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A Dieu, My Dear Friends, For at Least a Few Months

Dear Friends,

Because of health issues and increasing family responsibilities, I need to say goodbye to you for several months.  This makes me very sad, but it is becoming increasingly obvious that I currently have neither the time nor energy to write.

For the past decade I have experienced significant fatigue.  It built up slowly, then for a few years it was completely debilitating, then for the last 5 years it has been quite manageable, and since the beginning of this year it has been worsening to the point where I need to spend almost half of my time resting or sleeping.  As well, related health issues, including cardiac problems, have increased significantly and actually caused my family doctor to send me to the emergency department earlier this year.

What’s more, over the past few years my family responsibilities have increased dramatically.

Even so, I have tried to keep my blog going because of the encouraging and grateful messages you have sent me, sometimes in the comments, sometimes personally.  And, yes, I still have a list of articles that you have asked me to write, as well as a list of books to review. 

But I cannot do any of that now.  Instead I need to devote the small amount of time that I am not resting  to tend to my family and to work on my health.

I will miss you.  I will miss writing for you, sharing wonderful resources, encouraging and being encouraged.  I will miss your cheery messages and, because I will probably go largely off-line, I will also miss the blogs many of you write.  But after several months I hope to meet you in bloggy land again.

In the meantime, may God bless each one of you.  Remember to stay close to him, and read the Letter he wrote you.  Find your joy and your comfort in him, and if that’s not working for you, go to him and tell him about it.  He loves you and will care for you and will keep you close to himself.  And I know he will care for me and my family as well, because he loves us and is powerful enough to do whatever is best.

A dieu, my dear friends.

And now I will go off to cry a little cry. 

Review: Schoolproof by Mary Pride

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This little gem, over a quarter century old, fell into my hands many years ago and shaped my idea of what homeschooling can and should be.  I have just read it again and have, once again, come to the same conclusion:  This is one of the few books that every Christian homeschooler should read.

Although there are many books on homeschooling philosophies and methods, Schoolproof is the only one that covers the everyday possibilities simply and from a completely practical viewpoint, in a comprehensive way, and with a solid Christian basis.

Mary Pride, a mom of many who was among the pioneers of the homeschooling movement, writes from the viewpoint that “knowledge is complex enough, students are complex enough, without making teaching complicated, too.”  Her goal is to help parents ensure that their kids get a great education and to remind them that it is not as difficult as it sounds.  As such Schoolproof is not only a breath of fresh air but also a comforting guide.

In this book, Pride gives us almost 200 pages of crisp, often humorous encouragement as she discusses

  • What education is,
  • Who kids are (Hint:  not animals to be conditioned, or cogs to fit into society, or little gods to worship),
  • What learning is—a game, built upon self-discipline and wonder,
  • Getting started,
  • Organizing homeschool supplies,
  • 20 ways to present a lesson (simple, concise, and very worthwhile),
  • 20 ways to have students show what they have learned (even more worthwhile),
  • How to teach many students at once,
  • What educational clutter is and how to get rid of it (splendid),
  • The importance of recognizing students’ individuality and learning styles.

It is always difficult to tell where one’s ideas originally come from, but in rereading Schoolproof after all these years, I recognized many of mine, from the goal of our homeschooling—to  equip our children to love the Lord their God with all their hearts, souls, minds, and strength, and their neighbors as themselves; to the recognition of educational clutter—activities and projects that provide very little learning (although perhaps a lot of enjoyment) for the time and effort spent.

Rereading Schoolproof has also reminded me of simple facts

  • it’s learning that counts, not the projects on your shelves;
  • narration is an excellent way of consolidating and evaluating learning, even though it may be difficult to assign a grade to;
  • computer learning is very valuable for some subjects and totally unsuitable for others;
  • there is so much interesting material to learn that no student need ever be bored;
  • successful learning is based on both self-discipline and wonder, and we can encourage both of those;
  • true achievement consists of progress at one’s own pace, not getting better grades than others;
  • hands-on learning is effective, but if used too much it can crowd out other learning and be detrimental;
  • we are to see children as God portrays them, sinful but created in God’s image,  and not follow human theories of manipulation, reward, or child goodness.

Since Schoolproof was first published, many people have written about education, but few have done it so incisively and with such clear views of both foundational ideas and practical applications.

