One of the biggest questions I get when people hear that I’m an unschooler is “so do you just wake up every morning and pick what you’re going to learn?”
Whew chile…if that was my life. Absolutely NOT. With this many children and with their strong personalities, if I just went with what they wanted each day they’d graduate with Ph.Ds in Star Wars and potty jokes and not much else. No, no, we’re a lot more coordinated than all that. I’m sure there are plenty of unschoolers who do well to go wherever the wind may take them, but that’s not how my unschooling works. I do a good bit of planning to keep us organized, but I also leave us plenty of room to adjust based on how the kiddos respond to what we’re learning. Many days we’ve started a topic and gotten so interested in it that we’ve continued for weeks on something I originally planned for only a day or two. (Hello, eight year old who writes a report on the Cold War. Not even kidding.)
So how do I organize our school goals and still have room for flexibility? When I was working as an HR partner for Target, I had to help my stores in different states and with different team and customer attributes achieve the same company goals, but in ways that kept their individual store culture positive and allowed for development of the leaders and the hourly staff. It was a lot to coordinate so many different people towards achieving the same overarching goals. But it was doable. The same concept works for my homeschool. Here’s what it looks like for me:
I start with a vision. The vision isn’t really goals; it’s the guiding principle that helps me identify goals. I find the best way to craft a vision is to start with the end result in mind.
This is a bit long-winded, but it absolutely helps guide my focus, so bear with me:
Ultimately, my goal as an unschooler, and really as a homeschooler in general, is to develop my children into functional adults who are responsible and kind, who know their worth and value others for their differences, and whose knowledge of the world around them and the people who’ve come before them points them toward the God who created them. I want my children to be adults who can provide and care for themselves, and who can help those who cannot do the same, and I want them to be able to navigate tough circumstances and disappointments without being destroyed by them. I want them to be able to identify what they’re responsible for and what they’re not, and I want that knowledge to help them forge positive relationships and leave toxic ones. Those skills won’t just come from reading books and learning facts. They’ll come from our interactions with one another and with our communities. And for me to be able to guide and direct them through those, I have to be flexible enough to seize opportunities and offer myself as a listening ear and voice of truth and reason.
Once I know my vision, I give myself some high-level goals. These are things I want my children to leave the house knowing, without getting too deep into the details.
When my children graduate from homeschool, I want them to:
- Be great communicators in spoken and written English.
- Have an appreciation for the arts of many cultures.
- Know the story of the history of world civilizations and understand how those events shape the world in which they live.
- Appreciate the world around them and know how the natural world works and how to protect and use natural resources responsibly.
- Have a working knowledge of mathematics and a strong foundation in personal finance.
- Have strong habits for study and research, and a strong discipline to work first and play second.
- Be able to prioritize and accomplish goals while minimizing distractions.
- Understand their own self-worth and how to cultivate positive relationships with those around them.
Next I break those goals down into smaller goals that are accomplishable in our home school setting. These are constantly evolving for me based on how my children are learning and maturing. I break these down by year, then quarter, and then month.
*I find that the best way for me to stay flexible with my homeschool is to have very generalized goals for the year, then more detailed goals for the quarter, and then get more detailed in the monthly plan. From there I can tailor each week to meet those goals without worrying about deviating from a course we set long before.
- Reading and writing: I put together a reading list for us for each year, with flexibility to add more books (especially if we’re reading something from a series) or change it up if our interests change. I also set goals for things like sight words for my beginning reader, challenging reads for my older student, and letter recognition for my littlest. For writing, I set goals like mastering cursive for my oldest, and for my middle son who absolutely loathes writing, I have simple goals like writing his name and eventually writing a letter to a friend (which motivates him better than copywork ever will).
- Arts: I want my children to identify some major works of art, the sounds of different instruments, and have started to learn a musical instrument.
- History and Geography: I use Story of the World as our history reader, and my goal is for each year is to work our way through whatever our current volume is, and to master the countries and major landmarks that go along with those. I also want them to have a mastery of where each continent belongs on a map, and we do this by drawing blob maps at an early age and adding more detail each year as they progress.
- Science: My goal (for now) is for them to have a working knowledge of the systems of the body and how they work, and to be able to identify the wildlife and plant life around our home, with each child having a different degree of detail in his or her knowledge of the systems that let those animals and plants live and function.
- Math: I want each of my children to master math facts so they can recall those without delay. Even my littlest is capable of memorizing simple addition, subtraction, and multiplication facts without much difficulty, given that we do a small amount each day.
