Friday, March 12, 2010

A Course in How to Live, Part II

Over the years, our lessons became a new way of life. Somewhere in the midst of it all, I became stronger, braver, more willing to risk. I was no longer afraid to dream, to imagine what was possible, to take a plunge into something new.

A year after our youngest son moved on to college, I began to write for others. Why? Because my heart was urging me forward. Because the joy that met me when the words hit the page was the same joy that lit the eyes of my children when they began to read. I knew the beginning of something real, something I should pay attention to. They taught me that. I knew that I was choosing it for the best reason -- to help people. They taught me that, too. From them, I learned that the best life is not the one that I live for myself, but the one I find in making a difference for someone else.

It takes courage and imagination, side by side, to be a writer. Our experiences equipped me with both. I taught my sons to read and write. And this gave me lessons in how to live. Those lessons have made my emergence as a writer possible. My new life rises out of the life we lived together.

The gift which I gave to my family has become the gift they gave to me.

I started by writing about homeschooling. Here I had a natural platform. I could write about our experiences and our life together. But as I've spent a year writing, something else has happened.

I've begun to realize that homeschooling was our past, not my future.

I will always be different because we launched our own learning adventures. Like the children who went to Narnia and back, I am more alive, more real, after traversing that landscape. I will belong to it, and it to me, no matter where I travel from here. I will take the gift I was given into new places.

All of this is not to say that a book on homeschooling is not in my future somewhere. But I am reasonably sure it is not happening anytime soon.

Right now, my sons need to venture into the adult world without the magnifying glass of readers looking to see how homeschooling worked out for us. They need to decide, without the pressure of any expectations, how they will raise their own families and educate them. And I need to study the craft of writing while pursuing the kind of writing I think I may be called to do.

I'm excited about the life ahead of me. I've begun to work on longer projects. Right now, I'm writing passages for a book about finding the life we've always longed for in a relationship with God. I've a hunch that my audience will be broad and universal, extending well beyond the homeschool community. I hope there will be many books.

Another thing I've learned is that saying yes also means saying no. Not everything fits into a life. So for now, I will no longer be writing posts for Apple Pie. The blog will stay online for a few months so that people will have time to stop by and read about what's happened.

And in the meantime, I invite you to visit The Moonboat Cafe, where I'll be writing posts about the joyful life.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Course in How to Live, Part I

Twenty years ago, I started homeschooling to create something for our family which we would not otherwise have. Our vision for learning was not on the agenda of our local schools. While his peers were learning their ABC's, our oldest son Josh studied all the Indian tribes in North America. By the first grade, he was beginning to read The Chronicles of Narnia. He had no intention of stopping there. He could see a world opening up before him and waiting to be explored. He asked me to teach him at home, so that he would have the freedom to learn about the things that fascinated him. My husband's job as a news reporter started at noon every day. We all knew that family time would have to happen in the mornings if it happened at all. So I took the plunge into homeschooling, and we began our great adventure in learning.

I did it for them. Or so I thought.

As we learned together, many of my assumptions about life and learning had to be revised. I was forced to be more flexible, to be more disciplined, to be stronger than I thought I could be. Homeschooling changed my character. It changed my perspective. It changed my life. It taught me how to live with courage and imagination, side by side.

Lessons in Joy

First, my sons taught me the value of joy. I did not have a real childhood. Growing up in a big family with both parents working and leaning hard on their eldest daughter made me made me an adult too soon. It wasn't anyone's intention. My parents tried to do what seemed best for us. But it worked in my temperament like an iron rod through my spine. I became hyper-vigilant, deadly serious, workaholic. I lived like an adult by the time I was twelve, getting up at 4:00 a.m. to deliver a paper route, taking myself to school, paying for my clothes and lessons, and coming home to cook supper and clean the house before attending to homework. I had to pay my way through college. I never played. That was for others.

All those years, I viewed play the way a child with no money gazes into a candy store. It was not for me. Then, long after the time for play had passed, two young boys pulled me into their world of imagination. Their constant tugging and tutelage – “ Mom, do it like this!” -- let me live the childhood I never knew I could have. For hours, we played pretend. We ran stores, restaurants, and forts. We made up stories with Legos. We baked animal cookies and piled them with mounds of sprinkles. In the winter, we built huge fires in the fireplace and brewed "cowboy coffee", scorched hot dogs, and roasted marshmallows. We cut little pieces of white tissue to make paper snow. We built models. We blew bubbles. We piled books high on the couch and read together, imagining ourselves in faraway places. We played board games for long hours without stopping. I remember one fall day my husband happened to come home in the afternoon to find us still in our pajamas and in the middle of Monopoly. We had lost track of the time.

In the world of two boys, I learned the value of joy and imagination, of play and delight. I began to grasp how these things are essential to creativity and excellence.

