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When I first started thinking about homeschooling my oldest daughter, she was four, the middle child was two, and my youngest was not quite one. My days were filled with three little girls dressed in pink fluff, dancing to music, messing up my clean floors, and taking naps all over the place when they reached the end of their energy. We entertained the idea of homeschooling not because the school district we live in was struggling, but because I really love being a stay-at-home mom and I wasn’t ready to send my daughter to full-day kindergarten.

reading

That’s it. Plain and simple, we homeschool because I was selfish. I didn’t (and still don’t) want someone else to have the privilege of enjoying educating my children. (Note: this does not mean that I look down on parents who utilize the public or private school systems! I know that every parent does what is best for their family.)

Our first year of homeschooling was a trial run. I used desks at first because that’s what I knew from my career as a school teacher. I slowly realized that learning at home rarely happens at a desk. Real education — the character development, faith formation, and samplings of all that is truly important — happened in giant piles of children on my lap as I read stories, as I read from recipes and followed directions (or not), and as I kept my cool (or not) in stressful moments that are natural when your children are with you ALL DAY. My children have seen my best days and my worst days. I’ve seen theirs. And there is still much love between us.

But we have a new challenge. He is adorable and energetic and infatuated with all things tractor and truck related. He’s the only boy and the youngest by seven years.

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He doesn’t have to share my lap with any other siblings. I have to purposefully set aside time for him. It’s too easy for me to be swept up in the busy-ness of having three high school and junior high students. The clutter of a preschooler, the hands-on learning that I know he’ll need in kindergarten have been put away for years. As I’m unpacking them, I’m realizing that he learns very differently from my daughters. I’m in for the challenge of a lifetime!

For the past few months, I’ve felt pulled in two different directions: Studying Homer with the girls vs. teaching the boy how to read; moving the girls to advanced music classes vs. taking away wooden spoons from my son who drummed on the wooden furniture; trying to further my own education with classical literature and leadership development books vs. reading about giving pigs pancakes and Green Eggs and Ham.

It’s time to re-think my homeschooling.

Not that I’m going to give it up or send him to school. This is my chance to learn more about him, to discover new things about me. I wouldn’t let that opportunity pass me by for anything! (I’m going to repeat that again and again to myself on difficult days!)

Here’s my plan to bridge the gap between my children’s academic levels:

First, feel assured in the fact that I haven’t neglected my children’s education. Going back to my mission statement for homeschooling, I know that ‘education’ is pretty low on the list. The order of importance looks like this: faith formation, character development, family (household and farm chores, annual traditions and practicing effective communication), learning to love reading, music, and then the more formal aspect of education.

Second, I need to be more prepared to help my son learn according to his strengths. He’s all boy – meaning that he’s busy, loves all things with wheels and motors, enjoys cuddles, and thinks more clearly when he’s making noise. As such, I will need to teach him while he moves. Small motor skills are a little lacking and he isn’t reading yet, but the interest is there. My job is to not destroy that interest.

Several years ago I went to a seminar given by Andrew Pudua of the Institute for Excellence in Writing. He listed the different ways boys and girls learn and suggested that schools with gender separate classrooms were showing amazing academic results. At the time, my son was only an infant, but as he nears kindergarten, I am beginning to experience those differences. I still have a bit of learning to do on the subject, but here’s my plan so far. I will post updates and changes to the plan as I learn 🙂

Things he can do while I’m working with the girls:

Sensory Bins

We are putting together more sensory bins which are available for him to purposefully play with during the times I’m working with older children.

Rice, beans, tiny toys. Cheapest and most popular toys ever!

rice, beans, tiny toys. Cheapest and most popular toys ever!

Rice and beans

Shaving cream on a tray

Pattern Blocks

Salt tray and Letters

Threading beads on yarn – randomly first to master the small motor skills, then adding patterns to follow

Play-dough – Making it together and working on small motor skills. I love this the best. It’s time in the kitchen, working on a recipe together, seeing the ingredients that are mixed together to make something new. Then, we practice those small motor skills that are so often late in developing in boys, and make shapes and letters and action figures.

We also have tried all the easy recipes on Pinterest for different types of texture dough. Our favorite is mixing equal parts of shaving cream and corn starch. It’s slick and easy to clean up. I would recommend buying a non-scented shaving cream if possible. Our house smelled like a cologne store for hours.

Legos – That’s right. Legos. Who doesn’t want to play with them? Great for small motor development, creative 3-D building and can be used to make mazes (with a marble), to sort colors and sizes, and will eventually be used to teach fractions.

 

Things he can do with one of the girls while the other two are working:

Cutting and Pasting

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The girls help the boy with a craft each day. We each take a turn prepping and helping him follow the directions. This has turned out better than I expected. His fine motor skills are improving, he is sitting (or sometimes standing at the table) for longer periods of time as his attention is stretching longer. The girls are also finding opportunities to practice patience. It’s a win-win!

