homeschool, lessons learned, planning

A Fresh Start in the Middle of the Year

For those who homeschool on a more traditional schedule, January is the middle of the school year. And no matter what the calendar says, I’m convinced that February is the longest month of the year. Nevertheless, we can take steps towards a fresh start even at this juncture. Now is a great time to refocus on our objectives—while our minds are all ready focused on losing the same ten pounds we lose every January, and we’re in the starting-over mindset. Let’s take a look at three areas in which we can reestablish our beginning-of-the-school-year goals: curricula, clutter, and character.
Let’s tackle curricula first. Yes, I mean the new math program we were sure would turn our little darlings into Albert Einstein miniatures. Is that new math program really working or would it be better to pull out the good old standby that has a proven track record? While it may not be the easiest time of year to try to sell used curricula, it is the right time of year to start a to-sell bin. If it didn’t work this year, chances are that it won’t work next year.
What about all those cool extras that we were sure we would be able to squeeze into our already-overcrowded academic days? If it’s still collecting dust on the top shelf, put it in that to-sell bin. Don’t think of it as wasting money, think of it as seed money (after you sell it, anyway) for next year’s curricula list.
Next we’re ready for my favorite category to organize: clutter. Some people have every stray Christmas hand towel and ornament tucked away in matching red Rubbermaid bins by New Year’s Day. Others of us are still finding turkey fridge magnets and glittery bows as we get out the Valentine’s Day decorations—not to mention must-have toys that turned out to be not all that.
The perfect time to declutter our seasonal decorations is when we’re boxing up our them up. Trash the broken ornaments, the ugly centerpieces, and the faded wreaths. This time of year is the most cost-effective time to invest in new storage, if need be. Mass retailers currently have season-specific storage solutions on, which is the only reason that my Christmas decorations are all stored in red and/or green plastic containers. As a side note, color coding makes it easier to figure out which bins need to come down from the attic for each season. When you’re shopping for storage, though, don’t give in to the urge to purchase all new decorations just because they’re on sale. That defeats the purpose of decluttering!
“Out with the old, in with the new,” goes the old saying. If your kids’ grandparents are anything like mine (my in-laws at least), then you know that Christmases and birthdays bring in a plethora of new toys, games, and DVDs. While some of the new items lose their appeal the day after the wrapping paper has been ripped off, some of them really do earn a spot in the limelight. Now, while our kids’ attention is on their new stuff, is the time to weed through their old toys and games. Start a yard sale bin for things in good condition, a give-away box for items that can go to the less fortunate, and a BIG trash bag for toys that are broken, games with missing pieces, and videos that got eaten by the VCR.
While we’re in the decluttering mode, let’s go through our papers, too. First the obvious: trash old invitations, expired coupons, and finished magazines. Next the less obvious: academic papers that multiply like dust bunnies. Remember those portfolios that we were going to set up in September for samples of our children’s school work? Now’s the time to start them for real. Can’t remember the details? Review my column in the July/August 2011 Home School Enrichment magazine. The basics are to just keep a few of each subject, to sort them by child and by topic, and to file them in a binder every few weeks.
Last, but certainly not least, let’s talk about making a fresh start with our character development. Like Paul in Philippians 3, I do not count myself as having arrived. I start each new school year with good intentions of being more patient, more flexible, and more godly as a homeschool mom. About this time every year, though, I find myself exhausted and ready for June. The problem is that June is still six months away. Instead of letting this area slide—again—let’s regroup and start over. It’s the perfect time of year to take a deep breath, say yes to an unscheduled field trip, and to start each school day with devotions—again. Let’s say with Paul, “I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me” (Philippians 3:12, NKJV). We need to practice what we preach to our kids in this department. I don’t know about you, but I’m guilty of holding my kids to a higher standard than I want to impose on myself. We just need to remember that good character traits are caught more than they are taught.

