Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Finding Peace While Homeschooling

I find for some reason that I am often in the minority.  Such is the case with regard to a book I've begun reading over the past few days.  A good friend of mine had asked if I'd read it because several of her friends had really enjoyed it.  My curiosity was piqued, so I began looking for a preview of the book online.  I found a pdf preview of the first third on the publisher's website, which I read a few nights ago.  Then, on Monday I happened to be at a friend's house who had the book (and wasn't reading it), so she let me borrow it to get the full picture of the book.

When I was reading yesterday, I thought to myself, maybe I'm just missing something...  So many people like this book...  As I read on, I found that there were some things I agreed with the author about and then others that I saw very differently.

The book is Teaching From Rest:  A Homeschooler's Guide to Unshakable Peace by Sarah
MacKenzie.  The premise of the book is that homeschooling parents need to find their rest in the Lord and thereby simplify their expectations for homeschooling and how they homeschool.  When I reflect on the expectations I had after reading The Well Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer when my daughter was in kindergarten, I can definitely say that I needed to remember these things.  Books and people outside of ourselves can inspire us in both positive and negative ways--towards grace or towards perfectionism.  

My friend who lent me the book was very helpful in identifying that this book aligns well with a Charlotte Mason approach to homeschooling.  This approach uses primarily living books and experiences to help children learn through "an atmosphere, a discipline, a life" according to the website  That same website has a free curriculum guide which is very interesting.  Basically, you learn by doing, by experiencing.  Ms. Mackenzie states in this book that you don't need to teach every subject every day or even all year.

But, I'm getting ahead of myself.

I want to start with the first section of this book.

I was struck that Ms. Mackenzie is very concerned with words.  She begins by explaining that we should not want a "rigorous" education for our children, but rather that we should seek to be diligent.  She was looking at the dictionary definition of rigorous, which when spelled out as it is in this book is obviously not what home educators want!  But, Ms. Mackenzie must have been unaware that this word is used differently in an educational context.  On the website,, there was a very helpful and complete definition of how educators use the word rigorous and what is meant by a "rigorous education".

What educators mean is this:
"While dictionaries define the term as rigidinflexible, or unyielding, educators frequently apply rigor or rigorous to assignments that encourage students to think critically, creatively, and more flexibly. Likewise, they may use the term rigorous to describe learning environments that are not intended to be harsh, rigid, or overly prescriptive, but that are stimulating, engaging, and supportive."  from:

That is what educators mean.  And I think we all want that for our children.  The author's argument is a circular one which begins with dissection of the word rigorous and presenting diligence as what we truly want when it comes to our children's education.  

This first section of the book tackles the topic of rest.  The author beats around the bush and says the same thing multiple times.  Basically, we need to remember that God is in control and that we can rest in Him.  We need to be diligent and faithful with our time each day, loving our children and husbands.  We do not need to be driven by the clock or a textbook when a child does not understand a particular concept.  Instead, we homeschool so that we will have the time to pause, breathe, and really learn.  While I agree with her premise about resting in the Lord, she beats around the bush and is quite wordy.  I think she could have been more succinct.   

While the author says that resting in God is what we really need, I will say that we also need emotional and physical rest (which she does mention near the end of the book).  Many words have multiple meanings and it is okay for rest to mean both physical rest and "resting in the Lord".    

Moving on from her discussion of rest, Ms. Mackenzie discusses her ideas about curriculum.   

Curriculum is the second word she expounds upon.  She refers to curriculum as the whole learning plan and not the specific books one uses.  While this is true, the word truly does refer to both things.  It is both the wholistic plan for a child's education and the actual books.  Again, it is okay for a word to have multiple meanings.  Sometimes as parents we do miss that our children are learning all the time and remembering that there is an all inclusive curriculum plan for what we want our children to learn can be a helpful reminder.  I believe that is ultimately the point that she is trying to make.  

At this point, she outlines how she believes parents should simplify their curriculum.  And this is where our roads significantly diverge.  She sees the goals of education as being "to order a child's affections and teach him to love that which is lovely" (page 34, Teaching from Rest).  These are not how I would put my goals nor my husband's in regard to the education of our children.  I think it is a helpful exercise for every homeschooling parent to sit down and articulate what their goals for their children's education.  Then, it is easier to listen to the ideas, sift through what people say, and understand what applies to your situation.

Here are my goals:

  1. What I want most for my children is to find joy in their lives and to glorify God.  
  2. I want to raise them to be independent adults who can live in this world.  
  3. I want my children to think of and be aware of others' needs—to love others well.
  4. I want my children to enjoy learning and know that to enjoy work and food is a gift from God. (Ecclesiastes 2:24)
Her advice for simplifying curriculum is based on her goals, what she wants her children to learn--fewer things in greater depth in a looping manner (which she explains in her book). What I appreciate about Ms. Mackenzie's ideas is that she explains how a Charlotte Mason approach can look like in practice for her family.  Her schedule involves a family studying multiple subjects together and requires students to be focused on getting their work done during their independent time (which is relatively short).  I was very honestly surprised and even shocked a little by her middle school schedule and the subjects studied.   Middle School is preparing students for high school and the difficulty and work required in middle school needs to increase in order to help them gradually adjust and be ready for 9th grade.  

