cate olson

You Shouldn't Compare Your Homeschool to Anyone Else's

You shouldn't compare your homeschool to anyone else's -- your only homeschool competition is yourself!

Remember that old adage, comparison is the thief of joy?  We’ve all heard it. Heck, we may have even used that line on our own children at time or two.

Yet, have you ever thought to yourself in regards to homeschooling: Am I doing enough? Are my kids going to be okay? Have you ever heard an offhand comment by a schooled friend, or even another homeschooler, and thought to yourself: Oh my goodness, my child hasn’t learned that! I am not doing enough! I’m betting you have had those thoughts; I’ve been around the block enough to know that most homeschoolers feel like that at one time or another.

The why is obvious when we stop and think about it: we are so in the thick of it. We are so daily confronted, obviously and nakedly, by a struggling reader or a child who has yet to grasp simple algebra. And when the fear and self-doubt start to seep in, it’s easy to ask ourselves, and really mean it: Can I fix this? Am I up to this task?

And then, accompanying those nagging fears, are those Neighbor McPerfect types. Their children all play soccer, receive perfect grades, and every one of those little buggars takes part in academic summer enrichment activities; and no one at their house seems much worried about hitting certain benchmarks by a certain time because they all surpassed the benchmarks earlier than anyone else in their class. Their children are all college bound, not because its where they necessarily belong, but because it is the next rung on the ladder of how to do life. There is a neat, tidy bow wrapped so perfectly around their lives that it almost makes you want to weep with feelings of inadequacy.

Yes, ’tis true, comparison is the thief of joy.

Take a breath and pause for a minute. Why do you homeschool? Take some time— a lot of it if it’s needed— and remind yourself what you’re about.

Of course our homeschooled kids aren’t exact replicas of their schooled peers. Call me crazy, but isn’t that pretty much exactly why we do this? In all honestly, if we cared about following the traditional formula of doing life right, our kids wouldn’t have come home from a traditional school in the first place. No, they’d be in school. Where, I might add, our struggling reader would still be struggling to read, but instead of receiving one-on-one, positive attention in a place where it’s safe to fail, she would likely struggle to hide her perceived inadequacies from her peers.

That kid that just isn’t getting algebra?  They’d not be understanding it in school either, and unlike at school, at home you have the option to change the approach you’re using, or buy a different curriculum. You can even shut the algebra book for a bit knowing that when you come back to it, your child’s brain will likely be ready to make sense of what was confusing before.

So why do we compare ourselves (or, let’s be honest, our kids) to our (their) peers? Why do we let ourselves feel so very badly that the very outcomes we wanted (independent thinkers! individualized learning!) are the outcomes we get? 

The reality is we all maybe kind of want to parent that child that wins the national spelling bee. That child so very obviously excels at something, and it is so easy to defend homeschooling and demonstrate its efficacy. But the child who struggles to read in third grade? Has homeschooling failed her? On our worst days we maybe kind of believe that it might have.

What if though, instead of examining the minutia of our homeschooling successes and failures, we instead examined what we are all climbing toward? Schools don’t have a monopoly on getting it right. So what if your local public school requires memorization of multiplication factors in third grade? If your gaze is focused on your academic end goals, you might more clearly see that a love of math is more important long term to the child you see mathematical promise in than getting those times tables memorized at the assigned time. A focus that has its sites set on the academic finish line might more clearly see the value in a child forgetting to do her geometry lesson because she was so wrapped up with her charcoal pencils and her sketchbook. Why is it worse to learn basic geography solely through computer games while never picking up a geography text? Is the knowledge less real because it wasn’t absorbed through textbook and lecture? 

It’s not that the way schools do things is necessarily wrong. For many kids those ways work well, and we, like so many of you, do use a lot of traditional things in our homeschool. But my point is this: please don’t allow yourself to get bogged down in the mire. Every parent experiences self-doubt when it comes to their kids, even the ones who are doing it the traditional way. Second-guessing ourselves just means we care about the outcome; it doesn’t validate our doubts. 

If you simply must compare a child to someone, compare him against himself. Can he do more today than he could yesterday? Is she an inquisitive soul who last year knew more than you ever imagined a person could know about every dog breed on the planet, and yet continues to learn more in her free time? Can your struggling reader read more today than yesterday? When comparing by those metrics, which are the only ones that matter, there is no joy stealing from the comparison. In fact, I would wager that by those measurements, your child looks pretty darn good, just as they ought.

Comparison can be the thief of joy. . .  but only if you let it. I hope you won’t.

