Part 3 of Developing Self-Esteem

lawrence
Lawrence Williams (Oak Meadow Archives)

The following is Part 3 of Developing Self-Esteem: Challenge Them, written by Oak Meadow’s co-founder, Lawrence Williams.

Challenge Them

Respect and appreciation provide the underlying support that a child needs, but challenges provide the fulcrum through which self-esteem is developed. Challenges enable a child to develop inner strength, which is an essential component of self-esteem. By facing and conquering small challenges, children develop the inner strength to face and conquer larger challenges and, ultimately, to conquer the challenges that face us all as human beings. Without challenges in life, children never have the opportunity to invoke the inner fire that is the true source of self-esteem. However, presenting children with challenges is something that must be approached intelligently and with caution, for it can easily become distorted and become a detriment rather than a benefit. The following guidelines may be helpful:

Provide Appropriate Challenges – Although something is gained just by the struggle itself, if children are constantly faced with challenges that are beyond their capacity, they inevitably fail, and this tends to diminish, rather than increase, self-esteem. The real benefit of a challenge lies in the opportunity it provides for the child to dig deeper and bring forth more inner strength, enough to overcome the obstacle and succeed. Thus, we must provide experiences that are difficult enough to offer a challenge, but not so difficult that failure is inevitable. As children grow in strength and expertise, look for new challenges that are up to their new capacity. Admittedly, this is an art, but it is one that becomes easier with practice.

Talk About It – Children are very open to the idea of applying themselves to a challenge to help them increase their inner strength, but you have to present it to them in a way that is relevant to their stage of unfoldment. For some children, you may put it in imaginary terms, and relate it to a particular fairy tale they enjoy (“Remember how the prince had to lift the heavy stones to build the wall? Well, this is just like that…”). For older children, you can begin to talk in symbolic terms (“Remember the story I used to tell you when you were little about the prince fighting the dragon? Well, whenever we struggle to do something that is difficult, it’s just like fighting a dragon inside us. If we give up, the dragon wins, and we become weaker. If we complete the job, we win, and we become stronger and more skillful at fighting the dragons inside…”). Don’t make it a lecture, but just a heart-to-heart talk between friends. Gradually, these talks can become real in-depth discussions of some pretty extraordinary things.

Teach Basic Strategies – For certain kinds of tasks, children may have the will to do it, but they just don’t know how. When this happens, they sometimes will say, “I can’t do it” when what they really mean is “I don’t know how to do it”. However, teaching strategies means more than just explaining how to do the job. Often, particularly if the job seems overwhelming, it means showing them how to break the job down in smaller tasks that are less intimidating. Once again, you can use analogies to make it more relevant to them (“Sometimes, if the dragon is real big, you can’t kill it all at once; you have to tie up one leg, then another, then another…”). Learning strategies that can be applied to many different kinds of tasks is very important, for they can apply this knowledge in many ways for the rest of their lives.

Provide Encouragement and Support – Every challenge requires children to struggle somewhat, and nothing helps in this process more than receiving encouragement from those you love and respect. The extent of the support that you offer can vary widely, depending upon the age of the children and their capabilities. For younger children, you probably will need to actually do it with them, then withdraw your participation gradually and in a non-confrontive manner (“Oh! I just remembered something in the kitchen! You keep going and I’ll be right back!”). However, when you do this, make sure that you do come back, or they will get distracted and gradually begin to distrust what you say. For older children, you may have to help them get started, and then check in from time to time to see how they’re progressing. When you do, always provide encouragement on their progress.

Give Them a Chance to Struggle – Often, parents want to protect their children from all uncomfortable experiences. Although one can appreciate the compassion behind such sentiments, rescuing children from all uncomfortable experiences serves to weaken them, rather than strengthen them. Of course, this must be tempered according to children’s stage of unfoldment. Younger children develop inner strength by struggling to control their bodies and develop their coordination, and this is best accomplished within the confines of a protected, nurturing environment rather than exposure to the “real world”. Exposing your children to harsh outer experiences doesn’t develop inner strength, it only forces them to develop superficial outer defenses to protect themselves. However, as children grow older, they need to gradually replace the protection of the parents with their own individual awareness. Ultimately, self-esteem arises when we get in touch with our own inner fire, for this gives us a sense of confidence in our own capabilities and our own inner worth as human beings. A sensitive environment and a loving, supportive family can open the door to self-esteem, but only through confronting and overcoming our own weaknesses as individuals do we contact the inner fire that makes us whole, and that gives us a sense of self-esteem that is based upon a knowledge of our worth and our capacities as human beings.

