I was super excited when singer, voice teacher and podcaster Valerie Day asked me to contribute to her most recent blog post. In it, you’ll hear my top three tips that I share with all my students.
2020 brought about many unexpected new realities and for my family, choosing to take our son out of school to homeschool him, was ours.
As I wrote in another blog post The Unexpected Homeschooler, distance learning was super stressful for our 8-year-old son and despite his public school doing a great job, it just was not sustainable for us for another year. (Our public school was only doing 1-2 days a week of in-person learning, which would have meant the lion’s share would still be online.)
To take over as a teacher was not a stretch for me: I have been active in music education for over 25 years, having taught music in pretty much every imaginable setting. I have taught early childhood, k-8, middle school, high school and college (I’m currently on faculty at Fordham University.). I also run a busy private studio where I teach piano, voice, songwriting and musicianship to a wide variety of ages, levels and styles.
There was one small liability: I have never taught any subject but music EVER. While I have always been a curious person and have self-educated most of my life, I have no real notion of the framework for teaching writing, social studies or science. And frankly, I was so bad at math growing up that the mere idea of teaching it gave me a case of diarrhea.
With the amazing support from my husband, and a few Hail Marys, we withdrew our son from public school at the end of June and I submitted an IHIP (Individualized Home Instruction Plan). Since camp was canceled and we were unable to travel due to COVID-19 restrictions, we decided to start our official semester in early July. It made sense to spend a few hours a day doing school, since it would keep him busy and hopefully avoid boredom and excessive screen time.
Fast forward to now: I have just completed the second term quarterly report. We are officially at the halfway point! It is incredible to me how much we have both learned and grown in this time.
When we first started, I decided to take the Classical Education approach, using Writing, Spelling and Grammar curricula organized in textbooks and workbooks. This allowed me to have some structure to our learning, but it turned out to be pretty boring for both of us.
I started getting more interested in a freer approach to learning and became obsessed with home education guru Julie Bogart. I read her book The Brave Learner and started consuming her YouTube videos and podcasts like crazy. I purchased her Partnership writing book, which takes a more holistic approach to teaching writing to children, hoping to spice up our work and keep my boy entertained. Instead of sentence structures and workbooks, she provides 10 writing assignments for the year that each serve the purpose of teaching language arts through creative writing. The projects have great starting points and are very customizable depending on your child’s interests and needs.
We have done some incredible projects together as part of the Partnership Writing curriculum. We did a unit on Secret Codes, where we used ciphers, invisible ink and Pigpen to send messages to each other. This resulted in an incredible Halloween scavenger hunt, where he had to decode each of the clues. My also became interested in Alan Turing and he researched and wrote a short picture book about him. We did a family tree project that had my son calling family members on the phone, gathering and recording information. It resulted in a wonderful poster with all of our family members’ names, birthdays and places of birth which now adorns our living room. He has written comic books, dozens of letters and postcards to family and friends and is working on publishing a cookbook of recipes that he has tested and copied out.
We have read mountains of books together, including a bucket list of books I never got to read when I was a child. We recently finished reading the Hobbit (11 hours of reading!!), which resulted in hours of discussions about the journey and what we thought would happen. We are now in the midst of watching the 3 Hobbit movies and moving on to the Lord of the Rings movies. Speaking of movies, we have watched dozens of them, including movie versions of books we had read. It’s been so much fun to discuss the similarities and differences and decide which we like better.
Despite my own personal math challenges, we have managed to make a significant dent in the required 3rd grade units. We are using Beast Academy for math, which are super rigorous. The textbooks are actually comic books, which my son reads and rereads in his spare time and we have skipped over a few of the more advanced material which is above his grade level. I have gotten stuck a few times and have made emergency calls to my dad (a retired engineer) and my now if my son sees me struggling with a math concept, her reminds to “call Grandad” for help.
What We Love
Above all else, we are enjoying the time we are spending together. We are both learning to be more patient with ourselves and each other and I am learning how to be a more supportive teacher for him. Some days we get into a wonderful workflow and just glide and some days I find myself raising my voice to a wiggly boy who spends more time fiddling with his pencil than finishing his copy work. Every day I remind myself to stay in the moment by singing the chorus of The Gambler (“know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run”).
I have discovered that we do our best learning in a less structured, workbook-free environment. I have discovered that he is capable of doing more than I ever imagined he could. I have taught him how to do a ton of domestic tasks like laundry, vacuuming, dusting, taking out the rash and cleaning the bathroom. He has learned to prepare simple meals and even some more complex dishes like lasagna. (His future spouse is going to owe me BIG TIME.)
