Everyday Homeschooling

You Asked: How to Organize your Homeschool Library

You Asked: How to Organize your Homeschool Library

The key to useful and accessible homeschool library: Good organization. If you want to wrangle your book collection into a well-organized library, you’re going to have to get hands-on. Here’s how.

At Home with the Editors: A Day in the Life of a Homeschool Mom

At Home with the Editors: A Day in the Life of a Homeschool Mom

One time an acquaintance I know (who doesn’t homeschool her kids) told me that she imagined the homeschooling life to be very relaxing, and she thought that we would have lots of time during our days to do whatever we wanted. [Can we add a laugh track here?]

On one hand, I think homeschooling is pretty awesome because we’re in charge of our time, and there is a freedom in this. However, to say it’s always relaxing or that we can do whatever we want is a myth. As my children get older, and as they become more dedicated to certain interests, I have found our free time shrinking. I look back with nostalgia on those days when I had a toddler and 1st grader. We had fun doing easy activities, going on playdates, and exploring nature and storybooks. Although it’s very hard work to take care of small children, the work I did with them wasn’t hard, and I got to pick what we did!

To say homeschooling always relaxing or that we can do whatever we want is a myth.

This past year I had a 4th grader and a 1st grader, and it was a great year, but it was different from past years. It felt more academic and regimented. This was mostly because my 4th grader has been devoting himself to learning classical piano in a competitive way. This is his thing, and he wants to do it. It’s been an awesome journey for all of us, but relaxing? With lots of free time? Nope. 

With this in mind, I thought I’d write what my daily schedule looked like this year—the whole day. Although, it makes me feel a little exposed to write about this. Parents can be so judgmental, and simply writing a list doesn’t give you the real picture of our daily life.

Keep in mind that no two days are the same. Three days a week I took one of my sons to an appointment or two. Some days we would take a break from something or everything! At least once a month we’d have a play date. Weekends were free.  Next year, our schedule may change. Our days are always in flux, but in general, this is our daily routine. It’s a routine that has developed to work around our obligations as well as our personal interests. For the most part, it is fun! But it’s also a lot of work!

The times listed are approximate start times, but we’re often running late on everything!

  • 7:30ish a.m. I wake up. Read news, yoga, check e-mail, sometimes write.

  • 8:30-9:00 a.m. Boys wake up. I fix them breakfast and eat with them. I may put laundry in. Do some dishes. We get dressed. Boys will play before we transition to lesson time.

  • 10:00 a.m. Begin morning lessons. I try to read aloud to both boys for about 30 minutes. Then my 10-year-old works on math, grammar, music theory, etc. My 7-year-old gets to play while 10-year-old does one-on-one lessons with me. We usually do this until lunchtime.

  • 12:00-12:30 p.m. Lunch time. Boys play while I make lunch. My husband joins us while we watch part of a nature, history, or science documentary. (He works from home.)

  • 1:00-1:30 p.m. Clean up dishes. Boys help sweep & clear dishes. More “transitional” play.

  • 1:30 p.m. Husband sits with my 10-year-old while he practices piano for at least an hour, sometimes more. I go upstairs to do one-on-one lessons with my 7-year-old. We do math, reading, handwriting, a science book readaloud, play games, and read about birds.

  • 2:30 or 3:00 p.m. Whew. We’re all tired now. The boys watch a kids’ program and then play games on their digital tablets and/or computer. This is my 1~1.5 hours of free time when I might do any of the following: take a walk, nap, cook, bake, write, check social media, clean, more laundry (always laundry). I tend to rotate these activities and do what seems most pressing at the time.

  • 4:00 p.m. Boys finish playing games and the 10-year-old will go outside to play. 7-year-old either plays inside with his toys or goes outside. If I haven’t already, I need to start thinking about dinner, but I usually put this off. I prefer to sit on the front porch and watch the boys play. Or I putter in the garden.

  • 4:30 p.m. This is the time that my 7-year-old likes to practice piano. I sit and listen and/or run back and forth to kitchen while cooking dinner.

  • 5:00 or 5:30 p.m. Dinner. Lately we’ve been watching Star Trek: The Next Generation together. This show starts lots of great conversations!

  • 6:00 or 6:30 p.m. I do the dishes. Boys help clean up. More play.

  • 6:30 or 7:00 p.m. My 10-year-old practices piano again for another hour. My husband is his audience again, and many times, I am too. But I usually go off with the 7-year-old to either play a game, sketch together or paint…. whatever he wants to do.

  • 7:30 or 8:00p.m. Boys take showers & get ready for bed.

  • 8:30-9:00p.m. Boys watch gaming YouTube videos. Eat snacks. I take my shower and get ready for bed. Then I curl up in bed and watch something on Masterpiece Theatre.

  • 9:30ish p.m. Boys clean up and go upstairs. I read books to them. Daddy talks with them about their day.

  • 10:15 p.m. Lights out for the boys. I retreat to my bed to read a book!

  • 11:00 p.m. Lights out for me!

Does anyone else’s schedule resemble mine? Let’s commiserate/celebrate together!


At Home with the Editors: Shelli's Summer Homeschool

At Home with the Editors: Our Summer Homeschool

Summer can have a mind of its own, so I know that making a firm agenda for these hot months is futile. Still, past summers have proved that we benefit from a little structure in our days. So I do a few homeschool lessons during the summer, and I also make summertime my time for planning, record-keeping, and cleaning up for a new year. While I do these “administrative” things, my boys have extra time to play, so that makes them happy.

 

LESSONS

First, I keep our homeschool lessons light. This year, I decided to only do Spanish and readalouds during our morning lesson time. I’ve struggled to include a foreign language in our homeschool in the past, so by putting away almost everything else for now, it’s easy to do one Spanish lesson per day. (I’m trying out Calico Spanish Level A right now, and I’ll let you know how we like it!) I also have a number of books that I never get around to reading to the boys during the winter months, so now is my chance.

 

PLANNING

It’s great to take a long time to plan and think about what I want to do with the boys in the fall. I have some new curricula to try out, and instead of feeling like I have to read through it all and understand how to use it right away, I have all summer to peruse it. I use my time wisely by going through my curricula (old and new) about once a week until I’ve looked at everything and made my plans. I’m very excited to begin exploring the Institute for Excellence in Writing’s Teaching Writing: Structure and Style and Student Writing Intensive DVD courses this summer. I hope that they may be a good fit for my son beginning in the fall.

