Temporary Homeschooling Tips, Part Two: Schedules

Yesterday I published a post with some general advice for those who may be temporarily homeschooling children due to the coronavirus outbreak. The most frequent question I have gotten since then is about our schedule – how do we organize our day?

First, a disclaimer – we are homeschoolers, but by no means does that mean that we usually spend the entirety of our days at home. All four of our kids usually swim two to three times a week. The big kids and I usually ride horses at least a few times a month. We take “field trips” – we go to the zoo, we go to art shows, we go to the pumpkin farm, we go to parks. FangFang usually has weekly PT, and it feels like we always have a pediatrician or dentist or eye doctor or specialist appointment coming up for someone for some reason! All four kids participate in a homeschool enrichment group 3 mornings a month. Spending more time at home is a change for us, too.

That said, we do have a general routine to our days. Note that a routine is different than a schedule. To me, a schedule is based on specific times, and one of the things I appreciate about homeschooling is that it allows for flexibility and freedom to spend more time than planned on an area that is particularly difficult or especially interesting. Plus, I’m a control freak, and I get stressed out about schedules. Routines work well for us, though!

We divide our academic work into two different categories, loosely called “table school” and “couch school.” Table school is for subjects the kids do at the dining room table but also includes, for the older kids, any subjects on which they do their work independently. Couch school is for subjects we do together on the couch. For the older kids (4th grade and 3rd grade), table school is math, independent reading, and sometimes Language Arts. For the younger kids (kindergarten and pre-k), table school is math and Language Arts.

Each night before I go to bed, I write out assignments for table school for the older two kids for the next morning.

If I’m on top of things, I might get out school books for everyone the night before, as well, but that’s not super frequent 😉 The older kids are quite capable of getting their own materials.

The older kids’ job is to come downstairs when they wake up, get themselves breakfast (or ask for help getting breakfast), and get started on their table school work. I’ve found that they find table school more challenging than couch school – perhaps because they are expected to do more independently – and so it goes better if we start with that. There is no specific wake-up or start time – my kids all usually wake up once they’ve gotten enough sleep, and they just start once they are awake (usually by 8:00 or 8:30, sometimes earlier or later).

After I have breakfast, I start table school with the younger kids.

Everyone gets a break after table school. I would say, on average, we’re all finishing up table school between 10:00 and 10:30, but it can vary pretty widely. What that break looks like depends on the day and whether everyone is ready for a break at the same time or whether the big kids and little kids are finishing up their work at very different times. Regardless, each kiddo definitely gets a break, though I may stay busy working with one group and then the next. Sometimes that break is just free play time. Sometimes we all go for a walk. Now that we’ll no longer have swimming as part of our regular weekly activities, we will need to be sure we’re getting enough physical activity, so I’m hoping we can go for walks more frequently. Otherwise, we might play outside or do some Cosmic Kids Yoga, or I may put together some more active work-out type activities to do with everyone.

What we do next depends on the time. Often times we can move on to couch school, but sometimes we need to break for lunch at that point.

Couch school subjects are always History, Science, and Bible. For the little kids, we also do Literature and Reading as couch school subjects; for the older kids, Language Arts is sometimes a couch school subject, depending on what we need to do that day. Whether the big kids or little kids do their couch school subjects first depends on who finished table school first that day. Usually I sit together with each group on the couch, and we read each of our books and discuss them. Often times the big kids will join us for the little kids’ books – I’m reading the same books with the little kids that I read with the big kids 5 years ago, so those stories feel like old friends to them!

After we’ve finished lunch and our couch school subjects, we do some clean-up. In particular, the common areas of the house (the living room and dining room) need to be picked up. Sometimes I’ll also have kids work on cleaning their own rooms or doing their family teamwork jobs (things like sweeping, unloading the dishwasher, vacuuming, cleaning the bathrooms, etc).

