Monday, May 9, 2011

So, What Do We Do All Day?

Okay, I didn't think I'd be missing weeks quite this early on.  What happened was this:  I have a subject I'm trying to tackle here for this blog, and it's a doozy . . . and I tried several times to write it.  A few times, I nearly had it.  Once I was just about ready to hit "Publish" and my computer shut down for the night . . . and naturally I had not made any backups.  So, after a few weeks of banging my head into the wall, I decided to back off of the "The 'R' Word-- Homeschool and Religion" topic for a bit and get the blog rolling again.  But that topic is still coming, I promise.

For today though, a question I do get with some frequency-- "So, what do you do all day?"

Good question!  That was certainly one of my preconceived concerns prior to homeschooling-- coming downstairs in the morning and finding two expectant little faces smiling up at me, and me returning their look and feeling just dumbfounded.  (My kids are naturally early risers.  I was too, at their age.  These days, I am not.  Fortunately, we have a kid-friendly breakfast setup and two children who are very reliable about what they will do with themselves for part of an hour in the morning between when my husband leaves and when I stagger downstairs, seeking a cup of chai.  Their first assignment of the day every day is 30-45 minutes of individual reading time, and this they enjoy enormously in a warm, quiet house with a cat for each kid to cuddle up with on the sofa, which is how I often find them when I come down).

I need not have worried.  For starters, my kids really do like structure.  They are not kids suited for a complete "unschooling" style.*  We have settled into a pretty happy routine, then, of a kind of eclectic-classical style of home-school over the last few months, that while still evolving, seems to be working pretty well for us.  Having noted that we have structure however, that structure is purposely designed to give us a whole lot of freedom to change our days about as we wish or need to-- because as long as we have a plan, we know that the kids are still learning at a good clip.

So . . . what do we do all day?  We read.  We read a whole lot.  We read separately.  We read together, out loud.  We read biographies, we read fiction, either just for pleasure, or that is related to some topic we are studying, or non-fiction or poetry or plays.  We read William Shakespeare or Laura Ingalls Wilder or Dav Pilkey.  Homer or Twain or Blume.  We talk about what we've read during the day, over supper, in the car, or at bedtime.  The kids summarize what they're reading for friends.  We read for history, we read for science, we read for ourselves, we read for writing class, we read for pretty much any excuse we can think of.

We do math, just like they do in school, only not quite like they do it in school.  We might take a day, such as one we spent last week, and spend it in the kitchen.  We needed to bake my husband a birthday cake, complete with homemade frosting-- but the problem was, I needed 1 1/2 of the frosting recipe!  Who could ever help me figure out 1 1/2 of 2/3 of a cup of cocoa powder?  Glad I had my 10YO mathematician on hand :).  Son#1 wanted to know why french fries turn brown when you cook them.  We handed him one of Alton Brown's books that discusses the chemistry of cooking food, specifically, deep frying, and he read the answer to his question.  We use lots of alternate materials, go exactly at the student's individual speed, review only when they need to, and move on only when they show mastery of the current material.  This means my kids work independently a lot, but also work "out loud" from time to time, explaining to me what it is that they're doing.  From that kind of one-on-one time, I can learn a lot about how well they understand what they're currently working on.

The kids use some books-- Son#1 (age 10) relies primarily upon a neat narrative series called, "The Life of Fred."  His review of this math series is thus: "Finally, a math book that treats me as if I have a brain . . . it doesn't spoon-feed me every last detail, because he assumes I can make some connections for myself and actually think!  The only thing I don't like is that I've never been challenged before, and it kind of freaked me out at first, but now I kind of like that."  That series does list as a prerequisite a solid foundation in the four fundamentals of arithmetic, addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division through long division, and as he wound his way towards the end of the book, we uncovered a few areas in those fundamentals that needed shoring up.  We found a terrific resource in Maria Miller's Math Mammoth series of books, which are organized by either grade/level OR by topic, and by working at just a few pages a day, his confidence picked right back up, and he was back to soaring again in math.  I'd recommend Math Mammoth for any kid who wants to work independently, as the concepts  are presented very clearly and are addressed to the student.  For really fun practice, and a chance to branch out into new areas that are interesting, or further explanation of anything in Fred that is giving him trouble, Son#1 turns to Khan Academy online, watching videos and trying more practice exercises.  Finally, (Reading again!!) he loves books such as Penrose the Mathematical Cat and The Number Devil, which take him through  topics often not covered in grades K-12 math.  DS#2, on the other hand, uses an entirely different main curriculum, Singapore Math, because it suits his learning style better (and he's not old enough for Fred yet anyway).  However, we are also addressing some holes and lack of confidence in his basics from his public school time, and it's Math Mammoth to the rescue for him there, too.

Rather than enumerate what books we are using for every subject, let it suffice to say then, that we mix up our days-- we have hands-on daily life activities such as baking, shopping, cleaning, and so forth, that apply directly to our lessons, and we also do have traditional lesson time.  If it's sunny and nice out, we're free to slide our day around a bit-- maybe do some lessons in the park, or postpone them until later in the evening.  Or double up on math one day and leave some spare time the next day so we can play games together instead.  If it's cold and rainy . . . lessons might be in front of the fireplace instead of outdoors.  If we're hungry, they might be at the kitchen table.  If we're sick of the house, they might be at a friendly local restaurant where they've gotten to know us and don't mind us occupying the corner table.  We've done all of the above :)  But we do have structure.  I have a master plan-- a set of goals that each child should reach, and markers they should reach along certain points in the journey.  We use a blend of field trips, play days, and even (gasp) classical curriculum that forms the core around which we build the bulk of our days.  And each day, each child knows exactly what is expected of him, and what to expect, because we start with a list that includes all work to be done, all field trips, doctor appointments, etc, that list what time to be ready to leave the house (ie shoes on, dressed, bathroom used, had your snack, by 3:15 please!  And bring your history reader!)

