Uncategorized

My Favorite Resources From Our Homeschool (So Far) 

Recently, I wrote about 5 Steps for Getting Started With Homeschooling, with some tips on how to find the approaches, curriculum, and schedules that would work best for you. But some have asked what we actually do, and what resources we’ve liked. So, here goes: 

Preschool/Kindergarten 

  • Read good picture books and fairy tales. I am 100% convinced that this is the most important thing I do for my kids’ education. 
  • Free play outside. As much as we can get. In our backyard, local parks, state parks. As much nature time as we can manage. 
  • Sing Solfa for singing lessons (lots of helpful videos that you can watch together to learn with, including early lessons that are great for young kiddos) 
  • For those ready for some handwriting, we’ve used Handwriting Without Tears. When my kids were interested in learning to write, we’d do 1 page of these workbooks a day (ish). They’d carefully copy the letters, and when they finished they could color in the pictures and decorate it. 5-10 minutes max, including coloring time. 
  • Math games! We’ve loved Sequence For Kids and Math Dice Jr 
  • Count all the things. Simple and effective. 
  • Finger Knitting and sewing kits like this one, or similar age appropriate crafty projects 
  • I do “alphabet lessons” with my kids when they are 3-4YOs. This literally is 5 minutes of 1-on-1 time, a few times a week, looking at a paper on which I wrote the alphabet in marker, pointing to letters, singing the ABCs and playing “find the letter” (“Where is the A?”). Seriously 5 minutes. Nothing fancy, but it’s worked for us.
  • We do a lot of noticing colors, numbers, and letters together throughout our day, in books, on clothes, on street signs, etc. Wherever we are. 
  • When they are ready to start formal reading lessons, we’ve used Teach Your Child To Read In 100 Easy Lessons. These lessons take 10-20 minutes, are researched based and 100% scripted for the parent. Like, I say the pink part, while pointing to the black part. I’ve heard mixed reviews from other people, but I really like it.*
  • I’m not very good with a highly structured curriculum, but if that’s what you’re looking for, I’d recommend A Year Of Playing Skillfully for a curriculum that is very intentional about young children’s developmental needs, and has lots of fun activities to choose from. You can usually get a one month sample to see if its a good fit for you and your child. 

Elementary School

  • Read good books together. Did I mention this? We are a house full of bookworms and this is the foundation of our homeschool. We use a Charlotte Mason Approach in our homeschool, and the curricula outlined by Ambleside Online (from a Christian/Protestant perspective) and Mater Amabilis (from a Christian/Catholic perspective) come closest to what we do. The Charlotte Mason philosophy places a huge emphasis on introducing children to beautiful literature from the start, and learning to know and love good books together is what I have loved most about our homeschool journey so far. 
  • Listen to audiobooks. We’ve enjoyed stories.audible.com this year (its free streaming, high quality audiobooks while schools are out, but I’m not sure how much longer they’ll have it up for free if schools open up in the fall), and the Libby app for library audiobooks. I bought some audiobooks by Jim Weiss from the Well Trained Mind press and we LOVE these, too. 
  • We have continued Handwriting Without Tears this year, and are sticking with it to use a few times a week for next year, too. My oldest is begging to learn cursive, so I’m thinking about Learning Cursive In Narnia, because we are serious Narnia fans around here. 
  • Math-U-See has been a good fit for us for math. Hands-on manipulatives, and short video instructions for each lesson that you can either watch together, or watch beforehand and then present the idea on your own. I’ve done both, but my kiddos tend to like to watch the video, so we’ve gravitated towards that recently. I was never very confident with math, but this program makes me feel really comfortable with how to explain each concept. 
  • We also used Addition Facts That Stick as a supplement to our math curriculum, which I love and would definitely recommend. There are fun games for each set of math facts; it’s been a real hit over here. The author has more books for subtraction, multiplication, and division facts that I will 100% be using when we get there. 
  • Story of the World by Susan Wise Bauer has been the spine for our history studies, supplemented with picture books periodically.**
  • Sing Solfa for singing lessons. Fun songs and videos appropriate for preschool-elementary school aged kiddos. I’d watch the video before doing it together, but they are short so that’s not a huge commitment. Otherwise, no real singing experience required to follow along. 
  • Maestro Classics , Classics for Kids, and online videos of symphony performances to learn about classical music. We play the music we’ve been studying as background music fairly frequently. Sometimes I’ve found a book on the composer that we’ve enjoyed, like this book on Mozart by Demi
  • We are using Bastien Piano Basics for piano lessons: Piano for the Young Beginner and Primer Level. Ideally, I’d prefer to have an in person piano teacher, and eventually I’m sure we will, but this has been a great intro and my kids and I have really enjoyed it. I *do not* know how to play piano so we are learning together and these books have made it accessible. 
  • Look at art together with a program like Picture Study from Simply Charlotte Mason, a book like Come And Look With Me, or find images for free online. We look at the picture for a few minutes, then take it away and try to describe as much of it as we can, and talk about what we notice about it. Sometimes I dig up a picture book on the artist at the library, when I’ve really got my act together. 
  • Use watercolor paint, clay, and other art media fairly regularly. Sometimes I find a YouTube tutorial, sometimes we just play around with things. We always have coloring supplies available, and they have a lot of free time to work on projects on their own. 
  • Sewing, Finger knitting, crocheting, and other crafts. YouTube tutorials have been super helpful with these kinds of project and sites like thesprucecrafts.com  
  • Cooking together and learning about food. I love the book Getting To Yum by Karen Le Billon, and using a kids’ cookbook like Klutz Kids Cooking
  • For science: 
    • We used The Burgess Bird Book this year, and plan to use The Burgess Animal Book next year. They are lovely books in which Peter Rabbit interacts with animals and learns why they look and behave the way they do, all in story form. We now recognize every bird in our neighborhood. I can’t recommend these enough for early elementary kids. It’s delightful. 
    • Let’s Read And Find Out Science books have engaging picture books on pretty much any science topic, and are written at 1st and 2nd grade reading levels. We used a lot of these to learn about the human body this year, and some to learn about plants and animals. Some we’ve read together, some my daughter has read on her own. You can find them from your local library or inexpensively at thriftbooks.com
    • Keep a nature journal. Observe things outside, write or draw about them. It can be as simple or as fancy as you’d like. (*Spoiler: ours are very simple
    • The Nature Study Hacking books have been a great resource for me to get into the habit of using our nature journals. Created by a homeschool mom, she has a few different topics, and so far I have loved them all. 
    • Start a garden outside or grow something inside. 
    • Raise butterflies! Seriously, we loved this and will probably do it every year forever. It was not a lot of work, with BIG rewards.***

