Originally published March 2020.
This is our thirteenth year homeschooling, but for some of y’all I know this is your 13th day quarantine homeschooling. Welcome to the dark side. Don’t worry, we won’t make you wear a prairie dress on your first day, but you might want to invest in some khaki pants and polo shirts. Don’t forget to button up all three buttons. The devil gets in through that top button. If that’s true, my kids are on the HOV to hell, because usually they are still wearing their pajamas when they stagger into our school room. Let’s get real about teaching your kids.
As a veteran homeschooler, I wanted to offer some advice and some resources to parents who suddenly find themselves responsible for their children’s education.
1) You will fail at this.
I’ve been at this for 13 years, and I have failures every single day. My kids freak out at the daily expectation that they have school to do, and there seems to be a negotiation over every chapter, worksheet, and project that boils down to “I see your opening bid of ‘do it all’ and counter with ‘how about I just do half or none.’”
So when I say you are going to fail, I don’t mean in the overall sense, but rather that you will rarely have that perfect day in which you stick to the plan, no one gets in a fight, your kids are happy all day, and birds and mice come and do all your household chores. That stuff only happens in animated movies and fever dreams.
2) This is not homeschooling, not really.
I will admit that this part is a little bit of my pride speaking, but this sudden national experiment in distance learning at home is not the same as homeschooling. For one thing, we do leave the house. A lot. We have our own sports teams, clubs, dances, learning co-ops, and field trips. Even though our kids get their education at home, they are going just as stir crazy as your kids because homeschool isn’t living like Repunzel locked up in a tower.
Furthermore, just like teachers in a traditional classroom, homeschool families spend months planning, researching, and organizing for their students. I say students, because oftentimes we aren’t just teaching our own kids. There is a lot of cooperation in homeschooling. For example, I teach 4 classes at our homeschool co-op: the Philosophy of Evil, American History, Government, and Movies as Literature. Likewise, my boys take classes from other teachers in the co-op. This way we don’t have to be experts in everything. So, sitting at home and scrambling to figure out what we need to teach isn’t really what it is like for most of us.
3) Ask a homeschooler.
That brings me to my next piece of advice: ask a homeschooler. Most people know at least one homeschool family, so ask them for their advice. Trust me, there is nothing we homeschoolers like more than to talk about homeschooling. So if your friend doesn’t know the answer to your question, they will probably ask their other homeschooling friends and get back to you with a list. Like I said, we get out and interact with the world a lot, so we have lots of connections.
However, try to be specific with your question. “How do I teach them?” might be harder to answer than “What do you use for math?” Also, don’t be afraid to ask for resources on how you can relearn something, because middle school was a long time ago for most of us, and we might need a refresher.
4) You only have to be one page ahead of the kids.
This was perhaps the best piece of advice that I received as a new homeschooler. You do not have to know all the details about the War of 1812 or the structure of a molecule, you just have to refresh your memory before your kid reads it for the first time.
Also, it is fine to tell your child that you don’t know something so you will both have to learn it together. Trust me, you are probably going to get the hang of it before your kid, but it teaches them that learning never ends. I just went through this exact scenario with my middle son and some newfangled way to do Algebra. I admitted it was new to me, and we figured it out together by reading and watching videos. It turns out that you can teach old dogs new tricks.
5) Homeschooling is not just school at home.
For the love of all that is holy and just in the world, do not think that you have to have your child do school work on the same schedule as the schools. I have seen a flurry of parents posting their at home schooling schedules, and I am exhausted just looking at them. Those schedules may work when you have a class of 25, but they are brutal if it is just you and your kids.
Some rough estimates on times would be as follows: 1-3 hours of schooling for elementary school, 3-4 for middle school, and 5+ for high school.
I can already hear folks saying, “But they are in school from 8:30 to 3:30? How can they only need 1-3 hours of home instruction?” Well, because they are at home. One-on-one schooling goes faster. You don’t have to take the whole class to the bathroom, or if you do, it’s pretty quick. Also, you aren’t waiting for other students to get the help they need or to finish their work. This is homeschooling, not school at home. You aren’t managing a class of 25 or more. God bless teachers who do that, but that is not what you are doing.
6) You are an expert in your kid.
You may not be an expert in whatever you are helping your child to learn, but you are an expert in your child. You know their learning style, the signs they are frustrated or tired, and their funny little quirks that might go unnoticed by others. You know what interests them and what is going to be a struggle from the word go.
The number one thing you need to be expert in to be successful at this is your kid, and you’ve already got a PhD.
I’ve already admitted that I let my kids do their schoolwork in their pajamas. In fact, there have been times in which the suggestion that my children get dressed has been met with the query, “Why? Are we going out?” So, I think I have the relaxed part down, but that’s not quite what I’m talking about.
It is ok to let your kids get some extra sleep in the morning. Plus, that also gives you some time to get your work done too. For instance, as I am writing this piece, my four children are all sleeping soundly in their beds. Sleep is good for them, and it is good for me too.
Also, relax your expectations and enjoy each other. If you want to watch a movie in the middle of the day, do it. The same goes for a walk or a game of cards. Not everything during the day has to be school. You don’t have to label the walk PE; it can just be a walk because everyone wanted to do it.
8) A kid who is interested in what they are learning is a kid who is easy to teach.
Just because your child was studying a particular topic in school doesn’t mean that you have to stick with that topic at home. This is a great opportunity to let them explore their interests, read the books that catch their fancy, or try something completely new.
Also, if you’ve got a kid who loves one subject but not another, try overlapping them. The old two birds with one stone. So you’ve got a kid who loves to read but hates science, you could find a book about a scientist or even science fiction and then suggest they learn more about the information in the novel or non-fiction book. Or if you have a kid who is pretty much only focused on YouTube, try allowing them to turn something they read into a video. There are lots of ways to cross pollinate what your kid is interested in with what you would like them to learn.
9) Useful resources. At least this is stuff I like, and probably what you were looking for anyway.
My kids are now in middle school and high school, so that is where my main focus is, but there are lots of resources out there for elementary school as well.
Here are some of my top picks:
Channels on YouTube: (The kids are on it anyway.)
It’s Ok To Be Smart
My two favorite math resources:
They have math for all levels, but you do have to purchase the whole year. With the online option, it is more affordable. There is a lecture and then problems with constant review included. The best part however is that it is self grading, so you don’t have to know the answer.
Barron’s Painless Series
I am currently using Painless Algebra with my son, and we are getting a lot out of it. I do supplement the book with additional practice sheets, but this handy book is cheap, easy to understand, and available wherever you buy books.
There are a ton of practice sheets here for basically any math level you need.
Virtual Science Labs: (because you don’t want to blow up the house or fill it with dead things)
Virtual Chemistry Labs
List of Virtual Biology Labs
On Netflix: Basically anything by Ken Burns (this alone will fill up a month), 13th, American Factory, The Great Hack
A list of all the novels used in AP Literature Tests since 1971:
Penguin Publishing has a whole host of study guides available on line to guide you and your student through a variety of the great works of literature:
All of the Above (because they seem to cover everything:
A wide variety of subjects are covered here that include videos and practice work.
There are placement tests, and they’ve also set up suggested schedules for breaking up the school day with your kids. You can also link the child and parent account so that you can see exactly how long your student actually did the work. (I speak from experience on this one.)
10) Enjoy this time together.