6 thoughts about our learning lifestyle (fine, call it homeschooling if you want)

We finished the third grade and kindergarten today, and while I don’t pretend to be an expert in any stretch of the imagination, we’ve totally come a long way, baby.

From my early forays in to “homeschooling” during the preschool years (which involved stuff pretty much every parent does just by being a parent) to a rather rough first grade year with my oldest (which led to my putting her in a traditional school for second grade), this past school year was definitely our best yet. And since we finished today, I’ve been a bit reflective.

Kids playing school
(We don’t really do it like this. The kids are just playing school.)

I keep meaning to write a post about our favorite learning tools, particularly the ones we plan to take with us on the road, but in an effort to procrastinate on that effort, I thought I’d share a few thoughts I’ve come to embrace about homeschooling—what it is and what it isn’t.

This isn’t me being an expert—this is me being a fellow parent in the trenches, remembering this stuff because it’s not years behind me—it’s minutes. (Oh, and just so you know, I tend to take a classical unschooling approach, which pretty much makes no sense, but it works for us, so there you go.) Here are my observations, in random order.

1. You really don’t need to do much for kindergarten. Really.

My middle kid finished his kindergarten year today, and I’ve come to learn that at this stage, you hardly need to do anything to make learning happen. Seeing as kindergarten isn’t even a requirement in most American states (though not everyone knows this) and isn’t even a thing in many countries, this stage is basically prep for a love of learning.

Reed explored reading, writing, and math this year… and that’s pretty much it. He joined his sister with extra stuff that interested him, like geography, science, and history, but it was only because he wanted to. His day involved a few minutes of handwriting (a tougher skill what with his fine motor delay), basic maths like number ordering, counting, addition, and subtraction, and reading out loud one book per day. Yep, he became a reader. We’ve got ourselves a reading Reeder. This routine took about 30 minutes to an hour per day, tops.

In fact, I’d argue that at this stage of age 5-6, the most important thing is exposure to tons of delightful books—and if they show signs of reading readiness, a gentle approach to phonics (but no big deal if they’re not ready). We were way low-key about this process, and one magical day, we discovered about halfway through kindergarten that he could read. I assumed he’d be my most challenging kid to get reading, but it just clicked for him.

So lots and lots of books plus tons of free play, with a sprinkling of numbers and letters tied naturally into the day… that’s about it for kindergarten, I say.

Finn & Reed with Snap Circuits

Let them play and play and play some more. Learning will just happen.

2. A major component to learning is setting up a quality learning environment.

I’ve come to value environment as one of the most important tools in the entire learning process. Create a rich environment that fosters a love of learning, and you almost can’t screw up. Lots of books all over the place, art supplies at the ready, music that inspires beauty and concentration, and as much natural light as possible are all our key ingredients.

There are additional essential ingredients, however, that also make learning happen in our home: these include a daily quiet time (when everyone heads to their room to do whatever they want for an hour, so long as they’re quiet), no screen time until after quiet time (unless it’s directly related to learning), and parents who are also genuine lovers of learning and therefore model the whole process to the kids.

Creating a rich learning environment isn’t always easy—but it’s simple. And essential, when you want learning to organically happen. No need to recreate a school room in the house. (Montessori had a lot to say about learning environments.)

3. Books, books, and more books.

You could focus on reading a truckload of books as your primary learning approach, and pretty much be set. You can’t possibly learn everything there is to learn, so why try? Dive deep in to books that fascinate you and your learner, and you can’t not learn stuff.

Tatum reading at Looneybean
Tate reading at one of our local favorite coffee shops.

4. Let the curriculum serve you, not the other way around.

It’s so easy to feel like you have to Finish The Book in order to feel like you’ve officially learned, or to keep at a curriculum you paid good money for, even if it’s not working. Let it go. The curriculum is there to serve you and your learning experience, it’s not there for you to finish at all costs. Skip around, slow down, don’t follow the directions exactly as written, or move on from it all together—do what needs doing to make real learning happen.

On the same note, I’ve discovered the beauty of learning without curriculum at all. This past early spring, we decided to shelve our third grader’s math curriculum for about a month and do nothing but work on her times tables. We played songs that helped her memorize skip counting, we created a daily fill-in-the-blank times table, we used Multiplication Wrap-Ups, we played math games, and we did verbal math problems off the cuff. Guess what? She memorized her times tables through 12s, and when she went back to her math program, it was lightyears easier and she started flying through the lessons.

