Friday, January 13, 2012

Homeschooling on the Farm: A Typical Day

Conducting a Scientific Experiment in Our Backyard
Homeschooling is a difficult enterprise to describe. What it looks like for one family may be completely different from the practices of another. For people not familiar with homeschooling, the term often conjures up images of mothers in long skirts instructing their quiet, well-behaved children as they all sit around a kitchen table memorizing Bible verses and dutifully completing workbook exercises. Others understand it as little more than an excuse for parents to let their kids run wild and avoid the discipline and socialization that will turn them into responsible citizens of an orderly world. Neither of these stereotypes is accurate for most homeschooling families. Since several people have asked what homeschooling involves for my girls and me, I have decided to launch a series at this blog on "Homeschooling on the Farm," sharing what we do and why, and inviting a discussion about homeschooling and other models of alternative education. In this first post, I describe what a typical day of homeschooling (if there is such a thing) looks like for us.

Early Morning
On weekdays, my husband and I wake up around 4:30 and head downstairs to exercise. I'm sure it sounds absurd, but it's one of my most treasured times of the day. As I lift weights and work out on the treadmill and the recumbent bike, I get a chance to read books and magazines I wouldn't otherwise find time for, or listen to a podcast of a favorite NPR program I missed over the weekend. By 6:15, my husband has left for work and I am at the computer checking e-mail or trying to find more information on how to de-worm goats and chickens without chemicals, or which plants and herbs to combine in the same garden bed. Around this time, the girls wake up, make up their beds, get dressed, and come downstairs to report on the dreams they had or tell me a story they have been playing out in their room.

Feeding the Chickens Some Scratch
Then it's time to head to the barn. The girls generally get there first, dashing out the door as I yell--usually three seconds too late--"Don't forget your jackets!" They open up the barn and let the chickens out. Once I arrive, they help me toss some scratch to the chickens, take some hay to the goats, refill all the feed buckets, check the waterers, and then (last but unfortunately not least) muck out the coop and the goat stall--gathering up manure and freshening up the hay and wood chips. After dumping the contents of our muck buckets in the compost pile (it will make beautiful soil for our garden in the coming months), we return to the house for some breakfast.

As the girls eat their breakfast, I comb through their curls (and you thought mucking out the barn sounded challenging?!?) while reading to them from our current chapter book.*

Feeding the Goats Some Milk

After the girls finish eating, they usually head straight back out to the barn to check for eggs, visit with the animals, and orchestrate all sorts of dramas and adventures. These days they are spending a lot of time at the "houses" they have created from sticks, rocks, planks, and hay lying around the barnyard. While they hang out there, I prepare and eat my own breakfast, and then it's time to start school--or as we prefer to call it, "Discovery Time" (more on that in another post).

By this time it is around 9:00. While our daily study schedule is not set in stone (one of the advantages of homeschooling is being able to take advantage of opportunities that come up anytime, after all!), we follow a pretty consistent pattern. Two days a week, we begin our studies with a yoga session. For this, we follow a program called Angel Bear Yoga. It involves reflecting each time on a different principle or character trait (optimism, compassion, peace, love, patience, and so forth) and then acting out through yoga poses beings in nature that reflect that principle/trait (a sunrise, an elephant, a maple tree, a seahorse). On other weekdays, we begin by reading and memorizing poetry together.

Reading to a Favorite Doll
Then it is time for reading and writing. Each of the girls chooses from a group of readers I have selected for her based on her reading level and interests. They take turns reading, the older one often helping the younger one with several words. After that it is my turn to read to them. This is when we turn to our current unit studies topic. Our own unit studies system involves learning about different countries around the world: one each month of the school year. During that month, our social studies, science, and art appreciation studies focus on that country. Thus, the book(s) I read to them at this time will be about that country. Right now we are studying Australia (in the fall we covered Brazil, Japan, France, and Egypt).

After I read, they will carry out one or more hands-on activities related to that country. Examples include:
  • doing a related arts and crafts project (painting, making clay models, sewing)
  • studying the country's flag and coloring it
  • labeling and coloring a map of the country
  • listening and dancing to music from the country
  • preparing food from the country
  • conducting a science experiment related to the ecology of the country
  • watching an educational video about the country (generally short videos we access online)
  • completing interactive online activities related to the country.
Making Rainforest Animals from Clay
Painting in Impressionist Style while Studying France