And Confidence

Of course, imagination must be accompanied by resolve if it is to bear fruit. There were many lessons in this, too. Repeatedly, we started things because we had a vision. We became confident in our ability to teach ourselves new things: running a lemonade stand, publishing a kids’ magazine, selling handmade soap, building small machines, setting off rockets. We patiently worked at these projects, with a little anxiety over the results, until we were satisfied with the end product and knew it was time to move on. We ceased to feel pressured into conforming to the expectations of others, into running down the wide paths of the mainstream, into doing we should be doing.

We learned together that it's not the success at the end which determines whether we should commit to a venture. It matters more what kind of people we become by trying. Character comes first. The life worth living will be added to it. Everything we do comes from who we are. That is more significant than the things we intend. In the end, our choices, and the reasons for making them, are the true measures of success.

Somehow, the lessons in joy led to innovation and innovation meant defying expectations and that required courage. The path was set before us quite naturally, before I knew it had happened. Learning together changed us.

How has homeschooling changed you?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Spring Planning Special: Take a Survey!

Once I understood that joy was the best motivation for learning, I had to change the way I shopped. Prepared curriculum packages had become a slippery slope. I was feeling my way into new terrain. I tried a number of methods.

At one point, I gave some curriculum catalogs and brightly colored markers to my boys and told them to circle whatever they liked. They nearly always picked things that looked dangerous or like birthday presents.

One son held an ongoing campaign to purchase books that would teach him how to survive on whatever he could forage from the backyard and surrounding neighborhood. He also wanted to collect preserved specimens. I didn't even know that some of these creatures existed, much less that they could be preserved for posterity.

My other son wanted to build every kind of robot and gadget the catalogs offered. He dreamed of filling the house with machines. Let me tell you, if you want to build things, you can find some weird stuff for sale.

Still, the information I gained this way was priceless. It gave me a window into what brought them joy. This became an important part of picking curriculum for our school every year -- just asking them what they wanted and letting them respond without being censored.

I made no promises. But I let them express themselves.

A Sure Path to New Ideas

If your school is tired, if everyone is unhappy, or if you are just looking for a way to breathe fresh air into your program, try it.

Try asking your kids what they would like for school. If they can't think of anything, hand them a curriculum catalog or let them look online. Let them pick anything that looks interesting. Tell them there are no right answers. Explain that you are just getting feedback.

Don't worry about getting "correct" answers. Most kids won't show any interest in textbooks. Instead, they'll pick things that seem completely inappropriate -- equipment for a hobby, something silly and messy, or even something that looks like it's designed to annoy.

No matter what, it's still helpful feedback. Make a note of it. Think about it. What does it say about the need for joy? What are these choices telling you?

What about Older Students?

In high school, there's lot of pressure to meet expectations. In those years, I had to fight the temptation to dictate what must get done and the worry about being legitimate. The problem is, we do have to worry about that -- we need to learn to translate our courses into terms that make sense to accreditation agencies and colleges. We need to be sure that our courses are generally equivalent to high school courses.

Even so, our best work is done where there is joy.

Allowing our kids to follow their own interests and passions is the smartest investment we can make in their education. They will develop into adults who are gifted and have found something they do with excellence.

So, go ahead. Ask. Don't say it can't be done. Do some research. Nearly anything is possible. You can always arrange the studies to make them work like a course for credit.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Spring Planning Special: Choosing Curriculum For Joy!

Learning can be hard work. It often is. But it can also be our joy.

Slowly, over the years, my children taught me this. Joshua's love of nature, even its unsavory aspects, led us to strange activities. The first of these was our "insect zoo". He captured insects, put them into clear containers, fed and observed them. We studied large pictures of bugs, learned about their body parts, and examined how they functioned. During this time, I had recurring nightmares of large bugs crawling toward me and over me with heightened details. I was relieved when this stage passed. But for my son, it was a glory. I still have photos of him, his face beaming, with his arm around his zoo specimens. Years later, when he became a National Merit Scholar, Joshua was asked to give a speech at his graduation ceremony. He talked about how homeschooling allowed him to pursue the things that delighted him. He used the insect zoo as his example, and he thanked me for allowing him to do it. His words were, "This is homeschooling at its best."

The perspective I now have of nearly two decades is a great advantage. There are many things that were foggy to me when I was slogging through the daily effort of homeschooling which are now clear. Beyond any doubt, our best work was done when there was joy. It's that simple. Nothing we did, and I mean nothing, mattered more.


Take a few minutes to think about what is enjoyable in your home school. Is there anything that delights, that brings fresh joy? This is important, but few homeschoolers think of it. The reason for paying attention to this is that the joy shows you something that is ideal, something that you should emphasize, protect, even repeat in other subject areas. What is working well? Why?