 

RECORD-KEEPING

The biggest project I undertake every summer is our record keeping. By law, I have to write progress reports for both my boys, but since it’s for our eyes only, I consider it more of a keepsake. I write a list of every subject, and under each heading, I use bullet points to list all the curriculum, books, field trips, and classes that my boys have completed that year. Then, since I’m a photographer, I create a slideshow of the photographs from our homeschool year. My boys love watching the slideshow because they’ve usually forgotten what they were doing at the beginning of the year!

 

CLEANING

I’m not talking about cleaning my house when I talk about cleaning up our homeschool, although the de-cluttering I do definitely benefits the house. First, I go through homeschool supplies and books and get rid of the things I don’t think we’ll need anymore. (I give good stuff to charity and throw away the rest.) I also like to go through anything the boys may have built or made that year, and I ask them what they want to keep and throw away. This year, I did a deep purge of craft supplies and the recyclables that my eldest son used to use to make things with. He just isn’t into building anymore, and his younger brother is more into drawing and painting. So I have made more room for paints and paper. 

I also store away the binders with last year’s work, progress reports and everything else we finished. While I try to let go of things, I probably keep a lot more than I need. But there’s always time to declutter again next summer or the summer after that.

What is homeschooling like during the summer for you? Do you take a break from everything, or do you homeschool year-round?


At Home with the Editors: Inside Amy’s 9th Grade

Today, I’m sharing some of the resources I use with my 9th grader.

Every year, Shelli and Amy open the door and invite you to step inside their homeschool lives. (Please ignore the mess!) We talk about the resources we're using in our own homeschools and how we structure our days. There are lots of ways to homeschool, and we don't think our way is the best—just the one that happens to be working best for our particular families at this particular time. If nothing else, you will get a behind-the-scenes look in the homes of the editors of home / school / life, but if something here helps you, all the better! Today, Amy's talking about how she homeschooled 9th grade this year.

Because there’s a pretty significant age gap between my kids (six years), I decided to do two separate posts to make things easy for myself. Today, I’m sharing some of the resources I use with my 9th grader. (You can see what 7th grade and 8th grade looked like for us in the archives, and you can see my high school planning post here.)

So first things first: We survived our first year homeschooling high school! In fact, I would go so far as to say that it’s been one of our most enjoyable homeschool years to date. I felt like we were trying to strike a difficult balance—I wanted to make things academic enough to prepare her for a competitive college (in case that’s what she decides to do) without giving up the fun parts of homeschooling that make the experience worthwhile. Overall, I think we succeeded reasonably well.

 

U.S. History and Literature

We did this as a sort of combination class, but I did go through the steps (they’re not difficult) to get my syllabus approved by the College Board so that we could call the history part AP U.S. History on her syllabus. For our spine, we used a pretty traditional textbook, The American Pageant. I am not a fan of textbooks generally speaking, but it helped to have the whole class outlined in one book. We supplemented with tons of books (if people are interested, I can do a 9th grade book list in a future post—Edited: I wrote one!), some of which we read together and some of which we read separately.

The big challenge with history — for us, anyway — was following such a specific timeline. We are year-round, as-we-go homeschoolers, so we’re used to taking our time with things. Having to cover a set amount of material within a set timeframe was a new thing for us and not always easy — we’d sometimes have to keep moving, even though we wanted to spend more time on something. (We kept a list of things we want to return to this summer, but it’s not the same.) We also did several practice tests and essays to prepare for the AP test this spring, something else we wouldn’t usually do. My daughter did well on her practice tests and said she felt good about the exam, but whatever score she ends up with, I think working toward a focused goal on a focused timeline was a good experience for her — but I definitely wouldn’t want every class to feel this narrow!

For literature, we worked our way through the Norton Anthology of American Literature (the condensed, two-volume 8th edition) and read a range of novels, from Hawthorne to Faulkner. (Favorite: The Great Gatsby. Least favorite: The Red Badge of Courage.) Our interest here was in what, specifically, made this literature American, and reading it as we studied U.S. History really helped with that, I think. Literature is always one of our favorite classes, and we did most of the readings together as readalouds. (We love readalouds.) We did read a lot of novels by white men this year, but I’m actually proud of that fact: We’ve done such a good job keeping a diverse reading list that we had to catch up on some classics this year.

We’d typically work on history three-ish days a week, reading a chapter in The American Pageant and working up a list of short-answer questions as we read. There are lots of online resources for this book, so we’d usually check our list of questions against one online to see how they compared. We do annotated reading, so we mark the text as we go, making notes, highlighting important terms, dates, and people, and summarizing key points as we’re reading. Each night, my daughter would use her annotated book to copy notes down into her history notebook — she enjoyed this part because she got to make her notebook pages aesthetically pleasing, and writing things down is almost always helpful for remembering them. We also made notecards for important people, terms, and events so that we could review them — we’d pull them out after dinner or when we were waiting at the doctor’s office or something, and flip through them together. And we’d do a three-question quiz for each other each week and grade it according to the AP test rubric— I feel like grading my answers was as helpful for her as writing her own. We’d read related books — sometimes together, sometimes separately — to broaden and deepen our understanding of different topics and to make sure our class included women and people of color in a meaningful way.

We read together every day, so literature is part of our daily routine. I have never found a literature curriculum that I really like, so I didn’t even try with high school — I knew I would be making it up myself. We read aloud together every day, but with the amount of reading we did, we also had to read on our own to keep up. Again, we do annotated reading, so we mark up our books for discussion as we go. (This does mean that we’re often reading books or parts of books twice—once together out loud and again to annotate. I’m a big believer in rereading, so this is fine with me.) We had a particular theme this year — what makes something American literature? — so that was the thread running through all our conversations. As usual, we wrote several short essays throughout the class and one large (25-page) research paper at the end of the class. We also continued our family poetry tradition by memorizing a poem every week or so — we focused on works by poets from the United States.

