School’s going to be back in session soon. In theory. Maybe? Who knows. Teachers, school boards, parents, and kids are all…let’s go with confused. Everyone I know is trying to figure out how to make the best of a bizarre and unprecedented situation.
Some of the plans I’ve heard seem just untenable. There was one school district in VA (not the one where I live) that floated a plan that apparently involved teachers working weekends (????) and going to students’ homes (?????????). Some schools are figuring if they send kids five days a week but build in extra shielding between desks, they’ll be fine. Other schools are doing distance learning all the time, or a two-day-a-week option.
I do think that the most just solution is for most students to stay home (and for the government to provide substantial support to families to cover childcare or loss of income), and that this will make school safer for families that don’t have good options, as well as for students who need more services. Here’s an excellent article that sums this up nicely.
Before I get too far into this, I should also point you to a brilliant post from Jennifer Murch about homeschooling (it’s specific to Virginia’s process, but might be helpful more generally).
But none of that is anything I know anything about. I’ve worked a bit as a volunteer, extremely part-time faculty, and guest artist in K-12 schools, but I’m the first to admit that that is a world I don’t know a ton about. My family has been homeschooling since for ever. I don’t know really what the most reasonable options are for schools. I do know, though, that lots of parents who can are trying to homeschool their children this year. Lots of friends and acquaintances have asked me for resources about what our “school” looks like.
So I’m going to describe what we do. I don’t think this is what everyone should do. I think you have to examine both yourself and your children and try to figure out what is going to work for you. This can be an exciting opportunity to let your child experience an educational plan that is really tailored to their needs or interests. For example, when Silas was smaller, he learned math from some branded workbooks I bought on Amazon that had him counting Jedi and regrouping lightsabers. They’re actually pretty good, pedagogically, too. At another point, I used LEGOs to teach math to both kids, based on a book I got on Kindle (I actually really loved this one; it changed how I do mental math). Maybe your kid is really physical and they need to learn skip counting with a number line you chalk on the sidewalk and they can physically skip. Maybe they like stories and they need to use TimesTales to get their multiplication tables (so boring and the absolute worst, but Silas learned his times tables in literally an hour over four days this way, after a full year of trying other methods. People who live near me, our local library has it). The point is, your kid doesn’t have to do exactly what the twenty-four other kids in their class are doing, because there aren’t twenty-four other kids.
I’m going to get to what we do (and here’s a link to all the stuff I’ve written here about homeschooling over the years), but first of all, I want to address a few questions/comments I keep getting.
How can I come up with 7 hours of instruction?
You don’t have to. Kids in school do not receive seven hours of instruction. They have lunch, recess, potty breaks, time waiting for other kids to stop messing around. A guideline I see a lot in the homeschool community is that kids should not get more than an hour of school work per grade level per day (so, your third grader shouldn’t do more than three hours every day). My kids do a whole lot less than that.
What if I’m not qualified to teach my child?
Honestly, it depends on your child. If they have certain kinds of special needs, the extra training that you would have gotten if you’d majored in education might be indispensable. Your kid might need to learn something you never learned (calculus?). But the odds are strong that you have most of what you need. You, after all, graduated from high school (under most options that would allow you to homeschool). And if you don’t remember something, google it. This is me being like, “I remember that I learned how to find the volume of a cylinder, but zero clue how.” That’s what the internet is for. Teaching something might help you learn it better yourself. I have learned so much math from teaching my kids. My mental math skills are infinitely better than they have ever been in my life, and my understanding of them is so much deeper. If you have older kids, they can google stuff themselves. You probably know somebody who can do a few Zoom calls and sort out the stuff you can’t figure out. It will be fine. Everything is figureoutable.
What if my kid falls behind?
Behind what? Every single child in your child’s cohort is going through this chaotic year of hell. While it is true that the current situation is exacerbating existing inequalities, everyone is jumbled. If you’re nervous about this, though, you might put your mind at ease by reviewing your state’s educational goals. Nearly every state has these. In Virginia, they’re called Standards of Learning (SOLs). You can take a look and see what your kid has or doesn’t have yet. It can help you focus and not waste time on things they already know. And remember, these are a total wishlist. A lot of kids in a normal school year don’t achieve those standards. Schools generally assume that kids forget things over the summer. I look at these every now and then just to see how my kids are tracking. They often are reassuring; I’m doing Not Very Much and my kids are at or above grade level in most subjects. And if your kid “falls behind…” that’s okay. We’re in a pandemic. Let’s all focus on what is important (and I guarantee you, “Making sure my third-grader can name all the states and capitals” is not going to be in anybody’s top-ten list of truly important things).
