Finding the Right Homeschool Method

JMJ

My oldest is four, and I’m starting to think a little more about homeschooling options. Yes, it’s extremely early to think much about “real” school. Afterall, preschool is pretty easy. (well, unless you are crazy, like me, and are trying to create your own saints-based interactive curriculum from scratch. Yeah, this is nuts. Don’t do this!) Seriously, read at least a book or two every day, let kiddo help with whatever you are are doing, and talk CONSTANTLY about absolutely everything around you… “That’s a red light, stop. Tell me when it turns green so we can go. Good. Which way do you you think we will turn to get to the store? That way? Is that right or left? What are we buying at the store? Mmmm, what will we cook with that?…” And that’s preschool. Done.

 

Buuuuuttt… I’m a planner. So we’re already looking into different methods of homeschooling, and trying to envision which ones would and wouldn’t work with our family. Also, being both homeschool grads ourselves, my husband and I both have some experience to draw from, even though we’re not really there yet with our own family.

 

 

School at Home / Formal

 

The one method that I really don’t see fitting with our family is the formal, school at home. Where you set up a formal classroom, set specific school hours and assume the role of “teacher.” This just isn’t how learning happens in the family. A “school” is very important for an organization that is teaching many children, but it doesn’t make sense to use it in the home. You wouldn’t use farming methods developed for big ag in your backyard garden… So why use institutionalized teaching methods for your home? 😉

 

 

Public School Curriculum

 

Many public school districts now have an option for homeschooling. Either online or using their physical materials, you can follow the same curriculum your child would be using in a public school.

 

There are several advantages to going this way. If you’re brand new to homeschooling and overwhelmed by the options, if your spouse is unsure about the decision to homeschool, or if you are worried about your child being “behind” if he re enters the public school, then this method can give you peace of mind.

 

This method is also usually free, as it is through public education.

 

The drawback is that the curriculum used by the public schools may be one of your reasons for homeschooling in the first place!

 

 

School-in-a-Box

 

Giving you the same ease of planning as the public school method, purchasing a prepackaged curriculum in a box gives a little more flexibility in choosing your educational style. Usually, when you hear a homeschool mom saying that they are using “Classical Education” materials, that family uses a school-in-a-box service, such as Seton.

The disadvantage is that this can be one of the most expensive ways to homeschool.

The advantage is that most companies you can purchase a premade curriculum from also offer a correspondence service. They may grade tests and papers you send in, help you with evaluations and make adjustments as your family needs them. Their school advisors are there to talk you through rough patches and help you not feel alone.

This is one of the most popular methods for newbie homeschoolers.

 

 

Classical

 

A classical education is about more than learning Latin and reading the Iliad. It’s not really a method, but rather a philosophy. It deals with how to train a mind to think well for itself. Most of the homeschool correspondence services use the Classical approach.

The Classical philosophy is based on the Trivium (meaning where the three roads meet), or three core concepts of: grammar, logic and rhetoric. These concepts set the student up to be able to seek truth. The grammar stage is where the student learns the basics of language. The logic stage is where the student develops critical thinking and reasoning. The rhetoric stage is where the student masters the ability to communicate his ideas effectively. This sequence builds on the average child’s natural development, and tries to enhance and enrich it.

With the Trivium at it’s core, Classical education also branches out to include other studies. Originally, these were the four additional studies known as the quadrivium, namely arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. As our wealth of knowledge has expanded, however, more subjects have been added.

As Catholics, we like to think in 3’s and 7’s. We can especially appreciate the way the Trivium mirrors the Trinity.

 

trivium and trinity

Many curriculums that follow the Classical approach will repeat subjects on a four-year cycle. That way ancient history, for example, is studied on a basic “grammar” level in elementary school, on a more in-depth “logic” level in middle school, and finally on an advanced “rhetoric” level in high school. This repetition and layering gives student a deep understanding of the subject.

 

A classical education is usually highly structured, without much wiggle room for a student’s individuality. This is a huge benefit for some families, and less than ideal for others.

