How well do you know the Story of a lifetime?

crown of thornsShe listened with rapt attention as I shared the story–a story so familiar to me that I could recite it in my sleep, a story I generally take for granted, a story I’ve told countless times to far less enthralled audiences. She actively listened–inserting heartfelt “ooh,”s “really”s, and “no way”s throughout.

This was the story of my Savior’s sacrifice. A story I know so well that I have lost the wonder of it. Don’t get me wrong: I haven’t lost the joy or the appreciation of knowing that Jesus died for me to pay my debt and to purchase my eternity. But the wonder–I certainly don’t have the sense of wonder that little girl had.

At church events in America, it’s not often that you get to tell someone the Story for the very first time. Most people have heard it before, perhaps so many times that they could tell it flawlessly themselves without much wonder at all. But if this child , who was about nine years old, had heard the Good News before, she hadn’t gotten the message that it was commonplace, boring, or “old news.” To her it was fresh, and it was important. Even though all the other kids were sitting quietly and nodding their heads or being still, it didn’t occur to her to do anything but voice her questions and concerns. She couldn’t believe that people would treat Jesus like that or that He was willing to pay such a price.

It was refreshing to witness the response of someone who was hearing the Savior’s Story for the very first time. Shouldn’t we all have that kind of a response even if it’s the thousandth time? Because it’s a story full of wonder.

What is the best way to teach writing?

Wesley enjoys writing, even on vacation.
Wesley enjoys writing, even on vacation.

Teaching writing intimidates many homeschool parents. However, it doesn’t have to be complicated. There are some good writing curricula available, which make good tools. But the approach I use works whether or not you supplement with a published curriculum.

What do you think is the single-most-important factor in becoming a successful writer? Practicing? Grammar instruction? No. The most important part of the writing curriculum doesn’t require a pencil or keyboard. The best way to become a proficient writer is to read. A lot. Voraciously, even. Read a balance of fiction and non-fiction. Read a variety of genres. Reading well written literature and high quality non-fiction exposes the writer to proper grammar, spelling, and conventions, as well as to the author’s craft. I encourage students to read both fiction and non-fiction daily.

Students also should practice writing each day. They need to write about a variety of topics, including things of interest to them, experiences they’ve had, books they’ve read, their opinions, their hopes and dreams, their frustrations, their fears, how to do things, and anything else that comes to mind. I start by brainstorming a list of things with them. They keep the list and refer to it when they need an idea. I also provide a list of writing prompts they can use. Some days I let them pick what to write about. Other days I tell them the topic. I require them to write a certain amount (for example, a 4-sentence paragraph) and for a certain amount of time (for example, ten minutes). They must meet both minimums. In the example I gave, the student would need to write at least 4 sentences and she would need to write for at least ten minutes. I increase the requirement as skills and stamina develop. Research shows that students need at least 45 minutes of writing instruction and practice daily to make significant gains.

I generally pick a certain skill or technique that the student needs to improve. I teach him that skill and give him some practice. A curriculum would work for this, but there are other options. The Internet has lots of interactive and printable resources, many of which are free. Or you can create your own exercises.

Then I have the student write about the selected topic, being careful to apply the targeted skill. After she finishes, she needs to reread the piece to check to see if she correctly applied the skill. She should underline anything she notices that needs correcting, and make the corrections above the original writing. (It’s a good idea to write on every other line for this purpose.) Underlining, rather than erasing, helps the writer to be reflective and to see growth over time. It also helps you to see how your student has grown. It’s a good idea to have your child keep all of the writing in a binder so you can see the chronology of skills developed through the year. This also can serve as documentation of homeschool progress in Language Arts in many states.

Twice a week I suggest selecting one piece of writing to proofread. I don’t advise you to correct your child’s writing everyday, as this may take some of the joy out of writing. Look over the selected piece, specifically looking at the current skill being taught and any others you have taught. Make corrections to those skills, but not to everything. You don’t want to exasperate your child as a writer. After you have made suggestions and corrections, return the piece and require that it be rewritten. Making the necessary corrections will help your student to learn the targeted skills.

