The streusel falls apart when freezing anyway. On a more positive note, sugar mixed-up with orange rind and left to sit on the counter for a day can be eaten with a spoon or melted over a candle and shot-up your arm, oh my goodness, someone make it stop!!
When I did a Whole 30 back in January I had to stop eating pasta. I discovered zucchini noodles and I actually prefer them now to pasta. I don’t have a veggie spiralizer so I use my veggie peeler and peel the zucchinis until I am almost peeling the tip of my fingers (sometimes I do.). Lucas enjoys chopping the leftover zucchinis with a big knife. As an aside, I used to pay a whole lot of money so my kids could do just that at a Montessori preschool. Which brings me to homeschooling preschool: stop worrying already!! If I got a dime every time a stressed out mom asks about a preschool curriculum, I could retire happy. Preschools need a curriculum because they are accountable to their clients. Preschool is just life. You need to live with your children and engage with them positively. Read to them, snuggle with them, let them help with cooking if you have the patience to do so. Take them outside and show them the dirt: here’s your preschool curriculum.
Back to the zucchini noodles… I slice an onion or two in very thin slices, smash some garlic and saute everything in olive oil with salt, pepper and dried oregano, then I cover for a while to let it steam a little. Zucchinis lose their water like nothing else so 6 zucchinis is barely enough for two adults. Unless they are the giant ones that neighbours leave on your doorstep.
My teenage daughter announced that she would make crepes for supper. I said: “Fine!” She used the recipe from Ricardo but I prefer Josee di Stasio’s recipe. I usually quadruple it — that would be 4 cups of flour and a whole dozen of eggs — add beer to the milk and keep it in the fridge in an air tight container. The kids will make crepes for breakfast, snack or lunch using the batter all week.
Et voila, this is it for this week. I’m sparing you the weekend because it ended-up in take-out pizza.
The second question that appeared in my homeschooling questions post on Facebook was how to teach multiple children, with different ages, needs and interests. Just like everything homeschooling, my answer will reflect my family’s dynamic, attitudes and hopes with regard to homeschooling. I think that it also reflects my family’s situation: we have 9 children aged 19 all the way down to 17 months. Day-to-day, our homeschooled children are in grades 10, 9, 4 and 1 and we have 3 preschoolers aged almost 4 — the twins — and 1.
As a parent, your “education” personality matters to how you will handle different children with different interests. What is your vision for your homeschool? When you think about your homeschooling do you envision yourself reading to your children in a field of yellow flowers? Do you see yourself in a modern classroom? Do you see yourself in a one-room schoolhouse in 1930?
My friend Lindsay just started homeschooling and blogs about it at http://www.myfourcrowns.wordpress.com In one of her recent posts, she shared a tour of her new homeschool room, you can see it in all its awesomeness here. Other than Lindsay’s impeccable taste, what can you tell about her homeschooling personality from reading her post? Well, for one, she has a dedicated homeschool room in her house. She has desks in it, and a map and a whiteboard. It’s well organized, it looks crisp and inviting. I know from chatting with Lindsay that she toyed with the idea of having a homeschool uniform. And the picture of her desk shows printed copies of the Ontario curriculum. Whether she ends-up sticking to the curriculum or not is irrelevant: the presence of the documents on her desk suggests that she likes rules, structure and direction. Heck, being able to paint navy horizontal stripes suggests some serious ability to plan, focus and follow through. All these details point to a very distinctive homeschooling personality. We all have one. I also have friends whose house shows no outward signs of homeschooling, other than children. Their children learned to read around age 8, several have not seen anything resembling a math course manual before they were 14. Their learning is happening organically and creatively, at the rhythm of the family’s life. How you handle teaching multiple children will also be rooted in your homeschooling personality.
My homeschool and my laptop reside on my kitchen table. We designed our house with a view to have the kitchen table serve as the nerve centre of the whole homeschool operation. My vision of the homeschool is something akin to a one-room schoolhouse where children of different ages, abilities and interests work more or less on the same topics at their own levels. If you look at my homeschool book shelf you’ll see “The Well-Trained Mind”, “Designing your Own Classical Curriculum” and “The Charlotte Mason Companion.” I find that the classical curriculum lends itself well to working with children of different ages and stages as long as you approach it with flexibility.
