A Hopeful Journey: Chronicles of the School Year
Along with soaring temperatures, record rainfall, plenty of days spent poolside and trips to the amusement park our family adores, the beginning of August also brings with it the start of a brand new school year. From as far back as I can remember, I’ve loved the start of school. I could practically live inside the office supply section of virtually any store. Target, Office Max, Staples, even Walmart—put me in the school supply section with all of the brightly colored Sharpies, aisles of whimsical notebooks and colored pencils and I am perfectly content. I love the organizational supplies like baskets and file folders (which I almost never actually use), paper clips and glue (they did -not- have sparkly, glittery glue when I was a kid!). Folders with adorable, too-cute-for-words pictures and planners with inspirational quotes on the outside…. All of these things call my name quite loudly.
I’ve always been a learner. The chance to grow, the opportunity to learn and connect with ideas has always been deeply appealing to me. It’s exciting to start something new, realizing that you’re embarking on a journey from which you will change and grow. The promise of education lies in the chance to become something more than what you currently are. Children wait to “become” a teacher or doctor or scientist or astronaut or gymnast, believing that if they can just “go to college,” they will obtain the keys to success. The middle of the year isn’t quite as exciting as the beginning of the school year only because by then you remember that just going to college doesn’t guarantee you success; you have to put in the effort and make it through the hard work. By the end of the school year, the excitement comes back, though. The anticipation of a much needed break sparks excitement but also something more: it’s only at the end of the journey you’re able to see that the success, the growth, has been made so much sweeter because you put your heart and soul into it.
I homeschool my two daughters and it’s been an incredible journey; there’s been a special bond that’s formed between us that I wouldn’t change for the world. I’ve been able to see some “lightbulb” moments, I’ve learned really great things right alongside them and we’ve shed our share of tears of frustration and exhaustion together. Not every day has been full of sunshine and roses; sometimes, we get tired. Sometimes, frustration sneaks into the picture. But, on the whole, the rewards have been astronomical. I wouldn’t trade teaching my youngest daughter to read for anything, I wouldn’t trade teaching my oldest daughter math for anything.
We have never used a co-op or a support group of any kind; in the beginning, I made my own curriculum up, then I started pulling pieces from different established curriculum that I’d researched and liked. After a couple of years, I’d found the curriculum that seemed to work best with my teaching style and the girls’ learning styles. But, this year, the girls wanted more. They wanted to feel like they were part of a “school.” I didn’t believe sending them to a school, either public or private, was the best option. But listening to them is part of my job as a mother and I wanted them to feel like they were getting something more than academics from the school year. My oldest one craved friendship; I wanted to provide enough opportunities so that she didn’t feel isolated.
The conversation really began late last year and I’d dabbled in trying to find a homeschooling co-op then. By nature, though, I’m not very sociable. I pretend to be. I can smile and bluff my way through brief encounters with others. But I’d rather not. I’d rather lead children or write books or speak to a crowd of a thousand than interact with a group of two. I have a bad habit of comparing myself to other women, particularly other mothers, and I almost always fall short. So, groups of other mothers tend to freak me out. When I searched for co-ops last year, I was looking for something small but also large enough that we wouldn’t feel like the newcomers, the outsiders. Eventually, I ran across Classical Conversations. The program looked awesome and it sparked an ember of curiosity. But it was expensive and I still wasn’t sure I was ready to commit to a program that involved taking the girls to once a week and a program I hadn’t thoroughly researched.
So I put it off.
Then, in July sometime, the conversation at home picked back up. The girls, especially my oldest, really wanted friends and to feel “normal.” In her mind, that translated into going to regular school. I was still adamantly against traditional school. I remembered Classical Conversations and being impressed with what I’d read earlier and revisited it. This time, I delved deeper, watched classes, read the literature and, finally, called the area director and asked in-depth questions.
And I prayed.
The more time that passed, the more convinced I was that this was a road we needed to explore. At every turn, with every director I spoke with, I was repeatedly reassured that I was “the teacher” and that, if I wasn’t comfortable with something in the curriculum, I could change it and there would be no “guilt trip” to my daughters. In other words, I ended up comforted, believing that it was something we could do without having to meet goals other than those I wanted to set. So, in short, we dove in with both feet, as we usually do. I signed Breathe up for Challenge A and Alight up for Foundations and Essentials.
I also agreed to tutor.