5. Outsource.

Homeschooling doesn’t always mean learning at home—it simply means taking charge of your family’s learning experience. As an entrepreneur who juggles both work and homeschooling, I’d lose my ever-loving mind if I did it ALL myself. We’ve used extra-curricular classes around town, tutors, and self-teaching curricula to make for a decently-rounded learning experience.

Snowboarding class

The kids in their homeschool snowboarding class this past winter.

We personally don’t homeschool to have all the control. We homeschool because it fits our lifestyle, and because for now, it’s a great educational option for our kids. I’m happy to let others do the teaching when they’d provide more knowledge than me.

And this isn’t really outsourcing, but Kyle and I both share the load of guiding our kids’ education. It’s not all on me. At all. We’re homeschooling parents, I’m not a homeschooling mom flying solo.

6. Be you.

Which leads me to this last bit. Our reasons for homeschool are probably decidedly different from many other homeschoolers. We don’t fit in very well in either homeschool groups nor with mainstream schoolers, but we’ve learned to embrace that and shrug our shoulders. I also read very few homeschool blogs, to keep the comparison beast at bay—no need to battle an inferiority complex when only minutes before I was just fine with what we were doing.

Your homeschool environment will ultimately take on the personality of the family, not the other way around. I think some people are scared to homeschool because then they’ll turn in to “those” people (fill in the blank for whatever stereotype you may imagine), but unless you’re already “those” people, homeschooling won’t turn you in to them. You’ll still be you. And your learning experience will reflect that—which is hopefully a really good thing.

Kids playing pirates
Kids playing pirates.

Plane schooling
Plane schooling.

We embrace these reasons for learning this way—the flexibility, the freedom to travel, the individual catering, the vast amounts of time to explore and learn—and we don’t embrace anything that isn’t us. Ultimately, we’ve learned not to worry if we don’t fit some mold of what homeschooling is “supposed” to look like (hence the “classical unschooling”).

It’s supposed to look exactly how it looks in your family, with all your personalities, goals, values, and quirks. It can be beautiful.

The one where I love Friends

In honor of the tenth anniversary of the final episode of my favorite all-time show, Friends (could we BE any older?), this highly-intellectual post is my celebration of the ultimate 90s TV show.

friends

When someone tells me my name has no vowel:

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When someone asks me for a “quick five minutes” so they can ask me for blog advice:

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Me, driving around town in our 11-year-old minivan:

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Kyle and me, when I’m right:

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Me, when my kids are shocked that I know when they’re lying:

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Me, right before I start a Whole 30:

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Me, in the middle of a Whole 30:

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Me, EVERYTIME I read something on Facebook:

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Me, when my introverted self has had too many extroverted situations in a week:

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My kids, when the camera comes out:

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My kids, when I make something new for dinner:

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When my kids try to talk to me at 6 a.m.:

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When I read my seventeen-thousandth PR pitch email of the day:

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When someone gives me unsolicited advice on the Internet:

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…and:

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Me, trying to get Kyle’s attention without the kids noticing:

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Me, when another kid tells my kid that he talks funny:

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Me, trying to get my three-year-old dressed in the morning:

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How I’m pretty sure I look running:

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Me, in Oregon during the winter:

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How I feel when I’m talking to our 21-year-old babysitter:

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When a kid yells “Mom!” at 3 in the morning:

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Me, when all three kids are talking to me simultaneously:

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The morning after I stay up way too late:

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Me, playing just about every sport:

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Me to Kyle, when I correct his grammar:

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His response:

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Me, explaining to my nine-year-old for the 18th time how to add fractions:

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Me, fixing stuff:

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Me, when the house is too quiet and yet the kids are home:

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Me, when I spend time making this post instead of focusing on my two other writing deadlines:

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You’re allowed to take a blogging break

Everywhere—and I mean EVERYWHERE lately—I’ve been reading, hearing, talking with fellow writer friends about burnout. Almost daily I bump into (either in real life or online) someone talking about how they are absolutely exhausted by the virtual rat race of constant social media-ing and the pressure to continually publish genius work. They feel empty.

coffee journal photo source

Micha Boyett wrote an excellent piece recently about that pressure birthed from fear, and that even if we celebrate slow living, we writers often feel the need to fast publish. Always be heard. Constantly be current. Make sure we’re daily saying something pithy and tweetable, pinable, Facebookable. If we don’t, we might fade away into the virtual sunset, numbers mocking us with our apparent ineptitude to play by the rules.

