Reschedule, Refocus, Regroup

I am convinced that the first thing dogs learn in Puppy School is how to get leaves and grass to stick to their tummies while they are outdoors and then how to sneak back indoors with those leaves and shake them off. Extra points if they can do it just after you have vacuumed. No matter how much time I have just spent cleaning the carpet, as soon as the dog makes one pass through the house, my progress seems non-existent. I pick up the leaves and bits of grass. I adapt and keep making progress.

Remember that time you were running late for an appointment, and you discovered a road closure between Point A (your house) and Point B (your destination)? Whether the closure was due to a street repair crew or a traffic accident, it still caused you to change your route and find an acceptable detour to help you reach your destination by your deadline. You had to adapt to keep making progress.

How many times could your baby be counted on to spit up all over your clothing just as you were going out the door (usually on your way to church)? Now, a little spitty-ness is to be expected, but I am talking about a major drenching. Back inside for a quick change. Adapt and keep making progress.

Today you find yourself mid-way through your homeschool year, perhaps even close enough to the end of the year that you can see The Finish Line coming in to view. However, just like the leaves scattered on the clean carpet, just like the roadblock when you were running late, just like the need to make a complete wardrobe change, you have obstacles hindering your progress. Your schedule has gotten completely out of whack, and you desperately need to get it back in whack. It is time for some serious mid-year rescheduling. You need to adapt so that you can keep making progress.

Each fall, I would lay out my plan of action for the coming school year, detailing which pages of which books should be done by which days. [See Guilt-Free Lesson Plans and Scheduling] I always seemed to be very ambitious at the beginning of each year, so much so that I scheduled way too many things for my students to actually complete. Each spring, I would revise my plan, reconciling it with the reality that had taken place over the past few months. Some years, the plan was revamped more than once. Illnesses happened, tragedies occurred, and difficult lesson concepts played havoc with the best-laid plans. My mid-year rescheduling time would remove the burden of over-commitment from my students and make their assignment charts look do-able again. I recalculated the number of pages to be completed for each day and adjusted our charts accordingly. Some subjects were finished early, giving my students extra time in their schedules for the subjects in which they were lagging behind. We adapted in order to keep making progress.

As I did, you planned your year’s work with the best of intentions, but you could not foresee the things that would prevent your students from completing that work. You have all done the best you could under the circumstances. Even if you have a student who has been flat-out lazy and neglected his work, heaping guilt on him will not be a strong motivator for progress. Cut back his assigned schedule to an amount that he can reasonably accomplish and help him gain a foothold on success. Once he has tasted the victory of a finished job, he will see things differently. So-called “lazy” students or those who do not work “up to their potential” usually suffer from the curse of perfectionism: I can’t get it right, so why bother trying? I know; I used to be one of them. Scaling back assignments to a manageable level or reducing projects to bite-sized tasks can make a huge difference in whether or not a student succeeds. [See Learning to Walk — Seen as a New Lesson] You need to adapt so that he can keep making progress.

It can be very helpful to sit down with your students and discuss what projects they are enjoying the most, what they would like to continue doing, and what they would like to drop. There may be some half-completed projects on your schedule that no one really cares about anymore. Perhaps the lesson has already been learned and dedicating further time to a certain project is pointless. You may decide to speed through the current section to allow yourselves to spend extra time on an upcoming set of lessons. Maybe an activity can take the place of several lessons, allowing you to skip over a portion of the planned bookwork while still learning the concepts. You will want to identify the most important tasks, lessons, or books so that you can focus on finishing them. You may decide to carry a subject over a few weeks into the summer to keep it from being too burdensome to finish on the same timetable as the other schoolwork. You need to adapt so that you can keep making progress.

We also began to prune back our social commitments each time the calendar promised that spring was approaching. We wanted to focus on our lessons and tie up all those loose ends to finish the year instead of running around to boring club meetings or uninteresting field trips. We reprioritized, rescheduled, refocused, and regrouped. We dropped out of activities if they had become more pain than gain. We did it all Guilt-Free, knowing that we were ranking things according to our own priorities, not anyone else’s. We adapted so that we could keep making progress.