As far as the AP test goes, whatever her score ends up being, I think it was a good experience for us. We did have to call around to find a spot for her to take the test, which got a little stressful (though now I have a great place for future AP test-taking!), and we took two full practice tests before the actual test, which felt very school-y. She said she felt pretty confident coming out of the test, and she scored well on the practice tests, so at least I can feel like she was well-prepared. This is probably the first of a few AP classes that we’ll do for high school, so we can apply all the practical things we learned this year to future classes.

 

Comparative Literature

If you read the spring issue, you know all about how we put together our Studio Ghibli-themed comparative literature class, in which we watched Studio Ghibli’s adaptations of books, including The Secret World of Arrietty (an adapatation of The Borrowers), Tales from Earthsea (an adaptation of A Wizard of Earthsea), Howl's Moving Castle (an adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle), and When Marnie Was There (an adaptation of When Marnie Was There), and compared them to the books. This was probably our favorite class.

 

Japanese 

I’ve mentioned how sad I was when my daughter decided to trade Latin (which we’d done together since 3rd grade) for Japanese, but it’s awesome that she was so excited about something none of us really knew anything about. At first I thought we might be able to piece it together with an online program and a good textbook, but that did not prove successful, so we ended up hiring a native Japanese speaker for twice-a-week one-on-one lessons. This was not cheap, but it has been totally worth it — my daughter has learned a lot, and I have someone I can ask when a question comes up. (That was the hardest part of introducing something I really don’t know to our homeschool — not having someone to ask my stupid questions!) The books we ended up using were Japanese From Zero and the Genki textbook. My daughter’s not fluent or anything, but it’s helping her make sense of anime and manga in their original forms, which was one of her big goals, so I say it’s a win. We’ll be sticking to this plan for next year. 

Schedule-wise, we used a similar pattern to the one we used when we were studying Latin: We make vocabulary flashcards and review them about three times a week. (My daughter loved making these because she got to write Japanese characters.) She’d study a chapter in the book with her tutor, then work on the exercises between sessions and go over her work with her tutor at their second session. About once a month, we’d all watch a Japanese movie with subtitles together — I am not sure this actually helped with her Japanese study, but it was a fun way to connect the rest of the family to her studies.

 

Math

I did nothing for math this year, and it was wonderful — Jason did it all, and he did it brilliantly. (If you are in Atlanta, he teaches a few classes, and I am not the only person who raves about his high school math teaching ability!) He has his own curriculum that he uses, but it’s basically a spiral approach that reinforces middle school concepts that kids might not have totally grasped while moving kids into high school math. He mixes up algebra, geometry, and trig, so that you’re always working on something new and on something that feels familiar, so he builds his student’s math confidence and skills at the same time. I was worried that it might not work for our daughter, but it’s been terrific. (And not that we are obsessed with test scores, but her math SAT score took a huge jump this spring.)

 

Science

High school science is really hard to homeschool — there’s just not a lot of good stuff out there. I wanted something that’s more rigorous than “oh, hey, here are these fun experiments,” but also something that still had lots of hands-on experiments (that I could swing in a reasonably equipped home laboratory) and that really explained scientific ideas. This year, we used Holt’s Physical Science, and while it was fine, it wasn’t earthshakingly great, and I ended up doing a ridiculous amount of supplemental book and lab hunting. Physical science covers a wide range of topics (from the laws of motion to geology), so tracking down good books and labs took a ton of research. It was worth the effort, though.

We did roughly a lesson a week, usually reading the text as a kind of orientation and then following up with a more engaging book about the topic at hand. We did an experiment for each topic, keeping a lab notebook for lab reports. (We’ve progressed beyond worksheets, so we just broke down the sections in her notebook so that she could give each section as much space as she wanted.) We usually did our experiments during the weekend, which was a time when I knew we could set up, perform, and clean up a lab without anyone having to get stressed out. (My daughter didn’t love this, so we’ll try something different in the fall.) As with history, she did annotated readings and transferred notes to her science notebook every day.

She also did a science fair project — none of our groups does a science fair, so it was really just her doing a project, but it sounds more fun to call it a science fair project. She had to come up with a question and a hypothesis, figure out a way to test it, and present her results. She really enjoyed this — I definitely want to incorporate more projects like this into her high school experience. (Maybe I can get a proper fair going at Jason’s school this year—it would be more fun to do this as a group, I think.)

 

Other Stuff

What I think of as “actual hands-on class time” took up more time this year, which I guess isn’t really surprising. My daughter found time to take a couple of Craftsy drawing classes (one was great and one was so-so — read the reviews before you sign up!), and she continued with her guitar lessons and worked on several crochet projects. She joined me and her 3rd grade brother for nature journaling occasionally, but it was definitely not a frequent occurrence this year. (That was a little sad for me, but she really did have a lot going on.)

As far as scheduling goes, we stuck (mostly) to our regular routine, which means my daughter started schoolwork whenever she woke up and felt ready—usually around 11 a.m. We’d work together for a few hours (usually about three), and she’d also do a couple of hours of work on her own, usually after the rest of us went to bed, which is when she likes to work. She did go to Jason’s math lab on Tuesdays and Fridays, so she had to wake up early on those days, and we did set the alarm for the one SAT practice test she took this year so that we could more accurately reflect the test conditions. Because our schedule is loose, there’s no compelling reason to implement an early morning start time, and my daughter really likes sleeping in. We’d sit down on Sunday evening and talk through the week ahead — what our schedule looked like, what we wanted to accomplish, any looming deadlines, etc. — and review the previous week together. My daughter kept up with her own schedule and deadlines — last year, there was a big learning curve with that, but this year, all went smoothly. Her transcript came together pretty easily, probably because we did so much big picture planning up front.

The work we did last year to prep for high school—working on papers, practicing taking notes, setting concrete goals for classes, adding more to our to-do list—definitely helped make the transition easier. I highly recommend building some of those skills before you get to the classes that require you to use them on a regular basis.

I think it helped that we’ve been homeschooling for several years now, so we know what works for us. It’s not as hard to plan out the year or figure out the right resources because we have a clear idea of what we want: We’re very bookish, and my daughter learns best through reading and writing, so we tend to build our year around those things. (That also happens to be how I learn best, so I got lucky there.) We like to go for depth rather than breadth, so we’re likely to build a framework that allows us to focus on a few specific areas instead of trying to recreate a survey class. I feel like we tried a lot of different things over the years to figure out what worked best for us, and now we kind of get to reap the rewards of those efforts, which is kind of nice.

