Monday, February 6, 2012

A Balm For Our Home (A Winter Homeschooling Story)

(Winter Wonderland photo by Ryan Myer)

February 1996 found the inside of our home as blustery as the snowy wind outside.

My 8-year-old daughter's cystic fibrosis had taken a turn for the worse and our time was consumed with administering treatments and medications and hashing out insurance problems on the phone. My 5-year-old responded to the chaos with daily temper tantrums, and my 3-year-old constantly cried and begged to be held. In the midst of this storm I was trying to homeschool.

We can't get behind, I exhorted myself. Our math program called for daily drills, our spelling workbook demanded a page a day, our terrific science curriculum required frequent nature walks with detailed journal entries and research, the planaria we were raising had to have their water changed daily, and our engaging history unit studies were full of elaborate projects. We had to keep learning, keep doing. Not only because it was good and right, but because we lived in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania law requires homeschoolers to submit objectives at the beginning of each school year and to submit a portfolio demonstrating progress in each of the core subjects, as well as a letter from an independent evaluator, at the end of the year. Third graders are also required to submit standardized test results - and my third grader had lost her place on the Iowa Tests answer sheet, marking most of the wrong circles. Since the school district can put an end to a family's homeschooling if there is insufficient evidence that a child is receiving "an appropriate education," I had to keep pushing to keep up with the requirements. But we were all miserable.

As I continued to call out to God for help, I began to realize there was a middle ground between going crazy and giving up. We could slow things down for a season, believing that it would not last forever.  I decided that we would focus, for now, on those things I felt were most important at this moment in time in our family: the Bible and spiritual growth, the development of the children's musical gifts, art appreciation and self-expression, and exposure to exciting and meaningful books. Bible, Music, Art, Literature. I shuffled the initials of these words around in my head like letters on a Scrabble tray until I hit upon the perfect acronym: BALM. The dictionary, I discovered, defines balm as "anything healing or soothing, especially to the mind or temper." Just what we needed! I was impressed with God's grace and creativity in revealing this beautiful pattern for us.

The days of BALM began. At bedtime I read all three children passages from Psalms, the gospels, and "the love chapter" (1 Corinthians 13), and they amazed me with their questions and insights. During the day, we played with clay, painted, made papier mache, practiced drawing people, and decorated our kitchen and family room with posters of famous art. We read Aesop's Fables, Linnea in Monet's Garden, Racketty-Packetty House, The Chronicles of Narnia, picture books, and poetry - snuggled together in my bed each morning. We sang whenever we could, listened to classical and contemporary CD's, and my daughter played her flute for pleasure. Academics could wait.

BALM changed everything. One night I wrote in my journal: We saw a woman on TV who played the harp for sick people to help them heal. My little boy burst out passionately, "Buy me a harp so I can play for my sister and then she won't need stupid treatments and medicine!" And earlier today, my littlest one happily imagined a squirrel and a chipmunk in the kitchen for about an hour. He made up tale after tale about what they were doing and the adventures they had had before. He told me these stories amid giggles and spoonfuls of yogurt, while I washed dishes and put them away. The children are happy. Content. Full of smiles. Thank you, God, for a joyful day. They had been fighting so much a few weeks ago, that I never expected to have days like this again! I am so grateful.

My daughter has now graduated from Eastern University with a degree in English/Writing. My older son is a junior at Messiah College, majoring in Psychology. The youngest is a freshman at Harrisburg Area Community College, with a passion for piano.

God desires for us to stop worrying and watch his love do its work in our lives and our families. That year, 1996, there was a Bible verse propped on the kitchen window sill: "In quietness and trust is your strength" (Isaiah 30:15). If I am noisy and restless, I will not hear the voice of love and peace. If I am not trusting, I will not allow God's hand to move. But if I am quiet, I will hear. If I trust, I will receive guidance and strength. Quietness and trust are not weakness, contrary to what our culture, our minds, and our emotions might say. Quietness and trust are strength. I have experienced that in part and want to know it more fully.  

Recommended Resources - for a season of balm whether homeschooling or not:


We used Volume 2, an uplifting, entertaining, and educational collection of Scripture songs perfect for inspiring family peace and harmony. Includes "Encourage One Another," "Do Not Worry," and "A Joyful Heart." This is also a great resource for keeping little ones fruitfully occupied while you are  working with older children.

