Archive for the ‘Planning’ Category

Win both the Mac and iPad versions of OLLY!

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OLLY for iPad Progress Report

OLLY for iPad Progress Report

If your paper planning system is getting unwieldy, here’s your chance to put your computer to the task – assuming you have a Mac or iPad of course.

The Intoxicated on Life blog is running a giveaway which will finish up on Oct. 16th, so be sure to get your entry in before that date!

How can “Unschoolers” Plan Ahead?

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Summer, for many homeschooling families, is the time to plan for the school year ahead. Tis the season for dog-eared and highlighted homeschool catalogs, used curriculum swaps, and agonizing decisions over which methods to use. It’s kind of fun actually.

But what should you do if you’re more of an unschooler – someone who doesn’t believe in coercing kids to learn stuff?  All those lovely curriculum plans, with daily to-do lists, learning objectives, and directions to read aloud don’t really work for you. But that doesn’t mean you can’t plan ahead. Unschooling doesn’t mean that everything has to be spontaneous. It just means that the child should be given the freedom to direct how, what, and when they learn.

We as parents help make that happen by providing our time, resources, experience, and attention. Some people might be fine with winging it everyday, but for the rest of us (kids included), it’s nice to have a little structure. It’s also nice to have time to get things ready. If your child really wants to take up rocketry, its not something you can just pull out of the closet the very day he mentions it. He needs to research what is involved and what equipment is needed beforehand.

So, don’t be afraid to plan ahead. Just because your child is in charge of their own learning doesn’t mean your days must wait on their whims. Of course, the process of planning will be different depending on the age of your kids, but here’s what I recommend:

For Younger Kids

Structure their days but let the year evolve with their interests. Younger children seem to benefit from a regular schedule, even if the blocks of time are understood to be free play. Set up times for meals, chores, reading aloud, outside time, free play, art (this is when the messy supplies come out), naps, games, errands, play dates, field trips, outside classes and anything else you normally do. Some of this time involves you, some of it doesn’t. Let them choose the books to read and games to play, but feel free to suggest something you think they will like. Their interests may swing wildly over the course of a year but you can accomodate them with trips to the library or making/borrowing materials as needed.

If you are really ambitious, you might consider making ahead some hands-on Montessori type materials to have ready for your kids to work with if they are interested. Kids are usually so eager to learn and try new things that they will gobble up whatever you give them. I’ve always thought that this would be a good project for a homeschool group: have each family make one or two quality Montessori type items, then everyone regularly swap materials.

The key with scheduling your days is to leave plenty of time for outdoors and free play. Don’t over-schedule outside activities or you’ll spend all your time in the car, and everyone gets grouchy.

For Older Kids

Help set goals for their year but let them structure their days. Once kids are old enough to start planning ahead (you’ll know when because they’ll start doing it), make a list together of all the things they would like to learn or do. Don’t judge or worry about how to do all of it in one year, just brainstorm. If they have trouble getting started, you can remind them of the things they are already interested in. You can even suggest things you think they will like. If there is a class at the Nature Center or upcoming exhibit at the Museum, throw it out there. If your child likes making things, let them peruse books of projects and put sticky notes on the things they want to make. Write down the books they want to read. If they don’t want to commit to anything or have only three items on the list, that’s OK.

Then, once you have the master list, you can either work with your child to prioritize and plan it out, or do it by yourself. In my experience, kids really aren’t interested in this level of planning and would just as soon have you do it. My caution here is DON’T OVERDO it. Just because they made the list doesn’t mean you can go crazy with it. It just means you can start researching and collecting the best books and materials within your budget, and block out times when you can go through items on your child’s list.

One of my sons wanted to make cheese from scratch when he was around 8 years old. I had no idea how to do this but found a cheese-making kit online, and set aside a day to do this with him. It wasn’t something he could have done alone because it required a huge pan of milk on the stove and keeping track of lots of steps. In fact, it wasn’t something I could have done alone, but together we had a great time.

