Tuesday, June 24, 2014

How I Homeschool

Micaela at California to Korea is doing a link-up series for homeschoolers.  I thought I'd give it a go, so here are the answers to her questions...warning:  long post ahead!

How long have you been homeschooling?

We are coming up on our 7th year homeschooling our oldest child and the 5th year for everyone else.  We started out with the public school system from preschool on up thru 2nd grade.  I had wanted to give homeschooling a try at the end of first grade but Doug wasn't on board until the end of 2nd.  Our boys were struggling readers, so that was the original catalyst to take them out of the traditional school system.  Our oldest took to homeschooling like a duck in water, it naturally fit his personality.  After two years of "living in both worlds" I finally convinced Doug that we needed to bring them all home.  Soccer Boy was going into 3rd grade and Game Boy was entering Kindergarten at that point.  This coming year we will be doing high school at home for the first time with kids in 9/7/4/1 grades.  Now homeschooling is more of a lifestyle choice for our family and I'm very thankful we took the plunge early on in our kids' education.

How were you educated?

My husband and I are both products of the public school system.  Doug comes from a line of great public school teachers, with his mom and grandmother both working in the field.  He went on to get his Bachelor's in Finance and an MBA.  I graduated in the top of my high school class and went on to get a Bachelor's in Accounting.  I worked full time as an accountant for 5 years before I decided to stay home with the kids when Soccer Boy was born.  All these degrees are not necessary to homeschool your kids, but they do come in handy when doing your taxes!

As an aside, I do not think the public school system is "evil".  It is actually necessary, because not everyone has the opportunity or inclination to educate their kids at home.  I was actively involved in our local public school when my kids attended there.  I was a room parent and a parent volunteer, I applaud our teachers because they are doing a fabulous work, it is not an easy job they undertake.  I have come to view homeschooling as more of a "lifestyle".  I like the fact that our school revolves around our family life and not the other way around.

How many kids are in your family?  How are they schooled?  Are any more traditionally schooled?

Guess I sort of answered this questions above.  We have 5 children, the youngest is three so he's not "officially" in our homeschool yet, but it's amazing what he'll pick up just listening in on his siblings' lessons.  We do belong to a very large homeschooling group in our area, which gives us access to a variety of lyceum lessons.  For example, Firstborn did his Apologia Biology class with them.  It was great, he did his reading and homework at home and did the experiments with the group.  Translation - I didn't have to dissect frogs at home!  It was great, and since science is my weak area (due to all the experiments) this helped keep us on track.  Because there is a large network of homeschoolers in our area and there are so many great things offered the temptation is actually to get involved in too much.  I just have to laugh about the socialization question.  We could be out of the house "socializing" almost every day of the week, but then we wouldn't be home to get their homework done!

What laws, if any, are there in your state?  How do you comply?

This is where we are blessed indeed, because we live in Illinois, the most unregulated state of the union.  We have to actively lobby to keep it that way.  Every year there is a homeschool "cherry pie" day in Springfield, where the homeschool families deliver home made pies to all the representatives and speak to them about issues related to home education.  Every time homeschooling regulation comes along homeschoolers show up by the 1,000s at the capital!  It's amazing to see.  Homeschools are considered private schools in our state.  There are no compliance laws, when we decided to homeschool I notified the public school in writing and that was it.  I wasn't even required to do that, but since my kids were in the school system and we were taking them out I wanted something official in their school file.  I administered the CAT test myself when were first brought them home so I had a baseline when we started.  I had Firstborn take the IOWA test offered thru our homeschool group this year because I wanted him to have practice taking standardized tests.  He'll be taking the PSAT and ACT in a few years and we don't normally do those type of tests at home.  Drivers Ed will be coming up in a couple years and our state does regulate that.  My kids will have to take an outside class in order to get their driver's license but we'll cross that bridge when we get to it.

Switching gears here; if you could summarize your homeschooling philosophy in one sentence or mission statement, what would that be?

Wow, digging deep.  The theme bible verse of our homeschool is Colossians 2:2 "that their hearts may be encouraged as they are knit together in love, to have all the riches of assured understanding and the knowledge of God's mystery, of Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge"

Ultimately, we want them to come away with a love of God, family and their neighbors.  We also want them to have an excellent education to prepare them for college and life in general.  We think our family does that best thru home education.

What is your homeschooling style?  Do you follow any set curriculum?

I would say eclectic.  When we first started I used a boxed curriculum that did all the grading for you.  Since I was teaching a 3rd grader, it didn't take long to stop sending the bubble tests in to be graded when I could grade them myself instantaneously.  The curriculum didn't work for us because I had a child who was ahead in some stuff and behind in other areas and I was constantly substituting what he needed.  What's the point of homeschooling if you can't tailor it to the particular child's needs?  That's one of the biggest benefits of this educational choice.  The second year I did more research and started piecing together our curriculum from different sources.  I still do that today.  I review what is working for us and what isn't and go from there.

