No-Cry Homeschooling

Many people are finding themselves forced to homeschool their children this year.  From what we’re hearing from parents across the country, most schools are providing a list of what to cover and a box of supplies and expecting you to check all the boxes. Unless you have particularly compliant children, this is basically impossible without tears, screaming, and drama.  If your child was getting all sorts of supports that have now been removed, how in the world are you supposed to do this?

Today we’ll cover:

Our Story

We chose to homeschool from the start.  We’d been through enough IEP meetings with Robin’s numerous siblings to know that it would be just as much work to force the schools to meet our kids’ needs as it would be to meet them ourselves.  We also know that traditional schooling didn’t meet either of our needs despite not having IEPs.  Tim barely graduated from high school and Robin graduated valedictorian a year early without having to study–but these were just responses to the same situation of not being challenged.  Tim checked out and Robin figured out the easiest way to fly through successfully without having to try very hard.

We had the opportunity to homeschool one of Robin’s brothers for a couple years.  Meetings with the school were increasingly tense and unproductive.  We started with online school but trying to shove him through the list was absolutely horrible!  So much unnecessary busy work and absolutely no flexibility.  The regular math class was too easy but the advanced math class where he belonged moved too fast and wouldn’t let him move at a slower pace while he caught up.  The literature was triggering for him and the school wouldn’t let us switch out for other books even though both of Robin’s sisters are English majors and one is a teacher and they thoroughly approved our choices.  So we decided to take the plunge and fully homeschool a teenager starting after Thanksgiving break.  

Homeschooling Robin’s brother felt a lot more daunting–he was at an age where it would actually matter for his future and he was already behind.  Our own kids were little enough that we had plenty of time to figure things out–and suddenly we didn’t have any time at all!  So we sat down and discussed our goals.  We already knew that for our kids, our goal was that by the end of elementary school they would be able to do basic math, be able to read/watch/listen critically, be able to communicate their thoughts clearly using various forms (written, spoken, etc), and have a good general fund of knowledge.  Having the goals in mind meant that we didn’t get side tracked by every little homeschooling fad that came our way.

So we figured out that our goals for Robin’s brother were first and foremost that he would stop dreading school and look forward to learning, that he would learn how to learn new material, and that he would be caught up enough to return to school if necessary.  That meant catching up with his actual level in math, learning to write essays efficiently, and improving his general fund of knowledge.  We also wanted him to learn to manage money, prepare his own meals, do laundry, deal with minor household emergencies (such as an overflowing toilet or beeping fire alarm), and be comfortable around our family friends.

The First Step

So the first step is to determine your goals.  Not for this year but for this chunk of years.  Our son is now 11 so we’ve completed our first goal (for elementary school) and we’re moving on to our middle school goals.  These are very similar but now we’re preparing him for high school so essay writing, time management, learning to take notes, and test prep are becoming more important.  This helps you set goals for this year. Maybe you want to catch up to grade level in a particular subject, introduce a history topic that was too scary for your sensitive child previously, or turn your reluctant writer into a willing writer.

You also need to create goals based on the individual child.  You want to leave their options open, but it was very clear from a young age that I was headed in a different direction from my sister who has her elementary teacher’s license.  It wouldn’t have made any sense to shove her through all the math and science that I devoured voraciously.  Our son may eventually go another direction but for now his passion is in ballet, so he’ll be auditioning for a pre-professional day program in a couple years. Our educational goals for him are different than for our daughter who is definitely college bound and will need to have a well rounded resume for scholarships in case college isn’t free by then.

While you don’t want to eliminate options that may be possible as your child develops, you don’t want to exert undue pressure. Leave options open. Tim struggled for years with a sense of failure because he didn’t have the college degree and “successful” career his mom expected of him, but he’s much happier as a custodian at a local municipal history museum. He has a great work environment that suits his personality and great medical/dental/vision benefits that our family relies on heavily. For us, that is a successful career. He tried college multiple times and even with support, it was incredibly stressful and drove him to dark places. He is now happier than he has ever been. Our culture might say that he is “underachieving” and “not reaching his potential” but we feel that this is due only to our judgement of certain jobs being lower than others. We know people who love their job as bus drivers, senior caregivers, and working in an animal shelter. These are all critically important jobs that suit certain personalities.