The point is that making cheese was on my son’s list, but I had to plan ahead and purchase a few supplies to make it happen. You know best when you will have time to spend the whole day making cheese, or driving to the beach, or building a tree house. I usually started with a yearly grid of 6 boxes per page labeled with each month. I penciled in certain projects to go with the month that made the most sense. I tried to group things together, including books to read, making our own loose unit studies. Once the big things were on my yearly grid, I planned out more details a month or two in advance. This gave me time to find, borrow or buy things we would need.

As for structuring our days, I still had meals at the same time, and I spent the morning doing things with them, but after that it varied from day to day depending on what my kids were up to. Sometimes they needed my help, sometimes they didn’t. Some days we were gone all day on a field trip or other outside activities.

For Teens

Teens have to start looking even farther into the future, particularly if they might want to go to college. Here is where you shift into “Academic Advisor” mode to help them plan out studies that would satisfy college admissions offices. For more information on this, please click here. But if they are not at all interested in college prep, don’t push it. There are lots of other wonderful things they can be doing with their time. Get them out of the house meeting people and doing worthwhile things as much as possible.

Enjoy your summer, play with your kids, and don’t feel guilty about planning out your unschooled school year.


Homeschooling Planner for Mac Users

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Finally done! I’ve just finished a nine month work marathon fixing and beta-testing our homeschool planning software for Mac users. Now it is finally for sale on our brand new website! Boy if I had known how much work this was going to be ahead of time . . . Of course, that’s what I said about my book too. But now that the making part is done, it’s all worth it to have the finished product.

This planning software is something that has been brewing in my mind for years. When my kids were little, and before I became addicted to the computer, I was content to use homemade forms in 3-ring binders for my planning and record-keeping. It was a lot to lug around though. Seems like I always carried a canvas tote bag around with my binder and a few books so that I would be ready to take some notes or fill in my homeschool journal.

Later, when my boys were approaching high school age, I decided it was time to keep better records in anticipation of creating high school transcripts. So I purchased software for my Windows computer. But it took me a whole year to figure out I wasn’t using it correctly – there were so many customizable options that I didn’t know what I was supposed to do or which way would work best for me. It did the job, but it got me thinking how I would do it differently.

In the meantime, I had bought a Mac laptop to write my book and found that I really loved Mac! My Windows computer was on its last legs and I only kept it alive to use my homeschool software. Since my son Aengus was an avid (Windows) programmer, I asked if he could try to make me a homeschool database for my Mac. That boy loves a challenge, so he started from the beginning learning how to program for Mac.

That was about three years ago. He learned all about database design, Cocoa programming, and Core Data. I used my recent training in graphic design and information architecture, and homeschool experience, to sketch out designs and flow charts. We tried different things, re-arranging and adding features till we finally thought we had it all and offered it up to beta testers last Fall. But we ended up re-working everything again as we got feedback. What a process!

Now that it is finally done, I don’t have anyone left to homeschool 🙁

But I hope that others will find it helpful, and my son is hoping that his efforts will help pay for his college tuition! The application is called “OLLY” which stands for “Organized Life and Learning Yearbook.” He’s almost done with the iPhone version and has a good start on the iPad version. So if you use a Mac, or know someone who does, please visit and let us know what you think!


Evernote for Busy Homeschooling Parents

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Before I get off the subject of organization for a while, I just wanted to share with you one more techie trick for keeping your sanity.


Heard of it? It’s an application that you can download for free to practically any computer or mobile device. And it helps you remember stuff. You know how difficult it is to keep track of all the various unrelated bits of information that come to you each day, wouldn’t it be nice to have an extra brain to store all of it?

Here’s a lovely video from Digitwirl that explains the benefits:

All you need to do is visit the Evernote website to download. While you’re there, watch some of their videos to show you how to use it and get more ideas. Even though I use Google documents/sites to view my goals, to-do lists, calendar, and other documents, Evernote is a great way to store miscellaneous bits of information, particularly when you are away from your computer.

