We’ve just completed our first year of homeschooling and it was a whole lot easier than I thought it would be. Relaxing, in fact. Refreshing. Rejuvinating. If nothing else, just the elimination of the stress, anger, violence and the 4 hour daily meltdowns after school made this whole homeschooling journey worthwhile.
But it has been so much more than that. It has been enlightening and inspiring to watch my children develop and see their innate gifts blossom. We follow a method of homeschooling called Self-Directed Learning, where I carefully observe my children’s gifts, interests and questions and then I find books, stories, people, experiences or programs to help them to develop those areas. Everyday they ask me questions I cannot answer, so I jot them down in a notebook and then look them up over the next week online or at the library. I have been learning so much and it surprises me how little I remember from my own schooling days and how most of the information I learned was irrelevant and not applicable to daily life.
My children have wanted to learn all about the weather: how to read the weather, predict weather, what the different clouds are called and what they mean, why some clouds rain and others don’t, how the water cycle works. They have wanted to learn about the skin: how it heals us, how many layers of skin we have, how long it takes to heal each layer of skin, the names of each layer of skin. They have wanted to learn about space: planets, stars, solar systems. They have wanted to learn about history, geography, science, math and literacy – and all of their own initiative. Children want to know and understand about the world around them. They crave knowledge.
Sometimes it took me while to figure out exactly what they are asking and what it is they wanted to learn. For example, Isabela asked me several times, “What is this plant made of? How would I make it myself? What is in it?” and later she asked me again, as we were crying together, chopping some particularly juicy onions, “What is this onion skin made of? Why is it different than the onion? How did it get that way?” And finally my brain realized, “Aha! She wants to learn about the elements. She wants to study chemistry!” So we bought an incredible app for the iPad called The Elements: A Visual Exploration.
I swear, if I had learned chemistry this way, I wouldn’t have suffered so terribly and I would have remembered it all effortlessly.
All of the studying I have been doing about brain development and how we learn says than when we are curious about something, and we learn the answers to our questions, we will never forget them. This is why I don’t remember what I learned when I was in school: I was never particularly curious or interested in what I was learning. It was dictated by someone else.
Combined with Self-Directed Learning, we are also following the advice of the Baha’i Writings on education, nothing formal, but simply what I have gleaned from my own study, particularly from a compilation called Baha’i Education. Abdu’l-Baha describes how children should master the art of reading and writing, then study translation, then acquire a basic knowledge of all of the various subjects, and then study in depth according to what each individual’s gifts and inclinations are.
THE YEAR OF READING
So this first year of homeschooling, my goal was to help my daughter master the art of reading and writing. Last year when she was in school, her teacher talked to me several times encouraging me to put her in Summer Reading School. Eight hours a day of reading for a 6 year old just so that she could catch up to her grade level. This is not how our brain develops.
All of the latest research shows that our brain needs rest in order to be able to learn. Except in extremely poor or abusive homes, children come back to school smarter than they left after a long rest during summer vacation. In fact, according to recent research, all it takes for a child to learn how to read is to have one book in their house. We are pre-programmed to crave knowledge and we are smart enough to figure it out all on our own, given the time and space to do it. We each have an internal clock, different from every other person, that tells us when we are ready to learn something. Like an anxious mother, whose baby has not yet learned to crawl, it would be absurd to think about forcing our baby to learn to crawl before she is ready. We are in such a hurry for our children to become adults that we think we can force them to read, like forcing a baby to crawl, before they are ready. But once they are ready, BLING!, a light switch turns on and they charge forward with determination, understanding and JOY.
This truly has been the year of reading for Isabela. I started doing short daily alphabet practice, then phonics and sight words and then short books practice with Isabela from the time she first expressed interest in reading, which was the week she turned six. We continued this once we started homeschooling, but it was still a struggle for her, it did not yet flow easily and naturally. Suddenly, half way through the year, something turned on in her brain and reading became easy. She poured through books and devoured them like a starving bear, fresh from hibernation.
We quickly outgrew and out-read our local library and started to head downtown to the 9 story, 1.5 million books central library. The first time we went there and the elevator doors opened up, the kids looked up with stunned jaws exclaiming, “Wow! WOW! WOW!“
Photo credit: waymarking.com
We go there every week or two and come home with three giant bags filled with books – usually about 70-80 books – and Isabela has usually finished reading them after about 4 days.
Last fall I was having a lot of anxiety about how to read books altogether – every time we would sit down to read, Fiona would get fidgety and screamy, jumping up and down all over me, quite effectively halting the reading time together. I finally realized – sometimes it takes me a while – that the books we were reading were far too advanced for her, mostly novels, and she couldn’t follow along, even if she wanted to. I made a rule that during our morning stories time, only picture books were allowed, and the screaming magically disappeared.
While Isabela has been mastering the art of reading this year, Diego has been honing in on his spatial intelligence skills. Spatial intelligence is being able to see everything in 3D, as if there is map imprinted in your mind and you are never lost. Many of those with highly developed spatial intelligence go on to become architects, artists, mechanics, engineers, or city planners. The first thing Diego does when he wakes up is go directly to his lego and sit down, for hours on end, building and breaking, building and breaking, reading the ragged instructions over and over again, and building complex lego sets over and over again.
At one point, in the winter, Diego was obsessing over a new Lego set that he wanted. Instead of giving it to him, we printed out the instructions from lego.com for the exact set that he wanted and gave that to him as a present. “Here,” we said, “You can build it now.” And he set to work, for a month straight pouring through all of the lego boxes around the house, looking for the right pieces. And if he couldn’t find them we’d say, “Be flexible. See if you can find another piece that works.” And he would search and build, search and build. Build and rebuild. Break it apart so he could build it again.
After he had conquered those Lego instructions, his mind opened up and he begged us to learn how to play chess. I had never learned, so Chris taught them and a month later, Diego, my five year old, taught me how to play chess. In his tenderhearted way, he did not want me to lose because I was just learning, and four times he could have won the game, but purposely moved in a different direction so that I wouldn’t lose.
Diego is also a highly kinesthetic child. He is happiest when he is sweating, from full speed cardio intensity – exercise makes him giggle. I’m not sure if I will ever be able to give him enough cardio, but he needs it for his brain. He is calm, content and at peace when he has it and grumpy and screaming when he doesn’t. School is a nightmare for the kinesthetic child, who cannot think unless they are moving. Sitting down quietly for 8 hours a day would suck the life right out of him.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PLAY
Having a two year old in the house while homeschooling is a great reminder not to get too serious with anything. That we need to play and have fun. I recently watched one of Gordon Neufeld’s newest videos called “Making Sense of Play,” and it blew my mind to learn that the only way we can develop the prefrontal cortex – the front part of our brain – which governs our ability to do work, mature, control our tempers and hold two conflicting ideas in our brains – is through play. Play is the only way to build this part of a child’s brain.
When Neufeld was working with adolescents in prison, he did brain scans on them and it showed their prefrontal cortex was the size of a four year old. They never matured past four years old. They never had a chance to play.
Fiona reminds us to play. A lot.
TIME AND SPACE
Last year when I was contemplating homeschooling, one of the things that I feared the most was a loss of time and space to do my own work: art and writing. In the back of my mind I had always looked forward to a time when all of the children were at school so that I could have the day to work myself. But instead I have a whole new, not-what-I-expected, paradigm-shifting attitude toward my work. I do not need to be away from my children in order to do my work. With the elimination of the behavior stress, I have energy to run and paint everyday. My brain is bursting with creativity and when we have nap time/ quiet time during the day I am excited to do art.
And so, in summary, it’s been a great year.
Let’s see what next year brings.