Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Tea Change

A few months ago, a friend of mine had kidney stones. It was a terrible thing, terrible, replete with agony and pain and suffering. I ran into him not long ago at the grocery store, where he was telling me about the lifestyle changes he was making so that this would never happen again. "And now I'm drinking coffee. I had to give up tea," he says.

"What? Tea? Why?" says I, horrified

Apparently tea isn't just conducive to the forming of kidney stones. It can actively precipitate them. "All kinds of tea," my friend tells me. "Black tea, green tea, you name it. I can still drink herbal tea, that's okay."

I feel about herbal tea much as Prof. Elemental does.

"When I say herbal, you say, 'No thanks.'"

I've thought of this exchange every day since, three or four times a day, as I pour myself a cup of Lady Gray or green tea. I still drink tea, you understand. I just drink it in fear and trembling.

That's been the story of my homeschooling life for the past year. For the past several years, really. I keep doing the same thing, knowing that something is not working.

I wish to say up front that I don't think I'm screwing up my kids. They are happy, well-adjusted, funny, pleasant people with good understandings. Our family life is cheerful, aside from the bickering and the monthly firestorm that results when three girls of pubescent age have mood shifts in sync. Otherwise, they love each other, and their parents. Existentially, I don't feel like I'm doing a terrible job.

Am I failing them academically? I don't know. Probably. Maybe. Our structure is so slipshod, and my record keeping so inadequate, that I don't know what I'm giving them. At least they know more about the American Revolution than I did at their age, or twenty years above their age.

As I learn more about myself, however, I can tell you what it's taken me almost forty years to put into concrete form: I am not an organizer. I am not a systematizer. I like to do something once, and then it's done. I am good at improvising, but I need something to improvise from. And the current structure of our homeschooling, such as it is, is better suited to someone with stronger gifts of curriculum development and organization and implementation than I have.

So, maybe I'm not failing them. But I'm failing me.

We are not doing nothing. We have math every day, and the younger kids do phonics, and the big girls do whatever grammar assignment I find by thinking about what they're currently getting wrong, and finding the corresponding section in the textbook. That's great and immediate. It also means that we haven't covered things systematically. Our science is whatever they're getting from nature DVDs from the library or from Youtube experiments. Not terrible, but again, not systematic.

The one thing I feel confident about is our morning structure of readings. We say prayers. We read the daily Mass readings and talk about them and read a reflection. We have some quiet prayer time. We read (currently) Mythology by Edith Hamilton, and I have people recount what we've read so that I know they've heard and understood. We just finished The Prisoner of Zenda, a ripsnorter with conveniently brief chapters; our next novel will probably be Hobberdy Dick by Katharine Briggs. This structure means that I don't have to pick what we're reading from the Bible, but it does allow me to teach the way I like, reflecting aloud on what we're reading and how it ties into what we've read in the past, making connections on the fly, listening to the kids make connections, and pulling everything together, if we can. This is our religion class.

But note how that works: I don't have to do the work of picking the Bible readings. They're already laid out for me. Once I pick a novel, it's just a chapter a day. I don't have to think what to do, only how to do it.

All these years I've resisted using a boxed curriculum, for many good and valid reasons. I still think those reasons are good and valid. I remember doing a boxed curriculum as a youth. There was so much work per day, and I was always behind and frustrated. There was a lack of flexibility. But what I'm doing now is also imperfect, in different ways, and every day I feel keenly that I'm not providing enough structure or content. So whatever we end up doing next year, someone else is going to be planning it.


My oldest daughter, almost 14, is teaching herself guitar. She picked it the guitar that's been gathering dust in the corner for three years, and pulled out the book that's been tucked away in the piano bench since I bought it. She sits for a few hours each day, working out the scales, trying chords, checking to see how her calluses are developing. I remember my brothers at this age, doing the same thing. They spent entire days with the guitar, doing nothing but learning music. If it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert, they front-loaded those hours. And it worked: they are guitar gods now, playing what they please as easily as they please. 9th grade academics are lost in the mist of time; the guitar ability remains. And it makes the world a better place that my brothers play music.