- Habit building: This is the single most important for me as a mom. We create habits by doing things like washing dishes after meals, wiping the sink after brushing teeth, staying on top of laundry, cleaning up toys, and spending time in our Bibles each day. I have to work especially hard at things like practicing our instruments and doing math facts when I feel like we already know those things, because the real value is not necessarily in the actual work we’re doing, but in the act of making time to return to something we know and building our expertise through familiarity.
- Self-worth: This is worth writing as a goal, even though it’s not a subject, because it requires making conscious choices each day. Each year, quarter, and month, I ask my kiddos to set a goal for themselves, whether it’s character building or academic, and we check in on it each day. This is so important in helping them build confidence in themselves that isn’t dependent on whether or not someone else praises their achievements. If they can set goals for themselves and see the value in accomplishing what they set out to do, they can do anything.
Once I’ve set these goals, I get down to the nitty gritty of actually applying it to our homeschool. Here’s what I do to make it happen:
- Build a month and weekly plan in my bullet journal. I know. I’m such a diva. In the same way that I can’t find a curriculum that meets my expectations, I also can’t ever find a planner that suits me. So I make my own with a bullet journal and I absolutely LOVE it.
- Write in our commitments FIRST. This means including our weekly Classical Conversations community days, our weekly trip to the library, and any appointments we have. It also lets me shift school days as needed so we don’t get caught trying to overdo it. This is also my chance to prioritize each month- if something is getting in the way of our school time or family time, it’s time for me to cut it out.
- Select our monthly focuses. More to come on this on my resource page, but I use Morning Time Menus at the suggestion of my dear friend (whose instagram @give.them.beauty is an absolute feast for the eyes and a homeschool dream at work). When setting these I choose a hymn, some excerpts of scripture, a prayer (in English and Latin), two poems, a period of art, and an excerpt from classic literature by an author in the time period we’re studying. These choices all get printed out and placed into restaurant menus for each child, and we work our way through them each morning and memorize them over the course of the month. They also help provide some consistency when we might otherwise be all over the place with our other studies.
- Set our schedule for the week. Once our monthly focuses are charted, I start the weekly plans. I have to do this just one week at a time, because sometimes we get too excited about a subject to move on to the next one. (Weather is a huge one in our house that continues to keep us coming back for more.)
- Curate the materials. I use a variety of materials to help direct my squad, and many of them are things I’ve picked up here or there over time. But for whatever is left, I use the library. Our library is amazing and the resources are so much more than posters- we can check out a microscope and slides, posters, science experiments, puppets, math manipulatives, and so much more. We’ve also been able to check out passes to local museums and expositions that coordinate with what we’re learning. Never be afraid to ask your librarian about all the resources for teachers and home educators- there is so much more than I can even describe!
- Keep it organized. I have two baskets for materials: one for what we’ve used, and another for what’s in the hopper. We wind up checking out around 70 books a week at the library, and I can’t handle the fines that will pile up if we forget something. So I have to have a designated place for where things go, and each week we check those against our receipt before we head back to the library. Even with material we own, I make it my mission to put it away when we’re finished so I know exactly where it is if we want to use it again. Nothing stresses me out the way not finding what I’m looking for does.
Then lastly, but maybe most importantly is this:
Reflect and adjust.
No really. It seems like this is a luxury, but it’s absolutely the most important thing I do for my homeschool and I have to do it every single week. My kids are just kids. They aren’t prodigies and they aren’t soldiers. They have their own learning styles and every single one of them are different. And I’m not superwoman. I love educating them at home, but I don’t love feeling like it’s not going well. And the best way for me to prevent myself feeling that way is to adjust my tactics and goals when I start finding us struggling. If we need more time on a subject, we spend it. If we need to put a certain subject or book away for a while, we do that. Every single Sunday I sit down with my planner and reflect on the previous week before writing the plan for the next week. I make this a non-negotiable for myself, and it has done wonders for my confidence as a homeschooler. If I don’t have time for reflecting and adjusting, I have to ask myself if whatever I’m spending my time on is actually value added. I would rather skip a day of homeschool to make a good plan for the following days than start without knowing what we’re working towards, and there are times that I’ve done just that. That’s the beauty of home education- you can stop and regroup and start over with new goals if you need to.
Is this perfect? Meh. Is anything? This works wonderfully for me, and as soon as it doesn’t, I’ll find something else. What I can promise you is that I’m not about to spend one second on a system or plan that doesn’t serve my family and my teaching, because my time is precious and the years with these little people are limited. I don’t have time to waste feeling bad about myself or what I’m doing, and I’d be willing to bet that the same is true for you.