Homeschooling: Falling Behind or Falling in Love?
It's taken almost two years for my daughter to fall back in love with learning. I guess she never fell out of love with it entirely but she struggled to engage with the print-rich, high-volume, fast-paced classroom environment. They say it takes as long to fall out of love with somebody as it takes to fall in love. I think the same is true for learning. Those first two years after Kindergarten, my daughter began to realize that play and time outdoors were not the core priority for her day and her little heart broke. So, in Grade 3 we just did it - we jumped into homeschooling and after almost two years... she has fallen back in love with learning and it's mended my heart.
When I began to work as a homeschool consultant to help parents balance the pedagogical needs of their family with the requisite reporting of the Quebec Ministry of Education, I was surprised at how often I heard parents use the word "falling." The phrase, "I just don't want him to fall behind" is very common right now among communities of parents who are homeschooling due to the pandemic.
Veteran homeschoolers will often ask, "falling behind whom?" - making sure to add the "m" on the end - and with a little knowing smirk that they haven't yet created an emoji for - but a wink seems to give the basic gist. The idea that each child is unique and that falling behind is a cultural construct of the industrial revolution is a given for most pre-pandemic parent educators.
Ok, well, before we get too smug, let's be very aware that for a large segment of Covid-Schoolers, the answer to "falling behind whom?" is very real and very worrisome. This particular segment of parents - the same who had become accustomed to reading report cards with care - can't stand to imagine their children not keeping up with their peers within a particular grade level. Wasn't this grade level assigned to them with their first breath? Didn't it become a given eventuality the moment they emerged from the vagina and date of birth was announced? This grade level means something very real to the majority of parents. It means: appropriate socialization, knowing the right things, getting a good job. And this is true even for parents who themselves were bullied at school, hated French class, and work in careers that make them miserable. So what on earth is going on here exactly?
It's natural. Fear and anger during a pandemic are absolutely legitimate responses to crisis situations. We are angry that our children are unable to go to school and we are afraid that when they go back they will be deficient in some way. I say "we" because, despite being a pre-pandemic homeschooler, I often feel this way too. I should mention that we are hybrid homeschoolers. My son is in a local Kindergarten program that he adores and I spend my days with my eldest daughter. I was a public school teacher, I send my youngest to public school and I sometimes get completely freaked out that I've made the wrong. damn. decision. I have to remind myself regularly that she is getting the one on one learning experience she absolutely lacked at school but there are days where "meeting her where she's at" feels way too slow and uncertain.
Deep breath. These are the moments I remind myself of a different set of questions I started to ask my clients when they pose the dreaded "falling behind" question. I no longer turn to the tried and true "behind whom?" argument. Instead, I ask:
"When your child was in school...
...were you afraid your child would fall behind in her imagination?
...were you afraid she was behind in her time spent in nature?
...were you afraid that he was behind in being able to read quietly in a cozy spot on his own?
...were you afraid she would fall behind in learning a musical instrument or watercolour arts?
... were you worried he would not be able to craft objects or grow a garden?
...were you worried not enough time was devoted to practices like yoga and meditation?"
Because they were and still are - behind that is. Public school kids are most definitely behind in all these areas. Big time. Daydreaming, outdoor exploration, quiet reflection, arts, handwork, cultivation and mindfulness are not the priority of the public school system. And I believe this is why so many of our kids are falling out of love with the classroom. In turn, so many parents are disappointed with a style of learning that has begun to lose its way, its heart, its imagination, its connection to community and wisdom.
It's almost been a year since the Covid-19 virus sent us into lockdown and got many of us thinking about homeschooling for the first time. At this juncture we have two choices:
1. We can look backward squinting and seeking for our child in the "dust of their peers" and worrying that they are falling behind or...
2. We can look closely into the eyes of our children and watch them falling in love with themselves, with the sky above them, with their siblings, with their learning and with us - yes us! You! Their parent! After all, it's you who decided to bring them on this journey into a new future! One where their heads are encouraged to question existing defunct structures, one where their hearts are motivated to connect with community, and one where their hands are inspired to reshape the very world around them.
It is nothing less this that you are doing for your children. Nothing less than this. And if this is still not enough to quell your fear and quiet your worried mind, then those of us who have fallen in love with learning and our children all over again will call to you over our shoulders. We will wave you forward, "Hey! Keep up slow poke! The path ahead looks bright and full of unknown wonders!"
Since the deferral of Juniper Glen's opening, we have made some important decisions for the education of our own children. Vincent, who adores his local preschool, has just been accepted to a three day a week program there this Fall. Also, our intention to enroll Althea into the new area Waldorf school has been deferred for one year at least.
