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.
Truly, the biggest hurdle to cobbling my own history curriculum together has been organizing the resources in such a way that I know where they are, I remember all of the ideas that I had, and I don’t leave anything out.
Color-coding changed my life. If that’s not a nerdy thing to say, I don’t know what is, but it’s totally true.
It started with portfolios, which I use to keep a homeschool record of each year. (I use a method similar to this, but for elementary and middle school, I just keep one folder per kid with everything in it.) I always buy the same colors: pink and purple for my daughter and blue or green for my son, just because those are their favorite colors. After a while, I started buying my sticky flags in the same colors—we do a lot of book-based learning, and it was so much easier to glance at the markers sticking out a book and to be able to quickly tell the pages I’d marked for my 3rd grader and the pages I’d marked for his big sister. Then, I realized that a little colorful tape would make it harder for them to blame each other for disappearing pencils, so I wrapped a little pink or blue washi tape around the ends of their Black Warrior pencils. It was amazing how much more responsible they felt for their pencils when certain ones clearly “belonged” to them. After a while, I started buying all their school supplies in the same color sets because it made them easy to keep up with. And finally, I bought purple and green pens, which I used to plan their schedules and keep homeschool notes in my bullet journal and on our family calendar. (I should do a post on bullet journaling one day because it really revolutionized my homeschool organization and solved my hunt for the non-existent Holy Grail of Homeschool Planners.)
But we didn’t stop there: I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but we now have a whole dinnerware set with different colors for each family member. (If the purple cereal bowl is still in the sink when lunchtime rolls around, my daughter knows she’s got to wash it before she can ladle out her bowl of soup. And no one steals my coffee mug anymore!) We have color-coded towels (which everyone, including me, is better about remembering to hang back up) and color-coded water bottles. It simplifies things—you know with a glance whose towel ended up in the middle of the hall or who left their pencil on the porch. And somehow it makes me feel organized—or at least, less unorganized, which, for me anyway, feels like big progress.
Your mission this week: Give color-coding a try. Pencils are an easy place to start—just wrap a little washi tape just above the eraser—but consider how color-coding might help any area of life where keeping up with things can feel stressful. (Finding library books? Keeping up with socks? Organizing artwork?)
In the past, at the beginning of each year, I have sat down at my computer and made a rough schedule for our homeschool lessons. Although I’m not your ultra-organized homeschool mom, I have found that doing some pre-planning helps me from becoming overwhelmed. Even though I often veered off from this schedule, it was very helpful in those early morning hours before my brain turned on to look at this schedule and think, “Ah-ha. It’s math and spelling today.” Although I didn’t do every subject everyday, we did manage to get everything done in a week.
When I sat down to do that this year, I realized it’s a very different year. The boys are getting older, and there’s more work to do. The boys have more things they want to do too. Between that and our outside appointments, I could not figure out a way to get all our lessons done in one week.
Then I remembered what my friend Dawn Smith said when I interviewed her for home/school/life magazine’s Our Way department in the Spring 2014 issue. She said her family didn’t have a set schedule, but instead they had “an order of things.” They set goals for what they wanted to accomplish in a day, and sometimes they didn’t get to everything, but that was okay.
With everything we want to accomplish this year, I have decided to try “an order of things” as well. But I’m not thinking in terms of one day. Instead, I listed those subjects and activities we want to accomplish on a piece of paper that I keep right on my desk. In the mornings, I refer to it and decide what we’ll work on that day. In a sense, I’m simply rotating through the list, and it may take us a week and a half to get through all of it. But that’s okay.
It’s never been my purpose to try to get through a curriculum in a set amount of time. I want our days to be productive, but I don’t want to rush, and I don’t want to give up the memory-making activities for hard-core academics. I want the boys to take as much time as they need to understand a concept, and I want us to be able to achieve all our goals.
By implementing “an order of things,” it’ll be easier for me to not only rotate through math, science, and language arts, I can also rotate in days spent outside, creative activities, and the projects that the boys come up with. But I can also listen to that voice inside my head that might say, “You really need to keep working on this.” Just as I veered off my well-made schedules in the past, I can choose to make something a priority that we do everyday, or I can put it back into the rotation.
How do you decide what to work on each day in your homeschool?
It’s almost time for our homeschool to start its seventh official year, and as I’ve been getting ready for another year to start, I realized there are a few little things I look forward to doing every summer that seem to make our year run a little more smoothly. I thought I’d share them here — and I’d love for you to share some of your back-to-homeschool tricks in the comments!
