a no-drama guide to bullet journaling

When I realized my friend Kate was three years into her bullet journaling habit, I couldn’t resist asking her to elucidate her method and approach for us. There’s something truly remarkable about mixing the daily practical schedules of a mother, a devoted school librarian, and an ambitious household manager alongside the grander schemes of a young woman’s mind and the interests of an omnivorous pop culturist. I loved getting this peek into the inner workings and I hope you do too. 

by Kate Bowman-Johnson. Photos of Kate’s journals by Leah Hood. 

Recently, in the middle of an intense counseling session, I found myself breaking out my planner: Exhibit A.

“This is what it’s like inside my head all the time,” I told my therapist. “There’s no rhyme or reason, half of it’s indecipherable, there are pages of incomplete tasks, and there is a lot of space devoted to bad television.”

She flipped through the journal slowly. “Okay,” she said, “but I also see illustrations by your kids. There’s some beautiful art in here. I see a lot of tasks crossed off. I see smart workarounds, sermon notes, and a list of what’s making you sad. It seems like this journal helps you manage your mental health in a productive way. I don’t look at it and see someone who’s failing.”

Well. A more on-the-nose introduction to this piece I could not have dreamed up. Fellow havers of mom-brain and assorted mood disorders: welcome to Bullet Journaling as Therapy. Less a fun tutorial, more a reflection on how a book and pencil saved my sanity – and just might save yours.

I started bullet journaling three years ago during a particularly busy season in my life. I had two young kids, I was a year into an exciting but whirlwind job, and I was actively fighting depression and anxiety. I kept forgetting important dates and dropping the ball. Post-it notes were stuck to every surface. I had three different Google Calendars, none of them synced. Sometimes I would write things in a Moleskine, then lose the Moleskine. It was bad.

I don’t remember exactly how, but I stumbled on a video about bullet journaling from the method’s creator. It immediately hooked me because of its simplicity, adaptability, and clear organization. I liked the balance between freedom and structure, two poles between which I’m constantly pulled. It seemed just the thing for someone like me, who’s equal parts fastidious and forgetful, creative and downright lazy.

So I grabbed a small notebook I already had on hand, watched some more videos, read some more tutorials, and set up my first bullet journal with only a Ticonderoga pencil in hand. (As an educator, I’m here to tell you that no other pencils need apply. Some things are worth the brand name.)

Three years in, bullet journaling is one of the few things in the universe that has not only lived up to the hype, but proved sustainable for me. It’s transformed my busy life and busy brain. It’s a way to self-soothe when I feel like things are falling apart around me; if I can capture them in the moment on paper, they’re not so daunting. They’re contained, yet accessible at all times. Mischief managed.

Since I began in 2016, much has been published about bullet journals and their Pinterest-ready cousins, dot journals. There are endless articles about how to set up your journal and embellish your journal and invest your fortune in stencils and washi tape. Such tutorials have been very useful to me (this one by Rachel Wilkerson Miller is the gold standard, if you want to familiarize yourself with the basic tenets, and I also like her book Dot Journaling: A Practical Guide), but the market is saturated. Instead, I hope to share a few guiding principles for people who are looking for more than just, as Rachael so aptly put it, a “relentless to-do list” – but may feel overwhelmed by getting started.

Flexibility is a feature, not a bug. Since you create a bullet journal by hand in a blank book, one page at a time, you can do literally whatever you want. Which is terrifying for someone like me. There is nothing I like more than following rules (Enneagram 6!), so I’ve had to push myself to bend and break them – but mercifully, journaling is built for that. For example, I used a weekly spread for months before I realized it was stressing me out and got rid of it. The world did not end; my process just got more efficient. Similarly, you’re not “supposed” to set up dailies ahead of time – but making a new spread once a week isn’t realistic for me. I make them all at the beginning of each month and I don’t feel bad about it, because it works. Meanwhile, all of my sections are interspersed with the weird art my kids make while waiting at the doctor, random lists, recipes, project-planning spreads, etc. There’s no BuJo police and they are not coming for you. Do you.

Keep the ‘gram at arm’s length. The internet is full of talented folks with gorgeous BuJo spreads and a lot of time on their hands. Their work is informative and inspiring, but take it with a grain of salt. Your bullet journal does not need reams of watercolor landscapes or brush lettering to work for you. Minimalist journaling is its own subculture, worth investigating if you get turned off by the fancy stuff. Personally, I check in on a few noted journalers once in a while if I’m feeling stagnant or need specific layout ideas. But by and large, I try to view those accounts as pure eye candy – not an indictment of how much I suck at planning and/or art. My own journals run the gamut from painstaking brush-lettering to hastily dashed grocery lists; it all depends on how much time and energy I have on hand.

Let accessories take a backseat. I know it’s tempting, because there’s so much cute stuff out there, and it’s so cheap on Amazon. As someone guilty of buying up hobby gear only to abandon it two weeks in, I forced myself to try bullet journaling for a whole month with only the resources I had on hand (journal, pencil). Then, once I had a better idea of how I was using it, I invested in a few simple tools: a small metal ruler, reusable page markers, and erasable pens. Years later, I’m the proud owner of some Tombow brush pens and layout stencils, but I usually default to a simple approach because it keeps the focus on the content.

Find a balance with digital tools. When I upgraded my phone, it had an unexpected effect on my journal. I found myself abandoning the habit trackers that make dot journals so pretty, but they had become superfluous now that I had apps. Clue hacks my cycle; YNAB tracks expenses; Noom covers nutrition and exercise – so those stay in the cloud. On the flip side, I still put TV shows I’m watching in my journal (I’ll explain why in a minute), and I also meal plan on paper. The only things I duplicate are calendar appointments – hand writing them sears them into my memory, but I also need those automated pings and dings from my phone – and my reading list, which I keep on in my journal as well as plug into GoodReads. Otherwise, the division of labor is pretty clear. Don’t make your journal work harder than it needs to just for the sake of looking impressive!

