I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season! Happy New Year! Thank you to everyone who after reading this September post left encouraging and helpful comments on the blog or on Facebook and to those who sent encouraging and helpful e-mails. I read Teaching from Rest a second and third time time and Honey for a Child's Heart again at least twice. I have also been reading a lot by and about Charlotte Mason. I started with For the Children's Sake by Macaulay and have since moved on to Charlotte's own work (albeit the modern English versions) and started her six volume set. The set is expensive to buy in hardcopy but is very reasonable if you can use the Ambleside Kindle editions. I started with this one. Several people familiar with these authors have pointed me in the direction of further reading that I might enjoy. I plan on continuing my path of learning in this area. Thank you.
Following my last post, I regrouped over a weekend and started the next week from a much better place than I was. I feel like I was able to pinpoint much of what was wrong, rediscover what our homeschool does well, and could see the start of the correct path before me. Just because I can't see the whole path right now doesn't mean I couldn't start walking.
For clarification, it has was I who was feeling pressured and overtaxed at the start of this school year. I feel blessed that I don't think the children have felt pressured at all (except for at youth orchestra, but that's another story and too personal to share). They had some very lovely, very enjoyable school days. They expressed excitement to start school in the weeks leading up to it and had not been resisting our activities or anything like that. They had been choosing their own work and working deeply. It was me with the problem.
Actually, it has was me with three problems.
1. Aiming for "rigor" rather than "diligence."
2. Dissatisfaction with never finishing my own to-do list and not recognizing that what I was calling "interruptions." is actually what I should call "my real life."
3. Guiding an academically-focused homeschool instead of a God-focused homeschool.
I did what I always do when faced with a problem, I look in a book. Hey! I haven't thought about Super Why for a long time.
Note: I might not have as many problems if what I always do when faced with a problem was "take it to God."
Moral: Always get your advice from God not Super Why. In this case, I actually did both. I must embarrassingly admit that it was the books I looked to first that reminded me to do that.
Question: Why do I read so much about Classical Education and Charlotte Mason when I'm a Montessori homeschooler and Montessori has been working so well for us?
Montessori and Charlotte Mason and Classical Education have a lot in common. There are a lot of ways to homeschool correctly and these are just some of them. Many of those ways don't even have proper names. I think that if you make a Venn diagram using two or more of any thoughtful, intentional educational plans you are going to find that they have a lot in common. Learning about how other methods treat the particulars that overlap can be highly informative.
Although they have much in common, there are also things that these methods disagree about or things that are just different. As I said, I picture a Venn diagram. If everything were the same it wouldn't be a Venn diagram, it would just be a circle. Something peculiar about Montessori is that is was never preimagined as a homeschooling method. In a true Montessori environment "The Group" is a working part of the method as much as are the materials, the approach, and the guide. There are those who feel Montessori without the group is not Montessori at all They would go as far as to disagree with me when I include Montessori among my "ways to homeschool correctly." We'll agree to disagree. Montessori is also an unusual homeschooling method perhaps due to the aforementioned opinions against it; the proprietary nature of the training; and the specialized, albeit optional, materials involved. All of this adds up to a situation in which the resources available are far more limited than for other more popular methods. To compound the problem, when you read about Montessori you are not necessarily reading very much about homeschooling.
In contrast many, many people use Classical Education and Charlotte Mason methods at home and a lot has been written about it. Because these methods do have so much in common with Montessori they provide an excellent place to look and learn about what Montessori homeschooling can look like and find a way to prop up the leg of the "Montessori table" that is missing without that "group."
Question: So what went wrong?
I think it is important that the "way" you homeschool suits the parent doing the homeschooling well. It might even be more important than how well it suits the child as any good, thoughtful, intentional method has a wide range of possible applications and that, within that method, a place on the spectrum can be found for most children. I think the problem is that I have found a method of working with my children that works very well for them and for me, Montessori. But, as I've learned more about other methods that overlap with Montessori in a way I find appealing I started to lean too strongly toward those other methods in a way that lead me outside of the sections that overlapped on my imaginary Venn diagram and into an arena that doesn't suit me or my children. In other words, I started this year leaning too Classical and it doesn't work for us.
