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

Friday, March 13, 2020

How to Homeschool Temporarily, Part 2 -- the Little Kids

Hello, if you're a new reader! The number of eyeballs on my post about How to Homeschool Temporarily (in the Event of Quarantine) has been an anomaly for our sleepy blog. "I finally wrote something relevant!" I crowed, as a flurry of texts came in yesterday announcing that Ohio was shuttering schools for three weeks.

My 16yo daughter rolled her eyes. "You're so vain, Mom."

"Child, you don't understand," I said. "For once the world wants the arcane knowledge that I've been accumulating over years and years of labor. This is what I've been prepping for my whole life."

My 16yo was not impressed, but maybe I'll get a better reception from parents who are suddenly, with a weekend's warning, thrust into the homeschooling lifestyle.

Good news! You don't need specialized curriculum. You have your own set of interests and abilities and talents, your own history and loves, and you are uniquely suited to hand them down to your children. And you know your child. The privilege and burden of parenthood is to be gentle when others would be strict, and to be strict when others would be lenient. (You know this in the grocery store, at the park, in church -- when to give a tired, cranky child leeway when others are giving him the stinkeye and muttering about "manners" and "behavior", and when to glare at the kid and tell him, "Excuse me, you are capable of doing better," when others around you are saying, "Oh, it's all right! He's just a kid, I don't mind!")

And you are already homeschooling. At the dinner table, when you hold forth about the influence of Kurt Cobain on the music scene of the 90's; in the car, when you explain the rules for a stop sign and how that guy totally ignored them; at bedtime when you're reading a book to your youngster and you ask, "What does that letter say?" You know this in the reverse, also, if you've ever heard a vile word come out of your child's mouth -- one that she learned from you. Our children are watching us, constantly, absorbing our attitudes and our ethics. Teachers understand this, which is why there is so much emphasis put on the home atmosphere. If a classroom lesson is not bolstered at home, either with tutoring or with support for homework, the teacher is fighting an uphill battle to instill it in a child.

But let's talk about the purpose of education. It is the flourishing of human persons. It is helping each individual to reach their full potential, for the good of themselves and of society. And society is crucial, because we don't exist in a vacuum. We exist for others -- to care for others, to love others. The world of knowledge, which is bigger than any one person, which all persons can participate in, allows us to build bonds with other people, across space and across history. We exist in a family -- an immediate family, and the family of humanity, and we are more alike than we know. History, philosophy, literature -- all these disciplines help us to understand people throughout time, and so understand ourselves better. Through the wisdom and experiences of others -- some experiences we know intimately, and some we could never take part in personally -- we grasp what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago:
The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.

How does this help you, stuck at home for three weeks during coronavirus, with a houseful of children bouncing off the walls, moaning for computer time, while you, perhaps, are trying to work from home? (And indeed, as I write this, I have a 2yo on my lap, trying to prod the keys, with whom I have just had a long discourse in which I finally ascertained that he wanted to play "Star Wars Game" on my phone.) I want to tell you about how life works here, normally, to give you a sense of what homeschooling can look like.

First, some background. I myself was homeschooled from 4th grade on, in the wild days of the 80's when homeschoolers were few and far between and parents were just figuring this lifestyle out. My husband's background is similar -- he started in 5th grade, because he had a brother with special needs and his mother found it easiest to teach everyone from home. We're both the oldest, so we grew up watching our younger siblings start out with reading and writing. Homeschooling wasn't something scary to us as we started our own family. In fact, we thought we knew a lot more than we did. (Everyone is like that in their 20s, about something.)

Now we have seven children, ages 17-2. Our oldest is a senior, headed to college next year; the youngest is years off from any formal schooling. That's a lot of kids to go through, so here's what the day looks like for the two little boys, ages 2 and 6.


This guy is becoming a chatterbox, working on complete sentences. We're used to him, so most of the time we understand what he's saying, but there are still times when I need to repeat what I think he's asking: "Is that what you're trying to say?" You'd think that seven children in, I'd know all about raising toddlers, but I recently read and gained a lot from The Montessori Toddler, which reminded me that young children are capable of doing a lot of things for themselves, if we help create conditions which are conducive to their flourishing. For example, I've been helping my little guy brush his teeth on his own, and I was astonished at how much he'd absorbed already from watching me. I let him hold the toothpaste and put it on his own brush, scrub around, and then rinse it out himself. He has a little stool to stand on, but alas, and probably in direct contravention to all Montessori directives, our old bathroom has mirror low enough for a child to see himself in. So sometimes I lift him up to stand on the sink, and sometimes I just let him stay low, and often I give him one final brush after he's finished brushing himself. Then he knows to go to the towel and dry himself off, and there we are.

