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How to Create an Overcommitment-Proof School-Year Schedule

I’m over at Heart of the Matter Online today talking about schedules. Come join the fun!

Ssshhhh! Don’t anyone tell my husband the topic of this month’s post or else he might make me read and apply it! We might as well get my confession out of the way right off the bat: I have issues with scheduling. And overcommitting. But, I need to get better at it because I was recently diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. Hhmm, I wonder if there’s a correlation . . . Maybe this year I’ll actually follow my own advice and stick to the schedule I create at the beginning of this year. Maybe this year I’ll remember that I’m already booked to capacity before I commit to another big project. Maybe.
Part of the planning process involves outlining a workable schedule for each week and for each day. Have you ever found yourself double booked? I have and it’s not a fun place to be. In addition, my kids—especially when they were younger—found it helpful to have an established routine.
During the summer or at the beginning of the academic year, I find it useful to print off or make a blank weekly time schedule in order to avoid scheduling snafus while I’m planning out our basic weekly agenda. I use a basic template from Microsoft Word or just hand draw six lines on a horizontal piece of paper so that I have a long slot/space for each day. Then I start filling in the blanks with the regular practices, classes, and appointments to which I’ve already committed for the upcoming school year. Subsequently, as more opportunities present themselves, I look on my basic weekly schedule/calendar to see how or if they will fit.
For our family, I have found that the morning hours are the most productive times in which to concentrate and do actual academic work. This means that I have had to say “no” to many outside classes and opportunities that fall before noon. Your family may find that afternoon or even evening hours are the most productive academic times. Whatever time of day is best for your children to focus is the time that you should protect as much as possible and aim not to be out of the house during that time, except for the unavoidable orthodontist and doctor appointments.
When planning a daily schedule, it’s not necessary to plan to complete every subject every day. As a general rule, skill areas such as math, reading, spelling, and handwriting do need to be completed each day in order to reinforce the concepts. On the other hand, content areas such as history, science, and literature can be worked on for fewer, but longer, sessions during the week. For instance, we have done history on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and worked on science on Tuesdays and Thursdays. One afternoon we may focus on music appreciation, and then work on art appreciation another afternoon. This also gives a longer period for projects that may accompany these subjects.
Another thing I try to do is to make sure that I am not out of the house every single afternoon every week by limiting our outside classes to one or two days. I realize that this becomes difficult if you have children in sports that require practices three or four days a week and then have games on top of that, but usually those practices are later in the day, which helps.
Now comes the tricky part: sticking to our basic weekly schedules. When a long-term commitment or big project opportunity presents itself, take a good, hard look at your schedule before agreeing to it. Talk to your spouse to get his input as well (and then follow it). Let’s hold each other up in prayer as we consider the upcoming year’s activities and schedules.

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Fire Up Your Planners

Remember the teacher’s planner you were going to research and purchase the other week? 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 the blog post)! If you wait until the day before you start school (or worse yet, the first day of school), you’ll get so befuddled that you’ll be tempted to give up on it. Start now so you feel comfortable with it by the beginning of the school year.

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 the required 180 days. 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 and trying to remember if you did school on Columbus Day or not.

If you recall, in my previous two posts, I discussed long-range and mid-range planning. Most teacher’s planners have these types of planning incorporated, so pull yours out and take a look. If you accepted the previous mission, you already started some long- and mid-range planning.

Your jobs for this week are to make sure your dates for the coming school year get plugged into your planner and to input (or write) your long- and mid-range goals into your planner.

Leave me a note and let me know how you’re coming along with your planning. I’d love to hear from you!

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A How-To Example of Mid-Range Planning

Currently I’m engaging in mid-term planning by working on my youngest daughter’s Bible, history, and reading schedule for this coming year. I start by making a chart in Word with a column for each subject and a row for each of the 36 weeks. This year’s chart has 5 columns: 1) card number (we use the history and Bible cards from Veritas Press), 2) title of each history card, 3) supplementary resources (we’re also using the Explorers History Pockets and Colonial Life from History Through the Ages’ Time Travelers series), 4) reading (living books that go along with each week’s history subject), 5) and title of each Bible card.

