After her first sacrament of Holy Communion yesterday, Beezy told me she felt like her head was going to pop off, her heart hurt, her arm felt like it was going to fall off too, and finally, that she felt like she wanted to marry Jesus...
At our homeschool we are finally taking a spring break. My mother-in-law made her annual visit from New Mexico this week, but earlier than usual, in order to be here for Beezy's First Communion. Despite not doing any formal schooling activities, we have been very busy, and much learning has been accomplished. Before Grandma arrived, Beezy's religious education class rehearsed for First Communion and practiced a special song the children will sing. It has six verses, so I brought a copy home to show Beezy how to follow the song. They will have the lyrics to read while singing, so we worked on some of the unfamiliar words. She missed last week because of having a tooth pulled, so I am catching her up. She also missed making a name banner for our family's pew for the First Communion Mass. Luckily Grandma is a retired art teacher, and the two of them worked on the banner for hours, and it is gorgeous!
Tomorrow morning there is a 4-H cake decorating workshop, so Beezy and her dad made the butter cream frosting for that. We took Grandma on an excursion yesterday to see some new shops in town, and I found a Hurlbut's Story of the Bible from 1904 with beautiful color and black-and-white illustrations at our flower shop's antique annex. Beezy has played her piano numbers for an upcoming recital for her grandma, so she is keeping up with her practice.
Grandma brought us bundles of sage from her garden. She is enjoying the perennial flowers in our yard, and I was right, the tulips too are fiercely blossoming despite the unseasonably chilly weather. Relationships are what matter most in an unschooling approach to life and learning. Memories gathered and treasured like homegrown herbs lovingly bound with string. Fragrant, simple, and delicious.
We have had no less than three kinds of weather where I live today--rain, snow, and now sunshine! April is confused. My spring perennials are nevertheless hard core. They have withstood this fickle season with nary a wilted petal. What an inspiration the delicate crocus, fragrant hyacinth, and cheerful daffodil have been! The tulip will also surely persevere.
So as I sit here with one of my big toe nails partially ripped out (the occasional result of a hereditary fungal sickness, I'm afraid), I know better than to complain about the weather. I know I live in NW Ohio, and this is the way it is. There is a reason that our growing zone is not off frost alert and cleared for planting until May 15. My bulbous spring beauties pay no mind to the whims of Mother Nature--they come up on their own terms and brave whatever she dishes out, and in their Sunday best at that. They prove that spring has indeed arrived, and they remind me that a woman can be soft and sweet and still tough as nails (no pun intended).
I think I need to go back to the practice of making a list of 5 things each day for which I am grateful. I learned about this idea of keeping a gratitude journal in Sarah Ban Breathnach's Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy. When thinking about the "wildly rewarding life," I asked myself whether my life might already be wildly rewarding, and I just fail to recognize it.
First of all, I can partake of Holy Communion for spiritual nourishment almost every day of the week, if I choose to go to daily Mass. To have the right to receive the real food of the body and blood of Christ as a Catholic is truly wild. Is there a greater gift than this? That God is my Father, Jesus is my Brother, and Mary is my spiritual Mother is amazing grace. Is there a higher reward than this?
It seems that we are trained by our consumerist society to always want more. If I had this thing or that, if this one aspect of life were different, then everything would be perfect. What if, instead, we allow what we have in this present moment to be enough? The birds and squirrels in the yard are enough. My husband, child, dog, home, car, and furniture are enough. I have enough clothes, enough food, enough money, and enough love. I am pretty enough, smart enough, strong enough, talented enough, funny enough, young enough, and my weight is just fine, whatever it happens to be. My friends and my town are enough. This blog is good enough. My homeschooling is good enough. I am enough. You are enough. And our God is an awesome God.
I found a despairing comment yesterday on the internet from a woman who deeply regretted unschooling her two children; the reason being that she had an unexpected circumstance that required putting her son and daughter into the public school system. The girl was eight years old and was far behind her peers in every subject. This mother felt betrayed by her unschooling community, who had assured her that her children would learn everything they needed to know on their own. She implied that this is magical thinking.