My oldest is a only a rising second grader, so if you’re looking for resources for older kiddos, hop back over to my previous post and check out some of the links to more experienced homeschool mamas, or check out cathyduffyreviews.com for searchable reviews on any homeschool curricula. 

Do you have other thoughts? Or questions? Feel free to reach out 🙂

 

*Early Reading Side Note: For both of my older girls I started when they were 4 because they were checking all of the “reading readiness” boxes. We got halfway through the book and found they were, well, not loving it. So we stopped, waited a few months (until they were 5+) and started over. When the toddler is older, I won’t even think about starting before she is 5. I know that some kids won’t be reading ready for the level of instruction in this book at age 5, either, and I think that’s 100% OK. I personally would keep reading aloud a lot, and working on letter recognition and basic phonics informally until the child has the attention span to manage these lessons.

**We did a History Notebook this year where my 1st grader drew a picture based on each history reading, and then she dictated to me a summary of the history reading to write on the back of the picture. She LOVED this, but my rising first grader likely will not. If my suspicions prove true, I will have her give the oral summary (what Charlotte Mason calls “Narration”), but keep the pictures optional. We’ll see how it goes…

***Butterfly Warning: one of our caterpillars didn’t make it. We buried him and mourned him, but we were OK. My oldest is a very sensitive child, and she still did OK with this and loved the project despite the loss.

 

Advertisement
Uncategorized

Thinking About Homeschooling? 5 Steps To Get You Started

When we decided to homeschool preschool a few years back, and then first grade for my oldest last year, I never thought it would be anything but a marginal lifestyle. I was fully expecting nothing but conversations filled with “I could never do that” and confused, blank stares. Yet, here we are. Suddenly, homeschooling is a part of the mainstream conversation, and I’m hearing from a lot of people with questions about exactly how this homeschool thing works. 

To be clear, homeschooling is not the solution for everyone, and it doesn’t solve all the problems. We need good plans and resources for our schools and communities to make sure that every child has access to support during this time. BUT I also know that some families are going to choose to homeschool this year who otherwise would not have, and it has been a great thing for our little family so far. So if you are considering homeschooling as a possibility for your family this year, here are a few steps to get you started: 

 

STEP 1: Find out if & how to report to your school district.  

 

 

Depending on where you live and the age of your child (typically ages 6-16), you may need to let your local school district know that you are homeschooling, and send a report at the end of the year. You can find out the specific requirements (and your legal rights as a homeschooler) for your state here, and if you’re from Massachusetts (like us!) you may find more resources and information here

 

 

STEP 2: Find your people. 

 

Homeschoolers are a diverse bunch. There are people who are on this path from many different backgrounds, for various reasons, and with a multitude of educational ideas and approaches. It’s nothing too complicated, but if you figure out who your homeschool tribe is, you’ll be able to find those curricula, ideas, and resources that will be the best fit for you and your family this year. 

This blog by Pam Barnhill is my favorite go-to for newbie homeschoolers, because the writer briefly defines the various homeschool styles and links to some great resources for each. Take a minute to skim through and see what feels like a good fit for you, and you will be armed with some resources and able to easily find those homeschool mamas who have years (or decades!) of experience implementing those ideas. 

There are also very often Facebook groups for homeschoolers in a given area (and sometimes yahoo groups for some reason?). If and when playdates are ever a thing (haha) you could meet some other people this way. They also likely have tips for communicating with your local school board where necessary, and resources that they’ve found helpful. There are people all over who’ve been at this for a while (longer than me by a mile!) who probably have some good advice, and are likely more than willing to offer some support during these crazy times. 

 

 

STEP 3: Find your curriculum 

 

If step 2 didn’t bring you to a curriculum option that feels right for you, check out Cathy Duffy Reviews for reviews of literally every homeschool curriculum ever. I’ve found the reviews helpful, and you can search by age and subject. 

PRO TIP: You can spend as much or as little $$$ as you want to/need to on homeschool curriculum. Remember wanting to buy every single book at the Scholastic book fair as a kid? Because I do. And that is how I feel when I’m looking at homeschool curriculum. To keep yourself sane and avoid the rabbit holes, figure out a budget upfront, look into what resources you can get for free through your library, and keep in mind that less can truly be more. 

For books, we use the library a LOT (we now have curbside pickup and I am OVER. THE. MOON.), and buy used books on thriftbooks.com. I’d also recommend bookshop.org as an alternative to am*zon, which allows you to buy books online and support local bookshops on one easy site. Win-Win! (Unless you’re Jeff Bezos, but I feel like his business is probably doing just fine.)