I was nervous about homeschooling high school, but this ended up being such a great year — I think we both really enjoyed it once we figured out how to make it work. (The Japanese thing was hard to get sorted!) One of my big goals was not to lose the fun, relaxed spirit that I think is one of the best parts of homeschooling for us, and I think we managed that, even though the workload for both of us definitely increased. The work we did last year to prep for high school — working on papers, practicing taking notes, setting concrete goals for classes, adding more to our to-do list — definitely helped make the transition easier. I highly recommend building some of those skills before you get to the classes that require you to use them on a regular basis. I would say my two big lessons from this year were 1.) get help if you need it — you probably can’t teach everything, and 2.) don’t get so bogged down by details that you lose sight of what you want the big picture for your homeschool to be. Wrapping my head around homeschooling high school was a little scary, but I’m so glad we took the plunge. It’s so much fun.


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Homeschool Rewind: Winter

This winter has been a challenging homeschool season.

OK, I’m a little late with my winter homeschool update, but that is actually metaphorically sound. This winter has been a challenging homeschool season. I’ve been spoiled for most of our homeschool life by having a super-flexible work schedule and a partner whose schedule allows him to work from home most of the time, too. Now that Jason’s running an actual school, there are days when I have to get up and get dressed and get everyone out of the house before my second cup of coffee kicks in, and it has been an adjustment. These are the seasons when I am glad we homeschool year-round—otherwise, I’d be stressing about whether we were actually doing enough work.

Other than scheduling, this has actually been a lovely season of homeschooling. I was nervous about our first year of homeschooling high school (I might have mentioned it a few times), but now that we’re well into it, I think it’s one of the most satisfying years of homeschooling we’ve had so far. With earlier grades, we’re interested in “what does this mean?” and “why does it matter?” — totally valid, interesting questions. But I love that high school pushes us to also ask “what does that tell us about the world we live in?” and “how does that connect to what else we know?” The hardest part has been Japanese, which my daughter was passionate about studying but which no one in our family has any real knowledge of. I’ll talk more about it in my end-of-the-year wrap-up, but we ended up hiring a tutor and using a combination of GENKI I: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese and Japanese from Zero for texts. This was good for me: I can’t do it all, and I couldn’t do this. But I don’t have to do it all. It’s a useful reminder. (And our tutor is awesome.)

Having two kids is great because it keeps me from getting overconfident—whatever works with one of them is almost absolutely guaranteed NOT to work with the other one. This year, it’s language arts. Suzanne and I were talking about it on the podcast, but my daughter would write just because she loved writing — she used to play school and write essays for each of the different students, grade them, and have the students revise them. (Gunther, I recall, did only the most slapdash revisions.) My son, on the other hand, would happily embrace any reason not to write. (Recent reasons have included: “This pencil is itchy” and “The lines on the paper distract me.”) We’ve fallen into an uneasy but tentatively effective program, combining Patricia’s brilliant dictation method (I could not homeschool without it) and comic book pages (which he seems to have more patience with), and I’m trying to just take it one day at a time. 

This is maybe a superfluous thing, but it’s been so great I want to mention it: For Hanukkah this year, my mom bought the kids bungee chairs. They are awkwardly shaped and look a little silly, but holy cow, these chairs are little miracle workers. My bouncy, can’t-sit-still son can read in one for long stretches of time and my daughter likes bobbing up and down while she’s doing math. Who knew chairs could make such a difference? 

What about you? What was your winter homeschool like?


52 Weeks of Happier Homeschooling Week 17: Keep a NO List

Death to Stock Photos

Death to Stock Photos

Homeschoolers are always making lists—books to read, field trips to take, websites to check out—so we’re definitely no strangers to the joys of a good list. But one list that we often skip is the NO list—a list of things that we’re not going to worry about, wonder about, or fret about—at least for the time being.

My list includes things like “using coupons,” “cleaning out the garage,” “my son’s reading habits,” and “standardized test prep.” All of these are things I have worried about, I could still legitimately worry about, and some people might think I should worry about—but I’m not going to. Not right now anyway. I’m worrying about other things (notably algebra and handwriting practice this year). I’m too busy to worry about whether I should participate in a homeschool focus group—so I say “no, thanks” and put it on my NO list. I’m more concerned about getting through AP U.S. History this year than I am about whether my daughter should try another sport—so we take more walks, and I put “find a physical activity for O” on my NO list.

The NO list, like any good list, isn’t a set-in-stone, established-for-all time dictate. Rather, it’s an evolving reminder of how you’re prioritizing your homeschool at a given time—this year, you’re going to stop obsessing over finding the perfect science curriculum and focus on making the one you’ve already bought work better. This year, you’re going to let the idea of picturesque, cozy morning time go because it’s never worked for your family, and you’re going to plant a vegetable garden instead. Right now, you’re going to stop panicking about your kid’s less-than-ideal grammar and focus on helping her find her voice as a writer. You get the idea. You can’t do it all. We never can. So knowing what we DON’T want to worry about right now can help you get where you want to go just as much as knowing what you DO want to do.

Ideally, you’ll keep an actual written version of your NO list that you can check back in with every couple of weeks (or months, if obsessing over lists is on your NO list right now). Are you worrying about the things you’ve designated as not-worth-your-worry right now? Are you worrying about things that should be on your NO list? Is it time to move that don’t-wordy-about-it item back onto your everyday radar? The NO list helps you prioritize, but it also helps you keep up with things you know should eventually be important, even if they’re not really that important this particular year.

Your challenge this week: Start your own NO list by choosing at least four things that you aren’t going to worry about right now. They can be homeschool specific (socialization, finding the right park day, writing research papers, writing on the front side of the paper) or more general (meal planning, painting the dining room, volunteering at the food bank). Remember: Putting something on this list doesn’t mean it’s not important or that it doesn’t matter to you—it just means that, right now, you’re focusing your energy in other areas.


52 Weeks of Happier Homeschooling Week 16: Simplify Your Options

52 Weeks of Happier Homeschooling Week 16: Simplify Your Options

Limit your choices, and you’ll be a lot happier.

Researchers have found that the fewer everyday decisions you have to make, the more stamina, emotional self-control, and judgment you have—and the happier you are.

