A Common Arts Education in Our Classical Homeschool (with Chris Hall)

common arts classical education homeschool chris hall interview

Hang around with Classical and/or Charlotte Mason educators, and you’ll probably hear about the Liberal Arts pretty quickly. You’ll likely even hear discussion about including the Fine Arts in our homeschool education. But, what about the Common Arts? What does it look like to include the Common Arts in our education, and why are they important?

Today’s guest Chris Hall has not only written the book on the subject, but he also is embodying the truths about which he wrote. I loved this conversation, and was even a little surprised (and delighted) by how often the conversation returned to themes like connection and community.

Regardless what style homeschooler you would label yourself, this is a conversation you will not want to miss! But, word of caution: you may end up being challenged as well!

Be sure to check out all the other interviews in our Homeschool Conversations series!

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Common Arts Classical Education Homeschool Chris Hall

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Who is Chris Hall?

Chris Hall has a BA in philosophy from Gettysburg College and an MAT in elementary education from Towson University. He has been a classroom educator and administrator for 25 years, and has served in public, independent, and classical schools during his tenure.  Although primarily a teacher of science and mathematics, Chris has also served as a teacher of music and literature.  He is an award-winning educator, a frequent speaker at Christian Classical conferences, including ACCS and SCL, and he has helped to foster the renewal of Christian Classical education as a national-level Alcuin Fellow for the past several years.

Along with his professional pedigree, he is a lifelong practitioner of several of the common arts, and author of Common Arts Education: Renewing the Classical Tradition of Training the Hands, Head, and Heart, published in 2021 through Classical Academic Press.  As the founder of Always Learning Education, an organization dedicated to helping individuals, homeschool families, and brick-and-mortar schools build robust programs, Chris spends his time teaching, learning, and cultivating an integrated liberal, common, and fine arts approach to Classical education.  He is an active musician, gardener, craftsman, forester, practitioner of combatives/martial arts, and outdoorsman, and he enjoys both sharing these skills and learning from those with greater experience.

He lives on a small homestead in central Virginia with his wife, three homeschooled sons, and a wide variety of plants and livestock.

Common Arts Classical Education Homeschool Chris Hall

Watch my interview with Chris Hall

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Amy: Hello, friends. Today, I am joined by Chris Hall. Chris has a BA in Philosophy from Gettysburg College and a Master of Arts in Teaching in Elementary Education from Towson University. He’s been a classroom educator and administrator for 25 years, and has served in public, independent, and classical schools during his tenure. He’s an award-winning educator, a frequent speaker at Christian Classical conferences, and he has helped to foster the renewal of Christian Classical education as a national-level Alcuin Fellow for the past several years.

Chris is also a lifelong practitioner of several of the common arts, and is the author of Common Arts Education, published in 2021 through Classical Academic Press. As the founder of Always Learning Education, Chris spends his time teaching, learning, and cultivating an integrated, liberal, common, and fine arts approach to classical education. He’s an active musician, gardener, craftsman, forester, practitioner of combatives and martial arts, and outdoorsman. He enjoys both sharing these skills and learning from those with greater experience. He lives on a small homestead in Central Virginia with his wife, three homeschooled sons, and a wide variety of plants and livestock.

Chris, I’m so glad you’re here today. I know I kind of gave a bit of your bio there, but if you want to just tell us a little bit about yourself, and your family, your background, and how your family got started homeschooling.

Chris Hall: Sure. We came late to the game. I will tell you my time, when my children were born, we were living here, we were just beginning to homestead, but I was serving as a teacher– a science teacher, primarily, a department chair and administrator in a school that was starting up, and I thought, “This is the way, I’m bringing my kids with me.” Wherever I went to school, that was where they were going too.

It got to the point with us that we realized there were some things we wanted to do that were just a little bit more. There were things we couldn’t find in brick and mortar, and it wasn’t programmatic so much as it was, just keeping the family tight. We wanted these bonds, realizing this time was very precious, that we just couldn’t get in a day that was going to run pell-mell, especially with middle school athletics, and so many other things.

The funny thing is, when we moved to homeschool, we discovered the days are still packed, but they don’t have the same pace. We can set the pace, we can choose when we do things. My kids still are very athletic, they’re involved in Scouts, they do music, they do languages. They have a wide variety of coursework, both things here and through Scholé  and Memoria, Angelicum Academy, Community College, we have dual-enrolled kids now. We just find ourselves now with an abundance of time and space that we did not have before, and I’m very thankful for it. My oldest started this in middle school, he’s now in late high school, he’s a junior.