My kid just doesn’t like to learn.
There is no way that is true. Your kid might not like to learn what you want them to learn, or in the way you want them to learn. That’s not the same as not liking to learn.
Every human who ever lived is wired to enjoy two things: receiving stories and solving puzzles. Now, it may be that the stories they want to hear is the entire oeuvre of Dav Pilkey, and the puzzle they want to solve is “how to push all my mom’s buttons,” but that doesn’t mean they aren’t learning. Let them get bored enough, and they’ll have experiences they will learn from. If you’re lucky, you’ll all survive those experiences. If you’re feeling anxious on this topic, I highly recommend Free to Learn by Peter Gray. Kids are wired to learn. Let them figure things out. You’ll be surprised what they come up with.
I have to work all day, is it okay if I teach my kid on the weekends or in the evening?
Yes. Nobody from the school is going to come check that your kids are dutifully doing school work at 10 am on a Wednesday. Do what works for your family. You might have a childcare problem (who doesn’t?), but you don’t have a homeschooling problem.
Oh, and also—if your kid is not a morning person, cool. Let them sleep. They don’t have to “start school” at a certain time. They don’t have to do it all in a single stretch. They can find the schedule that works for them.
What supplies do you need?
I don’t have many special things for homeschooling. We go through notebooks and pencils fast (I think the kids eat them). I did buy a laminator on sale, and I like to laminate things we use over and over, like recipes the kids can make, editing checklists, etc. We have dry erase markers to go with those. Oh, and more clementines than any reasonable person would imagine needing.
Stock up on good chocolate and put it where the kids won’t think to look.
Googly eyes can save a bad day.
What is the most important thing a homeschooling parent should focus on?
The most important thing, always, but especially in These Times, is connection. Focus on your kid. Focus on your relationship. Ask yourself, “What do I hope my child tells their children about this experience in our family life?” Don’t tell me that you hope they’re telling your grandkid about how you made them learn prime factorization.
This is an opportunity to teach your kid the kinds of things that will help them survive adulthood, the things you wish your parents had known to teach you.
- How to ask for what you want.
- How to make space for health and healing.
- How to listen with respect and presence.
- What habits of mind or temperament are going to get in your way, and how to work with yourself.
- How to organize your life so that you achieve what you want to.
- How to imagine other perspectives.
- How to manage frustration, disappointment, shame.
It’s totally possible that learning those things has nothing to do with formal academics. Maybe you start out trying to get your kid to Do School and it creates a huge amount of tension and frustration for everyone. My (unpopular) opinion is that you should walk away from that battle. I think you should be ready to set aside what the world expects of you and prioritize your relationship with your child. It takes humility, humor, and creativity. If you remember nothing else from this whole long, dumb post (which, I promise, has curriculum links and stuff), remember this:
When I’m stuck, I need to center my relationship with my child and ask what this specific person needs today.
I can’t tell you what that looks like for you. I can tell you that it’s the most important thing. Also, please note that I said to center the relationship, not the child. Sometimes, you model self care by reminding yourself and your child that “Mama/Daddy is a person too.” Sometimes, you state what you need, and your child states what they need, and you think creatively together about how you can both get there. They will learn way more from that than from shouting and threats about learning to calculate the perimeter of a rectangle (not that I haven’t done that. I just know that wasn’t my best parenting or teaching day).
Enough preamble, what do we do all day?
For reference, Silas and Petra are turning 10 and 8 in the fall. Because their birthdays are on opposite sides of the school cutoff, Silas is in 5th grade and Petra is in 2nd.
When people ask me what kind of homeschooling we do, I sometimes describe it, not quite joking, as “half-assed homeschooling.” We aren’t true unschoolers. We don’t buy a packaged curriculum. We kinda sorta not really have a schedule. We do “school” roughly four days per week, all year. Sometimes we take a week off because we’re traveling or really busy. Sometimes we take a day off because it’s nice and we just want to go to the river.
On a typical “school” day, my kids have to do the following things:
- a chore
- go outside for at least an hour (usually they do more)
- get dressed, brush their teeth and hair
- rest time (an hour of being quiet in their rooms and not talking to me)
- writing/language arts
- computer skills
That’s it. I write a list on the fridge and they check things off. If they’re bored or whiny or asking for snacks, I ask them to check their list (no second breakfast until they’ve done clothes, hair, and teeth!). They can do it in any order. They can start it at any time. If we have plans in the afternoon, I’ll remind them that they need to get their list done earlier, but otherwise, they might start at 7, they might start at noon. They usually choose to do the same things at the same time, but not always.