The key is to figure out about how many weeks a particular book will take to read and to put each book on the schedule in approximate chronological sequence. I am also looking at the “fun projects” and putting those on the schedule to coordinate with each history topic. I don’t consider all this planning boxing myself in; I consider it detailing all the possibilities so that we have many choices during the school year. If we don’t read every book on the list or complete every project, that’s okay.

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 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 discover a book about an explorer when we’re studying the Civil War.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to choose a subject and start setting up your fall schedule for it.

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Summer Scheduling for a Fabulous Fall

The key to a smooth start of the school year is to begin planning early. Yes, I know it’s only July, but the end of August (or even the beginning of September) comes quickly. In order not to feel overwhelmed the weekend before I plan to start school with the kids, and in order not to feel like I’m completely missing my summer vacation, I do a little bit of planning at a time. Obviously this is an unnecessary step for those of you using a prepackaged curriculum, but for those of you using a combination of curriculums or making up your own, this will save many prep hours during the year.

There are several types of planning that make homeschooling go more smoothly: long-range planning, mid-term planning, and short-term planning. I will plan to cover each of these in more detail in another post, but I will give a summary now. Long-term planning involves choosing curriculum for each child that matches her learning style and will be used for several years in order to have continuity in each subject. It can also involve planning which science classes and which literature periods will be covered during the four years of high school (or grade school). Deciding which method of homeschooling (classical, Charlotte Mason, traditional, eclectic, etc.) suits your family best falls under long-term planning, too. Mid-range planning is the focus of the rest of this blog entry. It focuses on planning several months ahead and/or using the summer months in between grade levels to plan for the coming school year.

Mid-range planning involves breaking the school year down into quarters (or whatever units you use), then months, 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).

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 our 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.

Many tools exist to help you with all this planning. You can go to a teachers’ supply store or a homeschool convention and find many different types of paper planners. If you like to have a physical notebook in your hands, this is the way to go. Take the time to choose the style that will best suit your needs: large family, unit studies, high school, and many others. When I used paper planners, my favorites were these two: The Home Schooler’s Journal, published by Fergnus Services Foundations for Learning, and Homeschool Teacher’s Plan Book, by Grace Publications. If you’re computer savvy and don’t want extra papers cluttering your desk, then check out the wide selection of electronic planners. Some are web-based, meaning that your computer has to be connected to the internet in order to access them. Some are can be downloaded from the internet and some can be purchased on a CD-rom to download onto your computer yourself. TOS has just introduced a brand-new homeschool planner that promised to have everything. I can’t wait to check it out! There are a few freebies online, so if you’re trying to decide whether or not planning on the computer is for you, that’s a good place to start.

Your goal for this week: purchase a homeschool teacher’s planner. Leave me a note on your search for the perfect planner and which one you chose and why you chose it.

Coming next: A How-To Example of Mid-Term Planning

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Summer School

No, I’m not talking about schooling year-round. I realize that some families find schooling year-round to be a viable option for many reasons, but my purpose here is not to discuss the merits of either a traditional school calendar or schooling year-round. Our family has chosen to school according to a more traditional school calendar, although we do make it work for us and not the other way around. However, I don’t want my children to forget everything during their summer break.

A few times a week, I have them work on some of their weaker skills for a short period (say, half an hour or two reading selections). We do math speed drills, typing games, and reading comprehension exercises. Of course, you can choose whatever skills your children need to work on. I let the kids do more of their drilling on the computer and try to incorporate more learning games as well.

Early in the summer, I make summer reading lists. I base the lists on their current reading levels, books that go along with the past or coming year’s history, and recommended books from a variety of sources (my favorite lists this year came from Veritas Press). Every time we make a trip to the library, the kids must choose several books off my list (and read them first) and then they are free to choose several fun books.

Summer school also includes educational field trips, library programs, crafts, and learning other life skills that we somehow don’t have time for during the school year. Homeschooling isn’t just about workbooks—it’s about a lifestyle of learning.

See, that’s not so bad! I don’t label what we do “summer school,” but just call it sharpening our skills. You can call it whatever you want, but the purpose is the same: to keep kids in the learning mindset.

Next time: Summer scheduling for a fabulous fall.