We found that many of the things that we anticipated with homeschooling came about, others, we had to really actively seek and pursue.

While we missed some things in the early years, there were some beautiful things that happened in these later years. I would not trade a single year of our homeschooling time for the world. It’s been like that, so– Joy, just joy.

Amy: My oldest is also a junior this year, and is doing some dual-enrollments, and I can just relate– With the sports and the activities, your life is still full as a homeschooled family, often, maybe a little over-full if we’re not careful, but there’s that opportunity to prioritize being together, and especially– I don’t know about you, but my husband and I, this year is really hitting us just how little time left we have with that oldest child especially. It’s making us even more thankful for the time we have to prioritize just being together, just that relationship time, forget the academics.

Chris: Amen.

Common Arts Classical Education Homeschool Chris Hall

A Seasoned Approach to Homeschooling

Amy: Over the years, how have your views of homeschooling grown or changed since you guys started several years ago?

Chris: I would state that the word I would use– When you asked me that question, I kind of think about that. When I kept going back and forth on it and looking for the common denominator or common thread, what was it? I think our perspective on it has not changed in that we always wanted something robust academically. We wanted something that was as robust as we could get. We wanted something that was very home-centric, and as we talk about the common arts today, you’re going to see how that just percolated out is very natural.

I would say that the one term that comes to mind over time is ‘seasoned.’

When we first started this, and my perspective changed, I thought, “We’ve got to do vocabulary, and we’ve got to do reading, we’ve got to do writing, we’ve got to do all these other–” Then over time, it was like, “Let’s select the things that give us the most for the time we have. Let’s select the things that integrate the threads that we want.”

We’ve been gradually refining the– Not only the robustness, but the simplicity with which we approach those things. I find that with my kids around here, writing in every subject becomes natural. Speaking and discussing within every subject becomes natural. Literature enters every subject, including science. You’d think those two are exclusive. No, they’re not.

There’s a lot of things that can hold hands across your curriculum, and as we found those, that’s really been a big portion of our seasoning. When I first started, I wondered how we would have the time to do what we could envision. There’s only so many hours in the day, and while it’s always learning throughout the day, we began to discover that it was important to have these robust times of integrated things, followed by leisures, and exploratories, and others.

If you ask me what I think has really changed the most over that time, it’s been those elements, it’s been the seasoning. How do we get the most for the time that we have? How do we also not neglect the schole, the true leisure behind this? Give the kids room to pursue the interests, the loves, where they’re being beckoned. It’s true with adults too. I think my wife and I would both agree that while we have done this with our children, we’ve also learned to do it more with ourselves.

I mean, here we are, I’m 47, at peak career, and she’s out doing things. We’re looking at the things we do with our kids and are we modeling this for them? Are we showing them what it looks like to do this kind of learning ourselves? With that, I would say the best term for this is probably seasoned, how do we season well.

Amy: I love that too, because you’re talking about starting with your priorities, these principles, and over time, just refining more and more in an efficient way that gives white space in the calendar to be able to pursue these other things. Then as adults, I think about this sometimes, what vision of adulthood am I giving my children? Do they see me being a lifelong learner, or am I still running around like a chicken with my head cut off?

[laughter]

Chris: Maybe we do a little of both, Amy. I think that might be just part of the deal.

Amy: Yes, I think that’s part of being a fallen human, this side of redemption. [chuckles]

Chris: That’s true.

Common Arts Classical Education Homeschool Chris Hall

What are the Common Arts, Liberal Arts, and Fine Arts?

Amy: One of the reasons I wanted to bring you on today is to really dig into this idea about the common arts. I mentioned you have recently published a book on the topic, and I think people are generally at least somewhat familiar with the term liberal arts, but maybe they’re not so familiar with common arts. Let’s just start by defining our terms, what do you mean by the common arts, and how are they distinct from fine arts and liberal arts?

Chris: I see them all– They’re all integrated. For one thing is– We can use that word distinct, and I think the word distinct, in that case, really comes down to the definition, because as I start to paint a portrait of this, you’re probably going to see– I hope you see– that all three of these are really integrated. You really cannot think one of these without a serious deficit somewhere along the lines.

The way I define this in the book are—

What are the Common Arts?

The common arts are literally the skills that provide for basic embodied human needs through the creation of artifacts or the provision of services.

