Five Things that make Homeschooling Successful

When it comes to my life, I often hear the popular catchphrase “I don’t know how you do it!” Usually I get this when I’m out with my kids, and most often in reference to homeschooling. People assume I have it all together or that I’m some kind of homeschool supermom. How I project this image I will never understand. I feel like I’m running around like a madwoman most days! While I normally reserve this blog for the more philosophical or theological implications of life and motherhood, I wanted to step away from that voice and platform for a moment, and offer an honest, real look at our homeschool.

The truth is that I don’t actually feel like I’m doing it. I just seem to get up each day and go from one moment to the next, and somehow my kids have followed suit. But as I’ve pondered our educational choices, it’s become so clear to me that homeschooling does not start with a fancy curriculum or a box of books delivered to our door. It starts with our intention.

The reason our homeschool and, by extension, our life runs as smoothly as it does is because I set it up to do that. I’ve figured out what my must-do’s are and what kind of support I need to accomplish them. I’ve also created a vision for our homeschool that directs our priorities and gives us a bigger reason for home education. And in all of this I’ve learned to be careful to account for my own personal needs and weaknesses. So here it is; a breakdown of the five things I do that make our home a place of learning without me actually being super mom to pull it off!

1) Maintain the Core Vision— Before we began homeschooling, I outlined in my own mind our reasons for homeschooling. This wasn’t about choosing an educational modality (like Classical, Unschooling, Montessori, etc.). It was more about the over-arching reasons for keeping my kids at home.

One was that we want to raise life-long, independent learners and we felt the home environment was best suited for that. We also wanted to have the flexibility to incorporate a wide variety of educational experiences into our family culture and provide an academically rigorous but also more flexible foundation for our kids than what traditional schooling options allow for.

And so every time we have a bad day and I find myself asking “why are we even doing this?” it’s helpful to go back to that core vision. It drives us forward and helps sort out many of the doubts or struggles that arise. (As an aside, even if you don’t homeschool, having a unified vision is so important for a healthy, functioning family. Mom AND Dad really need to be on the same page there.)

2) Make a Plan–Each summer I spend a lot of time thinking about what milestones I want each child to reach and how I plan to help guide them. (I should write all this down, but given that I have my hands full pretty much all of the time, I’ve become very good at operating on mental lists.) Personally, it works best for me to keep it to 3-4 broad goals per child, usually that have to do with helping my kids achieve growing levels of independence that propel us into future years.

For Ayla (5) this year, I simply wanted to 1) get her used to doing a short amount of more “formal school time” with me, one on one, each day, 2) introduce her to basic phonics, and 3) get her working with numbers and basic math on a regular basis. Everything else is a bonus, and believe me, we’ve had a LOT of bonuses! Why? Because my plan was manageable and set us up to succeed. At the end of the year what really matters most for Ayla? Those were the three things I kept coming back to. Those three things will lay the foundation for the next school year, when I will expect more from her and she will need to pick up the pace.

For Crew (8), my plan was a lot different. He’s older, has mastered all the foundations, and is ready to be challenged in other ways. But the goals I have for him function the same way; they’re always paving the way to another benchmark that leads to greater independent learning.

3) Define Priorities–Once my “plan” is in place for each kid, then I can start figuring out the ins-and-outs of how we’re actually gonna pull it off. What are my must-do’s each day? Each week? And how am I going to ensure that those things get don,? (We’re talking both school and non-school stuff here.)

Because I am a busy mom trying to homeschool two big kids with two very active little ones underfoot all day, priorities are a BIG deal. I can’t do it all, so we have to choose the right things. Priorities look different for every family, but what I have noticed over the years is that priorities are very hard to meet when you are not available to meet them. In other words, it’s really hard to homeschool when you are never home!

I’ve found it helpful to build the rhythm of our day around what’s most important. Most weeks follow a pretty strict pattern, and that usually involves me staying home to ensure that the top priorities get accomplished. For us, mornings are school time. We are early risers, and often Crew is working away at math by 7:45am. This means by lunchtime, he’s done nearly four hours of solid school work. Our afternoons are marked by nap time for the littles and quiet time for the bigs (and mom!), and then we are free to play, work, or do whatever else is left in a very unstructured afternoon. Learning happens all day, every day, and for the most part, my must-do’s get done because the rhythm of our day supports my priorities. It’s been a helpful lesson to learn and eased my stress levels when I don’t feel like I have to do “all the things.”