Part 2 of Developing Self-Esteem

lawrenceThe following is Part 2 of Developing Self-Esteem: Appreciate Them, written by Oak Meadow’s co-founder, Lawrence Williams.

Appreciate Them

One of the most powerful techniques for building positive self-esteem in children is to let them know how much you appreciate them. Appreciation lets them know that you see them clearly, and that you like what you see. It also gives them the message that they are of value, and knowing that others value you is a great esteem builder. However, as with the quality of respect, we may agree in principle that children need to be appreciated, but how do we do this?

Honor Their Uniqueness – This sounds wonderful, but this often causes many parents problems, simply because the traits that make children unique are often traits that make them difficult to live with. For example, a child who is very active may keep a house in a constant state of turmoil. Nevertheless, a dynamic will is a wonderful quality to have, and if you try to eliminate that quality from the child you will be extinguishing what makes him or her unique. Thus, instead of trying to eliminate a quality that you find disagreeable, let them know that you appreciate that quality, then help them find constructive channels for its expression.

Look For the Good and Acknowledge It – Positive reinforcement is a very powerful motivator. When your children do something good, let them know that you recognize what they did and how much you appreciate it. This not only raises their self-esteem, but it also encourages them to do more of the same in the future. However, it’s important that your acknowledgement be genuine and heartfelt, and not just spoken from concept. Of course, this means you have to be watching for the good that they do, rather than just noticing the bad, but you will find that paying attention to the good that is in them not only makes you appreciate them more, but also improves your outlook on other aspects of life as well. The basic principle here is this: Whatever you focus upon increases. Thus, if you focus upon the weaknesses or problems that children have, they will increase. If you focus upon their strengths or virtues, they will increase. I once taught a little girl who was in first grade, and I was always impressed by the concern that she showed for the other children. If anyone was hurt, she was the first to offer help. We had a wonderful relationship and learned a lot together, but I noticed that she would often be depressed when she first came to school in the morning. One day I met her mother and realized that she had a very different view of her daughter than I did. In her eyes, her daughter was sloppy and obstinate. She failed to notice all the finer qualities in her daughter, but chose to focus upon something that was unimportant by comparison. True, the girl wasn’t meticulous, but that was only because she had such a big heart, she couldn’t be bothered with seemingly unimportant details! However, by ignoring all of the beauty in her daughter and focusing upon that one trait, her mother had caused her to become obstinate, simply in order to defend herself. And, to my amazement, when the girl was around her mother, she became sloppy and obstinate, and her finer qualities were almost obscured. By looking for the good in her daughter, that mother could have been enjoying a wonderful relationship instead of spending her days fighting an obstinate child.

Don’t Compare Them With Others – As I mentioned earlier, every child is unique, and deserves to be treated as an individual. By comparing one child with another, you give the message there is one “right” way to be, and if they don’t happen to be that way, they have no recourse but to feel that they are failures. There is no “right” way to be, any more than there is one “right “ color in the rainbow. Each color, just as each child, is equally important and “right”, and by each color affirming its uniqueness and being fully what it is, we have the entire spectrum of color, which makes the world a much more interesting place to live. Can you say red is a better color than blue, or that green is a better color than yellow? Of course not. Colors are simply different from each other, not better or worse. In the same way, children (or adults) are not better or worse than each other, they are just different, and these differences are something to be appreciated and celebrated, because they are what makes us individuals.

Stay tuned for next week’s Part 3Challenge Them!

Five Ways to Keep Your Balance in an Unbalanced World

by Lawrence Williams and DeeDee Hughes
reprinted from Living Education (Fall 2014) 
adapted from Living Education (Jan/Feb 2001)

I once admitted to a wise friend that, as a parent, I honestly didn’t know if I was being too strict or too lenient. She said, “That’s normal. That’s what finding the balance is all about. There is no static balance point. You are always tipping a little too far in one direction and righting yourself, or tipping too far in the other direction and righting yourself.” I found great comfort in this at the time, and I still do today.

Finding the balance in parenting and in life is an ongoing process. Am I working too much and forgetting to play? Am I being an overinvolved parent and not respecting my children’s abilities and independence? Am I trying to keep them from making mistakes? Am I letting them make enough mistakes? Am I investing enough time in my friendships but forgetting my self-care? Life can feel like doing yoga on a stand-up paddleboard while being rocked by waves. We’re constantly shifting and making adjustments, and there are lots of near-misses for getting dunked, but we’re doing it!

