Among the Paleo-Humans: The Rules of Homeschooling

Sharon December 18th, 2009

A small band of ice-age hunter-gatherers is presently in my yard stalking wooly rhinos, and trying to entice a dire wolf into becoming a domesticated dog.  There’s also some issue with predatory smilodons.  The hunters spent part of yesterday flint knapping spearheads out of driveway gravel, tied them with raffia to sticks, and are now crawling around hunting abovementioned rhinos (goats) across the scrublands (the backyard), and around the glaciers (snowy woodpile).  

The dire wolf is being slowly acclimated to human presence with food.  The major issue in the present project of domestication is that the dire wolf tends to respond to the presence of food by acting, well, depressingly domesticated, and has to be regularly reminded that she is fierce and unsure about this human project.  Meanwhile, the saber-toothed cats are just plain mystified about why all this running and screaming when one of them is spotted.  But they do appreciate the increased degree of respect, which they feel is only their due.

As you can probably guess, we’re doing the ice age and paleo-humans right now in homeschool, and it has taken strongly.  Thus we hear Isaiah shriek at his brother, who has done something to irritate him “You aren’t even a Cro-magnon or a Neanderthal, you are just a monkey, Simon!”   There is no official award for best insult by a five year old at our house, but that one is going up there.

This is not what we are actually supposed to be doing.  The Plan (which I had to file with my school district earlier this year) calls for us to have long since put away our spears and mammoth skulls and moved firmly on to ancient Egypt and the African Empires.  My assumption was that two weeks would suffice on early humans and then we could go on to the excitement of pulling dead people’s brains out through their noses - ah the pleasures of Egypt and its Mummies.  But the kids don’t want to do mummies, they want to be ice age hunters, and well, I’m prepared to explain to my district and the state of New York why ran out of steam at the fall of Rome, instead of making it through the Vikings and Meso-America.

We’re also spending an awful lot of time on languages this year, since this is Simon’s present obsession.  My kid taught himself to read Russian, Greek and Hindi - seriously, I am not joking about this.  And he just got workbooks for his birthday for Chinese and Arabic.  We are teaching Spanish and Hebrew, along with English, and Eric speaks Russian and a little Hindi and once upon a time I studied Greek - but  neither of us had planned on getting little messages from our son written in Arabic.  But we are, and we figure we might as well enjoy it.

This is one of the indisputable rules of homeschooling, or at least homeschooling as we do it - that you will not necessarily end up doing things in a linear way, or what you expected.  I’m sure there are parents out there who run a tight ship, but we are not among them.  My feeling is that there is a time and place for tight ships, but it probably isn’t when you are seven - at least in this respect.  It doesn’t seem to matter much to me whether my kids meet the Barbarian Hordes at the fall of Rome now or in a year or two.   

And meditating on this fact - that homeschooling really never seems to work out just the way you think it will, made me think about what the other rules of homeschooling are.  So here I inscribe them, so that other parents taking on this project will be warned that homeschooling is a lot of fun - but it isn’t always perfect. 

Rule #1 - Homeschooling doesn’t always end up as you planned.  Whether you start out with the intention of doing all of first grade math in a month or with the intention of totally unschooling, sometimes your expectations aren’t realistic.  And often, one’s kids take us places we hadn’t expected to go.  My feeling is that for the most part, and absent any major imperative, the best thing to do is go with the flow, at least until it drives you crazy. 

Rule #2  - Everyone will worry that your children are not being adequately socialized.  Whether they know you or not, they will fear deeply for your child’s future ability to get along in the world, without going to school.  You, on the other hand, will often consider your children wildly oversocialized, say, on the day when you have homeschool group, playdate and a museum visit all at once.  And when your 8 year old comes home loudly singing the lyrics of a song about a boy who could belch the alphabet, you may seriously consider the virtue of raising children in isolated caves.  Maybe even isolated from you.

Rule #3 - Homeschooled children reflect the general population.  That means that despite the fact that every kid in your homeschool group seems to be doing calculus at 7 and playing Chopin at 4, the reality is that some homeschooled kids will be struggling to read at 7 or 8 - and some of them will be the Chopin and Calculus kids.  Homeschooling does bring out the overcompensation in some parents - they want to say that not only are their kids getting a good education, but an extra-special-perfect one.  Ok, whatever.  The reality is that some kids will be like that, and some won’t, just like everywhere else in the real world.  Don’t let the woman whose daughter just built a 1/5 scale replica of a gothic cathedral, complete with gargoyles and flying buttresses out of toothpicks get to you - although feel free to make puking noises when she’s out of hearing.

