Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Spirit of Our Homeschool High School. . .

Books were the center-piece of our homeschool.
More about that later, but I needed a photo for today, so it was the books!
(And, oh, lookee! It practically matches the header above. ) 

I have made several attempts to write a one or two (or even three or four) paragraph post about how my family homeschooled high school. I figure that the more you know what you’re talking about, the shorter you can make your explanation. That’s how it works, right? Well, if so, then I really don’t know what I’m talking about regarding our own homeschool!

It’s been six years since my youngest daughter finished homeschooling, and 11 years since my oldest daughter did. As I tried to write about high school in recent days, I wondered if, along the way, I had idealized our little environment and made it sweeter in my mind than it really was—if I had begun to imagine the kids as more lively, motivated, and productive than they really were. But I’ve been reading through some of my old papers, notebooks, and journals of learning (I’m pretty straightforward and honest in these!), and while there were obviously some ups and downs and less than stellar attitudes (the kids’ and mine) dotting the path, the kids really were enthusiastic learners and extremely wonderful, interesting people. In fact, it amazes me now, looking back, how lovely our general environment and spirit of learning were.

What I’m going to do is write a series of posts. Not trying to lump everything together in one coherent essay will make this much easier (and more fun) for me to write and easier for you to read (those of you who wanted to know about our high school). So, today, I’ll give just a few sound-bytes that give the long view of our homeschool, and over the next week (or more), I’ll focus on some of the details of this macro-picture. I’ll try to keep each post relatively simple and I’ll do my best to answer questions if you have them (in comments).

Before I start, I want to say that I am not trying to create a pattern for homeschooling high school. I am not arguing that this is the best way for everyone. In fact, as I read back through some of my journals and notebooks, I’ve actually wondered how this happened. How did we do it? Why did it work for us? Could we, would we, still do it the same way if my kids were young now? Can it work for anyone else? Do you have to live in the country to do this? Was this kind of learning only possible before technology began to harangue us every moment of the day? I don’t know. It’s a fast-changing world. Do people still know how to live slowly and enjoy long days of reading, thinking, and learning? Or are we reduced to distraction and efficiency?

Those questions aside, let’s get started:

We didn’t do a lot of things others do in high school. We didn’t use curricula (except for math and sometimes as a resource for science). The kids never wrote a research paper at home (or studied how to write one). There were no set schedules and lesson plans to follow. I didn’t give the kids assignments, and there was no memory work, drill, quizzes, or tests. We didn’t do SAT prep (with an exception I’ll tell you about later) and there were no AP courses or tests. We didn’t have a daily schedule. I didn’t plan the kids “courses,” learning, or direction. I didn’t teach anything. On the other hand, we didn’t totally wing it, fly by the seat of our pants, or propel ourselves by whim, emotion, or inclination. Laziness, complaining, whining, or boredom wouldn’t have been tolerated.

What we did do was learn to read, write, think, and research very, very well (and those college research papers were easy—more on this later). A lot of our learning—particularly science—was often project-based, if the kids so chose (more on this later, too). We learned all the time because it was what the kids loved to do. The kids knew our daily business was to learn, and the kids chose what they would learn and how they would learn it (most of this happened very naturally without set plans). I kept a journal of what the kids read, watched, did, and where they went, and this was the basis for creating transcripts at the end of our years (I’ll explain how we made sure we had a nice transcript at the end of high school). We did move forward with an eye toward the end (there was a guiding vision). There was a high standard of excellence that guided our behavior, in learning and in all that we did. We had a book called 10 Real SATs, and the kids did two or three of these (sometimes more) to acquaint themselves with the format and style of the test.

I’ll be touching on the ideas above, and more, in future posts. But before I close, I’ll copy something I found in a box last week. I wrote this for myself—to keep—just as Aimee (my oldest) was ending her “senior” year in 2000. At the time, I was creating her transcript and was struck that it could not possibly convey the spirit of Aimee’s learning. I think this shows the ideal spirit of learning in our homeschool, and this was largely the way it went. It didn’t happen in a vacuum, though, and I hope, by the end of these posts to have explained what I mean by that:

“As I look over Aimee’s high school transcript, I smile. It states starkly in black and white, “Botany, 1 credit.” That’s it. That’s all anyone will ever see of Aimee’s high school botany study. Everything appears so quantifiable—her education efficiently reduced to mere letters and numbers on a page. But thinking back on Aimee’s learning, I am smiling. I picture her—not in black and white but in vivid, living color—relaxed and happy, bent over a tiny flower in the field, or sauntering along the roadside, notebook in hand, carefully observing and picking wildflower specimens to draw. I see her busily pressing flowers and then mounting them on special boards to create her own herbarium. I remember a content and smiling girl routinely picking wildflower bouquets or just a single flower to place in vase or jar to brighten her desk.

