homeschooling q and a, part one.

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Hi there, friends!

First things first: I love hearing from you, whether by email, text or comment! Please don’t ever feel the need to leave a comment, but if you want to (hint, hint), I know the system I used was a little un-user-friendly. I had it installed because of spam, but I’d really love to encourage more dialogue here, so I just switched back to the original format. I’ll be on the lookout for spam, and I hope it makes it easier for you to chime in!

Remember when I wrote a blog post about homeschooling, oh, about five months ago? I fully expected to write a follow-up, giving some more details about our homeschool routine, but I guess life got in the way.

Most of the questions I get right now have to do with how we homeschool, as in, what does our day look like? What curriculum do we use? How do I homeschool multiple grades? What do we think of our homeschool community, Classical Conversations, and how does it actually help with our school week?

So I’m here this week with a little three-part series in which I’m going to attempt to give you some answers!

If you’re not a homeschooler or a parent, have no fear! Next week I’ll have a series that I hope you’ll find more relevant.

This first post has to do with your Classical Conversations and homeschool co-op questions, and my approach to our family’s home education in general, and on Wednesday and Friday I’ll talk more about our school routine and homeschooling multiple grades.

Also I should say I feel slightly guilty for the photos I am about to show you. Please do not think these reflect all of our school days: they just reflect what I’ve done with our dining room/school room this year and what a happy place it’s become. I picked a bright sunshiny morning with lots of natural light, moved a couple stacks of papers, waited until the boys were all out on the trampoline, and snapped away.

Some of our moments are quiet and idyllic like this. Most are loud and messy.

Here we go!

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Q. Are you still doing Classical Conversations (CC)? Do you like it?

A. It’s hard to believe we’re halfway through our fourth year of CC. I won’t give an in-depth explanation of it here, but if you’re interested, see this great post that gives an overview of the program. You’ll find a couple of other helpful links there if you want to know more. If you’re interested in becoming part of a Classical Conversations community, I highly recommend the book The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education, by Leigh Bortins, which I’ve read and underlined and dog-eared.

Even four years into it, I am not a die-hard CC person. It has strengths and its weaknesses. I do not think it’s the only way to homeschool successfully. In fact, if you know me well, you know I re-evaluate (probably way too much) every.single.year whether it’s still working, or whether we should make a change.

At the end of the day, yes, I do really like CC, and the reason we keep on with it is because it works for our family.

Both the social/classroom aspect and the academic aspect are a great fit for us. Our campus meets on Mondays, and all four of my kids enjoy going. They love their tutors. They love their friends.

I’d even go so far as to say I don’t think I’d be homeschooling Judah without it, or without a similar program. There’s something about the experience that meets a need in him, and inspires him to do his work at home the rest of the week. CC is only a 24-week program, so I have a chance to keep homeschooling during its breaks and observe the difference, and I’ve found that he stays much more motivated and focused during the CC year.

The major “con” of CC in my mind is that it’s not a drop-off program. I wish I could drop my kids off for three or four delicious hours all to myself. Instead along with the other parents, I sit in my kids’ classes (rotating week by week), listen to the tutor, and help out as needed. In some years, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed that. The past two years I’ve found it exhausting.

But I still recognize the intent and the benefit of being on campus. I’ve learned to be a better teacher by watching the tutors, I enjoy learning with my kids and have a good barometer of how they’re doing and what to focus on at home. I know when to push a child in an area and when to lighten up on another. I’ve learned how to help my kids work through conflict.

And best of all I’ve made lifelong friends with other homeschooling moms by being right there in the community with them. The picnic lunch we have on Mondays after school is like a built-in weekly play date, where we all get to be with our friends.

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Q. Does CC actually help you with the rest of your week, and if so, how?

A. I’m going to try to keep this simple, but here’s my basic philosophy for education in these early years:

1. Give my children a solid foundation of knowledge through memory work.

2. Make that knowledge come alive through great books.

3. Learn some necessary skills (math, reading, writing, etc)

So yes, CC does help us because gives us the big-picture plan and structure to do that.

