The year’s learning

Notebooks out, ready to discover nature’s wonders, such as this unexpected patch of large leaved lupine we found at the end of a forested trail last Friday.

We’re wrapping up our “school” year next week, and I’ve been reflecting on all that’s been accomplished and learned this year that Rusty was a first grader and Dottie a preschooler. Now that I’m back in the land of the academic year, I remember how long that unit of time felt as a kid. Truly, much could happen and change over one continuous fall, winter, and spring.

When I write about “school,” I always use quotes (and even do “air quotes” when talking about it), because our learning life looks so different from a typical school setting. Certainly there are overlaps between the two, but our days have a home-based rhythm and actual instruction is limited to a very short window of time in the morning when I sit down with Rusty to do a bit of handwriting practice and math at the table. That time is followed by “reading time,” when we read lots of really good books snuggled together on the couch.

As a guide to how we spend our days and our “school” time, I’ve been following along with a free curriculum called Ambleside Online (the name is misleading — it’s not actually online at all, except for the resources for parents). Ambleside’s program is inspired by the 19th century educator Charlotte Mason and uses what she calls “living books” rather than textbooks to teach history, science, literature and more. We read classics like Aesop’s Fables and wonderful books like Paddle to the Sea. It’s a program that can be easily modified for each family, which I’ve done, adding books to our daily book basket of my own choosing as well, including a weekly seasonal picture book and a book on our nature study topic for the term (this year’s topics were birds, rocks, and fish). I like to make sure there are stories that are more appropriate for Dottie too, so I made a little special book of wonderful fairy tales and legends that are perfect for preschoolers, and we read one each week. Over future years, I plan to also add more books specific to Oregon history as well as many more books by and about women and people of color (which the classics-leaning Ambleside is light on). In addition to the core Ambleside readings, we used homeschooling-oriented math and phonics curricula for that table schoolwork (and a little bit of Spanish lessons too).

Rusty’s been in first grade this year, and it’s been a year of big changes, most notably is that he went from not really reading at all to being a very fluent independent reader. In our house, this was a big cause for celebration, because Casey and I both have active reading lives, and we rejoiced as Rusty was able to finally begin his own independent reading life as well. As he observed at one point during his learning-to-read journey: “It’s like a whole new world is opening up to me.” Oh, yes, it is, my son.

Beyond the hour or two of sit-down time, we aim to be learning (and having fun) as much as possible the rest of our days too. The kids do some of the usual kid stuff: swimming lessons, gymnastics, ballet (not all at once!). Rusty attends a full day “farm school” program at a nearby farm one day per week as well, which gives him the opportunity to run around with a pack of kids bigger than his sister and without his mom in tow. Once a week we meet up with our homeschooling co-op for outings and field trips. This year’s outings included a visit to the Hallie Ford Art Museum, a dugout canoe trip to Willamette Falls, a camping trip at L.L. Stubs Stewart State Park, a visit to the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, and more!

On Fridays, the kids and I go on a weekly hike, where we enjoy different places close to home. We take our time on these outings, noticing as much as we can around us: blooming wildflowers, bird songs, seasonal changes in the forest. This spring we’ve been trying to find one new plant on each outing that we don’t know and then identifying it. We all have nature notebooks that we bring. And, now that it’s finally not as rainy, we’ve been better about keeping them out as we hike so that we can pause to take notes or draw. That’s a habit that I hope we continue to grow into as the kids become more comfortable with writing on their own. Nature journaling provides so many opportunities to consider scientific concepts such as the importance of quantifying data, scale, and more. We all find that we really observe more when we have our notebooks out, which is of course the goal. But they also become wonderful documents of our time together, which we also enjoy. We experience unexpected wonders every single week.

Rusty and Dottie helped release birds, including this Swainson’s Thrush, during the bird scientists’ visit last weekend.

But amid all of this fun, our lives have a lot of breathing room too. This is very intentional on Casey and my part. We both feel that not rushing through the day is the best way to feel like our life is luxurious. So our days still have a lot of room for the kids to play here on the farm, and for the farm itself to have space to offer its own unexpected opportunities. Time for helping to harvest or build extensive “houses” and tunnels in the tall spring grass. Time to wander the farm with visiting scientists doing bird counts (the same folks came again this week who came last September). Time to pick strawberries for breakfast. Time to help parents cook meals. Time for kids to relax in their hammocks looking at or reading books. For the most part, our days feel pretty expansive, and that is so very satisfying to us all.

Going into this year of school, I kept thinking that this was when the “rubber hit the road” for us as homeschoolers. We’d been doing home-based learning all along, but until our oldest child was in elementary school, it felt like the stakes were pretty low. My goals before this year were pretty simple: have fun, go outside, read lots of good books together, and start laying routines for later years. But I felt more responsibility going into first grade, knowing that if we were choosing to continue learning at home that I’d need to feel sure that what we’re choosing is a better fit for us than what could be found at school. As we close the year, we all feel happy about this choice for our family going into the future. We all feel like growth happened, along with a lot of tremendous fun. So we will continue next year as well, building on what we learned this year.

But this year was also a time when the weight of our choice also became clear in another way. Homeschooling is a full-time gig for us parents, and especially for me (Katie). It can be an intense endeavor, and this year was not without moments of doubt! I am very aware now that homeschooling isn’t really for everyone, and certainly not for people who don’t actually enjoy teaching (I do! Teaching is what I would be doing if we hadn’t started a farm). I am grateful that our lifestyle and career choice are a good fit with our homeschooling goals — that Casey and I can both still pursue work here on the farm and be a homeschooling family.

But I have to admit that the older the kids get, the more I feel a returning urge to be productive beyond the domestic sphere. Perhaps most notably, I feel a strong desire to be back in the world of more regular writing and intellectual discourse, whatever that might mean for me at this point in my life. Casey always has itches to do new things, and so far has mostly satisfied those through farming endeavors. We are definitely life-long learners, which is also why we love learning at home with our kids!

So, we’ll spend the next week wrapping up our final readings for this year, and then enjoy months of summer activities (still full of learning) before diving back into a new “school” year here in our house.

And, meanwhile, as promised in last week’s newsletter, much weeding has happened this week on the farm, along with irrigation. Our cultivating tractor was in the shop most of last season (boo!) but now is operating smoothly again, much to Casey’s rejoicing.

Enjoy this week’s vegetables!

Your farmers, Katie & Casey Kulla

~ ~ ~

Meet this week’s vegetables:

  • Strawberries
  • Apples
  • Sugar snap peas
  • Fennel bulbs
  • Carrots OR zucchini — Limited of both this week! You’ll get to choose either carrots OR zucchini.
  • Cut lettuce
  • Beet greens — These are tender enough to be eaten as a salad!
  • Chard
  • Kale
  • Garlic scapes
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