Homeschool Workshop: Learning Made Easy

I participated in a homeschool event last night as a panelist of sorts for an elementary education homeschooling workshop. We didn’t have a lot of time to go into things – there were 3 of us presenting and we had a total of about 30 minutes – so I wanted to share more of the ideas I would have talked about there if I had had the time.

The president of the Utah Homeschool Support Group, who had asked me to present with her, wanted me to prepare a few thoughts on what information or advice I would have appreciated the most when I first started homeschooling.

Well, that was easy for me. That is the entire reason I started this blog in the first place.

When I started homeschooling I would ask people what homeschooling looked like. And the answer was always the same. “It looks like whatever you want it to look like.” This answer is 100% true, however it was not helpful at all at the stage I was in. I needed a blueprint or a pattern to follow first so that I had some sort of idea of where to start. Everyone said not to just copy the public school system in our home, but that was the only system I knew. I didn’t trust myself to just make up “whatever I wanted” because I didn’t even know what the possibilities were.

What I really wanted was to be invisible and observe a homeschooling family in action for about a week and see what they did and how they did it.

But that isn’t practical at all. For a number of reasons.

Maybe the most obvious one being the whole “invisible” part.  😉

Anyway, I read a bunch of books, I decided I wanted to give my children a “classical” education, and I found a blueprint for how to do it in “The Well Educated Mind: A Guide to Classical Education in the Home,” by Susan Wise and Jessie Wise Bauer.

This book was so over the top intense for me, and I wasn’t at all sure how I was going to accomplish it. But at least I had a place to start.

So this blog, for those who are trying to figure out what homeschooling looks like (at least for one family), is to show a pattern or a blueprint of what it can look like. 

So last night during our little workshops I passed around our weekly schedules; what we do and when we do it. I passed around a list of the various curriculum I use and why I like it. If I had had time I would have gone into more depth about how I do all of those things. But I will share that with you another time.

homeschool weekly schedule cropped

As a homeschooling newbie, that – a pattern – was what I needed the most.

One of the first things I learned by following my chosen pattern was that a lot of the things this very wise, experienced, and frankly intimidating homeschooling mom veteran proposed just weren’t going to work for my family. Her elementary program relied heavily on narration pages, wherein the child narrates back to you what they have learned, you write it down for them, and then the child creates an illustration to go with their narrative. At the end of the year, in theory, you have an entire binder of all the child has learned in his/her own words with beautiful pictures. What a valuable little book! I would LOVE to have something like that.

But my kids hate to draw and color.

Hate it.

And I couldn’t get my son to narrate back to me more than about 2 sentences. This was beyond frustrating.

Our end of year notebook of knowledge was going to be a total of 3 pages.

If I was lucky.

So I chucked the narration page idea. Right out the window. I decided to do something else, instead. We did hands on projects. We built a pyramid out of cardboard and filled it with all the things a real Egyptian pyramid would be filled with. We created a model of the Parthenon. I discovered lapbooks and we went to town with those things! We were having fun – all of us – and we were learning.

I use Saxon math for my children. However, it is very workload intensive. That is actually one of the reasons why I like it. (Just one of the reasons.) My 4th grader gets very overwhelmed with the immense workload. We were having power struggles, lots of tears, lots of frustration, but none of it had to do with understanding the actual math at all. The instruction was working beautifully. It was just the workload that was causing the problem. So, although the books specifically says that the children should complete every single problem on every single assignment, my son does all the odd problems. The time tests send him into near anxiety attacks. He freezes up and can’t do a single problem. In the beginning I was freaking out and thought something was wrong! How was I going to get him to finish 100 multiplication problems in under 5 minutes when he couldn’t get through the first 10! But it wasn’t the math. It was the time test. So I chucked it. Well, I chucked the timed part of it. I still have him fill out the paper, but there is no time restriction. He knows the math. I am comfortable and he is comfortable with his progress. I take what I like and what works for us, and I let go of the rest.

So now, finishing up my 4th year, when people ask me what homeschooling looks like, I basically say that it looks like whatever you want it to. You can just do whatever you want and what works well for your family. If something doesn’t work, chuck it out the window. It’s YOUR homeschool and you make it fit you.

Everything they told me in the beginning was true after all.

So that was my second major point I tried to make last night. If you are floating aimlessly, find a pattern and follow it. And then adapt it. Mold it. Let go of what doesn’t work, add in new ideas and things that do work, and don’t feel like you have to follow any of the “rules,” even if the introduction of the book explains how important it is the you do it exactly the way they want you to.  Don’t be afraid to chuck stuff. And chuck it hard out the window, if necessary. I went through 3 years with a particular spelling series that just wasn’t doing anything but using up pencil lead and wasting our time. I still have book 4 downstairs, completely unopened and unused, and it will stay that way because we aren’t going to waste our time on it.

