Archive for the ‘Homeschool Advice’ Category

You have time to prepare

Thursday, February 26th, 2015


Do you remember how to divide fractions? I didn’t. I had a 4th grade math book whose page I turned and discovered, “Oops! We are up to division of fractions. I can’t remember how to do that.”

I whisked myself away to the garage to teach myself. My kids made messes in the living room.

I returned ready to show Noah how to divide fractions. He performed the task easily. At the end of the page, he commented, “So I don’t have to really remember this? I won’t need fractions as an adult? I only need to know them for today, right?”

Ha! He took a different lesson than the one I meant to impart. My inability to remember how to divide fractions stood out, naked and then ashamed. I countered that my handicaps in math were just that—skills I didn’t get to use when I needed them. I hoped for better for him, and I told him that I would do a better job of preparing to be his teacher in the future.

It’s with this experience in mind that I make the following recommendation. It is wise to prepare. In fact, it is essential to learn how to home educate your kids. It is entirely on task to read blogs, Facebook groups, books, and the directions that precede any lesson you expect your kids to complete.

In fact, it is so on task, may I make a bold statement? I know you don’t have time to study “learning” by yourself, in some ideal context of private, quiet, peaceful hours in the day. I know this.

So, here’s my advice: just do it—right in the middle of the day with kids all around you, “off-task” in dress up clothes, acting out Frozen one more time. Tuck your feet under you, snuggle up to the corner of the sectional, and read, scroll, page. Use headphones if you need to. Highlighter in hand, read. Take notes. Absorb.

It is so much better to let go of today’s and tomorrow’s lessons in order to drill down to the essential ingredients of math or writing, or to understand a period in history, or to get a glimpse of how the science experiment should go and what its objective is, than to muddle forward with doubt and your child’s resistance.

Prepare quoteIt is not better to just “get it done” and hope for the best. There is no “automatic” method for any learning. It just doesn’t happen that way. Depth, immersion, exploration, and guidance are the core values of education.

We are concerned with completion of pages or curricula, and then we worry that our kids aren’t making progress, and we hope for a quick fix—some solution that won’t require us to take valuable time to understand before implementation.

But this approach is backwards. You didn’t go to college (most of you) to get a teaching credential. You’re becoming educators on the fly (even unschoolers are embarking on a huge new project of how to be that parent who facilitates learning or invests deeply in a child’s passions). These choices necessitate information that informs how you spend time with your kids, and what you impart.

You will feel so much better if you have a handle on the contours of a subject area, than if you plod through a book hoping for magic (that the lesson leaps from the page without you knowing why or how it works).

You do have time. For all the hours you don’t spend in preparation, you will find yourself frustrated with basic problems. Why isn’t my child of 10 spelling well? This is answered quickly in a book that explains the natural stages of growth in writing. 10 year olds don’t spell well. Here’s why, here’s how to foster the continued growth.

Without that bit of knowledge, you will be tempted to push your child or to shame him for not spelling well. I know. I’ve done all of that. I’ve pushed, I’ve shamed, I’ve blamed, I’ve plowed forward in a curriculum expecting it to teach and finding out it did not.

Then a new day dawned. I saw that my home life was fluid—we didn’t have set school hours, we didn’t have a teacher’s lounge for me. We had the mixed up mess of living and learning and all my insecurities about parenting and educating—together in one living room, at one kitchen table. It finally occurred to me: If I was unsure about how to impart a specific skill set for them or share about an area of passion for me, I could spend daytime looking into it. Right when I wanted to.

I wanted my kids to have an art education, but had no idea how to go about it. We spent time in the library where they read books they wanted, and I checked out books about art. I read them. I bought some. I started hanging prints on the wall. Finally, I ordered the 6 video set of Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting. I put them on every day for a couple of weeks, right after breakfast. My kids were free to come and go, but I took notes. They remember this period of our homeschool.

The foundation from that season was laid in me. I couldn’t wait to go to museums with the kids. They were excited to see paintings we’d already viewed in the video series.

I didn’t set out to make this a lesson for them. It was a lesson for me. I didn’t “go to another room” to understand it and then come back with the pretense of “Aha! Here’s the lesson you have to learn now.” Rather, I learned, in front of them.

Did our Sister Wendy odyssey take time away from math? Yes, yes it did.

It also showed me the value of taking time to prepare the feast of ideas I hoped would be my children’s education.

The benefits were life-changing:

  •  To understand—to be prepared.
  • To get behind the lessons to why the lessons.
  • To discover the germ of value in the material.
  • To grow as an educator.
  • To fuel my creativity.
  • To spark my enthusiasm.
  • To feel competent.
  • To hold realistic expectations for each age and subject area.