4) Find Support–You cannot successfully homeschool, effectively parent more than one child, and also maintain a house, a life, a spouse, a healthy diet, and your sanity without support. I’m sorry, but you just can’t. Support is paramount for moms in general, and absolutely a necessity for homeschooling moms. Moms can’t to it all!

It dawned on me over the summer as I was struggling to pull any sense of routine together after having baby #4 and moving that I simply wouldn’t be able to accomplish our vision for our homeschool unless I got more support. I knew I would end up jipping the big kids in their education and having lots of loose ends because of two demanding little ones who also need me. Bit by bit I began figuring out what support would look like and realized how much I needed to advocate for myself.

This is a tough thing for many moms to admit, and especially difficult for people-pleasing personalities like me. But behind every woman who looks like she’s got it all together is a killer support system that she has cultivated and, more than likely, had a hard time accepting.

For me in this season of life, support looks like help with my toddler. Two mornings a week he leaves the house for a few hours. He goes to a friend’s house one morning and spends the other with his grandparents. This gives me a solid and predictable chunk of time to plow through things with the older kids. On weeks when my husband isn’t traveling or too slammed with work, he also pitches in and will sometimes take the two little ones out to run errands for a bit. It’s good dad time for them, and gives me yet another block of focused time. It can be a sacrifice to make support a reality in your life but it’s super important for the longevity of your mental health and overall quality of life. It’s taken me a while to come to grips with this, but I’m getting more comfortable accepting the help I need and planning for it to happen.

5) Play Up Strengths. Know the Weaknesses.–There’s a lot of wonderful ways to homeschool and many inspiring families out there who are accomplishing those things. I am not them. I’ve got to do what works for us, no matter how awesome another family makes it look.

Reading aloud is a great example. It’s so valuable, produces great conversation, and I love doing it. But reading aloud to four kids, with four different levels of interest, attention spans, and a wiggly baby who just wants to eat the book or pull my hair–well, I’m just not in a season of life where reading aloud to the whole family can happen without causing me a mild panic attack. So I only read aloud to the big kids together, and I read separately at other times to the littles. I know admitting this is like homeschool sacrilege but when all four are together, we don’t read!

Other things that are my weaknesses: I’m not the best teacher for something like long division, I’m quick to shrug off science in favor of discussing a great book, and I know that if I don’t get a little down time each day, I will lose it and turn into Momzilla.

To combat this, we switched math curriculums to something that Crew could be much more independent with. I still do math with Ayla, but Crew can work much faster and without my help most days. When Crew told me he’d like to study chemistry and physics, I decided it was time to bring in a science tutor who works with him once a week and gives him assignments to complete between sessions. This has been a huge hit for everyone this year! He is loving it, learning a ton, and I get to sit back and be the cheerleader rather than the coach. And the quiet time? That happens every single day. I guard it like it’s Ft. Knox because if I don’t, I will totally burn out.

By knowing my weak areas, I can better plan for them and free up my energy for the things that get me excited about homeschooling. I’ve loved teaching my kids how to read, and cannot wait until they hit middle school and we can really tackle some great writing and literature analysis. I also enjoy history and social studies, and I find it easy to incorporate these things into our everyday life. So I’ve learned to play up my strengths and find creative alternatives to teach the things that I’m not good at or that simply don’t excite me.

To sum it all up, homeschooling is a wonderful privilege, but it’s also an alternative lifestyle. I spend a lot of time curating the education we’re after, and that takes effort, intention, and creativity to make it a success. I didn’t start out knowing all this and we’ve made some big sacrifices and significant life changes to make it work. But when the long day finally comes to an end and another day of school is in the books, it’s these things that have been our guide and are preparing us for where we need to go tomorrow.

The Best Part of Parenting No One is Talking About

The other day I sat down with a friend and listened to her tell me about her fears of raising kids. She is knee-deep in toddlerhood, where tantrums and choking hazards are the biggest struggles of daily life. I listened as she shared her doubts and worries, the messiness of her life at home with young kiddos. It was the standard “the days are long but the years are short” condundrum, one that any mother worth her salt will face. Through our chat she expressed to me her fears about her little people growing up and the days when there are no more toddlers or preschoolers around her home anymore. She worries about wishing these little years away and dreads the hole her children will leave when they outgrow babyhood.