3 Summer Planning Tips for a Happy Homeschool Year

3 things you can do this summer to ensure a great homeschool year this fall

Who else looks forward to summer days spent lugging coolers and towels to the beach and spending hours refusing to move off your beach lounger for all but the most desperate of cries? Summer is meant to be enjoyed and during a good summer break, a house should be full of sand, dirt, and sunburned kids.

On my beach lounger, though, I begin to dream about our homeschool. I maintain that nothing makes a school year run more smoothly than spending some summer hours creating a specific plan for the following academic year. 

If you school year round, this post is for you too. Use use whatever break you take for an annual review and planning what comes next.

Step 1: The Theme. 

Decide what overall education values are important to your family. Essentially you are creating a mission statement for your family’s homeschool.

A good starting question to ask yourself is: If I teach my child nothing, ever, what is it important that my child has absorbed living in our home? For our family our theme is, generally: learning is a privilege and a delight; don’t screw it up.

Many people’s answers will be education related, but others are not. Some families want to emphasize familial closeness or cooperation. This is your family; there is no wrong answer.

Remember, though, not to be too specific. Be general. Often I find with my friends that their mission statement could apply to everything they do as a family, not just the homeschool part.

Why this step matters: When you are in the nitty-gritty of the school year and a problem pops up, sometimes it’s difficult to see what specifically isn’t working. Re-examining the difficulty from a more generalized vantage point often allows a better diagnosis of the problem, and gives us permission to change things.


Step 2: Get Creative. 

Set aside a chunk of quiet time by yourself with no distractions (put that phone away!) This might be the most important step of all, and I encourage you to pencil a good block of time into your family’s schedule. If you have little kids, line up child care so that you can close the door to your office or, better yet, leave the house. 

Have a notebook handy to jot down ideas. If you’re the visual type, buy yourself a pretty notebook and nice pens (a new Moleskine and a medium tip Sharpie pen are pretty much heaven on earth). Spend time thinking about each child’s strengths, weaknesses, and goals, both longterm and short term. Jot every thought down; you never quite know how some seemingly benign thought will open up new opportunities.

Think about the past school year. What worked? What didn’t? Write your answers down. Think about them. Chew on them. What would have made things run more smoothly? If you are preparing for your first year as a homeschool parent, think about your goals. Think about why you decided to homeschool, and what you’d like to accomplish, both broadly (I’d like my child to get into Harvard) and specifically (I’d like to teach my six-year-old to read). 

By the end of this time, you probably will have a skeleton outline of what you would like your school year to look like (or, if you don’t, you could put one together by reviewing your notes).

Why this step matters: I have learned countless things from this time with myself. Often little things that have been nagging at me reach that “a ha!” moment and forming a solution becomes simple. Often this time alone allows me to see patterns, and plan and change academics accordingly. 


Step 3: The Specifics. 

Now you’ve got a guidepost and a framework and it’s time to get down to the specifics. Make this part work for you. Do you hate depending on the library? Then buy the books you need to reach your academic goals. Do you like specific, grid-like schedules that take you through the academic year? Make one. Do to-do lists motivate you? Then create your child’s courses and materials in the form of lists that you can check off regularly.

The purpose of the nitty-gritty to to create specific academics for your school year that stay true to your family’s theme, consider your child’s goals (or your goals for your child, as the case may be,) and that are tailored to work for you.

And it should be noted that, for many families, what works for them is a boxed curriculum. If that’s the case, you’re done! Go back to the beach!

Step three can take awhile. I sometimes spend hours agonizing how to divvy up specific books so that they will match up, timeline-wise, with some piece of historical fiction I have chosen for a particular child. Let me repeat what I said above: you’re making a plan that works for you. If you want to assign your child The Witch of Blackbird Pond while you’re studying ancient Greece, then do it! It’s your life and your family.

Step three can also involve a lot of research. If you have decided your daughter needs to focus on diagramming sentences and you’ve never done that before, you may need to spend some time researching what texts are out there and how you are going to plug that work into your school day.

Why this step matters: By the time you are done, you will have all the materials you need for the school year ordered (or know where you can locate them), and a plan for how you are going to execute the day to day of your homeschool for your entire academic year, and that feels pretty great.


Happy planning, and let me know how it goes! 

Meet the Team: Cate Olson

home/school/life blogger Cate Olson talks about her eclectic homeschool

Meet Cate Olson, who you'll be seeing regularly on the home | school | life blog. We're thrilled to have her on board, and we've asked her our favorite list of questions so you can know a little more about the person behind the blog posts.


Me in 100(ish) words:

I am very outgoing, cherish time alone, and I laugh often (and loudly!). My husband and I live with our three daughters (ages 15, 10, and 6), one son (age 13), and a bottomless pit of energy trapped inside the body of a Goldendoodle in Milwaukee’s northern suburbs.