As a homeschooler, seeking balance is essential. If we’re out of balance and we try to teach our children, we diminish our effectiveness as teachers. We might miss the subtle cues in the learning process that enable us to be good teachers, or we might cause our children to become more imbalanced also, which reduces their ability to learn effectively.

Here are some tips to help you maintain a sense of balance in the midst of your busy, messy, wonderful life.

1. Reconnect with your source daily

What energizes you? What helps you feel centered and creates harmony within you? You might reconnect through prayer, hiking, yoga, meditation, journaling, gardening, running, art, or some other activity. Find something that works for you and do it every day. Even thought it may seem impossible, the most effective time is first thing in the the morning. Reconnecting with our personal power source first thing in the morning enables us to embrace the day with greater purpose and clarity.

2. Recognize your role as co-creator

Through our thoughts, feelings, and actions, we all create our lives moment by moment. When we work in conjunction with our children, with our partners, with our friends and neighbors, we become co-creators of the world around us. When unexpected events arise, we have a choice of how we respond. If we respond from an inner sense of balance, we can turn difficult circumstances into new possibilities for ourselves and our children. When we take responsibility for creating our world, we enter into a fascinating dance, an on-going improvisation that is one part strength, one part grace, one part compromise, and all heart. When we live with a sense of actively creating the life we want, we feel more content and centered.

3. Pay attention to your internal GPS

Envision a see-saw with mental activity on one end, physical activity on the other end, and feelings in the middle as the balance point. We all know how easy it is to overemphasize or ignore one or more of these aspects, and we know what happens to the see-saw when we lean too far in one direction. Check in with your internal GPS every now and then to figure out where you are. For example, if you’ve been engaged for long hours on a computer, you probably need to be active physically. If you have been running errands all over town with your children, you may need to sit for a bit and read a book. The same holds true for kids – remember to check in with where they are and strive for balance in the rhythm of their day. Being able to adapt to the needs of our children this way is one of the great benefits of homeschooling.

4. Allow yourself to feel

Our innate capacity to feel is one of our greatest tools in parenting and in teaching. It helps us to clearly perceive what is going on in ourselves and others, and to communicate effectively. When you are talking with your children, don’t just focus on the words they’re saying. Open yourself to what they are feeling and address that with as much attention as you give to their word.s If you are walking down the street, look at the trees, the plants, and the sky around you and appreciate their natural beauty. Soak it in on a feeling level. By opening your heart to simple acts of feeling as you experience the events of each day, you will find that your mind becomes quieter and you feel more stable and poised.

5. Recognize your triggers

It’s no surprise that life often feels unbalanced. Consider how we are bombarded by external stimuli: masses of information, constant sounds, demands of email and phone, social media updates. Sure, all parents have eyes in the back of our heads and three arms, but we can still become overwhelmed. By learning to recognize what triggers that sense of stress, we can help restore balance. If you feel you can never get anything done because you have to respond to every email as it comes in, maybe you’ll want to switch to checking email just two or three times a day. If you start to feel scattered after a morning of noisy activity, institute a one-hour noise-free zone in your house, or get outside where the only sounds you’ll hear are nature sounds. Give yourself a break by leaving your phone behind when you take a walk or work in the garden, or (if that’s too uncomfortable) just turn it off. Allow yourself to disengage from the hectic demands of global connection.

By following these guidelines, you can regain your innate balance, which will foster the expression of your natural intelligence. Many schools seek to develop intellect, so they spend their time focusing on mental activity. At Oak Meadow, we are interested in developing intelligence, and this arises from physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual balance. Intellect alone will never enable your children to be fulfilled, self-directed learners, and it will never enable them to become dynamic individuals who can have a positive impact upon the world. Find your own balance and you’ll be able to help your children find theirs.

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Lawrence Williams is the co-founder and owner of Oak Meadow, and the author of Oak Meadow’s original curriculum. He and DeeDee Hughes have collaborated on a number of articles and curriculum materials, including the new 40th Anniversary edition of The Heart of Learning.

The Arrival of Fall (From the Archive)

by Lawrence Williams, EdD
excerpted from Living Education (October 1981) 

As the Fall of the year arrives, we experience once again the familiar contraction of Mother Nature, reminding us that all things must pass, and even the beautiful expansiveness of Summer must recede to allow Winter to work its magic.

