Wednesday, November 4, 2015

How Do They Do It? {A Home Schooling Blog Series}

Here we are again with:

If you've missed the first 4 installments, head HERE for the first with Kendra of Catholic All YearHERE for the second with Lindsay of My Child, I love you, HERE for the third with Dwija of House Unseen, and HERE for the forth with Karen Edmisten

Next up is Elizabeth Foss.

She is mother to nine, count em, NINE beautiful children and while she looks younger than me, she is also a grandmother-- amazing. She is the author of Real Learning: Education in the Heart of My Home and co-author of the wonderful book Small Steps for Catholic Moms. Her beautiful blog captures pretty much everything that I hope for and dream of when I think of having a large family who homeschools, and I hope that I can same day get there, or even, like, 1/4 of the way there. I am so honored that Elizabeth is here today on the blog to share her plentiful wisdom with us, she is truly a gem of a woman.

1: The thought of growing our families, giving adequate attention and love to all of our children AND giving our all to home schooling can be so daunting. How have you managed being open to new life, having many little ones AND schooling so many at home?

I have graduated four who have homeschooled all the way through high school. The challenge you feel right now with many little ones only grows into a different flavor of the same as they get older. For me, it’s even circled back, since my current thoughts have been how to intentionally incorporate my toddler granddaughter who comes with her mother to my house a few times a week.

From the beginning for us, openness to life gave birth to home education—that is the decision to home school was made from the same place as the decision to be open to as many babies as God gave us. He was calling us to this particular vocation with these particular parameters. He still is.

In the years of lots of babies and toddlers, He asked me again and again to put away my Type A, highly structured plan and to open myself to His better plan. I learned to meet their needs instead of demanding that everyone march to my drum.

Educating them at home gives me time to truly “see” them all. Over the course of conversations about books or theories or theology, we genuinely learn from each other. There is no other lifestyle model that allows the quantity of time to do that. The babies know their big siblings and the big siblings understand babies and family life in ways that most children never do.

Honestly, the hours don’t improve. I’m not going to promise you more sleep. As they get older, they learn the magic of opening their souls to you in the wee hours. You want to be awake for it. As they get older, “school” becomes more demanding for both of you. My reading requirements for this week would make you shudder. They might even compare pretty closely with that of your favorite graduate student.

Let’s look at that a little more closely. Often, people advise “trickle down teaching.” That is, they want you to teach to the level of the olders and know that the youngers will learn in their own way. That’s not my style, mostly because I absolutely love the younger years. Selfishly perhaps, mine is “come along” teaching. I keep those little ones beside me and they do what I do. They learn so much by being close.

But then there comes a time when you are delving into C. S. Lewis’ argument against Naturalism and you are re-reading Miracles several times in order to have a conversation with your two oldest students and then to help them through constructing a paper reflecting thorough understanding. You are very much aware that no toddler is scrambling onto your lap because your toddlers are preschoolers or older now. You’re also very much aware that those younger children now need help with handwriting and long division. Your brain is so full of so much that has such importance and you have to stop and thank God that you’ve all been blessed with an extraordinary time together. The alternative is to fall to your knees in utter despair.

How to make it work? How to meet the needs of so many, all at the same time, over the course of a couple decades or more?

Die to self. Right now and every single day from now on. Recognize where you are being selfish and give it up. So the mindless clicking through Instagram several times a day has got to go. And you may never get to hang out at Starbucks with the neighborhood moms right after the school bus leaves your street in the morning. Honestly, some of your life goals may need altering. You will have to sacrifice in order to meet the needs of so many children and you will feel it because our culture isn’t organized around sacrifices of that kind.

Still, I have to remind myself almost daily that there is a difference between dying to self and killing oneself. It’s an important difference for homeschooling mothers to learn as early as possible.

