We had our first day of the homeschool year yesterday, and I’m so pleased to say that we weathered it without any tears or mood-altering substances. (As long as you don’t count chocolate.)
Here are the students, armed with paper, pencils, and a Chinese fan: Lucy in 2nd grade, Rosie in Kindergarten.
A good night’s sleep.
For the first time, I was able to get to sleep the night before our inaugural school day. No insomnia. No sleeping pills. I didn’t even need to break out my audiobook of Pride and Prejudice, which is my favorite non-chemical way to battle insomnia (so soothing! so beautiful! so much Mr. Darcy!). I was very grateful for a good night’s rest.
Let me give you a little background. For the past couple of years, I have been enduring the following cycle: I feel pretty good about homeschooling for about four months, and then I suddenly experience a bout of homeschool-anxiety-induced insomnia. These periods of anxiety always derive from an encounter which causes me to evaluate our children’s academic performance in some way — comparison with another child, talking with a fellow educator, or even just glancing through a grade-appropriate workbook at Costco. Just a little thing, and it throws me for a loop.
In discussing my latest period of anxiety with Jon, he offered a very simple and yet brilliant suggestion: “Why don’t we make some specific goals?” This seems obvious, but what became clear is that I’ve been slogging through the interminable task of “finishing a level of curriculum.” I have tended to vacillate between buckle-down enthusiasm for this work and rebellious irritation that someone else would dare tell me what our children need to learn! Then I start reading books about unschooling and the whole thing unravels until I have one of my bouts of insomnia. Repeat. The cycle must stop!
For the past month, I have been drafting a list of specific goals and competencies to work on with each child, mostly referencing Rebecca Rupp’s helpful resource Home Learning Year by Year and adding a few goals of our own. The process feels completely different than it has in past years. We may still get through the curriculum, but I’m finding it very freeing to work from a list of “goals to accomplish” rather than “number of pages to cover.”
So, armed with my list and determined not to freak out, I slept in peace, knowing that we could take the next day at a slow pace.
We started off with a relaxing breakfast and some out-loud reading. We happened to be starting a new book, The Wheel on the School, which resulted in a lively discussion about Dutch pronunciation. We then moved on to our first activity. Although I have a pretty good idea of the competencies I’d like the girls to work on this year, I wanted to take some time for them to express their own learning goals and have ownership of the process. Enter Martin & Sylvia.
We’ve been listening the fabulous Martin & Sylvia series from Sparkle Stories for about two years now. These tales center around two siblings (age 7 and 5) and all of the everyday adventures they undertake. The stories are sensitive, peaceful, funny, and a joy to listen to. We love hearing about all of Martin and Sylvia’s experiences, not only because they are intrinsically interesting, but also because they are a homeschooling family, too! It is tricky to find high-quality children’s literature about homeschoolers, but Martin & Sylvia are some of the best. I love it so much that — full disclosure — I’ve been moonlighting for over a year as their audio editor, which means I get to listen to every single story! (Lucy and Rosie are becoming very good editors, too. :)
Here are some of our goals for the year. Yes, we have plans to work on our superpowers, just like Martin and Sylvia.
One of the Martin & Sylvia stories (“A Map of the Year”) describes their family’s process of generating personal learning goals at the beginning of the school year and mapping them out on paper. We listened to the story (it’s my favorite entertainment for washing breakfast dishes) and then got out some big paper and started brainstorming. Hearing this great idea in story form (and with their favorite characters) was just what Lucy and Rosie needed to get their juices flowing. We had a great time! In addition to some basics of reading and math, the girls came up with some very creative goals of their own. Rosie has plans to mix up a batch of granola by herself, Lucy intends to learn dolphin language, and the girls are scheming about making their way unaccompanied to Grammie and Grandpa’s 8th-floor apartment, starting from street level. How fun! I had already decided that we were going to work on our Map of the Year all week, so I didn’t feel any pressure to get it all done in one day. A good choice!
