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Friday, March 16, 2012

I finally feel like a semi-successful homeschooling mom.

I posted on Facebook the other day:

"Been at it for what, like 4 years now? ...and I'm finally starting to get the hang of this homeschool teacher role."

A friend asked me to share some advice, and I since I have lots of thoughts on the topic, I decided this might be a better venue for those thoughts than a FB comment.

So, here goes. Over the last 4 years, here's what I've learned about how I* can be successful in homeschooling my kids:

  • Let go of the idea of homeschooling in a spotless house.  I didn't even realize this was an expectation of mine.  In fact, since I've NEVER had a spotless house (except for that one week when the housekeeper came while we were on vacation), in retrospect it seems absurd that it was even in the back of my mind.  But it was.  I can't tell you how many hours/mornings/days of our lives I wasted with me being less than loving to the kids while they slowly and distractedly cleaned up, needing to be brought back to task at least every 4.3 seconds.  Once I realized this mental hangup, I made the conscious (tough!) decision that after morning routine we were going to start school no matter how much of a disaster the school room was.  Somehow, just getting the ball rolling, and breaking up cleaning with schoolwork, we have learned how to do both, in less time than it used to take us to just clean up.
  • Let go of pre-concieved notions of a successful day.  I used to think that we were only successful if we got through Faith, Math, Reading, Writing, Science, Social Studies, Art, Foreign Language, read-aloud time, read-to-yourself time, play time, meals on time, nap time, etc. every day.  Even though I don't think we had more than 1 or 2 days where we ever even got to all this (and it was after dinner by the time we got through it all!), it took me a long time to realize how unrealistic this goal was.  Once I finally thought to ask myself "How would I advise another mom with young school aged kids on how to consider it a successful day?" I was able to let all that go.  My school-aged kids are in K & 1st this year.  KISS!  (Keep it simple, Smartie!)  If we make it through the 3 Rs, some Bible/prayer time, and read at least 1 book/kid, it is a good school day!  Anything else we get to (and we usually do get to lots of other things - but not that whole list above!) is icing on the cake.
  • Start each class day with Bible time.  About the same time as I embraced KISS, I asked myself, if we could only do one subject today, what would it be?  For me, that is Faith.  So I decided every day would start with Bible.  We like to switch up the order of subjects from day to day.  (I usually let the helper of the day pick what subject comes next.)  But now, everyone knows, when we start school, Bible is first.  That way, if we get interrupted or change our plans for any reason, the most important thing always gets done.  (An unexpected but very welcome side effect from implementing this plan, is that our days go so much more smoothly now.  The kids argue less and listen more. Thank you, God!)
  • Have a thorough plan for the day, but let it be my tool and not my master.  By nature I am one of those spontaneous, go-with-the-flow type of people who usually runs screaming at the mere mention of anything resembling a schedule.  However, in all of my mommy research, and a little bit of trial and error (mostly error), I have discovered that raising and teaching kids goes much more smoothly if things are predictable.  Even knowing this, I found it difficult to implement a schedule, because I had very little experience with a successful one.  It wasn't until I read Managers of Their Homes (MOTH) that I finally figured out the 3 key things that were keeping me from being successful at scheduling:

    1) The schedule is a tool I can use to help me achieve the kind of day that I want, not a slave driver I need to run away screaming from.  I started mentally calling it our "Success Plan for the Day."  Wow!  Just that change in perspective helped me embrace it.  (A lot like Dave Ramsey's book helped me think of a budget as a financial success plan instead of the other tyrant I'd always assumed it was.)

    2) Start with what is already working, not what is "ideal."  Once I plugged in things that were already working in our day (cooking, meal, and snack times, Bible and Math, nap for the little one, bed & wake times), I found that our day was already half full.

    3) Add in what is the most "broken."  There were things in my day that I desperately wanted to get to that I never seemed to.  Time to open and deal with the mail several times a week, instead of frantically dealing with a 3' pile once a quarter.  Time to read to the kids for fun, instead of just reading school assignments.  Time to load the dishwasher at night so I didn't start my day facing a mountain of dirty dishes.  Once I plugged these types of things into our schedule, there was MAYBE half an hour left in each day.  And then I still had at least a dozen more "ideal" things I had previously started building my schedule with, that I had nowhere to fit.  No wonder my schedules were always stressing me out so much!  (KISS!)
  • Plan for interruptions.  Along with the above, I had to remember to put lots of padding into my plan, because there is always something trying to thwart it.  A diaper or pullup that needs to be changed, a baby (or mom!) that needs a nap earlier than expected, a sick kid (or mom!), a phone call from a friend in need, a mess the toddler snuck into while the school kids and I were engrossed in some fascinating schoolwork, various household emergencies... If there wasn't pad time in my schedule, I would get off track before I even got started most days, become discouraged, and give up entirely.
  • Strengthen my weaknesses. There are several (lots) of things about raising and teaching kids that I have trouble with.  Luckily, I'm not the only one, and there are lots of great tools out there to help me overcome my troubles.  Like the MOTH book, which helped me with scheduling.  And timers and electronic reminders, to keep me on task, or help me remember not to burn lunch while we are finishing up Math.  When I was having trouble being organized enough to remember, find, and incorporate our fun but forgotten activities into preschool, Sue Patrick's Workbox System was a life saver for me.  I think my biggest helper by far, though, is the awesome Homeschool Tracker Plus software. It takes attendance for me (as long as I put in an assignment for the day).  It helps me keep track of what we did each day.  If I want it to, it helps me plan out days, weeks, or months in advance what we are going to be doing.  It helps me keep track of all of our homeschooling resources.  It is a pretty powerful piece of (Windows) software, designed by a homeschooling family, for homeschoolers.  They have also recently come out with an online version that can be accessed via smartphone or MAC.  (But I love the computer-based one so much, I can't imagine ever wanting to switch!)
  • Go with the flow.  To me this was the most appealing thing about homeschooling from the get-go.  (Did I mention I balk at routine?)  About a week ago, when we had our first great-weather afternoon, I let the kids out for recess and purposely forgot to call them back in.  The poor public-school kids get snow days, but we homeschooling families get to take sunshine days!  Some days, attention spans are low.  Those are good days to put away the boxed curriculum and pull out the art supplies, building blocks, etc.  If we get behind, I can extend the school year.  Or finish up next year.  If we get ahead, woo-hoo.  If my Kindergartener hates Hooked on Phonics and getting her to work through one page is worse than pulling teeth, I can put it away until next year.  If mid-year she starts asking to do it again, I can pull it back out and marvel at her plowing through 5-6 pages at a time, and quickly catching up to where she would have been, if we had continued to fight over the one page per day earlier in the year.  In the end, when it's time for them to graduate, if my kids know all they need to know, I have done my job.  Does it really matter if they learned to write in K or 2nd grade, or learned to multiply in 2nd or 5th?  Nope!**   
So, those are some of the gems I've been able to polish over the last few years.  What are some of your gems?

** Unless you live in one of those unfortunate states who makes you test every year, and watches the results closely.  Then it would matter.