Category Archives: Tidal Homeschooling

The Tidal Homeschooling Master List

Since I’ve posted on what I call "Tidal Learning" or "Tidal Homeschooling" both here and on Lilting House, I thought it might be helpful to compile a list of all those posts.

Tidal Homeschooling

What the Tide Brought In (and Carried Out, and Brought Back In)

Tidal Homeschooling, Part 3

The Tide is Going Out

Tweak Tweak

Accidental vs. On-Purpose Learning

A Low-Tide Day

Lovely, Lovely Low Tide
(a follow-up to this post about connections)

Radical Unschooling, Unschooling, Tidal Homeschooling, and the Wearing of Shoes that Fit

Can you tell I really love low tide? LOL!

This post isn’t about tidal homeschooling per se, but it gives a good picture of the flavor of our high-tide days: All Roads Lead to Rome (Even for Bunnies)

There is also a Tidal Homeschooling yahoogroup and a NearCircle blog ring for Tidal Learning Friends. We’d love to have you join us there!

Radical Unschooling, Unschooling, Tidal Homeschooling, and the Wearing of Shoes that Fit

This is part of a (much) longer response to the comments on my "Lovely, Lovely Low Tide" post. I thought this part of my comment was relevant to the ongoing discussion here:

I am certainly not perfect
and I try show my warts and all on this blog. I am constantly pondering
and working with questions, and I wonder sometimes if that makes me
seem inconsistent, like people must be wondering if I’m ever going to
pick a lane! I am comfortable, though, with who I am (my favorite John
Paul II quote was, "Families, be who you are!"), and who I am is
someone who likes to mull over a wide range of ideas and see what
WORKS. For me, for us, for my kids, my husband, in our unique and
ever-changing situation.

I sometimes do feel an urge to "belong" to one school of thought or
another, to find that label that fits me perfectly. As I said in my
original Tidal Learning post, I couldn’t find the label, so I made one
up. It’s useful mainly as a way of answering people’s questions when I
meet a new homeschooler.

I have written elsewhere about how some part of me seems to stick out
of every niche I enjoy visiting (and that is probably true for most
people). I’m a pro-life Democrat, for Pete’s sake! Sort of. Ha!—I
don’t even fit THAT label across the board.

But still there is that desire to find the perfect label. There are
times I read Charlotte Mason and think: She makes so much sense! I want
to be a whole-hog CMer! And other times when I read Sandra Dodd and
think YES, I grok that, I’m an unschooler! But the reality is, I have
places where my understanding doesn’t completely line up with either CM
*or* radical unschooling. And that’s fine. I can still learn from both
schools (unschools?) of thought, and identify with aspects of each.

One area I’m keenly interested in is the balance between a rich
unschooling environment (the kind of environment & relationships
Sandra describes so vividly in her book and site) and the logistical challenges
of raising a big family, especially with my special-needs son. When
you’ve got big kids and babies in the same house, all with their own
(sometimes conflicting) needs, you’re probably going to have to make
compromises somewhere. Tia, that’s the issue you seemed to be exploring
in your post on Always Learning—-how your need for a clean, uncluttered
space seems to you a valid need that benefits the whole family, and how
you feel able to maintain that without shortchanging your children of
your time or attention. It seems like a good question to explore, but
is perhaps a bit out of context on that particular list. And I saw that
the reactions of experienced radical unschoolers there were coming out
of a sense of concern that your vision of it being possible to maintain
a tidy home while unschooling might make newbies feel like failures if
they can’t pull that off.

Probably some of the friction comes in the different definitions people
have of unschooling. I try to consistently use "radical unschooling"
when describing the lifestyle Sandra speaks of, which incorporates an
approach to parenting that believes kids grow up happier and nicer if
there aren’t constant conflicts with parents over chores, TV, and so
forth; and that the way to avoid that kind of tension is to relax
control in those and other areas.

While I find much to learn from in that vision of parenting, I cannot
say it totally lines up with mine. I’m completely on board with "say
yes as often as possible"—but I also see myself as the leader of this
crew of kids and am comfortable with the notion of parents being in authority
over their children. I don’t see authority as a bad thing or
necessarily meaning there will be friction and discontented children.

But I digress. I was saying that as I understand it, "radical
unschooling" has a specific meaning, and some discussions are not going
to be relevant in a radical unschooling context.

Just plain "unschooling" is a tricky term, because to some it means
radical unschooling, and to others it means "kids growing up without
‘doing school’ either in a schoolhouse or at home"—without necessarily
applying to *parenting* style. You’ll find, then, families who consider
themselves unschoolers but where the parents have an authoritative (not
the same as *authoritarian*, and I credit Jeanne Faulconer for writing
a post years ago that first made that distinction clear to me)
parenting style. That probably best describes how Scott and I are
raising our kids. So while I have great respect for people like Sandra
who have, by all accounts, raised some fabulous, considerate,
compassionate, respectful, nice kids according to the parenting
principles that accompany radical unschooling, I’m coming from another
perspective, one informed by my Catholicism (the only label that truly
fits me across the board), my experience, my husband’s viewpoints, and
the temperaments and needs of our specific children.

