7 Tips for a Tolerable Schoolroom

7 Tips for a Tolerable Schoolroom September 7, 2016

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Don’t let the map on the wall fool you. This room is Not Done. But I did affix the glorious, tattery because I’ve hung it up so many times, map of the whole wide world up so that it would feel like maybe I am getting somewhere.

I feel that I must justify, probably only to myself, why a homeschooler could have a school room, and then what goes in to the making of a good one. If you “school” at “home”–which two words often feel like they are in contradistinction to one other–shouldn’t your school life be so integrated into your home life that you have no need of such a room? Isn’t that why a person schools her children at home? Life and work integrated seamlessly? In such a case all scholastic pursuits should be indulged around the kitchen table, and all books read aloud in the comfort of the living room, children splayed out in every direction. And honestly, the people I admire the most in the world all school this way. There is a beautiful, centered fluidity between meals, playing, and study.

But we aren’t all the same, which is another reason so many people decide to instruct, or badger their children into learning, at home. I am of the rigid variety–stressed by clutter, my four Myers Briggs letters (can’t remember what they are, don’t have any idea what they mean) are the worst personality combination available. When I have all my precious offspring gathered around me working sums, while I try to chop onions or put in a load of laundry, I absolutely lose my mind. No, I need a dedicated space so that I can do certain kinds of work in certain environments, and other kinds of work in other environments. And at the end of the day, the door can be shut on all the paper and blocks and I can go to bed without having to look at or die tripping over it.

God has been very gracious in providing me with such a space. In the last house the school room was visible to anybody who happened to walk by, or into, the house. There was no way to avoid seeing the inevitable clutter produced by children actually doing what you want them to do. (A clean school room is essentially a room in which the children aren’t doing anything. Maybe they are watching tv. That would make me a bad mother.) In this house the great blessing has been a room in the attic, with a door that can be closed, and it’s very hard to get up there, and so no one needs to know what kind of successful school day we’ve had.

But what goes in to the making of a good school room, or space? I do have some opinions on this matter, and some experience, having made every mistake I think it’s possible to make.

First, you need to be able to reach the stuff. Both you and the children. If you arrange for yourself to sit in one place, but all the books you need are across the room, you might be tempted not to bother to use them. You might just sit in a chair and make stuff up out of your head. No, books need to be within arm’s reach.

Second, that includes your map. Do you have a big beautiful map? Don’t hang it across the room from yourself so that you have to stand up, dragging your nursing infant along with you. And don’t hang it so high that you have to stand up to point to Azerbaijan. Have it at seated height, so that you can point to places comfortably from your chair. It’s the children who get up to come look.

Third, make sure your own chair is suited to your own height and that when you have to sit next to, or lean in, to work with a small child, you aren’t breaking your back. If you are so hunched, or the child is so out of reach, that you have to make a groaning decision every time the child cries out “Mommy”, you might begin to find after a while that you don’t have the time or inclination to help. Therefore, take a moment to adjust your chair, or splurge on a new one, that accommodates the size of your own body. Your back, and your children when they can finally read, will thank you.

Fourth, do the hard work to satisfy your aesthetic sensibilities within the confines of practicality. I always go for aesthetics over function, which means sometimes I have sinfully neglected important subjects (see discussion of map above). On the other hand, beauty is important for the child, and for you. So it’s ok to struggle between function and beauty, and sometimes land on the side of beauty, if you aren’t being neglectful. Beautiful things to look at, something lovely to listen to. These are other reasons a person might chose to homeschool in the first place–to mediate against the bustling of children from one dismal learning location to another. (Shouldn’t there be a law that places where children learn should have to have windows?)

Fifth, make the children clean the room. Do the similarly hard work of not having anything in the room that doesn’t have a proper place. If everything has a place to live, it can be put there, both by the toddling destrocto-baby and the sullen teenager. Either one can pick up the blocks and throw away all the bits of cut paper.

Sixth, it’s ok to get rid of bad books. For real, life is too short to keep moving piles of books around that you don’t really love and neither do the children. If you’re not careful, you could be swallowed up, could meet your demise in an avalanche of children’s books and interesting but not exactly right curriculum that you feel like you should use because FRUGALITY but if you were really honest with yourself, you would admit that you’re never going to use it and that moving the pile around the perimeter of your room is never going to change your mind.

And Seventh (because six feels somehow unholy, but don’t worry, this isn’t Friday, you haven’t mistaken the day) a good school room is comfortable enough that you can let go and let the children work and play. If your room is so uncomfortable to you that you are always trying to clean it, or are set on edge when the merest pencil is out on the desk, you might need to rearrange the furniture, or paint again, or in some other way make it so you can be in the space without having your blood pressure always floating around in the higher echelons of the atmosphere. If you arrange the room, and two weeks in discover that it’s just so wrong, it’s ok to take a half day and redo it. You’ll make more progress if you can face going in there at all.

In all these–the delicate see-sawing balance between aesthetics and function, the thought for the limitations of your body and the child’s, the permission to get rid of stuff you don’t need or won’t use–the principle is to account for Frailty. We like to think that we’ll go from strength to strength in everything, but especially in the business of helping children grow up. When really, we are creatures of dust. We fall and we fail. Each victory is usually met with some small tragic unhappiness. You can’t usually have one without the other. And so it’s ok to make accommodations for yourself to carry the burden along.

And that is my advice about how to have a good homeschool space. Maybe today I’ll take some of my own advice as I finish up my room. Pip pip.

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