Children often experience this contraction as a desire to focus their energies, after a long summer of either relaxation or unharnessed exuberance. For those who have been homeschooling for a while, the seasonal extremes are usually not as pronounced. However, for those exploring home study for the first time, the Fall can be a time of difficult adjustments to a new situation.

Often our instinct is to establish firm schedules of “schoolwork” within the home, as a natural response to the seasonal contraction which we feel. However, though it is true that children seem to appreciate more of a focus at this time of year, we should look for ways to integrate this focus as naturally and warmly as possible, to avoid the inevitable reactions that arise from trying to maintain a strict form.

Use this time to seek a deeper understanding of your children’s changing needs — this understanding will be a tremendous asset as you progress through the course of the year.

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This article first appeared in its original form in Living Education: The Monthly Journal of Oak Meadow School in October 1981. The early incarnation of Living Ed (as we fondly refer to it) provided a then-rare space for homeschooling parents and Oak Meadow staff to explore and share their thoughts about learning, parenting, and related topics.

What do you think of Oak Meadow founder Lawrence Williams’ thoughts in this article from years past? Do you agree with his recommendations? How do you approach the transition to Fall in your own family’s homeschooling rhythm?

As parents and educators, reading others’ thoughts, asking challenging questions, and considering new ideas will open up different opportunities for ourselves and our children. Our ideas continue to evolve as we move along our journey. How have your own thoughts grown and changed since your homeschooling adventure began?

Outdoor Adventures of a Literary Kind

From the Archives – Living Education (Winter 2014)

Literature often inspires nature activities, and it’s fun to carry literary themes into the outdoors. My Side of the Mountain (Jean Craighead George) tells an amazing story of a boy who decides to live in the wild, and he finds a hollowed out tree to make his home. In Pippi Longstocking (Astrid Lindgren), the inimitable Pippi uses a hollowed out tree trunk to hide goodies for herself and her friends to find. Maybe you can find a tree hollow to find goodies in, or a hollowed out trunk to claim as a play space or picnic spot.

Photo credit: The Lugo family. (Oak Meadow archives.)
Photo credit: The Lugo family.
(Oak Meadow archives.)

Older readers may have been intrigued by Call of the Wild (Jack London) or Hatchet (Gary Paulsen), both of which describe in great detail survival skills. Such literary prompts can lead to grand outdoor adventures and the development of important practical skills, including fire building, archery, woodcraft, camping, orienteering (using map and compass), tracking, wildlife identification, and other winter survival techniques.

One great survival skill that’s fun to practice anytime is building a temporary shelter out of leaves and sticks, often called a debris hut. These shelters are easy and quick to build and surprisingly snug and warm. Simple instructions follow. For more detailed instructions and information, check out these two articles from Boys Life and Wildwood Survival.

Building a Debris Hut

The most basic debris hut consists of piling leaves and pine needles into a pile three feet high and longer than your height. Cover the top with branches. Burrow into the mound feet first (or head first, and then turn around so your head faces outward). The forest debris will provide a layer of insulation that traps your body heat and keeps you warm.

ou can build a temporary shelter by using a fallen tree as a supporting framework. Prop branches onto the tree trunk in a tent shape, and then cover the branches with pieces of bark or more branches. Pile leaves on top of the branches and inside the hut to provide a layer on top of the ground. Depending on how big your shelter is, you might be able to invite several friends inside for a snack and a story.

If you have a large rock or boulder nearby, you can use it as the “back wall” of your shelter, propping long sticks or branches against it in a teepee formation. Cover this structure with branches and leaves, and pad the floor with more leaves and pine needles. If you build your shelter against a rock, it will not only provide a sturdy backbone; if you build a fire in front of your shelter, the rock will absorb and reflect back the heat.

Fun fact: Snow shelters are called quinzee.

Change of Seasons (From the Archive)

by Lawrence Williams, EdD
excerpted from Living Education (April 1982) 

I always find the change of seasons to be such a fascinating time of year, for it offers opportunities for new insights into the nature of the world, and thus into ourselves and our children.

As parents and teachers, we have an obligation to learn as much as possible about the laws of nature, for these laws govern not only the plants which are so apparent at this time of the year, but every being in the entire universe. For there is only one set of laws under which we operate–the basic principles of the cosmos, and as we learn to see the operation of these laws in one realm of manifestation, such as the plant kingdom, we can begin to apply these laws to other realms, such as the education of children.

When we learn in this way, we are able to encompass diverse fields of knowledge very quickly, because we pierce to the heart of the matter, rather than spending years lost in the details.

We should always try to teach children in this manner, helping them to see the operation of basic laws which are common to many realms, rather than burdening them with details of each realm.

