20 Oct 2011
Managing Your Homeschool Schedule
by Susan A. Howard
Many times over my ten years as a home educator, I tearfully swore I would quit. I wasn’t organized enough, I wasn’t educated enough, I wasn’t accountable enough and I was chronically exhausted. At the very beginning of my homeschool “career” I read a horrible homeschool preparation guide that warned me of the rigors of homeschooling and my own potential inadequacies. Consequently, I feared that I would destroy my children’s future, and the only thing that mitigated that fear was the recognition that my own education contributed less to my competence and success as an adult than the influence of my parents’ modeling. My parents were good communicators, engaged intellectuals and avid readers whose example conditioned me to use good grammar, calculate accurately and utilize encyclopedias. Formal schooling, at least in my case, was not the silver bullet that so many tout it to be.
But the reason for my poor self-image as a home educator was really not my education or my intelligence, but rather my time management skills. Had I been a professional teacher or paid tutor I would have external requirements – the expectations and scheduling of a third party – to keep me accountable. Lacking those externals, I had to somehow put together a schedule to which I would consistently adhere. This required me to weigh everything that we did as a family in terms of its affect on our homeschool goals. Understanding how to evaluate and incorporate a variety of interests, obligations and and chores into the homeschool environment did not come immediately or naturally. In fact, many of the ideas I will share with you below are ideas I only wish I’d implemented, hindsight being much clearer as we all know. Sometime we learn more from failure than success. Managing our homeschool schedule is an art that has developed over ten years time and continues to develop as I prepare for my preschoolers to enter the homeschool experience.
One may anticipate that the most time consuming aspect of homeschooling is teaching. In fact, those new to homeschooling will soon discover that the biggest drain on the homeschool family’s schedule and budget is maintaining the household. When a family spends the bulk of their waking hours out of the house, they impact the spaces and resources of external institutions – work places and schools. Utilizing one’s own home as the workplace or school leaves an astonishing amount of mess that janitors clean up after for those who work outside the home. We suddenly have more meals to prepare and clean up after, more sweeping, vacuuming, surfaces to wipe down not to mention the accumulation of books and materials in use every day! Then there is the consumption you just take for granted in other spaces – utilities, for example. It sounds almost ridiculous to mention, but it really has an impact, and the bigger the family, the bigger the impact.
So, balancing the homeschool schedule is a matter of efficiently completing household chores, school subjects, extracurricular activities and social events. Let’s deal with the simplest tasks first: household chores.
1. Share the burden. Include your students as household and homeschool team members
Your children can benefit tremendously by necessarily becoming a member of the household maintenance team, and you can enjoy some much needed assistance. Their traditionally-schooled peers spend much of their time away from home and family, and often do not learn simple life skills like preparing meals, maintaining a budget and using an ATM machine. My parents came from a very private generation. Consequently, I was not privy to our family’s financial position, aware of its burdens nor how my parents managed to support their family of six. I entered adulthood a financial incompetent and suffered a great deal for my ignorance. Had I been given the responsibility of keeping the pantry stocked within a set food budget, creating menus (a great time and money saver, by the way), paying the utility bills once a month, or maintaining the family cars, those tasks would have been less daunting when I struck out on my own, and my parents would have had more time to attend my weekend volleyball tournaments. By including your children in running the household and the budget you can contribute to their development as competent adults, their maturity, their work ethic and time management skills, and maintain the household simultaneously!
2. Determine your educational and parenting goals for your children/students.
The second step in managing your homeschool schedule is to determine what your goals are for your children. It is my belief that all children should prepare for college, regardless whether they actually attend college when the time comes. No mentally healthy child of average intelligence is incapable of succeeding in college prep academics. Many people would argue this point with me but I adhere to my opinion. There are levels of academic pursuit that do require superior intellectual talent. High school level physics doesn’t fall into that category. But other goals of equal or greater value than academics may appeal to your family. I, for example, want my kids to be relevant and contributing members to their community and nation. My children should also develop good Christian morals and discipline. Finally, I place value on my children finding the artistic and recreational pursuits through which they can fully enjoy their creative humanity: fine arts, photography, music, performance, or competition. You must determine those goals for your family.
3. Evaluate which courses and activities are essential to your goals, and incorporate relevant activities into the home school curriculum.
Having identified your goals, you can then choose the school subjects that promote them, and evaluate the activities that dominate your calendar in terms of their contribution to those goals. My homeschool schedule accommodates a college preparatory curriculum, as our priority. After the lesson plans for those courses are entered into the schedule, I can then work in other activities. I co-founded a local grassroots political organization to advocate for particular ideas and candidates. Because I want my children to become good citizens, I incorporated my political endeavors into their homeschool experience. They accompanied me to meetings, made signs for rallies and campaigned on street corners. On one occasion our organization interviewed a local candidate to determine whether we would endorse him. My daughter not only attended the event, but addressed the candidate with her own concerns, adding considerably to the conversation.
