Saturday, September 22, 2012

How we wound up a homeschooling family

After having a few conversations recently about our choice to homeschool, I have been thinking about the road that led to our decision. I've posted bits and pieces of our homeschooling journey here, and although I didn't start this blog with the intent of focusing on homeschooling (I wasn't doing it at the time), I decided to go ahead and write "that post" - the one that explains why on earth we're doing this and how we got here.

I never thought I'd be a homeschooler. I have said it before and I will probably still be saying it years from now. When my oldest son, David was little, I found him a sweet little preschool and he started there when he was 3. He went there for two years, and we signed up our next son to attend and registered David for kindergarten at our local public school. I definitely had reservations back then, but no serious inkling that homeschooling was an option.

Let me get this out of the way right off the bat: I am not anti-school. I am not anti-teacher. I have great respect for what they do and I know there are lots of great teachers out there. We need schools, public and private and we need good teachers.

But I did have doubts. Although kindergarten was fine for my son, and he had what I would consider a very good teacher, there was something nagging at me. He was such a curious, question-asking, passionate-about-learning kid. He loved school, except he kept asking why he had to spend all this time on things he already knew. He knew how to read fairly well, but he was still stuck reciting "A says a, ant on an apple, a, a, a," every day. He wanted to learn about science and animals, but the closest they got was a "sink and float" unit. Math was making patterns and sorting and bending wikki stix into number shapes. He liked being around other kids (he's the definition of an extrovert - if he is never alone again in his life, he'll be thrilled), his teacher adored him, he rarely got in trouble and he excelled at everything. Sounds great, right? But that spark, that excitement, that passion he had - I could see it starting to fade. He was losing his sense that school meant the joy of learning; it was beginning to mean "doing a bunch of stuff until I get to go home."

As the school year turned into summer, I pondered and worried. I wondered if private school would be better. They're supposed to be better, right? I thought maybe we could find a way to send him to Catholic school, although I knew we couldn't afford it and the location is anything but convenient. These swirls of doubt stirred in my mind and wouldn't go away. I tried to banish these thoughts, tell myself it was "good enough." I was involved in his education, after all. I was in his classroom regularly and we'd read books at home and do all the right things.

I did manage to do one thing right in the midst of my concern. Around the middle of his kindergarten year, I started to pray about it. I prayed that God would guide me to the right decision. At the time, I was certainly not thinking homeschool. But I prayed that God would help us understand the best course for our family with regards to our kids' education. I just wasn't expecting the answer.

It started with a blog post. I was poking around House Unseen, Life Unscripted, and I came across her post about secretly (or maybe it was not-so-secretly) wishing she could homeschool (she does now, by the way, and if I had more time and/or energy, I'd be super sweet and find that post, but I'm not, so oh well). I read her reasons for thinking about homeschooling, and I thought.. yeah. I get that. I feel it too.

Then homeschooling seemed to be everywhere around me. I have a close friend who homeschools and I poked around her blog. Someone posted a random article that linked to something else, that led me to read about homeschooling. I kept seeing things about homeschooling popping up here and there and it seemed like the idea just wouldn't leave me alone. At the time, I was firmly in the "I think homeschooling is great for other people, but certainly not for me," camp. I didn't think it was bad (although I did have some common misconceptions about the whole "socialization" thing), but I was quite sure I could never manage to do it.

Then it happened. I read another post by Dwija of House Unseen, and it was all about their final decision to homeschool (again, I'd link the post, but I am too lazy to find it right now). What I remember about it is the whole family went around and sort of voted, or chimed in - and they were all in favor. Then I seem to recall her describing a lot of hugging and excitement at the new direction their family was choosing.

And you know what? I was jealous.

I realized I was totally envious of this family that had decided to keep their kids home. Why on earth should I be envious? I had already told myself, and in a round about way told God, that homeschooling was not an option. I mean, it's nice and all, but there's no way. It would be so much work! I have three whole kids! How would I ever figure out what, or how, to teach them? When would I do it? When would I get other things done? How? Why? Wait! Nooooooooooooooo!

Then I got my head out of my, well, you know, and I started thinking straight. I did what I do best, and I researched the heck out of it. I bookmarked. I took notes. I made spreadsheets. I made lists. And a strange thing happened. The more I read, the more I researched, the more I looked - the more excited I got. It was like opening an plain, old, worn looking book; something I was almost too skeptical to give a chance. But as the book opened and the pages turned, I had to blink in surprise because the pages glowed with light. This whole new world was illuminated before me and the more I read, the more I loved what I was learning.