In this way we will be helping them unfold the greatest talent imaginable: the ability to look beyond the forms and discover the life which continually creates and sustains all forms.

When children have learned to recognize this, they will have in their possession the key to all knowledge, and will grow into true students of life itself, continually learning more about themselves and the world in which they live.

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This article first appeared in its original form in Living Education: The Monthly Journal of Oak Meadow School in April 1982. The early incarnation of Living Ed (as we fondly refer to it) provided a then-rare space for homeschooling parents to explore and share their thoughts about learning, parenting, and related topics.

What do you think of Oak Meadow founder Lawrence Williams’ profound and provocative words from three decades ago? Are there lines you agree with and lines that don’t fit so well? Do any of these ideas or phrases resonate with you? Would you add anything from your own experience?

As parents and educators, reading others’ thoughts, asking challenging questions, and considering new ideas will open up different opportunities for ourselves and our children. Our ideas continue to evolve as we move along our journey. How have your own thoughts grown and changed since your homeschooling adventure began?

Overachievers

“What provisions can be made for the very capable homeschool families who tend to be over-achievers?

This question was asked a few years ago by one of Oak Meadow’s enrolled families. It has recently been inquired again. I went back into my blog files and found the following thoughts that were compiled from an email thread between Oak Meadow k-8 teachers regarding over-achieving students and home teachers. I think this invaluable information is fitting to provide once more. The bulleted list below is a summary of the suggestions and advice:

  • You do not have to explore everything in depth.
  • Pay attention to your stress level. Slow down and lighten the focus if you feel rushed or pressured.
  • Moderation in all things.
  • Find a different perspective that helps an over-achieving student (and even the home teacher) to relax.
  • Think outside the box. Not every assignment needs to be in a final copy. Some assignments can be done orally, video taped, or even letting it lie until another year.
  • Take a walk for pleasure!
  • Focus more on the process rather than the goal or end result.
  • Show your children it is OK to make mistakes.
  • Remember that the joy of learning is the most important aspect of schooling.
  • Step back and look at the progress your student has made.
  • Sometimes less is more. Focus less on the number of pages and more on the quality and content of what has been written.
  • Stay in good humor. Children are like sponges – they pick up and absorb stress, if that is what you are feeling.

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The following is a dialogue in response to the question regarding overachievers. Thanks to all the Oak Meadow teachers who participated in this collaboration. We hope it aids in your home teaching skills.

Michelle Menegaz:

I suggest looking for those times when just touching on something more lightly might be enough. You will know by how rushed, obligated, or pressured you are feeling versus maintaining a balanced enthusiasm, Children (and all of us, I think) need time to digest as well as ingest our learning.

I think it is natural and advantageous to go through cycles with writing… a time when you focus on brainstorming without the need to polish a final product is very useful in skills development. Sometimes the student may be digesting and assimilating knowledge and skills at a newer level before taking the next steps or leaps in learning. This is fine and even preferable to constantly churning out the same amount of work every month. I trust you to use your  intuition and be open to your student’s process to know when to push, listen, back off, or explore new ideas. 

Andy Kilroy:

Sometimes people seek out home school options to get their children out of the grind, and then get so wrapped up in the curriculum, that they forget all about the joy and flexibility and turn into taskmasters (home teacher) and over-achievers (child). It is important to not overdo the technical aspects of the work, but instead focus more on the joy and creativity aspect. I also like to reinforce to the home teacher that there is always something constructive to tell the student.

Sarah Adelman:

Students of over-achieving home teachers seem to fall into two categories: those that put a ton of pressure on themselves to be as successful as their home teachers; or those that shut down or don’t bother because there’s no way they can meet that expectation. I currently have a student whose parents are both high-achievers. This student is really hard on himself and very much of an overachiever  While his parents could probably do a better job editing his papers than I ever could, it is much less stressful for him to look at outside feedback and suggestions. I think having another perspective, particularly on his writing, has helped him relax. 

Lesley Arnold:

The pressure and stress a curriculum and a home teacher might put on a student can weave into every part of life, which can lead to finding it difficult to do anything. I encourage “lightening up” and “thinking outside the box” on the assignments. Not every assignment needs to be in final copy. Not every assignment needs to be typed into a three page essay. Some assignments can be done orally, some can be video taped…etc. Some assignments can “sleep” until another year! 

