My Day at School

Yesterday I drove down to Bloomington to spend part of the day with my homeschooling coop friends. These two families use homesteading activities as the basis for their children’s learning, along with traditional math workbooks, writing assignments and the like.

The task of the morning was to prepare cedar limbs to build a spit for cookpots over a campfire. The previous week, the kids had cut branches off the cedar tree, with a goal of being able to climb it. They’d christened it Fort Cicada.

Climbing ropes and nubs of branches make it easier to scale Fort Cicada.

Climbing ropes and nubs of branches make it easier to scale Fort Cicada.

The brushy limbs now needed to be trimmed and the bark removed with a draw knife. The kids coached me on sawing. I can’t remember the last time I sawed something. It’s satisfying to cut right through a branch and have it fall.

Prepping the cedar limbs for use as fence posts and building material

Prepping the cedar limbs for use as fence posts and building material

The draw knife was a revelation. I have never experienced the pleasure of skinning a tree branch with a sharp instrument. I wasn’t sure I was qualified for the work, but the kids taught me well.

Using the draw knife

Using the draw knife

They assured me that they would use a regular knife to shave around the knots where the draw knife caught. Here’s the youngest, working with her knife.

Knife skills

Knife skills

I love how fearless these kids are. I find that my own hands are better suited to a keyboard than a hand tool. Yet, I pulled off a passable job on bark-peeling task.

Proud of my handiwork

Not bad for a beginner

After a while it was time for lunch (fresh-baked bread!) and conversation. I asked the four kids what life would be like if they went to a school where they sat at desks all day. They agreed that they wouldn’t have nearly as much fun and flexibility in their lives, and probably not be as fit. Nor would they spend as much time with their families. On the flip side, they have to schedule activities to connect with larger groups, whereas students in school interact with lots of different kids daily.

Asked how their education is preparing them for adulthood, they pointed to skills like gardening, cooking, and researching solutions to problems.

After lunch, it was time to split maple logs and stack wood for the winter’s fuel. This was more fun than I expected. I consider myself something of a pipsqueak—but seeing the kids demonstrate, I thought, why not try?

Demonstrating wood splitting

Demonstrating wood splitting

After numerous tries and tons of pointers from the peanut gallery, I managed to stick the splitting maul in the top of the log. I whapped at it with a mallet till the firewood split with a satisfying crack.

Alas, no one captured the moment on film, but I have the sore muscles to prove it.

All in all it was a great time with lovely people, and felt wonderful to be outside doing real work on a pristine fall day.

Learning to Learn

Third in a series on education
Recently I spent a day with a Bloomington, IN homeschooling cooperative. Two families work together on homesteading projects on each others’ land. This allows their four children, ages 8 to 12, to learn by doing—while increasing their confidence and skills.

Projects range from seed saving to bike maintenance to creation of a family almanac. They’ve gone mushroom hunting, practiced knot skills, and (on rainy days) learned knitting and mending. They’re working on a fire pit and hoping to build a treehouse.

Reading and quizzing each other from a book called Moving Heavy Things

Reading and quizzing each other from a book called Moving Heavy Things

The day I was there, the students were studying how to move a heavy sandstone block down a sloping driveway from the front yard to the back. They were to place it into a rectangular hole in the dirt, forming part of an herb garden’s perimeter. The emphasis was on problem solving, collaborative effort, and applying their study of friction and levers.

Sawing PVC pipe to roll the plywood with the block on top (note that is just a practice stone, not the super-heavy one they were charged with moving)

Sawing PVC pipe to roll the plywood with the block on top (note that is just a practice stone, not the super-heavy one they were charged with moving)

This was no small task and involved an array of tools, including something I’d never heard of called a cant hook. The mom/teachers, Stacey and Dani, encouraged them to try out every idea and see what worked best. The kids worked by experimentation, reasoning, puzzling, trying, and talking—displaying remarkable tenacity through the whole process.

Using a cant hook to move the sandstone block

Using a cant hook to move the sandstone block

There was not one temper tantrum. I could see that the communication skills these kids develop through group projects will go a long way toward smoothing their way in the world—while also contributing to the healing of that same world.

Stacey says she’s motivated by a belief that children can be the instigators of deep change. “I try to not spend a lot of time in a fear/worry place (even though it is hard sometimes), and in doing this mentor joy, hope, the power we have, and that change is possible.  When children/adults have trust in themselves, self-empowerment and understanding of the world, beautiful things happen!”

“I think they are continually seeing how they make a difference and create change.”

Picking violets for our lunch salad

Picking violets for our lunch salad

By the end of my visit, the children had moved one monstrously heavy block into place in the back yard, where it will begin the delineation of an herb spiral. There was great cheering when the block was finally nestled into place.

As results-oriented as we are these days, this may not seem like much for several hours’ work. But in the process, they learned to learn, to cooperate, and to not fear failure.

Watching them, I wondered how my life would be different if I had had these sorts of experiences in my own childhood. I might consider myself in a different light now. I might be handy, of all things. At the very least I would be braver, less fearful of being wrong.

This concludes the education series, at least for now. (I could share much more about both the KI school and these homeschoolers, but that’s where the book comes in.)