For most of our followers around the world it is Back-to-School time, and for most of the folk here in South Africa, we have had a winter break and are heading back into their school year. Some folk are refreshed and good to go and others… well judging from my inbox others are a little overwhelmed. I thought I would write a homeschool post for you all and just say: “Don’t panic…” Honestly, from the outside looking in, it looks as if my kids do very little that looks like actual school… In fact only the second half of the morning on a few days a week, would anyone think they were doing anything remotely schoolish. The rest of the time they appear to be lying around reading, doing projects and playing. But by reading through this post hopefully you will see that we have over the years incorporated our schooling into our lifestyle. I do not stress about “if they anyone is doing enough” and I do not stress about “if they are keeping up with their contemporaries who are in school.” We are homeschoolers, we learn differently and different things at different stages… the end result, that they finish school competently is what counts. I do slightly stress about the fun factor, and I make a lot of effort to create a fun learning environment for our kids to learn in. I want them to love learning, and I want them to be keen and curious… I can’t make them that, I can only create that environment and lead by example.
I thought I would just share what we are doing for school right now, the “What, Where, Why and How?” of it all, and hopefully this will answer a few of the dozens questions that have popped into my inbox lately. I have to say that there is no such thing as a typical day. Our homeschool is designed so that when opportunities arise, like a beach cleanup or a hike or visitors from afar… that we drop school and we embrace that. I am not very obsessed with getting all the school done every single day, but over the period of a week most folk get through a good chunk of learning and I am happy with that. I am also quite prone to declaring “apparently” zero school days and heading for the beach, or hiking or having a reading all day kind of day (that is school… but no-one in our house would think that)!!!
Otherwise, if you are new here, you might not know it but we are avid Sonlight Curriculum fans we have homeschooled all the way through our homeschooling journey with Sonlight, and our children basically read their way through our Sonlight library for school… starting at the bottom shelf they read their way up to the top shelf… when they finish the shelves, they are effectively finished school. Of course we do other things with them for school, but Sonlight is the literary backbone that we rely on. Not only does it educate our children, but it has given me the best education ever, over the last fifteen odd years of schooling alongside our kids.
Our Typical Homeschool Day
I get home from gym around 7:30 and spend a little time with the father person before he dashes to work, and the kids start waking up at about eight. I work for about an hour and a half on blog related things, while the kids do chores, and their school reading and generally get ready for the day. We have breakfast together around 9:30… and then begins what we call family school, and a lot of folk in the blog world call morning time. We follow family school with meeting time… and that is one on one time for each child with me and I see one or two children a day and we just rotate through until it is your turn again.
Family school changes and varies as we begin new things and end other things, sometimes we focus on a theme, and we always have something sort of Bible Study, History, Around the World, Poetry, a family Read-A-Loud. No my kids don’t play with anything while I read, no lego, no puzzles, no colouring… they just listen and it is all very conversational… so reading and chatting. Usually we just read a double page spread in a given book and at the end of it I ask everyone for an interesting fact they just learnt… starting youngest to oldest, everybody wants their turn, so they listen away!!!
- Bible Study: For the last year or so we have just been reading the bible together, no extra bits and pieces and it has been so refreshing. Why didn’t we do this years ago? Everybody brings their own bible to the table and then we read a chapter a day. Everybody reads a few verses. The beginner readers might need a little help and just sit in my lap as they sound it out, and we wait patiently for folk to stumble their way through… it has produced the most remarkable reading improvement. And little people are so proud to be reading the bible for all its worth. We alternate Old and New Testament books and at the end of the book we reward ourselves by watching the relevant video on The Bible Project (we also print out there summary pages for our journals).
- History: We are reading through this book of English History, just a double page a day… it isn’t easy. But it is interesting. Yes, everyone listens, it is only a double spread and it is intriguing. The way we get through books that are trickier reading is by sharing a fact that we learnt from the spread… either as soon as I have read it, or the next day… that ensures folk are listening because nobody wants to be left out… ever!!!
