Host Symposia | 36

Not so much an ancient Greek banquet, and it’s not a formal meeting. But they do give a good excuse to hit the pause button and connect — even in a laid-back summer.

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Episode Transcript

This is The Good List — I’m Tsh Oxenreider.

This is a habit.

When we first started homeschooling when we lived overseas, I did all my research and learned from smarter people who’d been doing this for years — and one thing I knew I wanted to do was a thing called “circle time.” If you’re in early childhood education of any sort, you know what this is. It’s when the class literally circles up by sitting on the floor, and you go through a set routine of things, usually to start your day.

True to form with most new homeschoolers, I really overdid it at first. I had unreasonably high expectations. If you homeschooled for the first time in your life this past spring during the pandemic, when most schools around the world suddenly closed, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about. My kids were little at this time — in fact, my oldest was literally “in” pre-k (yep, before the formal school years in the US even begin), but again, I was new at this, super eager, and came into this brimming with high expectations.

I wrote out a plan for circle time: we’d start with a little prayer, then we’d mark the day and date (including the year) on a velcro fabric calendar. Then we’d state the weather, the season, and if there were any holidays coming up. Then I saw us moving into some sort of art study — maybe a famous work of art or an artist, a composer or symphony, and we’d talk about it. Then we’d do some sort of memorization — a poem, maybe, or part of Scripture. We’d then talk about what was on docket the rest of the day — math, history, science, and what-not, and then we’d wrap up circle time with a read-aloud, most likely a chapter book we were working through together.

Keep in mind that my kids were 4 and 2 at the time. So yeah… you can imagine how long this good-intentioned idea lasted, and how well it worked. Let’s just say that by the end of things, what constituted “circle time,” if we ever did it at all, was talking about the day of the week, the season, the weather, and then a picture book. All while they were playing with something else so they wouldn’t get distracted.

Knowing what I know now, this actually was perfect, and all they really needed in these early years, and that it was a really good thing for them to draw, or play with Lego while they learned to sorta-kinda sit still and listen quietly to someone else. It all worked out. And of course, by the time the youngest came along, it was a rare day when we managed to do an official circle time. We read all the time, we talked as we went, and it all went well.

Fast-forward to today, and those kids are 15, 12-and-a-half, and 10. And several years ago, I picked back up the idea of circle time and dusted it off. But of course, it would look completely different. The kids were obviously older, but I was different, too — not saying I was completely wise in my ways, but I knew with more intuition what my kids uniquely needed (and didn’t need), I had a different purpose and vision for the idea, and our school situation was different. Our kids went to a 3-day-a-week school, where they’d go T-W-Th and then do their schoolwork at home on M and F.

When they were at school, their days started and ended with things called “launches” and “closes,” where they’d gather with some of their peers and a teacher (they’re called ‘guides’ at this school) would bring up a topic of discussion, sometimes through something to read, other times through a video to watch, or sometimes even through games. This is a school focused on Socratic discussions, which basically means a lot of questions and answers, more than pure lecture time. So, they’d talk about this idea for the first few minutes of their school day, then wrap it up at the end during close. They’d be everything from current events, to philosophical questions, to the 7 habits of highly effective people. And for the most part, all 3 of my kids really liked this part of their school day.

So, with our Mondays and Fridays at home, I wanted to incorporate sort-of a version of that, but really more of a “circle time.” And I had recently read about a college that approached education Socratically hosted for groups of their students what amounted to a type of elevated circle time — they’d all gather together, informally yet with an agenda, to talk about a set of ideas. And they called this gathering a “Symposium.” I liked the sound of that, at least more than “circle time.”

And so, an idea in our family was born.

I’ll get into the nuts and bolts of this idea in just a few minutes, right after a quick break to thank a sponsor. I’ll be right back.

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Okay, we’re back.

So, a “Symposium.” What is this, exactly, besides a fancy, Greek-sounding circle time? Here are the 4 official dictionary definitions of the word ‘symposium’:

a convivial party (as after a banquet in ancient Greece) with music and conversation
a social gathering at which there is free interchange of ideas
a formal meeting at which several specialists deliver short addresses on a topic or on related topics
a collection of opinions on a subject

If you smoosh all these definitions together, that’s a roundabout way of describing what we do here. Maybe not so much an ancient Greek banquet, and it’s not a formal meeting with several specialists. At a set time on set days, we’d all gather in the living room, and we’d work through a short agenda together, focused on a collection of ideas. This collection was both informal and intentional, meaning it wasn’t just a random, “Hey, how’s everyone doing?” check-in, but it wasn’t so stiff that we had a gavel and a “This meeting shall now come to order” sort of thing.

I’d change up what we’d do from time to time, based on the mood of the kids (and me), the time of year, the business of our calendar, and what was on our minds. But they were predictable enough to have a rhythm the kids knew to expect.

When things were just crazy-busy, like during our oldest’s theater group’s show week, we’d set aside Symposium, and we wouldn’t do them on holidays, like during Christmas break or when we had out-of-the-ordinary stuff on the docket, like travel or tons of errands to run that day. They weren’t the boss of us, we were the boss of them (or more specifically, I was the boss of them, because I was the one spearheading this whole thing). But when life was pretty-much normal, we’d do them regularly on Mondays and Fridays, usually late morning. I work from home, so I’d have already gotten in a few hours’ worth of work, and the kids might have already done some school, too. They don’t really start our days, but they give us an excuse to hit the pause button and connect. This has been our school-year normal for the past several years.

