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Homeschooling for the faint of heart

It's hard to believe that I've been homeschooling in some way, shape or form for six years already, especially since I still don't feel like I really know what I'm doing or have ever gotten a handle on it.

I talk to other moms who homeschool. Sometimes I see their setup. Occasionally I might read a homeschool mom's blog where she might wax eloquent about her elaborate daily routine where everything gets done by noon and the children happily accomplish and check off the chores from their chore chart, then cook an entire seven course dinner in time for dad coming home from work. I might read a post from another homeschooling mom who goes off on how each child is so different she has to take three different approaches for every subject (one for each child).

And I always think, wow, have those other moms got it together!

I'm not one of those got-it-together moms. What? Fall's here already? Guess I better do something with that stack of materials I bought sometime during the summer.

Right about the time I figure out how to squeeze my older children's education in between the rather intense needs of the toddlers and preschoolers so that everyone gets more or less what they need to do their work… I have another baby and have to figure it all out again, not to mention add diaper changes and nursing to the list of balls I juggle.

Oh, and did I mention the school room must always be tidy? Oh wait, I dropped that ball a long time ago. Who knew my children could be so, er, creative?

We're the family that never quite finishes the school books, that never quite figures out the routine (or maybe we get it down in time for summer when it all changes), and where the children will easily get distracted from their work in order to get back to their playing.

But here we are, continuing to homeschool, and despite all the unmet expectations and dropped balls, it's actually working.

Before we started any schoolwork this year I sat down with my fourth grader for a little pow-wow. She had to take some responsibility for her own education I reasoned. We went over a simple schedule together, mainly consisting of the subjects she'd need to work on each day or week. Then we watched the instructional DVDs which came with her math course and her spelling course.

And that's when we both got excited about the year.

And I finally discovered that there is such a thing as curriculum that is designed specifically for homeschoolers.

The most frustrating thing about homeschooling, I finally figured out, has been that for the most part the curriculum is still designed for a large classroom. Even if it claims to be designed for homeschoolers, what that really means is that they expect the parents to basically have their home set up like a classroom, and the parent (usually the mom) takes it on herself to provide for all those interactive and often distracting games and experiences which are designed to make classroom learning less boring.

We homeschooling moms burn ourselves out trying to run our home like a miniature school. I figured out in the first year that this really doesn't work, but not having much sense of the alternatives, I tended to just think I wasn't too good at homeschooling when what I'm really not so good at is pretending I'm a school teacher.

Sometime in the third or fourth year I figured out that both my children and I want the bottom line when it comes to what they need to learn. They really don't want all those learning gimmicks which are supposed to make learning fun and dynamic. They really don't want busy work, and they really don't want to tackle a subject from every possible angle. What they really want to do is get on with it. Give them the bottom line, make sure they understand it, and then let them play. They want to learn efficiently. Since teaching my children their school subjects isn't the only thing I have to accomplish during the day, I'm all for efficiency as well.

When it comes to picking out curriculum, efficiency and simplicity are top priorities for me. My favorite kind is the one where you open the book, work your way from page one to the end and everything you need is between the two covers. And the child has to spend no more than fifteen minutes on each subject, unless of course he or she wants to.

When my second child was in Kindergarten, I didn't start teaching her to read right away. She actually learned the basics of word building from a Jump Start computer game. About midway through the school year she asked me if I could please teach her how to read. “What if I grow up to be fourteen and I still don't know how to read?” she asked.

I figured if she was that concerned about not knowing how to read, then she was definitely ready to start learning. So I told her we'd begin working on it together, but I really didn't have a plan. I'd gone through the whole experience of starting my oldest child to read way too soon while using a very good, but very complicated phonics curriculum. I didn't want to use that curriculum again.

About a week or two after that conversation I discovered there was such a thing as a reading curriculum that fit my criteria (still undefined at that time) for simplicity and efficiency. My children and I were at the library. Lying open on one of the armchairs was the book Phonics Pathways by Dolores G. Hiskes. It was designed as a remedial reading program suitable for students of all ages. It appeared to be very straightforward, clearly designed for people who should have learned to read years ago and therefore didn't have any time to waste. I checked the book out and my daughter and I started working our way through it.