We're going through the same steps for handwashing. He sees me do it, and tries each step himself. Very topical.

I've been trying to let him take more responsibility for setting up his lunch at his little table, and learning to bring me the dishes when he's done, and neatening up his space. Some days we're good about this. Some days it's too much work for me, and I just do everything for him. But I'm trying to be more aware of how he learns.

We read aloud at naptime and bedtime. Dr. Seuss is a favorite, and we've just discovered Mo Willem's Pigeon books, which are a lot of fun for the small child who gets to shout "No" to the Pigeon's every stalling tactic. The fellow also absorbs a lot of reading with the older kids, and so has learned to amuse himself, for good or ill, through a lot of verbage that's over his head. Every child has their place in the family structure -- the oldest gets a lot of personalized, age-appropriate attention; the youngest picks up a lot through being with older kids. It's just the way it is.

Screen time. Yes, yes, I was raised in a home in which we didn't have a TV for many formative years. My husband's mother was excellent about setting screen limits and sticking to them. My kids watch more stuff than either of us ever did growing up. When the little boys are bouncing around and I need to get things done, you bet your sweet bippy I'm putting on a video. I have older children; I'm not relegated to the tyranny of kids' programming, and you needn't be either. If I can't stand it, I don't let it play in the house. One thing that's constant viewage right now for the younger set (and I've got the library's copy for three extra weeks now, haha!) is Walking With Dinosaurs: The Ballad of Big Al (here in convenient bite-sized segments on YouTube). Narrated by Kenneth Branagh (extremely easy on the ears), it's dinosaur heaven for the small fry, and so much more palatable than watching another stupid episode of Dinosaur Train. (The special feature about the making of the show is also essential viewage, but I can't seem to find it on YouTube.)

If you need some substitute for kids' shows that set your teeth on edge, and you have Disney Plus or a good library collection, let the younger watch Phineas and Ferb. When it used to be on Netflix, many was the time when I walked in to say, "Time to shut the screen off!" and ended up watching the rest of the episode myself.

(Note: We do not have Disney Plus, nor Netflix anymore, and so have to either watch on Amazon or get stuff at the library, which is now closed for three weeks.)


This guy has been doing kindergarten work this year, which for us is very low key. I don't believe in massive amounts of curriculum at young ages, which is always just busywork for the parents. Why make life more difficult for everyone? Kids this age need to

  • hear lots of language, through books and conversation 
  • can start decoding phonemes, which is basically putting sounds with letters ("Here's the 'A'! It says 'aaaa'. 'C' and 'A' and 'T' -- we put that all together. Do it with me. 'Ccccaaatttt'. What does that say? Cat!").
  • start with mathematical concepts -- more and less, bigger and smaller, counting, adding and subtracting. You can do this with expensive manipulatives, and have your 2yo sitting on the table trying to throw the Cuisinaire rods while your older child only wants to build towers and stairs with them. 
  • need to get familiar with holding writing implements and, if they have the aptitude, try forming letters. Otherwise, let them color and doodle and scribble, in coloring books or workbooks or any scrap paper you have sitting around.
  • Learn life skills like picking out clothes, getting dressed, making their bed (if that is important to you), clearing their own plate from the table, etc. 
NOTE WELL: I am in a blessed stage of life in which I have multiple in-house babysitters, and two drivers. I don't apologize for my privilege; I've put in my time in the trenches of rearing many small children with no back-up. But I do find myself forgetting how hard those years of no older kids were, with no one to come grab the baby while I was trying to work with another child. If you're in that stage of life, I want to you know: it is a stage, and the kids will get older, and it will get easier (in some senses, and harder in others). If, for these weeks, you have a lot of small children at home, giving them the time to play with each other, and learn to enjoy each other's company, is worth more than any small hard-fought gains in phoneme decoding or math fact memorization.


Family Read-Alouds

Someone has said that homeschooling is like running your own charter school based around your interests. We are not a STEM charter at our house. We are a dramatic and literary academy, because I was a theater major and love reading aloud.

You don't have to be a theater major to read to your children, though. You need a book, and a couch, and a room, and a time. Here's how our morning time works.

Regularity. We read together every morning. There's not a set time, but the kids all know that we'll be doing readings, and they need to drop what they're doing and be present. 

