Homeschooling our 15 children has made me really appreciate public school teachers!
After all, teachers deal with whole classrooms of children at diverse backgrounds with different learning styles and needs every day. There is a real reason they devote a quite a lot of time to “classroom management.”
But then, classroom teachers today are usually dealing with children who are generally at the same age and skill level. While they must overcome a number of obstacles, it isn’t quite like responsibly educating a number of children in varying ages and stages, from infant to toddler to young adult.
In fact, there aren’t really that many examples of people who are successfully wrangling a menagerie of young minds as in a large, homeschooling family. This caused me some concern for a number of years. There were times when I had three in diapers while I was teaching algebra and chasing around with a red pen trying to correct essays (“Mom, I would be handing you my writing assignment, but I folded it up and put it in my pants and then it was washed…”). How was I ever going to live up to my promise of giving all of my children an excellent education?
Along the way I uncovered some important truths:
- Modern schooling is a negative educational example.
- There were people in the past who were able to educate a whole classroom of students at different ages and levels, sometimes 40 or so at a time, quite successfully.
Specifically, I began to think about the one-room schoolhouse. Our country was birthed and reared up into a mighty nation through the efforts of teachers who oftentimes had little more to work with than an old slate chalk board and benches made of logs sawn in half. During the times before any bureaucratic red tape lined the hallways of academia the literacy rate in America was as high as 90%, and even farmers could read sophisticated, complicated novels such as Moby Dick and The Last of the Mohicans.
Now, I may not have eight arms and 16 eyes, but I am as capable as any old-fashioned schoolmarm, especially with all of the technological conveniences of our day. So I came to the conclusion that if they could do it, so could I!
And so that’s exactly what I have been doing it for the last 26 years or so, even though I have often had to instruct in-between switching loads of laundry, stirring pots of soup, kneading bread, nursing babies, and kissing boo-boos.
There are a number of strategies I have used that have helped me along the way:
1. Stick to the basics.
While papier mache, cutting, gluing and glitter may have a place in the life of a child, they are not a priority, nor do I need to feel badly if we are not spending chunks of our days sewing historical costumes or constructing a house-sized model of the solar system.
John Taylor Gatto has said that it only takes 90 hours to give children enough instruction so that they can unlock the rest of learning on their own, and this is my focus. Herein is a marvelous truth; if we can stop being distracted by every whim and fancy and use the time and energy we have each day to nail down the core of education, the rest will automatically follow!
2. Learn together.
There are times when you just have to discover together, such as the time we went through the book King Alfred’s English. This learning adventure was just too exciting to experience quietly, so I read each chapter aloud and we had a lively time discussing and enjoying the other resources that were suggested. Each child enjoyed the book in his/her own way, and any work required was only expected at each one’s different ability level, but everyone came away from our daily sessions with a little something that stimulated further study and enjoyment. We read this book together a few years ago, yet we still talk about the concepts we learned from it. Not only did it explain how language, especially the English language, works, but it helped us create wonderful family memories.
We also read books in smaller groups according to interest. For instance, the older children and I are working through Richard Wurmbrand’s In God’s Underground while I am also sharing Brighty of the Grand Canyon with the little girls.
Then there are our daily Bible reading times and the times we sing aloud together, not to mention the nature walks, good movies we watch, “art” times, family projects, etc.
3. Use materials that are easy to implement.
It’s so tempting to think an all-in-the-box curriculum will solve our problems, but I discovered many years ago that this sort of approach is not practical for the little schoolhouse in one’s home. For one thing, these materials were formulated for classrooms in which the students are all expected to be at the same level. For another thing, they are very labor-intensive for the teacher. When there are four or more children with four or more texts a piece, the work load is enormous!
And these materials can be so expensive! Just one year’s worth of textbooks for one child can cost upwards of $250-$500, which is out of reach for most larger families. Even if the texts themselves can be passed down, there is still the question of the worktexts which must be replaced each year. We have enjoyed superior results by using texts from the past, the same ones that the one-room schoolhouses had so much success with; the McGuffey readers!
By adding simple, time-tested methods which I have adapted from the Charlotte Mason, such as copywork, dictation, and narration, I have seen my children gain a solid foundation in the basics of reading comprehension, spelling, vocabulary, and writing. I have used similar, non-consumable books from the past to help my children learn grammar and math. As the children have matured, I have also discovered that certain other subjects that need to be covered can be studied using online services such as Khan Academy and Duolingo.
