Buy the Book!

It’s here!! It’s here!! Simple Organization for Homeschools is finally done and available to order! If you want a paperback in your hand, head on over to Create Space. If you’d rather have an ebook version, click your way to Amazon (actually, wait a few days for it to jump through the right hoops). Then pretty please leave good reviews, too, so others will buy it.

Here’s the extended back-cover information:

Simple Organization for Homeschools is completely geared towards homeschooling families since many books on home organization already exist. Examples, forms, resources, and practical suggestions make this a must-have reference book for all homeschoolers.

This book guides Christian homeschool parents in completely organizing their homeschools. Organization brings peace, balance, and the ability for true academic learning to a homeschool. Biblical encouragement for order in our homes is included along the way. In addition, each chapter or section is tied together with a unifying, biblical theme.

The first part of organizing a homeschool is choosing a style and curricula that not only fit your family’s lifestyle, but that also fit each child. Then you need to learn how to schedule and use your time effectively. After that, you’re ready to get to the good stuff: why, where, and how to set up a schoolroom, how to store supplies efficiently, and how to keep the paper piles under control.

This book encourages you to make organizational choices that work with your family’s style. I’ve tried many different methods and styles, but what works for me won’t necessarily work for you. Simple Organization for Homeschools will help you to organize one piece of the homeschooling puzzle at a time in a way that makes sense for you with the different tried-and-true choices I present. 

homeschool, organizing, planning

The Family Calendar

How do you coordinate a busy family’s schedule when everyone seems to be going different directions at the same time? The most efficient way I have found to deal with mine and my teenagers’ ever-changing, full-to-the-brim schedules is to have a large, dry-erase calendar in a central location–ours is in the kitchen, on the pantry door because it came with nifty mounting hardware. Each person is assigned a different color in order to 1) tell at a glance who has an outside activity at any given time, and 2) save time and writing space. Every event must be written down on the calendar, especially if it involves the mom taxi; otherwise there’s no guarantee that it will happen. I also have an “all” color to designate events (such as church or Bible studies) in which we’re all involved.

This calendar is also magnetic, which makes it easy to put event tickets right on the day they’re needed. No more scrambling around to find out what time that birthday party starts! In addition, I love that there’s a small bulletin board alongside of the calendar. I use it for coupons and other such time-sensitive materials that don’t necessarily belong on a particular day.

The magnetic feature also allows for a small, magnetic eraser (top, right corner) and a colored arrow magnet (middle of last week), which make using my fabulous family calendar so much easier.

Q4U: Do you use a large family calendar that’s easily accessible by all?

homeschool, organization, organizing, planning

It’s Calendar Time!

Have you bought your 2013 calendar yet? If not, stop reading this blog post. Go buy a wall calendar, a purse calendar, a desk calendar, a family fridge calendar, refills for your Day Timer, whatever you use. Right now! Yes, really! Then come straight back. Now are you ready?

First, make sure you have your current calendar beside the new one. Then, go through and add in all the birthdays, anniversaries, vacations, and holidays. Use a pen for all these dates. Next, find all those scraps of paper stuffed under the couch cushions and scribbled on the edges of the old calendar that have the events scheduled for this coming year. Write all these events in your new calendar. Use a pencil for these events. That way if there are last minute changes, you won’t have a scribbled out mess on your calendar. Be sure to update all your calendars (including the family one on the fridge) every time you make a change.

The next most important tip is to use your calendar FAITHFULLY! Never commit to an appointment without consulting your calendar. Train your children (and hubby!) to do the same thing. Don’t forget to write down each and every new event right away, otherwise you’re likely to forget about it.

My absolute favorite calendar organizational item is my smart phone (it goes EVERYWHERE with me and syncs with my Google computer calendar, too). I realize not everyone wants one of those (or could have one), but it’s what I use. My next favorite tool is a monthly, magnetic, dry-erase calendar. All family appointments, classes, and other events go onto that calendar. Each family member has her own color marker to designate personal events. Each child also has her own small student calendar, and I am training them to put long-term homework assignments as well as schedules into these. We also have a few wall calendars by our desks, mostly for long-term reference.

