Homeschooling: First Year in Review

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When I began this journey last summer, I stumbled forward with excitement, energy, and absolute terror. I had no homeschooling peer network upon which to lean, no role model, and no rationale for my approach aside from the needs of my kids and the leanings of my own heart.  Some thought I was crazy. As I popped Tums, scoured homeschool curricula, and hung up my white coat, I wondered if they were right.

One year later, the tumbling and unpredictability continue, but they float atop a deep peace, a serenity that courses through our days like water. Visitors to our home won’t discern it amid the chaos of makeshift drum sets and squabbling over Legos. Yet it lives. It wells up in the ordinary moments — the seed pods collected and arranged on the front steps, the delighted recognition of a goldfinch call, the impromptu hug between brother and sister. It shimmers when a preschooler links a milk splatter with the Big Bang, dreams of flying, and asks if bears have whiskers or if snakes have bones. It radiates from the rightness of being, for one season in life, exactly where God has called us to be.

Below are some lessons I’ve noted along the way. I would qualify them as things “I wish I’d known,” but without the struggle of learning them, the journey would have born less fruit.

I’ve also included some resources that have helped us this year.  I hope the thoughts below encourage other parents who tentatively venture onto this path.  I would also love to hear from any and all regarding thoughts or questions!

Lessons Learned from Year 1

1) When you’re just beginning, read this and this to reassure yourself that homeschooling is doable. Both books will encourage you that you can give your children an amazing education outside of cinderblock walls.  They will also inspire you with great ideas and resources.

2) After you’ve achieved your confidence boost from #1, put those books away, and focus on your kids.  As exquisite as a curriculum may sound in concept, if it doesn’t fit your child’s individual needs, it will remain on the shelf in pristine shrink wrap.  Refer to many resources. Read constantly. Educate yourself.  Then direct your focus toward your children — the unique, amazing, exasperating, quirky image bearers they are — and let their peculiarities guide your curriculum.

3) The best educational environment for your family might look drastically different than mainstream school. This is ok. In fact, when your children don’t fit into the standard grade categorizations, homeschooling allows you incomparable freedom to tailor learning to their needs.

4) Consider the distinction between school and learning. Our culture uses them interchangeably, but they are not necessarily the same thing. Traditional school ends with a bell. Learning seeps into every moment of a child’s life, reaching inward to his thoughts and dreams, and outward to whom he meets, what he observes, and where he goes.  To quote Charlotte Mason: “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.”

5) Create a mission statement to anchor you in hard times. This is not the same as a curriculum; this is the overall goal for your kids as you shepherd them. When times get hard, refer back to your mission, and remove all extraneous influences until you’ve returned to your core focus. I actually wrote ours only recently, after a lot of trial and error, but I find it helps when we’re floundering:

“The Lord has granted us two beautiful children to shepherd, to teach diligently as we rise in the morning, and walk in the way, and lay down to sleep at night. Our goals in this homeschooling journey:

*To teach them about the Lord, about the saving grace of Jesus Christ. To teach them that sin pervades all, even their hearts — but that they have an everlasting joy, an everlasting peace, because Christ has overcome.

*To instill in them a love for others, and a heart for service, because He loved us and served us first.

*To teach them to wonder at God’s handiwork, and to honor the Lord and drink deeply of wonder through inquiry, imagination, exploration, and study.

*To teach them to seek justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

6) Sometimes the very best lessons have nothing to do with curriculum. Run with them. Grasp at teachable moments. Chase after sparks. Don’t let academics hem you in.

7) Cling to the magical bits. The cozy pajama days. The moment your son glimpses a fox while you practice phonics in the front yard. The long walks through the neighborhood, that evolve into mapping of downward trickling streams of water, that then inspire perusal of books on the flow of rivers into the sea. These morsels are light and air. Recognize them for what they are, relish them, and reach for them to fuel your days.

8) As you review homeschooling blogs, you’ll notice that most parents schedule “quiet time” into the afternoons, when the kids play or read independently and mom/ dad get private work accomplished. This is an exercise in self-preservation. For introverts like myself, it’s a full survival mechanism. As tempting as it may be to sacrifice this time (doe-eyed children have wily methods of persuasion), don’t. The respite will help center you when things get hard, and restore you when you feel depleted.