“I can see Aimee building her little fenced garden area with raised beds for growing herbs, strawberries, and wildflower perennials, and then going out each morning to tend it. And sitting so often on our deck next to that garden in the clear morning sun, with a cup of tea or coffee, her Bible, and her journal at hand.

“I think back to Aimee, cross-legged on the floor, listening to Bach or to her favorite opera while creating watercolor paintings of the wildflowers she’d picked. I think of Aimee’s awe and delight at the simplest flower and remember her carefully extracting seeds from her favorite flowers in the fall.  She was never in a hurry. She never had an assignment to complete. She was never pressed to study for an exam. Botany was, for her, not information to be studied in order to earn one credit for her high school transcript. “Botany” was simply the name of a beautiful and interesting world, and Aimee immersed herself in it.

“Aimee studied books and worked hard to acquire knowledge of plant life. She created slides to study under the microscope, rendered drawings of what she saw there, and kept a notebook of her drawings, paintings, and accumulated knowledge. She took a botany-oriented course on native wildflower and perennial gardening and xeriscaping at a community college. She visited botanical gardens. She accumulated a collection of beautiful, informative, and scientific books about botany, as well as biographies of some of its key figures (Gregor Mendel and others). Maybe because Aimee’s was a study born of delight, understanding the complexity of how plants develop, grow, thrive, and reproduce only increased its beauty in her eyes and mind. For Aimee, leaning about botany was a fascinating and enjoyable endeavor and not merely a course to be completed. In fact, we never thought of Aimee’s enjoyment of botany as a course at all until it was apparent she had begun to approach a level of expertise that would merit a high school science credit. In the end, we looked over all of the reading, learning, and projects Aimee had done and realized it was enough to make it official—“Botany, 1 credit.”

: : : : :

You should know that this course wasn’t done in one semester or even in one year, but it developed over four years of high school. Aimee’s was a study born of delight that happened to end up as a credit. We’ve taken the other approach, too. The kids sometimes chose an area of study and began to pursue it with the intention of earning a credit, but the way it was approached was still student-designed and delight-led. I will share one of these studies with you. The project that resulted from one of these studies is my favorite one that came out of our home. (I’ll put up pictures of this so you can see how it worked.)


  1. Susan- I am on the edge of my seat waiting to read the rest of your posts. I know that you are not telling others that they should homeschool in a specific way, but what you describe is the way we have always gravitated back to. Although a more natural, inquiry and project based approach to learning is how we thrive, I question myself often. I think that is why I am enjoying these posts so much. You are at the end of the road looking back. You know that your learning approach worked and you are able to share your reflections of how and why. I, for one, appreciate you taking the time. Also, I have a sense that you are sharing to help others (while enjoying a walk down memory lane) and not to sell anything to anyone. I thank you for that.

  2. One more thing... I loved the reflection of Botany credit for Aimee. I agree wholeheartedly that genuine learning is so much more than a grade and a credit. But it is hard to quiet all of the voices in the world crying that quantifiable, teacher-directed learning is the only learning that "counts."

    You wrote:

    "In fact, we never thought of Aimee’s enjoyment of botany as a course at all until it was apparent she had begun to approach a level of expertise that would merit a high school science credit. In the end, we looked over all of the reading, learning, and projects Aimee had done and realized it was enough to make it official—“Botany, 1 credit.”

    I was struck by the fact that you awarded credit based on knowledge and expertise. I would venture to guess that many, many students receive high school credit (and perhaps even an excellent grade) without acquiring much knowledge or expertise at all, Ironic, don't you think?

  3. YES!! more, more, more!! :-)

    I have already graduated 3 (the 3rd just stared college yesterday) and yet - I have 5 to go....

