Friday, April 29, 2011

Un-learning education

    When I first heard of home schooling I thought the whole concept was crazy.  I could not imagine that ordinary parents, untrained in educational theories and teaching methods, could possibly prepare their children adequately for the complexities of success in “real life” endeavors.  I figured any home schooling parent would be unavoidably biased and would consider their children perfect geniuses.  I figured home schooling parents would all give out straight A’s no matter what work their children produced.
    Obviously, over time I changed my views of home schooling and the efficacy of it.  When Tim and I seriously began to consider the option of home schooling for our own family I did a lot of research.  I spoke with home schooling families from our church and read lots of books on the subject.  When Tim and I got closer and closer to taking the plunge into home education I even started looking at different educational philosophies.  In some of my reading, I came across a book about unschooling.  As I read all about the idea of “teaching” without any formal teaching, without workbooks or structure or well planned lessons, I felt myself growing more confident in my abilities to home school.  Not because I loved the idea of unschooling but rather because I was so shocked and appalled by it.  This idea of just living life in the hopes that children might glean a little knowledge in the process-- well, though I had come to see that home schooling itself was not so crazy, unschooling was undoubtedly completely insane!  It was such a new concept to me and I figured if there really were people out there irresponsible enough to leave all their children’s learning to chance that surely, I could not screw things up so badly for my children.  I knew I would never be so irresponsible, so cavalier, about something as important as my children’s education.  I would not allow them to face their futures unprepared, without the necessary skills and knowledge to succeed.  So, with my new perspective and my new found confidence, I ordered our workbooks and signed on to the world of home schooling.
    About 2 years into our home schooling journey, I found myself thinking about that crazy old idea of unschooling.   I thought anew about the concept of life as school, about a parent's job being to provide an educational atmosphere and opportunities for self-directed learning, and it did not seem so irresponsible anymore.  I could see, as I watched my children in their free time-- after all the well-planned lessons were completed and the workbooks pages of the day all filled in-- that it was then that the real learning seemed to begin.  I would see my oldest daughter curl up in a chair and read story after story of historical fiction.  She fell in love with the life of pioneers and learned all that she could, from her beloved historical fiction as well as from true stories of pioneer life, all on her own.  She tried out pioneer crafts, making brooms out of pine needles she found at the park, fashioning her own corn husk dolls and then sewing little aprons for them out of fabric scraps she found in my sewing bin, drawing pictures of families in covered wagons with grassy fields all around them.  To this day, I am pretty sure she can recite the “Homestead Act of 1862”  without ever having had a formal lesson on it. 
    My oldest son was more interested in the local wildlife.  He would spend his afternoons catching frogs and lizards.  He would put them in Tupperware containers to observe and care for until I insisted he let the poor creatures go back to their natural environment.  His interest inspired him to write his own book.  I assisted him in the logistics of it all but the content was all his.  His book, entitled “Animals”  had a page for each of his favorites- lizards, frogs, turtles, crabs, and snakes.  He explained the finer points of catching them (on the frog page he instructed his readers to use their fingers to grab the frog around the “waist” ), interesting facts he had learned (like that “boy“ fence lizards have dewlaps under their chins but “girls“ do not), and what each animal liked to eat (for turtles he listed bugs and “pellets” because that is what he fed his pet turtle).  This was not a school project but an after-school project and he loved it so much he went on to write many other little books, all on his own. 
    I really do think there is a lot to be said about self-directed learning.  The more I read and the more I observe my own children, I really do see that the most meaningful lessons do not come from workbooks or lesson plans but from children exploring what interests them and from experiencing the world around them.  There is no better way to prepare them for life in the real world than to let them live it, is there?
    So, with all my own learning on the subject of learning, have I abandoned the workbooks in favor of all child directed projects?  Not quite.  Though I appreciate and respect the concept of unschooling, I still fear it a little.  It is a great idea to let children learn from real life but I worry if that is all we did, there would be too many holes in their education.  I worry they would not be motivated to experiment with fractions and decimals and the measurement of the angles of isosceles triangles.  Or that they would never really care about the correct way to spell "succumb" or "Connecticut".  I have yet to see one of them, on their own, develop a real interest in the use of prepositions or the origins of the word "omniscient".  So, I strive for balance.  In the morning, we continue to do our formal lessons.  We pull out our Singapore math books and our Spelling Power word lists and our Language of God grammar workbooks.  And when all that is finished, we take time to play with our microscope, read our library books, and discuss things like the tragedy in Japan or the recent tornados that hit the Midwest.  It seems to be working for us.  The kids are well rounded and intelligent and though they’d prefer to throw out all the workbooks they are doing pretty well in all their lessons- both planned and unplanned. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