The son eventually did okay catching up with his school peers, but the daughter was so traumatized that her mother had to pull her back out. The mom felt like she had failed her children. Her heartache was palpable. So is this a cautionary tale against unschooling?
The first thing to consider is that the intention behind unschooling is not to make sure that children are working at grade level or to prepare them to one day enter a public school. At eight years old, I think it's too early to judge the success or failure of unschooling, or any homeschooling method. However, if a child has not even begun to learn to read, write, and learn basic math skills by the age of eight, I think that is a red flag. Barring a learning disability, the readiness should be there. But what if the interest is not? Radical unschoolers would say to leave the child alone until he shows an interest. Is this wise?
It's important to set goals for your homeschooling. The Catholic perspective is that the primary goal of education is faith formation and getting one's children to Heaven. That is the desired, end result. Academics are secondary, but they are important. The Church has a centuries long tradition of classical learning, what today we call a "liberal arts" education. By this process a person developes a well-formed mind, capable of logical thought, discernment, and the keen ability to think for oneself. Knowing how to learn is set above acquiring knowledge, because the ability to learn will result in the possibility of deeply attaining a body of knowledge. The mind will be thirsty for information and naturally curious about the world. Mastery of a few subjects is prized over a cursory knowledge about many things. Unlike today's college instruction in the humanities, however, true classical education has as its foundation the study of classical languages such as Latin and Greek. America's founding fathers were classically educated. Classical education forms the mind so that a person can express himself eloquently both in speech and writing. This is not the education received in today's public schools.
We can't foresee all that life will bring us. If our children did have to go to school at some point, it is hopeful that homeschooling will have prepared them well enough academically that the transition would not be too rough. But consider that children struggle in the public schools, academically, spiritually, and socially. Our nation performs at a mediocre level in every key academic area, on the low end for a developed country. The common core curriculum that will be implemented in the coming school year in at least 47 states is eliminating most classic literature in favor of "informational textbooks". This will not result in greater literacy. This will not result in well-trained minds that can think for themselves, that understand what it means to be human. This will not feed the hungry soul.
Parents have a tremendous responsibility to teach their children. Unschooling can provide some good tools for accomplishing your educational goals, but you must define those goals and determine how best to reach them. I am not suggesting a rat race mentality of cramming your child's mind with heaps of information in order to cover everything exactly at "grade level", in the event that she might have to go to a public school. I don't believe in forcing children to learn any more than I believe in forcing potty training. True learning does not happen by force. What I do believe is that teaching is an art. It requires diligence, practice, creativity, commitment, energy, focus, patience and love. Learning from another requires the habits of attention, willingness, and obedience (but perhaps respect is a better word) on the part of the child. In this way, parents and children are partners in education, but the authority belongs to the parents. How might a mother entice her children to wish fervently to learn?
One step isn't the beginning of a journey if you keep one foot in the
yard. You have to get away from the starting point completely. --Sandra Dodd, "Just Add Light and Stir" blog
It's as if messages from the Holy Spirit just keep showing up in my inbox! Well, why not? Does this message mean I have to go out in the cold rain today? Our dog doesn't mind the weather. She just loves her walks! So yes, we'll get out and about at least to go around the block. Maybe we'll even walk to the grocery to get Daisy some dog treats! The lack of sunlight provides the perfect excuse to light candles. I'll begin the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary with Beezy today. She loves being read to from the Bible. Her dad is at work, so it will be a quiet day, just the two of us; then I will venture out to teach my belly dance class this evening.
I don't think you have to travel to Paris to live the wildly rewarding life I wrote about yesterday (but I do intend to see Sacre Couer again, including the inside of the cathedral!). We must bloom where we are planted, as the saying goes. The adventurous life is more a spirit, a state of mind, a living by one's own lights. It's finding the magic in the ordinary. It's looking at where you live and seeing the beauty even in the shabby and rundown. It's suddenly noticing that a teddy bear was stuck into your bathrobe while you were typing your blog post!