9) Cocktail parties among strangers are awkward. Forced play dates for the sake of “socialization” are no different. Although it will be the number 1 concern you hear from others, don’t panic about socialization. Seek out rich relationships with people from all ages. Give to others. Serve others. And engage your kids along every step of the way. Kids need to experience the dynamics of sincere and loving fellowship, not bumble through stilted, artificial constructs to satisfy popular culture.

10) When peanut butter and jelly sandwiches become a fixture in your days, people presume you have nothing useful to say. You know better. Forgive, show grace, and don’t take it personally.

11) Personal interests take a back seat to homeschooling. They just do. Passions are crammed into the crevices of days — during naps, after the kids are asleep, before they awaken. Be selective with and jealous of your time. Remember this is one season.

12) Because of #11, others’ presumption of your idleness will frustrate you to the point of teeth grinding. Try your darnedest not to take offense when people ask about your new “life of leisure.” Be forgiving.

13) Relax your grip upon any need to explain your choice to others. Few without homeschooling experience will understand, and your attempts to “convince” others of the soundness of your family’s choice will only frustrate and unmoor you. Don’t dive into particulars — your awful work schedule, one child’s anger issues, another child’s special needs. Instead, smile, and explain the heart of the matter: you’re called to homeschool during this season of life. Walking with the Lord is the essence of the thing.

14) Evidence-based education is a fledgling field, and as such the body of data supporting common teaching practices is pretty weak (in contrast with medical science, in which clinical decisions rely heavily upon quality of data).  On the one hand, this can frustrate you as you seek guidance. On the other, you have every reason to focus entirely on what your individual child needs, and shouldn’t feel pressured to conform to popular opinion.

15) Invest in a library card early. Visit the library weekly.

16)  All holiday requests for the next decade will be Amazon gift cards.

17) Spend as much time outside as you can. During lessons. After lessons. After naps. The outdoors expand the landscape for learning, and calm all involved.

18) Homeschooling can be lonely. As an introvert who hates talking on the phone and who seeks out books to recharge, this one surprised me. Over the past year I’ve frequently felt like an “army of one.” Homeschoolers constitute a minority, and even among like-minded peers, only you understand the particular idiosyncrasies and challenges of your family. Seeking out communities locally and online helps. Ultimately, the isolation compels you to lean upon the Lord.

19)  Schedule prayer into your day. I’ve found that when I give the first light of morning to God, I can better maintain composure throughout the day. Place Him at the center in all circumstances.

20) Remember that even during the hard moments — when you flare with anger, even when the kids refuse to listen and you want to give everything up — God knows you and loves you, and that nothing can separate you from His love in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:35-39)

Resources that have worked for us: I’ve listed some books, etc., that we’ve found useful in our own learning, but I should emphasize that it will be up to you regarding the best route to take. There are a bajillion approaches. Our homeschool focuses on reading high-quality books (not textbooks), talking nonstop about what we observe, playing educational games, and spending as much time as we can outside. If we were forced to categorize ourselves, I’d describe us as unschooling meets Charlotte Mason. . .but I’m sure the suggestion would horrify Charlotte Mason purists!
I try to piggy back on Pip’s interests. Since he’s shown a preference for delving deep into topics (rather than flitting from one subject to the next), and because I want to instill in him a passion for learning, we currently do what I call “immersion weeks” — we decide on a topic together, and spend an entire week reading all about it and doing enrichment activities. One week we studied dinosaurs and chiseled a T-rex skeleton out of plaster. During “bird week,” we learned how to identify local birds by their calls, read lots of books, and went to the zoo with a focus on the eagles, owls, toucans and flamingos. The approach has meant more preparation ahead of time, but more flexibility in our days, and the chance to really dig into topics. It also allows us the freedom to chase after sparks that arise, which we do often.
All of the following can be found on Amazon. Forgive me for not including links — crevice time is scant.
General Homeschooling Books
The Well-Trained Mind — A book co-written by two homeschooling moms (who also happen to be mother and daughter). They endorse the classical model, but even if you don’t follow classical education the book is a treasure trove of ideas and resources. I’d highly recommend it.

A Charlotte Mason Companion
— This is a commentary/ practical guide on the application of Charlotte Mason’s principles to homeschooling. Charlotte Mason’s writings are highly worthwhile, but time consuming to cover in their entirety; this book gives a snapshot.

Learning Science Books

The Importance of Being Little, Erika Christakis — Review of how young children learn most effectively, and how early childhood education fails to meet their needs. A great read, thoughtful and useful.