homeschool, organization, organizing, planning

Color Coding for Control

Color coding is an easy way to organize lots of different kinds of things. You don’t have to remember where it is, whose it is, or how to return it once you’re done. Kids’ possessions, calendars, books, holiday decorations, and homeschool materials can all benefit from using color coding for controlling them.
Anyone with more than one child knows how hard it can be sometimes to keep the stuff separate. This is especially true if you have more than one child of the same gender. Rather than just make sure all the kids have a different color sippy cup, washcloth, doll blanket, or monster truck, I suggest assigning a specific color to each child. That system is much easier than remembering that little Susie has a pink blankie, a red toothbrush, and a green sippy cup while little Molly has the opposite.
When my first child was born, I was thrilled to be able to dress her in frilly pink dresses, sew hew pink doll blankets, paint her room pink, and eventually buy her a pink, big-girl comforter for her big-girl bed. When daughter number two came along, I decided that all of her things could be purple, my favorite color and still very girly. As much as possible, I bought accessories and toys in pink and purple. No fighting over identical bath towels, sippy cups, or blankies. As they got old enough for school, I bought a pink binder and a purple binder, a pink pencil case and a purple pencil case. This system was also a no-brainer for me when I found a pink ruler under the couch or a purple notebook on the kitchen table. For those of you with more than two children, no worries, you have a rainbow full of colors from which to choose for your color-coding scheme. If your kids are old enough to have a favorite color, by all means use it.
Since the kids were already color coded, I went ahead and assigned a color to my husband and to myself for our family fridge calendar. That way I save space by not having to write everyone’s name on every event. I can also see at a glance who has an outside activity on any given day.
After we get our kids all color coded, we’ll be ready to start color coding other things around our houses. Many people choose to color code their books so that it’s easier to find what they’re looking for and to return books where they belong. You can purchase small, colored circle stickers and put them on the spine of each book. Make up a color scheme and post it on the side of the bookshelves or somewhere accessible and visible. For instance, you may choose to make all history and historical fiction books green, all science-related books blue, all language arts books red, and so on. The actual colors aren’t as important as choosing a color scheme, sticking with it, and making sure everyone else knows what it is.  If you’ve got enough books in one particular subject to fill an entire shelf, you could also add a same-color dot to the edge of that shelf. As an aside, our bookshelves are ordered by subject, and the shelves are labeled, but the actual books are not.
Since this is the holiday season, let’s talk about color coding our holiday decorations—or at least the containers in which we keep them. Since we can’t all afford to buy a whole new collection of different colored, matching Rubbermaid containers, here are a few other ideas. Use masking tape to label the boxes with a large spot of color on them. Choose easy-to-remember colors such as orange for fall, brown for Thanksgiving, red and/or green for Christmas, blue for winter, yellow for spring, and pink for summer. Of course, if you are in the market for new storage containers, the few days immediately following a holiday are the best times to score them cheap. That’s when I was able to purchase my red Christmas containers.
Since this column is supposed to be strictly about homeschooling, let’s talk about how color-coding can help to control our homeschool stuff. Assign each subject a color, say green for history, blue for science, red for language arts, purple for Bible, orange for fine arts, and yellow for electives. Or feel free to add more colors so that each elective and/or fine arts category has its own color. Then use folders, binders, dividers, notebooks, etc. in that color for that subject. You can use the color dot book labeling system I mentioned above as part of this system as well. When you’re trying to collect all of the stuff you need for, say, science, just look for all of the blue notebooks, folders, dot-labeled books, etc. If you store your materials in or near the kitchen to transport them to the table for school, you can color code each container and/or shelf as well.
The color-coding system is something that even toddlers can participate in since it does not involve reading. All they have to do is to match the colors. Of course, it may get a little dicey if you use both chartreuse and lime green, or if one of your family members is color blind, but for the most part, color coding is an inexpensive, easy method of controlling some of our stuff.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2011 issue of Home School Enrichment, in my “The Organized Homeschool” column.