We currently use Tapestry of Grace, which is an all inclusive type curriculum.  It encompasses everything but math and science.  I like it because it teaches all age levels the same subject at the same time.  This means when we're studying Ancient Egypt, everyone in the family is studying it at their own level.  So the kindergartner may be studying the pyramids while the older students are writing papers on the Egyptian legal system.  However, I'm still doing what works for our family.  Even though art can be included in the lessons I'm considering using the Meet the Masters curriculum next year.  You make the curriculum and schedule work for you, not the other way around.  I also started using All About Reading last year with my younger kids and really liked it.  I'm thinking about adding All About Spelling this year.  We've been doing Saxton math for a couple years now but next year I may move to Alpha Omega's SOS on-line math course because I need math to be more independent so I can spend more time on reading and phonics with the younger ones.  We love Apologia for science, we've used that for years.  Last year I discovered Donna Young, which practically gives you lesson plans for Apologia for the entire year, a great resource.

What do your best homeschooling moments look like?  What do your not-so-good moments look like?  How do you stay on track?

Staying on track can be difficult, especially when juggling 5 kids!  I make a broad yearly schedule at the beginning of the year and then I do a weekly lesson plan at the beginning of every week.  The Tapestry curriculum almost requires that, because of all the reading involved I have to plan a few weeks out to get the books we need ordered from the library.  If a book is used a lot or looks really good we might just buy it to have on hand for a resource.  One of the benefits of the lyceum classes is that it keeps us on task.  My kids make sure they have their homework and reading done for those classes because they don't want to show up unprepared!  There have been years we didn't finish in May and had to work thru the summer months.  Regardless, I have found that we at least need to keep up reading and math in those months.  We still "do" school in the summer, it's just way more relaxed.  This is where the library's summer reading program comes in handy.  During the school year we use the Six Flag reading program, Raging Rivers reading program, and Book It program as incentives too.

Baby sea turtles!!
Some of our best homeschooling moments...when the kids look forward to and get excited about what they're learning (like studying a certain subject, or doing certain experiments).  When I see the older kids spontaneously read their favorite books to their younger siblings.  Field trips always make great family memories.  Using our family vacations as learning tools, like visiting the Mote Aquarium in Florida after we did a science study on marine animals the semester before.  We even scheduled our vacation around the time the sea turtles hatched, so the kids got to see sea turtle nests and baby sea turtles!  Being able to explore in detail the kids current interest (like when Firstborn went thru a fascination with the Red Baron, which led to many studies about WWI and WWII, aviation, the industrial age, morality and theological implications, the list goes on).  Because he was interested in the subject he soaked up all this information like a sponge and retains it to this day.

Not so good moments, when you have a plan and the kids don't cooperate.  Yesterday, I made a sand pudding dessert for a meeting the younger kids and I were attending.  I chose that dessert specifically because the younger kids could help me with it, a fun dessert that involves some measuring of ingredients.  I figured having fun and giving the kids some hands on math practice at the same time.  After breaking up the third or fourth argument, the last one fighting over "who gets to get the butter out of the fridge" (like, really, this is worth arguing about??) I exiled my kids from the kitchen and finished the pudding myself.  You can set everything up and still the kids might not cooperate.  On an everyday basis, our days are usually more average.  You have the awesome days and terrible days, most days fall in between.  When you're dealing with six people chances are someone is not in a good mood.  You have to press thru despite a negative attitude here or there, then get up and start fresh the next day.  It takes discipline, perseverance, and prayer...homeschooling has forced me to develop and abundance of all three.

How do you keep any non-school aged kids busy?

Caught writing on brother's homework!
This is a biggie!  I do have some activities for them that I keep put up unless we are doing school.  Stuff like a small water table that we set up in our kitchen (which always buys me an hour but then I have to mop my floor afterwards).  Play dough, stuff I only get out to buy quiet time.  If I get really desperate there is always educational videos he can watch.  If an older kid has scheduled free time I might assign them to keep an eye on the little one so I could finish a phonic lesson or make lunch.  This is something that is always evolving because little ones grow so fast.  The most difficult time for me is the under 1 time because they need me to nurse so frequently.  I've never been able to master the "read a book to another child while nursing" thing.  Around age 1 I would set up a playpen in whatever room we were schooling in, but that may only buy you 1/2 hour to 45 minutes.  On those subjects you need large, uninterrupted blocks of time...nap time is your friend.

How do you organize your day?  Your year?

We currently run on a 9 month calendar, with 3 months off in summer (although we still do light homeschooling all summer).  We always plan our vacations in the off seasons, so we take time off for that and holidays.  Because Fridays are our lyceum days the other four days of the week are front loaded, we do more homework on those days so we can take Fridays off to go to classes.