When teaching writing, remember that the goal isn’t perfection, but growth. I have been writing seriously for about 25 years and have had a career in journalism, but my writing still isn’t perfect.

If your child practices these techniques–reading fiction and nonfiction daily, writing daily, self-editing daily, and making your suggested corrections twice weekly–you are likely to see him steadily grow into a successful writer.

What Homeschool Curriculum Should You Use?

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As I spoke at a homeschool conference this past weekend, I seemed to get a similar question phrased in different ways: What curriculum should I use? The answer is both easy and complicated. The easy answer is that you should use the curriculum that fits your child best. But, of course, that can be complicated.

Here are a few tips to get you started with curriculum selection:

1. There is no perfect curriculum. No matter which approach, method, or program you choose, there will be times when it falls short. That’s OK. Nothing, including curriculum, is perfect, at least on this side of heaven. So you make adjustments. You compensate. Maybe you pull from various sources to come up with a compilation that works for you and your child.

2. Curriculum is a tool. View it as such. You are the master of the curriculum–not vice versa. You don’t have to do things exactly like the curriculum publisher suggests. You don’t have to do every problem, read every passage, fill in every blank, complete every exercise, and finish every page. You decide what to use and what to leave out. There is one exception to this: if it’s a research-based, direct instruction program designed for intervention purposes, you usually do need to implement it exactly as instructed by the publisher.

3. You may just need to pick something and try it out. Rather than stressing about the differences between a couple of well-respected curriculum publishers, you may simply need to choose one and get to work. Again, the one you choose isn’t going to be the perfect fit, but   the other one wouldn’t be either.

4. You don’t have to have a pre-made curriculum. You can write or compile your own curriculum from the Internet, library, teacher-supply stores, and what you already own. Decide what you want or need to study and start getting things together. Discover everything you can about the subject alongside your children. This provides an excellent model of authentic learning for your child and it’s often more engaging and informative than pre-made curricula.

5. Sometimes it’s easiest for families to buy pre-packaged curricula, especially to start out. Using pre-made curricula generally instills confidence that you are giving your children all they need. You feel like you are on track and that you have a good framework for your homeschool. There is nothing wrong with that. But as you gain confidence as a homeschooler, you may decide that you want to make changes. Either way, remember that you are in charge of the curriculum. It is not in charge of you.

6. If you find that a curriculum isn’t the right fit, it’s OK to abandon it. Consider it a “buying error” and move on. Don’t stress yourself and your child out by insisting on seeing it through to the end. Your relationship and your child’s education are worth far more than the money you spent on that curriculum. Besides, you can resell it and recoup some of the money.

7. You might want to try an online program for some things. You may want to work with your child on the things you enjoy the most, but allow your child to use a research-based online curriculum for things you find tedious, that you don’t feel qualified to teach, or that you find yourself arguing with your child over. Online programs generally are engaging to students and many of them adjust to fit each student’s needs.

8. You are probably not going to mess up your child’s learning, no matter what curriculum you pick. In fact, your child is highly likely to be ahead of his public school peers just because he is getting much more individualized attention than they are. Even if you decide to unschool, this will likely be the case.

9. The best curriculum you can possibly give your child is discipleship. If you are teaching your child to follow in your footsteps and are investing a good deal of time and relational energy, your child is destined for success. Reading and discussing good literature (especially the Bible), serving the community together, talking about life, having fun–these are the things that make for the best curriculum you can provide. The monetary investment is minimal but the time and relational costs are significant. In the end, you’ll find that you won’t regret a second you spent investing in your children.

The Value of Time

DSCF2042Time. You can’t create it. There’s never any more or any less of it. It’s what you do with it that determines whether it’s wasted or well spent. It arguably requires a greater degree of stewardship than money does, because others can give you more money, but it would require a miracle to create more time. There’s no such thing as extra time or spare time when you really think about it. Time is so important that every bit of it is highly valuable.