The Master Plan

Before you click to a less scary sounding post, let’s take just a minute and look at what kind of master plan we’re discussing. A master educational plan takes a look at the whole picture, not just, “What are we going to do today, Mom?” It takes into account our children’s learning styles and our family philosophies as well as the subjects and topics that will be taught each year. As fun as choosing a new, random topic each week can be, doing so without a plan can be more detrimental than helpful to our overall educational goals. Yes, I do believe in teaching to our children’s interests—to a certain point. The problem with that is that they’re kids; they don’t know what they need to learn and what they don’t know. If it were up to my daughters, we would not own a math textbook!
Are our kids going to be prepared for a formal high school or even college plan? What happens if we study medieval history three years in a row and never get around to studying the world wars of the past century? These are some of the questions driving the idea of a master plan. Providing a structure for not only math and English, but also for history and science gives a framework around which our kids can fit odd facts, war dates, inventions, and people. After all, studying World War II wouldn’t make much sense without having studied World War I and other events of the twentieth century. Randomness is like having paper figurines to represent major people and events in history and telling our children to put them in order on a blank wall—with no dates or references. One of the goals of homeschooling is to produce well-rounded young adults. Academically speaking, this means that they will have a general knowledge of most of the major historical events and scientific inventions and literature from different time periods and countries.
When should we implement our master plans? The earlier the better. But what if our current intention is just to homeschool for kindergarten, or just through fifth or sixth grade? Then a master plan is even more important. If our goal is to eventually matriculate our children (back) into the school system—public or private—we for sure want them to be prepared and on par with the rest of their classmates. This is not to say that we should use the exact same curriculum that those schools use, but it is to say that if we know a child will go to the public school in grade six and study early American history, it probably would be a good idea to study something other than that in fifth grade. Many books and websites that detail in general what should be learned in which grade. For instance, no matter which curriculum we decide to use, we probably want to make sure that our kids master multiplication by the end of fourth grade at the latest.
How can we implement this great master plan once we have it down on paper? We start by working backwards. We know where we want our kids to be ten years from now, five years from now, or even one year from now, so how are we going to get there? It’s obvious that math and grammar need to be taught incrementally, and most math and grammar textbooks follow the same general flow of thought. Personally, I think it’s best to stick to one publisher/curriculum for those subjects so as to provide the most thoughtful flow and to avoid as many gaps as possible. Of course, if a particular curriculum is just not working for a certain child, by all means, switch it out. For history and science, if we want to make sure we’re covering all the bases, it’s best to lay out a plan for each year. I prefer to stick with the same publisher/curriculum provider for these subjects as well, for that very reason. Publishers tend to make their subjects flow from one year to the next. Children also know what to expect if we use the same publisher/curriculum from year to year. Of course, I certainly understand the need to switch things up occasionally, but I always stick to the master plan as far as the topics being studied. If you love the idea of unit studies, try to make sure they fit into the general flow of the historical period or scientific area you’re studying for the year.
Here is one suggestion for a master plan covering history and science that can be implemented with just about any curriculum. Study these subjects in three four-year cycles, starting in first grade. Each cycle would cover different topics, have different reading materials, and, of course, require increasingly higher levels of mastery. For history, break it down like this: year one ancient history, year two medieval history, year three early American/world history, and year four modern American/world history. Science could look like this: year one life science (animals, people, and plants), year two earth science/astronomy, year three chemistry, and year four physics. Or, years one and two of science could be swapped to correspond with the traditional high school science cycles. I must give credit to Susan Wise Bauer of The Well-Trained Mind for this original idea. This plan makes it easier to teach more than one child at a time; just have each child in the same time period for history and the same general topic for science. Younger children can begin in whichever year’s cycle the older children are studying; they’ll eventually cover all of the same materials.

This article was originally published in the September/October 2011 issue of Home School Enrichment, in my “The Organized Homeschool” column.


Record Keeping for Dummies

Records? What are those? Didn’t they go out of style with eight-track cassettes? Or, records? Are you nuts? Why should I keep them? If I have to keep them, which ones should I be worried about, and how do I do it?  

Let’s start with the why. Why keep records when you don’t have to? On the flip side, why keep records when you can just keep all of the actual papers and workbooks? We’re all aware that every state’s homeschool laws vary as to how much (if any) record keeping we have to do. I’m not going to pretend to be an expert, but I will say that we need to keep abreast of our own state’s requirements; Homeschool Legal Defense Association ( is a good place to start if you need help.
So, let’s move onto reasons we should keep records if we don’t have to. As a verb, record means “to set down in writing, to furnish written evidence of” (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary). At one time or another, we’ve all needed to have evidence that we are actually homeschooling our children. We need to remind ourselves sometimes that our children have actually made progress since the beginning of the school year (or from year to year).