There can be no Easter...

    It is Holy Week and, in my house, we are very anxiously awaiting our celebration of Jesus’ resurrection when Easter finally arrives!  I have been thinking about all the people, who like my family, are excited about celebrating Easter this weekend but who, unlike my family, are not actually aware of what Easter is all about.  People who have not been waiting and preparing for 40 days, who have not been sacrificing, praying, and giving alms but have been going about their daily lives as usual for the long 6 weeks of Lent.  People who will not attend any Holy Week services or remember the events of Christ’s life, or even think of Christ at all. People who plan to celebrate Easter without ever acknowledging Good Friday.  This bothers me….. A LOT.  Now, I know many complain about the same thing at Christmas time, about the commercialization of the holiday and the traditions and celebrations that have nothing to do with Our Lord’s birth and that is a problem.  But somehow, it bothers me less at Christmas than at Easter.  Christmas is the celebration of a new baby’s birth.  I myself, having heard about friends of my friends having babies, have been excited for them and have, in a way, celebrated the births of babies I do not know.  I have been truly happy for mothers I have never met, upon hearing about the birth of their healthy babies.  Christmas is a joyful time of year because, even for those who do not and will not ever know the Blessed Virgin Mary or Jesus, the birth of a baby is always a reason to celebrate.   But, Easter… Easter is an event like no other.  It is the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, His rising from the dead.  How can one rejoice and celebrate His resurrection without acknowledging and mourning His brutal death on the cross?  One cannot rise without first falling.  One cannot come back to life without first dying.  There can be no Easter without Good Friday.  And in acknowledging Jesus’ sacrifice, we must acknowledge our part in it all.  Our sinfulness that led him to His death, our redemption that inspired it, our salvation that it won.   We triumph on Easter because Christ has triumphed-- over sin, over evil, over death.  There is no Easter without Christ!  Yet so many people will wake up, in houses decorated with bunnies and chicks, and be filled with happiness, but not because Christ has risen, not because He died for their sins, offering a perfect sacrifice in atonement for their failings (and mine), not because He opened the gates of Heaven, and then rose gloriously from the dead to new life, giving us all the chance for new life as well.  But, rather, happy about egg hunts, jelly beans, chocolate bunnies in baskets and a nice ham dinner.   How much they are missing,  how meaningless their celebration will be. 
    It makes me sad.  But what can I do?  Not much… but, I will be praying for those people this week.  I will, these last few days of Lent, offer my tiny, imperfect sacrifices in the hopes that Sunday will bring new life for ALL.  A new and glorious life of love and hope in Christ.

