Bishop James P. Powers and Loree Nauertz, associate director of the Office of Evangelization and Missionary Discipleship, chat before Mass on Saturday, Sept. 17. Nauertz, who has six boys, has homeschooled her children for years, and they have also attended Catholic and charter schools. (Catholic Herald photo by Anita Draper)
Catholic Herald staff
Networking, supporting and encouraging homeschooling parents was the objective of the Diocese of Superior’s inaugural homeschooling conference held Saturday, Sept. 17, at St. Joseph, Rice Lake.
“The goal was just to bring you all together and just see you and meet you,” said Loree Nauertz, associate director of the Office of Evangelization and Missionary Discipleship, who welcomed about 50 attendees to the daylong event.
Following greetings from Peggy Schoenfuss, director of Catholic Formation, and Chris Hurtubise, director of Evangelization and Missionary Discipleship, Bishop James P. Powers echoed their welcome and spoke of the close-knit homeschooling group in River Falls when he was serving in ministry there years ago.
“What a beautiful witness they were, and what a beautiful witness that homeschooling can be,” he said.
In his opening prayer, he asked God for homeschooling parents to be strengthened, encouraged and enlivened as educators of their children and of the world.
‘From head to heart’
Gina Loehr has an extensive resume. The author of five books and a speaker and professor, Loehr has a master’s degree in theology and six children ranging in age from kindergarten to ninth grade. She also lives on a 600-acre dairy farm in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, which, she observed, hasn’t yet hosted a similar event.
Loehr has homeschooled all her children at one time or another, but she does not homeschool them all at once. In an effort to answer the initial question of “Why do we homeschool?” Loehr emphasized that all parents homeschool for different reasons and advised listeners to take what she says “with a grain of salt.”
“You are building something that you have been graced to build, that you have been gifted … to build,” she added. The beauty of the homeschooling formula is “there is no template,” and, for those parents called to that vocation, their personal gifts determine how they will proceed.
For Loehr and her husband, academic studies are “access points” to their children’s hearts. “The mission is to be transformed,” aligned with God’s intentions.
When she was starting to homeschool her oldest, about a decade ago, she had a prayer on the wall: “Jesus, teach us how to see your truth and goodness and beauty.”
Those are the things that reach us in our hearts, she explained. What she was trying to do was give her kids access to truth and beauty and goodness, and “whatever we do in the classroom is all about serving in that mission.”
She also strives to educate them for wisdom, rather than just knowledge – wisdom that will help them discern truth from falsehood, beauty from ugliness and goodness from evil.
For the youngest children, the journey begins with drawing them out of their self-absorbed worlds by teaching them patience and self-control and showing them beauty through nature, art and more.
With elementary-age kids, Loehr aims to teach perseverance, self-discipline and diligence, that “hard work yields results.”
Middle-schoolers are ready to begin discernment – learning how to distinguish what is true, good and beautiful – and with high school students, she tries to help them navigate the process of living out goodness, truth and beauty.
Loehr spoke of the “disease of comparison-itis,” the tendency to compare one’s own situation with someone else’s and said she sees homeschooling as a tool, a means to an end rather than the end itself. If it becomes too burdensome, too hard and negative, she discerns a change. She doesn’t homeschool all her kids at once, she added, because she needs to maintain her own equilibrium and sanity.
Homeschooling as problem-solving
Loehr’s mom, Yvonne Giambrone, also spoke during the morning session. She is a licensed nurse and former preschool teacher.
The Giambrones began homeschooling their oldest child in 1982 when he was in fourth grade. His personality had changed; he’d gone from bubbly to quiet. His self-esteem had dropped, and he couldn’t do anything in school, despite that tests showed he was bright.
At the time, homeschooling was “radical, illegal, and my family said it was crazy,” Giambrone added. They hid in the basement. Her husband was a mathematician, so he taught math. She took care of the other subjects.
When they took him out of fourth grade, “he was like this petrified little rabbit,” she remembers. They had to slow everything down academically, but once he knew it was safe, “he zoomed.”
He was done with fourth-grade math by Christmas, Giambrone commented, and then he wanted to learn algebra.
A family tragedy led them to homeschool Loehr, their second child, as well. Her aunt died when she was very young, and she was traumatized, afraid to sleep. With her, Giambrone said they needed to resolve emotional issues before focusing on academics.
Their third child, a son named Joseph, hated to read, but he loved baseball. To encourage him, they bought him every baseball card they could find, and then he moved on to books about baseball. Now a Dominican friar assigned to Israel, he reads and speaks seven languages.
Giambrone’s parenting tip: If you need to say something negative, gently speak it. If you want to say something affirming, write it down, so they can see it.
“I’m not here to tell you it always went well,” she said of their homeschooling, which lasted from 1982-1987, until all the children had reentered the school system, but “it turned out well.”
Giambrone and her husband also wanted their values to be part of their kids’ education. Together they studied the lives of the saints, did a daily devotional and generally integrated their Catholic faith into the children’s schooling.
When she returned to school, Loehr had the sense that there was something “a little different” about their family. That brought challenges, she admitted, but it also made it easier to diverge from secular culture later on.
“I’ve always been different. It’s fine,” she told herself.
“Rootedness” was a major element of their family life growing up; they were immersed in it. “It was clear to us that family and faith were the most important things,” Loehr commented. Without that, “so many things later on could have gone so differently.”
Loehr acknowledged the challenge of homeschooling via Matthew 26:6, the passage where a woman pours expensive oil over Jesus’ head – and angers the disciples, who think it should have been sold and the money given to the poor. Jesus defends her, saying, “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.”
