My friend Cindy Downes - author of The Checklist, a K-12 homeschool planning and record-keeping guide - educated her now-adult children at home through the '80s and early '90s, near the beginning of the modern homeschool movement. She recently wrote her "homeschool testimony," sharing her family's home-education journey in order to encourage those of us currently traveling a similar road.
I told Cindy that her story made me want to document my experiences "so far." And so - true-to-form as the encourager God's created her to be! - Cindy wrote back the very next day, asking, "Did you write your homeschool story [yet]?"
That was a little over one month ago. But I've been so busy lately that - except to meet my Celebrate Kids deadlines - most of my writing (on any topic) has had to stay stuck inside my head. Until today! But now that "I'm back" - to the point of creating a writing calendar so I can carve out regular time to do this thing! - I know exactly where I need to start. And so here's to you, Cindy!
After getting married at age 21 and finishing my BA in Humanities, I enjoyed an 18-month stint as my church's secretary before the Lord called me back to school to get my teaching license. I got a contract before I was even done student teaching and then taught in two local public schools - first at a middle school near my home and then at the high school just blocks away from there - for nine years before Rachel and Abigail were born. I taught immigrant kids who were attempting to master English after coming with their families out of Thai refugee camps and impoverished little Mexican towns. It was a career I knew I was called to for that season of my life; I loved "my kids" and was very good at what I did. As a politically conservative Christ-follower, I took issue with plenty of the bureaucracy that even then debilitated public education, but I purposed to keep my focus where it belonged: on my students.
I also knew, though, that I'd leave public school teaching if and when we were blessed with a family of our own. We tragically miscarried our oldest daughter, Anna Vivian, in the fall of 1998, but were blessed with a boringly "textbook" pregnancy for Rachel, whom we welcomed home in May, 2001. Having already submitted my resignation (which then became official at the end of the district's fiscal year on June 30), I started my leave about a week before her birthday. Several colleagues implored me to reconsider - to come back at least part-time - but this was an instance where God's will for me was clear. And - thankfully - I was more than willing to follow it.
I'd long thought that having twins would be "fun," but I certainly didn't expect God to grant that wish the way He did - by blessing me with another pregnancy before Rachel was even three months old! Yet, once I got over my initial shock and conquered a sporadic fear that I'd be unable to nurture two "babies" at a time, I happily embraced my new role as Momma to "Irish twins" even before Abigail was born - just eleven and half months after her sister. Sure, life was pretty exhausting during Abigail's first year - and I often joke now that I've blocked out much of it - but, truth be told, I didn't want it any other way, even then.
At that time, Jeff was working as the interim youth pastor at our church. We'd always talked about the likelihood of homeschooling, but Jeff wasn't wholly convinced until he worked with teenagers each and every day. It wasn't that those attending "regular" schools (whether public or private) were "bad;" in fact, a lot of them were great kids. But Jeff saw a variety of "differences" in the homeschooled kids, and any reservations he might have had about a homeschooling life for us simply evaporated.
Before Abigail turned one, Jeff changed jobs - a situation that required me to open a small in-home daycare to help make ends meet. And, with the exception of about a year when the girls were three and four, I've maintained the business to this day - purposely accepting only two or three full-time children...both for my sanity (!) and - though I'm actually a certified childcare teacher - so that I can legally operate without a daycare license and, thus, maintain my independence from state bureaucracy.
When the girls were toddlers and preschoolers, caring for the daycare kids was really just an extension of what I did with Rachel and Abigail. But the year I came back from my one-year daycare hiatus was also the year that Rachel turned five. And, while I was not required by Wisconsin law to officially begin any formal education until she was six, I wanted to "do kindergarten" with her that year; likewise, I decided to attempt a kind of pre-kindergarten with Abigail...something close to but not quite what I'd do with Rachel. I wasn't at all sure how that would happen with new daycare kids mixed into the fold, but it turned out that one child I took on was five years old like Rachel - only with a "late birthday" that prevented her from starting kindergarten in any traditional school. Hallie's mom was thrilled at the prospect of me being her daughter's unofficial kindergarten teacher for that year, including her in what I'd planned for Rachel and Abigail. And the second child I agreed to care for - little Anna Jo - was an infant born in late September; she came to me at eight weeks old, just before Thanksgiving, which gave me about 10 weeks to "get things going" with the big girls before adding her into our days.
At that point, I thought I was "set" for the year - even though I also knew I'd soon have to start advertising to fill Hallie's spot for the following fall. But God worked that out beautifully when I heard from one family I'd initially (though reluctantly) said no to once I'd settled on taking Hallie and Anna. I'd only declined them because I thought I couldn't juggle the needs of two infants along with doing school. But when their daughter, N., was about six months old, they started calling repeatedly, wondering if I'd consider trying it.
After a good deal of thought and prayer, I finally said yes when God pointed out to me that - though the rest of that academic year would be exhausting - it would set me up perfectly in terms of the daycare for several years to come. And so N. joined us at about nine months old just after Christmas...and she is still here, as is Anna Jo! They are now almost four and three and a half, respectively, and it has been a wonderful fit all around. In fact, we'll welcome N.'s little sibling into the mix this coming October (once again giving me three full-timers) and then - Lord willing - a new brother or sister for Anna Jo sometime after N. leaves us for traditional kindergarten. And the plan at this point is for me to care for those younger siblings until they head off to school themselves.
