Archive for the ‘Record Keeping’ 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!

A Typical Day of Homeschooling – 13 Years Ago

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Since writing about how great journaling is for remembering our homeschool days, I went back through some of my old binders and found this piece about “My Typical Day,” which I wrote for my local homeschool newsletter in 1998. Jesse was seven, Aengus was five and Emma was two.

I have been trying to decide what a “typical” day is like at my house but it seems that just about every day is different. So I’m just going to tell you about a single day in my house – yesterday.

I woke up at my usual time of 8 am and tiptoed out of the bedroom leaving Emma still snoozing in my bed (my husband Pat is long gone – he leaves at 5 am for work). Jesse is still asleep. Aengus, usually the first to rise, is playing a computer game called “Reader Rabbit’s Kindergarten.” As soon as he hears me moving around he smiles, says “Hi Mommy!” and follows me upstairs. The kitchen is still a mess from the night before, so I make an effort to clean up while my tea brews. I’m not really very productive until I’ve had my morning tea and toast. Aengus fixes himself a waffle that we have made ahead and frozen. Later, he makes Emma a waffle too.

After my breakfast I tackle the kitchen and Jesse staggers in to watch me. Eventually he gets himself some yogurt. When Emma wakes up she needs to be cuddled before she can eat her waffle. She takes exactly 3 bites then asks to watch our “Barney” video, which is her 2-year-old equivalent of tea. I let her watch it while I shower and get dressed. Finally, at around 9:30 we’re ready to start “school.” I call the kids to the dining table and we all write in our journals for about 15 minutes. Aengus can’t write much yet, but he draws pictures and writes the date at the top of the page. Jesse doesn’t like to write, so he usually draws and labels pictures. Emma prefers to water-paint.

Next we pull out the Cuisenaire Rods since this is math day. I’m following along with the Cuisenaire curriculum index cards and today they’re making staircases. The boys are absorbed with this for about 45 minutes. Emma is tired of watercolors and wants better paint so I reluctantly give her some acrylics since I’m all out of kid paint. She paints squiggles and lines and spirals all over each page of her notebook.

I leave them to it while I finish the kitchen and put my daily load of laundry in the washing machine. I hit “touch-up” on the dryer to get rid of the wrinkles that have settled overnight in the load I should have folded yesterday. Then Emma calls for more paint and I see that she has painted her whole naked body and hair with green paint, and is smearing her fingers on the highchair. I rush her into the bathtub and clean up the mess.

The boys are done so we head outside in the garden. Jesse looks for snakes, Aengus and Emma play on the slide while I pull weeds and pound in stakes to support my sagging tomato plants. Jesse and I then fill a paper bag with pears to finish ripening them inside. We pick more zucchini to make zucchini bread. By this time, everyone is hot and thirsty but we first give our ducks more food and change the water in their swimming pool. The kids check the mama duck on her nest to see if her eggs have hatched – not yet. We should be getting ducklings any day now!

Time for lunch. Jesse helps me make a Boboli pizza and we all play “Rhyme Out,” where we each think of words that rhyme until the last person runs out of words (this is the kids’ idea – not mine).

After lunch, we head for the porch to read books. Today we’re reading Dorling Kindersley’s book about eggs because Aengus wants to know how they get in the mama duck’s tummy. Then we read “Horton Hatches an Egg” by Dr. Seuss and “The Halloween House” by Erica Silverman because Jesse likes spooky stories. Right about this time, I have to attend to some emergency potty training with Emma. While I’m gone, Jesse reads our book about koala bears to Aengus, who adores koala bears.

Afterwards, it’s naptime. Aengus trots off to bed and promptly falls asleep. I lay down and nurse Emma to sleep on my bed while I read a book. When she finally conks out, I sneak out and find Jesse playing with his Star Wars Legos. My only goal before dinnertime is to fold the clean laundry that has been accumulating in baskets all week long. But first I have to find a certain receipt. I hit the “touch-up” button on the dryer again and head to my desk. I can’t find the receipt anywhere and I waste a whole half hour digging through the garbage for it. How frustrating! I only have time to pull out the dry clothes and put in the wet ones before I start dinner at 5 pm.