Even if we manage to graduate our children from high school without keeping a single record, we won’t get them into college that way. ALL colleges, no matter how homeschool friendly they are, require some sort of documentation that our children learned a few basics while they were under our care. What if we move to another school district or state mid-year that requires us to have more documentation than a coloring picture on the fridge? What if we need to transfer our children to a private or public school? Practically speaking, these are all excellent reasons for keeping some records.
Looking back at the progress our children have made since the beginning of the school year shows me physical evidence that they have, indeed, learned something. Quite a few somethings, in fact. It also provides physical evidence that we homeschool parents have been busy as well. Looking back gives us fresh hope and perspective in looking ahead to the rest of the school year (or the coming year).
Now that we’ve established that we should be keeping some records, what type of records should we be keeping? Many state laws require a variety of records to be sent in somewhere or at least kept on file in our homes. Again, I refer you to HSLDA for an accurate listing. Some of the items asked for include vaccination (or exemption) records, attendance, testing scores, curricula listings, field trips, daily logs, and evaluations. Some states expect grades, and even when they aren’t required by law, we need to keep track of grades once our children reach the high school years. Even if your state does not demand any (or all) of these items, I would strongly recommend that you hang onto as many of them as possible.
So, how do we keep track of all of these things? In as little space and in as organized a manner as possible. A mom binder works best for all administration-type documents, although a folder in a filing cabinet works, too. Have a tab for each child, and then file from the back forwards so that the most recent material is in the front. You may also subdivide each tab by year.
Much documentation can be kept on the computer. A number of free programs exist; my favorite is Homeschool Tracker. That program will print out any number of custom reports that can be mailed in or shown to an evaluator as needed. You can also print out reports at the end of each academic year to file in your mom binder.
What about keeping track of grades from curricula such as A.C.E., Alpha Omega, and similar programs? I have seen twelve years’ worth of piles and boxes of Paces/LIFEPACs. For real. There’s no need to keep all that paper. Simply make a spreadsheet for each child, then a new page for each year. It should have ten or twelve (as appropriate) columns, one for each Pace/LIFEPAC. Then it should have a row for each subject. Record each final grade, keeping a few sample tests and papers from each subject from each year to add to a portfolio, and then trash the rest. Yes, it’s really that easy. If you’ve got some catching up to do, no worries. Teen can be trained quickly to go through and systematically do the recording for you. If you don’t have teens in the house, just take it a little bit at a time.
What about all those 3-D projects, art papers, A+ essays, and stellar math tests? You’ve worked hard and are proud of it. Your kids have worked hard and are proud of their accomplishments. So save some of it in a portfolio. Look for a whole column on portfolios in the next issue.
We’ve covered the why, the what, and the how. Now all we need is the motivation. While I can’t help you with that, I can encourage you to get started and to take it one little step at a time.

This post appeared in my “Organized Homeschool” column of the Home School Enrichment magazine’s May/June 2011 issue.


I’m Making a List and Checking It Twice

No, I’m not talking about a Christmas list. I’m talking about the list that, if fulfilled, makes every homeschool mom as excited as her children are on Christmas morning. I’m talking about next year’s curriculum list. We may as well admit that we start dreaming about next year’s curriculum almost as soon as the new-book smell wears off in October.
We want the best for our kids, but sometimes it takes a few tries to figure out what the best curriculum is. One thing I had to learn the hard way is that there is no one-size-fits-all curriculum. Kids—even in the same family—do not learn the same way or at the same rate. Sure, it’s easier on us to plan and teach using the same stuff over and over again (or at the same time to teach them all together), but is that really what’s best for our individual children? It’s probably a whole lot cheaper to use the same stuff over and over again, too, but at what real cost? I tried for several years to make my kinesthetic, auditory learner sit quietly to read and fill in worksheets at the same speed as her overachieving, visual older sister. Everyone thrived when I finally let go of my expectations and let each girl learn in her own way at her own pace. I felt less pressure as well.
During the fall and early spring months, I carefully evaluate each curriculum to see how it’s working with each child. Do we need to switch out math books since we’re learning all-new concepts? Is the grammar book all review? Can we switch histories so we can do it all together? Is my general budget changing so that I need to plan to spend less, or can I spend more?
The List:
After evaluation, the next step is to make a list (you didn’t think I could write an article without making a list, did you?). I like to make a separate list on regular notebook paper for each child, even if several children will share some items. I start by listing all of the subjects I anticipate teaching the following year; I double-check the subject list against my current planner so I don’t leave out something important. You may need or wish to check your list against state standards, if required by law, or a what-your-child-needs-to-know-when list.
Next, I fill in the curricula that I know I’ll be purchasing or pulling off my shelf. For instance, I used the same history and Bible curriculum for years, so I didn’t have to think about it. I also store my in-between curricula (after my oldest, before my youngest) on a designated bookshelf and peruse it as I think about what we’ll be using the following year. Then, I fill in the possibilities. At first, some subjects may have more than one. Be sure to write down the publisher, lowest cost, and place to purchase each item.
Now comes the fun part: looking at catalogues and online sites and talking to friends about the new stuff! Most companies will send a free catalogue if you request one. If you’re fortunate enough to live near a new or used curriculum store, find a babysitter and take your list to browse (leave your money at home for the first trip!). Reading reviews is a good way to get a general feel for a product’s value and possible fit for your family’s learning style.
After I nail down the essentials, I take a look at my budget to see if I can afford to add any wish list items to my actual shopping list. We’re ready to buy; here’s the next strategy:
For Convention Goers:
Well before the convention begins, you’ll get a map of the vendors’ hall and a list of all the vendors and workshops. I start by circling most of the workshops, but then narrow my list down to a more respectable number. Even though there’s supposed to be time scheduled around the workshops for shopping, there’s never enough time, so be sure to allow for that. Some people like to map out their vendor stops on the map, but I don’t usually do that since I like to look at everything.
Anyway, once you arrive at the convention with your list and your cash (not all vendors take credit cards and/or checks, so it’s a good idea to have some cash), you’re ready to start shopping. A word of caution: you WILL be tempted to buy just about everything in sight! Resist the temptation. On your first pass through the vendors’ hall, purchase only the essentials on your list. It’s okay to look at everything else, but wait until at least your second pass through before you start indulging in the extra goodies.
For Non-Goers:
If you absolutely can’t attend a physical homeschool convention, you’re ready to shop with the online/catalogue vendors that you’ve already determined have the best prices. But, don’t forget about the small homeschool stores, either. Don’t use them just to browse; keep them in business by patronizing them. I know that it’s hard to find the balance between getting the best deal for your money and spending your money in the best place, though.

