Reflection & Contraction

by William Cowper
I crown thee king of intimate delights,
Fireside enjoyments, home-born happiness,
And all the comforts that… the hours
Of long uninterrupted evening know.
Hello and Happy New Year!
After the busyness of celebrating the holidays and closing out the old year, we oftentimes find ourselves, along with our children, experiencing a sense of “tiredness”. The winter season with its cold and bleak days only enhances this feeling. Rather than looking at this feeling of tiredness in a negative way, it’s important for us to recognize it as a significant time of contraction. It is a time for all of us to turn inwardly and reflect within.
Perhaps some of the ways we can help our children through this time of contraction is by doing quiet activities together that do not require a lot of expansiveness. Reading chapter books together, creating a time for educational board games, completing a jigsaw puzzle by the fireside, writing letters to friends and extended family members, singing songs in the evening, drawing pictures for special loved ones, doing rhythmical handwork projects, or just staying close to home are all perfect examples for exploring one’s inner feelings. Then as the “tiredness” wears off, the academics will be easier to incorporate into the school lessons in a more formal manner. Before we know it, springtime and boundless energy will once again renew our lives, and we will be so thankful that we took the time for ourselves and for our children to experience that “quietness” within.
I hope this new year of 2017 brings many blessings to you and your family.

Winter, Contraction, and Frustration

“Every moment and every event of every man’s life plants something in his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because men are not prepared to receive them. For such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere, except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity, and love.” ~ Thomas Merton

For those who live in the northern hemisphere, the months of January and February bring us to a midpoint of the winter season, where we find ourselves experiencing drastic changes in weather and with focus. It is a time of contraction, in which we turn inwardly and reflect within. Often times, this season can also initiate a sense of tiredness and discouragement. Even our children’s attitudes can begin to disintegrate, and the enthusiasm during the first few months of school starts to wear off.

Since 1986, I have had the great honor and privilege to know and work with Oak Meadow’s co-founder, Lawrence Williams. Over the years, I have developed an amazing respect for his boundless wisdom and timeless energy in providing a quality education for homeschool families. I have also collected a plethora of articles written by Lawrence. So, “from the archives,” I have the pleasure of offering his timely article on:

Winter, Contraction and Frustration

Now that we are in a new year, and in the midst of winter, let’s stop for a moment to consider what effect this is having upon our children, the learning process, and us.

The learning process has two phases: expansion and contraction. These same phases are also apparent in the seasons of the year. The season in which we are presently immersed, winter, is the season when the forces of contraction are prevailing.

The predominant effect of the contractive phase is the feeling of being closed in, and the feeling that nothing is moving. In terms of the learning process, we often feel that our children are not making any progress, and we begin to doubt our effectiveness as teachers. Of course, this closed in feeling is much more apparent in the extreme northern latitudes, where the temperature is much colder, and snow covers the ground for most of the year. However, even if we are living further south, we still experience this sensation, although its effect is modified somewhat, and it tends to become a more subtle inner experience, rather than an outer obstacle.

Another effect, which is most fascinating, is that during the contractive phase, things do not appear as they really are. The same thing is occurring in nature. If we didn’t know any better, and just arrived on this planet without an instruction manual (a familiar feeling?), we would look at the barren trees and the frozen ground and would suspect that everything was dead, with no chance of revival. However, since we’ve lived through many winters, we know that things are not as they appear. Underneath the surface of the earth wonderful things are happening and in a few months life will spring forth again, and everything will be green and growing profusely.

So the most important thing to remember while teaching children in the midst of the contraction of winter is that, while it looks as if nothing is happening, it is only because everything is happening under the surface. However bleak it may look, however hopeless your children’s progress may seem, however many times you feel as if you are totally frustrated, just remember that it is not really that way. Within your children, just as within nature, marvelous things are happening at this moment, and in a few months the growth that is occurring will become apparent, as we move into the phase of expansion, when all things become visible.

The best way to handle the contractive phase is to accept it as an opportunity, not an obstacle. There are many ideal learning experiences available at this time of year. Take advantage of them. Don’t stay indoors, trying to complete academic work with everyone irritable. Go outdoors and look for animal tracks in the snow. Even if you are living in a more temperate climate, and there is no snow, watch for the events that happen in nature only at this time of the year, such as various animal migrations. By cooperating gracefully and joyfully with the opportunities available within this cycle, you will be teaching your children one of the most valuable lessons in life: how to find opportunities within apparent limitations.

