Lombardi, the Strategist.

Would legendary NFL Football Coach Vince Lombardi have homeschooled his kids? I expect not! But his advice, “Run to Daylight” is invaluable for homeschool parents who want their child’s curiosity to drive learning.

To be honest, I’m neither an expert on football, nor am I recommending homeschool parents run their school the same way Lombardi ran the Green Bay Packers into NFL history. That said, our first year homeschooling was wildly successful for us, and fun, too. Looking back on it, I realized our strategy owes a great deal to that simple piece of advice about daylight from Lombardi, who was such a shrewd game strategist.

And we must be doing something right at our house, because though it’s been our first year homeschooling, our daughter gained two full grade levels on both of her academic assessments. We unleashed her curiosity, ran for daylight and found our groove.

Even though I never saw Lombardi in action, I learned a lot about his coaching style from a good friend who wrote about Lombardi years ago. The coach was tough on his players, and demanding, which is not our homeschool style at all. On the other hand, he emphasized fundamentals, which has been an important feature of our process. We were perfectly content this year to spend several months in math study focused on thoroughly memorizing multiplication tables. We similarly structured her study of grammar. The freedom to pursue fundamentals until your child is fluent with any skill is definitely a benefit of homeschooling.

But, “running to daylight” best describes our strategy for steering curriculum.

Run to Daylight? What does that even mean?

Vince Lombardi trained his quarterbacks to be leaders who think on their feet. He expected them to change direction when needed. If the play he called was blocked by the opposing team’s defense, the quarterback or running back knew Lombardi expected him to cradle the ball and “run to daylight.” That is, get the ball down the field along the path of least resistance. Look for the opening. Pivot. Go with the flow, and then take advantage of that opening for all you’ve got.

Call me coachable. (I’ve had great coaches!) That’s what I’ve been doing all year. This is the essence, and magic, of individuated homeschool learning.

“Daylight” in our homeschool represents my child’s curiosity. Curiosity can easily be viewed as a distraction, but with a bit of creativity and fast thinking, curiosity clearly represents an opportunity. When my 9-year old is curious about something, I try to pivot toward that, whenever possible. Basically, when I see an opening, I put materials in her hands that will support her curiosity, exactly when she’s most hungry for that subject. Thankfully, the internet makes this pretty easy (I often start my quick searches for learning materials here.)

Sure, she’s always interested in certain subjects, and those are our bread and butter. Our go-to plays are reading and literature. These subjects make up the bulk of how we move the ball down the field. But, if I see the chance to make an end-around, or to springboard off a moment of excitement and pick up a lot of distance? I go for it. If she’s suddenly crazy about Elizabethan fashion because she fancies certain paper doll dresses online, we check out Queen Elizabeth’s “Royal Diary” from the library to back that up. If she’s fascinated by a plot point involving invisible ink in the mystery she’s reading? Hello, chemistry experiment! She loves books more than math, so I track down books that glorify and illuminate math.

Deep Curiosity. Deep Learning.

Pink albino bottlenose dolphin swims with motherBy running to daylight, we seem to achieve that treasured state of deep learning with much less effort. Her deep learning subjects are dolphins, (Yay, Science!) and fashion, which leads to arts and history. I fully admit, fashion seemed like it would be a waste of time to me, but I allowed my daughter to follow her interests. Turns out, fashion is a legitimate gateway to every-single-moment you can possibly imagine in all of human history. With dolphins, we dive deep. With fashion, we run wide.

I figured out pretty quickly that getting her to study something because it’s “on the list” yielded mixed results, at best. Besides, I certainly would never have added “Teach Shakespeare” to our Third Grade To-Do List, but that’s what happened! And it happened because the “daylight” shone for a moment. And I ran for it.

What to Do When you See Daylight

A big reason we chose homeschooling is that we had watched our daughter’s curiosity and love of learning fade. She wasn’t challenged in public school; she was bored.