When we think about this in the modern world, we’ll talk about this a little bit more, we’re thinking about things like the arts of the heart: the cooking, building things around the home, tending livestock. But it could be also arts like woodworking, and stone masonry, and others that are just not part of the common parcel. You see my house going on here behind me, these guys are all– After they’ve done their schoolwork, we have animals to tend.

With us, these arts, these common arts go alongside the other arts in just an integrated way. They keep us alive at a basic level, and more than that, more than just survival, it’s really about thriving. I’ll get to what I say when I mean that in a minute.

What are the Liberal Arts?

The liberal arts, if you will, they’re the seven unique arts that allow us to justify our knowledge and to make more– This is the scientia. I’m borrowing that definition from Clark and Jain, The Liberal Arts Tradition. Really, when you look at the liberal arts, we have the trivium and the quadrivium. The arts of language, and we have the arts of mathematics. As they fit together, we begin to see the emergence of our modern disciplines.

I’ve been a science teacher for 25 years– We see these offshoots of the liberal arts in modern disciplinary names, but they’re not separate or distinct from the common arts. The ones I just mentioned before, cooking, the common art of cooking is essential to making this go, we need to feed people. At the same time, there’s chemistry, there’s biology, there’s physics in there, there’s mathematics, there’s the arts of communication. We’re talking about reading and writing as part of cooking as well. If we borrow from cookbooks, or we want to communicate our ideas or recipes to others, then we need that.

The liberal arts and the common arts really form two sides of a Mobius band, two sides of the same coin. One of them are used to justify our knowledge and gain more. The common arts allow us to be able to eat and be fed and clothed and defended and have all the elements that will allow us to have the health and the wellness to pursue the liberal arts to-go, and I think the threads are even more than that.

The way I put it in the book is it’s a Mobius band. A Mobius band is, you take a single piece of paper, twist it a quarter turn, and tap it together so that if you trace it around the outside, it only has one side.

The further we go in the common arts, the more we can then open up for the liberal arts. The more we go in the liberal arts, the more we discover that the common arts give us this beautiful vector for pursuing knowledge and for applying it.

What are the Fine Arts?

Now, the fine arts are– I used to think of this in a Trinitarian way. Like, not three, not one. Three, but not three. One, but not one. I used to think the fine arts were like the third leg of a stool somehow, or that third Trinitarian element. As I had some conversations with some scholars in these fields, Dr. John Skillen up in Gordon College, really, I think set me straight. He gave me a kernel of thought that made me think about this a little more. The fine arts are really the common arts taken into such a high degree of proficiency, they invoke an aesthetic.

To give you an idea of this, cooking can become a fine art when it’s really good cuisine. Not just the finest caviar, but a good cheeseburger is also a fine art. If you know a grill master who can take that to just savory and delicious, cooking becomes a fine art.

Similarly, with woodworking. I live in a house that was designed by builders, it’s a log home, but my wife is a woodworker. She’s a fine woodworker. She can take a table, take a piece of wood and some other hardware, and turn it into something that invokes an aesthetic response as the beauty was beckoning from you from that object, and that really is where the fine arts and the common arts come together.

When I think about liberal, fine, and common, they’re inseparable. That Trinitarian notion almost still holds. They’re three, but not three, one, but not one, and yet they integrate in such a way that the fine and the common come very close together. The liberal arts offer the other side of it, and that’s why the Mobius band is the one that I tended to use in the book.

While that seems like– I guess, kind of a highbrow description of this, that’s my philosophy degree coming through. I think the easiest way to put this is, look at the life of the home in a day. We read, we write, we eat, we want to enjoy our cuisine, we want to live in a place that is safe and has beauty to it. All of those three things just are baked into the cake of our home, the way that we tend to live on a daily basis.

Amy: I think this is just making me think– Going back to Clark and Jain, you referenced their book earlier, they talk about the end of education being love of God and love of neighbor. If you don’t have the common arts and the fine arts connected integrally with your liberal arts, you’re not going to truly be able to love your neighbor, right?

Chris: That’s correct.

Amy: I was also thinking about my husband, he’s a bridge engineer. As you were talking, I was thinking, well, the liberal arts, obviously, the math and the sciences that are going into the knowledge that he has, and then he could just do the common art of a simple bridge design. What he often does is he is rehabilitating historic bridge structures, and he’s taking into account beauty and community, and elevating that common art to something that is a fine art.