So yes, I think you can be both an authoritative parent and an
unschooler, and there are unschooling discussion lists where it might
be interesting to have that discussion, but I would naturally expect the
experienced & happy radical unschoolers to speak up with strong
arguments from their perspective. And if they all disagreed with my
opinion, I’d have to say, well, I went to the vegetarian banquet
looking for hamburger recipes!

Still, I love to hear the RU perspective, with its emphasis on JOY.
Joyful parent/child relationships, joyful person/learning
relationships, peace and delight and harmony in the home and with the
world. It’s a refreshing vision—invigorating, I think is the word I
used in my Low Tide post. Sandra’s work truly refreshes and empowers
me, and I would hate to discourage anyone from encountering it, even if
I’m not a radical unschooler myself.

One insight I had about myself during this current re-immersion in
Sandra’s website & list is that I was able to put my finger on why
our foray into pure CM method this past winter/spring fell flat after
six weeks, so that I found myself—for the first time in our
homeschooling experience—with a roomful of discontented kids.
(Discontented with our learning experiences, I mean. They have
certainly all been discontented before, like whenever I cook dinner.)

The realization that
came to me via my rethinking Sandra’s philosophy is that what was
different about our High Tide time this winter was that always before,
while we may have been taking an excursion aboard the S.S. Charlotte
Mason, I was captain of the ship, adjusting our course as needed, and
pulling into port for refreshment or exploration as my young sailors
required. This time around, I turned the ship’s wheel over to Cap’n
Mason herself—and much as I love her captain’s logs, she doesn’t know
my crew the way I do. After six weeks, they were ready to mutiny.

So I am back where I belong: comfortable in my own shoes. I’m a Tidal
Homeschooler, and it works for us, makes for fun times with my happy,
pleasant children. But it was the Radical Unschoolers who taught me
this lesson, and I will continue to enjoy learning from their
perspective— just as I learn from the pure Charlotte Mason folks and
the Real Learners and the classical-ed people and the Waldorf folks. I
really, really like to learn. So do my kids, so I’m content to "be who
we are."

As a final note, it occurred to me there might be others out there
interested in exploring this concept of Tidal Homeschooling, so I have
created a group for that purpose. I encourage you all to join me there!

Lovely, Lovely Low Tide

The first time I posted about tidal homeschooling at Bonny Glen (in January of 2006), I said,

Our family enjoys both kinds of learning—the heady adventure of the
well-planned fishing trip, with a goal and a destination in mind, and
the mellower joys of undirected discovery during weeks at the
metaphorical beach. Around here, the low-tide times happen much more
often than the high tide times, and often I find that the children
catch more fish, so to speak, when the tide is out. Beachcombing
reveals many treasures.

I was talking about unschooling v. Charlotte Mason-style learning, which, as readers of this blog know, are the two philosophies/methods of education which most resonate with me—even though they are very different philosophies.

We have been unschoolish Charlotte Mason learners, and we have been Charlotte Masonish unschoolers; I described it in that post like this:

[T]he what we do—read great books, study nature, dive deeply into history, immerse ourselves in picture study and composer study—is highly influenced by Charlotte’s writings and their modern counterparts (particularly Elizabeth Foss’s treasure of a book, Real Learning); and the how we do it—through strewing and conversation and leisurely, child-led exploration—is influenced by the writings of John Holt, Sandra Dodd,
and other advocates of unschooling. But I couldn’t say we’re "real CMers" because I don’t carry out Miss Mason’s recommendations in anything like the structured manner she prescribed; and I probably do too much behind-the-scenes nudging for us to be considered "real unschoolers."

I’d say that continues to hold true, a year and a half later. If you start looking for a definition of unschooling, you’ll find there’s a lot of disagreement between different people about what exactly unschooling is, and any definition I attempt to apply to it is simply my own take; but to my way of thinking, the term is most useful when applied to an approach toward childhood in which the parents do not "make" the children "learn stuff." The children are learning, constantly, enormously; and the parents are actively engaged in discussion and strewing and facilitating and offering new experiences, and at times classes or curricula may be a part of those experiences—but only as the child wishes.

And so, since there have been some studies I have required of my children (Latin, for example), I can’t say I’m a full-fledged unschooler. I am very, very unschooly, most of the time.

This past winter, I veered farther off the unschooling path than ever before, with our very much by-the-book Charlotte Mason term that began after the holidays. And, as I talked about here, it started off great guns, loads of fun, a very rich and animated time of formal learning—and then we hit some rather large bumps and the fun started to spill out of the cart. 

Scott’s back went out; we sold our old house; there were lots of
distractions. We stuck to our rhythm of morning read-alouds and
narrations, but last week I noticed the kids were squabbling with each
other a lot and our lesson time was turning grumpish.