In practical terms, I gather all the children at the table in the morning at 8:30am. We are Catholics so we always start the day in prayer. We say a prayer to our Guardian Angels for guidance and a morning offering. I check-in with the teenagers who are mostly working on their own via online classes and assignments. We iron-out kinks, they tell me if they need help with this or that and off they go. After the teens are off, I set-out to work with the elementary school aged children. I compare our groove to a ping pong match where I will give David some work, then help Sarah while David does his work, then give Sarah some work, then help David, and so on. While I am doing that, I’m also making sure that the twins are not destroying anything. I can reasonably expect about one hour of sit-down, written work in the morning. That’s when I stack-up writing-intensive work such as French, English and math. Because my children struggle with writing and are almost exclusively auditory learners, we can learn a lot by reading on the couch. We do history, science and religion on the couch through reading and retelling. I am also adding a literature reading of a book related to our history subject (currently Ancient Egypt). In terms of academics, I do not follow my children’s interests. For instance, we are all learning about Ancient Egypt in history, natural science in science and going through the credo (what we believe) in religion.
Here is a bullet-point list of things to consider when teaching multiple grades. The take-home message of these bullets is “transitions may and probably will kill you.”
- Be ready. Children don’t wait. In the evening, I like to prepare the books and notebooks the children will be using the next day. I talked about using spiral bound notebooks to keep track of the children’s work. The notebook are ready. This way, if David is ready to start and I have to go change a diaper, he can start on his own. Having our books ready on the table minimizes the time wasted looking for things.
- Be predictable. Having predictable routines help the children know what’s coming. I find that it helps with focus and continuity. As a parent, it also helps me remember what’s coming next and minimizes the time spent thinking “Ok, now what?” Because that’s all the time the children need to start a fight or set something on fire.
- Feed the children. Regular snacks and body breaks ensure that I don’t lose whatever small attention-span my children have. If I stay ahead of the curve foodwise I can minimize inattentiveness and tantrums.
- Stack transitions. Since transitions can and will kill you, try to keep them to a minimum by doubling-up. Try to work on one subject until snack time for instance, so the subject transition and the snack transition happen together.
- Be focused. It took me a while to understand that I couldn’t write a blog post or check Facebook while homeschooling. Any inattentiveness on my part multiplies with the children.
- Don’t squander your best work time. My children work in the morning. It takes a really big deal for me to schedule an activity or running errands in the morning. Try to adapt your schedule to your children as opposed to adapting the children to the schedule. Trying to homeschool after lunch is always a disaster.
- Know your limits. I couldn’t homeschool four different grades. We registered the high schoolers with Mother of Divine Grace School so I could focus on the little kids. Whether you seek help by getting a cleaning service, tutoring or a babysitter, realize that housekeeping, schooling and childcare are all jobs that people get paid full time salaries to perform. If you can’t cram it all in a 24h period by yourself, give yourself a pat on the back: you’re normal.
To plan or not to plan, that is the question…
In a recent Facebook post, I asked friends to send me their homeschooling questions, as if I could answer any of them as I emerge from a very difficult first year and enter the second. I meant to write a Q&A type of post but the questions were too far ranging to fit on one page, each one deserving a full post to itself. The first question came from Jenna. She asked (edited for length):
“I always love hearing about how/when homeschoolers fit in planning….and getting a glimpse of what a typical day looks like. I am constantly battling with the idea that we need to have a structured routine, but fail to have one every single day. Sometimes I feel great about our go-with-the-flow approach, and sometimes I feel like my kids need more consistency and I should work harder at that.”
I think that personal style and what works for your family are key. For us, planning is a must. Like you, I tend to fall on the go-with-the-flow end of the spectrum but it is a complete fail with my children. In fact, nothing guarantees a bad day like not having a plan. As a result, I need to walk roughshod over my personal preference and manage to work with what works best for my children. And that’s a lesson plan, attached to a schedule. My children need to know what to expect or their brains short-circuit. On the positive side, when they have a lesson plan clearly laid-out, they work well and thoroughly.
Last year, I planned our work using Laura Berquist’s Designing you Own Classical Curriculum and Jesse Wise’s The Well-Trained Mind . While I really liked the classical approach, it required a lot of work and advanced planning on my part, especially since my children were something-less-than-enthusiastic. Their school experience had not prepared them for the type of work and inquiry that the classical curriculum demanded.
Mid-year I started using spiral bound notebooks to prepare the children’s workweek. If I had a chunk of time on Sunday I would plan the entire week day-by-day. That rarely happened so I was normally planning one day at a time, after the kids’ bedtime. When the children got up in the morning, they knew right away what they had to do and would often power through most of their school day in a few hours. Whenever we didn’t get to the end of the list, the work got reported to the next day. I never scheduled Fridays and used it as a bumper day to finish the week’s work.
