Our Relaxed Homeschool: What We Do & How We Do It

When I meet new people and they learn that we homeschool, often the first thing they say is, “Oh! I could never homeschool; you must be so patient.”

Our Relaxed Homeschool

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I immediately admit that their assumption is far from accurate. I have begged and pleaded. I have bribed. I have yelled. Yes, I have even broke down and cried unconsolably.

If I were trying to do school at home, I would not have the patience either. But that is NOT what we do. Instead, we have a gentle, relaxed approach. For this reason, it has been 10 Years & We’re Still At It.

Our Relaxed Homeschool Schedule

The way we approach education here changes with the tide. I have thus learned to enjoy the ebb and flow, the seasonal change. We homeschool year-round to accommodate for our relaxed approach. 

Primary Grades

In the primary grades, we followed a Charlotte Mason approach. Our lessons were short (no more than twenty minutes for each topic) so our academic part of the day only came out to around 3-4 hours per day.  We tried to always have academics finished by lunchtime, and would save art, music, and handicrafts for the afternoon.

MONDAY – THURSDAY

  • Literature
  • Geography
  • History
  • Math
  • Copywork/Dictation
  • Foreign Language
  • Art Appreciation
  • Music
  • Handicrafts
  • Life Skills
  • Daily Walk

FRIDAY

  • Literature
  • Music
  • Foreign Language
  • Group Activities
  • Field Trips
  • Nature Study
  • Daily Walk

Intermediate Grades

We are still heavily influenced by Charlotte Mason now in the intermediate years, but I have also become more comfortable with an Unschooling approach. We don’t really do tests, quizzes, or worksheets. We believe that learning happens all the time, and for us, it rarely happens in tightly defined areas like “spelling” and “geography”.

We live and learn together, pursuing questions and interests as they arise and using conventional schooling on an “on demand” basis. The interests of my children dictate our course map – the texts we read, the projects in which we immerse ourselves, and whether or not they take a course (in-person or online). The activities are chosen and engaged in freely by the learner. They were not dictated to the learner through curricular mandate to be done at a specific time and place.

In three areas, however, I do take a more hands-on approach to influence and guide their choices – Math, Mandarin, and Music (or M³). Learning a new language doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and lots of practice to master the vocabulary, grammar, and nuances of a foreign language.

Our Relaxed ScheduleIn many ways, math and music are like languages. I thereby expect my kiddos to complete four math lessons each week, practice their instrument and either work on Mandarin homework or practice vocabulary daily. In this way the material stays fresh in their minds and they become increasingly fluent or skilled.

Using our homeschool planner (I have used both a paper planner and more recently an online planner), I list the lessons I expect each of the kids to accomplish during the week. They have the freedom to choose when those lessons get done. I have outlined my 4 steps to intentional planning previously and I still do this. It helps us to see the big picture and to know how to make adjustments in how much is reasonable on a day full of obligations away from home.

DAILY

  • Literature
  • Music
  • Mandarin
  • Math
  • Fitness (Swim Team, Hike, etc.)

WEEKLY

  • History
  • Geography
  • Science
  • Nature Study
  • Writing
  • Passion Projects (Art, Aviation, Coding, etc.)
  • Service Learning (Scouts, Volunteering, etc.)

Our Curriculum ChoicesOur Curriculum Choices

In some subjects, we utilize curriculum – math, languages, and history. In other areas, we do not – science, geography (we learn mostly through our travels), literature, and fine arts. We pick and choose what suits our interests and our goals. I thereby spend a significant amount of time reading other homeschool blogs, doing research, and putting together course outlines.

Over the years, we have tried a lot of different curriculum materials. I have written about many of them here and here. We keep coming back to our favorites:

Math

Singapore Math (elementary years)

Life of Fred (middle and high school years)

Mr D’s Math (high school years)

Languages

Better Chinese (foreign language)

Writing With Ease (middle school)

Cover Story (middle school)

King Alfred’s English (high school)

History & Geography

Story of the World (elementary and early middle school)

The History of the World (middle and high school)

North Star Geography (middle and high school)

~ ~ ~

HomeschoolwithoutcurriculumAre you an Unschooler or just want to learn more? Find inspiration from the iHomeschool Network bloggers Homeschooling Without Curriculum.