I was lucky enough to get an iPhone for Christmas, so I’m just now getting a chance to play around with Evernote, but I can already see the potential. My goal is to move away from paper planning as much as possible. Anything repetitive should be digital. But it’s still nice to use notebooks and sketchbooks for journaling, brainstorming, drawing, and other free forms of writing. And, as I mentioned in my last post, I would still use a 3-ring binder for planning my homeschool days if my kids were little. The 3-ring binder with pre-printed forms is meant to be doodled in and journaled in, scribbling notes in whenever you get a chance. It becomes a nice memento all by itself.

But if you just need an extra filing cabinet for your brain, try Evernote.

How to Keep Track of Homeschool AND Life

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Life as a homeschooling mom can feel like a Cirque du Soleil show gone bad. There’s so much to keep track of:  errands, phone calls, laundry, budget, healthy meals, extracurricular activities, volunteer work, cleaning, exercise, helping kids with schoolwork, planning, recording, mothering, and nurturing other relationships. It’s crazy! I don’t know how anybody expects one person to do all this stuff, but somehow we do. I’ve always tried my best to stay organized and get things done. For years, my motto for getting stuff done has been: “Never stop working.” But that’s not very helpful is it? I really don’t work all the time, although sometimes it feels like I do. It would be much worse if I didn’t find a way to keep track of everything.

In my last post, I talked about getting yourself personally organized, but here I’m going to share with you some of the ways I organized my homeschooling days when my kids were younger. My biggest friend was a 3-ring binder that lived on the dining room table where we spent 80% of our days. In that binder, I kept my journal, reference pages (book lists, homeschool tips, community/extracurricular info), and my planning pages. I had a section for long term planning, with home-made forms like this:

 I made up a grid like this for each half of the year so that I could roughly plan out when we would do certain things. Everything revolved around unit studies, potential field trips, and the activities of our homeschool group. While this grid gave me a nice overview of how things fit together, I used plain old notebook paper to plan out what books we would read for the different subjects, like this:

So, that’s what I keep in my binder for long-range planning. But in the front of the planner, I kept more home-made forms to help me get through the week. I made it so facing pages would cover one week of homeschooling, to-do lists, routines and rudimentary menu planning. I changed the forms as often as I needed to reflect changes in our schedule and only printed out 5 weeks worth at a time.


You can see from the hole punches on the sides how these pages faced each other. I purposely left the dates blank in the computer so that I wouldn’t waste paper printing out unnecessary weeks.  For the life of me, I can’t remember what program I used to make these forms, but it was probably MS Word because I didn’t have any fancier software in those days.

Even though I tried to plan ahead, the kids didn’t always like what I had planned, or life got in the way, so I also kept “Learning Logs” to record what we actually did each day. Since my boys usually did the same thing, I kept one log for them, and a separate log for my younger daughter. I printed these in landscape mode for my binder, but I’m showing you an abbreviated example turned right-side-up to make it easier to see:

These homemade forms worked great for me when the kids were little, but when my oldest entered 7th grade, and we moved to a state with stricter homeschool requirements, I started playing around with “Homeschool Tracker” on the computer to do my planning. In some ways it was easier, but it was far less forgiving or fun to use. When I switched to a Mac computer, I couldn’t find any homeschool software for that platform so I’ve been making my own. I’m still a big fan of 3-ring binders, but when you need to record grades, assemble transcripts and compute GPA for older kids, it’s kind of nice to have it all on the computer.

Techie Trick for Getting Your Act Together

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In my ideal world, I would have a cozy little office all to myself with inspiring pictures on the wall, roomy bookshelves, and a private corkboard for posting goals and reminders. It might look something like this:


Image from

But, I don’t have space for my own office yet, so I need to borrow a corner of the living room, next to the drum set and our bulging family bookshelves. It’s hard to feel like it’s really my own space, so in the past, I confined all my thoughts and inspiration to various notebooks and planners. The problem was . . . I felt scattered. It seemed like all the bits I needed were spread out, and easily forgotten. I’ve also been trying to get away from a big heavy planner because it usually doesn’t meet my needs and I end up wasting paper.

So, a few months ago, I had an inspiration, and have been very pleased with my solution: Google. Again. I know I must sound like a paid spokesman for Google, but I’m just really excited about what I’ve learned. Now that I know what is possible with a few free applications, I can’t stop thinking of new ways to use them.

