Our homeschool year started out rocky at best this year. Actually, it was awful. We ended last year on a desperate note and I spent the summer dreading the start of our homeschool semester. I glanced at my curriculum a few times, but put off buying books or making plans until the weekend before our start date. And then our first day arrived and I decided, no no, we'll start the next week instead. Shameful! I just could not get moving.
But I did buy some books and we did begin and it was sluggish and involved daily battles over every detail of our day. We were so far from the vision of a happy, organic, homeschooling family that I talked daily about just putting the kids in school. I felt like such a huge failure. (Which is silly--nobody should ever feel like a failure for putting their kids in school. School is great, homeschool is great, both choices have their pros and cons, just like every other decision in the world.) But in the pit of my disastrous homeschooling hell, the idea of throwing them into public school and running away from my problems made me feel like a failure.
We chugged along. We made it to winter break. They'd learned some stuff. (Maybe. I hope.) And I thought to myself, "The next semester will be better. It will be a fresh start. I will finally find my groove. IT HAS TO GO BETTER THIS TIME." One benefit at this point was that we had moved to where we're living now, which is a home that is very conducive to homeschool. The layout of this house is marvelous and there's so much natural light. It is a small house, but the little girls can be nearby, yet playing on their own, because the floor plan is pretty open. It's not like at our downtown house where we mostly did schooling at the kitchen table, and the little ones wanted to be involved but they'd just end up fighting, or falling off their chairs, or eating our experiment supplies, or pooping on school books. (Or on a really stellar day, all of the above.) So starting the second semester was already better than before. AND, we were back in the country with animals about to be born and a great sledding hill, so everyone was getting adequate outside time, which was an immediate improvement upon our days. All of these were benefits, but the real turning point came about rather unexpectedly.
I documented this fairly well on my Instagram account right when it happened, but I used to be a member of a Facebook group organized for the specific curriculum that we follow. It's a Catholic, Charlotte Mason-based curriculum, it's free, it's got great resources, well laid out, and follows a solid Charlotte Mason philosophy. I really do like it. However, I did not realize how passionate these people are about following the rules of the philosophy. I didn't realize how intensely they believe that workbooks are NOT OK. So, posted to the group about something (I don't even remember what it was about, but I was pretty much looking for solidarity and the post itself was very lighthearted) and included an unrelated picture of what I thought was a hilariously filled out page of Greta's workbook, on which she had answered a question with "THIS IS SO BORING." Whooooweee! I got torn apart for posting a workbook--for the very fact that I USE workbooks--and was told that my daughters writing (I think the commenter meant handwriting) was "junk" and that I needed to step away from teaching interrogative, exclamatory and declarative sentences and focus instead on phonics and knowing that sentences begin with a capital letter. The comment was pretty harsh and it made me angry. It made me angry mostly because she felt okay criticizing a seven-year-old, but also because Greta's work was NOT junk. Greta is an excellent writer (better than her older sister, but don't tell Anja I said so) who taught herself to read by reading American Girl books before she had even turned 5. This stranger was tearing apart my methods and my child's work without even knowing who I was, or at what academic level my child was working in.
So, I had myself a little hissy fit. I furiously left that Facebook group, and immediately (because I'm stubborn and childish) ditched my curriculum. For the next week or two, we focused NOT on what was next on our yearly syllabus, but we took our own path and learned bigger things than what was listed in our curriculum for this year. We kept doing our funny workbooks because even if it IS "anti-Charlotte Mason," what do I care? My kids like them. Yes, they get boring. Geezopete, EVERYTHING gets boring. When we get bored, we move on to something else. I've been getting more books, some from the old book list, some not, and of our own accord we started reading Shakespeare and memorizing the Preamble to the Constitution and studying the Bill of Rights in depth. No we've moved on to the presidents. This is stuff I didn't learn in school. We learned about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and that was it. We did not study the amendments in depth (or if we did, it sure didn't stick) when I was in school. Recently I was looking back over the book list of the old curriculum (which I do still use as a loose guide) before a library run, and I found that Anja has read almost every book on the yearly lists all the way through the next year! A great many of them have been family read aloud so Greta has heard them too. After my confrontation with that group, my eyes were opened to see that we are doing a fine job--BEYOND fine. Without noticing it amid our daily struggles of math problems (because the struggle was usually math,) my kids had moved beyond their grade level in their assigned curriculum, and now I'm feeling super comfortable with my second and third grader, teaching them on our own self-directed path.