Obstacle course:

For the active days, I set up our rebounder and put tape on the floor to create an obstacle course. He builds it with me and then runs, jumps and rolls all over the place. This doesn’t create a very quiet atmosphere for us, but these are his favorite days!

We’ve also made the masking tape obstacle courses in the shape of his name. He drives his smaller tractors all over it as we work at the table on Bible readings, Science or Writing. I don’t know why I was surprised, but after he played with that tape for a day, he no longer wrote the letters of his name backwards.

Things we can do just because:

Park Trips

When the girls were younger, we spent one summer exploring our state’s playgrounds and state parks. Each week we packed a picnic lunch, traveled to a different park and explored. If there was a geo-cache nearby, we did that. We took pictures (what child doesn’t love to take pictures?) and rated the playground on a scale of 1 – 10 based on the quality of the playground, the proximity and cleanliness of the bathrooms, and the dirt. Remember, I have girls. If a playground was too dirty, it didn’t score well. They preferred woodchips, shredded rubber, and pea stones.

Summer Reading Program:

As always, I have a goal for the summer for all my children. We usually make these goals together, but my son seems to balk at the idea of planning something out. They only thing he plans on doing everyday is riding the lawn mower with me. The rainy days are almost unbearable for us all!

The girls will make a list of books to read:

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They are too old to participate in the libraries summer reading program, so we make up our own.

To motivate my son to participate in the Summer Reading Program with us, I’ll make a chart of books to read with different siblings and my husband and I.

The teeter-totter of homeschooling such vast ages doesn’t have to be a wrist-breaking, butt-dropping experience. There are rules for playing nicely on the teeter-totter just like there are rules to follow to meet the goals of a successful year of homeschooling.

In all of this, there is also time for me to read and write. That’s really the beauty of it – mom is happy, too!

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As a former classroom teacher, I approached the idea of homeschooling with a very strict, organized mindset. Students need desks and a schedule and textbooks. School should start at 9:00, lunch at noon, and we would wrap things up at 3:00. My children will be intelligent and polite and will compete well with traditionally schooled children.

The truth is, none of that matters. There are hundreds of misconceptions about homeschooling. All of mine were based on the fact that I have a Master’s degree in Education. It ended up being a setback for me as I had to reconstruct the philosophies behind classroom management and align them with the reality of a household.

Here are the three most valuable lessons I’ve learned about home-schooling in the past ten years:

  1. A school schedule is not a home-school schedule.

The first year I homeschooled, my oldest daughter was five. Outside of dealing with guilt for ‘denying’ her a kindergarten school year, I felt pressure to be the best homeschooling mom. Ever. I quickly realized that the full load of lessons that I used to teach a classroom of kindergarteners was quickly completely by my one five-year-old.

I will never forget the very first day of our official home-school. We began promptly at 9:00 with prayer and the pledge of allegiance. We read stories, practiced handwriting, and did a craft. We made play-dough from scratch and formed all the letters in her name. And then her sisters’ names. Then mine and my husband’s. We played outside and I was careful to provide time for her to run and jump. Those large motor skills are important, you know.

At 11:00 we called it a day. She consumed my plans as if she was a fish and all my carefully formulated lessons were nothing more than water over her gills.

What was different from teaching 25 students? Much of the time I spent as a kindergarten teacher (1 semester – my experience in this world is quite limited) was used in teaching songs and steps for the daily projects, managing transitions, discipline, academic testing, walking up and down halls for special classes, managing recess, and communicating with parents. With one five-year old (and younger siblings – a 3 year old and a one-year-old), my duties were drastically different. I was the teacher, custodian, lunch lady, and principal. Parent communications were constant (I do talk to myself). I didn’t need academic testing because it was clear to me what she grasped and what needed more work. Special classes – gym, computer, library – were all right there in the house, but we still fit playgrounds and libraries into our schedule as weekly stops.

Note the map in the background. Every home needs a map. This mural map is from National Geographic.

Note the map in the background. Every home needs a map. This mural map is from National Geographic.

That was ten years ago. Our typical day is very different and we’ve gone through several different schedules and plans. For now, we work for 4-6 hours a day on reading, math, science, and music. We are going to add a foreign language to that mix in May. When most schools are winding down for the summer, we are changing gears and keeping the learning fresh with different subjects. Our schedule evolution could fill a book. Hmmm…maybe one day it will. It would be a comedy.

  1. Too many subjects a day keeps the Scholar away.

Because we only focus on four subjects at a time, my children don’t (typically) feel stressed about the amount of work they have to do. This feels like freedom to them because a year ago it was a different story. I had enrolled them in a faith-focused, accredited home-school. I needed the direction, the pre-planned lessons, and the books they use are amazing! When the lesson plans arrived, I unpacked three, four-pound bricks of shrink-wrapped lessons. Each brick had nine subjects spread out over a 36-week school year. They had several different recommendations of how to organize these lesson plans. I’m sorry to say, that after using this curriculum for two years, no suggestion worked well.

