Category Archives: Our Philosophy (such as it is)

Tales of a Fourth-Grade Compulsive List Maker, Parts One and Two

I used to be a planner.

An only child with a genius complex and a flair for solitude, I spent the time normal children used for things like fun and play filling notebooks with schemes for clubs, small businesses, and theatrical presentations that were fully realized only in my mind. One of my most detailed plans was a step-by-step DIY manual for becoming popular in 8th grade. Only now is the irony of feverishly writing in notebooks as a springboard to the homecoming court clear to me.

Of course the joke was on those fun-havers when my incredible devotion to organizing the future led to academic awards, PhDs, and any number of leadership posts for groups and institutions who seemed to share the secret motto: “Blah Blah Blah, is it time for donuts yet?”

No matter—efficiency and a smug sense of superiority are their own rewards.

Doing it all with my trusty Franklin Planner, 2 coffee mugs, a diet coke, and lots of post-it notes.

I dare say I was at the height of my powers when we decided to homeschool. Leading a large urban parish through a strategic planning process, managing the publication of several reference volumes each year, coordinating multiple subcontractors, and planning fundraisers were all tasks easily managed with a toddler on my knee and a 1st grader off to school. My trusty Franklin Planner and I could do it all.

The year was 2006 when that started to change. “How do you do it all?” people asked. “I don’t,” I would say. “I am dropping balls left and right.” Slowly I extricated myself from my many posts and activities. The homeschool world, naturally, gave me plenty of volunteer and leadership roles to substitute for my former life, but over the years I let those go as well.

This has caused me great consternation over the last several years. “When will I get it together? Where did that planner-toting powerhouse go and when will she come back?” I can only hope, at this point, that she’s gone on to a better place.

The truth is, she wouldn’t help us much now. My girls are 13 and 9, and after almost 7 years of homeschooling I can verify: you can plan your curriculum, but you can’t plan learning, and you really can’t plan life. When children are 7 and 3, every outing to the beach is a grand adventure and every sprinkle of the glitter jar is an expression of creativity. My 13 year old, however, has been doing high school work for almost 4 years now. The fairies she’s been drawing over the last 10 years have evolved: sometimes they are busty creatures with embarrassingly short skirts, other times they look like they’ve just stepped out of a bar brawl.

Just a few years ago I would have been allowed to share a fairy drawing here.

This was not my plan, and increasingly it’s not my life. I can’t organize her into a notebook any more than I could scribble my way to a prom date.

If I hadn’t learned this lesson, our attempts to “start school” this fall really drove it through my head. Violet is on track to take 2 AP exams and possibly a SAT subject test this spring—because she’s done high school work so young I feel we need some external credentials— so we needed to get started early so she’d be ready in May. Victoria has been eagerly anticipating starting an Online G3 class since last spring. But there were the houseguests to play with. And a trip to the state fair. And a lot of Doctor Who to catch up on before the season premiere. And suddenly now there is a Japanese class online. Oh, and someone, maybe several someones, turned out to have whooping cough. By the time we got to that last wrinkle, I was starting to feel a lot less irresponsible for not having the year planned. Having dinner planned was victory enough for one day.

When Homeschooling Was Adorable

As a writer I’ve never planned. When outlines were assigned I did them after the paper was finished, and no teacher was the wiser. (Actually, that was a great learning process for me and I still recommend it.) I think I’ll be approaching the second half of our homeschooling years the same way. We’ll do it, and then I’ll write it down. . I’ve been inspired by semi-recent discussion of the dearth of homeschooling-high-school blogs to get back to blogging—it was a great way to connect with kindred spirits in the beginning, and though so much as has changed it may still be a good way to encourage each other to the finish line, whatever that may be.

Because so much has changed, I’m changing blogs. Which is probably a terrible mistake, but being a “successful” blogger has never been a big goal of mine. Red Sea School was so much about starting the adventure of homeschooling, finding our feet in the PG world, and raising two little girls. I don’t feel I can wrestle it into where we are now. I named the new blog “What Real World?” because it’s a question that has come up regularly in our lives: “What use is art/music/literature in the real world?” “When will you go back to work and join the real world?” “Why do you prefer a god-in-the-clouds to the real world?” and of course “How will your homeschooled children ever adjust to living in the real world?”

The Inescapable Reality of the Now

To that last question: I honestly don’t know. But I’ll try to write bits of it down as we find out.

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Mistakes Were Made

Five years in—that’s three more than we originally planned when we pulled Violet from school and decided to see what homeschooling would be like.