So here’s what I did. I made my own personal Google web site that is only visible to me. For info on how to do this, check out the following video:

On the home page, I posted my daily routines for different days of the week. I had figured these out earlier as a way to accomplish all the things I needed to do during the week, but kept forgetting where I had written them. I also posted my affirmations and a short list of the habits I’m trying to develop. I also added a few Google gadgets to automatically rotate inspirational quotes and display a photo slideshow from one of my Picasa albums.

On another page, I posted my goals broken down into: 10 years, 5 years, 1 year, and 90 days. It really is helpful to look at this every day and remember where I’m going.

I also use Google Calendar for all my scheduling now. I have a calendar for home, one for work, one for planned blog posts, and one for tasks. It’s easy to turn these calendars on or off as necessary to see what is coming. I can also share specific calendars with other people if I want to.

I use the task list to jot down random to-do items that pop into my head but I don’t know yet when I will do them. For bigger tasks, with deadlines, I schedule them in my “Task” calendar.

So every morning, I take five minutes to review my affirmations, habits, goals and the daily routine in my private Google site. Then I check my calendars to see what must be done for the day. All the lists I used to keep in my planner such as books to read, stuff to research, household info, etc. are now in Google docs inside a folder called “Organizing Me.” So whenever I come across a book that begs to be read, I jot it down quickly on the appropriate list. The nice thing about Google is that I can reach it anywhere I have an Internet connection and don’t have to worry about synching my laptop with my desktop with my iPhone, etc. It’s kind of like unlimited planner space without having to pack around a big heavy book.

Having said that, I still believe in notebooks and journals for creative thinking. When I am brainstorming, mind-mapping, or journaling, I still like to use an old fashioned spiral and journal notebook. It’s much easier to scribble, draw, and be expressive with just a pen and paper than a keyboard. But for things I want to refer to again and again, I like having it consolidated in one place.

I’m very happy with how this is all working for my personal organization. I don’t have much need to organize homeschool plans these days, but in my next posts I’ll show you some of the ways I kept that organized over my many years of homeschooling.

Pause and Reflect

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This time between Christmas and New Year’s Day has always been one of my favorite times of the year, because I relish the idea of a fresh start. When I was a teenager, I used to thoroughly clean my room, rearrange things and make new posters for my wall. Of course, at the time, I lived five miles down a snow-packed dirt road in the prairie and had nothing better to do. But even now, though I have no time to deep clean my drawers and alphabetize my music collection, I still like the chance to make myself better. I don’t really do “Resolutions,” but I like to make a plan of action. After reflecting and journaling about where I am now, I plan out what I will do in the year ahead.

It’s important to really take stock of where you have been before planning where you need to go. This is true not only for your personal development, but for your homeschool and family life as well. So before you rush into any plans for the next semester, take this time to pause and reflect. Catch up on your record-keeping. Write some journal entries. If you haven’t been keeping records, you may find it difficult to remember where the time went, but pull out your calendar and family photos and try to recall the achievements or big moments of the year. Ask your kids for help because they will probably remember different things than you will.

Sit down with each child (older kids can do this themselves) and write about the following:

What were my favorite things to do this year?
What did I learn how to do?
What are the three most interesting things I learned about this year?
What am I most proud of?
If I could change anything, what would it be?
What three things am I most thankful for?
What do I want to learn more about next year?
What do I want to learn how to do next year?

Instead of writing down these answers, you could also do a video interview with each child. What a keepsake that would be!

Another exercise you might try with your kids is mindmapping. Have them draw a picture of themselves in the middle of a piece of paper, and start writing down random thoughts and memories about the past year. There is no need to put things in any order, or remember every last thing, just brainstorm. Their thoughts might surprise you.

