Homeschool Life

Six Steps to Turn the Homeschool You Have into the Homeschool You Really Want

Six Steps to Turn the Homeschool You Have into the Homeschool You Really Want

Reinventing your homeschool is just part of the process, but this six-step process will help your homeschool grow in the ways that work best for your family.

The Loneliness of the Homeschool Mom

The Loneliness of the Homeschool Mom

Loneliness isn’t something we talk about, but maybe it should be. If you’re feeling isolated, depressed, irritable, or just plain sad, loneliness might be to blame. Here’s how to understand why you feel so alone sometimes — and how to make the slow-but-steady connections that can help end your solitary confinement.

Mission Possible: Totally Doable New Year’s Resolutions for Your Homeschool

Mission Possible: Totally Doable New Year’s Resolutions for Your Homeschool

Small changes can make the biggest difference in your homeschool life. Here’s how to make this year your most satisfying yet.

Best of HSL: Best Cities for Homeschool Families: #2: Chicago

Best of HSL: Best Cities for Homeschool Families: #2: Chicago

[We're gearing up for our updated list of Best Cities for Homeschool Families this fall, so we thought it would be fun to publish the three best of 2014 on the blog—number two on the list is the homeschool friendly city of Chicago.]

“Chicago is the pulse of America,” Sarah Bernhardt famously said, and you can feel the rhythm of the city pumping in your blood as soon as you set foot on the sidewalk. 

Chicago feels like a city you’ve imagined, with dramatic architecture mixed in with old-fashioned buildings, crowds of people who smile when they pass you on the street, and the kind of energy that you only get in a center of culture and enterprise.

And for homeschoolers, the magic of this Midwest city is delightfully accessible. The Museum of Science and Industry lets homeschoolers explore its galleries for free every weekday. Homeschool parents can get free admission at the Art Institute of Chicago every time they visit. If you call the Chicago Zoological Society, you can set up a free visit to see the animals. On the University of Chicago campus, you can pick up cheap tickets for cutting-edge art exhibitions, film screenings, and theatrical productions. And you can score day-of tickets to plays and musicals on Chicago’s theater row for as little as $5 per person.

In every season, you’ll find street festivals and block parties going on around the city—the Printers Row Literary Festival is a must for book-lovers, and the golumpkis at the Taste of Polonia festival may just make your kids appreciate cabbage. You can browse for hours in the stacks at the enormous, three-story used bookstore Myopic Books in Wicker Park, or find the next great indie comic or chapbook at hipster hangout Quimby’s. Pick up a slice of Chicago-style pizza and take a Frank Lloyd Wright walking tour. In late spring and early fall, you can have the sprawling beach of Lake Michigan almost completely to yourselves, and there’s plenty of room to play outside in Chicago Athenaeum’s International Sculpture Park (no admission charge) and the Adams Playground Park. The point is, you can have a ton of fun in Chicago without making a dent in your budget.

In fact, Chicago may be the most budget-friendly big city in the United States. In neighborhoods like Edgewater, the median selling price for condominiums is just $150,000—and you’re right by the Red Line for easy access to public transportation. Expect to pay a little more for groceries here than the national average, but less than you’d pay in a city like New York or Los Angeles. Costs for gas and utilities here are right around the national average. Chicago’s a sprawling city, but you can get by with a single car if you get comfortable with the public transportation system and live within walking distance of a transit stop.

 

IN BRIEF

Homeschool Requirements: None. If you’re withdrawing your child from school, the state recommends notifying the school, but you don’t have to file any paperwork, meet any attendance requirements, or participate in any standardized testing.

Community: The Chicago Homeschool Co-op meets on Wednesdays and is a great place to find out about other Chicagoland homeschool resources from other group members.

Books: Quimby’s is the coolest bookstore in town—and the place to find small-press zines, chapbooks, and comics.

Resources: Admission is free on weekdays for homeschool families at the Museum of Science and Industry, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Chicago Zoological Society; explore the galaxy at the Adler Planetarium; play outside at the Garfield Park Conservancy; build sandcastles at Foster Avenue Beach; get inspired at the Printers Row Literary Festival

Number of Museums: 74, including the Field Museum of Natural History, the Mitchell Museum of the American indian, and the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio

Number of Libraries: 80, with a calendar of regular activities including arts and crafts workshops, gaming sessions, and author events

Median home price: $270,900 

Population: 2.71 million

 

This was originally published in the fall 2014 issue of HSL. Information was correct at time of publication but may have changed since then.


