Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Our High School Homeschool: Writing, Research, and Surviving a Flaky Mother. . .

Just to have a photo.
Around here, there are little flowers everywhere.

I wrote this this morning. It wasn't what I thought I'd be writing, but it just came out this way. The only way I am comfortable writing about our high school days is to do it as this sort of free-flowing story, just the way our days went. To try to structure and define our learning lives on paper turns it into a method or a pattern, and it makes me cold when I read my attempts to do this. So, if you will, bear with the stream of consciousness nature of these posts. I think they'll give a better picture of our learning. :-)

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As I work through the boxes of my saved writings—the written “archives” (if you will) of our homeschooling days and years—I smile, I laugh, and occasionally my eyes will brim with tears over the memories. And sometimes I roll my eyes. Reading through the papers, I’ve had to acknowledge that, while they do give a fairly accurate picture of the ups and downs and back and forths of our days, one message is particularly loud and clear: The kids’ mother is something of a flake! (That would be me.)

Even with an educational background that gave me an antipathy for a too-schoolish orientation toward learning, even with a vision that helped guide us and keep us on a relaxed (mostly, but not totally, unschoolish) learning track, even though I found absolute delight and joy in watching my kids learn and do with such enthusiasm and energy, I sometimes did my best to derail us. My motives were honest and my intentions were good, but I was swayed not by a careful, prayerful rethinking of our aims and our learning life, but by an emotional response to something interesting, fun, stimulating, or intellectually demanding that I had read about or had seen other families do. Emotions are a gift but they do not make a wise guide.

So, while my kids were rumbling along the learning tracks, doing all that I had set as requirements and expectations (which I will explain later), digging deeply into their interests, putting great focus and hard work into developing their skills and talents, and basically living a really nice learning routine and life, something would eventually come along to unsettle me and convince me that it was time to tweak a few changes.

When kids largely determine the direction of their learning and choose their own pursuits, the learning is done with such a look of play, that it can seem that work is not being done. And learning is supposed to be hard work, right? Sometimes our learning days didn’t strike me as “rigorous” (a word that some homeschoolers threw around that could unsettle me because these moms were so smart!) enough. Because learning is fairly continual even into the evenings and weekends, breaks just happen whenever they happen (but, really, even during “breaks” or “play,” excellent learning is occurring). These relaxed school days—when math mixed with baking and writing and tree climbingwere joyful, but occasionally I would waver in my confidence that we were rolling along just fine.

Especially after days and weeks and months of watching laughing kids running in and out of the house all morning long (though I must admit with binoculars, field guides, and even notebook and pencil in hand); or seeing one child repeatedly climbing into the tree fort to do her math; or observing one or two kids tearing down the road on their bikes while wearing capes (?!) while other homeschooled kids were probably sitting at a table making great progress on their math or science; or (while gazing out the window one winter morning) observing Melissa sailing across the snowy front yard on a snow disk that was harnessed to the dog (who was being led by a hot dog hanging on a string from a stick in front of her nose); or repeatedly noticing one daughter reading while lying in the sun.

Or what about the hyper-focus I witnessed so often, on both deep and seemingly trivial pursuits? Is it positive for the kids to lie behind the couch for most of the day with the CD player to listen to various pieces of classical music? Or to spend an entire day or two absolutely enthralled reading through a box of very old National Geographic magazines (a free find at a book sale)? And should I allow my daughter to spend endless days writing, writing, writing on her story? And what about my son piling up the hours and days and weeks he worked on his remote control truck and sailboat, along with the huge blocks of time he invested in the design and construction of a remote control track and obstacle course in the back of our country property? How important to her education was it for one daughter to spend many determined, exasperated hours and days in her attempt to draw the lips (just the lips!) of one of her pencil portraits?

Periodically, I would wonder if all of this light-hearted joy and fun or this intense focus on one thing at a time, was healthy. Were we really becoming well-educated? Were our lives and learning well-rounded enough?!

Unsettled as I would sometimes become by shifting my gaze from my own vision and what was working well for my family to the rigor and very structured purpose and delineated goals of other homeschoolers, I knew then, and I am more convinced now, that well-rounded didn’t need to happen every day. In a good learning atmosphere, it develops naturally over time. To demand the appearance of well-rounded days is to interrupt passion, to short-circuit the life in a pursuit, to disrupt the very deep, focused process of learning (and of learning to learn, which may be even more important).

