Saturday, September 27, 2014

Homeschooling :: Building Culture

If you've spent much time in the homeschooling world chances are you've probably encountered Charlotte Mason's famous saying,
Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life. 
The idea of education being a way of life is, without a doubt, one of the most important aspects of our home environment. One of my main goals as a home educator is to provide my children with an outlook on life that is full of wonder and awe at the beauty and bounty which God has provided for us. Last time I shared a bit about how this looks in our home with regards to the natural world around us, but today I am going to look at the wonder that comes from recognizing beauty that is not necessarily physical. In other words what I am concerned with here is the transmission of culture.

The acquisition of culture implies a developing of taste for, and an ability to judge, what is good and what is not. As a Christian what I am most concerned about passing on to my children is the ability to discern what things are True, Good and Beautiful. All things true, all things good, and all things beautiful point us to the person of Jesus Christ, whose life we Christians long to share.

And so it is important for me to be deliberate about the stories, music, art and traditions to which I expose my children. My husband and I must consider carefully what we allow to enter our home and what we choose to leave outside.

This deliberate choosing is not the same as fearfully sheltering our children from all the bad that is out there; rather it is a conscious effort to instill the good in their hearts so that there is no room for the bad. We cannot shelter them from everything all the time (nor should we), but we can do our best to ensure that when unwanted influences make an appearance there is no room for them to take hold.

There are a multitude of ways to accomplish this. Here I will only touch on one aspect of it which directly impacts our school days. We call it Morning Basket.

I first heard of the idea of a morning basket from Jen, who blogs at Wildflowers and Marbles. She describes beautifully how she pulls together beautiful and meaningful books, poems, art, histories, prayers and other things into an organized system which is intended to deliberately build the culture in her home and to expose her family to all things good, true and beautiful. You can read Jen's lovely posts about her Morning Basket here, here and here. Having been inspired by these posts here is what I have put together for our own Morning Basket time:

:: We always begin with prayer. We use the morning prayers laid out in the Children's Garden of the Theotokos, which include the Trisagion prayers as well as a hymn corresponding to the day of the week and ending with Rejoice, O Virgin.

:: We turn over the date on our wall calendar and then read the life of the saint(s) commemorated that day from The Prologue of Ohrid. (The link is to the Prologue online, but if you prefer to have a hard copy I encourage you to invest in the two volumes). 

:: We then read from the Bible. During Advent and Lent we have special readings that correspond with our Jesse Tree and our Path to Pascha, but during regular times we work our way through little by little. We have used both The Children's Bible Reader and A Sacred History for Children. We are currently using the Golden Children's Bible.

:: We use this time to do our memory work. We have memorized psalms and other passages from scripture as well as poems and even some Shakespeare. I keep our memory work in a binder organized based on this system. We memorize all these things as a family rather than having individual memory work. The youngest kids absorb a great deal from just listening to the older ones and we have some interesting and thoughtful discussions that spin off of our collective memory work.

:: I have recently begun to use this time together to introduce and sometimes practice handicrafts. We are currently learning how to sew and I have some fun ideas for upcoming crafts as well. My purpose here is to equip them so that they can create and build things on their own and take joy in working with their hands. The ability to make things opens up a whole range of possibilities in one's life.

:: We read stories together. The possibilities here are endless. We read and narrate Aesop's fables, and we spent last year enjoying The Arabian Nights. Sometimes we enjoy short stories from The Book of Virtues.  We also enjoy reading Shakespeare plays. (Up to this point I have only read children's versions, but they have asked me to read "the real thing", so we have begun!)

:: We read history books, nature study books, and we work on geography.

:: We paint during this time and we also practice drawing. I do this along with the kids and they enjoy watching me as well as working on their own drawings.

:: We also use this time to do picture study and composer study. We focus on one artist and one composer per term and we read about their lives and take time to look at and listen to some of their most famous works.

(The last five items listed are not done every single day. I rotate those subjects throughout the week and we usually end up hitting each of them at least once in a week.)

As each year comes around I look at what we have done, what has worked and what I would like to change. I plan it out as carefully as I can, but I also do my best to remain flexible and adjust as we are in the midst of it all if I need to. Some days are idyllic, other days are very rough. But we press on.

