Homeschooling, Large Family, Time Management

Large Family Homeschooling Six Lessons from Homeschooling Five (Part II)

Two weeks ago, I covered the first three things I’ve found helpful in large family homeschooling, and today I’m covering the last four. 🙂

Identify who needs the most help, and schedule it.

Along with independence and check-ins, sometimes students just need direct teaching.  Especially first-graders and below.  Or in later grades, they may need help with particular subjects, or help to get started for the day with particular subjects.  I make a list of “with Mommy” needs, and then I make a block schedule so that those “with Mommy” times don’t overlap.  I don’t plan to teach the first grader how to read as I simultaneously make sure the fourth grader is understanding her grammar lesson!  It’s important to plan ahead on this, so that we don’t end up, indeed, in the middle of phonics, and an older student is unable to move forward because they need my assistance.

I think of our schedule blocks in one of three distinct ways: either totally independent, semi-independent, or with Mommy.  I match up the “totally independent” times with a single “with Mommy” time, but it’s usually okay to have many of them working semi-independently at the same time, so I schedule those together.  For example, math.  Even first graders can “independently” work through math problems, and even twelfth graders are sometimes going to need some pointers.  So we all do math at the same time, and I bounce around from one to the next as they need me.  I’m there.

The key thing is to use your time carefully, and plan ahead.

Do things together.

Every day, we have a “circle time” (or some families call it “morning time”), which seems to work best for us perched in the middle of the morning—so it’s kind of a break—and we do some subjects together, or partly together.  We work on a hymn.  We do exercise.  We read the Bible.  And then the lower grammar stage kids and I do history together, while the upper grammar kid reads her version (a more advanced version, but the same historical topic) nearby.  They also do science in large groups, and sometimes literature can branch across multiple grades.  Basically, if something can be combined, and then worked at slightly different levels / with slightly different expectations, then that’s a big time-saver.  If all of my school-age kids were doing completely difference science, history, phys ed, and so on… it would be chaotic.  It’s a lot easier to have a unified subject and then do different testing options, different essay assignments, etc. per grade level.

Notably, this has limits.  It doesn’t work for all subjects—grammar, math, spelling, etc.—just the more subjective ones, and even those, it will probably reach a limit of usefulness around high school.  But for the younger grades, it’s a good way to save energy, keep our focus, and build sibling relationships while we’re at it.  Also—this is how homeschooling groupwork is possible!  Working in groups is a great feature of traditional schooling, and in homeschooling, it’s further enhanced by being able to reach across grade levels.  It also provides opportunities for those top tiers on Bloom’s Taxonomy of learning, as older students can begin to think about how to explain and formulate things to younger students, or even invent fun projects to help the younger ones understand better—a process which fosters their own understanding in a very natural way.

Farm things out.

Homeschoolers are often quick to encourage one another that if you can’t teach a subject (like high school math or science), find someone who can.  And a huge proportion of homeschoolers do that.  But it has a special benefit to large families—it frees up our time!  For the past couple of years, my kids have been doing a science class through videoconferencing.  I’m perfectly capable of teaching elementary science, but… it was hard to find the time to teach the lesson, much less do the experiments and lapbooks, etc.  Now they have a videoconference session every week with a real teacher who actually walks them through the experiments and expounds on the lesson.  They have a quiz at the end of the week that requires them to have read and understood not only the chapter, but also the “classroom” lesson on the subject.  They know how to do the experiments from her demonstration well enough that they can do it without my help!  It’s awesome.

