It wasn’t my first time reading Alcott, or even my first time writing about her work. But it was my first time reading this book from a homeschooling mama’s perspective.
And all I can say is WOW. In vibrant story form, this book absolutely nails the elements that create a thriving educational atmosphere.
Would you rather listen to this post?
If you haven’t read it, you absolutely must. (FYI: You can get all of Alcott’s work in Kindle format here for a steal of a deal!)
For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the story, let me quickly recap: At the end of Little Women, Jo March marries Professor Bhaer. Her stern Aunt Josephine passes away, leaving her luxurious, large home (AKA Plumfield) to Jo.
Jo and the Professor decide to turn the home into a school for boys. Eventually two girls end up living among the dozen boys as well, and Little Men is the account of their “home/school.”
The Bhaers’ thoughts on education and parenting don’t follow the norm. They concern themselves not only with their boys’ minds, but their hearts and souls as well.
In this post I’ve outlined eight elements Professor Bhaer and Mrs. Jo blended together in their home/school to create a place where children could live, learn, and heal.
For a modern-day snapshot, I’ve also included how my own family attempts (very imperfectly, mind you) to incorporate these same elements into our homeschool life.
8 elements that come together in a healthy homeschool
“Boys at other schools probably learned more from books, but less of that better wisdom which makes good men. Latin, Greek, and mathematics were all very well, but in Professor Bhaer’s opinion, self knowledge, self-help, and self-control were more important, and he tried to teach them carefully.”
Jo and her husband defined “success” differently for each of the boys in their care (since each had differing abilities and backgrounds), but through their priorities as educators they clearly demonstrated that character was just as important as academics.
How we (imperfectly) model this in our family: We allow for a thorough Core Phase during the first eight (or more if necessary) years of life for our children.
2. Work & Service
“Every one scattered to his or her task, for each had some little daily duty, and was expected to perform it faithfully.”
Each child at Plumfield had required jobs (done without compensation, though they were encouraged to think of ways they could use their skills to earn extra money.) They were also inspired to use their gifts to benefit and bless others.
How we (imperfectly) model this in our family: My children (now 12, 11, and 10) have taken over the majority of the cleaning in our house, and we aim to live a mission-minded lifestyle at home, in our community, and the world.
3. Love of Learning
“Demi was never tired of reading and explaining his favorite books, and many a pleasant hour did they spend in the old willow, revelling over Robinson Crusoe, Arabian Nights, Edgeworth’s Tales, and the other dear immortal stories that will delight children for centuries to come.”
The Bhaers worked hard to create an atmosphere that inspired their boys to learn and love it. They pointed out both the usefulness of learning AND the beauty of it. Through their own passions for study, reading, and writing, they modeled love of learning themselves.
How we (imperfectly) model this in our family: We have centered our homeschool around stories, believing that kids who fall in love with books and the world turn into kids who love learning and love the world!
4. Structure AND Freedom
“A word from Father Bhaer could at any time produce a lull, and the lads had learned that liberty must not be abused. So, in spite of many dark predictions, the school flourished, and manners and morals were insinuated, without the pupils exactly knowing how it was done.”
Plumfield was not a free for all–boys running wild and somehow learning in spite of the chaos. They had structured time set aside for lessons each day, lessons individually designed with each child’s phase of learning, age, and life goals in mind. This structure was balanced with plenty of freedom and time to follow their own interests.
How we (imperfectly) model this in our family: We structure time, not content during our homeschool days. This allows for order in our home (well, at least the kind of order you can have with three children under one roof!), while still allowing plenty of freedom for all of us to unfold into the unique individuals God made us to be.
“Nat found life getting easier and happier every day, and made such progress in his music lessons that his teacher forgave his slowness in some other things, knowing very well that where the heart is the mind works best.”
Mrs. Jo, as the boys called her, understood that the key to helping the children in her care learn was uncovering the individual strengths and passions within them. Kids get excited about learning what matters to them…and they usually learn more quickly that way as well!
How we (imperfectly) model this in our family: We create “compasses” every six months, so the kids can fill me in on their interests and what they can’t wait to learn more about. Then I can help them access the relevant resources to move toward their goals.
“Love is a flower that grows in any soil, works its sweet miracles undaunted by autumn frost or winter snow, blooming fair and fragrant all the year, and blessing those who give and those who receive.”
If relationships break down, learning isn’t possible. Mrs. Jo and the Professor paid attention, not just to the marks on their boys’ academic assignments, but also the marks on their hearts. They sought to provide the time, space, and unconditional love needed for their children to heal from hurts or trauma.
How we (imperfectly) model this in our family: Learning my kids’ love languages has been a huge help in improving our relationships, especially as we edge nearer the transition of adolescence. We’ve made it a goal to put relationships first in our home as much as possible.
7. Time in Nature
“At three o’clock the entire family turned out to walk, for all the active young bodies must have exercise; and in these walks the active young minds were taught to see and love the providence of God in the beautiful miracles which Nature was working before their eyes.”
I’m probably biased since I live in the New England countryside that served as the setting for Plumfield, but I loved reading how nature played a central role in the boys’ educations. They cared for pets, climbed trees, had individual garden plots to cultivate, and roamed free-range during much of their free time.
How we (imperfectly) model this in our family: I love that our current home on five acres offers many of these same benefits to my little people! But whether you’re in the city or country, enjoy what you do have access to when it comes to the natural world, and try to educate according to the seasons.
“‘We are all parts of the beautiful garden, and may have rich harvests for our Master if we love Him enough,’ said Father Bhaer.”
Mrs. Jo and her husband knew there was little point in educating children’s minds if you never address their spirits. They directly and indirectly pointed their charges back to the One who could help them through both daily struggles and important life decisions.
How we (imperfectly) model this in our family: Our faith as followers of Jesus wasn’t our family’s main motivation to homeschool, but it certainly permeates everything we do. Day in and day out we have hundreds of opportunities to seek God’s grace, wisdom, love, and forgiveness.
So when homeschool discouragement slaps you in the face, when overwhelm pushes its mile-long to-do list in your direction, come back to these core foundations:
- Work & Service,
- Love of Learning,
- Structure & Freedom,
- Time in Nature,
Are you making imperfect progress in putting these eight elements together in your homeschool? If so, you’ve got this covered!
Take a mental visit to Plumfield through Little Men, and remind yourself you have all you need right under your roof for a healthy homeschool.
Do you see these elements in your home/school? Is there one in particular that needs to be made a priority for this season?
Originally posted on September 28, 2015.
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