Tackling Tough Times, Part 2

In my last post I pointed out that “Homeschooling911” actually started as a book idea – that my original goal was to write a book that would give homeschoolers the tools they needed to continue to homeschool even when life got complicated…or worse.  While “Homeschooling911” did ultimately evolve from a book idea to a website, and while I have actually spent almost two years sharing the “nuts-and-bolts” of homeschooling with prospective and current homeschoolers, I still want to be of assistance to those who are in the middle of a crisis, tragedy or challenge of any kind.

And it became even clearer to me recently that I needed to address this subject while going through an unexpected and unwelcome challenge of my own.  I won’t go into details but I was very ill during the latter half of December and the beginning of January.  The problems actually started in early November but escalated in the week before Christmas, to the point where I ended up in the ER on December 22nd and subsequently spent hours (and thousands of dollars) on doctor’s appointments, lab work and other unpleasantness.

In the middle of this, not knowing how long it would take for me to regain my health I began to plan what I would do with my 4th grader for school once the “Christmas break” ended.  I decided that I would start with only committing to one subject a day, and that subject would be math.  If I managed to do anything else with him, that would be gravy, but math would be my first priority.

And that brings me back to what I discussed in part one of this “mini-series” – when life throws you a curveball, you need to do two things in order to continue to homeschool successfully: prioritize and be flexible.

If you haven’t read that post yet, I suggest you do that right away.  It’s okay, I’ll wait…

So you’re back.  Having read that post you now know that I discussed, in a general way, why I believe prioritizing and being flexible are so crucial to dealing with disaster, change, turmoil and the complications of life – and that’s true for anyone, but particularly for those of us who have taken on the additional responsibility of homeschooling our children.

In this post I am going to go into specifics.  I am going to share those tactics that actually helped me deal with tragedy, turmoil and circumstances that turned my life upside down.  And I firmly believe that these tactics will help you as well.  I also believe that you can continue to homeschool when your life becomes topsy-turvy.

As I pointed out in my previous post, in order to prioritize in difficult times you must learn to be flexible.  If you need to throw a temporary tantrum because of all of your wonderful plans have gone awry, by all means do!  But after you’ve had your fit, take a deep breath, and start prioritizing.  What do your children really need, right now in order to continue to progress in their studies?  What can be put aside for next week, next month, or even next year?

I will contend (and I’m not claiming any kind of special knowledge because this seems pretty obvious) that your children really only need three things in terms of their schooling – those three things are traditionally called “the three ‘R’s.”

Mathematics, reading and writing are the foundation of your child’s education.  Everything else is gravy.  If your child can read, they can find information for themselves.  If they have a solid grasp of mathematics, they can interact with their world in any number of circumstances.  And if they have been trained in composition skills so they can communicate effectively, well, they’ll be ahead of the vast majority of their peers.

I also believe that the order of importance of those three subjects matters, and I put them in the order I have for a reason.  I will explain why below.  When tough times come, and they will, I believe if you follow the methods I have used you can’t go wrong!

Mathematics: At the beginning of this post I mentioned my decision to focus solely on mathematics with my fourth-grader while I was dealing with a debilitating illness.  Why math?  Unlike other subjects, math is the one subject that constantly builds upon previously learned facts and material – and unlike other subjects it also tends to need constant review in order to make those facts and material “stick.”

For example, once your child learns to read, they are not going to forget how to read.   Sure, you will want them to read more challenging material over time, but they will still know how to read.  But will your child forget their addition or multiplication facts?  Will they forget how to multiply fractions or do long division?  In a heartbeat!  Math is the one subject that, more than any other, you must stick with come heck or high water.

So when life goes crazy and you need to prioritize, make sure your kid is getting in their math – whether that involves you sitting down with them, or an older sibling teaching them, or they work on a computer math program or watch DVD’s – whatever you do, keep up with their math.  And if you’re smart you’ll do like I do – once my kids are in sixth or seventh grade they are responsible for completing about 75% of their work independently.  Tell them to do math first.  Every day.  No excuses.

Reading: How you deal with reading in your “prioritizing” depends on the ages of your children.  For young children learning to read, the world will not end if you put their reading program away for a little while.  On the other hand, the two keys I recommend you use when teaching your child to read involve little to no help from you at all.  I discuss this in depth in my post “How to: Teach Your Child to Read” but, in a nutshell, if you use Leapfrog
materials (particularly their phonics DVD’s) and the “Explode the Code” phonics workbooks, your kids are almost guaranteed to learn to read – and with little involvement on your part.  Frankly, many of the phonics programs I have looked at make learning to read way more complicated than it needs to be.  And granted, all kids are different – but the “Explode the Code” workbooks are so solid that I believe few kids would have trouble learning to read if they are used consistently.  And fortunately, they don’t require much time at all.  Spend 15 minutes a day, at most, and you will see results.

