Life and Learning

I am afraid this may turn into an eclectic post, filled with my rambling thoughts on life and learning, and how we approach each in our home. I’ve written a few times that this year has been a growing and changing year in our homeschool, but the truth is when I think about it, I realize that we’ve been growing and changing the past few years in home and school alike, and that our approach to homeschooling has grown out of the changes in our home life.

I first became aware of the Waldorf approach to education a few years ago, when we started our journey with Oak Meadow. While the Waldorf approach to the 3Rs did not work well for my children, aspects of the lifestyle which I was learning more about, did. In fact, I completely fell in love with many parts of it.

Now, we are far from purists, in fact I wouldn’t even remotely claim to say that we’re living a “Waldorf lifestyle”. But rather, that we have employed elements of it in our life. For example, we watch television and the kids own and play video games, but reading more about Waldorf did make us reassess and put stricter limits on how much they were getting of each. We don’t go to the extreme of eating certain foods and wearing certain colors on certain days, but we are striving to be more intentional about bringing rhythm to our days and weeks, even if just in little ways. We don’t strictly use only natural materials in our clothing and home, but we certainly are trying to use more. As Christians, we do not believe in Anthroposophy, but we do firmly believe in a holistic approach to raising and educating children.  We believe in equal importance of the heart, head and hands. Neglect one part and the whole being suffers.

Learning more about Waldorf led us to re-evaluate our children’s toys, both the quality and quantity. I admit, I never thought that my children had “too many toys”, until I compared them against the guidelines of Waldorf-inspired simplicity. We realized that we had a lot of toys that were never or hardly used – and most of those were the plastic, battery-chugging toys, or all those action figures that the kids just “had to have!” As we observed the children, we noticed that the toys they played with the most were the ones that allowed the most creativity – cars, wooden building blocks, Lego, wooden trains and Playmobil.  In the end, we got rid of almost everything else. It was refreshing.

We also ditched the cheap Crayola crayons and paints and colored pencils, and invested in rich, aromatic beeswax crayons, true watercolor paints with quality brushes, diving into the world of wet on wet watercolor painting. We bought wool roving and needles and tried wet and needle felting, making some Christmas ornaments which we donated to a charity event. We tried weaving and knitting, and baked more together.

I knew that I wanted nature, freedom and creativity to be the dominant forces in my children’s childhoods – not video games, television or organized activities. This isn’t to say the children aren’t involved in sports and activities, they are. But where once they may have had several activities per week, we now limited them to 1 each.  We placed a higher value on allowing the children more time for free play.

We also realized that in so doing, it afforded us another benefit that we didn’t even realize was missing – more time together as a family. My husband delights in his children, but like most working fathers, from Monday through Friday, he only sees the children for a few minutes in the morning and a couple hours in the evening. We realized that being on the go two or three nights a week for activities was seriously cutting into the time he got to spend with his children. And I’m sorry, but sitting on the sidelines watching your child play organized sports does not even come close to being the same as being home with the children reading books, playing board games, wrestling around in the living room, or kicking the soccer ball around in the backyard. Not that there isn’t value in supporting and cheering your child on in an activity they enjoy, but sideline parenting shouldn’t make up the bulk of your time together during the week.

Those were growing years, and this year, as I’ve been reflecting on our homeschool, I’ve come to realize that I want our homeschool to blend seamlessly within our lives, not to feel like an artificial extension. And yet, I have been struggling the last couple of years to find an approach that blends our personal values and goals, with a practical application that meets the hectic demands of a family with a child with special needs. To say nothing of matching the learning styles of our children, and the personality traits of all of us! Pure Waldorf didn’t work. Pure Charlotte Mason didn’t work. Pure traditional workbook-based didn’t work. Pure anything didn’t work.

As much as I have wanted there to be a neat and tidy, pre-packaged curriculum that is open and go, that works perfectly for both of my children, such a thing does not exist. As much as we loved the holistic, creative approach of Waldorf – it was far too much work for me to put together with our hectic lives, and their approach to reading and math was a horrible fit for my children, who thrive with workbooks.

Likewise, as much as I loved the short and sweet lessons of Charlotte Mason, the idea of narration being the only comprehension exercise necessary, and the beautiful idea of spreading a liberal arts feast before my children – the numerous short lessons drove my son up the wall, he hated narration, and try as we might, we just never could keep up to all the liberal arts studies.

While using a workbook only approach seemed like it would be the winner – after all, my children are both visual learners who love workbooks, and they are certainly an easy , open and go approach for a hectic life, workbooks for everything was just plain boring. It was also far too much writing for my son who has joint-related fine motor issues.

I was feeling pressure this year – after all, this was my son’s grade 4 year. He only had one more year of “elementary school” before he would be considered “middle school” – the years when one was supposed to start getting more serious about education. The years that prepare students for the academically challenging years of high school, which prepare them for college, their career, their life. Suddenly the distant future felt like it was looming on the horizon, and here we were, only managing to get the 3Rs done with any amount of formality or consistency.

Art and music lessons were non-existent, the only social studies my children had really learned was the names of the provinces – no ancient history other than some reading about Egypt and China, two countries that interested my son. As for science… well, I actually felt okay about science, because my son is a born naturalist who devours bird and animal encyclopedias. He is currently reading cover to cover, a 750+ paged encyclopedia on the birds of North America. Every day we were being told a new and interesting fact about some species. But outside of his self-directed learning, the most we did for science was the occasional Magic School Bus science kit or tv episode. Forget about learning a foreign language of any kind, let alone Latin. I felt like a homeschooling failure.

But why?

By whose standards was I a failure? The public education system we have chosen to eschew? By the standards of Rudolph Steiner? Or Charlotte Mason? Or the fellow homeschool Moms who used very heavy academic, traditional approaches full of textbooks and workbooks? It dawned on me that I have spent years believing others when they tell me that my children have to read “x” book or study “y” subject at “z” time, in order to have a successful education. That without these things I am somehow failing my children.

I’ve been waking up to the lie this year, and slowly taking a stand against it. In fact, I am now at the place where I refuse to believe it. Following some other person’s academic ideals with rigidity is not what makes me a success as a homeschool teacher. Teaching my 6 year old about Ancient Rome & Greece does not make me a success. Nor does doing picture study, composer study, hymn study or reading Shakespeare to a 9 year old.