I ask Jesse to vacuum the living room before Dad gets home and I rush back and forth folding clothes and cooking dinner. When Pat walks in at 5:25 pm, there is laundry piled all over the dining room table and dinner is still not ready. He only sighs and pours himself a bowl of cereal. I clear off the table, finish dinner and leave them to it while I go to the Navy Base to exercise. When I get back at 7:30pm, Pat is playing chess with Jesse while Aengus watches. Emma is leaping off the footstool over and over. After the game, Pat heads to bed and I read to the boys a chapter from “The Fallen Spaceman.” Aengus goes to bed, Jesse goes back to his Legos and I go back to the kitchen for more clean up. Emma keeps bothering Jesse, so I fill her little pink bucket with water, give her a clean sponge and tell her to wash. She loves this, and “washes” everything 3 ft and under – walls, piano, chairs, floor, dog, everything!

I turn National Public Radio on low and listen to the news while I do the dishes. Afterwards, I get ready for bed and remind Jesse to turn off the lights before he goes to bed. Emma and I head downstairs and I read her the same four picture books that I read to her every night (at her insistence). Then she nurses to sleep while I read my book. This is my quiet time and I relish every minute of it! I finish the book at midnight and turn the light off.

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Looking back on this day in my life, I found so many things that I had forgotten. My poor husband didn’t have much time at home because he had a long commute to work, so most of our time together was on the weekends. We didn’t have any family in the area and not much money for babysitters, so the only time I could get a break from the kids was when he was home. They were good times though – I wish I had written more journal entries with this much detail. In fact, I wish I had more detail in this one! Like, what did I make for dinner that night? I’ve gone through a lot of phases in my cooking and I’m sometimes surprised to stumble across old recipes I used to make all the time but somehow forgot about. It’s amazing how the most mundane details can trigger so many memories!

 

How Do You Know if Your Homeschooling is Working?

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This is my son's way of letting me know he is not excited.

It’s getting toward the end of the school year now, and you might be looking anxiously at all the chapters/lessons left to be done in your textbooks. Some of you might be administering mandatory tests for your kids (and wondering if you covered everything). You may notice with chagrin how much of your to-do list for the year never got done. This is a perfectly normal phenomenon. Please do not be alarmed.

But, this is a good time to ask, “Is my homeschool working?”

Here’s how you know. A successful homeschool is not measured in pages completed, facts memorized, or improved test scores. It is best measured in perfect moments of lucid learning. And this isn’t really that hard to do. We are never going to be able teach our children everything – there will ALWAYS be things that your child has never covered. There are endless things that we adults don’t know anything about either. More important is the desire to keep learning, and the ability to do it. Effective education is not about stuffing kids’ heads full of facts. Real learning comes from inside each person: making connections, observations, and personal discoveries.

Think about the last time your child was completely absorbed in something, or the time her eyes lit up with some revelation, or the time he couldn’t wait to show you something he figured out. Those are the moments that really matter. Some homeschoolers call them “Aha!” moments. When our kids are charged up and sublimely focused, everything just seems to happen all at once. This is when learning is real – not just busywork that will soon be forgotten.

I don’t mean to imply that all your days should be filled with starry-eyed wonder (if so, then we would all fail), but it’s the direction you should be aiming for. I think Pareto’s 80/20 Principle applies here. Have you heard of this? The basic idea is that 80% of your outcomes come from 20% of your inputs. This rule seems to work eerily well for everything from economics to time-management. I am suggesting here that 80% of your child’s true learning is coming from only 20% of your efforts. The trick is to figure out which 80% constitutes true learning for your child, and to figure out which 20% of your efforts are actually helping (keep in mind that in this case, “helping” might really mean leaving your child alone). Then you can focus more on what works, and cut back on your wasted efforts.

To figure out your 80/20, I highly recommend keeping a journal about your days together. Be sure to note the interesting conversations, questions, and current concerns of your kids. What are they preoccupied with? What is boring? What kind of games do they play? What books do they want to read? Did they have any “Aha!” moments? You will learn SO MUCH by keeping a journal, because it forces you to observe and reflect. You don’t have to wait till next year to get started, just start right now. Record your summer too – kids learn all year long.