This experience with Brave Learner learning has even changed how I’m teaching him piano. After following a structured piano curriculum for four years, I have started expanding what he is learning music-wise. I have been teaching him how to play by ear and to transcribe his favorite songs. I even took him through the material from Piano Skills for Singers, Level 1 and he can play his major and minor triads in 12 keys and accompany himself singing.
The school day only takes around 3 hours, so he has plenty of time to play. He spends hours building with Lego, making Spotify playlists of video games songs, building incredible buildings and cities on Minecraft and he reads for hours every day. We go to Central Park almost every day and have become avid birdwatchers, identifying nearly 2 dozen types of birds. We have spent hours at museums and zoos, gone on some great hikes in Upstate New York and have taken up weekly ice skating.
The Challenging Stuff
I want to be honest and let you know that this hasn’t been easy for me. It’s a LOT of work and energy and it can be extremely challenging to keep it moving all the time. I continue to teach privately via Zoom every week, while growing my online course business, which has released 4 new courses in the last 12 months. I am spread very thin a lot of the time and I have had to learn to let a lot of things go.
I have hardly made any of my own music in months and have only attempted one livestream concert during the entire pandemic. There are many days where I am so exhausted by 8pm that I can do little more than watch something on tv and crash. Some days I feel super overwhelmed and pulled in many directions.
Luckily, I have an incredible husband who is an amazing father and who carries a fair share of the household load. I have a handful of friends who are great cheerleaders and supporters and have found an incredible community of homeschools online.
My survival tools are daily exercise, which keeps me from going out of my ever-living mind. I also need quiet time to myself every day and I’m very good at hiding out in my studio for a couple of hours to listen to 90s rock and scroll social media. Once a month, my husband and son go out to our beach house, so I can have a couple of days to myself to binge work, eat Sweetgreen salads for every meal and watch tv shows full of people with English accents.
Another challenge for us is that our son has almost no in-person interaction with other kids. We had a few outdoor, masked, socially distanced playdates in the fall, but with Covid numbers rising we have stopped those. Our saving grace has been some online programs that have been a lifeline for our son. He does Zoom classes in coding and Minecraft with Maker-State, where he gets great instruction and enjoys interacting with other Minecraft-obsessed kids like him. His karate studio KP for Kids Karate has made Zoom classes feel like in-person, since the teachers have such wonderful rapport with each of the kids. Finally, Steve and Kate’s has created a wonderful evening program for kids that operates similarly to their cool summer camps.
The best part of all of this has been that our relationship, which has always been close, is getting deeper every day. We definitely drive each other crazy at times, but we have found a true place of joy and comfort together. Every parent out there will tell you that children grow up so fast and I feel like this year has given me the gift of getting to really see him growing up before my eyes.
So, that’s my report on my homeschooling journey so far. Even though this has been a terrible year for so many reasons, I have a feeling that we will both look back on this year together as one of the best. Silver linings.
Covid-19 has made an unprecedented change in our lives. For those of us who are parenting during this difficult time, we have also had the immense task of juggling childcare and remote learning to deal with.
Our family, like many families, had a terrible time with distance learning. Getting a list of assignments every morning and having to navigate across different online platforms was a total nightmare for us. Our son would see a mammoth list of tasks and his anxiety would kick in and the whining and arguing would ensue. I would try to manage all of the tasks, but it was difficult for me to understand the context of the work that he was doing so that I could establish what was most important for him to work on. There were a lot of arguments and tears and it just didn’t feel like he was learning anything.
With so much uncertainty and schools all over the US and Canada rushing to figure out how to manage education, there are a great many of us who are looking for alternatives to save our sanity and make living through a pandemic more bearable for our kiddos.
One of those alternatives is homeschooling, which is a very misunderstood option. I have spent the last three months researching homeschooling and my family has made the decision to homeschool our third grader for the 2020-2021 school year. It took a tremendous amount of work to research how homeschooling works and how to make it work for our family. In this article, I wanted to share my findings to hopefully help your family make the right decision.
Remote Learning vs. Homeschooling
The first thing to understand is that remote learning is not homeschooling. Remote or distance learning is when your child is enrolled in a school and they send you assignments and host classes on an online platform. Remote learning means that someone else is preparing and administering the curriculum and lessons. I know many of us felt like we were homeschooling, but what we were actually doing was helping with distance learning.
True homeschooling means that the learning is happening independent of a school or institution. The parent(s) are the teacher(s) and choose the curriculum for their child and administer it any way that they like. Homeschooling families can choose how, when and where they school their children, which can vary widely depending on the children’s needs and the family’s schedule. Homeschooling has a lot of flexibility and freedom, as long as families follow their state or provinces homeschooling regulations. (I cover state regulations later in this post).
