February Doldrums: Tweaking Our Homeschooling Day

February Doldrums: Tweaking Our Homeschooling Day

cardinal in the tree
cardinal in the tree

I’m in the February doldrums, feeling like I’m drifting through my days without much of a plan, on autopilot. Actually, not moving at all, it seems most days. Becalmed.

I’ve been praying along with Mrs Darwin’s novena for order. At the end of the first day I sat down and opened up a new document on the computer and started typing. All these thoughts about reorganizing and restructuring came pouring out. It was only later, after I’d been typing for some time, that I realized that this thing I was writing was a sort of answer to that prayer, an unconscious push to start to find some order, to ask the questions about where we are and where we are going and all that jazz. Order. Ok, we can run with this.

cardinal at the feeder
cardinal at the feeder

The main questions on the table seem to be: What do I think the homeschool day should look like? How do I get it there? Answering those questions may or may not be what this document accomplishes. I’m just writing and seeing where it all goes.

Last year I started to have a little mini panic about how to accomplish the task of educating multiple children of different ages at different levels. Bearing’s good advice helped me to conclude that first I needed to create a structure, a framework for our day, that could be adapted to the needs of the various individuals and only once the structure was in place would I worry about fitting it all in. Well, I think, maybe, I’ve got the structural boxes in place and now it’s time to strategize about how I’m filling them. My basic school structure in two parts: after-breakfast table time, after-lunch couch time.

Right now this is what it looks like:

Sophie and Bella know after breakfast is math, copy work, reading. They might need prompting to get started and to stay on track, but they know what’s supposed to happen. They are generally successful at accomplishing their tasks on their own or asking for help if they need it.

After lunch is read aloud time. Fiction, history, science, etc. The kids all know this is supposed to happen and, again, some prompting is necessary for the transition since this usually happens after I put Lucy down for her nap and they have generally begun some kind of game or art project while I’m doing that, but otherwise they are all in. Anthony and Ben are fully a part of the afternoon reading. Though occasionally Anthony might opt out, it’s an exception to the general rule.

Thus far I think I can declare success in that both Bella and Sophie are working well within this framework and even achieving a modest amount of independent, self-directed work.

However– this is the really big caveat to declaring the structure is in place– I’m not so happy with my inability to consistently get Ben to sit down and do work. Though I lean towards less structure rather than more for children under six, I’d also like to finish the Saxon K math book and I’d like him to get used to fitting himself into that morning table time structure more consistently than he is currently doing. A huge part of that is my own failure to draw him in. I get focused not only on getting the girls through their tasks, and especially at keeping Bella on task, but also on trying to get through my own daily, weekly, housework needs. And, frankly, get distracted by books and art projects and conversations on Facebook. If the girls were totally independent during morning time, it would be easier to bring Ben into the mix, but both of them need quite a bit of hand-holding still. So at this point Ben has done much less of the Kindergarten work than either of the girls had done at the same point in the year (when both of them were ahead in the book, he’s still doing November’s lessons.) Actually, that’s not really true since Bella was doing the K book when she was six, not five. So he’s sort of ahead of Bella, but behind Sophie. On the whole, I think working to add him into the mix on a daily basis is a goal I’d like to aim for next.

But what next for the girls? What we are currently doing is bare bones and every time I post my learning notes I cringe a bit that once again we’re still doing bare bones work. I’d very much like to beef it up a little if I can.

(Aside: do I work on just incorporating Ben for now and leave the what’s next for the girls until I’ve got that where I’d like it to be, or do I try to tweak both things at once? I’m so torn on this. Part of me thinks it’s best to work on one habit at a time but part of me is impatient and also is a little skeptical about getting Ben on board and thinks maybe I should let him be and focus on the what’s next for the girls.)

song sparrow
song sparrow
song sparrow in flight
song sparrow in flight

(And here’s where the post just stops trying to pretend to be a post and becomes my brainstorming notes.)

Some things that I’d like to add in at some point, some sooner rather than later, some long-term:

1.Dedicated time for prayer.

Two question: What prayer? When?

Right now they sometimes join in with my haphazard morning prayer, which I might say as I’m nursing Lucy when we first get up, or if I opt to nurse her while trying to get a bit more sleep, I might just listen to the podcast while prepping breakfast, or I might read Morning Prayer aloud or quietly as I eat or after I eat.

