Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Does everything have to be so complicated?

Earlier today I read a blog post over at Huffington Post about the difficulties of being a parent. The writer of the post discussed his belief, with some research to back up his ideas, that parents today are generally unhappy in their parental role. Then he wrote about all of the reasons that we are supposedly so danged unhappy, which, according the writer, mainly comes down to money. As in, kids only take money from our bank accounts, not put money in, and it is stressing parents out to the point of depression. Couple the financial strains with a lack of leisure time and life is looking quite bleak for the moms and dads in modern American society.

The article left a bad taste in my mouth, to be frank. Don't get me wrong, I do not live in some super duper bubble of blissful parenting all the time. Or ever really. I remember a couple of years ago I wrote an email to a friend of mine and confessed to her that I had planned my escape from what felt to be, at the time anyway, the completely overwhelming stressors of parenthood. My "plan" was to sneak into Mexico and disappear without a trace, and then spend the rest of my years running a taco stand. Of course, I was not actually going to take off to sell fried taco goodness to Mexican people, but my little escape fantasy got me through some tough days. 

But, back to the part where I said that the Huff Post article left a bad taste in my mouth. The article made me feel uneasy indeed. I mean, it is ridiculous, when you stop to think about it, to be so utterly miserable over something that really is not all that complicated. People have been birthing and raising kids for centuries, so why do are we making such a fuss about it now?

My jumbled and confused thoughts regarding my unease with the article came to a head later in the day when I watched a documentary about babies around the world. The documentary compared and contrasted the ways in which babies are reared in different cultures throughout the globe. In the U.S. baby raising involves cribs and johnny jump-ups and disposable diapers and bottles and a whole host of other stuff. Life for babies in a tribal society deep in Africa could not be any more different if we tried. The documentary showed that there are two things necessary for baby raising there: a baby and a mama. Together their days are spent with baby nursing and playing on or around mom, while mom goes about her day making food, hauling wood, fetching water, and visiting with her friends. The babies in this tribal society seemed to act much like the babies featured from America, but the moms appeared to be way less stressed and much more content.

There was so many things that struck me in watching this documentary. For one, something really obvious was that the tribal mothers let their babies play in the dirt and get dirty. The babies mouthed rocks and sand, and their only toys were whatever they could find on the earth that they crawled around on. Now, if you go to a park in any city in our country you will see parents scrambling to keep their babies from putting rocks and sand in their mouth. Obviously some of these things can be a choking hazard, but what if we are being entirely too cautious in our attempts to keep things out of our curious toddler's mouths and generally trying to keep our children safe? Maybe there is something that we can learn from this tribal mothers here.

Secondly, while I realize that parenting a child in a small tribal community in Africa is going to be different than raising a child in the U.S. no matter how you slice it, what if we found a way to make it less complicated? What if we as parents made the decision to just give ourselves over to the process of being parents and stopped worrying so much about college funds and so called leisure time?  What if our main goal in parenting became simply raising curious, compassionate people who value their families and the nature all around them?

As I asked myself these questions today I of course started applying them to education and homeschooling, since these things are tied so tightly to parenting in our family. Here's the thing. The education system in our country is entirely too complicated and many might say that it is broken. In identifying a problem within the system you quickly realize that what seems to be a minor issue, which you believe could easily be fixed with a few policy changes, is really anything but minor. The parts that are broken are so deep and wide spread that the only fix would be to trash the whole thing and start from the ground up. No amount of money or policy changes are going to repair what is broken within our country's educational system. 

What we need is to get back to the basics. We need to be focusing on simple goals, the main one being to raise good human beings. While memorizing times tables and making a child learn to recite each President in chronological order seems to be important, these things really are not relevant to our lives.

I am sure that all of us had moments in our educational career in which we thought, "Why am I learning this? This is not going to help me in my life at any point in time!" As it turns out, our chagrin was not all that unjustified. But what is baffling is that we all had those thoughts and  yet, here we are, teaching our kids in the exact same way that we were so frustratingly taught in our childhoods.

