Thursday, January 19, 2012

When Homeschooling Sucks (and your curriculum isn't working)

I have some confessions to make as a homeschooling mother.  Lately, homeschooling sucks!  Day after day, I either slog through the material like I'm swimming through molasses in January, and the children respond in kind, acting like a bratty three-year-old at the dentist with a toothache - or, we get next-to-nothing done that could be classified as schoolwork.  Meanwhile I am stuck appeasing my 2 and 3 year old with Sesame Street episodes to reduce the number of times they interrupt my grumpy, frustrated, caffeine-powered "teaching/yelling at them to cut-it-out" lessons.

Certainly, I should be cut some slack.  I have SIX kids, 12 and under!  And they seem to take after their father quite a bit... loud, sometimes obnoxious, energetic, always talking... oh, ya, and the good stuff too: highly intelligent and creative.   That being said, I used to picture my "Home-School" as a serene, loving, and somewhat quiet environment.  It would be much like that pretty picture on the cover of "Five In A Row", the popular preschool and elementary curriculum utilized by loving homeschool parents much like myself.  Children would take turns to make insightful comments or ask inquisitive questions.  They would snuggle up next to each other and we would spend half our day sipping tea and reading together and the other half exploring nature and visiting culturally stimulating venues.

Not so in my household.  It started with my early years, battling what some might call a "strong willed child"... make that several "strong willed children" and then my eldest struggled to learn to read.  So I felt at a loss from the very start, wondering if I was making the right choices and if I really was both patient enough and properly equipped to teach my own children!

Then there were the life-changing interupptions.  As in: moving overseas in my daughter's first year of school, then having another baby (making the total at that point 4 kids).  Then we bought ourselves a fixer-upper and moved mid-school year.  Then another baby...another fixer-upper and another baby... and then we had family move in with us for a year and a half, and we were still fixing up the house... And that brings us to this, my 7th year of homschooling which has already seen 2 major interupptions including a family trip to Arizona for nearly 3 weeks and my husband and I leaving the kids for 10 days to go on a mission trip to India.  Oh, and don't forget Christmas.

See?  My life has been overflowing with disruptions and interruptions, corrupting my ability to be a decent homeschool parent.

Now that life has settled down... Christmas is over and no-one is living with us and there are no huge trips in the near future... I still find myself floundering.  I lack the daily inspiration and creativity to make homeschooling a positive experience for both myself and my children.  And let me say that it is not for lack of a good quality curriculum.  On the contrary, I have what I would consider one of the best curriculums around.  It is literature-rich with a Christian world view and is filled with gobs of inspiration history.  I would have LOVED to have been taught with this very curriculum that I am now imposing upon my children!  However, it seems that the curriculum I carefully chose is no longer serving me and my children, but I have become a slave to the schedules and book lists and the high standards outlined. 

When the vibrant materials I possess fail to come alive under my tutelage, then it is quite obvious that I need to change my program and structure.  The glory of homeschooling, at least in my opinion, is a parent's ability to connect with the individual needs and particular interests of each child.  You don't have to sit in a desk all day, memorizing pointless facts and figures, but you can go out into the world and experience history and culture!  Homeschooling allows you to speed your way through the drudgery of the "required material" and spend your time leading your children in what really piques their interest or allowing them to pursue the areas in which they are gifted.  For one of my children, that area is science and for another it is everything related to homemaking: baking, sewing, childcare, etc.

Somewhere along the way, homeschooling ceased to be fun.  I want to have fun with my kids again, and not have to "manage" or push away my younger children because they are infringing upon the older children's learning time.

So what am I to do about my current situation?  I am fairly certain that my best option at this point in time is to change my methods altogether.  To lay down the curriculum which I've invested a good chunk of my homeschooling budget upon and laboriously chosen based on it's core values and functionality, is a difficult decision.  However, as they say, "desperate times call for desperate measures".  I cannot value my curriculum choice above my children's current levels of learning (and my aptitude to teach them!).

