Our first two Januaries as a homeschool family were so miserable that I very nearly threw in the towel. The first year, the kids just did not want to be bothered to learn anything. They fought me and cried over just about everything. When I asked for advice from the veterans, I got everything from have them repeat scripture verses until their attitudes change (well-meaning advice but, frankly, fruitless in our house) to, “Take them on field trips!”
I managed a few field trips here and there–the weather wasn’t so bad that year, after all–but when it was time to come back to the books, we only had more fighting and crying than before.
The next year I thought I was so wise. “Perhaps they’re just not engaged in those measly field trips. Perhaps we need to really WOW them to make them happy enough to learn!” So guess where Santa sent us for the first part of our second homeschooling January:
Problem solved, right? I mean, they went from the indulgences of the Christmas season to a nonstop delightfest in Central Florida’s International Temple of Juvenile Hedonism. Then I was shocked–shocked!–when we came home and nobody wanted to start learning again. Was that not enough field trip for them? Didn’t they get surfeited on fun in order to get ready to learn again?
“Oh, honey,” I want to tell my 2013 self, “it just doesn’t work that way.”
So here’s what we tried last January (weather dragged it into February) and what we’re doing again this January (we’ll see what weather does to us this year).
Discover a world without their luxuries. Last year I gave First Shift (then 5th grade) a list of the world’s 50 poorest countries, told each to pick one, then research and answer 20 questions about that country: Where do they get their water? How often are their meals? How old are girls when they get married? Do they have roads, hospitals, internet access? Do they have schools? What’s the average household income, life span? Why is life like that in this country? What would you do to change things?
They’re nerds, so they were both excited to learn new things independently (read: computer time), but as they delved further into the project, the more teachable moments came forward. For instance, one morning they were complaining about having to share table space and a math book. I had the opportunity to say, “If you lived in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, would you even have a math book?” Their jaws dropped. Then they closed their mouths and got to work.
Over all, they now seem more appreciative of what they have and less demanding for more. This project taught our kids to see everything they have as gift–even homeschooling.
Discover the concept of both-and. There are plenty of people who say that we shouldn’t look abroad for people to help when we have a whole country of need here in ‘Murica. With that in mind, we did do a number of hands-on service projects locally. One of those projects brought us to a local food cupboard for a tour and donation sorting. We saw their industrial-sized refrigerators and freezers, their new kitchen for teaching cooking and canning classes, their rooms lined with shelves for nonperishables. We had the opportunity to ask what our tour guide thought it would be like to have a food cupboard in sub-Saharan Africa. She acknowledged that not only would they not have the same kind of infrastructure (no electricity for the refrigeration), but they also would not have people around who were affluent enough to have anything to donate in the first place.
Yes, there is real need here, but there’s also more desperate need elsewhere. There is no reason we can’t reach out both near and far. This also showed our kids that there’s good reason to learn not just local geography and history but global as well.
Discover the actual faces around you. We were lucky to have Second Shift in preschool one day into the afternoon so that I could take First Shift to a local homeless shelter where we served lunch. I don’t know why I was surprised, but the three of us served alongside a couple of guys there for court-assigned community service. They didn’t look much like the people we see on a daily basis out here in East Cornfield, where the fields are brown and the manure is fragrant, and up until recently the closest thing we’ve had to diversity is a mix of both Amish and Mennonites. But we were all helping others together, which showed us all that the people who help don’t have to look a certain way.
Moreover, the people we were helping didn’t all look a certain way either. Some people wore the expected uniform: tattered clothing, many layers and an overstuffed backpack. Others, however, didn’t fit the preconceived notions: polished shoes, ties, a nice purse. Just because people can afford to dress well enough to keep their jobs and maybe pay rent and child care doesn’t mean they can afford their daily bread on top of it all. You can’t tell by looking at someone whether or not that person could use a bit of mercy.
What do these examples do for our homeschooling? A student who sees an adult helping others can see herself helping others, too. A student who sees an adult asking for and receiving help is given the gift of humility, and nobody learns anything without humility.
The most vital job of education is to teach children to become more fully human. The benefit of focusing just one month out of the twelve on serving others is that it make serving others part of our family culture. When a friend had surgery, it’s no big deal to bring her lunch. When an elderly family member has been laid up for several months, it’s not a shock that we go over to his house and clean the bathroom and kitchen. When St. Elizabeth of Hungary’s feast day comes around, nobody complains that we’re skipping recess so we can bring Thanksgiving fixins to the food cupboard along with flowers for the workers there.
It also makes it less of a surprise that we serve each other in our family: whether it’s through putting laundry away, scooping the cat litter, or completing a math assignment without complaint.
It’s a little late in the game, but I’m finally working on our January 2016 plans as we speak. I have calls in to the animal shelter, a local Habitat for Humanity, the county ARC, and we’ve started saving money to buy much-needed play doctor kits for the local children’s hospital. The 6th graders will be researching life for the poorest of the poor in the United States–those on Indian reservations. We’re looking forward to it, too–more than we would be to an new math book and a new grammar and writing kit. However, the discoveries we make in service lay the groundwork for the book learning, because those discoveries show our kids–and me as their teacher–the real value of the books. They’re tools to help us make our world more beautiful.
Have you ever suffered a case of “the Januaries” (or maybe even “the Februaries”)? What’s been your best remedy? What are some ways you have seen service help your family, either on the giving or the receiving end? What have you and your children learned as a result?