If you have read my past posts about read alouds, you know we take them seriously in our homeschool. Some days, that’s all we get done. And that’s okay because read alouds are that important.
I want to focus today on why I’m so crazy about reading to my children. It took us a long time to get around to where we are now, but this is a good place.
So without further ado, here are the two biggest lessons of read alouds.
It doesn’t have to all make sense
“But it makes no sense!” How many times had I said that when I first started homeschooling? I wanted my children to get it and get it all. I wanted them not just to repeat and memorize but truly understand.
The problem is, that’s not how it works. No one gets it all, not at first anyway. And that’s okay.
As the “classical” part of my classical unschooling style developed, I began to see that it didn’t all need to make sense right away. I began to understand that what we call learning came by degrees – at first the connections necessary for learning did not happen, that much time had to spent in the grammar stage before logic developed.
This was as true in reading aloud as it was in other subjects. I did not have to painstakingly explain every idiom and turn of the plot as I read. It was okay if the children focused on one thing in the story and I enjoyed another – deeper – level of understanding. They didn’t have to get everything I got from it.
The varied experiences serve to deepen our enjoyment of the read aloud; they do not take away from it.
A little bit everyday goes a long way
This is perhaps my favorite thing about reading aloud. Instead of teaching my children discipline, instead of telling them that a little bit everyday goes a long way toward getting something done, a read aloud actually shows them that fact.
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain. – T. S. Eliot
It’s that time of year again. Everything is springing flowers, days are getting longer and we’re all eager to get outside and enjoy the weather. Homeschooling should finally get easier than it was in the winter, right?
When I wrote this post, it seemed to resonate with many of you. I wrote it in February, the most dreary month of the year. But, believe it or not, spring can sometimes be harder on you than winter.
Spring is Hard
While you may not be clinically depressed, I think there is something worth paying attention to at play here. Psychologists have found links between allergy season and depression. It seems the cytokines in pollen cause inflammation in your body and the result looks very similar to depression.
Of course it doesn’t help that everywhere around you people are more active. Chances are also good that your social life is picking up as well after the winter doldrums.
If you follow the school year model, you’re also perhaps thinking the end of the year is so close you can touch it, but not quite yet. Besides, you may be rushing to get done with the curriculum.
April sure can be cruel.
What’s the Solution?
The solution is the same as it always was and always will be. Have a plan, stick with it and above all, know yourself. Of course, this can be hard when you’re first starting out, but after the first year seeing some repetition in patterns certainly helps.
Another thing that might help is establishing your goals differently from that of public schools. For us, with all children born later in the year, we begin our new year in January. It makes zero sense for me to begin in August or September, especially in the younger years when they are just not developmentally ready and then feeling like I have to hurry them along.
Something curious happened to me at our local library the other day. The kids and I often go there once a week to check out a mountain of books. We usually each collect our books and stack them together on a table before checking them out.
This time, a little girl wandered over to our stack and wanted to take a book my daughter had chosen. She asked me if she could have it.
“No,” I told her. “That’s ours. We’re checking it out.”
The child wandered away. I thought all was as it should be and started looking for picture books for my four year old. But it wasn’t. In telling her daughter that she could not have something, I might as well have walked into a bear cave.
“Talk to me, not my daughter!” her mother bellowed.
I tried, as best I could, to explain to the steamrolling woman that I had no problem with that, that I hadn’t in fact gone and sought her daughter out. I mentioned though that I had to stop her when she was reaching into what was set aside as for me.
“Don’t tell my daughter no!” she yelled at me, nonetheless. “Now you’ve hurt her feelings.”
I was so flabbergasted, I couldn’t think of anything else to say except, “You can’t be serious.”
But she was.
I’m happy to say that the scene ended without anyone (er, me!) getting physically assaulted, but every time I think about it, I still can’t believe what she said. Clearly, it was such a deeply held belief in her mind that she was willing to confront a complete stranger over a situation in which she was clearly, ridiculously wrong. And why? All because of a little word: No.
