Hey! Thank you so much to those of you who are still reading these posts and watching the clips while I work on re-launching my blog. We’re making some progress, with lots of ideas and little time to implement them. But we’re moving forward, which is always better than the opposite.
Homeschooling Questions: Working with different ages, grades and interests
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.
So you want to pull your kids out of school
Our decision to homeschool coincided with the introduction of full-day kindergarten in Ontario’s public schools. I am not familiar with the details of the recent changes occurring in Ontario kindergarten classrooms but parents are telling me that the increase in school population brought-on by full day kindergarten has bumped-up class sizes across the board as other classes are combined to make room for the additional kindergarten classes. A field of portables – complete with graffiti – sprouted beside a shiny new neighbourhood’s public school (begging the question “how did you not see this coming and couldn’t you have built the school the right size in the first place?”) and a large extension to another new school was built in the schoolyard. In the land of “play-based learning” space to run around doing nothing is at a premium.
From full day kindergarten, to poor academic placement, to special needs, parents express a growing concern that while the school system is staffed by dedicated teachers and well-meaning principals, it is not serving the needs of their individual children very well. And so they ask about homeschooling. A lot.
A friend recently inquired about homeschooling and my reply inspired this blog post. Her question was not so much “why homeschool?” or even “how to homeschool?” but “what can I expect after pulling children out of school?” and “How will I stay sane?”
The sanity question is very much undetermined at this point. Homeschooling is hard and we are still negotiating the learning curve. My days are long and the nights are short. I remain sane by remembering why we are doing this. Thankfully, having five children older than the four youngest gives me perspective on how quickly this season will pass. I keep simple goals in mind on an hourly basis (don’t get angry, don’t yell, breathe) and the big picture in sight whenever I feel like quitting.
At this point in our homeschool journey – we started 2 months ago with 3 school-age children and will be adding a fourth in January – we are mostly learning to learn in different ways. The Internet calls it “deschooling” but I prefer using “deprogramming” to describe the process of bringing children home. We often assume (at least I did) that homeschooling is “doing school at home” – and for some that’s exactly what it is – but in reality, homeschooling is a paradigm shift. You will notice this paradigm shift in the comments you receive from people who do not support homeschooling: you can’t teach unless you are a teacher, you need to isolate children from their home environment for learning to occur, you need a lot of material support, you need a curriculum telling you exactly what needs to be learned when, you need a large group of same-age peers for socialization to happen. We are conditioned from a very young age to believe that schooling happens in a box. The physical act of removing the children from the box does not necessary change our thinking. There is a lot to learn in homeschooling and curriculum is only part of it. Here are a few unwritten lessons from my first two months of homeschooling after 14 years of school:
1. You will need to teach your children to trust you as a teacher. I had an interesting exchange with one of my daughters during the summer prior to the start of our homeschooling journey. We were talking about menstrual cycles – well, I was doing the talking — and I said: “When your periods start, they may not be regular for a while. You may skip weeks or even months.” And she looked at me with the kind of look you would give a lost puppy and said “I know mom, I’ve been to health class.” And this sums it up: your children, after years of conventional schooling, may love you and even respect you but their learning has been compartmentalized between the “home stuff” and the “school stuff”. You don’t understand their “new math” and “modern grammar”, you are no longer welcome to help in the classroom and your children don’t expect you to know jack squat. Don’t expect to jump into pre-algebra and traditional logic and think that your children will suddenly trust your superior brain. As far as they’re concerned, this homeschooling thing might just be another one of your “phases”, like that vegetarian kick of 2002. By the way, your mom and their teachers think the same way.
2. You will have to learn to learn at home. After years in school, your children are used to learning at school and flopping at home. The proximity to the kitchen, the toy room and the TV/computer can challenge academic work. I spent the entire month of September guarding the fridge. I’m not sure how they coped with fixed snack-times in school when I see how much fuel they need to keep their concentration.
3. You will learn to smooth the kinks in your relationship and discipline before learning can occur. Regardless of how good your relationship is, you can only teach so much if you don’t get along well with your children. And I mean this in the most loving way possible: we all love our children on the inside but the day-to-day grind often gets in the way of a cordial rapport on the outside. Parents of teenagers and toddlers, you know what I mean. To homeschool, you need to get along with your children on the inside AND the outside. It doesn’t mean that they become compliant little Stepford Kids but you need a basis of genuine compliance to move ahead with homeschooling. Learning to obtain compliance from your children without damaging your relationship – yelling, nagging or generally getting fed-up – may take weeks or even months but it needs to be done first. If you can’t get your children to clean-up their rooms without a fight, you have a taste of what homeschooling will look like day after day, hour after hour, until you quit in despair. Character before curriculum. I repeat this to myself about 2000 times a week.
4. Your children will have to learn to live with each other in close quarters. Your children may get along well at home or they may fight like cats and dogs, either way they will learn to work and live with each other. At school, they have been socialized to play strictly with children their own age. They have also been socialized into “girl play” and “boy play”. Boys and girls who play well together are often told they are in love with each other. Boys who enjoy “girl play” are often told they are gay. We all have stories of children who play well all summer with a younger neighbour only to royally ignore their best friend on school ground. We all have stories of older siblings who will not be seen with their younger siblings at school or on the school bus. Your children need to unlearn all this wonderful socialization to get along well in the context of the homeschool, especially if they are boys and girls. It may sound far-fetched but for our first month of home schooling, my biggest obstacle to teaching was the constant fighting between my 5 year-old and my 8 year-old. And I have 3 year-old twins and an infant, it says a lot.
