Homeschooling: It's not what we do, it's how we live.

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Homeschool Co-ops: Yea or Nay?

You’ve no doubt heard the old adage, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’. As parents, we are often left wondering where this mythical village is, and why we weren’t invited. As new parents, we’re consistently offered help, and told to just let friends and family know what we need, as if telling will magically translate into having. But when you decide to start homeschooling, most of those offers of help disappear. Along the way, homeschooling families seem to have noticed this trend, and voila! – the homeschool co-op was born.

A homeschool co-op, generally speaking, is an organized group of homeschooling families who choose to educate their kids together (cooperatively, thus the name), in small-group settings. Co-ops can be formal or informal; focus on ‘core’ subjects (language arts, math, science and history), electives (art, music, labs, etc.) or a combination of the two; organized through a church, local homeschool group, and or just a group of interested parents.  Co-ops use the same subject or text for teaching the students while they are at co-op, so they’re usually sorted into similarly aged groups for classes and may or may not assign ‘homework’ to students for completion outside of co-op days. Co-ops can have all kinds of arrangements, but usually meet one day each week. Some co-ops follow a more traditional school schedule; others only run seasonally or follow an altogether unique schedule. In most co-ops, the parents of the students are the teachers. This allows the parents to pool their strengths, and can offer some really fantastic opportunities to the kids. Others have a few dedicated teachers (who may or may actually be teachers) while the other parents in the co-op take on other tasks.

I’ve seen parents on either end of the spectrum, from brand new homeschoolers to experienced homeschoolers, look into co-ops for a variety of reasons. My kids and I have participated in 2 co-ops; one was not so great, but the one we are in now (our second year) is fantastic. Just like any other endeavor, some things fit and some don’t. There can be a bit of trial and error, and sometimes forging your own path to find (or create) what works best for your family. Let’s look at some of the advantages and disadvantages that co-ops present.

Co-op Pros & Cons:

Advantages:

  • better use of your time – Homeschooling is time consuming and can be difficult. Sharing the work with other parents can be a really attractive option! Cooperative schooling means that you don’t have to fit in every. single. thing. to your schedule. If you co-op is core-focused, then you don’t have to worry about what to use, because the co-op will tell you. If your co-op is elective-focused, then you can focus your home days on core and not worry about fitting in art and music.
  • regularly scheduled social opportunities/away from home opportunities for kids and parents – Socialization is still (still? STILL.) a hot-button topic for newbies or those uninitiated into the homeschooling world. Since co-ops offer education in a group setting, it has a more familiar ‘feel’ to it than it might otherwise because your students are going to regularly be in a ‘class’ with other kids. If you or your children are social butterflies, having a dedicated day of the week where you know you’re going to be with other people for the majority of the day can be a good thing for your sanity. Actual *adult* conversation, folks!
  • allows you to take advantage of other parents’ strengths/knowledge – This is one of the primary factors in the ‘pros’ column, in my opinion. Every parent has the subject that they can knock out of the park, and another that they dread tackling each day. Co-op allows you to pool your knowledge, skills and strengths with other parents so that you can stick to what you do best. This helps the kids, too! I firmly believe that a teacher’s passion for a subject helps engage students. I would much rather have a parent who loves biology teach my kids rather than push myself to plod through it alone. Additionally, your co-op may offer something that you just flat don’t have access to. Last year, my kids were able to start violin lessons through our co-op. I didn’t play strings at the time, so this was something that would have otherwise been unavailable to my children. This year, I am teaching and essay class – something all of our kids need help with, but that the other parents dread. Since I love writing, it works out.
  • small group learning – kids with learning disabilities/anxiety or developmental delays may benefit from small group environments; they aren’t isolated like they would be at home, but aren’t overwhelmed with a large group of kids and noise like they would be in a traditional classroom. I’ve found that my kids have more closely knit friendships with their co-op classmates than they did when we weren’t participating in group classes every week. Since well run co-ops function like mini schools, the students (and often parents as well) are able to establish intimate friendships with their peers. Small, close-knit groups also offer opportunities for healthy competition among peers. Last year, during a seat testing day for orchestra, the teacher had to use 2 decimal places to determine seat placement – that’s how close the grades were!
  • cost – this one goes in the pros and the cons list. Participating in a co-op can allow you a little more room in your homeschooling budget. Some things, like science labs and art projects, tend to be costly if you have to buy a kit for only one student. Splitting the cost between a group may mean that you get a discounted rate, or can split the cost of a kit with several other families.
  • group-specific opportunities – some classes are harder to accomplish in a one-on-one setting. PE is often more fun when you have a group to play games with. Public speaking is more challenging (and arguably more beneficial) when your audience is real, live people instead of a room full of stuffed animals, your mom and baby sister. We often talk about the advantages that one-on-one homeschooling can provide, but there are some things that just work better in a group.
  • motivation and accountability – this one is iffy; if your co-op is core-focused, then having to meet up each week and keep pace with the other students is a nice incentive to stay on track during non-co-op days. However, if your co-op isn’t core-focused, then this may not apply. However, having a regularly scheduled time to ‘talk shop’ with other homeschooling parents can help keep you motivated to stay on track with your lesson plans, and help troubleshoot when things aren’t going well. Students can also energize each other; hearing what their friends are studying or learning about can help spark interest in your child, too.