So, here are a couple of different days "in the life." It wouldn't be fair to give you just one-- because every single day we have is completely different!

On a Monday:  Wake up, eat breakfast, look over the list Mom left-- start reading books related to history lesson.  Son#1 starts math, Son#2 starts spelling.  Mom staggers downstairs and starts groping for her chai.  Son#2 moves off of the couch and sits on his hippity-hop instead, getting more comfortable.  Son#1 moves onto the floor.  Around 10:30, we notice it's sunny outside and break for recess.  Son#1 practices his karate out in the yard, son#2 goes and checks the blueberry bushes.  We play soccer for a few minutes, decide to grab our stuff and work outdoors for a bit after getting a drink.  Son#2 also grabs a snack from the snack basket.  Kids ask if we can do some of our "together lessons," (usually, history, science, reading out loud together, if it's a Monday).  Kids divide up-- one starts some afternoon recess, the other does another individual lesson while I make lunch.  They do a 15-minute clean-up of the house, then break for lunch.  We assess where everyone is, and they finish recess time, and finish up any remaining work that needs to be done, often with one-on-one time from me as needed.  Son#2 finishes first.  He thinks about playing the Wii, but notices his brother concentrating hard, and picks up a book to read instead.  Son#1 finishes, and they both head to the computer to play Civ V until public school lets out and their buddy next door gets home.

On a Wednesday:  Wake up, eat breakfast, look over the list Mom left-- start reading books chosen from library for personal interest.  Mom staggers downstairs and gropes for chai.  Work through list pretty fast until mid-morning, then everyone does a 15-minute house pickup, packs bags, and drive to the park.  For next 3 hours, alternate play time in park with studying.  Eat picnic lunch, continue study and play.  Come home and rest for a bit by reading, drinking lots of water.  Off to the athletic club for swimming lessons by 4pm, stay afterward to play and meet up with friends there before their swimming lessons.  Come home exhausted and sleep well.  And why not?  They read Homer, learned how to divide fractions, discussed the problems of succession in dynasties, and more.

Flexible Friday:  All the usual books are put away.  Eat breakfast, check the list, read something of your choosing.  Mom staggers down and hunts desperately for her chai.  Work quickly through the fun math and history activities, then in the car to head off to the Natural History Museum for a science class that's off topic from our main course of study-- a regularly scheduled class every two weeks.  Eat dinner out at a restaurant, and then hit the library, and stay and read for a while.  In the car, we learn about Mozart via the Classics for Kids podcast, and listen to Beethoven's Wig.  Home by 1:30--2:30, depending on how long we ready, ready to have the weekend free-- no reason to have homework in homeschool :)  Studies show homework does no good in the elementary years anyway, and we don't believe in doing things that aren't productive!  Study after study shows that play IS very productive for children though, so off they go!

Actual instructional time, as I have tracked, ends up much higher than what they had in PS, as we don't waste any time repeating instructions, waiting for others to finish, moving down the halls or waiting for others to get quiet.  If we take time off for an unexpected field trip or activity, we can still stay on track, because there is a "master list" of goals we must meet and guidelines for about when we should be meeting them, and we don't review unless we specifically need to-- we can always take off on a Wednesday and work on a rainy Saturday, or double up one day, or realize we're ahead already and give ourselves a day off.  Or realize we've bitten off too much and ease up.  Dinner table conversations don't even count toward the time I figure in, and yet work to enhance their lessons just about daily these days.

Later, for the curious, we'll post some curriculum specifics .  . . and take another stab at that thorny "R" issue that's been percolating.

--Thanks for reading!

*I'm not going to argue with anybody about what unschooling means.  In short, it means completely different things to different people.  It can mean anything from a gently guided child-led learning environment to a completely laissez-faire attitude that the kid will learn if he needs to.  Since it isn't our style, I'm not into fighting for any particular definition of it, because as far as I'm concerned, anybody who chooses to unschool can choose their own definition for it.


  1. I don't know if I like #1's assessment of the math program better or your having me in hysterics about your honest morning routine!

  2. Oh how I remember those days. I learned that we didn't need to wake up as early as other school-kids, so we woke up when we woke up. Worked out much better for both of us, since we're both night owls. ;-)

    I'm happy to see that you're adjusting to this very nicely. Do you intend to keep it going through graduation, or will you re-evaluate every once in a while, especially as high school approaches?

  3. We're leaving it open-ended for now. We've told the kids that there is an excellent charter high school in the state, and they'll be prepared to enter it at the right age, or they'll be welcome to continue schooling at home if necessary. We are fortunate to have a plethora of local state and community colleges and universities nearby, so if they wish to take some individual classes during their high school years, that is also an option.

  4. Some of the high schools in our area are offering a college prep type course study. The neat thing about that is: they can earn college credits while earning their high school diploma! I haven't figure out, though, if that would cause them more headaches than not when they first enter college, as they'll already be ahead of other college freshmen.