I have a favorite line from a movie that I have quoted to my students when encouraging them to persevere in the face of a difficult task. The movie, Heartbreak Ridge, is hardly commendable because of its abhorrent, R-rated language, but the message of the film is nonetheless very inspirational. Clint Eastwood portrays a no-nonsense Marine sergeant, doing his best to turn raw recruits into something The Corps can depend on. The line I quote is his anthem throughout the film, “Improvise! Adapt! Overcome!” He continually changes the rules on his platoon, forcing them to think, to improvise, to adapt, to overcome, to succeed. When they find themselves isolated in the midst of a fierce battle, it is his bizarre training methods that enable them to survive and emerge victorious. Their ability to adapt allowed them to keep making progress.

As you sense the end of this school year sneaking up on you, take some time to evaluate your progress and revise your plans. Pinpoint the things that are most important and work toward completing them. You wrote your schedule: Guilt-Free Homeschooling allows you to change your schedule. A re-tooled battle plan can bring a tremendous boost of adrenalin to sagging students and a tired teacher. You need to adapt so that you can keep making progress.

Start with Reading, Handwriting, & Arithmetic, and Save the Rest for Later

If you are just beginning your homeschool journey with a Kindergarten student, you may be wondering how much to teach him (or her; I use “him” generically). Many Moms who are eager to homeschool are busily planning lessons far in advance for elaborate historical reenactments or highly involved scientific experiments. I have often advocated that families just beginning to homeschool their wee ones should focus on just the “Three R’s” of reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic without worrying about supplemental subjects until the mid-elementary years. Incredulous teacher-moms let a gasp escape from their open mouths and ask me if I am serious. I am.

I am also assuming that you have not allowed the past five or so years to slip by in silent inactivity. I am assuming that you have read books to your child, colored pictures with your child, sung songs, made crafts, played with puzzles, gone shopping and baked cookies together, and had all manner of delightful experiences together. You have most likely already taught your child how to count to 10, print his name, tie his shoes, sing the ABC song, and identify the colors in a box of eight crayons. You taught these skills without even thinking about it being “formal education.”

Now that you are ready to tackle “school,” you may find yourself wondering if history should come in chronological or geographical order. I say wait on the history. Wait on the geography and the science, too. Wait until at least fourth grade before introducing these more complex subjects. Your child needs to have a foundation of learning skills to build his education upon. Those learning skills are what you need to teach first — now.

Teach the ABC’s, if your child does not already know them. Teach your child the sounds made by each letter, not merely the letter “names.” For example, the letter “H” makes a “hah” sound, which is not really apparent when you simply call it by its name. Once your student knows the basic sounds made by each letter, he can understand how to string those sounds together to form simple words. Phonics lessons (free, downloadable lessons are linked here) can help you start with a simple order and progress in a manner that is not confusing to your child. Small, short-vowel words are the typical starting point, since they have no silent letters or other complicated rules. After your child has begun to read simple, short-vowel words, he will be able to comprehend the complexities of silent letters, consonant blends, and diphthongs (the new sounds made by combining consonants, such as “th” and “sh”).

Do not over-simplify learning to read (from your child’s perspective, it is difficult), and do not become frustrated if your child does not catch on immediately. You have probably been reading for at least fifteen years, so you have likely forgotten what a stressful experience it can be if rushed. Take it slowly, allowing plenty of time for your student to grasp each step, and encourage him for each accomplishment. The confidence you instill at this stage will serve your child well as he tries to read each new word, page, chapter, and book. Readers are made, not born. A child who becomes discouraged while learning to read is not likely to become a bookworm. A few children are eager to learn to read at four years of age, but also a few children (most often boys) may have difficulty grasping the concepts until age seven, eight, or nine. If your child does not respond well, put the lessons aside and wait a couple of days, a couple of weeks, or a couple of months, then try again. When you teach at a pace which allows the student to fully understand each component before moving on, the student who is ready to learn will show quick results. (Remind yourself that one of the reasons why you chose to homeschool was this exact one of working at your student’s pace, not forcing your student to comply with a scheduled academic calendar.)

