The Joy of Being on the Sidelines

If you’re naturally an introvert, homeschooling can seem daunting at first. After all, the number of classes and co-ops calling your name are endless. You can easily find yourself in the midst of all the action, surrounded by people – great people, ones you love and agree with, but still… people. And groups. What’s an introverted homeschooling mom to do?

I’m here to tell you this: it’s okay to be on the sidelines.

You will rarely find me in the “in crowd.” At parties, I prefer to be on the sidelines. I am usually the last person in the group to know the latest news. I dislike meetings.

I like to get along with most people, but large groups and infighting drain me. I prefer the company of two to three friends at a time. And I need time to decompress after seeing large groups of people. Or I get sick – I’m not kidding on this one.

So, homeschoolers? If you’re someone like me, let me offer you this perspective – it’s just fine. Here are some of the advantages of being on the sidelines.

You hear less gossip

Let’s face it. People can’t stop talking and they can’t stop talking about each other. I find the more I hang out in groups the more likely I am to hear things that do not concern me and things I wish I never knew about someone else. They have the effect of making me tired.

Being on the sidelines and limiting too much interaction rids me of that problem. I know enough to navigate my way through life and that’s quite enough, thank you very much.

You can focus on what’s important

When you’re homeschooling, unschooling or trying to do what’s necessary and important, focus is paramount. Unfortunately, it’s also at a premium. Getting things done requires a laser like focus – especially when you’re in your everyday environment.

Not being in the in crowd means you have that focus. You don’t get pulled in ten different directions.

You’re less likely to get sidetracked

I have written before about how I don’t like to do too many activities. I don’t think it’s healthy for the children and I don’t think it’s good for anyone to have every minute of their lives in scheduled activities.

The advantage of not keeping up with the homeschooling Joneses is that you can plan your days without getting sidetracked. You don’t have people asking you to go out every weekend and you don’t overschedule your life. You can breathe.

So if you feel left out when you’re on the sidelines as a homeschooler, don’t. There are special joys there only some can see. Sometimes, a square peg in a round hole is exactly what you need to be!

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Homeschooling as Art: Don’t Explain Yourself

I often face a dilemma when it comes to writing. Whether it is fiction or a memoir or this blog, I find myself feeling the need to explain it.

When I share a blog post on Facebook or elsewhere, I feel an overwhelming urge to discuss my motivation behind writing it. Worse, sometimes, I want to explain what I meant to say when I wrote it.

As if the piece itself wasn’t there. As if the work couldn’t speak for itself.

If you’ve ever been in a homeschooling group – virtual or otherwise – you know this desire to explain is deep-seated.

If you’re an unschooler, you want to explain why you do what you do. Or if you follow the Charlotte Mason style, you feel the need to show that it works. If you tend to lean toward the Classical style, you want to show the benefits of that.

I’m not talking here about answering questions to newbie homeschoolers. That is one of the nicest things the homeschooling community does. I’m referring to the desire to prove that one’s style of teaching one’s own child is valid and that it “works” – whatever that means.

Tied in with that desire to convince someone else that your style works for your family is an inherent lack of self confidence.

By attempting to explain what you do and insisting that your children are “on track,” you are inadvertently giving a nod to the factory model of education. You are essentially saying, Look, I made this at home, but it’s just as good as what comes off the conveyor belt.

But let me show you a better way.

Don’t. Just don’t explain. Let the work you have done in your children speak for itself – even if it is years from now. Let your legacy tell the truth of your family and the work you have done. Let your homeschool be your masterpiece – one of a kind.

Don’t ruin it by explaining it.

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The Case for Reading Widely

An article about teachers not reading came to my attention the other day. You might remember that I have bemoaned the fact that not enough people read enough of the classics. But even with that, I sometimes think I have to make the case to read widely, not deeply.

Academia – in general – does not support a wide reading base, favoring depth over breadth. Wide knowledge comes mostly through interest and self directed learning.

Read Widely not Deeply

I am not a deep reader. I rarely read technical manuals – no surprise there. But I do read widely. I cannot name a favorite book. Most times we go to the library or the book store, I will wander the aisles and bring home to read whatever strikes my fancy.

I am not fussy when it comes to books.

As a result, I don’t know very much of any one thing, but I do have some knowledge of a wide range of things.

Now, lest I sound like I’m tooting my own horn, here’s my disclaimer. I only mention this because I see this in the reading habits of children.

Children Already Do This

My kids, I have noticed, will do exactly this.

They will wander the aisles of the library, find something that captures their attention and then grab the entire bookshelf of books about it. Next week, it’s onto something else. Or they will pick a book here and book there, not settling on any one subject.

As a result, they know a little bit about a lot.

Why Is Reading Widely Important?