I am telling you all this to remind myself, because it's so easy to forget. How typical to lament the chilly, rainy day and wish for warmth and sun. How radical and freeing to put on your wellies and look for puddles instead!!
The best way to
become a saint is to live life to the fullest—to have an Eternally
fulfilling and wildly rewarding life here on earth, doing the things you are most
passionate about and doing them in a way that brings satisfaction and true joy to
you and those around you, while also bringing glory to God.
I get these "minute meditations" in my inbox every day, and this one really struck me. The reason I feel called to unschooling and the Charlotte Mason method, I think, is the desire to live a passionate life. If our homeschooling methods do not bring us and our children joy, they are the wrong methods. Maybe not for someone else, but for us. Can you even imagine having a "wildly rewarding" life? What would it look like?
In 1990 I traveled to Paris, France with my parents. I had dinner one night in front of the Sacred Heart Cathedral. My dad had toured the inside on a day that I went to a museum. He was blown away by its beauty and described it in such detail that I have always felt like I saw it myself. Maybe one day I will.
Continuing with the discussion on reading from Part 1, I wonder sometimes what would have happened if I had known more about unschooling and had let the process develop organically. Everything was going fine in the beginning. I took my cues from Beezy, answering her questions about what letter a word started with. I would tell her both the sound and letter name. We had Leap Frog alphabet refrigerator magnets, and we used Montessori sandpaper letters and shaving cream tracing for learning the sounds with lower case letters. I disagree with those who advocate starting with capitals, because most of the text we read is in lower case. Making words with letter tiles and blending letters together to sound words out was fun.
Then I hit a road block with the beginning readers I could find, because they used so many sight words which could not be sounded out. A friend suggested BOB books from Scholastic, which use small, phonetic words (3 or 4 letters), and only gradually add a few sight words. This is the part where I feel guilty. Things started out promising with these books, but then there were issues. Beezy struggled so much with sounding words out. She did progress, though slowly and painstakingly, and I became frustrated. I made her read for too long at first, but eventually I realized, thanks to Charlotte Mason, that lessons should be short; so Beezy only had to read half a book at a time. Even so, reading became not so fun for either of us.
However, I did not continue what was clearly not working. The BOB books were not only uninteresting, but the pictures were horrible, and Beezy's artistic sensibilities were terribly insulted. As I have written before, I finally pulled out our 12 book set of Dick and Jane readers, and she loved them! Allelujah!! I don't care what anyone says about Dick and Jane being dumbed down and repetitive. The repetition worked for Beezy, and finally her reading skills took off. The pictures are great, and somehow, inexplicably, the stories were engaging. Never question God's grace--just go with it. From there I found the Ginn readers from the same era on Ebay, so we have been able to continue along with books that are similar in style to Dick and Jane, with increasing levels of difficulty. For a long time I still required phonetic words to be sounded out and would simply tell Beezy what sight words said. Once I was bitten by the unschooling bug, I understood the rationale for not forcing the painful experience of making her sound out the words. But like I said, I began to doubt the process.
I think that since Beezy can sound out words well enough, I should have her do more reading to herself. She can come to me if she doesn't know a word. If I'm not sitting right beside her, she will likely figure most words out on her own. Too much hovering is a bad thing. A couple of weeks ago Beezy told me that her piano teacher got a phone call during her lesson, and Beezy said she played so much better without her teacher watching her! She told me the same thing during practice yesterday at home. I will try just getting her started and then leave the room to let her practice. More and more I see the wisdom in not interfering too much in the child's learning process.