Once you have collected input from your kids, pull out a notebook or keyboard and do your own homeschool brainstorming:

Describe what is working. What do you love about homeschooling?
Describe what is not working. What do you dislike about homeschooling? Is it something you can live with, or do you really need to change something?
Describe your home atmosphere. Does it reflect the true interests and values of family members? Are people happy at home? Is there anything you would like to improve?
Everyone has habits, good and bad. What are some good habits you have developed or maintained this year, not just for yourself, but for the family as a whole? Did you stick to a budget? Start recycling? Stop drinking sodas? Give everyone a collective pat on the back. Then list some bad habits that you would like to change.

Very often the act of reflective writing will unleash new thoughts, old worries, and ideas for the future. Just let them come. Write it all down. Don’t try to edit yourself or stick to a format. Switch to big bold letters when you feel the urge. This is catharsis time, so don’t be afraid to get it all out there. And you don’t need to do all of this at once, perhaps a little bit per day.

You may also want to use this time to get caught up on some scrapbooking for your homeschool. I found a few links about this here:

For those of you who don’t already make homeschool scrapbooks or yearbooks, I’ll be sharing a series of posts about this in January, but until then, consider taking some more pictures. In fact, now is an excellent time to take pictures of the things you want to change, so you can have before and after photos! Messy dining room table? Collapsing homeschool shelves? Chaotic craft closet? Scowling child? Junk food in the pantry? Later this year when you’ve fixed those things, you can take pictures of the new improved versions.

Keeping Teens on Track

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In my last post, I talked about keeping kids on track, which is really more about keeping track of what they do. It’s far more effective to let kids direct their own education than it is to hold them to anyone else’s timetable or curriculum. Planning ahead is OK as long as your kids are involved with the planning process. But for older kids and teens, planning ahead is essential.  Again, your kids must be involved with the planning process. They must own it. Everyone is responsible for his or her own education. You play a vital role as academic adviser, counselor and administrator, but you can’t make anybody learn anything. If you want your kids to learn things, it is really more effective to give them control. That means you will have to give up control. There’s no pretending here. If you say,”It’s up to you what you will study, but you need to include ___, ___, ___, ___, and ___,” then your kids are smart enough to know that it really isn’t up to them. You have to be willing to let them skip math or writing or whatever it is, with no guilt trips, and then they will know you are serious about giving them ownership.

Listen to your teens, take them places, find them resources, mentors or classes in subjects they are interested in. Help them find and decipher information about careers and college admissions. Let them work and learn to take care of themselves as much as possible. Give them responsibility, and give them the freedom to learn what they will. This sounds crazy to some people, because the teens they know would sleep all day and play video games all night if given the opportunity. But this is only because the teens don’t think of education as something they do for themselves; they think of it as something done to them. It’s a little bit like the difference between starting your own business and going to work at some indifferent job for a paycheck. People often work much harder for their own businesses than they will for someone else, even if they are conscientious workers, because they OWN it.

So, how do you keep teens on track if they own the track?

First, as I’ve said before, let your kids be involved with the planning. Sit down with them and make a list of the things they want to study. Go to some college websites and print out lists of recommended high school courses, extracurricular activities, and testing requirements (pay attention to homeschool requirements in particular because they may be different from public school applicants). Even if your child is not interested in going to college, it’s helpful for them to know what might be required if they change their mind. If they have some other profession in mind, like the military or a trade, help them find out what type of educational attainments would be expected. Together, make a master plan, in pencil, of your child’s remaining homeschool years. If he or she will need to take two or three years of foreign language to be accepted into a college, it’s better to find out early than it is while you’re filling out applications.  You should also make note of what your state homeschool laws require. Armed with this information, your student should be able to see what they would need to do to move forward, even if they are not interested in a particular subject. When kids are younger, education can be mostly interest-driven, but as they get older, they are able to make choices based on necessity. But that doesn’t mean they have to forgo their interests! The great thing about homeschooling is time and flexibility. There are ways to combine personal interests with “required” courses, so be sure to write down personal interests.

After you’ve made up a rough master plan for the long-term, focus on the year ahead. You can use a unit study or literature based approach again, but frankly, if your kids are planning to go to college, it’s so much easier to make up courses the way other schools do. Then, when you are creating high school transcripts for them, colleges will find it much easier to understand what your kids studied. So, take the to-do items on your student’s list and turn them into courses. When my son wanted to learn about forces, vectors and motion for game design, we made a course called, “Physics for Game Design.” When he wanted to learn about banking, personal finance, and our economic crash, we combined all of those topics in a course called, “Economics.”