For this reason, every homeschooling library should own Schoolproof, and every homeschooling mom should read it at least once, just to think clearly about the goals, meaning, methods, and purely practical aspects of education.  (Actually, Christian schools would benefit from it, too, as a refreshing antidote to so many of the ideas that they are confronted with.)

Unfortunately Schoolproof is out of print, but you can find second hand copies at used homeschool resource sales and at major book sellers.

Other foundational material for homeschoolers:  Cathy Duffy’s Top Pick books, reviewed here and here, and, of course, the Bible (reading tips suggested here).

Disclosure: I have owned this book for many, many years and am not compensated for this review.

For more homeschooling encouragement see Raising Homemakers, Titus 2 Tuesday, Tell it to Me Tuesday, Finishing Strong, and Trivium Tuesdays.

God Works Through Who We Are and How We Live

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Each of the talks I attended at our homeschooling conference this year had the same message:  You can only pass on to your children what is already an integral part of you.  If you talk about something you don’t believe or do, they will not listen to what you say.

Or, as keynote speaker Steve Demme emphasized:

“You can teach what you know but you can only reproduce who you are.”

If we let God work deep in our own hearts, then we will become qualified to raise our kids.  The more we take in God’s love, the more we can give his love.  So, in order to be equipped to teach our children and to reach out to those around us, we need to spend time with God.  In other words, we need to read the Bible, ponder it, and pray.  Only then will we see our children as God sees them.  (From The Family that Stays Together Stays Together.)

This is also crucial in communication, because in communication our hearts are the fundamental issue.  For any dominant personality—and parents are by their very role in a dominant position—it is important to “create a safe place for others to hold opinions differing from mine while still feeling welcomed, embraced and loved”.  This involves living close to God; understanding the importance of love; watching our tone of voice, face, and body language; valuing understanding over convincing; and much more.  Then, from a point of trust and understanding, we can reach hearts.

In finances and stewardship, again, “your money story will be caught by your kids” and what you believe and do matters a whole lot more than what you say.

Similarly in sex education, “through our spiritual health, we impart health to our kids” and “we need to deal with our issues”.

Obviously, academic topics were presented at the conference as well, and academics are the meat of home education by definition.  There is no denying that.

On the other hand, as parents we need to heed the message that seemed to be the highlight of the conference:

In our families, God works through who we are and how we live more than by what we say, although that is important too.

And thus, for us homeschoolers, the take home message is summed up in a few simple, regular things:

Yes, academics are important.  Like you, I work very hard to provide my children with the best possible academic education, because that is what we have been called to do.  But for Christian parents, there’s something even more important, to teach our children to love and serve the Lord.

And that, according to Deuteronomy 6:4-9, is possible only if we live close to him ourselves.

May God bless us as we show our children what it means to love the Lord our God with our whole hearts, souls, minds, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves—and may he patiently re-teach us parents the same thing, over and over and over, for we, like our children, forget so easily.

Did you ever learn something simple but profound at a homeschooling conference?

You can purchase the MP3 of this conference here

For more homeschooling encouragement see Raising Homemakers, Titus 2 Tuesday, Tell it to Me Tuesday, Finishing Strong, and Trivium Tuesdays.

Disclosure: I am not compensated for this discussion or for mentioning the MP3 recording.

Movie Review: Tim’s Vermeer

Tims Vermeer

When I walked into the library, our usually calm librarian started to bubble.  “Remember that DVD you recommended, Tim’s Vermeer?  I just watched it!”  And then, for the next five minutes she flitted from one scene or concept to the next, exclaiming, explaining, commenting, and enjoying the memories.

My teen daughters were not quite that enthusiastic, but they, too, were fascinated and learned a lot about art history, about optics in the 17th century, and about determination.

So, what is Tim’s Vermeer all about?

It addresses the enigma of the 17th century Dutch painter, Vermeer, from the viewpoint of a geek in the 21st century, suggesting that Vermeer used various arrangements of lenses and mirrors to paint his luminous scenes.  Historically, this approach is possible; in the days of Vermeer there was no artificial division between art and science.  Life and society were more unified in these respects and artists, who classed themselves among craftsmen, had not yet acquired the bohemian, angst-filled, anti-technology identity that is common (and probably inevitable) in our post-Christian era.

