Advice for Temporary Homeschoolers

Parents who are Covid-homeschooling have an overwhelming number of decisions to make right now. I have been homeschooling for a long time and I’m a serious overthinker, so I’ve read just about every blog and book about the subject that you can imagine. I’ve listened to the podcasts, read all the curriculum reviews, and talked to other homeschoolers all over the world in online forums. My mind changes regularly about what my approach should be, what our schedule should look like, what curricula we should use, etc, and I’ve had years to think about these things. I read and researched and planned long before my first child was even old enough to attend school, so all of the massive amount of information about homeschooling is not new to me, and I still get overwhelmed. I do not envy the many parents who have to attempt to make these decisions in the space of a few weeks. 

The first decision new homeschoolers will have to make is whether they are choosing the virtual option from their local school district. If you are choosing that option, you will simply follow their instructions and figure out a schedule for your family to make that work. This is not really homeschooling — it’s virtual schooling. While I am a former public school teacher and I am married to one, I don’t know enough about what that will look like to write any advice about it. Godspeed!

If you would rather forgo virtual schooling and its many Zoom commitments, you can choose to homeschool the kids yourself by submitting a Notice of Intent to your school district, as discussed here. Now you have lots of decisions to make, and you probably shouldn’t cling too tightly to any of them.

Once you have made the decision to homeschool, you need to think about whether you plan for your kids to return to school as soon as it is safe. If you are open to homeschooling after the Covid-19 pandemic ends (hopeful language with the word “ends” here) or even for the duration of their education, your choices may be different than they would for a temporary homeschooler. The remainder of this post applies to folks who only plan to homeschool for as long as they must because of the pandemic.

Schools have a strictly defined series of objectives that their curriculum must follow, according to their standardized testing schedule. If your child has attended public school before, they will presumably be on track with those objectives. One of your most important goals as an educator will be to keep them on that path. Click here to look up all the Standards of Learning for every subject and grade level in Virginia (if you’re in another state, you can find your standards at your state’s Department of Education website). I assume most parents have looked at these already to see what their kids are supposed to be learning, but if you haven’t, here it is! Incorporating these objectives and goals into your child’s education this year is now your job as the educator, but there are plenty of different ways to accomplish this, and that’s where things can get overwhelming. Here are some options:

**Choose a textbook for each subject that aligns with the state objectives, and go through the textbook’s information and activities with your child just as a teacher would. Is this boring? Absolutely. But your kid might be the kind who likes this sort of thing (I was nerdy like this as a kid, so I’m not judging). You can choose the next level in whatever textbook series your child used last year, and you can often find cheap used copies of textbooks for sale online.

**Find homeschool curriculum that hits the same objectives you’re hoping to cover. This can be a little harder to find, and you may have to go through several curriculum reviews or ask for advice in homeschool groups on social media. It’s rare for any particular curriculum to hit every objective you need, but you can mix and match and piece it together. When you start down this rabbit trail, prepare to find a daunting number of options. My favorite review page is gone, but click here for a popular option.

**Jot each objective down in a planner or other organizing tool and figure out a way your child can master it. This doesn’t have to be a book, worksheets, etc. Your child might learn best through watching YouTube videos or doing a hands-on project. We live in a time when pretty much everything is online, so go out there and search. It will take a while, but it might be worth it to find engaging activities and learning tools that work for your kids, and you don’t have to plan the entire year out in advance. You can take it a few weeks at a time (more on planning later). Pinterest is a goldmine of homeschooling ideas, and Teachers Pay Teachers is a good place to find activities that meet common learning standards. There are also tons of relatively cheap workbooks that hit many of the standards (I’ve used Spectrum Spelling workbooks for a few years, for example).

**Use a mixture of all of these options. You might find a great homeschool science curriculum that hits all of the SOLs for your kid’s grade level and includes tons of hands-on activities, use an old-school math textbook, and just read tons of books with your kid for language arts. You might figure out your own experiments and nature walks for science and use an online program like Time4Learning for everything else. The great thing is that you have tons of options, and the terrible thing is that you have tons of options! Key reminder: you can always change your mind. No one is forcing you to continue using a curriculum that makes you and your kid miserable. YOU make the decisions about your child’s education when you homeschool.

It’s a lot. I know. And I’m long-winded. There’s so much to think about (or overthink, if you’re anything like me). The most important thing to remember, however, is that kids are learning all the time. Those standards are only important because someone arbitrarily decided that they had to be learned at certain ages so there could be a test that shows the things were learned. The standards are put in place for tracking purposes. Kids can learn things when they’re ready, and they can learn in a thousand different ways. Because I plan to homeschool for as long as possible, I don’t pay much attention to the state standards. I don’t believe I need to teach my six-year-old what the state standards tell me to teach her. I believe I need to guide her and help her learn what she is ready to learn, pursue her interests, and grow into the person she is meant to be. But I know that kids who are returning to school will be expected to meet those standards, so parents will have to keep them in mind. You have the advantage of knowing your kids well, in a way their teachers might not get the opportunity to know them. A classroom teacher has to meet the needs of every kid in his or her room, which is almost impossible even for the best of teachers (I know; I’ve been there, and I was a pretty good one). You have to meet the needs of the kids you know and love. I know you can do it!

Next up: routines and schedules.

New to Homeschooling? Start Here

The Covid-19 pandemic turned everyone into emergency homeschoolers in March. Much of what students and their parents were doing every day looked nothing like regular homeschooling, as they scrambled to remember all the appropriate Zoom passwords and juggle online activities to keep things on track to finish the school year. Early on, I posted some advice for crisis-schooling. I had no idea how long this would go on!

