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A Day at Our House: Classical Education with Four Children, Ages 12, 10, 7, and 3

Picture of Susan Wise Bauer
Susan Wise Bauer

5 AM I get up and go downstairs for coffee. Okay, I know this is revoltingly early, but I’ve discovered that getting up early and finishing up my own jobs allows me to lie on the sofa like a slug in the evenings after the children go to bed. This fall, I’m teaching two classes at William & Mary, so I have plenty of grading to do. This morning, I blow the grading off and work on my newest writing project instead: W. W. Norton has asked me to write a history of the world for grown-ups. The Assyrian Kings List is remarkably hard to convert into stirring narrative.

7 AM Emily wails. I go into her room; she’s sitting up in bed clutching her blanket. “I had a nightmare!” she screams when she sees me. “What was it?” I ask. “There was a dark dark CAVE!” Emily yells. “I was in a dark dark CAVE!” “It was just pretend,” I say; this is my usual response, but she’s not buying it today. “It was DARK!” she says, accusingly. So I turn on her lamp. “Were you all alone in the cave?” I ask. “No,” she says, in a voice of doom. “ALL OF THE BROTHERS were there!” Hmm. I’m not sure whether that’s part of the nightmare or not. I lay her down, change her diaper, and give her a bottle (I know, three is too old for a bottle, but she’ll drink it and go straight back to sleep).

7:30 AM Shower, dress, dry hair, put on shoes. This isn’t one of my William & Mary days, so we have a lot of school to get through. My husband Peter will take over at 3 PM to do math, geography, and handwriting; he’ll send Daniel (7) over to see my mother for a reading lesson and he’ll supervise some of the tasks that Christopher (12) and Ben (10)) can do on their own (typing, Latin vocabulary cards, spelling worksheets).

8 PM I go get everyone up. Christopher is already up reading; he’s an early riser and has already been out to do some of his chores. Ben is sound asleep; he’s a late riser, and when I try to wake him up he curls into a ball and puts his head under his knees. I get Emily and put her in his bed. Daniel comes out of his room and stands in the middle of the floor. “Time to get dressed,” I say. “I don’t have any clothes,” he says. I walk him back to his room, take out his clothes and put them in a stack on the floor. He looks at them. “Oh,” he says. “Those clothes.”

8:10 Christopher is waiting by the door to go out. All three boys generally take the dogs for a long walk before breakfast; we live on a farm, but since it’s hunting season, we keep the dogs in their pen for most of the day. Ben is dressing. Emily is in the middle of Ben’s bed making a stuffed animal pyramid. Daniel comes out of his room with no clothes on and a Lego robot in one hand. “Mom,” he says, “do you know why this guy is special?” “Get DRESSED,” I say.

8:15 Ben and Christopher are standing by the door. Daniel hops out of his room on one foot, wearing two socks and nothing else. “Mom!” he says. “If people only had one leg, they would keep falling over!” “PANTS,” I say.

8:20 Daniel is wearing socks and pants and nothing else. I tell Christopher and Ben to go out and start feeding the dogs while I dress Daniel.

8:30 I put Emily in her high chair with raisins and start on breakfast. By the time the boys come back in, eggs and toast are ready. Daniel goes and gets his two favorite Lego robots to keep him company. Ben and Christopher ask if they can read at the table. “Yes,” I say, pleased to see this love for words. They produce Bloom County and The Ultimate Guide to Spiderman: His Life and Ways. Oh, well.

9 I clear the table and run the boys through their chores: Christopher vacuums, Ben cleans up Emily’s room, Daniel sweeps down the steps. He’s still sweeping by the time the older boys are done. I tell Christopher to start on his Latin (we always do this first thing) and Ben to go do his reading. Right now he’s reading all the way through the Little House on the Prairie series. He’s up to Farmer Boy; this has nothing to do with the period of history we’re learning, but Ben is going through a comic-book-and-Star-Wars-junior-novel stage, so I’m doing my best to broaden his little horizon.

9:10 Christopher has forgotten all the Latin he ever knew.

9:15 I tell Christopher to go run around the house. He goes, sheepishly. When he comes back in he says, “Sorry.” “Is your brain in gear?” I ask. “Er,” he says, “mostly.”

9:20 Daniel is still sweeping the stairs. Christopher has forgotten what a direct object is. I give Emily crayons and paper and trace her hands while I make up about fifty short sentences with direct objects and make Christopher identify them. “Okay, okay,” he says, after sentence forty-five. “I get it.”

9:25 I explain the passive pluperfect to Christopher. He looks at the forms. “You have to be kidding,” he says.