Her fears have merit. Every single person I’ve ever met has told me how much I should treasure these young years and how fast they go. Anyone can get misty at the thought of a bright-eyed, beautiful baby suddenly grown up, gone from their life in a blink. But it seems to me that in sapping about over the days of cuddles and coos, we’ve missed the best part of parenting that no one is talking about. We’ve missed the quiet, gentle days of big kids.

It sneaks up on you, that phase. You don’t see it coming. And as quick as it comes it’s over, and you’re off to the precarious transition of tweens, and then into the full-blown teenage years that everyone seems to fear. But this year I realized what a beautiful season I’m in right now. For the first time in almost nine years, half of my children are big kids.

Like their little brothers, my two oldest kids are still fun and lively. Their imaginations and possibilities are limitless, and their main goal in life each day is pretty much just to have fun and discover something interesting. It takes very little to make them happy, and for the most part, a simple routine full of rich explorations satisfies them.

But unlike their baby brothers my big kids have the stamina to really go for something. They have attention spans and cognitive abilities that make conversations stimulating, even for an adult. And while not every moment is a bright one, for the most part they have enough maturity to navigate the ins-and-outs of the disappointments and thwarted plans that daily life brings.

While everyone is quick to tell me not to miss a beat with my two youngest, they never tell me about the ways in which my heart nearly bursts when I see all that my big kids have grown up to be.

Resourceful, responsible, kind. Humorous, welcoming, gentle. Creative, hard-working, useful. Empathetic, independent, self-controlled.

And then there are those moments where I truly have to pinch myself. The ones where I walk into a room and my 8 year old has dressed his little brother, taken him to the potty, brushed his teeth and hair, and generally made my morning faster by at least 15 minutes. Or when I discovered the two big kids, working together in harmony, just randomly cleaning up the kitchen. And it’s then that I realize that I won’t be a slave to little tyrants forever.

We still have a long way to go. There is still plenty of character shaping and hard parenting in front of me.

But with two littles and two bigs, I find myself resting in the beauty of the truth no one tells: big kids are just as magical as babies.

The best part of parenting isn’t the phases we look forward to or leave behind; it’s the phase we’re in. It’s those everyday moments we don’t notice that shape us and shape our children. And after a while all those moments add up and transform into something that–surprisingly–we didn’t expect to see during our time in the muddy trenches of the little years.

And so I savor the moments I have. I soak in those snuggles and the simple play with my tiniest ones. But I also bask in the awe of the two in my home who are no longer little. And I delight when one of them walks into the room and I just love them more than I ever thought I could. I will cherish them for who they are, and step into the fresh season ahead, loving every moment of being with these babies I’ve raised.

When my friend finished telling me about her fears of her toddlers growing up, I smiled. “Yes, your babies will grow up,” I said. “But do you know what happens then? You get to marvel at the big kids they’ve become. That’s the best part of kids. They grow.”

Subtraction

Red and gray lego bricks sprawl out across his floor. Piles neatly sorted by color and size are evidence of the order with which he approaches his life. Throughout the day in his spare minutes, he retreats to his room, diligently picking away at the fire station he is so excited to rebuild. He asks me if this can count as math for today.

And I pause and think a hesitant “yes.” Yes. I don’t mind if we skip the math book today. Because today you shoveled the driveway and you hauled the trash cans to and from the curb. And you showered and combed your hair and made your bed. And you interacted politely at the dentist appointment. And later you’ll pick up after your sister without being asked, and you’ll keep an eye on the hurricane that is your baby brother. You’ll pepper me with questions all day, about every possible topic. You’ll brainstorm news ways to earn money for latest interest you’re saving for. And then you’ll clear the table and help with the dishes and end your day with a prayer.

So yes. Today I don’t mind if we skip over the page of three digit subtraction because today you are too busy growing into a smart, kind, hard-working, self-giving, honest man.