Set up a folder for each class. You already know I’m a big advocate of the folder system for organizing our homeschool records, so it’s no surprise that one of my annual back-to-school duties is labeling folders for the new year. With my 3rd grader, I just set up one 3rd grade folder, where I’ll stash memorable work and my notes throughout the year. For my high school student, I set up a different folder for each subject. I like to use portfolio folders because I’m always leaving them lying around or stacking them somewhere, and I don’t want all the pages to get mixed up. (These are the folders I use, but I don’t think they’re inherently better than other folders—I just like the way they look!)
Start our new book list. I keep a master book list of all the readalouds we do each year, and the official new school year also means the official 2016-2017 reading list. I used to keep a separate notebook for book lists, but now I just jot the list at the back of my homeschooling bullet journal. Because I am a giant nerd, I use a green pen to write down books I read with just my 3rd grader, a purple pen to write down books I read with just my 9th grader, and a blue or black pen (whichever is handy) to write down books we all read together. I find that these book lists are invaluable to me as the years go by—both as a reminder of what we have and haven’t read (which gets surprisingly fuzzy over time!) and as a series of happy memories.
Fill in the calendar. Before we get into the week-to-week busy-ness of the new academic year, I like to set up a calendar to remind me of favorite holidays (Hobbit Day!), homeschool days, festivals, and any other events that we’d be sad to miss. I started doing this one year after we totally missed Banned Books week one year—we just got busy, and the week was over by the time it popped back up on my mental to-do list. Having a calendar doesn’t always mean we’ll be able to do all the things we’d like to do—but it does mean that the things we’re excited about won’t slip by unnoticed.
Rotate our bookshelves. I’ve written before about our library organization system, so you probably won’t be surprised that I spend several weeks in August rotating the bookshelves in our house to match up with our plans for the year. (I’m very happy to pull our U.S. literature classics collection out of its bins and put it back on the shelf, though I will miss our Native American collection, which is rotating off the shelf and into storage for a while.) I try to keep the books that will part of our planned homeschooling on the same bookshelf so that it’s easy to access them throughout the year.
Restock our Terrible Day box. This is a plastic bin that I pull out on those days where nothing goes right—our fun field trip got rained out, everybody has a case of the grumpies, nobody wants to do any work, whatever. On those days, we pull out the Terrible Day box and randomly pick something fun to do. I keep it stocked with fun art supplies, Munchkin expansion packs, new board games, Lego sets, cool coloring books, craft kits—basically all the things that I know my kids will almost always be excited to get their hands on. There are some days where homeschooling is just too much, and the Terrible Day box really has helped turn some of them around.
What are some of the little things you do to get ready for the new year?
When I first began to homeschool, I did a small “graduation” for my son’s Kindergarten year because so many other people were doing something similar, but after I did it, that somehow felt wrong. I think a graduation should come at the very end of one’s education. But I still wanted to mark the end of our year so that the boys could see that they were progressing and accomplishing good things. That’s when I decided to do an end-of-the-year review where I’d simply showcase everything we had done that year.
I consider July the end of our school year, but I don’t worry about finishing the curriculum we’re using. While we do finish some items, there are many resources I just put a bookmark in and start where we left off in September. Also, on the official paperwork, I say our school year is from September 1 – August 31. By law, my boys are supposed to have 180 days of school each year during that time. I know I go over that amount, especially when you consider how full of learning our daily lives are.
Most of the work I do to mark the end of the year is quiet work I have to do by myself at my computer. This year, I’ve been hard pressed to work up the motivation to do this, but I am slowly getting it done!
First, I create a progress report for each of my boys. This is required by law in our state of Georgia. Briefly, this is how I do it:
On a piece of paper I list and make each area of study a heading. Under each heading, I create bullet points and list all the applicable curriculum my boys have completed (if we haven’t finished something, I note the pages we’ve completed); apps they’ve used; field trips; library books read on that subject; projects; outside classes, if any; and summer camps that support that area of study.
I also make comments on their progress such as: “The nine-year-old’s reading skills have greatly improved this year.” “The six-year-old is showing a growing interest in math.”
By law, I have to teach reading, language arts, math, science and social studies, so I always list those, but since I don’t have to show this progress report to anybody, I consider it a keepsake, and I list the other things I’m teaching too: art, Spanish, and physical education. I also make a separate heading for my boys’ major projects that year. For example, this year my son has been learning how to play the piano and also studying the composers and listening to a lot of classical music. So I made a heading where I can go in-depth on this topic.
The progress report is usually about two pages long and once I’m finished, I print it out and put it into a 3-ring binder, which I call their portfolios. I make these binders at the beginning of a year, and I put any documentation I have about their school year into it, such as brochures to museums we’ve visited or the programs to the classical concerts we’ve attended. I also keep our daily work charts in the binder as well.