Unschooled children learn to read when they are ready. They may ask to learn to read or do it spontaneously at any age--4, 8, or 10--and suffer no ill effects from either learning early or late. They end up being avid, proficient readers. I proceeded with teaching reading when I did, because Beezy showed readiness in learning letter sounds. She was asking for help, so I don't think we started the basics too soon. But what if, when the BOB books were not working, I had simply backed off reading lessons and waited to see if Beezy would figure it out on her own? Or if I had just left reading alone for a few months and then come back to it? At least as a homeschooling mother, I had the time and the interest to try different things until I found something that worked. I trusted my intuition.
I still worry. That's a mom's job to a certain extent. We need to trust in the guidance of the Holy Spirit, though, and rest with confidence under Mary's mantle. She holds our children there too.
I have settled on the label "Catholic CM Unschooling" to describe our homeschooling style (CM being short for Charlotte Mason). It took me a long time to arrive at this point, because I was weighing unschooling against the Christian parental vocation, and because I had to evaluate whether a Catholic homeschooler could in good conscience use the CM method. I have written about my conclusions in previous posts. Obviously I have decided that both CM and unschooling are valid, as long as they are practiced within the parameters of the Catholic faith.
Yet my transition to Catholic unschooling has been fraught with doubt. Sometimes you can simply read too much. For example, in my reading about classical education, the insistence that phonics must be zealously employed in teaching reading, or the child will eventually hit a serious roadblock, threw me into mild distress. Should we be doing more phonics, I wondered, even though I had told Beezy she wouldn't have to sound words out anymore? I looked at some phonics workbooks online, and from what I could see, Beezy has already received phonics training at least at her grade level, if not beyond. Not that I concern myself much with grade levels, but that was comforting. The problem is not that she doesn't know the sounds of the letters and blends, etc..., because she does. She just loathes sounding out words. Interesting how the word "loathe" sounds so similar to, but is so very opposite from, love. And don't we want our children to love reading? Of course we do, so being forced into "learning" exercises that she loathes is counterintuitive to learning to love reading.
The only sound (no pun intended) argument I read for emphasizing phonics as the ultimate way to learn to read is that if a child comes to a word he doesn't know by sight, he will not be able to sound it out. That's true, I was thinking, and almost took the bait. Then I remembered that I have this big, red book called a dictionary in my house, and that even though I have an English degree and am obviously exceptionally literate, I still have to look new words up in the dictionary now and then, not only for the definition, but for the pronunciation!
Many unknown words in the English language will be sight words, and phonics won't get you very far. What if Beezy is reading Greek myths and she comes across the name, "Persephone"? You can't get it right by sounding it out. I agree with Charlotte Mason that once the basics of phonics have been learned, the "point and say" method of teaching will further the child along in the art of reading most effectively. Even if the word could be sounded out, but being forced to do so inhibits Beezy from continuing to enjoy reading, does it make sense to insist upon it?
My neighborhood swarms with cats, and it's impossible to tell how many have homes but are outdoor cats versus which are strays. Sometimes they hold conferences at my house, all facing each other in a circle. One time Beezy and I went out on the porch to see about 7 of them having a meeting, and they all simultaneously turned their heads to stare at us. It was evidently a private meeting! And it was creepy...
Beezy is friends with many of these felines, and I wasn't thinking, when I told her we could do reading outside today, that the kitties prancing through the yard would be a bit distracting. It is spring, after all, which means mating season; but they stop to be fed and petted while they are on the prowl. Since my daughter is passionate about animals, I can't exactly tell her to ignore these visitors. We managed to do vocabulary for religion, copy work (the Sanctus from the liturgy), and reading today, which wasn't too bad considering it is Friday, which is often a light day of schoolwork anyway. Now that cats and warmer weather have come back, I will have to be extra diligent to keep Beezy on task. Luckily, due to my research on unschooling during Lent, perhaps I will be able to relax and look at the big picture of learning--daffodils blossoming in the yard (and Beezy knows their name!), visits with cats and cousins and grandparents and friends, 4-H meetings, and even Monster High church are part of the education of life.