Now, go get organized for the year ahead! Then come back and leave me a message telling me about your favorite calendars.

homeschool, organizing, planning

How to Keep Track of P.E. Hours in High School

The only thing worse than high school itself (as a teenager), was gym class. I’m uncoordinated; I never played a sport, and every time there was a ball involved, it hit me in the face. And usually broke my glasses. One time when I finally, actually, served the volleyball over the net, the OTHER team cheered. Seriously. Oh wait, maybe that was college.

Anyway, thank goodness my girls are more coordinated than I am! Even though they were/are homeschooled, colleges like to see a physical education/health credit on their transcripts. Every state is different in their requirements, so be sure to check your state’s guidelines. Our state just requires one credit, and they don’t specify exactly how it should be divided up, so being the lazy flexible mom that I am, I decided that my girls could participate in whatever physical activity they choose.

Experts generally agree that 120 hours of effort is the equivalent of one high school credit. In our house, we don’t exercise for an hour at a time (except for that year or so a while ago when I took up running), so when I made the table to track P.E. hours, I made each rectangle equal to half an hour (for a total of 240 squares). Voila! One physical education/health credit accounted for.

high school, high school, homeschool, organizing, planning

How to Keep Track of Volunteer Hours in High School

High school was scary the first time I went through it (as a teenager). High school was almost as scary the second time I went through it (with my older daughter). I’m thinking that the third time will be a charm. My younger daughter started high school a few weeks ago, and we’re chugging right along.

One important record-keeping aspect of high school that was new to me the second time around was keeping track of volunteer hours. As colleges get more and more competitive, documenting volunteer hours becomes more important.

So, I created a table in Microsoft Word with empty blocks to fill in the dates for when my high schooler completes an hour of community or church service time. I hole-punched the paper and keep it in my Mom Master Binder (part 2 here). Then all I have to do is pull it out once every few weeks and update my daughter’s volunteer hours.

learning styles, organization, writing

Blog Posts Organized the Simple Way

It happened again. You had a great idea for a blog post, so you scrawled it on a sticky note. The toddler found it and colored over it, then the teenager helpfully threw it out. Or, you managed to remember the idea long enough to put it at the bottom of a messy list buried somewhere on your dining room table. After the kids go to bed, in the 5 minutes before you collapse, you decide to sit down and tap out a blog post. You drum your fingers on the edge of your laptop for a few minutes, thinking, then you finally find your crumpled list, complete with peanut butter.

That’s great, but then you see the next topic on the list and you just do not have in mind to write about that right now. So, you scribble out that and squeeze in a new idea. While you’re at it, you decide to jot down a few more thoughts for blog articles somewhere on the page. By the time you get around to actually writing, you’re down to three minutes before collapse.
writing calendar
There is a better way! I used to do the above process until I came across this nifty monthly dry-erase board at Office Max (maybe? or maybe it was Staples?) for $2. I didn’t really need another calendar, but I was sure that I needed that little dry-erase board! It has a string hanger, or it can lean against a wall (or bookshelf). It’s light and not too large. It’s also double sided; the other side is blank for notes and I’ve posted my yearly goals there.

Anyway, I decided to use my new find for my writing command center. In addition to blogging, I write for several magazines and websites; I write reviews, and I’m taking grad school classes with multiple papers due. I chose to use a different color dry erase marker for each place I write for, but you could color code your topics or just use one color. First I write in when my fixed due dates are for magazines, websites, and school. Some of those get repurposed as blog posts, which I note on my board. Then I fill in the blanks with other ideas.

I’ve chosen to blog only twice a week [usually]; with my other responsibilities, I can’t take on more than that usually. Whatever your schedule is, stick to it as much as possible so your readers know what to expect.

If an unexpected review or topic pops up, I just erase & rewrite. No mess, no crumpled paper, no missing sticky note. I can see at a glance what I have planned for the month and what I still need to work on; a check mark beside the title means it’s already written and ready to go.

No $, no dry erase board? Print out a generic monthly calendar from your computer and use pencil.

Q4U: How do you organize your blog posts?

encouragement, homeschool, medical issues, planning

Dealing with Chronic Illnesses Part 3: Dreading December

I’m over at Heart of the Matter Online today. Check out the rest of our wonderful writers!