Then we have our afternoon downtime. Sometimes we’ll all have independent quiet time in separate rooms. Sometimes we’ll all sit in the living room for half an hour and read our own books. After that, almost every day, the kids are allowed to watch 1-2 hours of tv while I work. I have a very flexible part-time job, and I try to get in at least an hour of work each afternoon.

What happens after that really depends on the timing. Sometimes we’ll transition straight from that downtime into dinner prep. Sometimes there will be time for a fun activity together. This is another window into which I’m hoping to fit some free play and time outdoors and exercise.

We all have dinner together as a family, during which we go around the table, and each person shares their high of the day, their low of the day, their buffalo (something strange or interesting), something kind they did that day, and something they’re looking forward to.

After dinner we might do a family activity, or the kids might all play independently. Every child also needs to finish any family teamwork jobs that they did not do earlier in the day. Atticus really likes to play Wii or Xbox, and this is the only window of the day in which we allow that, and sometimes MeiMei or FangFang will play with him.

Around 8:00 Matt puts the little kids to bed, and between 8:30 and 8:45, the big kids and I head upstairs for their bedtime routine. After they’re ready for bed, they snuggle with me in my bed, and that’s when I do Literature with them, reading to them as bedtime stories.

The routine is subject to adjustment, as needed, but it’s the general structure we follow for each of our days! As always, feel free to ask questions and let us know if I can help in any way 🙂

Some Tips for the Temporarily Homeschooling

We, like most Americans, are wondering what the coming days and weeks hold, as we wait on the brink of the coronavirus spreading more widely within the States. Three of the six members of our household have medical conditions that could complicate our prognosis in the event that we were to contract the virus, and we also find the argument for flattening the curve to be highly persuasive, so, when possible, we have started limiting our interactions with those outside of our household.

We, of course, already homeschool, but a number of families may be facing unexpected days or weeks of children being home from school. I posted on Facebook that I would be happy to give suggestions and/or resources to anyone who will unexpectedly have children home for some period of time, and I received a number of comments and messages requesting advice, so I’m sharing here some general suggestions.

First of all, I don’t think that any unexpected time away from a school setting has to be spent 100% focused on academics. This can be a great time to build relationships and just enjoy spending time together as a family. Additionally, there are so many fun ways to learn.

My older girls practice math skills by playing games (some favorites are Yahtzee and Masterpiece)…

…and baking (an activity we are hoping to resume soon – but one of the tasks on our list for today is to order a new range, as our oven died last week!). My oldest likes to make up her own recipes, which used to cause me a lot of stress…until I realized that even if the result was terrible, the worst consequence would be that I was out a couple dollars worth of ingredients. She would have had a great time and had the opportunity to explore an area in which she is interested.

Art projects are another great option for fun learning!

But also, I recognize that many families will want to continue some more formal academic pursuits for their children, and I think there is wisdom in that.

For the pre-school crowd, kids truly learn best through play, so my suggestions would be pretty simple – have some good toys available (puzzles, blocks, magna tiles, art supplies, play dough, railroad tracks), and avail yourself of those, in addition to reading to your children. Reading aloud is truly the most academic that I would get with young children. Many kids do best with some structure, so it might be helpful to create some sort of routine that will work well for your family, but it is simply not necessary to have a very detailed schedule focused heavily around academics.

For children in early elementary school, much of what they learn does not rely on prior knowledge – it doesn’t build on itself in a way that is entirely necessary. The same social studies or science concept can just as easily be taught to a 6-year-old as to an 8-year-old and vice versa. Kids can learn about plants, animals, chemistry, and space in any order at all. And I can think of no essential concept in those areas that is going to be taught to an early elementary school student and never revisited. That means that unless your school gives you specific guidance, it is not of paramount importance to study any particular concepts in an exact order. Doing some study of science, history, and social studies would be lovely, but really any area of interest of yours or your children’s would be a great focal point.