Since that time, late June, early July, I’ve done very little else except get school supplies, research Classical Conversations until I started to feel like I’d graduated from the program, attended trainings, read the books and worked out syllabus after syllabus until I felt I was able to merge my expectations and hopes for the girls’ academic year with what Classical Conversations was suggesting. The seminars didn’t start until the middle of August, but I wanted time to get the girls ready for the “new adventure,” so we started on August 1. Breathe’s Classical Conversations seminars began last week and Alight’s begin in a week’s time. We’ve been doing schoolwork for right at a month now and are getting into a routine. After digging into the curriculum and also experiencing the seminar days, I’ve been impressed with what they are retaining and how seamlessly the schoolyear has progressed so far. We’ve added a bit to the Classical Conversations lineup for textbooks and we’ve taken a bit away from it but, on the whole, we’re staying true to form, using CC as the backbone of our curriculum this year.
Immersed in the day-to-day routine of creating syllabuses and grading papers and memorizing a wealth of information, sometimes it’s easy to overlook the progress or to lose sight of the whole picture. For that reason, I thought making a record of everything that we are using for this year to help us grow intellectually, spiritually and physically would be helpful. Sometimes, the “big picture” can give you inspiration for the details of the journey.
Research (Science): So far, we’ve thoroughly enjoyed this strand. I was unsure about it, going into it. I was a little worried that simply coming up with five facts about a given topic, writing a paragraph and drawing a representation of the topic wouldn’t be enough. But, actually, Breathe’s currently thriving with the set-up. Her first topic was the “solar system” and she chose to research the Sun. I directed her to use at least two sources but she ended up using multiple resources: a science resource book we have at home and two websites. She became so engrossed in the topic that she has literally looked up something to do with astronomy every day for week by herself. She even played Astronomy Teacher today and asked for a telescope for Christmas. In addition, it’s bringing me flashbacks to my 12th grade year at McGavock High School, during which Dr. Sara Estes pretty much terrified her students (including me) into memorizing the entire MLA handbook. Teaching Breathe to cite correctly fills me with tenderness because, actually, Dr. Estes was amazingly brilliant and I miss her class.
Additionally, my fear of research not being enough was unfounded. Our seminar day is Tuesday. On Wednesday, Breathe did her research and took her notes. On Thursday, she wrote a rough draft of her report. On Friday, she fine-tuned and then copied the rough draft into her sketch book. She also drew her representation of the Sun. On Monday, we will learn to cite her sources and create a Works Cited page. Each day, she has to practice reading her paragraph aloud because she has to present it as a speech to her peers each Tuesday. It’s enough.
Rhetoric: This strand is basically teaching Breathe to think critically and be able to defend her own opinions. It’s the one that, so far, hasn’t received the proper amount of attention. But it’s one that I am highly interested in and believe that, once she reaches a groove, she will thrive in. Classical Conversations uses the book, It Couldn’t Just Happen to introduce the students to the Big Bang theory and then learn how to dispute that claim. It involves memorizing a ton of catechisms per week.
Math: Classical Conversations uses Saxon. I hate Saxon and, historically, math has been enough to create nightmares and trauma for me. I cannot teach from Saxon and, therefore, Breathe cannot learn from Saxon. Consequently, we are using Abeka as our math program. I love the way it reinforces material already taught and the simple way it lays things out. I also like the fact that Bible verses are spread throughout the pages, as a gentle way of saying, “hey, see? You can find God everywhere, even in Math.” Since I began homeschooling, I have learned more math than I knew after I graduated and went to college. We’ve learned binary and other stuff that, quite frankly, I’m amazed I was able to understand at all. This year, so far, we’ve discussed throwing out zeroes in division and also casting out nines. It is math. But it is not give-me-shots-of-morphine-so-I-can-survive-this-subject-hour, which is nothing short of a miracle.