Because of these unexpected detours, I began to realize that I now have an opportunity to fulfill my desire to homeschool and to get an actual sense of my children's learning. This Fall will be a time for getting back to a love of learning. That is to say, starting Vincent off with the right foundation and getting back to the basics of our family's pedagogical values.
These values include a belief that learning lasts a lifetime and that a sense of wonder serves humans far better than a roster of knowledge. Reading, observing outdoors, art and music are essential elements for a child as far as I'm concerned and I want more of that for my kids.
At the heart of learning is the greatest teacher of all: Nature! So! Allow me to present our plan:
"Homeschooling with the Four Elements"
Grounding is a concept we hear a lot about in yoga but I think it truly applies to all aspects of life. I need to settle in to our practice of homeschool in the same way we prepare to do anything - with mindfulness and intention.
A key aspect of homeschooling for me was to get grounded in a stronger sense of what my child is actually learning. Since we will be continuing many aspects of the Quebec Education Program, I am getting very familiar with the French and Social Studies program they use in our local schools. At the same time, I'm able to incorporate beauty and joy into the core of our days. We will be able to learn about science in the most authentic way -observing in the great outdoors! We will be free to meditate when we get frustrated or to just take a walk around the block. We will also use colourful cuisiniere rods to learn math in a hands-on way.
I intend to continue to use our beautiful Oak Meadow program and just slow. the. hell. down. This idea of grades, levels, and "keeping up" is a strange way of learning for many of us. As a youngster, I was an early reader and big time academic. I adored getting good grades and ultimately got my Masters degree. I've since learned that that version of ego through recognition no longer serves my life. I don't want my children to have to learn that lesson the same way I did. I want the kids to get off the damned "ladder of learning" and come back to earth to remember how it feels to just be children. Oak Meadow curriculum is beautiful because it really is a slow and natural progression of learning.
First, let me say I intend for us to have a few key areas of our homeschool that center on water
Ingestion: Regular afternoon tea times (the tastiest form of water),
Immersion: Weekly swimming lessons (that beautiful floaty feeling of water),
Expression: Weekly watercolour painting sessions (the glorious rainbow colours of water).
But the key to this element as part of our plan is just feeling like we can "go with the flow" in our homeschool. Curriculum doesn't suit? Change it. Feeling bored? Field trip. Sick? Take a nap. Raining? Good. Let's put on our raincoats and jump in puddles!
Of course, since we live in a riverside town, I feel that spending time by flowing water should be part of our programming. Pond, stream and river studies will feature prominently in our days. So much of Canada's early history has happened along the Ottawa river that I cannot imagine how spending time in it and by it could not enhance the vitality and authenticity of our learning.
Creating a warm environment in which to learn is a huge component of our plan for the year. Calm and cozy are my goals. Lessons feel sacred when we begin and end with candle lighting and snuffing. The acts help to bring focus to the space and a warmth to the learning. In winter, we will light fires in the fireplace and do much of our learning fireside with warm bevvies.
Since it's not our intention to replicate school at home, our spaces can be more casual than a typical classroom. The solarium settee warmed by the morning sun is great for curling up with a book and a wide, wooden table serves well for more formal lessons. Potted plants, soft lighting, relaxing music and soothing scents can be part of our day every day.
I can also appeal to the children's desire to learn through play by having our play kitchen, blocks and doll house right in the heart of the home. These items are staples in most Kinder classrooms but disappear as children reach the early grade levels which is a shame.
Activities like baking bread, rolls, tea cakes and cooking soup, stewed fruit and oatmeal will bring us together in the warmth of the kitchen and help us to share with friends and family. A cooking class at our local Homeschool Coop will be an incredible complement to our core learning!
Last, homeschooling will allow us to set a rhythm for the day, week and school year which mimics the natural rhythm of the breath and follows the cycles of the seasons. Focused and academic activities will always be followed by free play time, time outside or relaxation. This means a rhythm of in and out breath can be achieved so that we don't try to cram too much into our minds, tire our memories or dull our imaginations.
Here is what a typical day will likely look like in our home!
Breakfast and Circle Time Songs
Walk to Preschool
Table Time Lessons (French, Math, Social Studies)
Outdoor Play, Yoga or Swim
Quiet Afternoon Book Basket
Tea Time Lessons (Nature Study, Art, Story & Craft)
Walk to Preschool or Warm Bath
Candlelight Read Alouds
Celebrating the seasonal festivals in meaningful ways throughout the year will bring us closer to family, plant and wildlife and hopefully connect us to our little local community too!
