Finding Home/Homeschool

::  Blasting off & diving in!  ::
A personal essay about finding home & launching our homeschool

One of the first projects I assigned myself when we started homeschooling was to come up with an exciting, personal name & logo for our homeschool. Rocket Creek Academy was soon launched. Its name was inspired by a large, historic stream in our rural county that just so happens to ramble through our backyard. We have come to love that old creek. Most days it is a gentle, quiet brook filled with frogs and snakes and lush ferns. But when it rains it provides a magnificent show complete with powerful waterfalls and deep swirling pools. Dear husband built a lovely footbridge so we can easily cross without disturbing its waters. The bridge is nearly twenty feet across to give plenty of clearance — it actually spans a rather steep trench — and often serves as an extension of the kids’ play fort area. Over the years, that simple wooden bridge has been magically transformed into a space shuttle, a pirate ship, a castle — it’s our very own grand stage.

That creek causes some headaches too. We have some serious yard erosion issues that we are working on back there as is typical after major storms. Also thanks to our creek, we have more than our fair share of mosquitoes in that area during the summer. And as previously mentioned there are the snakes. But I wouldn’t change the landscape one bit. It seems to me to be a great backyard for childhood explorations. Of course we work to maintain an orderly front lawn with mulch beds filled with ivy and dogwoods, lavender and herbs and a few hearty rose bushes. But for the most part we have left majority of our three acres untamed and we encourage Mother Nature do her thing. This is how we prefer things — simple and natural, wild and meandering, fertile for healthy growth of native plantings. When we look out our windows during the thickest part of summer it looks like we live in a tree house, and when it snows it is like a winter wonderland out there. It just seems to fit our family’s style and needs. We plan to make this our home for quite a while, and we embrace the simple joys and noise and insanity of raising a family out here together. For us, this is a time for nurturing and growth and it seems that the trappings of a rural life are certainly a good fit.

I was a 70s-80s kid who grew up playing with Star Wars figures when I wasn’t out running wild and free or riding my bike around the neighborhood with my sister. Back then, there was really no such thing as play dates — we knew our neighborhood boundaries and were free to be as long as we were in by dinner. I remember consuming plenty of Slurpees and playing way too much Pac-Man.

My parents moved us around the Southeast a lot — shuffling around four states and seven different school systems, and this was all before I entered high school. I don’t remember too much about school, except that I didn’t like it very much — always being the new kid was really difficult. And because I was constantly switching school systems, feeling anchored or being confident in my academic life was an ongoing challenge. I was more focused on acclimating and on navigating social waters, trying to fit in. But I cherish plenty of my childhood memories too — I certainly had a healthy sense of adventure and eventually toughened up to new and challenging experiences.

After a lot of work, I am now more thankful for my childhood, and am learning to have gratitude for my parents’ choices. I recognize that those childhood scars, as well as the success stories, help to shape the person I am now. But more, I understand now that I am responsible for giving myself what I need, filling in those gaps that I feel that I missed out on, and for providing what I feel is the best choice for my own family. My hope is that our kids will perhaps share that same forgiving & understanding outlook when they look back on their childhood (and how we screwed them up in our own particular way!)

Needless to say, I’m not a big fan of nomadic life, so my husband and I chose to make Virginia our home. This is where we decided to put down roots as soon as we got married over 15 years ago. (We met here, back in the day — we’ve been together since the Jurassic period.) So here we are now, working together to raise up our family at home, and although the times have changed, and these days scheduled enrichment classes or play dates are now the rule of thumb, I still hope to provide our kids with a healthy taste of freedom and adventure that I enjoyed in my childhood, but without the gypsy baggage.

Not to mention, there are lots of Star Wars figures around here (and yes, many of my faded old originals have survived and are now in their toy box!), there are tons of Legos underfoot, dolls in the bath tubs, and a huge collection of books scattered around the house. There is music. There is art. But mostly, there is that nice big yard and trees and a dog. And yes, even a picket fence. There is bike riding and bubbles, sidewalk chalk and fairy houses. Recess remains our favorite subject — there is a lot of raw, natural learning in making a proper mud pie or by kicking a ball around. And some days, we even like to waste a lot of precious time doing absolutely nothing. When I hear, “mom, I’m bored…” (which happens less and less these days), well, to me that’s a good thing. Boredom stretches the imagination. Without it, those mud pies would never get made.

We read a lot around here and make plenty of crafts. There’s some silly memory songs, some journal writing/kid blogging, occasional Netflix movies, some computer time, games and math. Little bit of this and that. We are relaxed-eclectic with a growing curiosity about unschooling, and we pepper in a healthy dose of music & the arts.  Ultimately we are flexible about our approach and although we have a schedule and solid goals to meet, we take each day as it comes. Over the years, we have enjoyed a good amount of classes: theatre, choir, violin, piano, gymnastics, dance, fencing, soccer, basketball, swimming, art, science camp, gymnastics camp, theatre camp, rock climbing, horseback riding, tennis, and chess. We also still get excited about the library!

2011-12 academic year makes our second full year of homeschooling. YoungMerlin is now in 3rd grade, MissSassafras (who now wishes to be called MissLadybug) is in 2nd, and Grasshopper is our curious and spunky preschooler. I use the term “preschooler” loosely because school isn’t something we identify with around here. At these young ages, grading does not exist for us, testing is minimal only to fulfill requirements, and learning opportunities are everywhere. We have found our footing now, and although it is not always smooth sailing, we are proud to find ourselves navigating these waters.