One of the most inspiring things I've read that has encouraged me to prioritize this time in our days is Cindy Rollins' series of posts on Morning Time. As a mother who has been through homeschooling in all its stages and seasons her perspective is invaluable and very inspiring. Please do take the time to read what she has written if this topic interests you at all. (Start here and look at the archives to the right of the page to find each of the 31 days).

There is so much that can be said about this family culture building. I'm afraid I've barely even touched the surface and I'll probably never really be able to do it justice. Nevertheless, even though my words are inadequate, this part of our day is forming and shaping our lives in profound ways and education in this home is truly becoming an atmosphere, a discipline and a life. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Wednesdays with Words :: Charlotte Mason on courage

Linking up with Dawn for Wednesdays with Words.

From Charlotte Mason's fourth volume, Ourselves:

Anxious fuss in the small emergencies of life, such as travelling, household mischances, pressure of work, is a form of panic fear, the fear that all may not go well, or that something may be forgotten and left undone. 
All undue concern about things and arrangements is unworthy of us. It is only persons that matter....
 But we do ourselves injustice by being anxious. We have been sent into life fortified, some more so, some less, with a Courage which should enable us to take the present without any fearful looking forward. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Wednesdays with Words :: Dry Spells

Linking up with Dawn for Wednesdays with Words.

I picked up a little prayer book from my church bookstore on Sunday. It's called The Ascetic Lives of Mothers by Annalisa Boyd. It's a beautiful book full of prayers that are especially pertinent when faced with the many challenges of motherhood. I especially loved this paragraph from the introduction (the bolded is my emphasis):
Have I always been faithful in prayer? No. I have gone through spells where prayer felt almost like torture. It was dry and forced. But forced does not equate to unfruitful. Many times it is in the desert where we are most strengthened, and much good fruit is produced on the other end of those dry times - in spite of, or perhaps because of, the struggle. 

I immediately thought of Saint Mary of Egypt, who lived for forty-seven years in the desert. Forty-seven years. And the first seventeen years were spent in severe and constant struggle with her passions.

Then there were Saints Joachim and Anna, parents of the Virgin Mary, the Most Holy Theotokos (Theotokos means God-bearer). They were married for fifty years before their prayers for a child were answered. Fifty years of faithful prayer and trust in God. And the struggle and pain they experienced because of their barrenness was rewarded with the incredible honor of being able to be called the Grandparents of God.

God is faithful and He answers prayer. But perhaps sometimes we would do well to remember that the transformation which occurs when we pray and wait on Him can be a part of the answer.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Homeschooling :: Delighting in Nature

When I was growing up I would have been the first to admit that I hated going outside. My brother would spend all day playing in the yard and when he would come inside I would disgustedly inform him that he "smelled like outside". I wanted to curl up in a chair and read books all day. I loved to read about being outside, but I did not want to be the one out there experiencing the heat or the cold or wind or rain. No one could have convinced me that I would ever find myself, twenty years later, not only actively encouraging my own children to go outside as much as possible, but actually wanting to be outside myself!

When I first read Charlotte Mason's Home Education (you can read it online here thanks to Ambleside Online) I was very intrigued by the concept of Nature Study. I was made aware suddenly that there is much more to spending time outside than just getting out of the house. The benefits are manifold and rich and I have become absolutely convinced that not only is spending time outside a good thing; it is an essential part of the kind of education I want for my children.

Rather than wax philosophical like I usually do, I will simply share how this has developed in our family.

It started with a book (of course). I found a little book while browsing at the library that had pictures of fall leaves and the names of the trees that went with them. I had never been able to identify any trees, except perhaps maple and oak. So I read this little book to my kids and then we took a walk. Lo and behold, almost every single type of tree listed in that book was in our neighborhood! I was very excited. We brought leaves home and checked back with the book and identified them. From that moment I was hooked. This naturalist stuff was actually fun!

I had read about nature journaling somewhere, and I decided that it was something we ought to do. So I bought a small sketchbook and told the kids that this was to be our family nature notebook. We would use it to draw and write about the things we encountered outside. It was mostly me drawing, and at the time when we started it I was still the only one who could write so I did that too.