Alright, now here are the points I didn’t make due to time constraints or just because the conversation moved in a different direction.

  1. I once heard (read on Facebook) a homeschooling mother explain that when people asked her “how in the world” she does it, she just simply explained that she learned to homeschool the same way she learned to be a mother. You just do your best, ask for help and advice from friends and trusted mothers who have been there, and  progress each day. Brilliant! For me, every year gets better. The first year, although I loved it and my kids maybe loved it, I was not very patient and I was very often frustrated. Year two still had a lot of frustration, but my confidence was growing. By the end of year three, my patience had increased in noticeable ways, and I felt pretty good about my abilities, even though we still had rough days fairly frequently. At the beginning of year four (this year) I thought I had things worked out and was a little shocked when things seemed to blow up in my face at the beginning of the year. But now I know not to totally freak out, to take a step back, adjust, adapt, and try again. I can’t say life was easy peasy every day at our house this year, but it was leaps and bounds above and beyond where we were on day one all those years ago.  Just as you learn patience for your kids as a homeschooling mom, you must also learn patience with yourself. Things get easier – and more fun and more rewarding – but it takes time to change yourself. And that is just fine. If it seems hard and overwhelming right now, that is ok. Keep with it, and as you adapt, it will get better.
  2. Adaptation!! I mentioned near the beginning that veteran homeschoolers will always tell you not to just copy the public school system in your home. I totally agree. But, you may have noticed, my personal little homeschool resembles a public school much more than many other homeschools do. (I wouldn’t say we look very much like a public school, but I am comparing myself to unschoolers and other complete child-driven homeschooling philosophies.) This is because I am more comfortable teaching that way. I feel strongly about the value in a broad general education. I throw a lot of information at my kids and manage pretty much all of their education right now. And then as they get older, just like at a liberal arts college when students get through all their G.E.s, I will let me kids specialize and pick more of what they want to focus on and learn about. HOWEVER, if my children were not progressing in that kind of atmosphere, if a classical education (or the way I do it) was driving them to tears, was not motivating them to learn on their own, was causing friction between us and resulted in children falling farther and farther behind their potential, it would be time to throw away my own personal philosophies (at least for little while) and figure out what my children really needed. I talked to a few mothers who seemed to be in that situation.  And my friend/mentor said it well when she said, it doesn’t matter which curriculum you choose if it doesn’t work for your child. If your child and the curriculum don’t match, the child will feel like a failure, you will feel like a failure, but really what you’ve got is a curriculum failure. I add to that maybe the teaching/learning philosophy you have chosen is failing your child, even if it is the one you personally like the best. Even though Charlotte Mason does not look like the public school and we are personally not used to it, it may be exactly what will help your child excel. Maybe unschooling, which for years seemed so foreign to me, is exactly the method your particular child will just thrive under. They may seem foreign to us at first, and we often seem skeptical of what we don’t understand, but there are so many different educational philosophies, and as parents and teachers it is important to adapt ourselves and our methods when what we have chosen is failing our children. If it isn’t working, chuck it out.
  3. Homeschooling is just as much about parenting and relationship than anything else. One of my favorite – ok, probably my absolute most favorite part of homeschooling – is the relationships I develop with my children. I have time to talk with them about things that aren’t academic. We can talk about spiritual things, emotional things, personal things, interpersonal things. We don’t live our lives with our noses in text books. Instead we learn by being and interacting with each other. We learn how to live peaceably with other people. We learn how to cheer and encourage one another. We are a very tight family because, although we are learning academic things, too, we are learning how to be the best people, family members, neighbors, friends, and just human beings we can be. These lessons are the most important. And so parenting skills, listening skills, disciplining skills, managing skills, and life balancing skills, (lets just throw in anger management skills for fun *wink wink) for mom/teacher and even dad, are so crucial to a happy homeschool. As a homeschooling mother I don’t educate just my children to be good people, but I am learning so much more myself about being a good mom and what that means. And I make mistakes. I am often a schreimutter. (I didn’t make that word up, it is German and it basically means a mom who screams a lot. I promise it is real, I read it in a book. A German kids book.) But in order to have a loving, comfortable, enriching homeschool where children can not only learn but really reach and strive and progress towards their potential as children of God, my number one responsibility is to improve myself as a mom first. If your homeschool isn’t working and your children are fighting against you all the time, if it isn’t the curriculum and it isn’t the educational philosophy, maybe part of the solution could be found by looking at yourself and saying, as a mother, what is something I can work on to better the relationship I have with my child? Maybe better discipline practices. Maybe better listening skills. Maybe being a “present parent,” (google that one!) Maybe a million other things, that you will probably be able to think of, and work on slowly, just one at a time with the Lord’s help. You’re a mom. They are your kids, given to you by Heavenly Father. You can do this and he will definitely help you. (And remember to be patient with yourself.)

