So you’re suddenly homeschooling? The first thing to do is relax. You’ve got this.
I’m a mom of three and we’re nearing the end of our third year of homeschool. Many friends and family across the country have sent me messages this week asking for homeschooling advice, so I thought I’d compile some ideas and resources that have helped us along the way.
All you have to do is a quick search on Pinterest to find thousands of curriculum options and online academic programs. I’m going to push you to think more deeply about this opportunity, though. Homeschooling is partially about academics. But it’s also about building a relationship with your family that looks different from the one you have when you all spend the day apart from each other. (I didn’t use the word “better” to describe that relationship. It’s just different.)
Some days it means too much yelling and a lot of guilt. Some days it means accomplishing projects that you’re all super proud of. Some days it means never getting out of your pajamas or getting around to schooling. But it always means togetherness—and togetherness changes your daily dynamics.
If you are just starting to homeschool because of the closures due to Covid-19 or for any other reason, I encourage you to think about more than pure academics but also what you hope this togetherness will bring to your family. Below you’ll find some philosophies, project ideas, and resources we’ve stumbled upon or created along the way to help you think creatively about this strange time in which we find ourselves.
Working and homeschooling
If you haven’t done it before, the thought of working from home while caring for and educating your children may sound overwhelming. But I’ll let you in on something: many, many homeschooling parents work and homeschool simultaneously. Some work part-time, others work full-time.
That is to say, people often combine homeschooling with jobs and YOU CAN ABSOLUTELY HANDLE IT. Of course some jobs are much less flexible than others. Some jobs have rigid schedule requirements and immovable deadlines. Those jobs will be tougher to do while educating your kids than more flexible jobs. But it is possible. People in our communities are making it work all the time. Will you feel crazy some days? Possibly to probably yes. But if this is your first foray into working while simultaneously homeschooling, I guarantee you will come out the other side working more efficiently.
There is no need to emulate a classroom
Please, for the love of your family, back away from the worksheets. Stop yourself from drawing up a minute-by-minute daily schedule. (Why, people? Why?) Refrain from ordering a white board so you can stand up and deliver a formal lecture. Learning is much more efficient and can be much more casual when you’re teaching a few kids versus 20 or 30 in a classroom, so you don’t have to pretend your kitchen is a traditional classroom. Kids are sponges. They learn all the time whether you're stressing about it or not.
Homeschool can be anything you want it to be. Imagine the type of education you wish you’d had, then work to make that happen for your kids and for yourself, whether this time of homeschooling lasts two weeks or several months. I’ve read that homeschooling is not just an education for the kids but a reeducation for the home educator. In my experience, this has absolutely been true. I choose to explore subjects with my kids that I’m interested in learning alongside them. (For example, I got so absorbed in a unit study I created for my kids that used the horse as an avenue to study U.S. history that it got completely out of control and morphed into the book I’m publishing in May, Equus Rising: How the Horse Shaped U.S. History.)
“Routine, not schedule”
I’ll tell you more about Julie Bogart in the resource section below, but in her wonderful homeschooling book, The Brave Learner, she encourages the idea of having a routine rather than a schedule. Schedules are stressful and often pointless. Routines help set expectations but allow for flexibility and spontaneity. Rather than drawing up a rigid schedule of math from 7:30 a.m. to 8:05 a.m. and literature from 8:07 a.m. to 8:37 a.m., consider following a routine or pattern: once everyone is awake and you've had your coffee, convene and take turns reading aloud from a good book. When it feels like time to move on, have everyone write a story. Then give the kids some time to get bored, so they get creative entertaining themselves with Legos and art supplies. Using a routine instead of a schedule means when your child gets obsessed with the story she’s working on, she can write for an hour and a half without interruption instead of having to stop after 20 minutes to maintain a ridiculous schedule. You can move on to the next activity when she'd done.
