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Five Things About Homeschooling I Didn’t Expect

June 20, AD 2013 27 Comments

I have been hesitant to write about our first year of home schooling because I don’t know if my insights offer anything new, but nonetheless, we’ve done it and as anything else goes in life, it was a learning experience for us all. We are not home schooling zealots; we have public-schooled, parochial-schooled, and even home-schooled before with my oldest two children. Life has taught us not to approach education as if there were one right way. If something isn’t working, keeping trying and changing until it is fixed. Expensive private schools are permanently banned from the list of possibilities though, on principle.

This was our first year to home school the younger children. It was my first year to use a Catholic curriculum since I was just beginning conversion when the older two were educated at home, and I was ignorant of such curricula.

I hadn’t planned to homeschool, but that changed rather suddenly. We had no choice but to move last year, and thus found ourselves leaving behind a cul-de-sac neighborhood in the Boston suburbs, where the kids were established in a wonderful parochial school, to an old restored lodge on 20 remote acres of woodland in the Adirondacks. It was a radical change.

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It seemed like a logical step to home school, with nature as our classroom. So I ordered the Kolbe Academy curriculum and we set out last August. On reflecting, here are five things that made a difference. These are pretty random, but they are the things that got us through, things I wouldn’t have been able to write down ten months ago, things I didn’t expect.

Think Framework

I will never be an unschooler, I can’t do it. I need some structure and some routine, not that unschoolers have no such thing, but I need more definition than that. I like curriculum. On the other hand, I am not overly organized. It helped to think of our schedule as a framework, like the metal frame that a building is built around, a skeleton. We did not follow a strict daily routine, but we did follow a weekly routine. If someone didn’t finish by Friday, she worked on the weekend. If she didn’t finish by Monday, we called her “behind” and pushed her to catch up.

I know some people support more flexibility than that, but concern for a slippery slope kept us on schedule. I know myself, I am tempted to anxiety or laziness if I let things slip too much. If I had let a week slip, I feared I’d let two, and I couldn’t have operated under the stress of being two weeks behind. Thinking in terms of framework spares you from over-complication though, it forces you to decide what matters most. Figure out how much framework you need.

Did we stay in pajamas all day and start working at 3:00 pm? Yes, sometimes, but not on days we knew we were falling behind. Did we skip a week here and there? Yes, but when I realized I had three weeks to finish three weeks worth of work, that framework told me to work harder now, take a break later. Did we do all the work in  three days and take off the last two? Occasionally, but not that often. The girls naturally preferred a steady pace, seven days a week, and our framework allowed us to settle into that, even if I told them they were falling behind on the weekends.

“Try” Not “Try Your Best”

It hit me about three-quarters of the way through the year. I was saying “try your best” way too much, and that left wiggle room for what “best” really was. I don’t know about other kids, but my kids will argue with a rock, and look for all kinds of ways to avoid work. I started saying just, “Try.”

I told them: “The main thing that will upset me is if you don’t try. That’s right. I will always be happy with you for trying. If you try, I will help you. There is no possibility that you will fail, we’ll work through this together. If you don’t try, I can’t help you. As long as I know you are trying, we’re good. Keep trying. If you want me to shut up, then, you know…try.”

If the child needed a break, I granted it, but expected the child to work when I said to work (key word expected, it didn’t always happen), and I encouraged the child to keep trying until done. That means sometimes you have to break things into smaller bits, but I kept the constant mantra. Try.

And for the sake of shutting down argument, I frequently added, “If you are trying, of course you are trying your best, otherwise, you aren’t really trying. You are being lazy.”

No sugar-coating.

Ask Specific Questions

In the beginning of the year, the girls learned very quickly that asking questions was a way to get out of doing work. Sometimes subconsciously, sometimes intentionally, they would ask so many questions that I was overwhelmed and they were shutting down.

“What do I do?”

I would give a brilliant long explanation, sure I’d covered it all.

Thirty minutes later…

“I don’t know what this means?”

I would explain again, thoroughly and splendidly.

An hour later…

“Why are you still sitting there?”

“Because I don’t know what to do.”

I would yell. The child would cry. Nothing got done.

So I started refusing to answer vague and random questions. I insisted — absolutely insisted — on specific questions. After all, that’s a life skill.

“What do I do?”

“Go sit back down and do not come to me until you can ask a specific question. I can’t help you if I don’t know exactly what you don’t understand.”