Write it all down. One of my favorite BuJo functions is that of a lazy diary. When we’re on vacation, I summarize each day’s highlights, as well as recording impressions from daily life as I feel the urge. Samuel Pepys I am not, but I do like having a record of what I was thinking or feeling at a particular moment. When my kids ask about an event (“when did I find that dead mouse in the bathroom?” was a fun one), I’m just as likely to flip through old bullet journals as I am to scroll through my Instagram feed to track it down. This is also why I write what I’m reading and watching and listening to – they’re snapshots not just of the media I consume, but landmarks in time. Nothing is too big or too small to diarize alongside your to-do list, because it all creates opportunities for reflection later on.

It’s okay to be aspirational. Listen. I’m sitting here telling you to be cool and not overdo it with your bullet journal, when I know full well this book sitting right next to me is slathered in washi tape and spreads designed by a professional artist and all kinds of pretentious shit. The old journals piled under it are filled with trackers I made with high hopes of developing life-changing habits… then abandoned. It’s all part of the process. A few years back, I hosted a lengthy bullet journal discussion thread on my Facebook page, in which several friends noted with envy my list of daily and weekly chores. I assured them that said chores were ambitions, not realities. I record lists like this so that I don’t waste time dithering around, wondering what to do and where to start, but so that I have something concrete to tackle when the opportunity arises. Indeed, a bullet journal can be as spare and minimal as you want – but if filling it with designs or itemizing your dreams in a spread brings you joy, go for it.

The takeaway here is that a bullet journal is not a magic, er, bullet. It will not effortlessly transform you into a totally organized, together person. Like most things, you get out of it what you put into it. If you’re looking for structure with a dash of free will, if you need a home for your fascinations and foibles and lists titled “Where Did I Hide That Thing From Myself,” bullet journaling is a good place to start. If nothing else, you can use it for show and tell at therapy.

 

Bookshelf Godmothers

My friend Jenny has been homeschooling her five children from the beginning. From afar I’ve watched as her confidence and spirit have flourished in her approach. I know her as a deep thinker and researcher, so I knew she must have a heavy bookshelf of guidance and encouragement in this journey (in particular I liked imagining her on her porch, deep North Carolina summer, glass of iced tea, notepad, and books at her side).

I asked her to share the top titles with us, the bookshelf-godmothers of her approach, and she did! There is so much wisdom here. Thank you Jenny! Illustration by Joe. 

by Jenny DeGeyter Haller

Homeschooling sort of stumbled into my lap. I never planned to be here, and I don’t know much about what the future holds. We just do the next right thing. We’ve settled now into a classical, Charlotte-Mason, history-loving, nature-school hybrid that I’ve dreamt up with my husband of 11 years. We have 5 children, a handful of chickens, 1 dog, 2 cats on 4 acres in the woods near Charlotte, NC. My husband is a financial advisor by day, homesteading park-ranger by night. We love nature and books, food and bonfires.

We have a mixed bag of influencers. Being an analytical mind and extensive researcher, I feel the need to read all the books. I enjoy the overwhelming feeling of so much good. All these women, going before us; leading the way and training us with their wisdom.

  • Our first influencer, the Headmaster, Susan Wise Bauer of The Well-Trained Mind
    • This is the comprehensive guide to classical education outlining the history of the methodology as well as implementation. The three stages of classical education are then thoroughly discussed by grade and subject. The book-lists alone are worth copying down. The last section discusses how to implement classical education at home, managing the records, tests and schedules, etc. No coddling. She gets right to it. Her way is strict, demanding, specific, and extensive. I open this book every summer when I’m planning my year and re-read each section for my specific child’s needs. I order most of her recommendations and haven’t been disappointed once. The Bauers and the Well Trained Mind have a large presence in our home. We’ve used:
      • Story of the Worldall four volumes and workbooks. Elementary history chronologically and geographically written so well.
      • The Ordinary Parent’s Guide to Teaching Reading– an open-and-go phonics program. Simple and straightforward. We’ve used it for years.
      • First Language Lessons– An open-and-go classical grammar and language arts program for the early elementary years.
  • Charlotte Mason, specifically, Home Education Vol 1 and A Philosophy of Education Vol 6
    • Here we have our wise, wordy grandmother. Using her philosophy, she led schools and trained teachers in England (in the early 1900’s).  Her basic premise is best summed up in the phrase, “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.” Some of my favorite topics covered in these two volumes: living books, habits, whole living ideas, nature study, a child’s mind as an organism, a full and well-rounded curriculum full of the ‘riches,’ using short lessons to encourage interest and eliminate boredom, and how stories build character. Anyone who is interested in not doing ‘school at home’ but real and vibrant homeschool, opposite of brick-and-mortar school should consider reading both of these volumes (or all 6!). Our students are spirits to be kindled, after all.
  • Sally Clarkson The Mission of Motherhood and Educating the Wholehearted Child