This is crap.

Part one: why

Not only is it not true, but it’s one miserable way to live. So I say this as encouragement to those of you feeling the burden of production on your shoulders, and from personal experience of feeling the same way: take a break.

I’m not kidding. Take a break from what you’re producing. Plan ahead, yes, especially if you make a living off your words like me, but put systems in place and responsibly walk away.

You’re allowed. Your leaving is not going to break the Internet. Sure, some of us might miss your presence for awhile, but a good friend cares more about what their friend needs than what can be extracted from them. Those of us that really care about you? We’ll still be here. We’re your friends.

And I say from experience this: it’s actually a really good thing to discover that the Internet doesn’t break when you leave. That, for the most part, life goes on without your production; that your readers will be just fine for a while. This is healthy and best learned from experience. It puts perspective on what we’re doing here, I think, especially when part of your burden to produce comes from a sense of expectation—one that you’ve packed in your heavy backpack yourself.

And if I can get a little Jesus-y for a moment… I’ve found that when I don’t comprehend what Jesus means to rest because I’m not actually experiencing the benefits, that’s a clear indication for me that I need to put on some breaks. Life is not as it should be, in this case.

Part two: how

Here’s how it practically works for me, as someone whose children eat based on my online production: I choose a four to six-week window when my traffic is generally slower anyway (I’ve checked analytics from the past few years). For me, this is early summer, which makes sense for my readership—families are actually out (hopefully) living simply and being in the moment with their families and friends. As it should be. As I should be.

Don’t fight the natural rhythms of your work and your audience, in other words. I tried to do that once, back in 2010, and I nearly turned in my blogging card I was limping so badly from exhaustion. To be honest, this early summer block inevitably works out well for me anyway—it’s when I most feel the need for a break (as it sounds like the case for many of you).

I actually put this break on my calendar as though it’s a real event (because it is), and then I look at those dates and what would I normally publish in that time period. And then I simply start scheduling. I either ask for guest posts or I post reruns (I usually do a mix of both), and use the handy scheduling feature in WordPress. For my archived posts, I simply change the date and they’ll move to their right spot in the queue (and I mention at the bottom when the post was first originally published).

In the past, I’ve actually hired someone to handle my social media during my break time, but this year I’ll simply take advantage of the platforms’ many scheduling features as well. I can schedule posts to my blog’s Facebook page months (years?) ahead of time, and since I already stick to a basic daily routine of new post-quote-contributor/friend’s post-quote or question-old post/some other link on the Internet, I’ll just keep at it. It’ll take several hours to schedule a month’s worth of Facebook posting (maybe a whole work day), but then it’s done.

шины в Литве

The same can be done with Twitter and Pinterest as well, so I’ll do a few of those, though it’s not as important to my audience. Plus, I use those more for fun, and they don’t burden me with as much stress.

And you might know that I actually call this season of my time a Fake Break. That’s because I’m not completely off the Internet. I still check to make sure my site didn’t implode while I was sleeping, I still check email a few times a week, I still banter on Facebook or Instagram for the fun of it. I just lighten the load of needing to continually produce, since that’s where I’m most regularly burdened. And I actually won’t preschedule everything—I’ll give myself some space for those in-the-moment things I still might want to share from time to time.

tate swinging

Anyway, all this is to say—you’re allowed to take a break. Give yourself that gift. Give yourself a chance for some perspective, to remember why you love what you do in the first place. If you’re like me, you’ll return refreshed and in love once more with your work, and you just might find that little burnout bugger hit the high road.