The Joys of Summer Reading

The Joys of Summer Reading

Our Book Nerd is still recovering from vacation, so we’re revisiting her thoughts on the long, lovely stretches of reading time that defined her childhood summers. Stay tuned for an extra-extra long Library Chicken update!

These days I read in bits and pieces. 􏰳􏰮I take a book with me everywhere I go, so I can grab 15 minutes while I’m waiting in the dentist, or 10 minutes waiting in the car for the kids to finish class. (I’d read at stoplights if I could.) Our family readaloud time can also get fragmented. We have a strict policy of reading together every night—except when dinner plans didn’t go as planned and we eat an hour later than normal, or someone isn’t feeling well, or we had a rough day homeschooling and my readaloud voice is shot, or whatever. On those nights we might cut our reading time in half, or forgo it altogether in favor of a group viewing of the latest episode of So You Think You Can Dance.

It sometimes feels like my reading progress can be measured in paragraphs instead of pages, so this time of year, I think back with longing to my childhood summers, when I could read uninterrupted for hours at a stretch. I’d pick the thickest books I could find, or check out every book in a series and stack them up beside me, devouring them like potato chips. With few distractions, I could get absorbed in a book in a way that’s much more difficult for me today. I can remember exactly where I was sitting in my grandmother’s living room, heart pounding, as Madeleine L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet blew my mind. Another time I was reading science fiction in the hammock on the porch at home and suddenly looked up, startled and alarmed at the idea that I was outside breathing open air—until I remembered that I was on planet Earth and the air was okay to breathe.

A while ago, I was talking with a friend I’ve known since third grade (we bonded over The Chronicles of Narnia) and I said that while I was enjoying reading The Lord of the Rings with my kids, it was a much different experience from reading it on my own, on the long summer days, when I didn’t do much of anything but hang out in Middle Earth and worry about Ringwraiths. “I wish I’d been able to do that,” my friend said wistfully. I didn’t understand what she meant. I knew she was at least as big a Tolkien-nerd as I was, and we’d read the books about the same time.

“Don’t you remember?” she said. “My parents thought I read too much, so after half an hour I had to go play outside.” (My friend was much too well-behaved to do the logical thing and sneak the book out with her.) Clearly, if I had ever known about such traumatic events, I had blocked them from my memory. Of course, now that she is a grown-up with a full-time job and a household to support, it’s very nearly impossible for my friend to go back and recreate the summers she should have had, visiting other worlds and inhabiting other lives.

I’ve used her sad story as a cautionary tale in my own life. Whether we take a summer break or homeschool year-round (we’ve done both), I try to take advantage of the unique flexibility of homeschool life to make sure that my kids have the time and space to find their own reading obsessions. This year my younger son is tracking down The 39 Clues as quickly as the library can fulfill his hold requests, my 11-year-old daughter is matriculating at Hogwarts for the umpteenth time, my teenage daughter is spending a lot of time in various apocalyptic wastelands, and my teenage son is hanging out in small-town Maine with terrifying clowns. I can’t always join them (no way am I voluntarily reading about scary clowns), but I do try to schedule some marathon readaloud sessions, so that we can finally finish the His Dark Materials trilogy or get started with our first Jane Austen.

Occasionally (oh, happy day!) the kids will even ask me for reading suggestions, so I can pull out some recent favorites from the children’s/YA shelf. At the moment that list includes Museum of Thieves by Lian Tanner, about a fantasy world where parental overprotectiveness has been taken to such extremes that children are literally chained to their guardians. Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld, is an alternate-history steampunk retelling of World War I, where the heroine disguises herself as a boy to serve on one of the massive, genetically modified, living airships in the British air force. Garth Nix’s Mister Monday envisions all of creation being run by a vast, supernatural bureaucracy, which our 12-year-old hero must learn to navigate to save his own life and ultimately the world (encountering quite a bit more adventure and danger along the way than we usually find in, say, the average DMV office). Each of these books is the first in a series, fulfilling my requirements for appropriate summer reading.

And as much as possible, I try to carve out some time for myself to grab my own over-large summer book—maybe Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, or Hilary Mantel’s latest Tudor epic, Bring Up the Bodies, or maybe I’ll finally tackle Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire—and snuggle next to the kids to do some side-by-side reading, ignoring deadlines and household chores to get lost in a book together.