Rule #4 - You may not have time or desire to homeschool, but I’m pretty sure you can handle fourth grade social studies if you want to bad enough.  I don’t know how often someone comes to me and says “I wouldn’t know how to teach my kid all the things he needs to know” or “I’m not educated enough to homeschool.”  And I’m sitting there thinking - are you really sure that you couldn’t maybe look up Niels Bohr, the Louisiana Purchase or subject-verb-predicate?  Because while there are plenty of American not literate enough, good enough English speakers or otherwise seriously challenged, most of them aren’t the ones saying this.  If you passed all your grades you can homeschool without an enormous amount of new learning.  It isn’t that hard.  

Things get tougher in high school, and you have to be prepared to learn stuff you’ve forgotten or sucked at on your own, but you can do it, or find other people to teach your kids trig.  There’s nothing wrong with not wanting to homeschool, or not having the time or being limited by unfamilarity with a language. But if you really wanted to, most people could definitely teach someone the multiplication tables. 

Rule #5 - You don’t have to go everywhere and do everything.  There’s a lot of pressure to be this kind of homeschooler, I think - to constantly be on your way to the museum, or off to the local archaeological dig.  The idea of hands-on learning is very seductive, and for them that like this sort of thing, and live close enough to good stuff not to be driving like crazy, that’s cool.  But you don’t have to be like that to homeschool - you can do smaller-scale hands on learning at home, burying old bones in the sandbox and having the children excavate them.  Or you can read about fossils and focus in on learning to build stuff.  Sure, there’s stuff you’ll miss that way - but that’s the way of education, you always miss some things.  And you miss plenty when you are always in the car.

Rule #6 - If it sucks, and you don’t have to,  don’t do it.  Seriously, teachers in public schools have to do a lot of really crappy, boring things.  They have to have a classroom of people who will stand in line to go to the bathroom and who will return the obvious answer.  They can’t always teach teenagers the dirty funny bits in Shakespeare or say “ok, maybe you aren’t ready for this, we’ll come back to it later.”  They’ve got 30 other kids and an administration on their back (I am not picking on school teachers here - in fact, I think it is astounding, given how many ridiculous hoops they have to jump through, that so many teachers do so very well.) 

You only have your kids, and you don’t have to do that stuff - so there’s no good reason to make yourself and your kids miserable, unless there’s some real pedagogical advantage.  This is not an argument for letting your kids grow up without learning the multiplication tables or about fire safety, but maybe you can skip over the “patriotism” curriculum, and not re-teach the American revolution 9 times the way they do at school.

Rule #7 - Sooner or later, your kid may want to go to school - or you will want/need them to go.  There’s no shame in this, and it isn’t bad - sometimes homeschooling is not a good choice.   This has not happened to me yet, but I fully expect that it will.  We already send autistic Eli to school - we wouldn’t be able to teach him well - I would not voluntarily homeschool him.  I know people who teach their kids with special needs at home, but I don’t aspire to this (although I have a plan in case it becomes necessary).  So far, Simon and Isaiah are both ideal homeschooled kids - Simon because he’s such a self-directed natural learner and Isaiah because he’s domestic and doesn’t really like things like school. I expect Asher to be considerably more challenging, though, and I’m not sure where he’ll end up.

I have a neighbor who found herself in constant power-struggles with her son while homeschooling - and everyone got happier when he went to public school, where he thrived.  Some parents aren’t great at homeschooling, and some kids aren’t great at being homeschooled. Sometimes a new job or a move comes, and the circumstances change.  Sometimes a kid wants to go to school.  Just as subject matter and approach demand flexibility, so does your relationship to school in general.   And make sure you allow yourself permission, periodically on bad days, to mutter under your breath about sending them to school, ideally military school. 

Rule #8 -  The best part of homeschooling is staying home.  Seriously, this is the reason we started - because my school district went to all-day kindergarten with an hour’s bus ride on each end, and my kid wasn’t even five yet, and still took a nap.  Keeping him back wasn’t an option - he’d been reading since he was 3 and had half the multiplication tables memorized.  So we homeschooled, and we’ve been doing it ever since.  We’re having fun - and the best part of it isn’t that we do everything, but that we don’t.  Instead of racing around in the morning to get everyone out, we’re going slower - just one kid is leaving.  

There is a great deal to be said for schools - many teachers know and care a lot about what they teach and the best teachers are wonderful.  But there’s also a lot to be said for home - for being fully integrated into family life. Not everyone can do this - many people work long hours.  But having kids integrated into a fully active home life has real virtues that ought to be explored - that is, the skills you can teach, the relationship to a place you can teach are different, and the kind of education you can get as a homeschooler can be different - and these, at their best are extremely good things.  The truth is we need sense of place and deep knowledge of local environments desperately - so go with your strengths.