Using the spiral notebooks really made things easier for everyone but I was still struggling to keep on top of the highschoolers: making sure that their work was completed properly and corrected, that areas of concern were addressed, etc. As former school students, they both had a tendency to stop working whenever they encountered a problem they couldn’t solve.
As a result, this year I registered the highschoolers with Mother of Divine Grace School. They are taking online classes in math and religion, have tutors for the other subjects (science, English, history, latin) and I teach French using these resources. The Mother of Divine Grace syllabi are very clearly (and expertly) broken down in assignments by days and by weeks. The curriculum is demanding, clocking-in at 5 to 6 hours per day for the highschoolers. In other words, it will suck back a lot of our homeschooling flexibility. But the reality is that my teens don’t know how to use their time wisely. I was hoping that homeschooling flexibility would allow them to delve into new interests and develop their talents but it hasn’t. Unless Tumblr, Netflix and Starbucks count as talents.
Another dimension of planning are your needs as a parent. As usual, a little bit of critical self-examination can go a long way. I find that there is a very predictable arc to my day depending on where my butt sits around 7:30 am. If I am on the couch with my phone, in my pajamas, having my coffee, chances are I’m still there at 10am (or more likely I got up in a panic as the twins dumped a bucket of outside gravel into the couch and I am now cleaning it up as they flush dominoes down the septic tank and Damien is drinking toilet water from the dog’s water dish. I wish I was making this up.) If I have gotten-up before the kids, stretched a bit, said my morning prayers, eaten and dressed, I’m less likely to get caught-up in the wave of chaos that represents my family. Because my brain is impervious to routines – no matter how long I stick to a routine it never becomes second nature – a plan help me remember where I’m supposed to be at a certain time and what I’m supposed to do.
Finally, one last dimension of planning is that it really clears hours off my day. I know because I’ve been operating plan-less for most of the last 9 months and the insanity of doing all the cooking, all the cleaning and all the homeschooling for a family of 11 is really catching-up with me now. A plan allows me to assign tasks to the children and keep them accountable. It’s easier to keep them doing their chores if there is a predictable list of work I can pin to their foreheads. Left to my own devise, I tend to rely heavily on the most naturally helpful children, which of course breeds resentment on one end and unrealistic expectations of being left alone at the other end. I purchased Managers of their homes in a fit of despair last year but it’s still shrink-wrapped and glaring at me. I’m scared witless of this thing but I’m afraid we’re at that point of disorganization.Many friends have also recommended Holly Pierlot A Mother’s Rule of Life but I can’t buy another book until I have read all those I ordered last year so it may have to wait until I’m in a nursing home.
My thoughts on planning, in a nutshell: If you think you need it, give it a try. If you are happy and healthy, why fix what is not broken? I would much prefer following my children’s learning cues and enquiries, if the cues weren’t always about Paw Patrol.
When I started homeschooling, I encouraged myself by thinking that I wasn’t the first one to do this. Not the first one to homeschool with an infant. Not the first one to homeschool with toddler twins. Not the first one to homeschool with a large family. Not the first one to homeschool 4 different grades. Not the first one to homeschool kids who don’t want to homeschool. Not the first one to homeschool outgoing, extroverted kids with two volumes settings: loud and louder. Not the first one to homeschool children with a lot of energy and big feelings. Not the first one to homeschool with a husband who works long hours and cannot help with homeschooling. Not the first one to homeschool without my family’s support. Not the first one to homeschool in a language other than English. Other people have done it, right? So it has to be possible. Well, I’m not so sure anymore!
It’s getting lonely at the top. I see people quit homeschooling every week for one of the reasons I listed above. And when I hit the Internet looking for help, I find people with any combo of one or two of my challenges but never all of them. There’s Sarah from Amongst Lovely Things who has toddler twins and recommends lowering expectations. But expectations can only be lowered so much when you are homeschooling highschool. We lowered our expectations so much this year, we nearly dug a hole to China. I wish I could curl-up on the couch and read to everyone from the grade 10 chemistry text book but THEY WON’T STAY SEATED!
And then there’s the lovely — lovely! — Kendra from Catholic All Year who has a large family and gets by being pregnant, breastfeeding and homeschooling by having naps and exercising. And how do naps happen? By putting the baby and the toddler down for a nap at the same time and then giving the other children a quiet activity to do. This makes me want to cry. My almost 4 year-old twins have not napped since they were 2-and-a -half and a quiet activity for the four youngest means that I have to physically restrain them, usually by sitting on one and keeping the door closed on the other. It’s great. We have a quiet time daily to the sound of children howling “HOW MANY MORE MINUTES?” every 30 seconds. My husband thought I would feel better if I exercised so we started getting up at 5 am — because that’s how early we have to wake-up if we want to wake-up before the kids. Since we have teenagers who are up until 11 pm, it gives me 5 interrupted hours of sleep on which to keep my wits, my household and my homeschool running smoothly. It gives a brand new meaning to the quip: “I’m in no shape to exercise” believe it or not.