This is one of the simplest ideas to implement in your homeschool. Instead of making breakfast a spur-of-the-moment affair with a range of options, have one or two signature breakfasts that you have every day. Pare down your wardrobe so that everyone has an everyday “uniform.” (I’m a huge fan of Project 333, but anything that simplifies getting dressed every day works. Hey, it worked for former President Obama, who took sartorial decisions off his daily to-do list by always wearing gray or blue suits.) Follow the same routine every morning so that you don’t have to figure out whether it feels like a good morning to do math first or whether you should add a science experiment. Make everyday decisions simple routines that you don’t have to spend lots of time thinking about.

Obviously this system works because you have the freedom to shake it up when you feel inspired. You’re not prohibited from spontaneously deciding to make it Pancake Wednesday or taking an all-day field trip because you wake up in a field trip kind of mood—you’re just freed up from the pressure of having to construct every single day as it happens. 

 

Your challenge this week: Choose one thing to simplify this week. (Breakfast is an easy place to start if you’re not sure where to begin.) See how your week comes together differently when you eliminate one piece of the decision-making process. Are there other decisions you could try to simplify?

52 Weeks of Happier Homeschooling Week 15: Plan a Family Vacation

week 15.jpg

Here’s something nice to know: The anticipation of planning for your next vacation can give you the same mental and physical boost you get from actually taking a vacation. People may actually be happier in the weeks leading up to a holiday than they are in the weeks following one—which is the best argument we’ve heard for making vacations part of your homeschool routine.

To get maximum vacation bliss benefits, experts say you’re better off scheduling lots of small long-weekend-isn vacations throughout the year than saving up for one big multi-week holiday. Whether you’re planning an easy-on-the-budget campout (we’ve got some great starter camping tips in the summer 2016 issue of HSL) or an Airbnb city getaway for Black History Month (check out our destination list in the winter issue), collaborating with your clan to plan a long weekend getaway in the near future may be just the lift you need to get you through the mid-winter homeschool blahs. If your budget is tight, think cheap: You don’t have to travel far—or fancy—to reap vacation benefits.  Even a one-day escape can lift your spirits if you take the time to plan it and give yourself time to look forward to it.

As far as planning goes, vacation should definitely be a family project. Start an internet research campaign, and check out lots of travel guides at the library to help you plan a perfect trip. 

Your challenge this week: Come up with a doable destination you can visit sometime this winter, and start planning a trip with your kids.


On Homeschooling and Patience

On Homeschooling and Patience

It happens all the time. I’m chatting with a new acquaintance who either doesn’t have kids or has kids who go to school. I mention that I homeschool. And nine times out of ten, my new acquaintance looks at me with awed disbelief, shakes his or her head, and declares, “I just wouldn’t have the patience for that.” 

They’re right that homeschooling has required a lot of patience. But I’m not always sure the kind of patience I’ve needed is the kind of patience they mean.

If they mean that homeschooling must demand the patience to prepare lesson plans and quizzes and sit by my children at the kitchen table to explain and drill until they’ve mastered their multiplication tables or the finer points of diagramming sentences or the names of all the presidents, well, I know a lot of homeschoolers do have that kind of patience, but I’m definitely not one of them. 

I don’t prepare lesson plans or give formal lessons. I don’t administer quizzes. I don’t explain things or answer questions in a way that would remotely look like schooling to most people. What I do is explain things and answer questions (and ask plenty of questions, too) in a way that mostly just looks like ordinary conversation. A whole lot of learning happens while my kids, husband, and I are all just talking—at the dinner table, doing the dishes together, on drives, out for a hike, at our local coffee shop.

So I may not have the kind of patience that a lot of people assume a homeschooling parent has to have. But I do agree that homeschooling has demanded that I call on all sorts of reserves of patience I never knew I possessed. So what kind of patience has homeschooling required of me?

For starters, it’s required the patience to wait for my kid to be ready to learn something I think is important for them to learn, instead of forcing them to learn on my timetable. It took a whole lot of patience to back off on pushing phonics readers when my kids were little so they could experience the joy and empowerment of figuring out how to read on their own terms, painlessly, through their love of Garfield and Calvin and Hobbes comics. 

Homeschooling, at least the way we do it around here, has required the patience to trust that something that looks like a frivolous pursuit with no discernible academic benefits may actually be a worthwhile endeavor for my kid—maybe because it sparks my son’s imagination, maybe because it gives my daughter a way to figure out some puzzle or question that doesn’t necessarily interest me but is hugely compelling to her. Maybe just because it’s fun. As a homeschooler, I’ve learned to value fun, not just as a tool to make learning more palatable, but as an end in itself.

Homeschooling has required the patience to wait out the long, seemingly fallow periods when not much learning seems to be going on, when our daily routine seems a bit flat and dull, and to trust that if I keep offering my kids new experiences and keep strewing intriguing books and movies in their paths, they will keep learning and growing. It’s required the humility to see that not all the learning experiences in our house have to emanate from me (sigh: what a relief). It’s also required the patience to keep offering new experiences and suggesting cool things we could do or make or try, even if I get turned down again. And again. And again. And. . . You get the idea.

Some kinds of patience come easily to me. I find it relatively easy to be patient when I’m cooking with a child, for example. I’m willing for a cooking project to be slower and messier than usual because it’s so important to me for my child to feel welcome in the kitchen and to have good associations with cooking. I’m easy-going when spills happen, nonchalant about mistakes. It’s harder, for some reason, for me to be patient with setbacks when we’re doing crafts, maybe because deep down, I don’t value making crafts the way I value cooking.

Other kinds of patience are much harder for me, too. When my child gets frustrated over a task and wails, “I just can’t do it” or “It’s too hard,” it’s really, really difficult for me to muster the patience to make space and time for my child’s frustration. All sorts of critical voices harp in my head: He’ll never develop grit if you don’t push him to finish this. . . It’s your fault your kid gets so easily frustrated. . . She’ll never succeed with an attitude like that. . .

It takes a lot of patience, with myself and my child, to slow down and listen to my kids’ frustration and self-doubt without lecturing them about the value of persistence or rushing them to get back to work. Give them time, I have to gently remind myself. Let them express those frustrations and self-doubt. Encourage them to take breaks if they need to, without fearing that they’ll be quitters. Trust.

