Homeschooling and Libraries

Things I'm thinking about and learning while working with homeschoolers and writing Helping Homeschoolers in the Library for ALA Editions.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

New Blog!

After a whole lot of thinking, I've decided to convert Homeschooling and Libraries to a wordpress blog. I'm sorry to make everyone update their bookmarks and feeds, but I think the temporary inconvenience will be worth it. See if you agree. Check out the new blog at:

All Homeschooling and Libraries updates will appear there from now on. Thanks!

Monday, January 08, 2007

Interview with Maureen Wittmann, Part 7

Adrienne: One last question for you. How did you get into writing about homeschooling?

Maureen: It just kind of happened.

As a kid, I wanted to be an investigative reporter. However, I was told by more than one school counselor to get my head out of the clouds and get real. They never read anything I'd written – that didn't matter. What mattered to them was that there were more graduates with journalism degrees than there were jobs. My career took a completely different route and writing got sidetracked.

(As a side note: Four years ago I started a teen writing club for this reason. The club is designed to help high school students who want to make writing their life's work. I believe in encouraging children to explore their dreams and to strive for excellence.)

In the 80's I volunteered to publish a bimonthly newsletter for a nonprofit organization. My only qualification was that I owned a home computer – not very common in those days. I learned a lot and enjoyed it immensely.

When I started formal homeschooling, I began to think about how I could apply my desktop publishing experience and my writing skills to help the homeschooling community. I asked my friend Rachel Mackson if she would like to publish a homeschool newsletter with me. Rachel very wisely pointed out that a newsletter requires a regular commitment. With small children there would always be the possibility of a wrench thrown into our publishing schedule. Rachel suggested writing a book together instead as it would be a one-time commitment.

There was one problem. Being new to homeschooling, I was uncomfortable telling other parents how to homeschool. I suggested we put together a compendium instead. It was a perfect match. Rachel set to work recruiting friends to write for us, while I worked at editing. At first, we self-published A Catholic Homeschool Treasury. It was a lot of hard work that bore few fruits. When Ignatius Press picked up the book we were ecstatic!

However, putting together a book isn't even half the work. An author must work hard to promote her book if anyone is going to read it. One way to do that is to get speaking engagements. I humbled myself and wrote to organizers to ask if I could speak at their conferences. Another way to market your book is to get articles published in periodicals popular with your reading audience. I began sending queries to various homeschooling and Catholic magazines. It wasn't long before I was getting published.

It's been nine years since that first book went to print and, I have to say, writing for the homeschool market has been a great blessing. I've had the opportunity to connect with other writers and editors, to meet homeschoolers from all over the country, and to learn a great deal about my vocation as a homeschooling mother.

Adrienne: Before I let you go, would you like to tell us a little about your forthcoming book? I, for one, am very excited about it.

Maureen: I'm excited too! For the Love of Literature is many years in the making and I'm so happy to have it with the publisher. (It'll still be a few months before it's available.) It's a book designed to help parents use literature in their homeschools. Though it could be used by any homeschooling parent, it does have a Catholic ethos to it since I'm Catholic.

When I began homeschooling, I decided early on to concentrate heavily on real books, using textbooks and workbooks only as supplemental material. Over the years, I kept track of the books I used, making notes on what worked and what didn't. It wasn't long before I had a pretty extensive reading list.

I pulled the list together into a booklet to accompany a conference talk I give on teaching core subjects through literature. I was surprised how popular the booklet became even though I didn't promote it. I gave one to my friend, and writing mentor, Mike Aquilina and he encouraged me to pull it into a full blown book. (Mike wrote the Foreword.) Then Joan Stromberg, Ecce Homo publisher, approached me at a conference and suggested I write it for Ecce Homo. How could I resist?

The reading list in For the Love of Literature contains just over 950 books. Each book has a short description and is coded for reading level. The books are broken down by subject matter (music, art, science, math, and history). I tried to arrange the list so it would be easy to use by a parent teaching children of all ages.

I include chapters on using the library (your favorite chapter Adrienne!), the art of reading aloud, classical education, Charlotte Mason, literary unit studies, and more.

It's my hope that homeschoolers will take my book and make it their book. I hope they will continue to write the book long after the publisher has put it into their hands. They should highlight the titles already on their bookshelves, make notes next to favorites, red line titles they don't like, and write in new titles.

The making of this book has been a labor of love and it is my gift to the homeschooling community.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Interview with Maureen Wittmann, Part 6

Adrienne: To bounce to another topic, it seems to me that homeschoolers who are Catholic have been the biggest growing segment of the homeschooling population over the last five years or so and have become a more visible/vocal group. Is that your perception as well?

