Curriculum Planning: You Don’t Have to Have It All Figured Out

Ah, summer! Long days, kids running through sprinklers. It’s time to enjoy the simple pleasures in life again – vacations, getting out, camping, fishing and… curriculum planning.

Wait, what? But if you’re a homeschooler, you already know this. Every summer, planning curriculum takes up a lot of room in your head. The question is only this: when should I do this – before the family vacation or after?

I attended a business conference lately where the speaker said there was one thing – one very important thing – that kept people out of trouble when they were first starting a business.

That one thing was this: allowing themselves to be beginners.

The One Thing in Curriculum Planning

Ever heard the phrase “begin with the end in mind?” It’s a good phrase and a good idea in general, but where do you place the end? Are we thinking college? Are we thinking end of the year? Or end of the quarter? Where is the end?

I’d rather think of curriculum planning as driving across a dark highway with my headlights on. I can’t see the destination – I have an idea of it, though – but I can make the journey by seeing a few feet ahead of me.

In other words, I allow myself to be a beginner.

I don’t have it all figured out.

Why This Shouldn’t Worry You

I mentioned in 8 Curriculum Blunders Homeschooling Moms Make that this is the same impulse that drives them to purchase a boxed curriculum. Someone else has already done the research, they say, why try to reinvent the wheel?

Now, please, I’m not against all boxed curricula – there are some really good ones out there – Sonlight, for example, always gives me curriculum envy when I see it. What I’m trying to get at here is that if you’re the kind of homeschooler who blames herself because she isn’t organized enough to create a whole year’s curriculum and schedule, please don’t let that stop you from homeschooling!

It’s okay to be a beginner.

It’s perfectly fine to go slow, to figure it out as you go along.

Think of it the way you would about a read aloud your children particularly love. A chapter a day goes a long way. (Oh hey, that rhymed. Just call me Dr. Seuss!) And you can finish the entire book before you know it. Homeschooling a little bit like that. There’s no reason your curriculum planning can’t!

You don’t have to see the end of the road. Just far enough ahead to know you’re making progress.

Allow yourself to be a beginner.

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Must Read: Grit by Angela Duckworth

I had a chance to read Grit by Angela Duckworth the other day. If you remember, it was one I was looking forward to for a while.

It did not disappoint.

A must read for homeschoolers and unschoolers alike

It is a book I think every home educator ought to read. There is much talk today about grit and instilling grit in children and how to do so. In some cases, teachers are even grading children on grit.

But what does grit mean to a homeschooler and what can we learn from this book?

I think the best takeaway for me from this book was simply her reminder that before we can require the work of grit comes play. Grit is not something that can be taught in a vacuum. Indeed, before grit develops, there must be some level of interest. The best way to cultivate that interest is to expose children to a variety of activities that might turn into something in the future.

Before those who’ve yet to fix on a passion are ready to spend hours a day diligently honing skills, they must goof around triggering and retriggering interest. […] Novices aren’t obsessed with getting better. They’re not thinking years and years into the future. They’re having fun. In other words, even the most accomplished of experts start out as unserious beginners.

Duckworth mentions two more things about grit worth mentioning – one that it grows as you get older, something all of us reading will agree with, I imagine; and that the best style of parenting for developing grit is both demanding and supportive. This, she refers to as authoritative parenting. Not authoritarian, which it is often confused with.

I can’t recommend this book enough. I found it a fascinating read. And one that I believe belongs in every parent’s library.

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Self Control & Discipline: Don’t Listen to Your Friends

If there is one debate that rages more than all others among parents – and homeschoolers are no exception – it’s that of discipline. I bear the brunt of it sometimes on this blog as well. For instance, just last week, I got this non sequitur on my Facebook page:

The job world isnt (sic) so kind and forgiving, and they can’t just get up whenever they want, do the job when it suits them, etc.

Besides the blatant disregard the author employed for punctuation and logic, I want to point out the emphasis on discipline. It’s an age-old argument. It’s one I hear often.

“How are homeschoolers ever going to learn discipline?” I’m asked.

Even among homeschoolers this concern with discipline is particularly divisive. I can’t tell you how many times homeschoolers shun the word “unschooler” or straight up laugh at the idea of unschooling because “how will they ever learn to read?”

About Discipline

When it comes to discipline, people love to invoke one of two things – firstly, the “world,” as in, the job world, the grown up world, where they claim everything is drudgery.

It’s a world where they wake up every morning – supposedly, talk sternly to themselves about how they must get so-and-so done, proceed to whip themselves as they get dressed and head out – mangled and bloody – to apply themselves diligently to their job.