Organizing your homeschool curriculum wish list is a win-win idea. Happy shopping!

This post appears in “The Organized Homeschool” column of the Mar./Apr. 2011 issue of Home School Enrichment magazine.

Q4U: What’s your best curriculum-buying tip?


Ten Steps to a More Organized Homeschool Schedule

On the heels of “Happy New Year” comes the inevitable question: “What are your resolutions for the new year?” This year, my goal is to organize and manage my homeschool time in a more effective manner. This year, I’m not going to quit on January 2nd, like I do when the scale hasn’t budged other years.
What’s the big deal about time management? When we set goals and get serious about meeting them, that’s what we spend our time doing. When we don’t have goals (either formal or informal), we wander aimlessly through the house while the kids play Nintendo instead of doing school and the laundry piles up. Even saying, “Today, I need to do three loads of laundry after we build a model of the Jamestown Fort,” is setting goals.
While most of us think of things such as reading through the Bible in a year or losing ten pounds as worthy New Year’s resolutions, January is also an excellent time to revisit our educational and time commitment goals. Is the eager-beaver teenager really ready to graduate a year early? How is that new math curriculum working out for the middle schooler? Do we need to spend more one-on-one time teaching the kindergartener how to read?
How about the time we spend cleaning the house? Maybe our counters are sparkling, but our teaching time is languishing. Or, perhaps the reverse is true: our family is feeling smothered under layers of bathtub scum and we store our clean clothes in the dryer, but the four year old can recite the names of the presidents backwards. Now is the time to reevaluate our priorities and how we’re spending our time.
So, what should be our goal in the new year? Balance. Yes, I know that is tricky. What’s more, I’m preaching to myself more than to you. For 2011, let’s make it our goal to organize our time in such a way that it reflects our goals.
How can we take nebulous goals and turn them into a manageable schedule in the middle of the school year? I’d like to propose ten specific steps that will get us well on our way to a balanced, organized schedule.
1. Let’s reflect on our homeschool year to date—organization, time, curricula, learning, relationships, etc. What’s working well so far? What needs to change? This is an excellent journaling exercise for further reflection. Let’s think about how we spend the majority of our time. Does the way we spend our time match what we say is important in our lives? Sometimes, it’s not about setting new priorities; it’s about reorganizing our time.
2. The next step is to keep a log of how we spend our time for a week or so. No fudging! Where are we wasting time? Are there activities that need to be let go? Are there some things we’ve been neglecting in our homeschools that we need to make more of a priority?
3. Now let’s make a list of our priorities—God, family, schoolwork, home business, and so on.
4. Pray, pray, and pray some more. We need to seek the Lord’s guidance; perhaps some of those objectives need to be reevaluated.
5. Based on our list of priorities and what we feel the Lord directing us to do, we can now write a list of goals to work towards this year in our homeschools. In addition, we need to organize a list of tasks that need to be accomplished, and put dates by them (if applicable).
6. Just listing goals is not enough, however. We need to pair them with specific steps that that will help us to achieve our goals.
7. We can’t neglect to consult our spouses. We need to ask, “Where would you like to see me spend my time?”
8. Consulting a godly mentor and/or homeschool friends who have walked the path before us helps to keep us on track and to confirm our goals. “Plans are established by counsel” (Proverbs 20:18a NKVJ).
9. Now we can work on organizing a schedule. This may take time and it may have to be tweaked, so don’t be discouraged if the first draft is a flop.
10. Our final task is to stick with our newly organized homeschool schedule. How is this accomplished? Self-discipline. This is the hard one (at least for me). How do we organize our time based on our goals? Simple (or not!): self-discipline. If we say our highest priority is spending time in God’s Word, but then we roll out of bed at 9:00 a.m.—too late to do more than yawn at the kids to nag them to start school—what does that say about our real priorities? It says that sleeping in is more important than doing devotions. Ouch! Set the alarm clock for a reasonable time and just get up. That’s the first step in accomplishing the rest of our goals.
Let’s make this year’s goal to balance our time wisely and to organize our homeschool time based on our priorities. Remember, while it’s wise to plan and organize, God is the one who really orders our days. “A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps” (Proverbs 16:9 NKJV).