So Tim Jenison developed a hypothesis about how Vermeer, using the optical possibilities of his day, may have painted his incredible paintings.  And then, because he is wealthy, Tim was able to follow up on his ideas, research them, and actually paint the picture as Vermeer may have done.  What results is a fascinating and occasionally humorous experiment on a vast scale that taxes Tim to the limit but seems to validate his idea.

Not everyone agrees with Tim’s ideas, though similar ones have been discussed extensively among art historians.  However, as a physicist, an art enthusiast, someone who loves to think about light, and a person who has lived in the Netherlands, I find it interesting to ponder the following points:

–There is no provision in Tim’s method to deal with the subtle but significant changes in light from hour to hour as well as from day to day and season to season in the Netherlands.  Texas weather is, from what I understand, stable enough for light to be similar at many times, and that is where Tim worked.  My experience of Dutch weather is entirely different, and Tim does not deal with that question.

–Tim’s method requires a lot of time.  How is it possible paint something as moveable as the pouring milk in The Milk Maid, for example?  This is related to Nelleke’s questions about Vermeer’s subject’s fleeting facial expressions, which is an issue no matter how the painting was done.

–Since Vermeer was at least somewhat associated with Van Leeuwenhoek, the lens maker who worked on the microscope, he would have had access to the lenses required for Tim’s theory.

–However, it is possible that he used optical effects, which he obviously did, without doing the entire paintings using lenses and mirrors.

–In The Art of Painting, Vermeer did not show the artist using any sort of optics.  This raises many interesting questions, some of which are discussed under ‘special topics’ at the given link.

Although Tim based his ideas on those of respected art historians, not all of them agree with him or each other.  I hope to read Eye of the Beholder:  Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing to learn more about Dutch art and optics in the 17th century.

How did Tim’s Vermeer fit into our homeschool learning?  My teens learned about Vermeer, light, art historians, painting, optics, and thinking outside the box.  The movie’s story line captivated them despite their initial resistance, making Tim’s Vermeer a dramatic introduction to our video-based art history studies.

To find out more about this movie, see the trailer.  Note that there are a few language issues and also that the director and producer are not generally recommended. Even so, we recommend Tim’s Vermeer for teens and adults, especially homeschoolers studying art history, the physics of optics, Dutch history, or creativity–both in Vermeer and in Tim.   

You can see Vermeer’s works here.  I have had the opportunity to see a few of them in real life; because I was accompanied by children, I could never look at them long enough, but even so it was a remarkable experience.

I find that Helmantel sometimes does similar things with light, although his subject matter is not at all like Vermeer’s.

Disclosure:  I borrowed this DVD from the library and am not compensated for this review.  I would like to thank Nelleke of Education is a Life for introducing me to this remarkable movie.

Homeschooling Methods and Content Based Learning, Part 2

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One of our duties as homeschooling parents is to teach our children the knowledge base common to our culture to equip them to participate effectively in its conversations.  In Part 1 of Homeschooling Methods and Content Based Learning, I discussed this concept, what it means in everyday life, and how homeschooling methods can affect how well we achieve this goal.  With this in mind I outlined advantages and disadvantages of two of the four broad approaches to homeschooling, namely using a complete purchased curriculum and following curriculum outlines such as Ambleside Online or The Well Trained Mind.

Now, in the second part of this article, I look at the other two broad styles of homeschooling (eclectic homeschooling and unschooling/delight-directed learning), and also discuss our personal experience and discoveries.

Another option is to use an outline as part of our curriculum and fill in the rest from an eclectic mix of prepared curricula, delight-directed learning, outside classes, and co-operative learning.  Hirsch’s series What Your … Grader Needs to Know is useful for this, and the various outlines mentioned above are can also be used.

Advantages:  This method is extremely flexible and can meet varying needs of students and families quite well.  It allows homeschoolers to add material from their own culture more easily.  In the subjects in which official curricula are used, formal grades are easy to assign.

DisadvantagesIt is easy to miss important topics, and this method requires many decisions from year to year and throughout the year.  Also, there is the problem of parents needing to know about various topics or be willing to learn with their children, and in high school very few parents can keep ahead far enough to really benefit their children.  In many subjects, formal grades are difficult to assign.

Finally, a family can opt for unschooling or delight-directed learning, in which the student decides much of what is learned.  Many families do this to some extent along with their other methods of homeschooling, but some choose it as their exclusive way of learning.

