just another witness to homeschooling

May 2, 2014

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I’m kicking off this post with a quote from a pope. I’ll bet that wasn’t what you expected when you showed up here today, and I hope you’ll bear with me. I’m going somewhere with this, and it has nothing to do with religion.

Last Sunday at Mass, this line came up in the homily. I had to go home and Google to find the specific words, and the specific pope.

“Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”  –Pope Paul VI

As soon as I heard this I looked over at Chris and whispered, “That’s why I can’t write that book!” And he looked back at me perplexed, as if I were whispering in tongues.

I couldn’t stop myself from whispering. It was one of those moments when you hear something in an unexpected context that illuminates some other thought you’ve been having, and the connection feels so unbelievable that you want to shout out, “That’s it!

I couldn’t shout out there in church, obviously; I couldn’t even elaborate to my poor, baffled husband. But since we’re not sitting in church now, let me explain.

I’ve been struggling with my writing for the past year or so. Not my writing per se, but my mission, I suppose. I hinted about it in this post, when I chattered about how I missed writing personal essays, and was considering putting aside the writing book for parents that I’d been tinkering with for several years.

Tinkering with. Making notes on. Lots of notes. But not really writing, that book.

I had lots of excuses about why I wasn’t writing it. I needed to do more research! I needed to establish myself as an expert! I needed to build my audience!

The real reason was more subtle, and it took me a while to pinpoint: These days, I don’t want to be a teacher.

I came to writing personal essays after dabbling in short stories, and then poetry. Essays felt most suited to practical, matter-of-fact-but-prone-to-wondering me. What I love most about essays is their musing-ness. They raise more questions than they answer. The best ones aren’t didactic. They don’t tell you what to think–they take you along on a thought process.The word essay comes from the French essai, which means an attempt. In an essay a writer attempts to work something out, and if that essay is done well, the reader will start thinking and working things out too. His or her own things.

If you don’t quite get what I mean by a personal essay, you might check out the essay project I dove into a few years back. Or read some of the fantastic ones I’ve been reading on Full Grown People. Or think of it this way: personal essays are life stories laced with wondering.

I love the art of the personal essay, but it’s also a format I feel comfortable writing in. I would rather wonder about my own life than tell you what to do with yours. I don’t want to write chapters about encouraging kids to write, in a how-to format, as if I have all the answers. I did that with my book on facilitating writer’s workshops, I suppose, but that was a very specific, particular topic. But writing with kids! It’s a huge topic, and the thought of narrowing it down into comprehensive chapters sounds about as daunting as eating a smoothie with chopsticks.

Plus, I think that pope was on to something. We learn more from witnesses than we do from teachers.

I’ve been a witness to and a participant in homeschooling for more than sixteen years now. I have lots of stories to tell. And I sense that sharing my stories, along with my worries and moments of delight, will inspire you to think of your own life and your own kids, and come up with your own ideas and plans more than a how-to book ever could. Although personal essays may seem self-indulgent, I think they leave more room for the reader than how-to writing does. There’s space for you to wonder and come up with your own conclusions.

It’s not that I’m not interested in the topic of kids and writing; it’s still one of the best things to drop into a conversation if you want to get me worked up and rambly. I’m happy to offer suggestions, possibilities, and I’m sure I’ll keep doing that here. But I don’t want to pitch my energy into being some sort of expert on kids and writing.

I don’t want to tell you what to do with your kids. I don’t know your kids. You do.

The other morning, I explained this to my dear poet friend Melissa. We’ve read and offered feedback on each other’s work for years, although it’s been a while now. Catching up over coffee, I nattered on about these thoughts. And she said something wise: That makes sense. It’s how you’ve approached homeschooling with your kids.

Precisely! I stopped thinking of myself as my kids’ teacher long ago. I find resources for them. I pay attention to what fires them up. I look for opportunities that might excite them. I do what they like to do alongside them. I help them recognize the small steps needed to get to their goals. I try to encourage their curiosity, their questions, because this is how they become their own teachers–and when they do that, the possibilities are limitless.

How can I take that approach to homeschooling–and then turn it into a book that makes me a teacher again? It would feel like wearing someone else’s shoes.

But essays about homeschooling? That I can do!

Except. There is virtually no market for personal essays on homeschooling.