That changed everything. It made the child think, it made the child figure out what she knew and didn’t know. It allowed me to give a short, useful answer or focused instruction. It put the child in charge of the learning.

“I don’t know what rhombus means.”

We looked it up.

“I forgot what to do if the top number is smaller than the bottom number when I’m subtracting.”

We worked one problem.

“I don’t understand what the instructions mean when they say to ‘unscramble’ the vocabulary words.”

I explained what scrambled means.

It turned the learning-teaching experience into a child-focused experience. My children started learning how to learn for themselves, how to teach themselves. And they asked fewer questions, but got more work done. If they couldn’t figure out how to ask a specific question, I told them to (see above) try.

Make Friends With the School District

I never even saw our school district contact in person, but I let her know up front that I understood she had a job to do, that the state required certain things from us, and that I would comply, and she agreed to let me do it by email. It established a relationship of trust, and although I have to scan work samples and submit standardized tests (a pain in the rear), I realize it’s not because she is trying to make my life difficult.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it is absurd for the state to require these unprovable things, and I am all for standing up and demanding fair treatment (even if you make the papers). But it’s better to fight the fight with the people who have the authority to change things and get along with the ones who don’t.

Also, I actually found that I appreciated having to send in work samples and standardized tests, which surprised me. Why? Because there were times when “Try!” and “Ask specific questions!” just didn’t work. As a last resort, I would remind them that we are all accountable to the school district, whether we like it or not, the children are required to be educated and if they didn’t do a good job, the state wouldn’t let them advance to the next grade level. I know there are reasons to reject too much state intrusion on education, but I honestly found this to work in our favor. I may change my mind about that later, but that’s where I am now.

Socialization

I’ll just advise the same thing my friend and author, Val Bianco who is a father of ten homeschooled grown children, “Give ‘em all wiffle bats.” We hardly left home because it’s too hard with so many small children, and plus, we like being home. No, it’s not the same kind of socialization you get in a classroom with kids the same age, but I actually question whether that’s appropriate socialization anyway. Maybe it’s good to fight it out in earnest once in while, and get real.

Here’s something I noticed. When the kids were in school all day, they behaved for the most part, but when they would get home they would go bonkers and fight until bedtime. I’m convinced it was because they expended a lot of mental and emotional energy all day trying to behave, the stress of trying to fit in, the pressure of being in public, and they needed to release the stress once safely in the privacy of their home, which was doubly bad since they were also so tired.

When we are all home together all the time, we socialize in much deeper ways. Yeah, we get on each other’s nerves, we fight, we get angry and annoyed — we say so, we work through it. You have to work through it, not to show off in public but rather for the sake of the family. There is no final hour where everyone separates until the next day. At the end of ten months, we’ve forged new relationships, relationships I don’t think we would have formed only seeing each other at night or weekends when everyone is spent.

Do not assume I never had a meltdown and threatened to open the door and run hard and fast. I did, but I apologized, and to my surprise my daughters did all the laundry the next day, on their own without being asked, after doing their school work without complaining. Then we went to confession on Saturday. We reached a new level of understanding. I’m an authority, but I’m Mommy, and Mommy’s not perfect, but she’s also not a push-over.

In fact, the dryer is running as I type. They were out of clothes and wanted to go out to play so they did a load of laundry themselves — an eight and a nine year old. They also learned to make oatmeal muffins this morning. Yesterday we cut up our own rotten wood and built a fire to roast chicken at night. You just don’t get that in school. Plus, we have a connection with nature now that we never had in the manicured cul-de-sac. We needed to see the trees and the sun and the stars, not the walls and the ceilings. This connection is profound, without a doubt it was the most important thing. We lived together in God’s glory.

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RIP Rufus, We miss you.

What will we do differently next year? I want to find ways for them to take responsibility themselves for managing a week at a time.

What are our plans for college? At this point, I’m thinking we will buy them a business and help them run it. If they want to go to college, they’ll have to earn the money themselves. More on that another time. I have a lot of thoughts about “home-college” though. A lot.

Hello, and thank you for reading. I am a wife, mother of seven, and joyful convert to Catholicism. I write from my tiny office in a 100-year-old restored Adirondack mountain lodge. Read more about me here, with pictures. Find me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter. "Like" my Facebook page Science Was Born of Christianity to follow updates about my book. God bless you!

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  • AMC

    Even though we homeschool – I found that article very refreshing.