How to Get Started
If you have decided to homeschool your child this year, then you will need to have a close look at the homeschool regulations in your state. I have seen people posting about forming “pods” with other families and hiring a tutor to teach them, but in a lot of states (including NY) this is actually considered an independent school and subject to licensing. In many states, a parent must be responsible for a certain percentage of their child’s instruction in order to be compliant with homeschool regulations. There are also a lot of other guidelines, including how many hours and days of instruction your child must receive. If you don’t follow those guidelines, you could be charged with truancy and get into hot water with the state.
Once you have checked your state’s guidelines, you have to send a Letter of Intent to the homeschooling department of your area. You will have to include your child’s name, date of birth and what school they attended. You can send the Letter of Intent at any time, but it is recommended to take care of it before school officially starts.
Once you have submitted your Letter of Intent, then your child is officially a homeschooler! If you child is on an IEP or requires special services like speech or OT, they should still be eligible to get these services, but you’ll have to look into how to schedule that. My son’s school therapist told me that our family still has access to mental health or counselling services, since he technically works for the community and not the school. If you child needs services, you will want to make sure you have those support mechanisms in place, before you withdraw them.
After your Letter of Intent has been submitted you will need to start preparing your IHIP (Individual Homeschool Instruction Plan). This varies by state, but it basically outlines what you are going to cover and with what materials. You have to make sure that you are going to have the right number of school days and hours (in NY it is 180 days of school and 990 hours total). You also have to make sure you are covering the correct subjects, especially if you plan to send your child back to regular school once the pandemic is over.
Homeschooling has been around for generations and there are several main philosophies that are worth getting to know.
Classical Education means that there is a strong emphasis on understanding language in a very deep way. There is a strong emphasis on grammar, spelling and reading skills, studying major literature and learning history.
School At Home often means that you purchase a packaged curriculum that you teach your child. This can be a great choice for people who don’t have the time or aren’t comfortable researching separate curricula.
The Charlotte Mason school of thought centers around learning through literature. Charlotte Mason influenced curricula usually includes long book lists and children are encouraged to spend a lot of their day outdoors.
Unschooling is another philosophy and probably the biggest leap for families who are used to sending their children to a brick-and-mortar school. Unschoolers believe that children should be encouraged to follow their interests and that the world is their school. This means that math is practiced at the grocery store, science is learned in the kitchen and that rather than forcing children to learn certain subjects, they should be encouraged to explore where their minds take them.
As an educator, it was important for me to make this year of homeschooling as effective and enjoyable for our son (and me!) as possible. I reached out to a few lifelong homeschooling friends who recommended several books that I strongly suggest you read before going any further.
The Well Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise
All of the homeschoolers I know told me to read this book first. The book was written by veteran homeschooling mom Susan Wise Bauer and her daughter Jessie Wise and takes you through the philosophy of homeschooling your child(ren) in a rigorous way. They are both proponets of the Classical Education philosophy, which is an academically rigorous approach where children are exposed to classic literature and learn spelling, grammar and language in a very thorough manner. The book is full of an incredible amount of information and step-by-step instructions, plus lists of their recommendations for curriculum. I found it an amazing introduction to the concept of homeschooling and gave me a great starting place when I went researching homeschooling.
To learn more about Classical Education and check out The Well Trained mind curriculum check out https://welltrainedmind.com/?v=7516fd43adaa
The Brave Learner by Julie Bogart
Julie Bogart is a writer and homeschooling mother and has a wonderful homeschool writing curriculum called Brave Writer. Bogart takes a very different approach to homeschooling than Bauer and Wise, and while she is not strictly an “unschooler”, she definitely borrows from that philosophy. She writes that her first priority as a homeschooling mother was having a good relationship with her children. She shares her experience educating her children, while exploring the world and leaving a lot of room for her children to lead the way. She also has a wonderful homeschooling podcast called The Brave Writer, where she discusses all things homeschooling and has a lot of great guests on.
For more information about Julie Bogart, go to https://bravewriter.com
Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne and Lisa M. Ross
This book was recommended to me on several homeschooling Facebook groups, even though it is not specifically about homeschooling. Payne and Ross discuss modern parenting and how if we want our children to thrive, we need to simplify their lives. This is not just about decluttering “stuff” a la Marie Kondo, but actually dives deeper into how crowded and hectic the lives of children are and how by simplifying our lives, we actually help them to succeed. This book helped me to think through our family’s lifestyle and philosophy and how we could simplify our lives to make homeschooling work.