Beyond those generalities, if I were going to be temporarily homeschooling my children, I would focus my attention on 3 areas –

(1) Reading. I’d figure out where my child was at with reading and continue working with them to build their skills in those areas. You probably have a number of resources in your home already that will allow you to do that. If you’re wondering what a sample reading program might look like, we’ve used Sonlight’s programs for years. You can check out their offerings here (we’ve used every program listed here from Kindergarten through the E Readers). Obviously you will not need a full year’s program, but looking at these books can give you an idea of what sort of books you might already have at home that you could use in working with your child on reading. For kids who can do some independent reading, those with Kindle Freetime Unlimited have access to huge numbers of free books on e-readers. The Epic app is also a great resource for e-books for kids.

(2) Math. This is another area in which skills do build on one another, and it is helpful if your child continues to learn and grow. Ideally, you could figure out what curriculum your child is using and where they are with it and work with them there, but even doing some workbooks at your child’s general level or reviewing math facts could be helpful. The math app that we find most helpful for our older two kids is Xtra Math – it’s a game that helps kids build their addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division facts. It learns which facts your children need to practice most and works with them on those.

(3) Reading out loud to your child. Children, especially at young ages, can comprehend so much more than they can read themselves. They learn so much by having their adults read to them. You can read literature or non-fiction science or history books or any mix thereof. Reading with children is a great way to bond, to share experiences, to have great discussions, and to learn together. Our times curling up on the couch or snuggling in bed and reading together are some of the highlights of my kids’ and my days. My older two kids and I recently read through the Harry Potter series, and it was such a joy for all of us to share that experience together. You can also use those times of reading aloud to teach your children about history or science. Our core curriculum is from Sonlight, and many of their read-aloud packages include some great historical fiction that truly brings history alive in a different way than textbook reading does. We’ve read books like the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, Caddie Woodlawn, Johnny Tremain, and The Witch at Blackbird Pond, among many others. My kids have also greatly enjoyed reading books about science (Sonlight packages here) – books about space, animals, plants, how things work, and much more. You may already have a lot of these books or others that are similar in your home, or you could consider ordering a few that look interesting to you and your children.

You could also do some writing – practicing handwriting or just having kids copy out a sentence or two of good writing – to keep kids learning in those areas, but my top three areas of focus would be what I’ve listed above. If you’re a more fun mom than I am, doing science experiments together could also be a great option for learning!

For older children, I’d try to find some creative and fun ways to challenge them to grow while also keeping them engaged and interested. For instance, even children as young as 8 or 9 can do research projects – MeiMei and Miranda both wrote research papers last year about animals (MeiMei’s was on hummingbirds and Miranda’s was about cats). This year they each tackled a different science topic, with MeiMei learning about how sharks’ gills work and Miranda focusing on the planet of Mars. We’re about to dive into a project in which they each research and write a report about a state. Obviously older children would be capable of learning about even more complex topics or delving into them in more detail in a report or presentation.

Students might also read and learn and think and perhaps write about historical or philosophical topics – comparing and contrasting the Jesus of the Bible with To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch and/or Atlas Shrugged’s John Galt. There is more than enough classic literature to reach well beyond what any middle school or high school curriculum can include fully, and this would be a great time for students to check out some of the books on Sonlight’s readers lists or google a list like, “100 books to read before college.” Reading and discussing books like these would be a great learning experience.

This spring would be an excellent opportunity for students of any age to learn about the election process in the United States, following primary voting, learning about any current issues that interest them, or researching the history of suffrage in the United States. Sonlight has a free downloadable unit study or a US elections lapbook kit.

This time, facing the unknowns of a global pandemic, can obviously be stressful. However, it can also provide a beautiful opportunity for us to spend time together as families, and there are so many ways in which we can nurture our children’s minds even outside of school settings and large group gatherings.

Please let me know if you have additional questions or if there are other ways I can help! And if you’re local and would like to borrow some resources from our homeschool library, we would be happy to loan out whatever we can!

