When Life Becomes a Classroom

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When I say the word homeschool, what comes to mind? For many of us, school is synonymous with academics: reading, writing, math, history, science, etc. Yet, when we focus solely on these things, we miss so much. There’s far more to educating our children than academics, but how do we make the mental shift? By thinking of life as a classroom, by understanding we are always in “teaching” mode, we can suddenly find our home education reaching to new depths. 

Children aren’t born inherently knowing how the world works. As adults with two or more decades under our belt, it’s easy for us to simply expect understanding in the simple things. We forget that we ourselves learned them somewhere along the line.

As a fun way to understand, let’s take things from the perspective of our children. As I write this, I’m thinking specifically of my five-year-old, but the same concepts can be applied at any age. When he jumps out of bed in the morning, he is excited to start the day. He doesn’t understand the concept of being quiet and not waking others. If he is excited and ready to face the day, the thought that not everyone else is ready at the same time and in the same way might not occur to him, so someone has to teach him.

Uh, oh! I found a messy concoction of soap, lotion, and water in a cup on the bathroom counter. It’s easy for me to get frustrated at the waste and the mess, but to my son it is simply a convenient way to wash, lather, rinse, and moisturize all in one step. I have to teach him that it’s best not to do science experiments in the bathroom without permission. And, when we wash our hands we use only one pump of soap, then dry them and use only one pump of lotion. There is no reason to use more. The hand washing steps aren’t as effective if they are all done at the same time. All of this is a revelation to him. He must be taught. These types of lessons are not inherently born into children.

Where and when to throw balls, how to talk to others, where to put the toilet paper, how to make a bed, how to set the table, proper table manners, how to tidy a room, how to ride a bike, what to do when things aren’t going our way, how to handle strong emotions, and even how to learn about the things we want to know: All of this has to be learned; yet, unlike academics, we often expect them to be inherent. It is easy to lose patience and tell our kids something once without using the same care and giving the same opportunities to practice that we would for academic learning.

Interpersonal and life skill gains are crucial, but when life becomes the classroom, we can also learn about physics on a family bike ride, history while reading a great book, math while at the grocery store, reading all the time, and writing as we interact with pen pals.

It’s much easier for many of us to plan out lessons and work to meet specific objectives, but to let life be a classroom, we need to trust God to fill our insecurities. We need to be willing to admit we don’t have answers and seek them out with our children. We need a measure of strength and patience that only comes from above, and we need to be willing to sit back and watch as the joy of a child finding his spark and place in the world begins to unfold.

Whatever it Takes: Life Skills for Homeschoolers, Pt. 5

teepee picMany times we, as homeschoolers, get caught up in the ideas that we have to “keep up with the Joneses” when it comes to our children learning what they need to learn on the same schedule as the public school kids, or even the homeschooler next door.
We start out homeschooling with all these golden ideals. We imagine our days running smoothly with our children pursuing their own interests/talents while at the same time excelling in the “3 R’s.” The home remains immaculate. We are completely organized with school records the most persnickety principal would love. Our children are at or above grade level at every subject, AND they are well known in the community for their above-duty service work.

Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

Reality is far from that. Many moms are stressed to the max because Johnny is not reading where Aunt Eunice feels he should be. Aunt Eunice is a retired teacher so she should know. Granny comes over often and tries to help out by helping with household chores, but this feels like a criticism because Mom isn’t doing it all, and doing it perfectly. Meals are often slapped together, even though Mom knows that better nutrition means better brains. Laundry is stacked up and the kids have been wearing their PJs for school the last three days. Dad tries to help when he can, but he is tired from work and trying to support the family on one income so the kids can be homeschooled. Mom feels like the neighbors are being critical if she has the kids outside or on an errand during school hours. That’s on the good days.

I’m not trying to be discouraging. I fully believe that homeschooling is the best life to offer a child. It requires a huge commitment from both parents. If a parent is doing it solo, it’s even harder and more stressful because then s/he has to be both breadwinner and teacher.
Take this situation and add a child who has some learning challenges or maybe some physical health issues. Maybe even Mom has some health issues to deal with. What is a parent to do when the “normal” left-brained curriculum choices simply do not work? We do whatever it takes.