With many schools moving to virtual teaching only (as they should, in a pandemic), some parents are opting out of the Zoom schedule and choosing to homeschool their children themselves. Homeschooling is a fairly foreign concept to most people (it was to me too before I started), so several parents have asked me for advice and information. I will attempt to answer questions and give suggestions on this blog in the next week or two.

The FIRST thing a new homeschooling parent should do is figure out how to comply with state homeschooling laws. Every state has different laws, and every state has homeschooling organizations that conveniently provide the information you need. This post will only be about Virginia, where I live, and will merely hit the highlights. Full information can be found at the websites for Va Homeschoolers or HEAV. Va Homeschoolers is currently being dismantled, but their website still contains accurate information and is my preferred source. 

There are three avenues for parents to choose from in order to homeschool and comply with the state’s compulsory attendance law: 1) Home instruction, in which the parent submits a Notice of Intent to homeschool to the local school district and then submits proof of academic progress at the end of the school year (more on that later); 2) the Approved Tutor provision, in which the parent notifies the local school district that the student’s education will be provided by someone with a valid teaching license; or 3) Religious Exemption, in which the parent petitions the local school board to grant an exemption from compulsory attendance based on personal religious views. 

Most parents select option 1) Home instruction. You will be required to submit a copy of your high school diploma and a Notice of Intent that merely indicates you will be providing home instruction for your child(ren). There are detailed instructions for completing the NOI here. Do NOT provide more information than you need to. Sometimes people working in school administrative offices are quite unfamiliar with homeschooling practices and laws, and they may advise you that you need to “apply” to homeschool. An NOI is not an application to homeschool. You are merely informing the district that you will be educating your child at home. The school district does not have the right to “approve” your decision to homeschool. If you comply with the state laws, you can homeschool. The homeschool liaison in my county often refers people to me or asks me questions herself, because this is only one small part of her job. More often than not, homeschool parents know far more about homeschooling than school administrators and staff. If you run into a problem with submitting your NOI, referring them to the information on the websites listed above usually sets things straight.

When you have submitted your NOI, you should receive a confirmation or approval from your school district (remember, even if they word it as an approval, they are not actually “approving” your ability to homeschool your child. You have that right regardless, as long as you submit the required information). The next part is the trickiest: choosing curriculum (or possibly not choosing any at all). Stay tuned!

Learning at Home — Advice for Isolated Parents and Kids

It’s Saturday morning, March 14, 2020, the beginning of the (at least) two-week period when all the kids in my state will be staying home and “homeschooling” because of the social distancing required by the coronavirus pandemic. It’s Pi Day, and I’m remembering a great little party I threw with two other homeschooling families last year. We did learning activities about circles, ate some pie, and played in my yard. A local homeschooling mom who runs a resource center had an amazing Pi Day celebration/science fair planned for today but had to cancel it. My math teacher husband might talk to my kids about pi at some point today, but right now he’s watching anime  with our son. I see a lot of anime in our near future.

As soon as we learned that schools would likely close, two things started happening in my little corner of the world:

Parents started looking for advice from homeschooling moms. I’ve had several requests for advice about learning activities and resources, about structures and routines that will keep kids learning and engaged, and about how to balance it all. I’m not the best person to ask for advice on this, because I have kids who do not respond well to a forced routine. I know we’re supposed to believe all kids thrive with structure, but since I know all humans are different I stopped believing that a long time ago. The evidence of what happens when I try to impose strict routines on my kids proved this theory wrong over and over. Therefore, very little that happens in my house looks like “school.” Don’t get me wrong, I would love to have more school happening over here. It would be far easier if I could plan lessons and then just carry them out (especially since I’m a former teacher), but I opted out of that structure when I decided to homeschool. Many homeschooling parents do replicate school at home, with varying degrees of success, but we are not that kind of family. We “do school” sometimes, and the rest of the time we learn in other ways. Very little is forced, because just like I don’t learn anything when someone is telling me I have to, my kids don’t either. That said, there are plenty of wonderful learning resources online, and at this point they’ve all been shared on Facebook. The only one I would add is here. Honestly, if you dive deep into Julie Bogart’s materials, you might end up homeschooling anyway, because she’s pretty darn magical.

Some homeschoolers started getting snarky. Hey, I get it. We can get a little bitter because of all those “how will your kids have any socialization?” questions and people quizzing our kids to see if they know random facts that literally no one knows after they pass the test. But I’ve seen some parents in various homeschooling groups with a little bit of a superior attitude about this “mandatory homeschooling” everyone has to do. I’ve shared some of the memes, because they’re just funny, but I don’t think the superiority is helpful. To be fair, I haven’t seen much of it. I’ve mostly seen homeschool bloggers like Julie putting out information and advice that will help. I’m one of the snarkiest snarkers who ever snarked, but even I can recognize that it’s ok for parents who aren’t used to being home all day with their kids to have some concerns about what that will look like. Their kids aren’t used to it either, and they’re going to have some anxiety and some stress from this major disruption. My kids aren’t used to staying home all day every day either, and my extroverted little girl is probably going to be climbing the walls soon.

Here’s the thing, and it applies to everything about this situation: even though we’re practicing isolation to keep the germs at bay (or we should be — STAY HOME, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD), we are in it together. Wait, that doesn’t apply just when there’s a pandemic. It applies all the time. It takes a village. Homeschooling parents can learn from parents who send their kids to school, and school parents (and teachers) can learn from those of us who educate our kids at home (or watch them educate themselves and guide a little bit from the sidelines). 

