I vividly remember the end-of-year conference with my son’s teacher before we began homeschooling. She expressed a need for improvement in his writing, but, of course, that was my area of teaching strength. She knew it would be no problem once I worked with him one-on-one. After all, I had designed the writing curriculum for the Grammar School and was the go-to teacher when other teachers had issues teaching writing. Science I was worried about, but writing would be a breeze.
Six years later, writing is not a breeze. Every sentence my sons write (often without punctuation) might as well be written in their own blood. On the other hand, science is going well. I have three budding naturalists, and my boys both desire careers in science fields. In short, everything I am good at has been a struggle, while areas where I have major gaps in knowledge seem to be going well. God has a tremendous sense of humor.
Everyone has gaps. In the classroom, you are likely teaching areas that are narrower in scope and/or teaching the same material year after year. If you are homeschooling, you are in effect a “first-year teacher” for the first dozen years whilst teaching multiple grades at once. Every year there are new content areas that you have not learned much less taught before. You will have gaps. Many, many gaps. Here are some things that have worked for me as I have homeschooled through the elementary years.
- Learn together (and learn what you want).
When possible, we learn together during daily morning time and other studies throughout the week. A benefit of homeschooling in the early years is that you don’t need to choose books, composers, history periods, artists, art skills, or elements of nature only because they are on someone’s list. When choosing between multiple good options, I choose things I want to learn. This is not selfish, it’s practical. My desire to learn vivifies our family’s learning time. I chose plays, books, and poetry that I have not yet read (or want to read again). I began memorizing poetry with my children, selecting “poems for mom” that I wanted to contemplate. We take nature walks and do nature journals together. In these things, I can model intellectual curiosity, diligence, and loving what’s good. The choices I make are not merely to increase knowledge but also to shape our family culture.
2. Content is only a portion of education.
Mortimer Adler identified “Three Pillars” or modes of thinking and learning: content, skills, and ideas. Over-focusing on content is an easy trap to fall into because that is how most of us have been educated. You can always teach skills and contemplate ideas no matter how familiar or unfamiliar you are with the content…provided, of course, you possess the skills and are aware of the ideas. An example: I was terrified when I first had to teach Latin in the classroom. I never studied Latin. Ideally, I would have been educated classically myself or otherwise have studied Latin. Instead, I was teaching full-time, had a one-year-old, was heavily pregnant, and it wasn’t the time to take up a new language. However, I already had studied and spoke two other inflected languages, both with more cases than Latin, so I could guide students in contemplating ideas and practicing skills in language learning. Since that time, I have chosen to tend to more pressing gaps in my own education, with the hope to one day study Latin.
3. Read great books and contemplate ideas.
The great books are a doorway into the conversation about great ideas through the eyes of the Western Tradition’s greatest minds. Like any conversation, it makes the most sense if you start at the beginning, not at the end. If you are spending your time learning about phonics instruction or math curricula and are not engaging with the great books, you are providing an education that is unmoored. I remember in my early days thinking about knowledge gaps that felt urgent while reading Plato and Aristotle, Homer and Virgil, Augustine and Aquinas did not. I have found that reading great books is not an intellectual luxury, but foundational to what we are trying to accomplish as educators. Reading the great books is a project for the long haul, but you can begin by reading a short Dialogue, listening to an audio version of an epic while you do chores, joining some friends in reading Confessions, or listening to a podcast about Aristotelian causality. Don’t approach them as content to master but instead mine them for ideas. Over time, these ideas give meaning and structure to your work as an educator.
Over time, you will also find that your gaps are increasing, not decreasing. As you learn, you will realize how little you knew about all there was to learn. This has not discouraged me – instead, I have realized that the world is a far more beautiful and more interesting place than I ever thought possible.