Disadvantages:

  • time  – there are several time factors to discuss: one is the amount of time that co-ops can take to organize and plan. Because they’re usually run by parents, that means that, at the very least, you will have to pitch in to help plan, organize or contribute to the smooth running of the effort. If you’re teaching, factor in curriculum research, lesson planning, and grading or evaluation. Consider if the time investment is worth it based on what your kids are getting out of it. Another time factor is the schedule: homeschoolers jokingly operate on ‘homeschool time’, which can mean a variety of different things but usually indicates that start/arrival time is negotiable. For a group to run smoothly, that may mean altering your normal homeschool schedule to fall in line with ‘real world’ time again (at least on co-op days). The last time factor is the amount of time that the co-op takes out of your normal weekly homeschooling routine. If you already have a pretty tight schedule, then you may need to evaluate if you have time to devote to co-op and still have your normal course load. This is less important if you have younger children, follow a more delight-led or unschooling path, or if your children are very independently motivated. Our normal personal homeschool day is a minimum of 4 hours (that’s the *minimum*). Our co-op last year was from 9-3 (this year it’s 10-2), and we also have music lessons 2x per week. We only have one day each week that is fully ‘at home’, so co-op HAS to be worth it for us. Co-op schedules vary, so make sure you consider your students’ work load outside of co-op classes if you’re considering joining or starting a co-op.
  • cost – costs can vary dramatically depending on what classes are being offered. The good thing is that co-op parents are generally pretty conservative, so you aren’t spending money on ‘generic’ supplies; what your co-op asks of you is exactly what the student needs. Some co-ops factor in administrative cost, which may include venue fees or pay a coordinator; others may trade cleaning services or lawn maintenance or some other service that should be factored into your tuition fee/time commitment. There may also be costs associated with co-op that aren’t factored into the tuition fee, like clothing, lunch or event admission fees (if your co-op has field trips). Last year, our co-op began a student orchestra, so the cost of our students’ instruments was on top of the tuition fee.
  • distance – This may also be a disadvantage for some. In our area, there are quite a few co-ops to choose from. Some are very near (the closest to me is literally less than 5 minutes away from my house), but the co-op we participate in sometimes requires a 45+ minute drive on co-op day because we rotate participants’ homes. I put this in the ‘disadvantage’ column, because let’s face it: for most homeschoolers, any location that isn’t our couch or kitchen table is probably farther than we want to go for homeschool. Again, this is just one factor that may make participation in co-op more or less feasible for your family.
  • students may not get what they need from the co-op – Ideally, you will have some input into the classes offered by your co-op. But some co-ops are formed with only a small planning committee or you may have joined after the classes had been set. Depending on how the co-op is structured, your student may be older or younger than the other students, or may be farther ahead or behind the skills and lessons the class is teaching. Class/curriculum planning is one of the harder aspects of organizing a co-op for this reason. It’s a good idea to find out what the co-op’s policy is on dropping out before you commit to the year, for both yourself as a teacher and your student.
  • no/less individualized education – one of the main advantages of homeschooling in my opinion is the ability to customize your student’s education, from philosophy and approach to curriculum and accommodations. You lose some of that autonomy when you choose to educate in a group setting. It’s not as limited as it would be in a traditional classroom, but you’re not as free to make changes like you would be otherwise.

This is far from an exhaustive list, but I think it touches on some of the more pertinent points. As with anything you decide to try with your kids, it may work and you may love it. It may be okay, so you continue doing it because you already committed to it. It may be a flop, and you want out asap! Good communication with your co-op group goes a long way towards clearing up any misunderstanding and alleviating any mishaps.

Our Experiences

We are in our 7th year of homeschooling, and have been in 2 co-ops (organized through the same local homeschool group). Our first go-round was when my kids were in middle school. My two were among the oldest in the class, and we had about 8 families participating. We had 3 age groups, with 4 classes plus lunch. The kids were separate for most classes, then we lunched together and had a big group art class. I taught geography, history and art. It had… issues. Overall, it was a good experience, but there were some things that were problematic. First was time vs. value. Originally I wrote new lesson plans, which was very time-consuming. Unfortunately, as the other older kids dropped out and my two were the oldest, I needed to shift into a lower gear for my classes. I ended up using materials that my kids had already gone through, so my kids weren’t benefiting from my classes. They still had French and a science craft/lab class that they really enjoyed, so it wasn’t a total loss, but overall, the value wasn’t worth the time investment. We also has issues with switching location; originally our co-op was held in a church with several classrooms and a large communal space (both indoors and out), but when that fell through and we moved into a home, there as more tensions since we were all on top of each other all day long. Ultimately, we cut the experiment short by several weeks.

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2014 Triangle Homeschoolers THINK Co-op

Our second co-op started last year. We limited it to high schoolers, which was one of the reasons I think it was so successful. Previous experience taught me that a small co-op with several age groups didn’t work. With several different age ranges, it’s more stressful because as a teacher (especially if your don’t have kids of your own in those ages) you have to switch gears mentally to teach up or down to the age of your class. With the high school co-op, we kept the 4 classes plus lunch structure, but since we only had 9 students, we only had one class going at a time instead of 3. That was great, because when I wasn’t teaching, I could chat with the other moms or take care of work things.

We had our co-op in someone’s home both times; the first time, it wasn’t ideal, because we were shuffling kids into bedrooms and the kitchen and living room. Space was crowded, and there was nowhere quiet the entire day. For the second go-round, we had class in the living room or kitchen, and had an office (or outside patio space) that was kid-free during classes. Again, this had to do with limiting the age range.

We tend to favor a 6-weeks on/1-week off schedule for our co-op classes. A lot of the families in our homeschool group follow that type of schedule for their personal homeschool, too which is nice. The first co-op we participated in lasted through one 6-weeks and petered out somewhere in the second (maybe third). We’d only planned for three 6-week sessions, but it wasn’t working, so we cut it short. When we started up again, our group actually had a high school co-op (which had five 6-week sessions) and an elementary co-op (which had two 6-week sessions). The high school co-op ran August – May, and the elementary co-op had a fall session and a spring session (both only 6 weeks long).

Overall, both experiences were good to have, but our second experience (limited to high school) was much better; so good in fact, that we have already started our co-op schedule for the 2017-2018 school year. We started earlier so we could have six 6-week sessions for the year. Not everyone who was in the high school co-op returned for this year’s classes, but enough did to make it worthwhile.

2016-2017 Triangle Homeschoolers THINK High School Co-op

Starting a Co-op

I don’t know how popular homeschool co-op classes are in other areas, but a couple of years ago, we had 13 co-op groups in Southeast Texas. We have a population of about 388,745, with somewhere around 1,500-2,000 homeschooling families; I don’t know how that compares to other areas. Most of the co-ops in my area are faith-based. Actually, all of them are, except the one we belong to. Since I wasn’t willing to sign a statement of faith, we didn’t qualify for membership in most of the groups and co-ops in my area, which is what led me to starting our local homeschool group in the first place. As the group grew, possibilities opened up, which is what led to us deciding to give co-op a try.