Choosing the Right Curriculum
So now we are on to the absolute hardest part about homeschooling: sourcing the curriculum. This was by far the most involved step on our homeschooling journey and one that I continue to second guess myself about. This section is intended to give my fellow “Unexpected Homeschoolers” a few suggestions on how to consider choosing a curriculum.
What Your Child Needs
The great thing about homeschooling is that you can tailor learning to suit what your child needs. As long as you are covering the subjects, you can work on it in any way that works for your child. Weeks of remote learning gave me a picture of my child’s learning that I had never seen before. I discovered that he gets easily frustrated in math and that he has a really hard time working on a computer without being distracted. I already knew he was a great reader, but I discovered that he was also an excellent speller. All of this information helped me to choose curriculum for him.
Most curriculum companies allow you a sampling of lessons, or even placement tests to determine what level or book would best suit your child. Even though your child may be in 2nd grade, they might actually be reading at a 4th grade level, while their math skills are at a 1st grade level. One of the benefits of homeschooling is that you can tailor your work to suit what your child actually needs, so if they need extra math help you can give it to them.
It is important to be aware that a lot of curricula out there is Christian. Many of these Christian programs put their faith and Bible study into everything (including math!), so if your family wants a secular education, you should look carefully before you buy. Some curriculum companies hide religion in their materials, so you might not discover it until you are already working in it.
My family is committed to a secular education that focuses on social justice, so we wanted to avoid teaching our son whitewashed accounts of history and materials that reinforce gender stereotypes and marginalize people of color. If that is a priority for your family, I strongly recommend you check out Secular Eclectic Academic Homeschoolers. This is an organization that makes wonderful recommendations on secular resources for homeschoolers and takes a lot of time to review material to make sure it fits a strict standard. I joined their Facebook Group and it was a lifeline for me!
Style of Instruction
Next, you will want to decide what method of education works best for your child. Does your child do well independently or do they need a lot of support? Does your child do well learning on a computer or do they do better away from screens? Would they benefit from a bit of both? Does your child do better with workbooks or are they hands on learners? Think carefully about the answers and remember that if you have different children, then these answers will be different.
Now, think about what you as their parent will be able to do. Will you feel comfortable working through a book with your child, or would you benefit from having some of the work being taught online? Are there subjects that you would prefer to outsource?
Answering these questions will give you a better sense of what direction will be right for your family.
Can you work and homeschool?
The answer is: yes. There are several Facebook groups full of working parents who are also homeschooling and they have found great solutions for how to educate their children while they work full time. Some families teach their children early in the morning, in the evenings or on the weekends. Some parents take turns teaching their children throughout the day, trading off tasks and topics. Some families put together activity baskets that children can work independently on while their parents are working.
Remember that the success of some of these methods has to do with the age and disposition of your child(ren). Older children don’t need nearly as much supervision as younger children and may be able to complete tasks on their own while you work. Younger children need a lot more supervision, but depending on your work and family life, you may be able to juggle both.
I have been at this for several months now and I can say that it can be challenging but it is doable. I am a musician and music teacher and I run my own business. I teach 15-20 students per week and I have my own online teaching business that requires I do a lot of marketing and content creation. My husband has a full-time job from 8-5 weekdays, which means I do the bulk of the homeschooling work. Our 8-year-old son has learned how to entertain himself while we are working. He plays Legos, reads a lot and is able to complete some school tasks like handwriting, math workbooks and educational apps like IXL. We also allow a certain amount of “productive” screen time during the day, where he can code on Scratch, build worlds in Minecraft and watch documentaries on Disney+.
Homeschooling Life: Two Months In
We started transitioning to homeschooling at the end of May, while school was still in session. Each week, I would phase in new homeschool work while we phased out the work from public school. By the middle of June we were only doing homeschool and I started to notice huge changes in our home. Our son was no longer grouchy and stressed out and he no longer pushed back about doing schoolwork. It seemed as though while he hated me “enforcing” the work of his schoolteacher, he was totally open to listening to me when I WAS the teacher.
As homeschoolers, you are no longer beholden to the school calendar. We decided to start third grade the week after July 4th. I figured that since we are still in quarantine and he wouldn’t be attending camp or traveling as a family, that we may as well start school now. Starting early means that we will get a head start on the year, which means we can take longer breaks during the year, and make some space to travel in the spring, if the travel bans are lifted. Since all the museums and zoos are closed, we will have lots of time to go to them when they do open again, and if we have our schoolwork taken care of that will afford us a lot more flexibility come the spring.