Rule #9 - The best thing to teach them is how to learn.  The reality is that I can’t keep up with Simon on languages - Eric probably can, but I’m not sure we have time.  So Simon is learning to learn himself. Critical thinking, research and analytic skills are things that are often taught very poorly by public schools in general - and also by many homeschooling parents.  The truth is that if your kid doesn’t read Romeo and Juliet in high school or learn Russian or whatever, *if they’ve received a good foundation* and if you’ve taught them how to learn they can do a lot of it later. 

Rule #10 - There’s nothing wrong with NOT homeschooling. The thing is, homeschoolers get a lot of shit from non-homeschoolers, assuming that homeschoolers are too ignorant to teach their kids, or are raising weirdoes, and they can be awfully defensive about it.  At the same time, non-homeschoolers feel like homeschoolers spend a lot of time trashing public schools and implying that if they really loved their kids, they’d be home with their kids.  Frankly, both of these attitudes piss me off - it isn’t either/or, and there’s no real reason for parents, struggling to do the best they can by their kids to fight one another.  Let’s just assume that everyone is doing the best they can, can we?



Turkey, Anyone?

Sharon December 14th, 2009

If you or anyone you know is looking to serve a heritage turkey over the holidays, and is looking for one in the New York Capital Region, we have a dozen turkeys that were too small for the table at Thanksgiving, but will be available after Friday.  They are old breeds - Blue Slate, Black Spanish and Bourbon Red - raised on pasture, foraging for a large portion of their diet.  We are not certified organic but they were fed organic feed to supplement their diet, and homegrown organic grains as well.   We can probably deliver to central points in the Albany/Schenectady area.  Price is $2.60 per pound - and most of the birds will be between 10 and 18lbs, with a few a bit bigger.

Email me if you are interested!  We just ate the last of last year’s batch of turkeys, and it was utterly delicious - moister, richer tasting and just better.


Independence Days Update: Winter, Interrupted

Sharon December 14th, 2009

We’re having an extremely welcome pause in the cold today and tomorrow, which gives us the time to do a bunch of things we really should have gotten to before, but didn’t.  I’ve still got containers out in the garden that weren’t brought in, and fencing to put away, and the last of the root crops to pull (at least the ones not staying in the ground until spring).  Much to do, all of it late - but that’s the story of our life.

The cold weather means moving over to winter management of the animals - we’re starting to dig into our reserves of home-grown feed supplements - sunflower seeds, pumpkins, corn and amaranth go to the chickens, the goats and the turkeys.  We’re not independent of the feed store, but we do what we can to reduce our dependency, and try and buy local and organic otherwise. 

Chanukah started earlier this week, and has been very pleasant.  We were supposed to celebrate Isaiah’s birthday and Chanukah yesterday, but bad weather and a minor (and now fixed) dental crisis involving Eli meants that we ended up rescheduling for next week, at least on the birthday end.  We had a quiet holiday celebration with two of the Grandmas and us and the kids, and it was lovely. 

It has been a busy week getting ready for the holiday and also making the shift over to winter - just over a week ago, it was 60, so many of the last minute winter things involving sealing and tightening really don’t get done until it gets properly cold.   With the start of the new blog and the end of Eric’s term with its flood of grading and exams, last week was rushed and we’re looking forward to a bit more quiet.  I feel like I didn’t get much done last week.

I’m starting to look at the seed catalogs and dream of the next garden.  I’m also plotting a low-budget, minimalist house rearrangement and some paint to pretty up two really ugly bits of my home.  We’ve got a room that has become a junk room, and I’m going to move some bookcases in there, get a couple of big chairs off of Craigslist, and paint it a decent color (I miss Eric’s grandmother, but not her taste in taupe and baby blue home decor ;-)), and make it a more pleasant place to be.  I’ve got bees on the brain and sheep as well, and am mulling over our farm plan. 

Of course I’m not really supposed to be doing these things - instead, I’m supposed to be single mindedly working on my book.  So far, this is not happening ;-)

Plant something: Nada

Harvest something: Some kale and turnip greens, and a few turnips.  Also rosemary, thyme and oregano from the windowsill plants.

Preserve something: Apple Quince Sauce, froze some fried cauliflower

Waste Not: Tried to make an eggshell menorah out of saved aracauna eggs.  Destroyed eggshells and failed miserably ;-) . Otherwise, the usual composting, feeding things to other things, using up scraps…

Want Not: Picked up a big order of wheat, oats and dried fruit. 