I’d like to formally open the “school” day with prayer, but is that really me or am I trying to squeeze us into someone else’s idea of school? I do better with flexible routines rather than rigid hard stops. So how does prayer fit into that? 

Right now trying to start the day with prayer is so dependent on how breakfast and everything else goes. If the girls need to start work while I’m doing something else, it doesn’t make sense for them to hold off on math and copywork until we can all begin neatly together with prayer. So something short they could each do on their own? A brief morning offering, invocation like meal blessing we could either do together or they do solo depending on the needs of the day?

2.Bible reading

Two questions: What to read? When to read it?

I’ve been trying to make up my mind on this count for a long time and keep waffling back and forth: do we read from the daily lectionary or try to read a book of the Bible straight through in dedicated study. Or both? I’ve been bouncing back and forth between the two. We sometimes get into a nice streak of doing the daily lectionary. We have read all or parts of several books of the Bible: all of Acts, most of Mark, parts of Luke, Parts of Genesis, all of Judith, etc. Nothing consistent or programmatic, but just as the whim strikes us.

The other problem is that in my mind Bible reading is neither fish nor fowl, it’s doesn’t clearly belong to either block of time. So do I put it at the beginning of table time or at the beginning of couch time? Mix and match depending on the day? It’s hard to be consistent and without consistency it falls through the cracks. Bottom line: we don’t read the Bible as often as I like. I’d like to do more reading from the Bible story books for the younger kids and more reading from the Bible for the older kids and myself. And I think my lack of a clearly focused goal is really what’s shooting me in the foot. I probably need to make up my mind on one particular path and follow it. But I’m unlike Frost’s traveller in the yellow wood and the thought of the road not taken keeps me hemming and hawing at the fork unable to pick one.

3. Language lessons: phonics, spelling, grammar, etc. The nuts and bolts of language

This would seem to belong to morning block. Problem: as it stands now, this is not independent work and is very dependent on me and girls all being ready at the same time, synchronizing schedules. Since often they’re working at their own paces, it’s hard to get us all ready for this at the same time. Toddlers and other distractions for me, distractions for them. We are a distracted family and I need to work with that, not pretend like it doesn’t exist or will go away. <— this really this is the key to it all. But also, I keep thinking maybe if I found a good workbook based program one or both of the girls could be more independent with this. Right now I’m just continuing lessons from The Ordinary Parent’s Guide to Teaching Reading and occasional lessons prompted by specific questions that come up from the girls’ reading. 4. history, science, art, music We do them but in a haphazard way. It mostly works, but I’d like to be more consistent. We are sort of behind where I’d like to be in history, but not terribly. We don’t do as much science as I’d like or as much art or music. But neither do we neglect them. This seems to me more clearly a back burner, long term goal rather than something to be worked on at present. 5. reading and math for Ben and Anthony I already covered that above, but this was here in my original outline and somehow I'm loathe to delete it. So here it stays, an orphan structural element in a blog post that can’t quite decide how it wants to be structured. It’s a good thing this is for a blog and not an essay. It would require considerable revision to make this clunky document flow. None of my parallel elements is managing to stay parallel as I keep filling things in and changing them, as I discover new ideas in the process of trying to get it all down. Let’s just call this exhibit A in my non-linear thought processes. 6. catechism, saints Another thing we do sort of haphazardly. I read the catechism lessons when the mood strikes me or when it strikes Sophie or Bella. Sometimes they are resistant. Sometimes I am. I think my kids are generally well catechized and we do a good job of living our faith, but I worry that my lack of consistency sends a message that this is less important than literature and math and reading. We sometimes read about the saint of the day, but I often forget. Another thing that doesn’t have a clear home. Not clearly afternoon reading, not clearly morning table time. Part of the problem isI think it should be morning time but we never seem to have enough time and getting started is a persistent problem. See a pattern here? Does it come down to there not really being enough time in the day to do all I want to do or do I need to manage our time better to make it work? I value our flexibility, lack of rigid structure, and the children’s ability to have so much free time to play imaginative games with each other. I recognize that as they get older they will need more structure. But how much of that needs to have foundations laid now and how much can just wait until they are older? Really is all of this the conflict between my two visions of education, between my unschoolingish side that disdains structure and my classical side that craves it? I seesaw back and forth between these two ideas about what a school day should look like and perhaps the challenge is simply to live within the tension of those competing visions, valuing both of them, taking from them what we need and letting them go when they don’t work for us. But how much of my unschoolingish tendencies are just a cover for laziness and an inability to get organized? To what extent should I fight my tendency towards unstructure and to what extent do I recognize it as who I am and count it as a strength rather than a weakness? I want to be organized, but I am probably never going to be that person. And then again, what do my kids actually need? Shouldn’t it come down to discerning their needs and trying my best to meet them? So I don't know that I've achieved any kind of order, except to get my thoughts somewhat more in order. At least in laying it out this way, I can see more clearly the convoluted thinking that is leading to my throwing up all these roadblocks to decision making. I don't feel much closer to making any decisions, but I think I need to let this simmer for a while on the back burner and come back to it to see what I've got. [caption id="attachment_9664" align="alignnone" width="1024"]junco junco[/caption]

