Saturday, November 8, 2014

Beginning With Ambleside Online

I have several homeschooling sisters and friends with children slightly younger than mine. Because I've heard similar responses from several of them when I tell them I'm using Ambleside Online, I've decided to dedicate a post to these sisters and friends.

The responses I can remember go something like this:
"I can't see my child being ready for the books they recommend at age six."
"I've checked out their website. It just seems like SO MUCH to do!"
"I have several younger children. I can't see myself having time to do all that reading aloud."

I am writing from the perspective of a fairly new homeschooler. We have been through one term of Ambleside Online's Year One. That's not very much experience, I know. I also write from the perspective of a mother with young children. My boys are six, four, and two, with another child on the way in January. Still, the experience we have had so far has been very satisfying, and I am convinced that it will continue to be so. It feels like home.

So here's how I would respond to the objections I mentioned.

"I can't see my child being ready for the books they recommend at age six."

To be perfectly honest, I would have had a similar objection a year ago. I didn't think my five-year-old would be ready for narration (telling back) of the challenging books recommended by the time he was six years old. But as it turned out, he was ready, and we began.

Still, even if he had not been ready, that would have been okay. We had a rich "kindergarten" routine that included lots of time outdoors, poetry teatime,  reading lessons, and math. We could have continued with that indefinitely until he was ready for the books of Year One. Depending on their children's readiness, many mothers do wait until their children are age seven or even close to age eight to begin Year One. I think it's important to realize that doing this will not put your children "behind." If children are doing work they are ready for when they are ready for it, and growing steadily from there, they are exactly where they should be.

It's also important to realize that the riches of nature, literature, history, poetry, and everything else are not tied to your child's reading level when you use Ambleside Online. If your child learns to read early, wonderful! But if he is behind in reading, even at an older age, you do not have to wait until he is caught up to begin to feed his hungry mind with a feast of ideas. Reading aloud and narration work just fine, even for the late reader.

"I've checked out their website. It just seems like SO MUCH to do!"

It is a lot to do. There is Bible reading and narration; hymn, Bible, and poetry memory work; picture study, music appreciation and poetry; readings and narration in history, geography, and literature; mathematics; reading or spelling lessons; nature walks and journals; copywork (for handwriting and spelling); foreign language; drawing and handicrafts. I would have been overwhelmed at the thought of it all even just a year and a half ago. And even now, I'm still growing into it. I have no doubt that I will continue to make adjustments as our family grows and I have more school-aged children.

Still, there are several things I can say to this, based on my experience.
1. Each of these many things are little things.
Many of the items I listed take no more than five minutes a day (all the memory work, copywork, foreign language) and none of them take more than fifteen minutes (math, narrations). Many of them become effortless when you work them into your habitual routine. Others can be done as infrequently as once a week (picture study, nature walks, drawing and handicrafts). I know, it is still a lot, but...

2. Each of these little things matter
There is no useless busywork here. Even the handicrafts are of the useful skill variety, done with real materials to make a real product of beauty or usefulness. All of the little things recommended, when done regularly over time, cause real growth in your children. I can almost see it happening. SA's vocabulary has grown immensely over the last year. He is asking "Why?" more often. He is recognizing references to composers and to poetry that he has come to know and love. To me, "SO MUCH!" is all worth it.

3. It is okay for you to grow into it over time. In fact, I recommend it.
I incorporated several of these things into our routine when SA was still only five, and they simply became part of our everyday life. First, I incorporated Bible reading and Bible and hymn memory work into our after-breakfast routine. This term, we just added five minutes of foreign language to that (still not terribly consistent with that, but as I just said, we're growing...). A little later, we began to have our poetry teatimes just to enjoy poetry and snacks together. This soon became a favourite part of the boys' day, and they would never hear of skipping it. Then this term, we adjusted what was already a routine to include picture study and music appreciation once a week.

Year One, Term One was still a big adjustment as SA began to learn narration (telling back from books that I read aloud to him). This really became our focus this term, and it became easier and easier over the term to fit in the three narrations a day required to get through the scheduled books. (One Bible narration was incorporated into our after breakfast routine, then two narrations from history, geography, or literature during his "lesson time.")

Still, I found myself neglecting some of the "riches" as we focused so heavily on learning this new skill this term. Foreign language did not really take off, focused nature walks became a bit less frequent, we did less math games and activities, and I didn't even begin to think about handicrafts (though I'm realizing now that my boys learned quite a bit from baking with me and with their Opa, who is a baker.).

Something like this will probably happen to you, too, to some degree. It has to be okay that we will not do things perfectly or even well at times. There will always be room to grow. My answer right now is not to deliberately neglect any of these areas (though I think that may be a legitimate option during some seasons of new babies, or moving, or other crazy busyness), but to commit to grow into it over time. Gradually, I hope each of these things will become a joyful habit for us, because I know we will be the richer for every one of them.

"I have several younger children. I can't see myself having time to do all that reading aloud."

This too is a very real challenge. All I can say to this is that if it matters to you, you will make it work. And it does matter to me. But I will also be honest and say that I can't count the number of times my two-year-old was tearing around and yelling and making things difficult for SA(6) during his lesson time.  Sometimes we ended up cancelling the lessons until nap time. Other times I bundled the younger two outdoors while I hovered near the windows watching them and trying to do lessons with SA at the same time. It was not easy. Charlotte Mason said something about mothers doing wonders when wonders are required of them. I won't claim wonders, but we made it through. That was enough for now.

I should also mention that the Year One readings and narrations may not take as long as you think they might. Each reading/narration session shouldn't take much longer than 15 minutes (including both the reading and the narration). Longer passages can be divided up and read over several days. We found that two reading/narration sessions per school day (not counting Bible) allowed us to follow the schedule at Ambleside Online. Some "weeks" took more than a week, and some took less. We just progressed steadily through until we were done. We may have taken thirteen weeks rather than twelve, but we rarely did more than fifteen minutes per session.

I think the key here is to take things one day at a time, one term at a time. Don't borrow trouble. Try to deliberately build some good habits in your preschoolers, too. I know, this is easier said than done, sometimes. But this season with little ones underfoot will be shorter than we think.

We love Ambleside Online. Going through even one term has been a satisfying experience, even with our shortcomings. And yes, satisfying is the very best word I can think of to describe it. I felt that SA's mind was fed with ideas every day. I saw growth and development in many areas. It was all very slow and steady, and yet the progress was not imperceptible. And so, my sisters and friends, try it. I think you will find it worth your time and effort.