Thursday, March 28, 2013

Nature Play: The Heart of Homeschooling

For me, the heart of homeschooling is being out in nature with a group of friends, letting things happen. Today three of my friends and their kids joined us on an outdoor excursion to a wetland area I hadn't yet visited. It's in the middle of a trendy housing development, and is restored wetland taken over from an airport. I could tell from looking at the satellite pictures on google maps that it had two little ponds, a few creeks, and some trails. But I wasn't sure if it would just be a lot of yellow grass and garbage, or full of fun nooks to explore and things to discover. March in Colorado is spring trying its hardest to wake up, so most of the land is still brown. Not a lot of bugs to find. Patches of snow and mud surrounded by dry and brown. But we had such a fabulous time and made many discoveries. It was a perfect example of just letting learning happen.

We had fun and got muddy trying to get down to the water. Ann Patchet writes, "Water will always seek out its own." (The Patron Saint of Liars, p1) Well, we are mostly water, and a big part of these nature excursions is to seek out water in our arid mountain habitat. We found a tiny bright green katydid or grasshopper, a flash of spring against the reddish sticky mud. One of the seven-year-olds discovered an owl pellet, which she dissected with the tweezers I had brought along. We took the pH of two streams using simple pH strips, and discovered that a thin film of alkaline water floats on the surface of the otherwise neutral water, probably from oil and soap from road run-off. We found bat houses, under which were poops that had seed in them. I know the bats here eat mostly bugs, but there aren't a lot of bugs out yet, so my hypothesis was that they eat seeds in the spring before the bugs come out. Or maybe the droppings were from a bird, as the bats are probably still in mild hibernation. We saw coyote and deer or rabbit scat. And we saw prints from some very large raccoons. We heard and saw robins, a meadowlark, a jay, and a couple of hawks.

Then we found a lovely little area in which to sit and talk while the kids ran and played and threw snow at each other. They tossed a ball around they had discovered in one of the culverts. They shared snacks. Then the little ones started to get fussy, and we all headed back to the cars.

I feel so happy that my kids get to play in nature this way, and to discover that nature can exist - thrive! - in a suburban setting. They get to free play and learn through doing. the babies can throw stuff in the water to see it splash, and the big kids (all of seven years old) can contemplate predator and prey relationships. I feel happy that these places exist at all, and that I can use my outdoor education experience to create opportunities that my kids just take fro granted, a day of playing outside and exploring and discovering the world and themselves.

Monday, March 25, 2013

How Homeschooling Teaches Me: Learning to Trust Myself and God

You know how you thought that you would raise your kids, but in many ways they are raising you? Yes, you are the parent - but they are the teachers, pushing you to be more than you thought you could ever be. Becoming a mother was like a shamanic death, releasing the old self and struggling to figure out what being a mother actually means.

Homeschooling is like that, too. Here I thought I'd get to use my stellar teaching skills to be at the helm of my children's education. That we would fall into this comfy rhythm of my teaching and their loving to learn. Crafts, science experiments, writing projects, math problems - all would flow joyfully along here at the old kitchen table.

These days, my kitchen table isn't even the same as it was. Literally - we bought a new one to fit better into our house. I keep rearranging rooms, trying to make a family of four who spends a lot of time at home, and all our stuff, fit into our smallish house. The dining nook we bought almost fits, but a little awkwardly. Sort of like homeschooling. It's all a journey of figuring out how the pieces fit together.

We gravitate towards unschooling, but I do keep my finger on the pulse of where my kids are in their academic discoveries. If there is something I feel they "should" learn, I teach it in a way that meets their learning styles and is mostly play-based (even for my seven-year-old). One day a week, we attend an enrichment program for homeschoolers sponsored by the public school district. While it isn't terribly academic, it gives the kids a sense of belonging to a school and having teachers that aren't Mom. And they get to pack a backpack and a lunch, and have recess.

The kids want to go to this "school" for the same reason I looked forward to putting them in school. No, not just for a break from each other, but to be a part of a community. I and my younger brother were part of fabulous family-centered school communities, and I looked forward to being the mom in that scene. But the schools here are very different from where I grew up, especially in my neighborhood. My kids are different, too, and our family system is different. So we ended up homeschooling - and while I love my homeschooling community, a part of me longs for a more structured, accountability-based milieu. Not for the kids, but for me.

So my brilliant idea was that I would get licensed to teach, and could teach language arts at this enrichment program. I got so excited about the idea, figuring with my masters degree and a test I took years ago when applying to grad school for a master's in teaching (k-12 art in this case, a program I didn't attend for various reasons), I could fill out some forms, pay some fees, and voila, be licensed. I would be even more of a a member of this school that values and understands education the way I do: as a family-centered flow, that also benefits from having a home-away-from-home base.

Well, in doing some research I found that it wasn't so easy to procure said license. In order to get licensed, even with my degree, I have to do a year-long teaching training program teaching in my area of endorsement (in this case, English). So I would have to put my kids in school. I considered the idea- it would be a year of living differently, for contrast. It might not be easy, but would benefit everyone in the long run. But it's a way I chose not to live, for all sorts of reason, not the least of which is that my gut tells me that putting my kids in school would take something deeply important from them. Do I really want to jump through mainstream hoops just to work at most two days a week in an alternative environment? I don't need a license to teach co-ops or private school or homeschool - just public school, and therefore this program that I love.