 

 

STEP 4: Find a schedule that works for your family 

 

When the choice is homeschooling vs. zoom-schooling, one thing that is a major point for homeschooling is flexibility of scheduling. Some homeschooling families follow the public schools schedule, and if you’ve got decision fatigue already (who doesn’t?) you certainly can do that. 

But you don’t have to

If doing academic work in the morning is best for your family, you can do that. If doing it later in the day works best, YOU CAN DO THAT

If you are working from home and have 37 meetings every Wednesday, you could decide to do school on Saturdays and have Wednesday’s schedule be open. 

You could school year-round with short breaks throughout, and take a slow-and-steady approach, rather than have the long summer break that public schools have and making everything fit into those 9 months. 

If you choose to homeschool, you are taking responsibility for your child’s education, BUT that comes with a lot of freedom and flexibility to approach your homeschool in a way that works for you. For more thoughts of scheduling options that might help us all stay a little more sane during a crazy time, check out any of these wonderful bloggers and experienced homeschool mamas from whom I’ve learned so much: 

Sarah MacKenzie

Pam Barnhill

Melissa Wiley 

Julie Bogart

 

STEP 5: Breathe. 

 

Pandemics are the worst. If I could cancel pandemics, I 100% would. But I can’t, so I’m going to take a deep breath, make a cup of tea, read a good book with my kids on my couch and in my yard, and wear a mask to the grocery store. This is a lot, but you’re not alone. Lots of people have done this homeschooling thing before you and are rooting for you. Lots of people are diving into this for the first time alongside you. 

You don’t have to do all the things in the middle of a pandemic. You don’t have to be supermom or superdad. You don’t have to do everything perfectly, or have insta-worthy lesson plans. It is even possible to homeschool young children reasonably well and never do any glitter crafts. (Ask me how I know.) 

Whether or not you choose to homeschool this year, do those things that feel right for you and your family. The things that nourish your soul, strengthen your relationships, and bring glimpses of joy into your life and your home? Put them front and center. That’s what you and your kids need most this year, and there is plenty of learning to be done right there. Now and always. 

This is hard and nothing about this year is perfect, but some of it can be OK and all of it will pass. My mantra right now is from a poem by St. Teresa of Avila: “All things are passing; God is unchanging.” This season will change, this school year and this pandemic will end, but the Love that drives the Universe will always be. So during the challenges of this season, be gentle with yourself, your kids, your neighbors, and your grocery clerks. Do what you can to take care of yourself, your family, and your community. 

And breathe.

Homeschooling · Parenthood

Our Daily Rhythm (ish)

Truth be told, this week did NOT look like this.  This week was a scheduled break from our school routine anyways, AND the world turned upside down, AND several of us have been sick, SO… we’re taking this a day at a time like the rest of the world.  But, most of the time, our daily rhythm looks something like this:

8-9AM* people wake up, eat breakfast, get dressed, brush teeth

9-9:30AM clean up breakfast stuff, get school stuff out.  Kids play.

9:30-10:30 Morning Time.  Everyone gathers in the living room for prayer, bible stories, singing, read alouds, poetry.  Sometimes we do a picture study, looking at a work of art together and then discussing it.  Sometimes we do composer study, and listen to a piece of music by whichever composed we are currently studying.  We usually read a picture book that relates to US history (most recently SLOWLY read through D’aulaire’s biography of Benjamin Franklin).  Sometimes we just pray, sing a song, and read a fairy tale. Sometimes it takes 30 minutes, sometimes an hour, depending on what else is going on and everyone’s attention span. It’s usually lovely, even when occasionally interrupted by sibling squabbles.  I can’t imagine homeschooling without it.

10:30 AM-12:00 PM Individual lessons.  Usually at the dining room table. Phonics, math, science, history, grammar, geography, handwriting, french.  Short lessons of 10-20 minutes for each subject, depending on content and everyone’s attention span.  We DID NOT start out doing all of these things at once, but built up to this over time.  We don’t hit them all every day, but cycle through subjects throughout the week.  If we don’t get through what we thought we would, we pick up there the next day and follow Princess Anna’s advice to “do the next right thing“.  We do expect delays, interruptions, and extra time for transitioning between subjects and activities.  We work hard, we have fun, we learn lots, but we don’t stress when things don’t go as planned. ESPECIALLY when life is all crazy, as now.

12:00-1:00 PM clean up school stuff, start getting lunch ready, play (inside or outside)

1:00 PM Lunch listen to music while we eat together, usually including whichever classical composer we are currently studying.

2:00-3:00 PM Toddler nap time.  Quiet reading time and/or quiet individual play time for older kids. Mom’s coffee break and quiet reading time, because reasons.

3:00-6:00 PM Afternoon Activities can include:

  • free play outside
  • nature walks (far away from humans, obviously)
  • handicrafts (right now that means sewing and finger knitting projects for us)
  • cooking or baking together
  • afternoon snack (around 3-4PM)
  • family read aloud time (currently making our way through The Hobbit, usually while they eat snack)
  • free play inside if weather is particularly bad or baby is particularly grumpy
  • some screen time (typically not on school days but these are not typical times, so we’ll see how that goes)
  • audiobooks
  • family games.  faves right now include:
    • math dice jr.
    • go fish (AND 10s go fish, per the recommendation of my awesome teacher sister!)
    • solitaire (played together because they are still learning)
    • spot it!
    • uno
  • music & living room dance parties

6:00 PM Adult conversation time and making dinner in the kitchen; kid’s clean up their stuff, take showers, get in pajamas, play, have a dance party, and stay out of the kitchen as much as possible, because of above-mentioned adults conversing. Just bein’ honest.

