This summer, I got the chance to hang out with several of our faithful readers, and a common topic was homeschooling. A not insignificant portion of of E2S reunion was spent discussing homeschooling! We’ve said before that homeschooling is not necessary to being a good mom, but it is a common next step for a stay-at-home mom who has survived the preschool years, especially in this day and age. We’re heading into our fifth official year of homeschooling at my house, so I thought I’d take a couple days this week to talk a little bit about our own homeschool adventures and hopefully answer some the questions you guys have been asking.
The first thing I always tell a young mom thinking about homeschooling is that there is not one right way to do it. In fact, Anna, Bethany, Christina, and I all share a pretty similar educational philosophy, but we use quite a variety of curricula and classes to achieve this goal. I had some pretty set ideas about what I wanted to do before we started, but I’m adjusting each year as I see how the ideals fit into the reality of our home life. For example, my greatest memories from my childhood are from our family reading together. My husband and I started our own library of children’s books shortly after becoming engaged, and we own hundreds if not thousands of books. I always thought reading aloud would be a very large part of our homeschool experience, but this past year, between moving, recovering from a broken foot, and general life stuff, I found myself needing to multitask more and more and outsourced a lot of the read aloud time to audio books. I am still a huge fan of audio books and don’t regret the time spent cleaning up the kitchen while the kids listened to Betsy-Tacy on the computer, but I am really inspired by how much time Anna still dedicates to actually sitting down on the couch and read to her kids every day. I am making some changes to how we do school and life in order to be able to do that more.
Ironically, the biggest change is that I will be de-emphasizing (or at least changing how we do) history, our favorite subject. We have been using Veritas Press history for the past couple of years, and I loved how it integrated Bible and history, I love our timeline that dominates our kitchen, and the kids love all the projects and activities. As I sat down last week to plan out this year’s history (Middle Ages and Renaissance), I kept thinking of books that I wanted to read with the kids and noted those in my schedule rather than projects. The Veritas teacher guides provide worksheets and activities for each week, and I’ve found myself using them less and less over the past two years. Instead of a booklet or craft every week, we’ll maybe do one joint illuminated manuscript together and read The Door in the Wall, Pyle’s Robin Hood, Men of Iron, and King Arthur. In the spring, we’re going to finish up formal history by spring break and then spend the last 8 weeks of school reading/listening to/watching Shakespeare and visiting all the LA museums with Renaissance art. I won’t even be buying the teacher guides from here on out, just using the timeline cards as a jumping-off point for our own reading. Next year, we’ll be getting into American history, and as I found myself telling Bethany that I fantasize about just spending a year reading great historical fiction and biographies and visiting landmarks for American history, I realized that I need to give myself permission to do just that! Also, I have a yucky taste in my mouth from how Veritas Press handled their recent plagiarism scandal (and yes, I was in email and phone conversations with them about it to get both sides of the story), so perhaps it’s a logical time to step away from their curriculum. All of this is to say that as a seasoned homeschool mom, I’m learning to trust my instincts and not just do something because it’s what I’d always planned on doing or because it’s working for my friends. Sometimes you don’t need formal curriculum to best engage with a subject.
On the other hand, since my first teaching job involved teaching elementary French, I always assumed I could handle that on my own. After several false starts with my son, I’m actively seeking out a class and another teacher to outsource French. I love French, but it’s not a high enough priority for me to put the time I need to into teaching it to my kids. Similarly, my actual degree (and the majority of my teaching experience) is in English, but we’ve been happily using the highly-scripted Well-Trained Mind language arts curriculum (Ordinary Parents Guide to Teaching Reading, Writing With Ease, and First Language Lessons). I could create all of that myself, but with their reasonable prices and pdf options I can use with all of my kids, it’s totally worth it to me to let Susan Wise Bauer teach my kids how to write.
