12 Ways I Aim for Homeschooling Excellence with a Large Family
Q: I would love to know some things that have helped you how to simplify homeschooling in order to do things WELL. Everyday life with a large family (I have 5 kids under 10) in itself makes just the basics challenging some days!!! I would love to know some ways to maintain a certain level despite all seasons – moves, babies, etc – while striving for excellence in homeschooling our children. What has shaped how you maintain a healthy level of academics amidst these things? Thanks!!
A: Thanks for the question, Miranda! This is a hard question to answer because, honestly, each year is just so different.
The meat of my answer is this:
I look to the Lord and to my husband for direction, I work hard at making what we do count, and I don’t sweat the extra stuff. I watch each of my children for the unique ways God has made them, and I try to help them grow in areas of strength. We read aloud (a lot) together, and they read a lot, and try not to choose nonsense or “twaddle” books. I don’t look too long or too hard at what anyone else is doing, try to live in the grace of God, and I trust Him to lead me to anything we need to incorporate.
I have, generally, approached homeschooling with a read-aloud-centered focus. I think we learn language best, learn about the world best, and enjoy learning best, when we learn in the forms of stories and enthralling prose. So we use conversational textbooks like The Mystery of History, and read alouds like:
- A Dangerous Journey (an illustrated, abridged version of Pilgrim’s Progress),
- character-building, learn-about-the-world books like Understood Betsy,
- this amazing biography of Isaac Newton (incorporating science and the living out of an honest life of faith),
- and (a Lamplighter classic) The Basket of Flowers.
After a couple years using workbooks while I figured out how to homeschool more than two children at a time, this year, we’ve returned to a read-aloud centered approach, and I couldn’t be more pleased.
We’ve settled into an eclectic, Christ-centered, academically-rigorous, book-centered approach of homeschooling and discipleship that suits our family’s style and goals, and it’s really working well for both my children and I.
Each year, these 12 things help me purposefully evaluate our homeschool endeavors:
- We view education as the lighting of a fire, rather than the filling of a bucket. It’s critical that we honestly assess what education can and can not do in our children. No education– homeschool or not– will fill every “gap” or provide every “fact.” Every child, in every educational setting (even the most expensive and “successful”) will get to the end of it and find that there is still more for them to learn. In truth, the REAL question of schooling is, will your child still have curiosity about the world at the end of his/her childhood education? Will the “fire” of his curiosity be ‘lit’ and will he still care enough to continue learning about the world God has made? So a critical element for our home education is fanning the flames of joyful curiosity at every stage of education. This helps me from feeling too much pressure — for, from the very beginning of my thinking, I am aware that there is no way I can teach them every. single. thing. But what I CAN do is stoke their innate curiosity and eagerness to learn. What I CAN do is choose an approach that allows each child to retain their God-given sense of wonder and awe.
- I consider: What is happening with each child? What does God seem to be doing in his/her heart? What character issues have come up recently? What academic skill is the most needed focus at this time? Is there a talent, academic subject, or skill (their “bent”) that God is showing us may be an area of strength for this child? If so, how can we give them opportunities to make advances in that area this year? What is the general direction that God seems to be preparing this “arrow” to be shot and how can we participate in that preparation?
- What do the chores need to look like for each child? We believe that it is crucial that each child learn to carry his/her own “load” from an early age. Around 3, that means they are tagging along with me as I do my chores, and as they progress, they begin taking on small-but-increasing areas of responsibility. Each year we assess how they are doing with their chores, and make shifts according to age, responsibility, and anything else (i.e., we changed chores for my oldest son with eczema when the dishwater started causing his skin to react.). As one mom observed, “If I didn’t have these kids, I couldn’t get it all done; but if I didn’t have these kids, I wouldn’t need to.” Cleaning up after yourself is part of being a human being; cleaning up alongside others and doing your part is part of being a family. So one way we achieve “homeschooling success” is by making sure that not everything falls on mom so I have energy to really devote to education.
- Keep character first. It is not as important to me that they finish a workbook 100%, as it is that they remain respectful to Doug and I, are kind to one another, and are diligent and honest in their work. I have found that we can make significant academic strides in a short amount of time, but if we let attitudes go, that takes much longer to reset and reclaim lost ground. So, we rank character and interpersonal relationships much higher than grade levels or academics. We believe that by doing so, they will reach higher levels of academic “success” (in whatever field/vocation they choose) because they will have the character needed to excel.
- Don’t skip around with math. This is probably the most important academic advice I’ve heard again and again. We don’t jump from program to program in math; that is likely to produce painful-to-overcome “gaps” in a child’s understanding of mathematics. Pick a reliable math curriculum, keep your child moving forward, and use the same math curriculum for as long as you can.