Chris: Yes. One thing that you bring out, Amy, that I’d like to tease out, is that notion of community. When we do these common arts, I’d speak about them inside the family, but the family is the baseline element of community. Within our community here in Virginia, I know my neighbors, and I’ve known many of them for almost 20 years. We’ve been living here for a while. We grow certain crops in our gardens and share them with neighbors who grow other crops. I may go hunting, I may get a deer, I’ll share the venison with some people I know who are food-insecure. These common arts then become vectors, not just for the health and thriving of our own families, but something a little bigger, that community.

I often think too, and it always comes to mind, the notion of breaking bread is an ancient Christian practice, but the art of making bread is an ancient common art practice. If you want to break the bread, if you want your community to hold that, be a good baker, and be a good person who can grow the grain and who knows how to put it all together.

Common Arts Classical Education Homeschool Chris Hall

Where do the common arts fit into the history of classical education?

Amy: I love that reminder. Okay, we’ve got to continue on, but I have all these things I want to just stop and think about, so I’ll have to do some contemplation when we’re done here. Can you explain where the common arts fit into the history of classical education? Is this a new idea that you’ve come up with or discovered, or how have they been thought about over the history of education?

Chris: If you look at the ancients, and you go all the way back to the Greeks and the Romans, you’ll find that they have a little bit of a disdain for common arts if they’re done for money. You hear the ancient Greeks, Socrates for example, disses on them in The Republic a little bit, how these arts are just for money, but you have to realize– If you picture that, Socrates is wearing a stola made by a tailor, sitting on a bench made by a woodworker, inside a home made by a stonemason, drinking wine from a bowl made by a vintner and a potter respectively. You go, “Oh, wait a minute, so there’s something a little more to this.”

If you go forward to Cicero, Cicero says, “Oh, yes, these arts of metalworking and woodworking, those are kind of like agriculture.” Yes, because the cultured Romans kept farms, and remember, many of them– Seneca, for example, writing about gardening as the old man’s peace and paradise. Here it is, I’m here as an older man, I can enjoy the warmth of the sun like the hearth of the fire in the winter. Depending upon their personal connection with the common arts, you find the ancients either saying, “Oh, they’re for money,” or, “Boy, some of these are really great.” Virgil’s Georgics, a great example of poetry on the angle of this one.

When I think about common arts, I think more about Hugh of Saint Victor. Hugh of Saint Victor in the 1100s, the Abbey of St. Victor outside of Paris, France. Hugh of Saint Victor wrote a wonderful book called The Didascalicon. In The Didascalicon, he outlines the liberal arts. He begins with kind of a manual, not so much for teaching, but for restoration. His whole purpose is to restore what has been lost in the fall with education.

Hugh says, “The liberal arts, yes, they’re important, and I’m going to devote the first chapters on that,” but then he goes immediately into the common arts. He talks about tailoring, and weaving, and the common art of armament, in which he includes stone masonry and woodworking. He mentions things like cooking and agriculture, and he does this in the same breath almost that he does the liberal arts, because what Hugh deigned to do was to bring these scholars of the various things under the same roof to talk.

He reckoned that each of them had a lowercase w wisdom, a wisdom about his or her– His mostly at the time, I suppose, own art, and if they put them all together in the same place and talk, they would recover the capital W Wisdom. The pieces that were underneath, through, between, within, all of those elements. Hugh, in his book, The Didascalicon, really outlines this project in an almost Aristotelian portion categorized. He finds the categories of these things, but he never loses the whole for sightof the parts.

When I think about the beauty of this, I think about Hugh, but I also think about John Milton. John Milton, one of the most educated men of his time, his friend writes him up and says, “John, can you write me something about the ideal education? If you could just spell it out in a single letter, a document, what would an ideal education look like?” Milton, being Milton, proceeds to draft Of Education. It’s very small, it’s not a long writing, but boy, is it thick and rich.

A quote from Milton actually appears on the back cover of the book, and I’ll read it. “Having thus passed the principles of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and geography, with a general compact of physics, they may descend in mathematics to the instrumental science of trigonometry–” So far, we’re still stuck in the liberal arts. You hear the arithmetic, the geometry– “And from thence, to fortification, architecture, engineering, and navigation,” because Milton realizes these are embodiments of those liberal arts. Here are arts that we use to survive, to build, to find our way around, and you find all these other arts in there.

“To set forward all these proceedings in nature and mathematics, what hinders but that they may procure, as aft as shall be needful, the helpful experiences of hunters, fowlers, fishermen, shepherds, gardeners, apothecaries, and this shall give them such a real tincture of natural knowledge, as they shall never forget, but daily augment with delight.”

