June 1, 2018

Redeeming the Calendar

“But summers are already so short! How can you do that to yourself…and your kids?!”

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that sort of reply when someone discovers that we “do school” year-round, I’d be well on my way to booking the month-long family vacation to Belize of which I’ve been dreaming. However, I actually do understand such a response from parents whose kids go to school. If my kids had to endure what theirs do – being (literally, these days) locked into gulag-style buildings, forced to sit through hour after hour of lectures and note-taking, compelled to obey bells like so many Pavlovian dogs, enduring hours more of mandated “homework” every night – I’d squeeze out every last minute of school-less summer freedom I could.

I have a harder time understanding the skepticism of fellow home educators. Of course, homeschool laws vary by state and the law in a few draconian states mandates that homeschooled kids follow government school hours. But the vast majority don’t micromanage our hours and days of operation or lock our kids into the type of school-style environment that leaves their peers clamoring for an extended 12-week vacation. Even so, some homeschool families mimic school calendars out of perceived convenience or habit – i.e., it’s what the parents grew up with so they default to doing what they’ve always known. And if I ran my home in a school-style manner, I’d probably want a long summer break, too. But it seems a shame to do any of that, especially since the current school calendar – like so many school norms – was not designed with kids’ best interests in mind and is not beneficial to their overall growth and development.

Thus, rather than seeing a year-round schedule as “wrecking summer,” I view it as redeeming the entirety of every year.

As a recovering classroom teacher, I unthinkingly adopted a school-style calendar our first few years. But I found that using the system’s calendar caused me to think in school-style ways – i.e., that textbooks and chapter tests represented the only legitimate means of “real” learning. It also left my kids and me frazzled and drained more often than not. I became anxious if a family responsibility interfered with daily “school time” and fretted over how to find “make-up days” after a child’s illness. I worried about “being behind” – i.e., if the curriculum said we “had to” be on Day 146 but we were “only” on Day 130 – and began to wonder about how my kids would “stack up” next to same-aged peers instead of keeping my eye on what really matters (i.e., each one’s individual progress). And as my stress cranked up each spring, my kids fell victim to the fallout. So, on our “last day of the year,” we celebrated being done with the drudgery of school, and that broke my heart. I wanted my kids to be joyful, lifelong learners, but thinking in terms of a school-style calendar led to the slow death of their joy.

Letting go of what “everyone else” does was still intimidating – until I realized that the vast majority of people aren’t on a school calendar. Oh, sure, parents of schooled kids follow it and teachers live it, but, in reality, our culture only compels compliance with it for 12 or 13 years of a person’s life – i.e., his “school-age” years (if he attends an institutional school). Never before a child reaches compulsory attendance age nor after high school graduation – for the remaining 60 years of an average American’s life – is he compelled to cram “meaningful” activity into nine months a year in anticipation of a three-month reward. And if we live (well) with a whole-year rhythm for 83% of our lives, why not do so all the time?

Each year-round family develops its own unique pattern. The children in one family I know spend time on formal academics whenever the dad goes to work and are off whenever he’s home. Other families study three weeks and take off one, rotating through the year; still others go all year but take off whenever they feel the need for a break. We experimented with different routines and eventually landed on what many call a “sabbath schedule.” Thus, we typically “do school” in six-week increments with one week off in between. And in our case, we also take off a few weeks in December for the holidays and much of July in order to accommodate summer camps and family vacations (though, if truth be told, those activities are just as educational in their own ways as any formal bookwork).

If you were to visit my home in June and August, you’d typically see my kids working on their bookwork as they do in October, February, or April, which for us means devoting most mornings to formal academics. This doesn’t, however, “wreck” their summers – and wouldn’t do so even if we continued our pattern in July – for at least three reasons. First, we’re always done by early afternoon – right after lunch. We don’t need all day to enjoy most summertime activities, so we can go to the beach or the amusement park in the afternoon and evening and we haven’t missed a thing. Second, we can flex – and thinking in terms of whole-life routines rather than school schedules makes doing so much less stressful. Thus, if a friend invites us to a morning activity or even an all-day event, we can readily alter our usual routine for the day and tackle the bookwork at another time. Third, moving to this sort of routine inevitably causes a bigger change in thinking so that we simply cease to worry about finishing a curriculum “on time.” We work diligently on our “school days” but we make a mental shift from “getting done” according to a curriculum writer’s randomly-set “end date” to learning for real at whatever pace works for each child at any particular age and phase. This change in mindset also helped me to see how real, valuable learning happens nearly all of my children’s waking hours – sometimes in formal ways that look like “school” but more often in much more interesting, creative, and engaging ways. As a result, learning isn’t a burden and doesn’t create angst; when one lives a year-round pattern, all of life flows more calmly and all our activities weave together in a seamless whole.

We’ve been following a year-round routine for several years and my only regret is that I spent any time at all mirroring school calendars. I like that my kids have a less-harried and consistent schedule all year round. I like that we take regular weeks off throughout the year instead of trying to cram a year’s worth of fun into one season. I like that my kids’ academic growth is steadier than it would be with three months away from the books. And I like that they’re experiencing what will be their lifelong annual pattern instead of the artificial one set by institutional schools.

We’re not missing anything worth missing. And the benefits we’ve reaped by redeeming the calendar are enormous.


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