Ambleside Online – Why I’m so excited!

Over the years, we have had various kinds of curricula.  We started off with Calvert, an all-in-one curriculum that even includes crayons, pencils and erasers!  It is a standard school curriculum which includes the teacher’s guide, answers, and wonderful support from real teachers.  After using it for 3 years, I realized that other than it is quite expensive (it was costing me about $700 a year per child, but over 93% cheaper than private schools,) it was not working out for one of my children so I had to look for something else.

Money was a huge issue, as well as the fact that I was trying to teach and look after several younger children at the same time and I decided I was going to try to see if I could combine and overlap some of the teaching with the boys to help me out.  I spent a long time looking into Unit Studies.  Unit Studies take a topic and combine different subjects into one unit so you are teaching many subjects at once.

We have a yearly budget for school, which includes any camp, and two years ago, while our boys were at a much needed (for me!) camp, I spent several days searching the internet for unit studies that I wanted to do for the coming year.  With sending 3 boys to camp for 2 weeks each, my budget for schooling for the year was almost nothing, so I had to search for free stuff.  The problem was that I was not finding free units for the topics I wanted to teach.  The second last day of camp I was at my wit’s end.  I just did not know what to do.  Our schooling was suppose to start in 4 days and I had no clue what I was going to teach!  For some reason I clicked on a link that was a curriculum.  I did not want a curriculum, but I clicked anyways.  What did I have to loose?  I already exhausted all possible sites for what I was looking for anyways, and I needed a change of pace.  I started reading.  It was Ambleside Online, a Charlotte Mason curriculum.  A free curriculum, nice, but not for me (not that I knew anything about it!)  As I read all about the curriculum, I found myself liking and agreeing with what I was reading.  I emailed my husband some of what I read for I really liked it – not that I was going to do it, but it was really good stuff.  I kept reading.  And reading.  And reading.  By the end of the day I knew what I was going to do that year – with only 2 days to prepare (Shabbos was in the middle,) I was going to jump right into it anyways and figure it out.

Charlote Mason lived in England in the late 1800’s early 1900’s.  Ms. Mason was a teacher for many years and spend a lot of time trying to improve her teaching ideas and skills.  In a nutshell, she voted for short lessons, which equal to short school days so there is time for personal interests and hobbies (very important.)  However, she was an advocate for a strong education with knowledge in a wide range of topics and felt that children were capable of more than we tend to think of them as being capable of. She was an advocate for living books – books written by authors who were knowledgeable and passionate about the topic. At the same time, religion was very important and incorporated God into secular learning.  She was a huge advocate of sending kids outside for as long as possible with part free time and part guided time.  Middos (character traits) are very important.  And, don’t start children too early.  Let them grow, let them learn about nature, let them understand how a flower grows and how a squirrel lives.  Let them learn how to observe nature and then they can learn.  With four children, and with being religious, the idea of having time to teach all of them, give them a good strong educational background AND do it with Hashem in mind all the time, Wow!

The Charlotte Mason version that we use is an online version.  The advisory has tried to find as many of the books that fit the teaching style as possible that are out of copyright and available for free online.  This helps cut down the cost.

They have also set up a schedule for each year – broken down by week.  This makes it very flexible. Some children need to break readings down into multiple sections read over several days, and it gives the option of putting everything into a 4 day week instead of 5.  This is what we do.  I arrange almost everything into 4 days, and Fridays are left for other stuff (yes, cooking and cleaning is part of it, but that really is school for that is real life skills.)  I do not feel forced to use everything on the list.  Obviously, I replace the Bible with Torah study, Christian history with our Jewish history and hymns with davening and Shabbos songs.  However, I do not have to worry about reading that the world is millions of years old when I do not believe that.  The setup is just a nice guideline being flexible if I need to replace a book and letting me choose when to teach.  There are a few books that I have left out of teaching for they are too Christian based, but all in all, that is not an issue and we enjoy being able to easily see Hashem in all our learning.

