Homeschooling Questions: Working with different ages, grades and interests


The second question that appeared in my homeschooling questions post on Facebook was how to teach multiple children, with different ages, needs and interests. Just like everything homeschooling, my answer will reflect my family’s dynamic, attitudes and hopes with regard to homeschooling. I think that it also reflects my family’s situation: we have 9 children aged 19 all the way down to 17 months. Day-to-day, our homeschooled children are in grades 10, 9, 4 and 1 and we have 3 preschoolers aged almost 4 — the twins — and 1.

 

As a parent, your “education” personality matters to how you will handle different children with different interests. What is your vision for your homeschool? When you think about your homeschooling do you envision yourself reading to your children in a field of yellow flowers? Do you see yourself in a modern classroom? Do you see yourself in a one-room schoolhouse in 1930?

 

My friend Lindsay just started homeschooling and blogs about it at http://www.myfourcrowns.wordpress.com In one of her recent posts, she shared a tour of her new homeschool room, you can see it in all its awesomeness here. Other than Lindsay’s impeccable taste, what can you tell about her homeschooling personality from reading her post? Well, for one, she has a dedicated homeschool room in her house. She has desks in it, and a map and a whiteboard. It’s well organized, it looks crisp and inviting. I know from chatting with Lindsay that she toyed with the idea of having a homeschool uniform. And the picture of her desk shows printed copies of the Ontario curriculum. Whether she ends-up sticking to the curriculum or not is irrelevant: the presence of the documents on her desk suggests that she likes rules, structure and direction. Heck, being able to paint navy horizontal stripes suggests some serious ability to plan, focus and follow through. All these details point to a very distinctive homeschooling personality. We all have one. I also have friends whose house shows no outward signs of homeschooling, other than children. Their children learned to read around age 8, several have not seen anything resembling a math course manual before they were 14. Their learning is happening organically and creatively, at the rhythm of the family’s life. How you handle teaching multiple children will also be rooted in your homeschooling personality.

 

My homeschool and my laptop reside on my kitchen table. We designed our house with a view to have the kitchen table serve as the nerve centre of the whole homeschool operation. My vision of the homeschool is something akin to a one-room schoolhouse where children of different ages, abilities and interests work more or less on the same topics at their own levels. If you look at my homeschool book shelf you’ll see “The Well-Trained Mind”, “Designing your Own Classical Curriculum” and “The Charlotte Mason Companion.” I find that the classical curriculum lends itself well to working with children of different ages and stages as long as you approach it with flexibility.

 

In practical terms, I gather all the children at the table in the morning at 8:30am. We are Catholics so we always start the day in prayer. We say a prayer to our Guardian Angels for guidance and a morning offering. I check-in with the teenagers who are mostly working on their own via online classes and assignments. We iron-out kinks, they tell me if they need help with this or that and off they go. After the teens are off, I set-out to work with the elementary school aged children. I compare our groove to a ping pong match where I will give David some work, then help Sarah while David does his work, then give Sarah some work, then help David, and so on. While I am doing that, I’m also making sure that the twins are not destroying anything. I can reasonably expect about one hour of sit-down, written work in the morning. That’s when I stack-up writing-intensive work such as French, English and math. Because my children struggle with writing and are almost exclusively auditory learners, we can learn a lot by reading on the couch. We do history, science and religion on the couch through reading and retelling. I am also adding a literature reading of a book related to our history subject (currently Ancient Egypt). In terms of academics, I do not follow my children’s interests. For instance, we are all learning about Ancient Egypt in history, natural science in science and going through the credo (what we believe) in religion.

 

Here is a bullet-point list of things to consider when teaching multiple grades. The take-home message of these bullets is “transitions may and probably will kill you.”

  1. Be ready. Children don’t wait. In the evening, I like to prepare the books and notebooks the children will be using the next day. I talked about using spiral bound notebooks to keep track of the children’s work. The notebook are ready. This way, if David is ready to start and I have to go change a diaper, he can start on his own. Having our books ready on the table minimizes the time wasted looking for things.
  2. Be predictable. Having predictable routines help the children know what’s coming. I find that it helps with focus and continuity. As a parent, it also helps me remember what’s coming next and minimizes the time spent thinking “Ok, now what?” Because that’s all the time the children need to start a fight or set something on fire.
  3. Feed the children. Regular snacks and body breaks ensure that I don’t lose whatever small attention-span my children have. If I stay ahead of the curve foodwise I can minimize inattentiveness and tantrums.
  4. Stack transitions. Since transitions can and will kill you, try to keep them to a minimum by doubling-up. Try to work on one subject until snack time for instance, so the subject transition and the snack transition happen together.
  5. Be focused. It took me a while to understand that I couldn’t write a blog post or check Facebook while homeschooling. Any inattentiveness on my part multiplies with the children.
  6. Don’t squander your best work time. My children work in the morning. It takes a really big deal for me to schedule an activity or running errands in the morning. Try to adapt your schedule to your children as opposed to adapting the children to the schedule. Trying to homeschool after lunch is always a disaster.
  7. Know your limits. I couldn’t homeschool four different grades. We registered the high schoolers with Mother of Divine Grace School so I could focus on the little kids. Whether you seek help by getting a cleaning service, tutoring or a babysitter, realize that housekeeping, schooling and childcare are all jobs that people get paid full time salaries to perform. If you can’t cram it all in a 24h period by yourself, give yourself a pat on the back: you’re normal.

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.

user-experience-vs-design
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.