Second, they love to talk about self control for its own sake. They say discipline must be taught, it has to be learned and not just that – it can be taught for its own sake.

Neither of the above is true.

Yes, I exaggerated the first one. But only slightly. Are you seriously telling me that as an adult you hate every moment of your job? That you get no reward at all? No break except that blessed hour when you get to eat with a plastic fork?

Are you saying that you have to raise your hand to use the restroom, that you have no freedom in your day, that you spend it constantly accompanied, not allowed to chat or talk, looked at suspiciously, made to walk in a straight line with your hands behind your back and under the eye of someone who is supposedly doing it all to make you a better person?

If the answer is yes, you might want to check if you’re wearing orange. Because what I just described is the life of a prisoner. Oh, they’re “disciplined,” though. I’ll give you that.

The Only Discipline that Matters…

…is the kind that is employed for a bigger reason. In the words of T.K. Coleman, “The willingness to do something difficult is only meaningful if it’s exercised within the context of a worthy goal.”

Discipline shouldn’t and cannot be taught in a vacuum. Not true discipline anyway.

I am often told, for instance, that, as an Abstainer (one who prefers not to have something at all, rather than moderate the thing I want – for example, sweets) I don’t have enough self control to simply eat one piece only.

It is easier for me to just avoid cookies completely, for instance, rather than tell myself to eat only one. But no, Moderators have to lord it over me that their system of moderating is better than mine, that somehow they are inherently more disciplined than I am. But wait, doesn’t it take discipline to avoid the cookies completely?

“I teach it to my kids, too!” one mom proudly tells me. “I teach them to moderate their intake.”

We give ourselves pats on the back because sometimes our children are just like us. Their inherent personalities match ours, but here’s the thing: did we gloss over the fact that both this mom and I both did something in pursuit of a bigger goal and the discipline wasn’t achieved in a vacuum but was merely a system that worked? 

Discipline in context

So pay attention to the system, not the supposed virtue for virtue’s sake. No one but an ascetic makes discipline for discipline’s sake a goal and even there I would say the idea is questionable. Everyone but everyone uses self control to achieve an end result.

But it is in the nature of people – yes, even your friends and mine – to elevate one system above the other and make themselves out to be superior. And that’s okay. We all need to toot our own horns sometimes.

Just be sure you don’t fall for it. Don’t begin to question a system if it works for you and your children.

Don’t let offhand comments derail what you’re doing.

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Leave Something to the Imagination

It is with anticipation that I step into the shower every morning.

I have found it is my favorite time to think. It is the time when the best ideas come to me: ideas about this blog or books I am writing.

The shower is an excellent time, I have found, to plan my day or just listen to podcasts which give me motivation, infuse strength and a certain creativity into my life.

The Link Between Imagination & Planning

I like my days well-planned. In fact, I have three planners I use regularly – a blog planner, a to-d0 list and a journal. The routine etched out in these keep my days from moving forward smoothly. I wake up at the same time everyday and go to bed at approximately the same time.

I work with templates.

There is some truth, after all, to the Platonic idea that you can’t create something unless you have conceived it in your mind first. Jim Rohn in The Art of Exceptional Living says that if you’re laying bricks and someone asks you what you’re building and you say, “Well, I don’t know yet. Guess we’ll see what comes of it!” people will assume you’re crazy.

There must be a plan with some structure to build something worthwhile. But there cannot be a plan without imagination.

I like the tension between those. I tend to believe that all the greatness of the world is contained in that tension.

Why Should You Care?

I have written much about planning a good homeschooling day. My new book is in fact about crafting your own curriculum in a way that fits with your family and your individual personality.

You should care about this tenuous relationship between imagination and planning – the almost oxymoronic nature of it – because it’s central to your homeschooling. How you think of this can make the difference between thoroughly enjoying educating your children and hating the routine and rigidity of teaching them from a boxed curriculum.

Plan well, but then leave something to the imagination.
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The Biggest Lessons of a Read Aloud

If you have read my past posts about read alouds, you know we take them seriously in our homeschool. Some days, that’s all we get done. And that’s okay because read alouds are that important.

I want to focus today on why I’m so crazy about reading to my children. It took us a long time to get around to where we are now, but this is a good place.

So without further ado, here are the two biggest lessons of read alouds.

It doesn’t have to all make sense

“But it makes no sense!” How many times had I said that when I first started homeschooling? I wanted my children to get it and get it all. I wanted them not just to repeat and memorize but truly understand. 

The problem is, that’s not how it works. No one gets it all, not at first anyway. And that’s okay.

As the “classical” part of my classical unschooling style developed, I began to see that it didn’t all need to make sense right away. I began to understand that what we call learning came by degrees – at first the connections necessary for learning did not happen, that much time had to spent in the grammar stage before logic developed.

