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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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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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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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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Your Homeschool Needs a Finish Line

Starting lines are important, but so is a strong finish line.

Last week was the first time my children heard about summer break.

“Really?” my seven year old exclaimed when told that public schools closed for almost three months in the summer.

That was the beginning of their dissatisfaction. But it wasn’t just that. We have various camping trips planned this summer and they weren’t coming soon enough. We’ve done all the book learning and memorization we wanted to for now. We need a break.

My planning has missed the mark a bit – we lost the last sticker chart and I didn’t time our camping / fishing vacations well enough.

Do you Need a Break or a Finish Line?

Classical unschoolers, homeschoolers – call us what you want – learn everywhere all the time. Most of our learning occurs through conversations anyway. We accept that we don’t need a classroom to learn in.

Learning is fluid and we are always “on.” There is tons to learn and it’s all very interesting. But we are also human and we get tired.

No matter how much we tell ourselves that there is no reason to stop, at some point, we need a break to recover if only to catch our breath.

No External Rewards?

However, most unschoolers I know don’t like sticker charts and other external motivators. Traditional homeschoolers also tend to shun them because they believe learning (and all virtue) should be its own reward. That’s another reason they do not pay their children for chores.

But that’s awfully Stoic of them. And much as I’ve enjoyed reading Meditations, that Roman philosophy is not for me.

Everyone is motivated by rewards. So are you, if you think about it. We do not learn in a vacuum. We learn something because it has value to us. Either it interests us or it helps us move forward in the pursuit of some other goal. The only discipline that matters is one is pursuit of a larger end.

As homeschoolers, we have the opportunity to create various finish lines for our children. They don’t have to be sticker charts and they don’t have to based on the public school calendar, but they do need to give them goals and a sense of accomplishment and closure.

So do your end of the year / summer school pictures or take a great vacation. By all means, motivate your children with sticker charts, goals and video games, if need be. Or take those sticker charts and put them toward a bigger reward you’ve chosen.

Don’t accept a finish line just because it’s handed to you. Establish some great finish lines – on your schedule and motivated by your needs. And walk through them with your family.

A finish line can be a huge motivator. Don’t dismiss the idea just because you homeschool.

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Don’t Judge Homeschooling By Summer Break

It’s that time of year again. Summer break is here.

As of now, if you’re a public school parent, you are looking forward to spending more time with your children, finishing up the last of the work for the school year and packing for or planning getaways.

That won’t be the case in another two to three weeks.

First you will groan about how the kids want to play on their electronic devices all day. Then there will be attempts to get around that. Then there will be some complaining on social media that the kids are bored. Then, that you are tired. Finally, there will be an all out countdown to the beginning of the school year.

And based on this, there will that inevitable question voiced thus:

How in the world do you homeschool and have your kids at home ALL DAY EVERY DAY? I was ready for them to go back to school in less than a month! I could NEVER homeschool my kids!” 

But, but, wait… hold your horses! Homeschooling is nothing – nothing at all – like summer break.

Let me explain why you shouldn’t judge your ability to homeschool based on your summer break or the way your child behaves during this time.  

Summer Break is not Representative

Here’s the thing to remember most: summer break is artificial. It is an interruption. Whether it began as a time for people to be able to work on their farms or as a reason for people to leave town is immaterial to today’s world. Today, it is mainly a pause, a time to relax, have some downtime, recover and get ready to get back to school.

Many homeschoolers do not take summers off. They take breaks around their schedule, when they take vacations, when they get sick, or when they need to. But we do not have a designated twelve weeks off because, frankly, that’s too long.

Twelve weeks are too long to learn nothing, do nothing and think you’re going to be sane. I don’t care how hard you’ve worked or how much you think you need a vacation – human beings are simply not made to be idle for so long.

So instead of summer breaks, homeschoolers tend to incorporate learning year round. As a result our learning is much more relaxed throughout. There is no need to rush and get it all done in nine months when there are twelve in the calendar year.

Too Much, Too Much

There is far too much going on in the summers. Think about it. You have a vacation planned, there are probably cousins coming from somewhere. There are weddings planned and camping trips and swimming lessons and dance classes and oh-goodness-knows-what-else.

With a packed calendar, there is hardly any time to relax! Add to that the fact that everyone is clearly expected to be having fun, fun, fun all the time. Frankly, it’s exhausting.

Homeschoolers often insist that children be bored sometimes. Entertainment need not be offered; it can be created. But organic play of the sort I’m talking about does not come about by packing calendars full. It comes from being left alone. This sort of “boredom” is inevitable when homeschooling is done right.