These are the benefits of preparation. You deserve these benefits. Take the time to get them.


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Five Magic Words

Monday, February 23rd, 2015


Get a dose of at least one of these per day and see if your home environment doesn’t improve.

I’ve provided two possible examples of each one to get your creative juices going. Build from these! Please post your own ideas for how to apply these to your homeschool in the comments section.

1. Surprise

  • A margin note in the math book
  • Cake for breakfast

2. Chance

  • Roll of the dice—numbers represent “how many” of whatever work for the day (number of math problems, number of letters traced, number of pages or sentences or words read…)
  • Flip a coin—heads means working independently for ten minutes; tails means working with a partner for ten minutes (child chooses which subject for independence or partnership)

3. Mystery

  • Handwritten clues leading to a new board game or snack or treat
  • Invisible ink to reveal a new copywork or dictation passage

4. Secret

  • Provide a lock n key diary for secret entries
  • Tell a child a secret plan to spend time with them (that day, later in the week…)

5. Discovery

  • Walk, bike, kayak somewhere new
  • Explore little known works of authors or poets you love

Good luck!

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Conversations in the car count

Thursday, February 19th, 2015

So much good education

You’re driving along discussing how far the sun is from the earth when one of your kids wants to know if the song on the radio is by One Republic, another one then asks if you can stop by the store to get a starfruit because she heard about it from a book she’s reading, and then another one declares that he knows a shortcut home. The toddler then throws his pacifier to the floor and the 9 year old steps on it while trying to pick it up. Of course.

In the span of fifteen minutes, you’ve covered all kinds of interesting information, as well as have heard snippets of what is filling your kids’ heads all day, in addition to the inevitable interruptions of life with kids.

Count it all.

Write it down.

It’s okay that you have incomplete discussions. You’ll circle back to them over time. Remind yourself that conversation is the homeschool equivalent of classroom lecture. These conversations are often best had in a car, anyway. It’s when you’re all trapped in one space and talking is the main thing that can be done in that space. Use it well! Ask a provocative question: “How many whole chickens could we fit in that semi? How might we figure it out?” Brainstorm ideas, take guesses, figure it out when you get home.

Ponder other questions: I wonder how long it would take to ride a horse to the store rather than drive a car. Discuss.

You might discuss the pop star or the lyrics of a song. You might comment on the birds on the telephone wire, wondering which ones they are. You might ask about a game recently played or a book being read.

Talk in the car! Count it. So much good education happens, literally, along the way.

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Are you training your family to NOT help you?

Monday, February 9th, 2015

Don't turn down help

Do you wish you didn’t have to ask your family for help?

  • with the dishes
  • taking out the over-flowing garbage
  • changing the toilet paper tube (why this is difficult, I still don’t understand)
  • clearing a table
  • putting away the dozens of pairs of mis-matched shoes strewn through the halls
  • moving a wet load of laundry to the dryer and a new load into the washer
  • shoveling snow
  • unloading groceries
  • replenishing the food and water bowls for the dog and cats

And so on…

Let me flip this around on you. What do you do when someone offers to help?

Think about it for a moment. Imagine this setting. You’re in the kitchen unloading the dishwasher and preparing to load it. In a surprising instance of charity and awareness, your teenager who is watching TV says, “Do you need help Mom?”

What do you say?

Do you tell the teen that yes, you need help, and that he can turn off his favorite program to take over for you at the sink? Do you do then walk away leaving him to it while you go get a bubble bath or hop back onto the computer?

Or do you think to yourself, “That’s so nice that he asked, I’m going to reward him by saying he doesn’t have to help me and he can go on watching his program”? Some unconscious version of this one—you turn down help because you feel generous when you do.

Another instance: You’re folding laundry and the five year old wants to help. The five year old will offer five year old skills to the job. Do you accept that? Or do you send the child away to play so you can get it done correctly and quickly?

Another time: You’re making dinner and it’s the favorite meal of your 11 year old daughter. She offers to peel or chop and you send her to set the table. She doesn’t particularly want to set the table—she wanted to help by peeling and chopping. You know she will slow you down if she peels and chops so you ask her to do what feels helpful to you: setting the table. She does a poor job with the table and you feel resentful that she isn’t being helpful… perhaps.

If any of these resonate—take a moment to consider this idea.

When you turn down help (whether you do so out of a desire to be generous, or because you are better at it, or because the offer doesn’t match what you thought you needed), you train your family to NOT HELP you.