If you still want a homeschooler’s advice, here it is. When you see that colorful image that’s floating around with a strict schedule of when your kids should have chore time, screen time, schoolwork time, etc, feel free to print it out. Then promptly toss it in the garbage bin. Ask your kids to do whatever schoolwork their teachers assigned for them, because that’s important. When they’re done, if you have some free time, read a book to them. Or a million books. Read them books with main characters who look and act nothing like them. Read books about heroic girls to your boys. Read books about Black kids to your white kids. Read books about kids who have disabilities to your able-bodied kids. Read books about fat kids to your thin ones (I only know of this one picture book that just came out; most books use fat kids as something to laugh at. If a book has a fat character who’s there to be seen as mean or lazy or funny because he’s fat, throw it in the bin with that schedule you printed out). 

After you read for a while, watch a movie together and talk about it. Or do a Poetry Teatime (you’d be surprised how much kids like this). Watch some cool YouTube videos together — educational and silly ones. If you have musical instruments in your house, play them. Figure them out together. Walk around in your yard and get some fresh air and look at something in nature and draw it if you feel so inclined. Do whatever you like to do with your kids in the summer that doesn’t involve some kind of expensive vacation or camp. You probably already have what homeschoolers call a “family culture”: some families are into sports, some are hunters, some are musicians, some are nerds. Settle into your family culture for a while and enjoy it. We’re not all supposed to be doing the same thing as everyone else. 

I have one last piece of advice, and it’s about the dreaded screens. I like screens. So do you, I’m guessing. Your kids love them, right? Sometimes there’s way too much screen time in my house for everyone and we unplug for a while to play a board game or make up an elaborate scenario on the floor with ponies and Barbie dolls (yes, all of us, though my husband is much better at this than I am). Other times we just happily enjoy the screens. My son has been learning about military history through some XBox game, and I had no idea because it looked pointless from a distance. 

If you get some unexpected time off work, you look forward to maybe having some downtime with Netflix, right? Most of us feel that way, anyway. Your kids are no different, and they are kids. They have even less impulse control, less need to feel productive, and more need to do what feels like play. And that’s ok. When education researchers tell us that we all learn more through play (yes, adults too), screens can be part of that too. 

To sum up: we’re in it together, schedules are only necessary if your kids will freak out without one, and play. Stay well, listen to some good music, and read good books. If your kids do zero schoolwork in the next two months, they will still be fine. Take care of yourselves, take care of each other, and try to help folks who have bigger worries than math homework and screentime if you can. 

Fact, Faith, Feeling

When I was young, I went to a summer Bible camp in my beautiful hometown in the mountains of southwest Virginia. In the two weeks I spent there each summer, I did a lot of thinking about what I should believe. Of course we were told explicitly what to believe about Jesus, about God, about the Bible. But I’ve always been a Questioner (shoutout to Gretchen Rubin), so I couldn’t just accept what people told me without some thought. I got the clear message (though it was a much gentler one than I would find later in other church settings) that I shouldn’t be questioning it at all. I talked to my counselor at the camp about how I was having a hard time knowing whether I was truly “saved” because I didn’t know what real faith should feel like. Did I have enough faith? How could I know? Did just saying in my head that I believed the right stuff mean that I really did, and that I would go to heaven? She gave me a little pamphlet called “Fact, Faith, and Feeling,” and I don’t remember what it said. I remember simply being impressed that she had a pamphlet to address my question, and attributing that to the fact that she was part of a group that had come from Illinois to work at our camp. I assumed people from out of town had access to more information somehow or maybe that they were able to see things from a different perspective. At that age, the mountains around me felt like a constraint rather than a comfort. I’ve gone back and forth about that many times over the years, but I moved away thirty-one years ago and mostly I miss that soft grey line of comfort on the horizon. I associate certainty about faith, about people, about big ideas with the comfort of my hometown. I lost the certainty even before I lost the mountains, and I’ve been chasing it ever since while questioning how anyone else can possibly think they’ve achieved it.

I think often about what I learned from the late Rachel Held Evans,  especially this quote about the Bible from one of her books:

“If you are looking for verses with which to support slavery, you will find them. If you are looking for verses with which to abolish slavery, you will find them. If you are looking for verses with which to oppress women, you will find them. If you are looking for verses with which to liberate or honor women, you will find them. If you are looking for reasons to wage war, you will find them. If you are looking for reasons to promote peace, you will find them. If you are looking for an out-dated, irrelevant ancient text, you will find it. If you are looking for truth, believe me, you will find it. This is why there are times when the most instructive question to bring to the text is not ‘what does it say?’, but ‘what am I looking for?’ I suspect Jesus knew this when he said, ‘ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened.’ If you want to do violence in this world, you will always find the weapons. If you want to heal, you will always find the balm.”

Even for those of us who believe that the Bible absolutely is the Word of God, we must remember that whatever beliefs we get from it are derived from human interpretation of a human translation, whether we interpret it ourselves or believe someone else’s interpretation. God doesn’t come down and speak to us directly to tell us if we have it right. And we do have to think about context, not just in the places where we find it convenient to do so but everywhere. So whatever you believe about what the Bible says reflects who you are and what you want to believe. I think about this often because so many people want to use the Bible primarily as a weapon, and it’s hard for me to imagine the Jesus I find in the Bible wanting that to happen.

“Cherry-picking” is a word that gets thrown around frequently in discussions about interpreting the Bible, and I’ve used it often myself. If you read the Bible and come away still affirming the rights of people whom conservatives rail against, you’re told that you’re cherry-picking. If you read the Bible and focus on abortion and LGBT issues at the expense of everyone else, you’re told that you’re cherry-picking. And guess what? You absolutely are. You’re reading God’s Word and focusing on the things that matter to you, the ones that seem most important. If you read the Bible and see tons of verses about caring for immigrants but then dismiss them because you believe the right-wing narrative that only people born within our borders deserve help, you’re cherry-picking. If you see all the verses about helping the poor and only quote the one about working for your food in some attempt to prove people don’t deserve help, you’re cherry-picking. What is ultimately important, in my humble opinion (which is as valuable as anyone else’s because, again, it’s all human interpretation), is our purpose for cherry-picking and whether that aligns with the lessons Jesus taught us. If our primary goal is to prove that we are right and everyone else is reading it wrong, we’re forgetting that we all read through a lens that is affected by culture, empathy (that’s the big one, guys), education, and faith. 