This was as true in reading aloud as it was in other subjects. I did not have to painstakingly explain every idiom and turn of the plot as I read. It was okay if the children focused on one thing in the story and I enjoyed another – deeper – level of understanding. They didn’t have to get everything I got from it.

The varied experiences serve to deepen our enjoyment of the read aloud; they do not take away from it.

A little bit everyday goes a long way

This is perhaps my favorite thing about reading aloud. Instead of teaching my children discipline, instead of telling them that a little bit everyday goes a long way toward getting something done, a read aloud actually shows them that fact.

We are currently reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of SecretsIn the past, our favorite read alouds have been The Chronicles of Narnia and The Hobbit


See a pattern? Besides being fantasies, they were all fairly long. When we first picked each one, we thought we’d be reading them – in the words of my seven year old – “forever!”

But we got through them one chapter at a time. And they didn’t last forever.

One word, one sentence, one page at a time. This is the greatest lesson of a read aloud, regardless of what is in the pages: doing a little every day can accomplish great things.

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Burnout Doesn’t Just Happen in the Winter

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain. – T. S. Eliot

It’s that time of year again. Everything is springing flowers, days are getting longer and we’re all eager to get outside and enjoy the weather. Homeschooling should finally get easier than it was in the winter, right?

Wrong.

When I wrote this post, it seemed to resonate with many of you. I wrote it in February, the most dreary month of the year. But, believe it or not, spring can sometimes be harder on you than winter.

Spring is Hard

While you may not be clinically depressed, I think there is something worth paying attention to at play here. Psychologists have found links between allergy season and depression. It seems the cytokines in pollen cause inflammation in your body and the result looks very similar to depression.

Of course it doesn’t help that everywhere around you people are more active. Chances are also good that your social life is picking up as well after the winter doldrums.

If you follow the school year model, you’re also perhaps thinking the end of the year is so close you can touch it, but not quite yet. Besides, you may be rushing to get done with the curriculum.

April sure can be cruel.

What’s the Solution?

The solution is the same as it always was and always will be. Have a plan, stick with it and above all, know yourself. Of course, this can be hard when you’re first starting out, but after the first year seeing some repetition in patterns certainly helps.

Another thing that might help is establishing your goals differently from that of public schools. For us, with all children born later in the year, we begin our new year in January. It makes zero sense for me to begin in August or September, especially in the younger years when they are just not developmentally ready and then feeling like I have to hurry them along.

But then we tend to follow the classical unschooling model anyway, so the pressure to conform to grade levels is fairly low.

So if you think you’re getting burnt out, remember to take a break, but also know that it might not be anything you’re doing wrong. This, too, shall pass.

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The Power of an Unequivocal “No”

Something curious happened to me at our local library the other day. The kids and I often go there once a week to check out a mountain of books. We usually each collect our books and stack them together on a table before checking them out.

This time, a little girl wandered over to our stack and wanted to take a book my daughter had chosen. She asked me if she could have it.

“No,” I told her. “That’s ours. We’re checking it out.”

The child wandered away. I thought all was as it should be and started looking for picture books for my four year old. But it wasn’t. In telling her daughter that she could not have something, I might as well have walked into a bear cave.

“Talk to me, not my daughter!” her mother bellowed.

I tried, as best I could, to explain to the steamrolling woman that I had no problem with that, that I hadn’t in fact gone and sought her daughter out. I mentioned though that I had to stop her when she was reaching into what was set aside as for me.

“Don’t tell my daughter no!” she yelled at me, nonetheless. “Now you’ve hurt her feelings.”

I was so flabbergasted, I couldn’t think of anything else to say except, “You can’t be serious.”

But she was.

I’m happy to say that the scene ended without anyone (er, me!) getting physically assaulted, but every time I think about it, I still can’t believe what she said. Clearly, it was such a deeply held belief in her mind that she was willing to confront a complete stranger over a situation in which she was clearly, ridiculously wrong. And why? All because of a little word: No.

How often do you say no?

We might not share that mama bear’s idea about raising our children without ever saying no or them ever having to hear a negative word from any other adult, but I would bet all of us say “yes” more often than we should.

I have written before about how saying no can be useful in saving time, but in this post, I want to explore how an unequivocal no can be useful not just in saving time but actually creating an atmosphere of trust, creativity and freedom – yes, freedom – for your children as well as you.

Think about a random incident. Say you’ve been asked to do something you would rather not – drop off a book you highly recommended to a friend, for instance. Or attend an event you know you won’t enjoy. What’s been asked isn’t necessarily a big deal. It’s just one of those pesky things that gets dropped into your lap somehow. It’s one of those would-you-mind favors we know all too well.

