Saturday, June 16, 2007

My Best Advice

To anyone reading this who may be considering homeschooling, reading about homeschooling, dreaming about or dreading homeschooling, my best advice ... do it. It's the toughest job you'll ever love.

But if you're going to do it, commit to it for at least a year. The first year is bumpy, and it takes a degree of commitment to iron out -- or ride out -- the bumps. The payoff often doesn't come until after the first year.

And have a care: homeschooling will reorient your worldview. It will challenge and probably change the way you look at many other aspects of life. It will very likely completely reorder the way you spend your time, organize your home, and relate to your children. In my experience it makes life much more integrated and full of connections. It also motivates you to open your own eyes and discover new interests and new questions and further your own education in ways you never imagined.

And speaking of organizing your home, some order and planning in the homemaking department is necessary to keep you from going insane. I use Flylady's system and consider it my lifeline; there is a link under her picture if you need to put a halt to your chaos. Planning meals, especially lunches, is essential. And anything you make that freezes well, always make double and freeze half when you make it. That ways you always have backup suppers handy for busy days.

Even though homeschooling tends to be mother's domain, don't forget they are their father's children too. Consult your husband when making decisions. Run your plans past him and ask what he thinks. Ask his advice...and follow it. I was never inclined toward a classical approach-- it seemed too rigid and structured, too heavily academic. But to my husband it seemed the most obvious, logical choice. I was amazed to discover my children's voracious enthusiam for world history and Greek myths. I found that they settled in happily to a structured routine of challenging work, and that structure and the interests it inspired spilled over into their play and free time. They needed it, thrived on it. And it took Dad to see it.

If homeschooling gets to be a struggle, if you find yourself butting heads with your child over certain lessons, ask yourself: is this an educational problem or a parenting problem? An educational problem has an educational solution -- a change in method or material, getting some specialized help, or just trying again later, will do the trick. A parenting problem rears its ugly head no matter what educational methods you try. I learned this the hard way with my oldest -- reading lessons simply became her chosen field of battle because she found that if she whined a little I would leap tall buildings in a single bound in an effort to "meet her needs".

Two years ago, when I was teaching my children to read, I found I was lost once we got beyond simple phonetic words like c-a-t. So I went to the library and checked out every book I could find on teaching children to read -- some that friends had recommended, and some that I just found in the library catalog. That's how I found Carmen McGuiness' Reading Reflex. I can't speak highly enough of this book. It's available on Amazon for about $16; Borders and Barnes and Noble carry it as well -- much less than a phonics program, and it takes children on up to a 6th-8th grade reading level. It is a phonetic method but is more intuitive than a traditional phonics approach. It gives simple diagnostic tools, and shows you how to analyze your child's errors in order to help them improve (e.g. if he makes this mistake, say this...). My children are 6 and almost 8, and spend their leisure time reading their Bibles and books like The Chronicles of Narnia. Enough said?

Actually not enough said, because there is one other factor to which I credit my children's enjoyment and skill in reading (and if you read the intro to Reading Reflex, you'll learn how skill and enjoyment in reading always go together) -- an environment rich in language. A rich pre-reading vocabulary is the main key to reading. Think of it this way: if a child does the work of deciphering the phonetic symbols on a page, only to discover that the resulting word is meaningless to him, he will be disappointed. And if he is disappointed in this way most of the time, he will become discouraged and give up. A broad vocabulary is easily imparted to a young child in the home -- by naming and explaining things using real words and not baby talk, and by reading aloud daily from living books.

My best advice with regard to math is: teach concepts concretely using manipulatives at least a year in advance of abstract work . I did this by accident, but it is actually what author Ruth Beechick advises in her books. So, for example, last year, (K and 1st for my two) we used only manipulatives the whole year. This year, (2nd and 3rd) the kids are working through workbooks using the addition and subtraction concepts they learned last year, and we are working with manipulatives only on multiplication and division concepts. Homemade math manipulatives work great and simple is usually better.

