Teaching Tortoise and Hare


There are so many moments, like the one I’m having right now, where I sit at my desk in our cozy little classroom and I can’t believe my life. If you had told a twenty-two year-old me that I would be a stay-at-home mom who was homeschooling three kids in the middle of the country, I would have laughed. Sure, we have dreams that we’re working towards, but this really is some kind of Utopia I’m living in.

Homeschooling has proven to be an incredible challenge. There are days where I, and my pupils, have all cried in frustration. There are days where I can’t believe the immensity of the job. There are nights when I lay awake wondering if I’m doing right by our kids. Ultimately, I know that there are no other circumstances where they would receive such a quality, hands-on education, but it’s an enormous responsibility, and sometimes I shudder at the weight of it.

My daughters are opposites. This isn’t news to me, but applying this knowledge to our classroom has really proven to be my greatest challenge. Siblings, especially those close in age, are so naturally competitive.  I’ve found the girls continually trying to outdo each other, even though they are quite aware that they are in different grades. Their learning styles are so very different too, which is equal parts amazing and frustrating. Hannah, our ten-year-old is deliberate and careful and meticulous. She’s a gifted artist, and she spends vast quantities of time on a different plane, we think. This makes her very dreamy, romantic, and empathic. She’s a born nurturer and humanitarian, and her imagination is vivid and epic. As her teacher, my greatest challenge is drawing her back to the here-and-now, and keep her on point and focused. I also struggle to keep her working efficiently and completing her tasks in a timely manner. Ayla, our seven-year-old is whip-smart. She often grasps the concepts (particularly in maths) that I’m trying to teach her older sister long before Hannah does. She is wickedly funny, spirited, out-going and sassy. She’s the kid with the answer for EVERYTHING. My challenge with her is to keep her from getting bored, because that’s when she starts to get disruptive and naughty. She races through her work, often sacrificing neatness and care, and so I must always work to slow her down. If she doesn’t immediately grasp something, she gets lazy and frustrated and wants to skip on to the next thing to race through. You can imagine trying to balance both of these kids at one time is a bit mind-numbing. I don’t rightly know how teachers handle classes with multiple kids!

I forget sometimes the freedom that homeschooling, and my unique lifestyle offers. When I lean on these realities, great things can happen. Here’s how I’ve decided to approach my girls individual needs, and keep our classroom a happy, inspiring place.

I’ve turned our schedule on it’s ear. I’ve decided to work with one girl at a time, switching off between Monday and Thursday. The girl who isn’t in class spends the day “at work” with my man, who runs our family business from our home. The kid in the classroom gets a full day of one-on-one attention. This almost totally eliminates any issues of focus or behaviour. The kid “at work” learns all kinds of valuable skills, gets to contribute to our family business, and gets lots of one-on-one time with Daddy. We still do morning recess, lunch, lunch recess and afternoon snack together, and each working day ends at 3:00. Then the girls will do a household chore and relax into some screen-free playtime, as we try to only do screens on weekends.

This week was our first foray into the new schedule. I think I should mix it up, so they do get some time together, and so we can have some more opportunities for play, which I feel we may be lacking. Our new twist seems to be going very well. Once again, creativity and risk-taking prevails!

How do you handle difficult sibling dynamics?

A Plastic Hunk of Anguish

Two little girls in front of a piano

Last night the girls had their first-ever piano recital. We enrolled them in lessons back in February, and every Thursday a lovely Hungarian woman comes to our house and works with each of the girls for half an hour. Both girls seem to really enjoy their lessons, but Hannah has been much more eager to practice, learn pieces, and even create her own compositions. Ayla has definitely phoned it in when it comes to rehearsing on more than one occasion, but she enjoys playing and loves that she’s learning the piano.

We selected pretty dresses, the girls practiced their pieces relentlessly, and the grandmother posse descended upon us. Thank god for those grandmas – I got so much packing done yesterday with my mom, and Daddy whipped up a Mexican feast for Hannah’s teacher and her daughter with his mum – they joined us for a whirlwind dinner. Yes, that’s right, hosting a dinner for Hannah’s teacher while packing up a household of six people, just before racing to a piano recital. We. Are. Nuts.

The girls both played and sang their songs beautifully. Ayla’s piece was ‘You Are the Sunshine of My Life’ by Stevie Wonder. The piece was ballad tempo, I’m not sure whether this was on purpose, but it made for a stripped down simple and sweet version. My only note to her was to make sure she sang out, and she did. Her voice was clear and pure and beautiful. She was nervous, which is a rare thing indeed for our fiery girl, but I don’t think anyone could tell. Hannah did ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ by Waller (as in Fats), Brook and Razaf. I wanted to hear her voice a bit more clearly, but I think she was fighting against the lapel lav microphone that they used. Next time a wireless mic on a stand is the way to go. If there is a next time…

I was super proud of the girls, and very proud of so many of their classmates and school friends who are also students of this particular music school. There’s a boy in Hannu’s class who is famous for being both a serious hockey player and the best knitter in their classroom (another reason to love Waldorf!). He’s put her through her paces this year, bless his little heart, with some teasing. It’s by no means a bully situation, just kids being kids. We’ve encouraged her resilience, but I’ve also been pointing out that when people tease, they are usually making a protective wall around their very soft hearts – hearts that might be extra-soft. She was deeply moved to hear this boy practice his recital piece during the day at school, and I think shocked to realize he had chosen it himself. His piece was ‘Hey Jude’ by the Beatles. She kept marveling about him choosing such a sweet song, so I think it helped her see him in a deeper light. This boy played beautifully, and Noah was particularly delighted by this piece because it’s the song I sing him to sleep with. Not sure why, it just popped into my head in those early postpartum days.