Another change that surprised me was that I used to be really, really opposed to early handwriting. Kids take a long time to develop fine motor skills, so I wanted most of our first several years to be largely oral. I still do, but I am realizing now that neglecting formal printing instruction for my second resulted in messy handwriting. I still think less is more with writing (one sentence, well done, is plenty of writing in one day for a 1st grader) and still do most of the early subjects verbally, but I’m officially having my third do handwriting as a kindergarten subject (where in the past it would have just been phonics and math). And hopefully doing cursive this year will fix E’s less-than-beautiful penmanship!
In general, I’m spending less time looking at those fancy, glossy homeschool catalogues. I haven’t been to a homeschool conference since 2005, because I find that talking to likeminded friends is more fruitful and inspiring to me. I frequent the Well-Trained Mind boards for real-life feedback on various curricula, and when I discover that something I bought was not as good as I thought it would be (Veritas’ geography and music curriculum have been disappointments), I re-sell it on my local facebook curriculum exchanges. When something works well for us (like Saxon math), we just stick with it, even if it’s not cool (I can’t tell you how many people have told me how superior Singapore math is, and it might be, but my “dull” Saxon background enabled me to get an A- in both college physics and calculus, so it’s good enough for us). Just because something is pretty doesn’t mean it’s better, and I’ve found that many of the big classical Christian education publishers like Veritas or Memoria are just reinventing the wheel on subjects like handwriting or geography where a little Evan-Moore workbook is just as good. And in general, like Anna has shared, I am becoming more and more convinced that less is more.
A few people have asked me recently about organizing everything. Back when my oldest was starting to do preschool activities, I bought some 16 qt sterilite bins to hold art supplies, school supplies, and actual school books (at that point, BOB books). Over the years, that system has worked really well to contain school mess. At this point, each of my kids has their own bin (so this year, there’s a 4th grade, 2nd grade, and K bin) that has all of their grade-specific books, their personal school supplies, and their lesson planner. When it’s time to start school, we pull out our school bins, and no one has the excuse that they can’t find their math book. When we finish schoolwork for the day, we put everything back in our bins, so clean-up is fast and easy. I also have a bin of general art supplies, a bin of nicer-quality painting supplies that we only get out when the little girls are napping, a couple bins of general school supplies like flashcards for the in-between math years that we’re not using, a bin of math manipulatives (cuisinaire rods, linking cubes, beads for patterns, etc), and a bin of busy-bags for my 3 year old (accumulated at a busy bag exchange party with a bunch of other moms of toddlers last year). In our amazing new kitchen, I have two whole cabinets dedicated to homeschool stuff, so I have all of my teacher guides and our joint study books (history/science/music/art) on shelves, with special kits and off-year books above and out of reach. Roughly, the left side is general art supplies, and the right side is official school stuff. Plastic bins are not pretty, and back when this was all right there at the edge of our living room, I was very aware of this, but nowadays, I can just shut all these doors and hide it all!
Of course you don’t need to organize your homeschool stuff just like I do (in any of my iterations), but hopefully my this-is-as-good-as-it-ever-gets picture will be a nice counter to those beautiful homeschool room pictures you’re seeing on instagram. If plastic bins or cardboard boxes work for you, use them! I will say that the bin method (back in the day, my mom used plastic milk crate things) is nice in that when you’re wanting to get your second grade materials all organized for child #2, you can just pull down the bin from when child #1 was in 2nd grade, and there they all are. You’ll have to print off new student pages for Writing With Ease and give her some fresh notebooks and folders for science and history, and you might have to transfer over her math book from her 1st grade bin, but in 5 minutes, you have her stuff all set up! And child #3 is even easier, because this is your third time through kindergarten, and you’ve already tossed all the worthless filler and know exactly what you are actually going to use.
I’m actually in the midst of planning and scheduling out our school year, so tomorrow I’ll share what exact curriculum we’re using, for what it’s worth. I’d be happy to answer any other questions any readers have, and maybe Bethany and Anna can chime in if they have the time.