    • If I had to choose a fairy godmother, I would choose Sally Clarkson. She has the tender loving, sweet-talking, supportive air about her. She has written a myriad of books and they range from topics of motherhood in general, homeschooling, homemaking and more. These two are my favorites. The first is an affirming, spiritually-rich encouragement for the calling of motherhood. It reminds us that our primary role as parents is the development and molding of our children’s hearts for God. Teaching them (even if we don’t school them) to tend their passions, habits, words and actions towards being faithful to God is our ultimate destiny for these short years we have them at home. The book is a yearly must-read for me, even if I just skim or read my underlining. After I close the book, I have a renewed sense as a mother. I’m more patient, calm and hopefully, more aware of being with my children instead of just managing them.
    • Educating the Wholehearted Child is a homeschooling-rich resource. It outlines how the Clarksons homeschooled and how they used living books and various curricula. They discuss discipleship and use that as a term that is a good reminder for creating life-long learners modeled after Jesus’ teachings. The book reads like a textbook and is an aid for beginners as it details various homeschooling methods, curriculum and resource lists.
    • Other books by Sally that I’ve read and recommend: Desperate (encouragement for the weary mom), The Lifegiving Home (yearly ways to make your home unique, inviting and traditions to uphold), and Seasons of a Mother’s Heart (a gentle reminder to take care of yourself and that certain season are more difficult than others).
  • Sarah Mackenzie Teaching from Rest
    • Sarah Mackenzie would also be a fairy godmother if we’re allowed two. Or a fairy aunt. She is young and still in the trenches with toddlers and students afoot. Her book is a short but concise view of the mental challenge of teaching from rest and from a space of low-anxiety. She gently reminds us who it is we are working for (God) and what is required of us (faithfulness). “The heart of this book is about remembering what our true task really is and then throwing ourselves in completely. Giving our all. The raising of children, the teaching of truth, the sharing of life, the nourishing of imagination, and the cultivating of wisdom: these are all his anyway, we are merely His servants.” This is a must-read for any new or harried homeschooler. (Her website/podcast is also full of book list nuggets and interviews with some popular authors www.readaloudrevival.com; She also has a new book out called The Read Aloud Family.)
  • Kathleen Norris Quotidian Mysteries
    • This one won’t show up on many homeschoolers’ radars but I consider it a yearly must-read. Kathleen Norris could be our spiritual mother and mentor. The subtitle of this very short but thoughtful read is Laundry, Liturgy and ‘Women’s Work’, and it enables us to recognize our quotidian (or daily tasks) as holy work. The repetition, the mundane and the potential acedia that takes years to overcome is all discussed in a poetic and personal tone. Dishes, laundry, mopping, brushing out tangles, all of these can be worthy as worship if done in the right spirit. This is not a homeschool book.  Most days, though, the actual schooling is easy and the living is what drains me. This book convicts me to my core making me evaluate my heart and motivation. Our homes can be our monasteries. Liturgy, reading, housekeeping and constant prayer- as the Benedictines do, so do the mothers.
  • Susan Schaeffer Macaulay For the Children’s Sake
    • Susan Schaeffer Macaulay- a gently reminding sister. When I first came into the homeschooling arena, this book was recommended over and over to me. It is a biblically framed reminder to remove ourselves from the culture of schools and create an atmosphere of education in our home. It is a great read for the beginner, especially one who has littles at home. The pressure to start sometimes itches at us but our children need to be relieved of this. She’d say “Remember this: nourish our children’s lives and cultivate their souls.”
  • Other notable recommendations: Leigh Bortins-The Core, Karen Glass- Consider This, Cindy Rollins- Mere Motherhood.

We can’t forget the men.  Here are some notable Godfathers:

  • C.S. Lewis- Abolition of Man
  • David Hicks- Norms and Nobility
  • Anthony Esolen- Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of your Child
  • Oliver DeMille- A Thomas Jefferson Education
  • Richard Louv- Last Child in the Woods

I’ve been wanting to read/currently reading: Stratford Caldecott- Beauty in the Word (amazing!), and Julie Bogart, The Brave Learner.  Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time, we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Cheers to you on this long obedience; may your years reap a great harvest.

List Therapy

Though we’ve never met in person, I consider Amelia a close internet friend, a longtime reader, and a woman of enormous wisdom and warmth that she can’t keep from effusing through her digital self. If I could convince her to write a weekly column for us, I would! But meanwhile, her presence on Instagram is a generous window into her humble, gracious approach to life and motherhood. In her essay shared with us here, I love the way the idealism of to-do meets elevation of memory.

by Amelia Markgraf

It all begins with the right atmosphere. There should be a decent amount of time to think and write. A favorite pen is lovely, good posture allows for penmanship you can be proud of, and no children on your lap/on top of the table/trying to chew on your pen is ideal.

This doesn’t happen to me very often.

At this point in my life, I make lists in my head, in the quiet busyness of making beds and putting dishes away and in the pick-up line at school. I forget them all by bedtime. Still, somehow, even just thinking the lists, one by one, helps me. Like taking the messy pile of thoughts in my brain and clacking them on a desk till they form a tidy stack. I feel better, even if they eventually flutter out of my brain like leaves down the street.

When I do have time to write them down, I like to keep my lists in notebooks. By now I have enough of them to line a shelf in my living room. Though I’ve never been good at keeping a diary or organizing photo albums, I can crank out enough lists to fill a notebook in a matter of months, and flipping through those old notebooks provides the same kind of nostalgia as any diary could. Who needs journals full of thoughts and confessions when you can recall exactly how life was just by looking at a grocery list you made as a newlywed? One of my favorite notebooks holds all the lists I made as I transitioned to motherhood. One page has a list of last minute nursery tweaks, and the very next contains nothing but a column of feeding times, along with which side my newborn son fed from last. The handwriting is scrawled and crooked. The page itself is literally coffee stained. It is the most accurate time capsule.

I’ve been using list-making as a way to calm myself and sort my thoughts for years. I take it very seriously. Some lists are a comforting constant, and remain the same through the years: January lists are full of health goals and house projects and so much hope. Spring lists are all about garden plans and cleaning sprees. Summer lists are few and far between, and then August lists come with a vengeance and great detail. Parenting goals! Meal plans! School supplies! Vows to reinstate order after the wild days of summer. Then the cold, dark months come and the pages holding Christmas lists and Advent activities are decorated with stars, doodled to look as bright and twinkly as possible.

Some lists are new. For example, after six straight years of being pregnant and/or nursing a baby, I am suddenly not. So, in the spirit of my newfound freedom, I dared to make a short list of restaurants to try. Date night ideas! New territory.

Some lists are ever changing and growing. I have a To Read list, a Songs for a Good Cry list, a Things I Want My Husband to Build for Our House list. The Jobs I’d Maybe Like to Have One Day list feels exciting and scary, and my heart flutters when I add to it. I don’t know if I’ll ever create illustrations for children’s books or be a Home Economics teacher, but they’re on the list and I feel like that counts for something.

It’s easy to look through my notebooks and find the times in my life where I struggled. Almost two years ago my husband and I sold our house, moved to a small apartment with our children, and welcomed a new baby a few weeks later. The year that followed was the hardest of my life. My baby cried for months, I lived in an uninspiring place that did not feel like home, and I worried constantly that I wasn’t giving my children what they needed. I longed for a home, for some peace, for some sleep. I had no time for any sort of creative outlet, and all my emotions poured out into my lists. Oh, the detail of those lists! The order! The desperation. My handwriting was sharp and upright and eager, like if I wrote down what I wanted with enough gusto, maybe it would come. Those lists are hard to look back on.