I've been analyzing WHY I want this so much. If it were an easy hop skip and jump, I wouldn't question, I would just do it. But it would mean major upheaval for the whole family. So if I can understand my deeper motivations, maybe I can meet that need some other way. Long story short, I want to feel a little bit normal. I homeschool, but don't use a curriculum. I write eco-spiritual books that don't fit in any one religious category and don't really make sense to a lot of people. My own spiritual path is also an integration of Paganism and wisdom Christianity. So I just don't fit anywhere and am not normal in any way, and I'm tired. I want to fit. I want to get rewarded for what I do. And this program that I would teach in is just enough normal and just enough different. And who knows - maybe some day after my kids go off into the world, I would even teach in a normal public school.

So here I come to the whole point of this long blog. My big realization: Just as I support my children learning through a variety of channels not being graded or tested, and exploring all their interests in however it fires them up, I need to support myself living the same way. Just as I fiercely defend balanced unschooling (i.e., not radical), I need to defend to myself my own flowing in life. That whatever I am doing, writing, learning, and following is just right for where I am now and I don't need someone to approve of whatever that is to make it valid. This is a realization I am still sitting with and trying on for comfort. My inner devil's advocate says there's nothing wrong with being accepted and understood and rewarded. And I agree with her - but I also realize I need to let go of some of the egotistic need for that. I'm doing what I'm doing, and as long as I am in integrity with myself, following the compass in my gut, I am doing the path God has set out for me.

I don't know where this will lead me, or what will come of my ideas and plans, but for this moment I am trying to center in my heart and trust God and myself. Which is really, when it comes down to it, what homeschooling is all about, too.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Reason We Homeschool - And Also, the Goal of Life

I've figured out the goal of life. And therefore, the goal of education.

Bold words, and I offer them as something to mull over and agree with as you will, or shrug off as you choose.

The goal of life is to live a life that instills a sense of satisfaction in oneself. This means one has to know what it feels like to be satisfied and fulfilled. And that one has to have a set of tools that can get him or her to that fulfillment, whatever it may be.

That's why play is so important, especially for young people. It's why establishing an early sense of morality without guilt is important, for it forms the foundation for being satisfied and fulfilled. The Thomas Jefferson Education folks call this early phase the Core Phase. Only then can a child have a sense of justice and right selfhood. Only by wasting time, for instance, can she learn what about that feels nourishing, and what feels empty. Only by trying on other selves and playing in all sorts of environments and learning to ride the waves of emotions in a safe place can a person learn who they are, and what they want out of life.

Then one needs tools to get where one wants to go, and that's where reading, writing, arithmetic, and other traditional aspects of learning comes in. But these need to be taught through play and exploration as well, or a child gets confused and thinks the point is to get things right all the time, and then gives up trying anything at which he might "fail." [The TJEd folks call this Love of Learning Phase.]

Even in areas not included in the canon of imperial education, like art, athletics, and music, in order to give children a sense of what they want and who they are, we need to step back from our grand ideas of perfection, and let them find their way. An example is my daughter's gymnastics. She loves gymnastics. She was the toddler who would hang on everything, climb everything, and could execute a forward roll before she could talk. We found a gym that fosters strength, self-esteem, and skilled gymnasts. We spend a lot of time and a lot of money there. But recently she reached a point where she had to decide if she was going to go the competitive route, which eventually means 14 hours or more a week of practice plus traveling and meets, but means she would be shaped into a strong and perfect gymnast; or we had to take the "Eagles" route, where girls get medals no matter what at their few competitions and advance to the next level just by continuing on, not through perfecting skills. I really struggled with this choice (and I hate having to make it now - she's only seven!), because the high level of competition with choice A doesn't feel like a good fit, and it feels too critical and pushy to me (for my daughter's personality and needs). But choice B feels like they just don't care. Like if you're not going to head for the Olympics, we'll still take your money and give your kid something to do, but we won't care that much about it. I feel those non-competitive kids still need to be met where they are and encouraged and coached, no matter what. But our culture doesn't support that idea.

We decided to go the Eagles route, because my seven-year-old is not interested in making gymnastics the be-all-and-end-all-center-of-the-universe. But a part of me watched the top level girls work out and do their routines, and I feel a sense of longing and regret. What if my daughter could be like that? I realized that underneath this feeling was a desire for her to have a Thing in the world, and this desire comes from my not knowing what my Thing is. I envy people who got a degree in something and go do that thing and identify with it and get accolades for it and that is their Thing. I had equated having a Thing with being fulfilled.

It's not about having a Thing. It's about feeling satisfaction and fulfillment - which might mean having a Thing, or it might mean doing gymnastics just for fun, or having lots of little things, or it might mean earning lots of money - but then knowing what to do with that money and not judging oneself on the money or the accolades themselves. And I think most people don't know how to get there. Because most people were schooled in the traditional system.

So I'll continue to value all the little things I do - writing, gardening, walking to the library, belly dancing while I cook breakfast - that fulfill me. And I will encourage my kids to do the same. I should mention, too, that I think a huge part of feeling fulfilled and motivated in life is a rich spiritual life. 

And that's the reason we homeschool (and specifically, we Flowschool, if you will - sort of unschooling meets TJEd). To help my children grow up to be people who know what they want from the inside and how to achieve it in the world.