Lost Tools of Writing: We are using this as our language program and I absolutely love it. It couldn’t be more fool-proof in coming up with ways to provide “tools” for overcoming any sort of writer’s block you ever might experience. For the child who doesn’t know what to write about, this is an amazing course. For a gifted writer, this is an amazing course. Its purpose is to teach you how to write a persuasive essay but, honestly, the tools could be used for any form of writing. Over the Summer, Breathe had to read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. We are using that book to, over the course of three weeks, create a very rudimentary persuasive essay. The course comes with access to videos that are helpful. I wish I’d have had this course as a pre-teen because it sparks amazing conversation and forces you to think deeply about the story you are reading. It also actively encourages creativity and doesn’t penalize you for thinking outside the box. The list of reading required for this course is extensive. Basically, you write one essay every three weeks. This means that you have to read a book every three weeks. Over the course of the year, then, you read 10 books and write 10 essays. This means that it is very fast paced—you are constantly reading. It’s a little tricky because Breathe isn’t used to having deadlines for reading a book. We’ve taken as long as she needed in the past. I was also unsure about the choices in literature chosen by Classical Conversations. I wanted to see a few more truly “classic” selections. But, after reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (with which we were already well familiar) and discussing it, I’m excited to see what kind of discussions the other stories contain. They are:
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Carry on, Mr. Bowditch (the one we are currently reading)
The Magician’s Nephew
Number the Stars (I am eagerly awaiting this one: I am so excited)
Amos Fortune, Free Man (also perfectly looking forward to)
The Bronze Bow
A Gathering of Days: A New England Girl’s Diary
A Hole in the Door
Secret Garden (loveliness)
Cartography: This is basically geography. The ultimate goal of this course is that, by the end of the year, she will be able to draw, from memory, a map of the entire world. We’ve been drawing Canada this month and she is able now to do it from memory. She knows the provinces, capitals, a few of the lakes, bays, straits and islands—even a river and the Rocky Mountains, too. At first, it was overwhelming because Breathe is a perfectionist and she felt the need to try and make her map look “just like the printed atlas.” So, to help her get over that, I drew a map of Canada that she has used instead to learn it. As we’ve progressed, though, what we’ve realized is that it’s about more than charting the countries and landscapes. It’s teaching her where she is in the world. It’s also teaching her to be conscious of what’s around her and to have some general sense of direction. Instead of being limited to our hometown, she will have a broader sense of where she is. Plus, her maps are incredible. We are looking forward to starting work on the United States next.
Latin: I won’t lie, I was scared. I almost decided to forgo Latin altogether. The text that Classical Conversation uses is Henle. Henle is a high school text. Breathe is only in the 7th grade. Color me nervous. In fact, because I wasn’t sure about how well this would go over, I purchased an expensive secondary program that included DVDs and was created for elementary students in case Henle made no sense to us: Latin For Children. And Latin is a lot of work. Thankfully, I began my studies before the school year began. I wanted to have some sort of clue as to what we were getting into. Much to my delight and surprise, it was straight up grammar. Even though I very often choose to outright ignore grammar rules because of their tediousness, I do know the grammar rules and am able to recognize them when I write and read. This meant that I managed to glean just enough from my solo studies to be a just a little less intimidated. When we actually started studying Latin, my twelve-year-old daughter who cannot stand to see sentences written incorrectly flourished. She is thoroughly enjoying this subject. It is not for the faint of heart. It progresses as a steady, no-nonsense pace and requires commitment and dedication. However, it is worth it. There are numerous reasons for this:
- We are learning Latin together. This creates a bond. I love creating bonds.
- It cements a concrete knowledge of the English If you can diagram a sentence that is written in Latin, then you can diagram a sentence written in English. Classical Conversations uses Latin instead of grammar and I understand why. There are a whole host of reasons to study Latin but, suffice to say, this is something I never would have undertaken on my own and I am glad that I had a reason for digging in.
Foundations: Another term for this class is “Memory Mastery Course.” In this class, the goal is to memorize tons of different facts in Science, Geography, History, Math, Latin, English and Timeline. Context isn’t really emphasized at Classical Conversations, just memorizing the facts. I will probably add more context to some of the memorization work as the year progresses but, for now, we have been focusing on strictly memorizing the sequence. And it’s been amazing. In one month, Alight has memorized all sorts of fascinating things, including:
- The first 14 events of the world history timeline
- The eight parts of speech
- The four oceans
- The continents (she already knew these but we’ve added having to draw “blobs” onto blank world maps)
- The history sentence about Charlemagne.
It really has been amazing to see how much information she can learn and retain. In addition, each week in Foundations, she has to present something before everyone else in order to learn presentation skills. I think this is fabulous and very helpful to Alight, who is painfully shy.
Essentials: Essentials is the Language Arts program used by Classical Conversations. It believes strongly in learning the basic grammar of the English language. Although Alight’s seminar days don’t start until August 30, we have been working on the parts of speech and also memorizing the 112 ways a sentence can be formed, including its four structures and four purposes. She knows the five things that a sentence must have before it can be called a sentence. Basically, each week, she will proofread and edit a sentence for grammatical mistakes and fix them. Last year, we began diagramming sentences but this program is intense. At the end of the year my goal is that she will have memorized the chart with the structures of the sentences and be able to explain what those things mean. What is a compound complex, imperative sentence? What is the difference between a verb-intransitive and a verb transitive?
