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How TV Time Fits into Our Homeschool’s Daily Routine

Everyday HomeschoolingShelli Bond Pabis2 Comments

Shelli's family watches documentaries every day—and screen time has become an important ritual for their homeschool routine. Here's why their daily documentary works for them.

How TV Time Fits into Our Homeschool’s Daily Routine

I commit that primordial parenting sin: I let my children watch a lot of television. And not only that, I let them watch during lunch and dinner. If you are shaking your head and thinking, Never would I allow my children to do this!, I don’t blame you. There was a time when I thought the same thing, and I fought against so much TV viewing. But in my house, I felt like a fish trying to swim upstream because I was the only one spoiling the fun. My husband loves watching TV, but fortunately, he’s not the kind of person to waste time in front of the TV or watch useless programming. On the contrary, he uses it to learn and relax. It took me a while to jump on board this boat.

I think the reason I fought against it is because when I was little, I usually ate alone with my food on a TV tray, watching TV My siblings were so much older than me that they were rarely home at mealtimes, and my father worked late, and my mother would wait to eat with him when he got home. When I became an adult, I longed to have a family meal around a table. Now I realize mealtimes at a table are more helpful to families who don’t spend all day together. My husband works at home, and we talk frequently during the day.

We decided we should make a habit of watching documentaries at least once a day, and with our Apple TV and Netflix, we have hundreds of documentaries we can watch. The thing about watching at lunch is that we always have this time to sit down together. During other parts of the day, one or more of us is too busy, but during meals we can relax, and the boys stay quieter and eat better while they watch television. So we watch part of a documentary every day at this time for about 30 minutes. (During dinner we may watch a cooking show or something else fun, though usually educational in its own way.)

The boys love the documentaries because they have been watching since they were babies. They don’t think documentaries are boring. There is something about watching them every day as a family that makes them extra special, and not only that, the documentaries have spurred interests, deeper inquiries, and good conversation, too. I can now challenge anyone who says that watching TV is passive and non-interactive! It all depends on how you do it.

For many years, we had to watch nature documentaries, i.e. documentaries about animals, because for little boys, any other documentary was a little boring. But now as they’re getting older, I see their interests expanding. They loved a documentary reenacting the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb, one about the Vikings, and they’re enjoying the more complex NOVA science documentaries too. They have probably learned more about science through these documentaries than all the science classes at the nature center or any of the science books I’ve read to them.

We have watched so many documentaries now that sometimes we visit the same place with a new photographer. “Oh, I remember seeing this place in another documentary,” one of us will say. Or we’ll notice when two documentaries use the same footage, which rarely happens, but occasionally it does. It’s always exciting to see something completely new, and this happens often. “Wow. I never knew that!” or “Where is that?!” we’ll cry out. Sometimes we are critical of the documentaries, and we discuss how the director may have manipulated the footage to make it too dramatic. Though we realize sometimes nature documentarians have to manipulate images or set the scene, we appreciate when this is done sparingly and only when necessary. So we have our favorites (BBC, PBS Nature), and then we have those we are wary of because too much license is taken.

We have also become huge fans of David Attenborough, considered a “rock star” to us geeky, documentary-watching families. I even went so far as to write him a letter, thank- ing him for his excellent programming, and he wrote me back a hand-written letter! (Swoon! I have framed his letter.)

I teach geography with the documentaries. I keep our globe handy, and I’ll find the place the documentary is taking us to. I’ll point it out to the boys, and we’ll all huddle around the map for a few moments. Sometimes the 6-year-old will go get the globe when I forget. I’m impressed that my boys know more about our world than I ever did at their age.

I have lived and traveled abroad in real life, and I will say that nothing quite compares to being in a foreign land, smelling the smells, listening to the sounds, and trying to speak the language. You can’t capture that with video. However, when you watch a documentary every single day over many years, it does something to your awareness of your place in the universe. You begin to piece together that vague and indescribable puzzle of how our world is functioning, and it reminds you that your troubles and cares are very minor in the big scheme of things.

You are also reminded that most of our world is incredibly beautiful. There are places I will never go, but I’m so glad someone ventured there so that I can see it through their lens. My boys have watched a tiger tend to her cubs and followed the dolphins in their cooperative effort to hunt for food. We have seen blizzards rage in Antarctica and watched Snowy Owls feed their chicks in the Arctic. We’ve seen tribes in the South American jungle who live strikingly different lives than we do, and we’ve followed an eccentric chef on his travels around the world.