God’s Word has been translated and interpreted over and over, with culture and history affecting those translations and interpretations. When we read it, we bring ourselves to it, with all our flaws. Most of all, we bring our need to be right. If I have it right, I’ll get to heaven and those other people won’t. Sorry, folks. We don’t know who’s right. We can only know how we feel about our neighbors, what we want for them, and whether we’re loving them or not. I have a hunch that wielding the Bible as a weapon against them is an incorrect interpretation of the whole point of the Word, but I could be wrong. I accepted long ago that uncertainty will follow me every day of my life, in this and in all other things. I have to work hard to let go of the need to be right all the time, but I believe I got there because I thought I had to defend my beliefs against the folks who think theirs can’t be questioned. In the last ten years or so, I’ve stopped defending them to some people in my life, but it’s a gradual process. I always think of Rachel Held Evans and her idea that we can find support for any idea in God’s Word. Maybe that’s how God set it up, so He can see what kind of person we turn out to be by what we take from his Word and what we question, what we use as a weapon and what we use to show love.

The Best 12 Books I Read in 2019

2019 has been a fantastic reading year. I set a “reading challenge” on Goodreads to read 100 books this year, then I canceled the challenge because I didn’t want it to make me speed through books instead of savoring. I recently got curious about how many books I’ve read so far this year and turned the challenge back on to discover that I’ve read 92. With a few family read-aloud novels going on and the fact that I’m in the middle of at least three books, I’ll probably get past 100 by December 31.

I love reading as often as I can, but I know that quality is more important than quantity. I devour end-of-year top ten lists so I can put titles on hold at the library or splurge on the ones I can’t wait for. This year I’m making a best-of list of my own, but mine is a top twelve. Twelve is my favorite number and my birthday is the day I’m writing this, 12/12. Keeping it to twelve wasn’t easy; the fact that I read new books by Ann Patchett, Margaret Atwood, and Colson Whitehead and they didn’t make the list is a pretty good sign that it was a great year for reading.

These are not all books that were published in 2019; because I’m not a major publication like the NYT, I can change the rules. These are just the 12 best books that I read this year. I’m too lazy to put pictures of the book covers but you can click the links to read more about each title. 

Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes

At first glance this book looks like a fluffy rom-com, so I was in no hurry to read it. I’m not opposed to a fluffy rom-com, but I don’t rush to get them in my hands either. After a few good reviews from bookish friends and after finding out the author was someone I already listened to on the NPR podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, I gave it a try and truly enjoyed the balance between fluff and something deeper. Honestly, I couldn’t put it down.

One Day in December by Josie Silver

Speaking of rom-coms, this book was popular last Christmas because it was a Reese Witherspoon book club pick. I just got around to reading it and found it really lovely and sweet. I liked that even while the main characters annoyed me at times, I always rooted for them. I’m sure it will be made into a fun movie at some point, but read it first! 

Lovely War by Julie Berry

This book is shelved in the young adult section of the library, but I’m not sure why. I haven’t read anything else by the author, so maybe that’s just her niche and they threw this book in with the rest. It combines Greek gods, World War I, racism, grief, and love at first sight, and somehow it all works beautifully. It took me a few (short) chapters to get into it, but it was worth wading through some silliness to get to the main story.

The Memory Police by Yoko Agawa

The Memory Police was published in the 1990s but just got an English translation this past year. I found this one delightfully odd, with the atmosphere of a Murakami novel (and that’s high praise from me, since he’s my favorite author). It’s not for everyone, but if you’re into dystopian novels and you’re ok with something a little bizarre, it’s worth the read.

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

Jojo Moyes always delivers a good story, but this might be my favorite of her books. I have a bit of a connection here, since it’s set in Appalachia and I grew up in that area, and I confess I was a little prickly about a British author taking it on. She did a great job and created characters I truly enjoyed, with a great love story unfolding in a really subtle way throughout. (It’s weird how many love stories I liked this year).

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Taylor Jenkins Reid received a lot of attention for her most recent novel, Daisy Jones and the Six, and I really enjoyed that one over the summer. But I think this one is far superior. Old Hollywood, a surprising love story, and a story-within-a-story framework that works really well.

A Duke by Default by Alyssa Cole

It’s unusual enough that I read so many books with love stories in them this year, but for an actual romance novel to show up on this list is pretty out of character for me. I can count on one hand the number of romance novels I’ve read in the last decade or more. I heard about this one on Anne Bogel’s What Should I Read Next podcast (a great place for book recommendations) and decided it was worth a shot. I did have to look over some cheesiness, but far less than I imagine is in most romance novels. The protagonist even gave me new insight into adult ADHD. I went on to read two more books in the series and plan to read more from the author.

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

Obviously I would read anything Elizabeth Gilbert writes, but I was surprised that she was able to create this fun read while grieving the loss of her partner. She’s said so many profound things about both grief and creativity that I ended up reading the book with both of those things in mind and it made me do a lot of thinking about how an author’s public persona can change the experience of consuming their work. Regardless of all that, this book was one of the most fun reading experiences I had all year.

The Body is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love by Sonya Renee Taylor

As my list indicates, I’m not wild about nonfiction. I do read it, and probably more of it every year, but I tend to get into a spiral of reading too much from people who are telling me how to live or what to think (how to parent, how to eat, how to clean my house, how to create, etc). I read Sonya Renee Taylor’s book because I’ve been on a journey for a while to try to love myself and my body in a culture that really, really hates bodies like mine. I feel like her book should be required reading for everyone, regardless of what kind of body they’re living in.