- Around the World: Our World map is smothered with information, it is right next to our table and anytime we read about a place someone jumps up and marks it on the map. We have friend locations and book locations, we have all the kids from Children Just Like Me on there as well. We traced the Hokulea Journey on our map, and we have been following the Logos Hope from port to port around the world too. This year we have been using the Draw Africa book on the Kindle, a country a day… slow and steady, we are getting there!!!
- Poetry: We always have a poetry book on the go… always. Either from the library, where you will find a lot of wonderful and suitable poetry or from our own school shelves. A little tip here is that if you find a poet you like, then pop over to Youtube and search for them. You will often find that a poet has made excellent videos of themselves reading their own poetry… it is lovely!!!
- Another Language: In South Africa most folk speak two if not three languages, it is a great advantage to them. While we have taught our children smatterings of languages to our children, from countries we have visited, we have never been hugely successful with teaching our children a second language until about two years ago. We tried activity books, we tried flashcards, we tried all sorts of things… nothing worked. Everyone was fairly eager to learn… but nothing stuck. It was only when they started having Afrikaans friends over that some of the language started to stick. It is absolutely true… immersion works. So I began by reading to our kids… I read Afrikaans stories and nature books, and I read a sentence and then translated a sentence… and slowly but surely we made our way through books. But this only worked to a certain extent… the mistake I was making was in the translation. I went much, much simpler and started taking picture books out of the library and reading them during family school. And here is the trick I learnt, since immersion is the key: I read the same picture book to them again and again and again… through out the week we had it from the library. The first time I am met with blank stares. The second time they understand it and by the third time they are repeating phrases back to me… when phrases started to click we could start piling it on. So we keep it really simple with picture books and poetry books. And I just read them again and again and again and this has been the best way to learn for us.
- Read Aloud: We always have a story going around the table… a family read aloud. It is an eclectic mix of classics and contemporary, books that I have fond memories of and must read books read and reread from our shelves. I have been trying to introduce my kids to audible books in this slot… to no avail. Much as they love audible (and that is a whole ‘nother post) they still need a book going read by the mother person… and I am more than okay with that, long may it last in fact.
- The Project: We always have some sort of focus or project on the go… something South African, that isn’t part of our curriculum. This year we have been working on an environmental project and we have been working our way through information on the Karoo… but in this slot we typically look at Game Parks around the country or learn about local wildlife.
My older kids move along after this… not very far because all school happens around the kitchen table. Not to mention, while they may wander away from the hub of things, they certainly are still listening because they are always contributing and joining the conversation.
At about eleven we take a break, run around, hang laundry, do a seven minute workout, dance, snack… whatever. After this my kids settle down and work in their journals or in their workbooks. We have slowly whittled their workbooks down to as little as possible, I am all about free time and having time to play. So the quicker they do their work, the quicker they can move on to their own thing. During this time I have a one on one meeting with our kids, one by one rotating throughout the week. I sit with them and we talk about the reading they have done, the history, the science and so on, I look at what they have written in their journals. Then I take a look at the next section of math they are working on and make sure that they understand so that they can work through their workbooks on their own until we meet up again in couple of days. The idea is that I check what they have done, and I make sure they have the knowledge they need to go on, until our next meeting. Our school day is very definitely over by lunchtime, which is at 1pm. Immediately after lunch everyone, including myself, reads for a time and then the afternoon is free to do as they please… and that is the busiest time of day… projects fly and I spend a little more time working online. At the end of the afternoon we head for the beach or the library or something, an afternoon walk. This is followed by dinner, bed and some more reading. This is the house of reading!!!
School by Grade Level
While each of our kids are on their own school level, and they each have their own shelf of books that they are reading, our school is definitely split into three levels… My seniors are in the latter half of high school, middle school and primary school. By the time my kids enter middle school they are reading independently and doing all their reading on their own, it may take them until middle school to master reading… that’s okay, but by the time they are reading all their school independently then it is time to start out sourcing school. By the time they have finished high school they have hopefully accumulated some solid work experience, spent a good deal of time volunteering and learning has become second nature to the air that they breathe.
