Staffer’s Notebook: We’re not gonna take it. Or we will.



This post started out as an email to my boss, Glen Gower. Then it got a little too long. 

Last month news broke with allegations of improper behavior by Councillor Chiarelli. This week, Councillor Chiarelli requested a leave of absence for stress-related illness as victims shared more first-hand testimonies of sexual harassment. For women working on Councillor’s Row, questionable workplace behaviour from elected officials was old news . The real news was that someone was talking about it. 

My work relationship with my employer gives me the space and confidence to share my concerns about the general working conditions for political staffers. In the weeks since the news broke, Glen and I have had several conversations about woking conditions for Councillors’ staff and he encouraged me to share my thoughts in my Staffer’s Notebook.  

The power dynamics leading men to exert dominance over women’s minds and bodies is well expressed by Oscar Wilde’s famous quote: “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” We expect elected officials to be leaders in their community and we hold them to the highest standard of behavior, yet it is democracy’s inconvenient truth that they represent the best and the worst of us.

The story of the powerful man and the intern is as old as democracy itself. I scoff at the surprise that it should happen here, in Ottawa. If the MeToo movement has taught us anything, it’s that years of sensitivity and inclusion training has done nothing to discourage those who use sex to control. We seem to take comfort in the suggestion that this behavior is the purview of jerks. Drawing a clear delineation between the good guys and the bad guys prevents us from looking at the ways our work environment enables abusive behaviour. Nowhere is this as true as in political offices. At all levels of government, the harassment and questionable hiring practices of elected officials take root in a garden carefully maintained by others.

I have worked as a political aide in federal and municipal politics. Everywhere, our employment conditions are precarious. Yet we work amidst organizations with mature and elaborate HR practices, alongside a well-represented unionized workforce. Be it in the federal or municipal government, elected officials are free to belittle, sexually objectify and threaten their staff while everyone looks the other way. And so the seeds of abuse sprout and grow unchecked, untamed and unmanaged. Our only recourse is to take it or leave it.

The image of one elected official representing one constituency has not kept pace with the complexity of representative democracy. Elected officials still hold office as a one-man show, but their operating budgets have grown to include a full-time staff providing the level of service that residents expect. Yet, everything in the staffing of political offices seeks to minimize the visibility of staffers and discount their existence. We are an extension of our employer, a line item in an operating budget, hired and fired at will. Our jobs have no requirements, our salaries are drawn from the same budget as office furniture and left to the discretion of each councillor. There is no salary scale, no promotion track, no equal pay, no performance reports, but most importantly, no complaint mechanism protecting us from the consequences of speaking out. Like office stationery we are expendable, and our value lies in augmenting a Councillor’s capacity without being noticed.

The low pay and precarious conditions of employment invite a workforce that is young, inexperienced and transient, unwilling to compromise its ability to find better paying work elsewhere in the organization. It also works to create a revolving door of young and inexperienced staff that carries with it a reputation for incompetence and ineffectiveness. Some departments will not let municipal staff interact directly with political aides in the absence of a manager. It works at cross-purpose with the City’s stated goal to be an employer of choice and with councillors’ need to receive sensible and knowledgeable advice in the conduct of their duties. Most importantly, it prevents the coalescence of stories, concerns and experiences into corporate memory and practices.

The precarity and sensitive nature of elected officials’ positions has explained their need for flexibility in staffing. For the most part, this flexibility has worked to the advantage of people like me: people with incomplete or patchy resumes, people with interrupted work experience, people whose personal lives have stunted their professional development, in other words, people who have difficulty finding work elsewhere. A CBC news item referred to our positions as “desirable” and I agree that my position as a Councillor’s Assistant has given me a unique perch into the complex levers of public administration. But being “lucky to have this job” combined with the unchecked staffing practices afforded to elected officials compromises our ability to challenge abuse,  especially in the absence of clearly defined protections against retaliation.