The experience was awesome. She and I went over one or two pages each day and it only took about fifteen minutes. But each day she learned a new sound or a new rule for how to decode a word. It started off really simple and almost imperceptibly got more complex. Within a few months my daughter was a fluent reader. She began reading stories to her younger sister every evening. The book included templates for a few reading games which I could photocopy if I wanted, but it was clear the games were not needed. I think we played one of those games but the rest of it came directly from the book. We sat down on the couch together, opened up the book, and in fifteen minutes we were done.

I've had a similar feeling about the workbooks from Handwriting without Tears. My children have been practicing their printing and cursive using those books since they were in preschool. Although you can buy all kinds of extra manipulatives to make handwriting fun, and I do have some of those (mostly collecting dust), the workbooks are simple, efficient and thorough. The children each do two pages a day and they finish their books well before the school year ends. It only takes about fifteen minutes, and their writing always gets better.

This year I decided that Singapore Math was not working for us and it was time to try a different math curriculum. My children go to a charter school once a week which is meant to serve as a supplement to homeschooling. There is a limited selection of curriculum available through this school, so I checked out what they had for math. It was this program called Math U See. There are several levels which are not meant to correspond with grade level but rather with each child's ability. Each level includes a workbook, test booklet, and DVD. The DVD is what makes the program truly awesome for me. The DVD includes a 10 to 15 minute lecture for each lesson. The parent has the option of watching it herself and then teaching the material to the child, or the child and the parent can watch the video together (guess which option we do around here!). The video features the author of the program, an excellent math teacher, doing what he does best–teaching math. He presents the material in a fun, easy to understand and engaging way. My children really enjoy watching the videos and they get it. After watching the videos, they do one or more of the worksheets in the workbook depending on how much practice they need. It takes them ten or fifteen minutes to complete the worksheets and they are done. Math U See has turned math in our home from an ordeal of trying to cajole and/or coerce unmotivated and frustrated kids into just doing their homework to a painless and even fun experience. I don't have to do any lesson planning and hardly any teaching. I let the great math teacher do it, and I just check their work. This makes it very easy to juggle. If I have to step away from the DVD viewing for a minute to deal with a wet diaper it's not a problem. This program actually works in the context of a home where schooling is a part of the big picture of what takes place.

Spelling has been another area where we've struggled. I picked up our charter school's option, which was a system called Spelling Power. At first glance it appeared to be quite complicated, but once I worked through the instructional DVD it made more sense. There are a couple placement tests I have to do at the beginning of the year, and my child's scores on these tests determine which words she needs to be learning. There are lists and lists of words in the book, and my child just works through them in order starting with the one her placement scores indicate. Once she is placed, each day I spend five minutes with her testing her on spelling the words in her list and immediately correcting any that are wrong. Then she spends five minutes studying only the words she got wrong, and the ten step study plan is clearly laid out. Then she picks out an activity card from the box and works on the activity for another five minutes. Today her activity was to draw her words in pictures. Having a definite artistic bent, she thoroughly enjoyed that activity. The program is beautiful–short, sweet, and gets the job done and I just have to do my part and follow the program.

Between Math U See, Phonics Pathways, Handwriting without Tears, and Spelling Power, about half of the curricula I use is clearly designed with homeschooling moms like me in mind. Some of the other curricula I have is not so great. I'm still trying to figure out the grammar program I selected for my Fourth Grader, also one of the options available through our charter school. It's called Easy Grammar, but so far I think Cryptic Grammar would better describe it. Directions on how to teach it are nonexistent, and it starts off with having my student memorize about forty prepositions. The claim is that once my student can identify prepositional phrases, she can cross them all out of a sentence and what she's left with is the subject and verb. I'm skeptical but willing to give it a try. Only, I can't figure out exactly how to explain preposition or prepositional phrase.

That's when I have to look no further than YouTube for inspiration. When my fourth grader was in Kindergarten she was supposed to learn the continents. I found this catchy tune on YouTube1) and all I have to do is play it a few times if I've ever worried any of my children don't know them. Trust me, after singing this song a few times they know their continents!

YouTube has some great songs to help children understand prepositions and prepositional phrases. The first one I found was this one2) which is pretty good. But my favorite one is this all out rock tune by a group called Grammarheads.3) After singing the lyrics and rocking out to the beat, suddenly explaining prepositions and prepositional phrases to my fourth grader is no longer an issue.

If you are SuperMom, you know, the kind of mom who has a tidy school room set up in a basement or family room, the kind of mom who can't wait to sit down to two hours of lesson planning as soon as the kids are in bed, the kind of mom who is happy to play every learning game and do every learning craft to make sure her child really knows the material through and through, and if you can somehow do the laundry, clean the house and prepare three square meals during the short breaks, then you are probably in good shape.