There are also in-person classes—piano lessons being the only one our kids currently do outside the house—but there are also much less interactive but equally useful ways to “farm things out”: DVD lessons, websites, apps, etc.  I was writing spelling words on our board for about twenty minutes a day before I realized… man, I bet someone videotaped this.  And, sure enough, the company had a DVD!  Twenty minutes saved—and that was just one student.  Now three of them are doing the same kind of spelling, so I’m saving an hour a day by using the DVD.  Flashcards are another good example of something that took so much teacher time and is done just as well, or better, by using a website.  Preschool is something that is not necessarily accomplished in a busy large family house, but… there are whole DVDs of preschool programs!  Our fifth child dutifully did about two hours of “preschool” via a sort of one-way videoconferencing type of thing every single day through 150 lessons.  We also “farm out” typing, and sometimes phonics reinforcement (Reading Eggs and Headsprout).

I do find kids don’t learn as well remotely as they do in-person, so I try to keep it fairly limited to either things that are super interactive (videoconferencing) or strictly drillwork (typing, math facts, spelling), and I try to follow-up regularly and make sure what I think is happening is actually happening, and useful.

Pick curricula carefully.

There have been many times when I have looked at a curriculum and thought, wow, that looks great, but will absolutely not work for us!  Some of the things I started out with–A Beka K5, Teacher-Led, for an example—are just far too teacher-intensive and time-consuming to be tenable now that I have older students.  I find something that has worksheets for review rather than oral drills for review works better, simply because it allows me to move on to another student.  Much homeschool curriculum is written with the expectation that you’re going to have hours to work one-on-one with your student.  And in large families, of course, we simply don’t.

So sometimes classroom material works better, especially classroom material that was designed for a one-room schoolhouse.  In addition to, you know, actually old curriculum like McGuffey and Webster, there are many Amish and Mennonite schools that actually still operate that way and produce curriculum that is designed for brief teacher explanations followed by independent student work for reinforcement and expansion.  These pretty much universally work well for us, although they are not always necessarily what we want—the math, for example, starts to turn into consumer math rather than college-bound math once you get into high school.  Still, many of the subjects are very useful.

In short, the main thing to watch out for is that some curricula that is written expressly for homeschoolers incorporates a lot of teacher time because it anticipates one-on-one interaction continually.  So it is something I have learned to watch out for right at the beginning—a curriculum may be fantastic and get excellent reviews, and yet be simply beyond our grasp.

Now, though, a caveat: some teacher-intense curriculum is worth it.  I tried doing The Logic of English a couple of years ago, decided it was waaaaaay too teacher intense, and set it aside.  But I came back to it, eventually, because my more independent-working curriculum was just simply not working with my son, and I was spending more time trying to get him to be independent than I would have if I had just stuck with the teacher-intense curriculum!  It’s also possible to modify curricula so that they are more independent.  So, I really don’t mean that this is a “rule” so much as something to be aware of—whenever I sit down to evaluate a new curriculum (or even to consider how an old one is working for us), I take careful note of how much time it will demand from me and how it will fit into our schedule and schooling method.


Value: wisdom.

Homeschooling, Large Family, Time Management

Large Family Homeschooling Six Lessons from Homeschooling Five (Part I)

This year feels different than ever before.  I have finally realized: I am not limitless! 😉

I am a second-generation homeschooler—and an only child.  My mom was an amazing teacher and it seemed like we did everything.

Life as a larger family has meant my kids have many advantages in the form of their built-in siblings that I didn’t have as a kid.  They learn many things.  They can do group work, and big projects.  Sometimes they learn something better by explaining it to a younger sibling.  Sometimes they can learn by each others’ insights.  Many, many advantages.

And yet: I am a teacher of many, our own little one-room-schoolhouse environment, while my own student experience was with a 1:1 teacher-student ratio.  I cannot teach the way my mother taught.

Here are the first two of six guiding points that I continually come back to as I homeschool our kiddos (currently 6th, 4th, 3rd, 1st, and preschool).

Foster independence.

