Monday, February 2, 2009

Surviving the Third Quarter Blues

Every year, as the days begin to lengthen, and Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow again, and lovely posts about Candlemas illuminate the blog world, something else starts to happen, too. Like a chill winter wind stretching its icy fingers through the cracks around the door, a coldness settles over many a homeschooling family; children who were laughing merrily a month or so ago are settled into a tired grumpiness, from which they drag forth the school assignments of their discontent, while Mom clings desperately to the telephone or Internet as a raft of sanity in an increasingly crazy world.

Veteran homeschoolers have a name for this. We call it the Third Quarter Blues.

In some senses I think that traditional brick 'n mortar schoolers have some of these symptoms; at least, I remember them, too. But my school blues seemed to last from about October until late April, and didn't really disappear altogether until the balmy breezes of May wafted through open classroom windows which were being cleaned by a raft of eager volunteers, the teacher having run out of educational ideas and brightly suggesting a little classroom cleaning adventure, instead.

But for homeschoolers, it's a little different. The glow of the homeschool experience has barely had time to fade by the time that all the excitement of Advent and Christmas rolls around, and even getting back to school just after the new year begins doesn't seem so bad; if anything, it's a welcome return to routine after the hustle and bustle of Christmas.

Before long, though, it happens. A quick glance at the calendar reveals the fact that there are still four or five whole months of school to go; winter weather creates housebound fractious children; that cure-all of moods and lifter of spirits, hot chocolate, runs low, but with Lent right around the corner it doesn't seem worth buying more.

Worse, this is the time when homeschooling stops seeming like a great and grand adventure and starts to feel like just one more thing to get through in the scant hours between dawn and dusk. Subjects you planned out with careful attention have been left in disarray by a few illnesses here or there; ideas you'd had about crafts or extracurricular activities have met with the reality checks of time, finances, skills, and the like; and your early eager confidence comes back to haunt you whenever you remember it in any detail.

I've often said that more people who start homeschooling give up and enroll their children in "regular" schools sometime between mid-January and the end of March than at any other time. I have no scientific proof of this, but lots of anecdotal evidence--parents who were gung-ho in September somehow lose all conviction in these dreary winter months that make up the third quarter of the school year. And yet I think that more of them might stick it out just a little longer if they realized that this, too, shall pass, that the phenomenon called "Third Quarter Blues" is something ordinary and expected, and not, as so many fear, some kind of incontrovertible proof that they shouldn't be homeschooling, and possibly should never have chosen wife and motherhood as a vocation in the first place (though elaborate daydreams of convent life, with its pristine habits, soothing bells telling you what to do all day, and kindly-smiling sisters who never argue with each other or fight over the TV remote, are a sure sign that Third Quarter Blues, not motherhood, is the problem).

So how do we deal with the Blues? Is this just something that has to be Endured and Offered Up, that can't be eased or managed somehow?

Not at all. Granted, I think that some element of the Blues due to weather, winter illness, and so forth is going to be part of our lives no matter what we do; but some of the specific things that plague homeschooling mothers (and fathers) can be dealt with.

Here are a few ideas that might help tackle the Blues:

1. Identify the subject that is giving you the most trouble, and change it or drop it. This might seem drastic, but one thing I've noticed is that I get awfully committed to a program without looking at the reality of it. I see some particular curriculum's approach to math or grammar or science or history as being The Best, and fight to keep teaching it even when the time involved, the fact that my children are struggling with it, and other obvious clues make me see that it's just not working for us right now. There was a time when Catholic homeschoolers had to make do with less than optimal materials, but with homeschooling at a huge level these days, there are tons of books and programs and materials out there--there is no reason to stick to "Excruciatingly Difficult Language Arts for Librarians" if your child is having trouble picking verbs out of a sentence, let alone recogninzing which are participles and what particular function they are having in the sentence. If one subject has turned into a two-hour tearfest every day, that's a good sign that finding a simple workbook instead of the exhaustively thorough textbook may be a particularly good idea.

2. Focus on the basics. We all want homeschooling to be filled with exciting opportunites for our children, but if you've taken on/signed up for several different "extras" it may be time to reevaluate. Now, sometimes these extras are working well and both you and the children are enjoying them, but if you start to feel like you're "car-schooling" more than "home-schooling" it may be time to take another look at what you've committed to above and beyond a regular curriculum. Third quarter is often the time to make those assessments and figure out ways to zero in on the important stuff--and maybe let go of some of the addenda.

3. Take a step back. It's easy to see flaws from close up; try to take a moment to see the bigger picture. I did this not long ago when Kitten turned in a really nice writing assignment; instead of focusing on the couple of small spelling/punctuation errors I thought all of a sudden about teaching her to read, and to write; Kitten didn't really want to learn either, and we had our moments--but here she is, an articulate young lady who is learning to express herself well in written English, and I've gotten to be there every step of the way.