There have been other moments of struggle where my lists lose order of every kind, and instead become long, flowing paragraphs of prayer. Prayers for myself and for loved ones. Prayers for health. Prayers for clarity and faith when I feel like I’ve lost my way. I love to look back on those lists, because they’re tangible evidence of prayers answered. Problems solved. Clearly, lists are a way I try to keep control of my life. But when I re-read these lists of pleading prayer, I’m assured I’m not really in control of any of it. Thankfully.

Over the weekend my daughter became very sick with a high fever. I accomplished nothing but the basics, fretting over temperature readings and trying to keep my hot baby comfortable. I did, however, manage to make one tiny list. It was actually more of a chart— two doses of amoxicillin for 10 days, Tylenol and ibuprofen, rotated, and the times administered. That small act of writing a list gave me a little bit of control when things felt out of my control. Some order when I was worried. A stacking of mental papers. She would be better, I knew. I wasn’t really in control of it anyway, thankfully.

But, of course, the list helped.

my hospital bag

Arguably there is no better metaphor for a woman’s last grasp at self-perception before an infant than the hospital bag. Misguided, optimistic, generous, cautious—it all gets packed. My bag usually ends up being half snacks (turmeric cashews are a recent favorite and several variations of homemade granola that I could eat forever). This time I’m adding a fresh, uncracked novel.

And there’s plenty of room for error. Last time, I remember thinking we were fools not to pack several rounds of energy drinks for Joe’s hormone-free all-nighter. We’ll fix that this time. And last time, I packed lots of chocolate granola, which was delicious, but also kept me up after I ate it all up at 4 am after Alma’s birth. As I type that I realize the irony: energy for myself at the wrong time, no spare bottled energy for my partner at the right time.

It’s something akin to the old saying for a woman’s wedding composition: something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. In place of something blue, I’d say something gently inspiring that reminds you can have a baby–whether because you did already or you simply believe that you can or someone else, like Ina May Gaskin, believes you can. This time it will be a necklace Joe gave me that has a tiny circle for each girl’s first initial. Can you believe I have four tiny pendants gently resting? Something new for me is a cozy set of sweatpants and sweatshirt that I know will feel wonderful to pull on afterward. Something old: so many things, but namely tattered slippers. Something borrowed: there are always things to reuse or borrow back in an infant’s collection of textile. I like taking arnica tablets in the days right after birth. And chapstick and face oil always seem to become rare and precious ointments in industrial-airway buildings.

Do you have favorite memories of mishaps or perfectly-packed?

review // Home Grown: Adventures in Parenting off the Beaten Path

I just finished a forest school book that was so nice I’d like to read it twice. Maybe I will. It was one of those wonderful reads where you get to live in someone else’s life and soak up their lessons and foibles, their mistakes and ambitions, all from the sequestered comfort of your home that looks nothing like theirs. Here’s how I came upon the book…

A few years a guy by the name of Ben Hewitt wrote an article for Outside Magazine about unschooling. I read it through a couple times and deemed it a steaming cup of bone broth from the unschooling movement. Here’s just a paragraph or two…

By 6:30, with the first rays of sun burning through the ground-level fog, the boys are outside. At some point in the next hour, a yellow school bus will rumble past the end of the driveway that connects the farm to the town road. The bus will be full of children the boys’ age, their foreheads pressed against the glass, gazing at the unfurling landscape, the fields and hills and forests of the small working-class community they call home.

The boys will pay the bus no heed. This could be because they will be seated at the kitchen table, eating breakfast with their parents. Or it might be because they are already deep in the woods below the house, where a prolific brook trout stream sluices through a stand of balsam fir; there is an old stone bridge abutment at the stream’s edge, and the boys enjoy standing atop it, dangling fresh-dug worms into the water. Perhaps they won’t notice the bus because they are already immersed in some other project: tillering a longbow of black locust, or starting a fire over which to cook the quartet of brookies they’ve caught. They heat a flat rock at the fire’s edge, and the hot stone turns the fishes’ flesh milky white and flaky.

I immediately googled what else this guy had written, and requested his book Home Grown. It is a quieter read than the article. While the article is edited to entice, and also, yes, to provoke, the book is a thoughtful read on the endearing attempts of unschooling parents to guide and provide for their children, to be patient, to believe in themselves and their child, and their children’s recent habit of skinning skunks in the front yard. It reminded me of Wendell Berry–written in a softly humble tone by a man who is grateful and astonished to find himself supporting his family above the poverty line as a writer and farmer.

Though we may now live surrounded by trees, rest assured my children are not (yet) hunting squirrels with handmade bows or building their own maple sugaring fires. They do not wake at dawn, dress appropriately for the weather and leave the house for hours at a time. And we aren’t unschooling. We are decidedly full of workbooks and curriculum and goals. But in reading something like Home Grown I can learn a lot from his attitude, the reminder to take the extra time to let them learn alongside you, the power of wait-and-see.

It has also been on my mind to seek out a tutor of sorts who could wander the woods with the girls, so I was delighted to find this same idea working well for Ben’s family. There are loads of wonderful camps around us, but I don’t need a week of intense activity framed by long drives and packed lunches. I would love something regular in our backyard with someone who can evolve into a mentor and friend.

What about you? Any good education reads lately?

old love // new love

I’ve got pencils on my mind for Valentines. Pencils are a delightful part of everyday life around here with the girls laboring over their handwriting–sharpening beautifully, the erasers all worn down to courageous stubs (furious erasing takes such courage).

I am the parent-tutor for a class of six seven-year-olds, we’re together each week for three fun and challenging hours. I will give them each a bright red sharpened pencil and a delicate red pen, the nib type that bends if you push too hard but until then, draws the most perfect fine line.

There is just something about red in February.

In the evenings the girls and I have been reading Birchbark House, a fictional story about a historic Native American tribe living on Lake Superior. We have landed in the winter chapters. The seven-year-old heroine Omakayas, her sister, mother, and grandmother spend the winter carefully beading projects like moccasins and purses by the dim firelight.