In the short time that I've been homeschoolig my children the main things I've learned is that education does not have to be complicated and that it can also be really fun. Our family's homeschooling today consisted of a morning with grandma and making terrariums together. Sure, tomorrow we may spend some time learning long division and about 15th century England, but even our most structured educational time is basic and uncomplicated. We have no tests or quizzes, and if someone does no understand something then we just try again later. We are able to learn without all of the stuff  and without all of the pollicies that the people who run our country's educational system have convinced most of us that our kids need. There's no fuss and no self induced complications here in our cozy little homeschool, just time together learning about life, with some long division thrown in for good measure.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

How do you handle the "blahs"?

January and February are historically tough months for me. As much as I want to enjoy winter and all that comes with it, I have a hard time doing so. The short days and cold weather get to me, and I have a difficult time staying motivated. Over the last few days in particular I've been feeling exhausted and I know that it is because I'm not being as active as usual, and I've barely left the house in weeks.

I'm trying to keep my mind present for my kids and to be here for them as I know I need to be. Having us all together each day, everyday, makes it all the more important for me to not let myself get swallowed up by the winter blues that normally affect me at this time of year. I'm struggling, though, and I feel like might loose the battle at any given second.

A question for you, my (two?) dear readers: What do you do to stay motivated and not let your homeschooling or unschooling suffer when you are having "blah" days and weeks? Do you have any special things that you do for yourself or with your children?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Winter hike

One of our favorite things to do as a family is to be in the woods. We try to get out for hikes at least a couple of times each winter and today we headed out to do just that. We had a fresh, fluffy snow fall yesterday, which resulted in a gorgeous afternoon in our favorite state park.

Happy winter!


Friday, January 14, 2011

The thoughts below are what I'd call "ramblings"

Each day that I wake up these days I'm not sure what the next hours will bring. I am learning that homeschooling is a living and breathing thing, and there is no point in trying to control it, because doing so will lead to nothing but frustration on the part of both myself and the kids. I am also realizing that learning opportunities for my children can crop up at anytime and if I do not stay on my toes those chances can easily, and regretfully, be missed.

In a previous post I mentioned a goal that we have in homeschooling, which is to give our children plenty of time each day to discover their own interests and paths in their learning journey. How this has begun to manifest in our home is that I have a general plan written out for each day, which, depending on the child and the day, includes lessons in math, language arts, music, Latin, science, geography, reading, writing, and history. However, the plan is not always followed and when it is we usually only do lessons for half the day, allowing the kids to create adventures and learning opportunities on their own; free of my input or direction.

I know that some will read this and think that I need to force my children to sit down and do their lessons every day as planned, because, as is a commonly held belief in our culture, children will not be able to live in society on their own unless they are taught to do what is directed by people in authority. That children need to be told what to learn, how to learn, and when to learn it. 

Frankly, I think this belief is a bunch of hooey. 

Think about these facts. Leading up to the 19th century most children did not make it through elementary school and children were not consistently staying in school through the 5th grade until the early part of the 20th century. Yet, despite the lack of formal education amazing things were happening. The list of inventions and innovations that came about during the early years of our country, most by people with few years of organized education, are innumerable. The likes of John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie thrived in their businesses in the 19th and 20th centuries, yet were doing so as people who dropped out of school at very early ages, instead choosing to go to work. (Ironically, Rockefeller and Carnegie were two major forces behind public schooling developing into what it is today. The involvement of these two prominent businessmen, along with others who had  not-so-great motives, in the development of the public education system in America is both eye-opening and cringe worthy. If you have not done so before, read about it sometime.)

My point in saying these things is not to try to argue that education is not important, because I certainly believe that it is. Instead, I write about these historical facts to show that formal, structured education is not necessary to achieve greatness. Learning can and does happen without the binds of grades, formal textbooks, and without the walls of a classroom. Consider the amount of things children learn in their first five years of life, before they are school aged. They learn to sit up on their own, walk, throw a ball, talk, and feed themselves. These are some pretty amazing feats for people born unable to do so much as feed themselves. What is more amazing is that children figure out how to do these things without much, if any, intervention from outside sources. Sure, parents and other care givers might give gentle nudges to learn a skill here and there, but so long as the child is being raised in a loving environment, does not have any cognitive delays, and has all of his or her basic human needs met, these skills will develop naturally. 

