Coming off a wonderful group learning experience with other homeschoolers (Science Olympiad), and joining a new co-op has left me feeling happy about combining learning with others. Add to the mix that my kids are once again in the six hour long drop off class for homeschoolers, the experiential classes outdoors in the wilderness, and I'm feeling grateful that such opportunities are available to my children.
This spring though, I am spending less time with my kids yet the time we have together is more intense (and that’s good). For the first time the experiential wilderness school is happening on two different days of the week. So one day a week I have alone time with each son. I've been noticing for about two years, and it is getting amplified the older they get, that each kid acts differently when alone than when they are together. The dynamic between the two boys is not as harmonious as it used to be. As my oldest has entered puberty this has gotten worse. He gets annoyed with his younger brother when it seems to me there is nothing to be aggravated about. Also certain things with my younger son does can brush everyone the wrong way if he does them, but these things happen only when the two boys are together.
After a rocky start with some bullying and pecking order stuff, Lacrosse for my younger son is now going great. As I had hoped, the intense physical exercise is good for him physically, as is the team spirit and the confidence that he is building as his skills improve. These are all good changes. Yet the time commitment is huge and it changes our whole family schedule. Dinner together in a traditional sit at the table and eat in a relaxed manner way has been reduced to three nights a week instead of seven.
In two days I'm going to attend a big homeschooling conference. I have been so busy living life that I have not followed any of my own advice for planning before a conference. It is better, before being faced with thousands of homeschool curriculum products, to know what I need or want to buy lest I overspend on things I don’t need or even want and never use. I think is best to reevaluate or reaffirm our homeschool philosophy lest I get swayed by others with different goals and priorities while at the conference.
Another learning opportunity has been on my mind lately, something we may add in the fall but how to carve out the time? What must give way to make room for this? Since it doesn't cover the basics of education how will my kids learn those things?
Yesterday I found out that the property the wilderness school is on is up for sale (again). If this land, presently acting as a nature preserve (although I guess it's not legally defined as such) is sold for private use or for development (housing most likely) then my kids may lose this wonderful program that provides them with some education, good exercise, group social opportunities (pretty much being with the same kids week after week, year after year).
How can I possibly make quick decisions for homeschooling plans for next fall in the next two days? I don’t think I can. But I’m trying. I’m hashing out my thoughts by sitting and writing this out, while my kids are still sound asleep upstairs.
The reason I wanted to attend this conference this year is because there are some good speakers there. I guess my focus will be to listen to what they have to say and see what I can take away from it. The budget is the best this year than it's been in years, but I'm overloaded with homeschooling materials and curricula here. We are literally overflowing and we’re even tripping over stuff. I'll not focus on spending money at the conference this time around, even though I could spend guilt-free this year.
We were on a road of independent homeschooling for so long. I taught my kids most everything and they did some enriching things with subject matter experts. I considered these non-essential but icing on the cake. A nature class given by a passionate naturalist outdoors at an Audubon Center, a pottery class taught by an artist and public school art teacher, those are some examples of good things that I couldn’t teach at home. Then the day-long wilderness school was added in.
This year we are doing more than ever with other kids, more learning in groups, not just focusing the majority of our time with other kids for fun play or Scouts. My sons are taking an art history class and some other classes taught by subject matter experts and professional teachers. I have come to believe it is good for my kids to be around other kids in group learning environments (whereas formerly my belief was to supply my children with the best experience possible and if that was with me as teacher at home then so be it). It is good for my kids to have some other adult holding them to an academic standard rather than thinking I'm being too strict or I'm the bad guy teacher for having expectations and high standards. I think this is partly because my kids have never been in school and they think what I want them to do is possibly too much, since they have no clue what the school kids are expected to do.
I also think it is partly because we are not radical unschoolers. When there are few rules and no expectations everything is more harmonious because anything that is done is portrayed as being wonderful and is thought to be ‘enough’ of something. Baking a cake = enough fractions for math. Watched a documentary = enough for Ancient Egypt. Going to Plimouth Plantation one day = enough learned about Colonial America.
I am not quite ready to enroll them in school full time in order to learn that lesson of what teachers may expect from students and how I’m not unreasonable, but I needed them to get a taste of what it's like when the content and expectations are driven by another adult.
I also like that my kids are seeing how the other kids act in class, or how their acquaintances are academically. My kids have this thing going on that other homeschooling parents tell me goes in with their kids too, they don't know where they stand in comparison to the other kids. For some reason my kids think they are not good students, that others must be doing better than them, that they are not smart while the other kids are smart. I'm consoling myself by saying it's better to be humble than arrogant rather than freaking out that my kids are suffering from poor self-esteem (which they are not).
The idea that they are not measure up is not true for all homeschooled kids though. The other end of the spectrum with some homeschooled kids is they have been praised so much that they think they are brilliant little scholars whose every thought and opinion are gifts to the universe. That some young children can have such an air of superiority makes my skin crawl, especially when their flaws and gaps of knowledge are so glaring to anyone watching or teaching the class. They think they know it all when they know so little. Their minds are so closed that they think they're done learning that they miss learning new things being taught right in that class, or at that museum. Well my kids get to see some of them stumble in class and not get it, which shows them the kid is not as great as they think they are.