This post can be found in the Jan./Feb. 2011 issue of Home School Enrichment magazine. Just in case you think I’ve got it all together, here’s a true confession for you: I don’t! When my issue arrived in the mail, this title was one of the ones features on the cover. I remember thinking, “Oh, that looks good. I’ll have to read it because I really need some help in that area.” Ooopppsss!!!!


Homeschooling Through and Around the Holidays

Deck the halls with boughs of school books, fa-la-la-la-la la la la la.

‘Tis the season to be busy, fa-la-la-la-la la la la la.

Don we now our anxious faces, fa la la la la la la.

Sing of lapbooks, handmade orn’ments, fa-la-la-la-la la la la la.

See the piles of laundry ’round you, fa-la-la-la-la la la la la.

Strike the doorbell, chase the toddler, fa-la-la-la-la la la la la.

Follow me for every minute, fa la la la la la la.

While we sing of wistful summer, fa-la-la-la-la la la la la.

Is it possible to homeschool sanely and still celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas? Yes! How? My two best tips are to make lists, and to start planning early.
I do try to make the kids’ workloads a bit lighter starting about mid-November through the end of December. Many curricula have only thirty-two or thirty-four weeks of lessons, so instead of starting later or finishing earlier in the school year with these subjects, we opt not to do them around the holidays. Instead, we make sure that we focus on the vital subjects with 180 lessons. Of course, we don’t do any school on Thanksgiving Day (if we do school at all that week, it’s only a few days). And, we take off completely for two weeks around Christmas and New Year’s Day.
If you school year round or use unit studies instead of packaged curricula, this might be a good time to check out some of the fun, holiday-themed unit studies instead of wallowing in the rocket science lessons. Many, many unit studies are available detailing the history of the first Thanksgiving, holiday traditions around the world, and more. This way, you can still check off a day of school, but have fun and relax some at the same time.
I make sure my lesson plans are done right after Thanksgiving so that my children know what to expect. All the parties, cookie baking, decorating, and shopping trips are good incentives for the kids to finish their schoolwork early. As far as housecleaning and other chores go, we do things the same way we do the rest of the year: everyone has assigned chores. A few things do get left undone, but even the very organized homeschool mom can’t do everything (sshhh!).

That covers school, but what about the holiday stuff? I love lists! I make lists of my lists (yes, really). Here are a few of the lists that preserve my sanity during November and December: I keep a running list in my BlackBerry (a small notebook would also work) of every person for whom I regularly buy gifts. As I hear hints or think of gift ideas, I make a note of it. I check off the item after I’ve bought it, but leave it on my list so that I remember I have it. This works for birthday presents as well as Christmas gifts. Throughout the year, I buy gifts for family and friends as I see things that would be appropriate. Since none of our family lives close by, all of their gifts are bought and wrapped early in the fall. All the rest of the gifts are bought by the first week in December. I usually wait until the weekend before Christmas to wrap the gifts because I don’t like to put them under the tree too early, but it’s written in my planner.

People who receive our annual Christmas letters/cards/pictures (depending on the year) are on a master database on my laptop. Every year, I update the list for cards received and sent the previous year and who we’ll be sending cards to, then I print it out to check off names as new cards roll in. In early November, I print out address labels for the cards (I update my computer’s address book as needed through the year). By the end of the month, I’ve written the letter or pulled out the cards I bought at the after-Christmas sale the previous year. The cards are in the mail the first week of December. 

As soon as I know when we’ll be hosting family and friends for various events throughout November and December, I make sure those events make it onto the calendar. Then I start planning my menus for each meal. Menu lists and the calendar are updated daily, and the food/necessity shopping lists are updated as needed.

We need to remember to slow down long enough to be thankful for our many blessings and to celebrate the birth of our Savior this Christmas season. Two of our favorite traditions are taking time to read the Christmas story from Luke and singing some traditional Christmas carols around the piano.

From our homeschool family to yours, may you have a blessed Thanksgiving and Christmas season!

This article originally appeared in the Nov./Dec. 2010 edition of Home School Enrichment magazine, in my regular column, “The Organized Homeschool.”


