A Reflection on Books

I’ve been thinking a lot about books. When we moved twice in the last six months, it was unpacking our beloved books that made our rental, and then our purchased house–a home. As I sorted through boxes and boxes of books, and filled up shelves, I smiled and shed a few tears, reminiscing  over the years we’ve spent reading these books. They are our constant companions, our friends, and beloved family members. The packers that originally boxed up our home in Michigan repeatedly said, “Wow…ya’ll love books, like, really LOVE books, don’t you?” I told them I don’t have many nick knacks, and I decorate with Kids and Books.

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Two of many bookshelves throughout the house. The Titanic is pretty cool, too!

As we are finally settling in to our new home and beautiful state of Georgia, I would like to start posting lists of some of my very favorite children and adult books. After home educating for over 18 years, I have so many lists in my head, so many literary “friends” I want to share with you. I have said many times, good literature is so efficient. It reveals our humanity to us and changes culture. And we all agree culture needs a bit of overhaul, yes? So, this is how we do it: get on our knees in prayer, get holy, and lead an examined life that includes great literature. Read what Bishop Conley of Nebraska has to say about reading and culture, his beautiful words will inspire you. Here’s an excerpt:

“Good literature forms a worldview: it offers us insight into our families, our communities, and ourselves. Great literature offers us insight into our relationship with God and the world.”

One of the ways I am settling in here is starting a Well Read Mom group in my new hometown. I have participated in Well Read Mom for two years, and really, I can’t praise it enough. Check out the link and see the kind of goodness going on over there. I will be the first to admit I didn’t finish every single selection from the past year like I did in previous years.  Our move was intense and left little time to read. The point is to be exposed to the great books and have discussions with the group that go beyond the usuals. I might not have finished  Brother’s Karamazov, (not YET) but I will never forget those characters and I’m glad to have been introduced to, what many have called, the greatest novel in history. WRM’s founder, Marcie Stokman, has only one rule, no apologizing for not finishing the book and come to the meetings anyway for stimulating conversation. Her audios are so informative and inspiring, they are worth the time alone to participate!

A few of my other favorite places to walk literary rabbit trails:

Circe Institute: a plethora of articles, podcasts, and other resources that point towards Truth and Beauty.

Read Aloud Revival: Sarah does a lovely job of helping us “build our family culture around books” and brings a joy that is infectious to all things books. I have really appreciated her podcasts and book lists over the last few years.

Ambleside: a free, Charlotte Mason based curriculum has a terrific list of books for all ages to use for educating your children, but the lists are great for ideas no matter what your educational choice is for your family.

Mater Amabilis: a Catholic, Charlotte Mason inspired curriculum, which, again, has some terrific books lists.

Emmanuel Books: A terrific site with lots of lovely historical fiction and curriculum choices as well.

So, look for some more posts on books soon….lists…musings…and hopefully you will share your favs here as well. My goal is to link arms with you and talk about the important things, through the lens of terrific literature.

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Out exploring beautiful hill country in Northern Georgia.

 

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We Are Educating Minds! A Retreat Visited….Part One

My goodness, I was so amazingly blessed to be able to go to the Ambleside Online At Home Retreat this past weekend.  It was a nice “God-incidence” that this retreat was indeed, “At Home” for me– as in, back home in Indiana! I had just joined Ambleside Online Forum  last month, and found out about the retreat, and immediately signed up to go. While I have always used AO as a “resource” I plan on using AO as the foundation for this year with all three kids at home.

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The lovely panel discussion was very for real and helpful.

I’d like to review the talks that were given in a series of blog posts. It truly was a rich feast of ideas. This was so much more than a “Oh, yeah, you can homeschool, Girls, Go YOU!” kind of retreat. Friends, the word, “epistemology” was used in the FIRST talk!! We got our philosophy hats on, and were challenged by the bigger ideas behind a Charlotte Mason style education.

The first talk on Friday evening was given by Karen Glass. Can I say she had me at “Anna Karenina?” Karen referred to a scene in AK where philosophical questions regarding the distinction between the brain and mind were made in an intense conversational scene. I’m going to admit right here that in 17 years of homeschooling I have never contemplated this. But why is this important to a humble homeschooling mom of five to think about as she does laundry, cooks and writes up lessons? Because it is really at the essence of who we are and what we are doing here.