We assume that the desirability of our position makes up for its precarity. This might be true for the stock staffer imagined from political tv series but for those who eschew the glamour of fiction, the desirability is subservient to the precarity. We have bills to pay, families to support. We make decisions to manage the precarity of our positions rather than its desirability: we keep our heads low, we don’t make waves. We can justify the low pay and long hours by the desirability of the position. But we cannot in good conscience justify vulnerability to abuse and harassment as the price to pay for a desirable position. Yet this is the message that the City sends staffers by letting elected officials make their own rules in matters of staffing.  

Last week, Mayor Watson and Councillor Kavanagh issued a public statement stating that “All City employees, including employees of elected officials, have the right to a workplace that is free of harassment.” This is as true as it is meaningless. We may have access to counselling services and a shoulder to cry on, but we are institutionally kept at arm’s length from the City’s Human Resources. Once we avail ourselves of our 6 counselling sessions, our options to deal with harassment remain as binary as they ever were: take it or leave it. There is no HR pipeline to find us safe employment elsewhere in the City, no procedure to provide adult supervision to our employers, no protection against the gossip and rumours that may spread as a result.

The Clerk’s Office sent out an email reiterating the City’s commitment to be a workplace free of harassment and announcing a review of the recruitment and hiring process for Councillor’s Assistants. I hope that this review will be done in consultation with Councillors’ Assistants. However, I am concerned that the need for sweeping systemic changes, once identified, will meet fierce opposition from Councillors and inertia from City Staff. 

Power is a tricky thing to pass on. It’s slippery and it doesn’t have handles. 

Staffer’s Notebook: Take me to Paris


Staffer’s Notebook is where I put emails that are way too long, or none of my business, or ideas no one wants to hear about. Glen Gower is my long-suffering boss and the person most likely to receive “I wrote you a 1200-word reply, wanna read it?” in response to a simple question. Sometimes he says yes. Sometimes I send it anyways.

Subject: Paris… Sigh

Hi Glen,

Some time ago (or so) I mentioned the Square du Temple in Paris as an example of a great public space. Today we received an email critical of public art in transit stations in Ottawa. It reminded me of Paris. Everything reminds me of Paris.

As a kid my mom took us back to France often but we never stayed in Paris. Two years ago, I took Éloïse and Marie to France for a family reunion. Since it was their first trip abroad, I decided to play tourist before joining my parents in Brittany. I was always interested in urban design and the secret sauce that makes greatness. My travels to Europe as a child and young adult formed my outlook on density, public transit and art. I wanted my two teenage daughters to experience the smaller footprint of life in a large European city and take that experience back with them to Ottawa, like I did growing up. I took a ton of pictures of public art, gathering space and (of course) transit.

Here is a short video I took in the Square du Temple. It’s about 15 seconds long and doesn’t have much sound: I was trying to capture the feel of the place.

This park is located in the Marais neighbourhood of Paris, a hipster shopping district and former Jewish quarter. The girls and I bought bread, cheese and saucisson at the nearby Marché des enfants rouges — the oldest food market in Paris, created in 1615 — and took our “dinner” back to the park. Once there, we shared a moment with local residents and passers-by. The square is one of the 24 city parks designed and planned by Charles-Eugène Haussman, the prefect of the Seine charged by Napoleon with a massive urban renewal project. Haussman was ousted by critics for extravagance but his vision survives in the spirit that still animates Paris today. The garden in the Square du Temple contains 70 species of trees, some of them exotic and requiring special attention by skilled gardeners. Maintaining the park costs money and the park is not generating any revenues. It serves its purpose as a place of refuge in a densely built environment. It’s beautiful for its own sake.

Paris, like any city in a mature democracy, can no longer put one person in charge of transforming its image at any cost. But the spirit of making art and culture a set piece of any major project lives on. Many public projects in Paris have been commissioned to world-class artists and architects to reinvent and interpret. The Louvre Pyramid comes to mind as do many lesser-known transit stations.