(And re-reading that post, I see that a lot of what I’m writing here is a repeat of that one.)

I reassessed and saw that the year’s upheaval had tangled us up quite a bit, and I turned to my favorite Waldorf resources to help us untangle: we immersed ourselves in the soothing, homey pursuits of baking, painting, making things with yarn or clay, singing, telling stories. Our CM lessons continued but at a slower pace, and mostly for Jane. Gradually, as our spring got busy with recitals and outings, I retired the CM schedule altogether. I did this without fanfare or announcement, and the children seemed scarcely to notice: they’ve been too busy learning.

Learning about (to rattle off a few topics from the past week) the history of purple dye, the legends of Hercules, musical notes, how to make cookies without mom’s help, how to adapt a knitting pattern for crochet, measurement, air pressure (pumping up a baby pool and watching the pressure gauge), geography, San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, ISBNs and book cataloging, ocean life (could be a long list itself), the joys of playing in the sea, snakes, turtles, goats, miniature horses, Lightning Lad and Superboy, writing and cracking codes—and that probably isn’t the half of it. Just today, Rose sat down to write a story, and when it was finished, she asked me to correct it ("I want it to be like a real book"), and that led to conversation about spelling rules (slam/slamming, split/splitting, reply/replied), punctuating dialogue, indenting paragraphs and when to start a new paragraph, capitalization of titles, when to capitalize "mom" and when not to, and more grammar stuff that I can’t remember.

Whenever our low-tide times come around, I laugh at myself for forgetting how true are the words I wrote above: I find that the children
catch more fish, so to speak, when the tide is out.

A week or two ago, reveling in the richness of low tide, I got in the mood to read some Sandra Dodd. Sandra’s website is one of the best educational resources on the ‘net. She has been collecting wisdom from experienced unschoolers (including herself) for over ten years, and her site is a vast (really, I’m not using the word carelessly—there must be a hundred? pages there, at least)* repository of quotes and anecdotes to inspire and edify anyone who is interested in how people learn. Be careful; you’ll lose yourself there for hours.

But you’ll find yourself, too. Sandra always makes me think. She can be challenging, in the sense of ‘one who challenges you to examine your assumptions.’ I’ve lurked on her email lists on and off over the years (and not always lurking; I used to participate in the discussion, two or three younguns ago), and I sometimes found her almost painfully blunt. But now, ten years into my own home education journey, I think I understand why she doesn’t mince words in conversation with other homeschooling/ unschooling parents. She doesn’t want them to lose precious time to friction and tension. She wants there to be joy and delightful connectedness between parents and children, always and as soon as possible.

I don’t necessarily agree with her on every topic, but I appreciate the way she gets me questioning, pushing, pondering, learning. I like her emphasis on saying yes as often as possible. That one simple idea can effect HUGE changes in your relationship with your kids. Sometimes I get so busy, so caught up in the logistics of managing this busy household, that I drift into scolding mode. Ugh. Sandra’s work reminds me not to scold, but rather to listen, and to smile, and instead of barking out a kneejerk "No" to the child who proposes something, to ask myself "Why not?"

A small example. On Sunday after Mass, the three older girls and I were standing on the sidewalk outside church, waiting for Scott to pick us up. There are two entrances to the church parking lot, and I had positioned myself at the corner of a traffic lane in the lot, so that I could see both entrances. I didn’t know which way he’d come in. The girls wanted to cross to the other side of the lane. I didn’t want to, because then I would only be able to watch one of the entrances.

A month ago, all wrapped up in my brisk busy-ness, I might have simply said no—offering no explanation.

A week ago, with my renewed focus on saying yes and, well, being nice (the busy me is not always the nice me), I might have said, "Sorry, gang; if we cross over there, we won’t be able to see Daddy coming."

A day ago, with my wits sharpened and my desire to be connected and happy with my children renewed by an immersion in unschooling belief, I asked myself, "Why shouldn’t they cross the lane? I can stay here and watch for Scott. Anyway, even if I don’t stand here, it’s not like he won’t find us. It’s not a big place. Why do I need to watch for him at all? What was I thinking? Or rather, why wasn’t I thinking?"

So I said, "Sure!"

And guess what? Scott found us just fine.

Oooh, that pesky auto-response! It is so easy for a mother’s default setting to be NO. But truly, so unnecessary too.

About the same time I went poking around Sandra’s site, I treated myself to a copy of her book, Moving a Puddle, which is a collection of essays she wrote for homeschooling publications, message boards, and other places. I’d read some of them before, but many of them were new to me and it’s nice to have them all in a book I can curl up with or tuck in my bag. I got halfway through the book and had found so much I wanted to talk about that I simply had to order a copy for my pal Eileen in Virginia, Wonderboy’s godmother and my crony in unschooly Charlotte Masonishness. (Or is that Charlotte Masony unschoolishness?) She received it a few days ago and we’ve racked up quite the tasty phone bill, discussing and enthusing every day since she opened the package.