My Mommy And Me Story Bible
I used this creative, interactive story Bible with my 3-year-old. It gave him his own special time to look forward to snuggling on Mommy's lap while learning about God through very short paraphrases combined with simple actions to reinforce each concept. For example, the brief story of Noah ends with the sentence, "Let's pretend to paint a rainbow in the sky." Fun! 

Linnea in Monet's Garden
A gentle story of friendship and art. It focuses on Monet's life and work (complete with photographs, illustrations, and reproductions), but also encourages an understanding and appreciation of art in general. It is a good exposure to geography and European culture as Linnea, a Swedish girl, travels with her grandfatherly friend to Paris and Giverny. We also enjoyed the video version.

Simple enough for the youngest (matching tiles to identical pictures on his lotto board), detailed enough for adults (full-color reproductions of art, with artist's name and dates, title of piece, and collection name), this is a relaxing game for the whole family, as well as an introduction to a wide variety of styles and periods. Cassatt, Renoir, Picasso, Degas, Miro, and Audubon are some of the artists represented.

Discovering Great Artists: Hands-On Art for Children in the Styles of the Great Masters (Bright Ideas for Learning)
Over 100 diverse art projects for ages 4-12. Each project is based on a technique or theme used by a famous artist, simplified for children, and includes several paragraphs about the artist and his/her work. A glossary of "Great Art Words" and several different indexes help you locate projects by artist, materials, styles, techniques, or even artists' birthdays. We used this for many years.


We used this joyful little book of poetry to welcome spring each year. The poems are arranged to fit the chronology of spring, from March to May, beginning with the arrival of the first robin, and ending with Daddy getting out his hoe to plant tomatoes. We loved the watercolor illustrations by Mary Morgan. Poets include Charlotte Zolotow, e.e. cummings, Langston Hughes, and Marchette Chute.

Further Up and Further In: A Literature Based Unit Study Utilizing C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia
We did not use this during our year of BALM, because it had not yet been published, but if it had been available, we would have used parts of it then and later explored more of its abundant ideas and assignments. It is marketed for grades 4-8, but there is plenty for younger children as well: a reproducible drawing to color for each of the seven books in the series, Bible readings and discussions, locating places on maps, simple art ideas and games based on the stories, and recipes. We enjoyed using this book as a major component of our curriculum for our  youngest when he was in 7th grade.

The Racketty-Packetty House: 100th Anniversary Edition by Frances Hodgson Burnett 

Pure delight!

Simple, colorful Usborne edition of the classic fables.

CD includes Prokofiev's classic orchestral story, as well as Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra and Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals. My children learned to listen for the sounds of the different instruments, had fun pretending to be different animals in the Carnival, and spent hours reenacting the story of Peter and the Wolf.

Peter and the Wolf 
 DVD starring Kirstie Alley and Lloyd Bridges adds both a visual element to the music and a new story that acts as a backdrop for the original story. Parts of it are quite dramatic - my then 5-year-old encouraged his sister at one point: "Don't be scared; the wolf isn't in this part" (but I'm pretty sure he was the one he was trying to console!)

G'morning Johann

Peaceful, happy piano performances of Bach's compositions provide soothing background music for meals and chores while developing children's taste for classical music.

For free draw and write printable worksheets/writing prompts for Thanksgiving, click here. (Created by me. :)) 


  1. Such a beautiful sharing of part of the journey together of a remarkable family, this is. Revealed herein is the beauty found in the creative resourcefulness of a special woman whose gifts as a mother are a special blessing unto her chidren, who in turn are a miraculous blessing unto her. I am touched and inspired! Thanks you! < 3

  2. Melanie, my friend.... what a beautiful and touching testament of a mother's love and creativity amidst chaos!!!! Through your resourcefulness you have managed to bring contentment where contempt had taken its place.....that is something only a devoted mother could manage!!! I wholeheartedly agree with Lance in attesting to the fact that I too am touched and inspired by the beauty of your soul in spite of dire circumstances when most would have given up!!! Thanks for sharing a bit of your life with us!!!

  3. Thank you so much, Lance and Mia! I feel joy and gratitude for what you wrote. <3