Homeschooling with a Sense of Hope and Wonder
Homeschool mom and author Amber O’Neal Johnston is empowering families to celebrate their heritage, community, and the world with hope and wonder.
As a Christian home educator, it is important to me to find reputable homeschooling resources and thought leaders that can help shape and impact my pedagogy and curricula choices. Over the years, I’ve been blessed to come across the work of people like Susan Wise Bauer, Julie Bogart, and Amber O’Neal Johnston. What stands out to me about these particular women is not only the high-quality educational resources that they produce, but also their insightful commentary on the wider world of education, science, theology, and many of the societal challenges we are facing today. I’m honored to have recently interviewed Amber O’Neal Johnston, one of my homeschool role-models.
Kendra: My first introduction to you and your work was through the Charlotte Mason Institute, where you sit on the board of directors. You spoke at their annual conference last year and shared a bit about your book, “A Place to Belong (Celebrating Diversity and Kinship in the Home and Beyond).” Can you introduce yourself to our audience and share a little about your book?
Amber: My name is Amber O’Neal Johnston, and I’m an author, blogger, curriculum writer, and home educator. My husband and I live outside of Atlanta where we homeschool our four children. As a product of public education and the daughter of two public school principals, I never expected to homeschool my children. However, my family has found homeschooling to be an exceptional fit for us. Now, we can’t imagine learning and living differently in this season of life.
I authored “A Place to Belong” as a guide for families interested in raising kids to celebrate their heritage, community, and the world. Each chapter shows parents of all backgrounds how to create a home environment where children feel secure in their own personhood, family, and culture. The goal is to enable our kids to better understand and appreciate people who are racially and culturally different. “A Place to Belong” gives parents the tools to empower children to embrace their unique identities while feeling beautifully tethered to their global community.
I was inspired to write the book after searching for something written specifically for families who value an intentional home culture, while creating a sense of belonging for their children. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find what I was looking for. I decided to dig in and write something myself. The book is written with the understanding that children who grow deep roots at home will spread wide branches toward others. This idea has resonated deeply with readers.
Kendra: For those who have had little exposure to home education, one might be surprised to hear there are many different approaches a parent can take to provide a quality education for their kids. You focus on the Charlotte Mason method and the importance of “living books.” Who was Charlotte Mason, and what are some of the benefits to her educational practices?
Amber: Charlotte Mason was an early twentieth-century British educator who championed a generous and broad education for all children. She encouraged a relational education in a living environment filled with books, experiences, nature, and ideas, where children are seen as persons, and educators are seen as those who cooperate with God as guides, philosophers, and friends.
What I appreciate most about this educational approach is my children’s knowledge of God, the universe, humankind, and themselves. These connections are seen throughout Mason’s philosophy. I continually marvel at how they naturally come together in the lessons and discussions occurring in and outside our home year after year. I also greatly appreciate how Mason’s methods result in children becoming lifelong learners.
Our family spends lots of time outdoors, observing and learning from the natural world…We aim for our lifestyle to naturally incorporate curiosity and discovery at every turn.
Kendra: You use mirrors and windows as metaphors for how children can see themselves and others in books. Could you tell us more about these metaphors? How do they play an important role in teaching children about diversity, equity, and inclusion?
Amber: Literary mirrors are books in which children can find themselves, their families, and their communities reflected and valued. When students read books where they see characters like themselves who are valued in the world, they feel a sense of belonging.
Windows are books that help our children develop their understanding of the wider world, outside of themselves. Children need to learn about how other people conduct themselves in the world in order to understand how they might fit in. It’s important that all of our children learn to approach differences in culture, ethnicity, and skin color from a place of supportive and nonjudgmental acceptance. As parents and educators, this responsibility and honor lie squarely in our court.
Kendra: The varying fields of science have been typically dominated by white men. Thankfully this is slowly changing, and we are starting to see more women and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) representation. As a mom who wants to provide mirrors for your kids within their science education, how do you address this challenge?
Amber: That’s a great question. In addition to reading biographies and other books that include women and BIPOC scientists, we approach this challenge in multiple ways. First, I go out of my way to find role models who can naturally inspire my children as they go about their everyday activities. For example, I drive much further away to take my children to see a Black female pediatrician. This is a simple way for my children to see applied science as a normal possibility for themselves, if they’re interested.
Second, my husband and I share current events with our children every morning over breakfast. Often, we’ll pull out interesting news stories related to scientists of color or research that impacts communities of color. We want our children to be accustomed to viewing scientists as a varied field of many different types of people who work together to solve issues and improve circumstances for everyone. Finally, we encourage our children to engage with scientific concepts and hands-on exploration from a very early age. There’s never a time when they don’t see themselves as gifted scientists-in-training, whether they choose to pursue that as a career or not.