In Lawrence William’s book, The Heart of Learning, Chapter 7 offers additional information on “Rhythm and Learning: Expansion and Contraction”. If you haven’t read this chapter recently, it might be a good time to add it to your reading list.

As the New Year Begins…

Close your eyes and take a deep, slow breath in. Now gently exhale.
Take a moment to reflect on how far you’ve come on this journey.

Photo credit: Brenda Massei (Oak Meadow Archives)
Photo credit: Brenda Massei
(Oak Meadow Archives)

Think about this past year. What growth opportunities did the year offer up, for yourself or your child? What have you or your child learned to do that stumped you or seemed impossible just one year ago? Did anything happen that you could not possibly have predicted?
Last year at this time, what were your biggest parenting concerns? Were you grappling with decisions about how best to support your child’s needs? Was your confidence about your educational path strong, or was it faltering? Were you puzzling out the logistics of the components your life and experimenting with the best fit for yourself and your child? Or were things falling easily into place?
Photo credit: Charlie Siegel (Oak Meadow Archives)
Photo credit: Charlie Siegel
(Oak Meadow Archives)

What twists and turns has your family’s path taken over the past year? What discoveries have you made?
What things were going smoothly at the start of last year? Have they continued to go well? Were you at a point where your hard work seemed to be making a difference, or were you just beginning a new leg of the journey? Were there challenges ahead that you had not yet encountered?
Now think about how those same things are going now as you begin the new year. What challenges do you anticipate in the months ahead?
What do you wish you had known a year ago? If you could go back in time and talk with the person you were then, what would you tell them about what lies ahead? Would you offer reassurance? Would you be able to give them some insights to save time and energy and heartache by making a different choice?
Photo credit: Vanessa Rappolt (Oak Meadow Archives)
Photo credit: Vanessa Rappolt
(Oak Meadow Archives)

What did you learn about yourself this past year? Did you find that you are more courageous and capable than you realized? Did you become aware of weaknesses in a way that opened up possibilities for new and perhaps better ways of managing things? What challenges have you been able to turn into growth opportunities?
What did you learn about your child? Were you surprised, delighted, frustrated by anything you discovered over the course of the year? Did you become aware of weaknesses that need to be addressed or strengths that can be celebrated? Who is this older child that he or she is becoming? In what ways do you think your child might grow between now and the end of the next year?
What are your hopes and wishes for the year ahead? What are your fears? If you could talk with the person you will be in one year, what do you hope he or she might say to reassure you?
Now take another deep breath in. Exhale gently.
Photo credit: Adam Hall (Oak Meadow Archives)
Photo credit: Adam Hall
(Oak Meadow Archives)

Tell yourself what a good job you’ve done over this past year. The year was not perfect, but no year is. Affirm the ways in which you honored your child and yourself through some of the choices you made. Acknowledge the challenges you faced with courage, the things you weren’t expecting that showed up anyway, the personal marathons you bravely ran without knowing for sure where they would end. Give yourself credit for excellent effort, a job well done, and a life well lived.
You have made another year’s worth of progress on your journey. Celebrate the satisfaction of that accomplishment!
Now take one more deep breath…
…and face the new year’s journey.

Organizing Your Homeschool Day

Many parents wonder how best to organize their time when using Oak Meadow or other homeschooling curriculum. There is no one right way to approach homeschool planning, so go at it with an open mind! Try something that appeals to you, then fine-tune your process as you discover what works well for you and your children.

It can be helpful and calming for children and parents to have a predictable daily routine. Start by sketching out a typical week. First lay down the daily basics. When does your day begin? When do you and your children normally rise in the morning, eat meals, and tuck in at night? Do you have specific habits that help your children “get ready” when they wake up in the morning or wind down before bedtime? Time for meal preparation and cleanup is also important.

Be sure to preserve space for these important daily rituals. Plan sufficient time in your day for necessary housework. What daily tasks are needed to keep your household gently humming? Can some be done by or with the help of a child? Are there responsibilities that can only be handled by an adult while children are otherwise occupied? Setting aside time for these things in your routine helps ensure that they will not get pre-empted. When enough time is available for housework and other essential tasks, academic learning can then proceed in a relaxed and unhurried way.

Perhaps you are already aware of a default rhythm as you and your children go about the day. If not, tune in for a few days and observe any patterns. When thinking about your schedule, consider the default rhythm that is already happening as well as any changes or habits that you’d like to foster. Remember that you can choose how firmly or loosely to adhere to your routine. Some children need by-the-clock structure to feel calm, safe, and centered. Some families need an element of flexibility in every single day to accommodate regular moving pieces or unknowns, but having a default schedule helps even very flexible families stay on track with their priorities. Having a well-thought out daily routine lays the foundation for success in all other daily endeavors.

