The Magical Secret of Homeschooling

Simplicity. Consistency. Quietness. Freedom. These words whisper to me over and over as winter reluctantly yields to spring. Only three months left in this school year. Things haven’t quite turned out as I planned. Yet, maybe, just maybe, that’s okay.

I started this school year confident in my well-chosen Charlotte Mason curriculum, our studies scheduled in neat 10 or 20 minute blocks, each subject carefully woven into the tapestry, nothing missing. Except that something felt missing.

My nagging discontent led me to do what I always do – read books, scour blogs, search podcasts for The Magical Secret of Homeschooling. I tweaked our schedule once, twice, three times. I read about other mom’s schedules, methods, curriculums. How can I make what works for them work for us? I asked myself. But missing information, extenuating circumstances, or personality differences always rendered impossible my task of fitting their puzzle pieces into the frame of my life.

Little by little, realization dawned. I was asking the wrong question. I was starting in the wrong place. I began noticing a common thread running through the writings of the homeschool moms I most admired. They all encouraged me to do the unthinkable – get up earlier than the kids to spend time with the Lord. I had hoped that stealing a few heavy-eyed moments in the evening would serve just as well. But beginning rather than ending my day with the Lord is indeed a totally different concept.

That first week of morning quiet times, verse after verse from Isaiah shone truth into my searching soul:

“He said, ‘This is the resting place, let the weary rest;’ and ‘This is the place of repose’ – but they would not listen. So then, the word of the Lord to them will become: Do this, do that, a rule for this, a rule for that, a little here, a little there” (Isaiah 28:12-13).

Wow, this is exactly what homeschooling had become for me. A law for everything, a schedule worked out to the minute, certain doom if I failed in any point. A fearsome prospect.

“In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength” (Isaiah 30:15).

But my heart was anything but quiet. I was running from one book to the next without leaving room to hear from the Lord let alone use the brain He gave me. Other moms had to figure this stuff out long before blogs and podcasts. What if I had to simply rely on prayer and my own wits?

And then, a truly shocking question came to me:

What would my homeschool look like if I had never read a homeschooling book or (gasp!) heard of Charlotte Mason?

Now, I’m certainly not saying that I’m wiser than all the other moms who have gone before. I’m not saying I shouldn’t seek wisdom from more seasoned people. I would be foolish not to. And I’m utterly grateful to other moms and to Charlotte Mason for all the wisdom and richness they’ve added to our homeschool. But there’s something to be said for quieting the outside voices and working out my own salvation with fear and trembling.

If I were to honestly answer my own question, I would say: homeschooling would look more like time spent close together with books than time marching through a schedule. It would look like a few subjects done well instead of many subjects skimmed over. It would include the fun of choosing our own books and the creativity of planning enrichment activities and field trips.

 Nature study would look more like playing together outside than coercing a child to sketch a flower against her will. Handicrafts would look more like a well-stocked closet of resources my girls could access at will, along with a few carefully taught skills as they grow, than yet another forced activity in a set timeslot ending with an embroidery hoop chucked across the room. (And our lucky guinea pigs would have handcrafted hairbows to match every outfit!)

I suppose what I’m saying, to use an overused term, is it would all feel more organic. Structure, routine, expectations we would have, certainly. But I wouldn’t feel like I had to follow someone else’s plan or suffer certain failure. I often feel impressed by the rigorous book choices in certain curricula. But then I also feel sad because following a dictated path means I won’t have time to read all the lovely books already on my shelves. I’ve often felt jealous of moms who describe homeschooling as one big cozy read-aloud gathering on the couch. That’s how I pictured it when I began this journey; how did I stray so far?

I found myself asking some more questions:

  1. What is most important to me?
  2. What am I good at?
  3. What are my girls interested in?
  4. What resources / supplies / books do we already have?

I came up with lists for each of these questions. Already I felt myself breathing easier. I simplified our schedule – Bible at breakfast, math and language arts right after while we’re still fresh, followed by a long play break. Then that long, cozy reading time together on the couch after lunch, reading history, geography, and science books I’ve chosen with joy rather than compunction.

But still one question lingered – what method should I use to help us digest all of our reading? Answers abound in the homeschooling world: narration, hands-on projects, discussion questions, just trusting the book alone to be enough. So I asked myself again – if I had never heard of any of these ideas, what would I do to help us closely observe, process, and retain our books?

I thought about what I do when I really want to study and learn from a book myself. I keep a notebook at my side, write down quotes and questions, take notes of important events, scribble my thoughts about the meaning of it all and how it changed my thinking. Why not do something similar on a simpler level with the girls?

Here’s my simple, three-part approach to notebooking with my first and second grader:

First, I choose an important quote from the reading for the girls to copy. As they get older, I’ll guide them in choosing quotes for themselves.

Second, I have a question or two written out in their notebooks that we discuss and answer in complete sentences. I help with the writing as needed.

Third, we do an activity: illustrate the chapter, make a map or chart, make a simple craft.

I think notebooking works particularly well for us as a family of introverts because it gives us something to do, a way to process, that leads to discussion more naturally than point-blank questions which always seem confrontational no matter how gently put. And I see so many ways this notebooking habit can grow with them and serve as the basis for research projects and higher level writing years hence. I love the opportunity for review, for creativity, for connections among subjects.

The point of all this rambling, however, is not to offer another schedule, booklist, or method. As Sally Clarkson says in Awaking Wonder, “Relax! Finding the perfect education model is a phantom worry that often hovers over the fretful consciences of parents who choose to teach.”

I’m not saying there aren’t better and worse ways to homeschool. The importance of literature is a hill I’ll die on. After all, Benjamin Franklin left school after only a few short years but spent the rest of his childhood reading voraciously. And he turned out pretty smart. Time in nature and learning to work with one’s hands likewise top my list of do-or-die homeschool priorities.

But fretting over 10-minute timeslots in a schedule, feeling guilty for not following someone else’s booklist, sucking all the joy out of life because I’m fearful of failure? Enough, I say! Time to turn less to curriculums and podcasts. Time to turn continually to the Father as my place of repose and drink deep of his grace. Yes, my friends, His presence is the one and only Magical Secret of Homeschooling!

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