Maureen: It's interesting to look at the origins of contemporary homeschooling. (If you do an Internet search, you should be able to find several articles on the topic.)

Many people assume homeschooling is a conservative Evangelical movement. However, homeschooling had a more liberal, grassroots beginning in the 1970's by advocates of child-led learning such as John Holt. Evangelical Christians discovered homeschooling in the 1980's because of a great dissatisfaction with public schools.

Catholics were late coming to the homeschooling table as they had their own schools. Private Catholic schools are easily accessible in most parts of the country. Many of the Catholics who were homeschooling in the 1980's were dissatisfied with changes taking place in Catholic schools.

But then something happened. People began to discover the very real benefits of homeschooling. I began to hear parents in the 1990's saying things such as, "Even if the very best Catholic school was next door, I'd still homeschool." It's during this time you start to see more people of different faiths homeschooling, as well as more people of color.

I don't have any statistics, only anecdotal evidence. From what I've seen, traveling the country, speaking at conferences, and moderating several email lists, Catholic homeschooling is still growing strong while Protestant homeschooling is leveling off.

Homeschoolers are not easily pegged. We come in all shapes and sizes. All colors and creeds. We've gone mainstream.

Adrienne: One thing I notice about Catholic homeschoolers is that many are devoted to the ideas of classical education and/or using real books/great books. I think part of it is because so many got into homeschooling less for religious reasons but more, as you note, because they saw the benefits of homeschooling over institutionalized schooling. I wondered if you had any thoughts on this.

Maureen: Catholic homeschoolers are all over the board. We come in all shapes and sizes. But you're right – you do see a lot more dedication to the classical model, the trivium, as it is something that has deep roots in the history of the Catholic Church. Of the eight big Catholic home study schools, four are classical.

You also see a lot Charlotte Mason advocates in Catholic homeschooling. Miss Mason was not Catholic but she borrowed a lot of her ideas from the classical model. Her promotion of real books, training of habits, dictation, and so on, are easily "baptized."

I think, ultimately, homeschooling for us does come down to sharing the faith. Heaven, not Harvard, as they say. (Though, most of us are shooting for both.) What better way to share our religion, than to live it, side by side, with our children. Faith is better learned, and nurtured, within the family, than by an institutionalized school.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Interview with Maureen Wittmann, Part 5

Adrienne: It’s interesting, too, to be at the point where you have kids right through the range of ages. Is your oldest starting to think about things like college and career ideas? Will this be his last year of official homeschooling? (Of course, we all know that one can never *really* stop learning at home....)

Maureen: Yes, it's definitely interesting having children in all the stages of learning. Hard sometimes, but certainly interesting!

My oldest is a high school junior. He has one more year at home before going off to college. He's already been thinking about college and his future for some years now. He has his heart set on Franciscan University in Stuebenville, OH. He wants to major in journalism, and also philosophy or theology. He's discerning the priesthood, but hasn't made a definite decision. As it should be – that is the kind of life decision that requires time and much prayer.

It's an interesting thing to watch your oldest child grow into a man. He's no longer a little child. He's capable of making sound life decisions on his own. Sure, he looks to me for guidance, but I trust him implicitly in making right choices. I'm not quite sure how that happened. Was I blessed with children who are naturally good or did I somehow make enough right parenting decisions to help them blossom into great kids?

So many people dread the teen years, but in all honesty I love them. (Not just as a mother, but also as one who leads a teen group.) I will go so far to say teenagers are a gift from God and we should be grateful for the time we have with them. Teens are incredibly interesting people, caught between childhood and adulthood. They are fervently seeking Truth and trying to make sense of the world around them. As their parents, we have the awesome responsibility to guide them through these years.

Adrienne: I know you’re at work on a book about teens, so I’d love to ask you to talk a little more about working with teens.

Maureen: By the time a student reaches high school they're ready to engage in the art of expression and articulate their ideas about what they've learned so far.

Think about teens and telephones, or instant messaging. Teens love to chat. This is the time to engage your child in conversation. Don't be afraid of the generation gap, your child will be happy you are interested enough in him to seek his opinions. (Just ignore the eye rolling and sighs.)

This is not the time to let our children go, but to continue to help them flower, guiding them gently. We need to challenge their thinking skills and make them defend their intellectual and religious positions. Ask them probing questions that will help them make connections and come up with their own insightful conclusions.

It is during this time we can move from simple narrative stories to challenging debates and critiques. Think about how much more interesting this is to the parent. Think about those days of reading the same picture books over and over again. Now, you have the opportunity to not only read deep works alongside your child, but to discuss them in-depth. You have not only the opportunity to teach your child, but to learn from him. How cool is that!

