The decision to homeschool was the hardest decision I’ve ever made in my adult life. I don’t know why. I consider myself a pretty decisive person, but I agonized and agonized and agonized. Sure, I had the usual reservations: Do I have what it takes? How do I homeschool two girls with very different personalities and interests? Did I have room and time in my work-at-home schedule for homeschooling? Would I mess up my kids for life? But I also had some unique-to-me challenges. A husband who works from home. A then 9-year-old who seemed reluctant. Family doubts and reservations. My lack of organizational skills. And patience. And math skills. I filled out my notice of intent to homeschool weeks before I ever sent it in. It was one of the toughest summers of my life.
And then a friend from our church group reminded me: “Nothing is permanent. You can always change your mind.”
I sent my notice in and received confirmation on August 4. I was officially a homeschooler. With help from friends, the internet, the homeschool conference I had halfheartedly attended, and a used curriculum sale, I hobbled together a curriculum and prayed for the best.
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.
August 24, the first day of public school, and the day I planned to begin homeschooling, arrived, and I found myself sitting at the kitchen table with my girls. On the outside, I seemed organized and ready to hit the ground running. On the inside, I was a little panicked. “I can’t believe my girls are not in school!!!!” But I put one foot in front of the other and took it day by day. I made many missteps, dropped some goals and started others, shifted gears a few times, lost my patience more than I care to admit, and learned a lot. Most importantly, my girls learned a lot.
So, for the mom about to start homeschooling, or to the one who is agonizing over that decision, this is for you. The hard-won lessons I learned in my first year.
Go Back to Basics
A few weeks into our school year, I confided to my WRC partner, Jean, that I was feeling overwhelmed. One look at my daily checklist of approximately 92 items and she immediately knew why. I had taken on way more than we could handle. Recently I read that you should spend the first homeschooling year unschooling, and while am not an unschooler, and definitely don’t have the bravery to drop my entire to-do list, I did learn quickly that I needed to scale back, for my sanity and the girls.’ I wanted them to enjoy homeschooling, and to enjoy being with me, and to do that, I would have to lighten up. So I pared back to the basics: language arts, math, science and history. A little French. Once I got through the core subjects every day, anything we added felt like a bonus.
2. You Think You Know Your Kids Now…
Just wait. I learned so much about my girls this year. I worried that I would struggle with my 4th graders attentiveness, but instead, it was my 3nd grader who challenged me. I learned that my older daughter, Lola, is imaginative and creative and artistic and a little bit of a perfectionist. She loves art and music and performing and is interested in baking, sewing and grown up life skills. I learned that Eva is quick witted and curious and project oriented and easily distracted. I also learned, much to my surprise, that she hates to use scissors and to take notes, and that she is an indifferent artist. She has an amazing memory, is very tech-savvy and shows a real interest in foreign languages. I knew little bits of this before I started homeschooling, but now I have a much clearer picture of their strengths and challenges.
3. The Kitchen Is Never Closed
Ah, the luxuries – and distractions – of home. My girls, who typically have tiny appetites, suddenly seemed ravenous all day long, and I found myself adding short order cook to my already long list of jobs. I found myself serving 3-course-breakfasts, elaborate snacks and 2 different, time-consuming lunches. This detracted from schoolwork and was, frankly, a real pain. This year, I’m going to experiment with solutions to this, including planning the next day’s meals in advance, freezing our own “convenience” meals for lunch, and getting the girls involved in meal prep (home ec!).
4. Don’t be a Slave to a Curriculum
The curriculum that you choose is there to serve you, not the other way around. I discovered that Eva does not love notebooking, and so this year, I am dropping the notebooking component of Apologia science for her, and focusing on single page exercises, experiments and projects. Same with Mystery of History. I am going to take advantage of her love of technology by supplementing with Quizlet, Always Ice Cream and Skrafty. Lola seems to prefer notebooking, lapbooking and presentations even more than experiments or projects, so I will do more of that with her. Especially with science and social studies, you can pick and choose which parts to focus on and which to skim, or to skip entirely. It’s up to you. (I do think, with Math and, to a lesser degree, Language Arts, it’s more important to go in order as concepts build on each other). Also, don’t be afraid to switch gears if you discover that a curriculum just isn’t working for you or your child. While you don’t want to do this repeatedly, it’s okay to admit when something isn’t working. We started the year with Bob Jones Math for Eva, and quickly switched to Redbird Math, on GiftedandTalented, when I realized she despised workbooks. The technology and real-world applications were much more appealing to her. On the other hand, Lola isn’t as much a man of technology, and we struggled to finish Teaching Textbooks. I love it, but she did not.