The best answer I have is as follows: to create learning experiences that are active and can involve all of my children (to varying degrees of participation).  For example, a while back we were learning a little about the human body.  Each child had their bodies traced, and day by day we would add in organs and bones and muscles that they had colored from photocopied tracings.  Even the youngest kids had fun with the cutting and pasting, and it didn't matter that they didn't color it "correctly" or even place the organ in the perfect position on their body.  What mattered most was that my 4 year old would exclaim proudly to friends and strangers alike: "I have a spleen!"

I'm going to return to my roots of doing fun projects with my kids instead of just directing supposedly amazing literature at them and hoping something sticks amid the potty training, interruptions from other kids and my own distraction as I try to instruct and clean and cook and care for 6 kids all at the same time.  It's not that I expect this shift will be a lot easier, per say, but I know that I can restore some of the joy to our family learning time.  There may be a lot more messes as we discover and explore together, but the shreds of cardboard and paint on the floor will be worth it when I see the look of amazement on my children's faces as we play "Kings and Queens" in our home-made castle.  Most of all, my youngest kids won't be shuffled to the side.  I won't have to treat them like they are "in the way" because they stop us from getting through the day's grammar list or "essential" historical timelines, facts and figures for the day.

I'm going out on a limb here... I've confessed my failings.  I haven't been able to keep up with the schedules and routines that would be fairly normal in a regular school system.  Yet I love my kids, I love having them home with me and I want to rediscover the joy of learning together.  Hopefully I'll have a good report to blog about in the near future...

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Movement for 2012

Have you ever been in a public washroom stall, and an invisible hand flushed your toilet before you were... umm...err... done?  Yeow!  Can there be any more annoying and startling experience than this?  Just when you're in the middle of *something*, "FLUSSSHHH!" and you're prompted to remove yourself from the bathroom stall entirely.  You gotta love those modern motion-sensor-activated flushing toilets.

Sometimes life is like that.  You are wallowing in your situation, taking your precious time as you deal with your crap (pardon my language, but it clearly demonstrates my point).  Suddenly, the rug is pulled from under you and you are forced to move on!  I think sometimes God is prompting us to move away from our little piles of hurts and sorrows.  He nudges us away, or sometimes even finds a way to give us a swift kick that is lovingly meant to prod us to better living.

It would be something if the Bible said: "Even though I wallow through the valley of the shadow of death, You are with me" but it doesn't.  It clearly indicates movement... walking through the dark places, with God at your right hand (and sometimes even carrying you through it all!).

I am feeling an unction, if you will, to encourage my readers (and remind myself) of God's desire for forward movement.  I understand grief.  There are times (and have been times in my own life) where the sadness weighed so heavily on me that I could barely get dressed and feed myself.  But even grief is a process, something to move on through.  I'm not specifically pointing my finger at these sorts of trials, rather I want to shine a spotlight on the lingering doubts, issues of self-pity and other on-going baggage that weigh you down in what should be a progressive, forward-moving life.

There comes a time when enough is enough.  A time where you need to call it what it is - or as my friend and fellow minister likes to say "Put on your big-girl panties!" (If you are male and reading this... well, put on your big-boy pants!) 

Let's make 2012 a year where we don't cling to our former habits, destructive thought patterns and debilitating ways of thinking.  I think many of us can identify the sludge in our lives which cause us to settle in one place, and sink down in the muck and trials of this life. 

I know it's all fine and dandy for me to simply say: "Stop it!" but it's another thing altogether to actually accomplish what I've been talking about.  This month at my church, I am participating in what we call "Spiritual Growth Month", which for me has meant getting up early every weekday morning and spending time in prayer and quiet meditation.  I found that the first couple of days, I felt quite frustrated, and brought my list of all my atrocious behaviors that I can't change before God in prayer.  And the more I thought about the things that I don't do and should do or the things that I do and wish I wouldn't, the more depressed I felt. 

As I humbled myself before God and made a commitment to wait on Him,  He answered me. 
"I waited patiently for the LORD; And He inclined to me and heard my cry." (Psalm 40:1)
What I felt fairly strongly, was not that He was asking me to shape up to my detailed list of all the things that I should be and do, or that I should hurry up and ignore the pains and sorrows in my life, but that He wanted me to have a focus on spending time with Him.  All my problems will be resolved in the presence of the Lord, as I bask in His glory and experience His love.  You see, it is never about all that we can do for Him, but rather about what He wants to do in us and through us.  The more I know Him, the more I will be able to act like Him.  But I can't set up for myself a set of rules and regulations... I need to really know Him and spend time with Him.

