Sunday, August 24, 2014

Making It Work

When people hear that I have 5 children and homeschool, they often ask how I do it. Although in casual conversation it is easiest and most truthful just to say, “By the grace of God,” there are details that you, dear reader, may find interesting, enlightening, or helpful, so I venture to share some of them here.

We started our new school year this past Monday. I spent most of the summer preparing for school in one way or another, from de-cluttering the house (so we can move around, and find things), to pre-reading P10 and E8’s readers, to obsessively scheduling how to fit in everything I want to do with each child and still have time to cook dinner. So planning is one of the more significant of my strategies for “making it work”.

I have discovered that if I want to maintain my sanity on a day-to-day basis, I must get up before the kids. At this point Baby E is sleeping well. He sleeps next to me, but I can usually transfer him to his pack ‘n play when I wake up at 6am and have him stay asleep, which gives me 45 minutes to an hour before the other kids wake up. I use the time to exercise, shower, read the Bible, and pray. That way I am physically, emotionally, and spiritually ready for the onslaught by the time little H2 comes downstairs and demands attention. That’s the ideal; I’m not always done by the time he appears and I can be irritable if I feel that he’s too early! But a commitment to prayer has made dramatic changes in my ability to respond gently to the children throughout the day; I really can’t do without it.

Something we started doing last year, which has helped our mornings before school to run smoothly, is chore packs. I got the idea from the Duggars’ book 20 and Counting which I checked out shortly after H2 was born with the thought, “If they can handle 18 kids, I’m sure they’ll have insights I can glean with only (at the time) 4.” I came up with a list of the chores that P10, E8, and B4 need to do before starting school.  These include self-care items (dressing, brushing teeth), homemaking tasks (cleaning the bathroom, sweeping, putting away toys, feeding and watering the chickens), and some independent academic work (practicing instruments, reviewing memory verses, working on math facts). The Duggars suggested placing a card for each chore in a pouch around each child’s neck, but my children took off their pouches and forgot about them, leaving them in mysterious locations on a daily basis, so our “chore packs” have morphed into a more chart-like format. Each chore is depicted on a card which is attached to a chart with Velcro, and as the child does each chore s/he turns it over. The chore pack is combined with the children’s allowance: if everything is done properly before 9am, P10 and E8 earn a quarter and B4 earns a dime (because he has fewer responsibilities). Personality differences show up here: P10 is usually done by 8:10 or so and she retreats to her own room to read, E8 dawdles and plays until about 8:40 when he begins a mad rush that sometimes, but not always, results in his being done by 9, and B4 spends an hour over breakfast staring into his oatmeal, insists on finishing reading his book before venturing to start his chores, and hasn’t yet earned a dime this school year. But for the older 2, having them diligently at work with physical reminders of everything that needs to happen has greatly reduced my morning workload and frees me up to care for the little ones.

Something I did just this school year that has already helped a lot with making the school day run more smoothly is to post a schedule in a clearly visible location. At some point I mean to extend the chore pack concept to include school task cards, but for now just posting the outline of what I’d like to have happen academically on the average day has already clarified my expectations. This is where my summer planning pays off! I used to think I just wasn’t a “scheduled” sort of person, and that working from a strict schedule would cramp my style. But my children really thrive with predictability, and it frees up mental energy to actually do our scheduled tasks when we aren’t trying to decide what those tasks ought to be. Our schedule alternates between activities where P10 and E8 can work independently and those where they need my help. That way, when they’re working independently, I can pay attention to my middle boys, H2 and B4. B4 is reading at an early second-grade level, so I’m doing some formal reading, handwriting, and spelling instruction with him as he shows interest (and reminding myself that he’s only four when he doesn’t), as well as providing math games and toys for him during P10 and E8’s independent math work time. I also am using Sonlight’s P4/5 preschool curriculum with him, reading to him for 15-30 minutes before attempting to read history or literature to P10 and E8. As for H2, I’ve been using the “learning poster” concept from Letter of the Week’s 2-year-old program: one day each week, we place a new shape, color, letter, number, or nursery rhyme on his very own learning poster. He loves having his own poster prominently displayed in the kitchen, he loves getting to do his own school, and if he doesn’t remember any of it next week, it’ll at least sound more familiar to him the next time he encounters it. I also read to him during moments when his 3 older siblings are all occupied with independent work or play, using Sonlight’s P3/4 books among others. He is still at the phase where he has one or two favorite books, which must be repeated ad nauseam by anyone who is willing and able to read to him. Would you like me to recite Go, Dog, Go to you from memory? Baby E is still at the delightful phase where, if he is awake, he is happy to be in my arms while I explain a new math concept or read a story, and I can usually direct operations while nursing him. Once he becomes mobile, I know it will change the entire game!

To be honest, though, the most important answer to the question of “how do you do it?” is still by the grace of God. God has given me the specific children I have, with their personalities. He has given me the health and strength to keep track of these children, he has provided Ari with a job that pays enough for us to live on so that I can stay home with them and educate them, and he has worked in my life to bring me to a point of being able to care for others as well as myself. I realize I am coming from a position of having so many blessings poured out on me, I don’t even know what all of them are and I take them for granted. So, when people say, “I could never homeschool my kids,” I recognize that may be true. But I’d like to encourage you that, if you feel it’s something you would like to try, the same God who has given me what I need right now to do what I’m doing will enable you too. Just ask him!

If you homeschool, what are some strategies you’ve found that help you “make it work” or “get things done”?


  1. Loved this post, Jane! We have different systems but the same purpose behind them. Instead of a schedule, we use the workbox system. Each child has a set of boxes or drawers numbered 1-10. I fill those boxes with their independent or semi-independent work each night (or for little ones--toys and games to keep them occupied during school time). Older kids have to do whatever is in their boxes, in order, before they are done with school for the day.
    I also try to stagger read-aloud time conveniently. R8 and I do SL Core D read alouds early in the morning before the others wake up. The she does her boxes while I read SL P4/5 to R6 and P3, as well as doing Logic of English lessons with them. (Both are emerging readers). I also make sure to read from SL P3/4 or random books to both P3 and R2 whenever I can. Dog. Big Dog. Big dogs and little dogs. Oh, sorry...I've been warped by that one too ;-).
    We've also recently implemented a chore chart with movable cards on it. Each card is a chore with cash value. Some chores are required for a particular child, others (such as cleaning the bathroom or vacuuming) are bonus chores. At the end of each day I pay them for whatever cards are in their "done" slot on the chore chart. Like you, I have children with variable responses to the chore chart. R8 would rather read all day. R6 is eager to do all her required chores and then do as many bonus chores as possible. She's motivated by money, that one :). P3 and R2 are too little to really appreciate it, but some day it will click. I hope.
    And definitely...the systems really help, and I would say necessary...but in the end it truly is the grace of God that any of this is possible. I will need to remind myself of this even more when baby #5 arrives in November and I have to re-invent the wheel to account for nursing, napping, and all that :).

  2. Congratulations on expecting #5! What exciting news!
    I was really inspired by the workbox idea, and a lot of my planning was influenced by it. I just couldn't figure out a way to make it work in our rather small house. We already have bookshelves in every spare corner!