We started out in public school for a while. Our two older kids are 18 months apart in age, and both of them attended some morning preschool programs when the time came. YoungMerlin wasn’t a huge fan of the sensory-overload/chaotic classroom life, so school was a challenge at times. He experienced the highs and lows of kindergarten and we stuck with it all through half of first grade, before we finally pulled out. MissSassafras (aka MissLadybug) stayed through to complete her kindergarten year — we made sure she had the closure she needed before we bid our farewell to public school. And with those few short years, we realized that it wasn’t the right path for our family.

I had toured six private schools during that time: three were Montessori schools that just didn’t quite fit for us; another private school offered a democratic approach with a Gardner-Piaget-ReggioEmilia philosophy (and was also insanely gorgeous and inspiring) but at the time felt a bit experimental and the campus was under renovation; one school was all prestigious-academic-expensive; and there was one that was, well, not-so-fabulous.

I did a lot of research, reading, and soul searching which all quickly led me back to where we started with our original parenting philosophy when they were younger. We had naturally gravitated towards an attachment-parenting style from the very beginning and we enjoyed preschool at home and simply taking the occasional fun class or park visits. That is until I felt the pressure, mostly from our pediatrician, to “socialize them properly” in a part-time morning pre-K program. This all quickly led to testing and kindergarten prep pressures, and navigating those strange new peer group waters that come along with those early years. Learning how to sit still in a classroom setting, learning how to learn, learning how to fit into the institution of public school, surviving the social pecking orders — it takes a lot out of a kid, and saps energy away from the family. I could harp on about budget cuts and crowded classrooms and bullying and learning styles, but at the end of the day we chose homeschooling because it simply worked better for us. Once the kids were out of the classroom setting, there were immediate changes. The sensory issues fell away, the volume was turned down on the outside noise. Added bonus: fewer sick days and no more annoying SpongeBob Square-whatever influences.

So here we are: 2011-12 = year two of our homeschool. Year one was spent de-schooling (the kids) and ramping up (me) by reading everything in sight. Then there was my spending way too much time and energy on exploring various resources, reading guidebooks about all the possible styles and methods, gathering way too many materials and supplies. I actually kind of geeked out on the art supplies, but that’s ok. I also signed them up for an abundance of classes and enrichment experiences as previously mentioned, because honestly I didn’t want to go cold turkey, and I wanted to help them explore and stay active as we figured out our new path.

Our schedule feels right now, we have a nice rhythm and balance. But when we first started out, I overshot the mark just a bit. I attempted to replicate school at home, complete with a converted playroom as our designated school zone that was decorated with maps and science posters and colorful paper bunting. We opened our morning with the pledge of allegiance, and sun salutations, and a morning meeting, *and* circle time. That brought us basically straight into snack time, then scattered attempts at math time, followed swiftly by language arts, and soon followed by a brief scheduled recess, then I would cram in some music and history, everything scheduled, so-much-to-do-so-little-time-go-go-go-moving-to-next-planned-lesson-NOW. It wasn’t pretty. It was intense, and it wasn’t us. That school room approach lasted a few months until we all lost our marbles. We chose to move away from the schoolish mindset (away from thinking that learning takes place in the classroom during school hours and when the bell rang we were done learning for the day.) So why would I push to recreate school mode at home?

We also tried the secular co-op thing for a few weeks, and again, not such a great fit for us. Then the pendulum swung in the complete opposite direction when I read about the wonders & joys of unschooling and suddenly we were outside with our dog and nature journals, dropping the academic schedule to focus instead on all things creative with tons of field trips and playdates. But that pendulum isn’t swinging as wildly these days. Mostly because I know I have more reading and thinking and growing to do. For now, we seem to have happily found our middle ground.

All along I have been a member of an active homeschoolers’ email group here in Virginia which was a guiding light for me. As we continue on our journey, I am finding that there isn’t a right or wrong way to do this, that every homeschool experience is unique and can be tailored to your kids’ learning styles, and that once you take mandatory testing out of the equation then there is no such thing as an education-emergency. We took a year to marinate in all that is new and scary and amazing as homeschoolers, we got our feet wet and along the way we eventually settled into a nice groove. And if your family is making the transition from public school to homeschool, then I recommend you take that time to decompress, to breathe, to read, to research and ask questions and talk with other homeschoolers. Take the time to really explore with your kids and enjoy all these new experiences together.

There are so many choices, and there is a wealth of support and opportunity. You just have to tap into it. Over this past year I eventually learned to stop obsessing about finding the perfect curriculum. I learned that one good homeschool conference a year is something I need in order to refresh and recharge my batteries. I learned that our rhythms are seasonal and we tend to burn out in the spring (by the way, our spring break lasts longer than a week.) Personally, I learned that I am more of a mentor or partner than a teacher, and am very excited to realize that I still have an appetite for learning too! I learned that kids will want to learn no matter what because it is a part of human nature. I learned that it is helpful to find a tribe and even more helpful to mix & mingle a bit with every type of homeschool style — whether it is classical or unschooling, religious or secular, through living books or by taking a bunch of classes — it is all an opening to experience the richness and opportunities that this type of educational choice has to offer. I am so proud to find ourselves here now, proud to call ourselves homeschoolers. I am grateful to all those families that paved the way before us, and enjoy taking the time and opportunity to learn from them as we grow.

We are taking things one step at a time. We follow our own rhythms at our own pace, especially if there is a lot of interest in a certain subject.

What it boils down to is that we are exploring together and having a grand old time. It isn’t always easy, it isn’t perfect. And like that big old creek in our backyard, sometimes the waters flow slow and steady, sometimes there are ripples, and every once in a while there are whirlpools of surging growth. And I wouldn’t change a thing.

::  Rocket Creek Academy’s schedule, curriculum choices + favorite resources  ::