5. You will learn to walk in confidence to the beat of your own drum. You will face opposition, criticism and soul-crushing doubt. The biggest failure predictor for homeschooling families (other than obvious challenges such as income loss, death and mental illness) is lack of confidence. If you doubt your ability to homeschool, there are good chances that you will prove yourself right. A few days ago, I heard a beloved family member explain to me how she didn’t think I could raise forward-thinking, engaging and open-minded teenagers in the context of the homeschool. A friend later suggested that she doubted my ability to teach advanced academics on the topics I did not master myself. Both are valid concerns coming from people I respect and care about, even though they show a lack of research on the ins and outs of homeschooling. I went to bed reeling, first thinking I would ruin my children forever, and then thinking I would prove everybody wrong. I got up this morning with a bone to pick and lined-up my little circus monkeys for a full day of academics. By lunchtime, I had to bitch-slap myself a few times to regain focus: I am not training circus monkeys, I am raising people. I will prove everybody wrong, all in good time. The proof will be in the fruit but I have to let the fruit ripen. Whenever I feel like I need to prove something to someone, I repeat to myself “Let the fruit ripen.”
Homeschooling is a journey of discovery, about yourself, about your children, and about the world around you. Whenever I feel wobbly and unsure, I remind myself that I am only taking my first steps. We will learn, we will grow and we will become stronger.
Whine and cheese
This post started as a description of a bad day. We all have them, don’t we? No matter how heavy or light our burden, some days (weeks, months) just won’t end. Or so it seems. The whine was spurred by a somewhat critical “You make everything look easy” from a friend. This shook me a little because if anything looks easy I can assure you that it’s all fluff and no substance. Anybody who sees me in real life – as opposed to social media – knows that whatever it is I’m doing, I’m (a) fumbling all the way; and (b) not doing it all that well. Every. Single. Day. I recently posted late birthday wishes to my father on Facebook, hoping that a public self-shaming would make-up for my poor daughterly behaviour, adding:
“Next time any of you wonders how Véro does it, remember that I don’t.”
That’s it in a nutshell. For every finite “thing” I do, there’s an equal amount of something else that doesn’t happen. My days, like yours, have 24h. If you look at what I don’t do, you will notice that the list of what I get done pales in comparison. That’s why I find it very irritating when people bow before me, which happens about 10 times a day when I am out and about with my family. Yes, you read that well, people bow before me. They actually, physically, bow before me. You can’t imagine how uncomfortable being worshiped can make you feel when you are not — you know — God.
Not only am I not God, I’m a wretched sinner. I order my life in concentric circles, building priorities from the centre and adding larger circles as I master the smaller ones. The smaller circles are my husband and children, my home life, around that core is my family, parents, siblings, in-laws; around the family circle are friends and close ones, this circle extends into my community. The largest circle would be those in need of my time and talent but who are not directly linked to me by the bonds of family, friendship or community. My faith radiates through from the core, informing how I (try to) relate to myself and others.
On a good day, I might make it to circle number 2. Everything else – friends, community, service – falls by the wayside. My every hour is consumed by caring for my basic needs and raising my children in a cheerful, peaceful and stable home where they can grow happy and healthy. Putting good food on the table, having clean clothes, a happy face and a listening ear takes-up my entire day. I am horrible at keeping in touch with my parents and siblings. I never remember anyone’s birthday, and when I do I don’t do anything about it. I’m a write-off when it comes to social graces like thank you notes. I have very few real friends left, and those who stick by me have precious little needs. I am not involved in my community; our family gives money to a few good causes because we can’t find the time to help out in a more meaningful way. If you are impressed because I manage to keep 9 children fed, dressed and somewhat educated assuming that I am also doing what normally productive members of the society do on the side, be informed that there is no side here: it’s all inner circle with a smattering of social media. In a nutshell it takes me 24h a day to be a decent wife and mother. That’s nothing to bow to.
Unlike some of my friends with larger-than-average families, I don’t have children with special needs. I don’t even have children with learning difficulties. In fact, all my children are above average students. They are physically, mentally and emotionally sound. My parents, my in-laws and my siblings are all in good health and economically wealthy enough to cover their needs as they age. There is no strife on either side of our extended family. There are no obvious mental health or substance abuse problems in our immediate family. We have been undeservedly spared by grief and loss. I should be able to do more with my 24h but for the limitations of my own person, my intelligence, my heart and my body. I am raising children whom I hope will be positive contributors to society, competent men and women committed to live by principles of integrity. I hope to look happy and peaceful doing it because the least I can do for the world from the confines of my kitchen – where I spend most of my life cooking, cleaning and homeschooling – is to give my children an example of self-giving that makes them want to choose others before themselves as they grow-up. Some days I fail miserably and that’s why I am still stuck in the innermost circles, trying to be a good mother, daughter, wife and sister before I move outward and onward.
Next time you are tempted to feel inadequate or bow before me or anyone else, remember that people like me need people with less stringent family obligations to make the world go round. Because I sure ain’t doin’ it. I need people like you to volunteer on school trips with my children, participate in bake sales, sit on board of directors, work as doctors, nurses and midwives, teachers, managers and creators. If you are dealing with loss, grief, illness, special needs or below average intelligence, you are already doing more than I am with my 9 healthy and bright children. So don’t bow. Don’t feel inadequate. Just go out and do your thing. From talking with you, I know that the more you already do, the more likely you are to feel like you’re not doing enough. Fill your 24h with purpose and hold you head up high.