Today the subtraction that you do will not be done on pencil and paper. It will be done inside you. Eventually you plow through things heavier than the snow in your shovel. The little ones you watch out for now will one day be your own. Your questions won’t always have answers. And someday you’ll crunch the numbers to see that they don’t add up and that you’ve fallen short. Maybe because of a mistake you made. Maybe because life is just unfair sometimes. But one day soon, you will have to rebuild things a lot harder than legos.

One day you’ll find that subtraction is really just sacrifice on paper; the taking away from a whole to give to other parts. And isn’t that what being a man is really all about?

So go and build your fire station. Sort the pieces, fit and refit them together, envision the final product. Enjoy the process. Enjoy being seven. One day you’ll need to subtract things from yourself and from your life that are so much bigger and far less quantifiable numbers in a math problem. And no text book can teach you that.

Of Games and Cinderblock

White washed cinderblock walls climb three stories up. Hanging above us a green glow hovers from the fluorescent light, static and artificial. Nothing good ever came from a tube suspended in mid air. A shiny gym floor squeaks with the sound of rubber soles running back and forth across the boards.

It’s all so drab. So lackluster. So manmade. And yet we are lucky to have this place. In a land where the alternative is a harsh, wintry environment six months out of the year, a big warm room to let them run is nothing to take for granted. But today the room itself has this longing filling the air. Everything from the lighting, to the walls, to the shoes made across the Pacific Ocean seem cold and imperfect. It’s all this feeble attempt to make something nice from this crude world. Something to soften its blow. And it’s excentuated by the only good thing in it: the boys.

My son races around the gym, weaving and dodging, trying to outrun his friend who is chasing him in a friendly game of tag. He is six–almost seven–and his friend just a bit older. Watching two school-aged boys play tag is really a site to behold. Incredible, actually.

Their legs pump up and down, blood flowing swiftly to the long fibers that connect their muscles together and animate their movements. Their chests expand, heaving and broadening, a miniature image of how they will look in just a few short years. They are agile, quick, and full of life. Breath. But perhaps most beautiful is the smile on their winded faces. They know no limits, no care. Their world is complete for a moment because they are doing everything they were made to do. Running from one place to another, they look as if any moment they will just lift off the ground and go chase each other around the moon. For a fraction in time there is no limit to their world; nothing holding them back from everything they are suppose to be. In here, in this cold, manmade cage, it is so plain to me how captive they are.

This may be the only world they know, but it is starkly obvious to me that this is not their home.

Later, I watch my princess gallop around the room. She dodges the furniture, giving a whinny here and a neigh there, as she rounds the corner by the dining room table. It’s a daily occurnace, her pretending to be a horse. We indulge her terribly, playing along and calling her “Sparkling Lights,” her splendid pony name. I’ll often feed her carrots by hand, or pretend to brush her sleek coat. I wrap scarves around her middle, a make-shift saddle to add to her delight. After all, how many years of your life do you really get away with fully believing you are such a majestic creature? She prances by, toffee hair floating behind her like a beautiful sun-kissed mane. “Good girl. Easy girl. You’re a beautiful horse, Sparkling Lights,” I soothe. That night I tuck her into her little bed and sing a song of horses running free, and tell her to dream of the day He comes back, riding on His white horse, ready for her to go riding with Him. Her eyes glass over and she says she can’t wait.

And for the second time that day, I see again how inadequate this place is and how exiled we are.

These precious stones of mine are brilliant. They are shining beacons in a world of bitterness, injustice, and cruelty. And for now–thankfully–they do not know much of those things. And until that day comes, they are my evidence of hope. They remind me how someday the Restoration will come, and our home will be a paradise. Our bodies will not break down, never decompose. Our joy will be complete, perfected in being everything we want to be. In everything we are made to be: completely and uniquely human. Royalty. Sons and daughters of the King, reigning and ruling in our real home.

Reflections of a Homeschool Mom on Christmas Break

Fridays tend to be busy days. I clean the house, make a fabulous dinner, run a few loads through the washer, and tie up any loose ends with school. I like having the house all polished and spiffy for the weekend. He comes in from a long work week to a tidy home, a beautiful meal, and music in the background. It’s a wonderful way to close one week and begin the next.

But this one was of those days where the laundry was piled high and the house looked like three small tornados had whizzed through it. I should have been whipping up dinner or reorganizing the art cabinet without my helpers, or at the very minimum, scouring Amazon to find a good deal on the new math book we would need in just a few weeks.

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