But for us – this was the way we were going to take – for a couple of years. That was 1992. We took it one year at a time. Our small group became the “what should Westlunds do for their kids’ education next year prayer group” every spring.
A month ago, Randy and I handed diplomas to our last graduates. That day marked the end of over 27 years of our homeschooling odyssey. Randy asked me to make some comments before he and our children made theirs. This is what I prepared. I said most of it – plus some sniffles.
* * * * *
How did we even get here?!
I’m not sure how the idea of homeschooling came into our lives. We didn’t have close friends who were homeschooling at that point. I had a degree in education and a major bias against homeschooling – who did parents think they were, anyway?
We had moved into the inner city of Minneapolis with three little children, fully expecting to public school them. But – the year before Jacob was supposed to start kindergarten, we made visits to several local schools – and NO. I won’t go into it here but what we observed was NOT what we wanted for our children. It’s not that our kids were too good for the local schools – if it wasn’t good enough for our kids, it wasn’t good enough for any kids. But we knew we couldn’t take on Minneapolis Public Schools. So why not venture into something different – for a year or two? I remember sitting at our supper table in this season of pondering. At least one child spilled his milk while pouring into his cup. Randy looked at me and said something like: “what do you remember learning in school before you were able to pour milk without spilling it?” Hmmm – how much could we mess up their early education?!
So Randy sent me away for a weekend to think and pray about our family’s education. I took my education textbooks from college. Remember – there was no internet – no way to google my way into a vision for our children’s education. Just me and a couple dry college textbooks about education philosophy and methodology and child development. Those books – and prayer. I got prayed out so I took a walk in Dinkytown. I went into a used bookstore. I found this $9 (out of print) book: One Thousand Poems for Children.
It captured my heart. It made me think: I want to read things like this to our children. Timeless. Beautiful. Meaningful words.
Randy and I discussed this vague sense – this deep longing – this hesitant optimism. This scared yearning. I can’t say that it was God telling us to embark. I don’t think the Bible in any way mandates homeschooling as we know it. We are certainly required to oversee and invest in our children’s education but there are a myriad of ways to do that.
Don’t get me wrong – this book – as precious as it is – was not central to our studies! For some of our school years it just sat on the shelf – dusty and ignored. As any teacher knows (perhaps any professional!) the initial lofty ambitions can get mired in the gritty realities. There is a lot of “learning” to get in in 12 years. Sadly, poetry didn’t usually come first!
Our theme verse was 1 Timothy 1:5:
“The goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.”
And at some point, we named our little school: Ancora Impara Family School. Don’t be impressed – I don’t know Latin (as my parents do!). We happened on the phrase while reading a book about Michelangelo. Ancora impara means “always learning” or “learn always.” We called it a “family school” because it was about all of us learning – not just learning that we were inflicting on the kids. Truly – I have learned far more while teaching my children than I did in any other phase of my own education. I remember the first time teaching through Ancient Egypt and little Jacob (first grade) asked if that particular pharaoh knew Moses or Joseph – because he’d seen a pyramid in a Bible story illustration – he ran to get it to show me. And I thought: “wow – I have no idea!” I’d never thought of dove-tailing of ancient history with the Bible. Yes – I did have a minor in history, silly me!
As you know – we have five kids – with an age span of 15 years and an interest span even broader. Randy said I mustn’t disparage myself here – but you KNOW I didn’t teach everything to every kid. We had co-op teachers and tutors and mentors (some of whom are here today) and a couple “real school” experiences. There have been gaps and glitches – no doubt. But each child developed his or her own main areas of interests on which they focused – even though they had to put up with all the others areas of a liberal arts education overseen by a book fanatic.
The central thing – the habit that tied the kids and our learning together – was reading aloud. We read everything from nursery rhymes to history to science to biography to historical fiction to fantasy to poetry! This meant that the older kids got to hear literary treasures like The Going to Bed Book and Moo Ba La La La a few million times. And the younger kids got to listen to Narnia before they were really ready for it. They all listened to dry books like Little Britches and intense books like Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry.