Teaching Children to be Self-Sufficient

Teaching children to be self-sufficient fosters homeschool organization several ways. It teaches them time management and personal organization skills. The more time we spend telling our (older) children what to do next, the less time we spend helping them understand the Pythagorean Theorem (don’t worry, teacher’s books help!). The more time we spend putting things away ourselves, the less our children learn about putting things away themselves and the less time we have for more important tasks.
Homeschoolers are notorious for extending deadlines (if we even set them). Yes, we do have that flexibility as homeschoolers, but unfortunately, what that teaches our high schoolers is that deadlines aren’t important. College professors aren’t so lenient when term papers are due. Bosses aren’t nearly as understanding about undone work as we moms are. Wouldn’t it be more beneficial to our children in the long run to teach them about the importance of deadlines and managing their time while they’re still living with us? After all, we’re teaching them other skills they need for the real world such as math and writing. If this is an area in which you personally struggle, perhaps you can work on your own schedule while your teenager works on hers.
One way to help children become more self-sufficient is to print (or write) out an assignment schedule for them every week. I would suggest starting this somewhere between fourth and fifth grades. At this age, children are capable of reading the list each day, completing assignments, and checking them off. Handling their own assignment lists teaches children time management skills and gives them a sense of ownership over their days. This means that we have to be organized enough to have the schedule done ahead of time and ready every Monday morning. It may take more work on our part to write out the exact spelling, handwriting, and math lessons that are to be completed, but it will be worth it in the long run. By the end of this past school year, my then-sixth grader was able to work through most of her subjects on her own without asking me what was next.
In addition to printing out a schedule each week, I also made sure that all of the necessary papers for the week were in each child’s binder in the to-do side of the appropriate folder. Younger children will still need help with projects, and the subjects done as a family obviously fall into a different category. I like to think of homeschool moms more as coaches or guidance counselors; we’re there to teach and to direct as needed, but we’re not there to spoon-feed our school-aged kids.  Part of the parenting, and therefore homeschooling, process is learning how to let go gradually so that our children can mature. It’s not easy, but it is necessary. Here are a few real-life examples.
One of my children (the high schooler) is a procrastinator. Last year, I gave her the freedom to do certain subjects, such as art and geography, whenever she wanted during the week as long as the assignments were completed by Friday. So, what happened when stuff came up during the week and she didn’t have time (her words; mine were more along the lines of she didn’t feel like doing it) and her work wasn’t done? Consequences. She didn’t get to sleep over at her friend’s house. She had to get up early to do her work on Saturday instead of going to a fair with another friend. We’re still working on time management skills at my house, so don’t be discouraged if your children need more than one lesson in it.
Let’s take a brief look at organization skills. How often do we put things away ourselves just because it’s easier? That’s what I thought: too often. What does this teach our children? It teaches them that they don’t really have to clean up after themselves because eventually Mom will get tired of seeing those books (or whatever) lying around and put them away herself.
This is another life skill that won’t be automatically acquired when your kids move into college dorms for the first time. It needs to be taught now. I don’t know about you, but when I was in college, I wasn’t interested in putting away my roommate’s stuff and her mom didn’t live with us. When I worked at an outside job, my boss didn’t put stuff away for me or remind me more than once to put it away myself. If I’d been a total slob and never cleaned up after myself, I probably would have been fired.
Our homeschools are a training ground for real life. If we haven’t taught our children how to plan their time wisely, they won’t know how. If we don’t enforce deadlines now, our children won’t suddenly know how to meet them in college. If we don’t train them to put their belongings away properly and to organize their stuff in their bedrooms and desks in our homes, they’re not going to start the minute they walk out of our doors. Let’s teach our children organization skills for life and free up our own time for more important concerns.
One last thought: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6, NKJV).

This article originally appeared in the Sept./Oct. 2010 edition of Home School Enrichment magazine, in my regular column, “The Organized Homeschool.” 


Where Do You Homeschool?

In the May/June 2010 issue of Home School Enrichment, I talk about WHERE you homeschool. Before you say, “Duh, at home,” think about it. Even at home, multiple choices exist: the kitchen table, the living room floor, individual desks, and more. Is what you did this year working? Do you need to think about tweaking it for next year?

Then there is carschooling. How much school time do you spend in the car? Is it too much or too little? Now is the time to reflect on your level of activity this past year and to decide whether it was just right or needs to be adjusted for next year.

How many outside classes do your children take? I know kids need to have some interaction with other kids. And, I know that not every mom is equipped to teach algebra (that would be me!) or grade essays. But, are your kids taking more classes outside your home than inside of it? Do you need to re-evaluate for next year?

The last question I posed in my article is the trickiest: where in your heart is homeschooling right now? If you’re like me, spring fever has hit hard. I’m ready to be done with the year! It’s been a challenging year as well, so I have to keep reminding myself of all the reasons we’re homeschooling lest I be too tempted to flag down the yellow bus that passes my house each morning. Keep homeschooling front and center in your heart and keep pressing on to finish this school year well.