The big difference that one will see when they go through the FAQ’s is that especially for the younger years, there is no writing except the copywork! None!  What is done instead is oral narrations.  The parent or teacher (if in a school) reads from the different books, then asks for an oral narration from the child(ren).  After the narration, the parent or teacher then uses that for discussions.  Why oral narrations? Talking is easier than writing, and if you cannot tell me what you read, then you do not understand and how can you write about it?  Starting in year 4, after the child has the idea of how to listen and read and understand, then they start with 1-2 written narrations.  The readings get very intense – starting in year 4 we add Plutarch’s Lives and Shakespeare (yes, the real thing – however, it did not work out for us too well, but I think it was mostly me and the scheduling mainly….)  Younger children have short attention span so the lessons need to be short – 10-15 minutes.  Older children about 30-45 minutes.  No longer.  Also, learn not to repeat (unless the child does not understand) for they need to learn to listen the first time, after all, their boss is not going to tell them twice to do a job!

The first year was a little strange.  It took a while before I got the hang of what I was suppose to be doing with the narrations.  This past year I had a much better idea and the discussions came a lot easier for me.  I will be entering year 3 with AO and am very excited.  I just placed the order for the year’s books – $160 for my oldest (the younger ones already have the books!).  Well, that is everything except math.  That will come at the end of the summer.  My oldest is going to be reading about all sorts of exciting stuff this year such as classical mechanics, relativity (yes, in year 6!!!), reading the Hobbit and the Animal Farm and all about the Greeks and Romans.  He has read the unabridged classics such as Robinson Crusoe and Oliver Twist, with more to come!  Oh, and Understood Betsy and The Little Duke are NOT to be missed!

I have my reading list for the summer set out for me, I can’t wait!  I think I will enjoy the books more than they will!

We made a decision…. Now what?

Firstly, I would like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a wonderful Tu B’Shevat.  It is an especially wonderful chag (holiday) in our house.  Not only is it the birthday of the trees, it is the birthday of boy #2 and it is nice to take the day and make it even more special.  So, I am wishing my 10 year old a wonderful birthday!  (The cake is supposed to resemble a pomegranate cut open. 🙂  )

This post is actually a continuation of the previous posting.  The first step was coming up with our decision.  The next step was deciding what in the world I was going to do. Actually, these two steps were made simultaneously.  As I was investigating, I investigated different curricula, but it was not until I found the answers to my questions did I feel I was ready.  And when I was ready, I already had the material I was going to use.

As I mentioned, during the six months of research, I investigated all sorts of curricula and methods, and given the fact that this was the first year homeschooling, and I was not sure I could/would find the time to create my own, (and why should I re-invent the wheel anyways, if something else is out there?) I settled upon Calvert’s homeschooling package.  This appealed to me for Calvert sends everything one needs to start homeschooling, including pencils, paper and a pencil sharpener!  What more could I ask for?  And, at just under $700 (which included teacher support the entire year, and ATS – optional testing/grading by accredited teachers,) it was 92% cheaper than our day school.  What a deal!

At the time we had 3 boys, the youngest being only 18 months.  I was going to homeschool our oldest only, who was going to be almost 5, and entering grade 1.  (We felt that he had more than the mental capability at such a young age and with his personality it would be better to push him than keep him behind.)

Calvert lists the average amount of time required for each of their subjects, so before our new school year was to begin, I made a schedule – starting at about 9 am.  I quickly ran into a big problem.  For kindergarten, they were suggesting 2.5-3 hours of school work — Ok, so 9am-12pm.  BUT, that was not going to work!  I was going to have one boy at a playgroup, and I was going to have my baby (ok, toddler) at home, and there was nap time, as well as having to feed him and play with him – he was not a newborn, and so just having him sit next to us was not going to work.  I had to have everything done by lunch time, for that was when I had to go get my other child and spend time with him too!  How could I homeschool?