God as Gendered

Years ago, a book called The Shack was released and stirred a great deal of controversy within the evangelical Christian world, in part because of its portrayal of God the Father as a large Black woman. Interested in what it was really all about, I picked up a copy of the book and actually enjoyed it a great deal. No, I don’t picture God the Father as a large Black woman – but neither do I picture Him as an old white dude with a flowing, snow-white beard, XY chromosomes, and a penis. The God who exists outside of space and time, who spoke the universe into being, creating it ex nihilo, who created us in His image – I don’t think He can be reduced to either of those human-like representations.

I liked what the God character said in the book, when asked why She was showing up as a woman – “I am neither male nor female, even though both genders are derived from my nature. If I choose to appear to you as a man or a woman, it’s because I love you…Hasn’t it always been a problem for you to embrace me as your Father? And after what you’ve been through, you couldn’t very well handle a father right now, could you?” The main character, “knew she was right, and he realized the kindness and compassion in what she was doing. Somehow, the way she had approached him had skirted his resistance to her love. It was strange and painful and maybe even a little bit wonderful.”

Isn’t that who and what God is? Showing up in ways we don’t expect? Looking different than what we thought? Demonstrating compassion and kindness? Working in our lives in ways that are strange and painful and wonderful?

I just finished reading Sarah Bessey’s latest book, Miracles and Other Reasonable Things, and one of the most encouraging parts of it was her description of her thought process in imagining God mothering her.

She writes, “Most of us identify God in parental terms as a father – and that is deeply meaningful to me as well…But just as my own father gave me a glimpse of God’s good character, so did my mother. She could not be erased from the goodness of God’s expression…I find that the older I get, the more I care for the ones I love and for the world, the more I need both – I need both the energy of the mother and of the father. I need the fullness of the expression of God, not a lopsided caricature of either. And in times of suffering or loss or exhaustion, it has turned out that I needed a mother” (p. 172-173).

And she tells of how this has played out in her life recently, saying, “This has been the question God has given to me as a practice of spiritual discernment during my life with chronic pain: How would God like to mother me today? If God was a strong, patient, wise, kind, no-nonsense, deeply loving mother, what would She want for me today? It’s a great question to ask in prayer when I feel scattered and exhausted and empty” (p. 172). She notes, in her discussion of self-comfort versus self-care that, “Perhaps self-care is simply joining with God to care for ourselves as a mother would care for us” (p. 170).

I am well aware that this idea of God as Mother – or, really, as anything other than an old white dude – can be controversial among Christians. One of Rachel Held Evans’s last tweets before she died was, “I’ve written four books, hundreds of blog posts, and dozens of articles, and only once have I used a feminine pronoun for God. People still point to that as a reason I should be killed in order to quicken my eternal torment in hell. No joke.”

And yet, there is imagery of God as a mother in multiple Bible passages. Isaiah 66:13 says, “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” Psalm 131:2 says, “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.” Jesus compares Himself to a mother hen, saying, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37).

I’m finding myself comforted tonight, thinking about God as both Father and Mother. I am encouraged as I think about the difference between self-comfort and self-care and how this image that Sarah Bessey sets forth of, ” If God was a strong, patient, wise, kind, no-nonsense, deeply loving mother, what would She want for me today?” can be a guide for me as I move forward. And I am thankful for the men and women who have gone before me, who are reflecting back for us the wildness, the nurture, and the utterly-beyond-gendered-ness of the Living God.

Christmas 2019

This year we traveled to Wisconsin for Christmas, and it was the first year in quite a few that my brothers and I and my parents were all in the same place for Christmas! It was so good to see everyone and have that time together <3

My three youngest kiddos helped my mom decorate her tree (she promised to leave off the ornaments so they could assist – and this way there was no pressure for me to get out a tree and decorate, which was great, because I did not want to do it).

The next day was our extended family Christmas party, which included, of course, a game. My family is practically incapable of missing any opportunity for a competitive game.