The Mind is a LIVING ORGANISM! 

So, what does that mean for us? It means as we are working out how we are to order our days, we keep in the front of OUR minds that our children’s minds need the food of rich ideas. Living organisms do not live on exercises and workbooks. When kids are hungry, we don’t say, “Go exercise!” We feed them good food. We should be basing our educational processes on what we believe about our child. And what do we believe? Our child’s mind needs to be fed. We lay out a feast of ideas and we allow them to take in and digest what they consume. We don’t digest it for them.

Here’s an example. Memory drills are exercises, right? But this is not truly educating our child, to simply have them memorize facts to be regurgitated back out on a test sheet. Memorizing certainly has its place, but not over the feast of ideas. Memorizing is fine for developing our brain’s capacity, and again, these things have their place just like other exercises, but they aren’t FOOD. The brain is an organ. It does need food and exercise. But the mind is a spiritual organism, it needs, more than anything, the spiritual food of ideas.

Karen gave an example of how if a child’s shoe size is a little small, we don’t step in and  micromanage the child’s foot growth. There isn’t a plan of “exercise” that will increase the foot’s size, in which we do exercises and then religiously measure the growth of the foot after each exercise. We just do the next right thing. We feed the child good food, buy good shoes and trust that their feet will grow in time. It made me think of “foot” binding that the Asian communities did long ago. They wanted the shape and size of women’s feet to be something they weren’t meant to be. They bound those feet into awful contortions and these poor women were in pain and had deformed feet! Do we do this with our children’s education sometimes? Nervously trying to shape their brains solely into college material? Is that what this is all about? No….we are feeding minds for the Kingdom!

We look at what the child is, a spiritual being with a spiritual mind that needs to be fed good ideas. BUT…it is NOT for us to digest this food and plop it into their little gaping baby bird mouths. We don’t nervously hover over their heads, seeing to it that each “idea” has taken root. Instead, we TRUST the process.

The process includes this–we set the table with living books, with poetry, with beautiful music, with the right order of math, science and studying nature. And we accompany our children throughout the feast. We develop, with our children, the habit of consistently sitting AT the table, trying new foods….but never pushing and using our “authority” to insist on more and more.

So what does this look like in real life? Let’s get one thing straight right now…Charlotte Mason’s ideals have not perfectly played themselves out in my house for the last 17 years of home education. Real life has happened in the last 17 years. But I can say as a “veteran” home educator who has graduated a few guys from our humble abode, Charlotte Mason’s ideals have always shaped my ideals.

This year, I am, as Karen Glass said in the talk, “trusting” the process. Part of that trust is in the fact that the proven, most effective form of education takes place in the literary and storytelling form. Think…Jesus…and the parables. He didn’t tell His story and then go, “Now…you got that, right?” and micromanage the response. He spoke Truth…He answered questions….but He also let people percolate on His Word, and to hear those words with their own ears, with their own living minds.

For us at home, this means reading the good books to our kids, but not chasing after reactions, nervously saying, “Did you GET that??” Instead, we develop in our children the habit of attention. We start slowly with this formation. In younger kids, this means reading aloud and discussing the book. In older kids, it’s reading aloud, or having them read a selection from a book of historical fiction, and having them orally narrate (or “retell”) the passage. Narration, worked on slowly but consistently, becomes the evidence of knowledge digested, absorbed and made one’s own. The child does eventually work up to written narration. I’ll talk about that more with a post about Lani’s narration talk. 🙂

I want to speak from my own heart about something I wrestle with when I hear some of these kinds of wonderful talks. I have a few children who have learning differences. They just don’t learn the way a lot of kids learn. Learning can be downright HARD. But when I really examine the last several years…what was really hard was when I started insisting on things they weren’t quite ready for….pushing “exercises” over ideas and relationships.

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I’m really nervous about one of my kids not reading when they are of that “age” when they should, by golly, be reading! My anxiety causes me to, through gritted teeth, insist my agitated child do those phonics workbooks, “JUST ONE more PAGE!” looking at my child as a project to finish. Sigh. Yes…they do need to learn to read. Yes yes yes. BUT, they also need to see beauty. They need to sit on the couch with me and read “The Secret Garden” much more than they need “just ONE more lesson of phonics since we are SO behind.” Yes…the short phonics lesson…do it. But never at the expense of the good stories, the picture studies, the beautiful poetry, the nature walk. They need our RELATIONSHIP first before they need the phonics lesson.

