While I’ve never formally homeschooled my now teenage sons, when I picked up the book A Little Way of Homeschooling by Suzie Andres I truly connected with much of what I read. Suzie and the twelve other families who share contributions give unique insights how this type of educational approach can “click” in a variety of family sizes and circumstances. Today, I am pleased to share my recent conversation with Suzie Andres and encourage you to read her insights and consider how they might impact upon your family’s approach to education.
Q: Suzie, congratulations on the publication of A Little Way of Homeschooling. Please share with our readers a bit about yourself and your family.
My husband and I, cradle Catholics, met as students at Thomas Aquinas College and married in 1988. We hoped to have a large family, but God had more perfect plans for us: two children with the unusual spacing of twelve years between. Our oldest son, Joseph, is now twenty-one and a senior at TAC; our second son, Dominic, is almost nine and a Lego, Star Wars, and Peanuts fan.
In our early years of marriage, Tony and I studied philosophy with Dr. Ralph McInerny at the University of Notre Dame. Tony went on to teach at Christendom College in Virginia and then at TAC in California, while I became occupied with education at a more fundamental level – namely, our children’s. I’m constantly sidetracked by reading and writing (my own, that is), but through unschooling I’ve found a way to bring my interests and my children’s education together.
Q: I found it fascinating to read about the origins of the book and your efforts to get started with your writing. Could you please explain briefly to our readers what prompted this book as a follow up to your earlier work Homeschooling with Gentleness?
I wrote Homeschooling with Gentleness to explain the excellent fit between our Catholic faith and unschooling, an educational approach that focuses on learning in the context of everyday life. After Christendom Press published the book, I heard two responses. Many readers gained from it the confidence to begin or continue unschooling. A few others, however, objected that my experience as the mother of only two children prevented the book from offering to them, mothers of larger families, the answers they sought.
When I wrote Homeschooling with Gentleness, I didn’t imagine there were more than a few families who called themselves Catholic unschoolers. Four years later the book had sold out and Christendom reprinted it, I stumbled upon a thriving Unschooling Catholics yahoo group, and when I googled “Catholic unschooling,” I discovered several blogs. I was thrilled and decided to gather some of these riches into a second book. My initial plan was simply to offer the experiences of larger families to those women who had found the first book too narrow. As it turned out, God had bigger ideas which included his little Doctor, St. Therese.
Q: Please give our readers a blueprint of the book and what they will discover in A Little Way of Homeschooling.
A Little Way of Homeschooling consists of three main parts. It begins with St. Therese of Lisieux, who teaches that God loves us with an inexhaustible tenderness, and so we can trust Him in all things, even the education of our children. The second and third parts of the book contain essays by twelve Catholic mothers: eight call themselves unschoolers, while four more combine unschooling principles with other educational approaches such as the classical method and Charlotte Mason’s.
Readers will also find a terrific foreword by Catholic writer (and husband of one of the contributors) Mike Aquilina; an appendix by my husband on how unschooling corresponds with the perennial philosophy of the Church; and additional appendices which feature booklists and selected prayers.
Q: For the uninitiated, what exactly is “unschooling”? How does it differ from what we think of as more traditional homeschooling?
John Holt coined the term unschooling in the 1970’s to describe the then unusual activity of keeping one’s children out of school. Eventually the word came to mean, more specifically, allowing children to learn outside of school by pursuing their and the family’s interests and activities, rather than by parents teaching them typical school subjects with a pre-set course of studies.
Unschooling differs from traditional homeschooling by setting aside planned curricula for each grade and by paying less attention to distinct required subjects and grade levels. Unschooling is similar to traditional homeschooling in its enjoyment of learning in the comfortable environment of the home. Some other names for unschooling are interest led, delight driven, or relaxed homeschooling.
Q: I have to say that although my children were not homeschooled and indeed attended both Catholic and public institutions, many of the concepts covered in your book rang true with me. How can this book benefit every family, even those who do not choose to homeschool?