It’s not that I’m jealous of people who have children who are temperamentally disposed to sit down and stay quiet. After all, my four oldest children were pretty easy. But it does make me realize that homeschooling is not going to be easy for us and sometimes I’m a big baby and I shake my fist at God and say: “If you were going to call me to large familyhood, why couldn’t you have sent me the kids who slept in my fourties instead of my twenties??” (then God laughed and sent me twins who didn’t sleep for 15 months and stopped napping at 2.)
And then there’s Julie from Creekside Learning who has a ton of great suggestions for homeschooling with a busy toddler underfoot. Julie adequately describes my life when she writes:
But when he was not-quite-two, I typed “how to homeschool with a toddler” into a search engine and found things like this: “Give your child a copy of the worksheet your older child is doing so he will feel included.” That was good advice but it was just not going to work with my super-active, sweet boy. He was the kind of toddler who tore up worksheets with his teeth, spit them out and looked at me like “What else ya got?”
Julie makes realistic suggestions for the mere mortals but she has 3 children total and I have 3 children *under 4*. And 4 different grades to teach. And 11 people to feed. And a house to keep from getting shut down by public health authorities. We can’t explore our way through algebra outdoors by counting puddles and spiders. Homeschooling at odd hours is impractical for the elementary school aged children who are tired after the twins are in bed and having a slack year will only work as long as it’s an exception, not your way of life (see “homeschooling highschool” above.)
(As I was writing this, I saw Ève apply something to her face from the corner of my eye and I asked “What are you doing?” She answered: “Putting my make-up.” I asked “With what?” She replied: “Butter.”)
There are so many “turn key” homeschooling curricula allowing lucky parents to crack the books open and let the magic happen. Some even have teacher assistance and tutoring. But all these wonderful options would require us to give-up on French instruction. So I’m still here, fighting my way through a makeshift French curriculum while guarding the fridge and making sure the twins don’t set the house of fire. My homeschool days start early and end late and my kids are even less thrilled about homeschooling then they were when we started (which brings the enthusiasm level down to “cadaveric”). Onward and upward!
Are we going to keep homeschooling in light of this difficult first year? In a nutshell, yes. For all the difficulties that we have faced, we have also seen positive changes in our children that we want to see blossom. I can see that the challenges associated with parenting 3 year-old twins are temporary and age-related. I can also see that many of my challenges are due to learning to homeschool and the process of “deschooling” . My teenagers are still affected by the homeschooling stereotypes they have heard while attending school, especially in the year prior to our move to homeschool. They are also not as independent and autonomous as they would be had they been homeschooled from the start. Part of my problems with homeschooling — and the reason why other homeschoolers with large families have better success — is that I have children who should be old enough to work autonomously but don’t. When my teenagers run our of work or encounter a problem they cannot solve, they revert to school mode and stop working. This means that all 7 children present at home during the day need me to be physically present by their side while working or living. That’s not a normal occurrence in large homeschooling families unless they have children with special needs. My children, especially my teenagers, have yet to take responsibility for their learning and their socialization. They are quick to criticize what I throw at them but in true school manner, have not clued-in that they can affect change by getting involved. There is still too much room for improvement to call it quits at this point.
I always tell parents that they need to raise their children with the end-game in mind. When I look forward, I like what I see. I can imagine the fruit before it matures and the fruits of homeschooling are the ones I want to harvest.
(As an aside, if you have suggestions that don’t involve hiring a butler, a maid, a driver and a governess, feel free to shoot them my way.)
The roll out of Ontario’s new Health & Physical Education curriculum (better known as “sex ed”) has caused a flurry of activity on my Facebook feed. I feel blessed to have friends and acquaintances on every side of this issue but it makes Facebook commenting a bit of a mine field. Try as I may to post nuanced positions, the reality is that social media is a not a friend of nuance. That’s why I have my blog: so I can annoy everybody — from left to right — at the same time… But only if they choose to read me.
First, let’s get the elephant out of the way. I am a practicing Roman Catholic. As a matter of religious doctrine, I believe myself — and that handsome guy I make kids with — to be my children’s primary educators. This means that the responsibility to choose what my children learn falls squarely and unequivocally on my shoulders. The decision to send my children to school or to keep them at home is a religious right, or should be. Many Catholic parents oppose the new sex ed curriculum because they see it as an usurpation of parental authority and their role as primary educators. Not, take note, because they are afraid of the real names of their genitals or what they are used for. In fact, many of us wish teens would learn more about how their reproductive systems work. More on that later.