Of course, there are skills that may be learned best with the help of other people. However, there is nothing that supports the idea that these skills must be taught in a formal educational setting. My husband and I can teach math to our children, and we can do it in a way that works best for our individual children, not a prescribed way of teaching that may not work for all kids in a classroom. We do not need grades because I am with them nearly every second of the day and I know if they are learning, and where they may be struggling. There is nothing that grades can tell me that simple observation and conversation cannot. And instead of them receiving a bad grade we can instead continue working on a subject until they understand it. Best of all, in our homeschool setting, if my children are working cooperatively to build a massive structure out of Legos, blocks, and the couch cushions, I can choose to forgo a history lesson for the morning so they can experiment with and learn from their primitive form of architecture. 

To be clear, it is not a free-for-all in our home. Our children have rules regarding TV watching and game playing, and they are expected to behave in a loving, respectful way. It is non-negotiable that all people living in our home must participate in the care of our home and our things, even the four year old. If I feel that a geography lesson needs to take priority over another hour of coloring, then that is the way it is. And there are consequences for not following the rules and for not doing what is asked of them by myself or daddy. But, the kids are allowed to discuss the rules with us and negotiate certain things, just so long as it is done respectfully. They are able to have an appropriate level of control over things that effect and involve them, because we want them to learn to make decisions for themselves. Each of our children is learning responsibility, independence, and self-worth, which are the cornerstones to any child's development.

We want our children's creativity to shine. We want them to grow up in an environment that fosters their innovative, curious minds, and where their ideas, no matter how crazy, will be celebrated. We believe that our home, along with the world around us, is the best place for these things to happen. And we believe that a weekday afternoon tromping through the snow is just as important to a child's education as an hour spent learning math facts. 

Every parent has educational goals for their children. Sometimes those goals can be achieved with traditional schooling and sometimes they cannot. Sometimes the traditional way of schooling is a parent's only choice for their children and sometimes it is the only choice a parent would consider. There is no right or wrong here. I'm just glad that we are able to make a different choice, one that best meets the needs of our family. I am sure that the learning goals we have for our children could be accomplished if our children were still in traditional school, but just like a language immersion program, we believe that fully immersing our children in this way of living will make the realization of our goals more likely.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Let's stop the madness

An article written by Nancy Gruver, the editor and founder of New Moon Girls, came up on my Facebook feed today. To say that the subject of the article was cringe worthy would be an understatement. In case you don't feel like clicking the link, in her article Nancy describes a new series of French Vogue advertisements that sexualizes the appearance of 6 year old girls. In one of the ads a beautiful young girl is dressed and posed provocatively on an animal skin rug, ala a Penthouse centerfold. Nancy points out in her article how disturbed she is by this advertisement, and Nancy's feelings and concerns over this ad are some that I absolutely share.

Our culture has become one that pushes children to deal with issues that are beyond their scope of understanding. The sexualization of kids is one aspect of this, along with violence in many forms. Too many people today do not see what the problem is in treating kids like miniature adults, which is evidenced by the aforementioned Vogue ads. But if anyone steps up and expresses concern over our children's ability to deal with so many adult issues we are told that kids need to deal with this stuff. That children essentially need to be thrown into the lion's den to learn how to live in our society. You know, the whole growing up in the school of hard knocks spiel.

So, why not dress up a 6 year old girl like a 25 year old woman and use her photo to sell magazines? She's going to be having sex and luring in men with her beauty soon enough anyway, right?

Well, because what if we are wrong? What if the school of hard knocks is actually killing us, both literally and figuratively? What if our society would actually benefit from just allowing children to be kids until they have the ability to deal with the crazy, messed up world that we are setting up for them? What if giving our children a different kind of childhood would mean giving our society the gift of future adults who have the desire and ability to change things for the better? What if our kids did not have to grow up to become adults scarred by their childhood because of the sex and violence that were forced on them too early?

The sexualization of children cannot be ignored. It is a core problem in how we are raising our children; the future of our society. The sexualization of kids has infiltrated nearly every aspect of our lives and there is evidence of this infiltration in any school or mall that you might step foot into. Girls are wearing clothes that would make many porn stars blush. The music that our children listen to and the TV shows that they watch are loaded with sexual innuendo. Children are talking of "dating" as early as kindergarten, and kids of all ages are using words and telling "jokes" that are sexual in nature, many of which they do not understand the meaning behind. The number of children who are becoming sexually active at or near puberty is not only staggering, but the problems seems to be getting worse instead of better as years go by.

