10 Homeschool Hacks from an Experienced (not expert!) Parent

Often when people hear I’ve had eight kids (seven here on earth and one gone ahead), they get wide eyed and exclaim something like,

Oh, how do you do it!? You must be an expert!

I always feel a little awkward, because how do you tell someone you just met,

Actually, I struggle just as much as the next mom…my only expertise could be in making mistakes. I’ve probably made more than most people.

I’m no expert; I’ve had lots of experience with babies and kids, but I’m still learning every day. So I don’t have an expert e-course to offer, or a fancy printable for your fridge, helpful as these things can be. When I share any of my adventures in parenting with you on my blog, it is in the spirit of one friend speaking to another over coffee. I hope we will both laugh and come away encouraged. Maybe you’ll be able to skip making some of the makes I have, or at least to know you’re not alone if you do!

Many things that come to some people a bit more naturally, like being organized or planning ahead, are a huge challenge for me (squirrel!) so lots of the things I’ve learned might be things you already know. Hurrah! You’re doing great.

Homeschool Hacks

  1. The Myth of Multitasking…Make a Time for Things

Women are often praised for being great multitaskers. It’s true that we often need to juggle many things at once, and can. But is it ideal? Is it actually the best approach? For years I’ve been trying to homeschool the kids, answer the phone, plan activities, cook meals and clean the house at….well, basically the same time. It’s exhausting.

Finally I took an awesome, practical and insightful online homeschool planning course from Pam Barnhill, called: Put Your Homeschool Year on Autopilot. One of the best takeaways for me from this course was the idea of having a basic but flexible schedule so that I wouldn’t always have to be deciding what’s next. I always resisted the perceived constraint of a schedule, but I realize now that having a set time for school to end, for example, means after that, I’m free to do other things…like mark and plan, or cook and clean, without feeling like I should be doing educational activities with the kids at the same time. Relief.

2. Professionals Don’t Pick Up

Another thing that’s been helpful this year, because I’m more clear when is school time, and when is not, is that it’s easier to be more professional about my teaching, and avoid distractions. So I leave my phone and iPad upstairs when we are in session in the school room, and just check messages at lunch and after school. It’s hard for me to resist being always available to everyone who might call or text, but it’s more important that I’m fully present to the kids while we homeschool.

3. There’s no such thing as “just one more thing.”

It’s easy for people to assume that because we homeschool moms are generally home, we are generally available….and therefore free to do them little favours or errands…”just this once,” “just once a week,” “just for an hour,” or whatever. All these little “justs” can completely derail homeschool days. Also, for the busy mom with an ongoing to-do list of 18,264 things, the last “just” could be the straw that breaks the camels back.

I would encourage homeschool moms (actually, any moms) to really mull over any new activities before agreeing to them, and even to consider any current extra obligations: do these things bring you life and joy? Do they fulfill you and make you feel enriched? Great! But if they cause stress, emotional drain, or additional fatigue…then…maybe they just need to go! Quitting some extra’s is not failure; it’s intentionally choosing where to invest your precious and limited energy, so you can give your family your best.

4. Accordion Binders are Magic

As I already mentioned, I’m pretty scatterbrained, and while I have lots of good ideas, I’m also good at forgetting them. And losing things. And wasting time trying to find them again. The dollar store came to the rescue with lovely accordion binders. I got one for each child, so they can easily slip their work into the right labeled slot, and close it up, instead of piling their work on my desk to get lost. Little ones have no trouble with this, the way they often do with using a hole punch and metal ring binder. Also, when our homeschool coach comes to visit, their work should be much easier to find!

I also use a binder for my own projects, such a my second poetry book that I’m slowly compiling and editing. Now my precious papers aren’t lost, and I can grab the whole thing to take with me on rare times I’m out alone and can work on it…even if it’s just on the skytrain.

5. Sticky Notes Save the Day

I can’t believe it’s taken me till now to realize how awesome sticky notes are! I got beautiful coloured ones, a different shade for each child, for them to keep their places in the textbooks and workbooks. It makes marking so easy because I know where the kids’ current work is. Sticky notes make their work easy to grab and get started without wasting time trying to remember what we did last and looking for the right page. When you multiply 4 text or work books by 5 kids–considering it takes a minute to find your place if it’s not marked–I figure sticky notes save us at least 20 minutes a day!

When they don’t have mistakes, I move their sticky note forward to the next new page. When there are corrections to be made, I leave it where it is, and move it after marking the next assignment. If we miss a day of a subject, we just look for the note and start again. No problemo.