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  • I think you have made marvelous progress. This time last year you were lamenting that you couldn’t even get the girls to sit at the table. Just think about how far you have come! So while you may want to work on structure or expectations, don’t think you are only spinning your wheels. You have all done a lot this year.

    • I agree. We’ve come a long way. I think, the main impetus for writing this, is in reaction to my own internal state of sloth. I’ve fallen into a lazy habit of just sitting back and letting them do what they can do on their own and I’m realizing I could get more done if I were more proactive, but I need to figure out a plan to get myself to re-engage and stop spinning my own wheels.

  • My first instinct would be to let the boys be, unless they are asking to do school. Having had boys first, I am absolutely amazed at my daughter’s ability to sit down and do schoolwork. Very few boys have the same attention span as their female peers. I just had my boys do a little bit of practice writing the numbers most days in K. I didn’t feel like they could really do math lessons until they were about 6 1/2.

    • The Saxon K math lessons are really, really short and easy and Ben likes them a lot. He’s always happy to sit down and fill in his calendar and then do a short little exercise, that’s usually something easy and hands-on like counting manipulatives, shape recognition, etc. Much of it is reviewing what he already knows. Really, the barrier isn’t him, it’s me and my remembering to invite him to engage. If he doesn’t want to, I don’t push it. What I’m wanting most is just to start forming a habit of daily work so that when he hits first grade we can focus more on content.

  • I’m very interested to more thoroughly read this. You’re a few years ahead of me (my oldest/only school age is 6.5) and our day looks very much like yours with the morning table time and afternoon couch time. We do open the day with prayer/morning basket, but I’m thinking I need to have table work ready for my daughter to do right after breakfast and chores, since our prayer time and thus table time keeps slipping later and later.

    • I keep seeing people saying they do a morning basket and I’ve been wondering how that’s different from my afternoon couch time. What do you slot for morning basket and what for couch time and how do you decide what goes where?

  • I think it sounds like you are doing great, Melanie! And it sounds to me as if Ben is doing quite a bit for a 6-yr. old boy. Not that I have experience with boys, but…. 🙂

    Also, I think that this kind of mental tweaking, wondering, assessment, etc., is (while it feels, in the moment, as if we’re floundering) an important part of the process. I always found that when I started to panic about what we were (or weren’t) doing, it led to the kind of reassessment you are doing here. And when I’d look back, several months later, I’d see that the “panic,” instead of being a sign that I was doing a terrible job, was just part of the process of figuring out what worked, what didn’t, and where changes were needed.

    One thing that I did with my girls regarding morning prayer, etc. — we said our meal blessing before breakfast, then we did a short morning offering together, and then prayed some petitions that I regularly posted on the wall (and changed with the liturgical season.) Then, over breakfast, I did read-alouds, often starting with one short Bible story and then moving on to whatever book we were working our way through.

    Lots of other good stuff you’re pondering here, but thought I’d just throw out one little idea that may or may not be of help!

