How Early Education Can Be a Trap

“Do I have to do this?” my son pipes up from his room as he does his sit down work.

“Do I have to do this part, too?” my daughter echoes from her room after I tell my son that yes, when I assign something, I expect it to be done.

Our homeschool is still smarting from some of my early mistakes. Mea culpa.

You see, we started homeschooling when my daughter was three. Nothing huge, I will add. It was just simple stuff like cutting paper, sticking things, crafts, singing – things like that.

At the time, I was excited about homeschooling and wanting to put some structure on my day with a toddler. I thought it would help us (ahem… me!) as she got older. And then her brother came along and saw what she was doing and he got involved as well. Early.

So here we are with him at age 7 doing multiple digit multiplication and reading well above his grade level.

All well and good, right? Weeeellll, sort of. The problem is that because I started them early and because I knew that sometimes workbooks and curricula push things that children are not physiologically ready for, I would remove chunks out of whatever book we were using with the words, “Don’t do this. You’re not ready for it yet.”

Sure, we would go back to it later, but not always from the same workbook. I am endlessly eclectic in my choices. It does not bother me to leave a workbook halfway done if the concept has been internalized. But here’s the thing: the children got the message that they didn’t need to do it if they couldn’t.

While I was trying not to overwhelm them with things that were beyond their physiological capabilities, I inadvertently taught them not to apply their abilities at all. Yikes!

This mistake could easily have been avoided with some patience. I could have delayed academic learning.

Instead of rushing on ahead, I could have waited a few more years to get started. Sometimes, just because they can do something, it doesn’t mean they should. 

Well, lesson learned, people! My current four year old does (almost) no formal learning, even though my daughter loves to play “homeschooling mom” with him. This time, I’ll be patient and push only when necessary – much, much later.

Of course, all is not lost and it is possible to break bad habits and learn good ones. But I’ve had to be intentional about it. And in the interim, I’ve had to hear some grumbling and groaning – some of it my own.

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Beware the Golden Age of Homeschooling

It’s a great time to be homeschooling your kids. Even mainstream magazines says so. Heck, even Elon Musk recently said he was unschooling his child. If that doesn’t make homeschooling cool, what does?

The Tyranny of Choice

There are homeschooling workshops everywhere you look. There are countless numbers of books about how to do it right. Curricula now fills the first ten pages of a simple Google search. For a new homeschooling family, overwhelment can quickly take the place of excitement.

We have a tyranny of choice. What curriculum will you choose? Which book will you read? What classes will your child take? What is your style of teaching? How about the style of your child? Which books will you pick?

Sigh. Even as I write this, I know. I have my own contributions to this. Recently someone on my Facebook page posted that she didn’t have the resources we did when it came to homeschooling her kids and isn’t it wonderful that we do?

Yes, But…

Don’t get me wrong. I am not bemoaning our choices, simply stating that they can get overwhelming very quickly. I love being about to ask questions in Facebook groups, to look something up, to buy a new curriculum (or no curriculum for that matter!) if one goes sour.

But all these choices can sometimes be paralyzing and downright frustrating. Faced with a hundred options, some will delay choosing while some others will try to cram it all in.

Please don’t do that! If you can, avoid both those extremes.

Here’s the best advice I can give you – especially if this is your first year of homeschooling – don’t begin with searching for curricula of any kind. Spend more time dreaming. Some some time creating mental maps of what you want your homeschooling and your family to look like during this time. Then work backwards from there.

Beginning with the end in mind works because it eliminates some options. Spend some time removing things before adding them and you’ll notice that choosing (and planning!) gets easier.

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Crafting Classical Unschooling

A memory: my daughter is a toddler. My husband and I are dealing with a discipline issue I can’t remember. She’s our first child and we are plotting with the kind of hope and blind optimism first time parents bring to such things.

“We have to be ready for the next time,” my husband reminds me.

I am not fazed.

“Situations can be created,” I aver.

He laughs. “You sound like an FBI agent.”

Unschooling sometimes gets a bad rap. People sometimes assume it means doing nothing at all. If you’ve read my book The Classical Unschooleryou probably know my take on the matter of radical unschooling. While it might work for others, it is not something that our family has chosen.

We much prefer classical unschooling.

