Homeschooling: One Room Schoolhouse Meets Three Ring Circus

In the comments of a kind of random post about some Latin quizzes I made, Tamar and Caitlin asked me how I manage a homeschool day with four different grades, a preschooler, a toddler, and one in the oven.

I guess the real answer is: Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't. Some days our school work is done by noon and we spend the afternoon in wonder and discovery and all that. And some days there is yelling and people get rapped on the head with pencils.

But almost every day our school work does get done. We have a daily syllabus, and we do it. I want my kids to take their education and their responsibilities seriously, and I want to take my role as their teacher seriously. Especially that last part has been a work in progress for me. But the more kids I've had, the more I've realized that the more prepared I am for a school day, the better it seems to go.

So, remembering that the beauty of homeschools is that every one is different, and yours should reflect YOUR family culture, here's what I do to make homeschooling work for us.

1. When they're doing school, I'm doing school.

This one is the biggest no-brainer, but it was the hardest for me to discover and it's the one I still need to remind myself about.

With my oldest (cough ) I would set him up with everything he needed for an assignment, explain what he was to do, and go tend to the baby or the dishes or any of the one thousand other things I needed to be doing that morning. Then I would come back after a reasonable amount of time and he wouldn't have done his assignment. I would convey my disappointment. Rinse. Repeat. All day. Every day.

Finally, as I was lamenting my accursed existence over dinner again, the husband wondered if perhaps it wouldn't be a good idea to treat teaching as a bit more of a j.o.b. and put in some facetime. And, really, it has made all the difference.

When 8:30am rolls around, the kids start school and so do I. Even if there are still dishes in the sink. Even if someone on the internet is wrong. I sit at the table with them during school time. That other stuff isn't going to get done on its own either, but I never get mad at the dishes when they don't do themselves.

2. When circumstances change, so do we.

Just because something used to work, doesn't mean it works now. I try to look at what's going on in our family NOW and plan school accordingly.

I'm having a baby around Thanksgiving, so we started school early and will be done with our first semester before then (fingers crossed) so that we can take a nice long holiday break.

But really, newborns aren't usually a problem for schooling. Mostly (hopefully) they sleep and nurse all the time. Usually we can do that at the school table. But once baby requires more active attention, I try to get A LOT done during morning nap. If I'm still needed at the school table, the big kids and I take turns on baby-entertaining duty, so I can work with the younger grade kids.

Recently we've made the switch to a working lunch. It didn't seem like much of a break for the older kids to go from sitting at the school table to sitting at the lunch table. But a long lunch and recess break was eating into our mornings, and I need an afternoon nap. So this year I've been serving them a sandwich while they work, then giving them an excercise break during naptime instead.

I know families who have done the whole school day for an older child during afternoon naps for little ones. We've never done that, since I find my kids and I are all more productive in the mornings. But the key is to find when and where and how you can be most productive and do that . . . until it's not working anymore. Then try something else.

3. Homeschooling is a whole family experience.

I would guess that it's easier to homeschool without a toddler. Or a baby. Or a toddler and a baby. But, honestly, I wouldn't know because I've never tried it.

We do school at the dining room table, which is adjacent to both our playroom and the sliding glass door to the backyard. So Anita (4) and Frankie (almost 2) spend the morning going between the playroom, the backyard, and the school table.

They are welcome to join us for school if they can manage to not be too disruptive. Frankie likes to color and Anita loves her little workbooks. She also mostly has all of the poems that the kids memorize through about third grade down pat. If they pause during a recitation, she's usually the one to pipe up with the next word. And Frankie is excellent at repeating phonogram sounds.

I love that school feels like something we do as a whole family.

But if the little kids get too noisy or wiggly, they get sent outside for a bit. Usually the two of them are fine playing out there by themselves, but if Frankie's having a tough day the big kids and I will split time keeping him out of everyone else's hair.

4. I am a limited resource, so I use myself wisely.

There's only one of me and I have students in first, third, fourth, and sixth grades. I do two grades per spelling lesson, but other that that, they each have a unique daily syllabus. So it's really important to use my individual time with the kids effectively.

Kindergarteners and first graders don't need a lot of school time, but what time they do need, needs to be supervised.

Second and third graders have more to do, and still need supervision, but there are some things they can do on their own.

I expect fourth graders and up to work pretty much independently, keeping track of what they need to get done in a day and doing it, correcting their own daily work, and coming to me with things we need to do together.

Since we're all at the same table, I can keep an eye on what everyone is doing, but my efforts in the morning are focused mostly on the younger grades. My fourth and sixth graders choose for themselves in what order they'd like to do their assignments. I usually sit in between the third and first graders. First thing, I give the third grader an assignment he can do mostly on his own, and work through the day's assignments with the first grader.

He's still mastering reading and handwriting, and those are the foundation for everything else, so I want to make sure we get that done right.

The third grader still needs direction on what to do and when to do it, so I do that for him while I'm working through first grade. Then when we're done with the first grade work, I turn my attention to the things I need to do with the third grader.

Ideally, he's done before noon and while we eat lunch I do the things with the fourth and sixth graders for which they need me. But more often than not, I'll also need to work with them for an hour or two in the late afternoon. During naptime, the preschoolers and I are sleeping, so the big kids get their afternoon breaks and do kid-led projects like art and science together.

Only if they've been really unproductive during the morning do I ask them to do school work during that time, because when I do, it often doesn't get done anyway (see #1).

I also finally broke down and got some help around the house, so I'm able to devote more of my time to teaching and mothering.

5. I get out of it what I put into it.

Just this year, with my third-trimester nestiness, I've developed an organizational system that's really helping with our productivity.

I got the kids each a three ring binder. Each Sunday, I spend a couple of hours getting their binders completely organized for the week. I print out their daily lesson plans and make any necessary changes or notes in writing. For instance, if we'll be gone for a day for a field trip, I actually move around all their assignments for that day, so they'll know exactly what to do each day. (The new Mother of Divine Grace family website has been great, it allows me to customize their syllabi and print them as needed.)

Then I put all the worksheets, tests, and papers they'll need for the week in the binder, behind the appropriate day's assignment list.

This is a lot of work for an evening, but has been a huge time-saver during the school week. The kids used to waste a lot of time looking for books, or waiting for me to make a photocopy of something for them. Now, they are able to move easily from one subject to the next, without having to wait for me to finish an assignment with a different kid, so I can get the thing they need to start the next subject.

My inclination is to just print and copy and orgnize everything for the whole year all at once, but I've been resisting, since I do think it's important to maintain some flexibility.

That's what works for us. But there are lots of circumstances I've never been in. So, I'm opening the comments and the linked-up floor up to you guys.

What does YOUR homeschool day look like?

Not curriculum choices, just the daily task of when and where and how you get it done. Do you have high schoolers, special needs kids, multiples? One kid? Many, many kids? Some in homeschool and some in traditional school? Health issues for you or a child? Does Dad help? Or grandparents? Do you work part-time or full-time? How do YOU get through a school day?