My youngest struggles with reading. Her little life has been filled with lots and lots of medical drama. I respect who she is as a PERSON first,  a lovely child of God who also happens to have medical issue and learning delays,  (remember, that is Charlotte Mason’s first maxim, children are born PERSONS!) While it might take longer to learn to read, it is equally important that she is fed ideas that grow her mind, not just her phonetic awareness. Do you see the difference? Education does include things like learning to read, obviously that is critical to brain development. But on equal ground with that (and I dare say, even more important) is the feeding of her mind. I will continue to read saint stories, and do picture and nature study. I will continue to gently guide her with math and reading…I will calmly trust in the process. God knows all of her needs more intimately than I do. He will guide us as we prepare the feast.

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I am truly not doing Karen Glass’ talk the justice that it deserves, so I am going to encourage you to buy her book, Consider This. I purchased my copy at the retreat, and am already furiously taking notes and pondering her wisdom. This Charlotte Mason jewel is at Karen’s website.

I want to close out with what Karen said at the end of her talk Friday. Believe in our minds. Believe in our children’s minds and what they are created to do.

Trust the process of leading our children to the feast and the Holy Spirit working with those ideas specific to our children’s needs in which He will work and animate. Take courage in our convictions! Root those convictions in God’s great mercy and love for us and our children. We are feeding those minds that God Himself breathed His life into, He will lead us where we are suppose to go!

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May God richly bless all of those ladies and their families from Ambleside who sacrificed so much of their time and efforts to put on a truly edifying retreat.

I will be back soon with Cindy Rollins’ talk: “Habit of Being.” 🙂

Thoughtfully Planning For a New School Year

It’s that time, yes? Planning fever hits most of us homeschooling moms about now. Or, has it already hit most of you and I’m the slow poke? That’s quite possible. I helped coordinate our local Catholic homeschool moms retreat last month, and have just now sort of recovered.

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Having kids that are medically fragile has a special blessing attached. I often have my margin laid out for me by their very conditions. History or breathing? Math or breathing? Those aren’t too hard to discern in the moment.  The problem is, I can get a little over zealous with my expectations for the upcoming year while they are healthy during the summer. I am still working at staying firmly planted in the day that I’m in, since that is where the GRACE is….instead of zooming ahead and loading our plans like a big fat baked potato with sour cream, (dairy free around here), cheese, butter, chives and bacon. While that sounds mighty good, sometimes we might be doing the simple potato with salt and that’s ok for a few days. I want to plan our curriculum with the full potato bar in mind, but also discern between what needs to be done and what would be NICE to get done. That’s hard, who wants to choose between bacon and sour cream??

I’m thoughtfully considering what is appropriate for our typical (always untypical) year.  Yes…planning is good and virtuous! Being prepared is virtuous! But being attached to those pretty plans? No…not virtuous. I’m hoping to craft plans based on OUR reality. As much as I LOVE Charlotte Mason and Classical Education, I can’t make idols of these things at the expense of our family peace.

So, yes, I’m planning for this coming homeschool year, but I’m not going to overload it like I so often do…and I bet even then, I have to pull a few things out or rearrange our curriculum, that is a given.

Last year at this time, as I planned and planned a different kind of year using some different resources, I didn’t expect to have a child in the ICU twice between November and January. It threw us into a free fall for a while, but we recovered.  This year, I’m not shying away from planning, don’t get me wrong, but I’m doing it prayerfully, I’m asking Our Lord, “What is it that you want me to do with these beautiful children You’ve entrusted to me?” And I’m keeping in mind that even my KIDS need margin in their days, sick or not! This is one reason why we don’t do a lot of organized outside things like coops or outside supplemental classes. We need to be home to HOMEschool, and for our family, that means not a lot of other “things” that take us outside of home. Those things are great, but not necessary. We spend a fair amount of time dealing with medical issues. We really don’t have a lot more time to be driving to classes when we need to get work done here.

One thing I feel I’ve been led to do is use Ambleside Online as one of my main resources. With the very wise counsel of my friend, Jen Mackintosh, I am choosing smaller amounts that we can do WELL. There is a very large selection of books to use at AO, but my goodness, there’s no way anyone could complete it ALL! See, that’s a real temptation amongst us, isn’t it? Cram and cram a bunch of stuff into our plans in the name of anxiety and comparison…only to fall flat on our face when our particular situation just didn’t call for all of that crazy.