I want that for my children: the space and the safety to develop a talent for the love of doing it. I want them to have the freedom to spend all day crocheting if they want, or reading Harry Potter, or painting, or playing the piano, or baking or reading about baking, or writing a Star Wars play, or planning a sister's confirmation party. These things enrich the world. But I want them to have the structure to realize that this free time is leisure, and that getting done assigned work quickly will grant them more leisure, to do what they love with a foundation of academic knowledge so that what they love is placed in the proper context.


We're also trying something else new next year. My oldest daughter is going into 9th grade, a time for making changes. I've registered her with the school district so that she can take chorus and drama at the local high school.

I can do a lot of things at home, but I can't whip a theater and sixty other kids out of thin air. The arts programming at Local High is very good. We've been impressed by the quality of the musicals (and the budget behind them). My oldest likes to sing, and she has a good ear for harmony, and she has a lot of dramatic talent. And she'll have friends. Most of her confirmation class will be freshman next there year.

Sometimes I wonder if I've been neglecting my kids' own desires by homeschooling. Maybe they yearn for that kind of social and educational experience. I asked the oldest one day, as we drove past our Catholic school and saw the eighth grade outside, her friends and peers, "Do you wish you'd gone to St. Mary's for eighth grade? Would you like to go to high school?"

"No," she said, in that way teens do when Mom says something unspeakably insane.

Good to know.


As always, we're getting started late this morning. No one wants to get started on their own work before I gather them for readings, in good part because no one has a list of what they need to work on. But first, another cup of tea. Gotta keep working on my kidney stones so that one day I can be the basis of someone else's inspirational anecdote. Keep drinking in fear and trembling, y'all.


bearing said...

I like this post.

I wish you would plan my kids' religious education for me. I'm not even kidding about that. I am super systematic and I never manage to fit it in consistently. It could be because I didn't grow up with religion being a school subject and so I can never quite make it feel as urgent to check the box as for math, and I also don't feel comfortable in my own skin speaking aloud about my faith (although I can totally teach theology as an academic subject). The kids are enrolled in our parish's excellent RE program, so there's at least that, but I'm constantly struggling with what's wrong with me and why I can't prioritize it at home.

High school's not bad (although laid back) because I mostly just hand my oldest a good book that I'm familiar with and we talk about it for 10 or 15 minutes once a week as he works his way through it. He's reading _Introduction to the Devout Life_ now which, as you know, is a very formative one for me and which I can wing. But oh, I have such a hard time with the supposedly simple act of reading about the saints, or following along with the Mass readings, etc. Maybe because my kids aren't morning people and I keep trying to do it first thing in the morning? I don't know.

Rob said...

Take heart. My 7th graders pay $24,000/yr to sit in a religion class in which we read a book one chapter at a time, make connections to things we've already read, and watch kids put it all together slowly but surely.

Mary Hennessey said...


Your school program sounds just like mine. I've been homeschooling for 29 years and found that this flexible way of learning is the best for our family.
We do Bible study and math and other subjects just like you and I feel like sometimes things fall in the cracks, but I believe that happens with boxed curricula and more traditional forms of educating. I learned a long time ago that boxed curricula was extremely frustrating as we always felt we were behind and because of that feeling, we did not choose other opportunities that would have been awesome. That being said, my boys are now taking 2-3 classes in a once a week homeschool co-op where I don't have to teach. They seem to like the structure, but that comes at a cost of less flexibility.

I was terribly worried when Megan was in high school, that she somehow had not been educated well at all. (She was somewhat rebellious.) However, she knew how to learn what she needed to learn and has done quite well as a mom and a certified opthalmic techologist (learned on the job). Two of the others graduated from college with honors. I learned not to sweat it and to not to try to squeeze traditional schooling practices into our home. It made us all miserable.

Now, the book , The Senior High Home Designed Form-U-La - made a lot of difference in how I saw curriculum planning. I strongly suggest you get it and read it for some new insights.

Anonymous said...

