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Five Practical Tips for the Homeschooling Parent

There are three things that I swore that I would never do: return to my current hometown, attend my alma mater, Florida State University, or homeschool my children. I was not against homeschooling in the abstract, but I had a long list of valid reasons why I never would. (Mostly because I didn’t want to.) When I quit my teaching job, more than one friend told me that she considered me the least likely person to homeschool. Truth be told, homeschooling is hard. Very hard. When I began, I listened to podcasts, attended conferences, and spoke with experienced mothers to get advice. Here is the most helpful advice that has helped me through some challenging years.

  1. Co-ops won’t solve your problems.

A seasoned homeschool mother gave me this advice before our school year started: people often join co-ops to solve their problems. I’m worried about loneliness, my incompetency in teaching science, my child’s inability to follow directions, ruining my children, fill in the blank. A co-op won’t “fix” any of this. You do not have to join a co-op—sometimes it is better to abstain. If you do, consider your priorities rather than your problems. I won’t join a group that dictates most of my curricular choices unless it is a good fit philosophically—the benefits do not outweigh the cost. However, the road to perfection is lonely indeed, and last year we joined a group that meets less frequently and is more supplemental in nature. The primary reason that I joined was so that my children could study Shakespeare in a group, which is a major priority for me. It is a sweet community of thoughtful mothers and has brought richness to our homeschool experience.

  1. Activities aren’t community.

Finding community is the universal homeschool problem. When we began homeschooling, most of my community was oriented around the school that we had just left. We also moved to a new parish which, at the time, had almost no children near in age to my sons. The social landscape of local homeschoolers was cliquish and confusing. Many groups were exclusive, and I don’t share the prevailing interests in raw milk and holistic dentistry. The impulse was to put my children in a bunch of activities and classes to find community. However, at ballet and soccer, my kids learned ballet and soccer; that is not where we built lasting relationships. We have built homeschool friendships the same way we build any other friendships: through kindness, vulnerability, and persistence.

  1. Give it two weeks.

Managing behavior in a classroom is much easier than managing the behavior of a handful of siblings at home. If you have eighteen fourth graders and give them an in-class assignment, there is a tone of expectation: we are in school, and this is what we do. However, if you have a fourth grader at home, he may not care to write an essay, as it turns out. I heard the advice (especially for mothers of sons) to be impervious. It is great advice until the feeling sets in that “it will always be this way” and “he will never cooperate.” My observation is that this resistance typically takes two weeks of regular work (for a child without significant behavioral or learning challenges). Once he sees that you will not flag or fail in the face of serious opposition, he will settle in and work. Resisting a full-scale counterattack is much easier if you know how long to expect it to last.

  1. Consider a Sabbath schedule.

Sarah MacKenzie gives this advice in her excellent book Teaching from Rest: A Homeschooler’s Guide to Unshakeable Peace. A sabbath schedule means schooling for six weeks, then taking one week off. It is a game changer; I won’t say that it has prevented burnout, but it has substantially diminished it. This is how the pattern works every single time. Week four: I don’t know if we even need a break this time. Week five: I definitely need a break. Week six: I will die if I do not have a break. This does not mean we go to Disney World every seventh week. It means that we put aside our schoolwork while continuing orchestra and other extracurriculars. I use this week to reset, hone my plans for the next six weeks, take a day trip, clean out a closet, or just drink my coffee in a leisurely fashion. The kids cook and invent and play outside. It is important to think of it as a week to catch your breath; if you think of this as a vacation or a time to tackle huge projects it will just create stress and frustration.

The climate is an important consideration: schedule breaks when it is pleasant to be outside. Because we live in Florida, I shorten our summer break to six or seven weeks. By mid-July it is too miserable to do anything other than lie in the water or leave Florida. So, we may as well be in the air conditioning doing school. This gives us some summer break and a chance to attend camps or swimming lessons. The first six weeks (mid-July to August) are usually scaled back, focusing on a few subjects, and allowing afternoons at the pool. We take an additional week off in October, December, and April when the weather is pleasant. I also leave margin in my plans for a hurricane week or extra holiday time.

There are academic benefits to this type of scheduling. First, with a shorter summer break, there are fewer retention issues. I find that we don’t need much review and we can dive in right where we left off at the end of May. Secondly, the Sabbath weeks are an important part of the learning process. The mind needs space for scholé – true leisure. Countless times one of my children has hit a wall in a certain area and then, after the break, is suddenly able to do the thing that seemed impossible a week before.

  1. Multam non Multa

Multam non Multa is Latin for much, not many. This is a universally important principle of classical education, but I think that it is especially important for homeschoolers to pay attention to. It is tempting to pile on subjects and curricula either because they are interesting and exciting or to compensate for insecurity or lack of skill in a particular content area. On the floor behind me are baskets full of curriculum to sell or donate, much of it unused not because it was bad curriculum, but because it was too much. Depth, not breadth, is key. Do fewer things but do them well. Read fewer books. We study literature together as a family, slowly reading the best: fairy tales, mythology, Homer, and Shakespeare. Buy less curriculum. As much as possible, the teacher should be the curriculum. Combine as many subjects as you are able. For example, our “writing program” up to fifth grade has been to write narrations about books that we are already reading. I combine drawing and painting with nature study. I find that it works best to winnow down material until it looks reasonable, then remove a few more things.

 

Together, at the core, these suggestions have become key parts of our family culture. Finding like-minded friends, reading together, studying in a healthy rhythm—all these things have added up to a rich family life. Though it is hard, the journey has been well worth it. And I think I have learned my lesson and have not added to the list of “things I will never do.”

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