Hmph! I have been stewing on this conundrum for years. Sure, there are homeschooling magazines, but their audiences are fairly circumscribed, and not necessarily meshed with my own thinking. Plus, the writing tends to take the form of articles more than musing essays. So in the past several months I’ve directed my writing to more general parenting topics, like I did in that Lemony Snicket essay. Meanwhile I’ve stewed and wondered and longed to write about homeschooling, somewhere beyond this blog. It’s the story I have to tell at this point in my life.

And then one Tuesday morning, an opportunity fell not on my lap, but on my computer keyboard, like a petal drifting down from a magnolia tree. There’s a new homeschooling magazine out there, and it’s a beauty. Have you seen home | school | life? (There’s a sneak peek of the first issue at that link.) It’s the magazine I wish I’d had back when I started homeschooling–modern, fresh, full of inspiration and different homeschooling philosophies. When I realized that the magazine’s founder was the same Amy who interviewed me for her smaller, local magazine last year, I wrote to congratulate her. As fate would have it, just as I was posting that blog comment, an email came in from Amy, reintroducing herself and telling me that our previous interview was part of the national magazine’s first issue. A few emails flew back and forth and by the next morning I was a columnist for her magazine.

That’s right, people, a regular gig writing about homeschooling. Dream job! Starting with the summer issue I’ll be writing essays on homeschooling life. Yes, it’s just one column a quarter, but somehow having that forum for writing on homeschooling opens up the possibilities in a way I hadn’t expected. When it comes to homeschooling, I think, most of us don’t want to be told how to do it. What we really want is to know how others do it, day after day, year after year. We want to know what works for other families and what doesn’t. We want to be crouched in the corners of their homes, spying and learning, so we can find our own way.

We want to hear the testimony of witnesses.

(Shh, I’m whispering, like we’re in church together: Maybe, just maybe, there might be a different book here. Not a how-to book, but a collection of essays on homeschooling. The book I wish I’d had when I started out. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)

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{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

amy May 2, 2014 at 8:42 am

Yes! I’ve long known my “teaching” style is that of facilitator and co-discoverer. That’s the approach I naturally took from the very beginning of my work with kids, as a nature camp counselor. Oh, that caused some disconcerted people! Including kids who’d apparently never been shown how to discover things from themselves. This is how I do most things with my kids, in any classes I teach, and how I approach the way in which I try to mentor anyone who has questions about art-making with their kids. (Everybody’s kids are different! Try and see what you all like!)

Truthfully I always thought it would be horrifying to be seen as an “expert.” Can you imagine? WHO knows the answers to everything? What a burden it must be to have to pretend like you do…

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patricia May 2, 2014 at 9:08 am

Isn’t it interesting that we tend to allow discovery with art–although not with other types of learning? (Although surely art is often taught in a top-down way. And surely we homeschoolers tend to get good at allowing other learning to be discovery-based.)

Yes, that whole expert thing feels weird to me. As much as I want to help parents with their kids’ writing, it was that expert mantle that I didn’t like. I recently read on a writer’s bio that she has appeared on television as a “parenting expert.” And I thought, What the heck? What makes someone a parenting expert more than any other parent?

P.S. Looking forward to being a fellow columnist with you, Amy!

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amy May 2, 2014 at 9:16 am

I would have thought that environmental education in a summer camp was a natural (no pun intended!) for encouraging self-led exploration and discovery, but hoo boy, Director of Fancy Private School Day Camp wanted to know learning objective and lesson plan and what exactly the kids were doing in the woods. (I assume he was trying to meet the demands of his paying customers, the parents.) I also see lots of art “teaching” that isn’t necessarily focused on discovery but more on step-by-step instructions. Those displays where all the kids’ artwork looks more or less exactly the same? That.

P.S. Yes! me too. :)

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patricia May 2, 2014 at 9:23 am

Oh yes, there are far too many matchy-matchy art project programs out there. Just another reason people should subscribe to home|school|life–they can read your possibilities for doing it differently!

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Kelley May 2, 2014 at 1:34 pm

Once upon a time (before motherhood) when I was a family counselor people would always come to me expecting me to have answers, to know how to fix their family. No pressure there at all, right? I became pretty allergic to being an expert and started looking for other ways to contribute without telling anyone “how-to” or claiming to have the answers for anyone else. So I especially appreciate what you are saying here and enjoy the kind of writing you are describing. Also just want to say congratulations to you on figuring out what you like to do and finding a place to contribute! I will check out the new magazine. Best wishes!

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patricia May 2, 2014 at 4:01 pm

It’s good to know that I’m not the only one who feels uncomfortable with the “expert” role, Kelley. And I’m thrilled about the “finding a place to contribute” thing! It’s great to be part of something that the homeschooling world seems so ready for.