Each week the kids memorize facts in seven areas of education: History timeline, History story, Science, English Grammar, Geography, Math, and Latin. They do this in a three-year cycle. Therefore, every three years the cycle begins again, and since this is our fourth year of CC, we’re now repeating a cycle of knowledge we’ve already gotten.

CC also helps with our homeschool because it gives us weekly classroom presentations (public speaking), science projects, art and music appreciation and projects.

Those are things I just know I’d really struggle to get to on my own. I’m not a project or crafty-type mom. It’s a tremendous help to me simply to not have to think about those aspects of education for now.

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So, back to the memory work.

People have very firm opinions on making young children memorize lots of facts, especially when they don’t understand everything they’re learning at this point. Personally, I love it. CC makes memory work (mostly) interesting with chants and songs. We spend a few minutes practicing the week’s memory work in the morning, and then listen to CD’s in the car throughout the week.

Here’s why I don’t think this memorization is pointless: All of these things actually happened or are actual parts of the way our universe works (like the Hundred Years’ War or the phases of the moon).

I want my kids to understand that the world isn’t all about them, right here, and life, right now, but that they’re part of a much larger story. I think it’s through learning about this story that they begin to find their place in the world.

So for us, the CC curriculum is foundational. It’s my guide as I plan out our year. It gives structure to our week. It provides a framework for everything else we do.

It’s also teaching the kids great skills for learning as they’ll have to memorize things for the rest of their lives (an example of this in my current season of life is learning about gardening and plant/tree names).

This is our first year repeating a cycle of memory work, and I can personally attest to the fact that the method is useful. Because Judah (and to some extent Amelie) has studied this information once before, it comes back quickly this time around. He’s older and more mature, so he’s able to begin really processing the facts he’s learning. He has questions. The big picture is coming together for him; now we can dive a little deeper into understanding.

I’ve studied the CC philosophy quite a bit, and I follow the advice of consistently practicing memory work, but more or less let my children make the connections on their own. So they’re eating apples for a snack and Gabe suddenly says, “My apple has a core and the sun has a core,” because he’s just learned the parts of the sun. We read about Michelangelo going to Rome and Amie says, “Rome was founded by Romulus and Remus.”

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I can’t tell you how often this happens.

I realize the criticism is that all these pieces of knowledge can just puff kids up with pride because they can recite a bunch of facts. Yes, sometimes that happens, but I disagree that it’s the fault of knowledge. The true gaining of knowledge should lead to humility, because the more you learn, the more you discover how much you don’t know; the more you begin to understand just how big the world is and the sacrifice of people who have come before you.

Knowledge inspires wonder as you discover ways that the world and history are connected.

So the problem with pride isn’t in learning facts about the sun or ancient Rome; it’s in the human heart, which always tends toward pride. If we teach with an atmosphere of wonder and humility — showing kids that all of this knowledge is merely a jumping off point, rather than an end in itself, I believe that kids become excited to go deeper.

In our family, CC has inspired interest-led learning as our kids seize on a piece of memory work and want to know more. Judah is now passionate about geography because he’s had to draw maps and learn, one by one, the countries of the world since he was five. And when we watch Animal Planet, the kids know the mountain ranges referenced and the tallest peaks of the world. If I just waited to study what my kids tell me they’re interested in, I’m not sure they ever would have discovered these particular passions.

This foundation of knowledge allows them to enjoy and connect to what they’re learning even more. It’s a guide.

It’s produced kids who see the world as big and grand, and who are interested in it.

Charlotte Mason said that at the end of the day, the goal of learning isn’t how much you know but how much you care. And so I’d say that that’s the goal of our homeschool: to learn a lot, yes, but to let that learning shape us into humble, compassionate, empowered people. People who care.

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I will say that a couple years into it, I found our CC memory work pretty dry and tedious. That’s when I decided to incorporate Sonlight literature into our curriculum. This is our second year doing it, and it makes all the difference. Like I said before, I want my kids to have a foundation of knowledge, but I believe knowledge comes alive through stories.

We’ve followed the Sonlight Core A and Core B literature/history/science read-aloud lists, and this year they happen to complement the CC cycle we’re studying perfectly. So as we’ve memorized facts about the Renaissance period and learned European geography, we’ve read stories about Michelangelo and other Renaissance artists. [I will say here that I don’t purchase the Sonlight intructor’s guide. I think it’s great if you’re officially following their curriculum, but not necessary when just reading the books together.]