This post is reprinted from the summer 2014 issue of HSL magazine.


Looking Back on a Decade-Plus of Homeschool Life

Our resident Book Nerd is on vacation this week, so while she racks up points for a special double-edition of Library Chicken, we're reprinting one of our favorite Suzanne columns.

Looking Back on a Decade-Plus of Homeschool Life

I can tell you exactly when I decided to homeschool. Kid No. 1 was nearly three, Kid No. 2 was an infant, and Kids No. 3 and No. 4 were years away. I was sitting on my bed next to my husband, reading my way through a stack of library books— not unusual, except in this case, the stack consisted of every single homeschooling book my local library had available. About halfway through the stack I turned to my husband and said, “I think we can do this.” I believe his response was a dubious “Hmmm.”

That was over 10 years ago, and if you ask me why I choose to homeschool, I can give you a decade’s worth of reasons. Initially, it just sounded like a whole lot of fun. I loved school and was a fairly accomplished nerd in my day, so the idea of doing school with my kids (of whom I am also rather fond) seemed pretty great. Academically, it turns out that the one-on-one of homeschooling is such an efficient way to teach that we could take Fridays off and still keep up with what was being taught in our local schools, even as we watched our school-friends deal with bullies, school bureaucracy, and the occasional lousy teacher. I believe that homeschooling supports family relationships and creates life-long learners, and we’ve chosen this course with great care and thought.

Of course, if you ask my kids why we homeschool—and people have—they will tell you that it’s because “Mom likes to sleep in and wear pajamas all day.”

Now, as it happens, this is also true. Which I think illustrates something important about homeschooling: it’s not just an educational choice, it’s a lifestyle choice. I thought I knew this going in. I pictured my kids’ educational journey as just that, a road trip, where instead of taking the interstates like most other folks, we had decided to take the back roads, enjoying the scenery and confounding the GPS.

We’re still on a journey, but it’s not enough to say that we’re driving the back roads. I think we’ve left the car behind and are doing something radically different— more like taking a trip in a hot air balloon, with an entirely different view of the scenery.

But I’ve since realized that metaphor doesn’t go far enough. Once I decided that ‘school’ didn’t have to look anything like the model I grew up with, I also started thinking about happiness, and success, and what I really wanted for myself and my husband and my children as we grow up together. We’re still on a journey, but it’s not enough to say that we’re driving the back roads. I think we’ve left the car behind and are doing something radically different— more like taking a trip in a hot air balloon, with an entirely different view of the scenery.

I didn’t quite know that’s what I was signing up for, halfway through the stack of library books, and it can get a bit nerve-wracking up there at times, but I have learned a few things I can share with my fellow balloonists.

Be flexible. You’re in charge up there, but you’re not in control. Health, financial, or other family issues may mean that the best choice for your family today is not the same as it was last year, or even last week. Give yourself permission to change course.

Keep your destination in mind. Whether you’re planning to homeschool for a year, until college, or for as long as it works, at some point your child will have to deal with the more traditional expectations of the rest of the world. This can be a rocky transition, but there’s a lot you can do to prepare and make it easier.

Teach the kids how to steer. When it’s appropriate—and as often as possible—let them make the decisions about where to go next. And, of course, enjoy the ride. Skip math and grammar and spend the day in bed with the kids and Harry Potter. Take a family trip when everyone else is in school. And definitely, always, wear the pajamas. 


Best of HSL: Best Cities for Homeschool Families: #1 Austin, TX

Best of HSL: Best Cities for Homeschool Families: #1 Austin, TX

[We're gearing up for our updated list of Best Cities for Homeschool Families this fall, so we thought it would be fun to publish the three best of 2014 on the blog, starting with the homeschool friendly city of Austin, Texas.]

As any homeschooler who’s blown up a Coke bottle in her backyard can tell you, sometimes, you’ve just gotta embrace the weird. Which may just be why Austin and homeschooling are a match made in heaven. This city—which takes it graffiti promise to “Keep Austin Weird” so literally that it’s got a Museum of the Weird, complete with Bigfoot mummies, downtown on 6th Street—can handle whatever even the most out-of-the-box life learners hit it with.    