Now if your children are older and already reading – well that just makes things even easier!  Forget the grammar, vocabulary, spelling, etc. for a while.  If your kids know how to read, give them things to read.  Have them carry a book everywhere they go.  Have them read to you, if you feel like it.  Or have them read to their younger siblings.  I especially recommend you assign them a series of books.  For kids in 2nd to 4th grade, say – assign them the Boxcar Children series.  For kids in 5th to 7th grade, for example, you could assign the Ralph Moody series that starts with Little Britches (fantastic series by the way – based on Moody’s life these stories show kids that are resourceful, responsible and respectful).  For even older kids, get them into Charles Dickens or G. A. Henty or Jane Austen.  Reading several books by the same author can help your children with their own writing skills as well.  They learn to recognize an author’s voice and can better understand how to find their own voice when writing.  Which brings me to:

Writing: There are two components to writing: the mechanics of handwriting, and the creativity of composition.  When life gets complicated, you can certainly scrap the handwriting program for a time.  Penmanship is something you’ll work on with your kids for years – and all the work you do doesn’t guarantee your kids will end up with good penmanship as I know only too well.  My daughter has nice handwriting as does my middle son but my oldest son’s handwriting is atrocious.  But so what?  He spends most of his time on the computer anyway!  So yes, I do work on handwriting as part of our curriculum (I use “A Reason for Handwriting”) but it’s very hit-and-miss around here.  It’s certainly not a huge priority and can be put aside for quite a while if necessary.

Composition is another thing.  Now first of all, if you have kids under the age of 11 or 12, don’t even bother!  You see how much work I just saved you!  I realize there are some homeschooling philosophies that involve a LOT of writing on the part of your little students.  I think it’s a waste of time.  Just my opinion!

For one thing, narration bores me to death.  I know it’s an integral part of the Charlotte Mason school of thought.  I tried it…and it put me to sleep.  I don’t think we even lasted a week.  And the other school of thought that you should have your child tell you a story while you write it down – another snooze-fest as far as I’m concerned.

And frankly, I believe that composing written work is far too abstract a concept to be assigning to your kids while they’re still mastering fractions and long division.  Now I want you to understand me here: if you have a child that likes making up stories, by all means let them!  And be sure to throw that in your lesson plan schedule when they come to you with something they’ve created (whether by hand or on the computer).  My youngest loves to create stories and cartoons.  So I let him.  But I don’t assign stories or essays.

Once your child is somewhere between 5th and 7th grades, then it’s time to think about a composition program.  And the only one I ever found, after years of searching, that’s worth its salt is “Write With the Best.”  WWTB comes in two volumes and you can easily get three to four years worth of composition instruction out of these two volumes if you take your time.  “Write With the Best” also includes lessons in grammar so you can throw away that extra grammar curriculum.

Another thing I like to do with WWTB is to use the literature assignments as a basis for reading assignments.  For instance, WWTB uses passages from famous literature to teach a specific concept, such as writing a descriptive paragraph or an expository essay.  Rather than just have my child read that one excerpt, I have them read the whole book.  So, for example, as part of using WWTB my middle son read Treasure Island, The Wind in the Willows, and Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.  “Write With the Best” is simply a fabulous program and if you have kids ages 12 and up, you should be using it!

So to sum up:  How do you tackle tough times as a homeschooler?  Well, first of all you need to decide that you are going to be flexible and you are going to prioritize your studies based on what your kids really need, which I believe would be, in this order: mathematics, reading and writing.

Now depending on the legal situation in your state you may need to insert more studies into your schedule BUT, if that is the case, I encourage you to be creative.  If you’re a relative “newbie” to the homeschooling scene, get some advice from veteran homeschoolers.  I’m sure one of two of them have been through tough times and have figured out ways to satisfy the government’s requirements while staying sane.  (And for the record, I think it is deplorable what some states require from homeschoolers…as if the public schools are producing 100% academic stars???)

When I say “be creative” I am suggesting, for example, that some of your everyday activities be counted as schoolwork – whether those activities are cooking meals, helping out with a relative in a crisis situation, or even just spending time reading good books or watching some nature DVD’s.  Everything “homeschooling” doesn’t have to mean sitting at a desk with a textbook!

Finally, I want to encourage you to look at the “big picture.”  Whatever hell you might be going through, you will get through it.  I know that isn’t very comforting when you’re in the middle of a tragedy.  I lost my brother in 1997 when he was killed by a drunk driver – he was 37 years old.  I lost my niece in 2007 when she was killed in a traffic accident – she was 19.  I’ve been through tragedy.  The kind that makes you almost wish you would lose your mind because the pain hurts so bad.  Through it all, by the grace of God, I continued to homeschool.  And I’m so thankful I did.

And you can too.  It doesn’t require Supermom powers.  It just requires some determination and, as I learned in my own life, a decision to be flexible and prioritize your child’s studies.

If you have any questions or just need a little encouragement you can leave a comment below or, if you’d rather keep it private, fill out my contact form and I will get back to you personally.

And if you have any tips related to how you homeschooled through tough times, please share them in the comments.  We all need some encouragement from time to time.