This time last year, I found myself grappling with an issue that is familiar to a good number of homeschoolers who have two or more children: how on earth do I keep myself sane and still meet everyone's needs?
From the beginning of our homeschooling adventure, I've kept all three of the older kids combined in what I consider general studies: science, history, read-alouds and the like. Individual subjects that are skill-dependent (think math and Language Arts) are pursued separately.
This always worked very well for us. In addition to keeping my time commitment to homeschooling manageable, it served a greater purpose: my children were always on the same page when it came to new topics of interest. Everyone's studying Rome? Guess what all three kids are suddenly playing? We just learned about carnivorous plants? Everyone's thrilled when we spot a display of Venus flytraps for sale in our local hardware store.
This to me has been one of the most precious aspects of homeschooling, and one that I've sought to preserve for as long as possible. As a woman who grew up with only one brother seven years removed from my own experiences, a common thread between siblings is invaluable to me. I admit that the ability to group my three children (despite their 4 year age span) into one topic was one of the most alluring aspects when my family chose Sonlight way back in April of 2002. Over the years, we had advanced through the Cores (starting with K) happily, our little knot enjoying tales of Vikings, the invention of the elevator and a long sob with more than a a few missionary friends. We did it all together. We learned, and we grew, and life was rich.
But last year, I could no longer ignore a few simple truths that were staring me in the face. First and foremost: our family was no longer little. Not in physical age, nor in numerical standings. Five children now rounded out our clan, and their needs were as vast as the 11 years over which their birthdates were sprinkled. Second was the fact that we were a growing family. And I do mean growing--in many senses of the word. Yes, we were open to adding more souls to our brood. But more than that, the seven people that already comprised our unit were expanding in terms of skills, interests, intellect and desire. We had a new walker and a middle schooler, for Pete's sake!
It had always sat in the back of my mind that eventually, I would have to "split the kids off." To me, that meant allowing Jo to go on to the next Core, while grouping Atticus and Logan in another--hopefully corresponding--Sonlight Core. Maybe, I thought, it's time to do that. Maybe Jo goes on to Core 5 and the boys go back to Core K? That didn't feel quite right. A first grader in Core K is quite doable. A third grader who has already devoured the entire Brian Jacques Redwall catalog and considers "The Hobbit" light reading? Not so much. What to do?
I prayed and I pondered. I looked to Mr. Blandings for advice. He suggested that we look elsewhere for a year, perhaps traipse over to WinterPromise and see how their Sea and Sky program was coming along. I researched and prayed some more.
But in the end, I felt this in my heart: one more year. One last year where everyone is lock-step and in sync. One more year of, "Let's play that book we just read." One more year of just one set of read-alouds. One more year of just one Core.
Mr. Blandings agreed, and indeed, it worked great. A little tinkering and modification here and there (for example, the read-alouds were far too mature for Logan) and voila! Together, we studied Eastern Hempisheres. And I relished it, because I knew that this was the last time we'd ever be the "little" family doing things "the old way."
As you can see, then, I came to the end of Core 5 with a sense of having completed a journey. Little did I know that I was right in more ways than one.
I took up my school planning in early July, as I always do. I began the process of researching how other people had accomplished what I was now setting out to do: educate three kids using a combination of Sonlight Cores 6 and 1. Jo, I knew, would be fully Core 6. Logan would be fully Core 1. And Atticus, I figured, would float somewhere in the middle with a leaning towards the upper Core. Easy enough, right?
Well ... wrong.
It took less than two weeks of sorting through books to realize that I had a pretty big problem on my hands. Jo has already read more than 80% of the books included in Core 6. Readers, read-alouds ... all of them. Remember how I've alluded to the fact that I supplement readers quite heavily due to the sheer volume of books that my older two consume? That's not the half of it. Not only had I inadvertently selected many of the titles for her a couple of years back, but she had been happily bringing them home from the library since she got her own card. On top of that, she has been listening to Story of the World on cd during long car rides since she was 6. She can recite, verbatim, huge chunks of Jim Weiss' dialogue just for kicks; it's one of the little in-jokes that our family, being nerds, finds amusing. And did I mention that the Usborne Encyclopedia used in Core 6 has been casual bedtime reading among Jo, Atticus and even Logan for a couple of years now?
You see my problem here? My kid had already done Core 6 ... without an Instructor's Guide.
So, what to do? And, back to my original question--how on earth do I keep myself sane and still meet everyone's needs? Because while I'd love to be one of those enterprising moms who writes her own curricula from scratch, I know that I'd miss the things I'd have to give up in order to accomplish that: namely, my writing, which is an integral part of that "keeping myself sane" bit.
Step one to solving the dilemma was talking to Mr. Blandings. Can I just say how much I love having a husband who is totally on board when it comes to being a homeschooling dad? He listens, he recommends ... he even googles things for himself! Got to love that in a guy! Anyhow, Mr. Blandings agreed that we were in a Sonlight pickle. His idea? Talk to Jo and see what she wanted to do. Maybe, he suggested, she'd want to go ahead and do the Core anyhow. Or maybe she'd give us clues as to what else she'd rather us look into for her.
So one night, after all of the boys were in bed, we pulled Jo from her reading and posed a simple question over a pile of homeschooling catalogs: "What do you want to learn next year?"
Her reaction was neither immediate nor rash. But it was firm.
"I don't want to read books about people who witnessed thing happening. I like to do that on my own time. I want to read the real thing. No more 'Johnny was an apprentice for so-and-so.' I want to read the actual classics. Plutarch. That kind of thing. Can I do that?"
Mr. Blandings and I considered one another for a moment. Could we do that? Then we considered our daughter. Could she do that?
We sent her back to her book upstairs and sat in silence for a long minute, considering the innocence of Story of the World and Usborne encyclopedias.
"Do you think we should let her?" Mr. Blandings asked.
"I don't know. I mean ... I read that in college. And it takes a lot of work. Not to mention the themes in some of that stuff ..." I shrugged. Isn't this what we've been trying to save her from? I wondered. The really overwhelming stuff that kills your desire to learn?
We closed the night in prayer and walked away feeling uneasy, like adult fish transplanted to a newer, bigger pond without warning.
Mr. Blandings and I struggled and prayed for over a week. We went back and forth about the wisdom of such an education for our daughter, and about what a 7th grader could possibly get out of the texts we consider "the deep end of the ocean" type reading.
And finally, we settled on this: let's call it a grand experiment. Let's see where this goes. Jo, you want to read the great works of Western civilization? Sure. Go for it. Let's see if you can swim in that water, babe.
We ordered the Omnibus 1 guide from Veritas Press and have set her loose. And Jo, for her part, is thrilled to be knee-deep in an RC Sproul tome on predestination theology with her dad. Mr. Blandings has joked more than once that Sonlight clearly has succeeded in creating a great thinker with a thirst for knowledge out of at least one of our children. "If you give a kid Sonlight," he says, echoing one of our favorite children's books, "chances are, they're going to want Antigone."
So this is where we've landed--at least in part--this year. What I see developing before me is a far cry from the cozy read-alouds I had imagined, or the build-your-own pyramid building spree I was planning. But ultimately, isn't this what homeschooling is all about? Giving them wings to consider life outside of the nest? Encouraging what looks like the impossible? Asking ... and listening to what God speaks into their hearts in this season?
This school year isn't shaping up to be like anything I would have planned. But it feels right. In a year that will no doubt be defined by flux, this first change is one that I can embrace and watch blossom with joy.