Honestly, there really aren’t any hard and fast rules as to how a co-op ‘should’ be organized. Since it’s a cooperative effort between homeschooling parents (and students), you have a lot of freedom to create and customize it to whatever your community in interested in. But if you are thinking of taking on the task of creating a co-op, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • choose a coordinator for a very small group, or committee of 3-5, depending on the size of your co-op – every ship needs a captain, and someone needs to have the final say-so when it comes to decision-making for your co-op. Choose wisely; the coordinator needs to be someone who is organize and can handle both stress and communication well. Additionally you may want to have someone in charge of the treasury (collecting tuition, ordering supplies, reimbursing expenses, etc.). Keeping a cash box or money bag is fine; no need to open a checking account unless you want to go a more formal route.
  • ask for input from your group – homeschoolers like options! They like to be included and have a say in what’s happening with their kids (as they rightfully should). Ask for input or feedback on policies, plans, classes; ask what parents want to teach (or what their strengths are), and ask students what they want to learn about. Your co-op will only be as successful as the interest your group holds in participating, so input from your membership is vital to your staying power. We usually ask parents/teachers to list their class name and a brief description of their class, the created a poll and let the students vote on which classes they prefer. Once classes have been chosen, you can move on.
  • create a handbook – communication is so important when you’re organizing a group of people. Creating a handbook can get a lot of the questions out of the way, ensure that everyone (parents, teachers, and students) knows what to expect and what their responsibilities are, and serve as a reference point when communication gets sticky. Your handbook is where you’ll lay out everything about how your co-op operates, and should address most of the questions that you have as you’re looking into co-op: how does it work? what does it cost? how are the students graded? what if I want to teach/don’t want to teach? what about younger/older kids?, etc.
  • determine location – where will your co-op meet? Some options include: someone’s home (same place every time, or on a rotating schedule?); library; city or town community room; church; park (though outdoors can get distracting or be problematic when the weather is bad); restaurant (possibly negotiate a deal for lunch)… your city likely has some unique possibilities – think outside the box! Cost is usually a factor when it comes to location. Some venues will work with your and allow you to meet without a fee, or at  discounted rate, or even in trade (with your group offering cleaning or lawn maintenance or some other task in exchange for space). Storage is another consideration – will you tote school supplies back and forth, or is there space to store things on site? Other considerations include: table or desk space for the students, computer and wifi access, chalk or white board/projector/screen access; parking; lunch facilities – will everyone need to bring lunch or can you cook on site?
  • have the teachers decide on their curriculum, create lesson plans, and price supplies – be sure to factor in printing costs and coordinate with other teachers to use the same supplies where possible so you don’t over-estimate supplies costs. Supply cost estimates are usually needed before tuition can be decided, or you can set a flat fee. Be sure to ask parents what they have on hand that can be donated to co-op to help keep costs down! What you choose to include in your tuition fees is up to you.
  • decide how non-teaching parents will contribute – it’s not ‘cooperative’ unless everyone participating has a role. There’s plenty to do; ideally everyone takes a turn doing all the things, but if the same parents seem to enjoy teaching and you’re content to let them do it, make lunch or snacks or childcare for younger siblings the responsibility of non-teaching parents. The larger your group is, the more jobs there are. No one should feel taken advantage of.
  • decide on your schedule, and how the classes will be broken up – Some classes only take 4 or 6 weeks to complete; others last a full semester or even longer. Your schedule will depend on what your co-op is planning to do, and will require someone organized to create a schedule that works. You’ll need to know when you want classes to begin so that you can set your tuition due date in time to order supplies. Be sure to add in field trips, special events or other things like that so you’re well-planned. You can add things like ‘morning meditation’ or ‘lunch chat’ or something else clever to address the specific needs of your group. It’s also a good idea to plan a ‘state of the union’ assembly at some point to see how things are working for the group.
  • decide on tuition fees and due date – If your location carries a fee or built-in obligation in trade, that will need to be factored into your tuition cost. Decide when you need tuition paid by so that you can order supplies in time for classes to begin. A savvy shopper will check online stores, shop for wholesale options and look at price-matching options to keep costs as low as possible. Consider additional costs as well, and make parents aware of things that the co-op will not supply (like musical instruments, lunch, literature books or things like folders/pencils/etc.).
  • have a great first day! Keep the coffee flowing, bring mimosas sometimes, let the kids cook lunch, have class outside one day, bring in a guest speaker …. co-op can be amazing and fun and just the thing you need to get you out of a rut. If what you want or need isn’t available in your area, then create it. If you want it, chances are someone else does, too.
Image result for if you build it they will come

Oh, sure… they meant baseball fields, but this totally applies to homeschool co-ops, too.

Other Options

Of course, co-ops aren’t the only option for parents who aren’t sure they want to take on homeschooling all on their own. Many areas have local homeschool groups that serve as a supplement to your personal homeschooling plan. While they may not all offer a co-op, they often do offer support and a shoulder to lean on as you’re finding your way.

More recently, there is a trend towards part-time private schools, where the kids attend a brick-and-mortar school a couple of days each week and homeschool the other days, which is a neat option. Unfortunately, the only ‘schools’ I am aware of that offer this option are costly which takes it off the table as an option for many homeschooling families. Another movement on the rise is ‘democratic schooling’, like the Sudbury School model. Great in concept, but if you’re a working homeschool family living on one income, it can be cost prohibitive.

Online academies also offer an option, but that’s not a great option if your interest is in homeschooling and not just ‘school at home’. Those programs are run by the state and you end up with none of the benefits that homeschooling provides, like (depending on your state’s laws): full control over what your child is learning; opting out of standardized testing; endless personalization and customization options for your student; and liberation from the 8-3 school day/week and mandatory attendance schedule. Still, some families find it to be a good option, either as an intermediate step towards more independent homeschooling or because it just works for them.

You can also look into workshops or classes held by stores, restaurants, or other local businesses. Colleges, museums, and other places may offer summer camps or classes, or may be willing to work with your local homeschool group to hold a class with enough participation. Private music classes, art classes, gym, dance or other sports are usually available to homeschoolers, and you can always look into hiring a tutor if you feel like you’re not able to help your student get where he or she needs to be.