A Charlotte Mason Lifestyle

We first began homeschooling nine years ago.  My daughter had just turned five years old and upon making the choice to veer away from the norm and to follow my heart, I did a lot of reading – researching education theory and homeschooling methods. In all honesty, I learned more about education and how children best learn in the first few years of homeschooling than I did in all my teacher training.  And in that time, I discovered Charlotte Mason.

Charlotte Mason was a British educator who invested her life to improving the quality of education in England at the turn of the twentieth century. She wrote volumes and held a firm belief that the child is a person and we must educate that whole person, not just his mind. A Charlotte Mason education is three-pronged: in her words,

Education is an Atmosphere, a Discipline, a Life.

This really resonated with me and it has been my mantra ever since.  I even use it in my email signature. Recently, I have been giving a lot of thought to Charlotte’s teachings. Specifically, what Charlotte did not say:

  • “Education is meeting the requirements of the Common Core.”
  • “Education is mastering Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic.”
  • “Education is what someone does to you by teaching important information through tests and grades.”

Charlotte tells us to take our eyes off “end points” and to focus on creating a rich life through shaping the atmosphere through discipline and through life itself. I so love Charlotte’s vision that I recently sat down to reflect on how we have embraced Charlotte’s teachings in our homeschool.

The Charlotte Mason Lifestyle @EvaVarga.netEducation is an Atmosphere

By “Atmosphere,” Charlotte meant the surroundings in which the child grows up. A child absorbs a lot from his home environment. Charlotte believed that the ideas that rule your life as the parent make up one-third of your child’s education.

In our home we strive to model life-long learning, cultivating an environment that puts education and self-improvement above other pursuits (like television). We have a wall of resources – a library of living books, reference materials, and curriculum. We read both for leisure and for self-improvement. We take part in book discussions with friends.

While traveling, we visit historical sites and museums and incorporate our homeschool studies into our holiday excursions. You can read about our travels on our family travel blog, Well Traveled Family.

My husband and I participate in professional development opportunities regularly. One of the courses that I have most enjoyed is Turning Leaners Into Leaders: Empowering Youth Through Service in Education that is offered FREE this summer through Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots.

I also coordinate learning opportunities for the local homeschool community to ensure that my children have a variety of learning opportunities. The activities my children have most enjoyed include:

In addition to fuel for our brains, we take our physical health seriously. The kids participate in swim team year round, attending practice 3-4 days a week with coaches and peers who are passionate about swim, who set goals, and work hard to achieve them.  Though competition is a part of this experience, we don’t schedule our life around swim meets. Our goal is a healthy lifestyle, not college scholarship.

The Charlotte Mason Lifestyle @EvaVarga.net

Education is a Discipline

By “Discipline,” Charlotte meant the discipline of good habits—and specifically habits of character. Cultivating good habits in your child’s life make up another third of his education.

Lessons aren’t always fun and games. Rote drill and practice are important – particularly in subjects like math, music, and foreign language. We thereby have weekly lessons all year long to keep these skills sharp.

I try to maintain continuity when it comes to our other lessons. The unschooled within me often wins, however and we have a very relaxed approach. I trust that they will learn the skills they need for success – regardless of how many facts they can recite.

Contributing to family obligations is another key to character development. We utilize a rotating chore assignment and everyone is expected to pull their own weight. Establishing a chore routine takes time and practice. We still have kinks to work out ourselves!

Our regular family meetings help to assure we are on the same page and serve as a venue for airing grievances.

The Charlotte Mason Lifestyle @EvaVarga.netEducation is a Life

The other third of education, “Life,” applies to academics. Charlotte believed that we should give children living thoughts and ideas, not just dry facts. So all of her methods for teaching the various school subjects are built around that concept.

In the end, it is important to focus on ensuring that people feel heard, loved, and that their dreams can be achieved. Listening to the hearts of my children and allowing them to pursue their passions not only makes learning enjoyable, but allows them the freedom to be innovative. I elaborate on this in my previous post, Independent Study Projects.

With Charlotte as our guide, we allow homeschool to ebb and flow—some weeks making a “course of study” a priority in a systematic way, other weeks learning as we go guided by our curiosity and enthusiasm.

We allow all of life to serve as our classroom—our recent conversation about the state’s decision to ration water in light of the drought is equally important as the math lesson that had been planned.

