Thursday, July 14, 2016

Tips for Making a Homeschool Thrive

As I dive into my fifth year of homeschooling, I review my challenges and what has worked well for us.

This blog post is for the family who wants to homeschool or who is homeschooling, and who might value some tips--or a kick in the pants to get back on track. During certain seasons of life, we all need a kick in the pants, and I most definitely include myself in that!

I live within a wonderful, lively bubble of homeschooling families. In fact, I personally know few families who send their children to school, so I forget what those routines of life are like. Our tiny parish alone is home to nearly forty active homeschooling families (mostly of large broods). Therefore, I get to witness quite a few families who knew from the earliest years that they wanted to homeschool their children when they would reach school ages. Their transition from being a family of many littles with a stay-at-home mom to one who is actively teaching multiple grades at home is one I've experienced and been privileged to watch numerous times.

Below are some thoughts and tips that have helped me. When I do follow my own advice, schooling goes better. When I don't, my close girlfriends are receiving anguished texts from me about my terrible, no good days and my husband is seeing me stomp into his office to declare, "This is impossible!"

What are my qualifications? 

In addition to begging wisdom of so many homeschooling mothers in my circle, I am homeschooling a fourth grader, a second grader, and Kindergartener, while I occupy my three-year-old and 11-month-old. I have been teaching homeschool daily for five years, which really feels like just the beginning to me, but does represent gaining some experience in the Primary years homeschooling.

Transitioning Wasn't as Easy as I Thought

Transitioning from Mom-Mom to Teacher-Mom resulted in a pretty big blow to my ego. For four to six years, I filled my many hours with cooking meals from scratch, learning the art of bread making, making my own laundry soap, growing my own garden, sewing my children's clothing, and volunteering extensively at my parish (which earned me lauds). On any given day, I could wake up and decide just how I would spend the day and whether I brought the brood of little ones along to make that garden, go to the park, or bake a pie, I was considered a wonderful mother who certainly was always teaching. Those now seem like my halcyon days.

Then actual academic school begins. And within a few years, Mama is teaching two grades, three grades, or more, and she can no longer wake up each day and decide what to do. If teaching the three Rs to one child takes an hour or two, and then there are increasingly more children of schooling age, that is three hours daily, then four, five, six hours daily that Mama has to supervise school and cannot bake pies, prune tomato plants, bake bread, or write articles. Those licit goods usually have to be set aside if a family is going to homeschool for real and seriously.

Reality sets in: the little students are not idyllic, they don't sit still for hours, they don't always yearn to learn more, and sometimes they throw tantrums and say they hate school.

So, What Helps a Homeschool to Thrive Instead of Barely Survive?

When school is going well for us, it is generally because I'm following the below tips and tricks. When we're struggling badly, it is likely I'm slacking off on these guidelines.

Tip #1: Do school every day, preferably first thing in the morning.

Children will respect the routine of school as much as Mama respects it. If the homeschooling mother does school when she feels like it, when all her housework is caught up, when her calendar is clear, when she feels cheerful about it, then children will comply and do the book work when they feel like it, when all their playing is done, when they are cheerful about it.

Maybe school is only four days per week (pretty typical in the Primary grades), but it deserves to be scheduled into the calendar like any other "appointment" of importance. I experienced an important shift in my own thinking and that of my children when I began writing SCHOOL in big block letters on our kitchen calendar on every morning during which we intended to do school. It was blocked, we were busy, we would be at school. Or maybe we did decide to go on a field trip that day, but erasing SCHOOL from the calendar required more intentional planning on my part: was this field trip really worth missing a day of book work?

Doing school every day means not doing other activities during that time, among them: email and texting, errands, housecleaning, exercising, going to the park, and play dates. None of those things are academic school work and, while some are valuable, they detract from core school time.

Tip #2: Have a lesson plan.

Whether you're teaching in the traditional style, Classical, Charlotte Mason, Montessori, or another, waking up and knowing what material you want to cover that day is going to help tremendously. Time is precious and it is lost when Mama is hunting around, trying to figure out what to do next: meanwhile, she's lost the attention of her audience, those little students who have already wandered off to play.

