I’ve asked this question of so many gracious moms through the years, and learned so much from their patient wisdom. It feels weird to have people asking this question of me, and even stranger to feel like I can actually formulate an intelligible answer. However, we’ve been “doing school” at home for over ten years now, and I have at least figured out a few things about how to structure homeschooling in a way that works pretty well for us. It occurred to me recently as I was talking with another mom that maybe I should put some thoughts in writing, since I do have this blog I’ve been neglecting.
Let me begin with what I consider, in practical and philosophical terms, to be the most important part of the daily academic and character building journey taking place between me and my sons. It involves the part of learning that I don’t feel can be replicated through any sort of classroom experience, written work, or computer program, and in my opinion should never take a backseat to anything that can. A close brush with death via MRSA in 2006 brought me to grips with the fact that most of what I do with my children could be handled by someone else, and that only my relationship with them and my unique influence in their lives would truly be irreplaceable if they no longer had me. However, I struggled with how to make deep connections a priority when I felt that other things had to be accomplished. Eventually it dawned on me that I needed to literally put first things first. I started to find my homeschooling stride, when I made the choice to consistently start our days with “together time” rather than leaving it subject to whatever energy remained after the daily desk-work battle.
Together time happens in the living room each morning when the boys and I gather for about 90 minutes to pray, read, and talk. On an ideal day, everyone arrives by 9:00 with their assignment sheet, Bible, pencil, reading material, and choice of hot beverage in hand. (Ideal days happen about twice a year, but if we’re set by about 9:10 with brushed teeth and decent attitudes, we call it a success.) Our first order of business is to pray – everyone takes a turn. After praying we discuss our overall plan for the day and any necessary adjustments to our usual routine. Then we read at least one chapter of the Bible. Generally we pick one or two points to discuss, but we don’t belabor anything unless a discussion emerges that becomes engaging for everyone. Next, we read a selection or two taken from the history and literature assignments to be covered for the week. Our core curriculum (Tapestry of Grace) is designed so that the boys are studying the same historical period each week, which means that anything we read aloud is beneficial for all of them academically, even if the selection isn’t designated for their level. I choose the books that I think will be most enjoyable and generate the most stimulating conversation. At this stage in our journey – with two in middle school and one in high school – our discussions have begun to involve wrestling with the weightier issues we encounter. Sometimes in history we hash through really nice topics like global war, genocide, and slavery, but thankfully we also have the opportunity to discuss admirable qualities in historical leaders and rejoice in past triumphs of good over evil. From our literature reading, I try to encourage the boys to consider the way characters’ choices are portrayed and the message conveyed by the author through how those choices turn out. Otherwise we discuss whatever seems relevant, and that can cover just about anything. In short, we’re learning together, and my role is to gently encourage them to think more carefully and deeply. Over the course of months and years, and by God’s grace, my goal is to help them develop the necessary balance between appropriately critical yet gracious thinking. The best comprehension questions in a textbook can never take them as far toward that equilibrium as a parent can.
Some of the friends I have in mind as I write this are wondering how on earth you get to analyzing literary characters when you can’t read three sentences without a child interrupting to ask if they had Cheerios in China and whether silk worms will grow a new head if you cut them in half with a shovel because Johnny said that earthworms…. You know I’m not making this up! The lofty answer is that it takes time, training, and consistency. In practical terms you obviously can’t start with a 90-minute session and you have to learn to embrace the questions about chopping up worms. This did not come naturally for me, but when mine were little the Five in a Row (FIAR) program taught me how to enjoy quality children’s literature and cope with the rabbit trails that led to headless worms. I’m not a crafty mom, so I never did many of the activities they suggested, but I learned how to unpack the gems in children’s books and turn them into meaningful discussions about subjects I never would have thought to address otherwise. Let me just insert too, that it’s never too early to start asking whether characters in stories made good choices. Those vicarious lessons are invaluable for character development. FIAR also taught me to embrace the joy in repetition for young children. They need it. They need it. They need it. The key is choosing quality books that will engage interest while expanding horizons. The best book choices aren’t always obvious, and they probably aren’t the ones your children would choose for themselves, but there are plenty of tired-and-true lists available. This is a time when you have to be the parent and make the choices, which will pay off later when reading assignments that aren’t as enjoyable have to be tackled. Learning to enjoy and discuss ideas presented in the form of books is a process, but it opens so many doors to other lessons for your children that it’s worth the perseverance, especially for those least prone to embrace it naturally…those who would rather climb the walls…
If you’ve made it this far and you’re thinking you’d actually be happy to embrace a discussion of Cheerios in China, but you can’t even get everyone to sit still on the sofa – you’re starting where I was. When I said it was time to read, my children heard, “Dog pile on the couch! Whoever can hold out the longest in the pushing and shoving match will have the most fun!” So, on the advice of a wise older mom, I backed up in the training process and assigned seats with shortest ones closest to me and allowed no negotiation over positions – same spots every day. We practiced just sitting still in that arrangement until we could all make it to five minutes on the timer before we tried to actually read. (This is great practice for sitting still in other situations too.) It only took a few days and some occasional reminders to make it work. I would start with the shortest and most engaging books and the reading would grow increasingly complex as I worked through the pile in my lap. The younger ones were given permission to leave when we reached a reasonable threshold for their attention spans, which grew by leaps and bounds as they acquired a taste for good stories. The ability to listen attentively and think quietly is one that develops with practice even in the most kinesthetic learners and will serve them so well in later studies which rely heavily on auditory leaning skills.
So….Once we’re done with our daily together time, the boys move on to more independent work, which I’ll discuss in the next post, because this one has gotten too long.
But, writing all of this made me sentimental and I started sorting through old photos…. Here’s what my cute little pupils looked like when my oldest was in first grade.
Sadly, I don’t seem to have any pictures of myself reading to these guys….you would think in hundreds of hours…. but who was around to take a picture? We were busy with the books! Fortunately, I don’t need the pictures; I have deep precious memories. I can get choked up just looking back over our favorite books and remembering how it felt to have them snuggled in beside me! If you have little ones…get on the sofa and soak it up! Before you know it, they look like this….
…which is staged, because they never actually sit together on the sofa anymore. It really looks more like what you see below when we read together these days.
This phase of homeschooling is truly the best yet. What an indescribable gift to spend daily time thinking and talking with my sons! I am so thankful! This morning as these photos were taken we were reading from Galatians, and the words in 6:9-10 seem to fit my thoughts perfectly. “Do not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary. So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good….” It is “good” to spend this time with children! Writing this has been a good reminder and time of reflection for me regarding what’s important. Sweet friends, I encourage you to put the workbooks in their proper place and prioritize deep relationships and learning with your children while you have the opportunity.
Joy on the journey!