I am about to talk about the most unsexiest thing about homeschooling.
But first, a story.
This month the kids have been studying United States history (the teens), Ancient Rome (the middles schooler), and stories and myths related to local culture (the grade schooler) including the life of plants outside our door which can’t get anymore local than that.
(Why U.S. History? My high school class has nine teenagers from ages fourteen to seventeen. We study one subject in depth per month and the class gives me suggestions on what they want. More on high school homeschool in another post and how it has evolved since my eldest was in high school. For now, you can read this post and this post. and this post. )
I began my first Rome lesson as a combined class with both my middle school-aged class and my high school class. After that class, they were separated again – the high schoolers studying U.S. History and the other class immersed themselves in Ancient Rome.
I scheduled these blocks purposefully knowing that each block was related to the other which helps me teach.
The first sentence of my introduction to Ancient Rome:
Rome was founded on murder.
(Yes it’s a bit dramatic but remember I was presenting to teenagers who enjoy a little flair of the dramatic.)
As we study the history of a place, we look at its beginnings. How did its story begin? How was the civilization or country or town founded? Who was there already? How did its culture develop? How did its culture develop based on its shared values? What were these shared values? How did the environment play a role?
Later we see that the foundation and early decisions made according to what was important to these communities and subsequently, the civilization, formed its identity and its relationship to the rest of the world, often impacting larger themes like economics, politics, and social issues.
If you are new to homeschooling, you are halfway into this post and wondering, what in the world does this have to do with homeschooling?
Enter the unsexy part plus our family in Star Wars costumes (which is also quite unsexy unless you like side buns).
It has everything to do with homeschooling, at least the way I homeschool. Family identity and culture including what you value as a family complete informs the way in which you homeschool. I know shopping for materials, books, and even curriculum can feel exciting but it’s like putting up the interior walls before you even set the foundation.
Transplanting copycat ideas or even standard curriculum gives a very low return if you are measuring general happiness and enthusiasm for learning at home, and I would argue also the general development of skills like creativity and critical thinking. (Let’s be real, a lot of why the kids love going to school is hanging with their friends at recess or if they have an amazing teacher who is able to deliver the material with context in an innovative way.)
***I could potentially just give you a list of ideas and links and send you on your way OR I can show you how to sift through all the ideas quickly to see what works for your family. I am opting for the latter with these posts. ***
The definition of culture according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary:
a :the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group
also : the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time
b : the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization
a corporate culture focused on the bottom line
c : the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic
studying the effect of computers on print culture
d : the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations
2a : enlightenment and excellence of taste acquired by intellectual and aesthetic training
b : acquaintance with and taste in fine arts, humanities, and broad aspects of science as distinguished from vocational and technical skills
a person of culture
3 : the act or process of cultivating living material (such as bacteria or viruses) in prepared nutrient media
also : a product of such cultivation
4 : CULTIVATION, TILLAGE
We ought to blame the culture, not the soil.
— Alexander Pope
5 : the act of developing the intellectual and moral faculties especially by education
6 : expert care and training
(For an even more nuanced discussion, check out this New Yorker article. I got a little lost in it as it made my mind start turning regarding potential discussion topics for my teens…Ok getting distracted…)
There is so much in that definition that applies to what we are facing today. With culture, everything that takes place in it feels natural and generally practiced. There is less resistance or confusion. It’s customary and everyone “buys in” because it’s a shared belief.
Cultivating a garden is a great example. You cultivate the soil first before planting the seeds. When you plant them, you try to place them in the perfect conditions to grow – a “culture.” When it comes to human beings, we are all dealing with our own ideas of cultural identity which are diverse and varied and whether we were intentional or not, we have a family culture in our home we have created as well.
When Chris and I began homeschooling, he was beginning to shift careers and work more at home. When we made these decisions, we were creating a different foundation for a family – a deliberate one. When we had our first daughter, we were improvising along the way and made so many missteps without the information overload that we have today. We had never sat down and talked about what we wanted, let alone what we value.
