Archive for March 27th, 2007

Everything to Learn

March 27, 2007 @ 2:46 pm | Filed under: , ,

Scott to me, in the car: "Pretty flowers over there. What are they?"

Me: "I don’t know. I don’t know any of this west coast flora yet."

Scott, incredulous: "You don’t??? But that’s your job!"

This is what happens when you are the kind of person who obnoxiously calls out the name of every tree and shrub growing along the roadside for twelve years of marriage and five years of courtship. You build up a reputation, and then when you move away from your zone of expertise, your credibility falls to pieces.

I don’t know any of the plants here. Yet.

The kids and I are on the case. We have found some helpful websites for Southern California plant identification, especially this one, which lets you narrow down by terrain and leaf type, with photos to confirm your ID. We have a rather large photo file of our own by now, but we can’t label any of them yet.

I love this. I will probably keep talking about the bittersweetness of moving for a long time, because it permeates everything right now; every new blossom I spy here reminds me of my beloved garden "back home." But I love the adventure inherent in ignorance, too. I know nothing; therefore I have everything to learn. This is exhilarating. I am the tabula rasa; bring on the chalk!

I have been told by several friends that I will love the books of Elizabeth Goudge. I have not read any of them,* not even The Little White Horse, which is one of Jane’s favorite novels. I own a couple, and I look forward to reading them—so much so that I keep delaying the moment of beginning. I am happy to have before me a whole body of work which will, by all accounts, delight me. Of course it would be beyond foolish to delay the realization of those delights forever; and I won’t. One day, I’ll reach out a hand to that shelf. Maybe this week. Maybe next year. I don’t know.

I did the same thing with To Kill a Mockingbird. Somehow it never made it onto the syllabus of any class I took in high school or college. By grad school, I’d heard enough heartfelt raves to know this was a novel I was going to love, connect with deeply, carry with me forever. I spent years on the verge of reading it. I didn’t delay consciously; I just didn’t read it. Until one day, about three years ago, I did. And the book was everything I wanted it to be and more. Oh, to resort to cliche about such a work! But there it is. I loved it completely, every syllable. I saw in Scout the image of the daughters I hope to be raising: observant, deep-thinking, comfortably impish, compassionate, bright. (Just not the motherless part, please.) I wondered if I would have done anything different if I’d read it earlier. How would the book have changed me? How might it have shaped me, or influenced my choices? How might it be doing so now?

This post is all over the place. So are my children. Quiet time is over and they are turning wild. If I keep writing, we’ll be living Lord of the Flies instead of To Kill a Mockingbird. I’d better get them outside into this world full of things I don’t know yet.

*I was wrong!

Tweak Tweak

The nice thing about what I call "tidal homeschooling" is that it keeps the pressure off me. By now, I have learned that our family’s life seldom maintains a consistent rhythm longer than, say, four to six weeks. I have learned to enjoy the ebb and flow, the seasonal change. When monkeys toss their fabled wrenches into our works, as those naughty little monkeys are wont to do, I know it’s time to do a little tweaking.

Our "high tide" Charlotte Mason term chugged along nicely during February, but this month we went a bit off kilter. Scott’s back went out; we sold our old house; there were lots of distractions. We stuck to our rhythm of morning read-alouds and narrations, but last week I noticed the kids were squabbling with each other a lot and our lesson time was turning grumpish. That is always, always, a cue for me to shift gears. (And mix metaphors. Good heavens, I am haphazard with the metaphors today. Metaphor soup!)

I’ve mentioned before that my introduction to the idea of homeschooling was through the writings of John Holt and Sandra Dodd. Sandra is the guru of radical unschooling, and though I don’t agree with her take on everything, I have learned a great deal from her writings. Jane was a babe in arms when I began to ponder Sandra’s ideas about children learning naturally, through life experience, apart from school; and truth be told, it was Sandra who sold me on the lifestyle, way back when I was lurking on the homeschooling boards at AOL.

Now you know that while I have a big streak of unschoolishness in me, I’m not an unschooler per se; the Charlotte Mason method, applied according to her principles, is not unschooling. But Charlotte, too, envisioned the kind of happy and eager childhood that you hear about in the writings of the unschoolers. And that’s my main answer to the question, "Why do you homeschool your kids?" I say, "Because I think it’s a way to give kids a great education and a joyful childhood."

During our low-tide times, which occupy the larger portion of the year, we are like unschoolers. We live and play; we take care of our home together, the children and I; we have adventures and read lots of great books.

During our high-tide times, we keep doing all of the above, but I’m the one picking out the books, and I have the kids narrate a lot of the reading back to me, and we work more deliberately on mastering skills that take practice, like piano and math and Latin.

After the big adventure of moving to California, quickly followed by the big adventure that is Christmas, all of us were ready for some structure, some predictability. Hence our current lineup of studies a la Miss Mason. And as I said, our "term" (the term amuses us, ba dum bum) got off to a terrific start. Last week, when the fun started to fizzle, I gave some thought to what might need tweaking.

The first question I always ask myself when I’m assessing our family rhythm is "What would we be doing if we weren’t doing this?" If, for example, we weren’t spending three mornings a week reading and narrating, how would we spend them? We already have activities the kids love which take us out of the house twice a week, sometimes more; plus I’ve tried to be good about making spontaneous outings to the zoo or the park, exploring this vast new land we’ve moved to. I find that an important ingredient for family harmony is having plenty of mellow time at home. I am not, therefore, inclined to add any more activities to the mix right now.

Home time, then. The kids want to do more painting. Check. I can make that happen. They want to do more baking, and Easter is around the corner…Check. Jane has a flat of herb seedlings going, and all of us are in the mood to do some gardening ("all of us" as in the entire Northern hemisphere), so: Check.

Thus far in my ponderings, I have found nothing that really requires a tweak. We can do all those things any afternoon of the week; I just need to remember to DO them. (Check.)

But the grumpishness of the last week or so, that’s got to go. That’s where the tweaking comes in. What jumped out at me when I gave some thought to the question was that it has everything to do with the challenge of keeping five small people happy at once. (Make that four small people and one medium-sized person; Jane is really getting to be such a big kid.)

I decided I was trying to do too much all together. After traveling in a pack (both literally and figuratively) for the past nine months, my kids are ready for some one-on-one time with me. This can be as simple as making sure Beanie gets to help me wash dishes, or Jane gets me for a few screens of Absurd Math, her favorite online pastime. Rose wants to stretch out on my bed and chatter; she is my most introverted child, and I think she soaks up a lot of observations during the big group activities and wants my ear in which to pour them later on.

This morning I gave Rose a stack of books and helped her set up camp on my bed. She beamed. While Jane read a picture book to Beanie, I spent some one-on-one with Rose. Then I grabbed Bean for some cozy couch time, and we rediscovered Eric Carle’s Animals Animals together. Jane went off to her favorite corner of the craft room and read the books I’d given her; later she came back and narrated to me while I changed a few diapers, nursed the baby, unloaded the dishwasher. It was a good morning. The house is a mess but our moods are tweaky clean.