But if you're more like me, with a little too much to do for the typical 24 hour day, where everything seems to take longer than any schedule will allow and where you just want to get the job done, then you might have had to let go of a few homeschooling expectations (myths) in favor of what is actually attainable for a more average mom.

Here are a few things I've had to come to terms with:

1. Homeschooling does not mean I do all the teaching

From delegating my children's math instruction to the Math U See guy on the DVD or delegating geography and grammar instruction to music videos on YouTube to using a complete reading program between two covers and sending my children to charter school for the challenging subjects like art, science and music, I look for ways to leverage the hard work that other people have done or are willing to do rather than reinventing the wheel in my own home.

2. Homeschooling does not have to take place in a clean house

OK, we do try to maintain some basic order, but if the floor isn't picked up we can still make it through the school day.

3. Children's creativity can be chaotic, but should still be encouraged

When my children get a creative project in mind, it can literally involve every single room in the house. Recently my children put together a circus with their stuffed animals. This project involved them doing some online research (for jokes), sewing (they sewed costumes for every single plush toy using fabric scraps), planning and basically producing a show. They worked on it for an entire day, then put on the show for me and their dad the following day. At least three entire rooms were committed to the preparations, and the cleanup project that ensued later that day was intense. But I got to thinking about how it might be if this circus performance were a project that was assigned for one of their classes. How hard would I be working trying to coordinate it? And yet the experience taught the children some actual skills. The child psychologists who say children learn primarily by playing have a good point. And when children are allowed to learn by playing, it's really a lot less work for the parents. So when they get off on a muse like that I happily allow the official school work to get shoved aside, I suppress the guilt I feel about it, and for the most part I don't regret it. My children amaze me more and more with what they come up with on their own.

4. I don't need to work too hard

Granted, there will be ups and downs and some days that are downright frustrating. But I have come to realize that if I have to work too hard all the time, I'm probably taking on too much and it's time to look at other options. Perhaps the textbook for a certain subject really isn't working, or my child isn't interested in that subject that year, and it's really OK to take a break.

5. It's really OK to go with my children's interests

This goes along with the parent not working so hard. I don't do full blown unschooling, but I see a lot of value in it. Both the unschooling and democratic school movements have taught us that children who are “behind” in a given subject can catch up to their peers very quickly, often within six to eight weeks, once they are motivated. If my child isn't interested in a particular subject one year, it's OK to work at it minimally or not at all for a time in favor of encouraging the child to learn what they are motivated to learn that year. It can sometimes be scary, especially with so many voices of authority warning us about the dire consequences of children falling behind on anything. But I've already seen how quickly my own children can learn a subject that they truly want to learn. If you have a choice between forcing a child to read at age five and struggling with it for a year and a half then giving up on it because it's so frustrating and sending that child to a regular school for a year where she catches up in a situation without that history, or waiting until the child is six and begging you to teach her and having her learn in a matter of months, which would you take? Like I said, I prefer to not have to work so hard.

6. I have limits and that's OK

No, I'm not going to be able to use a radically different teaching style to cater to each child's learning style. No, I do not want to take all my me-time (read, after children are in bed) to plan next day's lessons. No, I'm not going to be able to spend six hours a day on school. Yes, sometimes schoolwork has to go by the wayside because other things have come up. No, it's not cheating to take the shortcuts.

7. It's not about me

At the end of the day the important thing is that my children are learning and growing, not that I can take the credit for singlehandedly making it happen. If something isn't working for one of my children and fixing it involves taking a blow to my fragile ego, that's what needs to be done. I sent my oldest child to a private school for a year. The opportunity opened up around the time that I was reluctantly realizing that homeschooling wasn't really working out. In other words I'd failed, and enrolling her in school was a blatant admission of that failure. Nonetheless, doing so was in my child's best interests and it had to be done, and I had to suck it up. The outcome was great–she got what she needed from the school year, and the next year she was back at home and things worked out much better. This year promises to be even better. We're back to homeschooling and my identity is not so tied up in it anymore.

Bottom line: You don't have to be a SuperMom to homeschool. You don't necessarily even have to be a very successful homemaker to make it work. There are lots of shortcuts and ways to lighten the burden and it's fine to take full advantage of them. It helps to not make homeschooling a status symbol. It's really just another way to love your children.

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