From what I gather from Mackenzie's book, Teaching from Rest, this is a common phenomenon when you are keeping the scales balanced between virtue and vice. She describes this as follows:
In his landmark book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton tells us that secular culture is made up of virtues gone wild, and we see this tendency clearly when it comes to our teaching. If studiousness is a virtue worth cultivating, I find that I am drawn toward vice on either side of it. On the one hand, I am drawn to steamroll over my kids, to lord over them with checklists and grade levels without regard to their nature as unique persons made in the image of God. On the other, I am drawn to negligence or carelessness. I comfort myself with adages about children learning all the time and, hoping that my child will encounter an idea for himself without my interference, fail to form my student's affections out of fear that such work is coercion or manipulation...
...Rest is the virtue between negligence and anxiety, but many of the homeschooling moms I have met, myself included, find themselves more likely to fall prey to one camp or the other. When we are weak in virtue, we inch toward vice." (Mackenzie, loc 308)
Maybe every homeschooling family feels this way at times, but I like to think that it is particularly prevalent among Montessori homeschoolers. The Montessori method at the elementary level is special in that the curriculum is a web that spans six years and the child can position himself just about anywhere on that web at any time during those six years. And yes, we are always reaching for the ideal of the self-motivated child choosing their own work, and how long to stay at that work. So we are in an awkward position of having one eye on the totality of things we would like them to discover in six years; the other eye on the child; and our hands pinned under our rear end so we exercise restraint, so we don't interfere too much, so we don't interrupt, but at the same time, try not to interfere too little lest we miss the "perfect moment" to make the "perfect connection" to something else on the web. Just try saying that sentence out loud in one breath and you'll get an inkling of how that can feel sometimes. And this anxiety begins way back in Primary. Primary parents: this is the conflict you are feeling when you worry that they "haven't chosen anything," "are choosing the same thing too often," "choosing something too easy," "choosing something too hard," or just "not choosing what you really wanted them to choose." I think Mackenzie described a Montessori homeschooler perfectly. Who better to bounce back and forth from negligence to anxiety than a newbie-Montessorian?
Classical homeschooling provides a lovely antidote to our fear of doing too little and not making it through the material. We can look at how Classical homeschoolers fit "all of the things" into a day or a week and use it to learn how we can fit those things into our day or our week. We can grab classical resources for some of the things that these methods have in common--three-year cycles, history as a story, copywork--and use them to give our Montessori homeschool some structure that it perhaps needs to make up for the lack of the "group" or to make it just less big and scary sometimes.
However, after too much Classical reading the idea begins to creep in that you are going to get to lots and lots of things every day: grammar, history, writing, narration, spelling, math, foreign language, etc., But here you are. You are still trying to be a Montessori homeschool and let the child "deeply explore" each and every one of these things, which can take an hour per item. For me personally I found that instead of fully enjoying an hour we spent exploring a new idea my inner monologue is saying, "This is taking too long. We are never going to get to all of our dailies today." These are things that happened to me in the first week that as a Montessorian I should have been overjoyed to witness:
- Kal-El decides to see how many electrical devices he can add to his circuit and still have a working set-up. The answer: many.
- Me Too slowly examines every slide we own (many) under the microscope and shows me his favorites
- Kal-El is looking up a vocabulary word in the dictionary to dictate to me he gets caught up reading ten other words he finds on the way and exclaiming over the pictures. Then, when looking for the next one he sees a photograph of an organ. He remembers learning at the symphony last week that the largest pipe organ ever built had 33,114 pipes. He decides to count all of the pipes in the picture to see how many that organ has.
Instead of enjoying this, I'm thinking "That's not what I wanted you to be doing today. We aren't going to have enough time left over to get to everything else on our plan." This is because we are aiming for rigor rather than diligence.