    • Thanks, Karen. I do think it’s more tweaking/assessment/wondering, than floundering. But it does look so messy when I go to try to write out my thought processes. For me I do think it’s a sort of necessary see-saw: get complacent, lazy, a little slothful and then suddenly hit a tipping point and re-evaluate. I think the re-evaluation is necessary in part because the sloth creeps in when I get a bit bored of routine. I like to shake things up a bit to keep it interesting for myself as well as for them.

      I have been thinking about morning offerings. And getting stalled out because I want to find the perfect version. So far I like bits and pieces of several of them, but none of them is jumping up and down yelling: “Me! Me!” I tried to cobble together the bits of all the ones I liked… and it was two pages handwritten. So that’s part of the inertia: indecisiveness, perfectionism.

      I tend to try to save the read alouds for the afternoon when Lucy is napping. Morning is perhaps Bible and saint of the day, and maybe a poem, but never history or novels. We often have a fairly short window to squeeze in our morning work before we have to go run an errand, so I do want to keep things flexible enough and brief enough that we can get through math, copywork, reading, and whatever prayer, etc I decide to institute before we have to leave. Often it’s an hour or less, which can be squeezed when everyone needs help with math and with reading.

  • Hi Melanie,

    It sounds to me as if you’re doing a lot more than you think you are. I know you know this, but I will say it anyway, your kids have acquired a great deal of knowledge from all of your read-alouds and field trips. How many kindergarten/elementary age children know as much about history, science and literature as your kids?

    Also, I always found it hard to find the best time to schedule prayer time with my kids for the same reasons that you mentioned. I wanted them to start their independent work while I was finishing up a few morning tasks and it didn’t make sense to uproot them when they were in the middle of an assignment. What about lunchtime? Would it work for you to have a brief prayer time and bible story then? Just a thought.


    • I’d say maybe 50% of the time lunch might work. The other half of the time I’m scrambling because I just glanced at the clock and Wow! I didn’t realize how late it is! I need to feed these kids and get Lucy down for a nap! Which if I did a better job of watching the clock, perhaps we could avoid, but I’m trying to plan for real life not ideal world.

      Also, I really like the idea of starting the day with prayer and consecrating the work they/we are doing.

      Perhaps I should aim for something like this:

      1. Teach kids quick morning offering and have them say it like they say the meal blessings, together if we get the chance, but solo if they aren’t all starting at the same time.

      2. Read morning prayer/ lectionary readings/ saints readings at breakfast but if there isn’t time try to do it at lunch and if that fails too then start off afternoon reading time with them.

  • I had to laugh at your comment about being a “distracted family”; actually, your entire post gave me all sorts of deja vu feelings, as I’m pretty sure I have written many like it over the years. I really like reading your learning notes, and I think you are doing pretty well. When we lived in upstate New York, I finally learned to take a winter break every year instead of flogging myself to work harder; there was something about having a couple of days off that made the constant snow a little easier to deal with and gave me a bit of distance when it came to hashing out any problems I perceived in our homeschool routine. I figured if the schools can take a winter break, so can I.

    Speaking from the perspective of another distracted family.. I think you are absolutely right that you have to work with the distractability instead of against it. I don’t know that I would mess with the routine you already have if it mostly works for you. I started a morning prayer/Bible/read aloud time with my kids long before there was anything called “Morning Basket” or “Morning Time”; it was just that I didn’t want to forget to read the Bible, so I did it first thing every morning. Then I was pregnant with twins and we moved 1000 miles, and I spent a lot of time on the couch in the mornings, so we would just go from reading the Bible into our read alouds, and my two oldest would color or draw while I read. In the afternoon, we did things that required quiet concentration — like math, Latin, etc — *especially* after the twins arrived, because when they were both awake I couldn’t do much but keep track of them. At that point in time, it seemed like everybody did their math, etc. in the morning and the read alouds in the afternoon, so I wondered if we shouldn’t do that, too. But it never worked for us. The older kids just couldn’t concentrate when the little kids were around. Now it seems like “morning time” is the thing to do, but I think the take-away here is to do whatever works in your house. If it were me, I think I would just add prayer and Bible reading to your afternoon read aloud time. It’s already there and the kids expect to gather then. You could just begin with prayers.