    • http://stacytrasancos.com/ Stacy Trasancos

      You’re the one that told me about Kolbe, and I haven’t regretted it once. But wow!

  • Luke Arredondo

    I am very weary of the prospects of college for my children as well. And although I’m broke as a joke, it’s not the money that worries me. It’s the effectiveness of that expense. I mean I didn’t exactly go ivy league, but I’ve got a solid chunk left to pay off from my undergraduate degree still. But I’m not earning very much because of that degree. In fact it would certainly be easier to earn more money in a different line of work. In my mind, the university system is headed for an implosion sooner rather than later. Which makes the concept of earning a Phd. even more tricky and self-conflicting.

    • http://stacytrasancos.com/ Stacy Trasancos

      Exactly Luke, it’s seeming like a bad investment. I’m envisioning a small family run dog washing business while all of them get philosophy degrees online, and marry young. How’s that for radical? :-)

  • N. Ireland.

    After reading this article I believe your children have the best opportunity to make it in this world, better than most. Mom is obviously smart and they’re surrounded by God’s creation — I can think of a better environment to grow and learn. I’m jealous. I grew up in Detroit and my parents sent me to public schools. What did I learn? I learned how to fight. So for the last 13 years I have had to teach myself everything I missed out on. I’m not exaggerating but I was practically illiterate back then. If I ever have children they will never see the inside of a public school.

    • Leila Miller

      I find myself wanting to know a lot more about your story, N. Ireland! Kudos to you for digging out from under. Do your parents have regrets now for sending you to public school in Detroit?

    • http://stacytrasancos.com/ Stacy Trasancos

      Mr. Ireland, that is one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received. Thank you. Whatever you’ve taught yourself in the last 13 years is admirable, and no doubt you will make a wonderful father if you ever have children.

  • Brandi Thomas

    I just love everything about this post!……..except for the not nice emails you may still be getting = (
    Our oldest turns 3 this year so its almost time for us to get serious about curriculums.
    The last thought made me lol…..my husband has already started talking about home-college.
    Of course our entire family think we have gone bonkers…..but they simply just don’t get it! ; )
    Prayers for your entire family! Thanks for sharing.
    B.Thomas

    • http://stacytrasancos.com/ Stacy Trasancos

      Brandi, LOL! Not a single un-nice email though. I do think the home-college idea will grow, even if we get called bonkers in the meantime.

      • Micha_Elyi

        I have read a few others in the blogosphere who have mused about “the home-college idea” or something like it. Hugh Hewitt is the most prominent person I’ve encountered who has spoken publicly about such an idea.

        Right now though, the idea hasn’t gotten past the idle thoughts stage. My impression is that no one has a clear idea of what “home-college” would be distinct from any other autodidactic education. And then there’s the credentialing (a piece of paper called a ‘diploma’ that confers a ‘degree’) that is most of what makes college itself distinct from autodidactic education. Would home-college be unconcerned with producing a credential? Or would home-college evolve its own credentialing scheme that could find widespread acceptance? Or would home-college piggyback on and expand existing alternative credentials?

        When home schooled children whupped classroom schooled kids in the Natioanl Spelling Bee, that gave home schooling credibility. When home schooled youths were admitted to Harvard and other top post-secondary schools, again home schooling gained credibility. But there are no obvious counterparts to these routes to credibility for home-college. Still, I support the idea and applaud your bit toward evolving the idea of home-college into something useful to pursue, Mrs. Trasancos.

        • http://stacytrasancos.com/ Stacy Trasancos

          Thank you Micha. I think I’ll write more about this. It’s something my husband and I have talked about for a while, and I have a pretty good idea about what we would do. Those are great questions though. Thank you, thank you!

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  • Jessica

    Hi – I came to you blog by way of Lisa Schmidt (she and I used to work together). I am now teaching and advising at the University of Arizona. The class that I teach is an upper-division writing and presenting class where we spend SO. MUCH. TIME. on getting them to be specific. As an advisor, I receive a lot of emails from students with questions, who are not specific with their requests…which leads to more emails sent than necessary trying to get to the heart of the issue. So, I say, KUDOS (many, many, many kudos!) to teaching your children at 8 and 9 how to be specific! [...and even though I work in higher ed, doesn't mean I don't see the many problems...]
    My husband and I don’t have kids yet, but I have pondered whether or not to homeschool them. I really enjoyed your thoughts and lessons learned!

