Keeping the home in homeschool
A friend shared her weekly schedule with me. Math tutoring on Wednesdays on one side of town; the twice-per-week biology class her daughter took on the other side of town; Celtic dance lessons; drawing class; piano for two kids; the weekly, day-long homeschool co-op; and three sports teams (with practices and games every week). She confessed to me that she was behind in writing. Of course, who wouldn’t be on that schedule? Then she made the funniest comment: “Wouldn’t it be great if you could get all the classes your kids needed in one building? Like you could get your math, biology, art, music and sports all in one place and not have to drive everywhere to go to them?”
As soon as the words came out of her mouth, we blurted together, “School. They call it school.”
And really, that’s the whole point of school. You get all the experts together to teach your kids all that they need/want to know, in one day, in one place. Parents take care of earning money and managing the home, kids go to a building to get an education. If you want that, school does it, efficiently and in some cases, well!
But most of us who home educate truly do not want that. We want something else. We want a higher quality education. We want relational connections with our kids and between our children. We want to have time for in-depth study. We want to take winter ski vacations and not miss “school.” We want our genius musicians to have plenty of time to practice or we want our star athletes to get enough sleep while they study and do their sports. We want to be the primary influences on our kids’ lives. We want to be the ones who see the lights go on in reading or fractions or Shakespeare. Or we hate the school district we live in, or can’t afford private schools.
It’s a tricky balance. We want to provide our kids with enriching experiences like field trips, tutors, co-ops, and violin lessons. We also want to consistently advance in the core subjects. In an effort to do it all, sometimes the “home” part of homeschool is lost. We bring school to the kitchen table and find it less and less inspired. So we add a bunch of outside activities and teachers, and the next thing you know: We’re car-schooling!
Back in the early days of home education, I read a long treatise on why parents ought to stay home, in the house, with their kids. The writer talked about rhythms and routines, modeling all kinds of life skills (plumbing and baking, creating a shopping list and sewing on buttons, filling the bird feeders and using the drill). She urged long sessions of reading aloud and leaving time for dress-ups and Legos, lying on a couch bored, face painting and knitting. She emphasized how busy-ness leads to a habit of breaking concentration, of not deeply investing in any one moment, project, or playtime because inside the child knows that that activity is about to be interrupted by another trip out the door.
With little kids, I had no trouble taking the “stay-at-home” advice to heart, though. We had one vehicle that I didn’t get to drive on week days, we didn’t own a TV, and the World Wide Web hadn’t been invented. So we stayed in, or we played on the front steps. But the pace of life, even with small kids, was slow. There were hours wasted on diaper changes, walks around the cul-de-sac, making muffins and taking naps. We read tons of picture books (took a laundry basket to the library and loaded up) and made play-doh from scratch.
And then, the world sped up. Cell phones, cable TV, Netflix (DVDs sent right to your door!), the Internet, two cars! The next thing I knew, the options of what I could do in and outside my tiny condominium with or for my kids flooded my life. Some of you only know homeschooling within that context of high-speed, 24/7 connections to All the Great Things to Do Every Day! You see and hear ads, you join email lists, you get calls from friends at any time of day. And of course, homeschooling itself has exploded in popularity in the last 20 years so there are more ways to spend your time and money than ever before (and plenty of advice that if you don’t do X, your child won’t be ready for Y!).
If you choose to homeschool, let’s put the home before school. What is home exactly?
Home. Cozy, pillows on a couch, blankets and a dog. Everyone who should be here is here. There’s a comfortable familiarity between us and I don’t have to figure out how to be. It’s a feeling that I’m not in a hurry or that I don’t have to be somewhere else. Home is what I come back to, not what I go out to. It’s the reset button, the safety net, the place where I know I can be my “self” just as I am and the people in my home will love and support me, will help me, will soothe me. Home is also where I can snack, nap, start a project and leave it out until it’s done. It’s where my secret stuff is hidden, it’s where all my materials are housed (I don’t have to cart anything around because it’s all in my home!). Home is a kitchen table where I eat family meals.
Home is also where I help myself to a drink or go to the bathroom when I want to. Home is a remote control, a telephone, a shower and a mailbox. Home is a hug from a mother and a game with my dad. Home is what I feel when I get off a plane in my city after a long trip and know my bed will feel better than any other bed in the whole world. Home is vanilla candles and cinnamon pine cones and tea in a thermos. Home is where dust bunnies grow and books litter the floor, where everyone watches American Idol and laughs together, and where I can hide in my bedroom to read a long book without having to stop. Some say you can take home with you. But I discovered years ago that home is actually a physical place, filled with people, memories and materials that help me to recharge so I can leave it again. When I lost my home (when my parents divorced in high school), I had to create a new one each new place I lived. Home matters. I can’t take it for granted.
We ask our homes to do double duty when we homeschool. We bring a memory of “school” from a building (that hard-working place) that was not home into our homes. We sometimes take the pressures of school as we remember it and add it into the mix of education at home. The safe space called home (that our kids intuitively know is supposed to be safe and peaceful) is now the competitive, demanding space of school. Grades and achievement happen “out there” for most people and home is the retreat. We’re asking our kids to marry the two, like oil stirred into water.
Awareness that we are, in fact, expecting our kids to work hard at home (when the spirit of home is slower, more restful, not driven to meet deadlines) is the first step. But the second step has to be changing how we understand education! If we truly believe that the competitiveness and the standardized lesson-plans, workbook style teaching of school are inferior to the tutorial-based educational style of homeschooling, then we need to stop hand-wringing about outcomes (progress) and imposing a schoolish format to the work we do with our kids!
For instance, moms call me asking how to help their kids with grammar or freewriting. A child doesn’t like it and isn’t doing it. The only idea the mom has to get it done is punitive (like withholding computer time, or shaming the child into it with prophecies of how horribly her chances for college are if she doesn’t master subordinate clauses, and so on). I try to offer “homey” advice, instead. Tell your child that you know grammar isn’t her thing, that it’s hard and tedious and she would rather not do it. Then make an offer of support that shows goodwill. Rub her shoulders before she starts, or get her a colored gel pen to write with, make her brownies or offer to pour her a cup of tea in her favorite mug. Let her do grammar by a roaring fire. Plug in her iPod and finish the page listening to a favorite band. Consider changing programs or doing grammar for a month on, a month off. Help grammar fit the mood of home.
I remind the mom: “You’re at home. Be homey. Support, nurture, be gentle.” It’s okay to be firm occasionally too (we all have to). But do it in the spirit of protecting the home environment as a safe, peaceful, nurturing space. Don’t undermine the power of home education through yelling, punishment, name-calling, harassment, withholding kindness, blaming, defining (telling your child he or she will not succeed in life unless…). Brainstorm solutions. Be your child’s ally. Always honor pain.
Don’t make an injured athlete play; don’t make a crying child learn.
Start with the premise that everyone in the home is on the same team, that all the resources you need to learn and grow together are in your house. Offer kindness and help as often as you can, even if the only thing you can think of in the moment is to acknowledge that the work is hard and you understand that your child doesn’t want to do it.
Later this week, I’ll post practical ways you can put “home” back into your education. Questions or ideas in the comments section would be great!