Once you have the courses figured out, you need to figure out what resources will be needed. My kids were perfectly happy to have me figure this part out. I love researching books and they usually trust me to pick out something they’ll like. But I always talk to them before ordering anything. When picking out math curriculum, I’ll narrow the field to two or three possibilities, and they will take sample lessons from the different companies to decide which style they prefer. Sometimes, my kids already knew which books they wanted to read, and then we made a course out of those books. One of my sons loves computer programming, and since those books are so expensive (yet impossible to find in any library), he keeps a wish list for his birthday and Christmas. There’s no way I could pick these books out because they make no sense to me, but he does his own research to find the best ones. My other son loves theatre, Shakespeare, mythology and writing so it was easy enough to combine these interests into one course called “Language Arts” and let him pick which books and plays he wanted to read anyway.

Once the courses and resources are figured out, it really helps to break everything down into a schedule, either by day or week. How much of each resource/book will you need to cover? If certain courses are required, such as Geometry or American Government, it helps to look at your state curriculum standards (look online) to see what skills or topics students are expected to learn in these courses. If required courses are less defined, such as “Social Studies” or “Fine Arts,” then you can be more flexible when deciding what to include in each course. Figure out what could realistically be accomplished in one week for each course. Or, even better, let your student figure it out. This could be done on notebook paper, any of those downloadable planning forms, or homeschool planning software.

Here’s where the “Keeping Teens on Track” really comes into play. If your students have been involved with planning their own courses, and assigning lessons for each week, it should be up to them to mark off when items are completed. They need to have access to these plans, to be able to see what is ahead and how much more needs to be done. Some courses we did together because it was more fun that way. We would take turns reading aloud, watch documentaries, and have long discussions about the subject at hand. For other courses, like math, they would get in the habit of doing it at a certain time, and then we would all grade their assignments afterward. I made it clear to my kids that I wasn’t going to bug them about getting stuff done, but they asked me to help remind them. Plus we had so many conversations throughout the day about stuff they were reading or doing that it seemed to naturally keep them going.

It seems counterintuitive, but I found that the more I backed off my kids, the more responsible they became. Sometimes, they wouldn’t do math for days because they were more interested in finishing a series of books or a new video game. But then they would do two assignments in a day or work on the weekend to get caught up. When they started taking courses at our local community college, I didn’t help them at all. They would come home and tell me about what they were doing, but they never had trouble adjusting to a classroom environment or more formal homework assignments. In fact, they did very well.

If you have given your teens freedom, but they still don’t seem to be doing anything constructive, try to reconsider what you believe is constructive. If they are playing video games all day, play with them and see what it is all about. Be patient and listen to your kids, without judgement. Expect them to work and take care of themselves as much as possible. Do things with them, get them out of the house, help them find mentors and volunteer opportunities. They won’t be able to resist learning and growing – but it might not look like what you were expecting. It will be better.

Keeping Kids on Track

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I know this sounds like a really strange topic from someone who claims that self-education is the best way to go. “Keeping kids on track” sounds like something a school board would care about, but bear with me, because I’m talking about a completely different approach.

In my last post about getting kids to try hard, I talked about the importance of ownership. Anyone, including kids, will work harder for something that they feel committed to, something that they created or envisioned. It also helps to have a personal stake in the outcome. Good leaders know this. They try to give their people as much creative control and autonomy as possible, because it makes the work more satisfying. The same is true for household work or homeschool work. But kids are still kids, and they don’t have much experience with time management or breaking a large job into manageable bits. So, there are ways for you to help give a little structure to support their vision, without taking over or becoming the typical “boss.”