 

Even if you choose a less structured approach, like we are leaning towards, I HIGHLY recommend that homeschooling parents should have a very firm understanding of the philosophy behind Classical education. Understanding the idea of the Trivium will let you watch for little ways to apply it in whatever homeschooling method you use, and also allow you to recognize its natural development in your maturing child.

 

Reading either “The Well Trained Mind” or “The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric” will give you a good foundation.

 

For more about Classical Education, see this article.

 

 

Charlotte Mason

 

Charlotte Mason is a branch off Classical that is more gentle and child oriented. This method strives to educate the whole child. It has three, equally important parts: atmosphere, discipline and life.

 

Charlotte Mason - painted in 1902 by Frederic Yates (public domain)
Charlotte Mason – painted in 1902 by Frederic Yates

Outdoor time is valued as much as academic lessons. Ms. Mason believed that young children should be taught to identify bird calls, trees and wildflowers. She believed that a connection to nature would nurture a child’s soul and foster curiosity and wonder about the world.

 

This method values a rich culture and deep learning, much like the classical method, but the emphasis is on making the lessons come alive, instead of memorizing facts.

 

Every lesson strives to educate the whole child, not just his mind. Lessons such as math are valued not simply because being able to do basic math is helpful in everyday life, but primarily because of the discipline that learning math teaches to the soul. It requires attention to detail, accuracy and honesty. In the end, there is only one right answer, only one truth. All other answers are false, untrue. The child works carefully to discover that one truth. This by itself teaches the soul a great deal about morality; mathematically the idea of moral relativism cannot exist. (well, at least in the lower maths…)

 

The charlotte Mason method does not introduce math, writing and grammar until a later age. Instead, during the early years the emphasis is on forming good habits and strong character. There will be plenty of time for academics after the foundation or morality is laid.

 

Young children are encouraged to use their imagination in noble ways; in a Catholic home this would be by listening to vivid stories about heroic saints and noble historical characters, then being asked to tell the story back or act it out.

 

Charlotte Mason emphasises the use of books. Not boring textbooks or workbooks, but “living books” or historical novel-type books that make the subject come to life. Instead of written tests, learning is gauged by orally retelling the lesson in the early years, or written responses in the later years.

 

Manipulatives are not used in Charlotte Mason. Partly this is because the children are not introduced to math until age six or seven, and by then have the language skills to learn through words. Partly this is because Ms. Mason emphasized the use of language and discouraged the reliance on touch, feeling that having to interpret concepts through language helped develop reasoning skills in the students. She was actually highly critical of Maria Montessori and her methods, who lived and worked at the same time. Ms. Mason argued that while yes, Montessori student could read earlier, reading early is actually of no real benefit. She believed it was better to focus on laying a rich foundation of good habits and moral character, cultural understanding and oral traditions in the early years. Academic skills were later layered upon this foundation.

 

I am really drawn to the Charlotte Mason method, especially with older kids. I will be using Math-U-See math manipulative blocks though.

 

 

Montessori

 

The Montessori method relies heavily on “manipulatives” especially in the early years. The specialized toys are designed to help the student master a skill. Maria Montessori, the foundress of this method, found that young children often prefer real work to play. Her classroom was set up with toys that allowed the child to “work” with them, mimicking real life learning.

 

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Montessori Homeschool

With Montessori, the focus is on the sense of touch. For example, children learn their alphabet by touching letters cut out of sandpaper. The child can trace these letters with their finger, feeling the rough, interesting texture. The extra sensory input helps the brain to learn concepts it might not be developmentally ready to learn visually. Montessori students tend to read and write earlier.

 

Math manipulatives help a student actually see how the numbers work. Instead of sums being abstract, they become very concrete when the child can build them with blocks, beads or rods.

 

Montessori classrooms are set up to enable the children to learn independently. The materials are arranged neatly on low shelves, so the children can easily find and reach what they need. Montessori emphasizes having child-sized furniture, dishware, mops, brooms and tools, and setting up stations where the child can care for himself, such as a child-sized kitchen.