The Next Step

Once you’ve determined your goals, throw out all your current ideas of how to achieve your goals.  Instead you’re going to do what works for your family and your children specifically.

For example, our friends are considering homeschooling their first grader after finishing kindergarten with daily sobbing and screaming while trying to get through the school’s checklist of material.  So we just sent them what we did for first grade–and their child will probably not notice that they are doing school most of the time.  You don’t need a worksheet to learn units of measure or world geography or how to write a sentence.  Our complete first grade curriculum consisted of games our kids still enjoy playing, puzzles, apps, audiobooks, and life experiences plus an online game for practicing math facts and a spelling curriculum that is painless.  So with 20-30 minutes a day of “school” plus a lifestyle of learning, they can do first grade without tears or battles.

As kids get older, it takes a little more actual school time and we have to get more creative about incorporating education in real life.  But helping us decide about saving for retirement meant our son spent hours playing with compound interest by his own choice.  We require a proposal in essay form for certain decisions (like changes in bedtime, living arrangements, or large purchases).  

When You Need to Do More Than Games

We also make sure to find the most efficient and painless method for any necessary actual school.  Some curriculums are designed to look as much like regular school as possible and some are designed to be as fun as possible.  Just like reading Amazon reviews, it’s not how many stars a curriculum gets but whether the review matches your needs.  We remember being sold on a particular book for our kids because there were so many one-star reviews that complained that the book was too clear, too descriptive, and too specific.  Since that was exactly what we were looking for, we bought the book and we were very happy with it when it arrived.  Cathy Duffy reviews (NOT an affiliate link, just a resource we use) are detailed enough to start with, but then look at websites that actually sell the curriculum to see what other parents say. 

So when reading reviews, look for a curriculum that is designed to teach the concepts efficiently.  For example, it’s far more efficient to learn spelling words in logical groups (all the words following a particular pattern or rule) rather than words that have something to do with each other in daily life (for example, words having to do with the forest).  So we use a curriculum in which the kids learn all the words that follow a particular rule and each lesson is a logical step from the next lesson.  In fact, doing it this way they both were further ahead in spelling than reading until they became fluent readers.  

It’s far more efficient to memorize math facts with an online game that teaches them incrementally and then tricks kids into doing the facts many times and learns which ones they need more work on and which ones they have solid than through worksheets and flashcards and even physical games.

Learning history is more efficient through stories than through memorization.  A well written historical fiction novel will cause a person to memorize huge amounts of information by accident.  Robin was an avid historical fiction reader as a teenager and as a history major in undergrad she was able to mentally refer back to this and run circles around her peers who were trying to just memorize.

Learning science through documentaries and science shows is more efficient than with a book, unless it’s a biography of a scientist and tells the story of how they discovered or created something.  Robin has her other major in biology and a minor in chemistry as well as being one credit short of a minor in physics.  It wasn’t until her last couple years of science that she stopped referring back to the basic science she gleaned from Bill Nye the Science Guy and Magic School Bus when learning new concepts.  And Nova documentaries she watched during undergrad helped her immensely in medical school because she remembered particular stories to go with complicated concepts in neurology and endocrinology. She still fondly remembers a particular biography of Marie Curie that she read in 5th grade and how her concept of radioactivity is still completely based on that.

Certainly, a high schooler needs to be able to “do” science–work equations and so forth–but this is better learned conceptually first.  When Robin’s brother was struggling with calculations involving moles in his pre-engineering program in college, Robin grabbed a bunch of rags and told a story about moles, the little rodent that a cat once killed and dropped on her mom’s bare feet.  Then she showed how to calculate using the rags as moles.  Most people don’t need endless repetition and busywork, they just need to understand what they are doing.  

A Quick Note About Outschool

We like Outschool for some classes and not others. (That’s an affiliate link, by the way.  You don’t get charged anything extra but we get a credit towards our kids’ costs for each parent we refer.) We don’t do any classes that have homework that will be more work for us than the kids.  For example, it’s less work to just teach writing using the painless curriculum we chose than to have them take Outschool writing classes that will require us to force them through writing assignments they don’t want to do.  We purposely choose classes that teach concepts and in which the work is done during class time with the teacher.  For example, our son is taking a highly rated middle school physics class in the fall that’s taught by a physicist and teaches concepts in an engaging way without requiring homework.