What makes me a success is acknowledging  and respecting my children’s individual areas of strength and challenge, their learning styles, and their areas of interest – and then building their education around them. What makes me a success is realizing that by following their interests now, I am opening the door to future learning. I am helping them learn how to love learning, now, rather than burn them out with drudgery and required work that in no way applies to their lives.

As I sat reflecting on all that we haven’t accomplished in the past 5 years of learning, I decided to shift my thoughts, and instead think of all that we have accomplished:

  • I have taught one child to read well ahead of his years, and another is in the process of learning. What’s more – my children love to be read to. We have spent countless hours reading through storybooks, poetry, classic literature and the silly stories of Dr. Seuss and Roald Dahl. Consequently they have impressive imaginations and excellent vocabularies.
  • Both children are proficient in math. My youngest is extremely skilled in math facts and my oldest is showing real aptitude in the visual realm of mathematics, such as geometry.
  • They both have excellent penmanship, and are learning cursive.
  • They enjoy writing stories and letters to their pen pals.
  • They have picked up computer skills naturally on their own, without it having to be a forced subject in school at the expense of others.
  • They have taken countless nature walks, learning the art of observation, and have an excellent awareness of and love for, the natural world.
  • They are both talented artists, with my son being skilled at drawing, and my daughter developing a penchant for painting. They enjoy going to art galleries, examining various styles of art.
  • They both are natural musicians who love to sing, and enjoy listening to all forms of music including classical. My son can accurately identify Vivaldi’s Seasons and some of Beethovens work as well.
  • Enjoying poetry, both children have now memorized several poems for fun, and have even given recitations at our homeschool Christmas party. This has helped with the skills of elocution, public speaking and has helped my daughter with her speech errors.
  • My son is an amateur ornithologist, not only capable of accurately identifying dozens and dozens of species of birds from across the globe, but he can also tell you their habitats, eating habits, if they’re endangered, protected and more.
  • My daughter has a love for homemaking and handicraft skills, and at only 6 years old, is quite a talented baker, enjoys cooking breakfast for the family, loves to help with sewing, and is learning how to knit.
  • They have helped every year with the garden – from rock picking to snapping beans, and everything in between. They also help with the grocery shopping, and are fully capable of making purchases themselves. They help with household chores and maintenance. Our daughter (out of her own free will) helped her father build our new deck at 6 years of age – skillfully using the tools alongside her father. One of our strongest desires is to raise children who are perfectly capable of running a household.
  • We have done financial math projects, where they are given a budget and have to manage a “store” – purchasing stock and supplies, dealing with unexpected expenses, paying employees etc…
  • They have learned numerous Bible stories and have already memorized several prayers of our Catholic faith. They have a love for the Lord that astounds me sometimes.
  • We have done countless field trips to a historical settlement village where they have milked a cow, fed pigs, washed horses, threshed flax, spun wool, baked using a wood stove, played antique games and been witness to a different era of living. On other field trips, they have learned how pizzas are made and how dairy farms work – they were even privy to watch a calf being born. They have been to one of the largest green houses in North America to learn about their operations, they have been to art museums, science museums, aquariums, zoos, general historical museums, and a planetarium. They have been to an apple orchard where they not only picked apples and made fresh pressed cider, but learned all about the workings of commercial apple growing. I’m sure there’s more that I’m forgetting.
  • They have participated in science and social studies project fairs, presenting their projects on Ancient Egypt, Canada, the Canada Goose, and Volcanoes.
  • They have watched countless hours of Dr. Quinn, which has led to discussions on women’s rights, the historical treatment of Native Americans and African Americans, slavery, prejudice, and much more.
  • And during our many trips to the children’s hospital, they have learned patience, tolerance, compassion and understanding, the reality of disease and disability and respecting others who look, speak and act different from us, and they have learned to appreciate the blessings that they have in life.

As I reflect on this much lengthier list, I can now see that my earlier assessment was wrong. My children have been learning much in the way of science and social studies, as well as home economics, arts and more, despite the lack of formal teaching thereof. I can also see now that perhaps while I thought I was searching for our “niche”, I had already found it. It would appear that our rather “unschooling” approach to “Everything Else”, has not been failing us, but rather, has given our children thus far a rich and varied education, one that is developing not just their minds, but their hearts and hands as well. Perhaps the traditionalists, Rudolph and Charlotte would be proud after all.

Nature Study 101

It was only a month ago that I wrote my post about Saying Goodbye to Charlotte – Charlotte Mason that is, and her approach within our homeschool. In it I mentioned how rarely we ever were able to get Nature Study done; while we certainly spend lots of time outdoors, we rarely, if ever, completed a nature journal.

Fast forward a couple weeks. It didn’t take long for the children to become bored with workbook-based science. So, I sat down and had a talk with the kids, and for once they actually agreed on something! They both described what their idea of a perfect “science” would be: reading about things and drawing about them, or going for walks and coming home and drawing what they saw. Huh. So their vision of a perfect science was essentially the nature study that I had just given up on.

I decided to give a program that I had been eyeballing for a few months, a chance. It is called Exploring Nature with Children, and it’s a year-long nature study curriculum. I might call it “Nature Study for Dummies” or “Nature Study 101”. It is a very comprehensive, yet easy to follow and very flexible program that makes nature study (and journaling) easy, for anyone. Even beginners like me.

Each month is broken down into four topics, and includes a nature walk idea, a book list, a poem and piece of art work that relates to the topic and a selection of engaging and educational extension activities – no busy work craft ideas in this program! It is easy to use this for a wide range of ages, and I can definitely see how this could be used for multiple years.

So, I bought the book and we dived right in with the April study on trees. Since spring is just starting here in Atlantic Canada, we had to don our rubbers, parkas, hats and mittens for our nature walk. We roamed the back yard, studying the various trees and comparing the differing buds.  We gently took a few samples home with us.

When we got home, we did our first ever “real” nature journal entry, in our newly purchased journals. We sketched in pencil, then filled in the color using watercolor crayons and paintbrushes, replicating (or attempting to!) the trees and buds that we saw.