Homeschooling preschool through first grade takes a lot of teacher time.  There’s no way around it!  Kids can’t read directions until they can… you know, read.  But as a mommy when I have seven kids nine-and-under wandering around, I can’t take two hours for each kid one-on-one to do their school.  Not if I still want to sleep, or to feed anybody dinner!  So, from the very beginning, this is a major priority: work towards independent learning.  Initially, this is impossible.  With some kids, it remains impossible for longer than others!  But it is something I consciously have in the back of my mind at all times, and I try to encourage them to try to do it yourself before asking me for help.  If they ask me for help—“did you read the lesson?” “did you read the directions?” “did you try to do it?”  Important questions!  I also give them rewards and incentives.  And also, “I will gladly help you, but I want you to try  it by yourself first.  I want to see you try.”  Magic words.

There is, however, an important balance here: I have to be available for questions, and make it crystal clear to them that I am available for questions.  Otherwise, you end up with empty workbooks and, “but, Mommy, I didn’t understand and you were busy!”  Ask me how I know! 😉

Independent learning is a great skill to have, so I have no regrets trying to impart it to our children… but there’s a balance.  It does take attention to see how children are reacting to independence.  How responsible are they with their work?  With remembering to ask questions when they need to?  Do they need pushed toward more independence, or do they need reminded to stay in close?  Most importantly, how does the child deal relationally with independence?  We have some children who really benefit from quality time—whose learning ability absolutely skyrockets when they are sitting next to us one-on-one.  It’s important to notice that and be intentional about that quality time to make sure it still happens.

It’s also good to consider the best way to implement a specific curriculum for independence.  Sometimes all the instructions are right there in the lesson for the pupil to read, and they really only need help if they don’t understand something (more on this in part 2!)… other times they might need some real, dedicated instruction before setting out on their own part of the learning quest.

Plan check-ins.

When you’ve got kids learning independently, there is one area that is bound to turn into trouble: they can get off-track, and you can miss it.  Sometimes kids won’t tell you they don’t understand, and plow ahead anyway.  Sometimes they think they understand, so they go on.  Sometimes they’re doing fantastic, but would still benefit from you noticing it and encouraging them!

So it is necessary to check in.  Every subject, every kid.  Regularly.  What it looks like may be wildly different from one kid to the next: with our oldest (who excels at independence and enjoys it), I mostly only check her output, that is to say, I read the papers she writes, and for many of her subjects, I make sure she does the quizzes/tests and I check them, myself.  I mostly don’t check her daily work.  She is motivated and capable and, importantly, she usually does actually come to me and ask questions if she isn’t sure she’s understanding something correctly.  So it’s rare that she gets off-track.  With her younger siblings, depending on the subject and the kid, I may check the quizzes (most of our subjects have a quiz every week or so), or I may actually check every single day’s work so I can provide more immediate feedback.  Worst-case scenario, they get to sit next to me at the school table and I keep a sneaky eye on them through the entire subject (or even the entire school day).

It varies.  But regular check-ins are essential.  Think about how often each child needs a check-in, and on what subjects, and actually write it on your calendar, unless you’re relying on a periodic check like quizzes.  Not only do regular check-ins prevent your school year from getting seriously off-track, but they teach accountability: your child knows they are going to be called to account for what they have done.  This also teaches them responsibility and honesty—sometimes the hard way!  If I find out someone has been shirking their work, and not for a good reason, they make it up… specifically, they make it up at a time that they would have otherwise been free… on the weekend, in the evenings, etc.  I try to be kind about it (no missing exciting outings or guests) but also insistent enough that it is a drag that they don’t want to repeat again.  Or I’ll remove other privileges (like computer time) until they get their work caught back up to where it should have been.

Importantly, regular check-ins also help make sure I am aware of how they are doing.  What is their learning style? How are they coping with this new curriculum?  What is not working?  How can we fix problems and make everything run more smoothly?  It’s a chance to sit back, give them my full attention, and see what I might need to be doing differently.

Coming in Part II…

In two weeks, Lord willing, I’ll be coming back to this subject to add four more things that I’ve found crucial to large-family homeschooling… including thoughts on choosing curriculum, knowing our kids, spending quality family time together… and other things.