It’s November. One of the two months out of the year when, it’s been well documented, every homeschooler wants to quit. So, to rev myself up for the last few weeks of school before Christmas break, I’m coming back to this blog series on why and how our family is educating our kids.
In a previous post, I talked about some of the reasons—the motivating factors—behind our decision to homeschool this year. In this post, I’d like to paint a picture of what homeschooling looks like for us these days.
Basic behavior training. We have three kids under seven. So while there are some serious academic pursuits going on, we are still firmly in the kid-wrangling phase of parenting. Our first job as parents—most intensely felt at this age, perhaps—is to teach our kids to be decent humans. You laugh, but if you have kids or spend much time around preschoolers, your laughter is definitely of the knowing variety. Seriously, though. So many hours of our days as parents of preschoolers are spent on molding our little monsters and animals into humans who treat others with respect, use words, take responsibility for their own hygiene, contribute positively and creatively to their community, and develop healthy habits. So really, if you want to know what homeschooling parents of young children do all day, this is it: the same thing every other parent of young children does. The early years are more about social-emotional skills than academic ones.
Reading aloud. We also spend a lot of time reading to our kids. This is something we’d do a lot of, regardless of how we were educating our kids, simply because it’s important, fun, and it nurtures the soul of our family. Aside from the statistics on the advantages of reading aloud, we know it to be an important part of parent-child bonding, developing literacy and speech skills, and entertainment for our kids. Jason and I both love books and—with the help of two sets of book-loving grandparents—we have passed that on to our kids. Even though our oldest has been reading for more than two years, we still read aloud to her, and I have been encouraged a lot recently by Sarah Mackenzie’s Read-Aloud Revival podcast to continue making it a priority. Reading aloud to independent readers exposes them to new texts, styles, and genres while teaching them how to read aloud fluently, expanding their vocabulary, and gently introducing them to higher reading levels.
This year, we’ve particularly enjoyed chapter books like Flora and Ulysses, The Cricket in Times Square, Winnie the Pooh, and Little House in the Highlands. Picture books are still very much in play here too. Our favorites are too numerous to count, but here’s just a sampling:
- Owl Moon
- Miss Rumphius
- Ox-Cart Man
- Knuffle Bunny
- Blueberries for Sal
- One Morning in Maine
- Make Way for Ducklings
- The Story of Ferdinand
- Mr. Wuffles
- Building Our House
- James Herriot’s Treasury for Children
- Zen Shorts
Last year, we used a literature-based curriculum, which we loved for its wonderful book selections (and for the excuse it gave us to snuggle up together with cups of tea and read). I was ready for a change this year, but I must admit I’ve missed reading together as we’ve begun to focus on other subjects and I hope to reclaim some of that sacred read-aloud time that we so enjoyed during our daughter’s kindergarten year.
Experiential learning and nature. Our kids are still young. They’re still figuring out how the world works, so one of our kids’ best classrooms is the out-of-doors. Nature walks, free play in the backyard, and adventuring in local state parks and farms—these are activities that allow them to learn with all of their senses. They ask questions like, “What floats? What doesn’t? And why?” And while they’re at it, they channel their kid-energy in positive ways, their bodies manufacture Vitamin D, and they develop muscle and coordination. We have some pretty cautious, bookish kids so this is an especially important area for us to focus on. But that’s for another post.
We also try to educate our kids by letting them shadow us as we work in the garden, the yard, the garage, or the kitchen. Again, this is not formal education, and it’s not just for homeschoolers. It’s just the simple act of slowing down enough to let your kids learn and work with you as you go about the business of being an adult. In the process, they learn how to measure things, how heat changes food, how an engine works, and so much more.
Classical education. Last but not least, we’re doing a bit of an educational experiment with our curriculum and approach this year. We’ve joined a 15-family educational co-op affiliated with Classical Conversations, and at the halfway point in the academic year, we are knee-deep in memory work. Yes, that’s right. We’re memorizing stuff. So much stuff I think my brain might explode. But then, I’m 32 and my brain is well beyond its prime for memorization. Whereas, these kids? They are little sponges.
So basically, that’s the foundation of classical education: you start by creating building blocks of facts, words, and ideas (this is called the “grammar” stage). Then, as kids get older (the “dialectic” stage), they learn how the building blocks fit together. And finally, in the “rhetoric” stage, with years of building blocks at the fingertips and the skill to put them together, students engage critically and creatively with what they learn, with a goal of being able to effectively articulate and teach their knowledge to others.
I love the thought of my kids having a timeline of world history imprinted on their brains, so that as they learn about new people and civilizations and ideas, they can see them in historical context. I love the geography and map work my first-grader is doing. It’s a huge challenge for her to memorize all of her times tables—math has not been her easiest subject thus far—but I believe the memory work is making her faster at her daily math work. I think it’s fantastic that my 4-year-old and 6-year-old can rattle off the classifications of living things. The 4-year-old doesn’t fully understand what it means to classify an animal by its kingdom, phylum, class, etc. but I believe that understanding will come later, and when it does, he already has the vocabulary to go with it.
That’s really the question, though, isn’t it? And only time will tell: Will our kids be able to effectively employ the vocabulary (all the things they’re memorizing now) when they get older? Will this memory work give them a greater foundation of content to work with when they begin to have more complex thoughts? Or not?
For now, all we can do is try it. And the great thing is, we’re in good company. We love our co-op and are grateful for the fellowship, friendship, and camaraderie we have there. And with 18,000 other students enrolled in Classical Conversations nationwide this year, it would seem that many other parents are seeing a need for memory- and content-based elementary education.
And if it turns out not to be the best fit for us? Well, we can always try something different next year.