How I’m Surviving This Year Of Homeschooling

Have you heard the joke about cleaning with kids in the house?

It goes like this: Cleaning with young kids under foot is like brushing your teeth with oreos in your mouth.

Well if that’s true, then homeschooling with young kids around is like brushing your teeth with oreos in your mouth while holding a baby and reciting poetry.

Translation: it ain’t easy.

If you count the year I “started preschool” with my eldest child, then this is my fifth year homeschooling. I’m currently teaching third grade, first grade, and something akin to preschool with a one year old baby along for the ride.

In some ways, this year has been far easier than years past. I know my kids a lot better, I’ve learned a lot of teaching tricks, have an ever-growing inventory of tools and books at my disposal, and I’m more confident in what I’m trying to do (even if I’m still learning as I go).

Logistically and emotionally, though, this year has been rough. At the most base level, I’m struggling with the 24/7 presence of four children in my home (though that struggle is nothing new for me). And, with a young toddler in the house, the chaos is over the top. It seems like as soon as we get started with a lesson, the baby falls off a chair. (Literally, he falls about a dozen times a day.)

Some days I can take the chaos with good humor, but other days leave me exhausted and overwhelmed. These past few months, there has been a lot of (both me and them) crying and hiding in the bathroom, counting down the minutes until I can get the baby to sleep so we can focus or the hours until my husband comes home.

Not all days are that hard. Most weeks, we have about one or two awesome school days that make me feel like a superhero teacher/mom/housekeeper/wife and make me want to shower my kids with candy and cupcakes all day and then publish a book about how awesome my family is. We also have one or two days a weeks that feel only marginally successful but (thankfully) go along without too much drama. And then there are always the one or two days that seem absolutely impossible until the day is finally over and I take a deep breath and honestly can’t believe we survived.

But we do survive.
We’ve survived 22 weeks of the school year, in fact. And I’m certain we’ll survive the next 14.

For anyone else in a similar overwhelmed-but-hopeful situation with homeschooling, I’d like to share how I’m surviving.

I’m slowing things down and doing less. I am saying “no” to invitations I’d really rather accept. I am ignoring cool events around town that I would normally love to bring my kids to. We are staying home more and not feeling bad about it and, while at home, I am keeping lessons quick, simple, and not forcing things that aren’t working. I’m not letting myself feel guilty for not enrolling the kids in sports or swimming lessons or art classes. I’ve also been taking one morning a week (like today!) to get away from the house, work on some writing, take care of personal/family business, run errands, etc. Even three hours a week makes a huge difference in my mental stability. I leave two or three easy, independent tasks for the two school-aged kids to do while I’m gone so they don’t completely waste the time and so we can jump back into “school” when I get back. It’s a life saver.

I’m adjusting my daily expectations for my kids and myself. The bulk of my school planning is done at the end of the previous year when I assess the work we’ve done and make lists of goals and attainments for the next year. The specifics come together over the summer as I research and purchase new materials and then it’s all re-calibrated as we near the end of each term. My planning documents for each term are not organized by day. Instead, I have a subject-based lesson checklist for each week. This means I have a lot of wiggle room on a daily basis to adjust my schedule and our content based on the needs of the day. In a season like ours, this is the only way to keep on track without getting constantly discouraged about not meeting goals like how many chapters we’ve read today or how many math facts my kid has memorized this week.

I’m learning to turn on a dime. Thriving in a season like ours requires being able to change course quickly. If something is not working, if the baby never fell asleep, if the weather is suddenly sunny, sometimes the best thing we can do is change the plan for the day. With so much to do and so many moving parts in a big family, I don’t waste time making myself or my kids miserable. Instead, I’m learning to stop the train before it derails and redirect quickly.

I’m trying not to compare my family to any other homeschooling families or myself to other homeschool moms. Maybe it’s a symptom of the social media age or maybe just a symptom of womanhood, but I’m constantly looking over my shoulder at how we compare to other families. It’s unhealthly and emotionally taxing. It’s a distraction. And I’m learning to stop it before it steals the joy from homeschooling and parenting. So what if my school room isn’t as beautiful as yours? Who cares if I don’t look photo-ready while taking my kids on a walk to the library? And is it really a big deal if my 6 year-old is still working to differentiate between “b,” “d,” and “p?” No. It’s not.