We came to the Square du Temple through the “Arts et métiers” metro station, another public space worthy of a Google search if you are so inclined.

This station is named after the museum of “Arts et métiers” which translates to “crafts and trades”. It is lined with copper panels and was inspired by steampunk esthetics and the Nautilus — Jules Verne’s legendary submarine in 20,000 leagues below the sea. Unlike most metro stations, advertising is not allowed in this station. Portholes dot the walls and display sketches of some of the museum’s exhibits. The station is a work of art. Commissioning the art cost money and the station is not generating revenues through advertising. It’s a public transit station that serves its purpose as a transit station and as a work of art. It’s beautiful for its own sake.

I was reminded of this station during our chat about what our transit system says about our priorities. I said that Ottawa was a City of “good enough”. This is not a value judgement on the morality of being visionary or conservative, it’s a statement about Ottawa’s distinct personality as an agglomeration. I struggle to imagine Ottawa City Council, or the residents who elected it, supporting a kind of artistic vision for transit stations that makes them worth visiting in and of themselves and not just something to pass through. And yet, that ability to think bigger than “how do I get to work?” is part of the secret sauce that makes every corner of Paris worth discovering. I planned our Paris visit around landmark public transit stations, public spaces and public art. The two pictures below are another example of public art adorning a transit station.

We are a practical city. We don’t plant flowers that require a gardener’s care. Our vision for Ottawa Beyond 2036 is to be the “most liveable midsize city.” I wonder if this is not setting us on a path of un-remarkability and damning us to obscurity. Do we want to be a city where people merely live or do we want to be a city that people seek out? Do we want to be “survivable” or “desirable”?

I see “liveable” as a subset of a “desirable”. Liveable speaks to those who are already here. Desirable makes our city attractive to those who are not here yet. The difference between liveable and desirable may be an existential one: do we want to be a city looking inward or outward? Do we want to grow in stature and meaning or do we want to stay cozy within our small-town self-perception? When I listen to Stephen Willis talk about Ottawa Beyond 2036, I hear hopes for a city looking both inward and outward: a city caring for its own and shining beyond its limits. When I listen to the public, I hear wishes for a city that is safe and predictable in scope and ambition. Safe is unremarkable. It will keep our city sprawling, our zoning unequitable, our transit unreliable, our roads wide, our sidewalks missing and our children in our basements.

The best we can hope for by playing it safe is to make the wrong things better or maybe start doing the right things poorly. Doing the right things well will require vision and a will to match.

 

Object Writing


In his book Writing Better Lyrics, songwriter Pat Pattison recommends the practice of “object writing” as a way to improve our writing technique. Strong writing skills liberate us to express our unique creative ideas, not only in songwriting but in every form of creative expression. Creation is a deep dive into our senses and memories to retrieve gems buried in the sediments lying at the bottom. The deeper the dive, the better our senses, memories and experiences have mixed and integrated each other. Object writing is a diving technique by which we focus our senses on a object and describe it using all our senses: sight, smell, sound, taste and touch, adding to it the organic feel of the whole and the kinesthetic sense, the sense of relation of the object with the world around us.

I took up the practice of object writing last year when I started reading Pat Pattison’s book and I got stalled at chapter 1. Today I added a new “Poetry & Photography” category to my blog to catalogue the writing exercises suggested in Writing Better Lyrics. The first-level end goal is, of course, to write lyrics I am not mortified to share, leading to the second-level end goal of finding a musician willing to put them to music. Writing Better Lyrics has helped me improve my creative writing in general and it’s my hope that more regular practice will help me speed up the process of putting ideas to paper.

I got pregnant in university


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I got pregnant with my first child at 21, during the summer following my first year of law-school. I remember walking to the pharmacy in a daze. The pharmacy ran pregnancy tests for $7. That was half the price of the home pregnancy kits!! I soon understood why anyone would prefer paying the extra $7 to get a pregnancy result in the privacy of their bathroom. The pharmacist said: “It’s positive.” I said: “Positive means I’m not pregnant right?” But I knew. I had seen my busty profile in the window of the pharmacy walking-in. I knew for sure.