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Hopefully, this will give you some things to think about, whether you decide to join a co-op (or start one) or try something else. I am a firm believer in being open to trying new things, and if it doesn’t end up working out trying something else… and even trying something again that didn’t work out before. Our first co-op was a learning experience, and that led to a success story the next time we gave it a shot. Remember: nothing you choose in homeschooling is so permanent that you can’t stop and choose something  else.

If you have the opportunity, give a co-op a try!

Warmly,
~h

 

 


Planning Your Homeschool Year

plan your year

We follow a non-traditional school year. When I originally withdrew my boys from public school, it was just after the winter break. They were mid-semester, so we finished out that 6-week grading period, and then started homeschooling. Ever since then, we’ve started our ‘year’ in January.

Way back when I was a newbie homeschooler, I was anxious to get started. I knew what I wanted, and I was ready to go after it. We jumped in, both feet first and never looked back. The older, wiser, more experienced homeschooling mom in me now looks back on that eager, idealistic mom and thinks, ‘Aww… you sweet, summer child.’ As with so many, many things, I wish I’d known then even half of what I know now. All in all, I don’t think we had that bad of a start. There are things I’d do differently; de-schooling for a while, for one thing, but we didn’t hit the books hard and heavy right off the bat; we got started soon, but we did take it easy, so I don’t have too many regrets. But the pressure I put on myself was enormous. At the time, I had yet to be diagnosed or started treatment for anxiety disorder, and looking back I know that my internal stress-o-rama was partially due to that. Even so, I had no direction, no real clue as to what I really needed to do, so I did all the things. I’d never planned for homeschooling before, so I was making it up as I went along, and like many newbies, got way to ambitious and idealistic. Luckily, I had some really kind and caring guides along the way who helped me reign in my tendencies. Even though some of them no longer blog, Jana, Julie, SmrtMama, Farrar, and many other helped me find my way.

Now, I know better, but still browse homeschooling blogs to make sure I’m not missing out on anything I haven’t seen before. I do still plan the year, and I do still usually start in January. We take the month of December off – at least we try to. There’s almost always something that interferes with the plan (this year, it was illness) that forces us to play catch-up, but that’s okay – that’s partly why I plan that break. The time off gives me a couple of weeks to catch up anything we were lagging behind on, consider what’s working, what needs to change and come up with a new plan or figure out new material to replace it. I know that we’ll complete this ‘grade’ in the spring/summer and start the next ‘grade’ in the fall, so I plan to do another planning session in the fall, to refine and add new materials I come across during the course of the next six months. There are always new materials coming out, which makes planning difficult sometimes. Throughout the year, I keep notes and use Pinterest to keep track of things I want to look into later in the year. If you use it that way, don’t forget to go back through it and pull resources from your boards when you’re planning!

I usually have a pretty good idea of what we’re going to do for the year before I start, but I’ve also learned to value flexibility. If something isn’t working, I don’t waste time trying to force it. There are always other materials out there.

This year, we’re starting the One Year Adventure Novel for grammar. We’re doing other things as well, but that’s a new addition. Most of our plans from the fall remain the same, which is nice. Back when we started, I had grand ideas that didn’t work in our life, so things got switched up a lot. I don’t regret it, exactly; it was a huge learning curve and part of the journey that I think helped make this part run more smoothly. It also let me accept that flexibility is okay, and normal, and probably for the best, considering the many options and changes that happen during the year.

When I start planning, I look at several things. Take history, for example. This year, we need to work through the last half of Story of the World IV. We’re on schedule; my plan was to finish that in May-ish, and we’ll make that target. After that, we’ll be either between books, or can start with SOTW I again immediately. At this point, I think I want to take a couple of months and focus on geography, but I know that will play more of a role in our overall journey through the SOTW books this go-round, so we’ll have to see what happens when the time comes. In addition to the regular curriculum, we keep track of a timeline, we have our homeschool group’s social studies club each month, and will hopefully be adding actual travel to the kids’ experiences this coming year. Even though I can’t put those things on the books in exact dates, I know that’s what I want to accomplish this coming year.

I treat the other subjects similarly; I know if we’ve started, where we’re at and what needs to be done. If it’s new, and we’re starting in January, then we have the year to divide the lessons up. The One Year Adventure Novel curriculum is designed to be completed in 9 months, so by the time we break for the year at the end of November, we should be done. That’s about right, counting the various breaks we take through the year.

That brings me to another point – planning the actual school dates. I usually plan for 6 weeks of school, then a one-week break. That’s what we did originally, when we started, but it didn’t work. The kids were too young, I think, and I was too new and stressed. We amended it to 4 weeks of school and one week off, and that worked a lot better. As we’ve progressed, we’ve gone longer and had fewer breaks (or took 2 instead of one week)… depending on what we needed at the time. Regardless of how the actual breakdown of the year happens, I still always plan for a block of school, followed by a mini-break. This year, we’re on a 6-week on, one week off schedule. I also planned for a 2-week break in July, and for school to ‘end’ December 2, 2016. That’s roughly 190 days of school, not accounting for birthdays (which are holidays) or sick days (which we rarely have). That’s comparable to our local ISD’s school calendar, just spread a little differently.

The last part of my planning regimen is my planner, itself. You might say that’s the first part, even. I usually start working on designing my new planning ion November and try to have it completed and printed by mid-December at the latest. Because I also plan events for our homeschool group, I need to be able to see what’s going on months ahead of time. I also get the luxury of planning my kids’ lessons around whatever we have scheduled for the group, if I want to. For comparison sake, I took a couple of pictures of 2015’s planner (end of year) and 2016’s planner (brand new and *so* crisp!!):

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I’ve made changes to my planner every year; last year, I discovered Passion Planner and so I added a page to every week. My weekly layout is 4 pages and I love it! I also added a pocket folder and tabs for the months so I can quickly and easily find my current week. I use both the monthly layout and the weekly/daily formats; this really is the center of my world. Whereas I used to keep my personal planner and my lesson planner separate, I’ve since learned the value in integrating them – everything is in one place and it’s lovely. I have blank, printable versions of my current planner, and every previous version of it, available for free, here. There are also a few other printable pages, including a student planner I designed, but the kids don’t use right now. Every year, I find little tweaks and things that work better, and that’s pretty neat to see. I keep all of my old planners, and it’s fun to look back through them.