So what to do when it all starts…to…slide…down…hill…

I’m having a basic outline for our year, and I’m also having a “Oh, here we go!” list. So, while I expect the kids to work diligently, there will be times when things go off rail and there are three kids with serious illnesses, or someone is having surgery, or recovering in the hospital or home.  I might term this “Low Gear” time.  (Did any of you grow up driving a stick shift? Does anyone know what those are anymore??)

When I get the “Low Gear” plan together, I will share more of this with you.  I’m looking into some documentaries we can pick up during “Low Gear.” We tend to do things like that anyway, but to actually have a “grab bag” if you will, of “other” things to do when the typical day is overwhelming, probably isn’t a bad idea.

This seems to be especially important in children with chronic medical issues. There are just going to be weeks when they can’t do all of their assigned work. BUT…I don’t want it to be a video game free for all either. (THAT’s never happened, ahem) This is when we could pull out some short stories, some speeches that are straightforward and not difficult to read, or maybe work on just reading some great literature, saint stories or poetry read aloud as a family and calling it good.

And honestly, there will be days when even that doesn’t get done, because people are working on breathing…or healing…or coping. And that’s ok, too. There’s a lot to be learned in diligence, surrender, patience, and fortitude with chronic illnesses.

I hope to come back soon and share more of my specific plans for our 3rd, 9th and 11th graders.  What are your struggles as you plan? What do you really like to use as your planning platform? Are you a paper and pen kind of girl or totally on your google calendar for everything or a combination of both?

Thanks for stopping by to visit!

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Yes, dancing on picnic tables is sorta ok when there’s a birthday involved, yes?

Spiritual Growth For the Choleric Child–a book preview!

I want to introduce a terrific new book, “A Spiritual Growth Plan For Your Choleric Child”  by Connie Rossini, author and homeschooling mom of four boys.

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I found Connie’s blog, “Contemplative Homeschool” a few years ago while looking into Carmelite spirituality and homeschooling.  She wrote the book “Trusting God With St Therese,” which I read last winter. Connie’s writing is well crafted and I really enjoyed her book exploring St Therese’s spirituality, while relating it to her own life.  When I heard about Connie’s new book dealing with choleric children, I was eager to read it.

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Connie and I share something in common…we have four boys. I have my little pink caboose as well, but I know our households are very similar, both in noise volume and blessings. I have a few mixed choleric temperaments in my house, so this newest book was of interest to me. I have to say, as I read it, I kept thinking, “Oh, I wish I had this book 20 years ago!” But, no guilt, just happy to have it now. Take note, younger moms…get the book!

Does this sound like your child?

 “He is a natural leader. He dreams big. He loves to be in charge. Give him a task that interests him, and he will eagerly pursue it on his own. He really likes to rally others to his cause and direct them towards a common goal. Although he is an extrovert, he does not just ‘hang out” with friends, chit-chatting. In social situations, he often has an agenda. It can be as simple as persuading others to play a board game that he really wants to play. He is decisive, outgoing, and self-confident. He is seldom afraid to stand up for the truth. He rarely gives in to peer pressure. He tends to speak and act without thinking.” –“A Spiritual Growth Plan For Your Choleric Child”

 Temperaments are God-given, there’s no “right” or “wrong” one and each has strengths and challenges. Connie does a terrific job of describing what a choleric child looks like, and distinguishes between the four temperaments, with a brief description of mixed temperaments.

    “What sets the choleric apart is his reaction to stimuli. Remember, the choleric responds immediately to stimuli that comes to him through this senses. He reacts strongly, and has a hard time putting his reactions aside.”

  The book describes how to look at the sometimes intense, high maintenance choleric child as being on his own unique path to sainthood, while also focusing on the challenges he may experience along the way. Directly naming both the strengths (cholerics have MANY!) and the challenges, she puts forth a game plan to move the child towards self-awareness and spiritual growth.