My equivalent is slowly beading our photos from 2017 and 2018 into a complete book for each year, purging hundreds of photos from my computer as I go. Last year I forgot to do the book for 2017. I think house hunting took over that computer-use space. Ultimately I have a very limited patience span for computer-ing. If I have one project, the time does not expand to accommodate another. It’s either/or.

Since 2013 I’ve used Artifact Uprising for my printed books; lured, I suppose, by their matte printing and rich papers. For years they did not offer an option for any kind of text to accompany the photos, which meant the book actually got done (they offer a text option now, which I will pragmatically ignore).

Their online book-building software is better than ever these days, they’ve fixed almost every quirk I used to quietly complain about. I recommend it. I also recommend batching all of your photos into folders by month and uploading the months as individual galleries. There–you have all of my wisdom gained in the last five years.

Though I was disappointed to find myself two years behind on the photo books, I have loved working through the photos from 2017. It’s completely wonderous how much has changed in that short amount of time. How much we did. How lovely most of it was. As I edit I often remember to murmur to myself–today we’re as young as we’ll ever be.

Bouquet image above from C.W. Pencil Enterprise

Homeschooling, the first round

I’m writing from a sunny window spot looking out on sparkling fields of snow. After the snow fell over the weekend it was blown into pillowy drifts, and like clouds, they look like you could cushion yourself gently upon them for a sunny catnap. But they are composed of such light, dry snow particles that if you were to try, you would fall deep within their frozen burrows. It’s hard to imagine the ground ever emerging from such a generous sugary frosting.

It’s 2 pm, we’ve finished school for the day and I’m feeling content with all the work that was done, and also entirely weary of answering and asking questions. These things come together, in my experience. A memory of saying “And where is Damascus?” while one of the girls removed her nightgown and tied it around her shoulders like a cape, softly repeating my question as she gazed past the map and at the wall comes to mind. I want to be caught in my own mental energy for a while and maybe read the twitter feed of a food critic or possibly a new entry from a very bright and satisfied lifestyle blogger. The girls clearly feel the same way and are playing with marbles. I can hear them asking each other questions like, “Do you want Fuzzy’s name to be Sally?” and “Can we please go play with our dolls now?” Now the older two have agreed to a plan and rushed upstairs, and the youngest can at last chatter to herself with play uninterrupted.

It’s a little funny to answer questions about homeschooling when we’ve only been doing it for a few months. That, combined with our recent lifestyle change–living in a new state and new house–in essence, I’m radioing back trail updates from just a few steps down the path.

Homeschool is a strange adaption in an ever-changing world. It doesn’t make sense in any practical way to educate children separately from their peers. Certainly, it would far easier to have them all grouped together in a classroom watching the same lectern.

At yet there is always something appealing about it. The slow pace. The diversified interests. The magnified attention to the desires of the child’s heart and mind. The way the parent can walk the path alongside their child, instead of waving encouragingly from the sidelines.

It was a treat to read through all the questions I received on Instagram about homeschooling so far. I would like to write a longer post about how our day looks and what I’ve learned, but I thought these questions summed up their own sort of logic and I want to be sure to answer them clearly. It’s important to say I’m not trying to sell you on anything. Your reasons for this sounding like a good or bad idea are entirely up to you, your family, and perhaps most importantly: what your family needs this year.

If questions seemed to be in a similar vein, I grouped them together with a //.

Curious to know your “why.” We’ve homeschooled from the beginning and I love hearing what people’s vision is for homeschooling.

The decision came about at the same time that we were looking at changing our lifestyle–moving into a quieter part of the country and adapting Joe’s daily work to less traditional hours. We had a sudden strange craving for daily chores of a different sort–housekeeping, gardening, land management.

I think our biggest why was to reclaim the time and their childhood. We imagined we could give them hours of boredom and wandering. We hoped to see them comfortable in nature. We wanted them to be able to stay up late reading and sleep in beyond 7 am the next morning. We wanted them to play together for hours with elaborate imaginary games. We wanted them to have no idea that the things they were excited about were unique and different.

As parents, we wanted the luxury of planning long weekends and adventures for all three of the kids, without worrying we were disrupting class schedules or commitments.

I think when we signed up for formal schooling, we thought we could say yes to all of that, plus school, but eight hours is a long time to be away. You get your kid back and they’re worn out and tired. They can barely answer your questions about what they learned. And the year goes by–in a blink!

How has the transition been from public school to homeschooling? Our oldest is in public kindergarten, but homeschooling has been on my heart for some time now.

The transition is likely most disruptive for parents. It feels great not to hassle your kid about turning out the reading light because she doesn’t have to wake up at 6 am. It feels great to have breakfast together and do the dishes and tidy the living room together. It feels amazing to know what topics they are excited about and how to help them learn more about them.

But it can feel odd to not have the whole day regimented. It can feel like you’re not doing “enough” because you haven’t directed every moment of their mental energy. It can feel odd to find them gazing out the window in contemplation. It can feel like a personal attack when they don’t want to sit down and get work done together every single day.

I’d love to know how much time you spend on schoolwork, and what the girls think of it – especially Lux, since she went to a brick and mortar school for a bit.

We spend about three hours on schoolwork a day. There is some reading aloud and tons of (voluntary!) reading alone time in addition to that, but I like to be done with most of the group and individual work by lunchtime, if we begin around nine.

They seem to love it. If they were asking to do something else, we’d likely be doing it!

Lux was originally tempted into homeschool by observing the material her younger sister was learning through Classical Conversations when Lux was going to public school. We noticed she was very engaged in the material and often asked to study with Joan. On the mornings when she would ask to stay home, we would say she was welcome to homeschool next year if that was what she wanted. And she often said, “yes! That’s what I want.”

Lux remembers school very fondly and is nostalgic for aspects of it. Occasionally she will make remarks that reveal how loud and chaotic she found it, how the waiting and lining up was frustrating, how repetitive the reading material was and how that bored her. (These are things she either couldn’t articulate or simply never mentioned at the time.)