    Also… having some experience with boys… I think your Ben is doing fine. None of my boys have been ready to sit and do much academic type work before the age of… probably 8. I require a little bit of handwriting, a little bit of math, a little bit of phonics/reading (and right now, I sometimes struggle to get that in with my current 7 year old, which makes me feel guilty, but he’s really, really good at escaping). My kids read late, but when it finally does click, they seem to be good readers and more importantly, they like to read, so I’m finally trying to make peace with my limits and their limits and the whole process — after 5 kids have become readers! LOL

    • Thanks, Angela. It’s nice to know other families are distracted too. And laid back. I’m actually not wanting a winter break right now, we took a lot of time over the Christmas season and I’m enjoying finding our rhythm again but perhaps by the end of February. I’m pondering some field trips once the snow lets up enough to let us get into the city. The MFA is offering art classes for homeschoolers on Friday mornings and we need to get to the aquarium again and there are other things too.

  • Oh my I could have written this post (and I’m sure I have in my head many times!) I find it so hard to be at the mercy of the “do more” pressure that seems to permeate everything in our culture.

    Last year we adopted a fabulous blind, post institutionalized girl. I was trying to do so many subjects with my 15 (dyslexic) and 8 year old and chasing my 3 year old that I was doing very little with her. This was NOT what I had planned when I was waiting anxiously for her.

    So I stepped back and thought about my “big rocks”. Have you ever seen Stephen Covey do his “big rocks” lecture? Basically you put your big rocks in your vase first and they will fit and your tiny rocks will fit around these big rocks. If you try to put the tiny rocks in first the big rocks can’t fit in.

    So my big rocks were – math, Latin, writing (comp for 15, penmanship for 8) and violin for 8 and science (he wants to be a vet) for 15. And then I said THAT WAS IT. Bible and prayer are big rocks but I let them be organic – reading the bible continuously before bed – just a little bit. Praying in the moment for people we love, or those who are mean to us. Attending Mass and weekly adoration. Talking and talking about our love of God.

    And now I have time for our daughter – Anelia. And do you know what? Just freeing up some space to work with her has fueled me in other areas. She is starting to talk and to interact with me and her siblings like never before. And THAT makes me want to do more with her and I have more energy for the other kids. I’m just amazed and humbled. This is putting God first.

    So there is my brain ramble. I also fight an inner unschooler and I hate busy type work. I use Memoria Press almost exclusively (because it’s EASIER and then I don’t start doubting myself by seeing all the curriculum that is out there.)

    Not that I still don’t worry sometimes. But then I remember our daughter’s progress and I feel at peace.

    I’m praying for your peace of mind. And PLEASE don’t forget to update us!! I love your ramblings. 🙂

  • I can share our Morning Offering if you would like. The kids say it on their own at breakfast if I can’t quite make it there.

      • Sorry I took so long!

        So I was going to teach the kids the one in the Seton Religion book, but it wasn’t quite like the one I knew – from when I was a teen, I think – so I figured I might as well do the one that I knew…

        “Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, through the most pure hands of Mary, I offer you all the prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of this day; In union with the Masses being said throughout the world today, for the intentions of Thy Sacred Heart and the Apostleship of Prayer, for the Holy Souls in Purgatory, for the intentions of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and those of our dear Holy Father, Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict the XVI. (Pope St. John Paul II, pray for us. Pope St. John XXIII, pray for us.)” (Since their canonizations.)
        “Every step I take, every beat of my heart, every glance of my eyes, every single thing I do, I wish to be an act of love for You. Amen.”

        The kids also add “Jesus, bless all I think (point at head), all I say (point at lips), and all I do (hold palms up),” which came from Lacy’s “Catholic ABC’s” opening prayer. (“Good morning, Dear Jesus, This day is for you. We ask that you bless all we think, say, and do.”)

        I guess I might as well explain that we start prayers with “Good morning, Jesus… Good morning, Mary… Good morning, Guardian Angel… I love you… Watch over me today… Jesus, I give you this day; Use me today for your glory.”

        Then Angel of God; then the Morning Offering prayer; then Bless us, O Lord; then 3 Hail Marys for purity; ending with St. Joseph, pray for us, St. ____, pray for us… – that’s when we usually look to see who the saint is for that day.

        That is what’s working for us, for now! Sorry this got long-winded!