Connect the Dots: Perspective on Back-to-School Homeschool Planning

by Jenny Meyer, Woodbridge
Originally published in the January-February 2008 VaHomeschoolers Voice.

The Back-To-School mindset is hard to resist, even if nobody in your household is going back to school. For one thing, there’s the allure of shiny new office supplies, which I continue to find irresistible well into middle age. Along with the office supplies comes the unspoken promise of the possibility of a fresh start, a clean slate, and getting one’s life—or at least one’s homeschooling plans—under control.

I really don’t want to spoil the fun, but I’ve learned by now that that sense of control is generally an illusion. Yes, we bought a cheerful, tidy package of new pencils anyway, but I won’t be surprised if, come late October, I can’t find many of them, except perhaps one or two with broken-off points and chewed-off erasers.

And it’s okay. I can get more pencils. Or switch to pens. One of the best assets homeschoolers have is the flexibility to drop things that don’t work and try something else. Virginia’s homeschooling law doesn’t reflect this, of course. When we file our Notices of Intent, we’re called upon to dutifully note our planned program of study/curriculum for the upcoming year. The NOI requirement has its uses, even for those of us who tend toward vague plans and oblique curriculum descriptions. (I’ve been powerfully tempted to describe our curriculum as “throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks.”) I may be the only person in Virginia who enjoys this, but I kind of like the way filling out the NOI forces me to step back from the daily routine and look at the larger picture.

I didn’t enjoy it the first time I did it, many years ago, but then I figured something out.

During my older daughter’s carefree kindergarten years, the cornerstone of our homeschooling was library visits. My family happens to live less than a mile from a regional library—fortunate for us, since we had no idea we’d be homeschooling when we picked the house—and my daughter loved nothing better than to listen to books for hours at a time. If a subject sparked her interest, we’d hit the children’s section and check out everything they owned on the subject.

One such subject was George Washington. He’s familiar and approachable—he’s on the money, after all, and he appears in the song “Yankee Doodle”—and yet he has undeniable gravitas as Father of our Nation. There’s no shortage of children’s books on him, including some really wonderful books illustrated by Cheryl Harness. (Look her up—anything she illustrates is great.) From there we moved on to historical diaries—first the easy-reader versions, then The Winter of Red Snow by Kristiana Gregory, about the winter at Valley Forge. We got on rather friendly terms with George and Martha.

We’re lucky enough to live within easy driving distance of Mount Vernon, but my little daughter didn’t know that. Then, one day, I took her for a field trip, and I realized, while driving along past the reproduction of Washington’s mill on the outskirts of Mount Vernon, that she didn’t understand where we were going. I will never forget the expression of amazed delight on her face, as viewed through my rear view mirror, when I explained it to her.

That was my daughter’s “George Washington phase,” and it really brought George to life. I didn’t plan a bit of it. And it worked great in hindsight—I could not have come up with a better “George Washington and the American Revolution” unit study if I had tried.

I still get nervous when other homeschooling parents talk about all the excellent materials and resources they’ve found, and the ambitious plans they have for their school years, but I’m learning to take this with a grain of salt. Plans have their uses, but they’re just plans. “Life,” as John Lennon famously said, “is what happens while you were making other plans.” Life is also messy and uncomfortable at times, but I’ve come to believe that I will eventually find order in this chaos.

After many years, I’ve come to realize that what my family does for homeschooling always looks better in hindsight. I thought this was my own private discovery until I heard Steve Jobs’ 2005 commencement address at Stanford University. Jobs—founder of Apple Computer and Pixar Animation—described how, after dropping out of college, he had stayed on and “dropped in” on classes that interested him, including some seemingly useless classes in calligraphy.

“None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life” he said. Ten years later, though, designing the first Macintosh computers, his fascination with calligraphy resurfaced, and led to the creation of the first computers with beautiful typography and multiple fonts—something we now all take for granted.

There was no plan, Jobs said, but it all became clear in hindsight. “You can’t connect the dots going forward. You can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”

Easy for him to say, perhaps, but I think he’s right. The most important thing we need as homeschoolers isn’t a brilliant plan. It’s the courage to press on, even when you can’t see how the dots are going to connect. So don’t worry if your plans don’t stick. Keep throwing stuff at the wall. It will look good in hindsight.

[For an update on how things have turned out seven years later, check out “The Dots Still Connect.“]

About the Author

Jenny Meyer homeschools her two daughters in eastern Prince William County.

Originally published in the January-February 2008 VaHomeschoolers Voice.

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