Activities and Down Time
After you have mapped out the daily basics, think about your family’s outside commitments and how they fit into the week. Be sure to factor in travel and transition time before and after out-of-home activities. If an activity conflicts with the fundamentals already in place in your schedule, consider whether it would be best to shift the timing of a basic component on that one day, or in general across the entire week. You might find that as long as dinner happens within certain range of time each day, nobody complains. Or it may make sense to have dinner or naptime happen at the same time every day to cement the routine.

Some scheduling adjustments are best avoided because the change upsets the family’s routine enough to cause more stress than the activity justifies. This can bring up challenging questions about priorities and how to best meet the needs of everyone in the family at once. Keep in mind that a great plan on paper is sometimes not a good fit in practice, and this may not become apparent until you’ve given it a try. Homeschool scheduling is an ever-shifting process. You’ll make adjustments along the way as you discover what each person in the family needs most.

Exercise, fresh air, and expansive time in nature help tremendously to balance the focused attention that is often needed for academics. Plan daily time for free play or other unstructured activities, ideally at the same time each day. Down time is also very important. Many families find that a daily mid-day period of quiet time helps both children and adults recharge and recenter themselves, so do your best to set aside time to make this a habit.

There are many possible ‘right’ ways to organize your homeschool day, week, month, and year. Your family’s schedule will reflect its uniqueness and individuality. With a solid approach to planning and scheduling, homeschooling doesn’t have to be overwhelming.

With household and family routines and the less flexible activities in place in your schedule (even tentatively), the next step is to make regular time for academic planning. Some parents prepare their academic plan monthly or even yearly, but it is important to revisit it regularly and to include your child in the process. Set aside a dedicated time each week to look over your homeschooling materials and curriculum and figure out what needs to be accomplished in the coming week. Make a list of materials needed and gather them together. Set things up so that you feel as prepared as possible before the week begins.

As children get older, consider sitting down with them once a week to look at the coming week’s plan and discuss what needs to happen and when. Sometimes our children have insights into their own habits and capabilities that will help ensure a successful plan. In time, students who are in the habit of a weekly planning session may be able to manage it on their own, or at least begin a to-do list themselves before finalizing it with a parent.

Visual tools can be very helpful. Some families create a weekly assignment sheet with checkboxes so that each student can easily see what needs to be done and mark things off as they are completed. For others, a large chalkboard or whiteboard is the best tool for listing daily or weekly assignments, along with reminders of other important weekly responsibilities or events.

Preparing your schedule is like laying out a custom patchwork quilt. Continue moving the pieces around until they fit together just right. Over time you’ll hone and create a good flow for each day.

When the fundamentals are in place in your schedule, and you’ve included time for planning and outside activities, it’s time to work out in detail how academic time will be spent.

Identify regular times for focusing on academic learning and practice. It may take some trial and error to figure out how much time you need to block off for academics in each day or week. If you are unsure, start by reserving more time than you think you need, particularly if you’re still figuring out each family member’s inner rhythm.

In the younger grades (K-3), many families start their day with Circle Time. This can become a wonderful ritual that everyone looks forward to. It is an opportunity for sharing a verse, poem, song, or story as a family. Some families also integrate yoga, dance, a thought question, or the cultivation of gratitude. Circle Time can be as long or as brief as your child can tolerate – just long enough to be a positive experience. If it’s not working well, change it!

For older children who have outgrown the concept of Circle Time, devise another way to connect each morning. Use that opportunity to discuss the plan for the day. This might be as simple as chatting over breakfast or checking in with each other en route to a scheduled morning activity. Make it a point to touch base with your child in some way each morning to go over the day’s plan and affirm your connection with each other.

Each Oak Meadow curriculum lesson is designed to be completed over the course of one week and contains an assignment summary in each subject, which can be used to create a checklist for each lesson. Some families choose to do something in every subject every day. Other families prefer to use block scheduling, focusing exclusively on one or two subjects for a day or more at a time, or “loop scheduling,” where you attend to subjects one by one in a chosen order, returning to the top of the list once you’ve completed the loop. You can read more about these different approaches here. You might come up with another approach that will work even better for your child.

Consider how long your child can focus before he or she needs a break. Students and parents both benefit from the opportunity to switch gears when needed. Academics can be strategically woven around active play and down time to make learning time as efficient as possible. If you believe you will need more time for academics than you have in your schedule, consider ways to multitask. Depending on the ages and abilities of your children, you may be able to overlap different kinds of activities.