Rigor versus Diligence
It is easy to perceive of Classical education as rigorous, and in fact I'm sure it is sometimes applied that way. I remember reading in The Well-Trained Mind that Susan Wise Bauer was pressured by the publisher to to make the book lean toward rigor but she wanted to make it clear that her own application was much looser and what I would describe as diligence. It is diligence that can make the Classical method so successful and yet peaceful. And it is that diligence that we can borrow and bring to our Montessori experience rather than rigor which will get us through the material but will not blend well with the Montessori idea of the joyful child.
Mackenzie describes it this way:
"We have this desire to give our kids what we call an academically "rigorous" education. Andrew Kern and Christopher Perrin both taught me a bit about that. In my conversations with them...I asked them how we could pursue a rigorous education while retaining a sense of rest. What I didn't realize at the time was that the word "rigor" comes from the Latin rigor, rigoris, which means "numbness, stiffness, hardness, firmness, roughness, rudeness." Rigor mortis literally means "the stiffness of death," which I think we can all agree is not the goal of homeschooling children." (mackenzie, loc 278)
My family has been successfully homeschooling with Montessori methods for more than eight years and I have been learning from and borrowing from Classical elements for at least five of those. This year is the one year I crossed the line between diligence and rigor and we hadn't even completed one week of school before I knew it. I could instantly feel that stiffness and numbness.
"Don't aim for a rigorous education, Kern and Perrin both told me. If we are aiming to order our children's affections, learn to love what is lovely, join in the great conversation, and cultivate a soul so that the person is ready in every sense of the word to take on the challenges around the corner and on the other side of the college entrance exams; work toward "diligence" instead. (Mackenzie's emphasis, loc 278).
Likewise Charlotte Mason states:
For instance, take the aspect that education is the science of making relationships. That concept seems to solve the curriculum question. It shows that the main purpose of education is putting the child in living touch with as much of nature and thoughts as possible. If you add a couple of skills that help the child self-educate, then the student will go into the world after graduation with some ability to manage and control himself, a few hobbies to enrich his leisure time, and an interest in lots of things. (Mason, loc 55)
Mackenzie goes on to contrast rigor with diligence:
'Diligence' comes from the Latin diligere, which means to 'single out, value highly, esteem, prize, love; aspire to, take delight in, appreciate.' What we are really aiming for in giving our children a rigorous education is not just doing hard things, but cultivating a habit of focused attention. The word 'student' comes from the Latin studium, meaning 'zeal, affection, eagerness.' A diligent student, then, takes delight, eagerly and with great zeal, in what he loves. (Mackenzie, loc 278)
Boy, does that sound like you are reading from Maria Montessori or what? My main goal as a homeschooling parent has been, from the beginning, to raise children who love to learn. It is primarily for this reason that I was unwilling to risk sending them to school and allow someone else to accidentally squash that love of learning in any way.
I am aware that there is a danger that this post can come across as critical of Classical Homeschooling. That is not my intent. I am discarding only some parts of the Classical method as I understand them because those parts, as I interpret them, do not suit me as my boys' teacher (see what I did there) or my boys. As I stated earlier, I think it is important that the the "way" you homeschool suits the parent doing the homeschooling well and that I think that at times it might even be more important than how well it suits the child. During all of these years of blogging there have been many times when I could tell by the types of questions a parent is asking and the frequency with which they asked those type of questions that the parent was just not a Montessori homeschooler at heart but rather a Classical homeschooler. I have at times told them so although, in retrospect, that nugget of advice has ever been well-received. But I seriously think it is difficult enough for parents to find peace at home without adding the unnecessary complication of homeschooling your child using a method contrary to how you, the parent, are wired. On the other hand, I don't find it surprising that we do this. As teachers and as parents we have a tendency to teach to our weaknesses rather than our strengths. "I'm good at X, so X will be fine. I better work hard at Y so that the kids don't wind up weak in that are like I am." This is admirable and loving. It is also how we often wind up with music teachers who are bad at math doing math with their children every day but never actually teaching them an instrument. I digress.