The next day, we revisited the journals and added some information, and we also dissected the leaf buds that we had found, examining them for signs of baby leaves. The following day we drew a diagram of a tree, with all it’s parts labelled – from the roots up. Each day we read beautiful books such as Sky Tree, Planting the Trees of Kenya and A Log’s Life.

We are only two weeks into the program, and thus far the lesson on trees is the only one we have completed since we had some unforseen interruptions. We will start lesson two next week (Plant Life Cycles), but in the mean time, one thing I have noticed is we are already being more intentional about observing when we are outdoors. Yesterday we took a bike ride and stopped several times to watch the small swollen brooks and streams – we noted the color of the water, the sound, even just the little tiny trickles along the side of the road. At one brook my son spotted a mallard taking off.

Today, despite the cool rain, we bundled up and hiked down to the stream that runs behind our house, eager to observe it in it’s flooded state. It had risen 2-3′ overnight, and the children loved seeing “their island” where we go fishing, pick fiddleheads and go wading, completely covered in water. We enjoyed the spring-sweet smell of the cedars, and the squelching sound of the mud. We compared how it looked today, to how it looked other times. We noticed that the buds on the trees are getting bigger, thanks to the mild days we’ve been having.

It is a process. Our journals are far from the prize-worthy specimens I have seen online on Pinterest and other nature journaling websites, including a wonderful Facebook group called Charlotte Mason Nature Journaling. But we will learn and grow together, and what’s more, we are loving the process.

 

My first ever attempt at nature journaling.

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I couldn’t quite figure out at first what my 9 year old son was trying to depict, until I looked at the stem he was using as inspiration. Then I was pleased with his attention to detail.

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His first entry. 20170404_155848_resized

My 6 year old daughter’s entry (I helped with labeling the buds). 20170404_155746~2_resized

The children hard at work. 20170404_155632_resized20170404_155642_HDR_resized

Dissecting the buds20170404_155449_resized

 

A trip to the stream20170411_120310_resized

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Saying Goodbye to Charlotte

Back in the fall I wrote a couple posts about not feeling like you need to adhere to any particular pedagogy religiously. That it is okay to “tweak” things as necessary to work for you and your family. I wrote how I myself have struggled for years to find what works best for my children and our often hectic life.

I’ve known for awhile now that my son does best with workbooks, and yet, I’ll admit, the Charlotte Mason philosophy has been a hard one to let go of. I’m part of a few Charlotte Mason groups online and the fan base is rather large, with many who are rather zealous advocates. I learned a lot from the conversations on those groups, and overall I found their well-meaning and articulate comments were intended to be encouraging. However, I will admit that reading through those groups also often left me feeling guilty that I was not doing enough, or doing it right; that I just needed to try harder.

Here’s the thing: I really, really, wanted to follow the Charlotte Mason approach. We’ve been trying it for over two years now. Every fibre of my being agrees that it is a beautiful and enriching approach to education that can produce excellent results. But I have finally come to the realization that it just doesn’t work for us, no matter how much I want it to, no matter how hard I try. And finally, I have come to accept that this is okay.

This isn’t a realization that I came to suddenly, but rather something I have been gradually realizing over the last few months. In January our daughter ended up spending a couple days at our local ER which led to being admitted to her children’s hospital for seven days, six hours away from home.  Despite having just finished Christmas break, needless to say, lessons were put on hiatus again.  Once we were back home, I was too physically and mentally exhausted to even think about doing school, so we took another week off.

During this time off, I had a lot of time to think and reflect on our school – the past, the present, and what I wanted for our future. I had that little nagging voice in my head that was telling me that something just wasn’t working, and I needed to figure out what it was.

I finally came to realize that school felt like it had become nothing more than a check list of Charlotte Mason to-dos that just were not getting done, which was resulting in feelings of guilt and failure for me. There were so many subjects to keep track of at one time, and we were all tired of hopping from subject to subject every day. Just starting to read a chapter in this book on geography, and then the next day reading something different in science, then the next day reading something different again. We wanted to really be able to dive in and enjoy a subject, to soak it up – not be constantly stopping and starting.

Likewise, trying to keep up with the numerous enrichments was overwhelming me, even though people kept saying it’s easy to do. It was all feeling so forced – I was tired of trying to keep up to a list of which study we should be doing which day and constantly feeling behind when we missed that day for some reason. So I tried loop scheduling as some people suggested, but that didn’t change the fact that we  just weren’t getting to those “extra” subjects – which people kept telling me were actually the very core of a Charlotte Mason education.

In all honesty, many of the enrichments, picture study especially, were feeling contrived: telling my children they have to look at a picture they have no interest in, because some woman 100 years ago said we should. How on earth was that enriching their lives? My children love art, they love creating art, and they love seeing art – when we go to an art gallery. Because there they are free to explore many types of art, and they can find the pieces that speak to them, that interest them. There, in that setting, they will stand and stare, drinking that picture into their soul, figuring out what it is that they like, or perhaps dislike about it.

I was also tired of feeling guilty about our literature times together. Every morning at breakfast we read from our selected read-aloud, which we only ever do one of at a time. We love to dive into our books, and sometimes we will read 2 or 3 chapters of a delicious book in one sitting.

But according to Charlotte this was wrong – we shouldn’t be reading so much at one time, and we should always have multiple books going at a time. I wasn’t cultivating the habit of attention properly, and according to many, there was no way the material was truly sinking in like it would be, if I did it the “right way”. Never mind that after reading, my children would jump up and act out extremely detailed scenes from what we had just read. Or that sometimes our readings would lead to discussions on certain topics or ideas that had come up – things that they would remember long after we had read that particular chapter.

We also were enjoying a selection of adapted classics – something I never admitted on the groups, where these books were repeatedly called twaddle and were frowned upon.  I tried to do the “right” thing, and I did try to read the original versions to my children. But here is what I learned: when I tried to force the original versions with their archaic language on my children, they were completely disengaged. They did not enjoy the stories, nor did they take anything in.  They would essentially shut down while I was reading.