After the progress report is complete, it’s time to start on the fun ritual I do every year, and that is make a slideshow of all our photos from that year. I’m a photographer, so I take lots of photographs of our field trips and the boys’ projects and everything else. (Though, I have to admit, I got lazy this year and mostly used my phone camera!)
Making a slideshow with hundreds of photos and several video clips is quite a chore. That’s why I have not yet completed this year’s slideshow. Last year, my husband helped me by adding music to it. Once we’re done, however, we put it on a DVD and we can send it to the boys’ grandparents. They love it!
We actually love sitting down to watch it too. The boys are delighted to see photos of projects that by now they’ve forgotten about! (Sometimes this review inspires them to go back and work more on something!) If we took a vacation or had relatives visit us during the year, I include those photos too. Although it’s a lot of work, it’s worth the effort to have our photos in an accessible place and not lost somewhere on an external drive!
When it comes time to watch the slideshow (which is usually in late July or – ahem – maybe mid-August this year), I gather our curriculum, portfolios and major projects the boys have been working on that year, and I lay them out on a table. I take a photo of the boys standing in front of their work, and (in lieu of a report card), I give them a certificate of completion for that year and sometimes a small gift (something educational that will help them with a project). Then we watch the slideshow.
And that’s it. That’s our end-of-the-year ritual.
After this, we take some time off in August because it’s time to celebrate both my boys’ birthdays. They are three years apart, but their birthdays are exactly one week apart. (I didn’t plan it that way!) Then in early September, we start our new school year, continuing what we didn’t finish and/or sometimes getting out some shiny new curriculum. I do nothing special to mark the first day of school. I think our end-of-year ritual + birthday celebrations are quite enough!
Writing down my end-year-old work makes it seem like a lot, but I assure you, except for making that @#$%! slideshow, it’s not too time-consuming. ;)
If you’re interested in seeing examples of some of the print-outs I mentioned in this post, they are available as free downloads on my personal blog.
What do you do to mark the end of your homeschool year, or do you mark the beginning of the year? Or both?
Suzanne and I are talking about back-to-school season in the latest episode of the podcast, so naturally school supplies came up. It seemed like the perfect time to share some of our favorite homeschool supplies. Share your faves in the comments!
Parts of this were originally published in the winter 2015 issue of home | school | life, but we’ve updated and expanded it a bit since we’ve got school supplies on the brain this time of year.
Whether you’re a new homeschooler not sure how to get started or an experienced homeschooler looking for a little planning inspiration, these simple strategies will help you get organized for the learning year ahead.
Homeschooling high school doesn’t have to mean acquiring organizational super skills. This easy organization method won’t stress you out and will make your life a whole lot easier when you start working on transcripts and other official paperwork for high school graduation. (This is our most-requested reprint from the magazine.) The envelope solution is elegant, effective, and so simple you can’t screw it up. Start it in ninth grade — eighth if you’re feeling particularly ambitious — and when it’s time to start the college application process, you’ll be all set. Here's how it works.
Label a large envelope for each class with the full name of the course and grade number (such as 9-Honors English 1 or 11-AP U.S. History). Add a separate envelope for extracurricular activities — if your child is serious about an activity, like soccer or theater, you may want to create a separate envelope for that particular activity as well as one for general extracurricular activities.
Label another envelope with your teen’s grade level and Honors — you’ll use this envelope to stash certificates of achievement, pictures of science fair experiments, and other awards and recognitions. Add one last envelope for community service — again, be sure to label it with your student’s grade level.
Make a basic information sheet for each class your child is taking. Include:
- the textbook(s) used, with ISBN number
- a copy of the textbook’s table of contents (Do this now. The last thing you want to do is end up rooting through boxes in the garage in a couple of years to figure out if your son’s freshman biology class included a section on genetics.)
- the course description and syllabus
- the name of the teacher (yes, even if it’s you!)
- the number of credit hours the course entails
Tuck this information sheet securely in the envelope. Add items to envelope as the year progresses. Things you’ll want to include:
- graded papers and tests
- samples of presentations, lab reports, or other work done in the class
- a running reading list (Add titles of books and essays to the list as you read them so you don’t have to try to remember everything at the end of the year. Even better, have your student keep an annotated reading list — with notes about each book.)
- notes about associated activities — visits to museums, lectures, theaters, etc. — that relate to the class
At the end of the class, write the final grade and total credit hours on the front of the envelope. Inside the envelope, add:
- official grades — community college report cards, printouts from an online class, or your evaluations
- Ask any outside teacher to write a recommendation letter or evaluation for your student. Do it now while your student’s work is still fresh in their minds, and add the recommendation to your envelope. If you decide to ask this teacher for a recommendation when you’re working on college applications, you can give him his original recommendation to refresh his memory.