6. Clipboard Checklists Keep Things Running Smoothly

One of Pam Barnhill’s great tips was to give each child a clip board with a notebook on it, and to write their daily checklist of assignments on it each day. When I take time to do this, usually right after school while the kids have a quiet time show, the next day runs more smoothly. Right away the kids know what’s expected, and can work ahead. If they don’t feel like doing the first one right away, they can also choose to do a different activity on the checklist, knowing they are still getting the day’s work done.

The clipboards are also super handy for filling with any printouts the kids will need that day, as well as additional quiet activities like colouring sheets, mazes or word searches in case they finish before the others. I have a clipboard, too, which I write my basic daily plan on. When I’m writing it, it reminds me to grab all the books I need and stick them in my teacher basket on top of my desk. (You guessed it! Another handy tip from Pam: visualizing your school day to make sure everything you need is at hand.)

7. Plan as if you’re having a new baby

This year, before starting our new homeschool year, I did the same prep I’d usually do if I was expecting a newborn–that is–anything to make life a bit easier! First we delayed starting school for an extra week in order to clean the house. Then my Dad bravely took me on a giant Costco shop (we don’t have a car) and we filled the poor vehicle to the brim with every possible staple, easy school snack, freezable meal, and even some really cool homeschool books and science kits.

I got the toddler, who thinks that she is Van Gogh and every surface is a canvas, a giant erasable-marker ABC book she can lie on the schoolroom carpet and scribble on. I picked up some new alphabet stacker blocks for her, too, and some superman books for her preschool brother, who has a desk and sits with us, too, during school, when he’s not rolling around on the ground wrestling his older brother or attacking people with a sword.

8. Not every meal has to be fancy

Since the kids are often out at extracurricular activities later in the day, my husband had the good idea that we have our main meal at lunch and then do simple sandwiches and fruit, or wraps and veggies, etc, for dinner. This way I can pack sandwiches for kids who will be out, and have them ready for the others who are home. Also, I don’t have to spend the evening doing tons of dishes, because dinner was really simple with minimal mess.

I find I have more energy for cooking mid-day, anyway, and it gives the kids a welcome break mid-school day to go practice music or hang out a bit between lessons. My handy instant pot makes it easy to make things like curry or stew quickly. I save leftovers for my husband’s dinner, and with the kids help, get things cleaned up from lunch before we continue school.

9. Loops are Lovely

One of the other insights tips from Pam’s course was how to use loop schedules. We have basic blocks within which we do certain topics, but they are on a loop. For example, I have a language arts loop, with things like spelling, writing, and grammar, and in that block the kids just do one topic after the other until the time is up, and then start at the next part of the loop next time. There’s no need to feel pressured or behind, or to assign dates to every page…you simply keep swimming! Here’s a list of potential topics for various loops:

This concept of flexible routine is so helpful, kind of like a dancer’s arms: they are firm enough move their own body with them, but supple enough to respond to changes in their partner. Have a plan to ground you, and be flexible enough to smile and give the chocolate pudding covered toddler a bath in the middle of math class! (Math and morning snack always go together for us…but this time was a rather sticky combo!!)

10. Kids Matter Most

All of these plans and tools are meant to serve your family, not to cause stress, if they don’t go exactly as hoped. To paraphrase Todd from The Smiling Homeschooler: Ultimately, curriculum doesn’t matter, your plan doesn’t matter, your schedule doesn’t matter, your kids matter. They are the reason for it all. Watch their faces….little smilo-meters. If they’re generally smiling, you’re doing well. Not that there won’t be challenges each day, but if they’re always frowning, stop and reassess your priorities. Relationship is first.

Todd’s wise wife Donna’s motto is: “If we’ve laughed a little, and learned a little, we’ve accomplished a lot.” I love that! When things go sideways, and kids are too worn out for another lesson, I remember it and pull out the storybooks for a cosy break. Sometimes the unplanned moments create the best memories.

Do you have any favourite homeschool tricks or general teaching tips you’d like to share? I’d love to hear from you!

A Walk to See Her Sister

The toddler tumbles like laughter

over the dry grass.

Disregarding all signs of mourning,

she chases the crows with open delight.

She greets everyone she sees,

all the mummy’s and daddies and “bapa’s,”

convinced each one is part of her family.

She even ambles after a thin, pink-shirted man

with a slight bend in his back,

calling: “Bapa! Bapa!”

When we reach her sister’s grave

she sits happily on my lap,

and leans over to pat the “Staahhh.”

I tell her it’s Josephine, a name she can’t yet say.

Unphased, she takes her nursing blankie

and flaps it about and pats it

until her sister’s stone is nicely tucked in

with her name peeking above the blanket.

“Baby, nigh, nigh,” she tells me.

Then grabbing her blankie

she trundles off to seek new adventures

and waves, “Baa-bye!”

trusting I will follow.

