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.