You also begin to see how humans and animals are so similar.... a reminder that we are actually animals ourselves. We have similar needs, and our basic daily tasks are the same. When there is an anomaly in nature, we ooh and ahh, such as watching the male seahorse carry the eggs with his babies in a pouch on the front of his tail until the babies emerge, fully developed. It’s fascinating because it’s so out of the ordinary.

I have also learned that, as someone in a documentary so eloquently stated, “Life depends on death.” Everyday I see how this is true, and even as I sit there eating my lunch, my life depends on the death of other living things as well. The best documentaries do not gloss over how dangerous it is in the wild and how cruel nature can appear to be; yet somehow this realization has been uplifting to me. I am grateful for my life, and I fear death very little.

I no longer worry about the amount of television my boys watch. I have realized it’s up to me to make sure their lives have a variety of activities in them. So I schedule time for everything. We read books, do meaningful lessons, cook together, visit museums, play games together, and when the weather cooperates, we go outside together. When you look at all our activities as a whole, television is a mere fraction of that, but truth to tell, those documentaries are high on my priority list now, too.

I will even go so far as to say that spending the last few years watching nature documentaries everyday with my family has been one of the best experiences of my life. It is nothing like my experience watching TV alone while I was a child. We are a family who learns together while we eat. I have even seen the benefits of watching movies, children’s programming or the cooking shows we love because it is not a passive viewing. We don’t sit all day idly watching TV. We have specific goals to achieve, and the television is one of the tools we use to achieve those goals. When you gather around your television and use it to spark conversation and deeper learning, it’s a very worthy thing.

Readaloud of the Week: Frindle

Reading Listamy sharonyComment
By Andrew Clements

As a long-time logophile, I’ve more than once seized on an obscure word and proceeded to use it as much as possible in casual conversation (“Sorry to eat and absquatulate!”), but the hero of Frindle does me one better: He makes up a word that, meme-like, becomes a part of the English language.

It all starts with Mrs. Granger, Nick’s infamously tough fifth grade English teacher. Nick is a bright kid, smart enough to have the art of distracting his teachers down to a science, and he quickly cottons to Mrs. Granger’s weakness: the dictionary. “Where do words come from?” he asks, and Mrs. Granger’s answer gives him a brilliant idea: He’ll make up a word himself. Soon, all of his classmates are calling their pens “frindles,” following Nick’s lead, and Mrs. Granger is apparently horrified by their off-dictionary vocabulary. Before he knows it, the word “frindle” has swept the school, the city, and finally the nation, and when the story ends ten years later, “frindle” has worked its way into the dictionary, too—much, Nick is surprised to discover, to his old teacher’s delight.

What makes it a great readaloud: Besides being a fun and funny elementary book, Frindle raises great questions about how language develops and who decides what a word means. Sure, the book sticks with fairly straightforward answers, but it points the way to deeper discussions about how words have entered the lexicon (such as “truther” and “humblebrag,” which debuted in Merriam-Webster in 2017) or changed their meaning over time (see “nice” or “awful”). Frindle also encourages young readers to get excited about the possibilities of language for themselves, whether they want to make up new words like Nick or just use words in new ways.

But be aware: Clements’ books are delightful, but a lot of them do follow a similar pattern (kid has a great idea, great idea kids gets in trouble, kid is eventually vindicated, harmony is restored) —Frindle is no exception.

Quotable: “Who says dog means dog?” 

New Books: The Exact Location of Home

Reading Listamy sharonyComment

The Exact Location of Home
by Kate Messner
(Middle grades)

Zig’s a tinkerer, so when he lucks into a box of miscellaneous electronics at a garage sale, he’s intrigued by the GPS unit inside. As he’s checking out geocaching locations, he notices one poster with a name that could be his dad’s—and he wonders if it could be his dad’s way of contacting him, leaving him clues in the geocache. It’s a bright spot in an increasingly difficult time: His fun-loving but perpetually busy dad has been MIA for years, his mom’s waitress job is barely covering the grocery bill, and their nice landlady has been replaced by her son, who says they’ve got to pay their back rent or he’s going to evict them. Zig never thought he’d be sleeping in the car and sneaking in a shower at school or that a family shelter would start to feel like home, but that’s what happens when they can’t come up with the rent payment. 

