I often mention how difficult I think my children are on this blog, and I’ve been realizing lately how little I talk on here about how amazing it is to get to be with them, and how the hard behaviors are all wrapped up with their genius as people. This is partly because I don’t want to expose them, partly because our real life is lived with the people we see and spend time with, and partly because when things are going well I don’t stop to analyze it as often. I was chatting with a mom the other week whose kindergarten-aged son is hating the curriculum she’s using and she can tell the lessons are going over his head. He’s not learning to read. Her two-year-old daughter can sometimes get the answers her son can’t. Her husband is anxious, she feels like a failure, he’s saying they’re going to put their son in school next year if he hasn’t learned to read by the end of the year. And I resonated so hard with all of that; every part of it.
I had several false starts with my oldest son where I could tell everything I was saying was going over his head. It wasn’t that he wouldn’t try, it was that he just didn’t understand. He wasn’t ready. All I could say at the time was that I could tell he wasn’t ready. I didn’t have any answers for how he would be made ready, or when he would be ready on his own, I just knew he wasn’t ready then. I also knew that putting him in school might produce what looked like progress in the short run, but may not result in actual reading comprehension in the long run. I knew my active little five-year-old boy would soon get very tired of sitting still in class and that he would most likely be labeled ADHD, and I just didn’t want that for him.
When he was seven and my second-born was almost six, we decided to put them in a hybrid school for a year. Two days in school, the rest of the time at home. We had done some extremely painstaking work together the previous semester when he’d turned seven, learning the alphabet, learning to sound out some words. It was rough. But he had something. We put him in first grade, knowing he’d be behind on reading but probably ahead in math. That program turned out to be more work for me, and I really didn’t like it at all (a whole different post) but he did gain confidence that year. There was value in him seeing what the other kids could do. His competitiveness made him rise to the occasion. All of his teachers told me at our first meeting that he had gained confidence and that he wanted very badly to please them.
I want to pause here and say that, while those things were helpful and needed tools for all of us for that time in our lives, I don’t see them as appropriate guiding forces for education. I didn’t want my son to do the work because he wanted to beat the other kids and please his teachers. I’m happy for him to have other outlets to exercise those strengths, but the delicate joys of story and logic need not be a proving ground for them. I want those to be a joy unto themselves, and if his unformed boy’s brain can only grasp a part of what we’re doing – if he only wants the bread rolls out of the feast I’m trying to lay before him – then so be it for now. If I can extend the metaphor, here’s the attitude we’ve adopted: you don’t have to eat everything on the table, but you do have to eat a few bites of the healthy stuff before you can have a treat.
When he was two and not yet saying many words, my husband was very concerned. I remember our wonderful family doctor (who had seven kids of his own) told us this guiding principle that has stuck with me: only be concerned if he loses words he has already gotten. As long has he’s moving forward, even if he’s going slowly, he’s doing fine.
That advice has gotten through some harrowing spots! Today, my son is reading at grade level and writing book reports; every day, in fact. Because I have to keep things dead simple to keep my sanity and to keep us moving forward, we do not use much curriculum. Most curriculum drives me nuts anyway. Here’s what he does more or less every day:
- Reads a chapter in a third-grade chapter book, tells Daddy what it was about, and then writes a one-page book report. We use the spelling errors to make a spelling list, which he studies.
- We use Math U See for math for all the kids, and I love it.
- In their morning time with me, we read the daily office for Morning Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, learn a hymn, and read books together. We’re studying American history, so we’ve read some historical fiction like The Witch of Blackbird Pond, and Johnny Tremain. We also read an art history book called Great Painters, Shakespeare stories for kids (and we’re starting to watch Henry V together), and various nature books.
- All the kids are working their way through the Hooked On Phonics app on the iPad
- The boys play the Prodigy math game on the iPad every day
- Piano lessons once a week for each kid
There are innumerable other things they do to contribute to their education, with and without my help. This weekend, Wyatt (8) found two spiders while he was doing chores. He put them in jars with little habitats, looked them up in one of our field guides, and made a drawing of one of the spiders, including the approximate scale of the spider compared to him, the markings on its back, and the position of its legs. He read to find out what it eats. He had zero prompting from either of us. Gilead (10), is constantly building something, and Ginny and Wyatt are almost always drawing. Ginny (6) has basically taught herself to read, and reads all the time. We listen to an audiobook (right now, it’s Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire) as much as possible, and I try to take them outside for a nature walk as much as I can. In the winter, it’s more like sledding or snowboarding for Gilead. We try to keep a big pile of library books handy on subjects they’ve chosen, which I find them perusing throughout the day. They ply the adults at our small church with questions on any given topic they are obsessed with at the moment: Aliens and Bigfoot have been especially prominent lately. They also have access to the Camera, Garage Band app, and a stop-motion animation app on the iPad. They’ve used all of these to make their own art.
This is not an exhaustive list of what we do at home, and it doesn’t even include our extras, like basketball, AWANA, and our homeschool co-op. I just wanted to illustrate that a) being “behind” on one subject and having trouble with it doesn’t spell disaster for the future, as long as you are moving forward, and b) you don’t necessarily need fancy (expensive) curriculum to make actual progress. When I write it all down like this, I realize how much my kids are getting, and how expediently we’re doing it. Henry does math and language arts with the boys while he’s working from home. They are usually done with everything by 1:00 p.m. and have time to pursue their own interests all afternoon. I clean, take care of the toddler, and workout around Ginny’s schooling needs. And it’s all done in a peaceful home atmosphere without the need to rush anywhere first thing in the morning, and without the external pressure to hit an arbitrary benchmark.