Struck by the woman’s courage and generosity, Loehr asked, “What is the costly thing that I have to give for Jesus?” For her, it’s time – she has a lot to do, and her time is valuable – and sometimes people wonder why she is wasting her time with homeschooling when her children could be educated by an institution. Her response is that homeschooling is an opportunity “to pour yourself out to Jesus” in the service of family, and in this passage, Jesus affirms the value of such actions.
On the practical side, she emphasized that parents called to homeschooling – and Loehr believes it is a calling – have all the tools they need to choose how to educate their children. Loehr has met women who look burdened, like they are “carrying a mountain and a half on their backs,” and she urged parents to trust their guts, “to be yourself and to create something that works for you, because that’s what going to work” for your family.
Maintenance to mission
Bishop Powers presided over Mass on the feast day of Italian theologian St. Robert Bellarmine, concelebrated by St. Joseph pastor Fr. Ed Anderson, after the morning session. During his homily, he spoke of going from “maintenance to mission” – an objective of the diocesan church echoed in the day’s reading from Corinthians – and the importance of bringing the truth of Christ to an unbelieving world, much as early Christians did.
“Those of us with faith, those of us that do believe, know that Christ has died for us,” he said.
In the Gospel from Luke, chapter 8, Jesus spoke in a parable about a sower planting seeds in various types of soil – thorny, rocky and then good soil, which “produced fruit a hundredfold.”
All those kinds of soils are in each and every one of us, Bishop Powers advised. “Sadly, perhaps, the rock might be something that we think is the richest soil of our lives …. The world we live in today is so sad. So much division, so much anger, so much finger-pointing, and how easy it is to entrench into ourselves.”
“We can’t condemn others,” he summarized. Rich soil comes with sharing the gift of faith.
“We need to become that witness that St. Paul was, that Robert Bellarmine was, that our parents and grandparents (were),” he continued.
They may not have had degrees in theology, but they gave that gift of faith, he said. The love of God is hopefully flowing through us, flowing through all people.
He challenged listeners to “find one place in Scriptures where Jesus doesn’t treat others with dignity and respect.” Even in dying, he begs God, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
But, he added, “Jesus never promises easy.” He is sending up out with the gift of his strength, which is given not for us to keep to ourselves, but to share with the world as witnesses of Christ.
“Pray that all the choices that we make … enable us to be fed by our God,” he added. “As the psalm says, let us walk in the presence of God, in the light of the living. There’s no darkness that isn’t drawn to the light.
“In attracting others, may we help them to see that light as well,” he concluded. “Pray that we will love one another as we love our God.”
In her afternoon session, Loehr sought homeschooling guidance from the Bible. In Matthew 16:25, when Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” Loehr said she had always focused on carrying the cross until she was struck one day by the broader meaning.
“The primary invitation is to come after me, to be with me, to follow me,” she said.
In Matthew 14:15, the feeding of the five thousand with the fishes and loaves, Jesus says, “There’s no need for them (the crowd) to go away. Give them some food yourselves.”
She applied the passage to homeschooling – the opportunity to outsource the education of children vs. “feeding” them at home – and studied how in the passage, Jesus told the disciples to bring the food to him, then blessed it and gave it back for distribution. Afterward, enough leftovers were collected to fill 12 wicker baskets; in this, Loehr reads that Jesus is not asking his followers to do the miracle. Whatever resources homeschooling parents have, “give it to Jesus … let him do the multiplication.”
She emphasized that parents have all the tools they need: “The one thing we can’t do is doubt we are equipped to feed our children.”
In Matthew 18:1, Jesus tells his disciples they must become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven.
“We are called to be with and learn from our children,” Loehr interpreted. Parents think a lot about how they are shaping their children, but “there’s a call to learn from our children … to see that God is speaking to us through these little souls.”
In Matthew 5:43, Jesus tells his followers to love their enemies. Children are not enemies, Loehr clarified, but reflecting on how sometimes “you have your ups and your downs and your downs and your downs,” she remembers times when the difficulty of homeschooling has made her second-guess her decision.
One of the challenges for parents is the lack of affirmation or recognition for “pouring yourself out so much,” she added, and although children are not enemies, they can be “the greatest source of struggle in our lives.” Homeschooling parents don’t have the same opportunity to step away from that challenge, she acknowledged, but difficult children do provide an opportunity to give without being affirmed or repaid.
When she was engaged, Loehr did an internship with the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s order, at an AIDS hospice. Her tasks: mopping the floor, folding sheets, changing diapers. Doing ordinary domestic work was “not some mystical religious experience,” she recalls, and she wondered what transformed the experience for the sisters.
She realized the reason they found satisfaction was because they believed they were encountering Jesus; Loehr applies the same insight to Jesus in the “distressing disguise” of a child who is defiant or selfish or difficult – it is an invitation to draw closer to God.
As Loehr neared the end of her presentation, she assured listeners who found themselves in the “Martha” role – feeling overburdened and anxious, “wanting to do it all” – the essential education is the discipleship, not the lesson plan.
The role of motherhood sometimes feels tied “to what I’ve done or accomplished,” but the primary goal is to receive the word of God, keep it and live it. The call is challenging, she continued. “We sometimes feel ill-equipped,” or fall into “thinking we have to be perfect.”
“What is the perfection of God in heaven?” she pondered. “It is love.”
The call for homeschool is a call for perfect love, she added, not for a perfect curriculum or temperament or a perfect house or being perfectly dressed, and God “has given us the power” to succeed.
Nauertz spoke briefly following Loehr’s second session, and attendees broke into small groups for a second time. The day ended with a panel discussion.
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