The Brave Learner by Julie Bogart

The only other nonfiction book on my list, this one is from a woman who’s considered a guru in home education circles, and rightly so. I’ve read practically everything you can read about homeschooling, and her ideas, long before this book came out to crystallize them and expand on them beautifully, have probably had more influence on my approach to home education than any other. I think any parent, homeschooling or not, can learn so much from her.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

I enjoyed every word of this fresh, original, too-short-but-actually-perfect book. I’ve never read anything like it, and it’s incredibly rare to find a book I can say that about. I can’t wait to see what Braithwaite does next.

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

Every year we hear more about how brilliant James Baldwin was, but I don’t think there can ever be enough attention paid to his work. His books are a national treasure, and this one was groundbreaking. Can we get a film version?

 

I hope 2020 brings as many great books as I found this past year. Finding time to read while homeschooling, attempting to write occasionally, teaching piano lessons, and watching the news headlines scroll by in abject horror can be difficult, but I’m trying to figure out how to add starting a book podcast to that mix. If you found this post and read through to the end, let me know in the comments if you agree or disagree with my assessments of these books, or tell me what books you enjoyed this year!

Morning After Mother’s Day

 

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I usually spend at least part of Mother’s Day feeling sorry for myself, and this year was no different. I got up and went to church to play the piano, as always, grateful that I had canceled my piano lessons for the afternoon but still worried about the lack of income that would result from that decision. I felt a little sorry for myself for having to get up relatively early to go to youth choir practice. Then I felt sorry for myself for being tired after dealing with the piano recital my students performed the day before (even though this was very little work for me), and for still getting over the nasty stomach virus that had plagued me since Friday morning (ok, this was a good reason for self-pity). Church was lovely, as it always is, and I spent some time playing with my daughter in the nursery afterward just because she asked me to. I realized how infrequently I’ve done that lately, just sitting on the floor playing with random toys in whatever way your kid cooks up. I used to do a lot of that. Now I always seem to have some excuse — the messy house that I never manage to get clean, the pulled muscle in my back, the homeschool responsibilities, piano lessons, wasting time scrolling through nonsense on my phone, etc. I know playing with my kids is the most important thing. Everyone knows this. And we all feel guilty when we realize we aren’t doing it enough.

But this isn’t about guilt. This is about self-pity. About disappointment. I always tell myself not to have any sort of expectations about what Mother’s Day will look like or what my family will do for me, but then I end up feeling like I was robbed of some kind of “special” day if nothing happens. This year was a bit different, because my husband planned to take us all out to lunch but my stomach wasn’t cooperating so I asked if we could postpone it (bonus: avoid Mother’s Day restaurant crowds). Then he kept the kids playing at church for a while so I could spend some time alone at home and have some quiet time. I’m an introvert, so this is exactly what I need and never get enough of. I spent the time lounging on my couch and watching Netflix. My husband cooked dinner and washed dishes and attended to the kids’ needs, which was wonderful but not unusual. He’s the kind of husband and father who does these things anyway when he’s home and has the time (I don’t really understand households where the man doesn’t do any of the household adulting).

I asked the family to watch a movie with me, and they agreed, so I selected Queen of Katwe. I didn’t select this movie because I’m dying to see it. I selected it because I’ve read that it’s a great “growth mindset” kind of movie to show your kids, and it’s based in Uganda so it hits the “other cultures” target, and I’m a homeschooling mom so I’m thinking about these things 24/7. Hey, here was an opportunity to get that movie in that I’d been meaning for my nine-year-old to watch. Yay! But nope, he wouldn’t take off his headphones and get off his tablet without drama, so I turned it off and went upstairs to read and worry about whether my kid is addicted to video games and selfishness. (He’d made me a Mother’s Day card at church earlier in the day that was all about how he wanted me to buy him a certain video game console, so this was a theme for the day). I know I have a great kid and selfishness goes along with being a nine-year-old, but I worry. Because that’s what parents do. If he turns out materialistic and selfish with horrible posture from being hunched over Roblox for too long, it’s because I messed up. If I get strict and he feels imprisoned and stressed because he can’t do what he loves, then I also messed up. There’s no right way to go, so I feel sorry for myself, because Mother’s Day is a reminder that being a mother means never really knowing what to do.

But every year it happens. The morning after Mother’s Day. I wake up and remember that I felt sorry for myself the day before, because maybe I didn’t get to go to a lovely brunch and no one gave me breakfast in bed. Maybe I had to work or my kids didn’t act the way I wanted them to. And I feel ridiculous. Not because those feelings are invalid, but because for so many years the only thing that happened to me on Mother’s Day was that I called my mom. I wanted to be a mom for a long time before I finally got to be one. Like many people, I struggled with infertility for years. When I finally got pregnant after 15 years of marriage, it was a surprise. And then my sweet girl came along when I was 42. All of these feelings about being a mother — the exhaustion, the fears, the feeling that you’re never really appreciated, the loneliness, the pressure — weren’t part of my life until my mid-thirties. Before that? I just wanted a chance to feel those feelings, because I knew that along with them there would be joy. And oh, there is joy. The child I’ve been calling selfish? We laugh together more than I’ve ever laughed with anyone. (Ironically, we ended up watching something else on Netflix last night and laughing our guts out). The joy of seeing him grow up and watching how sweetly he cares for his sister when she needs him is indescribable. And my beautiful four-year-old daughter loves me so completely and fiercely that it’s hard to imagine what life was like before she was here. The blessing of being their mother is sweeter than I could ever have imagined it would be.