In other words—if you want helpers in your family, accept the help they offer with enthusiasm, support them in being helpful by teaching them the skill that they want to offer, and if they are capable of doing the task without you, walk away and let them do the whole job so that they see they were helpful (not merely supervised and scolded). Let them see that you are relaxing and enjoying the help they are giving you.

It’s not easy.

It’s a reflex to simply take over, move quickly, do what needs to be done, and leave everyone in the status quo space of not helping.

Then what happens? Resentment builds. We start believing that no one cares about us, when in fact, we may have trained our roommates to let us do everything for them!

How do you get back to offers of help if you’ve already extinguished them? You ask for help! You say things like, “Who wants to help me make dinner? I’ve got sharp knives and electric tools for anyone who wants to hang out in the kitchen with me. I’ll set the table while you frappe and slice.”

You ask for help like this:

“I’m exhausted. Anyone willing to do the dishes for me tonight? I will be eternally grateful. I just need one hour to unwind in a tub? Anyone? Anyone?”

If no one offers, you do them and keep going and ask again another night. Over time, your vulnerability in needing help will reappear on the radar. Someone (one of your kids) will recognize that he or she can actually make you happy by helping (not make you worried or annoyed). And that child will offer, freely, out of the blue.

People want to be helpful. Sometimes we train them to lose that desire.

We can turn it around.


Always accept the help being offered (don’t change the offer to something else).

Help your helpers be helpful—give them lessons, show them how, appreciate their efforts.

Get out of the way—competent helpers should be left to help, not hovered over. You should benefit from the help by not being there, doing something else you enjoy.

Thank them. Not effusively, but genuinely. “Thank you for cleaning up. That was helpful.”

Go forth and be helped!

Image by Paul Ashley (cc cropped, text added)

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Stealth Attack Learning

Thursday, February 5th, 2015

Stealth Attack

Rather than teach, lead. Rather than talk, act. Rather than following the curriculum or opening the book, express what it is you wish to be known.

The secret of a vibrant homeschool is not in a book. It’s you. You are the secret weapon. You don’t have to be a good teacher. In fact, it helps if you are not.

It’s better if you are an enthusiast—someone for whom the feast of ideas is so compelling, you sneak time to follow up on the material you read to the kids to get the adult perspective. You are the best home educator when you can’t wait to make dinner because that’s when you park the kids in front of PBS to watch Arthur while you listen to Jane Austen on Audible.

There’s no magic here apart from the contagious energy that oozes from your engaged, fascinated mind! This is why home education actually works! It’s why you don’t need teacher training. Yes, you might learn something about how to impart the mechanics of writing or the formulas of math. Of course! But you don’t need to know how to give lectures or prepare worksheets or organize data into incremental chunks to be mastered through quizzes and grades.

You get to lead example quoteYou get to lead by passionate example.

We wonder why our kids don’t jump on the train with us? Usually it’s because we take that raw energy for the material we are about to learn with them and turn it into something schoolish. We say things like, “Let me check the lesson plan book” or “Go get me the teacher’s manual” or “I wonder what X curriculum has us doing today.”

When we delegate the work of homeschool to a company, we dilute the natural curiosity and energy with someone else’s prescriptive expectations.

But what would happen, say, if you read the manual before bedtime? What if you committed 10-15 minutes a day to simply looking at the material you hoped to cover the next day? If in doing so, you could authentically lead with that material the next day without referring to a program or a schedule or a system, what might happen?

Here’s what I mean.

It’s one thing to open a Brave Writer writing program in front of your kids and to say, “We’re going to do Project Six which is called Body Art. Come here. I need you to lie on the floor.”

It’s another entirely to get up from the breakfast table and say to one of your kids: “I’m going to lie on top of this long sheet of butcher paper. Would you mind tracing around my body with this big Sharpie? Thanks.”

Once the child has done it, you get the scissors and begin cutting your body out. Your kids are going to wonder what you are doing at some point. In the meantime, you keep going. You clip words from Pottery Barn Catalogs and you glue them to your body-butcher paper.

As you work, you ask for help: “Hand me the glue stick, would you?” and “Do you think the word ‘sparkly’ describes me?”

Before you know it, someone is going to want to have their body drawn and clipped and words stuck to their elbows and forehead too.

This is leading and immersing and playing and learning all rolled into one. Stealth attack style—the same way you taught your kids to kick a soccer ball or play peek-a-boo or decorate a Christmas tree. There was no moment where you said to your 8 year old: “Now let’s see—the planner for childhood says you need to learn how to hold a kite string and it will take six steps.”

Kill the atmosphere

The quickest way to kill the atmosphere of learning is to suggest that it’s time to learn!