We do not homeschool for 7-8 hours a day. I repeat: we do not homeschool for 7-8 hours a day. Homeschool is more efficient than traditional schooling. There’s no waiting around for the teacher to deal with misbehaving kids (except when those kids are your own!). There’s no lining up and walking to different parts of the school. There’s no set recess time. We do what I call “sit-down” learning for a couple hours a day (including things like reading and discussing literature, working through math books, designing science experiments, etc.). Then we do stuff outside. Or the kids entertain themselves with some crazy self-directed project they’ve come up with. Or they just lie around reading Harry Potter.
When we first started to homeschool, I read a suggestion that kindergarteners should do about an hour of school a day. With each subsequent grade, you should add about half an hour of schooling. We’ve loosely followed that suggestion, though it’s not all sit-down learning, and some days we get really into a project and work much of the day on it.
RESOURCES AND IDEAS
This is the perfect time to take a break from traditional subjects and explore photography. Learning to still yourself and observe the world is a valuable skill. (How can someone lead you astray by telling you to ignore what is in front of you if understand how to see it like it is?) Learning to tell a story effectively, whether through images or words, is an important life skill, too.
My heart goes out to everyone whose life has been upended by this pandemic, so I’ve decided to offer a free downloadable sample of my intro photography curriculum for kids, Documenting Your World Through Photography: An Introductory Course for Elementary and Middle Schoolers. The sample is packed with activities to keep you busy for two weeks to two months, depending how you pace it. And it’s great for teens and adult learners, too. If you’re not a photographer, now is you change to learn alongside your kids.
I’m also putting the full curriculum on sale through the end of March. The paperback version on Amazon is already marked down by 15%. To received 15% off the digital version, please use code: MARCH31
If you end up using this time to learn photography, consider going a step further and helping your kids to create and order a photo book online. Have them write their own captions. It won’t occur to them this is educational activity if you don’t call it school.
Read good books + write good stuff
Even if your kids are prolific readers, sit down with them and read books to each other out loud. There is so much joy in getting sucked into good literature together. Discuss what you’re reading, too. Choose books written from a variety of perspectives on a variety of topics. Watch the movies together after you finish the books and talk about them.
Many “classics” aren’t worthy of that classification. Think more broadly. The book Give Your Child the World: Raising Globally Minded Kids One Book at a Time is an excellent resource, organized by grade level, for selecting K-12 books.
Our first year of homeschool, we did an “Around the World” theme by continent or region of a continent. I posted some of these units. You can find them here (scroll down to the bottom of that blog post for the whole list of the ones I got around to posting).
Brave Writer, founded by Julie Bogart, is a fantastic resource for literature and language arts, as well as for helping you to figure out how you want to live your unique homeschool existence. Brave Writer offers a lot of free content (such as how to start holding Poetry Tea Time—a favorite in our house), as well as paid products. We use their literature and language arts guides.
Julie’s ideas about how to teach kids to write resonate with me as a writer. One of her suggestions is to make weekly time for your kids to freewrite (with or without a prompt from you). Then don’t nit-pick their mechanics! They get enough of that at school, and it can stifle creativity. Just let them write and write and write. Later, you can help them edit one of their pieces, and they can write a final draft.
Last year we turned the girls’ freewriting into published books, which was a really fulfilling project for them. One of the books we just published using an online photo book company so my daughter could have a copy for herself and to send to the grandparents. One of the books, Rascal’s Life, we actually published and it’s available for purchase on Amazon. You can read about the process we used hereand here.
I'm encouraged to see many more people are coming to the realization that a traditional history education is woefully narrow and that viewing the past from innumerable lenses enriches our understanding of how we got to where we are today.
One of my impetuses for writing Equus Rising: How the Horse Shaped U.S. History was to offer up an additional perspective that made room for the inclusion of not only the energy source that powered the nation for centuries (the horse!), but also human figures often written out of traditional histories: women and people of color. The book could help to broaden your history curriculum for high schoolers or late middle schoolers. It also branches into science, literature, and policy, making for a comprehensive unit study.
I’m a science nut. I could go on forever about science project ideas and experiments, but they’re really easy to find just searching Pinterest. So I’ll just give you a few ideas that make up a lot of our science studies.