I’m putting the kids to work. This is admittedly one of the hardest parts of parenting for me but something I’m working on. Teaching kids to clean and cook and take care of themselves takes patience that I don’t always have to spare. But the investment in teaching my kids now will pay off in a huge way as they grow. One of my favorite new things to remind the kids, when telling them for the fifth time (or sixth time or seventh time) to clean up after themselves is: “This is not a punishment; this is your responsibility.” Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all, as adults, understood this for ourselves?

I’m reminding myself the “why” and keeping it in the front of my mind. People homeschool for many different reasons. Some, for example, have children with special needs or gifted children who require special attention or direction. I wrote a post a few years ago, when my son was in the first grade, about why I’m choosing to homeschool our kids and I re-read it every so often to keep myself focused. (While some of that post is outdated, it’s still mostly true. Check it out if you’re interested.) Keeping the reasons why I’m doing this in the front of my mind help me keep my priorities straight and make better value judgments about the work we’re doing (or not doing, as the case may be).

I’m keeping my head in the game. I keep reading, researching, and refining my beliefs about child development, parenting, and education. I don’t want to follow a method of schooling blindly or without thoughtfulness. Part of my responsibility as a mother and educator is working at it like a job, like it matters as much as any other career or vocation. That requires focus and energy in developing my skills so I can serve my family well. As I adopt an educational philosophy and method that excites me to teach, it makes walking through a difficult season a lot easier.

I’m leaning on community. Making “girlfriends” is not easy for me, but I’m trying to stretch myself. Some of this involves presence on social media and using it be inspired and encouraged by other homeschooling families. Some of this involves inviting myself into the lives of other women who are further along in the journey than I am. And some of this involves making time for friendships with women of all ages and life stages that hold me up through a difficult season and vice versa.

(Sidebar: Please, if you know me in real life and feel like we should be friends, let’s make it happen.)

And, lastly, I’m reminding myself that this is just a season. Kids grow fast and the one year-old who is driving me crazy today will be talking tomorrow and then riding a bike and, someday, driving a car. (WHAT!?)

This year is hard. But this too shall pass. And I’d rather make the most of the luxury of keeping these kids around the house all day than wish them gone.

How We Homeschool

Hang out with homeschooling families long enough and you’ll realize that “homeschool” is not a one-size-fits-all education. There are about a million different homeschool methods and just as many competing curriculum. The world of homeschooling makes space for conservatives, cultural progressives, religious folk, atheists, strict academics, and unschoolers. So I guess it makes sense why so many people have questions about what our method of homeschooling actually looks like. Let me see if I can explain our method of homeschooling in a way that makes sense.

First of all, every family has an underlying philosophy of parenting, childhood, and education. It’s what guides their decisions about educating their children.

To grossly oversimplify, I believe that:

  • Children thrive as adolescents and adults after forming strong attachments with their parents at a young age.
  • Parents should be the primary influence in their children’s lives at the age when they are most easily influenced.
  • Children thrive with multi-generational, real world socialization, rather than the peer-to-peer socialization characterized by a manufactured school environment. (A child cannot teach another child how to grow to be a healthy, mature adult.)
  • Children are neither machines nor animals, yet most standardized educational institutions educate children on an assembly line toward homogeneous mediocrity with no respect to their diversity of skills, gifts, challenges, and passions.
  • Children are naturally curious and thrive in an environment that leaves space for deeper curiosity about subjects that matter, not in an environment dictated by academic standards, measures, and guidelines.
  • The quality of a child’s mind cannot be quantified by standardized tests and time-wasting busy work.
  • A child’s mind is best cultivated with high-quality “nutrition” (or content), not educational fads or popular media.
  • Children need to be outdoors on a regular basis, in wild places rather than in paved playgrounds. It is good for their bodies, minds, and souls.

Like I said, that is a gross oversimplification (and leaves a lot out). But it at least tells you where I’m coming from and why I decided to homeschool my kids. You might disagree. You probably do. And that’s okay. I’m teaching my kids, not yours.

Moving on.
Once you’ve decided what you believe about parenting, childhood, and education, a homeschooling family must decide what that means for their method of homeschooling. Will they buy a pre-packaged curriculum or write their own? Will they join an alternative school or go solo? Will they teach at home, outdoors, or at the library? Will they keep a strict schedule or allow more flexibility? There’s a lot to decide.

I’ll offer an over-simplified explanation of our method.

– We follow the Charlotte Mason method of schooling. You can find a good explanation of Mason’s philosophy here. But, as with most things in my life, I’m not a purist. But I find her philosophy of education most closely aligns with my own, so I’m using her writings (and the writings of other CM educators) to help direct our schooling. One morning a week, my son attends a non-traditional school of sorts with a bunch of other kids from Charlotte Mason-influenced homes. It will be interesting to see if, as time goes on, our homeschool gets closer or further from her method.