At first I tried to force it. I told the kids that they had to tell me about something they saw outside and we tried to make it happen once a week. That didn't go over too well. I was frustrated. But I decided that I could at least keep the notebook for myself and maybe try again with the kids at another time. So I let it go.

I bought small field guides on plants, trees and flowers. I observed and learned the names of things myself simply because I wanted to. I did also want to be able to pass the knowledge on to my kids, and when the occasion arose I would be sure to tell them the proper names for what they noticed and looked at, but I still didn't try to make them learn any of it purposefully.

I became a bird watcher. At first I could only identify robins because I had read about "robin red-breast" in books. But I noticed that there were quite a few other kinds of birds flying about that I couldn't name. So I got another field guide. Then one day in the spring I heard a beautiful bird-song. I kept hearing it over and over and it was so sweet and cheerful that I had to find out what it was. I got out a pair of binoculars we had been given and tried to find it. Eventually I did (it was a robin).

Once those binoculars came out it was all over. The kids were enchanted and they all wanted turns to look at birds close up. Since that time we have spent hours watching birds, reading about them, identifying them. We keep a running list of all the interesting birds we see. This year alone we have seen close to fifty different types of birds that included several hawks, orioles, swallows, woodpeckers, finches, meadowlarks, jays, hummingbirds, bluebirds, herons and even a bald eagle! Not to mention the more common birds that we see every day like starlings, blackbirds and sparrows.

We watch for interesting bugs. My husband found a praying-mantis one day and brought it home for us to see. We kept it for a couple days and then let it go outside. That was last fall. Not even a week ago we saw a praying mantis on one of our windows and everyone is convinced that it's the same one. Another time a katydid got in the house. It was just sitting quietly on the wall near the ceiling and one of my daughters saw it and pointed it out. I carefully caught it and we spent some time looking at it and then released it. We have caught spiders, flies, ladybugs, lightning bugs, and ants.

None of this is planned or scheduled. It happens in the course of our life, lived out day by day. Sometimes we spend days learning about a new plant or animal or insect, other times we might go a week or two without any significant discovery. But the learning is still taking place and the effect of this lifestyle is visible.

We find ourselves learning and observing in the most unexpected places and at the most interesting times. Once we went to the zoo and, as we were walking through to the next area we'd planned to see, we had to walk across a bridge. On the bank of the creek running underneath the bridge we spotted a turkey vulture who had just stolen a fish from another bird greedily devouring the fish. We stopped for a good twenty minutes just to watch and my son got out the notebook and drew what he was seeing. Of all the things we saw at the zoo that day nothing was discussed so much as that turkey vulture.

Another time we were coming out of swimming lessons when we saw a new (to us) bird on the grass at the edge of the parking lot. We pulled over to the side and took a minute to sketch the bird so we could remember what it looked like when we got home. Nothing else was talked about all the way home. Everyone had a guess as to what they thought it was. It turned out to be a killdeer.

We spend lots of time talking about the weather and the way it changes from season to season. We read about nature, we talk about it and we live it. It has become an interest in our lives that exists independently of any curriculum or school plans. My life has become richer for it and I can see the effect on the lives of my family as well.

One of the highlights of all this interest in nature study has been that I have been able to watch my children's powers of observation and attention grow. They noticed things that I do not. They delight in discovering things that are new to them and delight even more in sharing them with others. They have begun to take ownership of our nature journal and I find it coming out at unexpected times so that they can make entries about the interesting things they find. Connections are made between things that are alike and things that are different. They compare and contrast, they think carefully about why God might have made things the way they are and not another way. They ask questions, they seek answers and they delight in creation.

I think that's the best part - this delight in creation. The love of all that God has made leads one to God Himself. As Coleridge put it,

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.


A few resources that I have found helpful:

Handbook of Nature Study (the book)
Handbook of Nature Study (website)
The Private Eye
All the Birds of North America
National Audubon Society First Field Guides (we currently only have the bird one, but I plan to collect the rest)
The Living Page
The Nature Connection
James Herriot's Treasury for Children
Clara Dillingham Pearson's Among the People books
Find the Constellations

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Glory to God

Glory to God.....