Pre-school and Below
We are not in this category any more, I have no idea how that happened, but we have finally outgrown it… but this is an area of schooling that our most asked questions are in. I really don’t expect any of my preschoolers to spend more than five or ten minutes on anything called school. Their work is to play hard, and that is what I expect from them. By the time they are in the year before school they mostly want to sit at the table for a few minutes to emulate their older siblings. I spend a couple of minutes reading through Teach your Child to Read in 100 Lessons. I have said it before and I will say it again, that is in 100 lessons and not 100 days… it took us a least a year if not more to wander through that book with all my kids. When our oldest began school and he had three or four younger siblings at play, then he was a natural early bird and he and I would get up early and spend fifteen minutes together covering his school work, while everyone else was still sleeping. Later, when more children were doing school and more little people were underfoot, we would do their history, science and story book reading on the floor or a bed with little people clambering on us, and capitalise on nap time for anything that required one on one attention. I did find as my younger children were born into a homeschooling environment that the little ones were quite happy to sit on my lap or clamber on me while I read, and as they got older they naturally moved a little bit away to play as time went on. I do have a post on What Do Little People Do During School? A while back… you may take a peak there.
I really believe that kids learn through play… and they can only get the skills they need to do the school they are going to want to do later if they have had their fill of play. Hood 8 is se7en and I still do all his reading… a spread of history, and science and a chapter of a story each day. He creates a line or two and sometimes even a page in his history and science journal and reads to me from his reader… he spends a few minutes on math and explode the code and he is done for the day. So apart from family school he doesn’t spend more than twenty minutes on school and he is free to work on his own projects. Hoods 5 and 6 are 11 and 9 years old, I read some of their history with them but otherwise they do all their own reading. And the time they spend with me is really just admiring their journals and seeing that they understand the next couple of pages in their workbooks.
Hood 4 and 5 are twelve and fourteen, and are in that stage of school where I am preparing them for high school and a lot more independent learning. The biggest difference between middle schoolers and high schoolers, is that they read all their own history and keep their own history journal, it is quite a jump from me reading their history and it takes time and effort. The truth is I could read their history and it would be quicker and easier for everyone, but we are in no rush and they are learning how to learn. At this stage we start to outsource their school a little bit, our kids need to get used to learning from a teacher that isn’t their mother. They attend classes for a second language, and my kids chose French because it is spoken so widely throughout Africa and the world. What begins as an hour of playing games and chatting once a week, quickly turns into more in high school. Otherwise, while their lives are not entirely, but pretty much screen free until this time, it is time for them to get some online skills before they require it for work… Our kids have learnt a huge amount through Tim Chase’s Courses at Impact Virtual, he runs an online learning school that has been instrumental in getting my kids through school, I cannot imagine a world of learning where our children won’t have to be very familiar with learning in an online classroom. His first course is a prerequisite for his following courses and is called Digital Learning: They learn about cyber safety, how to create their own website, and the tools they need to make that website great, how to present their work online and peer reviewing. This is not an airy fairy course, and one of those online courses that starts off trivially and then you can fizzle out when the going gets tough… it is fairly time intensive and your child will be busy online, learning in a safe environment. My kids have all had to raise their game and work hard to complete the requirements, and have the reaped the rewards of a job well done. This is a great course to get your kids to up their school game, problem solving and presentation skills will shoot up, all with a class of peers encouraging them to work harder, rather than their homeschooling parent.