– I do not use a pre-packaged curriculum like many of my peers, but I am not an un-schooler. I toss together various materials to create a complete course of study. For a subject such as history or geography, I choose a general historical era or geographic region for our term (this term we are continuing with pre-Colonial and Colonial America, as well as the American Revolution) and then I use all first-source materials and “living books.” For a subject such as math, I teach through oral lessons and related activities. In a lesson about telling time, for example, we spend more time discussing the relationship between the clock, percentages, and fractions than we do taking quizzes about telling time. I began teaching my son to read using this book but then began using sight word lists and practicing on nursery rhymes instead. We are now using BOB books for reading. This sort of hodge-podge curriculum may get more difficult to manage as my kids age out of elementary school, but it works well for us for now.

– We are on a three-term school year (plus some schoolwork during the summer) and I have a loose lesson plan for each term, including a list of materials and resources. I schedule our daily lessons on a bulletin board. On the board, I have a couple dozen library cards filed in envelopes (the kind you used to find inside a library book cover when you were a kid) by subject categories. You’d find the usual subjects of reading, math, handwriting, history, geography, and science on our lesson board. I teach my son beginner piano. My husband handles fine art with the kids. We are intermittently learning beginner German. You would also find life skills (like making breakfast or preparing our snack), health and safety, hymn study, and Bible study/memorization on the board. At the beginning of the week, if I have my act together, I pull out the cards of the lessons I’d like to accomplish during the week and then choose from the week’s lessons each day. But it’s more likely that I choose each day as I see how our schedule goes. Then, after we complete a lesson, I note the date and content of the lesson on the card (the chapter read, for example) and file it back in its envelope until next time. This is how I keep track of our progress through the year. Lessons are short and we take many breaks during the day.

– We read a lot of books. Good books. Old books. Books without kid-friendly cartoons or funny characters, but full of adventure. Many of our books come recommended from other Charlotte Mason educators and websites like Ambleside Online that provide entire book lists by grade. These are many of the same books that were considered “classics” when I was young, but these books are for more than entertainment. They are teaching my children advanced vocabulary, grammar, and storytelling skills. They are teaching complex ethics and morality. They are teaching patience and mindfulness when being read to and then teaching communication skills when my kids narrate the story back to me.

– We spend time outdoors. We take a lengthy hike at least once a week and do our best to leave the house for a bit every other day, as well. If possible, our lessons are done outdoors. In addition to the physical and emotional benefits of being outdoors, the real world is where our kids see the complex relationships present in the created order. It’s where their minds can most clearly seen connections. They can tie together their experience of the seasons with Earth’s orbit and the lifecycles of plants. They witness the changing behavior of animals throughout the day, the relationship between the sun and the time on their watch, the sounds of the city compared to the sounds of the woods. They learn to be comfortable in and adaptable to heat, cold, rain, and snow. They becomes masters of their environment, learning to navigate by map, by compass, and by memory.

– We have Tea Time. Our Tea Time is most often around 4pm, when my daughter wakes from her nap. We heat the water, we set the table, we prepare a small snack, and then choose our book while the tea is steeping. This is the time of day when we collect ourselves after naptime/quiet time is finished, before I prepare dinner. It is usually our last focused “school time” of the day, when we practice narration (when my children report back to me what I’ve just read) and sometimes recite poetry. This is also the part of the day when we could choose to do an art study or song study.

– We take trips to the library, to the zoo, to the museum, to local historic sites, or to other places where we can learn in an immersion atmosphere. In a city like ours, there are countless opportunities for this. It’s also a great way to teach multiple ages side by side with the exact same source material.

– Our homeschooling is not anti-technology, but it is technology-lite. We were gifted an iPad to use for school and have a couple dozen apps we use here and there. The ones we use most frequently are for math or science. (Khan Academy is probably our favorite.) We also use the iPad for listening to audio books (on LibriVox) and the occasional YouTube video for a history or art lesson (such as “How the States Got Their Shape”). We also use computers at the public library every week or two. My son is learning to use a computer and will eventually learn how to type. So, in general, our media use is for school and not for entertainment. But we’re not anti-media or anti-technology.

This, in short, is how we homeschool. It’s a bit unrefined at this point and it will likely change as we incorporate our other children more and as we advance through the subjects. For now, I am an imperfect educator and am, in many ways, learning as I go.

IMG_0838“The question is not, — how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education — but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?” — Charlotte Mason.