9:30 Ben emerges, having finished his chapter, and asks if he can practice his piano. “What was your chapter about?” I say. “They went to a place and did something,” he says. “Go back and read it again,” I say, “and tell me where they went and what they did.”

9:40 Christopher has completed one of his five drill sentences. Daniel is still sweeping the steps. Emily announces, “I have to go potty.” I take her into the bathroom and sit beside her. Christopher yells, “Help!” “Try to do it yourself,” I yell back. There is a long silence. When I come back to the kitchen, he’s on Sentence 2.

9:50 Ben comes back out. “They went into town and sold WHEAT!” he says triumphantly. “Good job,” I say. “Go practice your piano.” I look up the stairs. Daniel is sitting on the fourth step, sweeping his head with the brush. “STAIRS,” I say.

10 AM Daniel finishes the stairs. “Go get First Language Lessons,” I say. Emily is now under the table tickling Christopher’s feet. “Mom,” Christopher says, “I can’t think.” He is now on Sentence 3.” I say, “Emily, what are you doing?” “I loving Pipher,” Emily says.

10:15 Christopher finishes Sentence 5. “Okay,” I say. “Good job. That only took you an hour and ten minutes. Can I give you a brain massage?” “I think I need some sugar,” he says. I feed everyone cookies and send Christopher to practice his trumpet. Emily is bored; I tell Ben to quit practicing his piano and read her a book while I do Daniel’s grammar. Today, his lesson is action verbs. We repeat, “A verb is a word that does an action, shows state of being, links two words, or helps another verb” five times; then I read action verbs while he acts them out. Ben and Emily abandon their book and join in. Christopher appears. “I want to do it too,” he says. Soon they are screaming, jumping, running, yelling, falling, wrestling, and singing all over the house. I try, “Whisper! Sleep! Think!” These are much less popular action verbs.

10:30 I send everyone outside while I drink a cup of coffee. Christopher offers to push Emily on the swing. While they’re out I look at their school lists; Christopher still has a massive amount of work to do this morning. I go outside too, and Emily and I feed the dogs Milk-Bones through the fence while the boys charge off into the distance.

11 AM I yell, “Time to come in!” Eventually the boys reappear. “Aw,” Christopher says, “we were just getting going.” “What were you playing?” I ask. “Space Age,” he says. “I’m a Space Age kitty!” Daniel announces. Christopher says, “We had to have Space Age kitties in the game so Daniel could play.” Then he stage-whispers, “Ben and I pretend he’s a Lizardman General, but he thinks he’s a kitty.”

11:10 Christopher goes back to his trumpet. I put Emily back in her chair with her crayons. She’s not buying it. “Want to go show Grammy my shoes,” she says. “Not right now,” I say. “Ben, go get your grammar.” “Want to show Grammy my ballerina skirt,” she says. “Not right now,” I say. Small silence. “Want to show Grammy my belly,” she suggests. “We’ll go see Grammy later,” I say. I put on her ballerina skirt and play “Hall of the Mountain King” on the stereo while she and Daniel run around the room in circles. Meanwhile I go through Ben’s grammar lesson with him; today he’s supposed to diagram sentences from the Rod & Staff fifth-grade book. His grammar has improved since we switched from the A Beka workbooks; he’s a very reluctant writer, but for some reason copying out the exercises from the non-consumable Rod & Staff book has proved easier for him than completing the workbook pages.

11:30 Christopher finishes his trumpet and comes back out. “Reading,” I say. “Yeah!” Christopher says and disappears again. He’s reading The Once and Future King, and has announced that it is his VERY FAVORITE BOOK EVER. This warms my heart. I adored this book when I was twelve.

11:40 Ben has done one of his eight sentences. I give him M&Ms. Sugar is a vital component of the successful home school.

11:45 Emily falls over while skidding around a corner and starts to bellow. I turn off the music, pick her up, and send Daniel to get his spelling book.

12 noon Ben has done two of his eight sentences. I set the buzzer and tell him that if he’s not finished in ten minutes, I’ll give him eight more.

12:05 Ben has finished his grammar lesson. I tell him to play with Emily until Dan’s spelling is finished.