Now, if you are a Montessori homeschooler looking for a way to fill in the blanks regarding how this (Montessori at home) is going to look and Classical education starts to make you lean toward rigor rather than diligence, Charlotte Mason is a wonderful balancing antidote. So is Sarah Mackenzie, who seems to me to be some of Charlotte Mason/Classical homeschooler but I haven't noticed a statement that says so. It's hard to tell due to the overlap between Classical and Mason. That's just fine.
What I had to do this fall is redefine or clarify what my priorities in this homeschool. For me this means that a 3-4 hour work period is important. Not just the luxury of having an uninterrupted 3-4 hour work period, but that this work period be the ONLY work period spent specifically in the school room. The Classical models that I am familiar with are not 3 hour work plans. Montessori wasn't much of a help either. In a brick and mortar Montessori elementary school, the elementary children are not there just for the morning. The 3-4 hour work day is something that Charlotte Mason and I have in common as a priority. Because Mason has somethings in common with Classical that Montessori does not, it is a place to look and see how we can add Classical to Montessori in a more Montessori way. Sarah Mackenzie's book and blog have some great concrete steps to take toward this. She even refers to keeping the the "birdseye view" and the "eye on the child" at the same time. But these are intentionally nonspecific regarding academic content. Some Charlotte Mason resources I founded help me see how the nitty-gritty details might look on the ground.
- Here is a link to Sarah Mackenzie's blogpost on planning: Amongst Lovely Things: Planning
- Here is a link to some sample Charlotte Mason daily schedules: Daily Schedules and Weekly Schedules
Is This the Real Life? Is this just fantasy?
It is very tempting to just pull quote the entire section of Sarah Mackenzie's book in chapter two subtitled "The Cake under the Couch" here. But that wouldn't be fair. Understand that I had a very difficult time limiting my quotes here. I highly recommend you read the book, especially this chapter, this section and the following section titled "Why Your Daily Grind is Holy Ground."
There is a moment that has always stuck in my mind. It is the time that our next door neighbors at our first house, where we were newlyweds, introduced us to friends of theirs at a party. They said, "This is [my husband]. He is a lot of fun. This is [me]. She is such hard worker." This is not to say that my husband does not work hard, or that I am not fun (someone back me up here). But, I'd have to say that they summed us up pretty well. The boys always say that we all have superpowers. Mom's are "reading fast" and "working hard." I know that I am not alone.
We are called to work. That part we have down, more or less. We homeschooling mothers are quite adept at spinning our wheels, working dawn to dusk to make sure our children have everything they need. We toil tirelessly to create lesson plans and assemble curriculum that will ensure our children know everything they need to know before they fly our coop.
We worry. We fret. We know, deep down in the core of our being that we are not enough. That what we offer is a pittance compared to the task before us. We feel small and insignificant because we are small and insignificant. (Mackenzie, loc 180)
I have been doing a great job planning and preparing the environment but we were having a rough time getting to everything I had planned. And, when we did get to it all there was a certain satisfaction but not a certain happiness. This general uneasy feeling easily would easily turn to general grouchiness because I had a pretty good idea of what was slowing me down: the kids. Sarah Mackenzie describes this beautifully. She asks:
What is keeping you from speeding through the reading curriculum, flying through the math book, checking off the less plans, and maximizing efficiency? Usually the answer is people. Can you hit the pause button on your frustration long enough to realize that people rank infinitely higher than anything else on the list? Have you considered that God may have scooted these people into view for the very purpose of slowing you down?