Writing about a good life requires living that life

Last night during our date I had the biggest “aha!” moment I’ve had in awhile. You could almost call it a “duh!” moment, because I’m pretty sure it qualifies for that, too.

tea
Photo source

Over tea, Kyle and I talked about work. Sounds boring for a date, but I promise it isn’t—on these occasions we don’t talk about nitty-gritty stuff, like did you remember to send in that paperwork? talk. We talk Big Stuff. Dreams. Ideas. Possibilities, and wondering if they’d even work. How we’re feeling about our current work. What we could do over the next few months to change what we don’t like.

Good stuff, in other words. I promise it’s fun. (Even though when we came home and the 9-year-old asked what we did on our date, her response was, “Oh! Well, I guess that’s okay for a date, since you’re married and already know each other and all.”)

So, over tea I rambled to Kyle about my blogosophere observations, what’s currently making a blog popular and why so many blogs eventually peter out. Naturally, this led to my musing over the main blog that I run, and how I envision it long-term.

(This is a frequent conversation we have, so this wasn’t a special occasion or anything. No major changes in the works.)

As I was listing the blogs doing well, here’s what I realized they all have in common: the writers are out there living a good life. I don’t mean they’re leading super thrilling, adrenaline-rushing, crazy risky lives. Many, if not most, of their lives are simple and quiet. Everyday, even. But there they are—they’re out there, living good lives.

(I know we’re often reading the good stuff from our lives on the Internet, not the mundane “I did nothing but laundry today” sort of realities. But that’s not what I’m talking about here in this post.)

What I mean is, even among the niche blogs, those with a super-specific topic, those that flourish have content creators that are creating content from an outpouring of a multi-dimensional, thoughtful life.

The Petersiks are writing about DIY and home decor as a natural outpouring of their daily home improvement-filled lives. Shauna writes about food, hospitality, and community because she’s constantly having people over for dinner. Amanda Soule fills her days caring for cows and children, sewing and knitting and cooking and reading, and then her blog overflows with a love for natural, intentional living.

They’re fully present in their real life, doing stuff.

Realizing this epiphanaic-not-really-an-epiphany-because-it’s-obvious truth, I naturally then looked inwardly. How is this reflected in my blog, which is dedicated to exploring the idea of simple living?

There’s a weird dynamic when you can earn a full-time income off your blog. You spend your days blogging, which you love, but it’s not often translatable for most readers, yet you earn that income because you have those readers. Even though I initially started the blog to journal my ideas about simple living from my experience as an expat mom and wife, I’m now exploring the idea of living simply from the perspective of a… full-time blogger who writes about living simply.

I’m not really qualified to write discoveries about living simpler as a coffee shop barista who’s also juggling college and single parenting. I can’t speak into the challenges of living simply as a full-time executive who spends her days in stilettos. I can’t even speak from experience about simplifying the parent gig beyond the ages of my own children.

(This is why, I’ve found, it works best to have a community blog about simple living. There’s more than one way to live life, but you can only share your perspective. Friends help add their own perspectives. I’m grateful for the 20+ writers at AoS.)

Anyway, what I’ve found interesting so far this year is that I’ve grown more excited about the blog ONCE WE STARTED TRAVELING AGAIN. I was out there, doing what I love almost more than anything: traveling with my family. I was doing stuff.

Here lies the rub with publishing a blog about a concept (simple living, or spirituality, or minimalism, or education, or green living, or whatever) instead of chronicling your life. The good stuff worth reading comes from an outpouring of living a good story. So you need to make sure you’re out there, living a good story, and not just writing about life. You’ve gotta actually live life.

"Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing." -Ben Franklin

This is why I’m drooling over excitement about the new travel channel we’re going to launch this summer at Art of Simple. On that spot, my family and I (yep, Tate will be writing, too) will be writing about our trip preparations, and then naturally chronicling our trip once we leave in the fall. After all, writing about travel usually works best when you travel. We’ll be out there, doing something we know how to do well. We’ll be living a good (to us) life.

So this was my aha! moment last night. I guess I already knew it, deep down. But it was still a good thing for me to affirm, to acknowledge. Blogging and writing shouldn’t be an end in itself. It should spur us on to keep on living, to get out there and live life. And from that life, our best writing flows.

Sometimes it’s okay to not give ‘em what they want

A few weeks ago, I asked the Art of Simple readers a few questions about their overall experience reading the blog. I surveyed the readers this last year, and decided I’d start doing it every year in early spring, as a way to gauge if what we’re “putting out there” is being picked up, so to speak.

