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.

Educating Your Children in the City

One of the first questions my peers ask, related to our life in the city, is usually about my children’s education.

“So, where will they go to school?”

My oldest is not yet five years old and, unlike most of his peers in the city, he has never been to daycare and is not enrolled in preschool. When strangers ask him if he is in preschool, he simply answers, “No, we do school at home.”

When my son was born, I went from full-time to part-time (~15hrs/week) employment and never looked back. When I’m not at work, on top of daily household tasks, I am ushering our children into the world of homsechooling. How do we make this work? Well, it’s definitely not easy. I’ve been able to keep my job because my boss is gracious and flexible and we have always been fortunate to find affordable childcare (no, it’s not a family member and, no, it’s not free). It works because my husband and I are willing to sacrifice my “earning potential,” along with the comforts that it would afford, for the sake of providing a home-centered family life for our children.

Educating my children at home was never my plan. But, as my husband and I began building a vision of our life together, it started to make sense to me. We have made this choice for a multitude of reasons, some of which I wrote about back in January, so I’m not going to get into that now. Suffice to say, I believe it is the best option for most children and preferable to modern standardized public schooling.

We have many friends who homeschool, and many friends who don’t, for all sorts of different reasons. So, I understand that it is neither practical, nor desirable, for many other families. Education, in general, is a very polarizing issue. (Isn’t everything about parenthood? Geez.) And, here in the city of Cincinnati, there are three viable options for parents: 1) public neighborhood schools; 2) private, charter, or magnet schools; 3) homeschooling or co-op schools.

I’m not interested in drawing out the three different options. but would like to share a few articles that I’ve come across lately that have helped me clarify my own opinions about the options. Maybe they will helpful to you, as well.

1) Public Neighborhood Schools.

In the City of Cincinnati, without parental intervention, children default to their neighborhood schools. The school they’re enrolled in is based solely on their home address. Some of these schools are fantastic; some are not. They are always at the mercy of the demographic of their area and, therefore, are the most successful in higher-income areas and tend to struggle in lower-income areas. For parents who don’t want to fuss with private or magnet enrollment, neighborhood schools are one of the top few reasons they re-locate when getting ready to “start a family.”

A few months ago, I read an article published by Christianity Today, written by a woman who sent her children to a struggling neighborhood school–the worst one in her city. Before I got married, I always saw myself as a future public school mom. After reading this article, I felt like my former self might be telling my current self that I’m taking the easy road by keeping my kids at home. The sentiment of the article is gripping. And I will question myself again and aging during our tenure here in the city about the balance between caring for our children vs seeking the welfare of others’.

Our neighborhood school here in OTR is struggling. There are talks, among some like-minded neighbors, of pushing for an overhaul at the school. This is, after all, one of intended benefits of gentrification, right? Committed parents move into a neighborhood and, by sheer numbers, change the culture of the neighborhood schools. But, as it is, no drastic change is in sight for our neighborhood.

For families in other parts of the city, the neighborhood schools might be a good option, one that allows them to engage locally with their neighbors without sacrificing a sound education for their children. We know that the largest contributing factor to students success is parental involvement, anyway, so maybe it’s possible for our children to succeed academically no matter where we land. If that’s true, maybe there’s no reason to avoid public neighborhood schools.

2) Private, Charter, or Magnet Schools.

As a  “public school kid” myself, with good memories of my schooling experience, it never really crossed my mind that I would enroll my own children in private schools. Since I’ve married and started having children, I have considered it at times. After all, having our children enrolled at a school that prescribes to our own educational philosophy would take away the stress of doing it ourselves. And it would connect us to a support system of families who prescribe to the same philosophy. But, economics aside (because I’d have to work full-time to pay for it, which I don’t want to do), I’m simply not sold on the idea.

I have one main argument against enrolling children in alternative schools and it’s captured here, in this article:

…the (magnet) system as it is stratifies communities. By the time they graduate high school, many of the brightest kids already feel alienated from their neighborhoods; after all, they spend the majority of their day somewhere else.

(“Magnet Schools: More Harm Than Good?” Victor Harbison, NY Times)

What alternative schools do is pull families out of their immediate neighborhoods and plant them, for the duration of their educational career, in a “community” with their educational peers. Rather than engaging with their neighbors and early childhood friends, they now spend all of their time in another part of town with people their own age who are much more like them. It’s a comforting scenario and, to be fair, creates many strong and lasting relationships with both children and their parents. But it’s a shallow sense of community in that it is, by design, more controlled, homogeneous, and could easily end the moment enrollment ends.

The great thing about alternative schools is that parents can live anywhere it’s affordable or convenient, while still getting the education they desire for their kids. Heck, they can have three kids in three different schools if they want! But, from my perspective, this decision is counterproductive to engaging with the community where they live, inhabiting that space, and truly investing in their neighbors. They are, as the article above states, spending the majority of their day somewhere else. This is not to say that families always disengage from their resident community, only that their time will always be divided. So, though not rendering engagement impossible, it is at least now more difficult.

One obvious exception to this rule is the parish model of schooling that the Catholic Church has followed for years. I think it’s a good lead for us to follow. Another exception is when families relocate to be in closer proximity to their chosen alternative school, thereby creating more of an intentional “neighborhood” model. This second option, though, does not guarantee that any of the other students in the school live nearby, as the nature of alternative schools is that they are open to those both near and far. So, you may not need to drive your kids 20 minutes to get to their school, but you will now have to drive them 20 minutes to visit any of their friends.

(As a sidenote: These are the very same issues I have with those who join churches far from their homes. I’m sure I’ll write about the issue someday, but today is not that day.)

3) Homeschool or Co-op Education.

When I was young, I knew a handful of homeschooling families. Then, in the 80’s, homeschoolers were on the fringe of even religious circles and were often isolated in their decision for home-based education. Now, thirty years later, the world of homeschooling is as diverse as our education system itself.

A few weeks ago, I saw a link to this article posted on my Twitter feed and it absolutely made my day. The source of the article is Next City, a nonprofit online news source and blog written from an urbanist perspective. The article tells the stories of a few urban homeschooling families and articulates, much better than I can, the rich lifestyle education afforded to families who homeschool in urban areas. It also helps illustrate the level of community engagement that’s possible for families who may feel committed to the place they live, but cannot sign-on to the available schools for whatever reason.

Far from disconnected protestors against the mainstream, urban homeschoolers use the city as a resource — and in turn, can become deeply embedded in the city’s wider life.

(“Charter for One: A New Breed of City Parents Embraces Homeschooling,” Carly Berwick, Next City.*)

*The article itself is viewable, in its entirety, by subscription only or for $1.99, but it’s worth the cost.

I know that homeschooling is not always a better alternative to other available options, especially in smaller communities with more parental control and involvement. But, the potential for homeschooling in an urban environment really excites me, especially when so many of my peers can’t imagine living in the city because of the schools.

The article above does not address homeschool co-ops, but you can find a quick run-down here on About.com if you’re unfamiliar with the idea of co-oped education. In my mind, some type of co-op is absolutely necessary for homsechooling families and provides just enough of the “alternative school” benefits, without a full-time commitment.

But, what about you?
Do you live in a city?
Where do/will your kids attend school?