When I see her spark to something, I’m all over it. It’s my job not just to guide her toward that daylight, but to find out just how far we can run. I’ll add some context and content. A quote. Some related literature. Maybe a relevant craft project. A little more history. Maps. We play to her strengths. In her case, she’s an avid reader, so classical education feels pretty natural for us.

screen shot from Portfolio app by Bluesky Schooler of reading log features children's book titlesFor the overall strategy, I try to anticipate what she might want to know NEXT. I use the Portfolio app to track that. When she comes running in from the other room to tell me about the book she’s just read, I listen to the details that were important to her.

Sure, I ask a bunch of questions to round out her understanding, but I key in on what got her most excited and I make a record. Sometimes I have to do some research of my own to figure out where to go next. I rely heavily on my own education and on my professional skills as a writer to fill in the missing pieces.

Expanding the Playbook

I do nudge her in other directions where I think she can pick up more of what she needs to know. It’s like when she was a toddler starting to expand her food palate. You put something on the plate in an appealing way to see if it sparks her interest and curiosity. Put the right idea on the table, at the right moment, and you’re in business. Self-directed learning kicks in.

Abstract. Daylight and grass partially glimpsed through a round cement aperture.We had a few glimpses of this daylight in public school, but the problem was the class curriculum often moved on before my daughter had fully satisfied her intellect or her curiosity. This certainly did nothing to build her attention span. Nor did it allow her to make the academic gains I see her making in our homeschool.

I’ve been amazed. I had hoped to see her learning become this intense and self-directed. My mentor, Keren, who developed the whole Portfolio app to support this kind of learning, told me it would happen. But I confess I did not expect it to be this easy! Nor did I expect it to come naturally.

Love the Player. Love the Game.

Part of why this approach works so well is that we know our kids. The better we know them, the better we can leverage their curiosity. A classroom teacher, especially at the beginning of any given school year, is usually a stranger to our child. Moreover, that teacher is faced with a roomful of little strangers. It takes time to get to know kids. And it may take all year. So teachers rely heavily on expectations, rather than direct knowledge.

We love our kids, and we know them. That’s why we can spot “daylight” a mile away. “Curiosity” is an advantage we have sought their entire lives. Whether it’s encouraging our child to crawl by making Sophie the Giraffe dance in front of them, or hurrying a dawdling toddler out the door by asking them to help us spot firetrucks. Mommies LOVE daylight!

Can a public school teacher ever know our kids like that? Our daughter’s public school Kindergarten teacher, who is a top-notch teacher and a credit to his profession, got a surprise when the time came to celebrate her mid-May birthday at the end of Kinder. He couldn’t believe she was turning 6, not 7. He assumed, because she is verbal and bright, that she was an entire year older than she actually was. At that age, a whole year of development is a big deal! Dismayed, he admitted that he finally understood the reason why her behavior didn’t line up with her academic performance. Welcome to our world!

Emotional Development v. Academic Development

This Kindergarten teacher realized too late that he needed to be more patient with our child. She was actually one of the youngest kids in the class, yet she was thought to be, and disciplined as, one of the oldest. He even advised us that we should point this out to all her future teachers at the beginning of each year, when teachers were getting to know her.

As homeschool parents, we could never make this kind of mistake. We already know the whole story of our child. I’m not puzzled when my third grader’s interests flip back and forth between Shakespeare AND dolls. I know her. And I know her because I love her. Is it a public school teacher’s job to love our kids? Of course not. Some do, thank goodness, and the children in those classes surely benefit from caring teachers.

But I truly love my kid. And I never realized until this year how this fact makes me uniquely qualified to be her primary teacher.

Downs & Touchdowns

Running to daylight — toward her curiosity — is how we’ve made great gains this year. Playing completely by the book, without running to daylight, I don’t know how she would have scored a two grade-level gain.

The Common Core environment, has limitations baked into the system. The goal post for public school teachers is the grade-level, year-end benchmark. If a child is behind, it’s extra work to catch them up, and it may or may not be worth the effort to them, personally or professionally, to do so. An advanced kid is a bonus. But it’s literally someone else’s job to teach kids materials for the next grade level.

In homeschool, the goal post is a complete education. And daylight is what gets us there the fastest.  So, thanks, Vince Lombardi, for the great advice. We will continue to run to daylight. All the better for us, under a Blue Sky.