The message of A Little Way of Homeschooling is indeed meant for all families, whether the children go to school or homeschool, because unschooling is not an ideology but a set of principles or universal truths available to everyone.
John Holt summed up the basic truth of unschooling when he wrote in How Children Learn: “Man is by nature a learning animal. Birds fly, fish swim; man thinks and learns.” In other words, our children are learners. We can add that the basics are not hard, children want to learn them, and they will ask for help when they need it. Finally, learning is easiest and most effective when entered into with desire. Since we want our children to learn good things, and the good is by definition desirable, we can trust that learning and desire can go together for children just as they often do in the lives of adults. These are some of the truths of unschooling that can reassure all parents.
We have so many worthwhile educational opportunities in our time, from schools to homeschooling to online classes to community recreation and scouting. In both of my books I emphasize that God loves variety, and so it’s not surprising that He has given us many methods of educating and learning. Yet even as we choose among this wealth, our parental anxiety is nearly as universal as the unschooling principles I’ve mentioned.
The thirteen families in A Little Way of Homeschooling tell stories of children learning in diverse situations; as John Holt’s colleague Pat Farenga likes to point out, unschoolers are open to using whatever means to learning work well for them, including formal instruction and even school. I think all parents will profit from the book’s message that our children can and will learn everywhere because that’s what they do well. For those still seeking their family’s most comfortable way of learning, reading about the trials and errors and triumphs of the contributors offers hope.
Finally, the book’s most important lesson is again for all parents, but especially for those of us advanced in the fine arts of perfectionism, scrupulosity, guilt, and anxiety. In A Little Way of Homeschooling St. Therese delivers the liberating message that God will do the heavy lifting, He’s not expecting more from us than we can give, and He will be with us every step of the way.
Q: Please say a few words about the role of St. Therese of Lisieux in your life and in the book.
St. Therese first charmed me when I was twenty and read her Story of a Soul, in which she writes so naturally of her intimacy with Jesus. In some ways we don’t have much in common. Although we both love Jesus very much, Therese said she had never gone three minutes without thinking of God; I don’t think I’ve ever gone three minutes thinking of God! And yet she is irresistible to me because she says things like “I assure you that the good Lord is much kinder than you can imagine. He is satisfied with a glance, with a sigh of love.”
Originally I called the book Catholic Unschooling and More, with the subtitle “Thirteen Families Discover a Little Way of Homeschooling.” It became obvious, though, that St. Therese didn’t plan to take a back seat, and over time the title became A Little Way of Homeschooling, leaving the thirteen families to discover Catholic unschooling in the subtitle.
This new name reflected changes within the book. What started as a compilation of essays about education grew to include chapters I wrote on St. Therese to apply her wisdom to our lives as mothers. While I began with merely an oblique mention of Therese in that first subtitle, I am deeply indebted to Stratford Caldecott and Mary Kate Weinkopf, two early readers who told me “Add more St. Therese!” My sense is that by bringing St. Therese to the fore, we have transformed A Little Way of Homeschooling from an interesting book to a truly life-giving one.
Q: Can you please share about some of the other mothers who contributed to the book? Also, how was the work of compiling a book with so many contributors accomplished?
Two of the women who contributed are professional writers, Karen Edmisten and Melissa Wiley, whom I found through their blogs. For A Little Way of Homeschooling, Karen wrote a hilarious chapter about her contradictory tendencies to plan and to unschool. Lissa tells about her family’s winning combination of Charlotte Mason and unschooling in a chapter named after their learning style, “Tidal Homeschooling.”
Two more of the ladies have written for other books: Terri Aquilina has written about marriage, family life, and mothering, while Leonie Westenberg has written on reading and boys for Cay Gibson, and with her impressive Australian brood of seven sons was featured in Homeschooling: A Patchwork of Days. Leonie also has a blog, “Living Without School,” where she writes about the liturgical year, among other things.
Several more of my contributors maintain blogs, each with its own fun or thoughtful flavor, and most of the women are contributing members of a Yahoo group devoted to Catholic unschooling. I wish I had space here to tell about each of these lovely women and their families, but better yet, I encourage readers to meet them personally through their chapters in the book.