What is your strongest subject area?  Your weakest?

History and math are my strong areas.  I really love teaching those subjects.  I like science to a point, I just don't like doing all the experiments (because I'm not a fun mom).  One of the great things about older students is teaching them how to think logically and make rational arguments.  I love being able to have deep discussions with them on current events, to be able to debate with them.  To see them form their own opinions about issues and be able to explain their position.

Although I love to read I don't particularly like to teach phonics.  I think my first year attempting phonics with Firstborn did me in.  I recall looking at the 3rd grade phonics book and trying to figure out what sound matched the picture (then asking Doug who also couldn't figure it out).  That first year curriculum was challenging!  I just don't have the patience, but there's no other options for it because they have to learn to read somehow.  So I "occasionally" grit my teeth thru phonics lessons.  Art is not high on my list either.  I'm basically a stick figure person and I have a love/hate relationship with glitter (I love seeing it on their projects but not on my floor).

Looking back, what are you glad you did?

In the early years, one of my favorite times of day was the early morning.  Everyone would still be asleep and I would be sitting in my bathrobe drinking a cup of coffee when I would see the schoolbus drive by out my window.  I would always think "I am SO glad we're homeschooling" in that moment as I not so fondly remembered how crazy hectic our mornings were to get everyone ready to head out the door!  I'm glad we brought them home while they were still young, I think the adjustment would have been harder if they were older, for both them and us.  I'm also glad we got plugged in with other homeschoolers right away.  The support is so critical, because there are days when you think that school bus looks like a really good option.

And what do you wish you could change?

I wish I would have pushed the phonics lessons harder, we brought home struggling readers and I had to do a lot of remedial work with them.  Occasionally we will still come across some basic stuff that needs fixed.  We thought in the beginning that bringing them home would automatically correct some of these issues, because they would be getting one on one attention.  However, if they struggled with it in a school setting they may continue to struggle with it in a homeschool setting.  Just because your child is homeschooled that does not mean he's going to be 2 grade levels above his public school peers.  I wish I jumped on some of those learning glitches faster instead of taking the advice that it was a maturity issue.  I heard that when they were in public school too because Firstborn was one of the youngest boys in his class.  It's easier to correct the issue from the get go than to fix a bad habit.

Firstborn's 8th Grade Graduation
If you could give any advice to a new mom starting out, what would it be?

Pray about it and make sure your husband and you are on the same page because you'll need his support.  Even if you start on the same page you could discover you have different homeschooling philosophies.  Working out these differences is what makes marriage interesting!  Find common ground and work on compromising, give and take.

If there is a local homeschool group get connected.  If not, find some homeschoolers in your area or at the very least join an on-line group.

Practical advice...math curriculum can either be "mastery" or "cyclical".  We've used both, be careful when switching between the two or you could end up with gaps.

There is no "perfect" curriculum, the key is consistency.  Making time to do the homework day in and day out.  Do your research, make an educated choice at the beginning of the year and run with it.  However, don't be afraid to change something that is definitely not working for you, even if it is mid year.

Consider joining HSLDA.  Even though we live in a free homeschooling state we still join because it helps keep us up to date on current homeschooling legislation.  Plus it provides legal backup in case your neighbors decide to call a truancy officer because your kids are taking a recess outside during school hours (I've not had this happen, but it's the kind of thing every homeschool mom worries about).

If you think this is the route your family should take just try it.  You will probably never feel like you are totally ready to undertake this, prepare the best you can and then jump in and learn as you go.  Our family continues to make the decision whether or not to home educate on a year by year basis.  You'll find your rhythm and some day years later you'll find yourself writing a ridiculously long post about the ins and outs of life as a homeschooling family.  Many blessings as you start your journey!


  1. Amy, I enjoyed reading this! Cherry Pie day sounds amazing! I've never heard of anything like it. Also, thanks for the Donna Young resource idea. I tried Apologia science this past year but I couldn't keep up with all the reading and we let it slide. I'd like to try again with a little better direction. Thanks!

    1. Donna Young was great for Firstborn because he is a "box checker". He likes having a list for the whole year and just checking off the work everyday. Cherry Pie day is great, it's officially called "legislative day" and it's put on by ICHE (Illinois Christian Home Educators). From what I hear the representatives and their staff look forward to it every year. They don't want to be out of their office when the cherry pies arrive!

  2. Amy, this is a wonderful interview. Thank you so much for taking the time to answer all these questions, and to add in your own thoughts. I love, love, love your philosophy: that Bible verse is perfect for homeschoolers! And your story about the sand pudding had me rolling. I think that exact scenario has happened to us!

    Thanks again for joining! I posted another interview tonight, too, so be sure to check that one out. :)