As homeschoolers, we have more time with our children than most people have with theirs. So what do we do with that time? Even though we have more of it, it is still precious and we need to treat it with care. It is still possible to squander that time with busyness, and I certainly have caught myself doing that! Starting a business demands a lot of time, and I have realized that I have spent far too much time trying to work out the details. So, now it is time to allow the Creator of the Universe to have the control that He really already had anyway. I began this venture in order to have more time with my kids, but I have allowed many grains of sand to slip through the hourglass with them in my peripheral vision.

Maybe with you it’s not a business. Maybe it’s Facebook. Maybe it’s curriculum planning. Maybe you spend too much of it on household chores, phone conversations, or an addicting app on your phone. Whatever it is, stop and evaluate its importance and weigh it against the value of time with your family. Oh, and don’t forget time with the One who created time. That actually comes first.

Time. Is it time for a change in how you spend it?

Casting a Vision May Help Homeschoolers Stay on Course

vision 1The decision to homeschool is one to which most parents devote a generous amount of time and prayer. There are many reasons people decide to homeschool. They may want to disciple their children full time in their faith. They may feel that the academics in their local schools are sub-par. They may have children with special needs that are best met one-on-one. Their children may be highly involved in a sport or pastime that makes it difficult to spend seven hours at school each day. Whatever the reason–and there are many others–parents who choose to homeschool generally have invested much thought into that decision.

Deciding to homeschool is one thing; implementing that choice can be quite another. There are a variety of potential obstacles to a parent’s resolve. Well meaning (or not-so-well-meaning) friends, family, and neighbors may question, or outright disagree with your decision to homeschool. Your child may be uncooperative. You may earnestly long for some time alone and some peace and quiet. These and many other distractions may cause you to doubt your decision.

So how can you increase your chances of success? How can you strengthen your resolve, even before you are tested?

By casting a vision for homeschooling.

Cast a vision. Decide what it is that you really want for your family. Why are you homeschooling? You invested time, energy, and prayer into that decision. So invest a little more into getting your reasons and your vision on paper. Be specific. What Scriptures backed up or led you to that decision? What factors of your situation make homeschooling the best option? What is the most important thing you want to accomplish with your children? Write these things down. Then, when you feel like loading all the kids up on the large yellow vehicle that rumbles down your street each morning, get out that document and remind yourself why you’re educating your children at home. When your neighbor says she thinks only certified teachers should homeschool their kids, and you wonder if she’s right, get out that paper and remind yourself that God called you to teach your children. Whenever you’re discouraged or uncertain, read over your vision and test it to see if what you wrote down is still true. If it is–and it probably is–you’ll most likely regain your resolve. But if you haven’t recorded your vision, it may be difficult to recall your original intentions when discouragement, frustration, or uncertainty set in.

A vision document also may be helpful if you are considering changing your approach to homeschooling. You can measure that choice against your vision.

There may be times that you want to make adjustments to your vision. As your children mature and your circumstances change, it may be beneficial for you to do some tweaking.

Whether you question the decision to homeschool or you simply need to be reminded of your original reasons and plans, a vision document can be a powerful tool for your homeschool and for your family.

An Often Overlooked Essential of Homeschooling

Homeschooling - Gustoff family in Des Moines 020
Homeschooling – Gustoff family in Des Moines 020 (Photo credit: IowaPolitics.com)

Effective classroom teachers know that one of the secrets to having a good school year is establishing order and respect with their students. In fact, in many schools, classroom management is the curriculum during the first weeks of school. Academics take a back seat at this point. Why? Because there will be no effective teaching or learning taking place unless students follow directions and procedures. Students have to respect the teacher, or the school year will be a disaster.

The same principle applies to homeschooling. Even if you only homeschool one child, that child has to be obedient if he is going to learn. If you homeschool multiple children, each one has to follow your instructions and rules. If even one child refuses to respect you, all of your children may suffer.

I know this from experience, both as a classroom teacher and as a homeschool mom. In one class I taught, things were going pretty well in my classroom. Kids knew the routines and generally did what I said. Then a new kid entered the scene. This student wasn’t used to following directions at home or at school. He came in and disrupted my entire class. There wasn’t much learning taking place for awhile.

