Homeschooling Questions: To plan or not to plan?

To plan or not to plan, that is the question…
In a recent Facebook post, I asked friends to send me their homeschooling questions, as if I could answer any of them as I emerge from a very difficult first year and enter the second. I meant to write a Q&A type of post but the questions were too far ranging to fit on one page, each one deserving a full post to itself. The first question came from Jenna. She asked (edited for length):

“I always love hearing about how/when homeschoolers fit in planning….and getting a glimpse of what a typical day looks like. I am constantly battling with the idea that we need to have a structured routine, but fail to have one every single day. Sometimes I feel great about our go-with-the-flow approach, and sometimes I feel like my kids need more consistency and I should work harder at that.”

I think that personal style and what works for your family are key. For us, planning is a must. Like you, I tend to fall on the go-with-the-flow end of the spectrum but it is a complete fail with my children. In fact, nothing guarantees a bad day like not having a plan. As a result, I need to walk roughshod over my personal preference and manage to work with what works best for my children. And that’s a lesson plan, attached to a schedule. My children need to know what to expect or their brains short-circuit. On the positive side, when they have a lesson plan clearly laid-out, they work well and thoroughly.

Last year, I planned our work using Laura Berquist’s Designing you Own Classical Curriculum and Jesse Wise’s The Well-Trained Mind . While I really liked the classical approach, it required a lot of work and advanced planning on my part, especially since my children were something-less-than-enthusiastic. Their school experience had not prepared them for the type of work and inquiry that the classical curriculum demanded.
Mid-year I started using spiral bound notebooks to prepare the children’s workweek.  If I had a chunk of time on Sunday I would plan the entire week day-by-day. That rarely happened so I was normally planning one day at a time, after the kids’ bedtime. When the children got up in the morning, they knew right away what they had to do and would often power through most of their school day in a few hours. Whenever we didn’t get to the end of the list, the work got reported to the next day. I never scheduled Fridays and used it as a bumper day to finish the week’s work.

Using the spiral notebooks really made things easier for everyone but I was still struggling to keep on top of the highschoolers: making sure that their work was completed properly and corrected, that areas of concern were addressed, etc. As former school students, they both had a tendency to stop working whenever they encountered a problem they couldn’t solve.
As a result, this year I registered the highschoolers with Mother of Divine Grace School. They are taking online classes in math and religion, have tutors for the other subjects (science, English, history, latin) and I teach French using these resources. The Mother of Divine Grace syllabi are very clearly (and expertly) broken down in assignments by days and by weeks. The curriculum is demanding, clocking-in at 5 to 6 hours per day for the highschoolers. In other words, it will suck back a lot of our homeschooling flexibility. But the reality is that my teens don’t know how to use their time wisely. I was hoping that homeschooling flexibility would allow them to delve into new interests and develop their talents but it hasn’t. Unless Tumblr, Netflix and Starbucks count as talents.
Another dimension of planning are your needs as a parent. As usual, a little bit of critical self-examination can go a long way. I find that there is a very predictable arc to my day depending on where my butt sits around 7:30 am. If I am on the couch with my phone, in my pajamas, having my coffee, chances are I’m still there at 10am (or more likely I got up in a panic as the twins dumped a bucket of outside gravel into the couch and I am now cleaning it up as they flush dominoes down the septic tank and Damien is drinking toilet water from the dog’s water dish. I wish I was making this up.) If I have gotten-up before the kids, stretched a bit, said my morning prayers, eaten and dressed, I’m less likely to get caught-up in the wave of chaos that represents my family. Because my brain is impervious to routines – no matter how long I stick to a routine it never becomes second nature – a plan help me remember where I’m supposed to be at a certain time and what I’m supposed to do.
Finally, one last dimension of planning is that it really clears hours off my day. I know because I’ve been operating plan-less for most of the last 9 months and the insanity of doing all the cooking, all the cleaning and all the homeschooling for a family of 11 is really catching-up with me now. A plan allows me to assign tasks to the children and keep them accountable. It’s easier to keep them doing their chores if there is a predictable list of work I can pin to their foreheads. Left to my own devise, I tend to rely heavily on the most naturally helpful children, which of course breeds resentment on one end and unrealistic expectations of being left alone at the other end. I purchased Managers of their homes  in a fit of despair last year but it’s still shrink-wrapped and glaring at me. I’m scared witless of this thing but I’m afraid we’re at that point of disorganization.Many friends have also recommended Holly Pierlot A Mother’s Rule of Life  but I can’t buy another book until I have read all those I ordered last year so it may have to wait until I’m in a nursing home.
My thoughts on planning, in a nutshell: If you think you need it, give it a try. If you are happy and healthy, why fix what is not broken? I would much prefer following my children’s learning cues and enquiries, if the cues weren’t always about Paw Patrol.

