The Comfort of the Familiar

If you enter our home now, you will notice boxes piled high in all the rooms. We are moving house. And to make matters worse, we are doing it in two steps. There is no other word for it: it is difficult. It is also uncomfortable. Paring things down for daily use, deciding what is to be kept and what stored is not familiar territory to me. We don’t tend to have a lot of clutter, but I like what I have on hand and I usually know where to find what I need.

No more, though. Change is hard.

Sometimes, we tend to forget that as homeschoolers. When the routine becomes so familiar, we forget what it used to be when we were new. And that new ground is what some of you new homeschoolers are stepping into this August. So my best piece of advice is this: keep something familiar. Do not underestimate the comfort of that one familiar thing.

Change can be incredibly exciting.

I remember raring to go when I first decided to homeschool. It was an exciting time. We were embarking on an adventure, after all. I could smell it. There were decisions to be made, things to buy – everything was so new and fun!

But there was a downside. It was exhausting.

I had never done this before. My kids had never done this before. When we hit a snag, we didn’t know how to move forward. If my children didn’t react or learn the way the workbook said they should, I didn’t know what to do.

In those days, I realized the same thing I am discovering now in the midst of our move: there is comfort in the familiar. Instead of overhauling everything, keeping some things the same can be hugely motivating.

Ever heard the phrase “some things never change?” Notice the relief in that.

One thing I never took into account when we decided to move was how disruptive this would be for my children and how shaken they would feel as a result. Because our family thrives on our daily rhythms, the sudden change and discord became apparent. They became mopey and difficult. I began to wonder what had happened to my usually cheerful and happy kids.

So I had to be intentional about the small things, I realized. Because to the kids those were the big things. In the midst of moving, we brought back family movies, read alouds; we brought back library days.

So when beginning homeschooling – as in when moving – remember to balance the new with the old. Newness can be fun but tiring. And sometimes we need the old to tie us down and make us feel grounded.

Never underestimate the comfort of the familiar.

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We Don’t Know How Good We Have It

For some odd reason my husband and I have decided that the children need the camping experience. They need to sleep uncomfortably on the hard ground under the stars, they need to be hot in the afternoon. Apparently, they need to “toughen up.”

I say this a little tongue in cheek, mind you. Because I’m as soft as they come. I love my little slice of suburbia. Who doesn’t love a soft, cushy couch and the temperature controlled to be no more than three degrees this way or that? I love a soft bed with a pillow contoured to fit my neck. I can count of having food at the grocery store when I need it, a fridge to keep it fresh when I bring it back. And… running hot water? Hello?! Luxury!

I Don’t Know How Good I Have It

And yet, I’m bored. Sometimes, I want to dump it all and move to another state, a different home, another neighborhood. I complain about noise, the boredom of repetitive tasks, day in and day out, the monotony – really, anything, everything, nothing and all of it. All together.

Homeschooling and being around the kids can feel like that on some days. Some days, all it feels like is plod, plod, plod. First we do one thing and then the next and the next. It’s all planned out, there’s no variation. And even when there is, there’s a certain monotony that comes into play – enough to make you want to chuck it all up.

And that is precisely when…

…you should take a break. Just make sure it’s fairly drastic. Like our camping trip (of one night – yes, go ahead and laugh at my weak self!) do something different. And I don’t mean sort of different like a field trip. I mean something that you have to go out of your way to style and create. Something not practical would be ideal.

So when you come back to your normal, boring homeschooling, it will feel just right.

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What Does Your Kindergartner Need to Know?

I recently picked up a school prep book on a whim. I know what you’re thinking. So let me say this – it was my kindergartner – um, preschooler… well, whatever he is at this point. He picked it up and begged me to buy it. So I did.

If you’ve read this blog for a while, you know that I’m not a fan of formal preschool and kindergarten. Really, we’re not into grade levels at all, but even less so for the youngest ones. (I don’t mind some worksheets, especially for older children.) So imagine my surprise when for first grade readiness, this workbook was teaching double digit addition! 

Let me say that again so you understand my horror: double digit addition! Before entering first grade! To be fair, it was at the end of the book, so it was perhaps one of those “not necessary, but good to know” things. And yet, here’s the thing: the emphasis on formal learning at younger and younger years is disturbing.

And it doesn’t ease up. The push to get ready for the next year and the next is relentless. And by the time first-graders are planning for college, we have to admit this is all a little ridiculous.