And just like last year, the results were eye-opening. But unlike the me of twelve months ago, I interpreted the responses a little differently.

Let me explain through a few screenshots.

These are the answers to the question, “What are your favorite topics to read on AoS?” Readers could choose as many as they wanted:

AoS fave topics

…and these are the answers to the question, “What’s your one favorite topic on AoS?” Obviously, they could only choose one this time:

AoS one fave topic

Wanna know what’s interesting here? The most popular topics are my least-favorite to write. And some of the least-chosen topics are those nearest to my heart. There are a few exceptions (I like writing on personal growth), but not many.

I know, right?

Well, that’s interesting. Huh. What to do with that.

I’m still mulling over that What to do with that? take away, but I’ll tell you one way I know I’m not going to do such-and-such with that.

Two years ago, I probably would have interpreted those results as my needing to buck up, roll up my sleeves, and set aside what’s on my heart for what the readers want to hear. After all, this is a business sort-of blog—I love it, but it earns money for my family, so if I need to keep bringing home the bacon, I need to keep up the traffic. And to keep up the traffic, I need to keep on writing what the readers want to read.

But a year ago, I went through something called Brand Therapy (yep, ti’s really a thing. Don’t mock it till you’ve tried it.). And in those six-week Skype sessions with a smart gal who told it like it is, I learned that unless I’m truly passionate about my message, it’s not really going to be a strong message. And if it’s not a strong message, it’s not worth people’s time to hear, because people are busy and there are a lot of voices in their lives.

I need to be true to my own voice.

Instead of catering to what the audience wants, this therapist said, I need to write what I want, and invite whoever’s interested along for the ride. I might lose followers initially, but eventually, I’ll find the right tribe who wants what I have to give.

These were small but powerful words, and they were what I needed to give myself permission to do the hard, risky, and ultimately freeing thing.

Why it's okay to not always give the readers what they want
Photo source

This was the impetus to changing so much of my work last year—closing shop on a “network” model and handing over the keys to the Simple blogs to the editors that loved them. A fresh design more reflective of me. New contributors to share smart ideas. And ultimately, a completely different blog name.

So what’s different this year? Obviously, there are readers who want something different than what I’m passionate about giving. I’m choosing to look at the results to these answers two ways:

1. I need to bring in writers who are passionate about sharing the topics current readers want to read. And,

2. I need to find a different audience.

That second one isn’t meant to sound as harsh as it initially sounds. But it is a risk. What I’m saying is that instead of kowtowing to these survey results, and thereby shelving my passion for metrics, I need to stick to writing what stirs my heart, and scour the audience for a few faces willing to nod in agreement (and possibly share these words to friends they know would like it, too). Or, that I do my part online to present my writing to places that would appreciate it, in hopes of finding new people to welcome to the AoS readership.

In other words—I find the people who want my words, I don’t find the words to match my current people. Don’t get me wrong; I love my current people and am glad they’re there. But if I write reactively, constantly guessing what they might like to hear, it’s ultimately not going to be the real me—and I think even they would like to read a real person.

Another survey result was fun for me to see—a lot of people like some ideas I’ve wanted to add to the blog for awhile now:

AoS changes

Readers were excited about the idea of us publishing reader stories, something I’ve wanted to do for, oh, three years now. (The first offering is live today.)

They dig the idea of us creating a separate travel “channel” to the blog, where we’ll chronicle our family’s upcoming travels, along with travel-y thoughts on how to do it well with kids. Awesome. I’m itching to do more travel writing.

More Intellectual Grownup posts, more talk about ethics, and embedding the podcast on to the site directly were all popular as well, and that makes me happy. Those are energy-givers to me, not energy-drainers. Done, and done. (Well, eventually. All in good time.)

So in all this, I guess I’m saying I’m learning to heed the answers to questions I honestly asked, and yet to take the answers with a grain of salt. Or to interpret them differently than how my gut tends to default. Whatever the phrase, what I’m saying is that I’m slowly, slowly becoming better at living in freedom, not apologizing for being myself, and am willing to write a little riskier. Even if it means disappointing a few people who simply need something else.

Because at the end of the day, I’ll be a better me. And that’s what will make me a better blogger.