Most importantly, don’t use Outschool just because you don’t trust yourself.  There are plenty of good open-and-go curriculum options and other materials that mean that anyone can homeschool.  We are friends with a woman who never completed high school and is doing a wonderful job homeschooling her own children.  Having an education doesn’t mean you’ll be a better teacher.  All you need is a willingness to find what’s right for your kids and the right resources.

We love Outschool for topics like foreign language, art, and social skills.  The kids prefer the Minecraft social skills class over the one taught by a speech-language pathologist, but both are through Outschool and cost less than we were paying for in-person social skills prior to the pandemic.  We also like to sign them up for extras like architecture and urban planning, negotiating skills, and mindfulness.  We started with just “ongoing” classes–these are designed to be drop-in so you can drop in and then drop out again if it’s not a good fit for your child, but they can be consistent every week so that if you have a child who needs consistency, you’re providing that.  We did a drop-in Spanish class over the summer that the kids loved so much that they cried when we told them it was ending.

Make it Simple

So often people see these homeschooling websites with complicated schedules and kids learning Latin and think they have to do it themselves.  You don’t.  We have a very streamlined set of curriculum, books, games, apps, and a few activities on Outschool that cover everything we need.  

Most of this is just incorporated into our regular lives.  The kids read books that we’ve chosen for them and left for them to find.  Sure, there’s a lot of Trixie Belden happening this summer, but there’s also a lot of good literature.  We play Pizza Fractions (for our third grader) or Money Bags (leftover from first grade) just as often as we play Ticket to Ride or Artsy Fartsy.  The kids don’t know that the game I Dissent is actually a homework assignment from social skills.  (those were all affiliate links)

Don’t Sike Yourself Out

We’re dating ourselves here–but we used the word “sike” (spelled that way instead of psych) and and the phrase “sike yourself out” back when they were popular in the dark ages.  And we notice that homeschooling parents tend to sike themselves out.  They think they have to cover all the material all the time and with their children singing their praises.  Let’s lower our standards a little.  

Regular schools don’t teach everything.  In Robin’s high school, EVERYONE had to read The Scarlet Letter–you weren’t educated if you hadn’t read it.  In Tim’s high school it was Grapes of Wrath.  One evening we compared notes with a group of friends who grew up all over the country–none of us read the same books in high school!  So whatever you choose will be fine in the end.  Do what works for your child and your family.

But What About Socializing?

We cannot tell you how many people have asked us that question. Or even flat out asked if we’re worried our kids will be weird. Well, first of all, it’s too late. Our kids are weird. They were raised by quirky, independent parents who don’t worry too much about fitting in. So just putting them in school isn’t going to suddenly make them normal. We believe that most homeschoolers who do seem weird are perceived that way because they are confident about just being who they are and not wasting time trying to be normal.

We don’t think school is a great option for socializing anyway. How many times did we hear our teachers say, “Ladies and gentleman, we are not here to socialize.” Which is a good thing, because what if we were only allowed to socialize with people exactly the same age as us who happened to be randomly thrown together? It doesn’t matter whether you have similar interests, occupations, hobbies, beliefs, or values. Of course, it’s important to spend time with people who are different. If we don’t spend time with people who think autism is all about a cure and can’t imagine actually living with it, they won’t ever see another option. But it’s vitally important to also be able to spend time with people who are on your wavelength.

One of Robin’s brothers is a passionate birder. Most people don’t realize what this interest drives people to do… it seems like a really tame hobby but people will die trying to see a particular bird. If a child is crazy about birds and only gets to talk about birds with random kids they are thrown together with, is that really fair? Of course other kids are going to think they are weird. But stick them in a room full of birders and they seem perfectly normal and will flourish.

We prefer to have our kids socialize the way adults socialize… through shared interest. They socialize in their internet-based online classes because we’re in a pandemic and usually they are in a multitude of activities, including ones that are explicitly for socializing. They are still forced to learn to get along with anyone, just like a lot of grown ups should get more practice at, but they also get to bond together based on having something in common.

The Most Important Lessons

Regardless of what you decide to do for fall 2020, remember that the most important lessons you’re teaching your child this year are around character and mental health. Prioritize growth mindset and resilience over math facts and spelling words. Someday your child will have a calculator and spell check to help them, but nothing replaces good mental health and strong character!

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