This doesn’t mean I am not entitled to self-pity. Motherhood is hard. We often don’t get the credit we deserve, and when you sacrifice your career to stay home and homeschool, it can feel really painful at times. No one asked me to do that, though. I made that choice, and I get to live with both the difficulties and the joys that follow. I’m not going to stop complaining about not getting sleep, because that sucks. I’m not going to stop worrying about how my kids will turn out, or whether I’m using the right curriculum, or anything else. This is all part of the deal. And next year, I will probably feel sorry for myself on Mother’s Day again, for one reason or another. I’m kind of thinking about boycotting, to be honest.

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I wanted to be a mom on Mother’s Day. For many years I wanted to know what that was like. I didn’t expect disappointment or regret or self-pity, only joy. We can never fully see what it’s like on the other side, even when we’ve been there before. As a tired and worried mom, I forget what it was like to long to just be a mom.  I don’t want to take one moment for granted. I don’t want to feel sorry for myself when I’m surrounded by joy.

Fear and Learning (and Courage) in Homeschool

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My son, feeling fear and doing it anyway.

I’m a fearful person. This is hard to admit, but it probably doesn’t surprise anyone who knows me well. I don’t take a lot of risks. I’m not going to go sky-diving anytime soon, and I stopped watching horror movies many years ago. I have a bit more anxiety than I should, but I’m not paralyzed by it. I’m able to move through the world in a relatively normal fashion. I just overthink everything and agonize over potential outcomes.

As you can imagine, this makes homeschooling difficult.

The number of people who homeschool their children has grown astronomically over the past few decades. Plenty of us are in the trenches — figuring out curricula, navigating co-ops, organizing field trips, and sometimes staying in our pajamas and calling it Movie Day. But our children still represent only about three percent of school-age kids. We are not the norm, by any stretch of the imagination. Far from it. And while homeschooling is more accepted by society, it is still considered “out there” by quite a few folks. Before I had kids, I was a public school teacher and homeschooling was barely on my radar. In my ninth grade English class, there was one kid who had been homeschooled before, and I was intrigued by his impeccable writing skills and his complete lack of awareness around due dates. I couldn’t imagine what homeschooling looked like in reality, and I didn’t bother to find out.

When the time comes to send our kids off to kindergarten (or preschool), everyone has fears. Will she be ok on the bus?  Will he poop his pants every day? Will he learn? I felt the dread of those fears long before the time came, as most parents probably do. But then I took a different road. My son was in preschool a few days a week for a brief period before I recognized that I completely disagreed with almost everything they were doing in that preschool and withdrew him. I was already considering homeschooling at the time. So my son never got on that bus. If he pooped his pants, he did it at home. And did he learn? Oh yes.

But I’m still afraid, in a way that I think only other homeschooling parents will understand. Yes, I know that every parent fears that her child won’t learn as much as they could, or that they won’t reach their potential academically and otherwise. That’s  just part of being a mom or dad. But when you send your kids to school, you’re sharing the burden of that fear with every teacher and principal and mentor your child encounters. You all share the responsibility of making sure your child reaches his or her potential. In homeschooling, the burden is all on the parents. If I choose the wrong math curriculum and my son doesn’t grasp fractions, I can’t say that my son had an ineffective teacher in fourth grade and that’s why he’s behind. It’s my fault. If I don’t find an engaging way to teach science and my son loses interest in learning about animals, I can’t blame the local school system for being weak on science. That’s on me. If I don’t help him correct his pencil grasp and he develops a habit of holding it strangely, I’m the one who allowed that habit to develop. We all have fears as parents, but homeschooling parents’ fears often boil down to this one question: am I enough? Am I doing enough? Am I learning enough? Am I teaching enough? Am I giving them enough opportunities to learn? Am I giving them enough freedom? If our kids don’t reach their potential, we will have no one else to share the blame.

Continuing to homeschool in the face of this fear is a radical act, and a brave one. Often, homeschooling doesn’t feel brave or radical. It feels like staying in our pajamas all day and reading great books together. It feels like coming up with our own science experiments and then trying to figure out how they worked. It feels like meeting up with friends for hours of actual free time, not structured play. It feels like reading poetry and drinking tea. It feels like spending half the day at the library. It feels like the privilege of watching our kids learn in a thousand different ways. And in the thick of it, we don’t always have time to feel the fear. But in the quiet of the morning before my kids wake up, when I’m looking out my kitchen window and thinking about what the day will look like, I feel it. I feel the magnitude of the responsibility I’ve taken on.

The fear doesn’t go away. You just do it anyway. Isn’t that how courage works?

 

 

Spring 2018 Curriculum

This post contains affiliate links.

My biggest obstacle to a peaceful homeschool is probably my inability to make decisions. There are so many great curriculum options, so many methods, so many philosophies, and it can be hard to make a choice and just stick with it long enough to see if it really works for your kids. I have been homeschooling my son for about five years (if we start counting at the age of five instead of birth!) and I am still constantly changing my mind. I like to dabble in the different options and piece things together. I will never be a boxed curriculum kind of girl. I tried it early on and it didn’t work for me. I still get tempted by the idea of one curriculum telling me exactly what to do, but I know that would make me and my son both very unhappy.

As a dabbler and a Questioner (read The Four Tendencies — you must!), I love visiting homeschool blogs and seeing what kinds of curricula other families use. My choices change all the time, but I thought it would be fun to throw everything down in one place and take a look at what I’m using this spring. Bear in mind, this could all change at any moment! All of these materials are things that I use with my nine-year-old fourth grader. I don’t use any specific materials with my four-year-old at the moment, just playing, reading, and making up stories with her toys.