The things I remember are how little ownership she felt over any projects completed in class, how she was gone the whole day and couldn’t manage to get along with her sisters when she got home though I could see how badly she wanted to, and the general sense of edge-softening/dulling that seemed to happen to her unique curiosities and spirit.

I’d love to know what you’re using, what your days look like, and how you balance school with the little ones!!

We are using :

-Classical Conversations: “CC” A weekly group meet up with a memorized curriculum in seven subjects, science experiments, and fine art experiences.

-Sonlight Curriculum’s history & literature (about an hour of reading per day lined up for the entire year, 3-4 different books daily). This curriculum has a Christian emphasis but most of the titles are not specifically religious.

Handwriting Without Tears cursive (love the style of these books!)

Explode the Code phonics (Joan adores these)

-Life of Fred math & everyday math engagement with things like postage stamps and road signs

The newly three-year-old would be the first to tell you she does school. In fact at the doctor’s office when they asked her what was one of her favorite things to do, she said “phonics!” 

But really, the morning school hours can be boring for her, and she has to learn to be as least disruptive during this time as she can. It is amazing/delightful to see how much of the material she will engage with. She’ll ask what a word I just read aloud means. She’ll attempt to and sometimes successfully memorize the same material as the girls (a two-year-old singing Latin declensions is unbelievably cute).

She has her own books, crayons, notepad, and letters that come out during this time. None of them catch her attention for long…which is totally normal for that age and I don’t get discouraged by it.

And after each morning session, I gush over how patient she was, and we get a stack of books and read them together, just she and I. Then too her sisters have hours of the day after lunch to play with her and include her in their games—what could be more amazing?

Are you still able to do CC in Vermont and if so how is it going? We started it with my 4 and 6-year-old when we moved to Florida.

Yes! For each house we looked at while house hunting, I used the zip code check to see what CC was in the area, and often reached out to the leader to talk and ask questions about the town and community.

It didn’t determine where we purchased a house, but I would have been surprised/concerned if there hadn’t been a community within 45 minutes.

I know so little about homeschooling, so I’d love to find out how you homeschool three different ages at once. // It interests me so much but I don’t know much about it. Would love the basics including how you handle 3 different ages.

The primary approach with the reading is one-room-schoolhouse style. I read books aloud that the seven-year-old could theoretically read aloud to herself (though she would avoid them because they appear boring) and that the five-year-old may understand most but not all of the material therein. Sonlight Curriculum makes this easy by shipping you a box of books for those ages and laying out the schedule for the year.

But one shouldn’t think they have to pay lots of money to do this kind of thing. There are lots of free programs laid out online and you could compose it with library books and used book purchases in advance. Ambleside Online is a good place to encounter this world.

For CC, the girls memorize the exact same material. The older child is likely grasping the geography of ancient Mesopotamia in a more concrete way than the younger child. And it’s a little easier for her. But they both work at the same thing.

Handwriting, phonics, and math are individualized to their exact level. It takes us about 15-30 minutes with each to do each subject.

Do you have any suggested reading for those who don’t homeschool but would like supplement with the classical model?

You might enjoy purchasing Classical Conversation’s CDs for the car. Begin with the history sentence songs and see what your children think. I guess they would likely eat it up, and ask you to play it again and again. The Story of the World is also a wonderful book & audiobook (there are four volumes) that can enrich any daily life with history.

Another way to experiment with the Classical Conversations material is to download their app for this year’s cycle C1 (I can’t recommend other cycles as I think they have not been updated). My girls love this on their iPads and they casually review, I’m not making this up, 12 weeks of material in one trip to Boston. Excellent ancient world geography graphics here too.

Geography is a big part of classical education, so I have one more app to recommend: National Giraffic. It’s tough but excellent and fun! I think ages six and above for this one.

I’d love to know more about how to pick a curriculum… And yes, also more about balancing homeschool with multiple ages (my kids are 7 and 3).

This is a tough one because it has so much to do with your preference for emphasis and your child’s interests. If you know anyone homeschooling, you can begin to ask around and learn that way. Check what CC group is in your area (see above for the zip code link), email them and ask to visit and observe a meeting for a day—what’s the harm? I had heard of Classical Conversations for at least a year before I checked it out, and I was originally not interested. Then because it was for my four-year-old, and I had little to lose, I decided to just try it. I wish that I had just looked into it earlier, instead of steering around it.

Sonlight Curriculum’s website and the catalog does a great job of reviewing lots of curriculums for math, handwriting, phonics etc. Click around their language arts section and just see what appeals to you. After that google the names, and you’ll likely find homeschool bloggers talking about why they like it.

I got to see Sonlight Curriculum’s reading style growing up because my mom did it with my little brothers, which is why it was familiar and appealed to me.

For me, her approach was more of an unschooling style, plus I couldn’t grasp reading until “late,” around nine-years-old. Once I could read I embarked on my own curriculum of reading everything I could get my hands on, for hours every day.

The vintage book I review here might be an interesting armchair read for you. It goes into how she organically found a curriculum of sorts and how it morphed over the years.

Do you plan on sending them to a traditional school when they’re older?

I think so. I’d be surprised if we were still homeschooling after middle school. Perhaps if an alternative path became tempting to them—like if one of them wanted to go to culinary school, live abroad, become an engineer, and wanted to complete high school on the side.

As a kid I was homeschooled, transitioned to high school, and though I feel like those years had a lot of wasted time sitting in classrooms, I also loved the sports, theater experience, and close friends that came out of that time.

Do you feel pulled in lots of different directions? I feel nutso helping my 11, 9, and 6 year olds with homework after school with the 3 yr old cruising around…in my head I multiply that painful 1.5 hour of the day to equal a day of homeschool 😜 my kids beg to homeschool (their cousins do, and so does our babysitter) but I’m also worried I’d let a lot of things slide under the guise of “relaxed” schooling or “unschooling” or “guided learning.” I guess my question is…how do you be the only adult in charge and stay that way?? 😅

Keep in mind you are dealing with your kids after they’ve already had a totally exhausting day at school. Energy is low. Attention span is even lower. Interest level in the topics…probably all time lowest. Deep in their minds, they are processing all the social interactions and moments they had, whether to bring them up to you, what they meant, wait why did that happen, etc.