Classical unschooling isn’t a thing that automatically happens. As I mentioned above regarding my (then) toddler, situations have to be created for our days to go well.

Strewing is a strategy we use often. Often, if I notice that my children are interested in something, I will put related things in their paths so that they can learn more about the topic.

We also memorize. We don’t do a lot of this, but just enough that there is something for the mind to dwell on or recall with ease.

Your homeschooling style doesn’t have to be either/or.

I know that as someone who straddles two supposed extremes, I often get ridiculed from both sides. I have heard both the argument of not doing “true” unschooling and “dumbing down” classical education.

Pick a side, I’m constantly told. But I resolutely refuse to do so for the simple reason that this works for us.

I will always pick what works over an ideology. Better to choose an education for yourself and your children rather than a style.

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On Remembering and Not Forgetting

I’ve been reading a very interesting book called Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention by Katherine Ellison. It’s a memoir about a woman dealing with her son’s hyperactivity and oppositional defiant disorder. The book is also a meditation on paying attention as an adult. The author weaves the two narratives together.

The thing that struck me most about the book was this: one of the therapists Ellison has been dealing with tells her to put a picture of her “problem child” as a baby on the fridge. It is a reminder, he says, to her of who she is dealing with – this is her baby.

It made me wonder about the nature of remembering.

We are often told to pay attention to the present moment. I don’t want to miss anything as the children grow. This season of motherhood has long days and short years. But, but, but… in the midst of that I find that something gets lost.

Sometimes, when I am so focused on the current moment and getting to that next step, I forget where we came from. I forget that this is my baby. And as such, that reminder to put the child’s photograph as a baby on the fridge seemed to me very good advice indeed.

When did you last think of the first rush of motherhood? Of homeschooling?

I’ll confess: it’s been way too long for me. There is a reason we celebrate birthdays, anniversaries. The reason is that we shouldn’t forget, but often do. In the everyday craziness of routines and schedules and curricula, I must remind myself of the first few steps we took toward living like this. The first time my children read a word, the first time they wrote, first times – which too soon become the last times.

So remember. Throw a not-back-to-school party and take time to remember. It’s important.

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Teaching Children Writing

Next to teaching children to read, perhaps the next task fraught with stress and uncertainty is teaching writing. There are entire courses dedicated to how to write – ones that some homeschoolers swear by. And while my intention is not to deride any of those courses, I want to say that writing isn’t hard.

Forget Academic Writing

I have an MFA (a Master of Fine Arts – a terminal degree) in creative writing. And I doubt I would have it today if I had pursued writing of the academic sort. From a very young age, I was interested in stories. I remember crafting poems and short stories since I was about eight or nine years old.

While I had some training in grammar, it certainly did not involve more than just the basics. I don’t remember ever studying tenses. And I never diagrammed a single sentence. I had not been asked to cite another writer’s work. I had no exposure to what we call “academic writing.”

What I did get however is excellent exposure to good literature. And I loved to read. I read and experimented with different forms and voices in my writing. Suspense, mystery and crime novels gave me my plot and pacing constructions. I devoured these books, loaned to me happily by my older brother.

All this to say, if you’re teaching your children writing, don’t start with the academic. Start here.

Three Strategies for Teaching Writing

  • Reading / Memorization / Copy Work

We learn in most cases by imitating. So it makes sense to read to children. Reading and memorization is the most basic form of putting templates of good writing into their heads so that construction of sentences and sentence structure become second hand to them.

To this, you can add copy work. If you are concerned about spelling or grammar, have them copy a few well chosen, well constructed sentences from their favorite book of stories or poetry.

  • Blogging

If they want to make the foray into slightly more serious writing, create a free blog and let them at it. If you do not wish for others to see it, keep it on a private setting. This is a great way to encourage them to put down their thoughts on paper, um… screen. It’s also excellent typing practice.

My daughter has a blog that she updates off and on. It gives her a creative outlet and I will usually go over it with her and correct her errors when she’s not feeling defensive. This is a great way to teach writing and spelling because it is she who is doing the asking and the learning and not me making her do it.

  • Writing Stories / Copy Work

Another method to employ is one used by a friend of mine. For her more reluctant writer, she would type out stories he told her, as he told them. Then she would print those out and give them to him to copy by hand. When he saw that he actually had things to say that sounded interesting, he was more interested in writing.