To me, this issue is like the bumper sticker that says, "If you are not angry you are not paying attention". We should all be angry. Angry for the sake of our children and our children's children. And angry for our society that has become so lost that we are allowing six year olds to be treated like sex objects.

Nancy Gruver has put out a call for action in the article that I linked above. If you have ideas of what we can do to work towards changing this issue, please post to Nancy on her blog. Talk to your children, your friends, and your family, and brainstorm about what can be done. Nancy is someone with the power to bring a grass-roots movement into the spotlight and if we can get her the ideas she can help us get the movement moving.


Monday, January 3, 2011

We've got that first day of school vibe going on

Before we began homeschooling I decided to take the advice of some smart and experienced homeschooling moms. They told me not to run out and buy a bunch of curriculum before we had begun homeschooling. Their reasoning was that until we'd had a chance to adjust to a learn-at-home life we could not possibly know what this new life would actually be like for us. And that while a certain curriculum may seem like a great idea months before we were actually homeschooling, chances were that we would change our minds once we were in the homeschooling groove.

Those wise women were spot on. The curriculum choices that I had all but settled on when I was researching our options over the summer sounded great back then, but not so much now. I did buy a few key curriculum items for math, grammar, and handwriting, but decided to hold off on any other, potentially expensive, curriculum decisions.

Our first four months of homeschooling ended up being largely an adjustment period. We focused on the three R's: reading, writing, and arithmetic, and worked on getting into a new routine. Meanwhile, our 9 year old dove into her 3rd year of piano lessons and began writing her own music. The 8 year old in our family decided to try some harp lessons and we are hoping to purchase a harp for her soon. We watched documentaries and we played fun games like The Scrambled States of America.  Our older three children all started a monthly class at the zoo, and we joined a wonderful coop of homeschoolers who meet three times a month for a shared learning experience, as well as some unstructured play time. (This month we'll be learning about dog sledding and will be taking a field trip towards the end of the month to actually go dog sledding!)

Then mid-way into the second week of December I woke up one day and realized that we were ready for a break. I could see how tired we were and I knew that we were all feeling quite "blah". The last couple of weeks of homeschooling had kind of sucked, to be frank, with cabin fever setting in for all of us. And with the busy Christmas season coming we had a lot of preparations to do, not to mention that we had started a renovation project in the kid's rooms over Thanksgiving weekend, and I was determined to get it all done before Christmas. (Which didn't end up happening, but we came close!) It definitely seemed like the right time to take some time  off, and we had been planning on taking two weeks off at the end of the month anyway.

I pulled out my records and calculated how many hours of homeschooling we had completed in our first four months. In the state of WI we are required to complete 875 hours of schooling each year, but it is up to us to decide how and when those hours will be completed. Since we plan to homeschool year round---with a lighter schedule in the warmer months---I realized that we could afford to take a nice long break.

That break was the best thing we could have done, because an amazing thing happened in that 3 1/2 weeks. The kids all became more excited about learning and homeschooling than ever. Not having structured learning time made them want to find ways to learn on their own. Obviously this was not a new phenomenon, as kids are naturally programmed to want to learn. However, the amount of time and effort that they put into their self-imposed learning adventures was something I'd never seen from them before. It was so much fun to watch them exploring and reading and, most fun of all, doing science experiments with a little help from dad. They also played plenty of Wii since they received multiple new games for Christmas, and they watched the movies from the Star Wars series that they had not seen before. Their dad talked to them about Luke Skywalker and The Force like he was teaching them about real historical events, which was interesting for everyone in the house!

I spent the 3 1/2 weeks researching the heck out of curriculum options, as I knew that it was time to get going on something more formal for history and science. I also sat down (or more like chatted while snuggling on the couch) with each of the school-aged kids, and we talked about what they wanted to learn about in the next part of our year. The talks with our older two children included discussing the areas that they are having trouble in, and I was then able to come up with a plan to help them better in those areas.

Over the last few days I spent hours writing up schedules for the next few months and organizing our new curriculum. My main goal in all of it was to have a schedule that would give us structured learning time, while still allowing us ample time in our days to focus on one of our main homeschooling goals---to allow the kids to just be kids. We want them to have time every day, like they did over our Christmas break, to explore on their own and learn about things that they want to learn about. We want them to have time to simply play, because as it has been shown time and time again that some of the best learning comes from unstructured play time.