Too ashamed to tell his friends (including Gianna, whom you may know from The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z—and if you don't, you should) what’s happening with his life, Zig can’t understand why his mom refuses to ask his dad for help—Zig knows if he knew what was happening, his dad would be there in a second to rescue them. He starts searching for geocache clues more and more, trying to figure out where his dad really is and what he might be trying to tell Zig. 

Homelessness is one of those Issues that used to pop up in my Scholastic book order form (along with Teen Pregnancy, Child Abuse, and Drugs), and it would be very easy for this book to veer into After-School Special territory. It doesn’t though, thanks in large part to Zig, who manages to be a normal, slightly geeky kid who just happens to become homeless. There’s no drama about it, just a slow, inevitable process of not being able to catch up the bills—his mom picks up every shift she can, but waitresses don’t make a lot of money, and she’s still trying to finish nursing school. Zig never falls into the stereotypical role of Homeless Boy; he’s just Zig, who happens to be homeless right now. This book manages to walk the fine line of being an actual story about an interesting person and addressing an important social issue.

Readers will suspect long before Zig that there’s a lot of wish-fulfillment going on in his geocaching search for his absent father, but the clues are fun to follow and his adventure’s resolution has surprising sweetness. It’s also interesting to see the role school plays in Zig’s new life: School is a place where he can safely take a shower, get free lunch, and get support from a kind librarian who notices when a kid is missing school supplies, but it’s also a place where people might tease him for being poor and where clueless teachers talk about helping “the less fortunate” while some of those less fortunate are squirming in the desks in front of them.

Zig sees the world as one big circuit, and his engineer’s brain wishes life could be as simple as fixing a broken toaster: Once you find the problem and repair it, the circuit completes and it starts working again. Having to figure out how things can work even when parts are missing or broken is part of Zig’s journey.

Stuff We Like :: 9.22.17

Stuff We Likeamy sharonyComment
home|school|life’s Friday roundup of the best homeschool links, reads, tools, and other fun stuff has lots of ideas and resources. 

Happy New Year! (Even if you don’t celebrate Rosh Hashanah, everybody could use a bonus fresh start, right? :)) We have had a wonderful week because my sister-in-law and her sweet family (including my new baby nephew who is perfect in every way) are visiting and I got to complain a lot about how terrible Agamemnon is while teaching the Iliad. (He’s the Worst, though!)

around the web

I had never heard of witness trees, but now I’m fascinated. (And they remind me of Katherine Applegate’s new book, which is at the top of my reading list.)

Ha! Excerpts from the all-girl remake of Lord of the Flies.

You know I will read anything about libraries in history, so obviously they had me at “Jacobean traveling library.”


at home/school/life

on the blog: We’re bringing back the newsletter!

on the blog: Maggie has some great advice for when your student can read but doesn’t want to.

one year ago: Carrie on why homeschool parents need field trips, too

two year ago: An imaginary friend helps a boy through a tough time in Crenshaw


reading list

My 10-year-old and I have been laughing our way through the Fudge books together, and I’m sad we just finished Fudge-a-mania because that means we’ve only got Double Fudge left.

I’ve got Sourdough waiting for me on my bedside table—hoping I have a chance to pick it up before the library demands it back!

I ordered a copy of the 10th anniversary edition of Veganomicon. My copy is pretty battered at this point, and I couldn’t resist 25 new recipes.


at home

I’m still trying to find my balance between teaching and working and homeschooling and mom-ing, but I keep reminding myself that I’m incredibly lucky that I love all the things I’m trying to balance. 

Suzanne and I joined litsy together as home-school-life-reads. (This is totally because of Stephanie, and she says you can blame her if our obsession with this Instagram+Goodreads social media app makes us late with the fall issue!)

4 Strategies to Help When You Start Feeling Like You’re Not Smart Enough to Homeschool

Homeschool Lifeamy sharonyComment

Because you’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and doggone it, you’re really doing this whole homeschool thing just fine

4 Strategies to Help When You Start Feeling Like You’re Not Smart Enough to Homeschool

When Julie* watched her always homeschooled daughter walk across the stage at her college graduation, she thought she’d never felt prouder. But underneath that, she felt something else—a familiar, buzzing nervousness that had nagged at her since the moment she’d decided to start homeschooling Anna and that had persisted even as Anna proved to be a curious, eager learner, even as she’d done well on her SAT and gotten accepted to her first-choice college with an academic scholarship. It was the feeling that someone was going to notice that Julie had screwed the whole thing up somewhere.