But see, here’s the thing: the language in the original classics was the language of the day (or at least recent enough that it was familiar), thus, these books were much easier for children of Charlotte’s era to understand. But that is not the case today. Right or wrong, the prose of 150 to 250 years ago,  is not the one our children are growing up with today. We need to respect that many children are going to need modernized versions, without criticizing the parents for not challenging their children enough.

I have come to realize that I fully believe it is better to read a modern-language version that allows the child to comprehend what they are hearing, and to become engaged in the story. This in turn encourages a love of literature, as opposed to forcing something on them they can’t understand, which only discourages them.

These are the things that I mulled over and over in my mind that week, and have continued to think about since then. Ultimately what I have come to is that I am tired of our education feeling like a constantly unfinished to-do list. I am tired of our education feeling like it never quite meets the incredibly high bar set out by others who are not living our life. I am tired of measuring our success by other people’s standards for their families. I want something that engages my children and makes them look forward to lessons, instead of something that has begun to feel like drudgery. Ultimately, I want them to love learning, and I want their learning delivered in a format that makes it easy for them to learn. This is not the same as saying they won’t be challenged.

And so, roughly a month ago, we dropped all the Charlotte Mason enrichment studies that had been part of our Morning Time. I was tired of forcing these enrichments on my children, just because Charlotte said my children needed them to have a fulfilled education and life. I realized that they were already being exposed to these things organically: singing hymns on Sunday, or whenever else the mood hit them – our daughter loves to sing the Gloria at random times. I realized we were already reading a variety of rich poetry and literature for fun. We already visited art galleries, museums, as well as the playhouse to enjoy plays and music.  We listen to classical music in the car when driving somewhere, or whenever my kids feel like a romp and want to act out the stampeding warriors of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries.

I admit I had no idea when we would read Shakespeare, or if we would ever read Plutarch. Nor, quite frankly, did I care anymore. As for Nature Study, we never got it done anyways, so it really wasn’t a big loss from the schedule.  What we would continue to do however, was spend lots of time outside together and going for walks. Whenever my children find a rock, or shell or feather that excites them, we stop and examine it, and it inevitably finds a home on our “Nature Sill”.  I knew we would continue to stop and watch the squirrels scampering up a tree, or listen to the variety of birds singing. We would teach the art of observation organically, without having to come back and make a lesson out of it with water colors and a journal and oral or written narrations.

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And so it was a step towards joy to let go of a large chunk of “Charlotte”. Instead of trying to cram several different forms of literature and studies into our time together at the breakfast table, we enjoyed a Bible story, our read aloud, and then ended in prayer time. Short and sweet. Simple. Refreshing.

Life and lessons continued on. We kept up with the Charlotte Mason approach to language arts with copywork and dictation, science and history, and always of course the infernal narration. My son hates narration with a passion. We have been at it over two years now – he hated it when we started, and he still hates it today. And slowly I have been coming to realize that because of his hatred of narration, it is not working as a learning tool, as it is supposed to be. I would read to him, or assign him something to read, only to have him look at me pleadingly, sometimes anxiously, saying, “Please Mom, please, don’t make me narrate.”

And so, after much prayer and consideration, I decided to say goodbye to Charlotte completely. It has been a very hard decision – the toughest one I’ve made in our homeschooling journey. It has been very hard for me to give up on my picture of their education, but I’ve come to realize that my ideals are hindering them. So, I am letting them go because I know that deep down, it is what is best for my children and for our family. In letting go of Charlotte, I will be opening up their education to it’s full potential.

We are a week into our new approach, which is your very basic, traditional workbook approach – the complete opposite of what I wanted when I started homeschooling several years ago.  But already, I can see my children thriving, especially my son. Most in Charlotte Mason circles scorn workbooks, calling them the “easy way out”, claiming they don’t teach children to think as deeply as narration does. Yet, I am here to say that workbooks have opened up my son’s ability to think. Working through the workbook questions allows my son to process the information he has read, which in turns leaves him better able to discuss it. He is retaining information better and he is better able to articulate his thoughts. He is no longer dreading science or history lessons because of the narration he knew would come at the end. He is enjoying the variety of exercises in his grammar and spelling workbooks – he told me after the first few days that he was glad to have some variety. He had gotten tired of doing copywork and dictation day after day; always the same thing, just different words.

Our daughter, who has Autism and health issues, is loving her workbooks. She is taking great pride in being able to read the instructions to herself, always saying, “Look Mommy! Listen! I can read them Mommy! I can do it!” It gives her a small area of life that she can have some freedom and more importantly to her, control over. So much of her life is out of her control – the inability to manage her feelings and emotions, her struggles socially, and thanks to her bowel disorder, even what happens to her own body. It may seem such a small thing  – the ability to work independently with a workbook, but to her, it’s a big thing, and it’s bringing a smile to her face during lesson time that I have never seen before.

I wish the pure Charlotte Mason philosophy of education could have worked for us, I do. There is a part of me that feels a bit envious of those who were able to make it work, and not just “make it work”, but who truly thrived with it. But there’s a bigger part of me who is proud to have realized and acknowledged it wasn’t working, and to have had the courage to make such a radical change. I’ve finally learned that there is no curriculum or method out there  is inherently any better than any other, when it comes to achieving an excellent education for your children. Because the best curriculum is the one that meets your child’s individual needs, not your ideals.

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So Your Child Wants to Learn…

So as you can tell in my previous posts, I feel very strongly against early academics. This belief is not just some random personal opinion, but one that is backed up by countless studies and evidence. That said, I also believe that all children are individual, and as such, some children will naturally (meaning without Mom or Dad suggesting it or leading them to it) want to learn to read or write or do math problems, earlier than others.

So what do you do when your 4 or 5 year old wants to learn to read, yet you know that plunking a formal phonics in front of them is not developmentally appropriate? I’ve touched on this briefly in other posts, but today I thought that I would write out a list of great, early learning activities for the child that wants more!

A key to remember in the early years – make learning as multi-sensory as possible. All children learn best through multi-sensory means during the early years. This doesn’t mean that they will enjoy all approaches or may not have a preference, but that giving them a variety of sensory inputs is beneficial to their learning.