December is my favorite month of the year because it includes my two favorite holidays: Jesus’ birthday and my birthday. I love the presents (giving as well as receiving), the wrapping, the sights, the sounds, the smells, the anticipation, the caroling, the baking, the planning, the partying—all of it. At least, December was my favorite month until I was diagnosed with two chronic illnesses that have left me overwhelmed and gasping for air with a regular schedule before even adding holiday duties. I hate that my favorite season has become a series of duties.
So, what’s a mom to do? Cancel Christmas? Not likely! Go full bore and pay a heavy health price in January? Not a good idea. How ’bout a balance that falls somewhere in the middle? The following measures can help us experience a more peaceful nativity.
Ten Steps to a dread-proof December, even with a chronic illness:
Think about what really matters. What’s at the top of your list that you just can’t give up during the holidays?
Make a list of the top five items on your what-really-matters list and brainstorm ways to make those happen this year.
Let go of the rest. Yes, I know that’s the hardest part!
Delegate everything possible. The cookies will be just as good if your 13-year-old makes them.    
Simplify the decorations, the baking, the gifts, and most of all your expectations.
Be happy with what gets done and try not to focus on what’s left undone.
Pace yourself. Don’t try to complete your entire list in one afternoon just because you start off feeling great.
Take naps.
Rest often.
Remember the real reason for the season: Jesus. Nothing else really matters.
Now, all I have to do is follow my own advice, and I can return to enjoying my favorite season instead of dreading December!

about me, change, learning styles, lessons learned, study skills

What It Takes to be a Good Online Student

Going back to school after you’ve been out for a while is scary. At least, it was for me. I entered college at age 17, full of dreams and plans to save the world as a social worker. Then I graduated and had to get a job to pay the rent. I found a social work job, but I didn’t think I could change the world anymore. I worked for two years, then started the job that never ends and really does change the world: motherhood. Somewhere between changing diapers and clutching the door handle of my car for dear life with a teen driver, I started writing and editing. I figured out that I really liked it. Then I figured out that to advance any in that field, I should return to school for a master’s degree in English. I waded through the hundreds of online choices, applied to a state school, and got accepted. Then I panicked!

School means studying, writing papers, and reading textbooks. In the world of online studies, it also means posting on the Blackboard (without the chalky mess of our childhoods), emailing questions to an unseen professor, and navigating Internet research materials. All of this happens in between driving the family taxi, cooking dinner, working, and a slew of other responsibilities.

How do I juggle it all? Very carefully! First of all, I am now the not-so-proud owner of brand new dust bunnies. I’ve had to lower many of my housekeeping expectations. Second of all, I recruit help; my teenagers do their own laundry, clean their own bathroom, and cook dinner occasionally. Third, I carved out a space where I can close the door to concentrate on my school work. Oh, it’s technically a shared office/school room, but when they’re done at the end of the day, I can put out my do-not-disturb sign.

So, what do I do with my do-not-disturb time? Not Facebook, not email, and not blogging. At least, not much. I dedicate the quieter times to the longer papers that take real concentration and the confusing textbooks that require my full attention. I do my best not to multitask during that time so that I can really focus on my schoolwork in order to make the most of my time.

I wish I could say I can get everything done when I’m locked in my own little space, but I can’t. I often take my reading to gymnastics and my paper drafts to waiting rooms. I’ve learned to check out the discussion forums while dinner is cooking.

This whole process is not easy. I’d much rather be reading a novel than a technical editing textbook on the way to the shore. I’d rather sleep on the long drive home for Thanksgiving than be working on a project due in a few weeks. But, it will all be worth it a year and a half from now when I hold that master’s of English degree in my hand!

Do you have a dream to back to school or maybe to go to college for the first time? You can do it! It takes a lot of discipline and a lot of determination, but it can be done. Go for it!


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.