I am a Catholic parent but I am also a citizen. I live in a democracy which is — as Sir Winston Churchill reminds us — the worst form of government except for all the others we have tried so far. When Premier Dalton McGuinty announced the new and improved curriculum a few years ago, the outcry on the eve of provincial elections caused the hasty retreat of the controversial new elements. The new Premier Kathleen Wynne promised to reintroduce the curriculum and is showing no sign of backing down. The people who have elected her are reacting with a collective shrug or, as a Facebook friend of a friend wrote: “I’m so glad they’ll be teaching consent.” Because really, how else are young men and women supposed to learn what a consensual sexual relationship is unless they learn it in school? My point is that the people who elected the Ontario Liberal Party are generally happy with the curriculum changes, either because it reflects their own values on health and sexuality or because they don’t care. The parents currently storming the barricades are not those who elected Premier Wynne. Is it a surprise to learn that she is not sensitive to their plight?
As my friend John Robson explains very well in this short video, the provincial government is in the business of teaching civics and morals. You may argue that the government should limit itself to value-neutral academics such a reading, writing and arithmetic but this would be a theoretical exercise at best: the Education Act spells the role of the school system in shaping values and morals very clearly. You’re in for a penny you’re in for a pound: once your children are under the auspices of our state-run education system, the system makes the rules. And that includes the rules about dating, mating and reproducing (or, preferably, not reproducing). As Justice Deschamp wrote for the majority in the 2012 case pitting Quebec parents against the Quebec government over the contested Ethics, Culture and Religion (ECR) curriculum (emphasis is mine):
Parents are free to pass their personal beliefs on to their children if they so wish. However, the early exposure of children to realities that differ from those in their immediate family environment is a fact of life in society. The suggestion that exposing children to a variety of religious facts in itself infringes their religious freedom or that of their parents amounts to a rejection of the multicultural reality of Canadian society and ignores the Quebec government’s obligations with regard to public education.
Yup. That’s right. While this decision refers to a different curriculum in a different province, it does a good job of highlighting the highest court’s sentiment with regard to parental rights in education. I have heard many people, several teachers themselves, argue that the school had to teach sex ed because the parents weren’t. That’s not true. The Ontario education system has to teach sex ed because matters of civics and morals are part and parcel of its mandate. You might argue that this does not correspond to your idea of civics and morals but you ascribed to that vision when you registered your children in school. Remember that dotted line? Your name’s on it.
In an address at the Maryvale Academy Gala last January, Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast tore into Kathleen Wynne’s new Health & Physical Education curriculum calling it a “seizure of parental authority”. He said (emphasis mine):
“We know that the proposed program threatens the fundamental right of parents to educate their children in the moral dimension of sexual behaviour (…). Parents are best qualified and have the greatest interest in working with their own children to handle this serious topic at an age and developmentally sensitive time,” he continued. “More notably, parents have the fundamental right to do so―a right the Province appears willing to usurp without due consideration.”
(You can read the entire address here.)
Willing to usurp? The Province is not merely “willing to usurp” the role of parents as primary educators, it’s obligated by law to do so. As for the fundamental right to educate children in matters of morals, this is a right that is not recognized by law. As the Supreme Court clearly stated, that right stops at your front door. Some of my Facebook friends who support the curriculum updates shrugged: “It’s a great curriculum. Those who don’t agree just have to opt out.” Believe me, as a parent who had to pull an anxious child out of Health & PE:
I had to collude with my daughter to find out exactly when to pick her up. Had my daughter not been a willing participant, I would have had no way of knowing when the Health component of the PE class was being taught. Then she would be marked as “absent” — which adds up on her report card — and still expected to write the Health & PE test, failure to do so would also show on her report card. I was glad to give my daughter an occasional break from “Health” but on the whole, she still had to learn the stuff and write the test. Opting out? Not exactly. And here’s the difficult lesson of my post so far: you can’t really opt out of Health & PE even though you have a theoretical right to, as per the Education Act. You have to opt out of the system. We took our children out of Health. And French, math, science and history too. We homeschool. You’re not happy with the extent of government encroachment on your role as primary educator? Your options are: (1) change the Education Act; (2) force the rolling back of the curriculum by electing a government that supports your vision; (3) take your children out of public school. I’m sad to inform you that the happy middle where you get to send your kids to school to learn things you want them to learn at the exclusion of those you don’t like is not an option. Sorry. This is not a cafeteria.
