Homeschool My Kids? No Thanks!
While I’ve always admired folks who homeschool their kids and often wondered in amazement how they juggle working, household chores, and teaching their children: we are NOT a homeschool family. I have four very different kids ranging in ages from 5 to 11. Clare, my brainy 11 year old is a self-starter who loves to read and could lock herself in her room for hours, diving into a book series or simply thinking. Eliza, my uber creative and theatrical 9 year old needs to be prodded every 10 seconds or so in order to stay on track when it comes to academic work. Emily, my big hearted 7 year old has an individualized education plan that includes a special education reading and writing teacher as well as speech, physical and occupational therapists. And then there’s Jude, who just turned 5 and loves nothing more than digging a hole, filling it with water and hopping in naked to coat himself and everything around him in mud. So when the Governor announced that the school year was over and that parents would be homeschooling their children (with lots of support from their teachers, thankfully) I panicked. I wondered how I was going to juggle all of the things I needed to get done with all of these kids around the house all day long, not to mention having to take hours out of my day to individually teach these four extremely different kids. Then I remembered that as someone who feels a deep connection to the principles and ethics of permaculture, I’ve been training for this. The way I see it, it doesn't matter if you’re new to the concept of permaculture or you studied directly under Mollison and Holmgren; folks interested in self-sufficiency have been mentally and physically preparing to take care of our families and communities long before this pandemic. We understand how to use and value the resources around us and how to create systems wherein each element has multiple functions. We have the desire and enough know-how to make the best of this situation. In fact, it can be more than that - it can be a bonding time that is full of fun and leaves us with amazing memories.
Meeting The Kids Where They Are While Continuing My Own Chores
I was mentally planning my day during my morning cardio as I typically do. I needed to get some more seeds germinating and tend to the gardens - asparagus was coming in and I needed to clean out some beds. I was trying to make a game plan that included both my chores and delivering the kids lessons, and it dawned on me: I’ll have the kids build a children’s garden! They could all get involved (eventually they did). Clare would design the overall space and be in charge of the “budget”. Eliza would research companion planting, beneficial attractor plants, nitrogen fixers, and so on. Emily would read plant name letters to Eliza as she painted some identification signs. And Jude - he would count and plant seeds and dig in the dirt - his favorite thing in the whole world. This line of thinking, where I would create lessons out of the ordinary work that still needed to get done, opened up a whole new realm of possibilities for our homeschool adventure: I would turn normal chores into lessons. There are so many ways to incorporate lessons into everyday life but since I’m a professional chef as well as someone who has to cook for 6 people several times a day, I’ll share how I do this while preparing our family meals. We’re going on week five of homeschooling and sheltering in place and this is working out so far because of one important parameter: I’m meeting the kids where they are while pushing them beyond their comfort just a little each day.
Shelter In Place Cooking
There are so many lessons hidden within making a family meal: math, science, skill building, art, community building and much more. The whole family can get involved and learn from each meal but there is one caveat and it’s a hard one for me: you have to let go of some of the control.
The most obvious lessons within cooking with kids are the actual cooking skills they learn. My extended family and friends are often shocked to see pictures of my young children using sharp knives. I’ve gotten subtle comments about how “brave” I am (that’s one word for it!) as well as not so subtle tongue lashings about how unsafe it is to have kids use knives. It’s actually quite the opposite: I teach my kids at a very young age how to use a sharp kitchen knife and I would argue that they handle knives, and more importantly their non-knife-holding hand, better than most adults. The secrets are making sure they understand the consequences of mishandling the task and watching and correcting them firmly the first several times. Then, once they consistently handle the knives correctly, I let them know that I trust them to do the right thing. My kids respond well to high expectations: they do better and more careful work when I praise them than they do when I loom over their every move. The hard skills they learn in the kitchen will follow them throughout their lives and include baking, sauteing, steaming, braising, roasting, knife skills, blanching and shocking, and on and on and on. And most importantly, they are highly likely to taste new and different foods that they help prepare. Just last night, my oldest two daughters gave Whitney and I a date night. They cooked us pasta and served it with salad and fruit and they even made us fresh whipped cream with blueberries, mint, citrus zest, and several edible flowers!
Fractions and relative proportions
Homeschool math sounds equally dull for students and the teacher. So why not make it fun with food? We’ve all been there; we’re reading a recipe and want to cut it in half, or double it, or make one-and-a-half times the amount and everything is going fine until you stumble on dividing fractions. Half of ½ cup is easy, but what is half of ⅓? Well it’s ⅙ of course (to divide fractions you just need to multiply by the reciprocal), but what is that in terms of cups and measuring spoons? It’s really easy if you know the relative proportions of teaspoons to tablespoons and tablespoons to cups. So here is a fun lesson that is messy and memorable:
Then have kids determine the following using the measuring tools:
You get the idea. While I don’t typically adhere to recipes and teach my kids to cook by technique and instinct, there are some great thinking moments in adjusting recipes. This can be made more complicated or simple to make it age/ability appropriate.
Ok, a quick one: I bake by baker's percentages, meaning everything is measured in relation to the flour weight being 100%. No matter how much flour I use, that number is considered 100% and everything else is measured against that 100%. So, if I have 550 grams of flour and want to make bread that is 70% hydration I just multiply 550 by .7 and know that I need 385 grams of water for this loaf. How about 80% hydration (440)? I like to use 3% salt in my bread, so for 550 grams of flour, I simply multiply 550 by .03 and I determine that I need 16.3 grams of salt. Now if I want to make 8 loaves so I can give some to my neighbors, I can have the kids come up with a quick and easy recipe using baker's percentages. This is easily done with a calculator and makes math applicable in the real world and therefore tangible for my kids. It removes the abstract nature of math and answers the question “Are we ever going to use this math in the real world?”
