With the upcoming school year set to be remote Yinh and I panicked. We felt like distance learning was the worst of all worlds and not suitable for young children (our kids were in preschool and 1st grade). We wanted to know our options. So we looked into homeschooling. As in unenrolling from public school and taking ownership of educating our boys.
In researching, we were introduced to a friend of a friend, who whether she likes it or not, must now be our friend too because she’s amazing and we won’t take no for an answer.
Why do I feel that way?
Because of her amazing response when I asked her for guidance on homeschooling. Remember I was basically a stranger reaching out. I got her permission to publish it here. I’ve edited it modestly, adding some headings and changing her girls’ names.
I hope this enlightens you as much as it did Yinh and I.
I have two daughters, Mary (9) and Amy (6). We started homeschooling Mary last year in second grade and this current year was my first year with both girls. I was utterly bewildered when we started this homeschooling thing, and I still feel overwhelmed at times, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how fun it is. The girls don’t always have good attitudes, there are occasional tears, but I take it as a good sign.
Some hints of unadvertised benefits of homeschooling
When we first started, Mary would occasionally burst into tears and I mistakenly thought she was trying to manipulate me. I was eventually able to coax it out of her that she sometimes felt like crying in school, but didn’t want to be embarrassed in front of her class, so she just held it in. With me at home, they can let out all their frustrated feelings when they’re overwhelmed. I was also surprised at how easy it is to gauge their understanding and progress. It is so obvious when they really grasp the material and when they need more time/practice. As a non-teacher, I was sure I would fail at this endeavor, but when it’s just us, one-on-one, it’s manageable. My sister-in-law, who was a classroom teacher and then homeschooled her four kids, told me that so much of what teachers learn in college is classroom management, which you don’t really need at home with just your kids.
Transition to homeschool
The transition from a classroom to home can be so jarring. Some kids need a “detox” period when they truly start homeschooling, and not just distance learning. As I’m sure you’ve learned already, they need lots of motion breaks, especially without the social pressure of the classroom to sit. Another big difference between the classroom and home is writing. Writing will be the source of many breakdowns. Writing is so hard for elementary kids – forming the right letters, putting them in the right sequence, considering punctuation. At school, teachers often scribe for the class while teaching a lesson. At home, we can lessen the writing burden by scribing for them or allowing them to narrate their answers. Ask what the purpose of the assignment is. Is it to assess their knowledge or to practice writing? Is it to draw out big, fun ideas from their wondrous brains? You can even have them copy the answer you wrote down. They’ll be practicing writing for the rest of their lives. They’ve got time.
Loosely scripted days
Sometimes we’re halfway through school at 8am. Sometimes we don’t start til the crack of noon. Sometimes my kids crave a schedule. Sometimes my kids want to choose what’s next. Sometimes they like to sit at the table to work. Sometimes they’re hanging upside down on the trapeze while they answer questions about a reading assignment. Moods and needs change. I’m flexible when I can be and try to pick my battles.
A custom education
There are so many different styles of homeschooling, so many different curricula to choose from. Some kids like the worksheets and workbooks because it feels like real school. Other kids need a more relaxed approach. I have a friend who just buys generic workbooks in every subject and has her daughter do one lesson a day until they’re finished. I have a friend who uses mostly online programs (Time 4 Learning, Starfall, etc.) so she can work while her kids do school. I have a friend whose kids run wild all day, and she just pulls them in for 10-15 minutes at a time for a quick lesson. I have another friend who unschools, which is a lot more work than you’d think. There’s the Charlotte Mason philosophy and Classical education. There are even people who gameschool. The options are overwhelming!