How often do you say no?
We might not share that mama bear’s idea about raising our children without ever saying no or them ever having to hear a negative word from any other adult, but I would bet all of us say “yes” more often than we should.
I have written before about how saying no can be useful in saving time, but in this post, I want to explore how an unequivocal no can be useful not just in saving time but actually creating an atmosphere of trust, creativity and freedom – yes, freedom – for your children as well as you.
Think about a random incident. Say you’ve been asked to do something you would rather not – drop off a book you highly recommended to a friend, for instance. Or attend an event you know you won’t enjoy. What’s been asked isn’t necessarily a big deal. It’s just one of those pesky things that gets dropped into your lap somehow. It’s one of those would-you-mind favors we know all too well.
And sure, there are times when we don’t mind doing them. But, practically speaking, none of us has unlimited time. And I have a sneaking suspicion that we say yes way more often than we should. In fact, sometimes we get into such a habit of saying yes that we do it just to avoid saying no.
“Yes,” I sometimes see myself saying. “I’ll be there,” when every thought inside me is screaming, “No! Say no!”
Why do we do this?
I have a theory that we do this to be liked. Liked by who? Liked by whoever is it we’re talking to, of course! It could be the neighbor, our friends, even our children. Saying yes, feeling that we can meet the small demand in front of us gives us a temporary feeling of elation. And it’s not that big of a deal after all, we tell ourselves.
The problem is if we say yes too often, we actually end up saying No to what matters.
Stephen Covey mentions this when he emphasizes the distinction between the urgent and the important. He says what is urgent often takes over what is important. He gives the example of a ringing phone, but you can just as easily substitute the ringing phone with the small favors.
The link between an unequivocal “no” and failure
The other more important reason to say “no” and an unequivocal no to more things than we say yes to rests in the link between that no and failure. When we say no, we give ourselves and our children the freedom to fail. And that’s a good thing.
Let me explain.
Say you’re picking a curriculum. But you’re indecisive. So you dabble in this and that. You pick up a smattering of this and a little of that. You don’t ever put it into a coherent whole because you don’t want to choose. In other words, you don’t want to say no. After all, you don’t want to lose out on what can become a good curriculum in the future, one that has been highly touted by your homeschooling friends.
So you hang on.
Wouldn’t you be better off just picking one? What is the act of picking one anyway? Isn’t it saying “no” to all other options except that one?
And by doing that, wouldn’t you be free to decide in a few weeks (or a few months at most) that it’s working or it’s time to move on? Why would you steal yourself of that conviction, the joy of that assurance by merely hanging on to something that may or may not work?
I felt bad for the woman at the library, really, I did. She left soon after to take her daughter and her hurt feelings to be assuaged with fast food, as she declared too loudly not to be overheard. Not being given the option to fail can get time-consuming and downright expensive.
What would failure have looked like for her daughter that day? There were thousands of books at the library. A simple, firm directive to go look at those books could hardly be considered a punishment.
Give yourself the freedom to fail. Give your children the freedom to fail. It is only after failing that we find what we really want to give our time to. Small failures teach rather than bury. They liberate.
An unequivocal no has more power than a dithering yes. Use it.
The question of your personality and its effect on helping or hindering your homeschooling efforts is one I keep coming back to. That’s because it is important.
I am writing a fairly large chapter about this in my new book The Classical Unschooler’s Guide to Building Your Own Curriculum that will be coming out this May. If you would like to get updates on that, be sure to sign up for my mailing list in the right-hand column. As a bonus, you will receive my free e-book Nine Questions Every Homeschooler Should Be Able to Answer.
Today, however, I want to mention one of the writers that has helped me immensely in terms of getting to know my own personality and create better habits, which directly affect our school days. I’m talking about Gretchen Rubin.