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Zane May 2, 2014 at 2:08 pm

Patricia, this is hands down my favorite post you’ve ever written. Thank you for your honesty and clarity of thought! My word for this year was, in fact, “witness.” I love the quote you shared from Pope Paul; it says succinctly what has been in my heart for such a long time.

I can’t wait to read the new homeschooling magazine! And congratulations on your position!

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patricia May 2, 2014 at 4:05 pm

Your favorite? Gosh, thank you! Sometimes I write posts that seem so embarrassingly navel-gazing that they really ought to just stay in my journal. This was one of those. It’s neat to know that such posts might be worth it, that they sometimes connect with readers. At the very least, I’m so happy to have passed along a quote for you to add to your year of witnessing!

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Sonya terBorg May 2, 2014 at 4:33 pm

You know I adore you but seriously, you have outdone yourself with this post. This part I want to get (figuratively – I am a wimp!) tattooed on my arm: “I find resources for them. I pay attention to what fires them up. I look for opportunities that might excite them. I do what they like to do alongside them. I help them recognize the small steps needed to get to their goals. I try to encourage their curiosity, their questions, because this is how they become their own teachers–and when they do that, the possibilities are limitless.” This should be the mantra of all teachers. Love, love, love it. Thank you, again, for your inspiration!

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patricia May 5, 2014 at 8:47 am

Well, Sonya, it surely is easier to pull this off in a homeschooling setting, with one or a few kids. Teachers who aspire to it in a classroom setting are amazing–like you!

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gretchen May 2, 2014 at 4:35 pm

How exciting! At just the right time, clarity and focus coincided with an opportunity to share your insights throughout a journal column. Sounds like you are joining kindred spirits with this new magazine. Best of luck in reaching your audience. Enjoy the challenges and satisfaction of the process!
Love GG

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patricia May 5, 2014 at 8:49 am

The magazine does feel kindred, Gretchen. I always appreciate your support. Thank you! xo!

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dawn May 2, 2014 at 4:55 pm

i am so very, very pleased to know that i can look forward to more essays from you in the home|school|life magazine.

i think it’s not so much about “being an expert” but in having expertise. you’ve been through these things, you can reflect and write about them with intelligence and insight and authority through experience.

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patricia May 5, 2014 at 8:56 am

Yes, Dawn, I feel more comfortable with that phrasing. I’m happy to share my experience and expertise, but don’t want to feel I have to be an expert. Thanks for the insight!

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tereza crump aka mytreasuredcreations May 2, 2014 at 6:22 pm

When it comes to homeschooling, I think, most of us don’t want to be told how to do it. What we really want is to know how others do it, day after day, year after year. We want to know what works for other families and what doesn’t. We want to be crouched in the corners of their homes, spying and learning, so we can find our own way. – from your post.

YOu hit the nail on the head. That is exactly it!

A couple of months ago I was having a hard time with my oldest who is a free spirit 11 y.o. I thought maybe hormones were going wild or something. SO I talked to a couple of different homeschooling moms who had girls and how they were doing school. I came back home knowing how NOT to do school with my 11 y.o. and I had a million ideas of how it could actually work. So we first took a break… like 40 days where she and her siblings did whatever they wanted except school work. It was a brilliant month. They accomplished so much. It was a month of self discovered and new discoveries. Now we are back to a more structured learning but still flexible and within their personalities… nothing like the other kids we know. :)

You should keep writing essays. I am looking forward to reading your articles. :)

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patricia May 5, 2014 at 9:11 am

Isn’t it funny how hearing how others do things can clarify what we want to do, Tereza? And, as in your case, sometimes the experiences of others just help us understand what we don’t want. It’s so important to share experiences as homeschoolers! Sounds like your family’s 40 days was an inspirational time. Love that.

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Wendy May 2, 2014 at 8:16 pm

So exciting to see your own interests and desires come together with such a great opportunity. I look forward to reading your columns!

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patricia May 5, 2014 at 9:13 am

Thank you, Wendy!

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Eliza Twist May 3, 2014 at 8:25 am

How cool! In truth I was reading as fast as I could because what you wrote really resonated with me. It’s such a wonderfully empowering experience when we sync up with ourselves, the world responds. I’m all for sharing stories and ideas in a format that honors the old intention of the essay. That is what I attempt to do in my writing. I do it partly to clear my own mind and partly because I have the idea that my ideas may spark somebody else’s. Not toward a definitive end, but toward whatever feels the best and right to them. Sharing is caring. Thanks for sharing!