For kids under the ages of 7-8, I really do not believe there is any reason to impose a formal curriculum. I explain all the research and reasons for this in my book, but the main reason is that children are natural learners, and given a warm, nurturing authentic atmosphere, they will learn a great deal of important stuff all by themselves. Most of the “early learning” topics taught to young children in their first 3 years of school (preschool, kindergarten, 1st), could be taught in about 3 months to a child who is old enough. I believe the real reason children are being pushed into early academics is because of parental anxiety and/or competitiveness, thus the term, “Head start,” which seems to imply some kind of race. Having children fill out worksheets matching the big triangle to the little triangle or the mama duck to the duckling are unnecessary. Elaborate phonics programs are unnecessary. Those things give the illusion of learning, because they represent “school,” something that an outside authority has prescribed and can easily measure.

There are so many more important things kids should be doing at this age, usually those that involve their whole bodies: building, climbing, running, playing, throwing, investigating, rolling, swimming, painting, pouring, hiding, seeking, singing, dancing, stomping, cleaning, laughing, visiting, and helping. When they are tired, that’s a good time to snuggle up on the couch and read aloud. Answer their questions as best you can, listen to them, play games, and take lots of pictures. That’s it. The only “keeping on track” you may want to do for this age is journaling, scrapbooking, and perhaps keep a list of books read, places visited, etc. *Note* If your young kids want to learn how to read or anything else, that’s perfectly fine, but there is no need to push it. If you live in a state that requires some kind of proof of your children’s learning, I believe that you can make up a satisfactory portfolio with just your lists of books, field trips and perhaps a list of skills learned; but do check with your local homeschool group for more advice.

Kids aged 8-12 are much more capable of settling down a bit and thinking abstractly, but they still prefer lots of hands-on learning. If they have not been burned out by school yet, they should still have a healthy sense of curiosity, so let their curiosity guide your curriculum. Make a list of stuff they are interested in. Take them to curriculum fairs, used book sales, or the library and let them pick what appeals to them. For hands-on activities, it’s nice to have an assortment of books available that your kids can flip through and put sticky notes on the things they want to do. This is really my favorite age for homeschooling because it is so diverse and creative.

Unit studies work well for this age, because you can concentrate on the subjects that really interest your kids. Talk to your kids. Let them know that this is their time to explore and that there are no absolute rules. If there is something you really want them to learn, just explain your thoughts to them. Together, come up with a learning plan. Pull out a blank grid calendar with all the months of the year on two pages (6 months on one 8.5X11 paper). Show them where you are now on the calendar and mark down upcoming events and vacations. Let them help you pencil in when to do each unit. The length of the unit will depend on the depth you plan to study each topic; it could be one day or one month or more. I’ve written more about planning a unit study here. Unit studies, whether you buy them pre-made, or design them yourself (my favorite) are nice because you can include math, reading, writing, art, geography, music, social studies, science and life skills all in one nice holistic package. Plus, unit studies can be done with multiple ages at once, so it takes advantage of the group learning dynamic. They do take a bit more time to put together, but I enjoyed it because of the creative challenge. If the thought of preparing a unit study makes you cringe though, there are plenty of free and low-priced resources online.

Another option is a literature based curriculum, similar to Charlotte Mason or the program offered by Sonlight. The idea is to focus more on quality literature and use that as inspiration for writing, social studies (map work), and other supporting projects. Math is generally supplemented with a dedicated curriculum. Science topics are also taught through literature or “living books,” as Charlotte Mason called great books. There is the danger here of imposing so much curriculum that your kids might start to rebel. I still believe it is important to give your kids a lot of control over their own learning. If they don’t like the books you have picked out, pick something they might like better. If they hate the math curriculum, look for options. Include them in the decision-making. You may have to do the initial research, to find out what is available and offer suggestions, but let them have input. Then, when you have chosen your resources, take the time to break down each resource into manageable chunks and assign to the days or weeks you have available. It doesn’t have to be fancy – a simple list on notebook paper will work – or you may want to use computer software (like mine) or downloadable planning forms. Your kids will think this is boring and have no interest in helping you. That’s OK. In fact, you may find this boring too. It really helps though to have the year laid out before you. Be careful not to overschedule. Remember that it’s far more important for kids to explore their own interests, for however long it takes, than it is to cover everything. There are no rules, especially for this age. The only reason to make these plans now is to help give you a direction to follow, even when you can’t remember what you did yesterday. It’s OK to skip stuff, or move things around. If your kids start to dislike the idea of “homeschool”, you may want to reconsider what you are doing. If they begin to think that education is something done to them, instead of something they pursue for their own reasons, then they have lost ownership of the process. And it is tough to get that back once it is lost.

