A River Runs Through It: Why We’ve Continued Homeschooling
A month or so ago I started the school year with a post on how we started home schooling. We didn’t really have a set start to our school year. There was no big first day. No “one day it’s summer” and “the next day it’s school.” We had been easing into our structured work for the entire month of August- like a river that begins with a small trickle, slowly picking up it’s pace at it flows down stream.
This year I finally gave up taking a “first day of school photo” like I used to when I was trying to keep up with my friends and somehow attempt to appear normal. The truth is, I didn’t know what grade to write on their cute little poster so I just said to hell with it.
The only real connection we have to a normal school schedule is through my husband. He’s a public school teacher. He had a real first day, so I used that to write my post on how we started home schooling. Writing that post was an opportunity for me to reflect on how all of this happened, but when I finished, I found that it opened up a new question for me to reflect on.
How in the heck are we still here?!
Our boys just turned nine last month. We made the decision to home school the night before they were supposed to start kindergarten and that was a few days before they turned five. That means it’s been four years. When we started, our intention was to buy ourselves another year. Our boys barely made the state imposed age-cut off to start kindergarten that year due to their early September birthday. When they were born we had planned on red-shirting them a year because of this. But then they were so far ahead that we thought about starting them a year early. And then things got so confusing that we simply never sent them to school. We figured we’d home school for a year, tread water so to speak- until we could find the right place for them.
Yet here we are four years later. Reflecting on how we got here has been a long process. We didn’t mean to end up here yet I don’t regret any of it. I’ve learned so much in these last four years about so many things. Despite my two degrees in developmental psychology and clinical social work, I realized I knew very little about how children actually learn- about what they actually need- until I had my own and they ended up going to school in our dining room.
Reflecting on our journey reminds me of a quote from my husband’s favorite movie, A River Runs Through It.
“One of life’s quiet excitements is to stand somewhat apart from yourself and watch yourself softly become the author of something beautiful.” -Norman MacLean
Until I sat down to write this post, I don’t know if I have ever fully comprehended the story that we have written over the last four years. Stepping back, I realize that we have written something uniquely beautiful. Our journey has been much like a river… we follow it’s path, never really knowing what’s around the next bend. But here we are, still riding it’s current and here are some of my thoughts on why.
Kids Need to Play
This is one of the main reasons we started home schooling in the first place and it’s one of the main reasons we’ve continued. Kids need to play. Play is how kids learn.
The first year we home schooled, I read 113 books on education. I was a little obsessed with finding answers, with some form of validation that said we were doing the right thing. I found one answer in the work of Peter Gray. The answer was simple.
Kids learn through play.
What we as a society have done to play is disastrous. We’ve somehow turned play into something wasteful, something that gets in the way of important stuff- even for children. When children turn five, we tell them it’s more important that they sit at a desk and learn to read and write for seven hours a day. We sign them up for t-ball and soccer and piano lessons because our culture has ingrained in us that they need all these activities to be socialized and well-rounded. But what they really need, and what we take away almost entirely when our kids turn five, is the freedom to play. The freedom to engage in real, open-ended, self-directed, no adults involved at all play.
We simply couldn’t take this away from our sons. We saw, without a doubt, the intrinsic value in massive amounts of unstructured play time. From a very young age when our sons learned something, they would soak up all the information they could then run to their Lego bag. They would take all of the abstract information they had just absorbed into their little brains and build it out of Lego. It became tangible. Real. We came to realize that they were processing information and cementing it in their minds this way. By building and reenacting the battles of World War I out of Lego, our boys were processing what they had learned, manipulating the information with their own hands and minds, and ultimately showing real understanding of the material. And to think, all that just looked like play!
Our sons are now nine. They still play for much of their day. It’s still how they learn. Some of their play is the same. They still run to their Lego bag to turn abstract concepts into concrete ones. But some of their play has evolved. They spend a lot of time drawing, playing make believe, engaging in physical gross-motor play, inventing things and creating stories. They reenact things or create stories because acting them out is another way they can make the abstract become concrete. It is another way they can physically and mentally manipulate information until it makes sense to them. Our sons may be older now, but play is just as important as it ever was. We still allow them copious amounts of free play time because that is how they learn. And learning is the purpose of school, right?