Science can include ethical debates such as embryonic stem cell research and cloning. Math can include looking into how the great theorems came to be discovered. History can include primary documents, looking deep into the why and how the turns of history took place. Religion can move beyond Bible facts and get into apologetics. The Early Church Fathers can be studied, looking to see how their leadership shaped the way Christians worship today.

So often, homeschoolers place their children into a site-based school when they get to the high school years. But, I think this is THE time to homeschool. It's a great opportunity to show a child how to get to the very core of Truth. And that, in my opinion, is the end goal of an educator.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Interview with Maureen Wittmann, Part 4

Adrienne: Now for nitty-gritty questions. What does a typical day for your family look like? Do you follow a schedule? Do you have planned "school" time? Do the kids follow different schedules?

Maureen: Again, this is something that changes and evolves over time. Our schedule today is so different from our schedule eleven years ago. Then my family was small and my children were little. Today, I have seven children, ages 4, 6, 8, 11, 13, 15, and 17.

I'm at the pinnacle of our homeschooling experience, with a preschooler, grade schoolers, middle schoolers, and high schoolers.

I begin planning in the summer. I sit down with each child and discuss what our goals are for the upcoming school year. We look through the homeschooling catalogs together and decide what will work best for said child (and said mother). We lay out a plan, which is tweaked after the school year begins and real life takes over.

The three older children, having been homeschooled all their lives, are pretty self-directed learners. They create their own weekly itineraries on Sunday night or Monday morning. (I have my planning forms available for free download at my website if anyone is interested, I try to take the older kids out for breakfast or lunch once a week to go over their progress and chat about the books they're reading.

My 11-year old, on the other hand, needs constant direct supervision to get anything done. He definitely has the Edison Trait (a.k.a. ADD or ADHD). Like Thomas Edison, he's very smart but can't sit still. I try to give him enough space to explore subjects on his own, but he would never do the basics (especially language arts) if I didn't work with him one-on-one. He's also my one reluctant reader – thank goodness for books on tape!

The 6- and 8-year olds are learning to read together. I use Orton Gillingham, a multi-sensory, phonics intense, reading program. I work with them after I get Thomas Edison engaged in something he's happy to do on his own (science experiments, LEGO building, BOT, etc.). I also pay one of my teens to tutor the two grade schoolers and the preschooler. I've used this tactic for years. It frees up some of my time to help older children, the littles get some special attention, and the big kids learn from it too. Also, We take lots of breaks for outside play and exploration.

My preschooler spends most of his time just having fun being a 4-year old. He begs to "do school," so I supply him with a kindergarten math workbook, plus give him lots of space to paint and color. He loves to go out and jump on the trampoline while the other kids are working. And, of course, there is loads of read aloud time. I often have older children read to the younger children. It gives the older kids practice and the little kids love it!

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I babysit two preschoolers for just a couple hours in the morning. This actually frees up some of my time, as they play so nicely with my preschooler. They occupy themselves very well.

Except for 8 a.m. Mass on Wednesdays and Thursdays, I don't schedule any outside activities before 2 p.m. I'm not disciplined enough to get back on track after being gone all morning. If schoolwork isn't done in the morning, we don't go out in the afternoon. There is one other exception, sometimes we'll pick up our books and go to the library for "school."

Outside activities include shooting sports. During the school year that only means one evening meeting a week. (Summertime is a different story – 3 to 4 practices a week, plus competitions!) We also have Teen Wednesdays. This is a group I lead, with about 20 homeschooled teens. The first Wed. is Writers' Club, second and fourth Wed. is Socrates Cafe, third Wed. is Readers' Anonymous, and if there is a fifth Wed., we do something special. A new activity for the Wittmanns this year is Science Olympiad. The kids will compete with other kids (mostly from public and private schools) in the area of science. This is a national organization,

I don't have an hour-by-hour breakdown of each day. We're more laid back than that. But basically, we get up in the morning, eat breakfast, get right to work, eat lunch, do some chores, the olders work on special interests, the littles play, sometimes we go out to the library or an activity, we make dinner, welcome home Daddy, and enjoy our evening together.

Adrienne: I love some of the strategies you've come up with to make things work – creative, positive, working with everyone's strengths. :)

Maureen: A lot of educational reforms that have floundered in public schools, work beautifully in the homeschool. Unit studies, child-led education, each child progressing at his own rate – these are all grand ideas, but very difficult to implement in a large classroom setting. Yet, with a mother working with individual children, these pedagogical approaches can, and do, work, and often with grand results. For example, I know several unschooling families whose children went on to receive full college scholarships and do very well in their university studies.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Interview with Maureen Wittmann, Part 3

Adrienne: How would you describe your homeschooling philosophy? I know, for instance, that faith is an important part of your family's life, but I know, too, that you have strong feelings about academics and the use of literature.