For the rest of the article, subscribe to Home School Enrichment! 🙂

Q4U: Where do YOU homeschool?


Home School Enrichment Intro.

I’m so excited to be writing a regular column for Home School Enrichment (it’s an old-fashioned, print, hold-in-your-hands magazine)! My first article, entitled “An Introduction to Homeschool Organization,” debuts “The Organized Homeschool” column in the March/April issue. Check out Home School Enrichment for many other encouraging and helpful articles! Here’s my column:

Welcome to The Organized Homeschool Mom’s corner! I am delighted to be sharing with you what comes naturally to me: homeschool organization. Does it take you half an hour to find the grammar book each morning? Do the kids take five minutes to find and sharpen a pencil? Do you find three copies of the same book lying around because you had no idea you already owned it? (Yes, I know someone to whom that has actually happened!) One of my favorite Bible verses is 1 Corinthians 14:40, “Let all things be done decently and in order” (NKJV). I believe this especially applies to homeschooling.

My plan is to share a specific organization snippet in each column that you can use right away. Let’s start with a basic homeschool organization plan. A builder wouldn’t dream of starting work on a house without knowing what type of house he was building, what size the house was supposed to be, and what kind of materials he would need. He finds all of this information on a blueprint. Neither should you try to organize your homeschool without having an idea of what and how you’re organizing.

Let’s think about a blueprint in terms of soil for a moment in this modern-day parable. Behold, a mother went out to teach her children. As she taught, some lessons fell by the wayside; and the dirty socks and lost library books came and devoured them. Some fell on messy desks, where they did not have much space, and they immediately sprang up because they had no depth of thought. But when the days were long, they were forgotten, and because they had no root, they withered away. And some fell among unorganized papers, and the papers sprang up and choked them. But others fell on sharpened pencils and yielded a three-point paragraph, some a ten-point paragraph, some six, some four. She who has ears to hear, let her hear! (A very liberal retelling of Matthew 13:3–9.) What kind of soil do you want for your homeschool? That will determine the type of blueprint that you generate.

Just as a builder would not begin building a house without a blueprint, neither would he begin building it without the proper tools. Let’s take a look at the most necessary tools for homeschooling. I am not going to address curricula here, but you may add it to my list if you wish. Remember, not all of these supplies have to be bought brand new at a fancy office supply store. You’ll find that you already have many of these items in your house, or that you have the materials to make your own tools. Be creative and get your children involved in the process.

1. Bookshelves. First of all, sort your books into general categories. (You’ll probably end up with stacks of books all over the floor; that’s okay as long as it’s temporary.) Then, label each shelf with a category title. Eventually, you can sort each shelf and/or category alphabetically by title or author, by book size, or in series order.

2. Binders. Binders should be a single subject each. Four types of binders are absolutely essential. Kids each need a fun-type binder for everyday use; make one tab divider for each subject. You need a mom binder, also known as an administrative binder. In it, include all necessary state paperwork; use a separate tab for each child for test results, immunization records, attendance records, and official communication from the state. Include anything else you need at your fingertips (behind appropriately labeled tabs, of course). Additionally, you need an extra resources binder, divided by subject area for articles, workshop notes, maps, coloring pages, craft projects, and other resources. If you have a lot of supplementary materials, you may need more than one binder, or you may wish to use a filing drawer system instead. The last type of essential binders is portfolio binders for each child for each year. Every few weeks, clean out desk binders and file a small sampling into the portfolio.

3. 3-Hole Punch. Not every piece of paper comes ready to file.

4. Baskets and/or shoeboxes (cardboard or Rubbermaid type). You’ll need one each for different types of craft supplies, math maniptulatives, extra pens and pencils, markers, scissors, larger items, and anything else that will fit into a basket or box.

5. Various small containers. Store all of your extra paper clips, tacks, small manipulatives, erasers, staples, etc. neatly in one central location. Include pencil cups for each child, plus one for you.

6. Letter stacking trays. Have one for each type of paper, and one for each child and yourself (to be used for an in bin for work to be graded or filed).

7. Calendars. Have a master family calendar and small, portable calendars for yourself and for the children. Teach them how to plan.

8. Lesson planners. These are not meant to be restrictive, but are to provide a blueprint for school days. Realize that you have the freedom to change your plans if necessary.

9. Timers. Teach your children to manage their time wisely.

10. Keep it organized! If you get it out, put it away right away and train you children to do the same thing.

Now that we’ve established a blueprint and gathered our tools, let’s start building an organized homeschool.

P.S. – If you’re thinking that this list looked familiar, you’re right :-).