I kiss the dusty stone

and rise.

Happy Father’s Day!

I haven’t blogged forever…it’s been a busy month! It was a treat to have a family vacation to Alberta recently, and to spend more time together. The kids love having adventures with their Dad, and he loved getting out of the office to be with them. Thanks to my amazing sister and brother-in-law, who chauffeured us around, we got to see many beautiful places:

Johnston Canyon, a nice, family-friendly hike ending in a waterfall you can was after sneaking through a little rock cave.

The stunning Lake Louise, where my husband had been with his dad when he was little. It was partially frozen still, so we had fun playing with ice crystals, which we pretended were popsicles.

…and the Badlands, which has a rare, rugged beauty all its own. More about our trip, soon I hope, if I can find a moment!

Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there, and hope you get the chance to make lots of beautiful memories with your kids!

Moments of Glory

So many times

life in a large family

is like swimming in the ocean

tossed about by salty waves,

trying to catch your breath between tantrums.

Then there are those moments of glory

when your kids are all getting along

and the baby is sleeping while your eldest girls

do a duet on their ukuleles.

That moment is one of perfect rest,

like you’ve climbed upon a wooden raft,

the waveworn wood smooth against your skin,

the sun’s warm weight on your back.

At that moment you question nothing.

Self-doubt sinks below the waves

and you float there

–happy–

trusting for that moment

that everything is grace.

Spring

Spring is finally here.

The toddler and I are equally happy

digging in the garden

with dirt under our fingernails

and warm sunshine in our hair.

Out in the garden,

I can almost forget my messy house

–rooms cluttered with kids’ clothes and toys–

out here where dirt means not disorder,

but openness to growth

and getting messy is a necessary step

on the path to beauty.

Merry Christmas at last!

Merry Christmas finally from all of us here at Crazyland! My friend Leah gave me a funny note today that said, “Better late than later!” So while I drink my coffee and ponder whether to say I’m sick of being too tired to blog, or tired of being too sick to blog, I’ll begin.

We finished a busy month of redoing the basement suite just in time to decorate for Christmas. I tried really hard to fight my scatterbrained last-minute ways and do stuff ahead of time, so my tip of the season is this: pre-stuff the stockings a few days ahead and put them in a giant Tupperware tub so no tiny visitors (children move or other) will get into them.

It sure was awesome to not be filling the stockings in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve! Instead, I could just lay them on the kids’ beds (which we do to buy a little time in the morning) and head off to midnight Mass with my husband and the baby, while the kids slept with Grandma and Auntie Karen.

It was beautiful. Our parish florist always does an amazing job, and our choir is phenomenal. All the light and warmth in the darkness of night brings home the beauty of the Christmas message. Happily on the incense didn’t set off the fire alarms–until Christmas-day Mass the next day that is! Needless to say my 3 year old son was in his glory at the back of the church when the firemen came to check it out. He was still wearing his red fireman costume (to avoid a pre-Mass meltdown…plus…it’s red! Super Christmassy!).

Nice costume, buddy! Fist pump!

Best. Christmas. Ever.

But back to midnight Mass. When we got home around 3am (there was a celebration with treats after the Mass) we found out that the kids had already woken up, opened, partially consumed, and played with the contents of their stockings, and had gone back to sleep! Rascals! And they look so innocent…

Christmas Day was lovely. We had James’ mom and sister as well as my brother spending the day with us. “Gezellig” (cozy), as they say in Dutch, and everyone enjoyed spoiling each other a bit. My big surprise was opera tickets for La Boheme from my husband! 🙂 Date night, here we come!

I discovered that it’s really easy to cook a whole chicken in my Instant Pot (just add a cup of water or sauce and your flavourings…we put lemon, herbs, garlic and butter), and we made potatoes, yams with cinnamon and maple syrup, and Brussels sprouts, which apparently contain excellent health benefits, even if you only look at them! 😉 I can’t quite remember where I read that…

All was good until after pumpkin pie, when I totally crashed and fell asleep early. My Christmas duties were complete…so my body figured it was the perfect time to get the stomach flu that night! 😦 No fun. Thank goodness our relatives and James were still home the next day to hold the fort, because I could not move. All I really wanted for Christmas was a nap and a massage, but this was quite the price to pay…watch what you wish for!

As I lay there with a churning stomach, headache and sore muscles, I contemplated the Incarnation…how incredibly generous it was of God to enter our world as a tiny, vulnerable baby, unable to move or protect Himself from suffering. He could have remained aloof in the golden warmth of Heaven, safe from our sufferings, not subject to weakness, but chose instead to enter into our frail human existence to show us His love.

I will never comprehend the depths of His generosity!