Though nearly two million Texans call the state’s capital city home, Austin still feels more like a small town that’s had a growth spurt than a shiny metropolis. On any given day, you might spot a ragged crowd of kayakers paddling across Lady Bird Lake in the Barton Creek Greenbelt, a seven-mile stretch of public green space along the waterfront. Or you might run into a group of young artists balancing sketchpads on their knees in the Umlauf Sculpture Garden, which lets kids twelve and younger in free every day. Line up for a Harry Potter marathon at the Alamo Drafthouse, and there’s a good chance your kids can drum up a friendly conversation with a fellow Dumbledore fanatic wearing her house colors. Even the line for Franklin Barbecue—which would be frankly ridiculous if that first bite didn’t make you forget how long you waited—can be a kid-friendly lesson in supply and demand. Alternative education opportunities abound in Austin, from the fairly traditional (homeschool day at the Bullock Texas State History Museum or classes at the Austin Science and Nature Center) to quirky niche activities like engineering Maker groups and survivalist training weekends. And kids can choose their next favorite bands just by walking down the street, especially during the city’s annual South by Southwest music festival and conference extravaganza.      

On top of all that, living in Austin’s cheap—at least comparatively. Houses in up-and-coming East Austin had a median price of just $219,000 this spring, and even ritzy hoods like Lakeway have plenty of homes selling in the mid-$300s. Food, utilities, and transportation costs in Austin all fall below the national average—a big plus for homeschool families stretching one income. Thanks to dedicated bike lanes on more than half of the city’s streets and continued bike path development—the city aims to have 900 miles of bike lanes by 2020—Austin is a reasonable place to live without a car. 

 

In Brief

Homeschool requirements: None. If you’re withdrawing your child from school, the state recommends notifying the school, but you don’t have to file any paperwork, meet any attendance requirements, or participate in any standardized testing.

Community: Austin Area Homeschoolers is a friendly resource with discussion groups, field trips, new homeschooler resources, and a weekly co-op.

Books: Book People has an awesome children’s book collection—and they’re so passionate about good reads for kids that they’ve teamed up with local authors to put together a Modern First Library of new kids’ lit classics.

Resources: Check out homeschool programs at the Bullock Texas State History Museum and the Austin Nature and Science Center; get creative (with real tools) at the Austin Tinkering School; learn outdoor survival skills at Earth Native Wilderness Survival School; check out David Foster Wallace’s manuscripts and letters at the Henry Ransom Center at the University of Texas-Austin; play outside on the Barton Creek Greenbelt

Number of Museums: 25, including the Mexic-Arte Museum and the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center

Number of Libraries: 35, with regular book clubs, poetry nights, gaming sessions, and performances

Median home price: $318,854

Population: 1.8 million

This was originally published in the fall 2014 issue of HSL. Information was correct at time of publication but may have changed since then.


The Art of Knowing When to Push

The Art of Knowing When to Push

One of my guiding principles for homeschooling comes by way of unschooler Sandra Dodd: she says that when kids feel truly free to say, “More, please!” when something interests them and free to say, “No, thanks” when something doesn’t interest them, those kids can’t help but learn, and learn with joy and empowerment.

But what about when my kids say “No” not because they’re not interested, but because they’re afraid? What then?

I recently faced that thorny question while my two kids and I were on a trip to the Florida Keys.

My eleven-year-old daughter has long loved the ocean and its creatures. For years, she’s dreamed of snorkeling near coral reefs and seeing colorful tropical fish up close. While we were in Florida, we reserved spots on a snorkeling tour at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park near Key Largo, the first undersea park in the United States. 

A motorized catamaran carried us and about fifty other passengers of all ages to Grecian Rocks Reef, a smooth 30-minute ride southeast of the park visitor center. Our guides were a pair of enthusiastic young women named Brittany and Caitlyn who proudly informed us they were the park’s only all-female crew.

I was a little nervous as our boat skimmed toward our snorkeling destination, though for my daughter’s sake, I did my best to keep my fears to myself. What would it be like to swim with tropical fish? Would they brush up against me? Would I scratch myself on sharp coral or damage a reef? 

When we stopped and anchored near the Grecian Rocks, the other passengers started spraying defogger on their masks, gathering up their fins and snorkels, and heading for the ladders on either side of the boat without any visible trace of nervousness. I asked if my daughter wanted to go in first. She shook her head and said I could go ahead of her. 

