If you're a regular reader of our magazine, you'll know that we've introduced the Family Portrait as a recurring feature, in order to share with you inspiring families leading playful and pretty normal, yet totally awesome lives around the world. In our latest issue we didn't find one in time for deadline, but when we stumbled upon Michelle Garrels Instagram feed by chance, we knew she was the perfect match for the Imagine Education issue. So we decided to ask if Michelle would agree to a blogpost version of the Family Portrait and luck for us all she was happy to say yes. Michelle homeschools her children and we're very interested in learning more about this growing tendency that homeschooling seems to be on right now, so we curiously asked Michelle to share with us a bit about the everyday life of a homeschooling family and the thoughts and considerations that go with the decision of schooling your kids at home.
Michelle Garrels. 39. Wife, mother, handcrafter and home educator. Lives in Portland, Oregon, USA. Michelle was born in the Amazon jungle, in Peru, the daughter of American parents—a bush pilot and a school librarian. Her childhood was absolutely idyllic: "We walked barefoot to school and church, climbed mango trees, swam in our community lake with pink dolphins, manatee, alligators, stingrays, & piranas, rode motorcycles at sunset, and could even take pet monkeys & snakes to school" says Michelle. They moved up to the U.S. when she was ten, and it was total culture shock, to be sure. She attended middle and high school in rural North Carolina, and university in the cornfields of Indiana.
LIFE & LOVE
After college (where she'd studied Environmental Biology, English Literature/Writing, and International Studies for a make-shift Sustainable Development degree) she went back to Peru to work with an NGO called Food for the Hungry: "I signed up for a three-year term, and it was all I thought I ever wanted in life—a grand adventure, serving the poor. I loved it, difficult though it was. I worked variously in indigenous villages along the Amazon River (with the Shipibo people, skilled in embroidery), in shantytowns, and with street kids, in education and agriculture" Michelle recalls.
How did you guys meet?
"Two years into my term I returned to the U.S. for a few weeks to attend my brother’s wedding, and I met Josh—the coffee caterer and wedding singer. It was love at first sight for both of us, different as we were in many ways. He was an Indiana skater hip hop/folk singer, but the best tree climber I’d ever known, and I was smitten at once. Within a few months he was down in Peru volunteering in a coffeehouse so we could be near each other. I finished my term, moved up to Indiana, then we went through a horrible break-up. I moved across the country and eventually got engaged to someone else. It was a pretty drama-filled season of life. But we got together again in a rather miraculous way, after two years apart, and married a month and a half later. Now we’re celebrating our tenth wedding anniversary this month. Choosing Josh and a family (our fourth child is due this March) has turned out to be, truly, everything I never knew I wanted. It is a beautiful life."
Tell us a bit about where you live?
"We moved out to Portland, Oregon from North Carolina six years ago so that I could pursue my MFA in Fiber Arts + Social Entrepreneurship at Oregon College of Art and Craft. All the classes I’d registered for ended up being cancelled, and meanwhile I’d discovered I was pregnant with our second child, so I never ended up going back to school. But that is what brought us out here, and we have grown our family here. I don’t know if I’d be at home with the kids, and homeschooling them, if I would’ve pursued my MFA, but I have no regrets. This life I live at home with them is so blessed."
FAMILY LIFE & PARENTHOOD
How do you balance work, creativity and family life?
"Working from home, my husband and I have had to set firm work + family parameters. Josh is a musician and engineer/producer, and he works from his studio in our backyard. It is important for him to have regular work hours (when he’s home/not on tour) so that he can be prolific, and the kids and I can have a consistent school rhythm. We try not to interrupt his work during the day. He walks across the yard to work at 8:30, joins us for a quick half-hour lunch, then joins us again at 5. Having firm work hours also means clearly delineated play + rest + family time, which we are so thankful for. We enjoy a family 24-hour “Sabbath” every Friday night through Saturday night, beginning with a feast (often with friends & extended family). We turn off our phones and screens of any kind for that day, don’t talk about work or any major decisions, and simply enjoy family time together. The creativity part? That is simply an indelible part of who we are as a family, and it is a natural portion of our work + play, every day."
What's your favorite family activity?
"Taking family hikes. Though the kids and I take daily walks through our neighborhood, we try to get out of the city for our family day on Saturday, & explore the countryside. Lately we’ve also really enjoyed listening to audiobooks together in the evenings by the fire with tea, drawing or crafting or playing while we listen."
Tell us about your children. Could you describe their spirits to us?
"Heron Selah, our eldest, age 7, is full of life & passion. She is an artist, truly, and creativity flows from her in everything she does. She draws for hours every day, sings, dances, and she’s a gifted tree-climber like her papa."
"Shepherd Zuri, age 5 1/2, is courageous and kind. When Josh is away, he calls himself “the man of the house” and makes sure he takes good care of all of us. He is servant-hearted, always asking how he can help, giving the best portion of a sweet treat to someone else. He is also a gifted Lego-builder."