If you’re at a loss, even a calendar from the dollar store can be effective; I found a video that a woman with small kiddos did on how she plans – not for homeschooling, but the idea was the same. With only a few supplies, she created a color-coded layout that worked for her family. Whatever you use, even a plain spiral notebook, can work! I know a few homeschooling families who don’t pre-plan; instead they write down what they accomplished at the end of the day or week.

Since this is the beginning of the year, I thought I’d share a progress picture – this was our first day of homeschooling way back in 2010, and a shot from this week:

 

Homeschooling, Day 1

Homeschooling, Day 1 – January 2010

 

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Homeschooling, Beginning of our 6th year – January 2016

How do you plan?
Warmly,
~h

 


Lesson Planning – Fall 2013

I am always so excited at this time of the year. It’s LESSON PLANNING TIME!! I have been reading and researching my little heart our and now I am ready to start putting it all together.

It’s been a long time since I have detailed exactly how I got about my lesson planning for the year, and watching a friend of mine who is new to homeschooling trying to find her way has reminded me how difficult lesson planning can be for your first year of homeschooling. There is literally an information overload when you start looking at resources. It gets completely overwhelming, and it’s easy to get stuck.

I will say that for first-years, I really do still stand by what I have always said – don’t buy much (if anything); sample everything you can get your hands on to see what you and your student like best – but most of all, learn to find the FUN in learning again. If that means that for your first year, you only do the 3 r’s, that’s cool. The rest will come. De-school if you need to, but if not, that’s cool, too! Don’t get locked into one mindset or curriculum – and open mind on your first year will help you find your way to what is right for your family.

But if you’re looking for more intense lesson planning, here’s how I got about it (which is in no way saying that mine is the only/best way; this is just how I, personally, do it. There are hundreds of other blogging homeschool moms who are more than willing to share their methods as well).

Fist, I decide what subjects I want to tackle, and how many times I want to cover them each week. For us this year, it’s:

  • Handwriting (Daily)
  • Math (D)
  • Spelling (D)
  • Writing (D)
  • Literature (2)
  • English (3)
  • Latin (3)
  • Weekly Research Project (D)
  • History (2)
  • Science (2)
  • Geography (1)
  • Art / Music (2)
  • an hour of reading (to self/to someone) (D)

Then, go about refining the weekly classes:

  • Handwriting (Daily)
  • Math (D)
  • Spelling (D)
  • Writing (D)
  • Literature (2), English (3)
  • Latin (3), Art / Music (2)
  • Weekly Research Project (D)
  • History (2), Science (2), Geography (1)
  • an hour of reading (to self/to someone) (D)

That is a much shorter list, because some of my subjects alternate days. Since I am only doing 2 days of Literature, then I can focus more on English the other three, etc…

Next, I can start looking at multi-disciplinary lessons. For example, I taught the boys more individual lessons (a set time for Spelling work, then a set time for English (parts of speech, sentence structure, etc.), then a set time for History, and so on. Now that they’re older, I can lump all of the reading/writing centered lessons into one.

Then, I start going through the books I have on hand, and through my links and Pinterest boards (by subject) to see what I wanted to use. Pinterest can be both a blessing and a curse. It’s awesome for archiving things, but unless you are very conscious about properly categorizing your pins, it can be a big mess when it comes to finding things. I separate my pins by subject. All grades are under the same subject, but I can wade through to find the right grade (or adapt and idea up or down for my kids’ needs). There are so many amazing links on Pinterest; even searching (i.e.: Math 6th grade) pulls up a ton of links that you can use.

This year, we’re trying something I’ve only just read about (on Pinterest), called ‘Thoughtful Journals’. The concept is fairly simple; a composition notebook divided into 5 sections (or 5-subject spiral). Each section is named. The sections are: My Strategies, My Thoughts, Powerful Words and Phrases, Author’s Craft & Genre Learning. As you go through your lessons, the student uses the journal to record notes and other useful tools to help them learn to be better readers and writers. I am paraphrasing, badly, in describing this technique, so I will link you to Life in 4B, which is the awesome blog I found the idea at. In any case, the Thoughtful Journal is where most of our work related to Grammar and Writing will find a home this year.

History, Science and Geography are another area where I smooshed subjects together. We are still going through Story of the World II at the moment; I plan to be finished by December. We are still lapbooking it, thanks to CarrotTopX3. When Alia from ‘Chronicle of the Earth’ was unable to finish the lapbook template for SOTWII, awesome bloggin’ mom Brenda stepped in to fill the gaps (for which homeschooling moms all over the WORLD are eternally grateful!!) – Team Work, yo!! SOTW makes History easy, especially with lapbooking. We try to coordinate our artist and composer study with History, so even though they’re not ‘on the list’, we still work that in. As we finish up SOTWII, I have SOTWIII waiting in the wings. I have already started lapbooking it; hopefully I’ll be able to post it in full when we start on III. We have the activity guide as well, and I am looking forward to digging into that.

Science fills the other two weekdays when we’re not focusing on History. We usually switch them up, but I am considering doing History M/T and Science W/Th so they have two days in succession to focus on one subject this year – dig a little deeper. Then Friday, of course, leaves us time for Geography as it’s own subject. We also tie in Geo. with History, but this gives us extra time to work on land forms or other interesting components of the earth (which is kind of History AND Science).

Math is another one that’s easy to plan; I don’t go off-road much which Math, so I get a grade-level curriculum and go from there. We’re working with Math Advantage this year. Latin is another one that I don’t experiment much with. I don’t know Latin any better than my kids at this point (though I am learning), so I can’t rightly ‘teach’ it to them – we’re learning together. We are still in Book I, but will be moving to Book II later this year.