7:00 PM Family dinner 

8:00 PM Bedtime brush teeth, story, prayer, kisses, and (God willing) sleep.

 

That’s about it! It’s not always picture perfect, but that’s the basic idea of how our days go.  What’s working for you these days?

 

*times are rough estimates but give you the general idea 

Homeschooling

Surprise Homeschooling? A few thoughts, and a lot of resources.

More than a few families out there have found themselves suddenly surprise homeschooling in the wake of COVID-19.  Theres no shortage of advice, resources, and support out there, but for my friends and family, here are a few of my thoughts.

First and foremost, let’s all acknowledge that this isn’t normal, and it’s OK to not know what to do.  This isn’t normal for homeschoolers either, but I can imagine the change is more dramatic for families who were sending kids off to school and working outside the home.  For us, we’re missing our play dates, park days, opportunities for group learning, field trips, and activities.  We’re also finding new ways to connect with our communities and trying to maintain some normalcy.  Our day-to-day academics aren’t changing (much), but we’re in this with the rest of you, all the same.

With that said, I want to acknowledge that being a parent AND teacher is a different kind of relationship than being a parent OR a teacher.  Homeschoolers often say that the hardest part of homeschooling is parenting.  Because parenting, as much as I love it, is HARD sometimes.  My oldest is only in first grade, but we’ve still had a few years of preschool and kindergarten ramping up to this homeschooling thing and finding our rhythm.  So, if you find yourself this week or in the future taking a new and different role in your kids’ education, give yourself and your kids some time and space to ease into that.  Be gentle and patient with yourself and your kids.  This is hard and new and it takes time to build routines that work for you and your family.  Take it slow and steady and keep your relationships front and center in all of this.  

Some people are getting good support from their kid’s schools about what to do during this time.  If that’s you, that’s great!  But if you have preschoolers, or haven’t gotten much direction yet, or are finding that what you are trying to do isn’t working for your family, I’ve rounded up some of my favorite resources, including some special things that are available for free right now in response to all this craziness.

If something sounds like a good fit for you and your kids, then great!  If it sounds horrible to you, ignore it.  Different things are going to work for different families, so no judgement here.  Just options and love.

OK.  Enough of that.  Let’s talk logistics.

Some Things That Are Free Right Now 

  • Homebound Online Conference.  Julie Bogart of Brave Writer and Susan Wise Bauer of The Well Trained Mind are two of my favorite homeschooling people, and they have put together a free online conference for this week (March 23-27th 2020). There are talks from some awesome people for parents in the evenings, and story time with Jim Weiss (!!) for kids during the day.  I signed up for ALL THE THINGS and I’m pretty psyched about it.
  • A Handbook To Morning Time by Cindy Rollins.  Cindy has been helping homeschool families for years now and Morning Time has been a cornerstone for our families daily routines.  She has generously offered her book as a free resource during this time to support anyone who is in need.
  • Arts & Culture.  You’ve probably seen some of these floating around, but here are the ones I’m hoping to take some advantage of right now:

Some Things That Are Always Free 

  • Ambleside Online is a free, online homeschooling curriculum based on Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy.  This is a major resource that we use for our homeschool AND they already had an Emergency HELP Plan that they put together following Hurricane Katrina, for people who are suddenly homeschooling or don’t have access to the resources they would normally use.  I highly recommend this resource to anyone interested! The website also links to free online versions of books wherever possible.
  • Mater Amabilis is a similar, free, online, Charlotte Mason based homeschool curricumlum, but this one has a Catholic focus if that’s what you’re after 🙂
  • Pam Barnhill has multiple podcasts, books, and lots of great resources for simplifying and planning your homeschool.  If you’re intrigued by the idea of Morning Time but feel daunted at coming up with a plan, you can get Pam’s one month plan for free.  Full disclosure: that’s not what we do.  I’m a control freak and I plan out all my own stuff, BUT I love Pam’s advice and feel confident that this is a good resource to check out, if you feel so inclined.
  • MUSIC! We have loved using SingSolfa.com for singing lessons for the past few years.  Lots of great resources on here!

Nature Study Resources

Nature Study has been an important part of our homeschool life for these early years, and is a great and accessible way to engage with science from your own back yard through these strange times.  Here are some of the aides that I’ve found helpful.

Free Options for Audiobooks for kids and families

  • Audible Stories – new from audible, free audiobooks and stories for kids of all ages streamed through a browser while schools are closed
  • Librivox – I love this app.  Lots of audiobooks that are in the public domain read by volunteers and available for free all the time
  • Libby – An app used by many libraries to access ebooks and audiobooks

Some Podcasts For Inspiration 

  • Your Morning Basket with Pam Barnhill.  Did I mention that I LOVE having a Morning Time Routine?  Scroll back to the first episode or hop around to get an idea of the various ways families do “Morning Time”
  • Read Aloud Revival.  If reading aloud as a family isn’t already a part of your every day life, Sarah Mackenzie has some great thoughts and practical tips on why and how to incorporate read alouds.  Again, if you don’t know this podcast, I strongly recommend scrolling back a few seasons to the beginning where she has some great conversations about the benefits of reading aloud.
  • Homegrown Preschooler.  This podcast JUST STARTED and couldn’t have had better timing for many families with newly-home preschoolers.  I haven’t personally used their curriculum, but I love their approach and am psyched about this podcast.

 

WELL that’s it for the moment.  I hope some of this is helpful.  Feel free to reach out if you’re needing support, fellowship, or advice.  We’ve got this! 