Today, homeschooling can be relatively easy for the special learner. When I first started out homeschooling, there were few online resources. Now, with a little digging, a parent can find all sorts of alternative methods to teach a subject. An example of this is Khan Academy, which is a well-known free education resource. They teach through video.

Video is a popular alternative learning method. YouTube and Netflix have many educational videos covering almost any topic a person desires to learn about. A parent can take a topic from Netflix, see how it is done on YouTube, and then have the child do it. For instance: history topic on Native Americans living in teepees. The child watches a documentary concerning some Native tribe who lived in teepees. The next step is to research on YouTube how to make a teepee. Then the child can go out in the back yard and make his own teepee. This can be made from materials gathered at thrift stores. For an older teen, he may even wish to learn how to tan leather (if an animal skin could be procured) and make a teepee from there. Will this child learn? Yes. Will he remember what he learned in the original documentary? Yes. Will it be meaningful to his life? Yes. Add some books from the library for deeper researched, followed up by posters showing what he learned, or even a research paper if that is an appropriate skill at the child’s age. Add a hands-on history time line, and the highlights of history are there at a glance.

Field trips can be added to make learning more practical and fun. If a family lives out in rural areas with very few cultural resources, the internet can again come to the rescue. There are virtual tours online to almost any good size museum in the world. There are also virtual tours of various tourist areas. Science can even be studied virtually by watching a dissection of whatever the child is interested in. The world’s greatest artists and musicians can be accessed online — most times for free.

Book learning is not easy for everyone. Some children may be able to read content, but not retain or even comprehend what is being read. Book reports do not work for every child. When these left-brain methods fail, a parent can step out of the box and enter the amazing world of the internet, where learning can be flexible and fun.

Whatever it takes. That is the concept I learned while earning my teaching degree in deaf education. I learned to use whatever communication method worked to get information across to the child. This concept transfers wonderfully to the homeschool world. There are seven learning styles. I’ve written about these in a previous article. By using the internet and thinking out of the box, a parent can use whatever alternative method of learning the child needs to master the needed information.

After all, it’s not important how he learns to do something. What’s important is that he learns by whatever means needed.

I am The Teacher

Our homeschooling family dashed from one crazy life event to another when my oldest two were the age where I would typically begin homeschooling, and so, by default, we became a very “relaxed” homeschooling family. That morphed into unschooling as I watched my boys learn things that I hadn’t even thought to teach them — things they, in turn, taught me.

When I first considered homeschooling while pregnant with Ethan, I didn’t even consider the fact that we would take this path. But, take it we did, and while I had moments of panic where I quaked inside at the thought that my children would fail when it came to “real life” and college classes, in general I knew that what we were doing was right.

But, as my children got older and I thought about this relationship where I was supposed to be the “teacher” and instruct my children, the more I felt like a fraud! How could I say that I was teaching them anything?!?time-school-clipart-circle

One day it occurred to me. My role and what I was meant to do became very clear! I think most of us homeschooling parents know this in a very general way; it’s intrinsic to why we chose to homeschool, actually. But, I’m not sure how many of us have it as a higher priority than the classes we teach, the outings we plan, or the grades we assign.

I am my children’s ethics teacher — their morality instructor.

You see, I don’t teach my children math or science. Their handwriting is less than beautiful. But, the role that I take seriously and pray to succeed at is the one of instilling in my children what’s right and what’s wrong.

Those moments don’t come in the busy hours of the day; they come at night as we’re talking about the day. They steal up as we talk about buying songs or software instead of pirating them. Or…even more importantly, as realization dawns that the song we’re listening to or the software we’re using isn’t legitimately obtained. Or…my explanation of why we don’t own this software yet. Or…why we don’t go see several movies after having just paid for one in the theater.

My oldest son (technically my stepson) is the product of public schools. As far as academics go, he was taught that he couldn’t read, he had power struggles with both his mom and teachers, and his handwriting is abominable (which — considering my younger sons’ handwriting — I’m nearly grateful for). But, he graduated and as an adult is quite “successful.”

I look at him and think that my unorthodox method of schooling my children can’t produce — academically — any worse outcomes than public school. At the very least, my younger sons won’t have the belief that they’re stupid in this area or that.