In another instance, I direct the choir at my church, which provides an opportunity not only to model our responsibilities to our faith community, but also provides an opportunity for my daughter to practice her piano performance skills. Providing liturgical music at church services is an important experience that augments my daughter’s music education, and reflects well on her high school transcripts.
4. Limit each activity to the minimum time needed to benefit from it.
Of course, there is only so much time in the week to include extracurricular activities along with academics, chores and “down time”, regardless of how worthy the activities are. You can either cut out those activities that do not advance your goals, or you can rotate activities seasonally. You may have to do both. Rather than singing in the church choir year-round, perhaps your children could join the Christmas choir. Have your athlete choose one or two sports, rather than three or four. A debater could engage in speech summer camp rather than competitive speech club during the school year. If you limit your activities seasonally, everyone can have their various needs met without risking the academic schedule and your sanity.
5. Adopt a scheduling method that works best for you: daily planner, software program or online service.
Knowing then which subjects and activities will dominate your week, your next task is to find a scheduling tool that works for you. There is no shortage of scheduling methods: a refrigerator calendar with a simple to-do list, a paper-based homeschool day planner, spreadsheet software and even a full service online organization and record keeping service like LessonMinder.com. Methods are individual, and although I have my opinions on which solution is best, the most important thing is that you have a solution of some kind. Too many homeschoolers resort to boxes of graded (and sometimes ungraded) assignments and could not report to a third party how their children are progressing until they have succeeded at some standardized test.
The beauty of an online service like LessonMinder.com is that after set up is complete, maintaining records, grading and providing convincing and professional quality documentation that will keep the doors open for your children to access higher education and financial aid, is easy and reassuring. By simply correcting assignments and entering grades into the same online day planner that your children use to keep track of their daily assignments, you are also automatically if not unconsciously building a cumulative GPA, generating an official transcript and keeping your children on track. Additionally aided by the curriculum suggestions, recommended book lists and homeschooling resources, a LessonMinder.com account is well worth the small monthly service fee. But whether or not you track your students by calendar, notebook, software package or online service, have some kind of daily planner is essential.
6. Develop a consistent routine of flexibility
Many homeschoolers – especially unschoolers – bristle at the idea of a day planner and a routine. They believe that children need the time and flexibility to have ideas develop naturally and pursuits spontaneously engage them. They are right. But allowing for down time and flexibility does not necessarily conflict with maintaining a strict routine. What some of these advocates for freedom and spontaneity do not recognize is that as creatures of habit, human beings respond well to routine, especially children. They like the security that comes with knowing what comes next, and what is expected of them. Predictability is as comforting as spontaneity is exciting and both comfort and excitement are positive experiences. Besides, routine is not necessarily synonymous with rut, monotony or banality.
There are many ways you can turn a regularly scheduled activity into a cherished and anticipated time. A friend of mine starts every morning very early. Her children and she are schooling by 6:00am, but if you were a fly on her wall you might not have noticed. Before six, “Mary” gets up, makes her coffee and two cups of hot cocoa and meets her two children back in her bed. There, the three snuggle up with their cozy beverages and warm blankets and read aloud Sophocles, or the Founders, Shakespeare or Lord of the Rings…whatever they happen to be assigned for reading. Then they talk about what they have read and after an hour or so they go downstairs for a warm, home cooked breakfast. They dress, do their chores, which may include cleaning out the chicken coop and feeding the horse, and then shower and change for the rest of their day. By 8:00 in the morning they are wide awake and fully engaged. Once a week her son takes flying lessons and will soon acquire his pilot’s license, and every Saturday her daughter rehearses with the Seattle Youth Symphony. A routine like that can hardly be considered a rut.
But acknowledging the importance of flexibility, how would one schedule unscheduled time? One year, I experimented with the four day work week idea. We only schooled Monday through Thursday. Friday – all day – belonged to my kids. No chores, no required school work, no obligations of any kind. Just as often as not, my children chose to use the day to lighten their workload on school days. They slacked off a bit during the week and made it up on Friday. That was fine with me because they had made their own decision about it, and that was partially the point – giving them some reasonable control over their own scheduling. My friend, mentioned above, reserved mornings for chores and school work, and left afternoons free for her children to disappear into the backyard fort, into a good book, or whatever else interested them. Then evening scheduling kicked in once again with ballet, boy scouts and Tae Kwon Do.
7. Experiment and Enjoy the Adventure!
Every homeschool environment is unique. It is one of the things that makes home schooling the best educational option for all children. The education is personalized, targeted and one-on-one. There is no one solution that works. Experiment. Be creative. Don’t worry about trying new things, and changing course. You have to find the way that suits your family and your children. So rather than worry about your own lack of discipline and the chore of scheduling, engage the task as an adventure of discovery. That’s what this journey is all about!