 

 

Catholic · Ignatian Spirituality · Parenthood

Contemplatives In Action: Being an Ignatian Mama

Long, long ago, when I was pregnant with baby #1, I signed up to participate in a “Retreat in Everyday Life” through my parish.  It was the 19th Annotation of the Ignatian Exercises, a way of doing the retreat for those people who can’t leave everything for 30 days straight and go on a retreat.  (So, you know, most people.)  St. Ignatius developed his Spiritual Exercises originally with and for lay people, women and men living every day lives in Spain, before he went on to found the Society of Jesus (aka the Jesuits).  As such, he made sure to include options within the Exercises that could be adapted to a number of different situations.  I’ve always loved retreats, setting time aside for quiet, contemplative prayer, and I was (vaguely) aware that this new tiny person we’d been given was going to shake things up a bit, so I went into this process with plenty of enthusiasm, feeling all the arrogant confidence of one who doesn’t know any better, assuming that this would be an easy, straightforward way to “have it all”.  This was, after all, the whole point of the 19th Annotation, right?   To meet people where they are, and help them grow in prayer. Sign me up.

It went… OK… Honestly, I’m profoundly glad that I did it, but it wasn’t what I expected and was harder than I thought it would be.  Here is why:

St. Ignatius puts a real emphasis on having a routine, a particular time and place that you go to for your prayer time each day.  Which is very good advice.  Except that I tried to pray in the morning, and I threw up.  So the next day I tried in the afternoon, and I threw up.  The next day I’d try in the evening… you see where I’m going with this? I am one of those oh-so-lucky HG-pregnant-ladies, (one of the many ways my life is like the Duchess of Cambridge’s) and I was pretty much sick ALL. THE. TIME. Every day. For nine months. (Did I mention the 19th Annotation, as my parish does it, is a 9 month “retreat in everyday life”? You can’t make this stuff up.)

I kept trying to find a way to make my prayer time look something remotely resembling St. Ignatius’ (genuinely very good) recommendations.  I couldn’t do it.  And I felt like a failure.

Happily, another part of the process is Spiritual Direction, and I had a wonderful young Jesuit checking in with me regularly and offering guidance as I went along. This unsuspecting celibate man probably heard more about pregnancy and morning sickness than he had ever expected to, but together, by the grace of God, we muddled our way through, and I carry the spiritual lessons I gleaned that year in my heart to this day.  At one point we realized that, while I wasn’t able to find any time AT ALL that would regularly work for prayer, I was praying a LOT in some unexpected ways, and there was real grace to be found there.  (I was even in the same place a lot of the time, if the bathroom floor counts, and under the circumstances I think that it must.)

Thus began what was for me the unpredictable, often outside of my own control journey of motherhood, and a new understanding of the Ignatian idea of being a “Contemplative In Action“.  For the Jesuits, this is often used to describe how they maintain contemplative, prayer-focused lives while actively working and serving in the world, as distinct from some religious orders that are monastic, carving out time and space for community, prayer, and contemplation while withdrawing from the distractions of the world.  It means building in time, in and around the business of active ministry and work, for prayer and reflection.  It requires some routine, and making the intentional choice to prioritize contemplation in the midst of many other demands.  It acknowledges that those other demands are important.  Serving those in need, working for social justice, providing education, preaching the Gospel; these are all important tasks, deserving of time and energy.  But it also acknowledges the human need for reflection and for prayer.  Each fuels the other in it’s own ways.

For me, in my life as a laywoman and now a mother of three, the Ignatian principle of being a Contemplative in Action speaks to my experience of trying to foster my spiritual life within the (sometimes very busy) context of marriage and family life.

I do try to build routines for prayer into my daily life, but this is an ever moving target, and I’ve come to accept that.  What was peaceful nap-time last week may not be this week. Little people change quickly, as it would happen, and so my routines change some, too.  But what I can keep coming back to is this principle of being a Contemplative in Action.  What are my contemplative practices right now?  Are there times I can be more prayerful in the midst of the busyness?  Can use my alone time more intentionally, and prioritize prayer over, say, Netflix?

Remembering that this life I am called to means being a Contemplative In Action keeps my heart and mind centered Christ, while my hands are full of little hands, and feet are running after little feet.  It helps me to remember to invite Jesus along with me, as I teach, comfort, admonish, console, feed, bath, and clean up after the people with whom I’ve been entrusted for this busy, chaotic, beautiful season.

Homeschooling

How We Are Homeschooling Kindergarten

I’ve tried my best to put into words why we decided to homeschool kindergarten, but really the most common question I get, from friends, family, other parents at the playground, and other homeschooling families is “How?”  Now that we are officially “doing” something, what are we actually doing?

For one, last year we started doing Morning Time.  It’s a popular routine for many homeschool families, and it’s working really well for us.  This year that meant about 30-60 minutes in the morning where we sat together, on the living room rug, around the dining room table, or occasionally out in the backyard.  We would pray, sing songs, recite nursery rhymes, and read lots and lots of books together. We haven’t done Morning Time quite every day, but at least several times a week, and it has become a ritual touchstone for us. My mantra for the preschool years has been, “When in doubt, read good books and get outside”.  It’s gone well.

So in the interest of not fixing things that aren’t broken, we are continuing along our way with Morning Time being the primary structured thing we do for our homeschool for Kindergarten. With some tweaks:

  • I got some children’s poetry books to build on to our nursery rhymes.
  • Of our picture books, I chose some that fall into “Nature Lore” or “Nature Study” category, so we can learn a little more about the world around us.
  • I have added picture books around the theme of American History, so my kiddos can start to have a framework for our country’s history.  Because I’m a planner, I split the year into 6-week terms (with breaks in between), and will be incorporating books about a different period in American history for each term.  First up, we’ll be reading through some picture books about pre-colonial, Native American culture, and the early explorers.