Planners and Responsibilities

Remember the teacher’s planner that enthralled you so much at the convention that you bought it? Its purpose is not just to look pretty on your shelf or on your computer’s desktop. It’s time to pull it out and start using it, or to figure out all the features it has if you’ve purchased an e-planner. Yes, I mean right now (well, after you’ve finished reading this)! If you follow a more traditional school year, you’ve probably recently started the new school year. The good news is that it’s not too late to start using your planner!
First of all, plan—at least roughly—your starting and ending dates for the school year. Be sure to incorporate holidays and other dates you know you’ll be taking off from official academics. Make sure you have 180 days if that’s required in your state. It’s okay if these dates fluctuate during the year—really—at least you’ve got a framework.
The next step is to write all these dates into your paper planner or to program them into your e-planner. The nice thing about e-planners is that they will calculate the number of days for you and it’s much easier to change dates if something unexpected comes up, and it will. This feature comes in handy towards the end of the year when the kids (and you) are getting antsy for the last day of school. Many states require you to keep and submit a yearly attendance log, which will be a breeze once you start using your e-planner. No more counting out days trying to remember if you did school on Columbus Day or not.
Mid-range planning involves breaking the school year down into quarters (or whatever units you use), then months, and then weeks. I plan which books will be read when and which projects go with which history and science units. I also look at every textbook, workbook, and living book we’ll be using to see approximately how many pages and chapters need to be done every quarter, month, and week. It saves time when I do my short-term planning during the school year, and it also helps me keep the children on track to finish each book by the end of the school year (but not three months early, unless we want to do it that way).
While this may seem like a lot of unnecessary work, it makes my planning during the year go much more smoothly. When I do my bi-weekly planning, I simply look at my chart and decide what and how much to do each day. That way when we get to the end of the year, I don’t discover a really cool project that we forgot we had or find a book about an explorer when we’re studying the Civil War.
Short-term planning, in case you haven’t figured it out by now, involves planning specific pages, chapters, lessons, and projects for each day of the school week. I have found that it works best for me to do this once every two weeks. Doing it every week tends to feel cumbersome and never-ending. If I do it only every three or four weeks, we tend to get out of sync too easily by an unexpected field trip or illness. It may take you a few tries to figure out what timing works best for you, but you will be much more relaxed throughout the school year if you take a little bit of time now to do so.
As I do my short-term planning, I print out a lesson plan schedule for each of my children, starting about when they reach the fourth grade level. At this point, especially if you’ve been homeschooling for several years, children are capable of looking at the list, figuring out what to do next, and crossing off each item as it is completed. This is part of the progression towards independent learning. Children enjoy feeling as if they have some control over their days, and they start to figure out the process of scheduling for themselves. For us moms, it cuts down on the constant, “Mom, what do I do next?” syndrome. Of course we’re not leaving our children completely to their own devices; we’re just teaching them a little bit of independence at a time while we can still monitor their progress.
Another option is to purchase (or make) a planner for each child. The Well-Planned Day, Apologia, and The Old Schoolhouse Magazine Store offer planners for different age groups with grade-appropriate forms in addition to regular curricula planning pages. With younger children, you may find yourself writing everything in their planners and perhaps just having them check off each subject as it is completed. Even kindergarteners and first graders get a kick out of finding the word math on Tuesday and x-ing it off.
As they get older, you can have children take more responsibility for planning one subject at a time—with your guidance, of course. For instance, when my children reached middle school, I started telling them that they had two weeks to finish a science module. We elect to complete most available tests for memory retention and for future training (driver’s license or SATs, anyone?), so I teach my children to work backwards from the test date. If this is Monday and the test will be next Friday; that means that next Thursday will be a study day. That leaves us with three days next week and five days this week to read the chapter, do any experiments, and answer the questions along the way. Now we count the pages in the chapter; let’s just say there are twenty-four pages. Then, we divide the twenty-four pages by the eight days in which we have to do them and come up with reading four pages a day, including corresponding questions and experiments. In the early stages of planning, I make my children write the exact page numbers on each day of their planners. Voila, they’ve planned out the next two weeks of their science curriculum (almost) on their own.
I get less strict about how my children plan while keeping tabs on their general progress as they become more mature. Instead of doing some each day, particularly in science, history, and other subjects that don’t need daily repetition, some students may prefer to do more of one thing on certain days. That works, too, but make sure you count the right number of days and/or weeks when you plan that way.
Yes, this type of planning takes time. But it’s not just about writing down the next math lesson number or the next literature chapter. It’s also about learning to manage one’s time and resources, which is a life lesson that will be used over and over again. Most jobs require some sort of planning and implementation—even homemakers are more efficient if meals are planned ahead of time.
“Where there is no guidance, a people falls; but in an abundance of counselors there is safety” Proverbs 11:14.
“Plans are established by counsel” Proverbs 20:18a.

**This article appears over at Heart of the Matter Online today. Check out the other great writers over there!