Despite a few tell-all signs of pregnancy, I had visited a walk-in clinic a few weeks earlier asking for a throat swab. I thought I had strep throat because I was craving popsicles and I was always on the verge of throwing up. I told the doctor: “I have cramps, my periods are 2 weeks late, I’m nauseous all the time. Could this be strep throat?” So he did what any doctor with a clue about the birds and the bees would do: he took a throat swab. That test was negative.

As I was walking out of the pharmacy, I was counting the months on my fingers to see if I could finish my second year of law school. I was due April 17th, during exam week. Well, it wasn’t that bad I thought, I’ll be able to finish my year and write my exams.

I went through my second year of law school pregnant. I was sick as a dog. I have two vivid memories of doing law school pregnant: one where I am uncomfortable, sitting in the lecture hall’s plastic chairs. My regular pants are getting too small. They are riding up my legs and digging into my waist. This is after Christmas, I am almost 20 weeks pregnant and thinking I will either buy pregnancy clothes or kill someone. In the other memory, I am wriggling my way across an entire row of plastic chairs during a lecture on civil proof to go throw-up. I made it.

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I made arrangements with the Dean to write my exams after my due-date. I thought that writing exams 3 weeks postpartum would be better than 40 weeks pregnant (pro-tip: it’s not). On my last day of classes, I took the bus back home and someone asked me: “When are you due?” I said “Next week.” That evening, I went to the hospital in labour. My daughter was born with the sunrise the next morning.

What would I say to the young woman finding herself pregnant in the middle of her university education? First, you can do it. It won’t be easy but you can do it. Don’t expect understanding, a red carpet or a special parking pass. You will be facing harsh judgement coming from your peers, your teachers and the administration. Few people will give you favours unless they have to by statute or regulation. Remember those who go the extra mile for you: someday, you will extend the same generosity to someone else.

You are pregnant now, soon you will deliver. Delivering a child will give you a sense of perspective, a new understanding of what truly matters. Being a mother will empower you. This feeling of empowerment will seep through every aspect of your life and give thrust to your studies as you face the challenges at hand. You will take that Queenship of the Universe with you back to University and beat the crap out of your degree.

You will face harsh and underserved judgement. Some people think that getting knocked-up is never an accident, that you should have known better. Some people will not know what to say in the face of an unplanned pregnancy. Many people will look at you with a mix of contempt and pity and ask: “You’re not keeping it are you?” as if you would be announcing a pregnancy you were about to end. Some women, and that’s what took me the longest time to accept and understand, will be angry at you. They will shun you for putting a face on something they thought was impossible. In hindsight, I have accepted that these women were suffering more than I was. But it was so hurtful at the time, feeling like pregnancy made me a leper, an uncool, an outcast. Know that this will not last. For the community of cool that you are losing, there is an equally sleep-deprived — if less fashionable — community of parents ready to embrace you.

You will come out smarter on the other side. You will be working harder when it’s no longer just your ass on the line. You think you will have less time with a baby on your hip but don’t underestimate the time it takes your peers to manage their social life. Motherhood will focus you and give you a new appreciation for what matters: both in small and in big things. You will focus on the essential and perform with surgical precision. You will start your end-term papers as soon as you get the course outline and write 2 pages a day until it’s done. End-term all-nighter cramming sessions are a thing of the past. You will work around it and discover a better, more mature way. Baby will force you to take breaks, sometimes entire days off, and your brain will thank you in your report card.

You and your priorities will change. Don’t sweat the student stuff. I wasted so much mental energy worrying about my inability to take part in moot-court competitions, out-of-town placements, student exchanges and fancy articling jobs in the best Montreal firms. In the end, I graduated with no desire to join the law firm rat race. I oriented my career on a different path. And that’s ok.