So this year our Morning Time might look something like this: 

  • Opening Hymn (Doxology)
  • Morning prayer
  • Read a Bible Story from Tomie de Paola’s Book of Bible Stories or a story about a Saint from Catholic Saints For Children 
  • Learn a new song or hymn, and/or practice an old song
  • Read a few pages from a book for Nature Study, such as the Crinkleroot series, OR a picture book related to American history like The Legend of the Bluebonnet
  • Read & take turns reciting Nursery Rhymes and/or simple poems
  • Practice some French vocab, and sing a French song (we practice speaking more informally throughout the day)
  • 5 minutes of some kind of arts & craft skill that they need my help to do, like scissor skills or finger knitting
  • Read aloud literature: Classic Fairy Tales (last year we read through Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales, this year we will be reading our way through Grimm’s fairy tales), Aesop’s fables, and other picture books
  • End with a song

Besides Morning Time, we usually spend about 15 minutes doing some early phonics (right now my oldest is working her way through Teach Your Child To Read In 100 Easy Lessons; She loves it!), and 5 minutes working on writing letters (we are going to try using Handwriting Without Tears this year) in the morning. And my husband brings in some age appropriate chapter books for bedtime reading.

Math has been very informal for us, but I’ve noticed that my kids play with math a lot, playing with numbers, adding and subtracting, using things around the house or in the yard as manipulatives, etc.. In retrospect, I guess I’ve encouraged this in our everyday activities (“How many grapes do you have?”; “How many birds are in that tree?”), but I’m inclined to think that kind of play-based learning at this stage is somewhat inherent.  Regardless, it’s not something we sit down to “do”, and I don’t think that will change much this year. I’m planning to work on skip counting by 2s, 5s, and 10s with them this fall, and to work on math related skills like recognizing shapes, or playing with patterns later on, and to incorporate some family games that use simple math related skills, but none of that would be for more than a few minutes a day, and anyways, not in a sit-at-the-table-and-do-your-math kind of way.

And the rest of the day is open for unstructured play, time outside, and activities.

But what about socialization? (You may be asking yourself.)

You guys.

We. Socialize. So. Much.

Seriously.  ALL the socialization over here. Apart from the natural working out of social skills in sibling dynamics (I mean, these kids need to share.  There is no not-sharing-option in our house), we’re in a Coop with other homeschooling families once a week for a session in the fall and in the spring; they’re in swim classes at our local Y; dance classes in our community; CCD/Sunday School at our Church; we have play dates, park days, and field trips with friends; we are with other people in our community in some capacity literally every day. Just over the past year I have watched my oldest go from painfully shy to… well, still a bit shy, to be honest… but while she may be nervous and hesitant at first with new people, she makes friends every where we go, and regularly demonstrates emotional maturity that I would never expect of a child her age.  Once she has gotten up the courage to say that first thing, she is off and running, just full steam ahead with her newest friend.  This girl puts 5YO me’s social skills to shame, is all I’m saying.

So that about sums it up.  Things have been going well, and we are looking forward to the things that we are adding to our routine this year.  Keep your fingers crossed for us, and feel free to check back in for updates as we go.

Homeschooling

Why We Are Homeschooling Kindergarten

It is official.  Officially official.  While other families are buying new backpacks, folders, and pencils, I am stacking up books from the library in my already overcrowded dining room and wondering if we still have a “right” to post a “First Day of School” picture on Facebook.  Because we are *officially* homeschooling Kindergarten this year. 

In some ways for me (and for my newly-minted 5 year old) this does not feel particularly dramatic.  A couple of years ago, things did feel dramatic.  I left my full time job, switched to a part time schedule, pulled my two girls out of daycare, and started telling people “We’re not doing Preschool”. I didn’t call it “Homeschooling” because, well the whole point (for us) was that it wasn’t “school”. I, a slightly neurotic person who is hopelessly research oriented, became a mother and a child therapist at the exact same moment, and so naturally I read everything I could get my hands on about childhood development. I was struck by ideas about slowing down and simplifying schedules, like in Simplicity Parenting. I wrestled with ideas about giving kids enough free play, and especially enough time to play outside, in books like Barefoot and Balanced and Last Child In The Woods.  Around me, I saw kids who were tired and stressed, and families who had to schedule in quality time like it was a meeting. I wanted something different, especially for these early years, and what that might look like started to come into focus.

I didn’t want all of their time to be scheduled, and I certainly didn’t want any overly academic stuff in these early years. While there are some preschools in our area that are excellent, with time outside and lots of free-play, there seemed to be a whole lot of others that bragged about how every aspect of a 2 year old’s day would be “educational”. And while I know that 2 year olds are always learning, whatever else they may be doing, I didn’t like the emphasis. It felt competitive, in a strained, anxious sort of way.  “The Path To College Starts Here!” They seemed to say. And I couldn’t shake the feeling that getting swept into a busy, anxious, or competitive atmosphere at this stage of the game wouldn’t be good for my kids or my family. So we weighed all the options, and then we opted out. But it wasn’t something I was “doing”, it was something I wasn’t doing. Or it started out that way.