What's most important. If I believe that knowing, loving, and serving God is the nexus of my life, through which everything else I do takes its meaning, then I want my children to learn to love God too, and to see me practicing this love. To that end, the first thing we do together is say our morning prayers -- a few set prayers, and then a time for the kids to mention anything they want to pray for -- and then we read the Bible. We follow the Catholic daily mass readings, which I look up online and then read out of a physical Bible. After each reading I ask the kids what they just heard, and we talk about how the readings fit together and what Jesus is doing/teaching us in the gospel. Then I read a short reflection (we use Bishop Robert Barron's gospel reflections, which are emailed daily). Then we have a moment of silent prayer. With small children you can start with ten seconds of silence and work up to longer times.

Good books. Since we have a large mix of children, our literature reading tends to skew older. There is one rule for reading time, drilled into the children through daily repetition: be quiet while Mom is reading. They can play with toys, build block towers and Lego ships, color, do dot-to-dots, cross-stitch, do origami, crochet -- anything they want, as long as it's quiet and they can listen. This precludes headphones or quiet reading of other books. 

Right now we are reading Perelandra, which is the second volume in C.S. Lewis's Space Trilogy. In the past we've read fairy tales, the Little House series, Anne of Green Gables, selections from St. Augustine's Confessions, Jane Eyre, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, the first part of David Copperfield, some Shakespeare plays, Three Men in a Boat, etc. 

This is the stuff I like to read aloud. Each family has their own focus, their own significant books, their own style. Read what you love. Read the books that were important to you as a child. If reading aloud is not your jam, listen to audio books in this time.

Narration. This is probably the major point of all homeschooling, of all education, really. Ask the kids, "Tell me about what you just heard. Can you tell it back to me?" Can they remember and assimilate what they hear? Why do they think the characters acted the way they did? If the chapter was long or too complex, or the child too young, ask for one incident, one detail, one word. Can they draw a picture about the story? Would they rather write a sentence than recount it orally? 

You already do narration daily, when you ask your child what they did at school today, or how was sports practice, or what their principal said in assembly this morning. Now you're just turning it consciously to the books you're reading aloud, the podcasts you're listening to, the math concept you're trying to teach, the movie you just watched. It's a chance to build memory skills -- and to correct misconceptions right at the start. And it's an excellent introduction to the world of literature, because it's a chance to think about story, about character, about choices, about what decision you would make if you were the character, about how other people live and think and love.



Play is the job of young children. Through playtime, they're learning how to interact with each other, how to follow social rules and the rules of the game, how to live. Let them play!

My little guys have a game we call Chicken Parade, in which all the miniature characters in the house -- little people, lego dudes, dinosaurs, farm animals, peg dolls, you name it -- are lined up in a long procession, headed by a turkey (hence the name). I remember playing this game myself as a child, and it was very complex and involving, though my childhood game involved moving everyone, one step at a time, through a Little People castle. I love Chicken Parade. It's absorbing and buys me a lot of quiet time.

Nothing buys you playtime so well as putting the kids in their room and telling them to clean it up. Check back in ten minutes -- you will never see your children so wrapt in cooperative play. Go have a cup of tea and read your book.

Perhaps you have big playsets that the kids got for Christmas. Now's the time to use them! If your house is anything like ours, however, the kids would rather play with loose odds and ends than the big fancy magnet building toy set. That's okay. These random games make the best memories.

If you can get outside play time during the day, take it. If your backyard is fenced, kick them outside and supervise out of a window. If you can take a walk around the block, walk at their pace and let them look at trees, cars, dogs, fences, sidewalk, shops. If you are quarantined in a house or apartment and can't go out, have window time. Observe, draw, play I Spy. Plant a seed and watch it grow -- that's what they'd be doing in school anyway.


At some point, your child is going to be cranky or moody or angry or fighty, and he or she will need you -- your time, your attention, your love. Give it! Have a snack together. Snuggle under a blanket and read or talk or sing a song. You love this child intensely. Let that love shine through!

And maybe the kid will fall asleep, and you'll get some nap time out of that, and what is more conducive to education than being well rested?

Next up: middle grade kids and high school age students.


thegrahams said...

Thank you for these words of wisdom! The Graham Academy starts on Monday, I find out our mission this afternoon... pray for us!

Antoinette said...

Thanks for all the information especially your and Darwin's backgrounds in growing up homeschooled.

Meredith said...

I was hoping your post would go viral (heh)! I shared it with all my friends.