Homeschool is full of a lot of spontaneous learning, but I’m trying to make sure we also do some reading, writing, and math everyday. The girls chose to tackle math first, and we experimented with a new tactic to sharpen our addition skills. We began by practicing a little bit with flashcards. (Disney princess flashcards are surprisingly effective.) When I felt like I had a pretty good sense of where they needed work, we made some little math facts cards . . . and posted them in the bathroom.
Does painter’s tape only come in blue, or can we get some that matches our pink floor tile?
Between talking with friends and doing some reading, I’ve become convinced that we need to post more information on walls around the house — anything we’d like our children to absorb. I know that when I want to memorize something, I benefit from posting it at the kitchen sink, where I can work on it while I wash dishes. So why not try the wall the girls stare at several times each day? I plan to switch things around about once a week. We might even try posting other things: poems, the Bible, Shakespeare. But we’ll start with some addition problems and see how it goes.
Reading and Writing.
Reading lessons went off without a hitch, since the girls genuinely enjoy them. These days, reading consists of listening to Lucy read a simple book, and doing some “echo reading” with Rosie (I read a sentence and then she repeats it). All in a comfy chair together. Nice. Snuggly. No wonder it is often my favorite part of the day!
Writing came next, and here was another place I felt eager to shake things up a little. We’ve had a challenging time with writing over the past year. Reading several Charlotte Mason homeschool books convinced me that I should require “copywork,” which sounds awful but which is simply copying down a phrase or paragraph in one’s own writing. I did my darnedest to try to make it fun. We had sticker charts, I wrote jokes and funny poems out for them to copy, we sometimes played music, anything to liven it up. But they hated copywork, and it was starting to affect how they felt about writing.
This summer, I purchased Games for Writing by Peggy Kaye. I had already enjoyed her Games for Reading and hoped that this book might offer some helpful ideas to get us out of a dark spot. We experimented with a game she titled “Silence is Golden.” Here’s how it works: you set a timer for ten minutes (or however long you’d like) during which you must stay silent, but you also must communicate — by writing. You’re not allowed to worry about spelling or neatness, just keep on writing. I started out by writing some simple questions for Lucy (“What is your favorite color?”) but we ended up playing a second round of the game (their request) during which Lucy and I wrote a story together, one half-sentence at a time. It was a real breakthrough for her, using her writing skills to express her creativity. Seeing her pride and satisfaction over writing this story was one of the highlights of my day.
For Rosie, we modified the game a little bit. Instead of reading and writing sentences, I drew a simple picture for Rosie and wrote the name of the item, leaving a blank for the first letter: “_at” with a picture of a kitty. She loved it just as much as Lucy. And the bonus was how quiet the house became while we played!
During lunch, we continued our mealtime read-aloud book. Since beginning The Wheel on the School in the morning, our appetite to hear more about Dutch culture was whetted. We remembered the story of “The Little Hero of Holland” found in The Children’s Book of Virtues, so we grabbed our copy and read it while tracking the position of Holland with our globe. We also looked online to find some pictures of dikes and learned a bit about the water engineering in the Netherlands, the impact of global warming, and what they are doing to prevent floods in the future. Then we picked up They Were Strong and Good to read and discuss, digging into a little Civil War history and using some of the ideas from Five in a Row. I loved helping the children think about a family tree, and we’ve been inspired to work on a family history book this year, interviewing grandparents and relatives with an aim to record our stories.
I did a few other things, too.
Ordinary life marches on.
In between all of these noble academic endeavors, we lived regular life. I baked a batch of chocolate chip cookies (a first-day-of-school tradition). We forgot to brush Rosie’s hair. The girls insisted on having me swaddle them in large blankets. I failed to fold the laundry. Large structures and caves were built. Children fought and were told for the umpteenth time NOT TO HIT EACH OTHER. In other words, a pretty normal day. Who knows if our new system of goals will end up being the cure for all of our homeschool woes. But if our first day is any indication of the success of this year, I’m ready to give it a try!
Homeschooling at its finest.