Homeschooling provides families with an incredible opportunity to create meaningful learning traditions and rituals. When my kids and I curl up under blankets to watch Cosmos, we always have a cup of cocoa in hand. When it’s time to do math that’s especially hard we like to eat blueberries. And make no mistake; it absolutely positively must be blueberries because that is what we do—every single time. This rhythm establishes a learning atmosphere that is cozy, predictable and thereby safe for exploration.
Among my favorite such traditions is what my family calls “Independent Reads.” This ritual started when my oldest son began reading on his own. Initially, I had no idea what an integral part of our day Independent Reads would become. Four years later, it is our homeschool’s cornerstone.
When Elias became an independent reader, I noticed that he much preferred gleaning information from books over being taught at by me. As this became more evident, I realized I needed to revise the way I did my teaching. I had to figure out a means of getting information to my son in a way that he would be eager to digest. I had bookshelves upon bookshelves of books I’d gathered from various places and was anxious to share with him. The first time I gave him an Independent Read, I explained to Elias that each day he would receive a special book I’d chosen that he could read on his own. I went on to say that we need not discuss these books or write about them or do anything at all with them unless, of course, he wanted to. They were simply to be enjoyed for as much or as little time as he desired.
Along with exposing my children to all sorts of new authors and ideas that they might not find on their own, Independent Reads provide other benefits as well. I don’t hand out these books at a particular time each day. Rather, the boys ask me for them when they feel ready for some quiet time. Often, if one brother begins to have a disagreement with another, just before I intervene he’ll stop himself and say something like, “I think I am ready for my Independent Read.” It’s a self-imposed timeout that allows everyone the chance to regroup and refuel. It thrills me to see kids using books to calm themselves and find their center.
Only recently have I given significant thought to this practice. Of course, I’m always thinking about Independent Reads in the sense that it’s a lot of work to keep on top of the interests of three little boys and to also find reading materials that support these passions. But it was just the other day that a particular incident with my middle child made me realize how important this practice is and how deeply it shapes our learning.
My oldest and youngest sons are pretty easy to please when it comes to book selections. While they have their preferences, of course, they’ll give pretty much anything with words a try. My middle son, Josiah, is highly selective. When I hit a homerun it’s a beautiful thing. His face lights up, he starts to glow. Sometimes, if I really did well, there’s a wonderful soulful belly laugh too. But when I get it wrong it’s a bad, bad thing. His face grows sullen. Sometimes there are tears. He begins to sputter unintelligibly.
Last month, I admit it, I was fed up. I hadn’t hit a homerun in a couple of weeks and he wasn’t shy about letting me know. At age 5, Jo Jo is trying to determine what sort of reader he wants to be. For some time he read fiction exclusively. One day, with great pride, he announced he wanted to try non-fiction. So, it’s hard to anticipate what sort of mood he’ll be in on a given day and sometimes I get it wrong. Also, I don’t always correctly grasp where his reading level is at. I’ve been guilty of giving him things too easy and too difficult. Both mistakes evoke similar responses of deep frustration.
Finally, in what I thought was a supportive tone, I mentioned noticing that Independent Reads had become upsetting to him. I suggested we try something new. I explained that he was such a big boy it was time for him to make his own book selections. I offered to help him research titles and subjects of interest and together we could figure out where to find the books he wanted.
His little face turned red and he closed his eyes. Tears began to stream down his face. My heart broke. “Do you want me to continue getting your Independent Reads even though I get it wrong sometimes?” Between sobs he answered passionately “Yes!”
It was at that moment I realized how significant this practice was in our home. Choosing special books had become a way of expressing love and understanding of one another. The titles I select are based on the things I hear them chattering about throughout the day—Legos, Star Wars, science, math and dragons. When I get it right, the boys feel understood and listened to. It is one of the ways mom takes care of them. Putting the selection of Independent Reads into Jo Jo’s hands was no different than asking him to tuck himself into bed or to get his own band aids.
After some serious reflection on my part, a fruitful conversation with Jo Jo followed. I explained that lately giving him books felt like buying him shoes. His feet, along with his interests and skill sets, are growing. I am unable to tell that his shoes are too small if he does not tell me. Likewise, I can’t know what books he’ll enjoy if he doesn’t communicate his reading preferences. Since then he has become more conscious about dismissing the books I offer. He is learning to say things like, “I don’t like books where animals get hurt. I don’t like books if they don’t have orange in them.” Bit by bit we are getting there, and a lot of other important skills are being developed along the way.
This made me wonder about all of the other “little things” people do in their homeschools. Things we hardly think about; things that become so very important to a child. What about you? What sorts of learning rituals have evolved in your home? How do these impact the rhythm of your day? I’d love to hear all about them.
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