John Milton realizes that all of these common arts have their roots in the liberal arts. The liberal arts feed the common arts, and for his students to really grasp the liberal arts, having that experience in the common arts is invaluable.

Get with the people who have dirty hands. They may not know how to read and write the same way you do, but they know how to do things that you might otherwise lose.

I think Milton didn’t intend it for this way, but I think he points out the importance of community here too. I find myself as a scholar, but a farmer, to do those two things allows me to have discussions about things and integrate with people in my community in ways that one of the two sides of those arts alone would not allow for. I think Wendell Berry also epitomizes this, the gentleman farmer philosopher. He knows, and because of that, he sees life in certain ways, so there we have it.

Common Arts Classical Education Homeschool Chris Hall

What have we lost as a community and culture as we’ve become disconnected from the common arts?

Amy: Well, what do you think we’ve lost as a community and a culture as we’ve become disconnected from these common arts? Because for most of us, we’re hiring people to come repair our toilets or– We’ve lost a lot of that tangible ability to go do our own electrical repair work, or woodworking, or what have you, so what have we lost?

Connection

Chris: I think we’ve lost two things. The first is a connection. We lose a connection with mechanics, but I think in a more fundamental way, even with the baseline rhythms of reality. I don’t want to make that too dramatic like, “Oh, we’re out” but just consider this, if all we ever do is buy and hire, if we buy our goods and hire others to do the things for us, then we kind of keep things at arm’s length. We keep them at a distance, and when they break, it’s like, “What do I do now? How do I begin that?”

You also asked me a question early on this, what do I encourage people– Do I offer words of encouragement for people on this? Learn how to fix your toilet. It’s not as hard as you think. You might make mistakes, but I guarantee you, in the process, you’re going to encounter things. You might never even know how a toilet works until you get in there and realize that the mechanism for flushing a toilet is a matter of simple buoyancy and a chain. It’s like, wow.

Agency

As soon as you realize that, this agency comes back, and that’s the second thing I think we’ve lost. We’ve lost a connection with the natural world, with the rhythms there–

You can’t grow a tomato on your own rules. The tomato follows rules that are inside nature, and so to encounter that, to know where our food comes from, that’s one, but agency is another. As human beings, it’s good for us to not only be functional, but to be deeply competent about a number of these physical skills that just go in our world. Stepping aside from the toilet for a moment, what about first aid? This is one of those little competencies that it’s like– If we can teach our little kids how to stop a blood flow if we need to, or how to recognize a poisonous plant. Poison Ivy, don’t play in that. What does it look like? How do we know? Those little things, those basic common arts, give us not only a re-agency in connection, but also in that agency notion. We then become more capable in the world.

Capability, again, it’s not just for us, it’s for others. We do this in charity. We’re keeping our family going, but also our friends and our cohorts, and even that lady we meet in the parking lot at Walmart. We can do these things as they go.

If you talk about what we lose, I think connection is a key– Connection with reality, the baseline reality of created order, and the second is that agency. Both can be restored, even on the simple– Baking a cake, or learning first aid, or tending a plant in a pot. It can happen, it’ll kindle.

Amy: As you were talking, I just am surprised how often community and connection, these ideas are coming up in our conversation. I wasn’t anticipating it, but it makes sense since that’s the way God designed us to be.

Chris: Amen.

Amy: I was just thinking, it can feel overwhelming. There’s all of these possible skills or things we could be knowledgeable about, and as finite creatures, no one of us is going to know all of them, but again, going to that connection and community, we can share and be something bigger together. Because what I know is something you don’t know, and we can work together, even in these common arts areas.

Chris: Amen.

Practical Tips for Including the Common Arts in Our Homeschool

Amy: Okay. Well, let’s get practical, because as a homeschooler, a lot of times it can feel like, “Okay, great, I just listened to another podcast with something else I’m not doing, and now I’ve got to include this in my homeschool too.” What are some practical tips for including the common arts in our homeschool, and are there any things that you think should be our top priorities?

Chris: Great question. When I put this to teachers in brick and mortar schools– And I’ll say this here because I know that we can all relate to this because we’ve seen this device. I tell teachers to think like an overhead projector. Remember the old overhead? You have an overhead projector, and it’s got these transparencies, and on the transparencies, you write things, you put them on the overhead, turn the light on, the light shines through the transparency onto the screen, we see what’s written. With the common arts, you don’t want to think of the common arts on one transparency, and liberal arts on another, and maybe things I need to do at home, and things I need to–

Take those transparencies, write what you want to do on each one, stack them up, and let the light shine through all of them. By that, I mean don’t separate all your activities, let it come through.