How their peers act in a group environment is a valuable thing to know and are a part of socialization I don't seek to shelter my kids from. In fact, I'd like them to see more of it as it is teaching them how they do not want to be. Being annoyed by peers is one of the best things. It has taught my kids how to behave, it has reinforced the things I'd told them to do or not to do (which apparently doesn't always seem justified to them). They get it when they see the wrong thing being done in real life. When they are annoyed when a kid does a certain thing they vow to not do that lest they be a pest to the others.
As I ponder which group activities to do and which to avoid it is clearer now than ever that we need to forge our own path. While I would like my kids to be with certain other kids for social experiences I can't let that drive us completely. For example one family I'd not mind being with every day of the week has made it clear that their children have a certain high priority that is not on our priority list at all (it happens to be something in the arts that is a low priority in public education today). They are letting that one thing determine whether they do this or that other opportunity. Hey, that is their right, and I’m glad they are following through on their priorities. How far I can stretch to try to do things with them should also be determined by our core beliefs about home education (and for my older son it happens to be that core academics and a focus on math and science are what he needs if he is to get what he wants).
If we go too far to follow the pack so we are doing that cool thing with that group and then doing this other great thing with that group but these are all taking time away from the things that are most important to my kids (core academics) then it's wrong, it’s an error in my judgment. I need to keep our goals and the path to achieve them clearly defined and to align our actions with that in mind.
I've got five years left before my older son begins college. He is firm with his plans and desires to seek an engineering degree. We should not duplicate here what the family is doing with the student who wants general admission to a liberal arts college for an unknown major. I should not judge our homeschool plan against the family who I bet will have a child in art school. I'm not going to push the same plan as the kid who probably will major in English Literature who may spend time or even minor in drama. The history buff kid who is now on a track in college to become a college history professor should not make me feel bad that my kids have not and do not want to read that many books on history when she was my kid's age. And the radical unschooler who tells me that she’d be happy if her child never went to college should not be the one influencing how my engineer wanna-be kid spends his homeschool high school years.
So the group activities which may not fulfill core components of an education need to be picked carefully. The stuff that seems wonderful yet is above and beyond the basics, or goes deeper and more thorough into a topic than what public schools do can't take so much time away from the basic parts of my children's home education. This year I felt that doing these things with groups and the time spent with other kids kept my kids happy socially which then allowed us to keep homeschooling.
This year it sometimes got to a point where I felt one of my sons might be better off with groups more and that maybe the only way to accomplish that would be to enroll him into public school (private school was not in the budget then). So if doing 'fluff' and 'extra' stuff in groups that may be a pain in the schedule or maybe isn't always a stellar educational experience but kept my son able to continue to be homeschooled which is good for him developmentally and academically (due to home studies) then it's good that he do those things. So I won't complain about a class that isn't perfect, or worry that the trip to the museum wasn't milked to the maximum.
I feel like I'm at a transition point. I have been so involved with the local homeschool community, doing things with groups for eight years now. I have given my kids tons of opportunities for socialization and being with other kids doing different things.
But now is the time to refocus and think about what my older son needs for the long term big picture and to figure out how to get there (because five years seems suddenly like such a short time period to me). For him, the challenge is academic, making sure he learns certain topics that are required for that degree, and also test taking skills and standardized test prep work for later.
For my younger son the social aspect is more important right now. Academically I feel he's just fine, if I put him in school tomorrow he'd do great. Actually the way he produces work is perfect for public school. He can quickly learn systems and procedures and he would and could learn to play the school game easily. He'd be a great student on paper. But my husband and I don't want a great public school kid on paper. We want more out of an education and higher standards, access to different learning materials than those dry, biased textbooks. We want more than read the chapter and answer the questions at the back. We want more than cramming for short term memory recall for the quiz or test. We want more; we want our kids to think about things and to form their own opinions, not to learn to pass a test after having shallow learning. We don't want school to be just what is done before moving on to adulthood where real living is done.
Last night I had a discussion about all of this with my husband. We are on the same page. I am so grateful that our homeschooling is something that we are in alignment with (it was his idea in the first place actually, a seed planted thirteen years ago, also in the spring if my memory serves me correctly). Actually let me be clear we are in alignment with everything we do, and being that way is what we both feel cemented our relationship when we were dating and made us realize we’d be good marriage material for each other. (Of course we have some different opinions and sometimes disagree on small actions to take to get there but we work it out with negotiation and compromise.) We’re approaching fifteen years of marriage (and nineteen years being together) and so far, so good. In the harder times we’ve had, being strongly linked in our core principals and sharing the same goals has been what has kept us together.
I guess having too many good homeschooling opportunities and feeling conflicted about which to do and which to leave behind is a good problem to have. In light of all these great group experiences, I need to redefine which things I still will be in charge of teaching, which materials and methods to use, and then the most important part: being disciplined enough to actually do what we've planned at home. I've always been more responsible about getting my kids to their paid classes and events than I have with following through with the work we are supposed to be doing at home. I have no problem pondering and planning and buying stuff like curricula, but actually using it in the way I'd imagined is sometimes the hardest part, and perhaps that is something that I should be focusing on instead of worrying about signing up for this great class or that great thing.