Thursday, May 29, 2014

Homeschooling Abroad: What Worked and What Didn't

The library at Wimpole Estate. Can you imagine this as a homeschool room???

I've been thinking lately about the academic year in retrospect, mulling over what's gone well for us and what … well, hasn't been quite as successful. 

First, the bad news. 

- Classical Conversations Memory Work. We started the year with great intentions of keeping up with the Cycle 2 memory work alongside our community back home. I downloaded the songs, and put the practice on the kids' daily lists. But without the momentum and accountability of our weekly meetings, and without the daily car rides that made absorption of the material by listening and repetition so convenient, we pretty much fell off the apple cart. Let's just say that no one came close to mastery this year. 

- Science. None of the kids studied science in any rigor, and I had hoped that especially Ian would. But to be honest, aside from nature walks, reading together, and, uh, digging in the dirt, this is a subject I tend to outsource. And I didn't find that opportunity here.

- Latin and/or Foreign Language. Um. We went to Spain and France? 

- Support for Me. On the one hand, I have enjoyed the simpler pace we've kept here, and that includes the relief from the mostly self-imposed pressure brought on my comparisons with others. At home, I sometimes struggle against the feeling that other families are accomplishing so much more, are so much more efficient with their days than we are, etc. Not so here. Folks tend to be more relaxed, which is nice. On the other hand, home educating families with an academic bent, and especially those who subscribe to a classical Christian philosophy of education, have not been easy for me to find here.  I've had no one to really bat challenging ideas around with, and my brain sometimes gets lonely. 

Now, the good news!

- Literature. It's no secret that this has always been our forté. But our read-aloud habit had been slipping at home, and this year we made it a daily priority. Every afternoon the girls and I sit down, often with a cup of tea and a bowl of popcorn, for a chapter or two of something. Off the top of my head, we've read: 

The Chronicles of Narnia
The Iron Man
Winter Holiday
The Phantom Tollbooth
Hinds' Feet on High Places
The Silver Sword
The Wind in the Willows (currently)

We've also listened to a few audiobooks, including The Door in the Wall, Kensuke's Kingdom, Why the Whales Came, Swallows and Amazons, The Best of Our Island Story, and Stories from Shakespeare. And we've held a few parent/child book discussion meetings, which went quite well. 

- History. All three of my kids have enjoyed and cheerfully kept up with their self-paced course in Medieval and Renaissance History from Veritas Press.  It's fun to hear them make connections to things we see in real life -- and when we went to Paris, Eliza was quite eager to see Notre Dame Cathedral because she'd learned about it in her course. 

- Experiential Learning. Obviously, there have been great field trips. This was one of the things we were most looking forward to about our year here, and this island has not disappointed. (Nor has its neighboring continent. :-)) And the train delivers us into central London, with its seemingly inexhaustible opportunities, in 50 minutes. But just living here with the resources of a fairly generous, centuries-old university at our doorstep has been such a treasure. The kids attend monthly meetings of an Astronomy Club hosted by the Institute of Astronomy. There's a monthly Saturday morning hands-on maths group. The fall brings us the Festival of Ideas (two weeks of mostly-free humanities events hosted by the University all over town, some for children and some for adults, and the spring the Science Festival (same thing for science)). We have free museums that run educational workshops from time to time, or just offer a chance for a leisurely drop-in-and-browse. I find myself wondering why our University back home doesn't offer more of these resources to the public, but in the meantime, we're gratefully soaking it all up. 

- The local homeschooling community. It's smaller than the Austin homeschooling population, of course, but still quite vibrant, and because we tend to run into the same people at various activities, the kids quickly made friends. Activities like drama, yoga, multi-sports, nature conservation, social swimming, the Lego Group that Ian started, and the occasional hands-on history or science days were enriching in themselves, but also helped to cement relationships. I know we were a high-risk family to engage with, since we're leaving soon, so I feel so grateful to those families who were willing to invest their hearts in us. 

- Poetry. We kept up with memorization as part of our morning breakfast routine. Guess what an unsung benefit of poetry memorization is? When you're pedaling along on your bicycle, leaning into the wind with a tired eight year old behind you, poetry serves as an excellent distraction tool. 
       Me: I wandered lonely as a cloud!
      Caroline: That floats on high o'er vales and hills! (pant, pant)
      Me: When all at once I saw a crowd!
      Caroline: A host of golden daffodils! 