.... for fruits from my garden

.... for lots of good books to read

.... for windy fall days

.... for kids who are getting along today

Glory to God for all things! 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Wednesdays with Words :: Anna Karenina

Linking up with Dawn for Wednesdays with Words. I recently finished reading Anna Karenina. (If you haven't read it and don't like spoilers, better just skip directly to the quote.) I'm not sure how I feel about it. Sad is the first word that comes to mind. And yet there was happiness in it as well. I was disappointed in the ending, but it wasn't unexpected. Anna is such a love-able character, and I so wanted her to repent of her actions, but she chose not to. Tolstoy presented it as though she had no choice, but there is always choice, no matter how painful the right choice might be. I was happily surprised by her husband, Alexey Alexandrovitch. I knew how deep his sorrow was, but I didn't expect him to forgive the way he did. My quote today is from him:

I must explain my feelings, the feelings that have guided me and will guide me, so that you may not be in error regarding me. You know I had resolved on a divorce, and had even begun to take proceedings. I won't conceal from you that in beginning this I was in uncertainty, I was in misery; I will confess that I was pursued by a desire to revenge myself on you and on her....
... But I saw her and forgave her. And the happiness of forgiveness has revealed to me my duty. I forgive completely. I would offer the other cheek. I would give my cloak if my coat be taken. I pray to God only not to take from me the bliss of forgiveness!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Homeschooling :: First things first

When I was drowning in babies and everything revolved around surviving from day to day, I learned an important lesson about priorities. Baby sleeping was always a tenuous proposition, even when it seemed like there was nothing that could wake them. I could never tell how long I had until Baby was going to wake up; it could be a few minutes, it could be a couple hours. So, when the baby was actually sleeping, I would ask myself
"If I can only do ONE thing without the baby right now, what does it need to be?" 
If that one thing was accomplished I immediately asked the question again. Some days I was able to get many things done, other days I wasn't even able to accomplish my one thing.

Even though I do not currently live in what I call "survival mode" all the time anymore, I still sometimes ask myself that question as I go throughout the day.

In a way, it has probably informed my choices in homeschooling to some degree. It is certainly a way to help me decide what needs to be put first and foremost in our school days and years.
"If I can only teach my children ONE thing, what does that need to be?"
If there is only one thing I want for my children it is to see them grow to love Christ above all. Above money, above career, above self, above life itself.  The only way I know how to teach that is the way I learned it myself - to live it. The Orthodox Faith is one of action, which means that in order for us to pass it down we have to live it. It has to be what forms and shapes us. As my blogging friend Gretchen Joanna shared on her blog recently, you have to "do faith until you have faith".

So in the education of my children, the first thing I must try to do is to live the faith by following the cycle of the liturgical year. We fast and we feast. We pray morning and evening, we go to Divine Liturgy on Sundays to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ. We read the Bible daily. We learn about the lives of the Saints, those holy men and women who have finished the race successfully. When a feast day falls on a weekday, we go to church instead of "doing school".

All these things come first. This is the foundation that our lives are built upon. Without living out the faith all other education is fruitless. So I put first things first and go from there.


Aside from physical practices such as daily prayers and attending church, the following are some resources that I have found helpful in passing on the faith to my children:

Books and cds:
A Sacred History for Children
A Child's Paradise of Saints
The Children's Bible Reader
The Prologue of Ohrid (2 volumes)
The Children's Garden of the Theotokos
Celebrate the Feasts
AVisual Catechism of the Orthodox Church

Many more books can be found at these websites:
Orthodox Christian Children
Paidea Classics

This is certainly not an exhaustive list, it's just those things that I've used and liked. Please share in the comments if you have anything you think I ought to add to this list of resources!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Wednesdays with Words : Shakespeare

Linking up with Dawn for Wednesdays with Words. I am making an effort to read some Shakespeare regularly, so today's words are from his second Sonnet. 