Whatever is getting in the way of your plan for the day--the toddler's tantrum, the messy bedroom, the sticky juice leaking all over the fridge and into the cracks of the drawers, the frustrated child, the irritable husband, the car that won't start, the cake the dog dragged under the couch...whatever that intrusion into your grand plan for the day is, it's also an opportunity to enter into rest. (Mackenzie, loc 248)
Mackenzie points out that Hubert Van Zeller states in Holiness for Housewives and Other Working Women, "When a person interrupts what you are doing, you [ought to] recognize a representative of Christ." However the quote that really struck me to the core was one she quoted from C.S. Lewis:
The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one's 'own,' or 'real' life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one's real life--the life God is sending one day by day; what one calls on's "real life" is a phantom of one's own imagination. (emphasis mine)If all of these interruptions are my real life and God is sending them to me, why do I let these things frustrate me instead of bless me? I think it's the nature of parenting but only when you fail to accept the cyclical nature and the unending nature of the task, when you try to replace the mission God has given you with a mission of your own, and when you try to take the credit for yourself when things are going well and then you will feel the heaviness when your manmade plan isn't going well.
Mackenzie reminds us:
Do you see? We must drop the self-inflated view that we are the be-all and end-all of whether the education we offer our children is going to work out. We are too quick to feel both the successes and the failures of our job as homeschoolers. Our kids test well on the SAT and we pat ourselves on the back. They are miserable writer and we scourge ourselves for failing them. But He never demands that we produce prodigies or achieve what the world would recognize as excellence. Rather, he asks us to live excellently--that is, to live in simple, obedient faith and trust. He asks us to faithfully commit every day to Him and then to do that day's tasks well. He's in charge of the results. (Mackenzie, loc 378)
Rest begins with acceptance. Or, perhaps more accurately, with surrender. there will always be more you can do. You will never complete your tasks entirely, because just on the horizon is tomorrow, and tomorrow the to-do list starts anew. It is so exhausting--sometimes demoralizing--to realize that our work in raising up and teaching our children is never really done. But we must remember that we were never intended to finish it. (Mackenzie loc 234)
We find rest through acceptance and surrender. "Surrender your idea of what the ideal homeschool day is supposed to look like and take on, with both hands, the day that it is. Rest begins with acceptance, with surrender. Can we accept what He is sending today?" (Mackenzie, loc 263)
So what is it that my children really need?
Well, I have always had quite a few ideas. However, I started out the year with the strong feeling that I was not giving them what they needed in the way they needed it. Fortunately I found that Mackenzie had a lot of suggestions in this area. Frankly, trying to flesh out this single section of this blog post has left it unpublished for months so I am going to just put these quotes out there in bullet points and publish already. I promise I starting writing like a grownup again in the next section.
- In fact, unshakable peace is not tied to my success at all. It's tied to faithfulness. We rest in knowing that if your children grow up to ask us why we did what we did--why we focused on cultivating wonder and curiosity, on learning hard things such as Latin and algebra, why we didn't fill up our days but focused on living well and gazing on Him--we can answer them with confidence.(Mackenzie, loc 308)
- We want to bless our children "not with shiny curriculum or perfect lesson plans, but rather with purposeful, restful spirits." (Mackenzie, loc 198)
- My child doesn't need me to fret and fear; she needs me to love and guide her with grace. (Mackenzie, loc 294).
- The true aim of education is to order a child's affections--to teach him to love what he ought and hat what he ought. Or greatest task, then, is to put living ideas in front of our children like a feast. We have been charged to cultivate the souls of our children, to nourish the in truth, goodness, and beauty, to raise them up in wisdom and eloquence. It is to those ends that we labor. (Mackenzie, 198)
Where is our focus?