I feel downright invigorated, and I didn’t even know I needed invigorating.

Of course this begs the question: if low tide is so fabulous, why not stay there forever? Why have high-tide times at all? That’s the question I am continually examining (see this post: Accidental v. On-Purpose Learning), and will be pondering again this summer.

*Turns out there are over FIVE hundred pages at Sandra’s site, and that’s just the unschooling arm of it; she’s got other sections, too. 500! I told you it was vast!

A Low-Tide Day

We all slept late this morning. Scott had taken Jane to a Padres game last night, which pushed bedtime back for everyone, and I don’t think I opened my eyes before 7:30. Nice.

The baby was sorely in need of a bath. She hates baths. I wound up with three other kids in the bathroom trying to coax a smile out of our screaming princess; she is such a jolly baby that it tears everyone up to see her in distress. But she survived, and it turns out her feet are actually a sort of pink color. Who knew?

Jane kept an eye on the two little ones while I grabbed a shower for myself (bless you, Jane). When I got out, I found Rose tucked into my bed, reading Jane of Lantern Hill—a family favorite, and the book from which Jane gets her blog alias. She looked so comfy I would have liked to climb right in beside her and possibly steal the book. The part where Jane encounters the circus lion? It makes me laugh out loud, every single time.

But the baby summoned me to the living room, where I found Jane sprawled out with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Some of her best friends have just completed a production of this play, and Jane wants to learn some bits by heart so as to join in the quoting fun the next time she sees them. We divvied up the parts and read a few scenes. Wonderboy perched between us, our own "little tricksy Puck," and amused us by echoing random bits of dialogue.

Titania: Full often hath she gossip’d by my side,
And sat with me on Neptune’s yellow sands—


Titania: Marking the embarked traders on the flood—


My apologies, Mr. Shakespeare.

During all this, Beanie was The Flash up and down the hall about eighty times. She is very fast.

Then Rose finished her book and turned The Flash into a penguin for reasons unknown to me. Penguins romped in the girls’ room until lunchtime. The baby ate toast crumbs off the floor, and possibly an ant.

Jane worked on the songs she is preparing for her piano guild audition. Is it called an audition? Testing? I don’t know the terminology. I do know that there is a Highland Jig kicking its heels all around my brain, over and over and over.

All the Midsummer Night’s Dream enthusiasm (thank you, Alice!) spilled into a debate over which of Noel Streatfeild’s Shoes books has that play in it. Jane insisted it was Ballet Shoes, and she was right. Naturally this sent the day’s make-believe careening in a new direction, and I believe that Posy and Petrova Fossil are currently practicing their fairy roles in the room that was so recently Antarctica, while  the oldest Fossil girl, Pauline, is putting the finishing touches on a purple crocheted slipper. Puck is supervising. He thinks she should add some YELLOW!

Tweak Tweak

The nice thing about what I call "tidal homeschooling" is that it keeps the pressure off me. By now, I have learned that our family’s life seldom maintains a consistent rhythm longer than, say, four to six weeks. I have learned to enjoy the ebb and flow, the seasonal change. When monkeys toss their fabled wrenches into our works, as those naughty little monkeys are wont to do, I know it’s time to do a little tweaking.

Our "high tide" Charlotte Mason term chugged along nicely during February, but this month we went a bit off kilter. Scott’s back went out; we sold our old house; there were lots of distractions. We stuck to our rhythm of morning read-alouds and narrations, but last week I noticed the kids were squabbling with each other a lot and our lesson time was turning grumpish. That is always, always, a cue for me to shift gears. (And mix metaphors. Good heavens, I am haphazard with the metaphors today. Metaphor soup!)

I’ve mentioned before that my introduction to the idea of homeschooling was through the writings of John Holt and Sandra Dodd. Sandra is the guru of radical unschooling, and though I don’t agree with her take on everything, I have learned a great deal from her writings. Jane was a babe in arms when I began to ponder Sandra’s ideas about children learning naturally, through life experience, apart from school; and truth be told, it was Sandra who sold me on the lifestyle, way back when I was lurking on the homeschooling boards at AOL.

Now you know that while I have a big streak of unschoolishness in me, I’m not an unschooler per se; the Charlotte Mason method, applied according to her principles, is not unschooling. But Charlotte, too, envisioned the kind of happy and eager childhood that you hear about in the writings of the unschoolers. And that’s my main answer to the question, "Why do you homeschool your kids?" I say, "Because I think it’s a way to give kids a great education and a joyful childhood."

During our low-tide times, which occupy the larger portion of the year, we are like unschoolers. We live and play; we take care of our home together, the children and I; we have adventures and read lots of great books.

During our high-tide times, we keep doing all of the above, but I’m the one picking out the books, and I have the kids narrate a lot of the reading back to me, and we work more deliberately on mastering skills that take practice, like piano and math and Latin.