How I started homeschooling: 

I came to homeschooling reluctantly.

When we moved to Milwaukee, my husband and I chose an idyllic suburb close to downtown known for its excellent public schools. Our eldest attended elementary school for three years, during which time I happily embraced my new life as a suburban mom: coffee klatch, playdates, and a leadership role as classroom mom.

Soon, though, I grew tired of the exhausting routine, much of which seemed to have so little purpose. First grade homework? Full school days for a six-year-old?

At that same time, my son was enrolled at a somewhat nontraditional preschool and among his classmates there happened to be a few kids whose families homeschooled. For the first time I heard words and terms like “unschooling” and “classical education.” 

My interest was piqued and I read unceasingly about every homeschooling style under the sun. After a few books in I came to the conclusion that these people were all nuts.

Except they weren’t. These new friends’ kids were great. And smart. And friendly. And interesting.

By the time the school year ended my husband and I knew we wanted to give homeschooling a try. We haven’t looked back since.


My homeschool style: Pretty eclectic. 

When our oldest daughter first came home, I was a disciple of Susan Wise Bauer and everything she recommended, we owned. 

However, over time, I have grown more confident and now we are much more relaxed.

A lot of what we do looks like what a classical homeschooler might do, but some might think we trend to the more unschool-y end of the spectrum.

What I know is this: my children learn complex things. They are curious. They are interesting, thoughtful people who are engaged in the world around them. Most importantly, they think independently and don’t mind standing athwart societal trends and asking “why?”.


What a typical day looks like in my homeschool life:

Our school day starts when my two youngest climb into bed with me. I keep a read aloud on my bedside table (we are currently making our way through the Harry Potter series). We have only one, very strict criteria for our read aloud, and that is that all three of us must enthusiastically endorse it so that we are all excited to gather in the morning.  I also keep whatever the girls are reading aloud to me on my bedside table and after about an hour and two cups of coffee, we’ve started the day with an engaging story and both little girls have practiced reading aloud.

My older two kids rise on their own schedules and start on their work on their own. As they need help, I carve out time with them.

After reading is over, I hit the books (phonics, grammar, or math) with one of the little girls as the other prepares herself breakfast. Or I help them both eat breakfast. Or I wash dishes while they fix their own breakfast. Or whatever. The bottom line is that, generally, after a couple hours, I have worked through our core subjects with the little girls and by lunch time we are done with schoolwork for the day. 

Our afternoons are often spent outside the home in different classes (we are fortunate that Milwaukee has a vibrant homeschooling community) or music lessons or tackling things we are interested in working on at home like reading a history book, working on an art project, or baking a cake.


Favorite read aloud:

Even though this is my third or fourth time through the Harry Potter series, I am still thoroughly engaged; what an incredible testament to the world J.K. Rowling created.  Also lately I have particularly loved the Penderwick books. Charlotte’s Web is also a favorite, along with The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Gone Away Lake, and many, many others.


Favorite driving music:

I would keep my radio tuned to XM’s Symphony Hall most of the time, or maybe talk radio, but my kids much prefer local pop stations. Thanks to their influence, I can sing along to all the latest Justin Bieber has to offer, and have grown to actually kind of love Taylor Swift.


Things I like:

Sunny days. The sound of birds chirping in the spring. Freshly baked bread. Singing hymns. The first sip of coffee in the morning. Falling asleep in midst of a thunder storm.


Guilty pleasure:

Hey, I’m Wisconsin born and bred. Throw a stein of dark lager (that’s a style of beer, people) at me, and I am a happy, happy woman.


What I love about homeschool life:

The rhythm of our lives. I see the world around me racing to this and to that and I sit back in wonder and stare, bewildered, wondering if people feel happy and fulfilled when they never even have time to breathe. 


What I love about home/school/life magazine:

First of all, it’s beautiful. But better than that, it’s really, really smart. I read my first issue and ideas of homeschool co-ops swirled through my head, and at least two books made a list of books I want my kids to read. I can’t think of any kind of homeschooler who wouldn’t benefit from the mix of practical and high-minded ideas shared in both the magazine and on the website.

Joy Should Be a Priority in Our Homeschool Lives

Great read: Homeschooling should be fun, and when it's not, maybe it's time to take a step back and rethink what we're doing.

I’m so happy to introduce you to Cate Olson, the newest blogger to join the home | school | life team. Cate will be writing about her experiences homeschooling her four kids, the oldest of whom is now in high school and the youngest of whom is 6. I bet you’re going to love getting to know her as much as I have!