I did all this without a word to anyone, and only the tiniest whisper to God. If I said it aloud, I might actually, you know, do it. And that was way too scary. But first grade was rapidly approaching and I knew I had to figure out what I was going to do, and soon. I spent some time making yet another list - this one a simple list of pros and cons. When I finished, my list of pros was pretty long, and my list of cons was pretty short - and many of those had little question marks next to them. I wasn't too sure they would be cons at all.

At this point, I came clean to my husband. He was understandably surprised, but mostly wanted to know my reasoning. I told him all about what I'd learned, what my reasons were, and showed him my list. He was open to the idea, but a little leery of jumping in right away. School was just a couple of weeks away. He was worried I was getting ahead of myself and didn't want to make a big decision too quickly (which is funny, now that I think back on it because he is the spontaneous one and I'm always the one urging caution and taking my time.)

We went on a family vacation and although we certainly didn't spend the entire week mulling over the idea, it did give us some good opportunities for both reflection and conversation. I'd prayed about it intensely since I had broached the idea with my husband and felt more strongly about it with each passing day. Finally, after letting it sit for a couple of days, I told my husband I wanted to homeschool and I wanted to start that year. Like, immediately.

This is where his unshakable faith in me is so humbling. He agreed. He was still a little unsure, mostly because the decision felt rushed. He hadn't had the benefit of my previous months of research and pondering. But he agreed. He felt like I had a lot of good reasons, he saw the benefits and decided that if I felt it was the right thing and the right time, then he'd support me.

The final piece of the puzzle was our son. We had brought up the idea to him while on vacation. I asked him if he knew what homeschooling was. He said sure, he knew and mentioned our good friends who homeschool their daughter. Then I told him that we were thinking about whether that might be a good idea for us and asked him if he thought the idea might be ok. He said yes, he liked the idea a lot. At that point, we assured him we were still considering it and not to worry about it.

When we told him we had decided to homeschool, his reaction was priceless. He said, "Yesssss! I was hoping you'd choose homeschool."

Can't get much better than that. We started our homeschool adventure in September of 2011.

Here we are, a little over a year later, and none of us would change our decision. It hasn't always been easy, but I have always moved forward with the clear feeling that the Holy Spirit led us here. I sometimes wonder why, and sometimes wonder how I wound up one of, you know, "those" people. But this lifestyle works so well for our family, I am so grateful I listened to God's call, even when I wasn't sure. My children are thriving, learning, loving and we are enjoying this road God has set us on very much.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Money stress

I read somewhere once that people, no matter their income level, will generally feel that they wish they made about 20% more money. Whether they make $25,000 a year or $250,000 a year, they tend to answer the same - you ask how much money they would prefer to be making, and it is usually around 20% more than what they have.

I am so guilty of this.

My husband started a new job at the beginning of this year. He makes more money than he did at his old job, and yet we still feel like we have no extra money. Ever. Part of it makes perfect sense. We are finally putting away for retirement, we bought a life insurance policy and the much longer commute eats up a significant portion of his extra earnings. Late last year it seemed as if we were about to emerge from our financial tight spot and finally make some headway. We'd have all this extra money! What would we do? We'd have money for vacations and extras and birthdays and Christmas without running up more debt! It was going to be great!

Fast forward nearly 9 months and that hasn't been the case. We are still left feeling like we wish we made just "this" much more. We've had some necessary increases in our expenses (retirement and life insurance) and some inevitable ones (commuting). So our day to day, week to week, month to month finances are left pretty much where they were before.

Granted, we are not struggling in the sense that we can't pay our bills or put food on the table. So that is GREAT. But I have some serious concerns about the economic stability of our country and if things keep getting worse for the economy, I don't know what we're going to do. We're squeaking by right now, but what if gas goes up to $10 a gallon or the price of food keeps rising like it has in the last 5 years? I don't see much to indicate that things are getting better (or cheaper) and I wish we were in a better position to weather such a storm.

The problem with us is that we don't really want to change our decisions or our behavior. Not really. Every month we say we're going to do better, we're going to stick to our budget, we're going to stop overspending. But a week or so into the month, I haven't kept track well, my husband doesn't think about the budget ever, and I have gotten so tired of the role of bad-news-wifey that I ignore the problem and don't say anything when we're bumping into our budget threshold and he wants to go grab pizza.