Yoga pants

My oldest daughter is 15. Last weekend, her school band teacher organized a music retreat complete with master classes, section sessions and the dreaded sleepover. Her band teacher is excellent. The music program at her school is top notch. When I go to their concerts I always get all choked-up:  I have excellent memories of high school music class. We also had a few “music retreats” although there wasn’t much music during our nuit blanche. They were strictly a team building exercise where much nerdy fun was had. In my days, only the nerds played music. Now it’s cool. At bed time we would pull blue mats out of the gymnasium’s storage unit and crash all co-ed on the floor. Two male teachers, music and English, would sleep over and we would all head to the greasy spoon next door first thing in the morning for some bacon and eggs. I’m sure the teachers had some coffee too.

(Open parenthesis: weren’t those the days eh? When two male teachers could supervise a mixed sleepover party at school? Now, at my kids’ elementary school a few years ago, the custodian was the only male staff. Everyone else was female. My 2nd-grader would come home literally groaning in pain from needing to go pee day after day. One day on the drive home I told him: “Why don’t you go pee just before the end of class? This way you can make it home”. He answered that he never went to the toilet at school because the stalls didn’t lock properly and the older kids would barge in and pull you out as you did your business. Nice. I went and talked to someone about it and was told that this was going on in the male bathroom and there was no male staff to enforce discipline in the male bathroom. In other words, unless the custodian was handy, those kids could have been snorting cocaine in the boys bathroom, no female teacher would dare walk in there and chance a disciplinary hearing. That’s brat power for you. Close parenthesis)

As far as team-building goes, this may sound self-serving in light of what’s coming later in this post, the sleepovers were fun but nothing more. Massed bands concerts and band competitions, when we got to work, anticipate and sweat together were far more instrumental in building team spirit than watching scary movies and eating chips late in the night in band class. Anyway, it doesn’t really matter whether this was the be-all-end-all of team building because our family has a strict rule against sleepovers in any way, shape or form. Our daughter was going to participate in the music retreat but be excused from the sleeping part. I’ll let you guess how this went over.

I will not replay the (many) conversations we had with our daughter on the subject but they replayed themselves on a call-in show following the decision by a local high school to — as it was reported — ban yoga pants as part of the school’s dress code.

One of my daughter’s complaint on the unfairness of the sleepover rule was that parents would be supervising the retreat and that everybody else was allowing it. A local call-in show was asking parents what they thought of the yoga pants ban and spray-painted-on apparel. One after the other, parents were repeating variations of the same platitudes about how “Teens are gonna do what teens are gonna do” and “We did the same thing at their age”. In other words, there is nothing we can do about it. Girls are going to wear inappropriate, revealing, clothing and boys are going to be turned-on by it and that’s the way the world goes round. Banning yoga pants is not going to change anything so why bother? And I’m supposed to feel all warm and fuzzy that some of these similar-themed parents are supervising the sleepover retreat? So when Jimmy and Jessica decide to go find  a quiet spot somewhere will they brush it off as “Teens are gonna do what teens are gonna do” and “We did the same thing at their age”?

Being a teenager is not an end-state. It’s a transition to adulthood. I often joke that toddlers and teenagers are surprisingly similar: self-centered with poor impulse-control, an unrefined sense of fairness and a complete unawareness of their limitations. Teenagers have one foot still firmly set into childhood and the other in their future. Teens will challenge and push limits, this is their job. But if pushing is the defining feature of teenage-hood we are not helping them by removing what they are pushing against. Growing into adulthood and responsibilities is not learning to live without limits but learning to manage them. As a parent, my job is to form and to educate and this is achieved by giving teenagers something to push against, like a tutor on a tomato plant. And of course, as teenagers grow in age and wisdom and as they show their judgement to be trustworthy, limits gradually evolve. Some of them are removed, others morph into something else. And others will remain for the rest of their lives, hopefully.

I am not raising teens. I am raising adults. It takes a lot of work, self-awareness and constant re-evaluation. Some days I suck at it.  But this is the game of parenthood. Play ball.