Wednesday, January 2, 2008


When he was about five, Atticus was fascinated with hybrid vehicles. His father had pointed one out as we were driving to town one day. No big deal, just a simple, "That's a hybrid car. It runs on a battery and gas." To Atticus, who sees the world in very defined segments of black and white, this was a revelation. Two ways of making a motor run?

The idea was so intriguing to Atticus that it actually moved me to buy The New Way Things Work, a book that has saved me more research work in the areas of Atticus' interests than any other single resource. Unfortunately, our edition was printed before hybrid cars came into vogue, and I had to do some real digging in order to provide a user-friendly explanation to my kindergartner.

I'll spare you the details, because if you really wanted to know how a car can use two energy sources you'd be reading Popular Mechanics right now instead of a homeschooling blog. All you need to know is this: for a long time, no one bothered to try to marry the two options (battery-powered car to traditional engine car) because they just didn't see how it could be done. One energy source was good enough to get the job done, so by golly, one source it is!

It occurred to me today that the most miserable homeschooling families I know subscribe to this exact same theory in educating their children. Whether they have a single child that they are teaching at home or are schooling a brood of six, the families that refuse to step out of the box are the ones who find little joy in the journey of educating their own.

I have seen this often enough that I am willing to say it is the new epidemic among homeschoolers--A mother is frustrated, burned out and feels like she can't possibly go on laboring to cram information into her children's heads. After a few minutes of talking to her, it becomes quite clear why this is the case: she is teaching two children (4th grade and 1st) with two completely separate, completely workbook-based curricula that require her to popcorn between them at the kitchen table for four to five hours a day. Or a mom reveals that she is terrified to begin teaching her third child to read, since the phonics program she bought with her first child (who is quite visual) was a monumental flop with her second (who is a true kinesthetic leaner). However, she justified the expense of the $200 program because she knew she would use it for all three children, so she has no plans to make any changes.

A recipe for stagnation, isn't it? Makes you wish that someone would take a good look at that wheel and just reinvent it, right? To even attempt to homeschool requires a certain amount of out-of-the-box thinking. Where did that rebellious spirit get lost in these "by the book" families?

The opposite end of this conundrum is, of course, picking and choosing to the point of no cohesion whatsoever. I can say this because I walked the thin line between exploring and exploding for a little while. For every homeschooling mom I know who would rather be paraded naked through town than give up her scripted Saxon Meeting Book, I know another who has been unable to commit to any consistent curriculum choices at all. These women remind me of an entirely different kind of engine: the one in Willy Wonka's fabulous pop-powered contraption. Throw in a little of this. A lot of that. Double-Bubble, Double-Bubble-Burp-A-Cola ... the more fizz the better! Of course, we all know how that ended; after that ride, the poor passengers had to undergo a major clean-up. I sometimes wonder if the brains of some of my curriculum junkie friends' children will need a similar swabbing when they finally try to sort out the cobbled-together jumble of methods that their parents pumped into them with so many good intentions.

So how come a hybrid car works in the first place? Easy: balance. More than one fuel goes in, but the careful thought process that put them together in the first place allows for an almost ballet-like orchestration. For this job, you use this. For that one, use this. As the needs of the engine shift, so does the fuel intake and type. Clearly, you choose the energy sources with care--they must complement each other and be necessary to the task at hand. The end result in this delicate process is a vehicle that gets the job done in the most economical way possible.

Homeschooling should be like this. As parent/educators, we should be aware of the needs of our children, and should be flexible enough to meet their needs. We should be creative enough to fan the flames of imagination and passion that fuel their desire to learn. But we should be selective, not giving in to the latest newest and greatest just because it seems more exciting than what we already have, or promises perfect results.

I am not saying that I have always found this perfect balance in my own homeschooling career. As a matter of fact, I have exactly three different math programs sitting in a resale box downstairs right now--and I confess freely that I bought the first one because of a catalog's promises, the second one on a friend's recommendation and the third out of desperation. But maybe, just maybe, I've learned my lesson. While I continue to combine curriculum generously, I also see myself staying far more consistent than I had ever hoped to be.

So I've decided that I want our homeschool to be a hybrid car: running on a variety of well-chosen resources that get the job done, giving more joy to the gallon for the money spent.


Cassie - Homeschooling Four said...

I definitely lean more towards the side of following a curriculum. Having said that, I also only do 3 main subjects (unlike the 7 or 8 I know some moms do) and let the rest be out-of-the-box. I have a 3rd grader, 2nd grader and Kindergartener. I agree, it is very difficult to find that balance. I think I am doing much better at that this year than last

G.L.H. said...

Great analogy! And I love your last line: More for each gallon spent. Lovely!

~ Angi :) said...

Love your conclusion! :)

*sigh* now if I could just capture Aubrey's heart again after this holiday break . . .

any ideas?

Kindred Blessings said...

I have to I am the curriculum junkie/Willie Wonka homeschooler that you were thinking of??? There's no offense taken if it was times I feel like I've tried it all!