My favorite performance of the night (besides my own kids’, of course) was by a boy in grade four at our school named Owen. Many of the children are fantastic at playing their pieces precisely as written, but Owen transcended this and really took the music and made it his. He injected his performance with real emotion and incredible musicality, and I just don’t think you can teach that. I wonder how long he’s been playing?

Yesterday when I wrote about why I love Waldorf education, I forgot to mention another important reason – the kids aren’t graded, there is no standardized testing and here are no report cards. The teachers give in-depth and deeply insightful feedback at two parent interviews each year, and the information distilled in those meetings trumps any report card I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, we were thrown a bit of a curve ball last night at the recital.

Not only did both girls receive a report card, and a certificate for completing their first level, Hannah won this huge muthah trophy for great achievement. Awesome, right? NOT AWESOME. Any of you who have siblings, particularly of the same gender, know that rivalry is a beast that must constantly be wrestled. H & A are no exception. Two human beings could never be more opposite than our girls, but they are constantly trying to outdo each other. It was challenging enough managing piano lessons through the year. Hannah really took to piano like it was in her soul, Ayla is “exemplary for her age and experience” (as per her report card) but piano is obviously not as second-nature for her. Any number of reasons could explain this, not the least of which is their two-and-a-half year age difference, but seven-year-olds aren’t really able to rationalize the way we are, right?

I watched Ayla watch Hannah win that trophy, and I know all three of us parents had the same reaction. It was not joy for our eldest daughter, who is such a talented, wonderful girl who deserves recognition. We all felt fear and sadness for our little one, who put on the bravest game face I’d ever seen when she realized all of the trophies had been doled out and her name wasn’t on any of them. I snuck up behind her and put my hand on her shoulder. She sidled over to Nana and her first whispered words were “I’m proud of my sister” which I know must have been hard to utter over the lump in her throat.

One garish, golden, plastic trophy shattered hundreds of hours of practice and one very beautifully delivered performance for that little girl.

Even Hannah couldn’t enjoy her victory. Once in the safety of the car, the floodgates opened. Ayla was heartbroken, and Hannah just felt bad. Hannah has felt badly all year about how her abilities affect those around her. Peer rivalry and jealousy have been a big deal for her this year. Her sister’s dismay affected her deeply. How do you celebrate your amazing-ness when it upsets everyone in your peer group? How do you teach your children that it’s okay to be awesome, even if it makes them a pariah? Hannah isn’t one to boast or gloat. In fact, I haven’t even met adults as thoughtful and caring as she is. How can she be confident in her abilities? Will she hide them under a bushel in exchange for greater peer acceptance like I did?

How do you convince a seven-year-old that there will be trophies some day, and even if there aren’t, learning to make beautiful music and sing and delight a crowd of people and fill your heart with song is the best kind of trophy? I was in the parenting mystery zone last night. The land of “what the hell do we do with this?”

I remember the seemingly endless shelves of trophies my little brother won for his athletic activities, and how that used to frustrate me, because I was not athletic. Not only did he have way more accolades, but our Nana (my third parent) would reward him with money each time he won something. Through this I learned that my interests weren’t as valued by her, and it made me resent the hell out of my brother.

We let Ayla know it was okay to feel bad about not getting a trophy, but we encouraged her to remember how great she felt about her performance. We talked about how age, time, and experience would help her develop her skills, and maybe she could get a piano trophy, or maybe there would be something else she was passionate about that she could win a trophy for.

My children are brilliant, and driven to their best by something that lives inside of them. We don’t exert that kind of parental pressure that makes kids snap under the weight of it all. We celebrate their passions and interests and encourage them to try new things. It is with their own steam that they turn out amazing-ness over and over again, like the freaky kids you see in Wes Andersen films. They can’t help it, they are just awesome and all we can do is stand back and let that be.

I hope that damned trophy didn’t set into motion a future of only being as awesome as you need to be to get a hunk of gold-painted plastic. I hope that this doesn’t extinguish passion for passion’s sake. I hope Hannah doesn’t feel like she needs to win a trophy for everything she does. I think it’s wonderful to recognize achievement, and that’s how the world works, but it also feels a little dangerous to set children apart from others like that. I’m not sure it’s motivating in the right ways.

How do you deal with sibling rivalry? How do you feel about trophies and awards? How do you keep your child’s passion alive even when it isn’t recognized or acknowledged with a huge reward when other children are given prizes?

Parents and former children, please discuss!