That’s because in this book, she mentions besides her brilliant distinctions between larks and owls, marathoners and sprinters, moderators and abstainers, (I’m a lark, a marathoner and an abstainer, in case you’re curious) she also brings up the four tendencies.
The four tendencies include the obliger, the upholder, the rebel and the questioner. They are an excellent framework for you to understand what works for you. It is so powerful that I keep coming back to this understanding about me to fuel not just my homeschooling efforts, but also my writing, my parenting and my marriage.
You see, according to the quiz in Better than Before, I tend to be a rebel with a little bit of questioner thrown in. As a result, when someone asks me to do something, I will only do it if I see the value in it. And I have to convince myself of that value constantly. I also have to learn to override my own desire to sabotage my own work because I don’t like listening to my own voice in my head telling me to do something, no matter how important it is.
If you’re a homeschooler, this self-knowledge is invaluable! It helps you sidestep the issue of copying someone else’s style and curriculum only to find out that it doesn’t work for you. It has certainly helped me.
I’ve been reading Shoe Dogby Phil Knight, the creator of Nike. It’s a fascinating read all the way through. But I was especially hooked when he described how he first had an inkling of what he wanted his life to be.
Here’s an excerpt.
Late at night I’d lie on my back, staring at college textbooks, my high school trophies and blue ribbons thinking: This is me? Still? […] On paper, I’m an adult. So why, I wondered, why do I still feel like a kid? […] Like all my friends I wanted to be successful… I wanted to win.
No, that’s not right. I simply didn’t want to lose.
And then it happened. As my young heart began to thump, as my pink lungs expanded like the wings of a bird, as the trees turned to greenish blurs, I saw it all before me, exactly what I wanted my life to be. Play.
Yes, I thought, that’s it. That’s the word. The secret of happiness, I’d always suspected, the essence of beauty or truth, or all we ever need to know of either, lat somewhere in that moment when the ball is in midair, when both boxers sense the approach of the bell, when the runners near the finish line and the crowd rises as one. There’s a kind of exuberant clarity in that pulsing half second before winning and losing are decided. I wanted that, whatever that was, to be my life, my daily life.
So that morning in 1962 I told myself: Let everyone else call your idea crazy… just keep going. Don’t stop. Don’t even think about stopping until you get there, and don’t give much thought to where “there” is. Whatever comes, just don’t stop.
There are three reasons why this book got me teary-eyed and excited enough to write about it on this blog.
For one, he mentioned how in spite of being an adult with a degree from Stanford, he felt like a child. He hadn’t experienced much of real life, which he soon would, something I hear echoed often.
For another, he mentions the aspect of “play” which inspires him to start a business selling Japanese shoes in America. People who are truly excellent at what they do often say that when they are working, they often feel as if they are playing. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Flow calls this optimal experience” a state of consciousness called flow, which I have mentioned here.
Have you heard the question, “If you were accused of being a _______ (fill in the blank with any noun you cherish) would there be enough evidence to support it?”
I have. And I don’t like it.
To me, the quote sounds too much like a plea for stereotyping. It asks that I act a certain way and carry a certain image to the outside world so that people would know exactly who I am and where I stand on certain matters.
A similar incident happened to the presenter of a podcast I listen to. Isaac Morehouse, whose book I have mentioned in the past, speaks about how he was approached after a speaking engagement by a man who sought to define his ideology. Not being able to pin it down was causing him quite a bit of difficulty.
“He was visibly bothered,” Morehouse says. “But I knew what he was asking for. And I wasn’t going to give it to him.”
He was seeking a label.
Breaking Molds, Bending Genres
But that’s the thing about life, isn’t it? That’s the thing about love. People we love, things we do – things that matter – are complicated. They’re real, they live and breathe.
The best ones break molds.
This is as true of you as a homeschooler as it is of you in any other profession. This is true of you as a wife, a mother, a father. You are at your best when you transcend a role. This is true of your children and their curriculum. This is true of your days.
The best ones bend roles and genres.