Language Arts:

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Lots of read-alouds

Brave Writer Arrow

Brave Writer Partnership Writing

Poetry Teatime

365 Days of Wonder: Mr. Browne’s Precepts for copywork

Brainquest 4th Grade Workbook

Spectrum Spelling 4th Grade Workbook

We mostly follow the Brave Writer lifestyle, without a strict schedule. We always have a novel going as a read-aloud, which I read to my son every morning and at random times throughout the day. If we don’t like a book, we put it down and start a different one. The read-aloud always has to be something we both want to continue. I have been using the Arrow selections this year, though I’ve skipped a few, abandoned one, and have added other read-alouds as well. Our most recent selection was Elijah of Buxton, which we loved. I also read various picture books during our morning time, usually related to something we’re studying but not always.

History:

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Story of the World Volume 2

Story of the World Volume 2 Activity Book

Liberty’s Kids DVD series

“Who Was” and “I Am” books

We are very slowly working our way through the Story of the World books. We go weeks sometimes without dipping into the book, so I don’t have a strict schedule with them. The only thing I use from the activity book is the occasional craft or project, and we sometimes look at the maps. We are not terribly crafty people, so the craft has to be truly compelling for us to attempt it!

I wanted to do a little study of American history this year, because we haven’t tackled much of that beyond what we’ve learned from books in the Who Was…? series. I ordered the complete Liberty’s Kids series on DVD and we have been learning a lot about the American Revolution from those. I’m hoping to plan a trip to Colonial Williamsburg this summer (it’s just a couple of hours away) to cap off the study, and we have been incorporating a few short biographies into our read-aloud time to enhance his understanding of folks like George Washington.

Science:

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R.E.A.L. Science Odyssey Life 1

Bird Bingo

Nature Journaling with Nature Anatomy

Janice VanCleave’s Chemistry for Every Kid

One-Minute Science Mysteries

Usborne Lift-the-Flap Periodic Table

Science Ninjas Valence Card Game

Science is sometimes tough for me. I’m a word nerd, not a lab girl. My son enjoys science, but to him what that mostly means is putting random concoctions together and seeing what happens. I bought Real Science Odyssey’s Life Science curriculum for this year, because we enjoyed the Earth and Space Science curriculum last year, but we ran into a bit of a problem. After finishing the Human Body section, we got to the part where we need to start collecting snails and various other life forms, but it was too cold outside to do so. So we’re just now picking it back up as spring is finally under way. In the interim, we have been doing a casual dip into chemistry with some very simple experiments from Janice VanCleave’s book. We’ve really enjoyed the game Science Ninjas Valence, which is good for a little intro to some basic chemistry.

I want to do a bird study this spring, partly because I loved birds as a kid and went through a 3rd grade phase where I hoped to be an ornithologist when I grew up! We take nature walks occasionally, which is pretty easy for us since we live in the woods and have a pond right next door. I’m also hoping to do a little pond study soon, like this one from My Little Poppies. I’m hoping to get back into some nature journaling as well, using the beautiful illustrations in Nature Anatomy for inspiration.

 
Math:

Star Wars 4th Grade Math Workbook

Dad Math!

Brainquest 4th Grade Workbook

Prime Climb board game

Math is the hardest subject for me. Not just because I’m an English teacher, but because I have struggled every year with choosing curriculum and have tried nearly all of the popular ones and hate them. I end up using workbooks and piecing something together. This year I tried using a regular 4th grade textbook at the beginning of the year and it honestly worked as well as any other curriculum I’ve tried. I dropped it, however, when it got too boring for us. I need to write a whole separate post about my struggles with math! My husband is a math teacher, so sometimes he steps in and helps out, including writing up some problems for my son to complete and leaving them before he heads off to work. My son enjoys Dad Math! We’ve played Prime Climb a few times, and I highly recommend that game for all ages.

Music:

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The Story of the Orchestra

The Music Pack

I’m a piano teacher, so you would think music would be an easy one. But it’s different when it’s your own kid! My son is not interested in taking piano lessons from his mom, which is understandable. He took guitar lessons for about a year and did really great, but he wanted to quit and I was ok with that. I hope he will pick it back up, but I’m not pressuring him. This spring we’re dipping into this great book to do a bit of music appreciation. We’re learning about the different eras of music and the different instruments in the orchestra, and we recently attended a symphony performance geared toward kids.  The Music Pack is a book I’ve owned for over twenty years but only recently pulled out to use with my son. I was working at a bookstore when it was first published and I fell in love with how interactive it is. Every page has something that pops up or a little instrument model you can pull out and play.

Art:

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Vincent’s Starry Night

Usborne Art Treasury

Spot-the-Difference masterpiece books

I’m a big proponent of what I like to call Storyschooling, because I believe every lesson is easier to learn when it comes in the form of a story. This is true for all of us, not just for kids. My son and I have been enjoying some of the stories behind the pieces of art in Vincent’s Starry Night. The book is laid out chronologically, so we started from the beginning, but now we are jumping around and I’m matching the stories up with our own art projects, sometimes coordinating them with the projects in the Usborne Art Treasury and/or with paintings in the Spot-the-Difference books. I love that spotting the differences is a simple and fun activity but also an opportunity to look closely at great art. Art is definitely a weak point for me, so we don’t get to it every week. My son enjoys drawing on his own pretty frequently, but we don’t break out the paints and other art supplies as often as we did when he was little. I need to be more intentional about getting them out for my daughter.

Whew. When you lay it all out, it seems like we’re doing a lot.  Add in gymnastics classes for my son and ballet for my daughter and the occasional field trip or visit to the science museum with friends. I strongly suggest you write your own curriculum post like this, even if you don’t have a blog! Writing it out is a great reminder of the active role you’re taking in making sure your children are given lots of opportunities for learning. We won’t always have the perfect curriculum and we will change things all the time, but that doesn’t mean lots of learning isn’t happening along the way.