What do you do with those pesky skills that require some incremental work? You do the best you can to support a rich atmosphere—you add treats, you rub shoulders, you sit next to your struggling second grader, you give encouragement, you try the process yourself in front of your child, you use calculators, you use Spell Check, you add brownies and candles and nature hikes before or after.

LIFE is appealing to everyone. Everyone. Life is learning. Invest in what feels alive and good and curiosity making.

If what you want to learn is not on the agenda of your child, YOU go learn it in your off minutes. Read an extra chapter. Check out the adult version of the event from the library or online (book, DVD, podcast). Your appetite need not be held back by an 11 year old’s boredom with the abolition movement. You are free to read all about the Underground Railroad now—without your child coming along.

Trust me: if you become passionate about the topic, you will naturally talk about it in your children’s presence and at some point, they will find it interesting or they will have absorbed it simply by sharing oxygen and square footage with you. Perhaps as teens. Perhaps as college students home on break.

If you become quoteIf you’re looking for a way to start a new trajectory, stealth lessons are the way to go. Set the table with the materials or stack up the books, all after the kids are in bed. Get up and begin, without a word, without explanation or mission or objective or preamble. No one wants to be told “We’re going to have fun today.” The moment they hear the words, they want to prove you wrong! So simply begin.

If the lesson today is all about homonym confusion in the editing process, resist the temptation to talk about the problem your child is having with homonyms. A surefire way to kill any interest in learning about homonyms.

Instead, what if you tried this? Before breakfast, fill a white board with homonyms (as obscure and surprising a set as you can find) and then play a game—ask everyone to make the meaning clear of each word on scratch paper with either drawings, synonyms, sentences, or definitions. Can they Google? Of course! That’s how adults learn everything!

Get back to enthusiasm, creativity. Remind yourself of that tedious classroom where you watched the tick tick tick of the clock desperately waiting for the sentence-in-your-seat to end. That will help you remember to keep it real at home—open, direct, clear, interesting—HOME.

You can do this!

Image woman and book by Amy (cc cropped, text added)

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Complexity is your friend

Thursday, January 29th, 2015

Complexity is your friend

A few months back, I interacted with a friend who is childless and has never been married. She’s a wonderful person with a number of gifts, not the least of which is her career in banking where she is a skilled, talented, responsible manager of a branch (many people report to her and she does her job quite well). She is smart, a good leader, and a financial wizard. She is also a wonderful auntie and loyal friend.

We got to talking about our families of origin with a couple of my other friends (who had been married or were still, and who had homeschooled their kids). When an issue came up, this unmarried friend gave advice based on her experience of being an auntie and a daughter (both valid sources of information about family relationships, to be sure).

Sometimes her advice felt helpful but sometimes it felt out of tune. I was trying to put my finger on why.

Then she made a remarkable statement: “It always amazes me when someone says that they have changed their ideas about important issues—like how to parent or what they think of marriage or social and political issues. I’ve held the same views for as long as I can remember and I don’t imagine them ever changing. It seems like people would be much happier if they just stopped re-evaluating their beliefs all the time.”

And that’s when it hit me. Untested theories about life can remain peacefully in tact. If you aren’t married, it’s easy to have rules about what would end a relationship… until you are in a relationship with children at stake, intertwined incomes, and shared meaningful history. Suddenly your sense of what is a “deal breaker” can, and often does, change.

If you don’t have children of your own, enforcing a set of rules for etiquette, bedtimes, and schoolwork seems so reasonable, so easy to implement. Adults mis-remember their own childhoods all the time—they pretend to themselves that they liked their parents’ harsh rules or that they were made better people by the discipline of a school principle, or at the least, that whatever befell them wouldn’t have, had the adult authorities in their lives been more stringent or more involved or more kind or whatever.

Complexity quote 1Likewise, it’s not difficult to continue with the same set of basic beliefs about how the world should work, if you haven’t had to face the unforeseen consequences of some of those beliefs, nor had them tested personally.

I say all this for a reason. This is not you. You do not have the luxury of a simple, satisfying worldview.

You are in the murkiest, most-life-testing context of life. When you sign up to be married and to have children, you are volunteering for a mental and emotional overhaul of all you thought you knew to be true. Your theories will now be tested. You will explore ideas and practices you didn’t believe in back when you knew everything.

Your need to “do it right” so nothing bad will happen to you or the people you love, will morph over time as hair-raising circumstances challenge you to reconsider. You’ll discover that “happily ever after” doesn’t exist for you (or anyone).

The competing needs for attention, affection, nutrition, and sleep between people sharing a household is of Olympic scale! Everyone goes all in, and there are clear winners and losers in each category every day. You’ll be pushed to your limits, which will then force you to figure out how to help everyone take better care of themselves a little bit at a time (including that spouse of yours, and yourself – the last one you usually manage to help).