Looking back on my original homeschooling experience, I can say that this was the missing ingredient. I felt so pressured to complete the academic work that I overlooked the absolute necessity of first-time obedience. I got frustrated, nagged, lectured, and got headaches, but it never occurred to me to simply stop. Stop working on academics entirely. Stop and focus on making sure my children obeyed me. If I would have spent whatever time it took–even if it was a whole school year–to establish first-time obedience, I believe I would have continued to homeschool.

So here I am, beginning this journey again. This time I’m taking a lesson from my classroom teaching experience. This time I will focus on first-time obedience before we ever pick up a pencil or open a textbook.

Is Homeschooling for you?

Example of unschooling (home-based, interesed-...
Example of unschooling (home-based, interesed-led, child-led form of education). These children are trying to dig out bugpoop (insects’ excrements) out of tree bark. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Homeschooling isn’t for everyone. But it probably is for more people than are doing it.

How do you know if it’s for you? I don’t recommend just going with your gut or making a decision based on feelings. Homeschooling is a lifestyle, not just an educational choice. Here are a few points to consider:

1. Have you prayed about it? Ask God to guide your educational choices, and then listen to His guidance. Be willing to do whatever He leads you to do. Ask Him to lead your spouse (if you’re married) to the same conclusion.

2. Have you searched the Scriptures? Is God confirming a homeschooling decision through His Word? I think it’s important to be careful here. You can find scores of websites and well-meaning homeschoolers who will tell you that homeschooling is the only viable choice for Christians. There are many Scriptures that can be used to back up this argument. Christians also can find Scriptures to back up Christian schooling and public schooling. Some truths of Scripture are universal. Other times God uses Scripture to convey His truth to us individually. Educational choice is an individual decision, and God speaks to families through His Word about decisions like this.

3. Are you and your spouse united about a decision to homeschool? If you’re not, it’s probably best not to do it. I believe it’s more important to have family unity than to homeschool. I have a friend who wanted to homeschool, but her husband wasn’t in agreement. She looks back and is glad they made the decision not to homeschool, and she is very happy with the educational choice they made.

4. Are you willing to be mom (or dad) and teacher 24/7? It can be physically and emotionally exhausting to be with your kids all the time. Some people need more downtime than that to recharge. Others really don’t find teaching to be enjoyable or desirable. Homeschooling is a huge undertaking, not to be taken lightly. But it can also be a huge blessing to be with your children all day long. Time spent together provides many opportunities for bonding and discipleship.

5. If you have a child with special needs, can you provide everything he/she needs? In most cases, homeschool parents can provide adequately for special needs children, especially if they have mild disabilities. But sometimes another option is better.  It’s also important to consider how homeschooling a child with challenges will affect other children in your family. Some parents choose only to homeschool a special needs child while sending their other children to school. Others decide to homeschool the other children, but to send the child with learning issues to school. Still others feel equipped and called to homeschool both typical and special needs children. If you have a special needs child, the following articles may be of help to you:

Do you have what it takes homeschool a child with special needs?

Homeschooling a child with Autism

6. Do you want to homeschool? This may seem obvious. However, some people choose to homeschool because they feel like they “should.” They do it because they feel guilty or because many of their friends are doing it. You’re more likely to have a joyful homeschool if you want to do it. Some people, however, homeschool out of obedience to what God is calling them to do, even though they are reluctant. We always should obey God, even if He calls us to do something we don’t want to do. (Think about the story of Jonah.)

My goal in writing this isn’t to talk you out of homeschooling. On the contrary, I believe homeschooling is the best educational choice in many cases. I hope that, by considering my questions, you can feel an assurance about whatever God is calling you to do. When I decided to return to homeschooling, I considered all of these questions myself. Doing so led me to a decision to homeschool. It also led me to start A+ Educational Solutions LLC and Jubilee Academy, because I want to help others overcome homeschooling challenges. If , after carefully considering the questions I presented, you do choose to homeschool, I believe you’ll find it to be a blessing to your family.

Do you have what it takes homeschool a child with special needs?

little-girl-being-homeschooled

Shouldn’t you have a degree in special education in order to homeschool a child with ADHD, learning disabilities, Autism, or other special needs? You should at least be a “special kind of person,” right? You know, that proverbial “special kind of person” that God designed to educate challenging children.