Then all of the 3 year olds in our neighborhood disappeared.  Well, for most of the day, at least. Because even those who hadn’t been in day care until that point were sent off to preschool. And that was just fine for them, but suddenly we needed some friends.  Friends who would be around during the day, when we were around. This is how I found myself plugged into our local Homeschooling world. Suddenly we were meeting other families who, for a million different reasons, weren’t sending their kids off to school, but were paving their own ways. We fell in with this crowd, and both I and my girls made lovely friends.  My oldest started to learn to read, both girls loved the library, books, and stories.  We spent as much time outside as we possibly could.  They played and dreamed and imagined, and I got to see their little personalities unfold in ways that astounded me.  “Not doing preschool”, for us, turned out to be pretty great.

Now there are three girls (ages 5, soon-to-be 4, and 6 months), and we have settled into what is (usually) a lovely daily rhythm.  We cook together (sometimes); read together (all the time); dance in the kitchen; play with sidewalk chalk; climb trees; watch birds, bugs, and squirrels; spend time with friends; go to the grocery store.  We are living our lives, together, and learning all kinds of lovely things.

I say that this transition from “Not Doing Preschool” to “Homeschooling Kindergarten” isn’t terribly dramatic because not a whole lot is changing. The big difference is in the way I am defining it to other people (specifically non-homeschoolers; friends and family and strangers alike – Hi Guys!). I am defining it by what we are doing, not by what we are choosing not to do.  Lots of time outside, lots of good books, lots of conversations, lots of time with friends, lots of wide open hours to dream and imagine.  Very little rushing around, very little juggling.  I don’t know yet what our plan will be for next year, or the year after that, but for now, this is what’s working for us.

For some thoughts on how we will be homeschooling this year, hop on over here.

Catholic · Fairytales · Parenthood

On Faith and Fairyland

In our house we write letters to Santa, we read fairytales almost daily, and, being of Irish descent, I wonder aloud if the Leprechauns have taken whatever object happens to be missing at any given moment (because, let’s be real: in my house, something is always missing).  I have no objection to engaging my children in make-believe and fairyland. In fact, I see this as a fundamental part of childhood, full of learning and discovery and expression that is just as it should be. Periodically, people express fear that promoting the fantasy world of fairyland somehow undermines one’s faith, but I have come to believe, as Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkien did before me, that fairyland and Christian faith can live comfortably together, the former stretching the imagination through play and fantasy, so that our hearts and minds may make room for the profound Truths of the latter.

But while I believe firmly in the value of fairyland and fantasy, my 4YO and I recently discussed how the characters at Disney are not, in fact, the “real” people.  This came about somewhat gradually; it seemed that she had held suspicions for some time, and she would periodically make passing comments that seemed to beg the question of what is real or unreal.  I think a lot of kids can outgrow the notion that beloved characters are not real naturally, without a devastating sense of betrayal accompanying it, but I know my kid, and I do not think that she is one them.  So, my husband and I decided to answer her questions simply and honestly rather than engage in an elaborate ruse about costumed princesses.

“You seem sad,” I said, as she sat, arms crossed, eyes downcast, on the living room floor.

“I’m not sad, I’m just… frustrated, because I thought it was really real.”

I’m not gonna lie, this conversation left me feeling all kinds of stressed and anxious.  I actually like Disney; will she not like it anymore? Have I just ruined the magic childhood? Am I failing at parenting? I texted this and much more to my oh-so-patient husband in a fit of parental insecurity.

I gave her some time to process, and circled back to this conversation later in the day.  We talked about how make believe is fun, and Disney can be fun because we can see with our eyes things that represent stories and ideas that are otherwise hidden.  “But, can I tell you what I know is True? God made this world so special, with it’s own special kind of magic.  There are amazing things that we can see, like how caterpillars turn into butterflies, and how tiny seeds can grown into big trees.  And there are amazing things in this world that we know are real even though we can’t see them.”

“Like angels? My guardian angel is always with me, but I can’t see them.”

The tension from our earlier conversation had lifted, and her eyes shone with that particular joy of a child encountering the wonders of the universe.  I sighed with relief; I have not failed her. Because this world is rich with wonder and mystery, full of breathtaking realities that science can help us to explore, and beautiful Truths that faith alone can show us. Disney can be fun, but it doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of the true magic of childhood.

As Chesterton puts it in Orthodoxy, “[Fairytales] make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.” We read fairytales not as escapism from a mundane world, but as a reminder that the world is sacred,  engraced. Disney touches on this (one might say capitalizes on it), but falls short of the experience of reading fairytales, of playing make-believe.  Although I can sing along to any Disney movie with the best of them, I increasingly find myself sympathizing with C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien who, upon seeing Snow White in theaters in 1938, were famously unimpressed. (Offended may be the better adjective, as Tolkien reported that some of Disney’s works gave him nausea.) These giants of fantasy literature saw fairytales as something neighboring the sacred, and Disney’s use of the fairytale for capital gain made them uneasy, to say the least. (It is worth noting that it has also been argued that Chesterton, had he lived to see the film, may have had a different take given his general attitude towards “vulgar” or “low-brow” humor.)

Disney can be entertaining, and while it can have a place in a child’s life, I do not believe it should be the basis of a child’s imaginative world. There is a fundamental difference between handing a child a prefabricated idea from someone else’s imagination, and allowing a child to play with ideas and engage in the deep work of imagining a world of her own.  There are deeper truths in fairyland than the “happiest place on earth” is able to provide, and the best fantasy points to a place beyond earth that is happier still.  The “Magic Kingdom” may be a fun way to spend an afternoon, but fairyland holds a much needed role in a child’s developing understanding of herself, the world in which she lives, and the Truest Love who created them both.

So while my littles and I will, in all likelihood, continue to sing along to “Let It Go” with reckless abandon, I am 100% OK with them not believing in a literal Elsa & Anna.  We have better things, richer, deeper things to believe in.