The girls and I work together to choose their writing projects. We generally to try come up with an purposeful exercise (letters to friends) or something related to our unit studies theme (a mini-essay about dessert animals). This week they are writing and illustrating a fictional "book" about their goats and chickens called "The Case of the Missing Chicken Feed." After this we turn to math. We are currently using a combination of math exercises from the Oak Meadow homeschooling curriculum and a math program called Miquon Math. Both programs teach students (and their teachers!) to think creatively about math problems and to use manipulates to understand math concepts. Right now we are working on basic fractions. After math we might have music time, or we might have Spanish. At this point, we are generally through with our formal studies for the day. It is now around 12:30 and time for a short stroll up the lane or a visit to the barn and then lunch.
Doing Math with the Abacus
"Hop on the Answer" Math Game

The Rest of the Day/s
After we've all eaten and rested a while, we usually spend the afternoon doing some work on the farm: now mostly chores around the barn, but in the spring it will be gardening. Nature Study (often informed by the Oak Meadow curriculum) is a central part of many of our afternoons. If we are not doing work close to home, we might take a walk through the woods or go into town to visit the library, bake something, trek up to a nearby playground or a friend's house, or run errands. Sometimes we do research following up on topics we've breeched during Discovery Time or on topics the girls have come up with on their own. This week we have investigated--per the girls' requests--the reproductive system of rabbits, the life story of Mary Ingalls (Laura Ingalls Wilder's older sister), Louis Braille (inventor of the Braille writing system), Egyptian mummies, and lotus flowers.

Occasionally we go on a field trip. We might visit an art museum (this week it was the Mint Museum in Charlotte), a nature preserve, a farm, or a science center; or we might attend a theatrical performance, an educational program at a park, or a special exhibit (one of our favorites was the "Mummies of the World" exhibit at Discovery Place, also in Charlotte). I also enroll the girls in classes on a fairly regular basis (soccer, Spanish, nature studies, and gymnastics are among those they have taken).

So while we generally spend only a few hours of most weekdays doing what most people would recognize as "school," we spend a great deal of our time learning together--as we cook together, hike together, work together, and discuss books we are reading or issues that interest us. Perhaps the best laboratories we have for learning are the barn and the woods surrounding our house: as we observe the chickens for signs of sickness, follow the development of our young goats, watch the seasons change and the birds migrate, and organize seeds for spring planting, the girls and I delve into biology, chemistry, history, and sociology. And they learn some of the practical skills that have disappeared from the knowledge stores of so many American families and communities.

We call our little school "Whole World Homeschool"--an ambitious name for our tiny operation, perhaps, but reflective our our ambitions--to see the whole world as our classroom and our object of study: from India, Ecuador, the Alps and the Sahara to the earthworms in our backyard, the ferns in the forest, and the animals and plants we raise to feed ourselves.

And so we return to why homeschooling is so hard to describe. For us it is an adventure in learning that takes us well beyond the parameters of traditional "subjects" and well beyond the confines of classroom walls. It is an adventure that is often messy and difficult but also often filled with excitement, wonder and discovery. Perhaps most importantly, it is an adventure that allows us to journey together.

Eating Sushi for Japan Study
Making Feijoada for Brazil Study

Looking for Butterflies and Other Insects

*We have been reading chapter books together for several years now--since my younger daughter was 2 and her older sister 4. We have mostly read classics as well as a few more recently published novels. Among our favorites are The Little House Series, Anne of Green Gables, The Railway Children,  The Borrowers, Caddie Woodlawn, Blue Willow, Sarah Plain and Tall, The Little Princess, The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh, The Secret Garden, Black Beauty, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and The Sign of the Beaver. The girls greedily drink in these books, begging nearly every time I start to close a cover for "just one more page!" Honestly, though, I probably enjoy these sessions ever more than they do. It has given me a chance to read some great literature I missed during my own childhood. And a chance to share with my girls the joy and wonder of immersing oneself in worlds created by the imagination of others. It has also given me a greater appreciation of the capacities of children's minds to understand profound thoughts and complex stories. I have become convinced that we have done children a great disservice by "dumbing down" so much of the literature that is written for them these days. I believe we could do much better at helping children learn if we ourselves learned to show more respect for their intelligence and curiosity, and traded in our frequent dismissals of their capacities for a willingness to let their vibrant minds also educate our own.


Tanya from Dans le Townhouse said...

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You had posted a Q in blogger forum about not being able to see comments. I'm having this same problem - when I click to see comments the page won't load. Did you find a solution?

Any help would be greatly appreciated!


Liz @ the Brambleberry Cottage said...

I miss the days of homeschooling my two children. I did so all the way to high school graduation and look back on those years as some of the most memorable - and difficult - of my life. Yet, the way those years deepened the bonds of our relationships was well worth any temporary aggravations. ;)

Liz @ The Brambleberry Cottage