Real ideas for random homeschoolers

I got an email recently purporting to offer words of wisdom for scatter-brained homeschoolers–and then moving on to talk about buying nicer planners and proper notepads for those lists. Um,you’re talking to someone who can’t find the nice grocery list pad with the magnet back that somehow nevertheless disappeared but it doesn’t really matter because even when she makes the shopping list *and* puts it in her purse to go shopping, she never remembers to look at it.

If you’re random, there’s no sense to try to turn yourself into someone linear. Yes, the human brain is surprisingly plastic and you probably could, but it would be a lot of effort for very little return. Besides, all those linear people with their nice planners filled out in a uniform color of ink (I *always* envy that) wish they could be as creative and spontaneous as you.

Instead, here are some homeschooling tips that can harness the power of randomness. I’ve probably picked them up from someone else, but I’ll pass them on along as I received them. There might even be a few useful for linear homeschoolers. After all, from time to time I’ve compiled a list or two . . .

1. Distinguish between skill areas and content areas.

The reason is, some things you really, truly have to do a little bit along to get good at. But other things you don’t. Skills need regular practice. New ideas need memorable encounters. There’s no sense wasting your limited energy for doing repetitive things on things that don’t need to be done repeatedly.

Skill areas: handwriting, phonics, spelling, writing, math, foreign language, music, art, sports. Whichever of these you’re going to do, you need to find a way to do it often. Just a little every time, but often.

Content areas: history, geography, science, literature, music and art appreciation. Here you can follow impulses and rabbit trails and post stuff on the walls and leave piles of books lying around and still end up with a pretty decent body of knowledge, especially in the early years.

2. Peg it.

This is probably my number one tip, which is why it’s here on the list as number two. No matter how random you are, there are things you do fairly often to stay alive. Eat. Brush teeth. Drive places. So what you do is, you pick something you want to do regularly with the kids, and then you peg it to something you are already doing. Reciting a poem you want them to memorize while they brush their teeth. Playing a classic literary selection on cd after they cuddle in bed. Reading a book at the lunch table. Drilling math facts in the car. Swinging by the library before the grocery store. (Always before, otherwise the ice cream melts.)

3. Make it easy.

Now, once you’ve picked those pegs, and while you’re in one of those inspired moods when you can conquer the world, do what you need to make it really, really easy to stick with it. Print out the poem and paste it to the bathroom mirror. Reserve the cds of Treasure Island from the library and set up the cd player on the dresser. Put the book you want to read next to the kitchen table. Tape a card that says “Addition Facts” on the dashboard. Put the library bag in the car.

The same rule applies for non-pegged activities, too. Keep the library books in a basket next to the couch. Keep the art supplies next to the kitchen table. Pack an outing bag with first aid supplies, sketchbooks, and granola bars. If you want something to happen often, make it easy for it to happen.

4. Just pick one skill area per year.

Sticking to a whole long schedule is not only difficult for a random person, it can be downright depressing even when done successfully. However, how about just one thing? So your kindergartener is just on the threshold of learning to read. Great, there’s your One Subject for the year: Reading. *Of course* you’ll do lots of other things, reading fun books, going on field trips, messing up the kitchen with crazy experiments.  But the only absolute must on your schedule is that 15 minute phonics lesson, which on the whole sounds pretty doable. After reading is mastered, I’d move on to writing mechanics (handwriting, spelling, punctuation, etc.) via copywork for the rest of the early elementary years, then math for middle school, then expressive writing for high school. Or, if you felt ambitious, you could work your way up (a year at a time) to 2 or even someday 3 subjects: read something, write something, do some math. Then have fun with the rest of the world.

5. Outsource the skill areas you’re not good at.

Luckily enough, I actually find it pretty easy to teach basic reading and math without anything fancier than the back of the cereal box. However, my Spanish is pretty rusty and I practice the piano for the five minutes before the service starts. So I give my kids Spanish videos to watch because they think it’s fun and when they do music it’s going to be from an outside teacher. But if you’re naturally musical and bilingual but the thought of teaching phonics and addition makes your skin crawl, then spend your money on a bells-and-whistles math or phonics program or a tutor. Or have that be the subject you do on the computer. Whatever will entice the kids to do it often so you don’t have to muster up extra self-discipline to make it happen regularly.

6. Act on your impulses.

No, not the one to set the kids up with cartoons and junk food if they’ll just stay out of your hair (unless you just had surgery or something). But the one that says, “To Hades with the lesson plan, let’s climb a mountain today!” or “I *know* we’re supposed to be studying Ancient Greece, but they are so going to love this book on pirates.” Or you start rearranging the basement and they discover the long-lost paints. Just do it. Think of it as double duty–you’ll have all those extra lesson plans for days you don’t feel as inspired. If you feel inspired to do something, you’ll get far more results for energy expended than if you feel uninspired but do it because it’s On The List. Besides, your inspiration takes into account things like the weather, the current moods and interests of the kids, and other factors that a prepared plan couldn’t possibly do. And then don’t beat yourself up afterwards over all the things you weren’t doing while you were following your inspiration. You’ll be inspired to do them another time.

7. If you plan (and there’s no harm in it), plan in a way that’s flexible.

I actually went hog-wild with planning this year–well, at least the first three months. I actually like planning, though I find implementation rather dreary. But the cool thing is, I planned without tying it to the calendar. We took two weeks to do Week 4, and when we got to the end we picked right up with Week 5. Last year I did it a different way–every month or so I would work up a bunch of different things to do with the kids and make sure materials were on hand, and then let them pick when and what they wanted to do. I’m sure there are many other possible methods, which I will probably discover next year. The point is, make it easy to move things around. Because you know you will.

8. Find a way you like to record things.

Composition books make me deliriously happy, so that’s what I use. Just a quick jot at the end of the day of what we read and did. I blog it from time to time, too, and it’s fun to go back and look at how far we’ve come. Even if you don’t need elaborate records for your state, it’s good for your mental health to be able to look back and say, “Hey, actually we HAVE been doing stuff.” And then get inspired about what you’d like to do next. So if you like to scrapbook, or blog, or take a gazillion pictures, make that your recording method. And maybe peg your recording time to something, so it doesn’t slide.

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