For math, at the moment, we’re using a software program called Beast Academy. This is one of the few things we actually pay for. I think it’s really good at helping to develop a number sense. It’s challenging, but not impossible. The kids need some guidance, and unlike Khan Academy (which we tried, but they said was far too boring), I can’t make assignments. I usually sit with them while they do their math and try to offer support and guidance. Particularly for Silas, who has a low frustration threshold. He’s not bad at math at all, he just gets discouraged when something doesn’t come easily to him immediately. He’s used to most things being pretty easy. I think it’s good for him to have something that stretches him. I don’t ask them to do very much. They have little lessons that generally take about ten minutes, and I usually only make them do one lesson. Right now, Silas, who had been doing fourth-grade math, is reviewing some second-grade-level skills that he just needs to brush up. This is quicker and easier for him, so I’m having him do two little lessons.
Petra also sometimes chooses to play Prodigy for some of her free computer play time, but we don’t have a paid account. They both figured out how to play it for an hour and only answer five math problems, so I don’t count that as “school work.”
Writing/language arts is a thing I make up for them. I want them to practice their handwriting every day, learn grammar terms, understand how sentences fit together, get halfway decent at spelling, use correct punctuation, develop a process for editing, and produce writing they are proud of. This is a type of work that I feel very comfortable devising for them myself. That’s where my training is, and how I look at the world.
We don’t do a formal spelling or vocabulary curriculum. I’m the jerk who responds to posts in homeschool facebook groups asking for vocabulary builders with, “It’s called BOOKS!” Petra and Silas read a ton and listen to podcasts; their vocabularies are massive for their age, and it’s been a joyful process. When I notice that they’ve been consistently misspelling a word, I have them copy it correctly ten times, and that usually solves it. Sometimes we talk about word roots if I see a patterned misspelling. The more they read, the better their spelling gets.
In the past year, Silas has done some sentence diagramming, worked with scansion, written various forms of poetry, learned several different brainstorming and organizational techniques, and written first drafts of a few novellas. He loves writing and story telling. I rarely have to fight him on this one. His last assignment was a short essay about D&D. I had him go through a process of brainstorm/draft/edit. I think he started to get the idea. He says he wants to be a writer, so it’s easy to tie this concept to his future. He’s pretty motivated about learning to write well and clearly.
Right now, I’m making him write his first research paper, which he was originally Not Into. But I’m taking it very slowly; we do just one tiny step every day. The subject is the origin of D&D, which is something he’s interested in. My first research paper was on like… Brazil or something I was assigned at random. I like to remind him how good he has it. He’s starting to get the idea that this might be fun and interesting. When he’s done with this, I think I’m going to start him on the Big Life Journal for Kids to see if he can get a little growth mindset going on, and also to learn to use journaling as a tool for mental health. He’s an empathic introvert, he’s going to need it.
Petra’s a harder nut to crack. She insists that she does not like writing. So I’ve been trying to give her assignments that are more closely aligned with her interests. We did an experiment about growing bacteria and I helped her write a lab report. We’ll probably do more of those. This morning, I showed her how to make a labeled diagram, and she did one for a Kiwi Crate creation. As long as she’s writing, I don’t care much what it is.
When they were smaller, I made them also read to me every day. We used the BOB books a lot. Petra also used a website called Teach Your Monster to Read and suddenly could read really well. I am skeptical about most edutainment software, but I thought so highly of this one that I wrote to them to ask if they were hiring. When the kids were reading independently a bit, we did dramatic readings of the Elephant and Piggie books. Now, though, they both read well and constantly. I don’t have to make them do it.
I told our librarian that they were annoyed that they can only log 60 minutes of reading each day on the Summer Reading Games app. “How much time do they spend reading in a normal day?” she asked. After confirming that audio books and read-alouds count, I estimated that they each spend at least three hours every day reading or being read to. That was probably an underestimate.
Geography. Not having an official scope and sequence can lead to surprising gaps, but when we find them, we fix them. When we were in Costa Rica, Silas told me excitedly that he met somebody from Iowa. I asked him if he knew that was part of the United States. He said, “No, I thought maybe it was somewhere in Asia.” So…I printed and laminated a state map and decided we’d read a book set in each state. Before we read each day, we look at the map and review the states we’ve “visited.” This was kind of challenging; some states don’t have a ton of literature. And my kids are picky about books! We started reading Shiloh for West Virginia, which I read in three different grades at school, and they immediately objected that it was boring. They were…not wrong. So we switched to Missing: Miss Cornblossom, which was charming and delightful. I’ve decided to bend my own rules a bit to allow for the occasional picture book. I’m also letting some of our bedtime reading count. We just finished both On the Banks of Plum Creek and several of the Birchbark House books, and I’m letting that count for Minnesota, even though we didn’t officially declare it.