Education is always political. Remember what they say about the hand that rocks the cradle? Well, if you don’t, the Provincial government does, as does Canada’s highest court. There is no such thing as a value-neutral sexual education class. The term “safe sex” is not value neutral. Neither is “risky behaviour”. When I helped my grade 8 daughter study for her Health exam, I learned that Natural Family Planning was also known as “the calendar method” and had a success rate of 30%. This kind of misinformation is not value-neutral.
What your children learn in school is always political. It may look neutral if you share the values promoted in the curriculum but your comfort is only as safe as our democratic system: someday, the tables may turn. After all, the social conservatives — be they Christian, Muslim or Jewish — are having all the babies. Do you think Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar are raising feminists and allies? Doesn’t this make you a little squirmy about the world your 1.3 children will grow into?
Believe it or not, I am not losing sleep over the so-called graphic content of the new curriculum. My extended family has a few same-sex married couples and a transgendered woman. I have dear friends of all colours of the rainbow. Gender fluidity is a fact of life in my family. The mention of masturbation in grade 6 and sexually transmitted diseases and co-related risky behaviours in grade 7 are not phasing me in the least: by then, my children had long been exposed to them in the school yard and especially the school bus. Our bus drivers always listened to mainstream pop radio, where hip hop songs are way more explicit than anything their gym teachers could dream-up. Honestly, your children’s innocence is only as safe as that of their peers.
If anything, I wish the curriculum taught more about how babies are made! I had a conversation with my daughter a few years back while she was texting a friend. Both girls had received the best sex ed the school system could provide. A friend had had unprotected sex during her periods and wanted to know if she could get pregnant. Both thought that ovulation happened during menstruation. So here we are, giving our teens all the information they need to have safe sex. All the information except how babies are made. 16 year-old girls are having unprotected sex without the foggiest clue of when they are fertile. Great. Have we thought of letting kids figure out how to masturbate on their own and teach them how babies are actually made instead? Just a thought.
Nobody should be complaisant about the government’s mandate to teach sexual education. You may be fine with the current state of sexual education but if you — like me — live in a democracy and enjoy the perks of political freedom, you may very well find yourself on my side of the barricades one day. And I promise that I will still be there with you.
We moved last week, the realization of 3 years of planning and strategic decision-making. In 2010, when I announced that I was expecting twins to a friend (and fellow twin mama) she exclaimed: “This is wonderful! This will really focus you on your family!” I remember being a little taken-aback. We had 6 children, why did she think we were not family-focused already? I should have known better than to question the wisdom of a mother of 10. Of course she was right. After welcoming the twins in 2011, the futility of our lifestyle really hit us like a ton of brick. My husband was working himself to an early grave for the sake of keeping us ensconced in our busy and abundant lifestyle. We decided to sell our house, pay-off our debts, offload a lot of our stuff and live a life that was more coherent with our beliefs and principles. We bought a piece of land in the country where we eventually built a house. A house designed with the needs and requirements of a large homeschooling family in mind, where square-footage is not a thing in and of itself.
Our little piece of Canadian shield sits about an hour’s drive away from the east end of Ottawa where our children were born and raised. It is a radical move from a suburban lifestyle to a rural lifestyle, from school to homeschool, and it leaves no one indifferent.
Decisions based on convictions rarely leave people indifferent. Returning to school full time to get a Master’s degree didn’t leave people indifferent. Selling our house to pay off our debts and move into a rental house didn’t leave people indifferent. Having another child didn’t leave people indifferent. Building a house in the country didn’t leave people indifferent. Homeschooling didn’t leave people indifferent. We always elicit a reaction. We are either living the dream or delusional.
Last week, we moved 9 children away from the community they have known since birth. Four of those 9 children are teenagers. Rightfully, people are asking: “What are the children thinking about this move?” Uprooting teenagers is a bold move, especially in the absence of a non-negotiable driver such as a job posting. But if anyone thinks that we’re delusional to move teenagers on purpose, let me assure you that this move, at this time, is intentional. We are under no illusion that the move will be seamless or even easy for our teenagers but we are doing it because we believe it’s the right thing to do for our family.