I don’t often listen to music when I’m driving. One of those rare times I flicked on the radio and it occurred to me that I had actually begun to enjoy music quite uncharacteristic of me.
Now, I have never been a fan of rap, or hip-hop. But on this day, there was a song this particular radio station played that incorporated both those genres and added some elements of the blues into it. Perhaps because it took from two genres I didn’t much care for and went beyond them, I quite liked it.
The Best Things In Life Are…
Surprises, of course!
Ever so often, I come across a person, an idea, an event, a book that changes me. Usually, I am going about my day, checking things off my list, doing the next thing and something or someone disrupts it. I am left in the position of the audience member just mentioned questioning the disruptive influence.
“What are you?” I wonder. “Where do you stand? Who are you?” (Or, in the case of an idea, what? What in the world was that?)
Integrating this newfound knowledge requires a paradigm shift. It requires that I change, that I grow. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, author of Flow, which I have written about earlier, says that we need differentiation as well as integration to grow and become our complete, whole selves. An appeal to act a certain way to convince others that I am a certain person is an appeal to only one side of the equation – integration.
We need people who break molds in our lives; we need genre bending music, ideas that don’t quite fit. We desperately need to be stretched in ways that our to-do lists don’t make us. Over the years, I have come to appreciate those people who make me think, even if at the time they say something odd, I am left confused. Even if I reject what they say, they have made me think and helped me grow.
I was at a grocery store today. It wasn’t an accident that I went to this specificstore on this specificday. I was there for a reason. I was there to buy coconut milk, which had been advertised at what I thought was a very attractive price.
I picked up, amongst other things, a sizeable amount of it and made my way to the cash register, where I noticed I was not getting the advertised price.
I mentioned that to the cashier.
No, the cashier says, that’s the price.
That’s not what was advertised, I insisted.
Maybe that’s a different brand, she argued. This one’s price is right here on the screen. I just scanned it.
At that moment, pinned down with all my other groceries and my three children (because let’s face it, they’re almost always with me) I chose to return said coconut milk because it wasn’t at the price I had assumed I would pay for it. I paid for the rest of the groceries and left. (I make no excuse for my frugality. My husband works incredibly hard for the money he makes and I refuse to be frivolous with it.)
Anyway, because I’m obsessive or crazy, I chose to go back through the store to see if I had seen the advertisement incorrectly. As it turned out, I had been right. I had not made a mistake.
This time, as I loaded the cart with the coconut milk again, I took a picture of the advertisement under it and headed back the cash register.
It was only then that the employee decided she would send someone to check the price. After looking at my picture, enlarging it and turning it this way and that. It was only when another employee rushed to save her from herself that she backed off and gave me the discount and couched in an off-hand “Sorry.”
I walked out of the store with a smile. I had won.
Well, yes, I had won. And I felt good about winning. I may have muttered In your face! as I walked out of there.
But as I thought about it, besides the fact that this was just bad customer service, it made me think of how much this small interaction resembled the burden of proof that we, as homeschoolers, face in the world.
It reminded me how homeschoolers are questioned, looked at strangely and asked what it is they do and how they could do it even after it has been proven time and time again that homeschooling works, that non institutional learning yields better results than government schools can ever hope to provide.
As I have written about in my free giveaway essay Nine Questions Every Homeschooler Should Be Able to Answer, most people immediately shift the burden of proof of homeschooling onto the homeschoolers.
The evidence that homeschooling works is there, but the picture must be enlarged, we need additional proof and perhaps we need someone to go and check it because, hey, perhaps it’s still not true.
But the system says, they cry, the system says. What the system says must be true after all!
Sure, you’re homeschooling them, they say. Let’s see if they can keep up with their grade levels. Okay, you’re homeschooling, they say. Can we test them each year to see if they’re on par? Or perhaps we can just come and visit and talk to them awhile. See, because the system says all children must learn multiplication at this grade and algebra at this. The system, the system!