    • Leila Miller

      Jessica, I have a child who just graduated UofA and one still there. I am glad you are a presence on that campus!

    • http://stacytrasancos.com/ Stacy Trasancos

      Jessica, thank you the kudos! I’m with Leila, glad you are a presence on that campus!

  • melanie jean juneau

    Bravo. I always wanted to homeschool but with 9 kids, one car and little cash.the experience would not have been rich enough.

    This article reminds me of our family when we moved to a farm; our kids ran free, rode an old horse, caught minnows and built forts. They played like children have for generations and learned how to contribute to the family by tending animals, weeding, gathering eggs. Although they attended Catholic Schools, we taught them the rest of the time

    • http://stacytrasancos.com/ Stacy Trasancos

      “They played like children have for generations and learned how to contribute to the family by tending animals, weeding, gathering eggs.”

      Exactly, Melanie. And I’ve said the same thing about educating the children. We “homeschool” no matter where they go to be educated during the day.

      • stacey

        Stacy thank you for saying that – I believe that knowing your child and being a part of their life despite their day-education is what’s most important. Being involved, looking for cues if something isn’t right if they do go to a brick and mortar school, etc. My son is turning 5 and we’re going to HS this coming year. I want to be the one to teach him to read and i’m excited about it (and scared) but I’m not sure what the future will hold. I know he loves going to preschool 2 days a week too and will miss that so we’ll see. I think i’m going to take it year by year! all the best to you and your family. – Stacey.

  • Linda Dobson

    Where in the Adirondacks are you? (I started homeschooling my three children there in ’85.) Guiding the children to responsibility for their own education helps them realize education isn’t something that’s “done to you;” it’s something you own forever, and it makes a great big positive difference in their lives. Enjoy the journey!

  • http://educatorssite.com/ romacox

    Interesting article, Stacy. Thanks for posting it. I just read an interesting article by a veteran home school mom of 18 years who was a teacher. I thought you might like it as much as I did.

    My journey from Public School Teacher to Homeschooling Mom By bluerooffarm on cafemom

    At first I wanted them to sit at a desk and learn like I did. I set up my classroom like a school classroom with a computer station. I began using K12. I wanted a teacher who “really taught” that particular grade to oversee everything. I had never taught elementary school. I set up a desk for each child that faced a big whiteboard at the front of my classroom. We sat in circle time at the beginning of each day and we would discuss the weather, day of the week, and all these other things. It was the most productive time of the day, but I thought it was because the kids were “fresh.” I found later that it’s because they were totally, whole body engaged. They were wiggling and going to the bulletin board to put up the answers. They were lying on the floor and getting tickled when they answered. But it was what I saw in a “real classroom, so that was why I tried it.

    I felt that I needed a textbook for each class, K12 provided all these textbooks and workbooks (one for each class) and I intended to use them. I watched the grades slip in spelling and I saw the boy learn the spelling rule and list of words and then forget. Their writing was full of misspelled, former spelling words. I watched my youngest hate phonics “class” to the point where he was beginning to hate reading. And I watched my oldest get frustrated by the rhythm of follow the textbook’s activities then do 2 worksheets of problems in the math program.

    Facing those 3 problems: too much kill and drill/ follow the textbook/ and desk time was MUCH less productive than circle time. We redesigned our room. We are now down to 2 desks and 2 computers (for all 4 of us). We spend most of our time on the couch (in the living room), the floor (2 bean bags and 2 huge pillows), and running around than we do at desks. Plus experiments at the kitchen table, ya know where there’s a SINK nearby, just make much more sense. We can all gather round, everybody can get their hands involved. For the textbook problem I realized I would need to leave K12. So I did. (well there were a billion other reasons for us to leave, but this is the reason that applies here)

    While teaching in a public school, Video was a dirty word!! Now I know that for some learning styles it works very well. In the past few months we’ve watched many science documentaries. We’ve read books and then watched the movie and written or spoke comparisons. I’ve watched their oral vocabulary soar!! Not getting a phonics rule, a chemical reaction, a trajectory equation? There is most likely a you tube for that! And it probably has a song about it, especially for the LOs.