 

I’ve seen several “Montessori Homeschool classrooms” online which, frankly, I don’t understand. All those beautiful, colorful manipulatives that line the low shelves were created to mimic real life work in a classroom… But a homeschool student is ALWAYS in the real world already! I’ve noticed in my own preschoolers and toddlers that they naturally find a way to practice whatever skill their developing brain is ready for next.

 

Instead of having a specialized stacking cups toy, they practice stacking cupcake tins and measuring cups while we bake, or bowls while we put away the dishes. Instead of having a specialized buttoning and zipping toy, they sit in my closet and fasten and unfasten my blouses. The whole house, the whole world is their classroom. And once they are done mastering a particular skill, they go back to ignoring that object or using it in a different way, and we don’t have an expensive, specialized manipulative cast aside because they have moved on 😉

 

So while I love the Montessori approach, especially for younger kids or developmentally delayed or sensory seeking students, I think most of the “materials” are completely unnecessary in a homeschool setting. They are expensive, often short-lived and most kids prefer the “real thing” anyways… But I understand that school materials are REALLY fun for mom to shop for! 😉

 

 

Waldorf

 

On the surface Waldorf and Charlotte Mason can seem very similar. They both focus on the child as a whole being, nurturing not only the mind but the body and soul as well. They both emphasize being in nature and having a beautiful indoor environment for the children to learn in. They both value stories and the arts. Waldorf also waits until the child is older for more “academic” lessons.

 

Dig deeper, though, and Waldorf starts looking very different. While both Waldorf and Mason encourage imagination, Mason focuses on stories of great and noble deeds, while Waldorf loves magical creatures. Children are taught about fairies and the magic of nature. There can be a strong pagan undertone with the mother earth and earth festivals.

 

waldorf homeschool
Waldorf Homeschool

One of Waldorf’s greatest appeals is the beauty of the classrooms. Unlike Montessori, where you will find manipulatives for every separate skill, in a Waldorf classroom you will find children playing with baskets of pinecones, smooth stones and colorful playsilks. Most of the “toys” are items from nature, and the children use them however they want… a group of pine cones become animals in a zoo; a handful of rocks becomes money to use at the store. The real toys that are provided are made from natural materials with few details, encouraging the imagination. Soft, handmade dolls with minimal facial features, blocks made from tree branches, dollhouses that are little more than smooth, natural wooden frames.

 

Seriously, I am completely in love with Waldorf toys!

 

When you look further into the Waldorf education method, you uncover some disturbing ideologies. Rudolf Steiner was the father of the Waldorf school. He is also the founder of anthroposophy, a spiritual philosophy that does not line up with the Catholic Church.

 

“The anthroposophical view is that good is found in the balance between two polar influences on world and human evolution. These are often described through their mythological embodiments as spiritual adversaries which endeavour to tempt and corrupt humanity, Lucifer and his counterpart Ahriman. These have both positive and negative aspects. Lucifer is the light spirit, which “plays on human pride and offers the delusion of divinity”, but also motivates creativity and spirituality; Ahriman is the dark spirit that tempts human beings to “…deny [their] link with divinity and to live entirely on the material plane”, but that also stimulates intellectuality and technology. Both figures exert a negative effect on humanity when their influence becomes misplaced or one-sided, yet their influences are necessary for human freedom to unfold.
Each human being has the task to find a balance between these opposing influences, and each is helped in this task by the mediation of the Representative of Humanity, also known as the Christ being, a spiritual entity who stands between and harmonizes the two extremes.” via Wikipedia
To be clear, the ideas of anthroposophy are not taught directly to children in Waldorf schools. Steiner himself insisted that these ideas not be presented to children, as he sees that as developmentally inappropriate. But it is worth being aware that the ideas behind the Waldorf model are based on the philosophy of anthroposophy.

 

For this reason, I wouldn’t send my children to a Waldorf school. But as homeschoolers we have the flexibility to pick and choose different aspects of different educational models to fit our family. If particular aspects of the Waldorf educational model appeal to you, such as the nature-themed rooms or delayed academics, then use them! Just be careful not to get “sucked into” the entire Waldorf mindset.