Advantages: This can work very well if the parents expose their children to a wide array of concepts and activities and are aware of skills and content goals at different levels.  Children and teens who follow their own interests learn phenomenally well and master both skills and information almost effortlessly.  They regularly soar past their parents in their areas of interest, learning on their own at a very high level. They also learn how to learn and how to find resources to help them pursue their interests.

Disadvantages:  It is very easy to become unbalanced unless the parents have a list of goals in the backs of their minds and can use the students’ interests to address such other necessary goals.  With more than a few children, this mindset can become too exhausting for many parents.  Thus this method often produces stellar learning in a few areas and relative ignorance in others.  Formal grades are almost impossible to assign, but a portfolio of learning and achievement is often impressive and relatively easy to assemble.

What does our family do?  We mix various elements in an eclectic style, with a focus on the content of Classical Education and the methodology of Charlotte Mason, and with as much of the student’s input as possible.  Each child is different.  Some want textbooks, and some subjects, like high school science and math, almost require textbooks; others just want to do real world activities.  And each stage of development of each child is different, so our focus changes from year to year.  There have been gaps, but I work very hard to ensure that each child has a rigorous foundation in the major subjects and skills as well as ample opportunity to follow his or her own interests.

How has this worked in our family?  The content that really sticks has usually come from self-initiated learning, but the sparks for that have often come from ideas or suggestions from our outlines and curricula, as well as from other people, volunteering, and other outside sources.  Three of our children, currently in university, have very broad interests, knowledge, and skills that give them both confidence and a solid base for further learning.  The younger children, who have more access to screens, are not doing as well academically.

Here are some lessons we have learned about content rich education:

—Stories are one of the most powerful ways of learning, and the best stories have been collected into the world’s great literature.  However, most parents need help discussing this insightfully with their children.  That is one of the reasons we purchased the expensive Omnibus high school program from Veritas Press; it provides information and guidelines to help me guide my teens in their classical learning even though we rarely use the curriculum itself as intended.

—Narration is a very effective way for children to process information, and it enhances learning.

—Some skill-based subjects, such as math, foreign languages, and music, require a lot of practice and effort for mastery.  Delight-directed learning often needs a serious push here.

—There is no need to teach your child boring material, for the world is full of fascinating information on every topic.

—The Bible is fundamental, not only to faith, but also to an understanding of Western culture.  It is among the most important content any homeschooling family, Christian or non-Christian, can teach their children if they desire a classical education.

—Any child who spends a significant amount of time engaged in mindless media will suffer academically.

—If a child shows an interest in a topic, encourage that interest and provide resources and opportunities.

—Illness can be a time of learning if you are not focussed on a year by year curriculum but instead use a more eclectic style, choosing topics and methods that work for your child at that time.  For example, one of our teens spent many months reading in bed while recovering from severe pneumonia, and this benefited her in many ways.

—Switching between methods often means that a child will be missing some assumed knowledge and will repeat other topics.  This is something to remember before deciding to switch and will require extra work on the part of parents, but sometimes it is necessary.

— “Any method will work if the teacher does.” This thought from Ruth Beechick is probably true, but the reality is that sometimes a homeschooling mom cannot put in any more time or effort; then it is important to choose the method more carefully even though the initial switch may require extra work for a time.

There is nothing like leaving some good books lying around, if your children are readers.

Do our children have an education without gaps?  No.  Do they have a better basis than most other young people?  Certainly, and this is evident in university and in their interactions in society.  This seems to be because they know the Bible, the basics of history,  science, and nature study, and much about the current world, and because they are interested in many things.  Not surprisingly, many other homeschooled students have received a similar advantage from their years at home.

So, dear homeschooling mom, be strong and of good courage! Keep on ensuring that your children receive a quality education–in all senses of those words–to God’s glory.  May God bless our diligence and forgive us our mistakes and sins!

Now, these are just my thoughts and suggestions.  What do you do to make sure your children are well-educated?

For more homeschooling encouragement see Raising Homemakers, Titus 2 Tuesday, Tell it to Me Tuesday, Finishing Strong, and Trivium Tuesdays.

Disclosure: Although I mention several resources in this discussion, I am not compensated for doing so nor do I endorse all of them wholeheartedly.

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