There remains wide variety in how specifically one plans: but just having any plan at all helps! At one end of the spectrum are mother-teachers who plan out the daily lessons, down to the page numbers in each book, for the academic year (generally using a computer program lesson planner). At the other end of mothers who still plan are those who write down on a sheet of paper that lasts them all year the rotation of subjects to be covered daily: math, spelling, literature, science, and so on, with no specific page numbers cited (e.g., "do one spelling lesson daily"). With children trained in the system, that can work beautifully as well, as the child knows, for example, when he reads "math" on his simple list, that means he is going to open his math book and do one page for the day.

Tip #3: Have a meal plan.

Some people are great at cooking, at whipping up meals from what is known as a well-stocked pantry, but I am not one of them. A homeschooling mother will find her day goes a lot more smoothly if she wakes up in the morning knowing what she will be cooking for dinner that night. I fought this truth for years, as did many of my friends, but I believe meal planning is a necessary task for most of us.

I remember asking in desperation of a homeschooling mother friend of mine, "But what do you do when you start making dinner and you don't have a certain ingredient? I load up the children in the car and go to the grocery store, but that is really disruptive!" She introduced me to the concept that I would have to do without. We don't load up children during the dinner preparation hour to go to the grocery store to get one ingredient.

I laugh and laugh at this memory of myself now.

Tip #4: Have a housekeeping plan.

Children aren't going to focus during school time if their physical environment is a whirl of mess. I think keeping some level of reasonable cleanliness and order is important for the family members' mental peace. This might be achieved a few different ways, and all of those ways involve having a plan. Children might have daily zones for which they are responsible to clean. A family might hire a housekeeper (even a teenage girl looking to earn some small money) to come every couple of weeks or monthly. Saturdays might be devoted to major housecleaning by the family.

I think a key for the homeschooling family in particular, in which the children are home all day and the mother is essentially working a full-time job (teaching) in the home, is that all children must pitch in to help. Many homeschooling families have a period of morning clean-up chores and another session in the late afternoon before dinner or in the evening before bed.

Mama should ask herself of every task she is doing, "Is this a housekeeping task that a child is capable of doing?" If the answer is yes, then be sure to train the children of the appropriate ages to do that task and spread out the work among everyone.

Then do it. Require them, every day, not occasionally.

Tip #5: Have a laundry plan.

I give laundry its own heading outside of housekeeping: it is that important. When Mama is in survival mode, say due to the birth of a baby or a health crisis, clean laundry (along with food on the table) is still required, it's that valuable.

There are so many articles and blogs about how to do laundry, the best methods (there is more than one!), considerations of whether children should do their own laundry and at what ages, and debates about how much clothing even to own in order to reduce mountains of laundry.

My most important tip is to do laundry every day, and that means folding it and putting it away, all in one day. Unless one is a small family in which one can do a single load of laundry once or twice a week, then I think laundry needs to be done daily so it doesn't become a Laundry Monster.

For years, I followed the Fly Lady technique for laundry: each morning, I walked downstairs with a load of laundry in one arm, and usually a baby or toddler in the other, and put it in the machine first thing.

A revolutionary time for me was when our old clothing washer bit the dust after ten years, so we bought a new fangled one, which has a delayed start timer. I am now in the habit of placing a load of laundry in the machine at night before I go to bed: I spray the stain remover, I load the soap in its compartment, and I tell the machine how many hours from now I want the load to finish. Personally, I want my load to finish each morning around 6:00 a.m., so I walk down, turn on my coffee maker, and, while I wait for the coffee to brew, I put my wet laundry in the drier. The laundry is dry, and often folded, before we even walk upstairs to get dressed for school!

By 9:00 a.m. on most days, my family's laundry is completed and off of my mind. Revolutionary!

I hope these five tips are helpful to someone out there! I, for one, plan to come back and read my own words when we are inevitably struggling with homeschooling at times during the coming year.

1 comment:

  1. So much valuable information here! My dear friend and her family are visiting from out of town, and she is about to begin her homeschool. We have chatted oodles about this topic, and now I have the pleasure of directing her to this post!
    Two things I am planning to implement immediately: the 'Mama respects the schedule, so the kids respect it also' idea. This makes sense! Then the exciting laundry tip! Thanks for the kick in the pants! :)