Preschoolers Need Storyschooling, Not Curriculum

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I’ve been considering buying an early years curriculum for my daughter, who just turned four, just so I can have some ideas for activities to do with her instead of parking her in front of a movie every day for some peace. (I’m ashamed to admit this happens more often than I would like, in order for me to get some things done with my son).

But does she need that curriculum? Absolutely not. She’s learning every day, and she’s steering her own ship. She learns when we take a walk to the neighborhood pond, and she learns when we take a trip to the library or to the grocery store. Perhaps most importantly, she learns from the stories she creates with her toys. In the picture above, she was playing with her princesses and her cupcakes, her favorite game these days. Usually the princesses go to sleep and someone takes their cupcakes and they have to go find them, and then this happens over and over. She had six cupcakes and at first put five on one plate for Anna and one for Elsa, then decided that she would make it fair by giving them each an even number of cupcakes. She placed one more on Elsa’s plate and said the numbers out loud until she reached an even number.

This wasn’t a math activity suggested by Pinterest or a curriculum. This was a story created completely in her own mind, and it just happened to include some math. The story also included a sense of fairness, which is pretty important for little ones who are still struggling with the concept of sharing. Fairness, counting, addition, subtraction, and division — all stemming from totally child-directed play.

I’m in no rush for my four-year-old to learn that half of six is three. I’m not going to quiz her on it tomorrow to make sure it stuck. The important takeaway here is not that you can get a child to do math with her toys. The takeaway is that a child is learning math on her own through story, and you don’t need to do anything to make it happen. I’m not saying guided learning activities are terrible; I’m saying they are probably unnecessary if a child has abundant time and freedom to play. For all the times we observe learning happening in this way, there are probably dozens of other learning experiences we don’t even see, moments that happen while a child is weaving a story in her play. We all absorb lessons best when they come in the form of a story. The beauty of childhood, and the thing we often lose as we grow up, is that these stories so often come from within. Storyschooling at this young age is the magnificent phenomenon of a child teaching herself. Sometimes we just have to get out of the way.

Please Don’t Make Kids Do Book Reports

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We all want our kids to love reading. Everything else is gravy, right? Your kid isn’t into music and doesn’t want to learn how to play the ukulele? It’s just not his thing. Your kid isn’t really into team sports after that one little try with soccer? No big deal. Not into learning about history and geography? He’ll still get by ok with some basic knowledge, because we can look everything up in a hot second. But reading? That’s the biggie.

It’s not enough for kids to know how to read. We want our kids to be readers. We want them to grow up to be adults who choose to read for pleasure and not just for information.

So how do we make our kids into the kinds of adults who choose reading? Simple answer: we can’t.

This is not a terribly optimistic answer, but it’s a realistic one. Parents can do exactly the same thing with all their children, and one will turn out to be a reader and the rest will pick up a book maybe once a year. We have a ton of influence on our kids as parents, but there are no guarantees.

Does that mean it isn’t worth the effort? Absolutely not. There are lots of things we can do and, perhaps more importantly, not do, that will increase the likelihood that our kids will love reading.

Chances are, you’ve heard the do’s already. Read aloud to your kids. Strew books around your house that might be interesting to them. Let the kids see you reading. These are important, but they are not new ideas. I want to talk about a NOT-do.

Please, please do not make your kids do book reports.

In a homeschooling Facebook group, someone recently posted a picture of a book report assignment a child had received at school. It was a drawing of a snowman, with various parts of the book the child had to write about in each section. Besides the obvious problem with trying to write letters small enough to fit on the graphic, there were other glaring issues. The assignment asked kids to write the title and author on the snowman’s hat, a letter to a character on his scarf, vocabulary words on his buttons, the favorite part of the book on his torso, and a summary on his lower half. Several people in the group raved about this assignment. So creative, so interesting for kids, so fun! Yes, there might be a kid or two in that classroom who think this is a fun assignment because it has a picture of a snowman. A KID OR TWO. That’s it. Everyone else will be miserable, trust me. Don’t trust me because I’m blogging about homeschool. Trust me because I taught high school English and had a classroom full of kids who had been writing book reports for years and hated reading because of it.

Because I use Brave Writer products and incorporate aspects of the Brave Writer lifestyle into my homeschool, I love listening to Julie Bogart’s podcast. One of her early episodes, which she co-hosted with her son Noah, was about the “big juicy conversations” we can have with our kids about books. She talked at length about how our brains don’t develop the ability to summarize until the teen years or later, and yet we constantly ask our kids to summarize books and stories they read, as some kind of test that they read the book and understood what they read. As everyone in close proximity to a kid already knows, kids are prone to pick out small details and kind of obsess over those. This happens with movies, books, video games, real life, etc. If we’re hoping they can summarize a text and they’re hung up on one detail, we might feel like they’re doing it wrong. They’re not. This is just how their brains work at this particular time.

Asking a child to summarize a text when his brain is not ready to summarize only sets him up for failure. A book report is not only a chance to make your child feel inadequate, but it is also simply unnecessary. A casual conversation about the book in a comfortable place will do far more to assess whether a student understood the reading than an awkward attempt to summarize the whole thing on the belly of a snowman.

I love to read. If reading all day long were a possibility, I would be all over it. If I thought I had to immediately summarize each book upon finishing it, however? That would definitely take away some of the joy. Imagine how much joy is taken from kids when we do it to them!

These are the years when they’re supposed to play, right? Learning through play is a big deal, especially to homeschoolers. Reading and enjoying a book, reacting however you want, talking about it without worrying that you’re being tested  — this is play. We want our kids to feel like reading is as fun as any other activity (because it is, obviously) and not something they have to be tested on.

Do you make your kids do book reports? Can you, um…..stop?