Kids Aren’t Meant to Sit Still
This is something I struggle with on a daily basis. School, especially in the last two decades, has tried to teach us that kids should sit still. They should be able to sit at a desk and focus all day long. If they can’t, something must be wrong with them. We’re told that something is organically wrong with their little brains. Something is so wrong we must medicate them. Drug them into submission. Sit still damnit!
I struggle because I want- on some level- for this to be true. I desperately want our boys to sit still. Sometimes. Simply for the sake of my sanity, which you can often find dangling precariously by a thin thread.
Our boys have an excessive amount of energy. We’ve come to learn it is part of how their brain is wired- something Polish psychiatrist Kazimierz Dąbrowski called “psychomotor overexcitability”. It looks like ADHD, but it’s really not. They just need a great deal of physical activity to find peace and equilibrium with themselves. To do their best work. Our youngest twin is a brilliant story teller, but he has to run while he develops his stories. He has literally worn a triangular path in the hardwood floor of our living room because this is where he runs when he tells his stories. If he’s not running, he’s swinging. He can explain, in great depth, the theory of evolution or how the Spanish introducing horses and guns to the Plains Indians ultimately led to their own demise- if he’s swinging. His brain simply needs to be moving to do it’s best work.
We knew that if we put our boys in school we’d be ask to medicate them within weeks. Trust me- there are days when I wish this was a viable option. Days when I desperately wish there was a way to make them sit still. When I wish medication would work. There are days when I fall for what school has taught us- that kids should be able to sit still when we tell them to. But this is not an option for us because I know it isn’t true. Kids need to move. Our boys need to move. They do their best learning when they are moving. And learning is the purpose of school, right?
Learning is Not Sequential
“What grade are you in?”
It’s the question I dread most. Our boys tend not to be bothered by it as much. Probably because they don’t truly understand what it means. Maybe that’s for the best. Maybe I should be learning from them. They’ll nonchalantly rattle off any number of responses as they stand confidently in the face of whoever is asking.
“I’m in a lot of different grades!”
“I’m not in any grade!”
Lately they’ve learned that if they don’t want to slow down long enough to explain, they’ll just shout “We’re home schooled!” as they whiz by.
The truth is, I have no idea what grade our boys are in. They’re just finishing up a fifth grade math text that we’ve taken our time working through but they’re also learning algebra at the same time. One reads at a middle school level but spells at a first or second grade level. The other reads at the college level and we have to be careful what we leave around the house because just because a kid can read everything doesn’t mean he should. They’ve covered half of high school history but we haven’t gotten to the other half yet. They do a lot of their dad’s eighth and ninth grade science. I made them start grammar from the beginning because it’s important (to me) that they master grammar, so they’re only in fourth grade there. They have the vocabularies of college freshman but their ability to sit still is equivalent to a three year old and they still can’t tie their own shoes. Age wise they would be in third grade. Or fourth grade. Depending on what state we live in. If you line them up by height, they’d fit smack dab in the middle of a first grade class. But they still wear toddler sized shoes so who in the heck really knows where they belong?
When I look at all of those things, I can’t help but wonder why grade level is based on age. It’s about as arbitrary as height or shoe size. And the information and knowledge we’ve assigned to each grade level is equally as arbitrary. Math and grammar are somewhat sequential. But the rest? Do you know that the order in which US students take high school science courses is alphabetical? It has nothing to do with anything related to academics or brain development. B comes before C so biology is taken in ninth grade and chemistry in tenth! True story folks. There’s really no logic there at all.