That word “trust.” It’s such an important one for me as a homeschooler and a parent. As a homeschooler who’s foregoing traditional curricula for the most part (yeah, like a lot of wannabe unschoolers, we use a math curriculum), I sometimes feel quite anxious about the path I’ve chosen. Are we doing enough? (That perpetual question!) Is what we’re doing setting my children up for happy, fulfilling lives? 

I recently expressed some of that anxiety to my fourteen-year-old son as we talked about how to approach his high school years. 

“It’s hard for me sometimes,” I explained, “not having you follow a prescribed course of study that clearly points to a defined outcome the way traditional high school does. It’s hard to trust that it’ll lead you where you need to go.”

“Yeah,” he said, “but if I spend my time doing things that interest me and that I like, don’t you think that will probably lead me where I need to go?”

Ah. Well, yes. Probably. I think back on all the time I myself wasted as a young person, trying to jump through hoops that adults set up for me, not spending nearly enough time asking, “Hey, wait a minute. How do I want to spend this life of mine?” 

Is my son on to something here? I can’t help thinking of Buddhist scholar Howard Thurman’s advice: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” 

For me, homeschooling has required the patience to trust that letting my kids pursue what makes them feel most alive may not always feel like enough, but it may be just the thing they really need.


52 Weeks of Happier Homeschooling Week 13: Stock Your Backseat Library

52 Weeks of Happier Homeschooling Week 13: Stock Your Backseat Library

Once we find a routine, homeschoolers like to joke that “homeschooling” is a misnomer—most of us spend plenty of time in the car, too, from classes to activities to park days to field trips. We enjoy our car time—it’s a great excuse to pull out our beloved audiobook collection—but we also sometimes get bored shuttling back and forth or sitting in waiting areas or killing time between appointments. That’s when our backseat bookshelf comes in handy.

Your perfect backseat bookshelf depends on your family’s interest, but we’ve found that brainteasers and did-you-know fact books are the most entertaining for us. I keep five or six books tucked in the pocket behind the passenger seat, but some people store them in boxes, bins, or backpacks. The key is to choose a few and rotate them frequently—you want enough to feel like there’s a real selection but not so many that it’s a mess back there. I also keep a plastic bag full of writing materials, sticky notes, and small notebooks. My son added a magnifying glass and a calculator; my daughter popped in a pack of sparkly markers a few days ago. 

Now when we’re stuck in traffic for way longer than we’d like or waiting for our friends to show up before we head into the museum, my kids automatically reach for one of their backseat books. I’m not saying that we look forward to the waiting parts of homeschool commuting, but we definitely don’t dread them.

Your challenge this week: Create a backseat library—or, if you’re lucky enough to be transit user, a bag library—to encourage critical thinking when you’re on the go.

 

Some of our favorite backseat library books


52 Weeks of Happier Homeschooling Week 11: Play Musical Chairs

52 Weeks of Happier Homeschooling Week 11: Play Musical Chairs

There’s nothing wrong with having a designated learning space, but if you’re spending most of your day there, you may be missing out on one of the big benefits of homeschooling—the ability to change locations throughout the day.

In workplaces, this notion of relocating for different tasks—maybe you start your day at your office desk, switch to a cafe at midday, and hit the park for an afternoon conference call—is called “workstation popcorn,” and it works great for homeschoolers, too. Switching locations helps you concentrate better, think more creatively, and complete work more efficiently than sitting in the same chair all day. Some research suggests that we even remember information better when we connect with it in different physical locations.

Happily, a change of scenery is easy to incorporate into your day. Maybe it’s as simple as moving from your readalouds on the couch to your kitchen table for more structured lessons, but you can experiment with other kinds of movement. Start a nature journal, and you’ve got an everyday excuse to venture outside (or—if the weather’s icky—to relocate to your biggest, brightest window). Take your independent reading out to the porch, or spread your map work out on the living room floor, or bring your laptop to your favorite coffee shop or to the library so you get that cafe-buzz background for your essay writing. You could even just set a timer, and have everyone jump up and switch seats at the table every hour or so. There’s not really a right way to get your homeschool moving, so try lots of different things to see which work for your homeschool. You may find that you love big, dramatic transitions that require walking two blocks to the library—or you may find that moving from the couch to the kitchen gives you plenty of fresh inspiration.

Your challenge this week: Get your homeschool moving! Think about logical places to relocate during your homeschool day, and move your homeschool to a different part of your house, yard, or neighborhood for part of the day.


52 Weeks of Happier Homeschooling Week 10: Make a Difference

52 Weeks of Happier Homeschooling Week 10: Make a Difference

If you’re like me, this election season has left you feeling a little bruised and eager to put some good energy back into the world around you. Your homeschool is an obvious place to start. Here are some ideas for adding political advocacy to your curriculum—wherever you fall on the political spectrum.

 

Connect with your representatives. Last week, I added a recurring event to my calendar: As our first and last activity every homeschool week, we’re going to write letters to our local, state, or federal representatives. (Check your local and state government websites to find contact info for those representatives; find contact details for your federal representatives and the White House here.) My plan is that we’ll write a mix of advocacy and thank-you letters to the people representing us—I want to be sure that we’re celebrating the good stuff as hard as we’re pushing back against the bad stuff.

 

Get involved with local politics. A lot of us have fallen into the habit of paying attention to politics only in the big Presidential election years, but there are many opportunities to make a big difference in local politics happening all the time. This website has a great list of ideas to help you get involved with politics in your community. (Disclaimer: I think this is a good list, but I haven’t read everything on the site so no endorsement is implied.) Local politics let you experience activism in action—kids may not be able to vote yet, but they can collect signatures for petitions with their parents, make posters and flyers for causes they care about, and raise money and support for campaigns they believe in.

 

Make your community a safer place for people who need it. Volunteer with a group like the International Rescue Committee to help support refugees. Collect shelf stable food for donation to your local food bank. Learn more about Islam (Minnesota Public Radio has a handy list of books to better understand Islam) so that you can respond meaningfully to misinformation and Islamophobia.  Donate clothes and supplies to women’s and children’s shelters. These kinds of projects can be the most rewarding kind of advocacy because you often get to see the effects of your efforts firsthand. 


Homeschool Rewind: Fall

Homeschool Rewind: Fall

How’s your new homeschool year going? Here’s a little of what’s happening with us.