I'm honestly not sure what to do to change things. I guess I know what needs to change - we need to spend less money. I'm just not sure how to do it. That sounds so dumb - just spend less, right? I wish it were so easy. We have never, ever in the history of our relationship been good at sticking to a budget and spending money well. We spent years as a double-income-no-kids couple and although we did buy a house during that time (and had the housing market not tanked so badly, we would have made quite a bit of equity in that house and now our current one), but other than that, we blew through a TON of money. Sure, some of it was awesome and not regrettable in the least. We went on some cool trips and did some cool stuff that I wouldn't take back. But we entered the job market in the midst of the dot-com boom and both had decent jobs that paid pretty well right off the bat. We got spoiled and it seemed like the money train was just going to keep going up, up, up.

Now we're a (mostly) single income family of five and that is a totally different thing. We spend more on food, gas, clothes, utilities, everything. We're in a totally different ballgame and our spending hasn't changed with the changes in our family.

Part of the problem too is looking at how much money my husband makes now and feeling like, "This should be amazing. This should be SO much money. WHERE IS IT?" He's making a very good living, or it seems like it should be. Why can't we be perfectly comfortable with what we have?

Because neither of us really wants to change anything. We want to have the things we have, go to the store and grab whatever, whenever. Neither of us really wants to have to reconcile where our money is going or have to pay attention to every little bit we spend. We should have been doing just that from the beginning, but it has always proved to be so frustrating, time consuming and ultimately, neither of us really stick to it or alter our decisions based on whether or not we've gone over budget.

We could live more comfortably if we cut out some things. Sure, we'd miss them. But wouldn't the freedom of getting out of debt and having the money to spend on things like birthday parties and family vacations make it all worth it? I say that in theory, but when I look at our spending line by line, I'm not sure where to start.

This has been an ongoing issue for us since basically forever. We're smart people - we ought to be able to manage our money better than this. But so far, we're not so great at it. I'm not sure what the practical solution really is, but I'm determined to find it.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Conquring the doubt monster

I'm sure I've rambled about doubt before. I'm no stranger to doubt's creeping little tendrils wrapping around my otherwise comfortable existence. There was a time when I doubted more deeply than I do now, but I still find myself wondering... is this really what I think? Do I really believe in all this? Am I really doing this?

It isn't just faith that I occassionally doubt, although I admit to doubting my faith more than most people around me would realize. I find myself doubting all kinds of things. Then I realized the other day that most of the time my doubt isn't between me and whatever it is I'm doubting. The source of the doubt is my ever-present and hard-to-get-over concern over what others think. I don't doubt homeschooling because I have any internal or external reason to do so - I start doubting when I start thinking about what OTHER people may or may not think of me for it. I don't doubt my faith because I feel something else is right or because any of the reading and research I've done on the topic pointed me in a different direction - I doubt in the moments when I wonder what others think.

Well isn't that just silly.

I'm not sure why that connection has never occurred to me before, but in a way, it was oddly comforting. I know this about myself - I know I'm too worried about the opinions of others. I always have been. It is something I need to continue working on to keep in perspective.

Doubts have a way of multiplying themselves. Having doubt about something leads to stronger feelings of doubt, simply by the presence of the original doubtful feelings. If I'm feeling this doubt, maybe I'm right to doubt, and look at that, now I'm doubting more....

Remembering that in the midst of a doubt-filled time is helping me to see past it and realize where my doubts are really coming from. Doubting a decision or a belief because you've been challenged and need to focus on it and delve deeper to come to peace is one thing. Being worried that someone (real or theoretical) will judge you for your choice or belief is another thing entirely. I all too often fall into the latter (and it is all usually quite theoretical). It's something I need to work on.

So there you go, doubt monster. I cast thee off into the abyss and will smite thee with my new-found self awareness!

Friday, September 7, 2012

First week of school!

Today marks the end of our first week back to school! And we're all still here!

Overall, things have gone well more often than not. There were some wins and some rough spots and I hadn't counted on how tired the change in routine was going to make me. But we're getting back into the groove of having school work to do and I'm sure in a few weeks things will settle into a new normal - at least for a while.