I’m waiting for someone to say, ‘Oh, sorry, excuse me, but you completely failed at homeschooling, and we’re actually going to have to take that diploma back. Sorry you ruined your daughter’s life!’

“I think part of me is always waiting for the other shoe to drop,” Julie says. “I’m waiting for someone to say, ‘Oh, sorry, excuse me, but you completely failed at homeschooling, and we’re actually going to have to take that diploma back. Sorry you ruined your daughter’s life!’ It’s crazy because clearly homeschooling was successful for us. But it’s hard for me to recognize that even now.”

Does that fear sound a little too familiar? The fact is, feeling like we’re constantly on the verge of completely failing our children can be just as much a part of the homeschool experience as baking soda volcanoes or carschooling. Almost all of us have heard—at least at one time or another—that voice whispering in the back of your head: You barely made it out of high school—what on earth qualifies you to teach another human being? What if my child still hasn’t learned to read by high school? How am I ever going to teach someone everything she needs to know to have a successful life? These are the kind of questions that keep you up at night.

In fact Julie’s experience—the feeling that despite your accomplishments and success, you’re always on the verge of being recognized as a failure—is so common that it has a name: Imposter Syndrome. And while homeschoolers—especially women homeschoolers—may be prone to Imposter Syndrome, it doesn’t have to leave us feeling like we aren’t smart enough to homeschool. Getting past Imposter Syndrome requires you to recognize all the ways that you actually are good enough/smart enough/capable enough, but that’s a process that takes time and patience. So while you’re working on breaking down your deep-seated insecurities, these strategies can help you cope with Imposter Syndrome when it rears its ugly head right now:

1. Focus on one thing at a time. People with Imposter Syndrome tend to grade themselves based on an impossible to-do list: Even when we do something great, our attention immediately shifts to focus on ten other things that we aren’t doing great (or that we haven’t gotten around to doing at all yet). This can be especially true for activities like homeschooling, where there aren’t clear measures for success—so there’s always somewhere we seem to be coming up short. Instead of focusing on that endless checklist, force yourself to hone in on one thing you’re doing really well. 

Try this: Figure out three big, important goals for your homeschool this year, and keep your attention focused on how well you're moving toward accomplishing those three things. If you get distracted by something that isn't on your goal list, let it go—or, if it feels really important, drop one of your other goals to incorporate it. (Give yourself permission to make a goal change once a year so that you're not resetting your goal posts constantly.)


2. Accept a compliment. Why are we always deflecting praise when it comes to us? When someone says “Your son is doing awesome in math,” it’s so easy to push back with “I wish he were doing so well in reading” or “No thanks to me!” By doing this, we reject the compliment and internalize insecurity. Not a great combo, right?

Try this: Next time someone compliments your homeschooling, repeat the compliment to yourself, nod to reinforce the positive feedback, and say “Thanks.”


3. Just stop talking. One tendency of people with Imposter Syndrome is to explain away our achievements. When you feel like a perpetual failure, highlighting all the reasons your great achievements aren’t so great ("It's just the curriculum," "Well, it's taken us three and a half years to do it," "It was actually really simple") helps you ease the discomfort of being recognized for your hard work. By minimizing what you’ve achieved, you’re also minimizing other people’s expectations of you—and your confidence in your own achievements.

Try this: When another homeschool parent seeks your input on something she thinks you're doing particularly well, fight the urge to explain away your achievement. Instead say, "Thanks, I've worked hard on that."


Stop giving the credit to luck. You work hard. You think about what you’re doing. Sure, there are moments where serendipity strikes your homeschool and things just seem to come together, but usually, those moments are the culmination of a lot of effort and patience on your part. You aren’t “lucky” that your home- school is going well—you’ve done the work, and you earned those great moments. Appreciate your role in your own success.

Try this: When you have a breakthrough moment in your homeschool, mentally give yourself a pat on the back and remind yourself that you've worked hard to create the conditions for that breakthrough to happen.


This list is excerpted from an article in the summer 2017 issue of HSL. You can read more about what contributes to feelings of imposter syndrome, how to recognize it in yourself, and how to effectively combat it long-term in that issue.

* last names omitted for online publication