What is it about the system that guarantees such adherence, such unquestioning obedience? The system is a liar; as in the grocery store, the system could have very well said something else had it been updated.
What most people forget is that the system was made for convenience. The system was put together so that workers could be churned out for industrial jobs. The system is defunct.
The system was made for people, not people for the system. Homeschoolers see that. And even with the burden of proof on us, we are beating it.
Keep at it, homeschoolers. Even when your friends roll their eyes at you. Even when your extended family does not understand. You’re winning. You have the proof. Don’t bow to a failed system.
It’s that time of year when most people who have made resolutions flounder a bit. Is that you?
Or are you amongst my wiser friends who wait until mid January to really get going on them?
Whatever the case might be, changing habits take work and a decent amount of motivation.
Here are 5 books that can help you create better habits. While these books don’t deal with homeschooling or unschooling per se, much of what they can be generalized to create a better life for yourself.
Duhigg talks about how to stick with new habits and find time for them in your busy day. He also has a new book called Smarter, Better, Fasterwhich I hope to get to read this year.
Better than Before by Gretchen Rubin – I liked this book mainly for its central theme that individual differences between us have a lot to say about how we stick or don’t stick to our habits. If you are what she calls an “abstainer” there’s no sense telling yourself you’ll “just have one piece of chocolate,” if you’re a “night owl,” stop trying to wake up early to get work done.
It is an excellent book when it comes to learning to work with our unique gifts and talents. Chances are, once you do that with yourself, you’ll see those in your children and tailor their education to what fits for them. Gretchen Rubin’s other book The Happiness Projectis excellent as well.
David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell is another one of those classic must-reads. The sections on dyslexia and the advantage of attending a smaller college rather than a big Ivy League university is especially relevant for those of us who homeschool.
While these books may not be “motivational” in the strictest sense of the word, they should give you enough of a push to get going on your resolutions if you’re flagging a bit.
Here’s a confession – I read my children’s books. And I actually do enjoy some of them.
Their books are colorful, they’re full of interesting facts and details – and they’re just plain fun.
Good books versus bad books
I find that good children’s books are a lot like good books for grown ups. They’re factual, they give you a sense of history, they have biographical details, they’re not overly speculative and the truly well-written ones have a plot that keeps you interested in what’s going to happen next. This is true even when the book is non-fiction.
The quickest way for me to tell that a book is bad is when it started veering off the road of normalcy into the land of idolizing.
You know what I mean. It’s when it starts building the pedestal of the man overcoming incredible odds to become the truly titanic person he is today, or was, before he died.
We’re supposed to read with rapt attention, hoping to achieve that level of success. It makes us work harder, longer, because we want to emulate that person we just read about.
Or so the story goes.
Unfortunately, that’s not what happens. What usually happens is that we either see through the story because some detail sticks out at us and makes us skeptical or because this larger-than-life person fails to impress us and motivate us because he seems hollow.
And he seems hollow because, indeed, he is. He is two-dimensional.
But that is the better of the two scenarios. Because the flip side of what could happen is that you decide this person was truly remarkable and you can’t possibly be like him.
Bring Your Heroes Down to Earth
Now I’m not saying there are not people who live remarkable lives or that we shouldn’t be inspired by them. I’m just arguing for nuance.
There has to be something more to a book – even a children’s book – than just the individual overcoming obstacles. If there isn’t, it reads like just another Disney movie telling people to “follow your dreams.”
There’s nothing wrong with following your dreams, but without a sense of the time, the place and the truth, these books meant to inspire us just end up creating idols.
And idols have the annoying tendency of disappointing us.
Has Your Idol Disappointed You?
If you are constantly bombarded with only the best details of someone’s life, chances are you won’t be motivated, you will be disillusioned.
And yet, there are books upon books that cherry pick the events in a famous person’s life, flatten them to the shape of a cardboard and then present it in the form of a book, a very bad book, that offers nothing.