Make It Stick, Peter C. Brown — Awesome book in adult learning science, but also helpful in thinking long-term about how we learn.
“Homeschooling is Awesome” Books
To allay your fears about your educational choices for your family, read anything by John Taylor Gatto or John Holt. They were advocates for homeschooling in the 1980s, and will help buoy your resolve for practical reasons.
Devotions
The Jesus Storybook Bible  –Wonderful way to integrate all of the Bible into a cohesive whole for children, i.e., a unified narrative about our redemption in Jesus. My son loves it.
God’s Love for You — Beautiful children’s Bible published by World Vision, that intersperses Bible stories with snapshot of believers around the world. We’ve read through it three times. Highly recommend.
My First Bible (Lane & Chapman) — Impressive for its breadth in a format very friendly for young kids (i.e., it goes way beyond Noah & cute animals). We read this every evening before bed. Each child has a copy.
We also use an old picture Bible with a “story-a-day x 365 days” approach that I found used. We use a lot of dry erase boards throughout the house, and pick a verse to memorize about every two weeks; verse selection depends upon the current issues in the house!
Math

At this stage we learn math through lots of games and math-rich storybooks. We also just talk about math constantly, throughout the day (skip counting on the swings, making up problems from numbers on signs as we drive, etc).  I’ve been amazed at how well it’s worked, and with what little frustration. Obviously we’ll have to change tactics when topics become complicated, but for now we’re enjoying it.

Here are some that have worked for us. We also liberally use math manipulatives (usually interlocking cubes that you can buy on Amazon).

Sum Swamp — Pip learned addition and subtraction from this game. I swapped out the 6-sized dice for 10-sided ones, to give him practice in math facts up to 10.

Dino Math Tracks — Great introduction to place value.

Pizza Fraction Fun — Pip’s young for fractions, but this has introduced the concept, and they offer multiple games as kids gain skills.

Pet Me — Fun introduction to multiplication/ division. A bit advanced, but still enjoyable.

Money Bags — Coin value game

Book titles we’ve enjoyed — the Stuart Murphy math series, What Time Is It Mr. Crocodile?, Equal Shmequal
Reading

Pip started sounding out words on his own when he turned 3. He asked me to teach him “more word rules,” and so I did complete a systematic phonics program with him. We used The Ordinary Parent’s Guide to Teaching Reading, which was written by a co-author of The Well-Trained Mind and is very practical and thorough. It’s a bit boring, and there’s no way it would have held Pip’s attention to just follow the book, so I adapted it into a game involving a treasure map and jelly beans.  A container of letter magnets also really helped to teach principles (displayed on a cookie sheet).

For early readers, Bob Books offer practice in phonics principles and are fun. There’s a book series called Primary Phonics that Pip also enjoyed, with each thin book focusing on one phonics rule. I didn’t find sight readers helpful.

 

Literature

Anything by Usborne Books is awesome. They have terrific anthologies of classics made accessible for young kids — not only the usual fairy tales, but Dickens, Shakespeare, stories from India, Greek myths, Norse myths.

It’s really hard these days to find good picture books. Either the children’s books that are beautifully illustrated have banal or absent text, or the stuff the books are teaching is trash.  We do a lot of Beatrix Potter, and tons of Mother Goose rhymes.
We also read from a chapter book regularly, usually at lunchtime. Wind in the Willows, Cricket in Times Square, etc.
Writing

Handwriting is an area that I’ve backed off, because Pip has some mild dysgraphia and gets easily frustrated. However, we have the Handwriting Without Tears program, which I think will be promising when he’s ready. With regard to grammar, he frequently just narrates stories that I type on the computer, and we talk a lot about proper sentence structure through that practice and daily appropriate talk. We also do — and yes I’m admitting this — Junior Mad Libs. You’d be surprised how quickly a kid can figure out verb vs noun when there’s the promise of laughter at the end.

 

Science

The Let’s-Read-and-Find-Out-Science series has been wonderful for us. The books are engaging, but don’t dumb down content, and many titles include easy experiments to drive the topics home. They have a ton of titles on Amazon, all about $5 per book. National Geographic also has some awesome collections geared toward kids (their Big Book series). Magic School Bus is thorough and fun, too. We probably do more science than anything, and have accumulated a lot of topical books and encyclopedias. With supplement with museum trips once a month.