Once we started to make decisions that were more unconventional, we had found that our values had changed after our fifth child was born. We no longer felt we were functioning together as a family that was optimal. It was a life of getting to the next moment, milestone, commitment, program, school day. We were stuck on a loop that I couldn’t break unless we did something radical to completely shift our reality.
THE NUMBER ONE obvious gauge to know life is not functioning optimally at home? When you are screaming and irritable all the time and you start asking yourself, “How did I get here?” That’s where we were when we decided to shift gears.
In 2010, we sat down and wrote our family mission statement. It had five things on it:
We are committed to lifelong learning.
We are committed to a healthy and active lifestyle.
We are committed to celebrating art and creativity.
We are committed to travel and new experiences.
We are committed to our relationships.
We slowly began to build a life around these principles. It was like we were about to “found” a new city. We torched the old one full of words like “busy” and “stressed” and “if only.”
We were setting intentions for a different way of life and all of our decisions would be reflected in these values. It became easier to sieve through all the opportunities and seldom feel FOMO.
How was your family culture founded? How did your family story begin? Where are you at in the story? Are you in the early stages of the republic when fairness and equality are tantamount with individual rights as the prominent value? Or have you built a large central government already, or even an imperialistic one, that needs to be dismantled and built again? Is there a Darth Vader that strikes fear in the citizenry when the dishes aren’t done? (There is one in my house. Sometimes she dresses like Princess Leia to disguise her dark side.)
How do you balance both individual needs and the collective? (Ah, the most asked question in all of human history including in Rome, Early America, Star Wars and my house of seven).
Every family is different with many factors to take into account: size, composition, economic factors, personal philosophy, etc. But in the end you also have to decide on your standards of measurement.
How does one measure “successful” family life?
Also understand that this all changes over time. The family grows older and developmental, physical, economic, and even philosophical changes take place because of experience. Children grow up and leave to explore the world on their own. And sometimes they come back.
Do you have a family culture that can adapt easily and effortlessly do these changes? Even if the definition of success changes.
I guess this post isn’t just for parents who have kids at home but for all types of families trying to figure out how to be together at home.
Some tips to help you get starting defining and/or creating your family culture. I would suggest that each member in the house do this activity separately. (For little people under the age of seven, you can simply ask them what they love to do together as a family and what else they would love to do.)
- Take this weekend to write down all the things you love about your family identity and culture and all the things you would like to change or improve upon. Maybe write your family story and project out into the future a little and how you want to see your family in a few years or even next month.
- What top 5 values do you want to put up on your wall that you want to base all your decisions on including how to homeschool, how to experience this self-isolation and social distancing time in history, how to evaluate information, how to use screen time and the internet, and how to communicate with each other? E.g. Love, Respect, Creativity, Connection, and Compassion.
- What activities help you thrive? In our house, we have a lot of books, a lot of space, a lot of art materials, a large island in the kitchen for group cooking, a lot of volleyballs, and a lot of kettlebells.
- What activities make you feel worse? For example, we have no internet which is inconvenient but allows us to use it efficiently when we do have access to it. Too much random social media scrolling also makes us all feel a little icky as opposed to targeting the people we want to see.
- Define the following with examples:
- What does your ideal day look like?
- How do you feel about doing chores? The chores that are assigned to you? Do you want a change in the system? How would you suggest you take care of the house?
- If you could create (or borrow) a motto for your family, what would it be. I think I have mentioned this before but I have stolen our three mottoes from others:
Be here now. (Ram Dass)
Follow your bliss. (Joseph Campbell)
Mucho take it easy. (Nacho Libre)
I posted this Rumi quote on Instagram the other day:
“When will you begin that long journey to yourself?”
Now’s the time. And I would add it’s also time to journey with the people you love most.
Take your time with this because you have the opportunity to do it. Once you have an idea of who you are as a family, you can better navigate what you need and what you want in terms of learning at home.
And in the words of another wise sage:
“Patience you must have my young Padawan.” — Yoda