It’s incredible, really, that anyone sharing a home for years on end keeps at it. Really. Truly. Does anyone sync up perfectly in terms of their needs? Married couples can hardly get on the same page about sex and finances—add a couple of kids with high energy, sleep disorders, bed wetting, learning disabilities, and allergies—well, the capacity to match up and have peace is out the window right there.

The Magical Silver Lining

But here’s the magical silver lining to the whole absurd “Get Everyone On the Same Page” project: you all grow. You grow and you grow and you grow. You have to. It’s the requirement of non-monastic life!

You figure out sleep—by sharing and caring and swapping who stays up late and who gets up tomorrow night and how you sleep (co-sleep or using cribs or putting a mattress on the floor in your bedroom for the one scared child who needs you every night). You stop shaming the bed wetter, you take more naps, you require days off, you start exercising and drinking chamomile tea. You keep at it until you get sleep. It might take years, but you work on it every day.

You figure out food—little snack trays, or low shelves with easy to open food stuffs, or six weeks of dinners made and frozen in a freezer, or crock pots, or take out Chinese every Friday night. You handle allergies and learn to cook. You read more books about food than you ever imagined needing to.

You figure out romance—the date night or the one candle that tells the spouse: Yep, I’m open to sexual contact tonight. You swap babysitting with the best friend to have the house alone once in a blue moon, or you read to your honey-bear every night before you sleep. You trade flirty texts throughout the day or you take a few months off postpartum so you don’t have to negotiate “Do you want to?” every night.

You figure out life—how to survive the overwhelming crushing disappointments that come from failed ideals (friends who betray you; religious communities that stumble; the marriage that can’t and shouldn’t make it; the illness you didn’t plan that robbed you for three years straight; the miscarriages; the house fire; the hurricane; the lost job, lost income, and home repossession; the embarrassment of gaining all that weight due to diabetes, after you had been a dancer in college; the heartache at having hurt your own child; the alcoholism or drug addiction that are destroying someone you love).

Complexity quote 2In the same ways, you figure out education—one idea at a time, one child at a time, one input at a time. You keep revising your ideas, and then you find new ones that really click. But you know what works and doesn’t because you lived each one sincerely. You know your children—you keep letting them teach you about who they are, and that changes how you understand yourself, in addition to them.

Slowly you expand how you operate to accommodate other personality types than your own. You give up notions of phony perfection between parent and child. There is no tactic that ensures a child will match a parent’s fantasy of who he or she should be by 18. There is only love and trying, over and over and over again—until the child knows he or she is loved, and the parent knows that the child is irrefutably a unique worthy person wholly separate from either parent.

Creating a family is the most exasperating, philosophy-destroying, crash-course in love I know about.

No two families will get there the same way—but the end goal is a shared one (and a worthy one): to like each other as much as we love each other.

It takes a lifetime.

Complexity is your friend. It will make you into a humble, generous, open-minded, caring, attentive human being, if you let it.


Images: Circuit board by Derek Gavey and family of four by Rebecca L (cc cropped, text added)

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“You had ONE job.”

Monday, January 19th, 2015


It feels like you have dozens of jobs and that you might not be doing any of them well enough. But the truth is: you have one job. If you’re doing this one job well, everything else will fall into place.

Pinkie promise swear.

Engage the brain.

That’s it. Your task, as a home educator, isn’t to cram a bunch of information into your kids’ heads. It isn’t to get them to master detailed facts, formulae, or figures. You don’t have to have read the entire western canon by the time they turn 18.

The Internet has changed everything—schools are not doing their jobs if all they offer our kids is a plethora of facts and methods that are easily located online.

At home, we have an opportunity to solve the education crisis, one family (one child!) at a time. You know what is causing educators to wring their hands? How to update education to the current technologically drenched world we’re in now!

Learning needs to be about fostering thinkers.

A thinker is marked by these characteristics:

  • curious
  • able to pose meaningful questions
  • correlates information from one discipline with another
  • involves personal experience in academic contexts
  • willing to take risks
  • collaborative
  • postulates “what if…?”
  • generates multiple possible solutions (not one right answer)
  • observes and narrates own process during investigation
  • knows how to approach research
  • can identify credible versus not credible sources
  • open to creative solutions
  • expands the utility of the information into other arenas
  • interdisciplinary approach to any subject
  • skillful in current technologies

You can use any old content to work on these from rocks and geologic formations to Mr. Bingley and vintage dance! The content is no longer the primary goal of education.