Teaching writing doesn’t need to be scary. Just be creative about it.

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The Case for Starting with Bad History

Anyone who reads this blog knows I’m a lover of history. I often have book suggestions and lists for you to browse that I label “good” history. But today I want to deal with the relatively controversial topic of “bad” history.

What “Bad” History?

I’ve been mulling over this idea in my mind that it is usually a good idea to begin learning where and when you can. Begin where you are is my motto. Of course you can’t and don’t – and won’t – stay where you are if you read and study and learn enough.

Consider the boom in current historical fiction. Books and movies and Netflix shows – there is supposed history all around us. “But that’s not how it happened!” and “Revisionist!” is the cry we often hear. And let’s not forget “Fake news!” Surely, we should avoid bad history, right? I mean, it’s a lie.

But wait, I say. (And don’t call me Shirley. Heh.)

Bias is Inevitable

We’ve been listening to the Histories of Herodotus in the car on drives while running errands. And while there is much that is informative in it, the true value of listening to Herodotus is in the entertainment of it. History is a narrative, after all, and Herodotus manages to maintain a veneer of factual reporting while letting slip some pretty liberal use of “so I’ve been tolds.”

All this to say bias is inevitable. No matter where you start, depending on where you stand, history looks different. There’s no sense in denying it or trying to make it “fair.”

In fact it is in the trying that we most belie our biases.

So why not start there? Start with bad history, if you must. At least it gives you something to think about – something to sink your mental teeth into. Then go from there. Argue, sound out, find out. Learn and grow. Look at things from various perspectives.

Then create your own. If nothing else, you will have worked your way through some fallacies and created an argument.

And in the process, you will have learned more than a simple rendition of the facts.

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Before You Add, Subtract

Growing up, I never understood why my parents did not like me saying I can’t find it. Now that I have children of my own, I get it.

Just yesterday, I ordered a garbage bag because the kids were going through the closet where we  keep school supplies and were unable to find what they needed. Yes, a garbage bag – because the first thing you must do when you can’t find something is start throwing things away.

Before You Add…

So perhaps in math, you get to add before you subtract, all you PEMDAS fans. But when it comes to curriculum or teaching styles or even for simple sanity’s sake, it makes sense to subtract before you add.

This is not just true when homeschooling in a small house. While it is necessary in a small house to keep clutter down, this is an effective tool no matter what size of home you have.

It makes sense to get into the habit or removing before adding in almost every situation that demands space – mental, physical or temporal.

Buying Curricula

It’s the time of year when many homeschooling parents are excitedly making lists, looking over other homeschooling parents’ lists and searching online for what to add to their schedule. I love research! And if some books and classes are good, more should be better, right?

Um, no. Let’s not drown the children in work just yet.

Before you add anything to your schedule, consider removing something else.

We Have a Rule

Because we have limited storage in our home, our rule for bringing anything into it is pretty strict – there has to be a place we can put it before we buy it and we have to eliminate one other thing. This is especially true of clothes and books.

We choose to donate an equal amount of each. So if I buy a bag of books from a library sale, I have to donate a bag.

While this is good for frugal reasons, when it comes to planning for homeschooling, this idea works wonders. This year, when you decide you want to add something – an activity, a workbook, a read aloud, consider two things: where will it go in your day and is there anything you can remove before you add it in?

Do that first. Before you add, subtract.

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Choose Education, Not An Affiliation

Here’s a question: what’s the easiest way to get frustrated as a homeschooler? Answer: trying to fit into a mold that is clearly not made for you. Or your kids.

There are a few ways this can happen. Here I will talk about three of the most common.

These mistakes happen most often around the first or second year of homeschooling. Usually, parents who persist beyond the third year figure things out and settle into some basic patterns comfortable to them.

Believing an Education Philosophy That Doesn’t Fit Your Personality

I write about this often enough that if you’re a reader of this blog, you’ve come across a few posts about this. I am still constantly surprised, though, at the number of people who tell me that they can’t homeschool because they’re not organized. The truth is if they’ve got an idea of how homeschooling is supposed to look  and that is the reason you’re afraid of it, that idea is probably the wrong one.