Once your child begins reading, continue to expand his reading ability through advanced phonics studies and vocabulary-building exercises. This is a good time to introduce the dictionary for any unfamiliar words he finds in his reading material. I preferred to teach this by example, looking up a word with my students at my side, showing them the entry, and briefly explaining it. After a few repeats of that, I switched to asking them to get the dictionary for me, and before long, they were flipping through its pages, racing to be the first to find the word. Handling the large dictionary was a privilege that instilled in my students a fondness and longing for the secrets of knowledge it held. I did not want them to view “look it up” as a punishment, so I made sure they saw me using the dictionary often for personal reference. (I also kept the dictionary on a bookshelf in the kitchen, since that was where we usually were when a question arose, and it helped to remove the stigma that can accompany large, imposing reference books.)

Encourage your young reader to explore a variety of subjects through reading and let trips to the library become adventures in exploration, but hold off on the formal lessons in other areas until he has a firm grasp on the basics of reading, handwriting, and arithmetic, usually around fourth grade. Allowing your student to read as much as he wants on a subject will only whet his appetite for more information, providing you with an eager student who is already learning how to teach himself.

Along with visual recognition of letters comes the child’s natural attempts to reproduce them, but do not expect shaky fingers to produce beautiful calligraphy with the first try. As with any other life-skill, practice is necessary to develop excellence. Once again, discouragement can be a confidence-killer, but the wise parent will praise every legitimate attempt to train those fine-motor muscles to accomplish this new task.

When my children were in public Kindergarten, it was a common practice of their educational establishment to have “mentors” visit from the older classrooms. Students from the third or fourth grades were paired with the youngest learners for the purpose of being scribes: the younger student dictated a story while the older student wrote it down. While that works well in theory, I felt it did not work well in practice; most adults cannot write (or even type) as quickly as someone can dictate. The activity was intended to link reading skills with handwriting skills, but often limited the imagination of the younger child’s mind to the note-taking ability of the older student and resulted in a story that the Kindergartner could not read for himself. I heard many youngsters proudly proclaim to their parents, “I wrote this story!” When the enthused parents asked, “What does it say?” the confused authors had to admit, “I don’t know,” because they could not read the words that had been written for them.

In my opinion, beginning students should have opportunities to practice handwriting that do not involve creating stories… yet. We allow children to learn to read each letter/sound before we teach them to string those letters/sounds together to be read as words. We teach them to put those words together into short, easy-to-read sentences before we assign entire books for reading. We provide them with many beginner books before we offer them their first chapter book to read. I think the same system should be applied to handwriting — copying many letters, and then words, and finally simple sentences to gain mastery of the physical skill of handwriting — before the brain-exercise of creative writing is added into the mix.

I remember taking one of my favorite storybooks as a child and copying word after word, sentence after sentence, page after page into my Big Chief tablet. It was not assigned homework; it was my own idea, in order to practice this new skill called handwriting. Thinking up an original story requires an entirely different set of skills than the ones needed to put that story onto paper. Attempting too many new skills at once can leave the student muddled in confusion.

Children need to have a solid understanding of number concepts before adding and subtracting will make sense to them. Most adults can quickly recognize the amount of money represented by an assortment of coins, but few five-year-olds have achieved that ability. Your Kindergartner will benefit from much practice in counting and sorting, learning to associate digits with their values. Once the basic concepts of 1-10 are mastered, the average child is ready to understand eleven, twelve, and so on, and the foundation is laid for understanding our numbering system based on units of ten. Carrying, borrowing, and even decimals are merely extensions of the basic unit of ten. Addition and subtraction are easily mastered by the child who fully understands number values.

Continuing practice and expanding the skill levels in each of these areas will fill the majority of your homeschool day. Obviously, the child working on these skills does not need to spend hours and hours at them each day. Most public school kindergartens operate for 2 1/2 to 3 hours each day, and large portions of that time are spent in recess, bathroom breaks, learning to stand in line, being reprimanded for talking out of turn, and the other necessities of large-group crowd control. It is common for a five-year-old child to complete a full day of homeschool classes in under an hour, and that time can be divided up into smaller blocks throughout the day, depending on the child’s attention span and the other needs of the household (for example, if Mom’s attention must be shared with an infant sibling).