Reading/Writing

1. Introduce letter names and sounds first through alphabet picture books, Montessori sandpaper letters, alphabet blocks, songs, alphabet stickers or flashcards if the child is interested in them.

2. Reinforce letters and their sounds, and also work on early writing skills through fine motor activities such as drawing letters in the air, or in sand, flour, glitter, cornmeal, shaving foam (etc) on a baking tray with their finger. Gradually move to a stylus (a chopstick works well) in the above mediums. Let them finger paint the letters on paper. Then move to them writing their letters on a white board with marker, then a slate with chalk, then unlined paper with crayon, then a pencil. Always progress from easiest mode to hardest, and only at the child’s speed. They can also paint the letters with a brush.

Another fun activity might be getting the children to create their own set of alphabet flashcards in a crayon resist: Have them write the upper and letter case letters on the back of a recipe card (or a 4×6 piece of white cardboard) in crayon. Then, have them paint over the letters in water color (make sure they use lots of water so the paint isn’t too thick). The crayon will resist the paint and create an interesting effect.

3. Reinforce letters and their sounds through gross motor activities such as drawing letters on your back with their finger, and having you guess them (this puts them in the role of “teacher”, something most children enjoy). Then you can switch and you draw letters on their back and have them guess which letters – this is an excellent activity for helping them visualize the letters.  You can create masking tape letters on the living room floor or draw them in chalk outside on the driveway and have the children run, walk, hop, skip, crawl etc… over the letters while they chant the name/sound. You can also write the entire alphabet in chalk on the driveway, call out a letter or a sound, and have them jump to the letter you call out. For an indoor version, invest in one of the alphabet foam play mats, and scatter the letters across the playroom floor. Play a bean bag toss game where they toss a bean bag and have to say the letter name/sound of whatever letter the bean bag lands on.

4. Once the child has well learned their 26 basic phonograms, you can start to work on blending. Invest in a set of tactile letters (Lauri foam letters, magnetic letters, scrabble tiles, Montessori sandpaper letters, Montessori movable alphabet, even just printable letter tiles you make yourself etc…) and let them start word building using the tactile letters. You can create a blend ladder (in the style of Abeka or My Father’s World) on the floor with masking tape and let them lay on the floor working with the letters creating blends and words. Eventually once they start building words like rat, mat, hat, cat etc…  have them reinforce the word they have learned through a fine motor activity above (writing the word with their finger in sand, painting the word etc). Allow the child to progress at their speed, not yours. They may be content to learn nothing but -at family words for a month. So be it.

5. Go through readers together. I personally love the McGuffey Revised Eclectic Primer as well as the Canadian Catholic First Reader (part 1 & 2), as they are available free from http://www.archive.org. The Canadian Catholic reader especially follows a progression that is very similar to the popular (and expensive) All About Reading. Protestants need not fear – while they were created for Catholic schools, there is absolutely 0 doctrine in the reader, no Catholic references, and are easily used by those of any faith. They are merely a basic reader with sentences like “The cat is on the mat”.

Build the new words in each lesson together with your letter tiles, reinforce them through the fine motor activities listed above, and then finally practice reading the words in the reader. You could also create a reader vocabulary book, and have them copy the lesson words and then draw a picture of what they are.

6. Play games together – Bingo is a great one, you can do letters and use it to reinforce letter names or sounds, or you could create a sight or lesson word Bingo. You could also create Swat! – write letters or words on recipe cards and scatter them across the floor. Give the child a fly swatter and have them swat the letter/sound/word you say. Eventually make it a game of speed, and give challenges of seeing how many letters/sounds/words they can swat in one minute etc…

There are also many phonics/reading games available on Amazon, just do a search for phonics games, and you’ll get many options. Crazy As, Learning Resources Pop! games, Alphabet Go Fish from Peaceable Kingdom, Alphabet Spot It!, Alphabet Island, Didax Word Building Cards (with their reading rods) are some of my picks.

Math: 

1. Teach numbers much the same way you taught letters, using the same fine and gross motor reinforcement activities listed in #1-3 for Reading/Writing. Hopscotch is also a great game for number recognition and there are foam playmat options available for indoor play.

2. Expand that however with counting activities. Beads, rocks, pebbles etc… have them practice counting and making arrangements of 1-10 items. Call out a number and have them count out that many items. A goal is to have children able to recognize arrangements of 1-10. So, for example you could place 4 pebbles in front of them and without counting they would be able to recognize that there is 4. However, this is a skill that can take time to develop, and shouldn’t be pushed if the child isn’t ready.

3. Make math part of your every day life. Have them set the table and count out how many plates, forks, knives etc… Ask them problems like: if we have two plates on this side of the table and two plates on that side, how many plates are there all together? Have them count to find the answer. Or, ask them: We had four dirty plates and we just put one plate in the dishwasher, how many plates do we have now? Always make the questions concrete and allow them to count to find the answers.

You can also, bake and cook with them and introduce them to the concept of fractions and measurements. Have them measure things by their hands, feet, arms, steps. Ask questions like, what do you think is longer – the table or this stick and have them compare. Move to things like: how many (of your) feet long do you think this room is? Let them guess, and then measure it.  Invest in a small scale and let them have fun by comparing weights of items. Buy small building kits (Lowes sell good ones) and build them together, throwing out questions on measuring, counting, adding, subtracting etc…

Play basic board games together where they have to practice counting to move their character etc…  Jacks is also a fun game that lends itself nicely to counting and adding. Make it a point to point out the time to them on both digital and analog clocks. They will eventually learn to read the time. Keep it to time-reading only, the more difficult concepts of 60 seconds to a minute, 60 minutes to an hour, 24 hours to a day etc.. can wait until later when they are formally learning math. You can also take them to the calendar each day and point out the day of the week, the month, year, date etc… Make it short and sweet, and over time, they’ll learn it naturally.

4. There are many games that can be played or bought for math. Bingo is great for number recognition. There are many, many options available, so again, just do a search on Amazon for math games. Scholastic also offers many good math games which are very affordable (on a side note, homeschoolers are eligible to get their own Scholastic teacher’s account, so you can order books and items through their book club). Also, invest in pattern blocks, Cuisenaire Rods, and lacing beads. They are great toys to let children play with and discover patterns etc… for themselves.