An example to cite this, we did a little unit in kitchen chemistry here a couple years back, and it was– My kids wanted to bake cookies. Well, into this experience of baking cookies, let’s write in fractions, let’s write in measurement. Let’s write in what happens when temperature– Why is heat necessary for baking cookies? What happens when temperatures go up and down? What happens to the sugar molecules in this cookie? Why does it taste sweet?

You see how this can then be differentiated amongst a group of kids who range from five years old to high school. You can hear in just those things of baking cookies in the kitchen, you have everything from, “Okay, let’s use the measuring cups. Which is bigger and which is smaller,” to some serious physics and chemistry. That’s how you do it. You layer those transparencies. You want them to learn mathematics and science, but you can do it now with this ready hands-on lab. You ask about good on-ramps for this one, just live. The more we live in our home environments, the more these opportunities are just there. You discover them left and right. Once you start looking for it, you’ll find it everywhere.

I would also say for this one, start with the basics. No one should launch into making a smelter in their backyard. Blacksmithing is not for the faint of heart. It’s not for most of us who are at home just tinkering, but some simple ones like how to tie knots, a couple of different knots so that you can join ropes– Start with your shoes, and then how do you make a knot that ties off to a post? Another one is how to tend an animal, keep a pet. How do you keep your pet?

Keep a small potted plant– Rather than making a whole garden, if you want to experiment with growing things, keep a container guard, one plant in a pot. Even a single tomato plant, a cherry tomato plant, can produce fruit all summer long, that’s delicious, and it can grow in a one-gallon pot as long as you’re tending it every day. In the book, I talk about the five rights– Right story, right scale, right season, and as you start– I’m not going to belabor the point on that, but as you start, begin with the scale that fits you, and begin with the season that fits you. If big won’t work, start really small and manageable.

If the season is not right, if it’s the middle of soccer season and you have no time because you’re running someone back and forth to lessons or whatever, don’t start a big project then. Pick the times in between to make it a leisurely, but also robust activity, something you can really dial in on and focus. It’s one of those things where it can seem incredibly overwhelming when you’re looking at it for the first time. Realize that, as the old adage goes, you never eat the whole elephant– Bite, by bite, by bite, and pick the most delicious part. What’s the most savory common art you can think of to enter in on this one? Basics help, ones that are good around the house, like first aid or–

With our kids, we taught them how to make fires. We heat by a woodstove back there, and so when they were young, it was how do you make a fire? That’s a great common art.

Look for the ones that are in your home, the ones that are just part of your breathing, living every day, and it’s a great place to start.

Amy: I appreciate you taking away some of that overwhelm, and just being like, it doesn’t have to be complicated. You don’t have to start blacksmithing in your backyard. Something small counts, and something I say a lot when it comes to homeschooling in general is just the imperfect thing that you actually do is better than this perfect ideal thing you never start, and I’m just seeing that like– Yes. Okay, I don’t need to wait until I can do some really epic amazing project with the kids. Just start small where we are right now.

Chris: Amen. That’s it.

Common Arts Classical Education Homeschool Chris Hall

What if we don’t have the skills as parents?

Amy: Okay. Well, what encouragement would you have for the parent who’s maybe thinking, “I don’t feel like I have any of these skills myself. I don’t even know where to start.” What would you say to that parent?

Chris: First thing I would say to them was, I was you. I grew up as a suburban kid, and I lived in a home where my mother made her own clothing and canned. My father was into the common art of trade, finance. He worked as kind of a hobby. That was his thing, but I was not very skilled myself. I never tended a garden or kept livestock when I was a kid. I never was a blacksmith or a woodworker. I went through Scouts, and I earned my Eagle Scout– I had those pieces, but nothing more than that.

When my wife and I decided to homestead, it was a crash course. We came here and lived in a tent and a 12 by 20 cabin for two years, learning how to do this. It was a crash course. I stand before you, a living example that you can survive this even if you don’t have the skills when you start. I’m here in front of you to tell you, you can get them, but the encouragement does not need to involve something as drastic.

