“Certainty does not propel me—wonder does.” –Persephone Brown
Structure and freedom. Routine and flexibility. Finding the right mix of these elements for my son (and for me!) has been my greatest homeschooling challenge. By “challenge,” I mean I have agonized over this and at times felt overwhelmed with self-doubt and uncertainty.
After 7 months of living it on top of 6 months research and preparation, I think I have finally come up with some preliminary answers to the question, “What homeschooling approach is best for my child and our family?” The short answer is: eclectic and evolving. We use a mix of different curriculum combined with his own chosen projects, field trips and other experiential learning, and a variety of outside classes and extracurricular activities.
One of the benefits that attracted us to homeschooling is the ability to give our son more freedom to pursue his own interests and discover and develop his unique gifts. So the natural learning (AKA “unschooling”) philosophy is one that I have a lot of respect for, and many of the ideas behind it resonate deeply for me. One of my mentors for all things parenting related (and some things just plain life related, too), Scott Noelle, is a natural learning advocate. I chose my son’s piano teacher, Debra Mann, not only because she is an amazing musician, but also because she is a homeschooling mom who follows the natural learning philosophy. I knew with her, my son’s music lessons would be engaging and tailored to his learning style.
All that said, we haven’t chosen to dive whole hog into natural learning for a few reasons: a) My husband can’t abide it. He’s from India, and in his culture as well as his family, it’s ALL about formal education. It is to his credit that he was open minded enough even to consider homeschooling, never mind get on board as enthusiastically as he has—it was a tough sell at first! b) Homeschooling is working very well for us so far, but we are of the mindset that we revisit this decision each year. It’s important to us that our kids be able to reenter brick and mortar school seamlessly if need be. c) I am obviously part of this equation in addition to my child, and I’ve got too much Type A in me to function without any agendas or tangible plans.
Boy 1 is a creative thinker with a free-spirited personality. In the beginning, I thought a 100% natural learning approach was probably the ideal for him, and that using our combination of structured curriculum and interest-driven learning was a compromise made necessary by the aforementioned factors. As it turns out, I’ve seen evidence that he benefits from more structure and direction than I would have predicted. During the weeks that we have fallen significantly out of our routine for days in a row, he has been off-balance. With our sit-down work, he complains occasionally, but most of the time he is happy doing the curriculum activities I’ve chosen. Mid-year, I started using Homeschool Tracker to keep our calendar and assignments organized. One of the features is a print out of assignments for the day with check-off boxes. I didn’t think he’d like the lists, and I didn’t see them as an essential part of the program—I mostly wanted it for my own planning purposes. But I went ahead and printed lists for him one week, just to try it, and he loves them. If it’s not already on the table in the morning, he asks, “Mom, where’s my list?”
So I got fully aligned with my approach of using curriculum to cover the basics while leaving time and space for interest-driven work and plenty of free play. But I still had a problem. Just how structured should our days be? Should I be strict about start times and have set amounts of time to spend on each subject/activity? At what point does the comfort of predictable rhythms start to feel more like the constraints of rigidity? What about scrapping the plan and reworking the schedule in the middle of our school day if that seemed necessary? Would that set a bad precedent? And what about when he’s doing his own chosen projects? How involved should I be in that? Should I push him to finish whatever he’s started, or let him scrap one thing and start something else if he is so inspired?
The events of one particular week brought some clarity. The week before, we had fallen way out of our routine due to family visiting. It was a wonderful week with fun outings and a little of our usual curriculum work sprinkled here and there at atypical times of the day. It was all good and well worth it, but by Friday there was chaos in the air—the kids were wild and I was perpetually annoyed, uptight, and yelling more than I care to admit. It was clear to me that come Monday, we needed to be firmly planted back in our routine. So I made sure that happened, and the result was harmony and calm. Yay!
Then, on Thursday of that same week, we had a couple outside activities planned in the afternoon along with a bunch of assignments for the morning. He looked at his list and said it felt like too much. I made a quick decision to look at it with him and tweak the plan for the day together. We took one of the assignments that’s typically more laborious for him, moved it to the next day, and replaced it with a block of project time, keeping everything else the same. He was relieved and happy with that, and we went on to have a great day. He was fine doing that assignment the next day, and we still got everything done by the end of the week.
I realized then that not only is there no single homeschooling formula for all families, there is not even one formula for our family. I had grappled with these questions for months. How much structure before it gets too rigid? How much flexibility before it gets too loosey goosey and haphazard and crazy? What I’ve learned is that there is no formulaic answer to these questions. I start with a bare bones schedule that I make out 2-3 weeks at a time so it can be easily adjusted as we go along. After that, I just have to keep observing what’s in front of me and feel my way through, making adjustments when needed. Sometimes that means reigning things in, and sometimes it means loosening things up. The sweet spot is a moving target!
So what does all this have to do with midwifery? When this became clearer to me a couple weeks ago, it occurred to me that I have understood this for a long time in my work as a midwife. When I’m supporting women through labor and birth, I don’t use one particular approach or method. Some women need absolutely nothing more than noninterference and quiet presence. Some women need gentle verbal encouragement and reassurance. Some need more enthusiastic verbal encouragement (i.e. cheerleading!). Some need a lot of physical touch. Occasionally, a woman needs to be looked squarely in the eye and ordered not to panic. Some women need several or all of these approaches at different points in their labor! You do your best to partner your objective observations with your gut sense, and you do what the moment requires.
Guiding my child’s education is like that, too. Ultimately, the most important learning I want to facilitate for my children is the art of attuned, creative living. The best way for me to do that is to keep learning it myself and demonstrate it as best I can. Then, we all thrive.
© Camille Williams and Wake Up, Mama! 2015