After the big adventure of moving to California, quickly followed by the big adventure that is Christmas, all of us were ready for some structure, some predictability. Hence our current lineup of studies a la Miss Mason. And as I said, our "term" (the term amuses us, ba dum bum) got off to a terrific start. Last week, when the fun started to fizzle, I gave some thought to what might need tweaking.

The first question I always ask myself when I’m assessing our family rhythm is "What would we be doing if we weren’t doing this?" If, for example, we weren’t spending three mornings a week reading and narrating, how would we spend them? We already have activities the kids love which take us out of the house twice a week, sometimes more; plus I’ve tried to be good about making spontaneous outings to the zoo or the park, exploring this vast new land we’ve moved to. I find that an important ingredient for family harmony is having plenty of mellow time at home. I am not, therefore, inclined to add any more activities to the mix right now.

Home time, then. The kids want to do more painting. Check. I can make that happen. They want to do more baking, and Easter is around the corner…Check. Jane has a flat of herb seedlings going, and all of us are in the mood to do some gardening ("all of us" as in the entire Northern hemisphere), so: Check.

Thus far in my ponderings, I have found nothing that really requires a tweak. We can do all those things any afternoon of the week; I just need to remember to DO them. (Check.)

But the grumpishness of the last week or so, that’s got to go. That’s where the tweaking comes in. What jumped out at me when I gave some thought to the question was that it has everything to do with the challenge of keeping five small people happy at once. (Make that four small people and one medium-sized person; Jane is really getting to be such a big kid.)

I decided I was trying to do too much all together. After traveling in a pack (both literally and figuratively) for the past nine months, my kids are ready for some one-on-one time with me. This can be as simple as making sure Beanie gets to help me wash dishes, or Jane gets me for a few screens of Absurd Math, her favorite online pastime. Rose wants to stretch out on my bed and chatter; she is my most introverted child, and I think she soaks up a lot of observations during the big group activities and wants my ear in which to pour them later on.

This morning I gave Rose a stack of books and helped her set up camp on my bed. She beamed. While Jane read a picture book to Beanie, I spent some one-on-one with Rose. Then I grabbed Bean for some cozy couch time, and we rediscovered Eric Carle’s Animals Animals together. Jane went off to her favorite corner of the craft room and read the books I’d given her; later she came back and narrated to me while I changed a few diapers, nursed the baby, unloaded the dishwasher. It was a good morning. The house is a mess but our moods are tweaky clean.   

The Tide Is Going Out

The other day a neighbor asked me if we take a spring break. I laughed and said, “Yes—the whole spring!”

We’ve had such a pleasant time the last couple of months, immersing ourselves in some good books and other forms of study. Now the outdoors is beckoning, and our daily rhythms are shifting. Spring is calling us, urging us out of the house. We are a bunch of Mary Lennoxes, unable to resist the rustlings and chirpings, the spikes of green, the gypsy winds.

I keep finding cups of water on the counter with tiny blossoms floating like fairy lily pads: the first bluets and starry white chickweed flowers. Chickweed, so Jane tells me, is an edible plant and quite tasty. (“Like sugar snap pea pods, Mom.”) She has begged me not to uproot the vast patch of it that has taken over a stretch of our backyard mulch bed, just uphill from the strawberries. Another weed, a purple-flowered plant the children call “cow parsley,” is popping up all over the lawn, much to their delight: they suck the nectar from the itty bitty orchid-like blossoms and proclaim it better than the honeysuckle they’ll seek out later in the summer.

Jane, who had been binging on math during the past three weeks—such a Math-U-See enthusiast is she that she devoured half of her new Pre-Algebra book in a month’s time—seems to have shifted her attentions to botany. I find myself tripping over her tattered copy of All About Weeds everywhere I go, and upstairs, the microscope is much in demand for the viewing of leaf cross sections. An experiment involving scarlet runner beans has become the centerpiece on the kitchen table.

Our oregano and thyme are greening back up, and the foxglove is quite large already. Daffodils are in glorious bloom on the slope at the edge of the yard, but I don’t venture down that hill often; the walk back up wipes me out these days. Such is the ninth month of pregnancy.

DoveA mourning dove is nesting above our front porch light. I can’t imagine how she tolerates the clamor, for this is the season of constant in-and-out. Red Virginia mud is every-where. (Please don’t look at my floors.) A great vat of mud has appeared in the backyard under the white pine, and someone painted the slide. This may account for the recent destruction of several pairs of pants.

My hyacinths bloomed yesterday, beating the forsythia for the first time. The crocuses and windflowers have been flaunting their sky colors for two weeks. It’s just about time to get our peas in the ground—our tradition is to plant them on St. Patrick’s Day.

So yes, we’re on spring break already, and it’ll last until summer.

This post is part of my series on Tidal Homeschooling.

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Tidal Homeschooling, Part 3

I found a major flaw in my metaphor.