Well, that’s about it for now! Normal life sure feels good after you’ve been sick. A breath of cold air when you can stand upright again is a real treat.

God bless you all, and best wishes for a beautiful 2019!!

Christmas Sing-Along

For all the parents out there getting ready for Christmas despite being sick or having sick kids…know you’re not alone! 🙂

‘Tis the season to be slimy

Fa la la la la, la la la la

Pass the Kleenex and quit whining

Fa la la la la, la la la la

Don we now our striped pyjamas

Fa la la la la, la la la la

Blow your nose and snort like llamas

Fa la la la la, la la la la

See the baby drool before us

Fa la la la la, la la la la

Say it’s bedtime–they’ll ignore us

Fa la la la la, la la la la

Children will not sleep with pleasure

Fa la la la la, la la la la

But it’s quiet time I treasure

Fa la la la la, la la la la

Fast away, the evening passes

Fa la la la la, la la la la

Mom and dad, find the wine glasses

Fa la la la la, la la la la

Not too late for midnight shopping

Fa la la la la, la la la la

Amazon–there is no stopping

Fa la la la la, la la la la


Fa la la la la, la la la la

Fa la la la la, la la la la

Decluttering and making a house a home: a family effort!

It is a blessing to have someone on your life who loves you enough to kindly tell you how you could do better…some one who loves you enough–as you already are–to help you grow even better. My big stepsister Dymphny is like that. Totally accepting, yet boldly courageous in proclaiming the truth with love.

She flew down to help me reorganize my home, because we have been fortunate enough to be able to rent the suite below us, and now have the whole house! Instead of 3 bedrooms for 9 people, we have 5 and a den, besides an extra little kitchen and bathroom. One of the most exciting parts is the large living room, which will be our new homeschool room, instead of the tiny, narrow dining room we’ve used for school till now.

Things have been rather quiet on my blog because they’ve been so packed here! The kids and I, with some help from Grandpa, my brother and my lovely landlord Joe, repainted the downstairs…transforming the pale, depressing, hospital-gown green suite into cute Bubblegum Pink bedrooms, a Thai Teal bedroom, and a English Daisy yellow schoolroom! 🙂

Everybody helped…

It was quite the fun project…home renovation and interior decorating 101! My 12 year daughter became an overnight IKEA expert and made a massive list of everything we needed to make our new space beautiful. Since I never usually buy many new things for our home, the list was huge, and we had a rather epic expedition involving a 5 hour shop and a U-Haul. Happily my sister and brother were there to help!

Of course my productivity manager came along as well…

We survived!! IKEA soft ice cream was a definite must in our way out the door.

But besides buying new things to make our space lovely…we had an even more important job to do: purging everything unnecessary, ugly, extra, etc, that was currently making our home cluttered, chaotic and well, rather resembling a ramshackle thrift store instead of a beautiful, intentional space. No more!

My daughter’s new bedroom

This is where having a loving big sister with an objective eye for crap came in so handy. She wasn’t going to let me hang on to anything that didn’t make my life better. Rather, she helped me dig out the precious things hiding under the clutter so I can display and enjoy them instead of having them tucked away and forgotten, like the fancy tea pot I bought for my birthday on my last IKEA trip last Advent…and still haven’t used, less than a month till my next birthday!

It’s a gift to have someone affirm that you’re better than some kind of recycling bin, and that you don’t need to hold on to everything that comes your way. Sometimes when trying to sort stuff alone it’s hard to cut the invisible strings of guilt that make you keep stuff for “one day” or because it’s from “so and so”…or because getting rid of stuff feels wasteful.

Sorting books

The minimalist mom Allie Casazza says that whatever takes up your space, takes up your time. You don’t need to lose time shuffling around odds and ends you don’t need. I’ve done this for years. And what’s really wasteful is harming your relationships because of unnecessary stress….not being able to find things, arriving late, not wanting to have people over because of mess, etc.

It’s so freeing to let go. Chuck those old shampoo bottles and extra creams into the recycling. Take pictures of all those kids drawings and then let them go. Let someone else enjoy those books and clothes you don’t need. Live with a lighter heart and be able to find things. A clear beautiful space is so calming. A study quoted on a Gretchen Rubin’s podcast Happier found that women’s cortisol levels, indicative of stress, were directly related to the amount of clutter in her home. No wonder I’ve been on edge!

I was so grateful to have Big Brothers to pick up our porch full of donations, and Half Price Rubbish Removal to come the next day. Seeing what we don’t need has opened our eyes to see how we could enjoy our home even better. Having space to do so more peacefully and enjoying the presence of family, including our IKEA expert building expert Opa, has been the best gift so far this season!