The principle of "less is more" definitely applies to homeschooling. We do formal "schooling" four days per week, two or three hours per day, year round, taking a break when family needs dictate. (Although when they get older, I'm sure they'll have to spend more time studying, but that additional time will be independent work.) Less is more applies to books, curriculum, and methodologies too. That's why I like CM. You can't get much more simple and paper free than narration, copywork, and real books. It isn't necessary to produce reams of written work, or to do every subject every day.

One big challenge my first year homeschooling was figuring out how to plan, and what to do if we didn't complete the plan. I'm not much of a planner...and for precisely that reason I require some sort of structure to keep me from completely flying apart. I finally got a grip on planning when I ordered Tanglewood's corebook -- I don't use it any more, but it did teach me how to plan enough to make sure we covered our intended materials in the course of the year. Counting pages and dividing them up to see how many pages per week you'll need to cover in order to finish by the end of the year is my simple proven method. I stop and take stock every few months to see if we need to work more on something or can loosen up on something else. I followed Tanglewood's curriculum pretty closely the first year, but have since branched out into choosing books myself as I have gained confidence and a better idea of what we want and need and what is out there.

Read widely and talk to people about the various philosophies and methodologies of homeschooling and take what appeals to you most from each. Don't get trapped by the idea that there is only one right way to homeschool or that you have to be a purist for something to work. I use Charlotte Mason's teaching methods, Maria Montessori's materials and manipulatives, classical content and underpinnings, and still allow for plenty of unschooling to happen in between. (Our unschoolish moments are some of our best.)

Live where you are. I live in a tiny corn-wheat-and-oil town, well over a hundred miles from huge museums, symphony orchestras, art galleries, zoos, science centers, or anything else that might be anyone's idea of "cultural and educational" experiences. But we have a great county museum that focuses on local history. We have a National Grasslands that comprises most of our county just waiting to be explored. The Santa Fe Trail runs past our town, and Coronado engraved his signature on a rock outcropping. We have a county fair to participate in. We've visited a vet's office and a taxidermist's studio. Our family doctor is always happy to answer the kids' questions. There is plenty to explore wherever you live, and things that seem ordinary and dull to you may prove fascinating to your children -- you may find as I did that your own boring little corner of the world is full of wonders.

Don't forget that playing and cooking and doing chores and doing art and building and swimming and exploring and playing games and all that other stuff is as much part of what you're doing as sitting around the kitchen table with "school" books. These are the things that turn children into whole, balanced adults and give meaning and purpose to the stuff in the books. It's HOMEschooling not homeSCHOOLING.

Favorite books:
A Charlotte Mason Companion by Karen Andreola
Schoolproof by Mary Pride -- the chapter on educational clutter is especially relevant
Wild Days: Creating Discovery Journals by Karen Skidmore Rackliffe -- the most useful and practical book I've found for incorporating nature study into homeschooling. Nature study stressed me out until I read this book.
Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds -- And What We Can Do About It by Jane Healy -- mostly addresses the use of computers in classrooms, but her recommendations to parents on how to choose educational software and use computers wisely is excellent
The Well-Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer -- a classical education through high school
Kingdom of Children by Mitchell Stevens --- a sociological study on homeschool parents; interesting insights into homeschool "culture"
Ruth Beechick's books

Other "best advice" on this blog
Attention, Retention, Comprehension...and Some Painting
Link to a tip on Charlotte Mason's principle of perfect execution applied to handwriting


Kelly - PTT said...

Thanks for joining our homeschool advice project!

Kathy at Brokenhomeschool said...

Great post! I love the part about living where you are. :)

Leslie said...

You are so right about the first year! Great post! :)

Alexandra said...

I like your tips. My dh is involved with homeschooling too. I'm glad for the help!

GeorgiaMom said...

Great advice to anyone considering homeschool as an option. We're getting ready to head into our 3rd year. But, this will be my first year teaching both girls. I'll have a 3rd grader and Kindergartner. You're right about finding what works for your family. Our girls attend a homeschool academy twice a week. It's a perfect balance for us. Since I don't have an education degree it gives me the confidence to know that we're getting everything covered. But, it also affords us plenty of time to add to the total educational experience with great field trips, extra time reading and time to just be a family.

Thanks for sharing such great advice!

Georgia Mom