I’ve been writing about what I call “tidal homeschooling,” the way my children experience an ebb and flow of alternating periods of deliberate study, directed by me, and periods of what is sometimes called “natural” learning but which I more often describe as “accidental” learning—the enormous quantities of facts and ideas children are wont to soak up when given time and freedom in which to do so. I’ve described the periods of structured study as our “high tide” times, when I charter a boat and lead my merry little crew on a fishing expedition in quest of a particular skill or subject, in contrast to our “low tide” times when they wander off, each in her own direction, to explore the shores and tide pools of the world, eager little beachcombers gathering sackfuls of treasure. Because of the high-tide voyages, I cannot accurately call us unschoolers; but because of the frequency and fruitfulness of our low-tide times, which sometimes last for months, I have shied away from various other home-education labels as well, finding more in common with the outlook of the unschoolers than with any other group. Since no label fit, I coined my own term which seems to aptly describe the rhythm and manner of learning that takes place in our family.

But I was mulling over this excellent post at The Common Room (subsequent mulling-over being the usual pleasant result of reading a Common Room post) and it struck me that my metaphor breaks down when I come to the beachcombing part.

“The adults in the child’s life,” writes the Headmistress, referencing Charlotte Mason,

“have the ‘power of appeal and inspiration,’ and the responsibility to act ‘the part of guide, philosopher and friend’ to these young people with wonderful minds but no knowledge to speak of.

“Or… we can just abandon them to their uninformed judgment about what’s important and what isn’t, leave them to their own devices, and allow them to believe that their own judgment about what is and is not important to know is just as well informed and solid an opinion as Mortimer Adler’s, Thomas Jefferson’s, Peter’s, Paul’s, or…. yours. Leaving children to pick up what scraps of knowledge they think to ask about, willy nilly, is not doing them any favors. It isn’t respectful of their situation as newcomers to the world or to the adults they will grow up to be. And if we don’t do our job as the adults in their lives when they are small, the adults they grow up to be will have a malnourished background upon which to build.’ “

For a brief moment, the unschooler in me bristled defensively. Not that I think the Headmistress was denouncing unschooling with this statement—she has made gracious remarks about the philosophy in the comments section here on Bonny Glen and elsewhere. But this statement jumped out at me: “Leaving children to pick up what scraps of knowledge they think to ask about, willy nilly…” Is this, I wondered, exactly the sort of experience I have enthusiastically hailed as our low-tide times? Allowing children the freedom to learn by undirected exploration of the world? To be sure, what I have witnessed and described as the collection of a sackful of treasures is a rich and bountiful harvest of knowledge, not an aimless scrounging after scraps. And yet…is there a willy-nilliness to their education? Am I—are unschoolers—leaving too much up to chance?

Then it occurred to me that I’ve overlooked an aspect of my beachcombing scenario. I’m the one strewing the beach with treasures for the children to discover. You see, this is where the metaphor breaks down. Sometimes, yes, I am simply the person bringing the children to the metaphorical strand and turning them loose to explore. But other times—a lot of the time, when I think about it—I have visited the beach in advance and filled the tide pools with interesting creatures; I have hidden the treasures behind the dunes.

This strewing is something unschooling parents talk a great deal about. It is the same thing Charlotte Mason meant when she said, “Education is a life. That life is sustained on ideas…we must sustain a child’s inner life with ideas as we sustain his body with food,” urging parents and teachers to provide hearty feasts of ‘living’ books and firsthand encounters with the natural world. Of course, Miss Mason recommended regular and orderly mealtimes, while an unschooler would probably say that the human mind thrives best when allowed to graze. But in both cases, we see a committed, thoughtful parent doing the shopping and preparing the food. I am doing just as much preparation (to jump metaphors again) during our low-tide times as I am during high tide. Whether I am piloting the boat on a fishing trip—as I am doing now with our studies of German and Shakespeare—or whether I am hiding bits of sea glass in the sand for a wandering child to discover (or not), my role is indeed that of “guide, philosopher, and friend.”

And so I see that my metaphor needs tweaking. And I continue to chew on these ideas (with apologies to the gentle Headmistress for running off with her post in my mouth), which—like everything connected with Charlotte Mason that I have come across in the past ten years—provide such stimulating nourishment for my own mind.

At any rate, the tidal homeschooling metaphor is not a method; it does not shape what we do. It is useful insofar as it is a way of answering the many variations on the question, “How do you do it?”—which is to say, “What does homeschooling look like in your home?” This is a question homeschoolers are constantly asking one another, and it is a root question in many discussions between homeschoolers and folks whose children go to school. And perhaps a better way of answering it is to apply the Writers’ Rule: Show, don’t tell. I think this is why we love blogs and discussion boards: we crave these peeks into other homes.

One of my favorite “peeks through the window” is Elizabeth Foss’s lovely book, Real Learning: Education in the Heart of the Home. Here we have an entire book full of examples both practical and lyrical to the “How do you do it?” question. The Common Room family lives in another house full of enticing windows. This post at Cottage Blessings is a glimpse into a cottage that is truly a blessed place—so much so that I am daily tempted to pack up my little brood and move right in. (Wouldn’t Alice be surprised!)

