Cover Story

You're not in it alone: by Molly Powell

Whether you outsource the teaching or not-if you have children, you're a homeschooler. And you have lots of resources to draw upon for curriculum and advice, not to mention the experience of others. Here's mine ...

Issue: "Ideal schools," April 28, 2001

I do not have the prestige of the U.S. secretary of education, the budget of the local school district, or the ability of the school principal to strike fear in the hearts of masses of small children. The choices that I make each day are not reported in the local newspaper nor do they directly affect thousands of people. But they make a real difference in the lives of four very important little boys. I didn't have to be appointed or elected, or to work my way through the ranks to attain this position, a position that nevertheless will have great impact on the education of my children. I simply chose to educate them at home. If you have children, you also are a homeschooler, though in all fairness you may not be tired, frumpy, burdened with a load of books, and have a house that smells like a science lab. God makes it clear, in Deuteronomy 6, that as parents, we are responsible for the education of our children. Whether we homeschool full-time or outsource some of the teaching, we must be mindful of the education we are providing. With apologies to the 17th-century Westminster Divines, parents might ask, "What is the chief end of education?" Before teaching the ABCs we must establish our goals, and they must be consistent with God's purpose in giving us children in the first place. In Malachi 2, He says He seeks "godly offspring"-children prepared to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. In our homeschool, we have four objectives: We seek to develop a biblical worldview, acknowledging God's Word as the source of truth and looking at every discipline through the lens of Scripture. We teach of the wonders of God's creation, both in the natural world He has created directly and in the subcreative genius of the great writers, artists, scientists, and thinkers of our civilization. We teach our children to be good stewards in developing any intellectual gifts they have been given. And we seek to help them discern God's calling in their lives and to equip them with the knowledge, discipline, and skills they'll need to exercise that calling. Those objectives are pretty intimidating, but parents, you're not in this alone. You can turn to a select set of experts for help. I recommend books by Susan Wise Bauer, Debra Bell, Samuel Blumenfeld, Sally Clarkson, Greg Harris, and Mary Pride. With their guidance and with a stack of catalogs at hand (from publishers such as Greenleaf Press, Veritas Press, the Elijah Company, and Sonlight Curriculum) you're ready to choose a curriculum. The curriculum is simple for the youngest learners. They should develop basic skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic, be exposed to great quantities of quality books, and experience nature intimately. Reading instruction must be phonics-based. Early math must include memorization of the basic arithmetical facts. Teach your young children to love learning. Don't waste time and money on what Charlotte Mason would call "twaddle": boring textbooks, controlled readers, and tiresome workbooks. Buy or borrow many quality "living" books (living as opposed to deathly dull textbooks) and read aloud. A tradition in our home is afternoon tea. We have tea, cookies, and books. Encourage your children to read by providing a home atmosphere conducive to reading. But, as the Preacher has said, "of making many books there is no end, and much study is wearisome to the flesh." Creation must be experienced directly as well. Spend time outdoors and study nature. Collect bugs, rocks, and leaves. Plant a garden. Get a pet. Develop habits of observation, an attitude of curiosity, and a sense of wonder. Live richly and your children will drink it in. Once the children are basically literate, typically by second grade, it's time to supplement this simple curriculum. We begin a chronological study of history, examining advances in science, art, literature, and philosophy. We employ vibrant biographies and historical fiction, like those offered by Greenleaf Press and Veritas Press. Added to nature studies are more systematic science studies involving classification and application of the scientific method. We begin literary analysis of poetry and prose. We have the children study what Dorothy Sayers called the "grammar" of every subject, including (but not limited to) English and Latin. This study of the basic facts, vocabulary, and structure of each discipline provides an excellent foundation upon which to build. Though education, in the words of Yeats, "is not the filling of a bucket but the lighting of a fire," it is important first to lay the wood. Once the goals are set and the curriculum selected, the real work begins. It has been said that families quit homeschooling not because they're frustrated with the curriculum, but because they're frustrated with the laundry and the dishes. Organize your home first, then your school. Put the airplane oxygen mask on yourself first and then your child. Although I have always been a free spirit, I