- If your student ends up taking an AP or CLEP exam in a subject, add the exam results to your envelope. Similarly, if your student publishes or wins an award for work she started in the class, add those credits to your envelope.
Use a binder clip to group your envelopes — depending on how your brain works, you may want them grouped by grade level, by subject matter, or by some other criteria. However you group them, they’ll make writing that final transcript a lot easier since all your information will be organized in one place.
Reprinted from the winter 2015 issue’s Problem: Solved feature, which also tackled writing your own curriculum, keeping up with library books, getting over bad days, how to tell the difference between a homeschool slump and when you’re ready to stop homeschooling, and lots more
[As part of our website launch celebration, we're reprinting some of our favorite columns from the past year on homeschoollifemag.com. Enjoy!]
I’ve always been a bit envious of my friends who have something concrete to show for the hours they spend on their favorite pastimes. My friends who knit end up with scarves and cute hats. My friends who run have a collection of t-shirts from various 5ks and 10ks. As a reader, I have never had much to show for the hours spent curled up with a book, ignoring chores, friends and family, and the great outdoors.
But a few years ago I decided to combine my love of reading with my love of lists, and everything changed. First, I started keeping a book journal. I’ve never had the discipline to keep a daily journal of what’s going on in my life, but this came easier. I picked out a cute notebook and began writing down the title, author, and date read for each book, eventually adding a rating system. (It is very satisfying, after an especially infuriating read, to mark down that 1-star-out-of-5 next to the title. Take that, you terrible author who wasted my time with your badly-written morally-corrupt sexist-racist mind-numbingly-derivative unfunny-when-you-think-you’re-funny novel! Consider yourself rated!) I also try to write down what I loved or hated, which is a fairly good substitute for the conversations I’m dying to have about a particular book on those occasions when I don’t have a book club handy. My great-grandkids may not be able to learn much about life in the long-ago 2010s by reading my journals, but they’ll at least know what I thought of the latest Neil Gaiman (4 stars out of 5).
As the stack of notebooks began to accumulate on my bedside table, I decided that I wanted an easy way to rank and sort my have-read list. LibraryThing and Goodreads are two good online options to catalog book collections and maintain various book lists — I use LibraryThing and, every so often, I update my online have-read list with the latest entries from my book journal. Here’s where it really gets fun. Once the books are entered and tagged with various categories (of my own choosing), I can sort them in all kinds of ways. I can tell you that my fiction to nonfiction ratio is about 2:1. I can tell you that my most prolific reading year (since beginning this system) was 2009 (some of my favorite kids/YA fiction that year: Garth Nix’s Keys to the Kingdom series, Ottoline and the Yellow Cat by Chris Riddell), and my least prolific was 2012 (faves of that year included The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente and Ottoline Goes to School by Chris Riddell).
Using LibraryThing’s Stats/Memes section, I can see that my reading is nearly evenly split between male (51%) and female authors (49%) and that I favor living authors (68%) over dead ones (32%). My favorite thing to do, though, is to page through LibraryThing’s list of book awards and honors (updated by members of the online community). For each award — and there are hundreds here — the books are listed with the ones I’ve already read helpfully checked off, so I can see at a glance that of the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die, I’ve got 150 down, 1164 to go. (Since there have been different editions of the 1,001 list, the total number of books included is 1,314, which hardly seems fair.) Seeing the books I’ve read listed by award also helps me find awards that I was previously unfamiliar with, but which seem to do a great job picking books that I’ve loved. The Alex award, given by the ALA to books written for adults that have special appeal for young adults, is an example — after finding that it included several long-time favorites (To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, and The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly, just to name a few), I knew I would be returning to find books to add to my to-read list.
I’m not going to tell you how many books are on my to-read list. Suffice to say that even if I don’t add any more books from now on, I’ve got a solid decade (maybe two) of good reading in my future. My to-read list is something to look forward to, something to help me manage my disappointment about all the wonderful books that I can’t quite get to at the moment, that I’ll forget about (in the midst of homeschooling and planning dinner and picking the kids up from dance class) if I don’t keep track somewhere. And while it’s not exactly a scarf or a t-shirt, when I check something off the to-read list, or rank all the fiction I’ve read in 2014, or add another full notebook to the bedside stack, I have a sense of accomplishment in building a lasting record of my reading life.
So in 2015, as you’re considering your reading resolutions (I’ll be trying to break the 2009 record), think about starting your own life-list of books read — or helping your kids start theirs, so they can watch the notebooks stack up, concrete evidence of hours well-spent ignoring chores, friends and family, and the great outdoors. Happy reading!