Getting comfortable with the inevitable uncertainty
The good news is that even if all you do is read books and do a little math in the next year, your child will be fine. In elementary school, science and social studies is just a repetition of what they did the previous year with a little bit more detail. Science is the plant life cycle, the planets, maybe the density experiment with oil, water, and corn syrup. Social studies is a lot of boring talk about community rules, community helpers, and US symbols. A lot of the work in science and social studies at this age is just practicing how to read for information. That can be done with much more interesting sources than dusty old textbooks. Art, music, nature, and poetry are springboards for science, history, and literature. Art includes movies and video games. Film scores are music and rap is poetry. Trace a leaf. Copy down the lyrics to a favorite song. Watch a TV show and ask “Who’s being brave?” There’s no limit to where they can go. As an example, Amy listened to a Classics for Kids podcast about Vivaldi and got curious. We listened to The Four Seasons as she did other school work. Then she painted a picture of what she hears in the music, wrote a description of her painting, and copied the sonnet that accompanies the season. She noticed similar words in the English translation and the original Italian sonnet and looked up some Latin root words. When her hand got tired, we traded off writing sentences. We listened to more podcasts about the Baroque Era, looked at art and architecture from the same period, read The Story of the Orchestra, listened to the Beethoven’s Wig series of silly songs set to classical pieces, and watched Fantasia. There’s no limit to where they can go when they show curiosity. Something to keep in mind as you explore the world with them: so many available resources are Euro-, white-, and Christian-centric. We keep a map of the world and mark where our interests have taken us, reminding us there’s a big world out there with more to offer. We ask three questions of everything we read, listen to, or watch: 1) Who’s telling the story? 2) Who benefits from the story? 3) Who’s left out of the story?
More good news: everything is learning!
Cooking, cleaning, sorting laundry, organizing a bookshelf, drawing on the wall, laying on the floor and staring at the ceiling in utter boredom. All learning! You don’t have to have a plan or a project or even an idea. Some of the best learning experiences we’ve had have been completely accidental. Learning happens everywhere all the time. It can be slow and not feel like learning but that’s okay. We have nothing else to do for the next year, right?
How to Start
There are two ways to officially homeschool in California: 1) Declare your home a private school by filing an affidavit with the Department of Education. There’s very little oversight beyond keeping records for attendance. 2) Enroll in a public charter school where the learning takes place at home. We are enrolled in Visions in Education and have friends who use Valley View. Families are assigned a credentialed teacher (CT) who offers guidance about curriculum, collects work samples, acts as a teaching coach, and generally keeps us all moving in the right direction. Because it is a public school, students are held to the same standards as any California public schools. We meet with our CT at least once every 20 school days (which works out to about once a month) where she collects work samples and chats with the kids to assess their learning. It’s very informal and we love our meetings. They’re very reassuring for me and the girls like to show off what they’ve been doing. We really click with our CT, but I have friends who have butted heads a bit with theirs. In addition to having the guidance of a CT, the public charter option provides a student budget to purchase curriculum and to pay for extracurriculars, which can be anything from art lessons to dance classes to sports. We get $2700 per student per year with Visions. The kids are able to try all kinds of classes and we use most of it to pay for the expensive outdoor ed program they attend at Sienna Ranch. The bad news is charter schools have seen a lot of interest in the last few months, but it doesn’t hurt to put in an application. I have a friend who was waitlisted last July but got a call in October because families had withdrawn after deciding it wasn’t the path for them.
There are so many other choices out there, but it helped me in my first (very overwhelming) year to deeply research just the ones that meet CA standards. Cathy Duffy is well known for her curriculum reviews. She is blatantly Christian, but she’s reviewed just about everything out there and is a great place to start if a particular program catches your eye. She is also great at noting what has religious content and what is secular. I also read a lot on the Secular Homeschool forums before we took the plunge. It offered great insights into what I could expect in this adventure. People discuss common problems they’ve run into, programs they’ve had success with, programs that were not a good fit for their learners, etc. Other resources that have guided our choices are https://seahomeschoolers.com/ and https://www.tolerance.org/. The latter, from the Southern Poverty Law Center, has been particularly useful in establishing an anti-racist learning environment.
I’ll outline below some of the programs I’ve used. It is A Lot, but homeschooling doesn’t have to be A Lot! Don’t let the following list overwhelm you.
Resources By Discipline
I used the Brave Writer program for both girls this year. For the 6-year-old, we used The Wand for reading/phonics and Jot It Down for writing. I was skeptical about the effectiveness of the phonics portion, but we’ve seen really great results. In fact, I was so impressed, I started having Mary sit in on Amy’s lessons and she learned so much that she had somehow missed in public school.