Home teachers need to know that they can be more flexible with the curriculum. Focusing on how much of the day involves “intellectual pursuits” can be very taxing and tiring. For example, taking a walk for mere pleasure and not for meeting the demands of an assignment is an invaluable part of a day! 

Sarah Antel:

It’s important for the home teachers to take a step back, a moment’s break, and look at the progress their children have made. 

Leslie Daniels:

I know ALL of us have felt like overachievers at more than one point in our lives. So, when this happens to me, I do the “wake up call” and remind myself to stay in good humor. And this is exactly what I suggest to my home teachers who present each lesson too much by verbatim or take each assignment too seriously. Have you noticed that many of the over-achieving home teachers seem to set high standards for their own personal lives – as parent, home teacher, partner, family/community member, etc? And this type of stressful nature in a parent also develops stress in the children. After all, children are like sponges and pick up on everything!   

It’s also important for the home teacher to understand that a child does not need to feel pressured by imperfections with lessons, etc. I encourage them to find humor in their own personal antics and to express this humor in front of their children, so their children will know it’s okay to make mistakes. We learn from our mistakes! Aside from basic concepts, most every concept that is being introduced and taught to the students in the k-4 grades is reemphasized in the 5-8 grades, and then once again in high school. So, in working with overachievers, I remind the home teachers to focus more on the process and to not always be so concerned with the goal. And most of all, I emphasize that instilling the joy of learning is THE MOST IMPORTANT aspect of schooling. When a child is given the opportunity to learn in a joyful manner, then they will become life-long learners ~ and isn’t that truly what is the most valuable gift we can offer our children?

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Winter, Contraction & Frustration

“Every moment and every event of every man’s life plants something in his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because men are not prepared to receive them. For such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere, except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity, and love.” ~ Thomas Merton

For those who live in the northern hemisphere, the months of January and February bring us to a midpoint of the winter season, where we find ourselves experiencing drastic changes in weather and with focus. It is a time of contraction, in which we turn inwardly and reflect within. Often times, this season can also initiate a sense of tiredness and discouragement. Even our children’s attitudes can begin to disintegrate, and the enthusiasm during the first few months of school starts to wear off.

Lawrence WilliamsSince 1986, I have had the great honor and privilege to know and work with Oak Meadow’s co-founder, Lawrence Williams. Over the years, I have developed an amazing respect for his boundless wisdom and timeless energy in providing a quality education for homeschool families. I have also collected a plethora of articles written by Lawrence. So, “from the archives”, I have the pleasure of offering his timely article on:

Winter, Contraction and Frustration

Now that we are in a new year, and in the midst of winter, let’s stop for a moment to consider what effect this is having upon our children, the learning process, and us.

The learning process has two phases: expansion and contraction. These same phases are also apparent in the seasons of the year. The season in which we are presently immersed, winter, is the season when the forces of contraction are prevailing.

The predominant effect of the contractive phase is the feeling of being closed in, and the feeling that nothing is moving. In terms of the learning process, we often feel that our children are not making any progress, and we begin to doubt our effectiveness as teachers. Of course, this closed in feeling is much more apparent in the extreme northern latitudes, where the temperature is much colder, and snow covers the ground for most of the year. However, even if we are living further south, we still experience this sensation, although its effect is modified somewhat, and it tends to become a more subtle inner experience, rather than an outer obstacle.

Another effect, which is most fascinating, is that during the contractive phase, things do not appear as they really are. The same thing is occurring in nature. If we didn’t know any better, and just arrived on this planet without an instruction manual (a familiar feeling?), we would look at the barren trees and the frozen ground and would suspect that everything was dead, with no chance of revival. However, since we’ve lived through many winters, we know that things are not as they appear. Underneath the surface of the earth wonderful things are happening and in a few months life will spring forth again, and everything will be green and growing profusely.

So the most important thing to remember while teaching children in the midst of the contraction of winter is that, while it looks as if nothing is happening, it is only because everything is happening under the surface. However bleak it may look, however hopeless your children’s progress may seem, however many times you feel as if you are totally frustrated, just remember that it is not really that way. Within your children, just as within nature, marvelous things are happening at this moment, and in a few months the growth that is occurring will become apparent, as we move into the phase of expansion, when all things become visible.

The best way to handle the contractive phase is to accept it as an opportunity, not an obstacle. There are many ideal learning experiences available at this time of year. Take advantage of them. Don’t stay indoors, trying to complete academic work with everyone irritable. Go outdoors and look for animal tracks in the snow. Even if you are living in a more temperate climate, and there is no snow, watch for the events that happen in nature only at this time of the year, such as various animal migrations. By cooperating gracefully and joyfully with the opportunities available within this cycle, you will be teaching your children one of the most valuable lessons in life: how to find opportunities within apparent limitations.

