A Little Pressure Isn’t a Bad Thing

I recently shared that my daughter cries during math. In case you’re wondering, we’re talking low level, basic elementary math. If you’ve read my book The Classical Unschooleryou already know that we do not use a curriculum. We simple learn basic math functions and drill math facts with flash cards.

I know this is the point at which some people lose me. In fact, I’ve been spoken to more than once about the matter – my friends who follow the classical model do not understand or respect unschooling and those of you whom I know to be unschoolers don’t like the drills or memorization. Both camps are entirely convinced that their side is right and education should be done their way.

However, I insist that you’re both right if that is what works for your family

Here’s what works for us: mostly interest driven reading and activities and some rote learning that can be recalled at ease. That’s classical unschooling.

In the Middle

Sometimes, I feel like the middle child in all these education debates. The older sibling roars and the younger one cries and the middle one has to get along with both. Or as a friend once succinctly put it, “We in the middle get shot from both sides.”

There are those homeschoolers who think that anything that offends their children must be removed from the curriculum. Anything that makes them cry isn’t good – they should not be pushed to do anything they don’t want to do. So the idea of crying – at flashcards, of all things – seems preposterous. Why in the world would I choose that?

And then there are those homeschoolers who like rigor. They like schedules. They want their children at the table, pencils sharpened, hair and teeth brushed at nine a.m. sharp. They finish the curriculum before they take a break and they never, ever veer off their time tables.

The second group insists that discipline is paramount and life isn’t walk through a park, so the kids might as well get used to it. The first group insists that actually, life should be a walk through the park and why bother memorizing so much and torturing yourself when it’s all on the internet anyway?

Because…

Because a little pressure isn’t a bad thing. It gives us opportunities to grow not just our knowledge but those rudimentary skills by which we acquire it.

Because it forces our brains to make connections and use them in other situations.

Because when I’m teaching math, I’m not just teaching math facts. I’m teaching my children how to deal with challenges.

Because we like to share worlds together and talk about things like current affairs and history and we can’t have good conversations without them knowing something about it.

A little pressure isn’t a bad thing because our homeschool is about equal amounts of curriculum and character.

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Everything is Not a Commentary (How Not to Read a Book)

I’ve been thinking about perceptions lately. It takes me back to my literature classes in college. I remember being enamored by the idea of metaphor, by the idea that I was seeing something of the writer’s mind – something that wasn’t quite there on the paper, but something the author was perhaps hinting at.

It ruined me as a reader.

How Not to Read a Book

My husband and I are re-watching the series Vikings lately. It’s been quite the experience. For one, I am struck by how much more on the second viewing, I am beginning to see the characters as just themselves – fictional, with maybe some historical setting, but fictional – and less as representations of something else.

I think the reason many people get in arms about books lately is because they’ve been taught that everything represents something else. Everyone is a symbol, we’re told. What is the author really trying to say here?

Sorry, Freud, but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Everything is Not a Symbol or a Commentary

I think it’s important I teach my children this as they read. Sometimes a story can just be a story.

I can be frustrated with Athelstan (fictional, remember) as a character in Vikings, for instance, as a mealy-mouthed priest caught in the crosshairs of his crisis of dual faith, worshiping both Odin and Christ. I can even be irritated at the fictional representation of King Ecbert (fictional – don’t forget!) for being enamored by pagan customs without making the leap into anger at the people who wrote the story to show Christianity as weak and powerless. (By the way, I write this as a Christian, in case anyone is wondering.)

That’s just an example off the top of my head, but there are countless others. Just consider this list of books banned worldwide. Consider that we are now scrubbing all politically incorrect messages out of literature. Consider that Sweden is now burning copies of Pippi Longstocking because she “broke too many rules.”

You’ve got to be kidding me.

Why?

Why all the uproar? Is it because we believe we think too much and therefore see deeper into the text and others see too little? As homeschoolers, at least, we should be above this. After all, the homeschoolers I know and respect are the ones least afraid of conversations with their children.

Stop shunning books because you’re afraid of the symbolism in them or what they represent. Instead, hate them or love them for what they are. 

Everything is not a metaphor.

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Competition, Public School and Boys

Many who homeschool today will readily admit that they do so because they know public school is not an option for their family. It is not an option because they have mostly boys.

There are myriad reasons why this is so. To include a few of them would be to go over articles about canceling recess, making children sit still and the increased prescription of ADHD drugs.

But another reason public school is harder on boys has to do with competition and its effect on boys.

The Nature of Competition

According to Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, authors of Top Dog, the hypercompetitiveness present in public schools is especially harmful to boys.

Girls do not react in the same way.

Most competitions are held over a defined period of time – 60 minutes of football. When the contest is over, competitors can relax, leave it behind and separate themselves from how well they did in the game. In schools this isn’t the case. The competition for good grades is endless, the comparisons never cease. It’s not just a game – it’s their life, with real outcomes. To lose in a game is something men can rebound from. But to be losing in life, day in and day out, gets to them. They can’t escape it.

The authors – who also wrote Nurture Shock – spend much time explaining the difference between how girls and boys react to the competition in schools. And while they are referring to elite schools in this specific chapter, the same goes for classrooms in general. According to Bronson and Merryman, females in general tend to do better in what they call “infinite games” and males in “finite games.”

Finite games have a beginning, and end, and the goal of winning. Between games, there is recuperation and restoration. Infinite games, by definition, can beer end, and, since no winner is ever declared, the goal instead is to just stay ahead. With infinite games, there is no rest – only a waxing and waning of competitive intensity.

A worthy read.

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The Four Tendencies (And How Knowing Them Can Benefit You)

(Part 1 of 2 on The Four Tendencies)

I had the brilliant idea one day to sign up for some 5ks a year in advance. Here’s the thing: I like running. What better way to motivate myself to run, right?

Wrong. It didn’t work.

After years of trying to figure out why the strategies that worked for other people did not work for me, I realized the answer: my tendency is that of a rebel.

The Four Tendencies

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you should take this short quiz and then make it a point to pick up Gretchen Rubin’s book The Four Tendencies. 

I have mentioned her before in another blog post about knowing your personality. That book, Better Than Beforewas incredibly helpful to me because it was the first time I came across the idea that I was one of those people who had trouble meeting internal expectations as well as external ones.

Apparently, the Rebel personality has this problem. And although it is the most rare tendency, I suspect that as a homeschooler you might be a bit of a rebel.

Know Yourself & Your Kids

The problem with the Rebel personality is that even though you want something, unless you frame it in your mind in the right way, it quickly becomes something you resist.

So as a Rebel, even if I chose homeschooling as the best choice, I can find myself resisting it. Unless… unless it’s part of my identity and personally meaningful to me every single day.

Apparently, Rebel personalities make up a large chunk of any group that see themselves as fighting the norm, so homeschoolers definitely fit the bill.

Reading the book not just helped me identify strategies to overcome my own problems, but also learn how to frame education and expectations from my children. I learned that my oldest is an Upholder, my middle one is a Questioner and the youngest is… well, a little too young to tell. For now.

Highly recommended reading! Oh, and in terms of running, I figured my way around that issue – more on that in part 2.

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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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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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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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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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