And my last comment that I would have made is kind of small and almost insignificant, but maybe worth sharing.

For the first three years I didn’t join any homeschooling groups or co-ops or play groups. I didn’t enroll my kids in any homeschooling community classes or private classes of any kind – except for private piano lessons from my neighbor which they still do. Because I needed time to figure it out for myself. I needed time to get into a rhythm, find out what did and did not work for us, and I felt like adding extra was just going to muddle everything up and get in the way. Now, all of the sudden, I am in three different groups, and I like them all. I am still selective about what events/park days/field trips we participate in. I still need to be the master of my own time, schedule, and homeschool. But I’m ready to engage with others. It just took me a long time. I don’t think everyone needs years to figure things out like I did. And some people probably would do better to jump right into homeschool groups and activities. But if you are like me and the thought of it overwhelms you right now, don’t worry. It’s fine. Just do your own thing.

Your homeschool can look like whatever you want it to be, remember?

Even if all you do is science.

Or every single lesson you teach relates somehow to sea turtles, because your daughter is a sea turtle fanatic.

Or you go on field trips at least 2 times a week. Every single week.

Or you go for two whole years without doing any history at ALL.

Or maybe you let your children lead and you follow.

Even if other people don’t understand and think your children aren’t getting an education.

Even if other people quiz your kids every time they see them because they are worried they aren’t learning the “right things” at the “right time.”

Even if other people are afraid your childrens’ education will have holes in it. (Seriously, do they know everything there is to know about everything? No. Nobody does. Everybody’s education has holes in it. – That was one of my co-panelist’s points and I’m really glad she brought it up, because she is right on the money!)

There is no one right way to educate every child. And maybe there is not even one single right way to educate your child. But because you are mom and you love your child and know your child better than any one else, no matter what degree or level of education they have, you will find a way to provide your child with the best education possible and they will be forever blessed because of it.

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FYI – this is the handout I gave out during my little mini presentation.

Not to overwhelm anyone, but here is a paper double sided with a ton of resources that I really like. Keep in mind that I don’t actually use all of these every day. Some I only look at maybe once or twice a year. But they are great and generally have what I am looking for when I need them. In fact, I love Enrichment Studies, but I have yet to actually use anything from that website. Someday, right? Pick and choose what makes sense for you, save in the back of your mind all the great stuff you’d like to get to when it works out, and just chuck out the rest. — Anna

Favorite books for Mom:

“The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home” by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise – This book is SUPER INTENSE! If I had one child only I might be able to do all she did, but I have 5 children so I just adapt. I like the model she lays out of teaching science and history in corresponding sequences, a 4 year block repeated 3 times. That is pretty much all I actually do from this book, but I just really love it anyway and feel like it has a lot of merit. More info on the classical education method and resources for it can be found on their website, but also from Classical Academic Press.

“The Ultimate Guide to Homeschooling” by Debra Bell – This book spoke my language. It made everything seem so doable back in the beginning. It helped me understand what I wanted to do and how to do it. I read other homeschooling books before I started, but this book was what cleared the mud and helped me see how I was going to get this all done.

“Teaching from Rest” by Sarah Mackenzie – After 3 ½ years of homeschooling, this book means a lot to me. Teaching from rest doesn’t mean we are lazy and just do whatever, nor does it mean our homes are peaceful, calm, and lovely all the time. But she explains how we can put our anxieties and our worries to rest by understanding our role as homeschool moms and ultimately God’s hand in all things. I love this book so much, that once someone commented on my blog about how much just the quotes I shared from it helped her during a really huge trial she was going through, so I bought her a copy and mailed it to her. It just really made that much of a difference to me and I think it will make a huge difference to a lot of other people, too.