History

This is a weak area for me, because Pip doesn’t like “people books.” We have The Story of the World, which I anticipate we’ll read, along with many biographies.

Geography
Pip learned world geography by doing these, with very little input on my part. We also use world map placemats, and big dry-erase decal maps in our living room, which are fodder for daily discussion (for example, when reading about dinosaurs, if the notes say fossils are found in Argentina: “can you find Argentina on the map?”)  We’ve also enjoyed Lonely Planet Kids’ Travel Book, which offers a page of info and pictures on every country in the world. It doesn’t offer depth, but a glimpse; still, it’s rare to find a single resource that includes every country.

We have many more that we use daily, but are more difficult to categorize since our days are so variable. However, happy to comment if there are specific questions!

12 Comments Add yours

  1. Sherri says:

    Wow, you are inspiring. Im smiling happy for your peace and your choices you made for your family and most of all because you give God the glory.

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    1. Katie Butler says:

      Thank you for your kind words, Sherri! Blessings to you and yours!

      Like

  2. Erica says:

    Thank you for this! I have become a reader after finding your articles on Desiring God. I keep wondering what you use for your kiddos and this answers my questions! I am about to embark on our first year of “formal” home education with my 5 year old and am excited, but quite intimidated as well. Our state requires two reviews per year so we must have a well-documented plan and we must have proof come review time. I am reading through The Well-Trained Mind, taking notes and hoping I can get it all in order by August. This year we did “A Year of Playing Skillfully” and it became a little disappointing by May. My daughter is just beyond a lot of it. BUT it was a good trial run for our family. There are some very encouraging reminders here, thank you!

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    1. Katie Butler says:

      Hi Erica! I’m so glad it was helpful. I’ve also used resources on music and art throughout the year, which I didn’t list, but I’d be delighted to share. Please feel free to email me anytime at klbutler46@gmail.com. “A Year of Playing Skillfully” looks like a beautiful curriculum, but I suspect we would have had the same issue you imply. Things seem to evolve more richly and naturally when we focus on “living books” and chase after their interests. In my experience, young kids are also much more capable than we adults give them credit for — everything need not be cute and simple. This isn’t to say we do any hard-core academics (I’m hoping to avoid worksheets indefinitely), but they can delve much deeper into topics than we expect. I pray for joy and growth for all of you in your journey!

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  3. joynell says:

    Keep it up, Katie!
    It’s so encouraging to read your words of truth and grace in this first-year summary along with such a wonderful list of solid resources and advice. This is great!
    As a mom of two homeschool graduates and two more not far behind, I can echo what many have said before: “the days may seem long, but the years are short,” but, most importantly, “His grace is sufficient.”
    Blessings to you as you continue along on this rich journey of loving and learning alongside your family!

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  4. Katie Butler says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for your encouragement! And for the excellent reminders, especially about grace. They are like a cool cup of water. Blessings to you!

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  5. Oh wow. This is possibly the best blog post I have ever read. Thank you so much for the encouragement! Big lonely homeschooling hugs from Australia x

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    1. Katie Butler says:

      So glad it encouraged you! Hang in there, you are not alone!

      Like

  6. Jeanne Dedman says:

    Oh, just reading your recommended books made me nostalgic! I miss some things about our homeschooling years, especially all the great books. Bob Books, Charlotte Mason, learning the history of flight from the Bleriot brothers to NASA, sigh, those were the days! Perhaps you have found Honey for a Child’s Heart too, to help find good books at the library. As a life long compulsive reader, I knew lots of classics, but that book helped too. I hope you have found some local support groups. I never would have made it without the two groups I belonged to (one was Charlotte Mason approach). I missed the great field trips myself once we finished schooling! Many sweet memories. Best wishes, your sis.

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    1. Katie Butler says:

      Thanks so much for the well wishes and tips, Jeanne! Your fond memories are huge encouragement for me on the fledgling side of this journey! Blessings to you.

      Like

  7. Love your article on the Psalms. Just beautiful!
    Have you considered Classical Conversations for your homeschooling? I homeschooled all four of my children and consider it the most wonderful curriculum out there. Just a thought.

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    1. Katie Butler says:

      Thank you! I have some of the CC resources, which I love, and I admire their approach. We attended one of the weekly classes as part of an open house, and it wasn’t a great fit for us right now, but will keep reassessing yearly! I’m delighted to hear that you’ve had such a great experience with it. 🙂

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