If you can let go of your need to match the state’s expectations, your own school memories, the pressure of your very academic classical homeschool community, or the stringent requirements of some important university … you can surf the waves of learning as they roll onto your shores.

 

Timelines of History & Science

When we first started homeschooling,a Book of Centuries was one of the first things we implemented in our curriculum. We love the concept so much – we still use them today!

I have learned a few things along the way. I share these insights with you in hopes you’ll benefit from my past experience.

Timelines of History & Science @EvaVarga.netA Book of Centuries is basically a timeline in a book. A timeline allows the reader to compare advances and discoveries in different cultures relative to each other in time.

I first discovered them when I was researching Charlotte Mason’s teaching. Charlotte recommended that history be taught in chronological order, which makes sense since so much of what happened was based on cause and effect. Essentially, as we learn about people and events in history – either through readings or documentaries – we record them on the appropriate pages in our Book of Centuries.

When we add a person to a page that already contains someone or something that occurred in the same century, our brain makes a connection. “Oh! Beatrix Potter lived at the same time as Theodore Roosevelt. The Boer War and Boxer Rebellion were happening at the same time!” A Book of Centuries is the perfect tool to make those mental connections. Making these connections for ourself has a deeper impression and last longer.

Getting Started with a Book of Centuries

When we first started, the kids and I each had our own Book of Centuries. I downloaded the Basic Book of Centuries template from the Simply Charlotte Mason website and we set up our timelines in a 3-ring binder.

As we read about different events and people through history, I printed images onto sticker paper and we sat down together to adhere them to the appropriate pages. I would then ask that they write a short sentence or two summarizing the event or accomplishments of the historical figure. We would also color code each event by outlining each image – a different color for each continent.

While my daughter was as engaged as I, my son was too young. He managed putting the stickers in his book but would soon become distracted and would fail to write the sentence as instructed. Additionally, we would often struggle to stay current with our history reading. After we completed the four volume series of Story of the World, we slowly began to drift away from our Book of Centuries.

Recently, I opened my Book of Centuries and began to revisit the people and events that I had documented over the years. My daughter came to sit beside me and she expressed interest in revisiting this process. Our books had become a great companion and record of the fascinating people we had met through our texts, living history books, and documentaries.

Looking back, I should have compiled a family Book of Centuries when the kids were younger. I have since learned that Charlotte’s students didn’t receive their own until they were about ten years old. During the younger years, we should have collaborated together and it would not have been so overwhelming to my son.

Timelines of History & Science @EvaVarga.netTimelines Resources

As we have begun to revisit our timeline books, I was delighted to get the opportunity to review Dorling Kindersley’s (DK) Timelines of History and Timelines of Science. Produced in association with the Smithsonian Institution, these excellent timeline reference books are filled with striking photography, infographics, and illustrations. Each edition is a fabulous addition to a home library.

Timelines of History is by far one of the best books that DK has published thus far. It is a stunning visual chronology of the events and people that have defined our history, providing a clear picture of our human past and the events that have changed our world. For anyone who is fascinated with history, this is a must-have. It is a great reference for students and teachers alike with a passion for understanding the past.

Timelines of History is over 500 pages long with full color on every page. I love the timeline at the bottom of each page; a great quick-reference tool that allows us to more accurately place events and historical figures on our own Book of Centuries.

DK’s companion text, Timelines of Science, is another excellent reference book. However, as scientific discoveries are shown chronologically, unrelated topics are sometimes presented together. This can be confusing to some readers if they are not accustomed to this approach.

The book is organized in six main sections based on the era of scientific discovery,

  • Before Science Began (including advances made by Greek medicine);
  • European and Islamic Renaissance;
  • Age of Discovery;
  • Age of Revolutions (including Faraday’s experiments);
  • Atomic Age; and finally
  • Information Age (including a discussion of global warming).

Like its companion, the main component of  Timelines of Science is the timeline that runs along the bottom of each page. The upper part of each page contains related pictures and illustrations as well as brief descriptions of the advances noted on the timeline.

The Virtue of Contentment

A big part of homeschooling – especially Charlotte Mason homeschooling – is cultivating our children’s characters through good habits.  Some may feel that time spent on habit training is not as important as academics. I admit, I am even guilty of overlooking behaviors and attitudes that I have hoped will go away on their own.