  • We’ve played a lot of 1775: Rebellion while we were studying the American Revolution, and it was surprisingly fun—kind of like a U.S. history-based version of Risk. I’m a read-and-take-notes kind of student, but my kids really do better when they can fidget a little, so games like this are a great compromise, especially when we’re doing a readaloud or watching a documentary.

 

  • With my high schooler, we’re trying to set clear goals so that we have criteria for evaluating her work for her transcript. This requires a lot of conversation and the ability to shift gears when her goals change, as some of them already have. It’s such a different kind of partnership from what we’re used to, and we’re both figuring it out as we go—it’s not easy to find the balance of knowing when to push a little (because my daughter has always been a kid who sometimes needs a little push) and when to take the passenger seat so that she can find her own way. I think this is a tough balancing act for every parent, but it feels especially challenging now that I am navigating these new high school waters as a homeschool mom.

 

  • We’ve been doing daily(ish) nature journals for a while now, so we’re at the sharpening-our-skills stage of nature journaling. I picked up a copy of The Curious Nature Guide (by Clare Walker Leslie, author of our much-beloved The Nature Connection Workbook), which we’ve been enjoying. I don’t think there’s anything revelatory in it (though I did learn a few things, and it would probably be a good starter guide to nature journaling if you’re new to the habit), but it’s given us lots of new ways to think about and look more closely at the nature in our neighborhood.

 

  • Homeschooling through any move is tricky, and ours, alas, has come with a lot of extra drama. Though we’ve taken plenty of breaks (one of my favorite advantages of year-round homeschooling), but I’ve also been happy to discover that homeschooling gives our days a lovely rhythm that continues even when things are hectic. We’ve shared more than one afternoon tea over a stack of cardboard boxes, and the ritual helps me keep all the craziness a little better in perspective. It’s reminded me of how becoming homeschoolers has changed our family life for the better—even when all my favorite sweaters are in a box that no one can find!

52 Weeks of Happier Homeschooling Week 9: Act the Way You Want to Feel

52 Weeks of Happier Homeschooling Week 9: Act the Way You Want to Feel

Act the way you want to feel is the third commandment in Gretchen Rubin’s happiness project, and it’s a surprisingly effective way to make your homeschool life a happier place. 

Science suggests that there’s a strong correlation between how we act and what we feel: Act friendly when you’re feeling shy or nervous at a party, and you’re more likely to have a good time. Acting confident and in control at work can make you actually feel confident and in control. So put this handy fact to work in your homeschool: Do you want your homeschool to feel more like an intellectually curious place? Start asking more questions, hit the library to dig a little deeper, and generally act the way an intellectually curious person would act. Or maybe you wish your homeschool felt more relaxed. Act more relaxed yourself—slow down your pace, take breaks when things start to feel hectic, and say no to extra projects and activities. If you want your homeschool to feel like a warm, happy place, smile more and act the way you act when you feel happy. 

Of course, these things won’t magically change your homeschool, but you may be surprised by what a big difference it can make when you act the way you want your homeschool to feel. Changing your attitude (even if it starts out with you cheating it a little bit) can change your homeschool for the better, too.

Your challenge this week: Think about what’s missing in your homeschool life, and act as though your homeschool already works that way. What would you do differently if your homeschool were more relaxed or more fun or more creative? Do those things now, and pay attention to how the spirit of your homeschool changes.


52 Weeks of Happier Homeschooling Week 8: Create a Ritual

52 Weeks of Happier Homeschooling Week 8: Create a Ritual

As a homeschooler, I am always looking for that perfect homeschool rhythm—a routine that includes all the things we need to do plus lots of things we want to do, too, with a little space left over for spontaneous interruptions. A comfortable rhythm gives you motivation when you wake up in the morning, pulls you through the day in a predictable routine, and lets you wrap up your day feeling good about what you’ve accomplished. One of the best ways to find this rhythm is to anchor your days with rituals.

A ritual doesn’t have to be fancy and complicated. It doesn’t even have to be something you do every single day without fail—though, obviously, the point is to do it regularly. A ritual might be doing a series of yoga exercises together before breakfast, or taking your morning readaloud out on the back porch., or taking a nature walk through your neighborhood after lunch. It might be baking bread together on Friday mornings, or changing your nature display table every Monday. My kids and I have afternoon tea together—sometimes with cute little sandwiches and pretty cakes and sometimes just with cheese and crackers but always with whatever we’re reading independently. Shelli’s family watches documentaries together at lunchtime. 

After tracking your time last week, you probably have a clearer idea of the natural rhythm of your homeschool days. This week, look for rituals that can help you anchor that rhythm. The most effective rituals are simple—if a ritual requires a lot of preparation or planning each day, it can be hard to do consistently. Rituals also work best when they’re meaningful and tied to something you and your family care about. You may not find the perfect ritual on your first try—that’s okay. You’ll learn something about what works and doesn’t work for your family’s rituals, and you’ll be ready to try something different.

Your challenge this week: Brainstorm one everyday ritual to incorporate into your homeschool routine, and take it for a test drive. Commit to practicing your new ritual at least three days so that you can get a clearer idea of how it fits into your regular routine.


The Embarrassing Things I’ve Tried That Haven’t Worked

The Embarrassing Things I’ve Tried That Haven’t Worked

As a homeschooling mom who blogs, I try to be as honest about our lifestyle as I can without invading the privacy of my family members, but I admit, when it comes to writing about our life, I tend to write about the successes more than the failures. It’s not that I don’t want to be upfront about what doesn’t work, but when it comes to the work of writing it all down, I tend to pick topics that I think will be useful to other people. And that’s usually what works for us.

I would be remiss if I didn’t sometimes share what hasn’t worked because that can be helpful for others too. Please tell me there are other moms out there who had “brilliant” ideas with the best of intentions, but when she tried to implement them, she fell flat on her face. Kids can be unpredictable, and even when we think we know what we’re doing, we really have no idea what we’re doing. We are simply trying our best, and sometimes we succeed, but sometimes we fail.

Here is a list of some of my “brilliant ideas” that turned out to be not so brilliant after all.