It’s been great. We’ve met great people in person and online. I have made wonderful friends and so have the girls, Violet and Victoria. I like to think that deciding to unplug from school opened the door to my husband, Eggmaster, thinking harder about where and how he wanted to work: not too much later, he got a new job, and then we moved to a neighborhood he loves.

But regrets, I’ve had a few. Not just parenting regrets —good god, who doesn’t have those —but homeschooling regrets. They might look familiar to anyone who’s ever picked up a homeschooling book, those newbie mistakes that you have to make for yourself. And make them I did.

To commemorate five years of homeschooling, here are five mistakes – and a great deal of rationalization to go along with them:

1. Doing too much too soon
I did say these would look familiar, right? We did our mandatory “deschooling” period, but I wish it had been longer and a lot more fun. Then again, I wish I were more fun and relaxed in general.
However, this deschooling thing is hard to get right. Like many PG kids, Violet felt like she was starving to death in school, and leaving school was supposed to be her opportunity to feast. After a month of no “school” she was excited to try Chinese and start reading history and learning some interesting math. And I was eager to prove to naysayers that it would all be OK. So we dove in, and by a process of accretion soon ended up doing too much.

2. Not getting the right support for homeschooling
It’s taken us a while to find the people who bring the Kleenex box over when it’s all too much and who laugh evilly with us at inappropriate times. There were people who knew about resources that might have helped us “feast” on learning without getting too schooly, but we couldn’t find them.
Our first homeschool group—now it can be told!—kind of fell apart soon after we joined, not least because of a little hanky panky among spouses who were not, at the time, married to each other. And who knows why it took me so long to connect with the gifted homeschool group – oh no, wait. I think I know why. Because we’re all skittish and introverted and group-averse, at least until somehow we get to know someone and then it’s just a big freakin’ love fest. And I hate driving, and then we moved, and we always had too many commitments.
I wish we had succeeded at connecting with a supportive group from the very beginning, but our own temperaments, our unique needs, and the general frostiness of Minnesota social life made it a slow process.

3. Not getting the right support for giftedness
After 5 years navigating g/t world, and PG world, I’ve learned an awful lot, and damn it could have been useful 5 years ago. I have several friends who participated in gifted toddler and preschool forums online, something that I would never have considered in a million years when I had a gifted toddler or preschooler. Not that I ever thought of either of my kids in that way when they were those ages—no, my adorable four-year-old who was reading adult books and asking for French and Italian dictionaries for Christmas was just “bright,” and I ruled the district “gifted school” out of our school considerations because I didn’t want to be one of “those parents.”
Except that those parents turned out to know a lot of things I needed to learn, and I had a lot of catching up to do when the school forced us into doing some testing. I read around, but I didn’t make connections with the people who could have helped me—and the people who would have been happy to talk to me about what most didn’t want to hear.

4.Working too hard
We started homeschooling at a pretty stressful time in our lives. So stressful that I don’t want to give away a lot of the very private details. While the last five years have been filled with a lot of joy, I have also spent way too much time feeling burnt out. Over the years, many of my own favorite pastimes have slipped away. This is not how homeschooling has to be, of course, but high-need kids plus limited support tends to equal exhausted parents. It’s also easy to get caught up in the “who’s most burnt out” game with other homeschool parents—after a while it comes to seem like the only form of accomplishment and entertainment. Turning things around after you’ve depleted all your inner resources is hard work.

5. Comparing
Back when I first started blogging I read tons of homeschool blogs. Had them on my reader, cruised them daily, bookmarked them all for great ideas. I have learned a few things since that time:
1. I am not crafty. I will never do a project featured on Soule Mama, especially not with my children, who would probably refuse to follow instructions and mess everything up anyway.
2. I do not follow instructions. I’m sorry, I just don’t. The girls and I put together this cool magnetic marble roller coaster yesterday and we were absolutely hilarious. I would point to the instructions and Violet would nod and say “oh, right” while looking at the ceiling, and I could not get angry with her because I am the same way. As my husband said when he came to rearrange the coaster that we had put together backwards, so that the beginning and end would not meet, “Details matter.” But I have a hard time making them matter to me, so trying to implement some of the fantastic things I have seen from La Paz or Elizabeth Foss has been a Epic Fail. (Though I can hope that I have been inspired by them indirectly!)
3. I am not sweet. Homeschool bloggers are, by and large, a sweet bunch, and Catholic homeschool bloggers in particular. I admire them and look to them as role models. But after 40 years, the evidence is in: God did not make me that way.
4. My kids are not like other kids. (Neither are yours, obviously.)

Five years later, I still make tons of mistakes, but mostly they are not these mistakes.