We are committed to make it work for our teenagers and we are often asking for their input on ways to facilitate the transition. Don’t get me wrong, the teenagers never held the power to stop the move. But there is a difference between asking for input and veto power. Our teenagers know that we have an ear for well thought-through plans. They do not like to plan much — neither do their friends – preferring to pick-up as they go. We believe — and this is how this decision was intentional — that the cream of friendships will rise to the top. This happens to most of us through the post-secondary years. Our move has only provoked a natural progression of high school dalliances and connections. We see this as a positive aspect of the move, not a negative one. Our society sees the teenage years as an end in itself, a last grab at the freedom of childhood. We see the teenage years as a transition into adulthood. Our vision for our family is to raise adults, not big children. It’s very difficult to cast this approach as essentially affirmative when the children grow-up in a cultural environment where this formation is seen as essentially restrictive. I love the analogy of arrows in the hand of the warrior: to launch arrows, you need tension. If you make everything easy for your teenagers to avoid tension, the arrow will fall flatly to the ground. Too much tension and the bow breaks, not enough tension and the arrow doesn’t launch. Moving teenagers is causing some tension, I will not lie. However, we see tension as an essential component of growth, maturation and individualization.
Our decision to move to the country was also a decision to slow right down. We wanted to move away from the tyranny of activities and the pressure of wanting to keep-up with everyone else. We were tired of fighting our environment to instill the values we wanted to instill in our children. Here, in the country the rhythms are different, the expectations are different. For instance, our new church’s children’s choir rehearsal takes place right after Mass while the families are still around. No need to book another evening off for choir practice. All the children are welcome, regardless of age, because everybody needs to make the most out of their country mileage. This is just an example of the many ways in which country folks are more practical. This is how we want our family to start thinking and living.
You may read this in complete agreement or recoil in horror, your reaction is rooted in your own values and priorities. I believe that the proof will be in the fruit. I will tend my garden and let the fruit ripen.
Whenever you are out and about with a gaggle of homeschooled kids, someone is bound to ask if they are sick or on holiday. And whenever the children answer “No we are homeschooled!” someone is bound to reply one of two things:
Oh, I could never do that, I don’t have the patience!
Oh, I could never do that, my kids wouldn’t listen to me!
Ask my kids, they’ll tell you I don’t have the patience either. Really, who in their right mind would choose to lock themselves-up in a house all day with a bunch of school-aged kids? Honestly, I don’t know. But if you think that homeschooling moms have a special gift (or illness) that gives them supernatural powers of patience and understanding, you are sorely mistaken. I have yet to meet a homeschooling mom who never had a day (week, month) where she thought of calling the school’s registration desk right ‘freakin’ now. Or just put her kids at the bus stop and hope that the driver wouldn’t notice and take them away.
Three people have asked me (separately) how to stay sane while homeschooling. According to some of my closest family members, my sanity is (A) questionable, and (B) in danger. But if you come closer, I will tell you that the question of staying sane while spending my every waking hour with my own children kept me from homeschooling for the last 8 years. Yes, you read that right. My husband and I started talking about homeschooling 12 years ago and we kept our now-18-year-old daughter at home for grade 1. Within 6 months, I was struggling so badly we decided to stop homeschooling. That’s not quite the whole story but it is all you need to understand that I GET IT. I know what you mean. This failure has been weighing heavily on me ever since, not the least because I believe so fervently that homeschooling can bring the best out of children. Before we re-launched this year, I had to spend some time in deep thoughts (and prayer) on why we had failed the first time and what we would do differently this time.
First, this blog post will not be a grocery list of concrete things to do. I think that emotional balance is mostly in your head, meaning that if your head and heart are not healthy, no amount of shopping sprees, traveling and weekends away will restore it. I also think that concrete things – like hiring a cleaning lady or going to the gym – are very circumstantial. In other words, it might not work for everyone in their current circumstances. Whenever someone suggests that I do x,y,z “while the babies nap” it reminds me that my babies no longer nap and it makes me feel even more discouraged and overwhelmed. I want to encourage you! As a result, I will stay away from suggestions that hinge on having more time or more money (usually both) because if my life is any indication, they are both in short supply.
Before we dig-in, I would like to specify that the sentiments and dispositions of the mind expressed in that blog post are my own. I am not saying that you should feel the same way. I strongly believe that happiness has to come from within and that’s why my approach to homeschooling sanity is to work on my own heart and soul as opposed to trying to control my circumstances. In today’s world, we are more likely to blame others and the limitations they impose on our choices than turn our gaze inward. If you are looking for a “Top 10 tips that will save your sanity for sure,” you may have knocked on the wrong door.
1. Accept the pace. Homeschooling is hard. The first step in remaining sane is to accept that what you are doing is hard work. It’s physically and emotionally demanding. It’s a counter-cultural decision for which you will face opposition and criticism. Sometimes from your own children. You will feel pressure to perform and turn out prodigies. Your children’s character flaws and temperaments will be in your face, hour after hour, day after day. Homeschooling is hard but it is worth it. Find examples in your life of situations that were difficult but ultimately worth it… Having children, getting married, maybe conceiving or adopting your children was an uphill battle filled with heartache. Accept that homeschooling is the path less traveled and there is a reason for that. As my husband often says about having 9 children – but it applies to homeschooling: “If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.”