Favorite Websites:

The Honest Homeschool (thehonesthomeschool.wordpress.com) Ha ha! Just kidding. That’s me! I will post all of the info I share tonight on my blog so you can just click on the links there if you’d like and peruse our ups and downs as we go. I try to show that you don’t have to be a supermom to be a great homeschooling mom, that some days are really hard, that some days are really good, but that all days are really worth it! And I try to show general homeschooling ideas and share resources that I find. Inspiration, Motivation, and some General Homeschooling Ideas

Enrichment Studies (enrichmentstudies.com) Fine art and music appreciation resources for homeschoolers. Monthly freebies, or packages you can purchase. You can follow also on Facebook for tips, info, and other fun stuff. Music and Fine Art Resources

Homeschool Share (homeschoolshare.com) I mostly only use this for lapbook ideas and templates. Often I combine lapbook materials from this site with those from other sites, such as the next one on the list. General Homeschooling Ideas and Resources

Tina’s Dynamic Homeschool Plus (tinasdynamichomeschoolplus.com) This is another one of my go to websites for additional lapbook ideas. I think you can buy some of her stuff, but I never have. General Homeschooling Ideas and Some Resources.

Donna Young (donnayoung.org) Donna’s stuff used to be free (amazing!) and thankfully I got a bunch of art stuff from her back in the day, but now there is a small charge. I have only looked at her supplement papers that go with the book “Drawing With Children” (which I haven’t used a whole lot yet, but am excited to some day), but you can see she has a wide range of material on her website. General Homeschooling Ideas and Resources

Adventures in Mommydom (adventuresinmommydom.org) This woman is so good, she kind of makes me feel like I’ve been doing it wrong this whole time. She actually does things the way I keep attempting to do things. So just square up your shoulders, hold your chin high, and take from her what is applicable to you and your family and then get the heck out of there. (Just kidding. I just get a little intimated by extreme awesomeness. Her stuff is really, really good!) General Homeschooling Ideas.

Charlotte Mason Approach (pennygardner.com) Just what it sounds like. Mrs. Gardner has lots of practical ways to implement Charlotte Mason into your homeschool. Art, music, nature studies, creative writing, etc. Charlotte Mason Education

Homeschool To Homeschool (homeschooltohomeschool.com) This is Tori Ann Perkey’s website. I follow the Homeschool to Homeschool group on Facebook. She has some really good ideas for managing a homeschool and finding balance in your life, as well as fun things to do with your kids. I think she and I use different methods or theories of teaching our kids, but her information and mentoring is valuable to me and I think it would be valuable to many homeschooling moms. Inspiration and Mentoring

The Measured Mom (themeasuredmom.com) I ran across this woman’s site while trying to find things for preschool. So far I have only looked at her preschool (and possibly kindergarten) stuff, but it looks very, very good. Preschool Unit Studies

Favorite Resources

Saxon Math – More rigorous, time consuming, a lot of work, but I love the sequence of topics and explanations. It requires a teacher/mom to go through all the lessons until about 5/6 (5th grade). My son can do all of it by himself now and I don’t have to help him out at all with math anymore.

Language for the Well Trained Mind – Also more rigorous, technical grammar. Lots of memorization, some dictation and copy work. Also requires a teacher/mom to go through every lesson with the child. Ends at level 4.

Writing and Rhetoric series from Classical Academic Press – Technically you should have an adult work through the lessons with the child – and the lessons are geared towards having more than one child in the class – but sometimes my son does it all by himself. This series uses a classical approach to teaching all forms of writing, starting with narratives. The series starts at about 3rd or 4th grade and goes through the end of high school.

Latin for Children, Primer A, B, and C from Classical Academic Press – Latin language study. Comes with DVDs, CDs, workbook, activity book, a little history reader, and now you can buy optional test packets, I think. There is also an online game. It is a little difficult, but fun and very doable if you want to actually learn Latin instead of just be introduced to it. (Language courses for children generally annoy me because they just have you memorize vocabulary. This language course is FULL of grammar. In fact, if you hate grammar, don’t buy this.) CAP also has Greek, French, and Spanish.

R.E.A.L. Science Odyssey from Pandia Press – Science books for elementary and middle school aged children. Lab work, experiments, and fun things you can try at home almost always with stuff you already have. Sometime I can’t get the labs to work out how they should, but I love the way they teach real science concepts, without dumbing it down, but still explaining it in a way that children can actually understand. I really like the sequencing of lessons and the variety of activities.

Story of the World from Susan Wise Bauer – Now days you can get activity books to go along with these readers, but I use them as springboards for units of study. We do read every chapter, but then I pick the chapters that I want to focus on, get a gazillion books at the library on that subject, and set aside this book for a while until we are ready to move on to the next chapter. It is an easy to read, easy to follow, easy to understand, and really worldwide book of history – not just western history.

Teacher Treasures by Mary Peterson (teachertreasures.com) Mrs. Peterson was (is?) an elementary school teacher. I really love her books about books! She has lots of creative little books kids can make as alternatives to traditional book reports or tests or end of unit projects. She has some other fun things as well, but I mostly just like her book books.

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