There are countless math lessons hidden within the mundane task of preparing meals. Have the young kids count 6 asparagus spears for each family member. Have the older kids learn about budgeting. Stacking functions is the name of the game - we’re making the necessary food, we’re playing and spending time together, and we’re thinking about math in a tangible way.
Art and Creativity
I bake a lot of sourdough bread. Boules, focaccia, pizza, rolls, croissants, you name it. In order to get my kids interested in eating new vegetables I started making decorative focaccia. It’s amazing to see what the kids can come up with. They get incredibly creative with peppers, kale, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and so on - like in an underwater coral reef scene that all of my daughters put together and then ate! My son especially loves eating edible weeds and flowers - every time he walks under the blooming redbud tree he eats a few flowers. For his 5th birthday he requested candied violets on his birthday cake, so along with a massive amount of Paw Patrol sprinkles he put a bunch of candied flowers on his own cake! If I’m feeling like I need a little head space I encourage them to come up with creative ideas to utilize the weeds in the yard. Just the other day I was pleasantly surprised to see my daughter Clare making an onion and greens soup using mostly ingredients from the yard. She and Jude had that soup for lunch which made my life that much easier and she was so proud of herself!
If you really want kids to pay attention during homeschool, try out an experiment using chocolate chip cookies! I spent a good part of my career teaching baking and pastry and one of my favorite classes was one where I illustrated universal baking truths using cookies. I had the students make the standard chocolate chip cookie recipe by Ruth Graves Wakefield as the baseline. Then each station was in charge of changing just one ingredient to see what difference it made in the final cookie. Then they were given the opportunity to make their ideal cookie - whether that was crispy, cakey, chewy, brown, or pale - using the baking truths they learned during the experiments. Follow this link for the whole experiment or just take a look these quick tips on how to get started:
How to Alter Cookie Recipe (And other baked goods)
Want more spread?
Use all butter
Increase amount of butter
Add an extra 1 or 2 tablespoons of liquid (water, milk, or cream. Not egg)
Lower acidity of dough by adding an extra pinch of soda
Use all-purpose flour
Add 1 or 2 tablespoons sugar
Bake room temperature dough
Want Less Spread?
Use shortening instead of butter
Decrease amount of fat
Replace some liquid with egg
Use cake flour (it’s acidic and therefore sets quicker and limits spread)
Increase amount of flour
Remove 1 or 2 tablespoons sugar
Chill dough before baking
Want more tender cookies?
Use cake flour
Add 2 or 3 tablespoons sugar (higher brown to white ratio)
Add 2 or 3 tablespoons fat
Want less tender cookies?
Use bread flour
Stir a tablespoon or more of water into the flour before adding the fat and other ingredients
Remove a few tablespoons sugar (use a higher white to brown ratio)
Remove a few tablespoons fat
Want More Color?
Use an egg instead of other liquids
Use AP flour or Bread flour
Substitute 1 or 2 tablespoon of liquid sugar for the granulated sugar
Add a bit of baking soda
Want less Color?
Use water for the liquid
Use cake flour
Add a touch of vinegar or lemon juice
Want to get rid of cracks?
Grind sugar in a food processor - the finer the sugar, the less cracking
Don’t bake as long
Cookies dry out as they age?
Use a higher ratio of brown to white sugar (brown sugar attract moisture keeping cookies soft)
Add a bit of molasses or honey
This experiment not only holds the attention of kids at every age; it can be used to teach the scientific method and illustrate the importance of changing one variable at a time to confidently determine its effect. Not to mention you get a whole bunch of cookies to eat, share, and freeze for the following week when your ice cream is gone and you want to avoid exposing yourself to the germs at the grocery store.
I find community building and citizenship as important as academics and even more so for the younger kids. Building and maintaining a strong community is essential during the best of times and the importance is amplified through this pandemic. Some of the things we’ve been doing include starting a pen pal relationship with our octogenarian neighbor who recently lost her husband and lives alone. This helps in several ways. My daughter Eliza needs to practice her writing, but more importantly I want her to think about how lonely it might be to “shelter in place” when you are all alone. Of course I like to think that receiving the letters brightens our neighbor’s day and perhaps makes her feel less isolated. So how does this fit into the cooking theme? Easy - when I go to the store we ask our neighbors what groceries or other supplies they need and when my neighbors go to the store they do the same for us. When my kids were planning their children’s garden I had them plant extra seeds. So we’ve been able to give away and trade supplies. For example, my brother brings us his fresh eggs and we give him plant starts and root cuttings. We shipped sourdough starter to a friend who can’t find yeast and he taught me how to fix my bike pump so I can continue to ride around the neighborhood with my kids. With skill share, communication, and people care, we’re showing our kids the importance of building and maintaining our community.
Expanding The Idea
As much as we can, we’re stacking functions, valuing what we already have on hand, sharing the surplus, and making the best of our situation. This is what we’re trying to do in all aspects of our everyday lives while we’re keeping the family out of the danger of crowds. We are nowhere near perfect at this and I need to remind myself that that’s okay. They have fits, full blown meltdowns, and sometimes they struggle to understand why everything is different right now. All I can do is try my best to comfort them and create positive memories so that when they look back on this pandemic, they think of the fun we had. We’re bonding through some difficulties and making the best of our time. Teaching kids can certainly be a handful but there are so many ways to include them, and their lessons, in our everyday lives. Cooking, cleaning, gardening, entertainment, you name it. This is homeschool as opposed to just “school at home.”