If you don’t write these things down, you will forget. Trust me. Just like everyone always tells new parents to “Take lots of pictures!” or “Enjoy it now because they grow so fast,” I am saying that you will forget where your days went. Your kids will forget too. That’s why when Grandma asks, “So what have you been learning in homeschool?” your child will say, “Nothing.” “But hold on,” you say, and whip out your journal, “we listened to Redwall on tape and you made a comic strip about Martin the Warrior. We’ve been letterboxing with Mike and Robbie and you learned how to use a compass, and tell the difference between a Red Oak and a White Oak.  Remember when you realized that two 1/4 cups equals 1/2 cup of water? And what about . . .” “But that’s not homeschooling,” your child argues, “we do that stuff anyway.” Then you have to explain to everyone in the room that just because it doesn’t look like school, doesn’t mean you are not really learning.

Journaling helps you remember what you did more than a week ago.  You will also realize how rich your days truly are, and how much learning gets done despite the unfinished workbooks. With time, you will indeed know if your homeschooling is working.

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 www.ollyhomeschool.com and let us know what you think!

 

Illustrated Journals

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I was flipping through one of my journals this week and was struck by how well my illustrations reminded me of the hour I spent sketching the scene. I usually only had time to sketch when I was waiting for something – my kids to get out of a class, or my husband to get done with kite-surfing or off of work. While I waited, I would pull out my little blank page journal and look for something to draw.  One book is full of rocks, telephone poles, Douglas Fir cones, lifeguard stands, marinas, mountains, coiled rope, plants, and tequila bottles.

Waiting outside of pottery class

Sometimes I just doodle or try to draw pictures of animate objects like my kids or dog – but those never turn out too well. Occasionally my daughter has given me a creativity assignment to “draw a monster” or take turns with a collaborative fantasy picture, where she starts something, I add to it, and we switch back and forth until the page is filled with giant snails, hot air balloons, unicorns, and lemonade stands. But my favorite pictures are the ones that I drew from real life – my life. These are the pictures that actually bring back memories of a time and place.

Regular Thursday Date Night at Ward Center, Honolulu

 

These are the sort of scenes that words can’t always capture. I suppose I could have taken pictures of all these places, but the act of drawing really forces you to pay attention to the details. You may not notice the curves of the lamp post or the structure of the table umbrella until you try to draw it. Who cares, you might ask, about the structure of table umbrellas, but the point is that it forces you to be where you are at that particular moment. It’s meditative. When I draw something in front of me, I’m not thinking about my troubles, or planning for the future, I’m just observing. And real sketching forces you to quiet your logical left brain, because your left brain doesn’t know how to draw (it tries to make you draw symbols instead of what is really there).

Two great books on this subject are The Creative License and An Illustrated Life, both by Danny Gregory. If you’re worried about your lack of drawing skills, these books will put you at ease, and explain how the simple act of drawing regularly can unlock your dormant creativity. Danny Gregory insists that we are all artists, and his books are the best I have seen for showing the sheer variety of personal styles. He gives loads of examples from his own and other people’s journals. They are all wonderful in their own peculiar way. I love to see how different people will draw the same thing in completely different ways.

Two Scenes from Kailua Beach Park, Oahu

 

There are enormous benefits to keeping a journal, but illustrated journaling is even better. That doesn’t mean that every page must be illustrated, but even leaving room for little tiny drawings of your fortune cookie, or spoon, or cat’s paw, can bring back a flood of memories someday. And when life bogs down into a series of chores, spills, obligations, and temper tantrums, it’s important to remember that we are creative beings. Next time you are waiting outside of dance class or soccer practice, resist the temptation to play games on your phone and pull out a journal instead. In the long run, it will be much better for your sense of well-being. “It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance… and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.” – Henry James

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.

Evernote.

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.

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:

http://www.knowledgequestmaps.com/To-Notebook-Lapbook-or-Scrapbook.html

http://eclectichomeschool.org/articles/article.asp?articleid=23

http://www.crosswalk.com/family/homeschool/record-your-end-of-school-year-accomplishments-part-1-11604210.html

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?