"Peregrin Jude, “Per,” just turned three, and it is hitting him HARD; he feels things deeply. He is learning that he can’t always get his way, and that life isn’t always fair. This is devastating to his little world right now. But in the happy times he is vivacious, snuggly, funny, imaginative, and wise beyond his years."
EDUCATION / IMAGINATION
Tell us about your personal approach to homeschooling?
"My approach is rather eclectic, and I am grateful to live in a state that gives so much freedom to parents to choose the right curriculum for their children. In general I am a bit of a “better late than early” homeschooler, and I’ve delayed formal academics for the most part until late-kindergarten/first grade. That said, my three-year-old may be reading within the year because he loves to sit in on all of his older brother & sister’s classes! While I may delay the formal studies at the beginning, I am still very intentional about other ways we’re all learning informally—the books we’re reading, the life experiences we’re having, the family time we share, the character formation happening right now. "
When did you first start homeschooling?
"I began homeschooling my oldest, informally, when she was in preschool, but didn’t begin teaching her in earnest, intentionally, with a curriculum plan, until she was in kindergarten (last year)."
What made you decide on this solution?
"Our neighborhood public school is not one I wanted to send my children to, so I had begun looking into private schools. In the summer, on the eve of an interview for Heron at a local private school, I just knew it wasn’t right. I’d been feeling for the entire year before that I was being stirred to homeschool, but honestly I was just being stubborn, selfish & scared. I knew I had to cancel the interview, and as soon as I did, I was flooded with such unexpected relief and joy that I pulled a homeschool classroom together that very day. Now I can’t imagine anything else—for my kids or myself."
What's your favorite thing about himeschooling?
"Though it is challenging to spend so much time together, it is such a gift to simply BE with my children so much while they are small. There is such an easy rhythm to our days—no hurry, no pressure, even if we have a long list of school & home to-do’s."
How do you deal with the heavy responsibility of ensuring that your kids learn what is to be expected?
"I honestly have to tune it out most of the time, or I will miss what my kids, individual as they are, actually need to be learning right now. I am okay if my daughter is a little “behind” her public school peers in Math because we are taking the time to learn it in the way that she will learn it best. Meanwhile, she may be experiencing an explosion in reading or art, and I will celebrate that with her, and work slowly & patiently with her in the subjects that presently aren’t coming as naturally to her."
Do you use a network of homeschoolers?
"We do have many friends who are homeschooling, and occasionally we join up with these families for nature outings and play, but there is no formal local network that we are a part of. However, there is a large international community of homeschoolers connected through social media, blogs, conferences, etc., particularly a group called Wild + Free that we’ve been involved with, and that has been a huge source of encouragement, fellowship, and inspiration for our family as we navigate this course."
Describe a typical day /week in your family.
"Days begin peacefully, with quiet music and candles. By 7:30 we are gathered around the breakfast table, eating, chattering, and then praying and singing together. Usually school starts by 8:30 and we are finished with most of our school work by lunch, but lately we have been starting our days with neighborhood walks to get out before the rain begins. On these days that we get a later start on school, we do a few subjects before lunch, then it’s quiet time for everyone (a nap for pregnant mama, and individual reading/looking-at-books time for the kids), wrapping up our studies by mid-afternoon."
"We fit most of our core academics into four days — Monday through Thursday. We complete daily work in history, math, copywork, reading, memory work, and hymn study those days, and we rotate our weekly work over afternoon tea (on Mondays, poetry/literature; on Tuesdays, artist study/composers; on Wednesdays, geography; and on Thursdays, natural history/science). I am also teaching my daughter various handcrafts each week (machine sewing, crocheting, embroidery, needle-felting, etc.) Fridays are for catching up on whatever we didn’t finish that week, letter-writing (to pen pals), writing in journals, drawing in our nature notebooks (recording what we discovered on a recent nature walk), and preparing for that night’s special meal together (cleaning house, cooking/baking, decorating). Saturday is our family day, and Sunday is our day for church, house projects, and preparing for the week ahead (tidying the house, lesson-planning). Josh and I each give each other three kid-free hours on Sunday, too."
To you, which are the most important qualities and skills your kids will leave their home/school with?
"I hope my children will leave our home with confidence and independence, with hearts set on using their gifts for serving others. To me, though I want them to leave home with a classical education, introduced to the best of the world’s literature, music, and art, with a solid foundation in science, math, and history, the academics are secondary to character formation for me. My primary goals as a teacher and mother are to help each child discover who they were created to be, and to prepare them to be carriers of joy, hope and restoration to the world around them."
if you'd like to follow Michelle and Josh and their family here are the links to their blog, website and instagram profiles:
IG: @ellegarrels / @joshgarrels