4. Plan for some fun. A few years ago I got in the habit of creating a special school day here or there, where instead of our regular topics we'd have one day focusing on one thing, like dinosaurs or space. I'd make games and find books, and for the whole day we'd just enjoy that one thing. We haven't done that recently, but the girls have asked to do a day like that again, and I think it would be a good idea--a way to have a little more fun while still learning.

5. Track down your anxieties. Are you most worried about your third-grader's math grades? Your teenage child's sudden rebellious attitude? Your crawling infant's newfound fascination with the staircase? The floating "chore strike" which comes from your children's belief that their job is to "do school" and your job is to teach them, cook, clean, launder, scrub, mop, tidy, and entertain? It's a lot easier to tackle problems if instead of free-range anxieties you're dealing with tangible issues which can be solved.

6. Relax. Yes, this is a hard one. Yes, it involves letting go of all of those illusions of perfection we can get caught up in, and which rob us of joy and peace while dangling forever out of reach the image of the perfect homeschooling family. The truth is, there is no perfect homeschooling family, no one right way to do all of this, no measure except the one that says, "Is this working for us?" Taking a deep breath, getting rid of those notions that perfection is hiding somewhere in that textbook from which your children run screaming or that class in organic clay liturgical sculpture you signed them up for but which is taking way too much of your time can be difficult to do. But it's necessary, and not just when Third Quarter Blues strike.

These are just a few suggestions; other veteran homeschooling moms may have other things they do to help get through this often-difficult stretch. I think it's worth it to do what we need to do to get by these dreary months; the fourth quarter, and another successful year of homeschooling, is coming faster than we can imagine!


Kim said...

Thanks for this post!
It is just what I needed!

Deirdre Mundy said...

I'd also suggest a bit of down time between classes....

Because homeschooling IS mentally grueling, and it's a lot harder on the students than a classroom. (Because when the teacher has 25 other kids to worry about, during a 45 minutes class you're only actually on the spot for about 1 1/2 minutes. In 45 minutes of HOMESCHOOLED Math or Grammar or whatever, you're on the spot for 45 minutes straight!)

My oldest is 5, but I've noticed phonics and math go much easier if I pay attention to when she's just getting worn out by the work.

Some doodle time between classes might help the older kids too, though.

Also... when is the last time you knew anyone in a brick and mortar school to 'finish the book?' So why do we expect our children to finish the book by the end of the year?

Homeschooling tends to be a LOT more intellectually and academically rigourous than 'normal' school... so one way to break the third quarter blues is to realize you can ease up for a few months without permenantly damaging your child! =)

(I know that in college I'd always plan a lighter load for my winter quarter (jan-march). Because when it's dark all the time, hibernation is a great strategy! =) )

BTW, Red, you should TOTALLY submit this post to the Carnival of Homeschooling--it's a keeper!

Alexandra said...

A great post! I've linked. My son was much like Kitten in that he didn't want to learn. It was like pulling teeth, but now(six years later) it's smooth sailing.

I don't have anything to add other than set a schedule which works for you, and be flexible. You've pretty much covered this. If there is anything you can depend on with homeschooling, it is change. No schedule is written in stone.

Mrs. T said...

Great post. I know that I always play up the "cocooning" potential of homeschooling this time of year -- it's all about sitting cozily at the kitchen table with tea and cocoa and lots of read-alouds. My 11-year-old does his math and Latin while I'm reading a chapter book aloud; I pull words for my two youngest to trace and copy out of whatever we're reading; even my teenager, who likes to work alone in her room, sat at the table with us today while I read a succession of things aloud.

Some friends lent us DVDs of things like Swallows and Amazons, The Railway Children and The Treasure-Seekers, so we've been having a little film festival in the afternoons as well. That prospect helps keep morale afloat.

LeeAnn said...

We've been making more time for recess this year and the sun has been cooperating at least a few days each week. I try to balance my kids' schoolwork between reading, writing and hard stuff (that is, math and Latin). I dropped Classical Writing after three months. Started out great, but the teacher's manual(s) were cumbersome and the exercises not quite what we needed. I hated to do it since I was so excited about it earlier but switching back to I.L.L. for Fiona and Language of God for both of them was the right move.
My kindergarten plans however went right out the window. We may hold off on first grade this fall as my 5yo isn't ready for the increased writing. Nice to know I have the flexibility to do so! I'm really glad she's not in a public Kindergarten program or she'd be facing a lot of pressure. We are slowly trying to get her to spend a little more time at the school table, but after 15 or at most 30 minutes she's done.

Us! said...

Great Post. And what a treasure trove of wisdom for the veteran or newbie homeschooler!