The water was shockingly cold at first, and I felt awkward in my fins, mask, and snorkel. I also felt vulnerable. I’m used to swimming in pools with sides I can grab on to and shallow ends where I can easily touch the bottom. Now I was treading water in one of the world’s biggest oceans with no land in sight. I felt keenly that I was a land-based creature, an alien here.

I hung on to the bottom of the ladder to wait for my girl to join me. She made it halfway down the ladder and balked.

“I can’t do it!” she whimpered, her eyes wide with terror. “I don’t want to do it!”

My aspiration as a parent is to listen to my kids’ feelings and refrain from trying to talk them out of their emotions, no matter how inconvenient or unwelcome those emotions might be. If they say they’re not ready to try something, I figure they know better than I do what’s right for them in a given moment. 

My aspiration as a parent is to listen to my kids’ feelings and refrain from trying to talk them out of their emotions, no matter how inconvenient or unwelcome those emotions might be. If they say they’re not ready to try something, I figure they know better than I do what’s right for them in a given moment. 

But this time, my intuition told me that my daughter would regret it if she didn’t get in that water. I wasn’t ready to let her off the hook without trying for at least a little while to talk her through her fear.

“It does feel scary at first,” I said, hanging on at the foot of the ladder, still feeling clumsy and a bit scared myself. “But once you get used to it, I’ll bet you’ll really like it.”

I kept trying to pep-talk her, telling her that when we try something that scares us, we become bigger people. We’ve got one less thing to be afraid of and one more memory of tackling a challenge that we can call on for strength later on.

No dice. She was not budging off that ladder. 

My son had been less than enthused about this whole snorkeling business to begin with, but there’s nothing like having a younger sibling afraid to try something to motivate an older sibling to dive in and show ‘em how it’s done. He climbed down into the water and flopped in beside me, clearly feeling just as awkward as I did.

Brittany and Caitlyn encouraged my son and me to go ahead and swim around and check things out. They assured me they’d be happy to sit with my daughter while we explored. My daughter said that was all right with her, so my son and I kicked away from the boat. 

Only a few yards away from where we were anchored stood clumps of large, boulder-shaped corals swaying with sea fans and covered with forests of staghorn coral, brain coral, and elkhorn coral. Blue tangs, porcupine fish, and stoplight parrotfish nosed peacefully among the corals, oblivious to us humans hovering a few yards above them. 

Gradually, I started to relax. The fish were close enough for me to see them well, but not close enough to brush against me. We were at a comfortable distance from the coral, in no danger of touching or damaging it. 

Swimming through the silence of the calm, clear water, immersed in a world I’d previously seen only in books and movies, I focused less on how alien I felt and more on how utterly amazing this place was. I bobbed my head above the surface and lifted my mask to see if I could spot my daughter back on the boat. She was sitting in the bow wrapped in a towel, dangling her legs over the side, squinting toward me in the bright sun. 

 “Let’s go see if she’s ready now,” I told my son, and we headed toward the catamaran.

By the time we’d gotten to the boat, my daughter was standing by the ladder with her wetsuit, snorkel, and mask on, her fins in her hand. 

 It still wasn’t easy talking her down that ladder. Tears fogged up her mask as she hit the water. Her body was stiff with fear. 

With my son on one side of her and me on the other, she took the risk of putting her face in the water. We swam side by side, my son holding her right hand and me holding her left.

Within seconds, I heard her gasping with wonder as she spotted her first fish. Gradually, she grew brave enough to briefly let go of my hand to point at especially big or colorful fish that caught her eye. 

By the end of our hour or so of snorkeling, she wasn’t holding my hand at all and was confidently swimming ahead of me. She’d conquered a fear. Her possibilities were just a little bit bigger than they’d been an hour earlier, and she’d fulfilled a dream she’s had since she was tiny.

So how do you answer that question of when to push a child who’s scared to try something? I think for me, the answer comes down to being clear about why I’m pushing. Is it because of some abstract idea about not wanting my child to be a scaredy-cat or a quitter? Or is it because I know deep down, based on my relationship with my child, that they’re more ready than they realize and just need a little encouragement, a gentle little nudge? Do I want my kid to overcome their fear to please me, or because I think overcoming that fear will please them? My answer to those questions makes all the difference.

Riding back to shore with my daughter huddled beside me in a damp beach towel, our minds brimming with the wonders we’d just seen below the waves, I felt confident that at least this time, I’d been right not to take “no” for an answer.