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patricia May 5, 2014 at 9:15 am

I love this, Eliza: “I do it partly to clear my own mind and partly because I have the idea that my ideas may spark somebody else’s. Not toward a definitive end, but toward whatever feels the best and right to them.” Exactly. That’s what I love about the essay format. Thanks for sharing right back!

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Rethenwyn May 3, 2014 at 2:19 pm

I have never left a comment before on any blog page, that is how much I have resonated with what you are saying, enough to break my silence! It is not even the whole witness verses teacher concept that has given me food for thought (though I totally love this way of ‘teaching’), but the way it has brought you round to putting faith in your own personal stories as a valid way of communicating your ideas and offering reflection to others. When I write about my own thoughts and insights, this is when my writing hits that ‘flow’ but I have resisted this form of writing as self indulgent and labelled it in my mind as not ‘real’ writing. In reading this piece you have beautifully written something that should have been obvious has clicked (as all great insights tend to do!) and I find myself able to take a new approach to a creative piece I am working on. The biggest insights I have in my life are about myself and my journey, so it’s obvious that my writing should take this form, my writing can become a personal offering, not a ‘telling what to do.’ Thank you, and if you ever need a fellow columnist reflecting on spontaneous schooling from a New Zealand perspective, let me know! x

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patricia May 5, 2014 at 9:28 am

I’m so honored to receive your first blog comment ever, Rethenwyn! Your comment, and the comments of others here, really prove my point: my own (self-indulgent) musings have sparked all sorts of different thinking in others. Aspects of what I wrote resonated with readers in completely different ways! I think that if I’d written this post as a how-to piece–5 Ways Essays are Different from How-To Writing, for instance–the responses would have been completely different. What can anyone really do with that sort of writing, other than agree or disagree with it?

I know it’s easy to see your personal thoughts and musings as self-indulgent (believe me, I know!), but I do think our stories encourage the stories of others. That’s what happens in a conversation, right? Essays are sort of an extended invitation for conversation.

I’m so happy that you’ve been inspired in your own creative work, Rethenwyn! Thanks so much for taking the time to respond here.

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Kirsten May 3, 2014 at 2:48 pm

Oh I’m really looking forward to reading your essays in the magazine, Patricia! I love personal, musing-style essays, and I’d much rather read that than some kind of how-to manual. I’m much happier being encouraged to think than being told what the answers are – not least because 9 times out of 10 I don’t agree with the answers I’m told! Or at least, I agree with the answers, until I read another book that tells me different answers that I seem to agree with and then I get all confused again!

And anyway, personal essays are just a much better read. Particularly the way you write them! So I’m really looking forward to reading them.

So glad this came up for you!

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patricia May 5, 2014 at 9:36 am

I’m right there with you on changing thinking every time you read something good, Kirsten. Another reason I don’t want to write as an “expert”–my ideas develop and shift constantly!

Love this: “I’m much happier being encouraged to think than being told what the answers are…” Maybe my new tagline should be, “Encouraging readers to think since 2008.” ;-)

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Heather Caliri May 5, 2014 at 1:05 pm

This is lovely, Patricia, and I LOVE that quote. I pray you find the path as you’re moving forward on this book! And I want to go check out the magazine and your column. So exciting!

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patricia May 6, 2014 at 9:04 pm

Thank you for the kind support, Heather! It means a lot.

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amy May 6, 2014 at 6:46 am

You’ve been a shining light for my personal homeschool life since I discovered your blog four years ago. So I’m obviously doubly delighted that you’re going to be working with us at home/school/life. We’re so lucky to have you!

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patricia May 6, 2014 at 9:11 pm

Seems like what we have here, Amy, is a mutual admiration society! I am so impressed that you made this magazine (while homeschooling!) and I can’t wait to see how it develops. I’m thrilled to be a part of it all.

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Dawn Suzette May 7, 2014 at 1:21 am

Yes, Patricia! It all rings so true.
I am looking forward to more of your personal essays.

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patricia May 7, 2014 at 9:15 am

I’ll bet you have your own thoughts on this, Dawn!

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Kristin May 16, 2014 at 8:51 am

This sounds like a perfect fit. Congratulations. It’s interesting how it all fell in your lap(top) at the “right” time. (Perhaps your patience and perseverance tapped into a collective consciousness.) I know that if I were starting homeschooling again, (16+ years ago), I would have looked forward to reading your regular column in a homeschooling magazine. I’m glad that so many people will benefit from your experience and the way you put it.