In the last few years of high school, they read their way through the final years of the Sonlight Curriculum and we try and pack in as much real life learning and opportunities for job experience and volunteering as well. We want our kids to be well equipped for the working world that they are about to enter. They continue with their French studies and up their immersion time a week to two and later three hours, and by the end of high school they are pretty much fluent and get a certificate of competence through the Alliance Francaise. They also start to attend college courses at this stage, and they head to a local college one evening a week with their dad and join the class, they do the assignments, write the essays and complete the tests, all the while raising their game higher than if they were doing the same course for me… I feel it is critical that learn from other folk. They accumulate great skills, how to write an essay, how to fill the lecturer’s requirements, which are often quite different to what they think the requirements are (!), and how to reference correctly and present their work. Otherwise, they continue with their coursework at Impact Virtual, doing all sorts of courses, from coding to photography, from Shakespeare to Cold War Studies, these courses are fabulous and have made learning fun, and my teens have thoroughly dived into topics, that they may breezed over otherwise. I am all for gaining work experience at this stage and they do a number of jobs… including online tutoring and volunteering. They volunteer at the aquarium and I have no problem with them taking a day or even two days off “what otherwise looks like school” in order to do this, because they learn so much from working with other people, for other people and amongst other people. The life experience and work ethic that they develop is invaluable to whatever they might want to pursue after school. And the multimillion dollar question that folk ask is how do we finish high school… once my kids have read through their Sonlight Library, they have covered more than enough in terms of education. The sign up and write GED exams and SAT exams, we don’t do any special focused studying towards these exams… I reckon they have an education and they just gaining the piece of paper to prove that they have an education.
School by Topic
Everybody in our school covers certain topics each week… the what, the where, and the how are slightly different, tailored towards each child’s learning. But they all have a notebook to keep track of what they are up to… and we just work our way through the list during our one on one meeting.
History is thoroughly covered by Sonlight, through reading and reading and reading. I have found that for some of my kids that battled with reading that audible books were hugely helpful. After reading through Hillyer’s Child’s History of the World six times, I was very happy to get the same book from audible and let my kids listen along multiple times. Otherwise we got the audible version Susan Wise Bauer’s Story of the World, and we use her activity books, in the years that my children cover that. Don’t be afraid to dive in and use audible, your kids will love it, it gives you a break and your brain knows that reading is reading. Honestly, with all the other school they are reading, I am quite happy to give those that need it the break. Not to mention, I am an even happier that my children that prefer to just read, get some good listening skills in as well. The comprehension skills that children use when they read and when they listen are different and they need to learn how to learn using listening skills as well.
We use Sonlight Science books all the way as well… a double page spread from their books as they read through them each day. Last year we had a zero school budget (doesn’t everyone have those years?), but luckily our Sonlight library is pretty much complete, and I didn’t buy replacement science sheets to fill in. Instead our kids started making science journals, very much like nature journals… certainly for my younger children they love it, they are learning and it works. I ask them to create a double page spread in their journal each week, they can write, create, copy, invent… whatever they want… something from what they have read in school that week. Once they reach High School our kids switch to Apologia Science, it is a great programme and they also make notes. At this stage it becomes important that they are familiar with writing tests and I use the tests at the end of each module as an opportunity for them to learn how to study and get used to a test environment. Finally experiments… my word can these overwhelm a homeschool mom. I leave all their science materials available for them to potter, tinker and create with and then we have a dedicated science experiment week once or twice during the year… where we gather everything we need to do and we make long lists of all the experiments we want to do and work our way through them together… it has a kind of a festive feel to it and everyone feels a bit like, this is a mini-vacation.
This is the one place where folk really just ask me for help all the time… so I am going to spend a little time here. Essentially, language arts is a subject that contains many smaller subjects: Spelling, grammar, vocabulary, writing and so on… Sonlight has a language arts programme that we used for years, and it is something folk ask us about a lot… it never really bothered us, but some kids just don’t love it. I don’t mind that, I just make sure that they are getting fun from writing and such like as well.
- Hand Writing: I am not sure why this is always popped into language arts, other than you need to be able to write to communicate. We use Hand Writing Without Tears during the Pre-Primary and Primary years and then we never look back. I have always been a little anti dictation and prefer copy work, because I prefer my children to spend time writing out correct things, rather than anything and then correcting it. To this end, I know they have science journals and history journals and a certain (small) amount of copyworb goes in there.
- Spelling: My primary school children are all working on reading skills and their reading skills are not strong enough to work on spelling skills as well. I totally ignore teaching spelling until Middle School, in fact (don’t ask me how I know this!) if you wait out until High School, as their reading skills improve… their spelling skills improve as well and you needn’t do spelling at all. That being said, I do do Spelling with my Middle Schoolers, we use Spelling Power, I am all for a program that is a one book covers everyone kind of a programme.