We read everywhere: during meals, in bed, at bath-time, in the car, in trains, in planes, at picnics, in the yard, in tents, in thunderstorms, by bonfires, during power outages, in cabins, in hospitals, in restaurants, in tornado watches. We covered hundreds of books; hundreds of thousands of pages. But I didn’t just read for them – I read for myself. Truth be known – sometimes we had reading days (light a candle – have some treats) for MY survival!
I know that listening to books read aloud provides children with an appreciation of the written word – it grows their vocabulary – it introduces them to characters and plot lines that they might never read for themselves – it gives them a sense of literary structure and narrative cadence. But perhaps most importantly, it exposes them to heroes and villains. C.S. Lewis said: “Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.” I believe that!
In a family, reading aloud connects each individual in a shared experience seen through each person’s unique prisms and perspectives. Many of the works we read have been forgotten – some are inextricably woven into our family history.
Sometimes the kids were enthralled in what I was reading and sometimes probably bored to tears. But I don’t think they ever asked me to stop. Each child – with their various styles of learning and levels of attention – liked our reading. Or at least preferred it to what else they might have to do!
In our family reading culture – we took in many characters: from Mike Mulligan to Eustace from Martin the Warrior to Imogene Herdman – they all became real to us. We wept (or at least I did) when Reepicheep rode away in his little coracle. We laughed (over and over) to Ramona’s creepy gorilla ghost with no bones – and her brick factory – and her worm engagement ring. We saw God’s works woven through much of what we read – as He carried the ten Boom family through WW2 and inspired the inventive genius of Isaac Newton and stirred reformations through the likes Martin Luther and Martin Luther King.
I don’t think there is anything else family can do together that spans all of the ages and allows each person to focus their hearts and attention on the same thing while processing it individually.
Take this from a grey-haired veteran. No matter how your educate your kids – read aloud! If you don’t have kids, find a friend to read with. It’s good for the soul. You don’t have to bring any expertise in literature or teaching to do it. It just takes setting apart the time. Before you know it – it’ll be a habit!
Whether you read one book a thousand times or a thousand books once each – just read!
And – might I say – for the most part – don’t make family reading a time for instruction. Let the books speak for themselves. Let the kids ponder and wonder. There certainly is a time to study literary devices – but they don’t need a lecture on plot or characterization to KNOW about the book. They don’t need to understand terms like alliteration and assonance to appreciate those sounds. They don’t need to be told to look for the denouement – they will feel it!
So, very soon, our family reading will be over (except – Brie and Bram: you KNOW you don’t officially graduate until we finish Return of the King). But Randy has assigned me to keep reading to him – as we did before we even had these kids! I guess I’ll graduate but I’ll never really retire!
Our homeschool life wasn’t idyllic – there were many days when I wished a yellow school bus would come for my students – or a yellow taxi would come for me! I’m sure the feeling was mutual!
I don’t know what my kids’ memories will be of our AncoraImpara but I’ll remember many little things:
– first epiphany with Jake about the pharoahs.
– Sam sneakily making all manner of schoolroom weaponry with paperclips and paper.
– Salem when we were on a two week long train trip – had a layover in LA – where did we go?! – to a museum! I remember holding her hand on the escalator and her looking at me suspiciously and saying: “Are we on a field trip? We’re on a field trip, aren’t we?!” I was kinda shocked – when I was in school we LIVED for field trips!
– watching Bram read The Hobbit by himself in a hotel lobby in Germany.
– snuggling with Brie while reading Milly-Molly-Mandy alone.
– Parlour School.
– homework squabbles.
– learning breakthroughs.
– pushing through hard stuff and accepting limitations.
– lesson planning.
– ditching some curricula and finishing others.
– discovering the next read-aloud selections and tucking them into my read-aloud bag.
My vision for family life is summed up by Jo March speaking to her father (Little Men – less well-known but even better than Little Women!):
Jo said: “…I only want to give these children a home in which they can be taught the few simple things which will help to make life less hard to them when they go out to fight their battles in the world. Honesty, courage, industry, faith in God, their fellow-creatures, and themselves; that is all I try for.”
Mr. March replied: “That is everything. Give them these helps, then let them go to work out their life as men and women; and whatever their success and failure is.”
Yes. That is it. Everything.
So soon – off they go. And home I stay – to pray each of them on their way.
* * * * *