Once I decide how I am going to plan my lessons, I start looking at the actual curriculum. For the most part, I stick with what I can find that’s grade-level. But, as is wont to happen with homeschoolers, I have found that they naturally fall into their own strengths and weaknesses as they progress. I found a great article discussing Homeschool Misconceptions that touches on this a bit, and is worth reading. For us, it means that this year their curriculum may fall anywhere from 4th to 7th grade. Spelling is a weakness, but Grammar is something they’re both strong in. It balances out! I found that even the school system uses different books for different grades, depending on the school district. I have a copy of the Science book that I used in school in the 6th grade that the manufacturer says is 5th grade level. I’d rather have my kids spelling ‘below’ than keeping up and failing in the classroom. Their spelling skills can be improved. Self-esteem takes longer. Whatever sources or grade levels you choose for your kids, you get the most out of it in whatever way works best for your family.

Once you find your curriculum, it’s time to look back at your schedule. You may want to flip through the books you’ll be using and make some rough outlines of how much material you want to cover each week, or how long you want to spend in one unit before moving on. I usually map out the schedule on notebook paper (Week 1 = Unit 1, Chapter 1; Week 2 =Unit 1 Chapter 2; etc.). This may change during the year, and that’s okay. But having a guide makes it easy to see the pacing of the year a bit better. You can always make adjustments later on.

This year, I am using a binder in addition to my usual lesson planner (homeschool bossy book). We aren’t doing workboxes this year, so I have been using the workbox plans in my planner for scheduling. It works well for that. The binder is a more in-depth, day by day type of lesson planner. I have it divided by subject, and the year’s activities per subject mapped out in each tab. This is also where I am storing printed materials, and unit study/lapbook plans. Having both planners will help make the day’s activity easier to follow, I hope.

We have in the past clocked about 25-30 hours of school per week. That averages out to some longer days and some shorter days. This year, however, I am pushing for more of a set schedule – about 30 per week. That’s on the high end of what we normally do, but I think it’s reasonable for my kids. Mine still need to be led quite a bit, or they lose focus. Not all days will take as long, but some will go over, so again – balance.

The only things left after this point are gathering school supplies and waiting on the first day of school!

… and the second-guessing, and worrying, and reading a blog at 3AM that tells to do do something totally different than what you have newly finished and ready to go… relax. That’s totally normal! Know that you can change any aspect of what you have planned at any time. It’s not a big deal – just go with the flow. The hardest part is getting it all laid out in the first place. There are SO MANY cool things to try, to implement, to experiment with – and each and every bit sounds more exciting and fun than the next.

I read a great blog yesterday that was talking about being ‘inspired’ by someone without re-making yourself in her image. I take that to heart when I read about SuperMoms in the homeschool world who have their crap together far better than I do. Go have a read. It’s at Living Well, Spending Less.

Happy planning!
Warmly,
~h


Summer Fun Passport

I was going to start this post off with a line about wanting to know what my kids are up to when they’re not with me. Then, I realized that there are very few instances when my kids are not with me, and so that wasn’t an applicable way to begin…

But the principle applies – *if* my kids were away from me, especially on a somewhat regular basis, I’d want to know what they were doing. By the same token, I thought that it would be neat for Appleberry, Huckleberry Pie & Red Butler to have a  record of everything we did this summer to take home with them.

And so, the ‘Summer Fun Passport’ was created!

I took my existing history passport and changed the color scheme and updated the text. Then I searched Google for clip art of things we’ve done – tennis camp, swimming, sleepovers, the library, summer reading club, spending time with grandparents, movie posters, etc… and put them into a document with text (in some cases).

Then I printed the pictures, cut them out and glued them into the spaces just like passport stamps and added dates and notes (if they weren’t typed out).

The result turned out pretty good, and is a visual record of what we did this summer!

I added the templates I made if you’d like to make your own:

Summer Fun Passport Cover and map BLANK

I print the covers, then turn the page and slide it back through for the map to print on the opposite side. Then I do the same thing with the map pages for the insides. They don’t align 100% perfectly, but they’re pretty close. It may take a bit of fiddling with flipping the pages to get them to print evenly; on mine, I have to turn the page over and upside down so that the margins match up. But if they don’t, it’s not that big of a deal; most of the lines will be covered with pictures, stickers or text anyway.

I also left blank spaces on the back so that you can add your homeschool crest or logo, and a message to the kids on the back. If you make one, link back and let me know! I’d love to see how this idea gets adapted!

Warmly,

~h


Fidgets for ADHD Homeschool

One of the benefits of homeschooling a child with ADHD is that you have an almost unlimited amount of freedom to experiment with and utilize the many therapeutic tools that are out there to help such children maintain their concentration on the task at hand.

Fidgets are one of the tools that have been shown to be successful in helping ADHD children maintain focus when they’re doing mentally intense work. If you’re not familiar with them, fidgets are little toys or gadgets that provide children with attention disorders stimulation (tactile, oral, or gross motor, or a combination thereof) and/or an outlet for their excess energy during seat-work. Some fidgets are small, either handheld or for the desktop to keep hands busy while the child is thinking, writing or calculating. Others are larger and provide different types of stimulation and feedback over the whole body, like weighted or vibrating materials; or furniture that allows the child to move more freely than your average desk set-up, like swings, balance boards, mini-trampolines or exercise balls to sit on.

There are some stores/websites that sell fidgets and sensory materials, like the Therapy Shoppe (which separates their fidgets into categories like alert fidgetscalming fidgetssilent fidgets, and tactile fidgets), Fat Brain Toys, Sensory University, and Sensory Edge, and these are great if you can afford them.

But when homeschooling, you’re often on a budget and even inexpensive fidgets can seem out of reach when you’re not sure what things your child might like. Since I can relate to that, I thought I’d put together a list of fidgets that are easily ‘found’ or made at home.

