There and Back Again: A Homeschool Holiday

(In case you can’t tell, we’ve got The Hobbit on the brain. I read it to the family on a recent road trip, and now Will begs me to let him watch the animated movie every day. He’s even started calling himself “Goblin Will.” Parenting win!)

Sometimes it feels like half the posts on this blog are just accounts of different ways I’ve tried and failed to educate Dan. But I suppose that makes sense, as that’s basically the essence of parenthood.

We decided to homeschool Dan last year for kindergarten. It was a wonderful experience, but we decided to put him back in public school this year. I thought I’d give a little account of our decision-making process and what our school days looked like, in case anyone else ever faces similar decisions (although I hope we’ll never have another global pandemic—this has been the lamest apocalypse ever).

Call to Adventure

Our story begins back in late 2019, when I started following Bethany Mandel on Instagram. Bethany homeschools her children using the Charlotte Mason method, and when I watched her Instagram Stories about their homeschool setup, I immediately wanted in on that action for my kids.

If you’re not familiar with Charlotte Mason already, she was an early 20th century British educator who believed that “children are born persons” and should be respected and educated as such. Her philosophy focuses on educating the whole child, spreading a feast of ideas instead of drilling facts, and reading “living books” instead of textbooks. I read the first two books in her education series and was blown away by her ideas on what a child’s education can look like. This planted a dangerous seed in my mind: what if we homeschooled our children?

Bear in mind, we never intended to homeschool. I went to public school, and for the most part, loved it. I liked my teachers, I loved seeing my friends everyday, and I did well enough for school to be a pleasant experience. Tom has cooler feelings toward the public school experience, but had no objection to our children attending. But as I read Charlotte Mason’s words on Christmas Eve, visions of poetry readings and nature study danced in my head.

I did some digging and found out that not only does Texas have full-day kindergarten (barf), but said kindergarten is not even mandatory. The idea of keeping Dan home for a year became more and more enticing, and even though we eventually decided to enroll him in the local public school, I now recognize these feelings as divine inspiration. I needed to be prepared for the events of 2020, and have a plan in place for Dan.

Crossing the Threshold

As we watched school websites and Facebook pages to figure out what school would look like in Fall 2020, I became more and more concerned. Distance learning sounded like a dumpster fire waiting to happen. Our school district was committed to in-person schooling, but it was unclear whether they would be taking any Covid precautions at all—or whether they would do any good. I felt leery about the fact that the district was supposedly committed to the health and safety of students and staff, but the administrators all went on a very non-socially-distanced retreat weeks before school started. It bothered me that they weren’t offering accommodations for high-risk students or their families, and that their response to parental concerns was, “You’re welcome to go to another school district or homeschool if you don’t like our system.” We had so little information about Covid back then, and I just didn’t feel I could trust these people with my son. With a newborn at home and uncertainty about Dan’s unique health situation (googling “coronavirus hydronephrosis” pulled up a concerning study from China in which only three children were hospitalized due to Covid: two with cancer, and one with hydronephrosis), the decision was easy: we would be homeschooling.

I decided on the Ambleside Online Year 1 curriculum based on four factors:

  1. It’s Charlotte Mason based.
  2. It’s free. Who doesn’t love free? I was surprised to learn how expensive homeschool curricula can be, so this was a big plus. We’re a big e-reader family, and most of the books were available on Project Gutenberg. It seemed like a perfect fit.
  3. I fell in love with the book list. My dad used to read Aesop’s Fables and Just So Stories to me before bed, and I was so excited to pass these stories on to Dan.
  4. It’s not designed by Jenny Philips (I know so many of you guys love The Good And The Beautiful, but after having to sing her songs every year in Young Women…I just don’t want her in charge of my children’s education. Let’s leave it at that.)

We didn’t do everything in Ambleside—we sort of unschooled for science and geography, and we never ended up doing artist study or folk songs. I started out following the classical music curriculum, but soon decided I’d rather familiarize the kids with my favorite pieces and composers than feign enthusiasm for Offenbach (who even cares about Offenbach?). So we did more Wagner, Johann Strauss, Camille Saint-Saenz at Halloween, Tchaikovsky at Christmas, and Beethoven. For math, I used Kate Snow’s Kindergarten Math with Confidence, since I’d been using her preschool math book and loved it. When we finished that, we started on Singapore Math and are still using it for extra math practice.

Every day we would start off with a prayer and a poetry reading. Then we would work on Recitation, wherein Dan (and sometimes Will!) would work on memorizing and beautifully reciting a poem. Over the course of the year they mastered “It Can Be Done” and “You Mustn’t Quit” by William J. Bennett, as well as Psalm 23. Toward the end of the year we started working on the Articles of Faith, but we didn’t get very far.

Next, I would turn on whatever classical piece we were studying and Dan would do about five minutes of copywork. I would write out a line from a poem or hymn on a whiteboard, and Dan would try to replicate it as neatly as he could (and usually embellish it somehow). Sometimes I would do a math activity with Will, or have him practice tracing letters in his Cars handwriting book.

After that was reading time. Dan and I would read a chapter of one of his books together, alternating paragraphs, and then he would narrate it back to me. This was probably the most challenging part of the school day. If Dan wasn’t paying enough attention, or if he was distracted by a wiggly Will or a crying Marie, he wouldn’t remember anything we read, which was frustrating for both of us. He improved dramatically over the course of the year, though, and we still use narration as a tool. The other night he narrated one of the Isaiah chapters in the Book of Mormon, and I was super thrilled.

At this point, everyone needed a break, so I would get out some cookies and put Marie down for a nap. Then it was math time. I loved that Kindergarten Math with Confidence was open-and-go, so I would just have to gather some supplies and read the script. It was probably a little too easy for Dan, and we ended up skipping ahead quite a bit, but he would tell anyone who asked that math was his favorite subject.