No one would consider building a house by starting with the roof: the foundation must come first. So it is with education: learning to read is the foundation for education. That base must be securely in place before other things are attached to it. Reading is the visual recognition of language; handwriting is the physical application of that language. Understanding the values represented by numbers and using them to count are the equivalents of understanding the sounds represented by letters and using those letters to form words. Patiently wait until your child is reading fluently to add other formal academic studies, such as history, geography, and science. Help your child develop a love of reading first, and then let the pleasure of reading lead him into other areas. And, by all means, please continue to read books to your child, color pictures with your child, sing songs, make crafts, play with puzzles, go shopping and bake cookies together, and have all manner of delightful experiences together.

Teach Your Students to Teach Themselves

Believe it or not, there are (so-called “successful”) students in the government system who do not know that a dictionary contains word meanings, word forms, and pronunciation guides. These students have no clue what an atlas is or how/why to use one; they are clueless at map reading. They would never guess that the lesson concepts are fully explained in the textbook — they assume that only the teachers’ books have the explanations in them. If someone does not tell them what to do, they cannot decide what to do on their own, and even then, they only do exactly what they have been told, and no more. They possess no “critical thinking skills.”

When a student can teach himself, there are no limits to what he can learn. When a student can teach himself, learning becomes a life-long endeavor. When a student can teach himself, you (as the teacher) are then freed up to attend more to younger students, household duties, or even (dare I say it?) spare time activities of your own choosing.

The biggest hurdles for any student learning to teach himself are:
1) How do I know what to do in this lesson? (reading & understanding directions)
2) Where should I look for more information? (research skills)
3) What should I do when I “get stuck”? (problem-solving skills)

So how, you are now asking, do you teach a student to teach himself? Refer to The Biblical Model of Discipleship: “Let them watch, let them help, help them do it, watch them do it, leave them doing it.” As you are teaching him to read, also point out each word of the directions on any workbook pages or math papers that he is doing as you read those directions aloud and then explain what the assigned task is. That will begin to make the connection for him that those words mean important things, too. We need to convey the concept that the words in storybooks are not the only words in life that count. The same thing can be done with the Sunday comics, captions for interesting photos in newspapers and magazines, and even the cooking instructions on convenience food packages. Gradually, the idea will be grasped that with reading ability comes the knack for finding the necessary words to read. (Newspapers, magazines, and the adult world in general can be overwhelming to a new reader: so many words and no clue for how to navigate through them.)

As the student gains reading ability, he will begin to be able to read those directions for himself. If he is still not able to make the transition from reading the directions to understanding the assignment, have him read the directions aloud to you. Then discuss the meaning of the sentences with him until the student understands how they are explaining what is expected of him.

Begin to slow down your response time in explaining the assignments, allowing the student plenty of time to think about what he is reading and process the information. Remember that this is a new task for your student, and like any new task, it takes time to learn.

With more complicated instructions, such as those found in upper lever math lessons, point out to the student that everything needed to understand the lesson is found in the book. The complete explanation is in the lesson (some details may have been covered in previous lessons). The most important concepts will be in bold print, italics, underlined, or set apart in a box to capture the student’s attention. Example problems should not be merely looked at (unless the student is especially gifted in math), but copied step-by-step into the student’s math notebook (noted with page and problem numbers), in an effort to understand what is being done and why. (We remember more of what we do, than of what we just see or hear.) All math problems should be written in a notebook and kept, so they can be referred back to when necessary for additional help — problems written on a chalkboard or whiteboard are lost forever once they have been erased. When a student encounters a math problem of a type that gave him difficulty before, he can then look back through his notebook to find the previous example. Studying its completed form will help the student see what step comes next for the current problem.

I have sometimes questioned my own performance as a homeschool educator — did I do a “good enough” job? I see things that my children “missed” and wonder why I did not press those lessons more. Then again, I realize that I learned as much as they did during our homeschool career, and they will learn more as they begin to homeschool their own children in a few years. My students did learn how to read and how to understand what they read. My students learned how to do research. My students learned how to solve problems, often coming up with unique ideas that I would not even have considered. My students have become young adults who will continue to learn for their entire lives, because they learned how to teach themselves.

