tracing a dark continent

Posted by on September 9, 2013

Gathering Leaves in Grade School
by Judith Harris
They were smooth ovals,   
and some the shade of potatoes—   
some had been moth-eaten   
or spotted, the maples   
were starched, and crackled   
like campfire.   
We put them under tracing paper   
and rubbed our crayons   
over them, X-raying   
the spread of their bones   
and black, veined catacombs.   
We colored them green and brown   
and orange, and   
cut them out along the edges,   
labeling them deciduous   
or evergreen.   
All day, in the stuffy air of the classroom,   
with its cockeyed globe,   
and nautical maps of ocean floors,   
I watched those leaves   
lost in their own worlds   
flap on the pins of the bulletin boards:   
without branches or roots,   
or even a sky to hold on to.

* * *

I feel like writing just a few words about homeschooling now that I’ve been doing it just long enough to experience some of its mysteries. The mysteries of homeschooling consist of this: some days are mysteriously smooth and serene– full of almost effortless, self-propelled, delightful learning moments; others are mysteriously frustrating, maddening, and difficult. Being the one in charge, the one responsible for the whole thing, forces me to try to understand, when things feel terribly lopsided and imbalanced, why they are terribly lopsided and imbalanced.

I have figured out a few things so far. One is that being a teacher at home, in the context of a house and all the other things that happen inside a house, is not a linear or predictable process. There is a routine, of course, or a suggested one, but the Teacher (who really has to be an artist of sorts) has to read the moments, one moment as it leads into another, and decide what kind of moment needs to happen next. I came to understand this partly through re-reading the little book that came with the curriculum I ordered, The Heart of Learning. It explains how children, as well as adults, live out a pattern of continual expansion and contraction, moving in a rhythm from one mode into another. Adults do this without thought, and can (ideally) organize their behaviors instinctively moving from one mode into the other, in tune with their own needs. But children are disorganized and need help moving from one mode into the other. They need an adult to prompt them, gracefully, into this pattern of movement. I had forgotten that I read this back in the spring, and was glad to be reminded. There is also the idea in this book that parents live in a continual creative tension with their children.

I’ve been trying to move through the day now with this in mind. I imagine tension existing between them and me, like a taut invisible field of energy that connects us. From out of this tension, the next graceful choice must be made with care; and then the next. It sounds as if it would be exhausting to go through the day with children like this, but I have found it to be strangely self-propelling once I genuinely enter into the process and give myself to it.

Instead of sticking rigidly to one way of doing the day I try to get a reading on where they are in the morning and think hard about how to best draw them into doing more formal lessons. Today they were being kind of wild in the early morning. They were running out into the backyard, being loud, playing out some scenario with stuffed animals, dragging stuff around. I could see them from the upstairs window, could see a dumped over bucket of sidewalk chalk. I could already sense that forcing them back in for something formal would set the stage for another bad day. I could already feel the beginnings of frustration inside myself and see three chess moves moves ahead what would happen if I tried to lasso them upstairs and go into school mode: the queen would lose her temper. I went inside myself and tried to concentrate and fish out a good choice out of all the possible existing choices for what to do next. From deep within myself I drew one out: play dough. I announced that we were going to make homemade play dough.

I really am not the type of mom who ever did things like this in the past, but somehow it feels different now because it is coming from a place of deep creativity. I am trying to create a Good Day ex nihilo. The day could, after all, so easily turn into a Bad Day, and since my day and their day is one and the same now, I desperately want to have the Good Day. But the challenge is harnessing the two immature beings I live with into harmonious accord with the Good Day. How am I going to do this? Today it was with flour, salt, boiling water, and food coloring. And it worked! It drew them away from their chaotic play outdoors and to the dining room table, excited about play dough. To be honest, I am not sure if this was expansion moving into contraction or contraction moving into expansion– or what the heck it was. It just felt right, semantics aside. Once that focus and goodwill was established between the three of us I knew that the morning was going to go well. From the play dough we made the characters from an African folk tale that I already told them a few nights ago at bedtime (because the curriculum is focused on Africa right now for social studies). I re-told the folk tale about the spider, a firefly, and a tiger family, and we made the characters out of play dough and had them act out the story. There was a quiet synergy at work while we did this– everyone was on board. From there I was able to lead them into the other, smaller table where Esme did a drawing of the story and copied out four sentences that we made up together, summarizing what the story was about. Copy work is a key part of what I am doing with her regularly for language arts. Sometimes I have her copy out a poem, but today it was this story. It makes me happy to see that her handwriting is getting more neat and precise after only a few weeks of this.

Weirdly, I still cannot decide whether what I am doing now with my days–this homeschooling– is difficult or easy. It seems more accurate to say that it is neither difficult, nor easy, but tense. It is living and moving within a tension– creative tension. This is probably where everyone should ideally be moving in any vocation. When I somehow lose the thread of that tension, when I get lax or lazy or stubborn and inflexible– that is when things become truly difficult. When I tune back into the creative tension and try to move along with it, well, that takes effort, for sure, but then, paradoxically, the day moves along with the feeling of effortlessness. I feel like the Little Prince harnessing a comet with my net.

So this is what, so far, I am learning about homeschooling, and I am not certain if I am describing it intelligibly, perfectly. I don’t know how similar or dissimilar my experience is to teaching in a classroom since I have never been a teacher and, in the case of homeschooling, the whole endeavor is inextricably mixed up and mixed in with motherhood, which is of course its own subject– a vast one. But, I am coming to understand, motherhood–parenthood, really– is also wrapped up in this idea of creative tension– an inescapable, around-the-clock nexus of creative tension, which can be shirked, of course, but only with undesirable consequences.

For all of these reasons I like the above poem, which seems to describe the absence of this kind of creative tension. My own education was characterized by this absence. I remember the feeling of floating through most of grade school as if in a dream. I don’t recall feeling anchored, guided, or grounded by my teachers– much, anyway. I think that this is why it is so important for me to get this right for my own girls, even as I am feeling my way in the dark here, tracing a shape that will hopefully emerge, in time, into solid land.

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  1. Manuela
    September 11, 2013

    This is, once again, so beautifully written and such a joy to read.
    In the short amount of time since you started this whole process, it seems you have come a long way.
    I can sense through this post that your kids are happy and are in fact learning a lot.

  2. racherin
    September 25, 2013

    Albert recommended your blog to me after seeing your "apology" post on homeschooling. It resonated beautifully with so many things we struggled with all summer, as we have also found ourselves homeschooling.
    I appreciate so much your ability to articulate some of the experience.

  3. Julia
    September 25, 2013

    Thanks, Rachel H. (at least, I think that this is you!). I hope you guys are doing well!

  4. annajouj
    October 1, 2013

    Love this . . . SO true about "reading the moments," in homeschooling as well as other work with young children, I think. What surprised me when I noticed this was how freeing it was to me as the adult [i.e. freeing, not scary like I though it would be :-)]. Anyhow, love your words–and like the new blog look too!