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patricia May 21, 2014 at 9:27 am

Haha, yes that opportunity fell into my laptop, rather than my lap! How did I miss that little bit of wordplay? Doh! Thanks for the never failing cheering-on, Kristin!

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Michelle May 20, 2014 at 10:13 am

I’m going to quote you again, as another commenter did, above:

“When it comes to homeschooling, I think, most of us don’t want to be told how to do it. What we really want is to know how others do it, day after day, year after year. We want to know what works for other families and what doesn’t. We want to be crouched in the corners of their homes, spying and learning, so we can find our own way.

We want to hear the testimony of witnesses.”

You’ve done all that! I just read your blog. Your whole blog. From the beginning. It’s satisfying, like I’ve just finished a great book. (You’ve written a book!) You’ve shared with your readers, (even us newbies) how you do it; “day after day, year after year.”

I’m new to this homeschooling party. My girls, 8 and 10, are finishing their last few weeks of brick-and-mortar. Next year, we homeschool. So I’ve been reading blogs…lots of blogs. Sometimes I read only the most recent posts, to find a bit of inspiration, or an idea to tuck away for the future. But some, like yours, strike a chord, and I am compelled to go back to the beginning, to find out how it all started, and to follow the evolution to today. Sometimes those blogs don’t go back very far, and sometimes their authors have had large periods of inactivity, or have stopped updating them all together. What a treat to find one like yours, which is so thorough and MEATY, and where there is such a commitment to the subject and to the readers!

So thank you for the great read, over these last few days. Thank you for going before me, and for being so kind to record it all here! You haven’t been too teacher-like. You’ve been that witness, and you’ve been the mentor you suggest we be to our children. You’ve offered suggestions, given ideas like gifts, and told the story I needed to hear. Thank you.

P.S. The most exciting part is that you’re not done! Although my binge-reading has come to an end like a good Netflix series, I get to continue to follow you into the future. Yippee!

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patricia May 21, 2014 at 9:44 am

Oh, Michelle, your comment made me cry! Not many people write to me and say, “I just read your blog. Your whole blog.” I’ve had a few people tell me that they’ve worked through the posts over time, but no one has ever told me that they read the whole thing over the course of a few days. I’m touched and honored. I’m especially grateful for the fact that you seem to understand what I meant in this post, and what I’m trying to do here. When you spend so much time putting your thoughts into words, there is nothing as rewarding as a reader who really gets what you’re trying to say.

It sounds like you’re spending the last few weeks of your girls’ brick-and-mortar school days digging deep into this world of homeschooling. Good for you! Good for your girls! I hope you are thrilled and revved up and ready to leap into this new adventure!

Do me a favor? Respond to the email notification of this comment, and send me your address? I want to send you a copy of my book. To thank you for reminding me that what I’m doing here is worthwhile. And also to put a little spark in your mind, about the possibility of starting up a writer’s workshop for your girls next year! I’m totally biased, but I think workshops can be one of the best homeschooling time investments you can make, if you have the sort of kids who would be into it.

Thank you for your kind words, Michelle. They mean more than I can say. Wish I could give you a hug! Best wishes as you and your family begin your homeschooling life!

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Stacey May 21, 2014 at 12:35 pm

This is exactly why I’ve been coming back to your blog for years. Even during the last year and a half “public school experiment” I have continued to find inspiration from your stories of life. They would remind me why I was back in school and why we as a family needed to get back to the life we love. You know what? It worked, we went back to homeschooling at spring break. I credit you and a few other homeschooling families who shared their lives as reminders of the big goals we had.

Of course, now I might have to read some of the other posts as 8 year olds are very different than 6 year olds.

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patricia June 10, 2014 at 8:17 am

Please excuse the belated response, Stacey. Your comment got lost in the crazy shuffle that has been my life this month! I’m honored to have been an inspiration in your life. How fantastic that you’ve tried out different things, and have found your way back to homeschooling. Welcome back! (And it’s fun seeing your life via Instagram!)

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Heather June 10, 2014 at 6:38 am

“When it comes to homeschooling, I think, most of us don’t want to be told how to do it. What we really want is to know how others do it, day after day, year after year. We want to know what works for other families and what doesn’t. We want to be crouched in the corners of their homes, spying and learning, so we can find our own way.” YES, YES, YES!

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patricia June 10, 2014 at 8:10 am

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