5. Practice early addition and subtraction using sweet treats: take chocolate chips  (marshmallows, popcorn, nuts, grapes, blueberries etc) and have them lay out one. Then ask them to add one more, and tell you how many that is. You can teach them the number sentences,  1 + 1 = 2. Then have them add one more, to make 3, then four and so on, all the way up to 10. Then, once they’ve made 10, have them eat (subtract/take away) one. Ask them how many are now left. Get them to say the number sentence 10 – 1 = 9. Then ask them to eat one more, how many are left now? And so on, until there are 0. Likewise, you can practice fractions using baking: divide cookies, cakes, pizzas, casseroles etc… Make note of how many pieces you are dividing it into, then what happens when you take a piece away, how many are left etc…

There is so much learning that can happen organically with math, and you’ll be amazed at the foundation you can lay for future formal academics just  by focusing on everyday math and games in the early years. Studies show that by teaching math in this fashion – hands on, practical math only in the early years, your child will be farther ahead later on, than if they had started with workbooks etc…

Again, in the early years (which I and many others consider to be under the age of 7, but especially 5 & under), hands on, multi-sensory learning is best. Children do not need, and honestly, should not use, workbooks during these years. Keep it short, sweet, fun and multi-sensory, and you’ll have a child extremely well prepared for academics.

Delayed Academics (aka Developmentally Appropriate Learning)

Just today this article was shared on a Facebook homeschooling group I’m part of:

http://nancyebailey.com/2014/02/02/setting-children-up-to-hate-reading/

I really enjoyed the article. Not because it was the most well-written or scientifically backed up article, but just because of it’s message, which essentially was – back off of early academics!

Today, when people choose to postpone formal learning past the age of 5, it tends to be called “delayed learning” or “delayed academics”. I disagree. Postponing formal learning until age 6 or 7 or even 8 is not delayed at all. Instead, it is following the the way children were naturally created, and it should be called Developmentally Appropriate Learning.

This is a topic that I am rather passionate about, and I will admit, actually fairly knowledgeable about. I may not have initials after my name (well, technically I do, but they’re not Ph.D or M. Ed), and I may not have published studies, but I have spent years doing countless hours of research, reading documents and studies on child development and academics. I am also surrounded by friends and family who do have the initials after their name, who are in the education profession, with whom I have had great conversations on this topic. I’ve also talked to psychologists and other professionals about the topic.

Delayed academics seems to be a sensitive subject. Of course anything that is counter-cultural tends to be. When I have spoken up about the topic on online forums, I tend to get blasted by the “But my four year old loves her grade 1 phonics program!” moms. Unfortunately, whether the child is capable of doing the work or not, whether they enjoy it or not, science is science, and brain development is what it is. Thus, just because a 4 or 5 year old can do something, doesn’t mean they should be.

I think one of the reasons why we homeschoolers start our children so young (and as a side note, I was guilty of this with my first), is because we fall prey to cultural pressure, even subconsciously.  But also, I feel like we  tend to have a very narrow definition of learning, and ultimately seem to only equate learning with formal academics, with textbooks and workbooks and flashcards. We also mistakenly see a child’s natural curiosity and desire to learn, and think that means they are ready for formal learning.

Now, I know people can argue that each child is an individual, and they learn at their own pace, and that is true! I certainly would not argue that, and if your 4 year old expresses an unprompted desire to learn to read, I wouldn’t ignore that. What I would do however, is to teach her in developmentally appropriate ways – and plunking a formal phonics program down in front of her, is not it.

The same goes for math. Children will naturally pick up on math if we just get out of their way. It’s rather astounding to watch and see what they can learn for themselves, just through life experiences. If your child wants to learn math, then teach them – through games, hands on activities, playing store, through concrete real life experiences. Let them play with counting/lacing beads, pattern blocks, Cuisenaire rods, even Lego! But again, hold off on the formal math programs until they’re older. Children need to learn through direct, concrete means first, before they are ready for abstract approaches – and workbooks are abstract, not concrete.

If you research the history of education, going back to the beginning of the classical era of education, clear up until the early 1900s, learning was first done through concrete means and then reinforced orally. Only after it was well learned, did written work get introduced. As such, written work was minimal in the early years.  Math especially was taught through hands-on, concrete methods and drilled orally for typically 2 years before students ever started writing sums on a slate. Reading was taught with a reader, oral drill and some simple copywork.

I think it’s important to remember that this is an era (before and just after the turn of the century) where schools were producing students with better reading, writing, grammar, vocabulary and arithmetic outcomes than most have today. They also started later, and ended sooner. Overall, they had far less instruction. One could argue that perhaps it’s because children started later, when they were developmentally ready, and they were taught in more developmentally appropriate means.

At any rate, following a developmental approach does not mean your child is not learning, it just means they are learning in appropriate ways. So if your 4 year old wants to learn to read, you could start by teaching them their letters through alphabet books, puzzles, maybe even flashcards, through drawing letters in the sand etc… You could get letter tiles and let them build words, and you could go through very simple, basic readers together, always following the child’s lead. If your 5 year old is content to learn nothing more than basic CVC words for 6 months, then so be it. In the early years, the child should set the pace, not the teacher.

I have heard many homeschoolers say they started their young children on formal academic workbooks when they were just little, because they wanted to be like their older siblings, and “do school”.  Now, this more than likely isn’t actually about the desire for formal learning, as much as it’s a desire for your attention. So the first thing I would say is, make sure that your youngest ones are getting adequate one on one attention, and that they don’t feel excluded during lesson time. If at all possible, include them at the table. Have a busy box full of coloring books, puzzles, games, Play Doh, a small slate and chalk for drawing or practicing letters etc… Or, perhaps you could invest in some Lauri products which are lovely developmentally appropriate learning products. You could even call this box their “lessons”.

But do not be afraid to tell them, “No, I’m sorry, you can’t have a workbook right now. You’ll get your turn to have workbooks when you are older.” We don’t hesitate to say no to our children when they’re begging for a third cookie or they want to play with matches. We are quick to stop them from doing something that’s not good for them, or potentially harmful. And yet, we seem to refuse to say no to our children when they want to do work that is developmentally inappropriate, and potentially harmful long-term.