Most of my own frustration comes from forgetting what my real task is in the first place. He's called me to be faithful, yet I'm determined to be successful. (Mackenzie, loc 361)
Have I been taking my responsibility to raise children who love learning more seriously than my responsibility to raise children who love God? I couldn't trust the public school to teach my children a love of learning but I'm okay with outsourcing teaching them to love God to our church's pastors and Sunday school volunteers? No, that is thought-provoking but I don't think that describes me accurately. There are several main reasons people don't homeschool, but certainly one of the more popular ones is fear, fear that we won't do something very important well enough. So many families outsource their child's education because they are afraid that they will mess it up if they do it themselves. I have always felt confident that I could homeschool my boys. But faith? That's really important and I've been outsourcing more of it than I should out of fear. In the book Almost Christian by Dean, Dean writes that while church communities are important, what the parents model is more important. Church communities "play second string when it comes to the transmission of faith" (117). Dean writes, "Teenagers' ability to imitate Christ depends, to a daunting degree, on whether we do," (112).
So, it seems that the most important thing I need to model every day is how to imitate Christ. When I am constantly cranky and snappish because all of the "interruptions" (people) are getting in the way of my grand plan (education and a clean house) I am not spending any time imitating Christ. The most important lesson I have to teach is not being taught. Those interruptions are not interruptions, they are our life.
So oddly, the way I fixed our homeschooling issues from the beginning of the year was to ADD something to our already full day. We now start the school day with reciting verses and reading a chapter or two from the Bible. We have changed our focus. Then we hit the rest of our work plan, but frankly the kids aren't ready to leave my lap on the couch quite yet. I have accepted this and surrendered to it. So, we are working through Life of Fred together. It's math, but I can't imagine a more gentle transition from our Bible reading. We are doing about two chapters a day and have gone from Apples to Goldfish already this year. The math is mostly review but the life lessons the author sneaks into those texts are not. After Fred, we listen to Story of the World and follow that with our Spanish lesson for the day. Finally, I might give a Montessori presentation to both kids from a cyclical subject list and then we split up. One child works on their work plan with mom while the other works on individual work. Then, we switch. All the while we accept the interruptions as they come. I will try to give you all a look at our current work plans soon. If you happened to look at any of the Charlotte Mason schedules I linked to above this should look familiar. We started the year leaning too Classical and are now instead leaning toward Charlotte Mason. For this season of our lives, this is what a Montessori homeschool looks like. What is most important to me is that it is starting to look more like Sarah Mackenzie suggested:
That writing assignment on the plan today Do it well. That math lesson that your child struggles over? Sit down next to him, and do one problem at a time slowly and carefully. Smile a lot. Lavish him with love. Because whether or not he becomes an excellent writer or a proficient mathematician is not your business to worry over. your business is that single assignment today and loving him through it.
This refocusing on God rather than academics certainly solves problem of how much of the "grand plan" we are going to cover in a day. We are going to start with God first. We are going to take the "interruptions" as they come because they are not interruptions, they are our life. However much academic material is covered during the hours we have is what we will cover. Diligently.
I'm a Martha, not a Mary
I still have a lot of learning to do. The introduction of Teaching from Rest begins by reminding the reader of the story of Mary and Martha in the Bible (see Luke 10:38-42). Mackenzie summarizes:
"Jesus was staying at their house, and Martha, anxious to please Him and make Him comfortable, was bustling about--doing and doing and doing. Her sister, Mary, was sitting at the Lord's feet, listening attentively, beholding, soaking in.
We can picture Martha in her frustration with her sister, right? 'Don't just sit there! Do something!' And yet the the Lord gently admonishes Martha's busyness. Mary, after all, has chosen the needful thing. The contemplative way. The being and becoming over the doing and the checking off. I can almost hear him inverting the message to me--turning my obsession with productivity on its head: 'Don't just do something, sit here." (Mackenzie, loc 177)
I am a Martha. For decades my gut reaction to this story has always been sympathy for Martha. I think, "How nice for Mary that she had Martha around so she could be free to sit at the Lord's feet." And Martha is chastised? Who will do the things that Martha does if Martha becomes a Mary? What I feel like I need is another Martha to come and live here so I can take a turn being a Mary. I guess that is what I hope to learn this year. How to be a Mary rather than resent Mary. I have no idea how a Mary exists without a Martha to pick up the slack.