“Here is an end to the easy philosophy of, ‘It doesn’t matter,’ ‘Oh, he’ll grow out of it,’ ‘He’ll know better by-and-by,’ ‘He’s so young, what can we expect?’ and so on.”

contentment

Yet I have come to realize that cultivating good habits is a valuable time investment.  It takes a lot for me to admit, but over the years, small anecdotes have struck me in the heart and I’ve felt uncomfortable in the presence of others because of something my son has said or done.  He is impatient, demanding, obstinate, and can be disrespectful at times.  He is never satisfied and is always wanting more.

Additionally, he does not respect the property of others and frequently gets into things that do not belong to him without permission – his dad’s tools, craft supplies I’ve set aside for school projects, and his sister’s things – and then doesn’t care for them properly or return them to where it was found.  His behaviors have escalated and ultimately broke through the blinders I had unknowingly put before my eyes this past week.

My husband is very tech savvy and he saves the boxes for all electronics, even a $10 pair of earbuds.  When we upgraded our iMac earlier this year, he repackaged the old one in its original box for resale and again saved all the original packaging for the new one.  He is meticulous and admittedly a little overzealous.

The Fatal Error

While playing with a friend recently, my son inadvertently decided that the box for our new iMac [which we had stored on a high shelf in the garage], would make the perfect target for their sword play.  Without checking with me, the two of them somehow managed to get the box down and proceeded to stab and pierce it repeatedly.  When I came out to check on the noise – my heart literally stopped. The box was destroyed.  Needless to say, Dad was furious.  This was the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak.  Things need to change.

“The habits of the child produce the character of the man.”

Thus, as I have made plans for the upcoming school year, along with the academics, our focus for 2013-14 is the virtue of Contentment.  The first step to overcoming his selfishness – for me – is to grasp whole-heartedly that he won’t grow out of it or know better on his own.  He won’t overcome his selfish behavior by-and-by unless we teach him better. And we are teaching, either intentionally or unintentionally.  The habits learned from us – his parents – have the greatest impact upon his developing character.

“Every day, every hour, the parents are either passively or actively forming those habits in their children upon which, more than upon anything else, future character and conduct depend.”

Consequences

Fortunately, we were able to find a replacement box online (eBay rocks!) and Buddy will need to repay us the purchase price, including shipping.  It comes as a hard lesson – particularly just weeks before our departure for China.  He will have no money of his own to spend on souvenirs and keepsakes.  Undoubtedly, each time his sister makes a purchase, it is going to sting.

It is so true that punishments are often harder on the parents than they are on the child.  Patrick and I will need to stay strong on this one.

So which habits are you planning to focus on this year? What strategies have you had success with to combat selfishness?  Leave a comment and share your ideas.

(All quotes taken from Charlotte Mason Volume 1, page 118)

 

Living Books for Science Education

One of my goals as a science educator and homeschool parent is to pass on to children a love for science and for learning.  I am often asked what books I would recommend for particular science disciplines.  What books do I most enjoy sharing with my own children?  Which books are the living books?  First coined by Charlotte Mason, living books are described as “… complete works, firsthand sources, classics, books that display imagination, originality, and the human touch.” 

Charlotte Mason did not give us a list of the hundred best books, nor did she compose a checklist of what to look for in a living book.  Along our homeschool journey, I have therefore looked for living books for science that were not only of high literary quality, but that also communicated important knowledge about a given subject, especially biography, science, nature, and geography.  I’ve compiled some of my favorite books for you here – books you’ll enjoy reading again and again.

Biographies

Giants of Science series by Kathleen Krull

This is a great series of books about some of the most recognized names in science including Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, and Sigmund Freud.  Amusing comic illustrations accompany the text and Krull’s anecdotal stories bring each scientist to life.

Chemistry & Physics


The Periodic Table: Elements with Style!

There are numerous books in this series by Adrian Dingle. When I taught a chemistry unit with my kiddos a year ago, they devoured these. The Periodic Table introduces budding chemists to the world of the elements with wit and humor while also presenting factual information.

Nature


Books by Jean Craighead George

One of my all-time favorite authors, George has been the recipient of many literary awards.  My Side of the Mountain, the story of a boy and a falcon surviving on a mountain together, was a 1960 Newbery Honor Book.  Growing up in a family of naturalists, it is no wonder her books resonate with a love of nature.