Homeschoolers often think that “developmentally appropriate” doesn’t apply to them because we’re not teaching in a school setting. However, what we need to realize is, the problem is not the setting, the school. The problem is that God created children with very specific stages of brain development, and He did this for a reason, and our God-given stages of development do not change whether we’re in a school doing work for 5 hours or at home doing work for 1 hour. The reasoning for delaying academic learning is primarily about brain development and how children are wired.

So, with that, I will give you an extensive list of articles and studies about early academics. While the list is certainly comprehensive, it is by no means exhaustive.

The Right Way is Your Way

20161003_105757This is our 5th official year of homeschooling, having started right from the get-go with Kindergarten. Granted, you could even say this is our sixth year, if you count my son’s preschool year when we started out with Rod & Staff’s ABC series. In those 5/6 years, we have tried more curriculum than I can count, and we have dabbled in elements of pretty well all the major educational philosophies.

Why did I, why do we – for I am certainly not the only one,  switch back and forth so much? Try so many different things? Why did I give up on things that were actually working? Why did I wait so long to give up on things that clearly weren’t?

The answer to that is confidence, or a lack thereof. Homeschooling has a huge learning curve, and while it is the fastest growing educational choice in North America, you’re still considered (and feel) something of a maverick when you embark on this journey. I think anytime someone steps out onto the road less traveled, there is an almost instant amount of doubt and uncertainty that tags along for the ride.

Now, I’m going to digress for a moment and point out that we weren’t always so unsure of ourselves. Once upon a time, not all that long ago, in the 1800s and beyond, homeschooling was the norm. Schools had been started yes, but not everyone had access to them. And of course before the advent of schools, “homeschooling”, was the only option available.

I find it interesting just how quickly we went from homeschooling being the accepted normal, to being an abnormal decision. How we went from having the confidence to personally educate and raise successful people like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Graham Bell, Abe Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Joseph Priestly, C.S. Lewis, Florence Nightingale, Frank Lloyd Wright, Pearl Buck, and Albert Einstein (just to name a few) without any support and minimal materials, to being so unsure of ourselves that we need support groups, guides, manuals, and generally, a lot of hand holding.

I blame part of the doubt we feel as homeschoolers today on the government having trained us to be this way – once public education became more accessible, and then of course later mandated, we were told to leave the education of our children to professionals, and homeschooling became a thing of the past. We have spent the last 100 years being made to believe that they can do it better.

However, the other reason I think we have so much doubt today, is thanks to living in the age of information.  For starters, education has become a widely researched subject, with many different “experts” chiming in with different theories and approaches, and of course trying to prove why their way,  is the “right” way. And for every one of those “right ways” that exist, the retail world has eagerly joined in, offering dozens, hundreds of curriculum and material choices to help you educate your child(ren) in this “right” way.

Today we have more information available at the tip of our finger in mere seconds, than any  previous generations could ever have dreamed of. There are books and articles galore written on the the various approaches to education in general, and also on how to apply these philosophies and theories to homeschool. Today, there are hundreds, if not thousands of support groups available online where women and men discuss the joys and challenges of homeschooling, but especially, talk “shop”, which translates into comparing curriculum. We are constantly bombarded with other ideas and options.

And it is all this information, that helps contribute to the doubt we feel. It’s the negative power of too many choices. Today in the world of abundant information, theories, philosophies and ideals abound. And as I wrote in my blog, “Is It Essential?“, it is easy to get caught up in all of it – in these ideals which really, “were just one person’s ideals. One individual person’s idea of what constituted the “ideal” education, one person’s ideas of what were important topics to learn and how to learn them.” 

We can become so overwhelmed by choices, by doubt, that sometimes we end up clinging to a theory or an ideal like a drowning man might cling to a rock; afraid to let go, even a little, even when something better, more secure, is within reach. Other times, we fall prey to the “grass is greener” belief, and jump around from program to program, philosophy to philosophy, always thinking that surely, their way, must be the right way.

And this, is what I, like many others,  have spent the first several years of our homeschool, doing – alternating between clinging to ideals and jumping around, lured by the idea that there is a single, right way. I was always torn between the ideals that I started out with and the other philosophies and ideas I read about, and then of course I had to slowly come to grips with the reality of what actually worked.

I started out on our homeschooling journey, wanting the complete opposite of brick and mortar schools – no textbooks, no workbooks, no quizzes and tests. I wanted relaxed, hands-on, experiential learning, crafts and activities galore. After all, it was my privilege as a homeschooler to be able to break free of that horrid mold, and I was going to make the most of it.

And so, clinging to that, I admittedly was dismayed when I discovered my son actually liked workbooks and thrived with them. I ultimately rebelled, trying to push on through our  Waldorf approach. I let the “experts” tell me that workbooks were the easy way out, that they could never help him develop into a scholar with any amount of critical and creative thinking skills.

Eventually I let go of Waldorf, and decided to try more of an interest-led unit study approach, while continuing to read about other philosophies. In reading, I was then told by Charlotte Mason that unit studies were wrong, too. By using unit studies, I was impeding my son’s ability to learn how to make his own connections. And so, we left those behind, and dove head first into Charlotte Mason – whose approach is heavy on auditory input, and also, anti-workbook/textbook. Did I mention that my son is an extremely visual learner, who doesn’t do well with auditory input, and who loves workbooks?

You get the idea of how the first years have gone.

Thankfully, over the last year or so, I have been learning to start letting go of some of my preconceived ideals, the ideals of others, and also the fallacy that one educational philosophy is inherently better than another. Instead, I’m learning to follow the words of Sarah MacKenzie in her blog post about over thinking curriculum and philosophies: “We ought to do what works for us, fits our temperaments, and helps us achieve the goals we are working toward.” It’s the same old adage that everyone loves to say, but few truly accept or believe: every child is different. Taking it further, that means that every child has a different temperament, interests, needs, goals, struggles and learning styles. So how could anyone possibly think that one style of learning would work for every child?