Teaching with Preschoolers Around… and Under… and on Top… and Beside

“How can I find time to teach the older child when the toddler needs my constant attention?” That is The Big Question that prevents many families from beginning homeschooling — in my mind, it is probably even a bigger concern than What To Do About Socialization! It kept me from diving in for several years. I had known about homeschooling and known many homeschool families before our first child began school, but it was the dreaded Active Toddler who took center stage and made me fearful of my ability to juggle all the homeschooling responsibilities. Once my youngest was also in school, I had no more fear — for some reason, it finally looked do-able, and we finally began homeschooling.

If I had bothered to think things through better, I would have realized that I had many options for homeschooling around a toddler. For some unknown reason, at that point in time the homeschoolers we did know were not willing to share their techniques for getting through the daily grind. They seemed to think I would be better off inventing my own wheel than to adapt their prototypes to suit my needs. Therefore, I now willingly and openly share my trials, tribulations, successes, and failures for your benefit. Learn what you will.

Spend some time with Junior first, then teach the others when Junior gets bored and leaves to play on his own. Indulge the preschooler with his own set of “school supplies” — Laurie puzzles, workbooks of pre-writing skills, washable markers, etc. and allow him to “do school” along with his older siblings. Also provide safe, quiet toys nearby for when he gets bored with sitting still. Nevertheless, be encouraged: Junior will be learning HOW to sit still and be quiet and pay attention for those short periods when he does stay with you. He will also be learning how to entertain himself when he leaves the table. (Keep those “school toys” as a special treat to be used only during lesson times, otherwise they will lose their appeal.)

Use Baby’s naptime for working with the older children. “School” does not have to take place during the same set of hours each day. (see Every Day is a Learning Day) Lessons can even come in spurts — do one or two subjects in the morning, take a long lunch and play break, then do another subject in the afternoon. Teach the older children to work by themselves when they can, giving you more time to attend to Baby’s needs. Save especially-Mom-intensive subjects for Baby’s naptime.

Apply skill-level discretion to teaching tasks: does this need Mom’s personal attention, or is someone else capable of handling it? Older children may practice their reading skills by reading to the toddlers or by listening to beginning readers. A great-grandmother shared with me how she was raised in a large family where each older child was always responsible for a specifically assigned younger child. Child #1 cared for Child #3, Child #2 cared for Child #4, Child #3 cared for Child #5, and so on. That system removed the possibility of anyone “slipping through the cracks” — no one could claim, “I thought YOU were watching him.” A similar approach can be adapted for scheduling the homeschool lessons: student-works-alone time (perhaps for math), group lessons (maybe a family read-aloud book), read-to-the-toddler time (as reading skills reinforcement), help-the-kindergartner time, etc. Remember, the best way to learn a subject is to teach it to someone else, so pairing up older and younger learners helps them both. If the lessons are scheduled so that Student #1 always spends the same time slot working with Student #3, and so on, all students will benefit, and Mom gets to be in more places at once through the added helping hands. The young ones will also learn to respect individual lesson times, knowing that their share of time is coming, too.

Now let’s all repeat the Guilt-Free Homeschooling motto: The “right” way to homeschool is the way that fits my family best — our schedule, our needs, our desires, our abilities. You are free to adapt your schedule to whatever fits your family’s needs. If you need extra time to tend to Little One, you may take it. If you need to wait until 1:30 to begin lessons each day, who cares? If you need to breastfeed while teaching math class, go for it! (Let’s see them try that one in government school!)

Guilt-Free Lesson Plans and Scheduling

Each state has its own requirements for homeschooling accountability, so please check out your state’s legal requirements and be sure you comply with them. That said, let me share a few tips from my own homeschooling career that may help to make your homeschool planning a little more Guilt-Free and easier to handle.

My “lesson plans” consisted of a check-off sheet for each subject, with numbered blanks for each of our 150 days of school. The minimum requirement in our state (Iowa) is 148 days; 150 is a nice round number. If we exceeded that number — it was not a problem; we did not have to feel compelled to keep schooling until we knew we had reached 180 or 200 days. As I have stated before, every day is a learning day, not just the days spent with noses in books, so I knew my children were getting a well-rounded education, regardless of the time occupied in tedious lessons.

My uncomplicated system for planning lessons consisted of dividing the number of pages in each book by the number of days of school we did. The resulting number was how many pages were to be done per day. Often it resulted in a fraction (such as 2.8 or 3.2), which I just rounded to the nearest whole number, rationalizing that extra pages would get done some days and some pages (such as full-page illustrations) could be skipped. It did not matter if we ran out of work before the year was up — either the students moved on to their next book or they got to relax and rejoice in free time.