Friday, April 15, 2011

A tale of humility and mercy

     Tim and I had a fight a few weeks ago.  He is usually the last one up at our house since he works so late at night and by the time he woke up that morning things were crazy and chaotic.  It was a Friday and I was trying to get the kids all ready to go to Mass but they were taking their time over breakfast and getting distracted by all their toys.  They did not want to clean up their cereal boxes or wash their dishes.  They had to be reminded three or four times, each, to get dressed.  After they got dressed they had to be sent back to their rooms to get dressed again because no one came out in clothes appropriate for Church.  It was basically a normal morning at our house, but that, of course, means patience and a sense of humor are required to survive.  Tim woke up with neither and I had pretty much reached the end of mine.  He  snapped at the kids a few times.  He snapped at me, I might have snapped back, and then Tim left for work in a huff.  I was fuming the rest of the morning and found myself formulating an argument in my mind.  I kept dwelling on all the things he had done wrong and how rude he had been.  In my mind, I kept justifying my words and actions and the longer I thought about it all, the angrier I became. 
    Then, I went to Mass with the kids.  We stayed for Stations of the Cross and  by the time we came home I was feeling much, much better.  I had forgotten about the argument and was no longer angry at Tim.  There was a message on the answering machine from him though and he said to call him when I got a chance.  I was curious what he might want in the middle of the day and called him immediately.  He said he felt bad about our fight and wanted to apologize.  Without even thinking about it, I started sharing with him all the reasons that he should be sorry.   All my earlier thoughts about his rudeness and selfishness came rushing back to me and it all just spewed out of my mouth even though I really wasn’t even angry any more.  He got angry, really angry, I suppose justifiably, and we fought over the phone until it was clear we weren‘t getting anywhere.  I’m pretty sure the conversation ended in someone slamming the phone down forcefully. 
    When Tim got home that evening the fighting continued.  I yelled at him, he yelled at me.  We ate dinner in tense silence.  Even the  kids were more quiet than usual, knowing mommy and daddy were angry, though I am sure they had no idea why.  We spent the evening avoiding each other as best we could.  Later,  after the kids had been put to bed and we were still at each other’s throats, Tim shouted at me that I never think about his feelings. 
    Now as this was all going on, just a few days into Lent, I was engaged in another battle at the same time.  An interior battle, with myself.  I had, as part of my Lenten promises begun praying the “Litany of Humility” each morning when I got up.  Even that morning I had started the day on my knees praying…. “from the desire of being esteemed, Jesus deliver me, from the desire of being praised, Jesus deliver me, from the fear of suffering rebukes, Jesus deliver me…”  All day I had recognized that this was my opportunity to practice a little of the humility I had genuinely been praying for.  As if the "Litany of Humility" running through my brain wasn’t enough to make me feel bad about the all day fighting, I had that afternoon been preparing for an upcoming meeting for the Little Flowers girls club I lead.  The virtue we were learning that month was,  what else?  Humility.  So, one part of my mind kept demanding that I humble myself and apologize but the angry part, the louder more demanding part, had just kept on arguing, insulting and yelling.    
    It wasn’t until the very end of the day, after Tim and I climbed into bed still angry and bitter, and the lights were out and it was quiet, that I prayed.  I told God how angry and frustrated I was, I told Him I did not want to apologize and I hated being humble.  I told Him that I knew I had been asking for greater humility but I did not want it anymore, not today, and not in this situation.  My prayer was not helping me feel any better and it was not quieting my conscience either.  So, at long last, after venting to God and trying to convince Him, and myself, that I should not have to apologize, I did finally ask Him to help me say those two little words that were so desperately needed.  I must have repeated my prayer, “help me God to say I’m sorry,“ ten times.  Then,  in the quiet darkness, finally I mumbled, “I’m sorry,” sort of hoping Tim had already fallen asleep.   He was awake, of course, and in his humility he didn't say ,"you should be sorry!"  or even, "well, its about time!"
     It was amazing how just asking for God’s help in being more merciful towards Tim made all the difference.  It didn’t make it easy to apologize but I did apologize and that in and of itself is pretty amazing, (just ask Tim).  So, though it was not easy to ask God for help in doing what was right, when I did it, He was merciful.  The fight ended, the anger disappeared and I found out humility is really not so bad.

I have linked this story up with Pay it forward over at A Life-Sized Catholic Blog.


Sunday, April 10, 2011

Working towards greatness...