Thank you, Mr. William Wordsworth. 

Oh, and the girls' cello and violin lessons were a blessing as well, because of the truly lovely teachers we found -- and, let's not forget, the fun of cycling through Cambridge with instruments slung over my back. 

I was listening to a really wonderful Circe Institute podcast with Christopher Perrin, entitled "On Finishing the School Year Strong," and came away with two thoughts that can transport nicely, I think, across the Atlantic Ocean for next year. 

One is that curriculum is never meant to be our master, so that we measure our academic year's success by whether the kids finished the book or program, and feel rushed and behind if they aren't on track. It's simply a tool to help us teach and learn what we deem really important -- and true learning can't be rushed. It allows time for contemplation and reflection in an atmosphere of joy. (And around here, that means it allows time for turning pajamas into doll clothes, painting with watercolors, and building complex Lego structures as well.)

The other is the idea of "Multum non multa" -- much, not many. Instead of trying to cram a breadth of subjects into our days and weeks, we need to do less, but do it more deeply. Simplify. Pay attention to seasons of learning, rather than trying to cover everything (with one eye on what your friends are doing) in nine months and than arriving, exhausted, in May with kids (and parents!) who just want to zone out around the pool and not think about another math problem for the next three months. We need to teach, and model learning ourselves, from an atmosphere of rest, as Sarah puts it so wisely and beautifully in her series and new book

No matter where we live, I still have so far to go on this journey. Will you join me in it? 


  1. I loved this one, Hannah! Thank you for posting both what worked and what didn't work! I have had similiar experience with science. That is sooooo not my forté. :P Johanna

  2. This sounds like a wonderful year!! Don't even begin to sweat the "bad" news. This has been a transformational year for your whole family, and not finishing memory work or science or foreign language is *nothing* compared to what you *have* done. AMAZING!

    1. Thanks, my friend! Your words have weight to them, and I appreciate your encouragement!

  3. Thanks for sharing a perspective on home-schooling. May I ask if you are concerned for your kid's science and math educations? Seems like your forte is in literature and history so your kids are naturally getting a better exposure to that area. But subjects that are not your strong suits, how do you supplement those deficiencies? I'm not convinced if just going to science museums/festivals and dig up worms in the backyard are enough, Ian seems to be at the age where he needs to be exposed to a more structured science curriculum on a regular basis. Fundamentals are important.

    It seems like your family is having a wonderful experience in England, kudos for your immersion in the English culture. Sounds like a rewarding experience for everyone.

    1. Hi there,

      I'm not sure of your name, but I'm happy to address your question. I probably should have clarified in my post that this is not an exhaustive list of everything we did this year academically. I didn't cover spelling, handwriting, writing, etc. So yes, I can see how it looks like there are a few gaping holes!
      Ian uses Teaching Textbooks, a math curriculum that he's able to work through on his own with regular check-ins from his dad. He has completed a year and a half's worth of lessons since August, and is roughly at grade level. This year my girls have both used the Life of Fred math books, which are quirky and fun and use lots of real world examples, and they do regular math drills.
      As for science, yes, if this stint were longer than one year, I would be concerned that Ian was missing out on some more rigorous science (as the post mentioned, I was hoping for that opportunity since I know it is not my forte, nor can I offer him the resources of a lab course here in our home). I did try to enroll him in a hands-on science class, but it didn't have enough people to "make." So, we made do with the more casual opportunities you referred to. But I was OK with this because last year in Austin he took a structured physical science course with a lab component, and next year he will again be doing more structured science as part of the homeschooling co-op he's registered for.
      My goal is to spread a well-balanced and abundant feast before them, but not to be anxious if I can't offer all of the dishes all the time. Math, reading and writing will always happen, no matter where we are -- as you said, fundamentals are important. With the other subjects, we fill in as much as we can as available resources (and sometimes interest) allow.
      Thanks for asking!

  4. homeschooling abroad is a good idea and anyone can do. I know that this is a golden your for your family and family member. Thanks for this sharing info's and I will come in this site to read something new.