I encourage you to review occasionally with your husband what are appropriate sacrifices. It’s reasonable to be reading across the curriculum in order to teach it well, and to have to not be reading Facebook in order to find time for that. It’s not reasonable to go without showering for days, or to neglect to eat well, or to miss your time alone in prayer. There is a fine line between the reasonable sacrifice we make for our families and the unreasonable neglect of self-care. Know that line and ask your husband to help you walk it well. You can meet the needs of many children over many years. You can be the first in your peer group to have babies and also the last (I am). But you can only do that well over time if you know what feeds your soul and what nurtures your body and what sustains your marriage and you make sure to attend to those things with great care.

2: Read aloud time with crazy babies and squirmy (sometimes needy) toddlers: how do you do it!?!

From my first little one to my ninth, we always had a “three books at bedtime” habit. I’d sit in their beds with them, nursing a baby (because there was always a nursing baby) and read three picture books to each of the ones I was putting to bed. They’d listen to each other’s as well. This ensured about an hour of read aloud time. As children got older and weren’t part of that particular bedtime routine, they were reading on their own before bed. We’ve read a lot of high quality picture books in the last 27 years and I really do believe that a good picture book is good for all of us.

Children learn a great deal about how language works and how stories are structured when they attend to high quality picture books. They also learn the content in the book. And picture books offer the dimension of the visual. Careful attention to artistic details trains children to appreciate art and to interact more competently with the visual aspects of gathering information.
That does raise the question, “What about reading chapter books aloud?” As more children approached school age, we spent more time in the car, driving to and from soccer practices and dance lessons. Those were always trips of at least half an hour one way, several days a week. We listened together to books on tape (literally-they were on tape back in the beginning). Now, I have two boys in college at different schools, each two hours away. We visit one or the other or both very frequently, so those littler siblings get lots of audiobook time traversing Virginia mountains on weekends.

I don’t personally read chapter books aloud very often at all. This might be heresy in the read aloud world, but it works for us. I have a well-established personal habit of listening to audiobooks while I run, and several of my children have adopted their own personal listening/exercise habits. Also, there’s usually a book being read aloud to us via Audible while we’re doing chores. We all get lots and lots of exposure to literature being read. It’s woven into the rhythms of our life together.

3: What are your top 3 favorite resources of all time for home schooling?

I am a big fan of all things IEW. In the past few years, they’ve taken good materials and made them great. So, buy new, but do buy it. It’s worth the investment.

Up through fourth grade or so, I use picture books extensively. With the exception of math, I teach everything using picture books as a foundation and then expand using chapter books.  So, our extensive picture book library is truly priceless to me.

An absolute giant dining room table that was given to us by a friend’s mother. This is where the real education happens in my house. True, during the morning, it’s strewn with books. Many afternoons, there’s fabric or ribbons or posterboard happening there. Most importantly, it’s where family meals happen. The heart of home and the heart of education are the conversations we have around that table. The table faces our icon wall. It’s the center of a lifestyle of faith in a big, Catholic family.

4: What is one thing (or many things) you wish you hadn't done in your first years of home schooling?

I wish I hadn’t bought so much curriculum. I have shelves of barely used resources that do nothing but make me feel guilty. Those purchases have very little resale value now because they’ve been replaced in the marketplace by something slicker and more polished, but when I bought them, I was sure they were the next great things to solve all problems and teach all truths. The reality is that they are Death by One Click. Rarely will a product solve a problem. Usually, the problem is better solved by discipline—that is self-discipline. As in I need to discipline myself to sit down and help a child learn whatever it is they need to learn. It can’t be bought.

There’s a corollary to that regret: I wish I hadn’t listened to so many voices. I began homeschooling without the Internet. It was quiet and, honestly, it was very focused on my children and my faith. The rapid fire exchange of information—all the bells and whistles--just didn’t happen. Now, while it’s nice to be able to find your answer right away and there is plenty to inspire you, it’s really easy to be distracted by so many voices in your ear all day long. There are so many experts and they all make it look so enticing. You can really spend all day just reading about homeschooling, not actually doing it at all. Likewise, you can spend all day posting about homeschooling and neglecting to make your life authentic by actually working with the real people in your real house. It’s easy to compare and compete. It’s easy to lose sight of what the honest purpose of home education is. While it’s a blessing (and a luxury) to have resources and inspiration a click away, remember that you are the best expert on your children. The best thing is often a very simple thing—one that doesn’t need a login, can’t be captured adequately in a pinnable image, and requires the unique gifts you bring to your family.