Starting with small fidgets:

  • spring/spiral (plastic, taken from an old spiral bound book or notebook and cut into pieces. Those spiral shoelaces also work well as a fidget.)
  • Lego tree (round, though I’m sure the conical ones would work just as well – lovely for palming and twiddling)
  • velcro dots (sticky-backed ones can be applied to the underside of the desk)
  • clothespins (alone or can be used with clip-ins like a bundle of rubber bands, a few bent chenille sticks, yarn or other something to make a ‘brush’)
  • soft bristled paintbrushes or jumbo makeup brushes (feel nice on cheeks, over eyes and lips)
  • skinny balloons (stretchy and can go onto fingers – but don’t let them chew on them!)
  • foam stress ball (often given out free at conferences, fairs, doctor’s offices, the mall…)
  • filled stress ball (the dollar store often has squeeze balls; there’s one called a ‘blob ball’ with a net outside that lets the inner part bulge out of that is both disgusting and fascinating; or you can make them from big latex party balloons filled with sand, moon sand, powder, modeling clay, rice, beans, poly pellets, or a combination of things for long-term use (can double balloon and tie for a little extra protection). If you’re looking for other textures, you can fill them with peanut butter, pudding, tapioca, jell-o, etc (but these are, for obvious reasons, disposable after a day or two).
  • worry stones made from polymer clay (or air-dry glue/cornstarch clay, also called ‘cold porcelain clay’) or rocks
  • aluminum discs (made from the bottoms of coke cans – Use tin snips to cut the rounded bottoms of a coke can out, then put them together, convex sides out and seal the edges by gluing and then burnishing, or with tape on the outside. Use sandpaper to smooth and finish the edges. It makes a lovely palm-sized convex disc that feels good in your hand.)
  • butterfly/triangle paper clips (can put several together on a binder ring)
  • a long bolt with a rubber band on the open end and loose nut to twist up and down (metal or you can find plastic ones in the plumbing section of the hardware store)
  • put a rubber band on a pencil, slide on some metal hex-nuts towards the top end and add another rubber band. The pencil is weighted and the nuts are twistable. Also works on crayons and markers)
  • mini rain stick (toilet paper tube or even smaller diameter cardboard tube, nails and rice/beans and masking tape)
  • egg shaker (re-use those old plastic Easter eggs – fill with rice, beans, poly beads, BB’s or anything similar and seal with tape. You can papier-mache for extra security)
  • bean bag (scrap material and dry beans/lentils/rice/poly pellets)
  • poly pellet (single to roll between index finger and thumb)
  • teethers (especially gel-filled ones and ones with ‘nubbies’ on them; Sophie the giraffe is fun to chew on as well)
  • rubber bands (tie a bunch together, then snip all but one of the loops to make  a ‘koosh’ type ball
  • tape measure with a button re-winder
  • Rubik’s cube

For larger stimulation, we have used:

  • weighted lap blanket (I made them from a fat quarter of fabric and filled with poly pellets from the craft store)
  • noise cancelling earphones
  • foam ear plugs
  • vibrating neck pillow
  • yoga ball
  • rolling pin on the floor (under desk, for feet)
  • yoga
  • balance board (can be made from a 24″ long piece of 1″x 6″ scrap board with a 1″x 1″ half round piece of molding nailed to the underside. Sand the edges and let your child paint and decorate it. The child stands with feet on the outer edges and balances the board up on the round.)
  • weighted hula hoop (can be made by cutting open a regular hula hoop and adding steel ball bearings and taping back together)
  • sensory steps (in our version, I made a couple of sheets of 8.5 x 14 paper with eight 4″x3″ squares of sensory material – just enough to ‘toe’ and small enough to fit under the best. Ours include sandpaper, lentils, elbow macaroni, faux-fur fabric, shredded plastic, rubber bands, toothpicks, crinkled aluminum foil, yarn, Easter grass, egg shells, lego bricks, shredded newspaper, terry cloth, and pantyhose.
  • rice sock (tube sock filled with rice; can be knotted every few inches to provide more even distribution and/or a different ‘feel’; also can be filled with lavender or other herbs and rice, and heated to make a warm aromatherapy weight)
  • meditation/mind jar
  • 2lb hand weights (also works to roll with feet on the floor)
  • yoga block (for feet to manipulate)
  • weighted tube (a paper towel tube with a spent D cell battery in it. Close both ends of the tube with cotton balls (for cushion) and tape. Tilt back and forth gently to let the battery slide from one end to the other. It has a nice ‘thunk’ to it.)
  • sensory tubs (usually used for younger kids, but are very useful for older kids with SPD)
  • sensory bottle /science bottles
  • sound therapy: white noise;  thunderstormfireplace/thunderstorm are all amazing and vary in length.
  • alpha wave sound therapy on low volume over headphones. You can record this video/sound, then put it on an ipod and loop it for however long you need it for. Once is almost 10 minutes. Any sound therapy we use with headphones for maximum effect.

We use or have used most of these (not all at once, obviously). Different things seem to work at different times, and I’ve noticed that even my younger son (who is not ADHD) seems to focus better when allowed an outlet, so even though these types of tools and activities are ‘for’ kids with attention or sensory issues, they can definitely be of use to children without them as well.

What are some of your cheap/handmade sensory tools?

Warmly,
~h


32 Down, 8 To Go

We are a mere 8 weeks away from finishing our second year of homeschooling. I was sitting here, trying to think of something clever to title this post when I realized that – I can not believe how fast this year has gone by! 32 weeks just ptttph! Gone. Unbelievable. We were so ready for our week off last week; it seemed like all we’d been doing forever was school, school, school. Now that I realize how close to the end of the year, my inner Uber-Teacher is panicking just a wee bit!

I know, I know… deep breaths… meditation – these things are my friends.

Now that we’re done with this week’s outings, we will be hitting the books pretty hard starting tomorrow. Not in response to realizing that we’re almost done with this year – this was the plan before I got off on that tangent.  Since we started workboxes, the boys have accomplished a lot of work – more than we would have otherwise, I think. I’m happy with their progress, but … break’s over!

We started this next four-week session off with a bang; the Houston Children’s Museum had their homeschool day on Monday. We’ve only ever been once before, and the boys were really little. It’s undergone extensive renovations since we’ve been! I’ve read about them, and heard other people’s tales, and now we have finally gotten to inspect the edutainment goodness for ourselves!

This is PeaGreen back in 2005. He really liked the Mexican Village section. It was one of the first areas that you saw in the old layout. Apparently, it’s still one of his favorites, because he spent quite a bit of time in the newer village area, too. They’ve updated and enlarged it with a school, a cobbler’s shop, a huge fountain, a little mini-bus taxi and a touring bus. It was one of the last things we saw downstairs – the layout is very twisty-turny, which is fun, but makes it so that it’s easy to miss things if you’re not paying attention.