I would say, realize that the number of resources around you is vast. We live in the information age, which has its drawbacks with certain things, but some wonders with others. If you want to know how to approach a common art, chances are there’s a book, maybe 10. There’s a good set of videos, not just a bad set of videos on YouTube that you can start with. There are people in your community that know these skills who are offering instruction on that, and sometimes, it’s the little old lady at the end of the block.

When my wife and I came here, and were living in that tent, we used to go to Bertha’s place every Sunday afternoon. We would leave mass, and we would go out amongst the community and go visiting. Bertha lived on a farm alone. She was 93 years old, and we would go and just sit and talk with her. It was a wonderful visit. In the process, Bertha not only showed us that this kind of living, this homestead living, was the stuff for us. We were not only confirmed, but we were also very much humbled by the way that Bertha had lived this way since she was a kid on the same farm, but she also just taught us. She had things to give away, knowledge to give away, experience to give away. Occasionally, a cooking implement to give away, or an axe handle, something that we needed. Bertha got us started.

You live at a time when you have books, you have knowledge online, you have people who want to share these skills, and many of the older generation now has the time to do it. The ones who grew up with these arts still part of the DNA of their home are now old enough to be retired and want to give that back, and so I encourage you to build your community from the very beginning here. Start to gather your resources, ask questions, call me, call other people who are in the knowledge of this, and let’s get people connected. By doing so, you not only will get some agency yourself, but it’ll feel better knowing that you’re not alone with this.

You’re going to be sitting in there with a group of people who are also feeling that nervous about keeping a chicken for the first time, or changing the brake pads on your car. I remember the first time I changed the oil on my car, I didn’t know how to do that, but I had a good manual, and I got under the– The first time you do it, it’s like, “I could do that, and I’ve been spending $100 every 3,000 miles to do it. I could do this at home. All I need to do is–“

That feeling snowballs, so get with a community that has that in it, keep talking, get together for coffee, get together for conversation. Put your kids out there, let them roam and do their thing, and meanwhile, you all are sitting back there talking about how you’re going to lay in your garden bed. It’ll add a dimension to the nature of the exploration.

Amy: Just being willing to ask for help and not to think you have to figure it all out on your own, right? That’s what we’ve done. I took some sewing lessons as a child, but didn’t feel competent to pass on anything beyond basic mending skills to my own children, but we found other women who were happy to teach my kids and work on projects with them. We had a complicated, at least for us, plumbing issue, but when the plumber was here, I was like, “Hey, do you mind if my son just hangs out in the bathroom and watches you?” And he was happy to just–

He took the whole toilet off, showed him all the different parts, had him actually like over there putting it back together. He was more than willing to take that time and teach someone who is interested and willing to ask, so sometimes you just have to ask. If you don’t ask, you won’t get.

Chris: That’s it.

What Chris is reading lately

Amy: Well, Chris, here at the end, I’m going to ask you the questions I’m asking all of my guests this season, and the first is just, what are you personally reading lately?

Chris: Well, I’m reading Dante for about the 20th time the Divine Comedy, front to back. I started with The Inferno, I’ve worked my way through The Purgatory, I’m now on the third canto of The Paradiso. I love the setup, I love Dante’s– I love these books because every time I step into them, they haven’t changed, but I change every year. The more I go back and read them, the more I see the differences in my own things that I see or pull out of them, the lessons to be learned.

I’m also reading along with one of my young students, for the first time in a long time, Lloyd Alexander, Chronicles of Prydain, the very first one. I’ve got a nine-year-old in one of my classes, he’s hungry for literature like this, and I get to read it alongside of him. Again, not for the first time, probably for the 10th, but I love this book.

 The other one is Tristan Gooley– I’m a constant learner, I love learning myself, and Tristan Gooley has written this beautiful set of books on the art of navigation, which is a common art.

I know how to do orienteering, I can find my way around with the sky, but Tristan Gooley wrote this beautiful book about water, and it’s how to look at water. He starts with things like the puddles, what signs do they tell you? What information can you learn from just looking at the puddles in your neighborhood, and he goes all the way to the Polynesian navigators. How they navigate between islands in the South Pacific using nothing but maps of woven sticks, and they just have a sense about the currents and other things, and the position of the sun and moon. You asked me what I’m reading, I’ve got a little bit of ancient literature, a little modern literature, and a little bit of common arts on the bedside table right now.

Amy: I think I have one of his books on clouds. Did that same author write one on clouds and weather?

Chris: Yes.

Amy: I have it on my shelf. It’s on my stack of to-be-read that keeps getting taller.