2. Mind your head. If you are struggling with mental illness, even if it is a mild case of depression or anxiety, you will need to deal with it first. When we tried to homeschool for the first time 12 years ago, I was struggling with undiagnosed post-partum depression. Homeschooling chewed me up and spat me out. It takes solid footings to lock yourself up in a house with a bunch of young children day after day.
3. Remember why you are doing this. There are as many reasons to homeschool as there are homeschooling families. Homeschooling is a deliberate decision but it’s easy to forget when the children are swinging from the chandeliers and the school bus drives by your house. Whether you knew you would homeschool since your child’s birth or fell into homeschooling accidentally when the system failed your child, you are homeschooling for a reason. Write it down, stick it to your fridge or set regular reminders on your smartphone, but remember why you are doing this or your child will be back in school within 6 weeks.
4. Mind your marriage. Unless you are parenting solo, you will need the support of your spouse to homeschool. It goes beyond the decision to homeschool. You will need support and encouragement and your spouse is equally invested in the success of the endeavour. A dysfunctional or unloving marriage will completely crumble under the pressures of homeschooling. As your house becomes your base of operation, you will need love and harmony in the home like never before. Your marriage relationship sets the tone for all the other relationships in your home. If you face a lot of opposition outside the home from your friends and family, you will need the support and encouragement of your spouse all the more. My husband is my unquestioning cheerleader. Good day, bad day, I’m always doing great. Poor curriculum purchase? It’s ok, we’ll sell it on Kijiji. When I think I’m failing the children, he reminds me that a slow day is not a fail. He keeps me grounded and centered and I could not homeschool without him. If your marriage is strained or failing, deal with that first. Your children will benefit more from an intact and happy marriage than from homeschooling. This is the truth.
5. Put your oxygen mask on first. Don’t wait until you are struggling. When my daughter underwent surgery at 4 months and again at 4 years, her medical caregivers explained to me that if I dealt with the pain before it became unbearable, I was likely able to control it with Tylenol. This meant giving her pain medicine before she was in pain. If I waited too long to medicate her and the pain became acute, she would need much stronger medicine to be comfortable. In the context of homeschooling and being stuck at home with a bunch of young children, it means that small self-care practices can go a long way if you start them before you need to. Prayer, meditation, physical exercise and a coffee date with yourself will help if done regularly. Don’t wait until you need therapy and a month away at a resort.
6. Find your support system. Finding supportive friends in the homeschooling community is key to maintaining your perspective. You will need people who can listen to your good days but especially your bad days without judgement. Your circle of support will help you remember why you are homeschooling and help you get back up when you stumble. You may not live in a vibrant homeschooling community as I do and you may have to turn to social media and the Internet for support. That’s ok as long as your circle of support builds you up. The Internet can be a nasty space. Don’t waste time in online communities that leave you discouraged and defeated.
7. Work on character before curriculum. If you can’t get any compliance from your children, if you must yell to get your kids moving 10 times out of 10, if your relationship with your teenagers is strained on a good day and downright hostile the rest of the time, you need to deal with that first. It doesn’t mean that homeschooling is not for you. In fact, homeschooling might be the best decision you made in years. But you won’t make any headway in math and grammar until you have a better relationship with your children. Trying to teach curriculum to children who do not respect you will sap your will to live, I can promise you that. Deal with character issues first, even if it means that you don’t get to curriculum for a few months. You will make-up for lost time once you have a solid working and loving relationship with your children.
8. Don’t fight the change. Homeschooling is a lifestyle as well as an education decision. Whereas the choice between public and private school is an education decision, the decision to homeschool will affect your entire life. It will completely turn your daily routines and expectations on their heads. If you try to live as if you had simply made an education decision, you will burn out in no time flat. Your children are now with you all day. Your house will get messier, your spare times will get fewer and your school-based pressure valves – like art, outdoor play and physical activity – will disappear. You will learn to be happy where you are and with what you have but you will need to give yourself the chance to learn. I used to be the mom waltzing down the Staples aisle in September singing “It’s the most wonderful time of the year”. Homeschooling is a journey of learning for the parents too! Approach the growing pains with acceptance and let the challenges grow on you. Fighting change will not work.
You can follow our journey in pictures on Instagram where I post as @happy_chaos_