  • When my ten-year-old was about four or five years old, I thought giving him a “responsibilities” chart would be a great idea. To be honest, I can’t remember why I thought this was necessary or what I was trying to make him do at that point, but I had the idea to create a big poster board with all the “goals” on top, which I think were a reading lesson, numbers lesson, help Mommy clean, and help take care of baby, etc. Then I spent god-knows-how-long laminating stickers and putting Velcro on them so I could reuse them each week. (Boy, this is getting embarrassing.) Along the left-hand column, I listed the days of the week, and every day, I put a sticker under the things that were accomplished. I know I didn’t stress that he had to accomplish everything everyday, but ah-hem, that didn’t matter. Because how long did this last? Maybe two weeks? Almost as soon as I started it, I realized that neither my son nor I could remember to put up the stickers at the end of the day, and it wasn’t long after that that I realized doing a chart like this was pretty silly anyway.
  • In a similar vein, when my son got older and we began to do more homeschool lessons, I wanted to let him know what to expect each day. I had read that this is helpful for kids. First, I tried using email. I gave him an email address, and each night before I went to bed, I would make a lesson plan and e-mail him a list of things we were supposed to do that day. In doing this, I could also include any links to YouTube videos or other online content we would be looking at. Unlike my responsibilities chart, this actually worked well and was very helpful except that my husband began emailing my son interesting videos and other online content that he thought he would enjoy. Although everything was educational, the emails from my husband took so long to get through in the morning that we weren’t getting to the homeschool lessons! Sigh. So then I decided we would look at his email less frequently, and I made a schedule board instead….
  • I admit, I loved my schedule board. Since my son couldn’t read, I used clipart to represent the different subjects or goals. I laminated them and, yes, I used Velcro once again. My poster board was empty except for the Velcro where I could simply attach my clipart pieces in the order I wanted to do things that day. It was so pretty, and it did the job, except…. I soon realized that my son did not care whether or not he knew the agenda for the day. He wouldn’t even look at it! He preferred to just sit down and let me tell him what to do as we got to it. So what do I do now? I use a piece of scrap paper to jot down a lesson plan each night, and I refer to it in the morning. In other words, it’s me that needs know the agenda and no fancy schedule board or e-mails are needed.
  • Another great idea I had about two years ago was to begin each morning with a little yoga and stretch time. I thought it might be a good idea to get the boys’ blood flowing before lessons and also help them with their flexibility. My determination to do this fizzled out fast. My eldest son, though he’ll run and play like any kid, cannot stand mandatory movement. (He’s not that interested in sports, either.) My younger son won’t admit to liking yoga since his older brother refuses to do it. It was quite clear to me that this just wasn’t going to happen no matter how much I think it should, and life is too short to torture myself trying to get them to do it.
  • Every year I am determined to include a foreign language in our homeschool. I would like everyone to learn Spanish, but we’ve also tried out Chinese on Mango Languages, and we’ve done some Chinese calligraphy too. A foreign language is something that I still have not given up on including in our homeschool day, but so far, I haven’t been successful in keeping it a regular part of our schedule. There are just so many things I have to teach my boys, and there are so many things my boys’ want to learn that something has to give. That’s usually the foreign language. But you never know! I may just turn that around this year.
  • What are other things I have tried and then realized it was either too silly, not worth continuing, or we didn’t have time? Plenty. I have bought books at library book sales that we’ve never read because the boys didn’t like them. I have bought teaching supplies on sale that I haven’t used. I have been given countless teaching materials (I know some teachers who are generous – thank you!), but many of these resources sit on my bookshelves unused. I will look through them every year to see if I might be able to use something, and sometimes I will put something in the stack by my bed…. that stack with good intentions. But I rarely get to it.

If there’s anything I’ve learned while homeschooling, it’s that you can’t be afraid to take risks. You never know what your child might embrace, though you have to be willing to ditch the bright ideas, if they aren’t working. Even though I have failed many times, there are other ideas, resources and books I took a chance on, and they did work. They tend not to have to do with Velcro, though.


52 Weeks of Happier Homeschooling: Week 7: Track Your Time

52 Weeks of Happier Homeschooling: Week 7: Track Your Time

Here’s a fact that may surprise you: Only about 17 percent of people can accurately estimate the passage of time. The rest of us are just guessing—and lots of times, we’re guessing wrong.

If your days feel rushed and overwhelmed or just unsatisfying, figure out where your minutes and hours are actually going. Keep a log for a full week, tracking start and end times for all your activities, including math lessons, email breaks, dinner prep time, readlouds, commute time, and everything else that’s part of your regular routine. You may be surprised to realize that you’re spending twice as much time on handwriting as on your other classes, or that you actually spend hours each week sitting in waiting areas, or that lunch is taking up a huge chunk of your afternoon each day. 

The fact that something takes more of less time than you’ve mentally allotted it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can—or even that you should—change your schedule. What it does mean is that once you’re aware of where your time is going, you can make the most of it—whether that means allocating your karate waiting hour to answering your email or realizing that math always takes longer than you planned and moving it to the end of your school day so you’re not always cutting other subjects short. There isn’t a right answer when it comes to deciding how to structure your day—the way that works for your family is the right way!—but really understanding how you spend your time each day can help you figure out how to make every day a little better.

Your challenge this week: Keep a log to track how you’re spending your time each day. To get the truest picture of how your homeschool life adds up, keep your log for a full week. Then consider your records: Are there any surprises? Are there any obvious time drains that you’d like to plug? Do your days really reflect the things that are most important to you? 


52 Weeks of Happier Homeschooling Week 6: Buy Yourself Some Flowers

52 Weeks of Happier Homeschooling Week 6: Buy Yourself Some Flowers

Money can’t buy happiness—but a few bucks can buy a grocery store bouquet of flowers, and one little blooming vase can have a surprisingly big impact on your everyday happiness. 

Just looking at flowers every morning can boost happiness and energy, promote creativity, improve the atmosphere of your workspace, and reduce anxiety and stress all day long. It’s hard to imagine that one vase of flowers can make your homeschool work better and feel better, but that little bouquet really can make a big difference.

It’s not always big things that make your homeschool a happier place. Arrange some flowers in your primary learning space, and enjoy them while you drink your morning coffee. One little vase delivers benefits, but if you enjoy arranging flowers, you could certainly add more to the mix.

Your challenge this week: Buy yourself some flowers and arrange them in your favorite learning space.