Books by Jim Arnosky

I enjoy Arnosky’s books as much for the text as I do the illustrations. An artist and naturalist, his accurate illustrations, and his attention to detail makes it easy for children to see how carefully nature has designed plants and animals to function in their natural habitats. “I prefer to show rather than tell,” he explains, “to teach rather than preach, to guide rather than simply warn. In showing my readers what I look for in my ramblings, I hope that they will keep an eye out for such things and make discoveries of their own when they are outdoors.”


Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices

Written to be read aloud by two voices ~ sometimes alternating, sometimes simultaneous ~ this collection of charming poems celebrates the insect world, from the short life of the mayfly to the love song of the book louse. I found an audio version to which we listened first – and then we had a blast reading them together.

Who’s Been Here series by Lindsay Barrett George

My children have enjoyed this series of books since they were toddlers.  I would often read one aloud prior to a nature outing.  Then as we began to explore, I would point out signs of wildlife and ask the kids, “Who’s Been Here?”  Slowing down to look at small details, the kids began to ask question and make hypotheses of their own.

Birds Every Child Should Know by Neltje Blanchan

Originally published in 1907, Birds Every Child Should Know is a collection of storylike descriptions of more than one hundred birds commonly found in the United States.  Detailed descriptions of birds—their physical attributes, calls, nesting and mating habits, and other behaviors—read almost like fairy tales.  My daughter loved this book.

Geology & Geography

Books by Bryd Baylor

Bryd Baylor is one of my favorite children’s authors.  She lives and writes in Arizona, presenting images of the Southwest and an intense connection between the land and the people. Her prose illustrates vividly the value of simplicity, the natural world, and the balance of life within it.


The Coast Mappers by Taylor Morrison

I discovered this book quite by accident but upon reading it, wanted for my own collection.  In this beautifully illustrated book, Morrison chronicles the challenges and adventures the US Coastal Survey team faced and the methods they used to accomplish this monumental, and essential, task.

Astronomy & Space


Books by Gail Gibbons

Gibbons is another wonderful and prolific writer of children’s books. The titles I have in my own collection include, The Moon Book, The Planets, and The Reason for Seasons.  Her clear writing style and the accompanying illustrations help to explain concepts that are difficult to grasp. I’ve used these books to help dispel misconceptions with adults.


Seymour Simon books

The author of more than 250 highly acclaimed science books, Simon has been called the ‘Dean of Children’s Science Writers”. He uses his website, SeymourSimon.com, to provide free downloads of a wealth of materials for educators, homeschoolers and parents to use with his books.

Do you have a favorite science living book or children’s science author?  I would love to learn of new authors or books.  Leave a comment  below and let me know.

Education is a Life

My email signature includes a quote by Charlotte Mason, “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.” I include it because learning has always been a passion in my life.  When I was in 4th grade, I recall a table full of old text books and reference books in the hallway near the teacher’s room.  Upon the table was a sign that said “Teachers – Free”.  I inquired with Mr. Claska if it would be okay if I picked out a few and upon his approval, I did just that.  For the next few weeks, I packed those books to and from school … all the while pretending that I was a teacher.  On recess, I’d gather a few friends around to play school and at home, I’d pour over the volumes much as my own children devour the National Geographic magazines we recently brought home.

While completing my Masters in Teaching :: Elementary Education degree, I was asked to write my philosophy of education for one of my courses and within it I elaborated on the importance of life-long learning. “As the world becomes more interconnected, it is becoming increasingly important for children to have academic proficiency in science, mathematics and technology, communications, and a vast knowledge of other cultures.  I have always loved learning and believe that education is a community effort.”

My philosophy of education has not changed since I began homeschooling.  If anything, it has only become more a part of our daily lives … engrained in every aspect of our life.  We take advantage of every teachable moment … from construction to home economics, from language arts to mathematics, science and technology.

Somewhere along the way, however, life has snowballed and things that are important to me … science, running (my outlet), and foreign language practice have been swept aside.  The nuances of daily living – particularly with all that comes with putting your house on the market and preparing to move to another state – have really brought our formal lessons to a halt.  With our upcoming move, I am rejoicing in the opportunity to refocus on our educational goals. To establish routines and habits that are more in tune with my philosophy of education.