12:20 Christopher’s finished reading. I don’t ask him questions about The Once and Future King; I clearly remember this book taking me into a universe so real that I didn’t want to talk about it. Instead I decide to do history with everyone simultaneously. I give Emily the math pattern blocks, which she pours on the floor and sits on. “These are my eggs,” she says. “I will have a baby chicken. Can I go show Grammy my baby chicken?” “Later,” I say. I tell the boys to get their colored pencils while I clear the table. We’re still doing medieval-renaissance history, because (like a lot of other people) we’re waiting on publication of Vol. 3 of The Story of the World. I give all three boys the map of the Franks and have them color the three separate territories while I read aloud. When I get to Clovis I give them the coloring page of Clovis’s baptism. “Was he really a Christian?” Christopher asks. “He promised to become a Christian before he even knew what Christianity was all about,” I say. “Listen.” I reread the story of the baptism. “What do you think?” I say. “Nope!” Ben says cheerfully. “We can’t know for sure,” I say, “but I think the chances are against it.” Daniel says, “Look! He doesn’t have any clothes on in this picture!”

12:40 I put Ben in front of the Usborne Internet-Linked History Encyclopedia and tell him to read the section on the Franks and write down the three most important things he learns. When I get the Kingfisher History Encyclopedia out, Christopher groans and says, “Do I have to outline today?” “You can do a composition instead,” I say. “About what?” “Er,” I say, thinking. “Er, how about comparing Clovis to King Arthur?” “That’s a lot,” Christopher says, dubiously. “You can type it,” I say, “and today you can make a list of comparisons, and then actually finish the composition itself tomorrow.” Christopher agrees and goes off to his room, where he has a computer (NOT connected to the Internet). Daniel says, “Can I go play with Legos?” “Who was the history lesson about?” I ask. “A guy without clothes,” he says. Emily announces, “POTTY!” “Okay,” I say, “go play Legos.”

1 PM Lunch. Christopher has made a list of comparisons, Ben has written two sentences. I tell him to write one more before he can eat. While everyone is stuffing down PBJ and chips, I decide that our diet has too much sugar and salt in it and bring out a bag of baby carrots. “Three for everyone!” I announce. There; that’ll balance out their diets, right?

1:20 PM It’s rest time. Pete will be back soon to take over school at 3 PM. Christopher hasn’t yet done his grammar or his writing. I pull out his Rod & Staff book, review the lesson with him, and tell him to finish it along with his Wordsmith lesson during rest time, before he does anything else. I’ll check it when he’s finished. Christopher’s independence level (except for Latin) has rocketed during this past year; I’m beginning to think that I might actually survive middle school. I settle Emily down for her rest, send Daniel to play with Legos (again) and sit down with Ben and his Prima Latina. Today we’re doing new vocabulary words and new endings. We talk about each word and I give him index cards to make new vocabulary flash cards. “Finish them in your room,” I say, “and then you can listen to your tape and play.” All of the boys are listening to books on tape during naptime; Ben is listening to The Dragonslayers, Daniel to Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Farm, and Christopher to Cheaper by the Dozen.

With everyone in his room, I sit down to take stock of the morning. Christopher hasn’t done his logic; he has taken a scunner to Jim Nance, unfortunately, and I’m about ready to pitch it and try something else. My options are limited. Maybe I’ll do the Critical Thinking Press books with him for a year and then try to find a tutor. I did Dan’s spelling and grammar with him, but I didn’t get to copywork; my mother usually does some handwriting with him after his afternoon reading lesson, though, so I’ll ask her to fold copywork into her lesson. Although Daniel is seven, he’s a young seven (his birthday is the last week of October), and we’re hovering between first and second grade work with him. I see that Ben was supposed to do typing this morning for me because it’s a heavy math day for Pete, but I forgot. I draw an arrow on his chart over to Pete’s side of the chart and write in, “Typing if you have time?” Just then Emily yells. I go in her room. “I had a NIGHTMARE!” she bellows. “You weren’t asleep,” I tell her. At three, Emily doesn’t sleep any more during rest time; she plays with toys on her floor. “There was a TALKING BEAN in my closet!” she announces. “It’s a friendly bean,” I say. “It’s time to get up,” Emily says. “Not yet,” I say. “Yes, it is. I have to go see Grammy and tell her about the talking bean.” “LATER,” I say. When I go back out I write on Pete’s side of the school chart, “Take Emmy to see Grammy.” I go upstairs and prop my feet up. In a few minutes I need to go work on the grading I blew off first thing this morning. (Rest time comes first, though.)

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Susan Wise Bauer

Susan Wise Bauer is an educator, writer, and historian. She is the co-author of The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home (now in its fourth edition), and the author of (among others) The Well- Educated Mind, The Story of Western Science, the Story of the World series, the History of the World series, the elementary series Writing With Ease, and the pre-rhetoric series Writing With Skill. Susan was home educated through high school and has taught all four of her children at home. She has a B.A. and M.A. in English language and literature, an M.Div., and a Ph.D. in the history of American religion from the College of William and Mary in Virginia, where she taught writing and literature for over fifteen years.

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