    I’ve also learned that my response time is much faster when teaching fewer kids. So I don’t need to teach them for 6 hours/day. I can respond to their uncertainty or find a better way to explain it much faster. Or I can move to something else, take the evening looking for a better way and hit it fresh in the morning. I can be much more flexible than I could ever be in the classroom. We can go outside (without asking permission or filling out a form!!), I don’t have to tell anybody if I plan to blow something up!! I just do it.
    Then some really cool things happened:

    I learned to stop giving grades. When they get above 87%, we move on. They don’t need a grade and I don’t need them to take a test in order for me to figure out they have or don’t have something.

    I learned that it is okay to have my kids teach or help each other. I tried that my first few years teaching in the PSs, and I would end up having to teach it again because the group didn’t understand it well enough to teach it in the first place. But now, my oldest has had the lesson before, so it is a great review for him to teach it to his brothers. Then I can build on it and go deeper with him.

    So then I needed to find a solution to those textbooks. I found the solution in my objectives!! I was looking at them the wrong way!! When I was using k12 the objectives came packaged to my door. When I went out on my own, I bought the “2nd grade science book” and the “second grade math book” and “spelling grade 3.” I created some general objectives and went on with the lessons. I followed the book.

    I learned that my general objectives were great, but if I made my specific objectives even more specific, I was able to use them as discussion questions and move on without a test.
    Then I noticed that my objectives were a great jumping off point for finding books and materials. In the PS, the materials were usually the jumping off point for making my objectives. Looking at it from the flipped perspective opens up learning to a world experience. I could ask the boys to come up with objectives themselves! What do YOU want to be able to do? And boy oh boy did they provide! Using their objectives and some of mine along with a scope and sequencing guide: off we went. I would find multiple textbooks for each subject. And it was OK if we didn’t follow in order and we didn’t finish the book and we used it just as a reference for its great experiments. We might use another part next year! I could tag things that we liked, didn’t like, whatever.
    The world opened up to us. I began to see that the trip to the farmer’s market was a learning opportunity. We stopped “book learning” altogether for the big holiday breaks and learned through our baking, card making, gift giving. I took them to the bank and opened an account. They get a statement and we talk about it every month. Just every.single.day. Learning.

    I’m sure my journey isn’t “done” and probably never will be. BUT now I stopped thinking like I was taught in college about how to teach the material. I’ve learned to both lead and follow. It’s brought me closer to the boys. We have many more good days now, and many fewer bad days (oh they are still there! And still make me want to rip my hair out).
    One of the few things I’ve kept is the diagnostic tests. We still take an online diagnostic test. Their “scores” always put them about 3-4 grade levels ahead, so I “know” that they are doing well. But mostly it’s so that the naysayers in the family just shush and let us go on.

    • http://stacytrasancos.com/ Stacy Trasancos

      Thank you! That’s quite a journey. I do like her perspective.

  • Lora

    Maintaining a good relationship with the school district is very important when homeschooling. Our school district was very supportive of our family. Our children participated in some of the extra curricular High School activities. It was a positive experience for all involved.

  • Denise

    Thank you for all your writtings !

  • sthenryii

    Just wanted to say that the photo of your little girls in their uniforms is the most adorable thing I’ve seen in a long time! I went to Catholic school and that picture brought back a lot of memories.

    PS – they’re cute in regular clothes too. :)

  • JRG

    I’m kicking around the homeschooling idea. I live in an urban city where the public schools are terrible and the “cheap” private schools are $20k per year per child!! What are they learning at $20k/year?! And the classroom sizes are just as big as public! I’m off on a tangent…I’m devouring every blog, news article, scientific study and piece of information I can get on this subject. I’m looking at tossing out a $100k +/year job to home school. On the surface it sounds nuts, the more I dig I can find no reason NOT to home school. If I could afford $40k/ year for the kids to attend private school, at this point, I don’t think I would. Where I am now is trying to ascertain exactly what to expect. It was nice to stumble on your post that gave some insight into true expectations and the rolling up the sleeves aspects – exactly what I’m looking for – thank you.

    • http://stacytrasancos.com/ Stacy Trasancos

      Oh my goodness! Thank you for this comment. I so understand. My path is similar. I can honestly say I’ve never regretted it, but that’s me and it doesn’t mean it would be the same for everyone else. You’ve inspired me to write more about homeschooling. We are in our second year and I won’t lie, it is HARD work and some days are exhausting, but even on the bad days I feel like it is worth it. In ways I couldn’t even have guessed or imagined, I *know* my kids, I know what they know, I know how they think, I know how they learn. The hardest part for me has been the fighting (my kids are fighters!), but it’s because we have to deal with that and work through it that led me to know so much about them.

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