    We have schooled far more traditionally than I've preferred, although, many credits have been earned 'non-traditionally' as well.

    I am eager to read this entire series! Some things I'm wondering - in no particular order -
    who went to college? why / why not? Did you deal much with lack of motivation? I remember you mentioning one of the girls doing Advanced Math - because she WANTED to ~ I don't have a single child who would CHOOSE to do math of any kind, beyond very basic, use-every-day math. What then? I suppose if they aren't going on to college it doesn't matter much, but when Dad thinks college is a must - well, not only is college a must, but a scholarship is also necessary...

    I think yours would have been a lovely home to grow up in!!

  4. So looking forward to reading more! I love hearing how those who have gone before have done it. My eldest will graduate this year, and this is all very timely for me-the transcripts, the SAT prep, and so on. Thank you for sharing of your wisdom so generously- this has been the "shot in the arm" that I needed to get me excited about the upcoming year!

  5. Wow! Such a difference in the way to approach learning than traditional school in our country. I don't know what planet I was living on but never knew one could homeschool nor met anyone that home schooled when my adult children were growing up.

    Although at home they wrote notebooks and notebooks of their own stories with illustrations, conducted puppet plays with their own stage out cardboard boxes, collected bugs, etc.


  6. This is so great. My children are still young school-age, but it is wonderful to see and hear what things can look like further down the path. It is also affirming....we learn like this now. Your writing is a blessing to me, I so enjoy it--all of it! :-)

  7. Thank you! I too am wondering a bit of the same as "the momma" - i can see my two girls following a similar path to Aimee's - but my 14 year old son? I don't think he has "found" much of interest outside of legos - and he has hit the imit with those as we can't afford to next level of those - 300.00 per set! Did you ever deal with any children who had a hard time finding that love of learning?
    We ilmit video/computer to 30 minutes on Saturday - no T.V. - so i am not sure what has stunted his imagination this last year...

    Thanks so much Susan
    P.S. - when you were writing High Desert Home and ended that season i prayed long and hard for you for many months after that - you are dear to me in so many ways and I ached with you wihtout knowing details - so thank you for coming back to this world of e-mail -
    Much much love,

  8. Oh so thankful for your Summer Notebook :) and your insight here! My homeschool journey began just over 2 years ago... I had just lost my job and KNEW it was a blessing in disguise when I came across 4 blogs in particular... yours, Tonia's, Ann's and Amanda Soule's. And then there were others of course. :) But the four of you planted seeds that just THIS week have started to sprout!! So exciting that I have 2 that have already graduated from public school, but have begun to homeschool a 14 y/o, 10 y/o and 6 y/o. All this is to say that I do especially appreciate what you are sharing about your approach to high school - it is very freeing and certainly reinforces the beauty of homeschooling. I'm going to end with the same sentiment as Debbie above and just thank you again for being here - I'm blessed!

  9. just sitting here thinking...not sure I can get it sorted out, but I feel like our home is mixture of learning as we eat, play and work and learning intentionally through lessonwork...any thoughts on doing both well would be great.
    I loved the notes on Aimiee's botany studies, the learning sounded contagious!

  10. Thank you all for the support for these posts! I hope they will be encouraging and helpful. :-) Tracey, I loved some of your thoughts. I'll say more about that, as well as the other comments, when I can come back online. (Don't have time right now! :-) ) Blessings, and I'll write more posts soon.

  11. I read these again, and I thank you again. There are some really good comments here (and some nice encouragement). I have made note of the questions and will attempt to address them directly. My batter is close to dead, so I need to post this comment before it goes. . . :-)

    More soon!

  12. Susan,
    I used to read your words at High Desert Home, and am so thankful you are blogging again! I love reading your posts, and have been doing so ever since Tonia first linked over here, alerting me to the fact that you were writing again. :)

    I'm sitting up and taking mental notes of all your homeschooling-in-the-high-school-years thoughts (though I'm years and years away from that!)~ but I am thankful to be able to "see" what can be done in those years to come.

    I loved what you wrote about how you pictured your Aimee "not in black and white but in vivid, living color". YES! The contrast of that single line of a class credit and your inquisitive, creative, exploring, eager-to-learn girl is so refreshing.

    Thank you for sharing.
    Blessings to you and yours,