Nature study: we spend a lot of time outside identifying the plants and animals we find. Sometimes we just make note of what we locate and look it up later. Sometimes we take a photo of it, then upload the photo to a free app called iNaturalist, which helps us with identification. (It’s awesome.)
Nature journaling: we keep nature journals and use them in a variety of ways. Sometimes we go outside and draw what we find as we’re looking at it. Sometimes we just use our outdoor time to find inspiration, then go home and find some pictures of the subject online or in a book and draw or paint it at the kitchen table. Then we write some interesting facts about it. Other times I choose something I’d like us to study and we go from there.
Scientific method and science experiments: As a writer who trained as a medical journalist, I’ve learned over the years that, unfortunately, many non-scientist adults (and kids) don’t understand what science actually is. And they don’t even realize it. It keeps me up at night. Let’s make sure our kids are learning that science is more than memorizing classifications or putting two things together to make them fizzle. Look up the scientific method and discuss what it is. Then design an experiment you can do at home with the supplies you have.
My 2nd and 3rd graders have gotten into doing behavioral experiments on our hedgehog. After designing the studies, we collect and analyze the data, make charts and graphs, then write up faux journal articles. One of our studies, for example, was “Instantaneous Sampling of a Hedgehog’s State Behaviors.” Another was “A Hedgehog Case Study: Distance She Can Push a Paper Towel Roll.” They were a blast! Of course, these studies need to be ethical and not harmful to the pet. Lots of treats should be involved. Just search for some ideas on how to design a basic behavioral study.
Make sure to talk your kids through each step of the study, so they understand that science is about observing, measuring, and testing the world around them. The process of science itself is not political. Religious beliefs are not science. They are beliefs. Science is about building evidence to develop a better understanding of how things work.
If your school has not assigned specific math curriculum for your kids, I’ve got an idea for you. A high school math teacher told me that a huge challenge for many kids entering high school these days is that they never had to memorize their basic math facts in elementary school. That means many high school kids can’t tell you off the tops of their heads what 8 + 7 is or what 4 x 8 is, which makes higher-level math more difficult. This math teacher has told me, when I get stressed about teaching math to my kids, that what they really need to know is their basic math facts. Drilling math facts doesn’t always happen in traditional schools any more. So if you don’t have a set curriculum to work through these weeks or months, what if you saved some time each day for flashcards? You can make them yourself or order them online. Or print out some free “time tests” and make a game out of it for your kids? (I always hated time tests, but it turns out they work.) Send your kids back to school with their math facts in check.
You can also bake with your kids to practice their fractions. (You don’t have to tell them that’s the goal, though.) Double a recipe and help them think through how much of each ingredient you need. Just make sure you double everything in the recipe. Only remembering to double half the ingredients is my downfall.
Finally, the medical journalist in me needs to take a moment to promote social distancing. Even if you’re not in a high-risk group for complications from Covid-19, it’s essential that you participate in social distancing to “flatten the curve” of disease spread so cases don’t spike to a number that overwhelms our health care system. (We don’t have actually have “a” health care system. We have a messy combination of systems.) It doesn’t matter if you’re young and healthy; your life could be endangered if our health care system became overwhelmed. It would mean that if you got in a car accident or had a medical emergency unrelated to Covid-19, there may not be medical professionals or equipment, such as a ventilator, available to keep you alive. This worst-case scenario isn’t theoretical; it's happening in other countries as we speak. Whether you choose to act selflessly for the good of others or selfishly for your own good, you’ve got to participate in social distancing. We can't overwhelm the system, and the only way not to do so (since we have failed to contain the virus from spreading through the community) is by social distancing. Right now. Today. That means no playgrounds. That means no playdates. That means stay home to stay safe.
I'm Julia Soplop, writer and photographer. I believe there is something profound in bearing witness to moments of joy and pain in others’ lives. My husband, three girls and I live outside of Chapel Hill, NC. You can read more about me here.