Dan was very proud of these birds he drew for a math activity
Will often got to participate, too

Charlotte Mason was also big on handicrafts. While we didn’t do as much of this as I’d have liked (Lego counts, right?), we did learn a couple new skills.

Bread buddies
Making butter by hand is hard!
Practicing sewing skills on a gingerbread house ornament

All told, the school day would take about an hour and a half from start to finish, including breaks for snacks and feeding the baby. We would typically be done before lunch, and the kids would have the rest of the day to play together and read.

The Ordeal

Seems pretty idyllic, right? So why did we stop?

The first concern we had was that Dan clearly wasn’t getting enough social interaction. We joined an awesome nature playgroup, but seeing friends only once a week wasn’t enough. I have a lot of irons in the fire at home at any given time, so committing to more than one lengthy social activity per week was difficult.

2020 was a rough year for us, as for many others. We had a baby in April, and we moved from Southeast Texas to San Antonio in August. It was a series of huge adjustments for the whole family, and on top of that, I always have some postpartum mood issues during the first year of the baby’s life. At first, the homeschool routine helped everyone by providing structure and stimulation. But toward the end of the school year, we hit a breaking point. That hour and a half period overwhelmed me to the point that I dreaded getting up in the morning. I pared our homeschool routine down to the bare minimum: literally reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. It didn’t help.

Maybe I picked the wrong curriculum. Maybe we didn’t take enough breaks. Maybe I should have spaced the school day out more, instead of trying to get it all done before lunch. Maybe I should have just given Dan his reading assignments and chilled out instead of reading with him. Maybe we should have had school outside more often. There are a lot of maybes, but the bottom line was this: something had to give, and school was the easiest thing to outsource.

We’d made sure to move to neighborhood with a good elementary school, which had transitioned back from distance learning to in-person instruction. And as Covid data continued to accumulate, we never saw anything too concerning about school infections or hydronephrosis complications (and later found out that his hydronephrosis has improved so much that it’s almost undetectable on ultrasound), so we felt much safer sending Dan back to public school. With no small amount of disappointment, I enrolled him.

The Return

Dan took the decision like a champ. He’d seen enough of public school on TV that he had positive associations for it. Even before we’d decided to send him back, he and Will created classrooms out of Duplo and taught their toys history, math, and science.

It was definitely an adjustment to cut the apron strings at last. The first few weeks, Dan would come home happy but exhausted, then see what we’d been doing at home all day and declare that school was the worst and he wanted to be homeschooled again. But he’s settled into the routine, and things are going much better. He has a bunch of friends, and he seems to like his teachers. He’s really enjoying checking out whatever books he wants at the library. It’s unclear if he’s actually learning anything, but we’re doing our best to supplement at home.

First day of school picture

As for me, I have mixed feelings. For one thing, it’s a lot quieter at home for much of the day, which has been a huge relief. I’d forgotten how easy it was to just drag TWO tiny humans around everywhere. I’m starting to realize I’m a better mom if I outsource some things, which has to be better for everybody, even if it feels selfish to make decisions based on that fact.

That said, there are things I’m not super thrilled with about public school. Every day Dan comes home excited to tell me what he’s been doing on his school-issued iPad all day (barf). It kind of feels like I drove myself crazy to keep him from spending the entire school year glued to a screen, only for him to spend the next year glued to an even derpier screen. The Covid precautions they’re still taking are a joke, although they’ve backed down on mandatory masking (huzzah!). Kids only get playground time once a week, they don’t get to sit together at lunch, and if they leave their water bottles at home they just don’t get to drink anything for seven hours. We’ve already being subjected to a dumb school fundraiser—and they didn’t even sell chocolate or magazine subscriptions or anything. It was a pledge-based “fun run.” Listen—my tax dollars are already funding lame-o iPad time. If I want my kid to run laps, I make him do it at home for free.

We definitely miss the hours and hours of free time, the quality literature, and the element of beauty that homeschooling brought to our life. Also—and this is another selfish thing—Charlotte Mason moms are my PEOPLE. We’ve made so many awesome friends through homeschooling, and although Will, Marie, and I are still showing up to the playgroup meetings, I don’t know how I’m going to find people as weird as I am next time we move. In addition, lately it seems like whenever I find a new piece of media I really like—a podcast or a YouTube channel that really resonates with me—the hosts will invariably mention, “We homeschool our children using the Charlotte Mason method. And I’m like, “OF COURSE YOU DO!”

As with every other aspect of motherhood, there’s a lot of guilt associated with educating your children. Much of it is self-inflicted, but I’ve seen a lot of if perpetuated in the homeschooling community: “If you put your kids in public school, you don’t really love them, and they’re not going to love God.” That sort of thing. In a local homeschoolers’ Facebook group, I saw lots of comments to the effect of, “If you’re going to put your kid back in public school next year, don’t homeschool—just stick to distance learning. Don’t give them a taste of freedom and then take it away.” Dude. Not cool.

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: If anyone else tried out homeschooling last year and didn’t love it, it’s okay. You’re not a bad mom. Everyone wants to do what’s best for their families, and that’s not always going to look exactly the same. It’s been helpful to remember that my parents are excellent, and my sister and I went to public school. Tom’s parents are excellent, and he and his siblings went to public school. Putting kids in public school is something that reasonable parents do all the time, and most kids turn out just fine.

If homeschooling ever becomes the right decision for our family again, I would love to give it another try. My heart tells me last year wasn’t the only experience we’ll ever have with homeschooling. But for now, I know Dan is a wonderful kid, and he can thrive anywhere. So we’ll see how this year goes.

I love these little people. So much.

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