If you happen upon these words after the sort of day in which each and every last excruciating diphthong and consonant blend had to be coaxed out of your emerging reader or the sort of day in which your young teen spent the better part of his day dawdling through an impossibly short lesson on multiplying exponents, demanding unnecessary hand-holding, I have something radical to say: 

Homeschooling is not supposed to be like this.

Please, indulge me a moment. Think back to when you first made the decision to homeschool. Remind yourself of how you might have naïvely imagined every day spent under the warm sun, plopped on a picnic blanket atop lush green grass with attentive, well-groomed children itching to read the works of Aristotle by age five and with a functioning understanding of trigonometry by grade six.

Well, okay, homeschooling isn’t supposed to be exactly like that either, but behind our wide-eyed, simple daydreams were two kernels of truth: First, we understood that the learning process itself could— and should!— be extraordinary, and, second, we wanted to experience those almost transcendent moments of comprehension and understanding alongside our children. We guessed what we now know to be true, that learning something new is an astonishing feeling, and practically the only other feeling that comes close to beating it is being the curator of that moment for your child.

Now, of course we are going to have bad days, even no good, very bad days where we have online enrollment forms filled out for local schools and we are one mere whine, catastrophe or dropped pencil away from clicking submit. Being imperfect beings, these days are inevitable, but in my experience, they happen with diminished frequency when we focus less on the nuts-and-bolts of how we homeschool and give ourselves more freedom to daydream boldly and recapture whatever it was that initially inspired us to homeschool.

We guessed what we now know to be true, that learning something new is an astonishing feeling, and practically the only other feeling that comes close to beating it is being the curator of that moment for your child.

Example. The sun is out and the temperature is above fifty. You live in the Midwest where, if you are lucky, you might string together two spring-like days in a row before the next blizzard rolls in. It’s late morning and you’ve spent the past thirty minutes (has it really been only thirty minutes!?) on the cusp of a mental breakdown while your child continues to struggle to sound out the word d-o-g for the eight hundred and seventy-fifth time of the day, a word she read fluidly just yesterday, and you have already started wondering if lunchtime is too early to crack open the Merlot that you were saving for cocktail hour.

This is the moment where you need to harken back to your doe-eyed homeschooling daydreams and just quit for the day already. Do you see the sun out your grimy, fingerprint-covered windows? Do you hear those birds chirping over the din of the dog barking? The best cure for a bad day at the homeschool table is to put away the workbooks. Go for a hike.  Dig in the garden for some worms. Go build a snowman, or even make some tea and read a book to yourself while your children tie pillows to their stomachs and pretend to be sumo wrestlers. 

The curriculum will be there tomorrow and the next day and the day after that, and one day soon— and this is a promise— your child will have the breakthrough that you were earlier trying to force. 

Anecdotal evidence: One of my daughters was struggling to learn long division. Divide, multiply, subtract, and bring down; she could recite the process in her sleep, but she just couldn’t remember what to divide, multiply, subtract, or bring down. We let math go for a day or so, or we worked on multiplication fact worksheets when we did do math. As she seemed receptive, we practiced a long division problem together here and there.  She can do long division now with the best of them, and all this was achieved with no tears or fighting, and, most importantly, she does not hate long division.

I think that the farther away we get from our homeschool daydreams of yesteryear the easier it is to forget that learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Children don’t learn math because they finish the math text; they learn math because they understood the concepts the math text taught, and it’s up to us to be able to discern the difference therein. 

The curriculum will be there tomorrow and the next day and the day after that, and one day soon— and this is a promise— your child will have the breakthrough that you were earlier trying to force.

Confession: Of course I do not always remember to take my own advice. Just last week I locked horns with my six-year-old over a phonics lesson that, in all likelihood, was reinforcing a concept she had already mastered. I persevered. There were raised voices, a thrown pencil, and no thoughts on my part of doing anything other than winning the battle of wills in that moment. 

Yes, I ultimately “won,” but what was gained in that episode with my six-year-old? Certainly she did not gain an increased understanding of words starting with “th” and “sh,” but she did learn that maybe she didn’t much want to see her phonics workbook for another few days.

It is precisely in these darker homeschool moments where I think we need to allow ourselves more daydreams about backyard hammocks and lazy grammar lessons going hand-in-hand. We need more stargazing and less navel gazing. We must remind ourselves that homeschooling is a way of life, and not just something we do for a few hours every day. In short, it is essential to rediscover the joy and the beauty of learning that brought our kids home in the first place. Once the joy of learning is rightly realigned at the top of our homeschool priority list, abundant, deep, and real learning will—nay, must—necessarily follow. 

I’d love to hear about it. If you’d like to reach me, I’ll be cuddled up in bed with a messy-haired, dirty-kneed, disheveled kid who is, inevitably, teaching me as they learn.