Catholic · Little Ones at Mass · Parenthood

An Open Letter To Those Who Are Kind To My Family At Mass

Dear Kind Strangers,

You may not know how much your encouraging words mean to my husband and me. For every moment in Mass when I feel anxious that my children are distracting those around us, or generally wreaking havoc during mass, you smile at us with kindness in your eyes from a few pews over. For every one person who shows irritation when my not-quite-silent toddlers, dozens of you offer words of encouragement and support.

Week after week, you smile at my kids indulgently as they squirm in the pew. You nudge each other and nod in their direction as they flip through their picture bible, put their dollar in the collection basket, meander their way along with us in the communion line, with kindness in your eyes. And, most importantly, when they are angelic, and when they dissolve into toddler tantrums, you stop me after mass to say how lovely they are, how they remind you of your children when they were young, how nice it is see young families at mass. You offer words of support and encouragement, wrapped up in a quick sentence of two.

Thank you.

Thank you for your patience when my two year old bumps her head (again) and wails like a banshee.

Thank you for telling me that my children are beautiful. On the good days and the not so good days.

Thank you for sharing stories of your own families, your grown children. Thank you for making us feel understood, accepted, and welcomed.

Every once in a blue moon, I feel unwelcomed at Mass.  I remind myself of Jesus’ words, “let the little children come to me,” as I try to do just that, but sometimes (albeit very rarely in my own experience), someone seems annoyed by our efforts, and I succumb to discouragement.  It is in those moments that your simple gestures of embodied love and welcome lift me back up and strengthen me to keep going.  

This reminds me why fellowship, community, are so important in Christian life.  We are called to be Christ for each other, and in such simple ways you, Kind Strangers, are regularly Christ for me and my little ones, welcoming us in with love and joy.

Can I say it again?  Thank you.

Sincerely,
A Mama Who Is Trying Her Best 

Parenthood · Spirituality

How Mothering is Changing My Prayer Life

“Do you have time for prayer?”

I’ve been asked this question a handful of times from friends, mostly fellow Catholic young adults, since my two little ones came along. Some of these friends are from my parish, which is rooted in the Ignatian Tradition and run by Jesuits, and have participated in prayer groups and gone on retreats with me, pre-babies. Some are thinking about having children themselves, discerning with their partner or already pregnant and trying to wrap their brains around the life-altering relationship that is at hand. There is some excitement, but some anxiety in the question. And my answer is this:

Yes, all the time. But my prayer is not the same, because my life is not the same. I am not the same.

Do I spend hours in adoration, in silent meditation? Do I go on weekend-long silent retreats? Well, no, not at the moment. I am happily the mama of two-under-three, which means my daily schedule looks pretty different than it did before my girls hit the scene, and alone time or time set aside for quiet prayer is a little harder to guarantee at any given moment.

Once upon a time, I fancied myself called to religious life. I idealized the daily routines of work, prayer, and community to be found within the walls of a convent. I tried, to varying degrees of success and failure, to commit myself to a daily routine, like the one St. Ignatius encourages. I tried to commit to go to a particular place, every day, at the same time, to spend 15-20 minutes in prayer. This may not sound like a huge deal to some, but let me tell you, it was hard for me. At times, I loved it, but mostly I forgot, or made excuses, or got distracted, or decided I had chosen the wrong time, the wrong place, the wrong style of prayer, or whatever, and I would change some thing in the hopes that that would “fix” my spiritual life. (spoiler: It didn’t.)

But since becoming a parent, I’ve had to let go of the idea that I need to control the external things to have a fruitful prayer life. Don’t get me wrong; I think keeping routines, and maintaining sacred spaces, and teaching ourselves discipline are all great and important practices. I just don’t use them as excuses. Because, while I definitely want to keep structure in my home, for myself and my family, and while I want our days to have a stable kind of rhythm to them, there are also a million factors that are beyond my control at any given moment. I can’t always go to my favorite chapel, or guarantee a quiet space for any length of time. Someone might be teething, and up all night needing to be comforted. Someone might wake up WAY too early from a nap and just really want to play. Someone might need milk, or to be changed, or to be tucked back in. Someone might be totally unable to control the impulse to scale the pew in front of us like it is Mount Everest in the middle of the consecration. These things happen.

Parenting is teaching me the importance of structure and routines (Lord help me come 6PM if naptime is missed!), but it is also teaching me to temper my desire for structure with mercy and flexibility. I have to be merciful with myself, most of all, when I can’t make the time to say that rosary, or read that article, or respond to that email, or, heck, get all the dishes done. Sometimes, life gets ahead of us, and with little ones in tow, this is more true than ever. Sometimes what I’m called to in that moment is not to stick to some pre-determined list or schedule, but to let myself experience God in every moment. In the teething baby. In the glass of water. In the scraped knee. In the tears. In the snuggles. In the giggles. On the playmat and the playground.

More and more, I find my prayer life to be full of spontaneous prayer, overwhelming gratitude and desperate pleas for strength and grace (or maybe just a little more sleep). It is less frequent, for the time being, that I stop what I’m doing and say, “Okay, now I am going to pray,” but my prayer is rich and dynamic and flowing naturally throughout the rhythm of the day. At work, at home, on the road, as they drift off to sleep, as I drift off to sleep. It used to be a much-needed glass of water, now it feels more like breathing.

Obviously, that’s not always true. Sometimes I wonder why I feel so run down, and realize I’ve been holding my breath while I run.

But sometimes it is true. Sometimes, in the midst of holding little hands and wiping little eyes and kissing little faces, my prayer is like breathing; constant, automatic, and life-giving. And I always have time to breath.