For Mary, we used The Arrow and Parternship Writing. The Arrow guides use a very relaxed, conversational style. It felt weird to be so informal, without vocabulary exercises and comprehension questions to answer, but they were so engaged and obviously learning. Next year for first grade, we will use The Dart for Amy and continue to use The Arrow for Mary.
We had a lot of fun with Jot It Down and Partnership Writing too. Brave Writer wants to get to the heart of what writing is really about – communicating. Rather than be restricted by the mechanics of it all, we help get all those great ideas onto the paper. Our job as the parent is to jot it down for them. Sometimes I just record Amy’s voice so we can write it down later together or I take dictation for her as she answers questions or gives me her thoughts or we trade off writing sentences. Mary does a lot of the writing herself, but I jump in for dictation or recording her voice whenever she needs it. The mechanics will come in time. Our role is to help them develop their ideas. They do get some practice with mechanics and learn grammar through copywork and dictation in The Wand/The Arrow part of the curriculum. Our teacher loves the work we do with Brave Writer so much that she’s going to use it with her kids this summer (and possibly fall, depending on what school looks like then). It’s always the first thing she wants to see when we meet with her. As a teacher, she loves it.
The downside to Brave Writer is that it’s very parent-participation-heavy. I used to schedule the girls’ writing time at the same time but I had to switch that up. I couldn’t do two at once. It also takes some prep work for you to support them. It takes a project or two of practicing but now I remember the questions and methods to use without thinking twice about it. It also helped me adjust to this new mindset when it comes to writing. I leave the grammar and the spelling to the grammar and spelling lessons. Writing is about the ideas and what they have to say. The best writing mechanics doesn’t mean anything if the writer doesn’t have a good idea! It was hard at first, but now I’m able to let the girls take their projects in whatever direction they want. It may not be to the exact letter of the assignment, but as long as it’s in the spirit of the assignment, I let them run wild. For example, Amy’s animal book assignment morphed into a trip to the zoo. She carried a clipboard around all day, copied down the names of the animals she was interested in, took pictures of them (and the informative placards in from of the enclosures), and then wrote about them when we got home. She included a little personal bit for each animal based on our trip to the zoo. (Ex: We saw seven lemurs from a tunnel in the enclosure.) She even included a squirrel in her book and was delighted at her trick because it wasn’t really a zoo animal, it just lived on the grounds. She was so excited to see her zoo trip come to life in her very own book. I had her type it on the computer so she even got to practice her typing skills for this project too. Point being, you and your learner can do as much or as little as you want. Some assignments just aren’t as interesting to them as others and that’s okay. Do as much as they’re inspired to do and let it go when they’re done.
I also use a simple writing workbook with the girls called Building Writers, from Learning Without Tears. They are short, easy exercises that help them with the mechanics of writing. So even though I may talk a big game about being breezy with expectations, I still on some level can’t let go of the mechanics! But Building Writers is truly just a little sentence practice in the elementary phase. It’s meant to build their confidence and ease with writing and I feel it’s been helpful. I also use the handwriting books from Learning Without Tears, which have been great for my kids.
We use a separate spelling program called Words Their Way. My teacher friends rave about it and my kids have been very successful with it. It involves sorting lists of words to notice their patterns. Last year, I used Soaring With Spelling. Mary never got less than 100% on a spelling test, but still couldn’t spell worth a damn, so it clearly wasn’t the right program for her. It was the same with our phonics program, Explode the Code. As I said earlier, it’s pretty apparent when a program is working and when it is not.
We used Blackbird last year with Mary and it was a great program, but very formulaic and by the end of the year, she was ready for something new. Our writing program last year was Write Source, which we liked but it was very traditional and I wanted to try something a little different.
For math, we use Math Mammoth and we love it. It’s big on pattern recognition and games, which the girls respond to very well. Last year, I used Primary Math (the Singapore math method) to teach Amy kindergarten math and it was wonderful. We started this year with Math In Focus (the Singapore math method written to align with US standards), but it just didn’t work for us. We switched back to Math Mammoth and we’re all happier for it.
For science, we used Studies Weekly for both girls, which I don’t love. It’s boring, but meets all the CA standards and was a good option for us this year as I figured out how to teach two kids simultaneously. It was also cheap!
