Thursday, January 10, 2013

Lessons in homeschooling

Technically this photo, now several months' old, has nothing to do with homeschooling.  But it's of me and all the kids.  So there you go.
When we first made the decision to homeschool, our oldest was about to start Kindergarten.  She'd already taught herself to read by that point, was self-motivated, and made me feel like the best homeschool mom ever

Because CLEARLY this gig was going to be simple, easy and fulfilling.  I was raising classically-educated prodigies!  My 5-year-old daughter was reading unabridged books!  We were finished with school by 11 am each day!

But then the following year, my sons began Kindergarten...and they weren't reading at all.  When we'd work on blending, they didn't retain anything I taught them.  Even simple Bob Books were a challenge.  And they just plain weren't all that interested.  I found it all incredibly frustrating (so much for my impressive prodigy-producing skills), and so I began to occasionally ponder signing them up at our neighborhood school.  They are very smart boys, I reasoned, so I must be doing something wrong--that someone with a teaching credential would surely do right

Of course I (thankfully) never did give in to that temptation.  I simply put the Bob Books and phonics instruction away.  We did other stuff instead.  And yes I questioned my decisions and choices  But we never gave up on homeschooling itself, because in spite of the fact that reading did not come as easily to some of my kids as to others, I had become committed to it for philosophical, ideological reasons.  I was invested. 

Deep-down I really, truly felt--and feel--that home educating is the very best thing for my children at this time.  When I consider the many amazing benefits of doing life this way, the things we gain and yes also the things we are able to avoid, I don't want to sign my kids up for a five days a week, eight hours a day public education.  I think they are better served spending that time with their family as they learn within a natural and organically Catholic context.  I think I am better served by the slow, family-centered pace of life we maintain by limiting commitments outside of the home.  And so we continue moving forward, even when it's difficult or seemingly bears little fruit.

Homeschooling has, quite literally, forced me to embrace ideas that were easy for me to claim to believe, but far harder to actually live out and stand by.  Like the fact that children develop at different rates, rendering it impossible to expect kids sharing a chronological age to do this or that at precisely the same time.  But we do expect this, or at least I do.  I feel the pressure to make sure my kids conform to arbitrary standards set by federal bureaucrats (who don't know my kids).  And quite frankly, that is ridiculous.  Education and development simply don't work that way, especially when you take environmental and hereditary factors into account. 

Of course my sons are eight years old now, in the second grade, and I'm happy to announce that they are reading!  It's still a work in progress, and they're nowhere near being ready to tackle Aquinas' Summa (maybe next year?), but by golly they can blend sounds and recognize a number of sight words.  They can pick up an Usborne reader and make it through most of it without much assistance from me.  They are noticing street signs and blurting them out in the car.  They've conquered the Bob Books.  They love to compete with each other when I write words on the white board for them to sound out or memorize.  Best of all, I can teach a lesson and they remember it.

And none of it is really because of anything I've done.  Just like I had very little to do with my eldest reading at an advanced age, I don't take any credit for finding the perfect curriculum or method that finally made things start clicking for my sons.  They are simply in a more advanced place developmentally than they were two years ago, and thus ready to read.  It's still touch and go sometimes, but with consistency and exposure I'm at least pretty confident that they won't leave our home completely illiterate.

I know I'm not alone in occasionally (regularly?) feeling insecure about homeschooling.  So I thought I would share five specific things that have helped TREMENDOUSLY in maintaining clarity and focus amidst the ups and downs of educating at home.  Perhaps some of them will help you too:

1.)  Keeping my eyes on the big-picture.  When you do something every single day, it is easy to forget why exactly you're doing what you're doing.  Math facts and history timelines and science experiments are great, and we want our kids to succeed, but our ultimate motivation in educating our children at home runs far deeper than academics--and so do the benefits.

2.)  Being flexible.  I'd envisioned my kids all becoming proficient readers by the end of their respective Kindergarten years.  I'd imagined them making steady and predictable progress.  But that wasn't happening.  And so in desperate pursuit of sanity-preservation, we shelved reading instruction altogether, for a time.  This is something that, while hard, ultimately revealed my own issues with pride and caring too much about other peoples' opinions.  It was an important lesson for me to learn.  And something I've had to practice again and again with parenting in general, because over the years I've had to double-back and shelve things and re-prioritize and change up my plan--and I anticipate having to do so going forward.  Meeting the needs of my children requires being in tune with their specific situation at a specific given time, and that means that sometimes I'll need to adjust my own plans.

3.) Acknowledging that there is more than one right way to do a thing.  I'm a big believer in objective and universal truth, but I'm also a big proponent of freedom in many areas of life and, more specifically, parenting.  For some, plodding along and sticking to something is the right way to go.  For others, like me when it came to teaching some of my kids to read, it worked better to just put the whole thing on hold for awhile.  We ought not beat ourselves up for taking a different approach than others, when we are seeking to do what's best for our individual families.

4.)  Rightly ordering my life.  It is incredibly easy for priorities to become skewed--I become so engrossed in wearing my "homeschooling hat" that I forget that first and foremost, I'm a mother.  My vocation is much bigger than how well my child writes his or her letters, and while I take education seriously, I've noticed that when I zero in on the minutae of school at the expense of my vocation at large, discouragement and frustration begin to take root.  On the other hand, when I focus on following Jesus and on simply loving my children?  I maintain perspective.  I see academic subjects within their proper context.  I don't lose sleep over the fact that one of my kids still has horrible penmanship.  I remain more concerned with the encouraging of virtue and clear-thinking, and of helping my children reach their larger potential.

5.)  Allowing room for grace.  Guess what?  I'm not perfect!  I make mistakes all the time.  And sometimes this homeschooling thing looks a whole lot more like clumsy trial and error, and a whole lot less like studious preparation for Harvard.  I want to do my best and I want my kids to succeed, but really, stuff happens.  Plans change.  I have days where I'm tired (hello being 33 weeks pregnant!) and days where I want to give up and cry.  I have days where my kids are tired and days where they want to give up and cry.  I have days where I cancel school altogether and we go visit Grandma and Grandpa instead.  (Those days are the best, for sure.  Shhhhh.)  And far from seeing the sum total of this as a failure or deficit on my part, I see it as simply life.  Which is messy and unpredictable.  If I measure our success as homeschoolers by an exquisitely perfect adherence to a schedule, or by constantly happy feelings towards home education, I am doomed to fail.  But if I acknowledge that some days will just be hard, and that the world is not all on my shoulders, and if I regularly consider the wonderful gains my kids are making in various areas, I can continue pressing on in faith that God is doing something beautiful with my family as we educate at home.

Finally, I want to close with these wise and encouraging words from Pope Benedict XVI:

"Everyone knows that the Christian family is a special sign of the presence and love of Christ and that it is called to give a specific and irreplaceable contribution to evangelization. ... The Christian family has always been the first way of transmitting the faith and still today retains great possibilities for evangelization in many areas. Dear parents, commit yourselves always to teach your children to pray, and pray with them; draw them close to the Sacraments, especially to the Eucharist, ... introduce them to the life of the Church; in the intimacy of the home do not be afraid to read the sacred Scriptures, illuminating family life with the light of faith and praising God as Father. Be like a little Upper Room, like that of Mary and the disciples, in which to live unity, communion and prayer!"

May you be encouraged and blessed on your parenting journey!


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