THINKING—risky, exploratory, curious, probing thought—is!

Rubiks cubeImage by Doug Aghassi (cc)

What does this look like?

What if instead of opening the math book and teaching your child how to divide fractions based on the three sentence instructions on the colorful page, you put out a variety of objects with knives and scissors and asked your kids to do some dividing?

Perhaps you hand them a pie and tell them you need one-sixth of it on a plate.

Ask them how to go about it. Use the language: one-sixth. Examine the term. Ask them what they think one-sixth means or might be. Ask them for clues in the words themselves. We have the word “one” and we have a version of the word “six.” What might that mean? What is our experience of pie? How many ways are there to cut pieces? Should we always make skinny triangles? Are there other ways to cut it up? Are there other situations that called for dividing things into smaller pieces? Can we apply what we know about pizza?

Keep going. Let them make mistakes. Let them solve the problem incorrectly. Have several pies ready to go.

Before you swoop in with the right answers for how to create fractional parts, let them get the feel of the problem. Let them articulate the problem. Let them explore solutions.

You can even solve problems that are quite mundane: “Toothbrushes are all over the bathroom sink and on the floor. I need problem solvers! Let’s figure out the solution.”

Get out the white board and go to work. Or put the kids in the bathroom (one or two) and let them discuss how they will handle it.

Same thing can be done with any subject. Let’s look at a historical event: the Civil Rights era. It seems incomprehensible that there was ever a time when black Americans were not equal to white Americans.

So let’s explore that—are there groups of people in our world today that make us nervous? (It takes some real courage to have this kind of conversation, but there are possible answers—for women, it could be encountering men at night alone, for kids it could be bullies who leave you out of games in the neighborhood, it could be the people one perceives as “stealing” the right to homeschool…)

Ask questions about history—have there been other times in the past where groups have discriminated against other groups? Why might they?

What in any of us wants to be exclusive? How did skin color make civil rights an especially thorny problem?

And so on.

The goal here is not to run through information and then to master it, but to create space for exploration of the mind’s capacities!

If you’re engaging the brain regularly, you’re on the right track. Information can be found anywhere and offers you plenty of chances to engage the brain. Information alone is no longer enough.
The goal
Image at the top of the post by Gundars (cc cropped and text added)

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You can only do what you can do

Monday, January 12th, 2015


I’ve had a flurry of phone calls this week. One common thread is that January seduces parents into believing they can fly. There’s something about the start of a new year—the blank slate, the brand new, the no-mistakes-made-yet, the intoxicating elixir of “this year will be different.”

Whatever failed in fall is now up for re-evaluation and redoubling of effort. The urgency to “get something done” for year end evaluations, or to satisfy a skeptical spouse, or to appease your own fantasy of what “should” be happening in your homeschool is surging. The temptation is great: to completely change gears or programs, or to load up on one particular subject area, or to revamp your schedule so that the one neglected child who was happily playing Minecraft all day is now required to sit at the kitchen table for two hours straight every morning (to prove to you that he IS being homeschooled).

My caution: Slow down, Bessie.

You can’t change who you are with the snap of your fingers or all the alarms and whistles of your smart phone. No one new curriculum piece will transform your personal style of being or your natural family rhythm. Worse: if you do the “big overhaul” right now, you may upend all that lovely “settling in” that would naturally happen in January, mid-year.

Huge shifts quoteHuge shifts in philosophy or practice midyear feel like whiplash to kids. They sense that the changes mean whatever came before was “not good enough.” (And what if they were reasonably happy doing whatever before? What if they were just getting the hang of the math book or copywork or the system you use to study history?)

It’s hard to commit to an experiment, too. Your children aren’t reading the home education discussion lists and they aren’t necessarily worried about their educations. You worry (that’s your job).

So what should you do if you are dissatisfied with the program or the schedule or the feel of your homeschool midyear?

Pause. Take notes.

Let yourself consider the good of what IS going on in your homeschool before you assume it is all wrong or messed up. I remember one year when I thought we weren’t doing enough dictation (I had some fantasy that we’d do it a couple times per week per child).

Midyear, I pulled out our notebooks where I collected their work. Page after page of dictation. It wound up being that each child (the three who were writing) had practiced dictation 2-3 times per month and by January, that meant they had done dictation practice 8-10 times. These dictations, in the shiny clear page protectors, showed remarkable effort and growth. Did they need more dictation than that?

No. The answer turned out to be no.

But the temptation to revamp the schedule was so strong, I almost did it without that backwards glance. It was a fluke that led me to examine the notebooks and to recognize that with my personality and our busy lives, getting to some form of dictation 2-3 times a month was not only pretty good, it was getting the job done!