Another approach you may consider is a Montessori style environment, where a wide variety of self-correcting learning materials are prepared ahead of time and available within reach of the children. The children are then free to choose whatever interests them and work until they are satisfied. However, the amount of preparation and work space you would need for something like this is intensive, so I would only recommend this is as cooperative effort among a group of like-minded families.  You could also decide to use Montessori type materials for just some of the subjects you hope your child will take an interest in, such as math and science. There are a lot of wonderful hands-on materials for math and science that can be made or purchased. Again, these will take some effort, but if you have a spouse or other family member willing to help you, these items can be a lot more fun than typical textbooks. One resource to check out is TOPS for science. The difference here in using hands-on materials vs. a unit study or literature approach is that instead of planning lessons, you are preparing materials. There is no schedule for when your child will use the materials, you just show them how to use something when they are ready. Perhaps you could have a check-off sheet to show when they have mastered a certain skill. In this situation, there is no need to “keep” the kids on track, only to keep notes of what they worked on each day.

If you have a child who is particularly left-brained and wants to have a more formal curriculum, that’s fine. You can research the possibilities and let him or her choose the most appealing. This alternative is probably the easiest for most parents, because it involves the least amount of preparation. All you will need to do is check their work and make sure they stay on schedule. But in my experience, there’s not many kids who love this approach, at least not for very long. You may have to resort to external motivation to keep them going, which will only yield short term results.

This post is already longer than I intended, so I will wait for the next one to talk about keeping preteens and teens on track. As always, I welcome your comments and suggestions. How do you keep your kids on track?

Homeschool College Applications

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Tis the season for college applications – is anyone else overwhelmed with the number of documents and forms required? It’s especially tough for homeschooling families because we first have to write our own transcripts, with course descriptions, and figure out GPA, credit hours, etc.  It’s not too bad if you have been keeping good records all along, but even then it takes some time to assemble everything in a professional looking format.  I used the book Homeschooling High School: Planning Ahead for College Admission by Jeanne Gowen Dennis for help with these details.

Once your transcript is complete, you still need to be the Academic Advisor and help your student keep track of all the different requirements for each of the schools her or she is applying to. Having gone through this twice so far, here are a few organizational tips:

  1. Start a folder for each school you are applying to, and insert the application checklist along with hard copies of your essays and other materials specific to that school. There is no need to make copies of materials submitted online in the common application. This is where you store any correspondence and financial aid information for that school as well.
  2. Prepare another reference folder with a copy of your prepared transcript, course descriptions, and homeschool description (if necessary). Your student will probably need to enter this information in a variety of online forms so it helps to have everything in one place.
  3. Prepare a simple spreadsheet with a list of your colleges on top, and a list of requirements along the left side. See my example below:

Example of College Application Spreadsheet


Note that I didn’t fill in all the data for this spreadsheet yet – it’s just an example. But you can see how useful it would be to keep track of what has been submitted and what is still missing. Your student might have other requirements too like an audition or portfolio submission. You can customize this however you want. I did this in Microsoft Excel, but Google Documents has a spreadsheet feature that works very well, for free.

My kids filled out all of the necessary forms online, but I checked everything for accuracy and to fill out the information for household income and parents’ education/employment. They wrote drafts of their essays and personal statements on Google Documents so that my husband and I could read them and offer suggestions as needed. Once the drafts were as good as they could be, they just copy/pasted them into the online applications.

The nice thing about online applications is that you can work a little bit at a time, saving as you go, and then when everything is perfect, hit “submit” and hand over your credit card number.

This year, my son and I will be keeping track of scholarship applications the same way, but first things first. We gotta get these things done! I’ll let you know how it goes.