- Ask ourselves, how can we “tweak” as we go along? I am never fully-committed to a “system.” Systems are fine, but we are not following a formula– we are raising up eternal souls. My goal is not to ‘finish the book,’ but to (as best I’m able) identify what God has built each child for, and participate with Him in helping them to be as strongly prepared for that purpose as I can. If a read-aloud is miserable, we toss it to the side and don’t feel obligated to finish it. If a book/system/approach just isn’t working for us, I don’t sweat it. We stop it and move on to something that suits us better. We don’t want to waste time on nonsense or things that are only mildly beneficial. I recently added in a book when I saw it on the shelf, because I felt prompted from the Lord that it was the right one for our family for this season. So, we tweak as we go in order to make our children’s education as tailored to their needs as we can.
- If we know a particular event (like having a baby, or a major family trip) is happening mid-year, I plan my year around that. If I know we will take time off, I plan accordingly. Last school year (2014-15), we started our year in mid-July because I knew that Luke was due in February. That way, when he arrived, I gave myself the freedom to take off several weeks without feeling at all pressured to return to a rigorous schedule. Doing this also motivates us to make our schooling weeks count. It’s not a “willy-nilly”, whenever-we-can approach. Instead, I schedule out my year, and we pretty much work according to the plan. We work intentionally, so we can rest intentionally.
- After we identified our “bent” as homeschoolers, I rarely, if ever, look at what someone else is doing. This is not to say it’s not important in the beginning– it is! I looked around– textbook-style learning, classical approach– and settled on a more eclectic Charlotte-Mason-style. After I found the homeschool groove that works for us, I stopped looking around at what other people are doing. New co-ops and curriculums pop up often, and look shiny and neat, but threaten to knock me off-track. Once you find what works for you, I’d encourage you to keep your eyes on your own paper and keep putting your feet one in front of the other. Consistent progress in the direction you mean to go is much better than a few steps in each of the different directions everyone around you is going.
- We aim for mastery. If a child is struggling with multiplication (and they almost all do!), we slow down and focus in on it for a time, and don’t worry that they’re not still “doing a lesson a day” or whatever. Our goal is not to complete 6,000 lessons by the time they graduate, but for them to each be confident in the things they have learned, and competent, curious learners who tackle the world with gusto. It’s better for them to fully learn and retain one particular thing, letting it sink down to their inner places, than to blaze through a million things but not retain any of it.
- We shoot for the 90% mark. By that I mean, in areas where they are growing in skill (reading level, math), I strive to keep them operating in 90% confidence, and 10% new/challenging work. If, for example, the reader they’re on is too easy, and they know 100% of the words with no trouble, we advance to the next without finishing the lower one. If they select a novel that’s too difficult, and they’re stumbling over significant parts of it, we pull back and choose one that’s more in accordance with what they can comfortably read. I want them comfortable with about 90% of the assignment, and having to stretch for about 10%. This balance keeps them comfortable with and confident in what they’ve accomplished, while striving for growth and greater abilities in the new areas.
- Reading is KING, and we read a lot. Reading counts for a lot in our homeschool approach. Reading is the primary way God Himself has ordained that we come to know Him and His story. By reading and memorizing speeches, Frederick Douglass grew from servitude into one of the most dazzling orators America has produced. So, at the ages my children are, science experiments may or may not (ever) happen (which doesn’t bother me; they didn’t happen much when I was my kids’ ages either), but reading is not optional. If they can not yet read, I read out loud to them. When they are learning to read, I have them read out loud to me, and still read out loud to them. Once they can read well, I assign them books to read (which they come and narrate to me, Charlotte-Mason-style), buy more books than that for them to read for pleasure, and we still read out loud together. It’s my belief (and I don’t think I’m alone– this is a centuries’ old college approach) that reading and discussing excellent books will take them farther in most areas of learning than virtually anything else we can do.
- I lean heavily on God’s sovereignty. It helps me not to worry when I remember that He made all the stars. He made the oceans, and told them exactly how far they could go. He made each of our children. He put them in our home, with me as a mother. He knew the strengths they would have, and I would have. He knew which years we would have more money to spend on curriculum, and which years we would need to make do with (mostly) what we already have on hand. He knows each of their hearts, and knows what He made them for. He tells me that if I ask Him, He will give me wisdom. I trust Him to guide me and lead me.
So yes, I shoot for excellence. Yes, I want to enable each of my children to be sharpened and shaped according to their God-given potential, according to each and every purpose He has planned for them. And yet, I trust Him to use the days when it *feels* like we’re not making much forward progress, or the years when we don’t have time for a baking-soda-Mt-Vesuvius because we’re busy seeing to dinner and dishes. God knows it all.
I do my best within the parameters of my husband and my home, within the limits of our resources and time available, and I trust God to guide us and give “success” in whatever ways He has planned.
I hope this helps.
- READERS, WHAT WOULD YOU ADD? How do you strive for academic excellence while maintaining a home full of exuberant, ever-growing, laundry-making children?
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