And with any luck at some point soon I’ll be able to mark the beginning of the next five years with five things I’ve done right.

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Slowly Rounding the Corner

. . . or not.

I don’t know. I know that I feel like I’m trying to wake up after sleeping in too long, and too late. Except that there is never a too late.

Right?

There is a Kris Delmhorst version of this Rumi poem that I love. It is so like me — too silly, too serious, too many instruments playing at once, a little rough around the edges. I love it when a song seems to mirror you, not just in words but more importantly in sounds.

These words aren’t all in the poem, but I’m trying to remember them in the mornings, especially the third line:

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down the dulcimer.

Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

So I ignore the call of my office and go do something else. Anything else. As yet, I don’t know what I want to do, but I’ve made space for it all the same.

We are also all working on presence. For whatever reason, the girls seem to have a huge need to have me right there, as often as possible, or they lose their way. It’s as if we’re all a little unmoored and adrift, and somehow — well, obviously — it falls to me to bring us back. And you may say, well of course you are, you’re the mother. To which I can only say, having a responsibility hardly qualifies me to fulfill it.

But I do. It’s my new project.

We do yoga together, Victoria and I knit together, and I sit next to Violet at times when my presence seems totally unnecessary but is apparently essential.

I’ve also picked up a new book, Acedia and Me, by Kathleen Norris, whom — rightly or wrongly — I often identify with strongly. No need to read a lot into my choice of books — I’ve had this one on the list for years and finally noticed it at the bookstore. It’s the kind of book I used to read all the time and then, suddenly, stopped.

Now I’m starting again.

Lots of starting planned around here.

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Recommitting

It’s been four years since we started homeschooling. Four years and a few months ago we started down an exciting path of learning about homeschooling, learning about educational theories, learning about types of giftedness. We had the usual issues of dealing with skeptics, figuring out what the change would mean for our family life, but that was more an adventure than a chore.

Eventually, the excitement wore off. That was a good thing, really. Homeschooling wasn’t a battle we had to fight or even a wheel we needed to reinvent. It was just what we did, like eating three meals a day — some great meals, some bad ones, a lot of unmemorable ones.

The honeymoon ended, but we were happy with the mundane reality of doing whatever the day called for. It was a nice break from feeling like salmon swimming upstream.

Then, somehow, happy everyday-ness started to feel like a rut. In addition, after four years of homeschooling it became clear that wonderful as homeschooling is, it’s hardly a panacea. Children still hit puberty. Intense children are still intense. Intense parents are still intense. I developed a lot of sympathy for the teachers who didn’t know what to do with my kids — neither do I. Nor do the kids — it’s lovely for people who can manage their intensity and whatever else life hands them with minimal support or guidance, but that’s never been me or my husband, so it shouldn’t be surprising that it’s not my kids either.

So I’ve been considering school. School, where someone could deal with the intensity for a while. School, where someone else could create structure. School, where my kids couldn’t be fighting with each other over nothing!

It didn’t take long to realize that for lots of reasons traditional school wouldn’t be happening for Violet. It’s Just. Not. A Fit. It’s not a giftedness thing so much as, well, a lot of other things that are really her business.

But for Victoria I thought it might be a great idea. If nothing else she would have the opportunity to make friends without a domineering older sister around. Yeah, yeah, it’s great that homeschooled kids can be in mixed-age groups and be great friends with siblings, but now that we’ve done that for a while it’s clear that not all children benefit in the same way from that situation. And someone else could try giving her instructions and see if she listens to them!

But once we started discussing school as a real possibility, I could see the potential problems — vacations were just the beginning! We struggle to deal with the asynchrony of her interests and abilities in a homeschool setting — her handwriting and math skills are not anywhere near the level of her science interests. Would she be getting the foreign language education she wants and we want for her? She gets frustrated with the noise and roughhousing of the kids at our homeschool co-ops — wouldn’t school be more of the same, for more hours of more days? And she just plain doesn’t like most kids her age. Where her sister has always been eager to act like a younger, crazier child, Victoria really doesn’t enjoy it. She wants to go sit and talk somewhere quiet, or “enjoy nature.”

I’m not saying school would be a *bad* place for her, but I can’t see how upending our current family style to accommodate school would offer enough benefits to be worth the effort. It wouldn’t seem to address any of the issues that are making life tough for her, and us.

The thing about being a salmon swimming upstream rather than a lazy sunbather floating contentedly down the river is that it requires intention. When the struggle ends, the mindful intention can slip away eventually as well, and when you find yourself with a punctured innertube in rocky rapids, it’s much easier to freak out than it is to find that mindful intention again.