Two instances illuminate the need for reading widely. In The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean – an excellent book, by the way, and highly recommended – he mentions Gilbert Lewis. Chances are, you’ve never heard of him.

Lewis never secured the Nobel Prize because his work was broad
rather than deep. He never discovered one amazing thing, something you could point to and say, Wow! Instead, he spent his life refining how an atom’s electrons work in many contexts, especially the class of molecules known as acids and bases. In general, whenever atoms swap electrons to break or form new bonds, chemists say they’ve “reacted.” Lewis’s work on acids and bases did as much as anyone’s to show what exchanging electrons means on a submicroscopic level.

So without Lewis, we would know about acids and bases, but not much about how they actually exchanged electrons.

Here’s another example

In Kon-Tikianother fantastic book, the writer Thor Heyerdahl narrates his 1947 journey by raft across the Pacific Ocean from South America to the Polynesian islands. Heyerdahl believed that people from South America could have settled Polynesia in pre-Columbian times. His aim in mounting the Kon-Tiki expedition was to show, by using only the materials and technologies available to those people at the time, that there were no technical reasons to prevent them from having done so.

But he ran into problems – partially because his theory covered a few academic areas, because he thought broadly, not deeply. Here’s a quote from the book, where someone who joins him on the expedition explains why he had trouble getting funding:

“Your way of approaching the problem. They’re specialists, the whole lot of them, and they don’t believe in a method of work which cuts into every field of science from botany to archaeology. They limit their own scope in order to be able to dig in the depths with more concentration for details. Modern research demands that every special branch shall dig in its own hole. It’s not usual for anyone to sort out what comes up out of the holes and try to put it all together.”

Yes, we need the technical, deep readers and thinkers, but we also especially need those who will pull up any book that looks interesting, will let the ideas slosh around inside their minds for a while. We need people who will pull threads from various sources, see similarities and create theories where there previously were none.

We need innovators.

Be those people. Let your children be those people. Don’t be afraid to read widely, not deeply.

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Motivation: Can It Be Taught?

I’ve been reading a fantastic new book by Charles Duhigg. He is the author of The Power of HabitThe new book is every bit as good as the first one. What particularly struck me was Duhigg’s assertion that motivation can be taught. This would interest us as homeschoolers in particular and parents in general.

Through various examples, in Smarter, Faster, Better Duhigg says that people who are motivated and self directed usually have an “internal locus of control.”

The Key to Motivation

People with an internal locus of control are more self assured, get better grades, work harder, get paid more. They also tend to be married longer. An internal locus of control is a belief that people can do something to change the outcome of their future. It is knowing that it is not something out there that is in control, but they themselves.

Individuals with a strong internal locus of control believe events in their life derive primarily from their own actions: for example, when receiving exam results, people with an internal locus of control tend to praise or blame themselves and their abilities. People with a strong external locus of control tend to praise or blame external factors. – N.R.Carlson

The Way Forward

So based on this information, how do you motivate our children? Give them some control over their environment! It is another reason to avoid environments like public school that take choices away from children.

You really ought to read Duhigg’s book for the entire thrust of the argument along with the examples, but here’s the gist. If you want someone to be motivated, give him choices. Force them to make choices – often, even if they are small ones.

If you are dealing with unmotivated, lackadaisical children, try it. Give them more choices over their environment and watch them thrive.

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Skimming to the Test

I’m afraid I have a seven and half year old speed reader on my hands. In fact, I think he might be worse than a speed reader: he might be a skimmer.

You know the kind – the kind like me. The ones that read the questions first and the comprehension passage later. The ones that instinctively skim the passage because they know all they have to do is answer the questions anyway. No sense getting attached to the characters in the story.

But, Wait…

Is that necessarily a bad thing?

When I noticed my son was doing this with his reader, I was troubled. He wasn’t doing a careful reading of the passage, I instinctively thought. He needed to read it, understand it and then answer the questions.

He wasn’t paying attention the way he was supposed to. He wasn’t doing what the workbook was designed for.

But wait, I said. What if he was doing just that – differently?

Kids Know How to Hack Learning

And they know it almost as well as we do, perhaps better. Allow me to explain. Think back to the last time you wanted to learn something – say it was a research study on how something affects your body. What did you do?

Did you read the entire study carefully from beginning to end, word by word, or did you quickly look up the one very specific thing you were looking for? Didn’t you go back over it only if you needed to? If something didn’t make sense or if something seemed odd?

Weren’t you then just skimming too?

What I’m trying to get to is that skimming too is a form of reading. It’s a form of learning. Not all books need a close, word by word reading. Skimming or speed reading is not something to worry too much about.

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested. – Francis Bacon

Some Books Just Need to be Tasted

If you are concerned about the reading habits of your child or want him to read deeper, here’s a trick: instead of answering the comprehension questions at the bottom of the passage, have him narrate what he just read to you.