    I, like every parent, want my children to be great.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I do have great kids.  They are smart and creative and very sweet (when they want to be).  But, they are living in a world that encourages a minimalist attitude.  Mediocrity is acceptable and expected.   In many ways, though I try to shelter them from the worst of it all, they are influenced by the attitudes around them.  They don’t want to work hard, they don’t want to give things their all.  They just look to take the easy way out…. when it comes to chores and when it comes to school work, sometimes even when it comes to their prayers.  They often strive for the least amount of work required to get by.  
    I want better for them.  I want them to be hard workers.  I want them to be  willing to go to great lengths to accomplish great things in this world.  I want them to be willing to make sacrifices for what they believe in and be willing to take a stand for what is right.  I desire for them something more than a lukewarm existence.  I hope they’ll have lives full of  meaning, lives full of distinction, lives marked by a love of Christ and a desire to serve Him in all things.  This desire of mine, to encourage greatness in my children, can be quite frustrating at times.  I look at them and I look at the world around them and I am unsure how to go about instilling the values and virtues necessary for greatness. 
    I can figure out, pretty easily, what will not spur my children to greatness.  I have a long list in my head of things I could do to encourage certain behaviors or discourage others that might teach my children right from wrong but would fall way short of inspiring anything more than the status quo.  
    My day to day approach is not necessarily working as well as I’d like either.  I try to set clear expectations for my children and give them consequences based on their choices in relation to those expectations.  If they choose to break a rule they pay the consequences.  My goal is to teach them that they are in control of their choices, and that their choices all have consequences.  Good choices have good (natural) consequences and bad choices have bad (sometimes natural, more often mom-imposed) consequences.  They can decide for themselves, which they would prefer in life.  It sounds good but I feel I face each day in a sort of reactionary mode.  I watch for rule violations, I dole out consequences (okay, punishments) for infractions.  They continue to value a self-centered, minimalist existence and I feel guilty and exhausted by lunch time.  Clearly the goal is right, somehow the execution is not quite what it should be. 
    Home schooling seems to be my best tool in inspiring greatness.  In our academic studies, I have the opportunity to expose my children to amazing examples of real success in this world.  Jesus taught using parables, stories His followers could relate to and learn from.  So, following in His perfect example, I try to expose my children to stories I want them to learn from.  We have read about the life of Pope John Paul the Great, BL. Mother Teresa, St. Paul and others.  We have read biographies about Martin Luther King Jr., and Helen Keller, and are now enjoying one about JRR Tolkien.  We read the Bible together regularly and discuss what God may be saying to us.  But, even with all that we do during “school time”  I never feel I am doing enough.     
    The hardest part of inspiring greatness is definitely in setting an example of it in the life that I live.  Greatness feels pretty hard to come by in my sea of laundry, dishes, and grocery lists.  I suppose the kids look at their math workbooks, cluttered bedrooms, and boring chore lists and feel the same.  But, I guess true greatness really does come in the quiet moments of serving God. If He calls me to serve Him by washing sippy cups and folding mountains of laundry then the best thing I can do for my children is to do it with an attitude of love, and then hope they notice enough to be inspired.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A place full of beauty...

    With Easter right around the corner, I want to share a link to a world full of beautiful Catholic images.  I recently found out about a website that is truly exquisite in its presentation and is a wonderful resource for all Catholics. provides a place to find countless works of art, in various mediums, with uniquely Catholic themes.  The artwork is all American made and available for purchase at amazingly affordable prices.  The website, which I heard about from a good friend, has been lovingly created as a way of making available beautiful pieces of art so we, as Catholics, can surround ourselves with images that reflect the beauty of our faith.  And, for a limited time, all purchases will be shipped for free!  In stores, the “Easter aisle” is full of  chocolate bunnies and jelly beans, but we know this season means so much more.  Easter is a perfect time to adorn our homes with images that reflect the real meaning of Catholicism and to remind ourselves of the unfathomable beauty of our Church's rich history.


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