I used to get caught up in “grade level” quite a bit. I felt that if we were homeschooling, we at least needed to make sure our boys were keeping up with “grade level”. I felt like I needed to be able to defend what we were doing. But that’s ridiculous really. If I agreed with grade levels, I’d send my kids to school. The truth is, we don’t agree with grade levels or the knowledge that’s been assigned to each one. Our boys were ready to learn the periodic table at age four but aren’t ready to tie their shoes at age nine. And that’s okay. It’s okay that they’ve skipped a lot of elementary level social studies but have covered more about the Revolutionary War than most high-schoolers ever will. Biology isn’t just for ninth graders. Our boys love biology too. There’s really no set material a kid has to learn in fourth grade science or sixth grade history. We let our boys find their interests in those areas and then we dive in head first and learn as much as we can. Because learning is the purpose of school, right?
Here and Now
So here we are. Four years later and still home schooling. Trust me, there are days I want to rip my hair out. Days I call my husband at work sobbing and telling him I can’t do this anymore. Homeschooling is not for the faint of heart. It can be exhausting and overwhelming. Some days I’m certain the river will swallow me whole.
But when I step back, I know it’s all worth it.
How? Because our boys are thriving. Our approach to home schooling has evolved over the last four years. We’ve settled into a nice mix of traditional home schooling and unschooling. For sequential work- math and grammar- we use a structured curriculum. We are up to about an hour of structured work a day with two programs we really love. Science and history are unschooled. This means we have no structured curriculum. We don’t follow a certain sequence or grade level. Our boys are allowed to learn whatever it is they are interested in when it comes to history and science. I’ll post more on that later, but suffice it to say, it works for us. Our boys can carry on conversations about various historical and scientific concepts with any well-educated adult and easily hold their own. They are farthest ahead in these subjects that we’ve never actually taught them. Funny thing how unschooling works that way.
We’ve also realized there are a lot of other benefits to how we home school. For one, our boys get as much sleep as they need every single night of their lives. Sleep is so important to a developing brain, it’s not something we’re willing to sacrifice. Homeschooling also allows us to spend as much time together as a family as possible. We eat dinner together every single night of the week. It’s another thing we’re unwilling to sacrifice. Now that our boys are taking classes and lessons, we can take those during the day so that our evenings are still free for family time.
The most exciting part is that we can travel! Travel is incredibly important to us and is something we view as part of our boys’ education, not something we do outside of their education. We’re still somewhat bound to my husband’s school schedule, but he does have some flexibility. Combine that with the total flexibility the boys and I have and we are pretty free when it comes to travel. Our boys are actors so there are times we have to pack up and go on a moment’s notice. Sometimes we’ll relocate somewhere for four to six weeks at a time while they work. We don’t home school because of this, but it sure makes things a heck of a lot easier. We can incorporate travel into their education. It becomes a part of it, not something we have to take time away from their schooling to do.
Instead of home schooling for a year to buy ourselves some more time to find the right school, we came to realize that the right place for our boys is right here at home. People often ask us if we’ll continue to home school through high school. We take things year by year. If our boys ever want to go to traditional school, we would absolutely allow them to give it a try. One thing I can tell you for sure is that I’m about to tap out as their math teacher! I thought I’d make it a little farther past elementary school but double digit long division and multiply fractions have got me realizing my limits!
But I think that is the very reason we are still homeschooling. Homeschooling allows us to look at our boys as they are and play to their strengths while strengthening their weaknesses in a way that still honors them as human beings. We’re not stuffing them into a box- into a manufactured, one-size fits all education. We’re not forcing them to be something they are not. They have their strengths. They are highly verbal, exceptionally creative, passionate learners who are curious about a million different things. They also have their weaknesses. Despite being gifted, one of our sons has dyslexia. And even if you offered them 10,000 Lego sets if they could sit perfectly still for just ten minutes, they’d both walk away empty-handed. But home schooling allows them to be who they are. It allows them to learn and grow while honoring who they are in the here and now.
And that is why we’ll continue to ride this river.
Come Monday morning, I’ll pour myself a cup of coffee (or three) and settle in for another week of flying commas and multiplying fractions. I have two students but three of us are learning. Sometimes we can barely keep our heads above the racing current, but mostly, the scenery has been nothing short of breathtaking. Because eventually all things merge into one… and a river runs through it.