Finally, we encourage our children to engage with scientific concepts and hands-on exploration from a very early age. There’s never a time when they don’t see themselves as gifted scientists-in-training, whether they choose to pursue that as a career or not.
Kendra: BioLogos encourages people not to be afraid of exploring hard questions, especially when it comes to faith and science. You, too, encourage parents to be open to difficult questions kids might ask when learning about the complexities of life. You refer to this as “tough table talk.” What guidelines would you recommend parents follow to better facilitate and encourage these kinds of discussions with their kids?
Amber: Children figure out the world around them by watching closely, listening intently, and asking lots of questions. They learn to keep quiet when we respond to their questions with irritation, hostility, silence, or shaming. But when we welcome their questions with expectant open arms and judgment-free, engaging dialogue, it makes a difference. Kids recognize that they have a safe space for working through their private thoughts aloud, a space where people who love them no matter what they say will guide them well.
To foster this type of open dialogue, we have to be “askable parents.” The term “askable parent” was first coined by Sol Gordon, a clinical psychologist who believed that parents should answer a child’s questions about sex whenever they asked. I wholeheartedly agree with this idea, and I also think the same is true for questions regarding science, ethnicity, and other tough subjects.
Our goal should be to become our children’s number one go-to person when they aren’t sure how to process things or when they want to know more about something they’ve heard or noticed. Askable parents are committed to being available and willing to give their full attention when their children have questions or want to discuss a challenging issue. They’re willing to revisit the same topic repeatedly as kids circle back around for greater understanding or nuance, and they eliminate the concept of “off-limit” topics while still addressing ideas in age-appropriate ways.
Children figure out the world around them by watching closely, listening intently, and asking lots of questions.
Kendra: I was deeply impacted by your chapter, “Choosing Joy.” You say, “Alongside the calling to share hard history with our children lies a responsibility to leave them with hope. If our kids walk away from our homes feeling like things always have been and always will be hopeless, then we’ve completely abdicated our role as loving guides. Honest history is both necessary and heavy, but heavy doesn’t have to mean ugly. There’s beauty tucked between the pages of every story, even if it’s difficult to spot right away.” How do you balance tragedy with beauty and hope in your home, and how does that show up in the curricula you choose for your kids?
Amber: When I share the history of Black people in America and throughout the world with my kids, I strive to balance our honest discussions with heavy doses of beauty. I recognize that there’s pervasive background noise—an ongoing thread of struggle—in the complicated stories of all people; the Black community is no different. My drive to search deeply for another frequency, one of joy and hope, is not an attempt to disown the pain of my people. It is an acknowledgment that there are experiences worthy of celebration woven into the unique fabric of every culture.
As I’ve sought to balance tragic history with beauty within our home, I’ve colored our days with art, music, and poetry. These are some of the easiest ways to bring culturally rich learning into an intentional home environment. I use these forms of creative expression to help my kids cultivate an appreciation for the varied ways people tell their stories. I’ve also incorporated the beauty found in cultural foodways and nature as I teach my children to see truth, goodness, and beauty everywhere.
Kendra: I know you wrote “A Place to Belong” to be primarily faith neutral so that it could reach beyond one particular faith or group of people, but I have to say that I see and hear Jesus all throughout your book! His message of justice, hope, and love are beautifully interwoven in the stories you tell and the practical tips you provide. As a follower of Christ, how has your faith helped shape the message of your book?
Amber: I consider that the highest compliment one could give about my work, so thank you! My goal is to share ideas that flow from my love of Christ and my desire to do his will in all things. I try to share those ideas in practical ways that are relevant to all families regardless of their faith backgrounds. My mom used to ask us, “Do you want to be loud, or do you want to be heard?” I think of this often when I write. I choose to say what I have to say in a way that calls as many as possible to the conversation. I don’t always explicitly draw a connection to Scripture, but I try my best to ensure that the things I say align with my faith. To draw others close for safe and honest sharing and discourse is my goal.
My faith had a profound impact on the book. I know that God loves all of us and wants us to love one another, so my book couldn’t be divisive. I had to write humbly and with an open heart while also remaining true to my experiences and the emotional health of my family and community. It wasn’t easy, but by running everything through the filter of truth and grace, I think that I was able to tackle quite difficult topics that often derail today’s conversations on ethnicity, history, belonging, and community.
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At BioLogos, “gracious dialogue” means demonstrating the grace of Christ as we dialogue together about the tough issues of science and faith.
About the authors
Amber O'Neal Johnston
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