In Lawrence William’s book, The Heart of Learning, Chapter 7 offers additional information on “Rhythm and Learning: Expansion and Contraction”. If you haven’t read this chapter recently, it might be a good time to add it to your reading list.

The Virtual Heart of Writing

by Lawrence Williams, Ed.D

“At its virtual heart, technology uses writing as a powerful means of bringing parents, teachers, and children closer together.” ~ Lawrence Williams, Ed.D

Many of us have concerns about the impact of technology upon human beings, and upon our children especially. One of the greatest of these concerns is that technology will dehumanize us and make us less caring about each other. This is certainly a valid concern, and no amount of virtual socializing will take the place of the social sophistication that comes from face-to-face interactions. But I believe that the most profound and meaningful use of technology is as an aid to communication. At its virtual heart, technology uses writing as a powerful means of bringing parents, teachers, and children closer together.

With the proliferation of the internet, many online schools (“virtual schools”) began to appear, but writing and communicating didn’t seem to be an integral part of the curriculum. Many of these schools emphasize programs that enable students to complete their work online or to interact with a “learning program” that combines information with multiple-choice tests and automatic grading by the computer. In our view, this is the kind of dehumanizing application that has negative effect upon children, for it takes them away from the heart-to-heart interaction with other human beings that is a critical part of our growth and development as learners and as persons of integrity.

Photo credit: Betsy Sproger (Oak Meadow Archives)
Photo credit: Betsy Sproger
(Oak Meadow Archives)

At Oak Meadow, instead of developing programs that take the place of parents or teachers, we’ve chosen to focus on technological tools that make it possible for parents, teachers, and students to interact with each other more effectively, wherever they may live. One of the most difficult aspects of homeschooling for many children (especially those of high school age) is the lack of peer interaction. We have designed and implemented some courses that bridge this gap through the use of online collaboration and class discussions. Since virtual schools are relatively new, there are very few guidelines for the best way to create effective online learning communities. We are all too aware of the many pitfalls to avoid, but the potential benefits for supportive and effective communication drive us forward with enthusiasm.

I have had the privilege of witnessing very productive, compassionate, and enlightening online classroom discussions that confirmed my belief that students can use new technology to its best advantage. I have seen students from different backgrounds, cultures, and geographical areas overcome their conditioning and their separateness to reach out, cooperate, collaborate, and strengthen each other. Every minute of every day, this same thing is happening around the world with individuals of all nations, races, and cultures. One by one, we are discovering that beneath all the superficial differences, we are all simply human beings, trying to do our best, trying to realize our dreams.

Photo credit: Audrey Joyner (Oak Meadow Archives)
Photo credit: Audrey Joyner
(Oak Meadow Archives)

This is all happening through our writing. Yes, technology provides the platform, but writing, one human being to another, is what connects us. Although technology is opening more opportunities for communicating, writing is an art form that will never be replaced by technology. Writing lets us communicate our individuality and reach out into the world. Writing is a path to self-knowledge and creative expression. Taking the time to write, whether by pen scritch-scratching across paper or fingers clicking across a keyboard, is never a waste of time, in my opinion.

I am often amazed at what appears on the page when I let myself write freely. Encouraging our children and students to write freely is a gift we can gift them, one generation to the next. Journal writing, letter writing, notes jotted on a pad of paper by the phone or scribbled in the margins of a book – all these represent a human being making a mark on the world, Ideas, goals, and dreams all take one step closer to reality when written down. Feelings and ideas gain substance and validation when shared through words.

Photo credit: The Marsella Family (Oak Meadow Archives)
Photo credit: The Marsella Family
(Oak Meadow Archives)

Taking the time to write well, especially writing something by hand, is akin to the “slow food” movement; it is the nutrient-dense version of texting, tweeting, and online social chats. There is a delicious richness to writing that we take our time with. It develops nuances and blossoms into not just mere information but true communication. I urge you to practice “slow” writing yourself, even if your children give the impression that you are being old fashioned or out of touch for eschewing electronic devices in favor of pen and paper.

Taking the time to write shows a desire to connect. Trust me, when someone sees a handwritten note tucked in a lunchbox or backpack, or finds a scribbled message among the luggage while traveling, the sense of connectedness will be recognized and savored. Notes of all types — including the electronic kind – — are a connection between two individuals, and making human connections is what enhances and brings purpose to our lives.