Other recent peeks-through-the-window I have enjoyed:

Castle of the Immaculate
Living Without Schooling
Relaxed Homeskool
Mental Multivitamin
Every Waking Hour
Karen Edmisten

And these books:

Homeschooling With Gentleness by Suzie Andres
Homeschooling Our Children, Unschooling Ourselves by Alison McKee
A Charlotte Mason Companion by Karen Andreola—like Real Learning, this is a book I return to over and over
• The about-to-be-published Catholic Homeschool Companion, edited by Maureen Wittman and Rachel Mackson—a glimpse through many windows!

What the Tide Brought In (and Carried Out, and Brought Back In, etc.)

In my recent post on “tidal homeschooling,” I mentioned Rose’s determination to learn ancient Greek. This has been a driving interest for her for about a year and a half now. (She was seven last August.) Like all good drives, this one has involved frequent rest stops. She sets her own pace, and she’s the one to decide when to get behind the wheel again. As a passenger on this trip, I have to say it has been (and continues to be) a most delightful journey so far.

Her fascination with ancient Greece began with the fabulous Jim Weiss. His story tapes, “Greek Myths” and “She and He: Adventures in Mythology,” have been favorites with all my girls. Rose especially was captivated by the stories of Atalanta, Hercules, and Perseus. Observing her eager interest, I pulled our trusty D’aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths off the shelves, and Rose read it until it literally fell to pieces in her hands. Like the children in Linnets and Valerians, her imagination was stirred by the bright islands in the wine-dark sea, the “mountains crowned with ruined palaces, statues and temples and shrines…”

A burning interest in mythology seems quite common among children of Jane’s age; I’ve known many a six- or seven-year-old who couldn’t get enough of these tales of high adventure and meddlesome deities. It is certainly an easy appetite to feed. We scoured the library for picture books; we explored a website chronicling the lives of a fictional Spartan family and their counterparts in Athens. We read long passages from Padraic Colum’s The Odyssey, and Rose begged several re-readings of selected chapters from Hillyer’s A Child’s History of the World.

Thus far, the path we traveled was much the same as the one I’d followed with Jane a few years earlier—and, I daresay, quite similar to the roads followed by many a parent of a child this age. Then Rose veered off onto a side route.

“I want to learn ancient Greek,” she announced. “I need you to find me a book. The kind with lots of blanks to write in.”

She meant a workbook. I don’t like workbooks. They make me shudder and look for the exits. Jane has always felt the same way. But for Rose, my orderly, methodical Rose, an empty workbook is a treasure, a blank coin waiting to be engraved. Obligingly, I searched. A few minutes at Anne Zeise’s invaluable website led me to a promising resource: a series called Hey Andrew! Teach Me Some Greek! With Rose panting at my side, I ordered the first level.

As I said, this was well over a year ago. She was very young—is still very young—and I certainly had no plans to commence the study of a classic language—one with a different alphabet, no less—with a six-year-old child. But it’s what Rose wanted. Emphatically, urgently, relentlessly. And that’s what we do. We follow our children’s interests, all of us learning as we go. My job is to outfit her for the journey—or to return to my tidal homeschooling metaphor, to provide the ship for the fishing expedition.

Right now she is about halfway through the second level of the Hey Andrew books. Here’s how she likes it to work. Every day in our home, there is a two-hour period of quiet time. The girls go to separate rooms: Beanie to their bedroom (they all still share a room); Jane to the sewing room; and Rose to my bedroom. I put Wonderboy down for his nap and take a half-hour lunch-and-email break, a welcome hush after our busy mornings. Then I read a story to Beanie, and then I spend 30 to 45 minutes of one-on-one time with first Jane, then Rose. Quite often, Rose chooses to spend her mommy solo time working on her Greek.

What she likes is for me to sit beside her on my bedroom floor, knitting while she does a lesson in the book. Often the entire half hour will pass in silence while she doggedly fills in her beloved blanks. Other times, she’ll lay down her pencil and chatter away to me, or ask me to practice her flash cards with her (flash cards are another thing that make me shudder and fill Rose with delight). She likes me to look over each page as it is finished; she jots little notes at the bottom to record the time and day.

Sometimes she’ll want to do Greek during quiet time every day for a week. Just as often, she wants me to read to her—we’re halfway through Old Yeller right now—while she nibbles a piece of candy. Sometimes she’ll lay aside the Greek books for weeks at a stretch. This is why I call it tidal homeschooling. The tide carries this interest in and out. I’m not imposing these studies upon her; there is no pressure to complete the book in a certain amount of time, or even to complete it at all.

And that’s why I think she remains as interested in the subject as ever. If I were to sit her down and the table every day and say, “Now it’s time for your Greek lesson,” I know without a doubt that sooner or later her eagerness would have given way to reluctance. “Now listen, honey,” I could say. “You wanted to learn this and Mommy is going to help you fulfill that goal.” But what if a child’s goal changes? What if she didn’t have any goal in mind to begin with? I doubt Rose said to herself, at the age of six, “I want to attain proficiency in ancient Greek.” I think she said, “Ooh, this stuff is interesting, I want to know more.”