Taking it further yet again, why would we think that every element of one style of learning would work for every need for our child(ren)? Maybe parts of Waldorf really speak to you, and your children enjoy block schedules, main lesson books instead of workbooks, learning math through story telling and songs and rhymes etc… but they really need a more traditional parts to whole phonics curriculum. Maybe Montessori math works beautifully for your child, but their approach to grammar leaves them in tears. Maybe your child likes workbooks and textbooks for some subjects but prefers the Charlotte Mason approach of living books for others.

What I have learned is that our real privilege as homeschoolers, is not that we can eschew the public school model just to follow some other person’s idea of what the “right way” is, but rather, that we can choose to homeschool our child in any way that we want. We can follow a traditional school-at-home approach, follow the philosophies of Waldorf, Charlotte Mason, Maria Montessori, we can do unit studies, we can be relaxed etc… Or, as we’re turning out to be, we can be an eclectic mix of all of the above.

The privilege of homeschooling is that we can finally learn that there is no single “right way” to educate a child. Instead, we have the opportunity to learn the truth that the right way to educate a child, is your way – your own personal mix of beliefs, philosophies, interests, goals, needs and abilities. If the curriculum, the educational philosophy that you’re using is helping you to attain your goals for your children, in a way that is enjoyable and blessing your lives, then don’t worry if it isn’t strictly adhering to someone else’s ideals. Be confident in your decision. After all, your way, is the right way.

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Is It Essential?

So, I’m going to come right out and say it – I have seen some real snobby attitudes since I joined the homeschool world. Some truly “all or nothing”, elitist attitudes, especially when it comes to curriculum and educational philosophy choices.

You know the ones that I mean – the ones who have become so focused on a certain pedagogy or curriculum, that they (passive aggressively) look down on anyone who doesn’t choose something as academically “rigorous” as they did. Or, they look down on those who do not follow the model of an educational philosophy to a “T”.

They are the ones who will argue that a “true” education, is not complete unless your children have read the Odyssey and the annals of Plutarch; until they have learned Latin and Greek mythology, and have memorized countless poems and speeches. Or, unless they have studied the great composers and poets and artists of eons past, their life will ultimately be lacking in depth and fullness.

I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, so I would like to think that they don’t realize how they’re coming across to others. Maybe they’re just so truly passionate about the choices they have made, that they forget that there can be another way that works better for other people. Or, sometimes I wonder if it is because the idea of another way is perhaps threatening to them, maybe they are not as confident in their decision as their bravado would lead you to believe.

Just the other day, in a group that I’m a part of, a fellow mother, obviously frazzled, wrote that she is struggling to get through the recommended study of Plutarch: she doesn’t like it, her children don’t like it, and she’s afraid that it’s going to make them hate school. “Is it essential?” she asked.

Now, anyone with common sense knows that no, it isn’t. And the fact that she would even have to ask others if it is crucial, stopped me in my tracks – until I remembered that I have done the same thing. Because that is the pressure we homeschoolers put on ourselves, and what’s more, on each other, to be perfect. We find an educational pedagogy or a curriculum that we agree with, that we like, that works, but then suddenly think that means we have to follow it 100%. We think that each and every ideal of that philosophy, must be done perfectly lest our child’s education be found lacking.

I thought that perhaps the other mothers would encourage her to shelve it for awhile, or forever. That they would reassure her that of course her children will turn out fine if they don’t study Plutarch. And a few did, but the majority “encouraged” her to persevere. Their encouragement ranged from posting articles on why Plutarch is “necessary”, to reminding the mother that, “We don’t get very far by quitting!” “We should be forcing our children to trudge through the hard and mundane things!” (Regardless of the cost, eh?) “No liberal arts education is complete without Plutarch!”

You get the idea. I felt so sad for that mother, who clearly just needed some reassurance, to be told that it was okay to let go, which is what she clearly wanted to do. And instead she received peer pressure to keep going, basically a passive aggressive form of adult bullying.

In the end I sent the mom a private message and told her what I want to tell all homeschoolers:

There are ideals, and then there is reality. Educational pedagogies such as Charlotte Mason, were just one person’s ideals. One individual person’s idea of what constituted the “ideal” education, one person’s ideas of what were important topics to learn and how to learn them. And that person lived over 100 years ago in a different era, society and culture. They did not know you and your priorities, or your children and their needs or interests. The reality is, the “ideal” education is going to vary from student to student based on their learning types, needs, interests and goals for the future. Ideals are not a one-size fits all.

Today we have the ability and freedom to tailor our children’s learning to that which interests them, that which incites a passion for learning. And if Plutarch does not incite that passion, there is quite honestly, no need in teaching it. This is not to say that Plutarch can not be valuable with lessons to be learned from it – most certainly it can be. However,  it is most definitely not essential to a fulfilling education and/or life.

And here is another reality – there are many valuable things to learn in our world, and we will never be able to learn them all. So, all we can do, is pick and choose what is the most meaningful to our lives, what interests us the most, what will have the most impact and influence, and pursue that – and let go of the feeling that we must learn it all.

After all, learning does not stop when a child turns eighteen. Learning is lifelong. If you can teach a child to enjoy learning, to want to learn, then they will continue to pursue learning as an adult. Perhaps they will choose to read Plutarch when they are older, when it has meaning and value to them.

But, I can promise you, that if you destroy that enjoyment of learning early on, by forcing them to push through things that are meaningless and pure drivel to them, things which make learning tedious and boring, just because one person a hundred years ago said it was “essential”, you are hindering their future learning. And chances are, they will never pick up Plutarch again.

So, what is essential? The “Three ‘Rs”. Because without a foundation of those, other learning cannot happen. Give a child the tools that will allow them to learn, and then incite a desire in them to want to apply those tools for the rest of their lives. If Plutarch, or Homer, or the Odyssey, or Latin or Greek incites a desire and an excitement in your students, then by all means, dive right in.

But if those non-essentials are not working for you, if they’re causing stress and grief and turning learning into a chore for your student, then please, never be afraid to let go; no matter what anyone else tells you, even if they tell you that without checking off all those boxes on the pedagogical checklist you’re not giving your child a complete education. Let go of what doesn’t work for you, and what doesn’t bring joy to your learning, especially if it is actually hindering your child’s enjoyment of learning. Trust me, it will be okay.