And sure, there are times when we don’t mind doing them. But, practically speaking, none of us has unlimited time. And I have a sneaking suspicion that we say yes way more often than we should. In fact, sometimes we get into such a habit of saying yes that we do it just to avoid saying no.

“Yes,” I sometimes see myself saying. “I’ll be there,” when every thought inside me is screaming, “No! Say no!”

Why do we do this?

I have a theory that we do this to be liked. Liked by who? Liked by whoever is it we’re talking to, of course! It could be the neighbor, our friends, even our children. Saying yes, feeling that we can meet the small demand in front of us gives us a temporary feeling of elation. And it’s not that big of a deal after all, we tell ourselves.

The problem is if we say yes too often, we actually end up saying No to what matters.

Stephen Covey mentions this when he emphasizes the distinction between the urgent and the important. He says what is urgent often takes over what is important. He gives the example of a ringing phone, but you can just as easily substitute the ringing phone with the small favors.

The link between an unequivocal “no” and failure

The other more important reason to say “no” and an unequivocal no to more things than we say yes to rests in the link between that no and failure. When we say no, we give ourselves and our children the freedom to fail. And that’s a good thing.

Let me explain.

Say you’re picking a curriculum. But you’re indecisive. So you dabble in this and that. You pick up a smattering of this and a little of that. You don’t ever put it into a coherent whole because you don’t want to choose. In other words, you don’t want to say no. After all, you don’t want to lose out on what can become a good curriculum in the future, one that has been highly touted by your homeschooling friends.

So you hang on.

Wouldn’t you be better off just picking one? What is the act of picking one anyway? Isn’t it saying “no” to all other options except that one?

And by doing that, wouldn’t you be free to decide in a few weeks (or a few months at most) that it’s working or it’s time to move on? Why would you steal yourself of that conviction, the joy of that assurance by merely hanging on to something that may or may not work?

I felt bad for the woman at the library, really, I did. She left soon after to take her daughter and her hurt feelings to be assuaged with fast food, as she declared too loudly not to be overheard. Not being given the option to fail can get time-consuming and downright expensive.

What would failure have looked like for her daughter that day? There were thousands of books at the library. A simple, firm directive to go look at those books could hardly be considered a punishment.

Give yourself the freedom to fail. Give your children the freedom to fail. It is only after failing that we find what we really want to give our time to. Small failures teach rather than bury. They liberate.

An unequivocal no has more power than a dithering yes. Use it.

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Does Your Homeschool Match Your Personality?

The question of your personality and its effect on helping or hindering your homeschooling efforts is one I keep coming back to. That’s because it is important.

I am writing a fairly large chapter about this in my new book The Classical Unschooler’s Guide to Building Your Own Curriculum that will be coming out this May. If you would like to get updates on that, be sure to sign up for my mailing list in the right-hand column. As a bonus, you will receive my free e-book Nine Questions Every Homeschooler Should Be Able to Answer. 

Today, however, I want to mention one of the writers that has helped me immensely in terms of getting to know my own personality and create better habits, which directly affect our school days. I’m talking about Gretchen Rubin.


I first came across her when I read her books Happier at Home and The Happiness Project when they came out, but the one that has helped me the most personally has been her most recent work Better than Before

That’s because in this book, she mentions besides her brilliant distinctions between larks and owls, marathoners and sprinters, moderators and abstainers, (I’m a lark, a marathoner and an abstainer, in case you’re curious) she also brings up the four tendencies.

The four tendencies include the obliger, the upholder, the rebel and the questioner. They are an excellent framework for you to understand what works for you. It is so powerful that I keep coming back to this understanding about me to fuel not just my homeschooling efforts, but also my writing, my parenting and my marriage.

You see, according to the quiz in Better than BeforeI tend to be a rebel with a little bit of questioner thrown in. As a result, when someone asks me to do something, I will only do it if I see the value in it. And I have to convince myself of that value constantly. I also have to learn to override my own desire to sabotage my own work because I don’t like listening to my own voice in my head telling me to do something, no matter how important it is.

If you’re a homeschooler, this self-knowledge is invaluable! It helps you sidestep the issue of copying someone else’s style and curriculum only to find out that it doesn’t work for you. It has certainly helped me.

You can pick up a copy of Gretchen Rubin’s book Better than Before here.

You can also pre-order her upcoming book The Four Tendencies which will be out September 2017.

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Play, Becoming an Adult & Crazy Ideas

I’ve been reading Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, the creator of Nike. It’s a fascinating read all the way through. But I was especially hooked when he described how he first had an inkling of what he wanted his life to be.