Try not to get caught-up in the latest baby gear must-have and other parenting fads. They are costly and unnecessary. A baby’s needs are simple: babies need care and affection. Breastfeed, sleep in the same room, buy a second-hand stroller and a good baby carrier. At some point you will need a second-hand high chair. Financially-speaking, I was fortunate to have a boyfriend-now-husband who had a stable job as a junior military officer: our income was small but reliable and my parents were taking care of my tuition. It will be difficult enough to make ends meet without trying to keep-up with the older, richer, Joneses.

Finally, don’t get angry if academia doesn’t give you any freebies. Just deal. Be a honey badger. The workplace won’t give you any freebies, so you might as well get used to it early.

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Large Family Eating: The Thanksgiving Edition Cont’d


Last week’s post was all about our favorite Thanksgiving Recipes and this week’s post will not be too much different: we literally ate leftovers all week. Instead of showing you the warmed-over version of what I cooked, I’m giving you the pictures from the day it was served. It looks a lot better that way.

I am still blown-away by how generous people were to our family after my miscarriage a month ago. I’m emphasising it because we’ve had meals prepared for our family for a month now and… How can I say this… It’s been eye-opening and humbling. I have never brought a meal to someone who has miscarried. I remember once dropping something off at the house of an acquaintance who had recently miscarried. It was on recycling day and her curb was covered,I mean covered, with empty pizza boxes. It was as if my family had kept all the pizza boxes for two years in the garage and suddenly put them out to the curb. I remember thinking (yes, I am that aweful of a person) “Really?” It just seemed so extreme to me. In the back of my head, the thought that maybe someone was taking advantage of the situation might have reared it’s ugly head. Now I can tell you: yes, really. A dear friend who sent us a gift card for M&M wrote in her card to expect a complicated miscarriage to have the same footprint as a full term pregnancy. I’m starting to believe it. Long story to say: people have been feeding us, people are absolutely amazing, it is as appreciated as it is needed.

Thanksgiving has marked the end of my post-traumatic love fest with comfort foods. Now is the time to get serious with health and wellness, starting with cleaning-up my eating. My eating is pretty clean already and I am researching to what extent claims that gluten and dairy can worsten a thyroid condition may be trusted. Separting the wheat (ha!) from the pseudo-science is an extreme sport, let me tell you. I’d love to read your experiences with food elimination and if you were successful in turning-off the little voice in your head telling you that there is no medical basis to gluten sensitivity. I’m so eager to feel good again and I’ve received such confusing and inappropriate care from my doctor that I feel like any twerp on Facebook with a made-up degree could sign me up for a kool-aid retreat if it promised results.

Collage_Thanksgiving Bread

I made Artisan Bread. I’m not very good at it, especially at getting the crust just right. I love how the kids all made turkey sandwiches right off the bat. As they say, leftovers are the best part.

Collage_Thanksgiving veggies

For veggies we had lettuce, cranberry apple orange sauce and boozy squash. Oh and sinful Brussel Sprouts, with cheese, bacon and onions. My husband made mashed potatoes and we researched on Google why mashed potatoes get gluey. Answer: overcooked and overworked. Turns out potatoes are fragile little things. You need to gently coax the starch out lest it comes out galloping and turn your mash to glue.

Collage_Thanksgiving squash

Collage_Thanksgiving turkey

Once we were all turkeyed out, we went for a walk. You know the nice thing about being completely wiped-out-of-shape? You can take a 4km slow walk and you’ll feel like you just run 12km.

Isn’t my country road absolutely stunning?

Collage_Walk in Middleville

What’s for supper? Vol. 4: More muffins and spaghetti sauce


What did we eat this week?

MONDAY


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.

TUESDAY

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.

WEDNESDAY

Collage_Spicy peanut pork

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.

THURSDAY

collage_spaghetti sauce

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!!

STILL THURSDAY

Collage_znoodles

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.

Collage_znoodles with sauce

 

 

 

 

 

FRIDAY

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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.

 

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.”

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.