Today we are back at it with our new schedule and new curriculum, and there is an air of excitement in the house. It feels like that first day of school in the fall, when everyone is excited for the new adventures to come in the upcoming school year. Our girls left us a note on the table last night that asked us to wake them up before we showered so that they could get started on their school day early. They struggled a bit to get up anyway after a long break of being able to sleep in and stay up later than usual, but after a breakfast of waffles we are ready to go.

And on that note, we'd better get to it.


Saturday, January 1, 2011

A More Purposeful Life

I have been thinking about starting a blog to journal about our family's new homeschooling adventure for awhile. Actually, months ago I did start a homeschooling blog, but we were not actually homeschooling yet and, well, I never went anywhere with it. At the time I was knee deep in trying to decide what our homeschool would be like and my feelings and plans were making me a discombobulated mess. I was having regular panic attacks, set off by my wondering, "How in the heck am I going to do this?!" I wondered if I was out of my mind in believing that I would be able to successfully homeschool four children, two of whom had been in public school since preschool.

Despite all of that, this past August we officially began homeschooling. My husband and I decided to have our first week of homeschooling while he was on vacation from work, so that he could be here to help us get on track.

The first day was a disaster. I cried.

Nothing went as planned and after only three hours I was certain that we had made a mistake. However, we forged on and the next day was better. Fortunately, we never did have another truly awful day after that first day. That is not to say that things have been blissful or that me and the kids have been perfectly behaved and patient every single day, because that has so not been the case. But, that first day has been the only day that I've wondered if we were doing the wrong thing.

There are so many things that I want to write about on this blog. I want to write more about my family and who we are, and I want to write about all that we are doing in our little family homeschool. I want to use this blog as a place to vent about the not-so-fun things about homeschooling, as well as talk about the really wonderful things. However, as we are jumping head first into the new year and a whole new set of plans and curriculum there is one thing that I cannot get off my mind. It is something that I did not consider or anticipate in all of my planning and ideas about homeschooling.

I cannot stop thinking about how homeschooling has changed me.

Yes, I am changed wholly and for the good. The changes that have occurred are incredibly surprising to me.  I've changed in ways that I did not realize were possible. Let me explain.

Before I became a mother I woke up each day and I took breath into my lungs without noticing that I was doing so. I walked without noticing my surroundings. I read without truly understanding what the words were telling me. I had lofty goals that I did not have the drive or determination to obtain. I just was.

Motherhood did not exactly change any of that. What it did do over time is made me recognize that there were things in me that I needed to change. I had this nagging feeling, which got stronger with the birth of each of our four children, that I was not the person I was supposed to be. In the throes of postpartum depression after the births of children three and four I hated myself. I wanted to be a different person and a better mother. Except that I had no idea who I was supposed to be. I experienced what can only be described as a personality crisis. I did not feel that I had purpose in my life.

In making the decision to homeschool our children---the reasons for which I'll write about another day---something began to happen. I was forced into a position where I had to evaluate my future and make a commitment to something so much bigger than myself. I knew that if we pulled our kids out of public school to begin homeschooling that there would be no turning back. I was going to need to give myself over to the process fully and completely, no matter how hard things got.

As it turns out, homeschooling our children has been the easiest thing I've ever done.

Yes, it's exhausting at times. Some days I want nothing more than a break from my kids and my house to go and do something by myself or, even more so, to be able to have some time alone with my husband. I hardly see or talk to my friends anymore and I miss them terribly. But this homeschooling adventure has become a natural, organic part of my life, just like breathing. And the amazing thing is that this has happened in only four short months.

No longer am I living my life without truly living. The awareness that I am completely responsible for my children's education has made me more in tune and connected to the world around me in ways that I did not know were possible. I am reading, feeling, experiencing, walking, seeing, and learning with purpose. In everything that I do I am thinking about how I might turn each of my experiences into a learning experience for my children. Even when I eat I am tasting my food in a different way, anticipating questions that my children might ask about a particular meal.

With homeschooling has come the blessing to me of being able to live my life with purpose. I am finally experiencing the awe of life in a way that I never did in my past life. I am excitedly learning along with my children and I am enjoying being with them more than I ever have before.

There are a lot of things that have happened since we began homeschooling, but this change in me is certainly one of my favorites.