I was homeschooled in a slip-shod manner. My parents basically thrust the textbooks at me and said, "educate yourself." So it's not a real shocker that I ended up dropping out in 10th grade because as a teen, I had zero motivation. The thing is, I've traditionally done well on quizzes and tests, and I'm not stupid by any means. I attribute it to a love of reading and some strange competitive urge to always be the first person finished with a test, and who has the highest score. Usually I succeed ;)

It sounds like you're giving your kids an excellent education. You're the best judge of their intelligence and capabilities, not some department of education with their questionable standards. If you don't already read Matt Walsh's blog, he's a straight-talking Catholic who isn't overly fond of higher education, which might sound bad until you read his posts. It really does make sense!

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you could take advantage of the confluence of your friend's recent health troubles with kidney stones, your penchant for topical improvisation, and the needs of a high school-equivalent science curriculum. Teach your older children a bit of anatomy and physiology and some introductory chemistry, and have them do a project explaining how and why tea drinking can cause kidney stone formation.

You'll be squarely facing your newfound fears armed with knowledge, expanding and diversifying your science instruction, and teaching your kids the larger life lesson of cultivating curiosity about the world. Encourage your children to adopt the policy that when a friend tells us something surprising or a piece of new information, look into how it works for yourself!

The sciences in general, and especially the hard sciences like chemistry, are woefully neglected at the high school level. Don't be intimidated! Anything a high-schooler can handle is easily within the powers of an adult to learn well enough to teach to others with a bit of planning. Homeschoolers could lead the way to helping America's youth catch up in STEM fields, by excelling where our professional educators have (largely) failed. Your children, your nation, and your kidneys will thank you!

Jenny said...

I have a hard time fitting religion into the school day for much the same reason Bearing does. First, it was a subject I never took in school and I had terrible CCD classes so I don't have much intuition about how they should go. Second, I am very uncomfortable talking personally about religion. Even though we were weekly Mass attendees, discussions about personal religion were Not Done at my house growing up. I feel very awkward and uncomfortable with it. So we read a blurb out of the Saint of the Day blurb and that's about it during the school day. :/

mandamum said...

Bearing and Jenny, one thing we've done for religion that has worked really well for my family is to get the book, "The Bible Tells Me So: a Year of Catechising Directly From Scripture" by Christian LeBlanc (blogs at...hmm... Amazing Catechists, for one). We've been reading it out loud together - he teaches 6th gr in real life, and the book presents how classes might go, complete with kid responses in italics. My kids are 7th gr down, and the 7th, 4th and 2nd gr all really enjoy listening to it, and giving input when I leave out the italicized student response parts :) The things he covers regarding body-n-soul humans and covenants and "types" (Hey, Elijah made a little food into a lot of food for the Widow - who else do we know does a miracle like that? Jesus, with the loaves and fish!) also come up in other conversations about Sunday's readings, prep for confession, and whatnot. And the read-aloud-and-discuss nature of the thing works really well for us right now.

I aspire to doing "practice praying" as Mrs. Darwin describes it. Not there yet, though. But what a great life skill to teach. I was (sort of) part of a Bible study using Oremus from Ascension Press (Fr. Mark Toups). The few weeks I was able to make it were very helpful, and the workbook walks you through day by day prayer in different approaches - Imaginative, Lectio Divina, I forget what all else ... I need to go back and revisit it, and perhaps when it comes time to switch some things up for a new season, I can incorporate Oremus for me and my background with Mrs. Darwin's description of what she does.

bearing said...

Mandamum, I am highly amused as I ordered that curriculum *last week* and it showed up yesterday. I must have read your mind!

Do you have them read the relevant Bible passages before you sit down and read the book together?

mandamum said...

That's funny, Bearing :) At our house, I don't have them read the passages first - I just grab the book and read. Sometimes I'll think, "If I were doing this right, I'd (at least) mark these passages in our Bible, so they could see where they were coming from..." but mostly I just try to make sure to tell them, "This part's directly from the book of __" or some such. Part of the reason it's working for us is that it's self-contained as a read-aloud, no extra prep, so I'm going with that as long as it keeps working :) I love that it's requested, and that there are groans when I reach the end of a chapter (or my voice) and tell them it's "to be continued".

I personally find the various takes on covenant to be really interesting, having read some Scott Hahn on covenants, and then the Jeff Cavins bible study overview of scripture, and glanced through a friend's "Bible Basics" with the stick-figure drawings of salvation history. It's fascinating to draw the various details together, or save some for another trip through :)