Chris: [laughs] I have one of those too. It’s about six stories tall, unfortunately.

Amy: Exactly, but it’s just sometimes I just go and look at my books and smile at them, and just knowing they’re there makes me happy.

Chris: [laughs] Right there with you, sister. Right there with.

Common Arts Classical Education Homeschool Chris Hall

Chris’s best tip for helping the homeschool day run more smoothly

Amy: The final question I want to ask you today is just, what would be your tip for helping the homeschool day run more smoothly?

Chris: Oh my gosh, you ask me that question, and I’ve been thinking about that for days, and trying to distill it. I could give all kinds of suggestions about timing. I remember when I was first starting this, Andrew Pudewa happened to be– I happened to grab a ride with him at a conference we were attending up in Michigan. I was getting started with homeschooling, and you know Andrew Pudewa, he knows his homeschooling. He’s got seven kids, they’re all homeschooled. I said, “What would you suggest?” He said, “Schedule. You got to have a schedule, you got to go,” and I’m like, “Okay, great.”

Nuts and bolts, if you’re starting with this, think about your schedule of your day, but be willing to chuck it right over if something else comes better too, the flexibility that comes with it.

I thought, you know I could also give people advice about breaking out of the book curriculum. Sometimes, curriculum’s in a book, but the best curriculum is you. Start to think about how you live and how you go about your things. The book is great, but it’s a human endeavor, education, and it’s especially human at home. Parents are the first teachers, that’s a Catholic term for this. Let your home be your curriculum in part. Yes, buy the books, yes, do those things, but let living be the curriculum.

I would say– Again, those two things, you notice how I’ve kind of skidded across them, I had to arrive at this one, laugh. Because that pile of laundry might take 7 to 10 business days to get done, and your kids may– It might be an insane day in your house, and things are going to go crazy, and stuff’s going to be falling out of the sky. You’ll be in the midst of doing something, and someone will call with something urgent– Ugh, the stress is still very real.

We found that when you find something to laugh about, it not only brightens the day that was already beautiful, but it lightens the day that was getting heavy. Find the things in the day that can be joyous, the occasions for joy, and take time to be joyful. We will take time to finish that phone call, we’ll take time to put in that extra load of dishes, we’ll take time to run to the store, make sure you include that time to be joyful in your day. Really, just soak it in.

As you were saying early in this call, and I understand it completely, we only have so much time. We have so much time personally with ourselves, we only have so much time with our kids at home. My hope is that my children will not remember exactly what I taught them in Wordly Wise on Wednesday, September the 8th or whatever, they’re going to remember the laughter that we had. The times that we sat down and watched an episode of old Star Trek and laughed, or pulled out our musical instruments and laughed about somebody messing up, or getting it really right and laughing about that. Whatever animal’s antics– The dogs, the cats, the chickens, ourselves, these are the things that will make that home time that much more joyful, so don’t forget to laugh amidst the schedules, amidst the laundry, amidst everything.

Amy: Well, in God’s providence, that was probably just what I needed to hear this week in particular, so thank you for that reminder. [chuckles] A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit dries up the bones. How often do I bring that broken spirit into the homeschool day, and trickle that all down to my kids, that is not what God is calling us to.

Chris: I’m guilty of that as well, but let’s reclaim.

Find Chris Hall Online

Amy: Yes, repent and move forward by God’s grace. This has been such a wonderful conversation. Thank you for chatting with us today. Can you let us know where people can find you all around the internet?

Chris: Sure. AlwaysLearningEducation.net is my website. You can, of course, find the book at Classical Academic Press if you’re interested in pursuing a little bit more about common arts education– Ah, there we go. You can find it there, and my website is also in the book. If you desire to reach out to me and do so personally, you can reach me through alwayslearningeducation.net. My personal email is [email protected], not too distant from the website.

I would love to hear from you, and I will tell you that I spend a good chunk of my day, of course, running homeschooling, doing online education, but also fielding emails, questions, phone calls, Zoom calls, from people around the world who are curious about these arts. How do I get started? What do I do with X? And I love that time. That’s a joyous time for me, so if there’s anything that I can do for you to help you get started on this journey, please reach out. Come visit my website, come email me, and let’s talk. Glad to do it.

Amy: Great, thank you. I will put all of those links and your email address in the show notes for this episode over at humilityanddoxology.com.

Check out all the other interviews in my Homeschool Conversations series!

Homeschool Conversations Video Interviews Podcast HumilityandDoxology.com Amy Sloan

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