Thanks to the internet – which is how I knew of these moms – compiling the book was fairly easy, although a longer process than I anticipated. When I saw so many sparkling Catholic unschoolers writing online, I picked out a dozen who attracted me (and there are easily dozens more out there, but I knew I had to limit the book), then I emailed the ladies out of the clear blue and asked if they would each write for me. To my delight they all said yes, and their chapters trickled in, one by one. After I received each, I would do some editing, return the revised piece, and get the contributor’s okay.
I remember vividly the first chapter I received; it was from Amy Wagner, the only woman I had known a little before approaching her (she had written to me after reading my first book). I read her chapter aloud to my husband and older son while they ate lunch, and I had to pause a few times because I was so moved by her family’s story. This experience was repeated over and over – the chapters would arrive and the women would bowl me over with their honesty and vulnerability, their courage and their humor. I had been praying to St. Therese from the outset, but she surpassed my hopes by sending me women of startling simplicity and depth.
When Hillside Education agreed to bring out A Little Way of Homeschooling, our group of Catholic moms grew to include our publisher Margot, copy-editor Rose, and interior designer Nora. It’s been a privilege to work with these talented women. Readers and shoppers can go to hillsideeducation.com to see what I mean, for there you’ll find not only our book in paperback and e-reader formats, but also many other beautiful books Margot has published with Rose and Nora’s assistance.
Q: What do you hope Catholic families will take away from their experience of reading A Little Way of Homeschooling?
I hope readers come away from the book with more confidence in themselves, in their children, and especially in God. I have been praying that all who come into contact with the book will be drawn deeper into God’s infinitely tender love. The real beauty of the book is that while Catholic unschooling may not be for everyone, St. Therese’s little way is. As Pope Benedict XVI said, “The way followed by her is within everyone’s reach because it is the way of total confidence in God who is Love and who never abandons us.”
My desire is to share Therese’s message. She appreciates that we are constantly making mistakes, falling short of our ideals, forgetting the important lessons we thought we had finally learned – she experienced all this too. But she teaches us to be gentle with ourselves because God is merciful. His patience, forgiveness, kindness, in a word His love, are there for us at every moment.
Q: What’s next for you personally and in your writing life?
I would like to spend time enjoying my children and having fun together while they are still part of our little family. Our older son is almost finished with college and soon will be out on his own. As I say in the book, sometimes our days with children seem plenty long, but before we know it they will have grown and gone. While unschooling has brought my family incredible peace, I do get distracted by all kinds of interesting things and forget to actually pay attention to my kids. I find raising children to be like reading a novel. I’m in a hurry to get to the end and see how it turns out, but there is tremendous joy in the middle, even amidst the unresolved story line. I want to fully relish the middle.
In my writing life I have several projects vying for my attention. I have a half written memoir about the many saintly people I have known; I would like to write a book called St. Therese for very Little Souls; and I would love to write a Catholic book on the emotions, encompassing the teachings of Conrad Baars and St. Thomas Aquinas. We’ll see!
For now I am rejoicing in the existence of A Little Way of Homeschooling, having a lot of fun spreading the word about this pleasant and encouraging read, and thanking God for the miracle of it.
Q: Are there any additional thoughts you’d like to share with our readers?
For all the Catholic moms who are reading this interview, please realize that you are doing spectacular things every day. Some of us are Catholic moms who write; all of us are Catholic moms who have plenty to write about if only we had time and could find a pencil with a point or a computer not already in use – even a crayon would do in a pinch. You are probably quite occupied with the needs of your children and husband, but I hope you grab the chance to write about your life, your memories, your dreams – whether for yourself alone, for your family, or for publication. I know I’m biased since my great fun is in writing – yours may be in gardening or baking or running (just to name a few things I don’t do much of) – but if you have a desire to write, I hope you will start today. Take the time to do what you love, even as you help your children do what they love. God delights in you, and He wants to see you happy.
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