 

Kinda like using a few fantastic yoga stretches to relieve back pain, but leaving the Hinduism at the door 😉

 

 

Unit Studies

 

Unit Studies is a model where you put the child’s interests front and center. For example, if a young child is fascinated with the North Pole, you could read science books about the North Pole and history books about its exploration or the Inuit people. Spelling words could be related to the arctic. Fieldtrips would tie-in. Everything would be about the North pole for either a specific period of time, or until the child tires of the subject.

 

Unit studies can be put together on the fly, or ordered, complete in a box, from some companies.

 

When done well, this method can keep the child fascinated with learning, and keep the parent connected to their child’s interests. When done poorly, this method can leave a child burnt out on his favorite interests. An overzealous parent can even discourage a child from picking up new interests, if the child knows that he’ll just be dragged through an exhausting unit study on the topic.

 

The best way I’ve seen families do this, is to loosely incorporate unit studies, without pressure. It’s one of the great freedoms of homeschooling. If what we are planning doesn’t interest the child, we have the flexibility to switch out books mid-year.

 

 

Unschooling

 

The idea with unschooling is to completely follow a child’s lead. Schoolwork is never forced. A child is allowed to grow and excel wherever his personal development draws him. This means he will usually be “behind” in some subjects, and “ahead” in others.

 

The main idea behind unschooling is that children learn best like adults do… researching and studying topics when they find the need or desire to. Eventually, a child who hasn’t wanted to work on math will become frustrated with his inability to do certain things, and will decide to learn math. This works because when there is intense drive to learn something, a person, adult or child, masters it much faster than when they are being dragged through it unwillingly for years on end.

 

The unschooling family isn’t concerned if their child is behind their peers in several subjects. Even if it takes until high school age, when the student realizes he needs to learn something NOW to go to the college or trade school he wants, a GED book can get him up to speed.

 

So what do unschool families do? They read a lot as a family. They talk about big ideas. They go on field trips. They expose their children to many different concepts. They expose their children to the arts. They instill a love of learning and a curiosity about the world. They give their children a rich environment of materials to work from, then let them grow.

 

I am attracted to many aspects of unschooling, but I don’t feel comfortable completely diving in. I want a little more structure than unschooling provides, and I would be worried about explaining this method to a truancy officer. BUT… I hope to adopt the gentle attitude of allowing my children to be “behind” or “ahead” of their peers.

 

 

Punishment Methods

 

There are several other great methods that I’m not even touching on here.  These are just the main ones that are on my radar at the moment.

 

I do have to add, though, that I absolutely do not condone any method that uses punishment as an incentive.

 

Seriously, they are out there, folks.

 

As an elementary student, I encountered this firsthand.  My mother was advised to “help” me and my sister focus on our schoolwork by sitting there with a plastic ruler or wooden spoon, and slapping the back of our heads any time our pencils stopped moving or our eyes left the workbook.  Glance out the window… slap.  Itchy nose… slap…

 

And that was one of the gentler punitive methods out there… Some of them get really ugly.

 

I'm too bored to think!
I’m too bored to think!

This REALLY doesn’t help a student to learn.  Stress hormones inhibit memory, so stressing a child out with the threat of punishment for not learning their lessons is incredibly counterproductive. It goes against basic biology.

 

If you want to help a child learn in a way that works WITH their biology, try including movement.  Have them roll a ball under their feet while doing math, or kneed playdough while listening to you read.  Movement helps memory, and children aren’t made to sit still and focus for very long.

 

If your child starts losing focus and staring aimlessly out the window, why not yell “Five minute trampoline break, Go!” and let them get their blood pumping again?  😉

 

 

So What’s Our Plan?

 

 

Mostly, a little of this and a little of that… like most homeschoolers 😉

 

I like the idea of the Charlotte Mason method, keeping an eye on the Trivium, with a more Montessori hands-on approach during the early years, and loose unit studies following developing interests as our kiddos grow.

 

 

In Codre Maria,

-Jessica

Immaculate Heart of Mary

 

What methods do you use for your family and why?  Have you always used your current method?  Of have you changed over time?

 

 

featured image via flickr user Sharon Mollerus

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