So, what do we DO? Well, there are a few things that I've noticed about our days at home. For formal learning we use various books as our base--we have two history books that are very good at giving ideas that we can run with; one is "The American Story," which is stories from American history, a lot of which are about specific important people that we then can research and learn more about on our own. Another is The Biggest Book of History, which is one of those cartoon-style books that moves through time, starting with the dinosaurs and leading through modern times. It's great because it gives little detailed snippets of times and cultures, but it doesn't talk about anything in depth, so we can take those three pages of cartoon snippets and then look in other books for more information. We've finished learning about the Ancient World and now we're in Medieval times. (This is separate from US History, which we also do.) This all goes hand in hand with geography. We use this same open-ended method we use for Literature. We read a poem from one of our poetry books, then we study the author, read other works of the author, etc. Math is drill, spelling, cursive writing, and grammar are done in workbooks. We use the religion book prescribed from our old curriculum, as well as various other books I've collected over the years. Honestly, science is what's really lagging for us this year; last year we had a subscription to the Magic School Bus monthly experiment packets, and that was AWESOME. They learned so much. This year we don't have that, so we just do random science stuff. Not very structured. They're probably not learning anything.
So, that's what we do for more formal work, but the way we travel through our days has a few key elements as well, that I've been more recently paying attention to.
One thing we do is talk all the time. Everything is interactive in our family. If someone is reading a book, we talk about it. If one of us learns something new, we talk about it. (This is parents and children.) We ask each other questions. We aren't afraid to ask what something means, or how something works, or to say, "Why is that so?" or "I don't remember that," and go over it again. Everything is open to discussion.
We do a lot of art. Painting, drawing, singing, learning about artists, poets, naturalists, writers, etc. We do a lot of music, a lot of art, a lot of writing, a lot of reading. Art can be connected to so many things, it's a great vehicle for learning.
We play. Formal lessons at the table are broken up by sessions of play/free time. Lately the cool thing has been peg dolls, but there's always something they're especially into that takes up those pockets of free time. This is good for me because it allows me to get my work done, and it's good for them because they have the time to let one lesson soak in (or ooze out...) before moving onto the next. And if they aren't into specific games or play, they use those breaks to create independently. Sew, draw, write a little book.... anything.
We're not afraid to move beyond our grade level. Everything is very fluid. Some days we read stacks of "Angelina Ballerina" books, while on others we read Lewis Carroll. "Age appropriate" is respected, but not dwelt upon.
The last thing is something that took me aaaaallllll this time to actually DO, even though I knew it was necessary and would improve our lives. We have a morning routine. I don't know why it was so difficult for me to embrace this, but setting up a very basic morning routine (not by the clock, just by getting stuff done,) has had such a positive impact on our daily life! We all wake up at different times, but throughout the early morning everyone brushes teeth, gets dressed, makes their bed, has breakfast, and we usually begin our schooling with tea and morning prayer. Routine. I knew it was beneficial, but somehow it took me ages to latch onto the idea that it would improve my entire daily existence.
In a lot of ways, I think my flavor of homeschooling might not work for everyone. It's pretty willy-nilly. I don't call it "unschooling" because it's more formal than that, but it's definitely "loose" homeschooling. I know a lot of people prefer much more structure than this--and some prefer less. The most important thing is that my kids are learning. I SEE them learning and I see them LOVING to learn new things. It doesn't matter if you've got your perfect curriculum all mapped out--if the kids reject it, or if it's making you crazy as the homeschool parent, it's not worth it. It's not going to work. I had this silly idea in my head that using this curriculum as it was written year by year was THE ONLY WAY I could do our schooling. What the heck? Workbooks might be anti-Charlotte Mason, but believing that homeschool can ONLY be done ONE specific way is anti-homeschool! The whole idea with learning at home is based on freedom, independence, and personal pace of students' learning. That's sort of the point.
So that's what we do, in a nutshell. We still struggle with math, but not as much as we used to. (We've started using the Life of Fred series along with drills, which has been really great.) Whatever you are doing as a homeschooler (or as a non-homeschooler,) just try to keep in mind that some days really blow and there's no getting around that. Just type out your troubles on social media and receive that mound of virtual hugs of solidarity, and try again tomorrow. Make sure you're not sticking with something you hate just because other people have told you it's the "best way." (This is just about homeschooling, not about religious beliefs or following the law!!) Dabble! Find what works for you. I'm a terrible homeschooler, you honestly should probably disregard everything I've said in this post. BUT, I've found a way that doesn't make me spend extended time in the shower every morning in an effort to avoid doing school. And that, my friends, is progress.