have come to realize the value of a schedule. It is not nearly as much fun to escape the ho-hum routine for a day of tadpole catching if there is not a routine to begin with. "Special" days still come around every week or two, but the boys know what is expected. A schedule just makes life easier, and we accomplish so much more of what is planned. Everyone, including toddlers, will benefit from having a schedule for the formal school hours. A popular scheduling resource is Managers of Their Homes, by Steven and Teri Maxwell. On a routine day at our house, school starts at 9:00 a.m. in the dining room with 15 minutes of spirited written math drills. My boys' enthusiasm for these drills skyrocketed with the addition of stickers to the folder (likened to decals on football player helmets) for every improvement on a personal best. Dictation and narration exercises follow. I read selections that Edward, 10, and Andrew, 8, transcribe. John, 6, copies the same from print. Some days I read a short story and leave Edward and Andrew to write their version of it, while John and Owen, 4, narrate their versions back to me. Then Edward reads, while the younger boys have phonics and spelling lessons. We soon move to the schoolroom, where each boy has a written chart of his assignments for the week. After making the initial mistake of sitting by my children as they worked, fostering an irrational dependency on my presence, I have put a premium on self-disciplined, "dawdle-free" work. When questions need to be answered or lessons presented I am available, but generally the three older boys work independently. We begin with Bible reading and math. Edward and Andrew read alone. I read to John and Owen, then have John read a few verses to Owen and me. The three older boys have 45 minutes for math, leaving any unfinished work for study hall. For years I wasted time insisting that dawdlers finish their math before moving on. In my house, at least, it is finished much faster when it is the last thing left to do. Next, I devote 30 minutes to preschool activities with Owen, Edward reads aloud to John, and Andrew does language arts. During the next segment Edward does his language arts, Andrew plays with or reads to Owen, and I focus my attention on John, listening to him read aloud and checking his math. The assistance of the older boys allows me to have one-on-one time with the younger ones, and helps us all remember that education is not an end in itself but a tool to be used for the benefit of others. We usually finish the morning work by noon and take off an hour for lunch. For years we followed lunch with a reading and resting time. The older boys would read independently, and I would read aloud to the younger ones before they napped. Once the little guys were asleep I would begin afternoon school with the older ones. Now, alas, no one naps and all are full of energy after being cooped up all morning. Lunch is followed instead with basketball. After this the two older boys devote 90 minutes to history or science. I introduce a topic by reading a relevant selection, such as a chapter from A Child's History of the World, by Virgil Hillyer, or from Handbook of Nature Study, by Anna Comstock, followed by discussion. The boys have an hour of assigned reading on the topic of the day. While the big boys read independently, I read to the little boys. Some days we all do a special "hands-on" project together. Before each six-week school period begins I have developed a syllabus of daily topics, readings, and activities. Without this discipline, I tend to delve too deeply. Twenty minutes of Latin follow. When we began our study of Latin, I loftily told my boys that mastery of this grand language would give them access to the Great Conversation of educated people since ancient times. Seeing the blank looks on their faces, I ascended the attic stairs and brought down my dusty law school diploma, with every word but my name in Latin, as has been the case for Harvard diplomas for over 350 years. They could have cared less about the Great Conversation (at that point, at least), but reading Mom's diploma could be cool. Study hall follows, and by 3:30 p.m., we should be finished completely with formal school. The next hours are free for reading, projects, and outdoor play. Homeschooling is wonderful for our family. Our children have been able to progress quickly and efficiently at a pace that is optimal for them. And the flexibility is a distinct advantage. We don't have to schedule our lives around the school calendar. Despite my husband's long work hours, we don't forgo the family dinner together; we just have it at 8 p.m. At 7 a.m., as the elementary school bus goes by, our kids have another hour to sleep. The value of the boys spending a morning with their "rocket scientist" dad at the office every week or two is inestimable. Birthdays are holidays. Grandparents' visits are holidays. Earth Day is not. These days we hear a lot about school choice. Many parents seek to escape schools that by any reasonable standard are failing; others do not have available or affordable a school that provides a biblically acceptable education for their children. This is the choice we've made; you can make it, too.

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