Yes, Our Kids Annoy Us Too

Children are annoying. Yes, they’re difficult. They can make you want to tear your hair out even when you love them and would lay down your life for them. Homeschoolers are not saints, in the common use of the term.

We get tired, too. We get angry. But here’s the thing: we recognize that the solution is not packing them off to a place where there is no autonomy for them and no authority for us.

Instead, homeschooling allows us to find ways to remain parents and find ways to give our children the tools to become adults at their pace in an environment that supports both without being overwhelming. We consider our flaws, our strengths, their flaws and strengths and work together.

Are there hiccups? Sure. Do we fail? Of course.

But without an entire bloated administrative system watching our every move, confusing matters with unnecessary studies and tests and failed ideologies, our failures are small and quick and can be worked through swiftly.

Homeschooling, in other words, is the complete antithesis of summer break.

So if you’re considering homeschooling this coming year, don’t just “try it out” this summer break and keep all other things equal. Truly consider forging your own path. Do your research – here’s an entire summer’s worth of reading for you, spend time deschooling yourself and your children, talk to other homeschoolers, browse this blog.

And above all, remember that summer break tells you absolutely nothing about what homeschooling is really like.

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Curriculum Planning: You Don’t Have to Have It All Figured Out

Ah, summer! Long days, kids running through sprinklers. It’s time to enjoy the simple pleasures in life again – vacations, getting out, camping, fishing and… curriculum planning.

Wait, what? But if you’re a homeschooler, you already know this. Every summer, planning curriculum takes up a lot of room in your head. The question is only this: when should I do this – before the family vacation or after?

I attended a business conference lately where the speaker said there was one thing – one very important thing – that kept people out of trouble when they were first starting a business.

That one thing was this: allowing themselves to be beginners.

The One Thing in Curriculum Planning

Ever heard the phrase “begin with the end in mind?” It’s a good phrase and a good idea in general, but where do you place the end? Are we thinking college? Are we thinking end of the year? Or end of the quarter? Where is the end?

I’d rather think of curriculum planning as driving across a dark highway with my headlights on. I can’t see the destination – I have an idea of it, though – but I can make the journey by seeing a few feet ahead of me.

In other words, I allow myself to be a beginner.

I don’t have it all figured out.

Why This Shouldn’t Worry You

I mentioned in 8 Curriculum Blunders Homeschooling Moms Make that this is the same impulse that drives them to purchase a boxed curriculum. Someone else has already done the research, they say, why try to reinvent the wheel?

Now, please, I’m not against all boxed curricula – there are some really good ones out there – Sonlight, for example, always gives me curriculum envy when I see it. What I’m trying to get at here is that if you’re the kind of homeschooler who blames herself because she isn’t organized enough to create a whole year’s curriculum and schedule, please don’t let that stop you from homeschooling!

It’s okay to be a beginner.

It’s perfectly fine to go slow, to figure it out as you go along.

Think of it the way you would about a read aloud your children particularly love. A chapter a day goes a long way. (Oh hey, that rhymed. Just call me Dr. Seuss!) And you can finish the entire book before you know it. Homeschooling a little bit like that. There’s no reason your curriculum planning can’t!

You don’t have to see the end of the road. Just far enough ahead to know you’re making progress.

Allow yourself to be a beginner.

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Must Read: Grit by Angela Duckworth

I had a chance to read Grit by Angela Duckworth the other day. If you remember, it was one I was looking forward to for a while.

It did not disappoint.

A must read for homeschoolers and unschoolers alike

It is a book I think every home educator ought to read. There is much talk today about grit and instilling grit in children and how to do so. In some cases, teachers are even grading children on grit.

But what does grit mean to a homeschooler and what can we learn from this book?

I think the best takeaway for me from this book was simply her reminder that before we can require the work of grit comes play. Grit is not something that can be taught in a vacuum. Indeed, before grit develops, there must be some level of interest. The best way to cultivate that interest is to expose children to a variety of activities that might turn into something in the future.

Before those who’ve yet to fix on a passion are ready to spend hours a day diligently honing skills, they must goof around triggering and retriggering interest. […] Novices aren’t obsessed with getting better. They’re not thinking years and years into the future. They’re having fun. In other words, even the most accomplished of experts start out as unserious beginners.

Duckworth mentions two more things about grit worth mentioning – one that it grows as you get older, something all of us reading will agree with, I imagine; and that the best style of parenting for developing grit is both demanding and supportive. This, she refers to as authoritative parenting. Not authoritarian, which it is often confused with.

I can’t recommend this book enough. I found it a fascinating read. And one that I believe belongs in every parent’s library.

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