4. Have the children help each other.
Some children are better at this than others, but it is conceivable that an older sibling can help a younger one understand a difficult math problem, or proctor some flash cards, or grade a math page or two. My own children help me best when they read aloud to the little ones at night or during quiet time.
5. Spread “school” throughout the day.
It’s your home, your family, your homeschool program, so you don’t have to feel as though you are stuck learning between the hours of eight and three. Why not put the children to bed by reading aloud a well-written historical novel, or packing the children along on errands and taking advantage of impromptu “field trips” by asking different people to explain or demonstrate what they do for a living? How about taking family time in the evenings and using it for fun math games that you can make up with regular playing cards or game pieces? Who says multiplication tables can’t be learned in the car on the way to the grocery store? While the little ones sleep in the early afternoon and the house is quiet, our own older children spend time reading, sewing, painting, or taking nature walks and gathering specimens for collections.
6. Utilize notebooking for content areas.
You don’t have to purchase textbooks for every area of study; you can use a combination of encyclopedias and other reference books, along with library resources and the Internet to study just about anything. Older children, especially, can be made to study these areas on their own. Notebooking helps a child pull all of the information on a given subject together so that he/she can present it and retain it. This has kept me from having to do all the work (such as when I used to spend time and energy planning unit studies) while making sure time is being used wisely and that the children are focusing and not just diddling around.
7. Take care of the smallest ones first.
When you are planning on having some concentrated “table time,” make sure that you prepare by giving the tiniest ones in the house their due attention. Nurse the baby, feed the toddler a snack (or have one available), change the diapers, sit and read a story aloud, sing a song, or just play and have a little fun with the little ones–even 10-15 minutes will be time well spent!
8. Have the older children take turns entertaining the little children.
When you need concentrated learning time you can have older siblings take turns entertaining the little ones. This can be done through a set of planned activities written on 3×5 cards, or you can have special toys stashed away that are only brought out when Mommy is doing “school.” Using “stations” (such as playing with Lego’s, coloring, etc.) to be rotated every 15 minutes is another way to keep tiny ones busy and happy, especially during the winter months!
9. Have the older ones work independently.
If you have some who are pretty good learners and you have a curriculum in place that is easy to use (such as the ones suggested above), then you can give your older children assignments which they can then complete on their own. In order to do this properly you will need to…
10. Keep track of everything everyone is doing by using simple check-off lists.
If you keep your focus and materials simple, then planning and record keeping become simple, too!
You don’t have to take a lot of time and expense to create a system that works for you. There are ways to turn a 50 cent composition book into a dandy planning, record-keeping notebook. Simply staple a list of materials and a schedule of what you would like to see happen each week on the inside of the cover to use as a reference, split each page into thirds, and then use one portion to plan, another to record, and another to make notes! You can even intersperse items from the rest of your life on the pages, such as items to pick up at the grocery store, meal plans, doctor’s appointments, cleaning plans, special memories, etc. Sticky-notes can be added as needed, and you can create a key with initials standing for various activities such as “M” for math, “S” for science, and so on.
You could also use cheap spiral notebooks as in this post.
I personally have been using these sheets I created as an alternative to using spirals, since I needed something that was pre-printed with redundant information so that I didn’t have so much to write in every day.
11. Utilize a learning basket (or two) for the small ones and together time.
It can be difficult to make sure that the time-intensive work of teaching young children to read is accomplished daily when teaching older children and taking care of babies can seem to take up all of your time. This is why I decided to take a basket with a nice handle, fill it with things such as phonics flash cards, math manipulatives, primers, pencils, crayons, drawing paper and the like, so that even if I had to sit and nurse the baby, I could still spend time teaching a young person to read and discover some basic concepts.
Even when we are doing “together learning,” it’s easy to lose track of just what book(s) we are reading, etc., so having a basket really helps. Here is a Pinterest board with oodles of ideas.
12. Give each child his/her own crate or basket for learning materials.
This is such a sanity-saver! Children are, well, childish, and often forget to put things in places where they will find them again later. I cannot tell you how many hours we have wasted over the years trying to find books, pencils, or even whole collections of school work so that we could begin a learning session! Giving each child a single place to keep items such as texts, notebooks, binders, pencils, colored pencils, scissors, etc. keeps a lot of frustration at bay. I have found that crates and baskets are best because they are portable, meaning that all of the materials can be brought to the table, the couch, or even outside on the lawn whenever necessary, rather than being stuck in some cabinet somewhere so that each item can be possibly lost in transit (sometimes “accidentally on purpose” if the subject is not a particularly interesting one).
There are probably many, many more tips and suggestions I could share, and maybe someday I will, but this will suffice for now.