Well, now I've really gone off topic, but I believe this all ties in to the idea of letting go of the junk in our lives.  The best place to bring your worries and problems and pain is to the feet of Jesus.  WALK with Him through the valley, and move forward into what He's promised.  Life... abundant and full of His grace.

Caught in the Current

When I was 11 or 12, I took a dare to swim across the river in my city.  It was summertime, so the water-level wasn't overly high, but there would still be a relatively strong current and a good patch in the middle where my feet wouldn't be able to touch the ground.

The river had carved out a valley, a quite solitude in the midst of a busy metropolis.  The hills were dried and yellow from the blazing summer skies, but down in the val, ley, it was cooler and the soil was rich and the trees were well watered and flourishing.  I squinted up at the sky, at wisps of cotton candy clouds and the sort of blue that makes you feel both serene and imaginative all at the same time.  My cut-off jean shorts were already wet, strings of frayed white threads dripping cool water down my tanned legs.

With a hearty splash, my brother forged ahead of me: dutifully proving his bravery and leadership in our outdoor pursuits.  I watched as he waded deeper and deeper into the water, the force of the river causing him to lean and then yelp as he was overcome by the current, now fully committed to swimming to the other side with a strong front crawl.

After being pulled downstream somewhat, the water became more shallow, and he found his footing on the slippery river rocks.  He tumbled, sopping wet, out of the water on the opposite bank of the river and beckoned to me to hurry and join him.

My upbringing never led me to be sheltered or shy or overly cautious.  I only hesitated for a moment before moving deeper into the water.  I looked down at the clean, rushing water and the muted green, gray, tan and pink rocks beneath me.  My feet felt icy cold but the water was refreshing on this hot summer day as the sun shone bright on my bare arms and dark hair.  I slipped on a slimy rock for a moment, the current getting stronger and throwing me off balance and I stubbed my toe.  "Ouch!" I whimpered to myself, but with a steel jaw I gritted my teeth, intent on moving forward and passing this test of summer bravery.

As the water moved up my legs, past my calves, licking at my knees and then immersing my thighs, I felt a chilly thrill of excitement.   It was to the point where I had to lean into the current, ever so mindful of my steps, so I wouldn't slip and plunge fully into the water.  Finally, it was too much... I had to fully commit myself to the adventure, and I dove into the water with my whole body and began to swim.

It seemed easy, at first.  I had taken swimming lessons throughout my childhood and was a strong swimmer.  By my little muscles were no match for the ferocious current.  With my head bobbing on the surface and my feet barely grazing the rocks below me, I felt myself being carried downstream.

It is the loss of control that terrifies.  There comes many a moment in life where everything seems to rush in and surround you, and you are simply treading water; a clear sky above you, taunting you, while frightening cold water immerses you from the neck down.  The world began to pass before my eyes as I watched the shoreline with my brother standing and waiting move out of my sight and I was caught in the current, heading downstream.

I fought with everything inside of me and settled my sights on some trees on the seemingly distant shore.  My arms moved frantically, my legs fluttered and I gulped deep breaths of air as I struggled to keep my chin out of the water.  Desperation and panic prompted my legs and arms to continue their fight against the power of the water.

Then my feet met the bottom and I stumbled my way to more shallow water.  My heart pounded with the adrenaline and I felt instant relief at the solid ground beneath me.  With each wobbly step forward, the sun kissed my goosebumped skin, the river water making little rivulets of water from my long hair down my back.

Sometimes life's responsibilities bring me back to my river experience; that place of panicked uncertainty where you must keep your eyes on the distant horizon and plunge forward with all your might.  One thing I remember about that summer day, was a quiet moment when I was struggling in the middle of the river.  I tilted my head up towards the sky, my body nearly fully immersed with even my ears underwater and filled with the river's roar.  In that moment, the light of the sun beamed upon my nose, my forehead and my cheeks and even though the river was carrying me downstream, the glorious radiance of the sun upon my face was restorative and strengthening.