I know some parents might worry that allowing a child to start a project (or workbook) and cast it aside when interest fades will encourage habits of laziness or irresponsibility. You don’t want to give a kid the idea it’s ok to abandon ship as soon as you find out how much work is required of a sailor, right? But these fears don’t trouble me. I find that there are plenty of other areas of life for the establishment of good habits of discipline and follow-through: household chores, thank-you notes, pet care. I don’t need to harness a child’s interest in ancient Greece to a plow so that she can get practice making nice, neat furrows. My own interests wax and wane; why shouldn’t hers?

And suppose the interest dies a sudden death—then what? What if the Greek workbook gets shoved under my bed and Rose never mentions it again? Well, then that’s what happens. And that’s fine. The tide will bring in something else.

It always, always does.

Tidal Homeschooling

Click here for the master list of all my tidal homeschooling posts.

People often ask me what kind of homeschoolers we are: Classical? Charlotte Mason? Eclectic? Delight-Directed? Unschoolers? How, they want to know, does learning happen in our home? Am I in charge, or do I let the kids lead the way? And what about math?

Over the years I have written with enthusiasm about the Charlotte Mason method (which is highly structured) and unschooling (which is not). These educational philosophies seem to have intertwined themselves in my home, so that the what we do—read great books, study nature, dive deeply into history, immerse ourselves in picture study and composer study—is highly influenced by Charlotte’s writings and their modern counterparts; and the how we do it—through strewing and conversation and leisurely, child-led exploration—is influenced by the writings of John Holt, Sandra Dodd, and other advocates of unschooling. But I couldn’t say we’re "real CMers" because I don’t carry out Miss Mason’s recommendations in anything like the structured manner she prescribed; and I probably do too much behind-the-scenes nudging for us to be considered "real unschoolers."
The truth is, I couldn’t find any label that completely fit my family, so I made up my own. I call us "Tidal Learners" because the ways in which we approach education here change with the tide. Now, this doesn’t mean that we’re flighty or inconsistent, changing direction haphazardly. We aren’t Fiddler Crab Homeschoolers. What I mean is that there is a rhythm to the way learning happens here; there are upbeats and downbeats; there is an ebb and flow.

We have high tide times when I charter a boat and we set sail with purpose and direction, deliberately casting our net for a particular type of fish. On these excursions I am the captain; I have charted the course. But the children are eager crew members because they know I value their contributions. And also I provide generous rations. No stale or moldy bread on this ship: no dull textbooks, no dry workbooks. My sailors sink their teeth into fresh, hearty bread slathered with rich butter and tart-sweet jam. Well fed and proud of their work, my little crew exhilarates in the voyage. Every journey is an adventure.

And we have low tide times when we amble along the shore, peering into tide pools and digging in the sand, or just relaxing under beach umbrella. The children wander off in directions of their own choosing; they dig and poke and ponder. One of them may crouch over a rock pool and stay there for days, studying, watching. Another will run headlong into the waves, thrilling to the pull on her legs, splashing, leaping, diving under and emerging triumphantly farther out. Or a child might prefer to stay close by my side, drawing stick pictures in the sand or building a castle. All of these things may be happening at once. Sometimes it looks as though nothing is happening: there’s just an array of bodies on beach towels. But oh, the nourishment there is in a time of quiet reflection while the soul soaks up the sunlight!

Our family enjoys both kinds of learning—the heady adventure of the well-planned fishing trip, with a goal and a destination in mind, and the mellower joys of undirected discovery during weeks at the metaphorical beach. Around here, the low tide times happen much more often than the high tide times, and often I find that the children catch more fish, so to speak, when the tide is out. Beachcombing reveals many treasures. But they do enjoy their excursions with Cap’n Mom. I really believe joy is the key, the element we breathe whether the tide is in or out. It’s the wind that propels our ship; it’s the tangy breeze that cools and refreshes us on the beach.

In the coming days I’ll write about how the metaphor plays out in our house on a practical level. "So what do you do all day?" is a question I’m often asked, and since every day is different, it’s easiest to answer that question with snapshots and specifics. Right now, this week, we’re spending our mornings on the boat. We’re studying sign language and German; we’re enjoying a Robert Frost poem every day; we’re reading a book of English history together as well as the oft-mentioned The Penderwicks. Jane spends time on her self-prescribed drawing exercises every day, and my funny Rose continues her dogged pursuit of ancient Greek. (More on that another day). I’ve plotted a rough course that should bring us back into port in early April, when the newest member of our crew will arrive. And then I expect the tide will go out for quite a long time. It’s always a low tide time for us in spring, even when there isn’t a new baby. I’m laying in a good supply of books to read from the shade of my umbrella, but I imagine the children will spend most of their time off exploring the shore.

Read more about Tidal Homeschooling herehere, and here.