Making it Work

Once you have decided on some type of curriculum, you have to figure out how to use it in such a way that it doesn’t use you!  What I mean by this is that curriculum should only be a tool for the teacher.  Once you turn curriculum into your taskmaster, you are no longer a teacher.  You are no longer leading your charges with the plans you have carefully considered for them. This leads to frustration, burn out, and feelings of inadequacy.  None of us need that!

The first thing I suggest is that rather than setting up a rigid schedule of what you will be doing every minute of the day, create a meaningful routine to follow. The difference between a routine and schedule is that a routine allows life to ebb and flow more. It allows for a late night and sleeping in the next morning. Traditions are born of routine. Children thrive on it. Routines bring freedom.  If you always get up and exercise, then have coffee, then pray, and then unload the dishwasher, that’s a routine. If you drink hot lemon juice, read, listen to the birds, then check your email, that’s another routine. Whatever you do without fail each day is your routine. Your kids have a routine too. Do they wake well rested and ready to go or do they need a bit of time to get their groove on in the morning?  Do they eat right away or need a while before they can even think about food?  When do they usually wake up?  All of these things fall into the concept of routine.  Since most people have heard of the wisdom of preparing for the next day the night before, let’s look at that too.  When do you head to bed?  Do your children have a bedtime routine?  What time are they usually in bed?  How long does it take them to fall asleep?  Before you settle down and think that all homeschoolers get up at the crack of down and finish their schoolwork before most corporate workers have their first coffee break, consider that everyone has a time of the day when they are most productive.  You want to capitalize on that best timing to get your best work done then.  Think about what works best for your family. Remember, though, that this may change over time.

When my big kids were little, we were always doing school things in the mornings then we’d head out in the afternoons for much needed productive play that often included more learning–but fun stuff.  When these kids were older, we kept their most productive time (mornings) for the main things that they needed to do each day that I had to be involved with–whatever their most pressing need was on a given day.  They then spent their afternoons learning what they needed to in order to be ready to meet with me in the mornings. This worked well for me because by this time I had a change-of-life baby that threw the family routine into a tizzy.  This child has been my most enduring night owl.  In fact, I finally gave up trying to force him into the “morning routine mold” and instead started scheduling my tutoring students for the mornings, allowing him to sleep later.  Nowadays, we do his schoolwork in the afternoons.  I fought this for ages, but it’s who he is.  When taking into account his rhythms, I am able to be productive in the mornings, which has freed me to focus on him in a positive manner when he is at his best in the afternoons.  It’s a win-win situation, but it was a long time coming because I felt like we HAD to do school in the mornings.  It was what we did.  But, I had not realized that it WAS who we WERE, but IS not who we CURRENTLY ARE–and that made all the difference in the world!

Once you have a routine in place, ask yourself what you plan to accomplish each day.  What do you feel like you need to do in order to feel successful in your homeschooling?  Some moms will tell you, “If we just get math done, I feel like we did school.” Other mothers feel that as long as they get morning devotions done and a read aloud on some history topic, that they did school. Others think in terms of pages accomplished in a day.  You have to figure out what your “If all else fails, we will at least get X done each day” is.  Mine is that we have to read and write something each day, which stands to reason because those are my areas of expertise.

Once you put something like that out there, it inevitably comes up that someone wonders, “What happens if that one thing becomes my routine and we leave off all the other things we need to do?”  That’s tricky because a routine cannot be just one thing.  The idea behind a routine is that it is a series of things you do all the time.  Got that?  A routine has to be a series of things done in the same order each day. If you happen to be in a time of chaos in your life, well, that’s a time when your routines may change.  If someone is very ill, for example, your routine will change out of necessity.  You will settle on a “new normal,” at least for the time being.  You may never go back to the old routine.  A new one may take its place. That’s OK. The essential thing is that there’s a routine because routines provide comfort and stability in times of distress. While you are in the midst of that chaos, take note of what your children are learning.  You will be surprised at how much growth can happen in the midst of troubles.  We’ve lived through times like this, so I get it! I really do.  Because of this, I know the value of how the routines, an overarching topical plan, and my philosophy of education worked in concert to ensure that my children still had an amazing education during these time periods.  Keep in mind, too, that a routine is something that has reached almost a level of automaticity in your life.  You don’t really think about it.  It’s more than just a habit.  Even if you want to think of it as a habit, remember that it takes a while for a habit to etch itself into your being.  In fact, habits are the things that routines are made up of, so if you need something to become a part of your routine, you need to make it a regular habit–and that takes time, several weeks, at least.  Read up on Habits in Charlotte Mason’s writings for more information on this concept.

An overarching topical plan is simply a list or a mind-map of the topics you want to research in a given period of time. I usually do this with the school term in mind since I have to write objectives where I live. I’ve done these on construction paper with the main topic in the center with related ideas branching outwards and in list form. Truth be told, I often start with a picture of what I’m thinking of then break it down into months on the calendar and then into the individual weeks. Sometimes I let the weeks plan themselves, which is a great way to allow for rabbit trails.  It’s helpful to look at what I’m talking about here, so I’ll upload a photo or two when I find one that is legible and I learn how to include pictures.  In the meantime, on the Helps page, you will find a number of worksheet planners that you can use to help you figure this sort of thing out.