Yes, you read that right--the Monster High dolls go to Mass, complete with music, bread (cardboard cut-up host) and wine (red yarn mixed into water), an altar, pews, altar servers, and Deuce acting as priest ("because he's the only boy," and he wears Prince Eric's suit for vestments). Beezy came up with this on her own one night at bedtime, and I hear her chanting "the mystery of faith" when she plays. Evidently my child pays attention at Mass and has absorbed the goings on. This too is Catholic curriculum!
Let's face it, sorting through all of the possible approaches to homeschooling can make one's head swim, especially if too much time is spent surfing the web and reading ad nauseam descriptions and opinions. It might be easiest to just be eclectic, choosing from the homeschooling buffet the things one likes from various methods and putting them together in a hodge podge manner. This may work well for some. My belief, though, is that one needs an underlying purpose, a guiding philosophy. Then one needs a method that works with the child's predominant temperament and learning style. Some of this, for me, is provided by Marianna Bartold's Keeping It Catholic Series Home Education Guide. The rest can be found in the sources listed below, in the curriculum outline that I will be providing to our school superintendent (for the state of OH).
I intend to continue with the Charlotte Mason method, relying upon Mater Amabilis and Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum for Catholic book recommendations for the relevant age group, and also potentially using choices provided by the other resources listed. Despite Keeping It Catholic's red flag, Charlotte Mason is an adapted form of classical education, the teaching methods of which Bartold herself says can be used with any worldview, be it Protestant, Catholic, atheist, etc...
I wanted to get this done early so it is ready to submit as soon as the school year has ended. I am not primarily relying on my Montessori manuals at this point, but I still reference them occasionally for ideas. While the idea of unschooling still appeals to me and will be incorporated, I do think my daughter needs some structured learning time that is teacher-led. The CM method designates this and also provides for the free time, real world experiences, and child-led pursuits that unschooling champions. It's really the best of both worlds, the middle path between the "school at home" and the "freedom without limits" ends of the spectrum, neither of which is appealing. So think it out for yourself, but keep your homeschooling simple. Remember the "Little Way". In the end, the best way to learn to teach your children is to just do it!!
Curriculum Books and Resource Materials:
- Mater Amabilis: a Charlotte Mason style curriculum for
- The Original Charlotte Mason Homeschooling Series (6 volumes by Charlotte Mason)
- A Charlotte Mason
Education by Catherine Levison
- A Charlotte Mason
Companion by Karen Andreola
- Keeping It Catholic
Series Home Education Guide, Vol. 1 by Marianna Bartold
- When Children Love
to Learn by Elaine Cooper
- Designing Your Own
Classical Curriculum by Laura M. Berquist
- Handbook of Nature Study by Anna Botsford Comstock
- Corresponding Montessori materials and similar manipulatives
- The Holy Bible, RSV, Second Catholic Edition
- St. Joseph's Baltimore
*Involvement with the Keystone Homeschooling Co-op for field trips and special programs, such as fire safety
Education at Sacred Heart Church
Charlotte Mason (CM) Method: The Charlotte Mason method of narration will be
used in the teaching of all relevant subjects. The child is read to, or reads
for herself, from literature and retells (or writes) what has
just been read. The use of what Ms. Mason termed “living books” will be the
predominant choices, with minimal use of textbooks and workbooks. Living books
are those written by an author who takes a special interest in his subject and in
which the facts are presented in story form. Classical learning tools such as
copy work, dictation, and recitation will also follow the CM method. Many
resource materials will be borrowed from the library.
