To plan or not to plan ... that is the question

Out in the vast and varied homeschooling world, there is a debate the rest of the world knows nothing about. Right now, while the rest of you go blissfully about your business, you are completely unaware that in homes across the land there are slightly worried looking mothers trying very hard to be pleasant to their children, but not really paying attention to a word the small fry are saying. Why? Because it's the Season to Obsess Over the Plan, that's why. What if I don't cover everything? What if someone asks my kids to do long division? With remainders! Maybe I should buy this other math book this year. I mean, look at the results some of these people say they're getting with it!

The unsuspecting husband walks through the room.

Honey? What do you think? Should I just buy a whole program this time? Or should we put it together ourselves again?

What he thinks will depend directly on his experience of how best to reassure his fussy wife and how involved he wants to get in the business of all this choosing among what seem to be a thousand thousand choices -- but what I think is that the real reason the incidence of injuries spikes in the summer is - at least in part - because of the tower of homeschooling catalogs.

Of course, there is a smaller group of people inside this large group. This is the group of "un-schoolers." The stereotypical unschooler is a breed of his own, and actually exists mostly in homeschooling mythology, although I've met some in real life. The theory here is that the little child will lead - and he'll lead everything. The child will pick what to study each day, for how long, and why. The child will follow his pristine instincts, unsullied by the unfair and prejudicial Expectations of Society. (If you didn't hear a sonorous echo in that title, read it again.) The pure, clean, unspoiled child will know what to do if we just leave him to do it. All I need to do is make sure he's got whatever he needs.


I suppose that if you've got a pint-sized Einstein there at your house, and if most of your house is taken up with lab equipment, and if the adults in the house are users of the equipment and are doing a whole lot of study and experimentation for their own daily work, and if the whole of the environment is all about the science ... well, then you could make a case that the child-led learning is the way to go. That child will probably end up being able to do long division if someone shows him how.

But someone still has to show him how.

Aye, there's the rub. Someone still has to show him how.

Okay, fine. But when? It doesn't do any good to teach the squirt long division before he's learned that 3+4=7, right? There is an order to these things. And some kids are ready before other kids are. Isn't that the whole point of schooling at home? Aren't we trying to fit the education to the kid and not the kid to the education here?

Yes. That is, in my opinion and experience, the one best true reason for schooling at home. More conventional schools could do a better job of this if they tried to, but there is only so much you can do with a room full of same-aged kids. Individualized instruction, so touted in "small class sizes," is indeed The Big Benefit of being at home to learn long division - or reading - or a lot of other things. (And one of the first things I learned when my kids were little is that it's possible to learn math while wearing pajamas. Who knew!)

But now what? Not lock-step, but not planned either? How is a mother supposed to deal with that expectation? And by the way, that's all the homeschooling mother needs -- one more thing she knows perfectly well she will never be able to achieve. Instruction, but not too soon, and practice, but not too much ... and not too little. Criminy!!! Why on earth are there more and more homeschoolers? Why aren't they all in insane asylums? Or roaming the streets, murmuring, "Plan? Don't plan? Plan? Don't plan?" while flipping the pages of the newsprint catalogs with the slightly fuzzy pictures of products in them?

Because kids learn, that's why. Gardens grow, kids learn, and the summer comes again every year. There is some stuff we can depend on.

Now the homeschooling mom can breathe again, and if she's gone through the Obsession Season before, she knows what's going on. This panic attack lasts for less and less time each year, and now she knows - she just sets everything down and walks out into the yard to watch her kids for awhile.

She knows a lot of things now - this more experienced mom does.

She knows, for instance, that
that the lesson plans are really just the day's rough first draft. I think this is true whether we're schooling or not, now that I've had time to reflect and I'm not schooling any more. We make an outline or at least get a rough idea of what we want to "write" with our days, and then we begin to write.

We do make plans - and we learn that the plan is just a draft. The plan doesn't get graded. It's just a plan. After awhile, you can begin to enjoy the process itself. The revisions don't scare you any more. You realize editing your work is part of the deal. You give up on the idea that it will ever be perfect - because perfection is only possible where there is no change - which means there is no life.

Raising kids is a living thing. And schooling living minds is a living thing. And planning for living things and what they do (and the fact that you have only limited control over what they do) is what keeps gardens from becoming wild and lets them produce useful food. (That was Adam's job, right? To tend the thing?) Planning is what keeps meals from becoming unhealthy last minute snack affairs eaten whenever and wherever, and lets them become communal echoes of the Great Feast. And planning is what keep schooling from becoming a series of distractions instead of real learning. Planning does not ignore the child -- it provides for the child.

So this is my note to all the homeschooling mothers out there this summer. Go ahead and plan -- and know for sure that stuff will happen in your house that you never ordered out of a catalog. And then do a little happy dance. We work with living things.


Kenj said...

There couldn't have been a better day for me to read this. Thank you!

Angie said...

Great write up!

I'm in the midst of planning our very first homeschooling year. I've just sat down with a notebook and have been making a list to kind of map out what we plan on doing in each subject.

JennGM said...

What wonderful advice! Thank you!

katrin said...

I have always wondered about how homeschooling moms manage to find balance between being with their kids and saving something for themselves -- some me-time when you are a woman and an individual rather than a wife, mother or teacher. I am so impressed by the ability of you all to balance it... or do you go crazy sometimes?

I've written a book called Mothers Need Time-Outs, Too that looks at this very issue of taking care of ourselves so we can take care of others. We talked to over 500 women all over the country, and for our next book, we'll have to make sure to talk to you guys!