I knew that I wanted to homeschool our children before they were even born.
My husband and I are farmers, and before we started our own farm, we worked for another farmer. He and his wife homeschooled their children, and we were completely smitten with their children, their family, their relationships with each other, and their overall lifestyle and its pace.
Once we started our own farm, we met many other homeschooling families through our customer base — and again we saw parents and children who enjoyed each other’s company, and we saw children who were engaged with the world and seemed to love learning. Since our livelihood is based at our home, it just made sense to teach our children at home as well. My husband and I both have master’s degrees and are lifelong learners; we felt confident we could this.
After our Rusty, our first child, was born, I began reading more about how to actually do homeschooling. When I do research, I like to read a lot and get a Big Picture sense of the topic. I wanted to know what the different theories were, long before I’d really be able to apply any of them. I read about unschooling, Waldorf, Classical education, and Charlotte Mason. All appealed to me in different ways.
Our second child, Dottie, was born was Rusty was almost three, and it was around then that I started more intentionally shaping our days in rhythms of exploration and learning. At the time, Waldorf homeschooling really appealed to me, as it does to many parents of young children. Crafts and outdoor time and seasonal celebrations? — yes, please! You can read more about our early years experiences in that section.
As Rusty approached kindergarten, I did more research into what Waldorf would “look like” in the school years. With the introduction of more academic learning, Waldorf models began to feel less organic to me, and I found myself shifting toward Charlotte Mason principles. By this time, we had a well established rhythm of reading together, and the idea of reading “living books” and then narrating felt like a very doable approach for our family at that time. For one thing, I’ve never been a super “crafty” mom, so some of the aesthetic pieces of how Waldorf engages material was daunting to me!
I had many years earlier encountered Ambleside Online, a very popular (and free!) Charlotte Mason curriculum program. I had already read several of the books they assign in Year 1 and loved them — I love classics! — so I decided to go that route for Rusty’s first grade year (younger Dottie’s experience was still very Waldorf-y at this point!). We enjoyed that year very much! The loose Charlotte Mason approach was definitely a good fit for facilitating learning at home, and I learned a ton from the AO website and community, where there is a wealth of information about how to implement Charlotte Mason’s ideas today.
However, as I looked ahead to the later AO readings, I wasn’t sure they were quite right for us. They privilege older books, even on subjects that have wonderful (more up-to-date) contemporary books written about them. The curriculum is intentionally very Western Tradition-focused, whereas I prefer to share with my children many more diverse voices from history. There were depictions of Native Americans and people of color and other cultures that I found unsettling in some of the books.
Also, I don’t necessarily share the same fairly conservative Christian worldview that seems to be the viewpoint of many AO members, and I saw that this informed many of the book selections, especially in the sciences.
Some of these older books were also just … not compelling. I realized there’s a difference between “old” and “classic.” I found myself dreading reading some of the books aloud, which I realized just doesn’t work. As the teacher, I need to be engaged in what we’re doing and truly love it.
Finally, I just found that we have our own particular interests and context that affects what I want to read. For example, I think it’s very important for us to always be learning about the natural and cultural history of the place where we live (Oregon and the Pacific Northwest), so I wanted to begin including more books on local topics.
And, structurally, as Dottie my younger child grew older, I wanted us to all be on the same page each year, doing a large number of readings together, as well as some specially tailored to each child’s developmental level.
These were all realizations I came to as a result of trying AO for our first year. And, so, in the summer before Year 2 I was definitely rethinking AO, even though I’d already purchased most of the upcoming books and had planned for us a slightly modified Year 2 schedule already. I was still thinking that AO, on some level, would be an important guide for me.
But then came the August 2017 Charlottesville white supremacy rally. I found this event to be incredibly disturbing and also clarifying in terms of my big picture goals for my children’s education. I realized that the stories they hear today matter so very much. I cannot spend their formative years reading out-dated ideas from Western-centric books and attempt to “contextualize” the books for them as we go. It doesn’t work for us to spend hours reading a Euro-centric version of American history and then just provide the caveat that people lived on this continent before us. That fact, and many others like it, are just too big and true to be tangential. They need to be part of our main story.