As with most people, I was never homeschooled and until this time, I do not recall ever meeting (let alone talk too) another homeschool parent/child.  People get used to a school setting: Go to school by a certain time in the morning.  Bell rings.  Take attendance, class.  Bell rings.  Change class/recess.  Bell rings.  Lunch.  Bell rings.  Afternoon classes and recess.  The bell rings for these as well.  We are conditioned with the bell.  Also, how we are taught is similar throughout almost all schools – Textbooks and worksheets.

Then the breakthrough happened.  I learned something very important to homeschooling, something seemingly so obvious, but not obvious to most people:

 You do not have to follow a standard school schedule.

What this means is that I do not have to do a 9-12 school, I can teach whenever I want/need/have time too.  If I want to start before the standard school starting time, then I can.  If I want to take the entire morning off for it does not fit our family schedule, and teach only in the afternoons, then I can.  If I wanted to teach a little in the mornings and then a little in the afternoon when the two younger boys went down for a nap, I was allowed that too.  I realized I was allowed to think out of the box.  I was free to be different.  There is no “one size fits all” approach in homeschooling.  As I was to find out over the years, this applies to the teaching style and materials used as well.

With this enlightenment, my eyes were opened, and all of a sudden this big heavy burden was lifted from my shoulders.  I was actually getting really excited.  I could see that I could do it, and I was not worried if things did not quite work out.  I knew that I was allowed to try things a different way.

This was not going to be the first time that things just “seemed to click”, and I am sure there will be a few more to come.  As I am learning more and more lately, homeschooling is learning for everyone in the family, not just the children.

How We Got Started

I figure I would start off by writing about how we began homeschooling.  That is usually the one of the first questions that we are asked, so, I’ll jump ahead and tell you about it so you won’t have to ask. 🙂

The last 6 years has been quite amazing to say the least.  Six years ago I could not imagine homeschooling.  Six years ago I could not imagine doing several things that I have found myself capable of doing.  With being married to a wonderful husband and being blessed with 4 wonderful boys, it is not surprising that I find myself going beyond what I thought was my limit.  Each day is a new day.  Each day we live and try to learn and grow.

Deciding to homeschool was not a simple and easy decision.  Homeschooling is becoming more and more popular within the Jewish community. As with most people, money was an issue with us.  However, we thought we should try the best we could and send our children to a religious Jewish school. With insight that many times only a parent can have with their child, we knew that after only having experienced preschool, the schooling had to be changed.  One night we sat down trying to come up with a list of options.  With public school out of the question, we found the only other option that we could think of was homeschooling.  My husband was so excited. I did not quite share the same level of excitement, probably because I would be the one teaching, not him! 😉

To make a long story short, after that one conversation, nothing more was mentioned for 2 months.  Then, one afternoon:  “Are you still thinking about homeschooling?”  “Um, yes.  You?”  “Yes.” Then nothing more for another 2 months!  One afternoon the question was asked again.  We both had been researching on our own for 4 months.  We then decided we were both serious about it and we should probably start talking to each other about it.  It took another two months before I finally got the big answers needed and I felt comfortable with the idea.

I am not going to say that was it.  Nor am I going to say we never looked back.  What I am going to say is that our decision was the beginning of a long ongoing journey; A journey that has had, and continues to have its ups and its downs.  There have been times when we have asked ourselves if we made the right decision.  However, when we look back and see how each of our boys have grown, we do believe we have made the right decision.

Have we always made the right choices and taught the things in the right way?  Of course not.  This is part of being human.  It is a learning experience for all.  We cannot always know the best way to teach each child, or even the best topics to teach.  Sometimes it is just trial and error.  There are times when I just want to pull out all my hair.  And then, there are the times when you see the sparkle in their eyes as something just clicks inside of them.

I think the biggest help that I have had was belonging to a few different email support groups.  It has been extremely helpful to not only have a group of people to ask questions too, but also to just read the questions and answers that others have.  You find out that your home is not unique – many other people have the same questions and issues as you.  You are not alone.  🙂

What I would like to do is write down some experiences we have had and I hope that others will get some benefit from them.