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty's field,
Thy youth's proud livery, so gazed on now,
Will be a tatter'd weed, of small worth held:
Then being ask'd where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days,
To say, within thine own deep-sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserved thy beauty's use,
If thou couldst answer 'This far child of mine
Shall sum my count and make my old excuse,'
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
    This were to be new made when thou art old,
    And see thy blood warm when thou feel'st it cold. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Homeschooling :: Wherein I Begin to Think About Philosophy

Last time I talked about how one click of the mouse changed the course of our educational journey. After I read that thread and followed links and listened to a whole bunch of lectures I began to want to know more about educational philosophy. I felt like I needed a solid understanding of the big picture if I wanted to apply what I was learning to our real-life learning at home.

It's rather difficult to describe this stage in my journey. In fact it's not even over yet. I suspect it will never end, really. I have spent the majority of my free time during the past couple years reading books and listening to talks about education. Slowly I have been able to begin forming a picture of sorts that portrays the things I want for my children and the way to go about getting there. The following is an attempt to put that picture into words (I've also written about it here):

As Christians our purpose in educating our children must include the intent for them to learn to recognize and to perceive and to love the Beautiful Person of Jesus Christ.  Beauty, Goodness and Truth are inseparable, objective realities that can be found to some degree in everything if we can just perceive them.  Our students need to be taught to discern these things in order to be able to behold Christ, who is all in all.  Human reason needs to be founded in Christ in order to reach its full potential.  Without a foundation in Christ much is lost and one's full potential cannot be realized. 

 The primary goal of education in our home, therefore, is to pursue and cultivate virtue.  It is not collecting a wealth of facts and remembering them, but rather disciplining the body and the mind so that one can act based on what one knows to be objectively true.  David Hicks, in his book Norms and Nobility states that “[e]ducation does not mean teaching people what they do not know; it means teaching them to behave as they do not behave.”

 The content of the curriculum we use must enable our children to fulfill all the roles that life might give them, whether it is the role of parent, employer, employee, teacher, friend, etc.  They need to be able to fill each of these roles as a Christian.  The delight that we can take in our studies is delight in Christ Himself because the things studied all point to Him. This is why the trivium and the quadrivium are such powerful tools for education - because they each pour light on part of the mind of God so that we can "know" Him better. Our relationship can be deepened with each new idea and with the mastery of new concepts. If we aim for anything less than the deepening and evolution of this relationship then we don't get very far because the Holy Spirit, as the giver of knowledge, ought not to be separated from the knowledge that He has given.

On the practical side, this means that we will strive for a significant focus on language; both our own native English, as well as the ancient Latin and Greek languages, and we'll probably even throw some modern languages in there as well.  There will also be a strong focus on mathematics and the third focus will be on the perception of truth.  We want our children to be surrounded by beautiful things: good literature, beautiful art, beautiful music; and they should have the opportunity to experience these things through their senses. The goal is not to pump them full of information, but rather to teach them to contemplate and meditate on what they are learning.  They need to exercise the mind through memorizing and recalling facts to such an extent that the memorized content becomes a part of them and they are able to use that knowledge to create and express things in their own voices.

All of these things will help to form the persons our children will become as they mature and will ultimately shape their lives so that they can go beyond just getting a job and being successful by worldly standards. They can go on to become godly, Christ-like people whose lives shine as examples of holiness and be lights in an ever darkening world.   

There comes a point of course, where all the philosophy in the world still won't translate into results unless one begins to act on it. Nevertheless, I feel that it's very important to articulate one's goal, because the "why" ultimately informs the "how" and makes a great difference when it comes to the practical details of living one's philosophy.

I offer below a list of books, audio, and videos that I have found most helpful, with stars by my favorites. If anyone has something that they think I ought to add to my list do let me know!

Norms and Nobility*
Beauty for Truth's Sake*
Beauty in the Word**
The Abolition of Man 
The Living Page**
Leisure the Basis of Culture*
Poetic Knowledge
The Seven Laws of Teaching
The Art of Teaching
Free-Range Learning
Project Based Homeschooling

Mimetic Teaching and the Cultivation of Virtue *
Assessment that Blesses
Eight Essential Principles of Classical Education
Multum non Multa 
Repetitio Mater Memoriae
Teaching from a State of Rest*

I also participated in an online study of Charlotte Mason's Twenty Principles, which was incredibly helpful for me as I tried to put words to my impressions. I have already written a bit about some reactions I've had to Charlotte Mason in most of the posts on this page.