Your philosophy of education is being built little by little as you consider what education means to you.  A great way to really dig into this topic is to 4R the word.  I have information in one the documents on how to do this on the Helps page.  Here’s a synopsis:

  1. Take the word you want to investigate, in this case “education” and look it up in several dictionaries. One of them should be an old one. I especially like Webster’s 1828 version.
  2. After you write down that word, underline any important words in the definition.  Also write down any synonyms for these words as well as your target word. If you like, you can also include antonyms because sometimes knowing what something is NOT helps you understand what something IS.
  3. Take all these words and look them up as well.  Once you have these definitions down, go through them like you did for step 2 and create another layer of words to look up.
  4. Sometimes you may want to continue this layering thing for a few more layers.  It depends on the word in question.  If you feel like there are still riches to mine, you might as well keep going.
  5. Once all your definitions are complete, you are going to look up how these words have been used throughout history.  I check the lens of Scripture first, but I also look to history for insights. How has each word’s definition and usage changed over time?  Etymology is a lot of fun!
  6. Now that you have all your information recorded, think about what it all means. How do you feel about what you’ve learned?  What challenges has this research provided you as to where your current thinking may be in error?  Perhaps you thought that teaching simply meant telling your student something and they would “get” it.  What are you going to do about that, if anything?  What changes can you make in light of what you now know to be true?  How will you know you are on the right path as far as this thing goes?  What does this look like in daily life?  This step is all about asking yourself questions and then going on to answer them as best you can.  Don’t worry if you don’t know the answers yet.  If you are on the wrong path, you will figure that out!
  7. Now that you have been armed with what you think is the right way to go, how are you going to put these plans into actionable steps with your students?  After all, we are talking about your philosophy of education here!  What will a typical day look like?  (Your routines will provide the structure to your days.)  How will you know that you are doing enough?  (The topical plan will let you know if you are still on track.   Perhaps you are taking too many rabbit trails.  Maybe the rabbit trails have become the object lessons!)  How are your children doing?  (A scope and sequence chart of what is typical at certain ages can help here.)  What else do they need?  What should you do to fill that need?  Does it need to happen now?  Is it even something you have to address or will time or maturity do its work?  Maybe this is something best left until another time?  The answers to these questions will likely be a constantly unfolding thing.

If the above exercise on education, teaching, and learning left you thinking you need to up your teaching skills, you are not alone.  I’m not a teacher by training!  I have been doing it for a long time, though, and I enjoy it.  People tell me I’m good at it too, but I’m always learning about it and honing my skills.  You can too!  I can assure you of that.  I have several good books listed on the Helpful Resources page that provide some good insights.

Now we need to get down to the nitty gritty details of actually “doing school,” which is “homeschool-ese” for “active learning.”  If you bought a prepared curriculum, much of the “what to do when” will already be planned for you.  If you are using workbooks for any of the skills areas (usually mathematics and any subject areas that make up the various strands of Language Arts), you can often just do the next thing.  Sometimes this will not work, and you will need to either skip some things–such as when your child already knows the things on that page–or the opposite happens and you will need to revisit the areas with additional review to help your child truly master the topics at hand.  If you do not choose to use a prepared curriculum for English, the academic subject areas that make up the Language Arts strands can easily be tackled through the content subjects.  People are often less likely to want to try math on their own, but that subject area, too, is doable without a grade-level workbook or textbook.

Content subjects can be planned in several ways.  You can go with chronological order, people and places, work from your own community outwards into the world at large, or any number of ways. Young children have very little concept of time as far as history goes, so that is why most primary curriculum focuses on the community and then the nation’s history, but that doesn’t mean you can’t begin with ancient studies with a little child.  You don’t have to follow what the local schools do when you homeschool.  Do what you think is best as far as this goes. If you begin homeschooling with older children you may very well want to do something other than American history since they likely have had lots of it for several years.  On the other hand, they may have had some really bad social studies at school that you want to combat. It’s Ok to just pick a person or a place or a time period and start.  You need to pick something just so you can begin to enjoy learning together!

Once you have your topic picked out, head to the library or go online and see what info you can find.  If your kids are old enough to go online, allow them to do so, with guidance.  The idea is that they can find things that are interesting and/or important.  Igniting the thrill of learning is the goal here. If you have just brought your kids home from school, you definitely want to encourage this. If you decide to head off to the library, make sure that you peruse the books to ensure there is nothing uncouth inside.  It is your job to protect your children.  The same holds true for the Internet.  Protect the gateways of their eyes and ears.  Innocence stripped away cannot be regained.

Enough doom and gloom.  Once you have your topic and have found some goodies to teach from, bring them home and begin your search of the topic together. As in the example of Family B above, you can assign jobs to each child.  Keep in mind the Glasser quote from the previous page about how much you remember if you approach a subject/topic with the intent to teach it to someone else. Even the littlest child can be encouraged to teach something to someone else!  You want to maximize the learning through all of the senses so that the information sticks.  If the information isn’t worth spending as much time as you initially thought, head back to the library (or online) early and begin on the next topic.  You are in control of how quickly you progress through a topic.  This is one of the perks of homeschooling!

After you have done your research into your chosen topic, make sure you discuss it before you turn to the task of recording it somehow.  While your children can certainly write about the topic in their notebooks, they can also create an art project, give an oral presentation, or a do any number of other things to showcase their learning.  While you certainly want to document their learning in some fashion, it’s OK to snap pictures with your phone and write down what’s been going on in your house of learning in some sort of record book.  Residents of Pennsylvania will want to check in with their chosen evaluator for what she is used to seeing and will accept as evidence of sustained overall progress.