But do remember that you might not want to teach skimming out of the child completely. It’s a habit that will likely come in handy as he grows.

Skimming is a skill, after all, in focusing on what is most important, ignoring what’s not and eliminating distractions.

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Homeschooling Is More Than Just A Schedule

The hyper-organized type A woman inside me likes a schedule. She likes checking things off; it makes her feel accomplished. The relaxed homeschooler, also inside me, knows that a schedule doesn’t count for much. What she needs is a template. And she says as long as the general rhythm of our work and play is good, we are on track.

But successful homeschooling is something else altogether: it is a mental map.

I’ve been reading Charles Duhigg’s new book Smarter, Better, Faster where he mentions the concept of a mental map. The people who are good at what they do, he says, are the ones who spend time dreaming, or better said, telling themselves stories. These stories are their mental maps.

One of his more harrowing examples is that of two plane landings – one that ends in disaster and one successful. The other and perhaps more relevant one to my case here is that of a nurse who spotted a baby in the NICU that “didn’t look right.”

The baby had sepsis, they later found, even though all the machines spit out normal data. If it hadn’t been for the nurse with her mental map of what a healthy baby ought to look like, the child could have died.

As homeschoolers, we should have mental maps of what we want our children to be. We should be spending more time day dreaming and less time planning a schedule. And even less time testing.

Too often, we get our mental maps from others – public schools, with their grade levels and subjects, teachers, questioning us about socialization and if we’re doing it right, various curricula and its scope and sequence. Do we ever stop and dream? Do we consult our mental maps? Do we even have any?

Start with dreaming up a mental map. Tell yourself a story. Then work your way backwards to a schedule. Setting aside all goals, tasks and curricula, what is it you want your child to be like? What is your ideal day with him or her? Start there. Check your days against those maps. They’re the most reliable navigators.

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What I Am Reading This Fourth of July

If you have been a reader of this blog for a while, you know that I love history. I find it fascinating to watch seemingly innocuous events build up into nations. And I enjoy watching greatness thrust upon people.

When it comes right down to it, fiction has nothing on history.

So this Fourth of July, after scouring book stores and libraries, I have these recommendations for you.

Mind you, they’re not all for your children, some are for you as background reading and general knowledge. Okay, let’s get into it.

America’s Hidden History and A Nation Rising by Kenneth Davis. In both these books, the writer takes meticulous care to mention details, an aspect I have come to appreciate. That makes these books the opposite of textbooks or badly written history, both of which give you just a general sweep of events and no mental hooks to hang your knowledge on.

Ultimately, you may or may not agree with the writer’s (of these books as well as others) assessment of the people involved – individuals are deeply flawed and books like to present people in either glowing honors or as vicious brutes – but it lends to a more nuanced look at the past.

A Little History of United States by James West is one you can definitely use as a textbook. I plan on doing so. In the vein of Gombrich’s A Little History of the World it is something you can read aloud to the children or have them read for themselves.

It is not a textbook, there are no comprehension questions at the end, there are no fill-in-the-blanks, which makes it read like a story…. which is how we prefer to study history – as a narrative.

And lastly, I’ve also been thoroughly enjoying A Renegade History of the United States by Thaddeus Russell. If you’re tired of reading books that place historical figures on pedestals on the one hand and then incriminate them for being slave owners and responsible for wiping out native populations on the other, might I suggest this book?

Fair warning: it is not for the sensitive. If reading about prostitutes, drunks, slaves and other, let’s say, less than perfect events and people of history bothers you, you would do well to stay away from this book. However, I am finding it rather fascinating.

By turning the focus away from the leaders and shifting it to the people on the street so to speak, Russell did for me what few historians ever manage – to make me feel like I was there, right smack dab in the middle of it.

Have a great Fourth of July! And if you can’t get enough American history, check out my past recommendations here.

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Don’t Trust the Process

I have a pet peeve.

I belong to a whole host of Facebook groups. What can I say, it’s nice to be able to socialize without leaving the house. And the fact that there is at least one thing in common with the members is reassuring to this introvert.

If there’s one statement that pops up over and over in these groups, whether it be for low carbohydrate living or working out, it’s this: trust the process. Occasionally, someone struggling will post that they’re not seeing results and the answer they get is the same: trust the process.

Don’t Trust the Process

I don’t like getting or giving out this answer. You might as well tell me to shut up, sit down and stop asking questions. And that makes my blood boil.

Don’t get me wrong. I think the motivation behind this retort is valid. People who “trust the process” are on to something. But here’s the thing: they trust the process because it has worked for them. In other words, they have seen results.

Take homeschooling for instance. If you are working hard at it and not seeing any positive benefits, what should you do? Don’t let people tell you it will work itself out, that you should trust the process.