We went bowling again 🙂

There was early morning art-making…

…and all-day-long snuggling with this girl <3

We’ve also outgrown my mother’s house (by which I mean that me having 4 kids means that I have put us in a position of having outgrown my mother’s house), so Danny and Sharon stayed at a hotel nearby, which wasn’t always ideal (particularly when Danny came down with pneumonia later in the week and wanted nothing more than to sleep all day), but it did give us an opportunity to go swimming – and all of the kids thought that swimming with uncles who can turn into train engines or throw you high in the air was pretty awesome 🙂

One thing we’ve done a couple times now that I’ve loved is had a family book discussion. This year we read and discussed Casey Cep’s Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee. I always enjoy the opportunity to discuss books with other people, and our little family holiday book club has been a highlight for me.

I’ve always liked the idea of matching pajamas but hated the cost, but this year Miranda and I saw $5 matching fleece pants at Target, and that seemed like a good compromise. This was our Christmas morning photo (or 4 that Matt cropped together!).

We did our annual cookie decorating.

And of course there was a significant amount of game playing!

Everyone is really into Legos right now, and Atticus made several creations during our time in Wisconsin.

Miranda has been asking to get her ears pierced for a while now. Our stance on it has been that as long as you are old enough to care for your piercings appropriately, it is your body and your choice. However, as this is a “want” and not a “need,” it is something you either have to pay for yourself or request as a gift. Danny and Sharon said they would take Miranda to get her ears pierced for her Christmas present (and doing so in Wisconsin actually requires less documentation and is cheaper – yay!), so one afternoon, Sharon, Miranda, and I went and got her ears pierced. She looks so grown up <3

On our last day, Matt and I took advantage of the Discovery World membership we bought last year, when we realized that it was cheaper to buy an annual membership than to pay for one visit for our family of six! The kids were going a bit stir crazy, so it was nice to get out and give them a chance to run around (and, of course, to learn!).

It was so good to have this time with family and celebrate together, and I’m already looking forward to the next time we can see everyone again – as is Miranda, who has been writing letters to each of our family members, one by one, lobbying for future visits!

We Left Our Church This Year

In a recent post, I alluded to the fact that this year has been tough. There are so many factors that have been at play in that.

One big one, though, has been a spiritual questioning, an uncertainty.

I became a Christian as a sophomore in college, and I spent the next decade generally feeling pretty at home in evangelical Christianity. Sure, there were some areas about which I wasn’t sure exactly what to think. And there were segments of evangelical Christianity with which I felt I fit more than others. But I fit.

And then came the lead up to the 2016 presidential election. I’d already known that Matt and I were more progressive than many other evangelicals. We voted for Obama in both 2008 and 2012.

But 2015-2016 felt different – in particular because of the rise of Trump and because so many evangelical Christians supported him, seemingly wholeheartedly. He was famously quoted as saying, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” In my mind, it is a problem if your opinion of a person or their fitness for office would not change if you were to be confronted with undeniable evidence that the person was a murderer.

We already knew who Trump was. We had heard how he spoke about women. We had seen him mock a disabled reporter. We knew. But the Access Hollywood tapes were a whole new level – a stark confirmation that Trump really was the lascivious, lewd, disrespectful human being we had believed him to be. I thought maybe the position of evangelical Christians would be swayed by this clear moral failure – and for a moment, it seemed that it might be. Wayne Grudem, the author of Systematic Theology, a book I considered for many years to be second to the Bible in its authority, penned an editorial withdrawing his support for Trump.

But then – just ten days later – he again urged voters to choose Trump.

What do you do when someone you once considered to be virtually infallible in his Christian character and wisdom and understanding makes a choice – and urges others to make a choice – that you find clearly morally repugnant? What do you do when you start to identify more with writers like Shannon Dingle (who wrote an incredibly persuasive editorial about why she, as a pro-life woman, was voting for Hillary Clinton) than with Wayne Grudem? What do you do when the voices that speak to you most begin to be people like Sarah Bessey and Jen Hatmaker? When you actually read some of the writings of Rachel Held Evans – whom you’d always, for some reason, dismissed as a rogue inventor of convenient theology – and find that you actually identify with her and her questions and explorations?