- Grammar: Again, I also wait until Middle School, while my younger students might hear about nouns and verbs and such like, it is only when they are slightly older that I really start to do anything about it. Our kids work their way through the Winston Grammar Programme with me, during their meeting with me. Very, very slowly… sometimes only half a page a week. It is enough, just dripping the information into their minds. There is no point in rushing through programmes and pushing forwards here, slowly covering the work over and over again helps it to stick there firmly.
- Vocabulary: We use Explode the Code for a bit of Phonics and Writing Practice and then once they have finished that they move onto Wordly Wise… books that start off easy and develop all the way as they grow older. When they are writing and they learn or need a new word they pop those words into their special spelling notebook.
- Writing: Can I just say that I have five boys, and that I totally understand when folks tell me their boys hate writing. I get that. I have had moments of panic when I see a friend’s child’s writing… and then I take a breath and say… my kids are homeschoolers, they learn differently and they don’t have to know everything at once. For writing we use a very gentle approach, my kids do write for all sorts of reasons. In fact they probably write a little something everyday… nothing huge and I really don’t ever bother to correct it, though I do admire it!!! If it really is unreadable… then I will write it out correctly for them next to their work, so that they can read what they have written later on. Otherwise, we write a little bit every day… a letter here, a recipe there… all sorts of things that I spontaneously think up for them to write down for me. For years now my kids have been writing a “story” in their “Outing Book” about an outing that they went on in the past week, they can add any memorabilia and ticket stubs and so on. One of my children goes on the most wonderful, incredible, imaginative (totally not real) outings every week and my youngest has dutifully written: “We went to ….., it was fun,” every single week and drawn a beautiful picture to go with it. I am happy with that. He is writing, he is creating, and I know he can tell a story. Could he do better? Yes. Is it worth the fight? No. Just recently I have noticed a line or two more added into the mix, just as a whole lot of other skills took a jump up too. Kids learn in leaps and bounds and if they sit on a plateau that’s fine. Otherwise to spur our creativity onwards and upwards I started a writing club in the holidays with my littles… we had a week of writing fun. And what started as just as week has turned into something that they were asking to do with me every week… it deserves a blog post… I’ll write it up and link back. What I can say, having an array of all ages kids teaches you to relax, even the most reluctant writer will eventually write when they need to and they will also do it well. They have had years of listening to good stories and they are well equipped to tell fine stories and communicate what they want to communicate. My kids eventually all are able to write letters of motivation, submit forms and hand in college level essays. Writing is work, and it is a skill that they develop… but they have their whole school career to master it. Somethings don’t need to be conquered by next week, or next month or even next year… Writing takes time and while they are learning it may as well be fun.
For math we use Singapore Math all the way from grade zero to hero… yes there are other math programs, yes my kids used Miquon work books in their younger days and yes I do do The Life of Fred with my youngest and we love it, but Singapore Math remains at the heart of our math programme. So many programs come out, we are bombarded with new, better, easier methods… I don’t get distracted by new programs any more, I stick what we have and we work through it. If you are consistent then it works. The idea is not that they can solve every single problem ever thrown at them or that they are doing advanced calculus by age ten, but rather that they have the tools they need to learn the next step, that they if they don’t immediately know how to solve a problem that they have developed enough problem solving skills to ask “How do I tackle this?” before they give up and that they aren’t afraid of problems that look a little different to the norm. Otherwise, a great way to practise basic logic and arithmetic skills, without resorting to boring “busywork” workbooks is to play games: boardgames, card games… any games… and my kids play a lot of games together… in fact it is scheduled into their day to play a game and once a week they have to play a game of chess against me. I am not very good at it, but the better they get, the better I get.
Hopefully this post will answer tons of reader questions… but often that leads to more questions. If you want to ask me more questions… feel free… ask away, now is the time. Not to mention I am sure I am leaving something out… let me know what it is and I will include it!!!