If kids are interested in what they are doing, if they are self-motivated, if they are guided by curiosity and wonder, then depth and breadth will come along. Because to learn one thing deeply is to learn many, many things. Learning expands—it grows deeper and wider, encompassing a broad range of subjects because knowledge is interconnected. It is coherent. It is a web, and when a child enters in and begins to explore, one thing leads to infinite possibilities.

It is fascinating to watch which strands of web the child will choose to travel. What is it in him that draws him to a particular thing, down a particular path of interest? This strikes me almost as holy ground. I see it happen, and I don’t want to touch it. I don’t want my ideas or design to mar it. I watch. Pray. Show interest. Locate resources for the learner. Listen enthusiastically. Encourage and support the interest. Make suggestions very carefully, and let them fly away unheeded if they do not strike the child as beneficial to their very purposeful pursuit. I believe it is a God-designed pursuit as I believe the child is a unique creation with bents and inclinations programmed into him by his Maker. A child’s own gifts, his own interests, his own abilities are mine to encourage, mine to enable, but not mine to control.

But I did have some learning expectations. In the early years, these three-fold expectations were simple and were meant to give the kids a grasp of the tools of learning and a strong ability to use them. Each day they were to do some math, some reading, and some writing. This was the area of our homeschooling life where I was most hands-on. I planned this learning, but it was different for each child because they all learn differently. It was light and quick and individually geared. Once the kids had the tools down well, they were on their own to use them. They could read what they wanted, write what they wanted, and learn math in whatever way was best for them.

These expectations remained part of our learning life through high school (along with others I’ll discuss in another post), and it continued to be the case that the kids could choose how they would accomplish these requirements. Take writing, for instance. The daily expectation was to write something. Write anything! Just write. But there was that force that would sometimes throw the learning routine of our home off-balance. Me.

I remember once, my young son began to draw an adorable, clever cartoon. He said it was his writing for the day. I looked at it, and I didn’t key in on the fact that the drawings were skillful and charming and that the captions were creative and smart. I don’t know what got into me that day, but instead of recognizing this as a worthy piece of writing (even one honest, well-crafted sentence is worthy!), I saw it as evading real writing, so I sharply told my son to put it away and write something. He immediately looked crushed, and my heart sank, and I was repentant. But he wouldn’t pick it back up. A great little project, derailed by me.

And once, after reading some great ideas about writing with homeschooled children, I set up one of the writing experiences I’d read about and called everyone to the table. I explained what we were going to start doing and was met with blank stares, no enthusiasm, and a bit of disbelief. I don’t know what kind of response I expected, but this was not the way our family homeschooled, so I think it was a pretty natural one from the kids. When unschoolish kids are suddenly expected to be schoolish, it can be a bit jarring and even confusing. And the writing activity was ridiculous. I almost immediately saw this, but I persisted. Should I take the kids’ attitudes as laziness? As a sign that they were only able to do what they felt like doing? Had I hurt their character by letting them have so much say in the direction of their learning?

We carried on with the writing assignment. I was only asking for one good paragraph, after all! But the writing was painful. Two kids quickly wrote their paragraphs, clearly just to be done with it. One took awhile but finally eeked out a tortured, contrived paragraph. And one—a prolific, very hard-working writer otherwise—just sat there and sat there and sat there. After a long time, the writing was produced and handed to me. I read it and laughed. It was a dead-on commentary on enforced writing! And it cracked me up. I could have seen this as “disobedient” or even as “rebellious,” but I saw it as funny and right on the mark. And that was the last time I tried to incorporate a new writing idea into our lives.

Really, what was I trying to do? Most of my kids wrote all the time, and their writing was lively, interesting, thoughtful, often funny, and engaging. It had life to it. Without using curriculums or getting instruction, the kids’ writing improved continuously. But just because the writing was such a natural way of life and it didn’t look like anything set up in curriculums or programs, it seemed like we must be missing something that was going to enable the kids to write academically and analytically if they went to college. If they couldn’t even write one assigned paragraph, how were they ever going to learn to write a research paper?

Those were honest questions, but in my saner moments I knew I needn’t worry, and now that some of my kids have graduated college, I can look back and see that this has proved to be true. We didn’t ever set out to do research in order to know how. We didn’t ever sit down to hold a discussion on literature or history or anything the kids were doing. We simply learned about our interests, and we talked about them naturally—as we huddled next to the wood stove on cold mornings, as we sat together for tea, as we crossed paths with each other throughout the day, as we gathered at the table for meals, as we worked at our chores, as we drove along in the car. It was continual. Conversation, or discussion—communicating enjoyment of the things we loved and fine-tuning our ideas and insights—is one of the most indelible, enjoyable, and beneficial characteristics of our home education.