What happens when you learn and understand more about the experience of LGBTQ+ individuals and begin to see how important it is that you do not go along with the church’s high-priority, black-and-white stance on an issue that Jesus never saw fit to address once in the Gospels? What about when you have a daughter with a physical disability and you realize how behind white evangelical Christianity is in prioritizing the lives and access of people with disabilities? What about when you know that her experience – and your experience as her family – at your own church has not always worked for your family and is heading toward another season of not working as well as it should? What happens as you realize that the differences between your own stance on gender roles and your church’s is growing, not shrinking – and on top of that, your three daughters are racing toward adulthood? What about when you begin to think about the ways in which church structure – a topic you’d always considered pretty uninteresting – actually matters a great deal to the ways in which relationships within the church function and the health of those relationships? And what happens when you realize that, within your sphere, there are some questions it would not be okay to ask and some answers it would not be okay to give?

If you are me, you begin to investigate – quietly. You begin to question things that you used to believe were black-and-white certainties. You read books. You talk to people you respect. You realize that there are so many more questions than there are answers. Sometimes you do have answers – but those answers are not always the same as the answers the people you have revered as heroes of the faith believe to be true. And sometimes you come to believe that the questions might stand on their own – with answers to be unknown in perpetuity.

And you realize that you can no longer stand in a place of claiming Truth in all of these matters. You no longer believe that the answers are all black and white and certain. You have been given new glasses, your vision has deepened, and you now see the grays.

There is a discontent in the questions. You miss having the answers. You didn’t mean to trade your answers for questions. You thought you were chasing new answers, and you still hope that someday you will find them, but you realize that for now, you are being asked to sit with the questions.

But there is also a peace. There is a space for the not knowing. There is a space for the investigating. There is time for the paths and the future to unfold. There is freedom in that but also fear. You wonder what the future holds – and you don’t know. You are now conscious of the fact that you cannot see the entirety of the path your life is taking – you never really could, but now you know it.

As you contemplate a separation from your church, you realize that you have spent so long conflating the voice of your church and the voice of God that you are no longer able to distinguish between the two of them. You know that the survival of your heart depends upon your relearning to recognize the voice of God. You feel a little bit like Elijah, standing out in the wilderness, waiting and listening – wondering if the voice of the Lord is going to be in the wind or the earthquake or the fire. You know in your heart that it is not – but you also don’t know whether you will recognize His voice when the low whisper comes. You hope desperately that you will – and you know that you have to try.

And you resign your membership in your church. You cry and you mourn and you grieve. You talk to your therapist. These were your people for 12 years. You served together in ways too numerous to count. You brought your babies home to this church. You have shared your life with these people, and you know that some of those relationships will be altered. You have no desire to walk away from these people. But you no longer feel like you fit in this particular institutional manifestation of the church.

It feels a little bit like becoming untethered. Where you were once firmly stationary, set in your little place in the big world, you are now adrift. You feel more alone, more separate from a group, than you have felt in a long time. Part of you feels free to breathe in that new alone-ness; and part of you feels lonely. You are able to explore much more broadly the world around you. You are now free falling, and oh, my God, it is beautiful! But it is wild and terrifying, as well. You wonder – the God of the universe, that Being whose essence you once foolishly thought could be captured in a theology book, whom you once thought you were close to understanding as well as was humanly possible – will He catch you?

And you hope in the wisdom of the Internet age that you have seen so often before.

You don’t know what this journey forward will look like. But you place one foot in front of the other and you trust that God is still writing your story, and that He is good. Sarah Bessey writes in Miracles and Other Reasonable Things, “When we try to script our own resurrections, we miss the places where God wants to surprise us with a more full, more whole expression of healing than we could ever imagine” (p. 157). You feel great comfort in that but also great wonder. You wait, listening, for the low whisper, and you wonder what it will say, and what your story will hold.