So I’m recommitting, bringing myself back to that beginning place of learning, shaking things up, paying close attention because new things are happening. It’s a lot of work, a lot more work than it was four years ago, to haul my mind back to what’s happening right now. As far as I can tell, however, it’s probably more pleasant work than the terrible grind of the alternatives.

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Proceeding with Caution

This has been a time of swallowing my words — “this” meaning at least the last year or so. Blogging about our homeschooling is hard.

First, it’s a little more normal than it used to be. We’re got some years of experience, and most of the time we forget that we’re doing anything unusual.

Second, we know a lot more homeschoolers. Many of them pop by my blog from time to time. So I can’t bitch nearly as freely. 😉 Either that or I have to make up my mind to let the chips fall.

Third, and most important, my kids are older. I’ve seen this happen with other homeschool bloggers too. As your kids get older and increasingly independent, it’s hard to write about them. So much of what takes up our energy with Violet feels too private now. She’s turning 11 soon, and seems ever more like she’s wrapping up her cocoon. It’s tremendously exciting and terrifying and aggravating — and none of it seems right to put on the blog.

I’m not yet sure where I’ll go from here. Something new is stirring this spring — I’m just not sure what, or where it will pop up.

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Come and See!

Day 3 of no criticizing, and all is well.

I spend a fair amount of time wondering what counts as criticism. We all have overdeveloped sarcasm responses, and I employ mine more than is probably wise for a mother of a six year old. How often do I hide criticism behind a so-called “joke”? Something to ponder over the next month.

In general, I can see that this effort is so far having a positive effect on me. I am not as cross. I don’t feel that I am holding things in and about to explode. On the contrary, my attempts to focus on the positive and on giving direction that doesn’t sound like scolding are generally making me happier.

We’ve had a nice day — a little slower-paced than usual because we’ve been sick and some of our activities are on hold. The girls made a hilarious iPod ad in three languages (sort of). Then as I sat down to work Victoria came running to me, “Come and see! Come and see! Look at the sunset!” So we looked out the back window at the sunset as she said, “Isn’t it so beautiful?”

Then she ran downstairs to Violet and said the same thing: “Come and see! Look at the sunset!” And Violet ran to look at the sunset out the porch door, and then spontaneously turned to hug me.

And as I sat down to type this, my husband called to the girls from the office, “Come upstairs! Come look!” And they did, and they called to me, “Come see! There’s a big full moon rising!”

Is that just homeschooling? Isn’t that, I hope, education in a nutshell: Here’s this cool thing, so cool that I want to share it with you — first you, and especially you.

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No Labels

Oh friends (all 25 of you still reading this sporadic blog), I have so many posts in the draft queue. Posts that I have begun and then thought, No, too personal/negative/whiny/earnest/controversial. And so the blog sits looking unloved and untended, when really the gardener is indoors with the seedlings, which may move to the garden when they are ready.

Speaking of gardening metaphors, I am preparing to put down roots. I think I have chosen a parish, coincidentally the first Catholic church I attended when we lived here long ago and I was pregnant with Violet. I only went a few times, but it was a wonderful place, and I think it still is. So I think we will fill out the forms and check out the kids’ formation programs and choirs and plant ourselves there for a while. But I’m not volunteering for Anything yet.

I’ve also finally started reaching out to local homeschool groups, trying to find some nearby friends. What I find difficult with some homeschool groups is that everyone wants to caucus with others just like them: Christian (which means a particular kind of Christian), secular (which means you can be Christian if you keep your trap shut), unschooling (which means . . . I have no idea anymore), progressive (ditto).

Today when I requested to join a local e-mail list for a unschooling/relaxed homeschooling group, I couldn’t quite get the words out. I don’t believe in unschooling — not that I’m opposed to it, but I don’t believe it exists except as an idea. So even though we do less formal curriculum than some who call themselves unschoolers, I couldn’t claim that title.

And relaxed? I’m not a relaxed anything.

What could I tell them to let them know I could be one of them? We aren’t vegetarians anymore, so that’s not helpful. I’m Catholic, which really doesn’t go over well in any group, including with other Catholics! We were Attachment Parents, but once we were done with family bed and breastfeeding that label didn’t mean much anymore either. How ’bout, I voted for Obama and I don’t shave my legs?

TMI?

And so, in my 200-character description of why I wanted to join the group, I said “No Labels” and “We like hanging out with interesting people.” And if the group is too committed to the purity of the unschool/”very relaxed homeschool” label to let us in, how interesting could they be?

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