A Place to Belong, Interview with Amber O’neal Johnston

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This week on Homeschool Highschool Podcast: A Place to Belong, Interview with Amber O’neal Johnston.

Interview with Amber O'neal Johnston

A Place to Belong, Interview with Amber O’neal Johnston

In all our six years of podcasting, we have only invited an author back twice. And then we read a book called A Place to Belong by Amber O’Neal Johnston – with the subtitle “Celebrating Diversity and Kinship in the Home and Beyond” – and we knew we just had to talk to this homeschool mom for the second time. She has been interviewed on NPR and Christianity Today, among other places, and we wanted her back here with us to chat about her book and homeschool journey. 

About Amber O’Neal Johnston

If you are a homeschooler, you probably already know Amber through her Heritage Mom website and resources.

Amber lives outside of Atlanta, Georgia with her husband, Scott, and her four children. They have been homeschooling from the beginning, even though they were the “least likely candidates for homeschooling”, according to Amber. She grew up with two public school principals as parents, her sister and grandfather are elected public school officials on the school board, and her husband is a product of public education just as she was, so it made sense to continue with what they knew. Which is why the thought of not being anywhere near the public school systems was unfathomable.

But when her oldest was about three or four years old, her husband approached her wanting to give homeschooling a try.

And because he is such a jokester, Amber assumed this to be just one of his jokey pranks. Yet, the next week, he approached Amber again about homeschooling, admitting that he was not joking about wanting to educate their child at home. 

Amber took the next several months to research homeschooling and discuss the options with other people. And even though many of these people did not exactly agree with her about homeschooling in general, they did all agree with how a child’s education should be in the early years. They all said to not rush the children into learning and to let them have a childhood, one that moves at their own pace, along with plenty of time outdoors. Kids need to learn to use their hands, work on habits, and strengthen character development. 

Through Amber’s research and her discussions, she started thinking she had this all wrong – the idea of how children should be raised. She and her husband then started homeschooling in order to accelerate their children, and today, seven years later, they continue to homeschool to give their kids a fuller kind of slower paced lifestyle.

About “A Place To Belong” by Amber O’Neal Johnston

It began with Amber looking for a book that would help her focus on what she could be working on in her home.There are books about the corporate world and healthcare and what the government should be doing and broader society, but as a mom with her children, she could not find very many books that were talking about societal issues in terms of race and ethnicity and diversity with inclusion of equity.

And the books she did find seemed like they were almost asking the readers to make a choice between celebrating the child in front of you and ignoring the uniqueness of that child in order to all come together. 

Amber wants to have a celebratory home atmosphere where her kids feel like she sees them and loves what she sees.

But at the same time, she does not want them to become so self-centered and always inwardly focused that they fail to reach out to other people and all the wonderful things that she wants them to believe about themselves and other people too. Because of the limited books there were, Amber decided to write the book she was searching for and having trouble finding. 

In the book, she shares what her journey has been like in their own home, so it is part memoir, along with lots of storytelling. Amber also wants to make a kind of anthropological contribution to the literary world in terms of what a homeschooling mom is in this day and age with children living in a mid-covid divisiveness world. She added this to her book and made it a bit of a manifesto. 

Amber also wanted to offer some guidance to parents, like her, who were sitting at home and wanting to make a difference, but could not go out and do all the impact. She believes the impact that we make when we raise our children to think differently is underestimated. Because of this, her book evolved into part guide, part memoir, and part manifesto, which ultimately led Amber into creating a book that is unlike any other book on the market today.

A good book serves teens as a mirror to themselves and a window to the world. Amber O'neal Johnston

Takeaways From The Book

Books And Mirrors

Reading the book is like reading three books integrated in a very beautiful way. And what can really catch your heart is the beauty of the writing. Because of the excellent writing talent, the book is communicated in a way that feels so beautiful that it also helps you think about what it’s discussing.

One of those beautiful topics is the concept of books and mirrors and windows. 

When Amber first started working with her children, she was using a lot of book lists. The book lists contained some amazing books on the lists, but her children were not responding to all the books in the same way. And one of my children made the point to tell Amber that they never read books with people that look like her, which broke Amber’s heart because that wasn’t something that she had done intentionally. 

She did not really know what her children should be reading, which is why she was using book lists. But the more she investigated, the more she realized the book lists were not expansive enough. 

She came up with the concept of books being mirrors, literary mirrors, where your children can see themselves and their families and communities reflected. Where life experiences and the way the kids see the world is actually something that’s shared culturally with other people, starring children or adults who are out there changing the world.

And this concept or idea does not stop there. We can also look to books as windows of ourselves in all ages. Everyone can learn about other people and how they live and how they see the world by reading their words and their experiences. 

The Dangers of the Single Story

In A Place To Belong Amber talks about the dangers of the single story. When we are looking at windows, we cannot just open a general window about a girl in Pakistan, for example, and see what her life is like. Because there are many books about girls in Pakistan, and each of the books come from a completely different direction.

The power of story is important. We need to get a variety of different stories before we can even begin to piece together someone else’s experience, even from the outside from our perspectives. 

Be an "askable" parent. -Amber O'neal Johnston

Be An “Askable” Parent

One of the brilliant concepts you’ll find inside of Amber’s book is about being an “askable” parent. Let your kids ask questions or have opinions that you don’t shoot down and that you listen to. It is so important to be an “askable” parent and allow children to explore and grow in that way.

A Study Guide For Moms

Even though there is so much to think about in the book, it can also be used as a study guide for moms, as found in the back of the book. Moms can sit with a group of other moms and discuss the chapter with prompt questions. So for us geek key moms, I think we will all enjoy.

Where You Can Find More About Amber O’Neal Johnston

Under the brand name “Heritage Mom”, Amber writes and speaks about a variety of things. One of those areas is general homeschooling, and even then, she is working to help just diversify even the stories within the homeschooling world. 

  • She shares her own book lists now where she reveals tons of fiction books.

    • She also breaks down historical books, or history books by historical time periods, because so many homeschoolers pace their years in that way. With this timeline, people can look up each historical time period and find Amber’s recommendations for them, such as black history books that her family has really enjoyed or biographies, historical fiction, non-fiction, picture books, poetry, art, music, and so on.
  • You can also find packs called Heritage Packs, which are topical lesson guides.

    • Amber created these because she was often frustrated with trying to teach her children about things that only contained minimal information. These were the lesson plans she created with her own children when they studied topics for the year, and she’s now sharing them with other homeschoolers.You can find these Heritage Packs on her website along with which videos to use and which books to read and when to read them. 
  • In addition to her website and blog, you can also find Amber active on Instagram and Facebook as well as see her speaking at various conferences throughout the year.

    • She has spoken at about thirteen conferences this past season alone where she shares some of these ideas found in her book with other homeschool parents across the nation. 

She helps parents know how to articulate and pursue the concepts in her book because we are all in this homeschooling community together and in the world together. Her wish is to have other parents open those windows and give their kids the mirrors for themselves, so they feel good and be accepted right at home, along with being accepted in the world outside. 

Join Vicki and Amber for a discussion full of wisdom and encouragement.

This episode was transcribed by our friend, Richie Soares from Homeschool and Humor.


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