Everyone thinks that I, as an engineer, must love teaching science to my kids, but honestly, most programs I’ve looked at make me want to die of boredom. I didn’t pursue science because I liked reading textbooks and making baking soda and vinegar volcanoes. I just liked solving puzzles and figuring things out and finding answers to questions. I like to use nature journaling as a good place to start with science. It’s such a great way to let kids follow rabbit holes to satisfy their curiosity, sometimes in completely unexpected ways. Mary likes to compose poems while observing in nature. Amy isn’t confident in her drawing but loves to take pictures of what she sees. Sometimes she’ll just trace a leaf over and over again, and then color it in using different tools – marker, pencil, crayon, pastel, watercolor – just to experiment. We jot down the things we’re interested in learning about and head to the library (well, we used to) to search for books on the subject.
John Muir Laws made his book about teaching nature journaling free and it is absolutely worth downloading. It gives great advice for how to guide your kids through observations and questions so they can really take in and process what they’re seeing. Often while investigating natural history, we learn about human history as well. (For example, invasive species are a really great introduction to colonialism!) It’s science, art, math, history, geography, and literature all from just observing what we see around us, and it’s so easy to let their interests guide us. One day, I had the kids help me pull weeds in the yard. We organized the weeds into piles after identifying them with the iNaturalist Seek app. We came up with multiple ways to measure our haul – counting, volume, mass. We identified the plant parts and talked about the life cycle of plants in relation to the seasons. We classified them as either monocots or dicots. We counted petals on roses and poppies using multiples of 3,4, and 5. They composed a song about how much they hate weeding. They each picked a flower to draw and paint. As I said earlier, their best learning experiences have been completely unplanned.
This summer, we started Life 1 from Pandia Press’s Real Science Odyssey program and we are really loving it – even me! Pandia Press’s materials are geared toward multiple ages. I was worried it would be too simple for Mary, but both girls are able to understand on their own levels. We’ve had a lot of fun with it so far. Because Real Science Odyssey is based on studying one branch of science for one academic year, it doesn’t meet the CA standards where each branch of science (physical science, life science, earth and space) is covered equally. Our CT is on board with us trying new things and is willing to help us fill in the gaps so we can continue using the program.
We also used Studies Weekly for social studies. Again, it’s boring, but it hits the standards and is cheap. This summer, we started a new history curriculum, also from Pandia Press, called History Quest. Like Real Science Odyssey, we are having so much fun and I am learning right along with them. It doesn’t hit the CA standards, but it’s a lot more engaging than reading boring texts about the usual classroom stuff. It’s actual history!
In the past, I used Pearson myWorld which is a very traditional program, focused on communities and a little basic geography. It was fine, but Mary dreaded it and I had to drag her through every lesson.
There’s a curriculum type called a unit study that incorporates all different subjects (language arts, social studies, science) while focussing on a novel, though math is usually taught separately. To start the year, we did a unit study through Build Your Library for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets where we studied astronomy, botany, mythology, and Greek and Latin etymology as we read the book. The girls wrote articles for the Daily Prophet, created myths to accompany constellations they made up, and devised new spells based on Greek and Latin root words.
Build Your Library also offers a complete second grade curriculum. It’s a very affordable PDF, but there are lots of books to buy or borrow from the library. It’s the same with Torchlight, a very similar curriculum. I’ve been using the kindergarten level of Torchlight on a casual basis this year for the world geography and culture. The girls love it and look forward to reading our books and visiting places via Google Earth and youtube and museums every morning at breakfast. The booklists from BYL and Torchlight are extensive and an amazing resource, even if you never homeschool. We’ve found so many wonderful books from their lists. I chose Torchlight over Build Your Library because BYL uses Story of the World as a spine (backbone of the program). SotW is pretty problematic. Until recently, it was the only attempt to teach world history as a story, which really keeps kids’ attention. But it only starts 6000 years ago and is very Euro-, Christian-, and white-centric. Pandia Press has started releasing similar books that are less problematic, but as of now they only have History Quest Early Times 1 (elementary level) available. They are working hard to release History Quest Middle Ages 1 before September.
Some other popular complete curriculum packages are Moving Beyond the Page and Oak Meadow. The tricky thing about complete packages is that if you or your learner ends up not liking it, you’ve spent hundreds of dollars and now you need to spend more to find something that does work for your family.