In the win department, we did morning basket every day and that went well. Our morning basket is essentially a time when we all sit together and read. It's how I fit in things like poetry, literature, and even a little music and artist study (or at least, I will over the course of the year), as well as faith formation for my kindergartener. In the past, I've run into quite a bit of resistance from my Mr. Stinky-Pants five year old over sitting with us for morning basket. Miraculously, this year he hasn't complained a bit. He sits with us on the couch, and even helped pick out Bible stories and fairy tales to read. Today I got out our "Can You Hear It?", which is a book accompanied by a CD featuring classical music and gives prompts to listen for (such as, listening for the sound of the birds chirping in Vivaldi's "Spring" or the bee buzzing around in "Flight of the Bumblebee") and we flitted around the room both as birds to Vivaldi and as bumblebees. Those were some good moments.

As predicted, my five year old isn't as eager to jump into school, and therein lies most of my frustration this week. I am trying to find what works best for him - to sit and do several subjects in a row, thereby getting all his core work done; or to have him do one thing, take a break, come back and do another, and so forth. The problem with the first is he often doesn't have the attention span or willingness to sit through handwriting, read a BOB book, and then do a math activity. The downside to the second approach is that once I let him go from the table, it is very, very difficult to round him back up and refocus on schoolwork. This is one of those things that I'll have to work out as I go because he's really unpredictable and hard to pin down. It will take some trial and error (involving a lot of error and a bit of fist clenching on my part) to figure out what will work best for him. He can literally go from asking to do just one more letter in his handwriting book, eagerly practicing his "frog jump capitals," one minute, to slumping in his seat and grunting like a wounded baby animal at any mention of trying to lay out 7 tally sticks the next minute. I knew going into this he would be a challenge in more ways than one, but I'm hopeful that with consistent, but reasonable expectations, he'll come around a bit and I won't have to coax him into doing school work every single day.

My second grader is always eager for learning, but he'd really prefer to spend all his time googling animals and watching Discovery channel documentaries. Alas, I am not really an unschooler, so we do have to work on some other subjects in an organized way. This week we worked mostly on math and some language arts, and a really soft start to our history studies. Next week we'll jump into some science and really dig into history as well. At least, I think we will. I'm already struggling to keep everyone focused for just a couple of subjects. It might take a couple more weeks before we can dive in and go full speed ahead with everything.

We also started a preschool group with a few other families who have little learners. I don't really think my 3-year-old daughter needs a ton of academic stuff, but it will be good to have something fun that is focused on her. So often, she's the little tag along, but this group will be at her level. We had the first group this week and I felt woefully unprepared, but it still went well. We'll meet once or twice a month and do some songs, stories, games, crafts, that sort of thing. I'm excited about it and my boys were excited to have some friends over (older siblings of the 3-year-old set).

All in all, a good week. Now I'm going to go surprise my kids with some celebratory popcorn for dinner. Woo hoo!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Starting again. Letting go.

First day of school, round two, is slated for tomorrow morning. I say round two, because about a month ago I attempted to begin our school year and for a variety of reasons, but decided to wait and start in September.

So here we are again, once more on the eve of a new homeschooling year. For reals this time. I have all these great ideas, wonderful books, projects and supplies. And I know tomorrow won't go the way I planned.

It just won't. Tomorrow I will get everyone breakfast, we'll do our morning chores and I'll tell them we're starting our day with morning basket. My five year old will protest and not want to participate. My three year old will want to climb up onto my back as I sit at our table. The boys will argue over who goes first. My seven year old will only want to do art projects. My excitement over our new curricula, our new subjects and all the great things we are going to learn this year won't exactly be shared my the little people I'm supposed to be teaching. It probably won't be smooth, we probably won't get as much done as I would want and things won't go the way I envision.

That's OK.

I am learning that part of homeschooling is letting go. I have to let go of my lofty expectations; let go of the notion that they are as excited as I am for what I've planned. I have to let go of the idea that our days will always be smooth and full of beautiful moments of learning. We'll have those days; we'll have days when I gush about how great homeschooling is for us and how amazing my kids are. And then we'll have days where it feels like herding cats just to get the kids to go upstairs or come out from under their pile of Lego creations.

This year I need to remember to find balance; balance my expectations with reality, my plans with flexibility, my desire for order with what is doable with three little kids. I need to remember that we have many years of learning ahead of us and while we do take a fairly organized and somewhat structured approach to school, there are numerous opportunities for learning throughout our days, throughout the year, and we'll all benefit from that. I need to remember that one of the most important things I can do as a homeschooling mom is nurture my relationships with my children and their relationships with each other. I do want them to get a robust education. And they are still little; we have time.

So tomorrow we begin again; another year in this crazy adventure I find myself in, called homeschooling. I've said it before, and I'll say it again - this isn't the life I once imagined, but I wouldn't trade it for anything.