Education does not happen because the children are ready at 9 am, hair and teeth brushed, pencils sharpened. It does not happen because you they can obey you or listen for your voice in a crowded room. They are not educated because they have manners. While these contribute to refinement and ease things in terms of interpersonal relationships, education can happen outside of these trappings.

Figure out your family’s characteristics, your own personality, your child’s personality and work with it. Don’t force homeschooling in a top down manner. You will fail.

Throwing Good Money After Bad Curricula

So let’s say you bought a bad curriculum. I’ve been there. There is a certain math curriculum out there that I’d really enjoy burning. So now what? Do you stick with it day in and day out even though you hate it? Or should you get another and make it work? Or should you dump the whole thing and start over? Do you even need curricula?

Here’s the point I’m trying to make: at any point in your homeschooling, you can choose to quit a certain way of doing things. If you are not seeing the results you want, if this is not the way you or your family does things, if the curriculum isn’t doing what you’d like it do for you, feel free to dump it. There is no reason to wait until the end of the year.

Listening to Too Many Education Experts

While most homeschoolers will agree with the above, I think this is one that trips up many. Choose an affiliation wisely is the best advice I can give you. At any point, if what the person/friend/blogger/expert/teacher says (and yes, I include myself here) you are free to disagree to him or her and do things your way. Yes, this counts even if the person is dead. (I’m looking at you, Mason and Montessori.)

Who cares if that’s not the way to establish a good habit? Who cares if that’s how children were taught in Ancient and Medieval times? If it doesn’t work for your family, do it the way it works. Period.

You’re in this for your children. You’re not in this for anyone else. Choose an education for them, not an affiliation for you.

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Homeschooler, Deschool Yourself!

It’s that time when everyone is returning to school. I’m sure your Facebook feed – like mine – is full of it. Parents are thrilled kids are back in school and to homeschoolers it seems like an odd thing that so many are so happy not to see their children for an entire day, day in and day out for weeks and months.

….until we realize that maybe it has little to do with physical proximity and more to do with worldview.

You see, in the public school worldview, everyone in a family goes off and does their thing individually in their specific “cubicles,” if you will. Everything is segregated. Everything is specialized. There are subjects and disciplines that do not intersect. Margins and borders are drawn in thick, black markers.

But is that truly the world we live in today?

Think about it. In a world where kindergartners are being groomed to go to college as an ultimate goal, are we truly ever done learning even after college? Do we even need a degree to learn something? In this age of information, what does a degree even signal? In a time when more and more employees are in charge of their own schedules and choose to work remotely, what exactly is the value of a cubicle?

It’s a great time to homeschool but we first have to deschool ourselves.

We have to stop thinking of education as something that comes from one benign source. We have to give up the desire to be spoonfed information. Deschooling, unlike what people might have in mind, requires constant, consistent learning. It is a shift in perspective from, “Teach me!” to “I’m going to find out!”

Before we homeschool effectively, we must deschool. We must get rid of the idea that anyone out there cares more about the education, information and knowledge that will come our way besides we ourselves.

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My Favorite Math Hack

Every once in a while, an idea comes along that changes things forever. This was one such idea that was given to me. It changed our homeschool completely once I implemented it. I’m a big fan of the wisdom of crowds in homeschooling, with one caveat – the people helping need to understand you are your child’s teacher and support, rather than direct, you.

With all that said, let’s get to it. Here’s my favorite math hack: 1 inch quadrille paper.

My children tend to work on their own quite a bit. They prefer to get their math and language arts sit down work at night before bedtime. That way, we have the day free for play, exploration, art, science and history.

While I love that they work alone most of the time, I can’t always be there to remind them to write neatly and align the numbers under the right place value. Some curricula actually use vertical lines to make sure this happens, but as of this writing, I am not using any math curricula. In fact, if you’ve read my book The Classical Unschooler you know that there is at least one out there I’d like to see burn.

… And I have a seven year old lefty who likes math. He likes it enough to have moved on to multiple digit multiplication – one of those in which writing under the proper place value is imperative.

Enter graph paper – ta-dah! Now instead of his numbers being sloppy and looking like they’re falling asleep and drifting off the page or getting ready to eat each other, they remain contained in their little squares – one digit to each. I will never have my children do math without graph paper again. Place value remains aligned and his work is (relatively) neat and clean.

I don’t know what I did before I started using it.

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