But, what I see as critical is the input I have due to the crazy amounts of time that I get to spend with my children! We are riding in the van with nothing else to do when we see the homeless man or woman standing on the corner panhandling. I don’t have to interrupt class to talk about various topics that would never fit nicely and neatly into a curriculum.

And, because of this one-on-one interaction, the conversations I’ve had with my kids are…well, they’re breathtaking. And astonishing. And humbling. And embarrassing! I learned to keep a very closely-held poker face when my oldest asked questions pertaining to biology and human sexuality! Wow! But, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he got all of his information (primary information — I’m not naïve) from me.

Funny story: My oldest was once spending the night with a buddy. He was well into puberty. Something came up relating to sexuality in a movie, and his friend asked him a question about the topic. My son’s response?

“Dude…you need to talk to your mom!!”

No, my children may not have learned their times tables or even ABCs from me. They won’t learn advanced math sitting at my feet, or perfect cursive…or cursive at all. But, they will learn what’s right and what’s wrong. They will learn, from a very fallible mother, who God is and the role He plays in our lives. They will know that stealing isn’t limited to walking into a store and walking out without paying. They will learn mercy and compassion. Those are my lessons to teach. Pray God I take it seriously and never miss a chance to teach!

And, with God’s help, they will internalize those lessons and make them their own.

Photo Journals

I’m always looking for ways to help our children learn, explore, and enjoy their homeschool journey. We do some online education, some in books, and some in other activities. One such non-traditional approach is through journals: written, artistic, and photos.

child photographerThe journals emerged in a rather incidental way; I didn’t really plan them. And, computers have helped us add to the depth over the years. I love to write, so encouraging our children to write was natural. The drawings and other artistic modes just evolved through our children’s individual talents, and I have some very special memories from each. But the photography is one that has been cultivated with each of our children, and I enjoy scanning through them, remembering each experience.

Digital photography has given us a much greater ability to capture special moments, keep photo documents, and create photo journals of our lives. I’ve encouraged this creative approach in many ways, including giving each child a camera of his or her own and ensuring they knew the basics of photography.

Of course, most photos are not professional appearing; backgrounds vary, lighting may be a bit off, and subjects are not always centered. But each one represents a life experience, something learned, a journey taken, times with friends or family.

While most families have some photos from memorable events, I have discovered that many homeschoolers, including ourselves, keep more frequent photos of our daily lives. We not only have Christmas and vacation photos, we also have photos of our kids playing at the park, showing rabbits at the county fair, and riding bikes with friends.

Our photo journals go beyond that, however. Many of our photos are taken by our children and include their siblings, their pets, and photos of the many places they’ve seen.

red cup towerWhen we view the photos of past times together, they will point to a picture and tell its story. While that is normal for most people, the photos might not be. The slightly offset photo of the science experiment on the dining room table brings about discussions and laughter of the problems encountered. The tower of red plastic cups that they painstakingly built, only to crash it to the ground, reminds us of all the fun with inexpensive, everyday items.

I love the photos that we’ve taken of the children involved in learning and play. But just as much, I love the photos that they took. Photos of their pets, photos of friends, photos of a favorite place or an intriguing sunset, all of these are cherished memories. The photography might not be slick and professional, but the sentiment shines through. In each, there is a remembrance that often elicits discussion along with the memories.

We’ve also enjoyed watching the children learn new skills with their photography. They have learned to take better photos by studying the lighting, placement, and other concepts. Not only do they learn to take better photos, but in doing so, they are researching and learning on their own.

One skill that each has had interest in is that of photo editing. Cropping, resizing, and adjusting brightness are helpful, but they often go beyond that and will create creative photos as gifts, such as the one year that they learned to place themselves on a planet by a little Photoshop ingenuity.

Photography, in addition to journals and artwork, can add a dimension to learning that books and other media cannot by themselves. It’s an integral part of our homeschool lifestyle!

Rain or Shine: How to Enjoy Nature When the Weather is Bad

One of my favorite childhood memories is of exploring the woods in the rain. It changes the entire landscape simply by coating it with water. Everything seems brighter, shinier; and there’s a Heaven-like scent in the air. It’s the smell of wet cedars, oaks, pines, maples. It’s therapy of the best kind to be surrounded by the lofty patriarchs who were given to us for our pleasure and use by the hand of God.