Do This Instead

Instead of trying to summon up the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius, begin to set some realistic goals. If the word “goals” sounds too intimidating, call them markers. Get an idea of where you are and where you would like to be, or in this case, where you would like your child to be.

These markers may not all be academic. Mood, motivation, desire to learn, independence, willingness to do things – these can all be goals as well.

In an earlier blog post, I mentioned how having daily goals for your homeschool can help you stay on track and create a habit of discipline. But there are two kinds of discipline – one is created organically in the pursuit of a meaningful goal. The other is arbitrary and for its own sake.

Find the organic one that works for you; don’t listen to your friends. Then measure your days against that discipline, measure your results against those markers.

Don’t trust the process, chase your results.

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Why Homeschoolers Say “No, Thank You!” to Homeschooling Credits

Last week, I shared a news story on the Facebook page for The Classical Unschooler that got much attention. A bill, introduced by an Assemblywoman in New Jersey, would give homeschoolers a tax credit between $1000 and $3000.

“If parents decide that the home is the best learning environment for their children, a tax credit can help offset the cost of the many expensive yet fundamental educational resources they will need.” – McKnight.

When the story broke, most homeschoolers wrote, “No, thank you.” I was – still am – in that camp. Others however wondered why.

After all, a tax credit isn’t like a voucher. The government cannot regulate what you spent the money on – simply that you homeschool. Also, considering that you are paying taxes, this credit isn’t “their” money, it’s your money that would come back to you.

These are valid points, I will admit.

A tax credit isn’t a voucher; it is self-reported just like mortgage interest, employee and medical expenses – for which we get credits or deductions. It also is a completely different from enrolling in a charter school that assigns an education specialist to oversee curricula, progress, grade levels and pays the “homeschooling” parent for expenses.

I’m not a fan of either, by the way, but that’s a blog post for another time. Here, I want to address why homeschoolers are so vehemently opposed to any kind of government programs for us.

The answer is simple: we don’t like the idea of a homeschooling credit because it draws the attention of the government. It attracts regulation.


Homeschoolers like to be left alone. Only in being completely free of the state do we have freedom. Yes, it costs a little more – sometimes a lot more, but we see that as a necessary price. As homeschoolers, we do our best to hide.

Some of my readers argued that we use other tax credits legally. Yes, we all use whatever tax deductions that are available to us when it comes to mortgage interest, medical expenses and employee expenses. But consider how very regulated all those other things are. Housing? Regulated. Employment? Regulated. Medical expenses? Do we even need to ask?

While none of these expenses might be regulated on a micro or individual level, they are under heavy state control on a macro level.

That is exactly the situation homeschoolers want to avoid. And while I know the slippery slope argument gets overused, in this case it’s a valid one to consider.

Homeschoolers are perfectly willing to pay for freedom. Let’s keep it that way.

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Possibilities and Homeschooling

I’ve been planning to create a blog post as an introduction to Economics in the same vein as my post on Philosophy. Unfortunately, all I’ve been finding are exceptionally bad books on economics.

There was one recent exception, though. It was Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson. Serendipitously, the next book I read was Why Haven’t You Read This Book? edited by Isaac Morehouse.

… and, of course, those two books reminded me of homeschooling.

Let me explain. Both the books mentioned dealt with something that has not come into existence yet. Both books argued not just for possibilities but against the loss of that elusive opportunity cost

How often – the two books argued – do we spend time thinking “what if?” How many times do we consider possibilities?

As regards homeschooling, how often do we plan curricula, play dates, reading material, field trips? So often it boggles the mind! I mean, homeschooling sometimes seems like nothing if not an endless succession of planning.

And yet, how many times do we stop to think about opportunity cost?

How often do we stop and consider the possibilities we might be giving up if we don’t (or do!) follow this specific path, go on this field trip, pick this curriculum, this class, this way of teaching?

In Economics in One LessonHazlitt says that people only see what’s in front of their eyes. Bad monetary policies are implemented because people see the immediate effects of said implementation. What is much harder to gauge are the ripple effects of these laws. What is even harder to perceive is the possibility that same money would have had if it had not been funneled in a certain direction. The effect of an entire community getting poorer is not always obvious.

“The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.” – Hazlitt

Why Haven’t You Read This Book also takes the reader on a similar trajectory when it comes to considering possibilities. The book has multiple authors who have argued “Why not?” and written their experiences with conquering that question. Why not travel the world? one asks. Why not audition for American Idol? asks another. And why not drop out of school?

The opportunities we are presented with when homeschooling are our biggest strengths. But we have to be willing to look at them critically in the light of all they represent.

When we shift to auto-pilot, we lose the freedom we so desperately craved before we became homeschoolers.

We have to be willing to trace the consequences of what we undertake, see the opportunity costs and the possibilities as well as what’s staring us in the face.

We have to be willing to ask ourselves, “Why not?”
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