5. Your Schedule is Your Own
There are some days when your kids can’t seem to stand the sight of each other. Or you. Or when the sound of their own breathing seems to annoy them. I woke up one day and was so tired and run-down, that I promptly went back to bed. I was sick, and the girls lollygagged while I recovered. Other mornings, my younger daughter woke up in a whiny, contrary mood, and it would derail our entire day. Finally, I stopped fighting her on it, and instead let her go outside (her favorite place) to commune with nature, instructing her to stay out until her mood changed. It worked like a charm. One strategy I am considering this year is starting the day with one of our more fun electives, like baking or art, instead of math or language arts. Sometimes, all you need is to start the day on a high note to set the right tone for the rest of the school day. Also, somewhat unintentionally, I found that we did school only 3 days a week, Monday through Wednesday. Thursdays were taken up with tennis lessons, music lessons, band and 4H. Fridays were co-op day, when we would do literature circle and some Mystery of History timeline work. The only right schedule is the one that works for you.
6. Make it Fun
One of the things kids can miss about school is the recognition of milestones (reading levels, times tables mastered, etc.) and the celebration of every holiday, big and little. One of the things I did, somewhat halfheartedly last year, and plan to do better at this year, is make sure that we commemorated all of the holidays. Our coop skipped Valentine’s Day (we all forgot!) but we had Halloween and Easter celebrations. Big colorful sticker charts, contests (for your coop or among your own kids) and holiday crafts can help keep things fun!
7. Make it Personal
One of the things I am learning about homeschooling, and one of the aspects that I love, is how personal you can make it. My older daughter loves baking, for example, so I found a baking mini-curriculum that incorporates math, science and language arts. For my younger daughter, I am incorporating more hand-on activities and STEM projects. A quick search on any topic that interests your child will turn up tons of results. I adore checking out online resources like CurrClick, Educents, TeachersPayTeachers, HomeschoolShare, Journey Into Learning and Homeschool Buyer’s Coop for unique curriculum supplements, and TedEd, YouTube and Netflix for videos that correspond with lessons.
8. You Will Have Those Days
And weeks. And months. There will be times when the kid(s) don’t cooperate and you are frazzled and life is pulling you in a million different directions. On those days, you may not feel like you are getting much accomplished. Try to relax. You can make it up the next week, or the week after that. The homeschooling police aren’t coming to get you. When tracking your progress, look at the big picture and not at the day-to-day or a specific week or month.
9. Take Field Trips
You will find oodles of opportunities to reinforce what you are learning in school with a well-timed field trip. This year, we went to see A Christmas Carol as we were reading the book, visited St. Augustine for some regional history, and even ventured farther away to Boston. But fun, frivolous field trips are equally important, whether you take spontaneous days off for the beach or the park or visit theme parks on slow weekdays, take full advantage of your ability to set your family’s schedule.
10. Go Your Own Way
While the advice of a homeschool veteran (or newbie), your mom or a teacher may be valuable, you are unique and so is your child. Pick something that works for you, whether or not it is everyone else’s first pick, and then approach that curriculum your own way. Invest some time into figuring out how your child learns best, and then modify school accordingly, whenever possible. In my opinion, kids still need to learn to read, to write, and to do math, but it doesn’t matter if they learn those skills standing up or hanging upside down or sitting in a patch of grass.
I know that embarking on homeschooling can be an exciting and scary thing, and I hope that my experience has helped! I not only survived my first year of homeschooling, but I liked it enough to do it again, and I believe you will, too!