Developing Character Through After-Schooling

thumb4

By Mary Elizabeth Hall (originally published in Home Educating Family Magazine)

MY PRECIOUSSSS!” gurgled eleven year old Karen through a mouthful of water while her eight year old sister Kristen squealed and giggled. Sitting at our kitchen table after school, we were on our first of two runs of reading through The Hobbit, which followed on the heels of the entire Little House series, Story of the World, Elsie Dinsmore, Stories from Grandma’s Attic, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, and countless others.

After story time, we would either find an interesting activity from our Konos binders or other sources to go with topics the girls were learning about at school, or we would just devise a project of our own and then write about it. We split and colored flowers, designed cotton-cloud pictures, raised tadpoles (they really do grow legs overnight!), made leaf rubbings and ironed pressed-leaf collages onto wax paper. We dissected flowers, examined plant specimens gathered by running in sock feet through our yard, carried out musical instrument parades, wrote stories, and counted the plink-plank-plunk of berries in a tin can while reading Blueberries for Sal.

In our fast-paced society, more and more homeschooling families are now opting for co-ops, group activities, classes of various types, and during certain seasons in our lives, even formal school. Does this mean that homeschooling is over for these families? It doesn’t have to. After-Schooling can build character during the in-between times—when a relaxing break is needed after dashing through carline, or on the afternoons not already scheduled for soccer practice. It can also be done during evenings and weekends. After-Schooling is how parents can keep plugged into their kids’ education—and into their hearts.

In my support group, we like to refer to our schooling as parent-directed education, meaning that while the day-to-day school experience for each child may vary at different times during the life of a family, the parents are driving the education, continually reviewing how each child is learning and making changes as necessary to achieve the goals we’ve prayerfully set for them. I’ve watched families find teachers or school programs to assist in teaching children with special needs, send certain children to public or private school while keeping others home, and enroll in part-time schools and co-ops. I’ve also seen families adopt or foster children with learning disabilities, and they’re thankful to find help in teaching them. But all the while, the parents are directing each child’s education.

For our family, parent-directed education meant pure homeschooling during the early years. We fully intended to continue this way, but emerging learning difficulties among our young students, combined with time-consuming care needed by elderly parents, prompted us after much prayer to seek a Christian school for several elementary grades. Afterward we returned to pure homeschooling until the complexities of algebra 2 and chemistry hit our family like a brick wall, and now my oldest daughters attend several high school co-op classes.

During all of these years, however, we’ve practiced some form of homeschooling along with whatever else they’ve been doing. For the early years it meant using resources like Five in a Row, selections from Sonlight Curriculum, Beautiful Feet, Apologia Science and many others, and for the middle and high school years we’re mainly using Tapestry of Grace.

Charlotte Mason, the nineteenth century educator, emphasized the relationship between instruction that engages the interest of a child and character development. “We may not make character our conscious objective,” she wrote, but believed that parents and teachers should “provide a child with what he needs in the way of instruction, opportunity, and wholesome occupation, and his character will take care of itself.”1 Our Charlotte Mason style approach to teaching means we read living books together and discuss them. Living books, as opposed to standard textbooks, are books written by authors who have passion for their topic. History has come to life for our family as we’ve traveled to Ancient Rome with Augustus Caesar’s World by Genevieve Foster and through the history of Britain with H.E. Marshall’s Our Island Story. We’ve read Shakespeare’s plays then attended performances at a local university.

We’ve also completed projects together, sometimes along with other families. An eight-foot wooden catapult resides in my basement. Our family built it, along with friends, for a medieval festival we held to celebrate the end of a Tapestry unit. Other friends have built tree-houses, log cabins, or boats. When my husband (jokingly) suggested constructing a homemade cremation casket for an ailing relative, my girls rolled their eyes and said, “Only our dad would think up something like that!”

What makes homeschoolers dream up such projects? It’s the do-it-yourself gene that resides within our blood, whether we educate our children fully or partly at home. I still have soot on plastic food containers from our very first homeschool project fourteen years ago (a homemade lava lamp—something I’d neither recommend nor wish to attempt again), and our dog might still remember her secret midnight feast devouring our second homeschool project (blue rock candy).

The key to successful After-Schooling is scheduling. If something’s not on my calendar, it’s just not going to happen. For us it requires choosing between activities before each semester begins to ensure the availability of certain afternoons or evenings each week. I also find it helpful to pep up my daughters during the car ride home from school. “Hey! Today we get to find out what happens when the grasshoppers swarm onto the Ingalls’ wheat field! What do you think they will do?” Then I ask what the girls did in school that day, and think of an activity to go along with it. Or I have a project lined up beforehand. On certain days we wait until evening so Dad can get involved too. Either way we always learn something new, and our family enjoys the most interesting parts of our children’s education together. And to me, that makes all my efforts worthwhile.

Our school experience has had its ups and downs, and at times I’ve knelt before God in despair that we’d ever get our daughters educated, but now I honestly have to look back and smile. Our girls love the Lord. They have sweet, godly friends. They also love to read, write, and draw. We laugh together and quote silly stories to one another all the time. And our oldest is now choosing between scholarship offers for college. I’d say that makes for a pretty good turnout from a mixed-up bag of education sprinkled with a lot of love, and I’m thankful.

And now we get to do it all over again with our little three year old fireball, Megan!

1 Mason, Charlotte, Formation of Character, 1905.