5: With all of the craziness of homeschooling and how much demand there is on moms physically, mentally and emotionally during the day, what are some tips for making sure your spouse and your marriage isn't getting overlooked?

For the first twenty years or so (with the exception of 2 terrible years in the middle), my husband worked mostly from home. That’s a little bit of a euphemism because he traveled extensively, but when he was in town, he was at home. We were really good at stolen moments throughout the course of the day. Now, he still travels a lot but when he’s in town, he works very long hours and commutes an hour each way.

We are intentional about the way we bookend the day. Mike’s not a morning person. When he comes downstairs to the hubbub of morning in our house, it’s not so much a good thing. Several years ago, I solved that problem. I make him breakfast in bed every day. I take it up to him, spend a few minutes in meaningful conversation, and leave him to ease in to his day.

Throughout the day, particularly when he travels, we text or talk or both. His days are so long that touching base a few times is a necessity. Sometimes those are actual voice conversations; sometimes not. I can tell when his day is busy, because his responses to my texts are the thumbs up emoji or the winky heart face. I can tell when it’s going to be an “at home date night” when he texts a glass of wine and heart eyes.

At the end of the day, when the kids are in bed (even though I have four teenagers, so they’re definitely not asleep), we take an hour or so enjoy a glass of wine and talk together. That’s the norm. Then,  we are  also masters of the in-home date night. A thoughtfully arranged fruit and cheese tray and a candle lit in our bedroom is a cue to focus on each other. Sometimes it means it’s been a really bad day and one or the other of us needs shoring up. Sometimes, it just means “I miss you.”  He’s as good at preparing that tray and initiating the evening as I am and the most recent one was presented to me on a random Wednesday night at 9:45 just after I returned from soccer practice. My thirteen-year-old daughter commented as I walked through door, “He been arranging cheese and apples for 25 minutes.” That statement translates two ways. For me, it means he wants my attention and he values my company. With regard to my daughter, it means she’s watched this ritual play out enough times to know we take care of each other in very simple ways, but those small pockets of time and attention are critical to the life of our marriage and our family. We got to that random Wednesday night in 2015 via years of carefully cultivated habits of attention.

There’s one more thing that I offer tentatively. Recently, as I’ve grown into having competent teenagers at home, I’ve been able to travel with my husband occasionally. It’s amazing what a night away together does to restore us both. I say that with hesitation, because we didn’t get away alone together until we’d been married 25 years, so it’s not all that practical for awhile, but when the opportunity presents itself, I highly encourage it.

Thank you so very much, Elizabeth!!


  1. Love these insights!! The cheese and fruit tray? Priceless.

  2. I enjoyed this interview very much...thanks! (fyi: link to Real Learning: Education in the Heart of My Home does not work)

  3. I love Elizabeth's insights and advice. I love every thing she says!! :)

  4. I love Elizabeth's insights and advice. I love every thing she says!! :)

  5. This is the best yet in the series

  6. Yes this series has been fantastic, but this takes the cake! Thaank you for putting together this series Ana! and thank you for sharing Elizabeth!

    1. It was my pleasure! Thanks for taking the time to read the whole thing:-)

  7. Loved this post! It's so inspiring to read from seasoned mothers and the different ways they have learned, adjusted, and accomplished. I just have one toddler and a baby on the way, but we know we want to homeschool. Thanks for sharing!

  8. This spoke to my heart on so many levels. Thank you for such encouraging words Elizabeth.

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  10. "The best thing is often a very simple thing—one that doesn’t need a login, can’t be captured adequately in a pinnable image, and requires the unique gifts you bring to your family."
    Love Elizabeth-she is very wise-thank you for this interview!

  11. Bravo! Elizabeth is thoughtful and wise and I'm so grateful for her wonderful perspective on life. So much I can take away from this article, but I especially love how she and her husband make time for their marriage.