It was in the throes of a bitter winter that I noticed four things about our home-school:

  1. My daughters spent so much time at their desks, I didn’t really see them during the day. They may as well have been in school.
  2. The volume of subjects was weary. Mathematics, Religion, English, Reading Comprehension, Reading Thinking Skills, Spelling, Vocabulary, History, Science, Physical Education, Music, and Life Skills. Not one of these subjects overlapped.
  3. We were always behind. The lesson plans were organized by week and day. The only day we were on target was Week 1, Day 1. By the end of the first week, every child was on a different day in every subject. Despite the fact that the school said that was fine, to go through the lessons at your own pace, mine is the personality that doesn’t jive with that. By December, we should have been on week 16, but no one was. We felt like failures.
  4. That feeling of failure lead to short tempers. Mine, mostly.

Our solution was to return to what we love. Reading. We read and write for at least two hours a day. While this is the cornerstone of our education, there is also Math, Music and Science.

The kid's bookshelf. They have read far more than I have.

The kid’s bookshelf. They have read far more than I have.

  1. I am my own worst student.

Ten years ago as our home-schooling adventure began, I made a critical error. I believed that my degree in education gave me everything I needed to know about how to best teach. Only in retrospect and after many tears and prayers, was I able to admit that I had not studied enough.

My children’s education is only as good as the habits I exhibit. In other words, I can’t teach them anything. Every critical skill that my children learn, they learn from observation. If I want them to flip their lids when the dishes aren’t done, all I have to do is model that behavior once and they have it. They will take that lesson and apply it to moments when a sibling doesn’t return a borrowed jacket or absently leaves a glass on their desk. If I want to teach my children how to gently guide their youngest brother through the four-year-old stubborn streak, I have to model that day after day.

My bookshelf. I'm working my way through these books. Some are classics, some are based on leadership development. All are changing the way I see the world. And that is the goal!

My bookshelf. I’m working my way through these books. Some are classics, some are based on leadership development. All are changing the way I see the world. And that is the goal!

If I want my children to be avid, always-hungry readers, I must be an avid, hungry reader. If I want healthy children, I must follow healthy eating and exercise guidelines. The same is true for any circumstance: gentle nature, neatness, respect, gossip, etc.

To remedy my education in Education, I turned to un-schoolers, read about Montessori schools, dove into Classical Education and read up on Leadership Education. Taking the bits and pieces from each, I’ve applied what works for our family and am striving to create a household of learners who are eager to wake up each morning to join me at the table to read and learn. They have their own projects and books they are working on, but essentially, our family has taken a bold step to become Scholars.

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Jesus told Peter to “put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch” (Luke 5).

Hmmm…deep water? Sounds like missionary work. Not just missionaries who travel to remote islands with a New Testament in hand, but missionaries within ten miles of where we live. Those folks who man the Soup Kitchens, distribute food and compassion, the Meals-on-Wheels deliveries, those who are filled with the Holy Spirit and act accordingly.

Deep Waters.

Taken while fishing with my dad – a tradition I hope lasts forever!

With Jesus as our guide, we can walk on those waters and not be sucked under by gravity or the undertow. Our faith can protect us from slipping under the consuming waves while we cast a life line out to those just under the surface.

On our dining room wall, we have a topographical mural map of the world. It’s wonderful for homeschooling, not to mention a great conversation center piece with guests. As my children and I sit around the table, gazing longingly at the world, we wonder where we will visit in the future.

Best Christmas present!

My daughters want to become missionaries and travel and share God’s love and message. We’ve read stories about people who have made the journey to South America and lived among the tribes in the Amazon forest; a woman who traveled through a war to arrive in China where she shared God’s Word; another woman who went to the Philippines and lived among a tribe and became their daughter and sister. The stories are wonderful on paper when years of weather, illness, struggles and deprivation are condensed into neat paragraphs.

The Deep Water we are called to navigate in order to share God’s Word looks pleasantly coordinated on our wall map. The rivers are neat blue lines, the oceans more interesting because we can see the ridges which lie hidden under miles of water. Missing is the understanding of what a jungle holds, how deep hunger can eat, and just how far of a walk it is to the other side of the mountain.

And I realize that my Deep Waters are nothing but a wading pool for infants. I may complain when splashed and perhaps I have even fallen in and soak my clothes, but I have never truly slipped under the water and watched the sky recede from view. Hunger only lasts as long as it takes for me to walk to the cupboard. I can go to a church which I choose and not fear persecution. My family is alive and well and living close enough that I can drive to them in a few hours. My children are healthy, we have a house, we drive two cars – we are living a good, easy life.

Am I following Christ? Do I have to leave everything behind and follow him? Is that what Deep Water Faith is?

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