Chances are, you’ve run into a few of these.
Chances are, you’ve read some of these as a child, given to you perhaps by a well-meaning adult. And now, with a slightly more mature view of history, you’ve realized that it couldn’t have been true or if it was, that it’s been heavily tampered with, that like most history-based movies.
So if your idol has disappointed you in some way lately, be motivated by the fact that he’s a real, flawed human being. If your hero was cut down to size, you can still rejoice in his victories.
We don’t need two dimensional stories to motivate us. We need real-life people who have done amazing things, even though we find out that they are not perfect. It’s okay to find out that they have messed up sometimes.
It doesn’t ruin their successes. It just puts them in relief.
Wrong Books = Bad Worldview
The more insidious problem with bad books and the idolizing they create is two-fold.
For one, books tend to be overwhelmingly about famous people. Many of these people are currently in power or have been in power in the past. Putting them on a pedestal convinces us that they were truly amazing super-humans bestowed upon us to drag us into a better life. We could never aspire to be like them because they were made of something else that we mere mortals could never be, right?
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which,if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. – C.S.Lewis
And secondly, the problem that proceeds from the above is that we think people like this are still running the show, that the leaders, the innovators, they are made of something different, something better than us – the child reading the book.
“I could never do that because I am not that,” is an easy conclusion to draw.
Call me an iconoclast…
…but I love it, when in the middle of a good book, I find that one of my favorite authors has made a typo. I’m not – mind you – rejoicing in his failure; I’m just happy that he’s like me and if he can be successful, so can I. He’s just worked harder and longer at it. So can I.
If my children get that glazed over look when talking about a historical person or even a famous person today, we make it a point to talk about his flaws as well.
This is not about dragging famous people down into the dirt and it’s not about revisionist history. This is about giving them the right tools with which to see the world.
In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell says, “Everything we have learned in Outliers says that success follows a predictable course. It is not the brightest who succeed. Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities—and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.”
Give yourself and your family the gift of the right worldview, the right books, stories of successful people warts and all, so that when the opportunity presents itself, they are not fearful or lacking in courage or self esteem to have the strength and presence of mind to seize it.
We make learning harder than it should be. We favor difficult curriculum over what we perceive as easy.
We value grit.
The ability to tolerate adversity and thrive in spite of it is a good life skill. However, I wouldn’t try to inculcate it in my children through daily drudgery.
The Best Advice
My son was staring down at three workbooks yesterday. (He has recently decided to work at night so he has the day for more play.) He was beginning to get that overwhelmed look that said, “I’m not going to get anything done because I’m going to wish myself away and then cry because I’m not getting anything done.”
So I gave him the best advice I could: “Do the easy stuff.”
He stared at me.
“Do the easy stuff first,” I repeated. “Then tackle what seems hard.”
There is a time for grit and learning to do hard things, but usually the way to it is through the easy things. Sometimes, the key to grit is simply through momentum.
Working toward difficulties
When it comes to homeschooling, I often hear there are two extremes – 1. life is drudgery, get started now (grow up!) or 2. you’re a child (stay one!) and just do what I tell you.
You can sidestep both these extremes by just doing easy things until you have built up enough momentum to tackle hard things.
Dave Ramsey, debt guru & author of Total Money Makeover says to begin paying down debt by paying off the smallest debt first and building momentum. Michael Hyatt, author of Living Forward, simply fills in the titles of chapters as a first step to writing a book.
Easy, basic stuff first seems to be the key to success.
The best piece of advice I got for tackling my to-do list was simply 1. make a list of things I needed done, then 2. pick the easiest one to do.
Doing this enough times gets it all done.
Element of play
The reason this strategy works is because it brings the element of play into our everyday lives. Play includes a range of voluntary, intrinsically motivated activities normally associated with recreational pleasure and enjoyment.
Sometimes, in our attempt to teach grit, we forget to teach (and learn) play. Play is every bit as important to adults as it is to children.