LBB was all about the science this time. They have a mini-lab set up in one section, complete with lab coats and eye protection for the kids with several stations set up for them to ‘work’ at. East station had a concept and lesson with an experiment to do that illustrated the concept – very fun! He very much enjoyed playing the role of ‘mad scientist’ and disappeared a couple of times. I found him both times back in his ‘secret lab’.

That was kind of interesting to me; I would have expected them to be interested in the opposite thing; PeaGreen is all about the lab and creating things, and LBB is usually more interested in simulated life… they’re full of surprises!

We briefly visited the Kidtropolis city; it’s a kid-sized ‘real world’ where they can visit businesses and service industries and ‘work’ (do assignments for a paycheck, which they can then cash at the bank and go shopping in other areas. It looked really neat, but it was very crowded, so we browsed with the intent of coming back some other time to really sink into that experience.

As much as they enjoyed inside, the hit of the day was, by far, the Flow Works outside – a huge system of water tanks with every possible water ‘thing’ you can imagine or want to play with – rivers that flood, canal locks, several types of dams, plumbing and running pipes, water cannons, boat races, water wheels… they spent most of the afternoon building and playing and learning – I really couldn’t have asked for a better day.

We did miss our friends; it was supposed to be a group trip, but only a couple of other families in our homeschool group were able to make it. It was really nice just to spend the day with ‘only’ my kids. We’re always in groups – which are always fun – but it’s nice to be able to really let the kids follow their own time-table and sink into a game or idea or activity instead of being moved along at touring speed through a museum.

A few more pictures from the museum:

Always with the non-stop, action packed adventure that is our life; today was our homeschool group’s field trip (we go every Tuesday). This week is Fire Safety Week, so we had a tour of our local fire museum and talked about fire prevention.

The fire museum here has a great education department. Since the museum is in what was a working fire station, there are bunks upstairs and fire poles that come down to the main floor – the kids always learn something when we’re there. They have a mini-house set up so the kids can practice calling 911 and fire drills and climbing out of windows; it’s pretty extensive, and really kid-friendly.

We would have park pictures from this afternoon, but LBB banged his head on the car getting in after the museum tour, so we decided to come home instead – which worked out well, because it was beautiful outside and I got to do some fall crafting while the kids whiled the afternoon away doing boy-things. I made lavender/orange peel incense pellets (with the honey method), cedar/pine/rosemary/magnolia smudge sticks and finally finished a broom-making craft with driftwood I found on the beach a few weeks ago. The magnolia/pine smudge sticks smell exactly life fall. They’re easy to make and everything is already dried – pine needles and magnolia leaves are ALL over our yard – just wrap and burn! Here are the other smudge sticks hanging to dry:

Tomorrow and the rest of the week, we’ll be putting our noses back to the grindstone. I’ve updated our workbox system and am still figuring out how the chore chart will be worked in, but expect pictures and details soon.

Warmly,

~h


NBTS Blog Hop – Student Photo Week

Once again, we’re participating in the Not Back to School Blog Hop over at Heart of the Matter. This week, it’s student photos!

Even though our school year ‘officially’ starts in January, it’s really hard not to get caught up in the excitement of ‘back to school’ around this time of the year. We stock up on school supplies (OMG, SALES!!!) and clothes and take their ‘official’ school year picture.

Since my kids started Kindergarten in school-school,  their picture each year was always taken in the fall. I have one of those big Kindergarten though Graduation progressive picture frames for each of the boys and so to stay consistent, I take their ‘grade’ pictures around back-to-school season so that the pictures are about a year apart. I always wanted one of those frames and now, having one for the boys, I love seeing how much they change from year to year.

I’m not obsessive about haircuts and  uniforms the way I was when they were in school, so even though we have head-shots, they’re not as tailored and ‘posed’; artificial, like they were in school. I think my kids are super cute always, but so far, I think I like their homeschool ‘school’ pictures better.

Technical info: I try to take their pictures outside; natural light and all that, then I edit in Picasa and add the text. I am a font-freak and downloaded that one from DaFont.com.

I also update their school ID cards each year. I think it’s helpful to have something ‘official’ for the kids. We haven’t ever been bothered with questions that are invasive, but I like to be prepared.

On the fronts of the cards, I have spaces for their names, grade, and birthdate as well as my name and phone numbers and our homeschool group affiliation. I used a template at Homeschool Oasis. If you scroll all the way to the bottom of the page, there is a downloadable MSWord.doc that has samples of all the card templates she offers. I used the ‘Card E’ layout and added more stuff into the card – our homeschool crest, our city’s flag and the state flag, and you can’t see it, but I added our homeschool group’s logo and name. I did not sign the front of the card because I have the back signed.

On the backs of the cards, I have a signed medical information, emergency medical release and emergency contact information, as well as a notice that they’re exempt from the daytime curfew in our city.

There’s also discussion on a list I am on about daytime curfews so I thought I’d share my ‘solution’. We do have one in our city, and though I oppose the ordinance, it passed with flying colors a few years ago. According to the state law though, we’re exempt. It’s not actually spelled out in so many words, but if we were accosted, I think my interpretation would hold up. One exemption is in the event that a minor child is with a parent or other appointed guardian. My kids are nearly always with me, and when they’re not, they’re with someone I trust, so them being out and about alone is a moot point. The reason I claim ‘exempt’ is because in TX, homeschoolers are considered private schools, and as such are exempt from compulsory school attendance laws. In any case, I updated their ID cards this year with the city ordinance and state statute that grants their exemption from daytime curfews.

I also made an educator ID card for myself, and I have both of the boys’ names on my card and their grade and the homeschool group affiliation. I put my homeschool group membership card on the back of my educator ID card. Our homeschool group operates on more of a traditional schedule (Aug/Sept through May/June) and we (parents) have group ID cards for discounts at places like Joann’s, Michael’s , Barnes & Noble and more. Once the cards have been updated for the new school year, I print them and then have them laminated at the print shop.

Do you use a homeschool ID card? Post your favorite resources, or links to your blog if you feel like sharing yours!

Warmly,

~h