I’m reading things aloud that the girls say, “please keep reading!” when I’m done. They are proud of their memorization skills. I get to see them have the “aha!” moment with topics and work through them. Yes, it’s for sure distracting to them when the three-year-old interrupts every seven minutes with a random question.

Your older two would probably have quite a bit of solo work that they would be responsible to complete on their own (and could probably do in 15-20 minutes what would typically take a classroom “hour.”). The Unlikely Homeschool could be a good resource for you here—I’m not as sure about what the great curriculums are for those ages.

And you likely would have things that felt relaxed to you! Because as soon as a kid is interested in something (and they are able to read), they can often take it from there. That would feel easy, but in fact, you’d be watching as they took an interest and turned it into a passion, conquered it, and picked a new one.

Wondering how Lux is feeling about homeschooling after being in public school; and whether any of your daughters are extroverts, and if so, how you meet their need to gab & interact with lots of people all the time. (We’re thinking about homeschooling our kindergartener once the school year is over and these two issues are heavy on my mind!) // Do you feel like your children are getting enough “socialization” at home? Is that ever a worry for you? My husband and I are both introverts and I feel like our daughter is very extroverted, but I also feel like I was extroverted as a child, but a lot of school experiences made me more shy and introverted. I sometimes feel like I’m depriving her of socialization just because we would rather take a walk around the neighborhood as a family or go for a hike than spend the day with other families, even if she does seem perfectly content with these activities.

Yes, the oldest is an extrovert. That aspect of her is something I’m very sensitive to, and as a mom, I go a little out of my way to make sure she gets engagement. Whether it’s paying special attention to her request to take a class, a play date that takes some planning to make happen, potlucks, church Sunday school, willingly signing her up for sleepover camp, and just keeping tabs on how she’s doing.

In general, I don’t believe traditional school offers the unstructured social time extroverted children crave. I also don’t believe children need as much peer socialization as is often implied.

What’s working?! I feel like it changes a lot and sometimes my “philosophy” has to bend a little to make the day go smoothly.

What’s working for me right now is to strive not to take it for granted. Life feels brief, childhood feels even briefer. There are lots of moments that would feel easy to shrug at–giggling at Winnie-the-Pooh’s old fashioned language together, the girls reading to each other on the couch, cheerfully playing each other’s games with absurd rules, widening their eyes with curiosity at a new idea or topic, finding a new favorite aisle of the library to settle in for an hour.

These are in fact moments that are absolutely unique to a very short period of life.

all of the above and how you self care? really looking forward to this post 😘

Once I decided that 3-4 hours was sufficient for what we wanted to accomplish each day, I became pretty clear that my on-call time was done after that. At lunch, I’ll say, “what will you guys do this afternoon?” If I’m reading or writing and they keep (joyfully, no doubt) coming up to me with various remarks, I’ll tell them it’s distracting and I want to be left alone for a while.

If I’m doing any kind of housekeeping, I try to make sure they are aware of what’s going on and are asked to help however they can.

When I first considered homeschooling, I had a secret theory that most moms doing it had a hack that was helping them. A husband with a flexible schedule. A mother-in-law down the street. A house cleaner. A babysitter for a few hours a day prepping dinner and playing card games. (I mention this survival theory in my review of this book.)

And for the most part, I’ve found this theory to be proven true. My hack is that Joe is now working from home. And though he disappears into his office for hours at a time, he is still an adult presence in the vicinity and this goes a long way. He can stop by when I’m prepping dinner and chat for a few minutes. He eats lunch with us and quizzes the girls about their morning. He can stay with a sleeping baby if I run out to do errands with the other two. These little things help a lot.

Admittedly, I’m not getting ninety minutes of silence every day. I’m not even getting sixty minutes of silence. It’s a phases of life thing. Cuddling kids on the couch and read books. Hear their creative story unfold as they quietly talk to their toys. Wake up slowly and make pancakes. Put my feet in front of the fire and say, “wow I did that today.” Feel totally normal sprawled on the library floor playing Candy Land with all the wrong rules. Spend an afternoon worrying over a random fever and questioning a nurse closely over the phone. I get those things.

Like so many aspects of motherhood, the decision to homeschool can immediately become burdened with guilt. It’s all on me and I’m not doing enough crop up frequently. Signing up for too much and feeling like a failure when you can’t pull it off. Giving up as a result. It’s very important to avoid this for one big reason: If you are providing consistency and respecting the level of interest your child is at, it’s very difficult to screw this up. Honestly. The child’s innate curiosity and drive will win out.

Thank you! Lots of love.

Favorites January 2019

Heidi of 101cookbooks does these lists every once in awhile and I love them. Here’s what I’m loving.

This interview with Molly Rosen Guy (Shop Doen). My Dad used to tell his doctor that he just wanted to get well soon so he could go home and read the Chicago Tribune every morning in his favorite chair by the window. 

My friend Erin told me about Kid Gorgeous, the hour long comedy special on Netflix and I’m so glad she did. His robot bit had me laughing hysterically (with headphones, after bedtime, with old halloween candy, as a parent might do). More laughter for January!

I’ve been making this light, tasty chicken stir-fry recipe for ten years and the sauce is still my favorite mix of soy-vinegar-garlic-ginger. If you can get Boston lettuce, the wraps are really fun, but tortillas will do, sour cream adds a lot as well. (Martha Stewart)

This interview with RadioLab producer Latif Nasser“I love Google Alerts. I have dozens of them active at any given time.”

A passion project of Alice of Forest Bound, the Cabin Escapes Directory is so fun to page through, imagine getaways and nab interior decoration ideas.

Light, bendy, and rechargeable, these clip-on reading lights were a total win as Christmas gifts for the girls.

The pinterest account of Willaby, an organic blanket brand from Georgia.

Mortise & Tenon Magazine

Names

This tribute page from Christina Rossetti’s book of children’s poetry Sing-Song (1872) is the sweetest thing. to the baby that suggested them…Doesn’t that idea sum up so much?