This is what I want you to consider. It may actually be true that the practices in place from fall are enough and are a true reflection of who you are, already. It’s good to pause, to look through workbooks, to flip through photos, to remind yourself of all the ways you explored learning and the world in the fall.

To make an adjustment, follow this plan to help you and your kids make authentic reasonable changes.

Change one egregious subject only.

Don’t get swept up into the “change it all” plan. Save that for summer, when you have time to really think through how the new philosophy will work. If the subject getting you down is your awful co-op composition class for 5th grade, drop it. If your daughter despises the Wordly Wise workbook, shred it. If the math text is confusing even to you, a full grown adult, replace it. Overhaul the one truly awful component in your homeschool.

Make logistical changes first.

Practice context quote 2Rather than throw in the towel on dictation, try new tools or a new environment to see if those recast the practice. You might move dictation to a new time of day, or add candles, or add brownies, or use a digital recorder and let the child do dictation alone in his bedroom, or try typing dictation rather than handwriting, or let the child select her own passage, or have the children pair up to do dictation of jokes with each other, or use gel pens and black lined paper. The point is that sometimes the practice is fine, but the context is tedious or unhelpful.

Re-evaluate pace.

Does the child need to work every single math problem if she already understands the concept? Can you skip the odds or a full chapter? Perhaps you’ve been over-doing it on freewriting. Time to take a break and only have experiences, read books, and play with poetry before freewriting again. If you are trapped in Ancient Greece in history (kids are into it and you are sick of it), consider ways to re-hook your interest to accommodate theirs. You don’t HAVE to follow the four year history cycle just because a book tells you to.

Add or take away one regular out of the house trip.

For some families, if you just stayed home one more afternoon or day, you’d find that everything works beautifully. You’d have enough time and space for everything without rushing or hurrying or interrupting the flow. But there are some families who are home so much, the kids are utterly bored of the four walls and need an exit! Add one exciting outing a week (even going to the mall, the park, a coffee shop, the zoo, McDonald’s play land, a friend’s house, the library) to change the vibe of family life, to have something to look forward to!

You can’t fly. You can only do what you do a little better than you are doing it now, until it stops feeling better…and you tweak it again. Be patient, trust the process, and go do something AMAZING that enlivens YOU (take on a big goal like traveling for a weekend away with girlfriends to see the Chicago Art Institute, or running a half marathon, or going to cooking class, or signing up to get your Master’s degree online).

You’re already doing a better job than you realize. I know because I know.

Consider the good

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A tough season

Thursday, January 8th, 2015

Red tent

An email dialogue with a Brave Writer mom:


I feel bad emailing you like this. I know you’re so busy with all of your Brave Writer things and your actual life. I just know that I find so much comfort in your wisdom. I’ve heard you at conferences and chatted with you and I love your book, A Gracious Space. You’re just so encouraging, and your words always make me feel like everything is going to be okay. So right now, when I feel like I want to cry about all of this—kids, homeschooling, mothering, LIFE—I find myself wanting to cry to a complete stranger via email.

Aw. So glad you reached out!

I have four kids—7, 4, 2, and 7 months. My husband works long hours and has a long commute. He travels overseas frequently and our families live on the other side of the country. Basically, I’m on full-fledged duty around the clock, which is fine. I mostly do just fine with making it through the day. But I feel like I’m not giving my kids what they need. For example, my oldest wants to sew ornaments and sell them to make money. She’s a good little sewer, and I want to be able to help her accomplish her goals. But it’s not something she can do entirely on her own (she needs me to thread the needle and fix little knots and other mishaps). That’s no big deal, except that my 4-year-old has things he’s interested in, too. He’s really bright and curious and wants to learn to read, among other things. My 2-year-old is the real trouble. She’s so stinking cute, but she’s a little tornado that doesn’t quit. Ever.

This is a tough, tough season in your life. There are no easy answers because EVERYONE who has children the ages of your kids finds it impossible to come up with any system that actually works. You are in a kind of “happy-survival” mode and must make peace with the fact that the primary way you will overcome this stage is to wait it out (your kids will get older). Two year olds and three year olds have a way of undermining the space because who they are is in this enormous developmental Hurrah! They want what they want and they don’t have the tools yet to do for themselves. So you are all caught in the vortex of the two year old quite legitimately.

She WILL quit eventually but right now it seems like forever.

Confession: I hate reading to my kids. And it’s because when I do, I feel like I’m always yelling over someone (usually the 2-year-old). She wants on my lap, she wants off my lap, back and forth. She doesn’t nap much anymore, and when she does, she ends up staying awake in her room (coming out frequently, of course) until 9:00-10:00 at night, which is a problem on several other levels. The 7-month-old is…well, a baby. She’s super sweet, but she needs a lot from me, too. On top of it all, there’s the house and the laundry and the meals.