Voila! There is our plan for our very first year of homeschool - would love your feedback and advice! What has worked for you?
As we move into storm season, I truly feel energized. I've always had a feeling of connection and motivation when storm clouds gather in the distance. The process of "battening down the hatches" as I fold the patio umbrella, find the candles and close up the windows gives me a bit of a thrill. It's humbling to see the flashes of light in the sky and to feel insignificant in the face of such light and sound. A storm seems to animate the electrical currents that naturally course though our bodies without which our very hearts would cease to beat.
Once all is settled, the kids and I will pour a cool drink and sit on the front porch measuring the distance of the storm. We use the age old and scientifically proven chant: "one alligator... two alligator..." - maybe you know it?
Speaking of the beasts, they will be off to pinata making camp next week - which is great because after making fairy tipis to cap off our summer study of the Aboriginal Peoples of the Plains - I'm plum out of crafty ideas!
Here is the delicate structure of flowers, twigs and leaves that a curious squirrel or the kind of storm I've been referring to will blow to absolute smithereens. And there's the thing. Even though I know that a lightning strike can be devastating and storm winds have proven highly dangerous in our area of late - I still eagerly anticipate the cooling rain and the wind at the back of my neck.
Storms speak to my internal need to just let go and allow any emotional build up or frustration fly away for a few hours. We have to wait out the storm shower and witness the powers of forces beyond our control. Like a farmer's field, some ideas and thoughts get overworked in our minds. It's always wise to give over to nature a bit. We know that when lightning strikes it brings with it renewal for the soil allowing new growth.
I love the summer. The kids roast marshmallows, catch lightning bugs in a jar, sleep outside in the tent and eat the oreo creams into the shapes of the moon in the sky. It's our time to "lighten" up which is the source of the word lightning. Each fiery flash lightens our surroundings but just enough to glimpse our next steps and formulate an idea of a pathway forward. Never enough to fully light our way.
This is why a thunderstorm is never the time to strike out on a major journey. It's a time to retreat and to take stock. The lazy and hazy will soon enough be replaced by the urge to learn and explore. For now, sweet graces like a cool breeze, a frosted glass and a dark cloud to cover the over-hot afternoon sun are plenty.
Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it. ~Lao Tzu~
It is with a heavy heart that I am now learning that Aylmer is not quite ready for the Kinderhaus and Nature school I have worked so tirelessly to get off the ground this past year.
This picture was taken last Fall when the river was low and the bed was dry. At the same spot today the water threatens to overtake all that stands in its path. This dual nature of water as the life-giving, calming key to our survival as well as an unstoppable force for destruction is a strange truth. So many of the stones we found on the riverbed that day last fall were smooth and round because of the flow of water over time. Water is a most patient and powerful element that happily takes the path of least resistance to prevail over rock, earth and fire.
For those who are as bummed by this news as I am, I want to let you know that it is possible that Juniper Glen may get new life in future years but today I have finally come to a place where I wonder - what if this year I just let life flow?
What if, for the first moment since my babies were born, I go ahead and open up that dam of flood waters allowing the tears of disappointment to run over me? Allow the passage of life to smooth over my hard edges of resistance? Can I let go of my inexhaustible desire to build, build, build a secure structure to protect my identity as a career woman and to shore up my family with an income?
What would it mean to simply be shaped by the ruthless but life-sustaining power of the universe's flow?
Easter celebrations are fast approaching in our little Kinderhaus! One can't help noticing the word "East" in Easter which tells us which direction to look with hopefulness during this first full month of Spring. Despite the recurrent bouts of snowfall and frost, we are greeted by the dawn earlier than we were during the past few dark months and for that we are thankful!
Listen carefully on your next stroll and you will hear the calls of the red wing, the goose, and the robin heralding the movement of tiny sprouts and insects between blades of grass and grain! If you visit a local farm this month, you might see little chicks hatching from eggs and on your visit to a neighbour's house, perhaps some purple crocuses are peeking up from the earth. All these beautiful first greetings are especially heart warming even as we may continue to don our winter jackets at the bus stop.
The rain comes down sometimes as shards of ice but with each rainfall some of the snow is cleared from my front step just in time for visitors!
And visitors are most welcome in our Kinderhaus during this month packed with interviews for candidates for our inaugural program! Invariably, I have been greeted by bright smiles and warm hand shakes each week as I meet with parents and students who have registered for the Fall.
These first moments of greeting are especially delightful for me as the Kinderhaus teacher. Rudolph Steiner, the father of Waldorf education, tells educators to "receive the children in reverence" and truly it is impossible to do otherwise as their unique personalities set foot in the space.