Where is the joy in your school? Make a note of it now, before you begin planning for next year.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Spring Planning for the Home School

As the calendar turns to March, many homeschooling moms turn to the annual task of choosing curriculum. Some of you don't have to think much about this because you are using a standardized, boxed curriculum and you simply order the materials for the next grade. But for many moms, the early spring is full of thoughts about next fall. Last week, I was amused by the mother who posted this question on a website: "Am I the only one who is obsessed with curriculum right now?"

It took us three full years to understand the way we needed to organize our learning adventures and how we should shop. Every family must find what works for them. That's the beauty of homeschooling. We can use a custom-fit for the needs that are present. One of the keys to our process was for me to have enough time to assess and plan thoughtfully.

I found that setting aside some time in March worked wonders for the year ahead and for our current year. That's because the first thing I did was assess what we had accomplished over the last 6 months. I put the schoolwork into looseleaf binders which were divided into subject areas. I made notes. How much had we done? What had worked well? What had not worked at all? How much farther could we reasonably go into the material by June? I based my projections on the reality we had been since September.

I learned that I needed quiet and space for this task. So I made arrangements for the kids, either with their dad, a relative, a friend, or a sitter. I used Friday and Saturday afternoons for my work, and I rewarded myself with a "treat" on Saturday night and an afternoon nap on Sunday.

Rewards are important for me. I need an incentive to push myself to get work done. Appointments are essential. By arranging for the kids, I made an appointment to do the work. That kept me accountable.

Beginning this in March let me work on it before the distractions of spring sports and events began. It also gave me two full months before a curriculum fair in May. What I thought should take one month actually took two. And that was the first rule.

A job always takes at least twice as long as I think it will. Always.

What about you? Have you started thinking about curriculum for next year? How do you like to do your planning?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Devotions at Light for My Lamp

There's a new post about walking with God at Light for My Lamp. Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Spring Cleaning: First Things

We have family arriving in the next few days, and I've started spring cleaning. In addition to this, my husband has several work projects around the house that need attention before people get here and the yard needs another clean-up from the latest devastating ice storm.

But before I started my cleaning project, I had a preparation day. I made sure I had all my cleaning supplies ready. I made sure I had appropriate clothing -- meaning, things to wear that I can spill anything on or tear holes in. I made sure I had a generous stash of my favorite coffee and tea supplies -- for breaks, you know. And I cooked ahead.

That's right. I cooked a bunch of food. This gave us a three-day supply of instant meals in the fridge. When people are hungry, they can go to the fridge, fill up a plate, and heat it in the microwave.

While the food was cookinBoldg, I cleaned out the fridge and tidied up the kitchen. By cleaning out the fridge, I made room for all of the foods I prepared. I also made sure that people don't eat spoiled food that will make them sick. Believe me, it can happen. One time, one of my children ate raw turkey bacon because it was in the same drawer as the lunch meat and then asked me why it tasted strange.

What did I cook? Easy things. Things that fill a body up, but that don't take much hands-on preparation. Staple foods that can easily be combined into meals. After the foods have cooled, I put the foods in zip-lock bags or plastic containers with lids and stack them neatly in my clean fridge.

Okay, I know you want to see the list! Here it is:

Baked potatoes
Baked sweet potatoes
Brown rice pilaf (in my rice cooker, with vegetables and spices)
Kamut pilaf (grain with vegetables and lemon juice)
2 lbs of green beans
Butternut squash, microwaved and topped with honey and cinnamon
2 lbs of frozen corn
2 lbs of Brussels sprouts
Large pan of baked beans
Large sheet of baked red peppers
Sweet and sour lentils
Eye of round steaks, individually frozen and ready for my son to grill in a small skillet
Salad supplies: lettuce, tomatoes, various vegetables, salad dressings
Fresh fruit: apples, oranges, bananas, grapes
Whole grain breads

The spices in my pilaf dishes rounded out the vegetables and made for a nice variety. We had oatmeal or cereal for breakfasts. My husband and I are vegetarians, so the beans and lentils served as our main courses. I also stocked the freezer with a wide variety of frozen vegetables that can be quickly heated in the microwave, offering supplements and additional side dishes to my prepared fare. I knew we would want good nutrition and filling foods, not just whatever we threw together or ordered from a restaurant, while we were working hard.

I'm always tempted to just dive into the work. You know, get going! But years of extended projects on a Victorian home taught me the value of having a prep day before working.

It seems like it takes extra time, but in the long run, it saves hours and hours.

How? Because nobody has to run to the store to buy something we need. Because the set-up and clean-up time is done all at once for our meals. Because this method eliminates all the food-related interruptions that are a normal part of daily life. I could never manage the once-a-month cooking that some of my friends did, but this worked well for me, as long as I didn't try to create dishes that were time-consuming or complicated. Keeping it simple has been important for me.

What kinds of food do you typically eat when you are working on a project?