(This article originally appeared in the March/April, 2006 issue of Home Education Magazine.)
Classical. Charlotte Mason. Unschooler.
Yup, that’s me.
There’s just a slight problem. The labels contradict one another, don’t they?
They’re accurate but inaccurate. (What is the sound of one textbook flapping? I’ll move beyond the Zen musing and get to my point.)
I dislike labels. I refuse to label our homeschool. My aversion to labels has been both advantageous and embarrassing over the five years we’ve been doing this: advantageous, because I’m free to approach learning in a variety of ways. Embarrassing (in the beginning, though I’m over that now) because I never had a succinct answer to, "What curriculum do you use?"
I used to hem, haw, stutter, and say something about an eclectic mix. I was reluctant to say, "We unschool," because most people interpreted that as, “Yes, I homeschool because I’m lazy.” I shied away from saying “We’re pursuing a Charlotte Mason education” because I didn't follow CM methods to the letter, and hadn’t even read all of her original writings. I didn't want to say, "We’re classical" because, although some classical elements were present, we fell short of the mark. I feared someone would ask me to say, “My child adores The Iliad," in Latin, Greek and one other language of my choice.
So, what was I? Not having a definitive answer used to bother me. But these days, when faced with The Question, I look my inquisitor in the eye and brazenly reply, "I design our curriculum myself." It’s a true and simple answer that covers the fluid flexibility of our days. Sometimes I design structure, routines and the tackling of a workbook. At other times, our copywork from classic literature would make Charlotte Mason quiver with pride at the thought of her mentoring. And often – quite often – my design includes open-ended time full of reading, writing, observing, talking, experimenting and growing.
The point is that I have never found a single, definable “method” that works all the time for all my children. No two years of our homeschool have been the same. Well, perhaps that’s not entirely true. What has been constant is that I've included a mixture of methods that works for my kids. Each year there’s been some formal, structured curriculum, driven and directed by me. I made the choices, introduced it to the kids, and in most cases, we all enjoyed what came of it.
When we didn’t enjoy it, I asked myself, "Why am I doing this?" If the answer was that as a responsible, loving parent I’d determined this study to be in my children’s best interest, then we continued. Some parts of life are simply like that. I don’t, for example, clean toilets because it’s a “delight-directed” activity. It is, however, in everyone’s best interest that I don’t allow mold to grow in dark corners, so I push on with the toilet-cleaning. But if I push a hated school agenda not because it’s in our best interest but because I think we “should” do this, or “everyone has to go through that,” or simply because I’m having trouble letting go of "the plan," then I know it’s time to reassess. It’s usually at that point that someone will ask, “But how will your children learn to do things they hate?”
Ah, yes. The Life-Is-Full-Of-Stuff-We-Hate objection. To the surprise of some, though our homeschool is relaxed, my kids don’t always – gasp – get to do only what they love. Yes, it’s true we all must learn that life is difficult. But, life is also full of joy, beauty and unexpected delights. I don't want to stomp on all the goodness while trying to prove to my kids that the world is a tough place.
The tough stuff intrudes on the best of days, the happiest of families and the most joyful of times without my help. I don't have to create opportunities (such as six extra pages of math problems) for my kids to learn that life is hard and they must do things they hate. They can learn that when they deal with the neighborhood bully or scoop the litterbox. What I do instead is seize opportunities to teach them how to respond to life's hard edges.
And that brings us back to the hard edge of a world that demands labels. If I must be labeled, the only homeschooling tag I’ll take is “schizophrenic.” Our homeschool simply doesn’t fit neatly into one educational box and I’m drawn to a variety of approaches, from the aforementioned unschooling to touches of classical.
This collage that is our life was nicely illustrated one recent day. I had planned “A Planning Day,” looking ahead to what I hoped we’d investigate in the coming months. My planning was interrupted by my 9-year-old when she ran into the house, cupping a cricket in her hands. Suddenly, there were all kinds of questions: How long will he live? What will he eat? What can I keep him in? How can we find out? We grabbed Anna Botsford Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study and the kids looked up crickets. They called the local pet shop, remembering crickets they’d seen there (albeit unsuspecting ones who are food, rather than who get food, as we found out when the clerk laughed, "I do know what eats them.”) That day, my girls did some basic research, used indexing, reference and alphabetizing skills and learned that crickets will eat anything, up to and including watermelon, chocolate chip cookies and paper.
The point is that I had to let go of “The Plan” – my plan for the day – and seize the new plan that had presented itself. We were all much happier and learned more than if I’d said, "Go away. I'm planning your education."
And I was grateful for yet another day of richly layered, meaningful learning, made possible by this mom’s aversion to labels.
Viva a collage of homeschooling, and long live aversions to labels.