We also made the amazing revelation that homeschooling takes much less time than traditional schooling. Most kids go to school for 6-8 hours a day, but homeschooling an elementary aged child takes less than three hours. Using some of the principles of homeschooling, a lot of everyday activities count as “school.” Our bike ride or beach swim is PE, folding laundry and making French toast is Home Ec and watching documentaries and tending to our garden is science. My son was shocked when I told him we had just had a full day of school…without him knowing! We played Scrabble (spelling) and he kept score (math), he folded two loads of laundry (Home Ec), he wrote postcards to his friends (writing and printing practice), he played Minecraft (STEM) and build robots with his Dad (more STEM!).
Our son is 100% on board with homeschooling, so much that I am concerned that he may never want to go back to brick and mortar school. He loves spending time with me and having me spend my positive energy on him. He is a lot more engaged in his work, because we are tailoring it for his interests. There is a lot less busywork, because we only linger on work that he really needs to do. If he has a hard time with an assignment, he can take as much time as he wants to finish it and we can review problem areas as many times as he needs to achieve mastery. He also has a lot of free time during the day to do what he wants, which has made him a much more relaxed and contented kid.
As for me, it has been a massive adjustment in so many ways. I have really had to work on my expectations of him and to learn to be patient and take more cues from him. I have had to learn to go with the flow, and to pick my battles. Due to the pandemic, a large portion of my professional work was already put on hold, so my usual schedule of performances and travel are gone for at least the next year. I am self-employed, so I am able to schedule my teaching around times that work best for my son and I try to squeeze in little blasts of work when I can. I also have a great husband, who does more than his fair share of housework and family management, so that I am not forced to do it all. I have had to edit a lot out of my life, but luckily the pandemic did most of the work for me. I have to be very careful about how I use my time, managing self care and sleep so that I can make it through the day and not be completely drained.
My son and I have good days and bad days, but this has been a positive experience for us. I know that he has benefitted from my commitment to homeschool. His math has improved, he is enjoying his work and his handwriting is way better. The stress of not knowing how this year is going to work out has lifted. We are no longer waiting for the governor or the mayor to make announcements. We don’t have to worry about figuring out how to use a bunch of platforms. We are already quietly schooling at home.
What I have enjoyed about this, is my own learning. I am Canadian-born, so I’m excited to finally learn US History in a more thorough way. I have always been terrible at math but learning alongside my son has shown me that math wasn’t my problem: the way I was taught was. I am enjoying reading book after book with my son and am finally diving into all the books that I’ve been wanting to read. Since June, we have read all the Ramona Quimby and Henry Huggins books, have started working through the Chronicles of Narnia (I never read them!) and have read young readers adaptations of classic literature like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Moby Dick.
It has been a relief to be rid of the go-go-go life of drop offs and pick-ups and frantically trying to get everything done. Our lives have slowed down significantly, which is mostly thanks to Covid-19. Taking control of our son’s schooling has helped all of us to feel productive and make use of this unprecedented time. My only worry is that my son and I are going to like homeschooling so much that he never goes back to public school! But, I think I will just try and make it through this year…
Here are a few of the resources my family is using:
We are doing supplementary classes online at Outschool: Use this link to get a $20 credit towards your first course
Beast Academy – a rigorous math program whose textbook teaches in comic book form!
Critical Thinking – We use the Logic book and the Science textbooks, which are terrific workbooks.
IXL – a great app for enrichment activities
We also use flashcards, manipulatives, games and workbooks that I purchased at Amazon.
Writing With Ease and First Language Lessons – created by the author of The Well Trained Mind, these are thorough language textbooks with workbooks centered around the Classical Education philosophy.
All About Spelling – a fantastic hands-on spelling program that teaches spelling rules in a fun way.
For Science, we are doing unit studies using materials purchased at Teachers Pay Teachers. And a variety of other resources, including raising a garden, going on nature hikes and bird watching.
United States History:
Woke Homeschooling’s Oh Freedom! Curriculum. (secular edition) – this is a fantastic curriculum that teaches US History in a totally non-whitewashed way. The book list consists of texts such as Howard Zinn’s A Young People’s History of the United States and novels written from the point of view of Indigenous and African American children.
We have also taken amazing classes at Outschool on the lives of important US figures.
For Geography we are doing Unit Studies using materials purchased at Teachers Pay Teachers.
Private piano lessons (with me!), singing in a chorus
Weekly karate classes, swimming, biking, hiking and sports and games.
Learning to cook, clean the house and actively participate as a family member.
Here is the website to check out if you plan to homeschool in New York State.
If you want to know the Common Core standards for your child’s grade:
This is a download if you want to check out a full list of what might be required in your child’s grade. I downloaded the one for 3rd Grade and am using it as a checklist throughout the year.