Here’s an excerpt.

Late at night I’d lie on my back, staring at college textbooks, my high school trophies and blue ribbons thinking: This is me? Still? […] On paper, I’m an adult. So why, I wondered, why do I still feel like a kid? […]  Like all my friends I wanted to be successful… I wanted to win.

No, that’s not right. I simply didn’t want to lose.

And then it happened. As my young heart began to thump, as my pink lungs expanded like the wings of a bird, as the trees turned to greenish blurs, I saw it all before me, exactly what I wanted my life to be. Play.

Yes, I thought, that’s it. That’s the word. The secret of happiness, I’d always suspected, the essence of beauty or truth, or all we ever need to know of either, lat somewhere in that moment when the ball is in midair, when both boxers sense the approach of the bell, when the runners near the finish line and the crowd rises as one. There’s a kind of exuberant clarity in that pulsing half second before winning and losing are decided. I wanted that, whatever that was, to be my life, my daily life.

[…]

So that morning in 1962 I told myself: Let everyone else call your idea crazy… just keep going. Don’t stop. Don’t even think about stopping until you get there, and don’t give much thought to where “there” is. Whatever comes, just don’t stop.

There are three reasons why this book got me teary-eyed and excited enough to write about it on this blog.

For one, he mentioned how in spite of being an adult with a degree from Stanford, he felt like a child. He hadn’t experienced much of real life, which he soon would, something I hear echoed often.

For another, he mentions the aspect of “play” which inspires him to start a business selling Japanese shoes in America. People who are truly excellent at what they do often say that when they are working, they often feel as if they are playing. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Flow calls this optimal experience” a state of consciousness called flow, which I have mentioned here.

Lastly, this book reminded me of something I had written months ago about how homeschooling moms sometimes discover a side business while in the process of their daily work. That’s exactly what happened to Knight, an avid runner.

You can pick up Shoe Dog here. Great read. Especially if you see those running shoes everywhere. Especially if your kids are into them.

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Love Means Breaking Molds, Love Means Bending Genres

Have you heard the question, “If you were accused of being a _______ (fill in the blank with any noun you cherish) would there be enough evidence to support it?”

I have. And I don’t like it.

To me, the quote sounds too much like a plea for stereotyping. It asks that I act a certain way and carry a certain image to the outside world so that people would know exactly who I am and where I stand on certain matters.

A similar incident happened to the presenter of a podcast I listen to. Isaac Morehouse, whose book I have mentioned in the past, speaks about how he was approached after a speaking engagement by a man who sought to define his ideology. Not being able to pin it down was causing him quite a bit of difficulty.

“He was visibly bothered,” Morehouse says. “But I knew what he was asking for. And I wasn’t going to give it to him.”

He was seeking a label.

Breaking Molds, Bending Genres

But that’s the thing about life, isn’t it? That’s the thing about love. People we love, things we do – things that matter – are complicated. They’re real, they live and breathe.

The best ones break molds.

This is as true of you as a homeschooler as it is of you in any other profession. This is true of you as a wife, a mother, a father. You are at your best when you transcend a role. This is true of your children and their curriculum. This is true of your days.

The best ones bend roles and genres.

I don’t often listen to music when I’m driving. One of those rare times I flicked on the radio and it occurred to me that I had actually begun to enjoy music quite uncharacteristic of me.

Now, I have never been a fan of rap, or hip-hop. But on this day, there was a song this particular radio station played that incorporated both those genres and added some elements of the blues into it. Perhaps because it took from two genres I didn’t much care for and went beyond them, I quite liked it.

The Best Things In Life Are…

Surprises, of course!

Ever so often, I come across a person, an idea, an event, a book that changes me. Usually, I am going about my day, checking things off my list, doing the next thing and something or someone disrupts it. I am left in the position of the audience member just mentioned questioning the disruptive influence.

“What are you?” I wonder. “Where do you stand? Who are you?” (Or, in the case of an idea, what? What in the world was that?)

Integrating this newfound knowledge requires a paradigm shift. It requires that I change, that I grow. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, author of Flow, which I have written about earlier, says that we need differentiation as well as integration to grow and become our complete, whole selves. An appeal to act a certain way to convince others that I am a certain person is an appeal to only one side of the equation – integration.

We need people who break molds in our lives; we need genre bending music, ideas that don’t quite fit. We desperately need to be stretched in ways that our to-do lists don’t make us. Over the years, I have come to appreciate those people who make me think, even if at the time they say something odd, I am left confused. Even if I reject what they say, they have made me think and helped me grow.

And helping someone grow is the best definition of love.

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