Alongside a few serious baby names (which I could never share with you because their cradled eggshell magic would instantly crack) we always keep a running list of whatever names that sound wonderful; just in case they breakthrough into THE revelation.

Some favorites (of that list) so far:

Iris Ines

Iris Olive

Mem Fox

Mies

Annie Jump Cannon

Corbu

Renza

Names are one of those things that turn you to face the beauty of humanity. When attached to a human, every name seems wonderful, no matter how banal or unique. Saying someone else’s name brings such satisfaction. The more you say it, the more you can’t help loving them a little more as a fellow human. In the Bible there are some odd moments in the Old Testament when God says His name is I am, as in I AM has sent you to me, neatly skirting the idea of a name. And one of the ancient Egyptian myths the girls and I read this fall, Isis tricks Ra into revealing his TRUE name, which gives her all sorts of power over him and ultimately is his undoing.

In abstract bantering between expecting parents, on the other hand, names seem good, great, bad, or terrible.

Article of the year

Of all the articles I read this year, I’m still reflecting on one from July written about Gwyneth Paltrow. The writer, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, was cleverly both infatuated with G.P. and entirely aware of the aura that GP projects and the success that perhaps naturally follows it. There was a slightest touch of snark as she examined the hype of everything goop and the millions in profits involved therein, yet it was sisterly and affectionate and comfortable to read—like a fashion profile.

She wasn’t going to have more kids. That she also knew. Her business, her age, which is 45 — not impossible, but still. She’d wanted a third. She told me that after she asked how many I had, and I told her I had two children as well, and it was wonderful, but I was sad I didn’t have a third.

She told me I should rethink it while I’m still young enough. “All I’m saying is it’s not nothing,” she said. “I really wanted another one.” I nodded solemnly. (Later, I cried.)

I don’t read the goop newsletter, though it is exactly the type of thing I would imagine myself reading because I do like lists and recommendations. But a little over a year ago when goop began marketing vitamin combo packages with names like high school genes and why am I so effing tired? it was hard to look away from the brilliance. As a veteran (and believer!) of many chiropractic and acupuncture offices, I am well aware that statements about, and the manufacturing of, vitamins and minerals are not monitored by the FDA. They can be made, dosed, and recommended on just about any level. The idea of ditching the bland white plastic bottles in the smelly health aisle, sexily repackaging them and associating them with a luminous celebrity is….ridiculously smart. The idea of marketing them to tired moms who are most likely very deficient in something, is also genius.

So she was on my radar but I hadn’t been following the goop wellness summits, and I was honestly stunned to read about how successful they’ve been. I loved the way the writer stepped into the GP culture and joined it, yet couldn’t help some relaying it back to us with bemusement and a goofy dose of skepticism:

There were stories that talked about bee-sting therapy (don’t try it; someone died from it this year) and ashwagandha and adaptogens and autoimmune diseases — an autoimmune disease at every corner, be it thyroid disease, arthritis or celiac disease; trust them, you have one.

But something deeper about American privileged society was unpacked in the article as well: the idea of self-care. Here is Brodesser-Akner summing it up so well; it stayed with me in the months after I read the article:

The minute the phrase “having it all” lost favor among women, wellness came in to pick up the pieces. It was a way to reorient ourselves — we were not in service to anyone else, and we were worthy subjects of our own care. It wasn’t about achieving; it was about putting ourselves at the top of a list that we hadn’t even previously been on. Wellness was maybe a result of too much having it all, too much pursuit, too many boxes that we’d seen our exhausted mothers fall into bed without checking off. Wellness arrived because it was gravely needed.

Before we knew it, the wellness point of view had invaded everything in our lives: Summer-solstice sales are wellness. Yoga in the park is wellness. Yoga at work is wellness. Yoga in Times Square is peak wellness. When people give you namaste hands and bow as a way of saying thank you. The organic produce section of Whole Foods. Whole Foods. Hemp. Oprah. CBD. “Body work.” Reiki. So is: SoulCycle, açaí, antioxidants, the phrase “mind-body,” meditation, the mindfulness jar my son brought home from school, kombucha, chai, juice bars, oat milk, almond milk, all the milks from substances that can’t technically be milked, clean anything. “Living your best life.” “Living your truth.” Crystals.

I was so struck by this encapsulation of the last twenty years because I’ve never pursued having it all. It didn’t appeal to me, and I felt immune, as woman and mother, to its call. But perhaps I felt immune because I was in fact susceptible to an entirely different call, one that I have actually worried over: was I caring for myself well enough? Should I be doing a better job of caring? Was it ok that I hadn’t been to a gym since the birth of my first child? Was it ok that I only went to a hair salon once a year? Was it ok that I liked coffee shops more than yoga studios? It felt ok, but was it really?

And in that odd way that happens after you’ve named something to yourself, I started noticing all the times people brought up self-care around me. As a recommendation. As a sales pitch. As a reflective summary of their weekend. Something they’d really been meaning to do. A goal for the month. It was constant. And where I’d been nodding along before, smiling in affirmation, now I began freezing the frame in my mind. Spinning it around to look at it. Why? Why were we all supporting each other in this self-spiral? Why were we acting like some sort of happiness was going to come from this—in many ways, just a new way to spend money?

Because we are sad. Because we are lonely. Because we feel unfinished and incomplete.

As a believer in Jesus and the promises of love and acceptance that He brought, it is my belief that the self is not a truth. The self does not contain peace or happiness deep within it, only to be revealed by pink quartz. In fact it contains loathing and despair. It contains deep dissatisfaction and loneliness. The joy and peace comes from outside of us, from the love that Christ offers us, we only need to accept it. As the profile finished, the writer’s jovial tone began to pace with a sadness. She shared her discouragement as a way to belie the exuberance written around GP and the summit. Even as I knew she was using her discouragement as a way to stay relatable to the reader (and the modern, disillusioned, no-truth times), I still wanted to hug her and say to her, to all of us, I guess: there is peace! There is joy! But it’s not in yourself.