When I was a kid, a rainy Sabbath day was something to be relished. It was a day I didn’t have to go to school and could spend the afternoon in the woods exploring. I’d put on my navy blue rubber boots, old jeans, and zip-up hoodie, and top it off with a bright yellow plastic Mickey Mouse rain poncho — compliments of a previous family vacation. While I’m not endorsing Mickey Mouse, the sentimental value of the yellow poncho has stuck with me through the years. Just the thought of putting on that yellow poncho brings joy and floods my soul with memories.

To me, going out in nature is not optional. It’s literally vital to our mental and physical well-being. Although I don’t have my yellow poncho anymore, I have purposed to spend at least a little time outdoors every day, rain, shine, snow, or ice. If the weather is safe for even a bit, we are going outside each and everyday. Really, I believe we homeschooling parents need the outdoor time maybe even more than others, to keep our wits about us. Such a calming effect nature has. I am certain I couldn’t survive without it.

Last winter I made it a goal to spend time outside with the kids in the woods each day, no matter what. With some planning, willpower, and purpose, we accomplished our goal to get outside on a daily basis.

One of the essentials to making outdoor time not only bearable but enjoyable is to have on proper clothing for the weather. Our winters are generally cold and wet or icy here in Tennessee. For us, we make sure everyone has on at least three layers (base layer, top layer, outer layer). I personally wear two pairs of socks (one of which is wool), and a merino wool base layer covered with snow pants and topped with a rain skirt for the lower body. For the upper body — a base layer, a sweater, and a coat. We invested in good snow suits, waterproof winter hiking boots, and balaclavas for everyone last year as well. On rainy days, I still go for a poncho. The kids have proper rain coats they wear over top of their warmer under layers. We usually wear our snowsuits to protect from the wetness, though a nice set of rain pants or skirt would be helpful on the warmer rainy days. The main thing is to have even layers over the whole body, with extra layers added to the extremities, especially the feet and legs as they are the furthest from the body, so need the most protection.

When it’s cold we can’t just laze around in the hammock or on the porch with quiet activities, so we hike around and explore as much as possible, spending plenty of time down in the creek bed, which usually has a bit of water throughout the winter. When we do have snow, it makes it much easier to keep moving. In fact, sledding is one of my favorite activities in the world, and the kids get such a kick out of seeing their parents sliding down the hills, hooting and hollering as we go! It’s a great way to not only enjoy the beauty of nature, but to build camaraderie and bind our hearts to each other. Even though it’s easy to let life bog us down with cares, simply taking time to “be a kid again” is worth the effort and always brings a blessing.

When the weather is too extreme and we can’t stay outside for long periods, we break it up by taking time to thaw out inside. Sometimes the kids are so busy they don’t seem to notice that they are getting too cold, so we try to keep an eye on our littles and note when they get still and quiet, and of course when our own hands or feet are starting to feel too cold, so we can remind them to come inside to thaw out for a bit. Our indoor breaks are also good to remind us to drink our water. Even though it’s cold, we can still sweat a lot if we are layered up and really active, so plenty of water to drink is as important in winter as in summer.

For a fun change of scenery, we also enjoy walking around the Opryland Hotel, which is within an hour of where we live. Since it’s like a giant green house, it’s a fabulous way to be surrounded by nature with perfect weather even in the dead of winter. It always reminds me of what Heaven will be like — no pests, no weeds, the perfect temperature, lovely greenery, and waterfalls. I can’t wait!

Opryland Hotel

Sadly, there are days where we simply can’t get out or stay out long due to dangerous conditions. However, we try to have a nature flavor about us within our home with natural decor such as live plants (our air filters), nature treasures on the buffet, log slice trivets, tree bark candle holders, tree branch curtain rods, etc., so even when we can’t be out in nature, it is with us. Isn’t that just like God? With us. I love how even through His nature, we are reminded that He can always be with us in our world, even though we can’t be there with Him in His world…yet!

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go,” Joshua 1:9 NKJV.