Try audio books. They saved my life when I had babies who nursed and hated hearing me read at the same time. You can even ONLY listen in the car when you are driving somewhere and then you don’t even have to read or calm anyone. They will be trapped in the car!

I just feel like there are so many things that I want to do to help my kids grow, but I can’t do any of them, because I’m so busy just keeping our house (barely) functioning. There are so many books I want to read to my older kids, but I only read a teeny tiny fraction of them, because of everything else. We manage to get the absolutely critical things done almost every day (math, copy work, independent reading),

WOW! Good for you. This is exceptional. Be proud of this.

but beyond that, it’s all about survival. My kids love poetry tea time, but we hardly ever do it. We don’t do free writes. We do history sporadically. I long ago decided that lots of outside play and watching Wild Kratts would have to suffice for science.

There you go! Rather than think you “rarely” do freewriting. Think: Yay! We got to freewriting twice this year! Yay! We had one poetry teatime! Yay! We took one field trip! Change your expectations and celebrate your tiny triumphs. Over a childhood, these will grow and repeat and become meaningful in new ways. Right now it seems you will never do any of these big activities with any regularity. But you will… eventually.

What were your days like when your kids were really little? You seem to have done this parenting/homeschooling thing really well—you seem to have enjoyed it, your kids seem to be successful, and you all seem to really like each other, which is what I’m going for over here, so I kind of look to you as my homeschool beacon.

Because they are full grown. I remember so many “squandered” days where all I could do was survive. I have five kids, all two years apart. I was pregnant or nursing for 12 years. Absolutely know your feelings. There were years where we hardly did dictation (for instance). But when I look at the notebooks from those years, we actually got it done 10 times. Ten is a lot! It’s more than I realized at the time, thinking I should have done it every other week for the whole year.

I realized that some years we were more into history than others. That’s just the way the cookie crumbled.

We had weeks where washing diapers and shopping at the store and laundering clothes and cleaning up toys felt like the only things we did. Yet when I looked back I could see that we built with Legos or I helped one learn to knit or I did manage to get to the library or we learned all the words to the songs on the Rafi album or we enjoyed watching Arthur on TV every night before dinner.

Remember that you are also on a learning curve about what works for you. Be good to yourself and trust that all of it will work together to create a vivid happy family life where learning also occurs.

For the older one who needs special help, help her. Keep her up after the baby goes to bed, or get her up extra early before the baby wakes, or promise her the next time the baby naps you’ll help her. You might consider hiring a mother’s helper (since your husband is gone a lot). She could be another homeschool girl or boy who comes for two hours to the house to play with the little ones so you can focus on the older one. This worked for me when I was working freelance as a ghost-writer. I just worked while the helper was downstairs. If they really needed me, I was available. But I didn’t have to supervise so closely.

Thanks for your time,

P.S. Because I feel like a bit of a mooch, emailing you directly for advice, I have to tell you that I am a paying member of the Homeschool Alliance. I don’t go there much, because I don’t have a lot of time, but I aspire to. Anyway, I’ve always thought you were amazing for being so available to so many people, so I’m happy to pay for my access to you. It’s worth it.

You are quite all right writing to me and I’m so glad you are in the Homeschool Alliance. Keep reading there. It will help you! Keep your chin up. You’re doing far more right than you realize.



Email is shared with permission

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Vehicle or destination?

Monday, January 5th, 2015

The kids and the jeep

Don’t confuse the educational vehicle with the academic destination. In other words, it is less important whether you unschool or classically educate—neither of these is inherently superior to the other. They are vehicles that get you to the end goal on the map—an educated, self-reliant adult.

If you become overly enamored with the sleek lines of the Jaguar when you really need an off-road Suzuki Samurai to get to where you’re going, you’ll be enormously frustrated as it gets all banged up and scratched.

Figure out where you want to go first (perhaps even just a trailhead with lots of options spinning from it). Then pick a vehicle (or vehicles!) that get you there. There are no moral absolutes about how, only that you make progress toward the destination in a way that doesn’t damage your child, damage your relationship to the child, or that doesn’t prevent your child from getting where he or she wants to go.

Sometimes we are so attached to “the ride,” we disqualify perfectly good educational vehicles because of pride, a quest for ideological purity, or a vague sense that “this is how I wished I had learned” rather than focusing on what our specific child needs in this specific situation with these goals!

Image by Ron Kroetz (cc cropped)

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