My husband and I want different things for our children than what is recommended in this book.  Let me give one example.  She explains that all subjects don't need to be studied every day or even all year (even Math!).  She lumped all of the subjects together in her statement.  I believe some subjects do need to be studied every day.  These core subjects, if studied every day, will promote a greater depth of learning and retention. Yet, for some subjects, I do agree with her--they do not need to be studied all year or every day.  Art and Music Appreciation are subjects this would work for.  But, instrumental music needs to be an ongoing effort in order to make progress and grow.   Foreign language can be studied sporadically if the goal is only awareness and exposure to a second language.  But, if the goal is ultimately fluency and being able to communicate in that second language, then daily study (even if only 15-30 minutes) is very helpful and necessary.  Our goals are fluency, so our children practice foreign language using Duolingo and Rosetta Stone each day at their own paces in addition to a group lesson once a week with a French teacher.  

Another thing that struck me was Ms. Mackenzie's misunderstanding of why schools give students a wide exposure to different subjects.  It is based upon the educational theory of Schemas by Jean Piaget.  This theory explains that our brains connect new learning to something that is old and already in our brains.  By connecting new information to old, it is more likely to be remembered.  The Classical Conversations founder, Leigh Bortins, put this concept into her own words (without giving Piaget credit) when she writes about hanging knowledge on "pegs".  Ms. Mackenzie feels that students would do better to study fewer subjects at greater depth.  I fall in line with Piaget's theories and have seen this work well with my children as math concepts are developed to a greater complexity with each passing year in their math books.  I don't think it's wise to start swimming out in the deep end of the pool if you don't know how to swim.  Rather, building confidence by going deeper bit by bit develops strength and skills along the way.

The last section of the book focuses on putting primacy in one's life on relationships, rather than the doing.  This is the age old truth of Mary vs. Martha living from the Bible.  Yes, relationships are important.  Not being able to stop for a child who needs you to listen is something we can't get back after the moment has passed.  I agree.  But, as with most things in life, balance is needed.  We do live in a very driven world and we have to be careful not to miss the blessings of homeschooling--being able to slow down and savor learning.  But, we also have to be careful of the weaknesses of homeschooling, too.  One weakness is that children can miss learning how to work within deadlines/due dates and manage their time and coping with this--which is a life skill that most public and private school children learn during their school years.  Giving children due dates for anything wouldn't align with the rolling schedule Ms. Mackenzie uses--which is fine for her family.  My family sees different priorities as our children get older and get ready for high school.  In three short years, my oldest will be taking classes at the local community college (with dual enrollment) and I want her to be as ready as I can help her to be.  I want her to be able to work within due dates, understand grades, and cope with the stress she encounters as she enters a new school environment.

I am glad that many moms have found this book to be encouraging.  It's not my cup of tea.  I prefer books that have anecdotes and stories in them--pictures of real life.  Ms. Mackenzie is surprisingly impersonal in her book and doesn't include stories from other moms.  Although, I do remember her mentioning that she asks moms who've graduated homeschoolers what they regret and she says they regret not savoring the time with their children more.  Ironically, this isn't what I've heard when I've asked the same question of parents and graduated homeschoolers who are now raising their own children.  One graduated homeschooler said to make sure your children know they are little fish in a big pond.  One said to make sure they learn cuss words and understand social mores so that they'll understand the world around them.  Parents I've spoken with have talked of what a tough road it is, but that they are grateful to have walked it.  I love hearing the stories of moms who are ahead of me on this homeschooling road.  

This middle section of the book doesn't fit my family because I'm not a Charlotte Mason mom, which became significantly clearer to me as I read this book and looked over the site  I like textbooks because they help me know what needs to be covered and it keeps us on track.   Outside of our schoolwork, I talk to my kids about everything from Kaitlyn Jenner to homelessness and how to make choices about spending money.  I've heard this approach referred to as standards based (though I'm not teaching according to Common Core or state standards).  I need my kids to be able to work independently at various times of the day so that I can keep up with my house and the health/physical needs of my family.  I recognize when I start snapping or getting stressed that I need to take a step back and remember that everything is in God's control.  He graciously gives me strength each day. I have no doubt that homeschooling looks different in Ms. Mackenzie's home and in mine--but neither is wrong.  We both teach our children based upon our short-term and long-term goals for their education.  

In summary,
Teaching from a Place of Rest is good for:  
- Charlotte Mason parents
- Parents who are intending to homeschool K-12 and never intending to put their children in public or private schools (they would have holes).
- Homeschooling parents who desire encouragement to slow down and savor the education process.

Who it isn't good for (in my opinion):
- Parents of middle and high school students (the middle section isn't applicable to parents who live in the state I live in, where specific subjects are required). 
- Parents who intend on their children applying to competitive four year colleges or prep high schools.  
- Homeschoolers who don't follow Charlotte Mason's teachings in their philosophy of education
- Parents who are open to, or are considering placing their children in a formal school setting prior to college.  

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