The kind of learning, reading, digging, research, thinking, and discussion the kids did naturally every day was excellent preparation for college papers (learning how to format and cite is quick and easy work for a mind that knows how to learn). They knew how to learn very well, and they were motivated and disciplined to do it. They knew how to think through and analyze what they were learning because they had done it so naturally over the years. They knew how to honestly consider opposing viewpoints because their interest-fueled learning had been a pursuit of truth and understanding and not just a means of propping up their current views. They knew how to dig deeper (research) in order to understand more and better. They knew how to communicate because they had read great writing and had many, many motivated discussions about the ideas they had both encountered and developed as they learned.

No formal papers were ever written in our homeschool high school. No essays were assigned (though the kids chose to write them occasionally). And we did no research papers. That’s probably shocking to many people, but I don’t regret it, and the kids not only did well on their college papers, but they did so well that professors sometimes asked them about their writing background. One of my kids was asked if they had been involved in a very rigorous writing program or if it just came naturally to them. I believe the right answer is actually the former. I’m convinced that our way of learning and thinking and writing was, in the end, actually rigorous. It was not the rigor of a well-crafted program or a demanding teacher, but it was a very organic, natural rigor that rose out of the kids learning by interest and passion.

And this was in spite of their flaky mother!


  1. absolutely wonderful. thank you so so much.

  2. Wow….I needed that today. Bless you.
    I will re-read it later (I'm in the middle of homeschooling my kids, haha,) But God sent that at just the right time!

  3. Oh wow! I'll read your stream of conscious posts any day (and likely reread them)!

    You articulated so many of the thoughts and doubts that I have with this way of life. You nailed the way my doubts can derail learning. I even had a DS write a cartoon for a writing assignment and I had a similar reaction (and remorse). I know your pain.

    One of the greatest fears (in HSing decisions) I have is that a door to the future might be closed to my children because I did not prepare them well. Thank you for the reminder that preparing them well does not always mean traditional school at home.

  4. Yes! Yes! Thank you! From one flaky mom to another...I needed to hear this. Bless you!

  5. Please don't ever stop blogging! Your writing, your words.. they are just what I need. I have printed out so many of your posts so that I can refer back to them when I start to question things. Thank you.

  6. Susan, I am immensely grateful for this. I have the same struggle, so your willingness to share your hindsight is a tremendous help to me. You have been where I am and gotten past it. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I was "on the fence" about this school year, wondering if I had been too "loosey gooosey" about structure in the past. Your advice to do some math, some reading, and some writing, with examples, is EXACTLY what I needed. You truly changed the direction of my family;s life today. THANK YOU !!!!!!

  7. Thank you! I am so glad that you have taken the time to write this out, because it has been the reminder I needed- the "why I do what I do and it is fine to do it this way" kind of reminder. I think I am officially ready for the new year to begin!

  8. Mother, will you PLEASE write a book? Thank you. I love you. You are wonderful. :)

  9. I'm with Michelle ! PLEASE write a book! Thank you. You are wonderful! :D

    Susan, you say that you had three requirements (or daily expectations) in the early years: to read and write something and do math every day until they had the tools down well. Then they could read and write what they wanted and do math in whatever way was best for them. Could you elaborate a bit on this please? Did they decide they wanted to do Algebra or Geometry, for instance, and choose the textbook they wanted to teach them? Did you really not guide them in any way as to what they would study? Or did you have suggested books or highly recommended book lists available to them? If so, your children seem quite amazing to me. I wonder how my kids would respond if I did that? Maybe google colleges to see what they require of incoming students, or check the Michigan public education requirements for graduation. Did you do that for your state? I am so very curious to know and understand your "method". I know that's not the right word choice, but it's all I can think of right now, and I think you'll still understand what I mean.

    I, too, would be so curious and grateful to hear how your children see all of this from their own perspectives. I know that is asking a lot, and want you to know it is just a wish that I have, and not a demand. Nothing I ask is a demand, but only a request that is graciously asked and gratefully accepted, if answered. Please know that.

    And I can totally identify with your fears and honest questions! Anyway, I want to thank you again for all of your self-professed ramblings. I love your writing style and your wisdom gained through prayer, study of God's word, and experience. You are such a blessing. Thank you.

  10. P.S. "Emotions are a gift, but they do not make a wise guide." So very true.

    One more question. I recall you once said that you followed a loose Charlotte Mason approach. In what ways would you say you did that? Was narration just whatever they chose to share with you and one another about the books they chose to read? Certainly their book choices were not twaddle. I don't want to keep pestering you...but I probably will! ;)