Life's messes scream at us, demanding our attention.  Sometimes you just need to tilt your head up and behold the power of the light.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

New Year's Pressure

My trusty alarm clock awakened me early on this fine New Year's day. And by trusty alarm clock, I mean my barely 2 year old baby, who is STILL teething and doesn't always sleep through the night.  Not only that, but he also STILL sleeps in our room and his wail is piercing, able to summon the dead, calling for attention and immediate response from all who dwell in a 2 mile radius.

In the foggy fuzziness of after-sleep which lingered upon my brain, words of a foreign origin swirled repetitively in my head: "Gung Hay Fat Choy" which is the traditional saying for Chinese New Year and reminded me that today was January 1st.   I don't know why my brain chose to remind me of this auspicious day with another language, but it was enough to get me going.  With the new year in mind, I decided to leave my warm burrow under the soft, comforting quilt and tackle this day with vigor and optimism. 

As I padded my bare feet across the cool, smooth laminate floor into the kitchen, I began to consider what noble actions I could embark upon in resolution for a better life this year.  The scent of rich, dark coffee grounds sparked my imagination and the first thing that came to my mind was the question of how I could resolve to better manage my laundry crisis, as a mother of six.  "What if," I pondered, "I washed a load of laundry every day, and promptly folded each load once it had completed the drying cycle...???"

For but a moment, my imagination settled upon the luxury of continual clean and folded clothing, but I quickly came to my senses and realized that the practicality of this idea was completely bogus.  What sort of New Year's resolution was "organized and regular laundry maintenance"?  Certainly not the top of my list of priorities when I could come up with a dozen other pressing issues in my life.

I sipped the delicious, steaming, rich coffee and considered my options.  I could enter this logically, and give myself a list of goals to accomplish, things that I would either feel good about completing before the year-end or things that would lag on me and pronounce guilt if not completed.  It occurred to me that instead of plans and goals, what I really need is focus.  I seek a new attitude; an all-encompassing presence of mind - a new perspective and a new way of seeing and "doing" life.  

The problem lies in the change, however.  How do I suddenly make myself better: more patient or gracious or joyful?  I could give myself a visual reminder, like a string around my finger.  Yet I know I'd find myself deep in the chasm, tossed by the waves and drowning, in the midst of the hurricane with disaster all around before I'd notice that subtle suggestion.  Then I would breathe heavy the guilt and drink the sorrows of my mistakes.

I dare not go into a new year with a list of expectations, plans and goals.  Instead, I plan to set before my eyes and ingrain within my heart the attributes and character which I feel God desires of me.  So my challenge; my proposal is this:  What can you focus on for the coming year?  What do you need to turn your heart towards?  Is it patience?  Is it grace, compassion or kindness?  Instead of the pressures and restrictions of a specific plan, what about a new focus and purposeful change of perspective?

In the story of Peter Pan, Wendy learned that Peter could fly due to his lighthearted attitude.  Perspective is everything.  It can leave you in despair, or lift you above the gloom and clouds.  I have no lofty goals for 2012.  I simply yearn to shift my thoughts to the right place; to focus on the good and to see the world with a more heavenly mindset.   Colossians 3:2 reminds us to "Set your minds on things above".  The more I focus on Christ and engage myself with Him and desire His presence in my life, the more I will be able to have the right perspective when it comes to my kids, my husband, my home and my self.  He is the source of my joy, and the light in my life.

Interruption came to my train of thought as children began to stir... By "stir", I mean I could hear a door slam and someone yelling "Get out of my room!"  Then there was crying and calls of "Mo--o---o--m!"  My heart pounded more aggressively and my nostrils flared.  This is not how I envisioned the birth and glorious inception of my precious new year.  But today, like the rest of the year will be about my attitude and my perspective and I will choose not to measure it by all of the standard accomplishments and typical mother's check-marks.  Right off the bat, I am given the opportunity to practice my new year's resolution: a new attitude and a perspective guided by peace and patience.

"...think happy thoughts" - Wendy