And of course, enter quarantine, right? Suddenly, like just about everyone else around the world, we were suddenly homeschooling five days a week. Since it was already a part-time part of our repertoire, thankfully it wasn’t too much of a transition, like I know it was for many other people. And one thing we kept going, to keep a sense of normalcy intact, was — you guessed it — Symposium.

In the past we’d often slow down on doing Symposium during the summer, mostly because we all just want a break from the usual rhythm. But this isn’t a normal summer, right? And right now, we’re all craving rhythm, not trying to escape it. So — we’re doing our Symposia right on through the summer this time; moreseo, in fact. We all crave it. So as a family, we’re doing it about 3 times a week, about 30 minutes at a time, late morning when I take a break from my work.

And so now I’m bringing it back to you here… If you’re craving a routine, a rhythm, a sense of normalcy to your days, and if you’re wanting a predictable thing to do without a ton of work, maybe consider hosting family Symposia. You can do literally anything, based on your personality and preferences and your kids’ ages and interests.

Here’s what we’re currently doing during Symposium, in early summer 2020:

We first start with a short reading from the Bible. Lately we’ve been going through Proverbs, but today I switched gears and read something from one of the Gospels, so we’re flexible here. I read until there’s a natural break in topic, and then we discuss it. Nothing terribly deep, but I’ll ask questions to help with context (like when was it written, and to whom), construct (what sort of literature is this — poetry, history, etc.), and content (what is it actually saying). We then talk about how it could apply to our lives today. As in, exactly today.

Then, we move on to some sort of group continuing education. This summer, our family is working through this thing called The Art of Argument, published by Classical Academic Press. It’s all about informal logic, meaning, how to discuss and debates ideas well, and to reason with logic. I figured this was a good topic in light of all that’s going on in the world these days, as well as it being an election year. We’re working through 28 logical fallacies, and so far, our kids LOVE this. It’s nothing official — no homework, no writing, I just read from the book, and then we discuss the reflection questions.

I then talk about the day and what’s on docket. We discuss what’s on the chore checklist (which is always posted on the fridge), and what’s on my work plate, so they know my availability (let me tell you, this was NOT possible when they were younger). We also talk about what’s on their plates — right now, in addition to chores they also need to do continuing education: one hour of a particular subject that’s a challenge for them (so, math for two of them, reading for one), and then another hour of learning a passion subject. This can be anything from an online watercolor class, to reading about how to set up and perform magic tricks, to working on your blog (these are all real-life examples in our family). In Symposium, the kids each report what they’re going to work on that day. And then at dinner, they know to share one thing they learned that day.

Finally, we wrap up Symposium with either storytime or a Masterclass lesson. Yep, even with a teenager, we do family read-aloud still, and I don’t plan on ever stopping until I’m an empty nester. We’re currently reading CS Lewis’ space trilogy, so I’ll read aloud a chapter, or we’ll watch a class from a course we’re taking together on Masterclass. Right now, it’s the gardening class with Ron Finley, and once that’s done it’ll be barbeque with Aaron Franklin, who’s actually local to us.

Anyway, that’s our current Symposium rhythm, and it takes about 30 minutes. It might sound like a lot of work, and it might be at first, when you’re creating new expectations and rhythms, but it’s really not an inconvenience for me, and the benefits far outweigh any negatives. Any day we do Symposium the kids are in better moods and they get along better. It’s actually kinda weird.

In the past, we’ve done things like watch an on-this-day-in-history video, worked on logic puzzles, memorized times tables, studied a collection of artwork from a time period (we look at a piece of art I’ve pulled up on my laptop for 5 minutes and then close it and share what we noticed), or even simply read a news article from the morning and then talk about it. We’ve even just watched a TED Talk together and then talk about it, and call it good.

Symposium provides structure and rhythm to your days and weeks, it gives you an excuse to connect during the humdrum of the day, and it fosters deeper thinking and connection in a low-key, informal-yet-sorta-formal way. Our kids truly love it, and I for one am really glad we’re doing them this summer. We need them, for sanity’s sake.

[VOICEMAIL]

Hi, this is Mory. I’m calling from Washougal, Washington and something that’s getting me through this quarantine social distancing time has been writing haikus. I was challenged to write a Haiku early on in this quarantine time, and I loved it so much because it’s like a puzzle, five syllables, seven syllables, five syllables, and I found that it’s a really, it’s so short, so it’s not like I’m composing some big poem about I’m feeling. It’s just a really small snippet about what I’m thinking about something very small and it makes creativity accessible and not overwhelming and has actually helped me process through some of the challenging emotions that this time has brought up. That’s been what’s getting me through is writing haikus. Thanks.

I’m on twitter @tsh and sometimes on IG @tshoxenreider, and you can also find a transcript and the show notes of this episode, #36, and all episodes, at thegoodlistshow.com. That’s also where you can find stuff like my newsletter, books, workshop, and more.

A little reminder as well that you can pay whatever you want for my 4-part audio series called Create Your Rule of Life, an easy, approachable, applicable workshop based on St. Benedict’s Rule of Life. This summer might very well be the just-right time for you to work through that. It’s been so life-giving for me, so maybe it will be for you too, especially during these wild, unplannable times.

A big thank you to Mory for sharing with us what’s on her Good List right now. Music for the show is by Kevin MacLeod, and thanks, as always, to Caroline TeSelle and Kyle Oxenreider for their help, as well as my furry intern, Ginny. I’m Tsh Oxenreider, and I’ll be back with you soon — thanks for listening to The Good List.

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