I need to be reading stories and books that present a contemporary, inclusive worldview to prepare my children for the world they live in today. I need to read them everyone’s stories — including those of women, people of color, people from different cultures, and ordinary folks — so that they understand and value a diversity of experiences. To me, this meant carefully choosing more contemporary living books — what I now call “just living books” — especially anything that address history (and especially United States History). Too many of the old books contain implicit (through exclusion of certain stories) or explicit (through inclusion of damaging stereotypes) racism.
So, I abandoned ship completely and spent the rest of August writing our own curriculum, mostly from scratch, with a few nods to AO. I still love and teach true classics (books whose merit have withstood the test of time and stayed in print), but I found that many contemporary books told wonderful, rich true stories as well.
As I developed that year, it helped for me to have a “container” to put our books into — just choosing from all the books in the world would be too much freedom! That’s when I decided to develop a five-year history cycle sequence, which we had essentially already begun with AO Year 1’s focus on ancient history. That put us in Medieval next, and as my son Rusty loves history, I looked high and low to find wonderful books for us to read all together and individually.
Having an “era” around which to plan helped me think through the significant historical events, literature, and art that I wanted us to read each year. We had so much fun reading about castles and medieval life, as well as reading about the Silk Road and the Kalapuya (the native people who lived in our region prior to Euro-American colonization of Oregon). It was a wonderful, exhausting, empowering experience that worked out quite well for all of us, and you can read about what I planned under Medieval History 1.
As I write this, we’ve just wrapped up another year planned by me (Early Modern 1, including early American history), and I’ve planned our next year already (19th century). Dottie is old enough now to be fully engaged with our shared family readings too. We’ve so enjoyed our immersions into these historical eras. We bring in readings and literature from other eras too, but by having a shared historical focus, we really get to dive deep into history and start seeing connections between movements and happenings around the world.
Also, unlike many other history sequences I’ve seen out there (which are often four years or even less), I’m excited to take a full five years to give the 19th and 20th centuries each their own years, as there’s so much important, relevant history to read — as well as wonderful works of literature to read (and music and art to appreciate as well!).
You can read more about the details of this evolution throughout this website, but I wanted to give the overview of how our family arrived where we are today with me designing our curriculum myself. I also wanted to show how much we can learn by doing. I read so many books when my kids were young and gained lots of theories about what might work for us. But, I needed to experience homeschooling before I could learn what truly felt right for our family, based on our lifestyle and values (and my own particulars as a teacher too).
I think sometimes people think they need to have homeschooling “figured out” before beginning, but in reality that’s not how we learn. And, we homeschooling parents are learning all the time along with our children.
I still lean heavily on Charlotte Mason’s principles, finding them very effective. Narration is a simple and organic way for us to “process” what we’re all reading. But we pull from other pedagogies as well. We continue to celebrate the seasons as part of our family’s culture and traditions, nodding to Waldorf. We use Susan Bauer’s Story of the World as our early history spines, nodding to the Classical approach. We even incorporate elements of unschooling by giving our kids lots of free time and helping them pursue their own interests. Followers of those pedagogies are likely to find useful information here as well.
We continue to use what works really well for our particular family, making us eclectic homeschoolers, with strong Charlotte Mason leanings.
Each year when planning, I ask myself: What would I want to teach and experience with my children if this were to be our last year homeschooling? I keep this in mind, because I don’t assume that we’ll keep homeschooling forever. Each year, some of our homeschooling friends decide to opt in to school, and each year I also consider whether homeschooling continues to be the best choice for our family. We balance home learning with running a business, and some years it feels like a lot. So far, however, the answer continues to be yes, homeschooling is the right choice for our family.
But to make sure we continue to love our home learning experience, I plan as though this may be our last year. What are the richest stories we can read together? What are the lessons I want them to learn? How can we fill this year with joy and excitement as well as steady growth?
I think, ironically, homeschoolers can sometimes lose sight of the trees for the forest — keeping their minds too much on the Big Picture of Future Outcomes and forgetting that each day itself is a gift, right here and right now. Yes, our children need to learn a lot before adulthood. We parent our children for their future … but we also parent them for today. Life is richest when filled with thriving relationships — within a family, between a student and their learning materials, between all of us and the natural world. I cannot read every single beautiful book to my children before they “graduate,” but I can teach and show them today, this year, how to love learning, how to love others, and how to love and appreciate the world around themselves.
That guiding mindset helps me choose our texts and activities carefully and authentically, seeking that feeling of joyful engagement in all we do — so that learning never becomes a drudgery task but hopefully retains a driving force of curiosity and interest and exploration.