Literature: We use Abeka’s Literature: Trails to Explore. Each day, Alight has to read to me from this book. We discuss the stories and answer the questions. She either draws a picture or writes a paragraph about the story in her literature notebook; sometimes, we’ll instead do a game, kind of like a Family Feud review game to help aid in reading comprehension. In addition to reading out loud to me for ten minutes each day to aid with speed, fluency and inflection, I also have a subscription to Reading Eggs for her. This is an online reading program that is outstanding. It really helps with critical thinking, comprehension as well as just reading in general. Each lesson earns her coins that she can redeem for trading cards and items from the “mall” for her “apartment.” I am printing out the trading cards she earns and keeping them for a surprise later in the year. In addition to reading out loud from the Abeka book and doing Reading Eggs at least every other day, Alight also has to read silently for 30 minutes every day. This month she read Amber Brown Goes Fourth because she enjoys the Amber Brown series a lot and she also read several stories from an MLP comic book. Although I’ve opted not to require specific books for Alight this year, there are a few notable exceptions. Next month, instance, we are reading Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes out loud instead of the Abeka literature book.
Writing: Separate from the Essentials grammar, we are using the IEW method for teaching writing skills, starting with how to write a keyword outline. I think this is a really great way to teach writing for elementary students because they don’t have to come up with something to write, they only have to learn how to write. They learn dress-ups like -ly words and they have ‘banned’ words that are not allowed to be in their papers; this helps them learn how to use precise, active, interesting verbs as opposed to passive ones. Each week, they have to write a paper and present it to the class. This is very frightening for Alight. She is very shy and the very idea of getting up in front of people to speak can bring her to tears. I am hoping that this helps give her confidence in herself. She writes fantastically; her ideas are brilliant and I’m excited to see what sorts of growth this course will bring. At the end of the year, she has to choose someone from the medieval times, write a speech about that character in first person and then present the speech to the community. Because Alight’s seminar days have not yet started, I have chosen to spend most of the month focusing on memorizing the parts of speech and basic editing: capitalization, period marks, identifying subjects, verbs, direct and indirect objects, etc. But I am excited about starting the IEW portion of the curriculum next week.
Math: We are using Abeka for Alight’s math. Alight is strong in math, and very much looking forward to learning measurements and things like that. This month, we have focused on improving speed and accuracy with addition facts and some multiplication facts. Next month, we are going to dive deeper into the multiplication times tables and really start digging into the curriculum.
Science: We are using Apologia Zoology and I absolutely love it. Apologia offers a few different zoology courses, and I let Alight pick the one that we would focus on. She chose the swimming creatures, which is perfect. This month, we’ve covered topics like the tides, the ocean currents, filter feeders, the continental shelf and the layers of the ocean. We have the notebook for her and she fills out the notebooking pages at the end of each lesson. The main critique for Apologia is that it involves a lot of reading. It does. But we break it up into sections of 4-5 pages per day, followed by the notebooking exercise and any experiment that may be involved. She is going to be creating an ocean box that she will add to throughout the year and I am very much looking forward to seeing what kinds of animals she makes and adds to the box and seeing what she learns about the ocean and its animals. I love the way the curriculum is written to a child her age — it’s written as though the narrator is a physical teacher standing in front of her teaching an elementary child. It’s approachable and makes learning fun.
Shared Curriculum: These are the subjects we do together.
History: We are using Notgrass History’s: From Adam to Us. This is an amazing curriculum. It is our last curriculum of the day and it always leaves me feeling happy. The pictures in the textbooks are incredible. The notebooking exercises are fun and easy; the map book is great. I also really enjoy the supplemental textbook, The Creative World, in which we find primary sources like pictures or poetry or something that relates to the lesson. The first five lessons have been basically Bible lessons, overviewing the creation story. Adam and Eve is one of Alight’s favorite stories in the Bible, so this has been great. Our last lesson of the week was “Our Beautiful Earth.” This lesson pointed out that God created the world itself and that natural resources that we often take for granted exist on every continent. It highlights the creativity of God and the genius of His hands. I love it.
Devotions: We are using Sally Michael’s book, God’s Names for devotions. This is an amazing book. Although it’s illustrated for children, it’s written to provide a deeper, richer context than a children’s book. It provides activities at the end of each section to engage thought and interaction with each other. We focus on one name per week, delving deeper into that name of God and what it means. We have a burning bush poster hanging in the schoolroom to which we add green leaves with the names that we learn. There are 24 lessons in the book, which means it will take us 24 weeks to complete the book, since we are doing one lesson per week (reading the lesson on day one, following up with conversation, scripture reading and activities the other days of the week).