    Pride is choleric’s main struggle. Connie has terrific lesson plans that are very simple to execute which focus on necessary areas of growth unique to the choleric child. These include: humility, empathy, patience, thinking before speaking, respect and obedience, and learning what it means to be a “servant leader.”  I love the concept of servant leader. Think St Paul, with his strong conversion story. Most cholerics are a lot like St Paul, once you get them pointed in the right and virtuous direction, they stay the course and bring a lot of people with them up the ladder to Heaven.

    I love Connie’s voice in this book. It is always encouraging while looking, straight in the eye, at the challenges of having a choleric child. She doesn’t leave you to sort this all out on your own. She includes lots of examples of what conflict between parent and child might look like, taking into account both different and/or same temperaments. But even better, she also shows what resolution and “having a plan” looks like in both encouraging and disciplining the choleric child. These kids are masters at arguing their point. My husband and I have frequently used the term, “Irrepressible agenda!” while describing the determination shown by our choleric boys in trying to get their way. St Paul had a few irrepressible agendas as well, and once he got on the correct agenda, there was no stopping him!

  Connie has put forth a helpful book list that is divided by both age and virtue that is highlighted in the book. She uses the male pronoun throughout, and no doubt, there are more choleric men than women, but when I saw the book Madeline, on her list for younger kids I instantly had a vision of what a young choleric girl looks like. That might, or might not, be a little bit like the writer of this blog. 🙂

  Along with the lesson plans and book lists there are numerous Bible verses to have the choleric contemplate and memorize. They are so applicable!  One of my favorite parts was the chapter with guided meditations. They are beautiful, simple but oh so effective! Connie had an art piece with the scene of Martha and Mary preparing for Jesus’ visit. The meditations that followed were thought-provoking while still being age appropriate for the children. The book is worth the meditations alone in my opinion.

  In the end, having a choleric child can be challenging, especially if your temperament moves towards the melancholic or phlegmatic side, but God’s Grace is sufficient and the journey is made easier with Connie’s wise and helpful book. Be sure to check her blog, Contemplative Homeschool, where she writes really useful posts on developing and deepening our prayer lives. Also, she does plan on publishing more books on the rest of the four temperaments. I am looking forward to reading them! The covers get it right for each temperament, yes?

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Homeschooling High School…Deep Waters!

I let this blog go quiet after the very first post. That sounds so lame, but life had a way of leading me off the screen and staying put in the real life that was right before me, in the form of several of my kids and my dear husband having major surgeries and hospital stays in the last several months. So, God willing, I would like to start posting more on home education.

We have been home educating for over 16 years. We’ve graduated two boys so far, and have one in high school, one in eighth grade, and a pink caboose in 2nd grade. Many have asked, “HOW do you DO it??” maybe wanting logistical information, a “formula” for success.  I want to be clear about a few important things. Our family, just like yours, is unique. My homeschooling looks different than most families. Much of it has taken place in clinic waiting rooms and on long drives to a distant children’s hospital. Some see that as heroic. If you know me, and still love me, you know it’s mostly stubbornness that God has made good on…I’m no hero or homeschooling superstar. I am passionate about learning being a life long pursuit, along with the development of the character and souls of my kids. This is not something that just happens at a desk between certain hours of the day. That can be true no matter where your child goes to school, whether in your home or a bricks and mortar school.  I have found for our family, that life long pursuit of learning and character formation and soul work is much easier here at home, supplemented with outside sources when we are able to participate.

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I tend to be pretty relaxed in the early years. Our time is often spent reading great books. Lily and I just finished “The Secret Garden” after inhaling “The Little Princess.” Really good literature is the foundation of our home educating efforts. I feel it’s so efficient, allowing us to cover many areas like history, culture, and virtues to name a few.  I mention the early years because it naturally builds what is to come in high school. Just to be for real here….Curious George is playing on Netflix in the background as I write this, so don’t think it’s all highbrow educational pursuits here.

I’ve wished in the past that I could just “follow a curriculum” day by day and be done with it. But with all of the stops and starts, varying academic needs and abilities, it just isn’t that cut and dry around here. In the lower grades, I start with spines like Mater Amabilis and lots of reading lists that I glean books from, and go from there. For my high schoolers, Mother of Divine Grace has  been a nice “guide” to follow, with lots of our own revisions to the plans. I especially appreciate the history plans, and the boys have read most of the material.

This has never been about perfection. That is God’s work, not mine. We just keep showing up and begging for the Graces to do what needs to be done-what God wants done for the day in front of us.