Once I had divided each subject into daily segments, I penciled in the corresponding page numbers for each specific day on those 150 blanks of the check-off sheet. I had also numbered school days on a blank calendar, planning time off for holidays and birthdays, so that we knew which day of school we were on. We crossed off lessons as they were done and crossed off day numbers separately as they passed. Sometimes lessons were done ahead of schedule and sometimes we fell behind, but with this system, we always knew where we stood in every subject. An assigned number of pages to do each day does not mean the child should not be allowed to do more if he is motivated to get ahead. Getting ahead in any subject is only a bad thing when the child does not want to do his other schooling as well. When that happened, I required them to do today’s assignments in all subjects first, then they could work ahead in the desired subjects as well.

Begin your school year after Labor Day if you need extra time for a family vacation or to settle into your routine. Start the Christmas break early enough to allow time for housecleaning, holiday baking, even the shopping that may never get done otherwise. My planned schedule would end in early May, meaning that we had “wiggle-room” for illnesses, spontaneous vacation days, and the odd family emergency that was bound to arise every year. Field trips did not have to be organized to be effective. Many of our fondest memories are from taking a day off with Dad and doing something just as a family: visiting the state Capitol and the State Historical Museum, going fishing and taking a nature walk, finding a blacksmith shop or a museum open on our way home from somewhere else. Antique shops can be just as educational as museums, especially if the attendant sees well-behaved children and gets talkative. (Many small towns have museums open during the day with no one else stopping in but your family.)

Yes, I did actually make separate lesson plans for each child. My students were far enough apart (3 years in age, 4 grades in school) that very little applied to both at once, the only exception being books I read aloud to them while they did simple seatwork. My state-required “Plan of Instruction” looked similar for each child (except for time allowances), but my actual lesson plans varied. I was able to write up the Plan of Instruction with a daily, weekly, or yearly schedule, depending on what time segments worked best for the ages of the students.

The Plan of Instruction was a yearly form listing what subjects I would be teaching each child, the books used, time spent on each subject, etc. Guided by suggestions from Home School Legal Defense Association and other homeschoolers before me, I became increasingly vague in my reporting. (The whole concept of “precedent” is very helpful here — what has been accepted in the past sets a precedent for those who follow.) I only listed academic subjects, not Bible or extra-curricular activities, and merely checked boxes indicating that we would participate in sports, music, etc., rationalizing that things like children and sport-activity usually go together like butter and toast — homeschool activities do not have to be formally structured to be educational and/or beneficial. The few years that my children spent in government school clearly showed that those institutions obviously did not take great pains to inform me of everything they were teaching my children, so they had already set the precedent for me — I do not have to tell them everything I am teaching my children either.

I had begun homeschooling by giving too much information on the legal forms (a common mistake made by eager-to-please-with-nothing-to-hide types). Then I found myself caught in a back-order nightmare one year and was not sure which books we would even be able to get. The deadline for filing reports came and I did not have all the books yet, so I cautiously filled out my form with “weasel words” — “This subject will be taught from a variety of sources.” I was sure I would get a phone call from someone checking the forms who would reject my vague “plan,” but the call never came. My plan was accepted. The next year, I bravely expanded my fuzzy wording to cover more subjects, a technique I found extremely helpful in broad areas, such as history or language arts, that can encompass wide-reaching scopes. Math was much simpler to define: this book, this number of lessons.

This is your family, this is your school, and this is your schedule. Make it work to your advantage. Use the schedule as your tool, do not become its slave. Reflect on your reasons for keeping extensive records and simplify if you can. Your time will be much more valuable as a teacher for your children than as a recording scribe, making endless notes that will never be read.

***Now Available: Guilt-Free Homeschooling UNplanner***
Visit the Guilt-Free Homeschooling Products Page to check out our GFHS UNplanner (PDFs on CD-ROM) — versitile planning forms that can be used in a variety of ways to fit your style of record-keeping, with several Bonus forms and encouraging articles. It’s homeschool lesson planning made simple and Guilt-Free!