For example, you might have a period of time during which a child is working on academics in the kitchen while you prepare a meal. Or you might have a focused academic session with an older child while a younger one naps. If you have multiple children with various needs, consider engaging extra hands—a neighbor, grandparent, or friend—to help you succeed.

One of the great joys of homeschooling is having the opportunity to follow a custom-fit schedule. There are many good possible ways to organize your homeschool time, so go ahead, make a plan, and give it a try. Do the best you can, allow for flexibility where needed, and trust in the process. You’ll soon figure out what works best for your family!

Hilary's Second Day of First Grade…

As many of us begin the new school year, we often reflect on the success (and the bumps) of the first few days/weeks. Some home teachers like to journal their thoughts as a keepsake of these special “first” days schooling their children. K-8 Oak Meadow teacher, Michelle Menegaz, did this on the second day of her daughter’s first grade school year. I hope her sharing inspires you to create your own journal or blog. 1mmenegaz
We had an impromptu Michaelmas (Michael and the Dragon battling in the heavens) celebration when rainy weather cancelled our wonderful homeschool first grade “crossing the bridge” celebration. Sigh. I need to tell you that very little of what I describe next was pre-planned. I had only thought ahead that the clothesline was straight and she could walk under it and that we would do some forms in her practice books. I think the spirit of the day just took over…
So, the next day on Michaelmas, only day 2 of school for us, my 6 and a half year old daughter and I played dragons under the clothesline as I hung up a few things. The concept in play was “the curve and the line.” She either walked a straight line under the clothesline or ran from one end to the other in a big curve – depending on whether the “dragon” (ME!) was sleeping with a straight tail or a curved tail. I used my arm as a tail in mime. If it was curved, it meant the dragon was spewing fire and she had to run in a big curve to avoid it. If it was straight, she could just walk under the line.
Then we discovered that the pusher poles for the line, made from saplings, were actually dragon pencils (!) and we drew our lines and curves on the dirt driveway, despite the gravel.

1111picNext we ran up to the young orchard pretending a bigger dragon was in pursuit, climbed a tree or two and checked out the different leaves of the different fruit trees. Mama dragon then told her the secret of Dragon Hill, crowned on top with the sapling arch we made for last year’s home school celebration. The secret was that if a dragon marches forcefully and in a very, very straight line right up the steep hill to the arch and goes through it, on the other side the dragon will be able to fly down the hill in large graceful curves…which is just what we did. (See the little dragon under the orange leafed tree with her wings spread wide?)
Then homeward to practice form drawing, collecting beautiful bits of autumn color on our way. The curves were dragons (in green crayon) and the lines were their roars. Hilary had a slightly hard time bringing the bottom of the curve around enough so I told her that some of these little baby dragons like to sleep with their nose and tail pressed right up against a log. I put my finger at the end of the paper for the log and she drew the curve from the top of my finger around and down to the bottom of it. She looks proud but a bit afraid those dragonettes might bite!

Next we made some only moderately successful gluten-free dragon bread following the story linked with Michael in the book, All Year Round by Ann Druitt, Christine Fynes-Clinton, and Marije Rowling. Then, we went off to a riding lesson while a dear friend baked the bread at her house. During the waiting parts of the bread-making, Hilary made a beeswax dragon that lived under the bouquet of colored leaves next to the beeswax votive candle we had burning.
After the great riding lesson, (all about balance by the way), 1111111picwe met one more friend and headed up the big hill with the incredible view down the valley to make and fly kites and eat dragon bread – at least the parts the dog didn’t get into! 4 kids and three mamas. I followed instructions for a sled kite but I must say it just didn’t work well. I think homemade kites have to be very exact to fly right. The cheap boughten one with the smiling sun on it went up in an instant as they ran squealing down the hill pulling it aloft. I have never seen such pure glee, arms thrust into the air, mid-leap…laughter, adventure, trial and error, run-back-uphill-panting-and-do-it-again delight!
We stayed till dusk and raindrops began to fall, then headed home for grilled cheese dinner and a late bedtime; but what a day!
I realized that our dear wee first graders had indeed stood at the hilltop viewing the road before them, raced on ahead alone, faced a challenge and were headed over that bridge to their next journey of childhood. This was exactly what we had been trying to plan for a formal celebration, which is turns out we didn’t even need!

May the spirit move us always in such simple yet deep ways…