We’ll continue to move forward into the brave new world of technology, finding its virtual heart and embracing the new opportunities it brings, while never forgetting the simple joy of the written word. Write well, write often, and make your mark on the world.


Lawrence Williams, Ed.D is Oak Meadow’s Co-Founder and President.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of Living Education, the educational journal of Oak Meadow.

Learning and the Natural World

“Learning and the Natural World”
excerpted from The Heart of Learning by Lawrence Williams, EdD

Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books.  ~ John Lubbock

There is something very magical about being outside.

When I was young, a child’s connection to the natural world was not something that needed special attention. It was…well, natural. Kids played outside all the live-long day, as much as possible, in all kinds of weather. Then came the TV generation of the 1960s and 70s, and parents were often reminding kids to “Go outside and play!” Being outside was still an integral part of growing up for most children, however, even urban dwellers.

As a child, when you were outside, your curiosity ruled your actions. Your play was self-directed and engaged. Playing outside meant using all your senses. It probably meant meeting up with your friends and running around. It meant using your imagination and, hopefully, getting really dirty.

Nature’s Classroom

The lessons that nature has to teach us are never ending. Being immersed in the natural flow of plant and animal life cycles, weather patterns, seasons, and the intricate dance connecting everything helps us find our own balance in the flow of life. It’s not surprising that children who play outside are healthier mentally, emotionally, and physically. Human beings have spent nearly the entirety of our existence outside. Our connection to the natural world is so profound that when we are deprived of it, it’s no surprise that we don’t fare so well.

Getting Back to Nature, Plain and Simple

If your child hasn’t spent much time outdoors, be prepared to start small. The crack in the sidewalk is always a good place to start. Collecting sticks and building a little teepee is another simple way to get a child who is timid outdoors to start getting his hands dirty. Collecting rocks, shells, nuts, or just about anything will appeal to most children, and it’s just a small step from there to building and decorating a tiny, magical fairy house or woodland dwelling.

Here are a few more tips for bringing the outdoors into your day:

  • Go outside early in the day.
  • Eat snacks or meals outside.
  • Devote a section of your yard to dirt or sand play.
  • Plant a bean teepee large enough to play inside.
  • Make a living fort by trimming the bottom branches from bushes enough to make a crawl space.
  • Make a row or circle of stumps (burying them in the ground partway makes them more stable).
  • Make a mud pit.
  • Create sculptures from natural materials.

Here’s a list of great materials to collect or make available:

  • rocks
  • dirt or sand pile
  • branches, sticks, and logs
  • seeds and seed pods
  • pinecones and nuts
  • leaves and bark
  • driftwood, shells, and seaweed
  • flowers and long stalks of grass
  • feathers

Child-Led Discovery

Sometimes it is tempting to become a bit too involved in a child’s outdoor play. There is something irresistibly appealing about a sand pile or a fairy house. However, just as it was important not to let our own creative process take precedence over our child’s, it is important to allow children the time and space to explore on their own. This self-directed, unstructured play often yields the richest rewards. Be mindful of your child’s process instead of trying to guide it in one direction of another. Let children make their own discoveries, and allow them to make their own mistakes. Just because they aren’t doing something in the most efficient manner doesn’t mean it’s not right. We all learn from experience, and faster is not always better.

The most encouraging thing you can do is express interest in your child’s play without intruding. Be available to show genuine awe or intrigue when a new discovery or creation is shared with you, but refrain from questioning, judging, critiquing, or praising. Even praise can change a child’s play — the focus may shift to doing things that will please you rather than letting the play evolve organically from the child’s creative impulse. Outdoor play has a naturally expansive element, and the use of praise to help maintain creative tension (as we talked about in the last chapter) is not necessary.

Be playful and curious, be interested and excited, but above all, respect the rich inner life of the child’s play. There is something very peaceful about creating a nature scene or just exploring the natural environment. Don’t force the conversation. Sometimes it isn’t possible or helpful to talk about a creative experience. Connecting with nature can be a very personal experience, and one that builds intricate and complex ways of understanding the world. By attuning to your child’s attitude, you will probably be able to easily feel when it is right to just let things be.

While educators (homeschooling parents and professionals alike) are perpetually open to the teachable moment, unstructured outdoor play is often a good time to let the teachable moment pass without comment. Trust that the learning process is in full sail without your guidance. There will be another time to give suggestions, instructions, information, and to ask leading questions. For now, just enjoy the beauty of nature’s classroom.