There are so many great book lists available on the Internet. In the end, I settled on Sonlight for much the same reason we do Classical Conversations: It came highly recommended by people I trust, and I wanted as many of the big-picture curriculum decisions as possible made for me so that I could just get down to the business of reading and learning with my kids.

I also chose Sonlight because their book lists introduce my kids to a variety of social issues (poverty, race, adoption, endangered species, homelessness) in age-appropriate ways that work toward our goal of learning to care.

I know myself, and I believe that I still homeschool successfully, not because I’ve found the perfect curriculum, but because I’ve taken out as many decisions as possible from our process.

I’ve found a plan and stuck with it, even when it’s not perfect.

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Don’t get me wrong, I love the flexibility of homeschooling. I love the freedom to find what works for our family, and tweak things as needed.

But I think I can easily become paralyzed with all of the available options and decisions, become enamored with the newest curriculum on the market, or call everything into question when our friends choose something different from us. And honestly, sometimes I just get bored and want a change. But if I’m not careful, suddenly I’m spending my energy laboring over  searching for the “best thing” or the “most creative thing” rather than actually educating my kids.

To me, simply following the plan, day after day, year by year, is like a wonderful safety net. It allows me to relax into learning.

Q. Do you plan to continue on with CC for Essentials?

A. For those unfamiliar with CC, the reason someone would ask this question is that starting next year, in fourth grade, Judah will move from just a morning of CC to an afternoon program as well, called Essentials (which parents are also present for). Essentials is a three-year intensive writing and grammar program.

Then, in 7th grade, students start Challenge, which encompasses middle and high school. This is a once-a-week all-day tutorial program where parents do not attend, and it includes all the students’ curriculum. This, my friends, is what I’m pressing on towards. I’ve heard fabulous things about the Challenge program, and it looks perfect for Judah’s learning style.

The truth is, I don’t know for sure if we’ll continue all the way, but as of right now, yes, we plan to do Essentials next year. Like I said, Judah loves CC and has a very sweet class of boys he’s anxious to move up with. I also realized that even if we don’t do CC  next year, I want to use the same writing program (which is this one). So I may as well be here with him, learning how to teach it.

Like I said, we take everything a year at a time. But I feel at peace about sticking with our plan next year.

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Last question of the day!

Q. CC or some other co-op sounds amazing, but it’s not possible for my family right now. Am I screwing my kids up by not being part of a co-op?

A. Absolutely not!!!

I said this at the beginning, but I want to reiterate: Classical Conversations or a homeschool co-op are not the only way to homeschool successfully.

In fact, my hero of homeschooling, Susan Wise Bauer, said that homeschool co-ops simply didn’t work for her family. They exhausted her. Her kids didn’t need them. So they quit, and never looked back.

Friend, if SWB doesn’t need a co-op, you don’t need a co-op!

I would say, take stock of your child’s personality and needs in this season of life, as much as you can, and find some sort of social outlet for them. They need community with other kids and other homeschoolers. You need community with homeschooling parents. I do think it’s helpful for kids, as they get older, to learn some classroom skills, like how to sit still, walk in a line to the bathroom, to speak respectfully to adults in authority, and to wait their turn to speak. For me, it’s also very helpful to have adults other than myself tell my kids what to do. It helps our relationship at home.

Many cities offer homeschool field trip groups. You can do sports or music. You could also sign up for classes at the zoo or the state museum (which in our city are very affordable). You could do Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts. Several families we swim with view our twice-weekly swim morning practice as their kids’ homeschool social time rather than being apart of a co-op.

And as your kids get older, there are many more options for local classes, clubs, and online courses they could take. This is a wonderful era in which to be homeschooling. You’re more likely to find other families who do it and resources to help you with your journey.

A friend of mine created a monthly field trip and book club group, which I’ll blog about from time to time, and some of the families involved do another co-op as well, while others feel like that our once-a-month meetings are the exact right amount of homeschool social interaction and community.

I hope this encourages you!

On Wednesday, I’ll be back with more.

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