Maureen: Oh gosh, where to start. You know, it's something that evolves over time and I'm not sure how to put it into a nutshell. But I'll try :-).

One's belief system is integral to that person and I don't know how it can be severed from everyday life, much less academics. As a Catholic, I strive to weave our faith into our studies.

I remember when I first began homeschooling, I attended a talk by Fr. John Hardon. Father, bless his soul, was an academic and prolific author. In his talk, he stated if all we teach our children is to love God and the world He created, then we can consider ourselves successful as homeschoolers. At first I was scandalized, but then Fr. Hardon went on. He explained that children who truly love God will want to know more about this world we live in. History, science, math, music, art – all gifts from God.

We are made in God's image. Let's think about that for a moment. What does God do? He creates. He created us and the earth. Therefore, it is only natural that we have a desire to create. It feels good to create, to learn, to explore, to discover. I try, as a parent and homeschooler, to take advantage of these natural tendencies in my children.

It's important to me to keep "school" fun and interesting. It shouldn't be a bore or drudgery. I don't mean that it shouldn't be hard work. But, if we know there will be great fruits for our work, it's not really drudgery is it? I try to focus myself and the children on the outcome. And, yes, admittedly, there are times when my children aren't entirely excited about learning. However, by keeping focused on the children's natural sense of wonder and discovery, those down times are few.

I do this several ways. One, I let them have a say in their studies. I have the final say, but I consult them when I plan out the school year. If a child comes to me and tells me his or her current course of study isn't going anywhere, then we'll work together to find an alternative.

Something else that works well for us is focusing on "real books." Oh, we do use the occasional textbook, but they are in no way central to our learning. My experience has been textbooks and fill-in-the-blank workbooks are often formulaic, rather than thought provoking. They can take the life out right of the story, bringing it down to bare bones.

Let's look at history for an example. History is story. It's the story of mankind from creation to today. Why not share it as story? Which will excite a child? Which will remain with the child for years to come? A list of bare facts? Or, an exciting biography or historical fiction?

Real books, used correctly, can awaken a child's imagination through their God-given curiosity, and sense of awe, in a way that's enjoyable. They take education our of the classroom and into the child's everyday life. Shouldn't that be our goal as educators – to take education out of school and into the world?

Finally, I work to learn alongside the children. How can I expect them to find joy in education, if they don't see it in me? I let them see my joy in discovering new things. For example, I keep about a month ahead of them in our history studies. When they were studying the High Middle Ages, I was reading about the Renaissance. They saw me curled up on the sofa, sipping tea, reading about history. They saw me put down my book now and then and discuss an exciting tidbit with my husband. Emotions are contagious!

So, I guess the nutshell version is: We look for God's hand in our studies, use real books, and find joy in learning.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Interview with Maureen Wittmann, Part 2

Adrienne: When did you start homeschooling with your kids?

Maureen: From the moment I whispered into my firstborn's ear, "Hi, I'm your mommy and I love you."

Adrienne: I get variations on that answer over and over, and I love it. :)

Maureen: I believe all parents are homeschoolers, no matter where their children receive their academics. The most important lessons learned are from our parents. Faith, morals, work ethic, manners, and so much more. And whether or not we do well in "school" depends a lot on our parents. A child will more than likely do well in school if his parent is supportive and has a positive attitude toward education.

But, if you mean from an academic viewpoint, I've always homeschooled. The first day of kindergarten for my firstborn was in our living room, and he's still there twelve years later.

Adrienne: It seems to me that the homeschooling landscape has changed a lot in the last 12 years. What kinds of regulations did you have to deal with when you were starting out? Did you run into any of the roadblocks one so often hears about?

Maureen: I've really been blessed in this area. Michigan used to be one of the hardest states to homeschool. You had to be a certified teacher and your home had to meet the same safety standards as a public school, such as lighted exit signs and sprinkler systems. The law was overturned by the Michigan Supreme Court. I began homeschooling a few years after that.

What's important, I think, is to never forget those days when homeschooling was illegal for most parents. Twelve years ago, it was not unusual to meet other parents whose homeschooling experience was part of an underground movement. They couldn't let their children play outside during school hours, they blackened basement windows because of nosy neighbors, etc. But now, with the passage of many years, we don't hear from those homeschooling pioneers so often.

Here, in Michigan, we have a new state representative who has publicly stated his first act as a legislator will be to put restrictions on homeschooling. Hopefully, homeschoolers will stay vigilant, recall the past restrictions, take seriously their parental rights, and keep this from happening again.