Eat the food: Latkes, latkes, latkes - yum!  They are best, IMHO, with applesauce mixed with some quinces for that incomparable fragrance.  We also made sofganiyot for the first time, filled with homemade jam - the raspberry is still the best, but the peach-almond was awesome. 

Build community food systems - still doing a lot of radio interviews for _Independence Days_ - also, working hard on pushing poultry on a lot of people - I’m your poultry pusherwoman!

How about you?

Blog Title Announcement

Sharon December 11th, 2009

And the Winnah is….KM.  I really liked all the titles people suggested.  I almost went with “Dorothea’s Model Cottage” except I couldn’t quite get past the fact that Dorothea always kind of annoyed me.  She’s so bloodless.   I liked a lot of the other suggestions, but I think I’ve decided to go with KM’s “Chatelaine” suggestion, and call it “The Chatelaine’s Keys.”  Of course, that’s redundant, but hey!

KM, email me at [email protected] with your address, which book you want and how you want me to sign it!   

Now I just have to figure out how to change the title in Wordpress.  Anybody know?


Friday Food Storage Quickie: Soup to Nuts

Sharon December 11th, 2009

Hi Folks - Time for another food storage addition.  Because it is the holiday season, it makes sense to add things that are on sale right now - many spices and seasonings, as well as ingredients are at the lowest price they will be all year if you have to buy them conventionally (as always, if you *can* buy food locally, from a coop or in bulk, it will generally be a better deal, support good stuff and include less packaging and waste, but we try to be realistic here.)

Last week we got the ingredients for bean or lentil soup together - yum!  This week we go from soup to nuts, literally. Right now our food storage, if you’ve been following my suggestions is probably a little thin on protein, so it is a good week to add a nice, vegetarian protein source - nuts.  These are reasonably priced right now - ideally you will get them from local farmers, but they are also available in supermarkets. They are nutritious, in a cool dry place in the shell will keep 1 year, they are tasty and most people like them.  If you don’t like whole nuts, consider peanut, almond or cashew butters.

Except, of course, the people who are allergic to nuts, which is a non-trivial portion of the population.  Nuts are one of the most 8 most common food allergies in the US.  Most people with nut allergies can still eat chestnuts, which are biologically different than most tree nuts, so that’s one possibility.  Otherwise, you will want to add another protein source to your storage.  Shelf-stable tofu, marmite/vegemite if you like it, more beans, or canned meat or fish (choose organic whenever possible and not overfished species).

Also on sale in a lot of places right now is dried fruit - you can make this yourself if you have inexpensive fruit sources throughout the year - for example, perhaps you can still get a deal on apples at this point. But if you have to buy it, I would recommend some form of dried fruit for anyone who feels they may have to switch from their current diet to a storage diet at some point. The reason is this - unless you diet consists now primarily of the foods you already keep in storage, sudden dietary shifts tend to cause constipation.  This is not a pleasant problem to have, particularly if you are in the middle of a crisis. It also provides something sweet for people not accustomed to doing without sugars, it makes for an easy snack food for kids (mixed with nuts is even better), and it will allow you to make “treat” foods like oatmeal raisin cookies or dried fruit granola bars.  Again, if you can buy local, organic or in bulk, please do so.

We added spices and seasonings last week - if you can, add a few more this week. Remember, whole spices store best, and it isn’t hard to grate some cassia or a nutmeg.  But if all you can get are ground, you can keep them in the freezer for up to two years or on the shelf for one. Just keep them tightly capped and away from heat and light (ie, don’t put them on those shelves over the stove.

Remember the food pantry - throw in a couple of jars of peanut butter and some bread or crackers for them as well if you can afford it.  Dried fruit will also always be welcome, as will things like granola bars for families with limited time to cook.

Finally, our non-food item this week is alcohol, assuming, of course, that your family wants/uses alcohol (I am not encouraging anyone to take up drinking here).  Why would you want alcohol?  Well, there are a number of reasons.  First, you might want it for medicinal purposes - there are studies out there that show that in most cough syrups, the alcohol is the effective portion. Why not toss the Nyquil and just have a glass of whiskey with some honey in it - it tastes better.  If you make tinctures or your own flavorings, you’ll want it for that.  My feeling is that if you have a crisis, a glass of wine with dinner is not the worst idea in the world.   It is the classic barter item in a crisis, and if worst came to worst, and you have to drink contaminated water (which happens at times), you should put a little alcohol in it for safety if you can’t treat it any other way.  Many liquor stores have alcohol on sale right now, so it is a good time to add to your pantry, if you feel it is a worthwhile thing to have!



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