To be reverent means to be in a state of awe and wonder. As children enter the space, their curiosity invariably overtakes any initial hesitation they may have about exploring each area of my home. I am truly in awe of how each child brings a new energy into the Kinderhaus.
In all cases, the children are drawn to Rosie, the guinea pig and have a chance to feed her a fat leaf of lettuce. Whether careful or confident, the way each child interacts with our little pet tells a tale of wonder. They greet our little friend with a bright light in their eyes - it is the dawning of a new relationship!
"Hraldmonath" is the anglo saxon name for this volatile, windy and changeable month. The term "hrald" literally translates to"rough" so "hraldmonath" is usually a rough month. Rough because we can feel spring in our bones but must still endure many days of cold and bitter winds. However, the days are lengthening and brightening and we can smell spring on the breeze.
The willow across the street hangs her yellow tresses in a fashion that suggests a shaking off of winter. Juniper Glen is brightening up its spaces too! We knocked down a wall to let in more light and are planning on painting the spaces in cool colour that both calms and enlightens our minds!
I've also drafted the curriculum for our upcoming year and am planning each of the lessons with a particular focus on moments of transition like tidying toys away, coming back indoors after romping outside and saying our goodbyes. All of these periods of change are like the transitions of the seasons - it can sometimes be difficult to let go and ready ourselves for the next experience in the rhythm of our day or year.
For children, song, rhyme, and musical sounds lend themselves beautifully to easing us from one activity to the next. Singing a song, strumming the lap harp and playing a small melody on the piano let the children know that we are gently switching from one moment to the next. Here is an example of the song we sing to tidy up after free play:
Tic toc goes the clock What does it have to say? Time for us to pick up our toys And put them all away.
Accompanied by assistance in sorting and storing, doesn't that seem like a much gentler transition than clapping and hollering out "Time to clean up! Let's get ready for song circle!"?
In March, the rugged winds bring rains and rain means rainbows of colour! This month, we celebrate "Holi" the Hindu festival of colour and we tap into the luck o' the Irish by making rainbow finger kites that fly us to our pots of gold. Shamrocks sit in pots on the nature table next to our seedlings in the bright sunshine.
I sip my milky chai tea and the children help me chop leeks for the delicate soups of spring and to flavour poached fish for dinner. Yes. Change can be rough but oh so welcome at this lovely time of year.
I almost called this first entry "waiting" but the excitement that I feel as we prepare for Juniper Glen to open in the fall is more than that. It is nothing less than gleeful anticipation. The feeling that you get when you put a seed into the earth. The sense of hope that you feel when you frame your degree and hang it on the wall. The inability to stop looking at an ultrasound photo of your niece or nephew in profile.The audacity and joy you feel when you and a handful of others decide to make a real change in your community. These feelings are not waiting. They are anticipating!
February is always a month of anticipation. We know that under the snow the grass is restoring itself. The bugs, bears and frogs have slowed their rhythm to simply exist with almost no activity whatever. Sometimes it feels that we should do the same - hibernate indoors and come out when we feel the warm sun in our blood.
When I organized a Community Consultation to plan for a local Kinderhaus & Nature School on a snowy Candlemas day, I worried I might just sit alone "waiting" for people to come. Imagine my delight when parent after parent arrived and even interested community organizations showed up to share big dreams for our children. Over steaming cups of tea and with brightly coloured markers in hand, we shared ideas and I tried to keep up by scribbling notes furiously!
And guess what? The seedlings have already begun to sprout! March is booked solid with interviews for prospective students and only a few spots remain for April's interview sessions!
So now what? Now we try out new bread recipes in anticipation of Bread Baking Day in our Kinderhaus! We pop popcorn on the stove, cut coffee filter snowflakes and stock our nature table with treasures we find in the snow.
As the days lengthen, we bring colourful imported fruits into the home that are plentiful, tropical and at their best: kiwi, pineapple and blood orange.
We hammer nails and rip out walls to bring more light and warmth to all our spaces in the Kinderhaus. Right now, my favourite task is designing a little reading nook under the stairs for when a student may need a little quiet time alone.
For all these efforts I am rewarded in the mail with this beautiful diploma from LifeWays which confirms Juniper Glen as a LifeWays aligned program that seeks to create a home away from home for children in their kinder years!
Then there are days where we imitate the chipmunks and curl up in our blanket nests. We play indoors creating small worlds of wonder and imaginative sculptures.
At night we light candles, read and tell stories. We create our own warmth in anticipation of the warm days ahead.