Computer Skills. Initially, this was just about teaching them to type correctly. Their inability to type quickly was preventing them from doing other computer-related things with ease. Petra still hunts and pecks if I don’t correct her, but they both can type correctly (and Silas does it pretty automatically). Now that we’re in a good place with that, I’m going to start them on some basic software dev things next week. Silas wants to learn HTML/CSS, so we’re going to do that. I think Petra would get a kick out of LOGO, so we might start there. She’s also pretty interested in HTML/CSS, though. They both are designing RPGs, and the site they use to share them with their friends allows some styling. They want to learn how to do that better.
In a typical day, they spend about 15 minutes on math, 30 on writing, and 30 on computer skills. JC and I read to them for around 90 minutes a day—our geography reading for about half an hour, and then something else for an hour at bedtime. The rest of the time, they play together or separately. Silas works on his D&D campaigns and his novels. Petra makes inventions out of paper, string, and tape. They care for our foster kittens. They look for frogs at my pond and mulberries in the woods. They play elaborate games. They fight and fuss. They argue over the swing. They make up. They write songs together. They negotiate. They explore. They ask questions and I look up the answers. We watch YouTube videos with how-tos and science explainers. Petra crafts a ton.
Science, history and other “subjects” are just integrated into our daily life. When they are at Forest School, they learn a ton of ecology and biology. They run experiments all the time, although not always formally. My mom got them a Kiwi Crate subscription, and Petra loves them. I’ve been pretty impressed with their projects and pedagogy. Maybe at some point, we’ll do chemistry or something in a more formal way, but for now, ad hoc science is working well. We’ve recently done a lot of American revolution history because of Hamilton, and Silas surprised me by making the connections to the French revolution via Les Mis without my having to draw those lines for him.
They have a ton of time to just think about things. Petra knows and understands herself better at 7 than I did at 27. Silas has all the time in the world to create all the visions crowding his mind.
The number one question every homeschooling parent is sick of answering is “What about socialization?” I think it’s funny because whenever I tried to talk to another kid in school, my teachers told me school wasn’t for socializing. …..
In Normal Times, my kids socialize a lot. We have Funschool and Terrific Tuesdays and Kutelopes (play groups), LEGO League, theater class, Sunday school. These, however, are not Normal Times. We’ve had a few outdoor playdates with a small set of other families. Some of those kids will go to school in a month, and then we won’t feel safe doing that. My kids will go to Forest School, which is a small group of children, all outdoors. I feel like that’s pretty safe. They also will do a rotating weekly playdate with two other households in our little pod. That’s about the most we can safely do right now.
When do you work?
JC and I both work. He has a Real Job and I’m a freelancer. We trade off when I have a meeting, but I do most of the childcare and nearly all of the school stuff. Other than scheduled meetings, I work during rest time (1 hour), TV/screen time (90 minutes or less), outside time (at least an hour, unless i’m out with them), time when they are playing on their own (usually an hour at a stretch, often two to three hours total in a day), and after they go to bed or before they get up in the morning. Most weeks I work about 30 hours. I work every day, and spreading my hours into the weekends makes it doable at a daily level. It can be challenging, but I’ve worked at least this much for most of my children’s lives.
When the kids get back to Forest School (10 hours/week), it will be a lot easier. I’ve always had something that got them out of my hair for at least a couple half-days a week. Not having that for the past five months has been extremely challenging.
I don’t have any about homeschooling. Other life stuff, sure, but not this. It’s not about a rejection of school or a judgement about what school is or does. I believe that quality schools are important to a functioning society. I volunteer in schools. I have a lot of connections with schools.
Choosing homeschooling was about choosing to be flexible as a family in a fairly specific way that has to do with who I am as a human. Mostly, I don’t like anybody telling me what to do. If a teacher sent home a note saying I should read to my kids 20 minutes every night, I would have a total “you’re not the boss of me” meltdown and not read to them at all. I also wanted to be able to travel for my theater work and take my kids with me. I had a specific vision of how I wanted my life with my kids to be, and school structures weren’t part of it. It’s been an incredibly joyful way to live together for all of us.
I feel really bad for people who are homeschooling because they don’t feel like they have other choices right now. This isn’t the right reason to be homeschooling. My hope for you, though, is that you learn and grow alongside your kids. Maybe you’ll send them back to school in a post-pandemic world. Maybe you’ll find a whole new life that is different from what you ever imagined education could be.
I’m cheering you on, wherever this adventure takes you. Please feel free to reach out if you have questions or are looking for a sounding board.