Subjects and Books/Materials:
Language Arts – handwriting
(printing and cursive); Starfall.com reading curriculum and reading and writing
journal; Ginn readers; Beatrix Potter book series; Little House on the Prairie book series; The Harp and the Laurel Wreath by Laura M. Berquist; children’s
classic literature; Poetry for Children
andOther People; Native American
literature; public library programs; beginning Latin; American Cardinal readers (Neumann Press); The Velveteen Rabbit
Geography and History – United
States puzzle map; Native American history and tradition;
history of cultural, seasonal and holiday traditions; American Girl book
series; visits to Sauder Village living history museum; Ignatius Press lives of the saints
(biographical novels); A Child's History of the World; Hurlbut's Story of the Bible; National Geographic for Kids magazine; observation of the liturgical year
Mathematics – Montessori Tens
Boards; Time & Money workbook; Total Math workbook; measurement; fractions with
manipulatives; place values; addition and subtraction with regrouping; continuing
multiplication; beginning division
Natural Science – Rocks, Rivers, and the Changing Earth by
Herman and Nina Schneider; nature walks and keeping a nature notebook; study of
trees and leaf collection; study of flowers and flower pressing; study of
insects, birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and dinosaurs; the seasons;
climate; sustainable living and organic gardening; science museum visits; daily
calendar; ecosystems/animal habitats; 4-H project: pets (dog)
Health Education – study of bacteria, mold and viruses;
personal hygiene; nutrition; food preparation; herbology; vegetarian diet
Physical Education – dance classes;
Parks and Recreation soccer program;
yoga practice; daily outdoor play; hiking; sledding; trampoline; local running races; swimming
Fine Arts – painting; poetry and art appreciation; Come Look with Me Series by Gladys Blizzard; art museum visits; attendance at
plays and concerts; dramatic play; Parks and Recreation/library arts and crafts
programs; ArtSpace (WCAC) programs; West Bethesda folk concert series; St.
Patrick School art classes; 4-H project: cake decorating
First Aid, Safety, and Fire Protection – Continued
reinforcement of these subjects through library materials, field trips, and
home safety plans
Now that I am officially Catholic (huzzah!), I am committed to being a Catholic homeschooler. I am currently reading about this subject and the principles of a classical education. I still want to keep the Charlotte Mason method as our base, but since Charlotte was a classical educator herself, I want to understand how I can incorporate the ideas into what we are currently doing. To that end, I am reading, Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum: A Guide to Catholic Home Education by Laura M. Berquist. I want to use as many Catholic resources as possible next year. My concern is that I don't want to feel too much pressure to follow someone else's guidelines. I don't want to be overwhelmed with formality. It seems that when I am very focused on formal schooling, I feel impatient, frustrated, and tense.
When I went through our current studies in my mind, it did strike me as a bit much. In addition to reading, writing, and math, Beezy has piano lessons, and the homework and practice are time consuming. We are reading the Little House series for history/literature and just finished a novel of Kateri Tekakwitha's life (saints/history/literature/Native American studies). We still have to finish Tree Castle Island (the last in our wetlands ecosystem studies). There is also the Bible, the Rosary, the Catholic book of signs and symbols for children, and now the addition of a 4-H project! Add to that the daily calendar and seasonal/holiday celebrations, going to Mass, and religious education classes. We always participate in anything going on at the library and through Parks and Recreation. And we can't leave out chores and housework, play dates, arts and crafts, and bedtime stories. I could keep going, but I'll stop now, as I'm sure you get the point. Life is full, even when it seems like there isn't that much going on!
Since seven is one of those good, biblical numbers, I have decided to keep the formal homeschooling subjects down to this many. Reading, writing, and math will be done daily, Monday through Friday. Piano about 3 days a week, in addition to the lessons. The Bible/Rosary twice a week. Narration of something on most days, such as a saint novel, science/nature study, or Little House book. And the pet project for 4-H (oh, and Beezy is now the newspaper reporter for her club, so that goes under the 4-H category as well). These are the 7 regular homeschooling "subjects" that will constitute our main focus for the remainder of the school year. The rest of the learning opportunities can fall under the unschooling banner, pursued according to time available and Beezy's interests.
It's so easy for me to get excited about something new, and ambitiously throw myself into a renewed program for life, and then to forget to just live, to just be, along the way. Figure out what is most important to you, and keep it simple, adding additional things gradually, allowing homeschooling to be a "little way", so that it can ultimately become a grand adventure.