People often wonder how I do it - in terms of teaching homeschool while taking care of these other kids. Well, for starters, I learned to set one specific, non-negotiable boundary - for my own peace of mind and for my family's well-being. That is, I only take care of teachers' children. By doing that, my daily daycare hours can be a good two hours less than if I watched children whose parents have other careers; in addition, I have summers "off" and get to enjoy several other "holidays" (for Christmas and spring breaks, for example) during the school year itself.
Second, I've looked to my many homeschool friends who have "full quivers" (i.e., a houseful of their own children, often ranging in age from teen to toddler) and have said, "If they can do it, so can I!" Those amazing moms have created wonderful, family-specific systems for providing quality, well-rounded educations for their school-aged children while also meeting the needs of their preschoolers and infants. And one day I realized that - since my daycare motto is, in fact, "the next best thing to home" - I can really do the same thing. My clients chose me to care for their children because they wanted a home, and they've been very happy with this setting. So I decided to treat the daycare children as I would my own little ones of the same age and - as part of that shift - kind of "pretend" that Rachel and Abigail are their big sisters. And that simple (but profound) change in my way of thinking has made all the difference between burnout and joy.
One thing I always tell new homeschool moms is that they should expect - and not be afraid of - a learning curve as they first start out. It takes a while for each mom to figure out how to incorporate school into home, her children's learning styles, her preferred teaching and organizational styles, and what materials might be the best fit. And I've been no exception to this "rule." This is my third "official" year of homeschooling, and my fourth actual year...and it has only been this year that I've felt that all the pieces have finally come together.
Now, I am by nature a very organized and detail-oriented person; I generally prefer to have all my ducks in a row before I begin a project and feel very ill-at-ease when I can't see the finish line at the start. However, the Lord has rather protected me from myself, so to speak, in this homeschooling journey because I have not been freaked out by this learning curve process - even though I "should have been."
Sure, it would have been wonderful to have instantly hit upon all the "right" materials. But we've been very normal in this regard so I've had to try a bunch of things before I've found what works (for now!). And in that process, I've learned that my kids did not suffer through our "experimentation." In fact, they've undoubtedly benefitted from the flexibility that homeschooling affords - because (unlike the public schools - which are "stuck" with something that doesn't work until at least the next curriculum revision process...often seven years or more after the initial adoption!) I can make adjustments whenever I see after a good-faith effort that something isn't quite right. I certainly didn't change every four weeks, but I've felt the freedom to try new things each semester with any component of our curriculum that needed to be "tweaked."
There's a whole spectrum of approaches to homeschooling - from the "school-at-home" method on one end to "unschooling" on the other. I had an intuitive feeling from the beginning - probably shored up by my public school teaching experiences - that I didn't want our school to be at either of those extremes. Even in my public school classrooms, I didn't employ traditional "textbook" methods - choosing instead to utilize a more creative, dynamic workshop approach in both the reading and writing classes I taught. Thus, I could rule out the school-at-home programs for our homeschool because I knew I wouldn't feel comfortable with them. But I also knew I wanted more structure than what is typical in unschooling. So I read about and "tried on for size" several different curricula that all used some variation of classical, Charlotte Mason, and unit study approaches. And along the way - just about a year ago, in fact - I realized that I really wanted a mix of those three styles.
We don't always realize it, of course, but God's timing is perfect. In fact, there's really no such thing as a "coincidence;" instead, what often seems like chance is really a "God-incidence." And so just when I was getting a handle on my educational philosophy, I had the God-incidence of running across My Father's World (MFW), a curriculum I'd heard of in our first year but had dismissed rather quickly at the time. And I saw something on the website that had eluded me before: the program bills itself (accurately, I've since discovered) as a mix of Charlotte Mason, classical, and unit studies! I investigated some more and pretty quickly realized that - for many reasons - it would be a great fit for us. So I invested for this year in the MFW "Adventures" program, which seems to have been written with "Irish twins" perfectly in mind! And (as far as I can tell now), it seems like the subsequent MFW years of study will more than meet our needs for the foreseeable future.
We will take our Easter break next week. After that, we'll have six more weeks until we finish "Adventures." But we don't take off for three solid months of summer vacation. Instead, we do a type of year-round schooling wherein we study for five or six weeks in a row and then take a week off. So when we finish "Adventures" in mid-May, we'll take a week off and then pick up a lighter summer study schedule (consisting this year of language arts and math, piano, Spanish, and keyboarding) through early July. At that point, we'll take off for three whole weeks so the girls can enjoy our church's Vacation Bible Camp and for our family vacation. And then we'll start up the next MFW course, "Exploring Countries and Cultures," the first week of August.
The girls will turn eight and nine this May, which makes me think two things at the same time: "We have 10 more years of homeschooling to enjoy together!" and "Wow! In just 10 years, this wonderful experience will be over." That time - just like my first nine years of being a mom - will go by much faster than I'll believe in hindsight or want it to go. I obviously don't know what the Lord has in store, for our school or for our family life as a whole, over the next decade. But I do know that I'm looking forward to those next chapters of our journey.