So what does your kindergartner need to know?

If you’re just starting out homeschooling and your child is under seven, the biggest thing he needs to know is that you love him and he is free to experiment and learn. Read to him. If he’s interested in learning to read, by all means go ahead and teach him. He will naturally be interested in things like counting and sorting. There’s no need to push colors and numbers on him, but if you feel like you must do something, that’s probably all you need to do – letters, numbers, counting. That’s it.

Let me repeat: that’s it. 

Most of the kindergarten time should be spent in playing and exploring, not learning to run on an endless academic treadmill. In the words of a very wise man, It’s your child, not a gerbil.

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What Does a Classical Unschooling Day Look Like? [Update]

Yes, I have written before on classical unschooling and what our day looks like. I mean, I did write a whole book about our style and method!

But since that post is over a year old, I thought it would be a good idea to update it.

A Typical Classical Unschooling Morning Begins at Night

My children prefer to do their work at night, or rather, in the evening. I have a board on which they have various tasks assigned to them – or to us, really – and they finish the ones they can do on their own before bedtime. As you can see from the earlier post, it didn’t always used to be like this.

With the basics covered – typically they do math and language arts kind of work at night – they have the morning free to play. I do not assign anything at this point, but they do enjoy playing on various apps on their Kindle Fire. To see some of my favorite apps, go here.

By 9 or 10 a.m., they have made their breakfast, cleaned up and I am ready to work with them. I look over their work, help them with whatever problems they might have. Now that I have a four year old getting ready to read, I take some time working with him before moving on to either science or history, depending on our schedule.

Free Afternoons!

Because I wake up early in the morning to write this blog (about 5 am on average) I take the afternoon to read or nap. During this time, the children play video games. Yes, we are one of those families very comfortable with kids and screen time and see no need to change that.

After my nap, it’s time to start dinner. About three times a week, my husband and I work out in our garage where we have weights set up. During this time, the children either play in the back yard or ride their bicycles or do whatever children do.

After dinner, the whole cycle starts over again. And there you have it! This is our current classical unschooling day. Not every day is the same, of course. We school year-round so we take breaks when we want. And there are of course field trips, library days and grocery shopping days. On those, we listen to audio books or timelines in the car or simply have amazing conversations.

And that’s our day!

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Frugality Begins in Contentment

This is part of a new series of blog posts on frugality, which will be a regular feature of my blog.

My husband and I recently celebrated our fifteenth wedding anniversary. To celebrate, we headed out to dinner. One of the things we like to do together that has fallen by the wayside after kids is shopping. We love decorating our home. So we headed to some of my favorite places that sell home items.

We spent a good three hours. Guess what we came home with? A coffee spoon. No, I’m not kidding.

It’s an odd thing, this frugality. We weren’t being stingy, let me add. It wasn’t like I had drawn our purse strings tight. We weren’t walking around saying, “No, no, no…” It was fun truly appreciating some things in the stores; we had fun looking around, but we didn’t want to own everything we appreciated. It was a great feeling to know that if we liked something, we could buy it. We didn’t need to deny ourselves.

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons. – T. S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. 

But there was also something else: a deep strain of satisfaction, of contentedness, if you will, that made grabbing for the next shiny object not that necessary. I believe when it comes to frugality, this is one many miss.

We truly are content where we are.
A Frugal Post
Daughter paints a leaf on our “mortgage tree” – a visual representation of our (only) debt.

This is not to say that we don’t dream. But there are two kinds of dreams – ones that are just fun and others attached to a plan. Our financial dreams get to sink their teeth in plans – we budget meticulously, I’m always on the lookout for inexpensive homeschool supplies, ideas and books, I love libraries, sales, thrift stores and clearance racks of the bigger stores.

This is where perhaps my love of video games and frugality intertwine. By accepting and reminding myself that I am okay whether I buy that next big thing or not, that I am content at any given moment, I can treat our budget as a game.

Gamification (and frugality) begins in contentment.

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Why I Am Not a Grammar Nazi (Any More)

There isn’t much that doesn’t offend us these days, it seems. The offence runs the gamut from politics to parenting to – you guessed it – language. And figures of speech and grammar are no exception. In the last day alone, I have noticed four different times people have corrected someone’s spelling or grammar online.

Look, I understand that we’re homeschoolers. We hold our children to high standards.