Presidents: They are memorizing all 44 presidents and know 28 of them. This is amazing. I believe that the president of the United States deserves our respect and prayers, regardless of whether or not we agree with him/her. I’d love for the girls to grow up seeing the president of the United States as a hero, someone to admire and respect. We have a book to help us with this and also flash cards.
Handwriting / Cursive: For Alight, we are using Pre-scripts, which is the Classical Conversations book where she writes the history sentence in cursive and also draws. It serves two purposes: cursive handwriting and also as an aid for remembering the history sentence. Breathe really enjoyed the Spell-U-See handwriting higher level last year so she is doing that again. It’s great because it makes her highlight patterns and also practice the cursive writing.
We start school each morning between 7 and 8 a.m. Instruction time is generally over by 12:30 or 1 but it takes them an additional hour or two to complete any homework assignments they have (and they do have homework assignments. The homework, I think, helps them take ownership of their work because they have to do it without me sitting beside them, it also helps prevent burnout [if one of them doesn’t want to do math when I want to do math, then I can just say, ‘okay, you don’t have to do it right now, but it has to be done before tomorrow’] and it gives me an objective way to see how much of the material they really understand). They usually don’t do the homework right away; we go places a lot and, even when we don’t go places, sometimes they just take a few hours to play before coming back to the work.
Growing up, school was the one place where I felt I had a place. With the exception of math, I didn’t feel like I was always running, trying to catch up to everyone else. Instead, I had a firm grasp of the material. It didn’t come naturally, maybe. I worked really, really hard and studied really, really hard. I’d read the material, then I’d read it again, highlighting anything I thought sounded important and then I went back a third time and wrote down anything that I had highlighted. It was time consuming, but I aced tests. Today, I’m not sure I could pass those same tests on the fly, but I learned something that was more important than any of those test questions. I learned that, if I didn’t know the answer to something, I had the ability to find the answer myself through research, through the tools that education had given me. And that inspired in a confidence that I otherwise would not have had. The older I grow, the more I know that there are other things that are worth learning, things that cannot be found inside even the best textbook. There are really important concepts that cannot be grasped through any curriculum; things like learning how to cultivate a heart of wonder, learning how to maintain a sense of awe at the world around us. Things like knowing someone believes in you and that you’re more than a name on an attendance chart. In order to fully learn these lessons, the ones that will shape courage and strength and a foundation made up of faith and family, you have to have someone beside you, showing you that it’s okay to spend time capturing nature videos on your iPad or writing stories or collecting everything MLP because the ponies are your friends. You have to be given the freedom to move, to walk outside, to watch a caterpillar transform into a butterfly. School isn’t all about having a social life. It’s about taking the time to really grow.
Childhood only comes once. They are only this young once. And this is a precious, precious year. A year of a little girl turning into a teenager with all the changes that entails. She’s very impressionable, very vulnerable and yet bursting with an independent, loving, faithful spirit. This is a year she will remember. Having time at home to hold her hand, answer the questions she has and being able to watch joy will only come once. It’s a precious, precious year with a little girl whose turning “double digits.” She’s growing so fast now and finding her passion. Watching her at gymnastics lessons and hearing her run down the stairs, waving her homework folder, excited to explain all that she “has to do today” because she is proud of her accomplishments is a gift. Having the freedom to spend a day watching her cook spaghetti completely without my intervention but with her My Little Ponies beside her is as much an education for her as sitting in a classroom. Teaching her to read and watching her soar with understanding is one of the things I am most proud of. Homeschooling means I get to take part in amazing conversations with the two of them, like when I asked the question, “What makes a hero?” and receive the reply, “I know! It’s when everybody else is doing something that’s not right but you do the right thing anyway” or having your daughter confide in that she and a friend are reading the Bible every night and e-mailing each other their thoughts on it. Sure, these are things that can happen regardless of the type of education a child receives… but they happen more frequently for a homeschooling child simply because they are home more.
I really put a lot of thought into their curriculum this year and also how the school day would look. Homeschooling is a commitment and it takes a lot of effort and time. But it’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. I’m praying that this year fills any gaps that may have been missing in regards to their social lives between the friends they will make at Classical Conversations and gymnastics and clubs. My greatest goal in homeschooling is to teach them to love to learn and to also teach them, even more importantly, that family and faith matter. I want them to feel the freedom to express their own ideas and thoughts, even if they disagree with me. I want them to be safe and secure in the knowledge that they are loved. The curriculum we have before us this year is intense; it will require that they work hard. At the end of the year, though, when we look back, I hope they will be proud of what they have learned and that they will recognize that what they have learned is more than academics. What I really hope they will do this year is take the time to enjoy this precious year and grow.