Even with all of the challenges of living with several medically difficult diagnoses, I would home educate all over again for high school. I  have really loved home educating through high school. My big guys are in rigorous academic programs and are thriving and doing well. They both have substantial scholarships and are leaders at their colleges. I admit to feeling very vulnerable when my new freshman in college started school….would this all be a big flop? Had I forgotten something really important in his formation and now it was going to come out, all glaring and public for all to see? But see, that’s pride…..plain and simple. There are two things here as home educating moms that we fall prey to….comparing our work, both to other homeschooling mamas and the school down the street, and feeling like it’s all about OUR efforts (and both of those fall under the pride category.) Yes, a lot does depend on our efforts, sloth is not pretty for anyone and especially us, but if God has directed you to do this, and you’ve prayerfully discerned with your husband that this is indeed what God wants, than buckle your seat belts…His Grace is sufficient for a seemingly impossible job.

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Another experience I want to share is how by being open to the Holy Spirit (or actually being too tired to fight Him, yes?) can be the best curriculum of all. Several years ago, my now twenty-one year old had just finished his sophomore year in high school. He had made a short film about a trip to Washington DC for the March for Life. It was shown at a public film festival, and actually took second place! This was the fire that ignited his desire to make another short film. His next project was to make a documentary about ArtPrize.

That film really was an amazing experience for our entire family. Sam won several awards and was even invited to the Silverdocs Film Festival in Maryland to present his film and sit on a panel of teen film makers. It all seemed surreal compared to the intensity we had lived the previous year with so many medical emergencies and surgeries in the midst of my son’s film making. Did we closely follow a curriculum the Fall of his junior year? Uh, no. We spent a lot of time healing from a very difficult summer of multiple surgeries for multiple family members, including two for Mama. But the skills Sam learned through all of that could not have been replicated by a curriculum. When we listen to the Holy Spirit, and not give in to anxiety,  life works out the way He intended. Did I have anxiety about things not looking very “schooly” as my son entered his junior year? Yes!! Did we sweat it out with the SAT and college application process? Double yes that! But all along I knew that God promised to provide, He knew what was best for our kids, and I needed to rest in that knowledge and not fight it.

This brings me to another point. That all sounds impressive, the film making, full tuition scholarship, etc etc….a REAL homeschool success story. But what do we qualify as a “success”? Within my own family, there are varying needs and abilities. If one doesn’t get a scholarship, does that mean no homeschool success? I don’t think so. If a home educated child goes to community college and needs some remedial math, is that a failure on our part? Absolutely not. What if he skips college all together?  What is the end game here? You know the answer…..Heaven.  That’s it. I know it drives people crazy to hear this because it might come off as dismissing your very real anxieties of the heavy responsibility that home educating your children encompasses, I promise I’m not doing that. I still have anxieties about the job I do, but I know, after graduating two boys, it is really not all about my efforts. There are a lot of other factors at play, primarily Grace and natural abilities.  There is also this thing called “Free Will” that makes the ending of the story really between your child and God.  Our most important job as Catholic homeschooling parents is the formation of our children’s intellect and will. It is as simple and as big as that. Their intellect and will need to be strong and determined in this crazy world. My husband and I feel that homeschooling through high school gives us the best shot at doing just that for our particular situation, and I know whatever “success” is by the Grace of God and in spite of my human weaknesses. This is not false humility, this is “on-my-knees” first hand knowledge.

I am most satisfied, quite honestly, that both of my college boys are very strong in their Faith and character.  They go to Mass every Sunday, often going to daily Mass, go to Confession and encourage others at college in their Faith walk, pray the Office, and the Rosary. They have made time in their very busy schedules to attend the March for Life in Washington DC, and aren’t afraid to share their Faith and the Truths of the Church. That makes my mama’s heart very happy. But see, I can’t take credit for ANY of that!  I do feel the Holy Spirit has led us to seeing the supreme importance on having lots and lots of rich discussions about Faith…perseverance….fortitude….we put the relationship before the schooling, the “home” before the “school” and I have seen that bear good fruit!  We are forming souls, not simply grooming for college.

I can’t tell you to homeschool through high school. I can tell you I have not regretted doing so one tiny bit. It’s hard– but my anthem has been “Love is bigger than hard.”

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ps–be prepared for beards after they graduate! And little sister took this pic!