We meticulously pore over good literature. We value “living books,” we teach that in order to be understood it is necessary to be precise, we Google and search and memorize. Above all, we read. And we never ever use abbreviations in text messages.

But at what point does our correction and insistence on good grammar and punctuation leave the realm of helpful and practical and become merely pedantic?

I Hate the Oxford Comma

Or rather, I couldn’t care less about it. Like most people in the (normal) non-academic world, I don’t give two hoots if you add it or not. Honestly, it looks odd to me there just hanging beside the “and.” It seems out of place and rather embarrassed at being thrust into the fray if you ask me. But hey, suit yourself.

The same goes for things like the split infinitive and the subjunctive mood. Oh, and the insistence of the use of “may I” instead of “can I” and the ever so tiresome idea of never ending a sentence with a preposition.

“Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.” – Winston Churchill

If you’re one of those people that likes to stick to those rules, be my guest. Just know that dictionaries add about 600 new words every quarter. And you don’t have to go too far back into history for English to sound like complete gibberish. Indeed, spelling did not become standardized until 250 odd years ago.

And yet, Americans spell certain English words differently from their British origins. Ask me how I know. I had to learn to drop the (apparently) useless “u” when I moved here and learn to stress the second syllable instead of the first as I used to in British English.

Language and spelling – even pronunciation – is way more fluid than we give it credit for. Rules are only useful so far as they promote communication and not much else.

Intuitive Grammar

I went to a private school in Bombay, India. My classmates and I were the last students to follow the British curriculum in the 50 years after India’s independence. I was accorded the best education I could get. My parents made sure of that. My teachers made sure that all the English I heard and read was correct. My ear therefore was trained and if it didn’t sound right, I knew it was probably not correct.

My grasp over the English language is mostly intuitive, not academic.

I have never, ever, ever diagrammed a sentence and I couldn’t have told you an active voice from passive a few years ago. And the only reason I care now is because the plugin on my blog says I need more brief sentences in active voice for readability.

Why am I telling you this? Because I think there are some of us are naturally better at picking out and remembering good grammar and most of that learning is done through listening to the right form of it and communicationAs much as I am in favor of memorization, I do not think analyzing sentences and memorizing the rules of grammar do much to make you grammatically accurate.

With All Your Learning, Get Understanding

But here’s really why I’m telling you this. I certainly wouldn’t correct people in a face to face conversation about their pronunciation of a certain word. Why do we feel so entitled to correct perfect strangers in an online setting?

And what about friends? I used to, you know. I used to correct them. Until I realized I wasn’t perfect. Mea culpa.

In fact, in some areas – like patience, like serious, technical problem solving, I was decidedly deficient. I’m just blessed that things like coding, engineering and logic are not the language of everyday communication – that I am not judged on them each time I want to say something.

Can we not overlook some foibles out of basic respect? Or does love cover a multitude of sins unless they happen to be those of grammar and punctuation?

To Clarify

This isn’t an argument to ignore spelling “your” and “you’re” correctly or even to not get “there,” “their,” or “they’re” right, this is a plea to stop being such a stickler about the form of something that you miss the meaning or, worse, deign it to be so far beneath you that you must either stop and point it out in a very obvious manner or just not read it.

Yes, there are some cases when the mistake is so blatant that it changes the meaning of a sentence. And in those cases, it is (perhaps) acceptable to ask for clarification (I would put unnecessary apostrophes in this category) but I would still be careful.

What is the impulse behind correcting grammar? Is it the momentary superiority we feel about knowing something another doesn’t? Or is it genuine miscommunication that needs clarification? If good grammar is a sign of good breeding, when did politeness stop being part of it?

What I Intend to Teach My Children

If you have read my book The Classical Unschooler, you know that even though I tend to lean toward the classical model of education, I am not a fan of learning something for its sake alone. As such, I don’t intend to insist the children learn Latin, for example. Or sentence diagramming.

I tend to be fairly practical in my approach. This is, of course, not to say that they shouldn’t pursue something that gives them obvious pleasure just because it’s not practical. But, by and large, we focus on what’s useful.

If I notice that my children are having trouble expressing themselves – verbally or in written form – in a way that hinders communication with others, that will be our focus. I will give them the tools they need to express themselves well, even with beauty. But we will only pursue the rules in as so far as they achieve those ends.

I will no longer turn rules into idols. The world has enough grammar Nazis already.

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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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