Homeschooling a typical student is challenging enough, right? But when you have a child who doesn’t respond to the typical curriculums available on the homeschool market, that’s when you may just have to send your child to school, where there are “experts” with degrees and experience, right?

Probably not.

As one of the “experts” with a Master’s Degree and a Rank 1 in both elementary and special education who has taught in public school, I can tell you that you probably can do a better job educating your child at home than I could in public school. Sure, special educators generally are fabulous people who have a lot of knowledge about research-based techniques, and that’s important for sure. But what they generally don’t have is enough time and a small enough teacher-student ratio to do what you can do at home. They also often don’t have the freedom to teach your child what he needs to learn most, because they are subject to laws that say they have to teach the same standards to your child as the typical children in her grade, even if she’s not ready to learn them. And if your child isn’t eligible for smaller special education classes, he will be in a class with 24 to 35 students, depending on grade level, and he probably won’t always have a special education teacher available in those classes.

Even though, as a special education teacher, I wanted desperately wanted to do what I thought was best for students, my hands were often tied by federal laws, such as No Child Left Behind, and by state adherence to the Common Core Standards. It broke my heart to be obligated to teach long division to frustrated students who needed to learn how to subtract a single digit number from a two digit number. It didn’t make sense to have to teach students to balance chemical equations when they were five years below grade level in reading.

As a homeschooler, however, you have the freedom to educate each of your children according to his needs and abilities. You can assess where each child is, make goals for progress, and make a plan to get there. You don’t have to submit to laws that say that you have to teach her something for which she’s not ready. You can spend as long as needed on each concept and you can skip unnecessary material at your own discretion.

Yes, I’m an expert in special education, but you’re an expert about something far more important: You are an expert about your child. A teacher can learn a lot about your child over a few months, but it’s hard to beat the kind of expertise that comes from living with a child day in and day out for years, from tucking her in every night, from reassuring him about his fears, from sharing her hopes and dreams, from cuddling her when she’s upset or sick. It’s actually much easier for you to become an expert at techniques that can benefit your child than it is for a public school teacher to fully understand your child and to have the amount of time needed to give him the time he needs to make progress.

I’m not suggesting that homeschooling a child with learning challenges is easy, and I’m not saying that you can do it the same way as you would teach a typical child. It will likely take more time, effort, and patience on your part. You will want to educate yourself on the best research-based techniques for teaching children with your child’s disability. It will most likely take a different approach than many other homeschooling parents use, but it can be done. And chances are, you can do it better than the “experts.”

Parenting special needs children doesn’t have to be isolating

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“Isolated.” That’s the word she used–a word I’ve heard countless times from moms who have kids with special needs. A word I’ve used to describe my own situation.

Yesterday I was talking with another mom whose child has special needs. She was so relieved to find someone else who understands what it is like to have a challenging child. This isn’t the first time I’ve had this conversation. I have talked with numerous moms who feel like nobody understands them. That nobody understands their children.

I remember back about a decade when my daughter was little. The looks we’d get. The well-meaning comments: “Maybe you should try … ” or “She just needs … ” Well, we did try all of those things. They didn’t work. Nothing “worked.”

It’s an awful feeling to be judged because of your child, especially when it’s due to a disability or condition that can’t be changed. It’s also heartbreaking to watch others–children and adults–judge your child. In the store. At the park. Even at church.

Yes, “isolated” is the proper word.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. If more people understood disabilities and if more people decided to withhold judgment, we could support each other. Those in the church and in the homeschooling community should be the first to support each other, but often we’re the first to judge each other.

Many moms give up on homeschooling because of the challenges of raising a child with special needs. I did. (Many families give up on going to church because of those same challenges. Brothers and sisters, this should not be!)

I have come back to homeschooling mainly because of another special needs child. My youngest was diagnosed with ADHD earlier this year. I had him evaluated after his teacher expressed concerns. His Christian school will no longer be able to accommodate him next year, as he enters 1st grade. I could have sent him to public school, but as a special education teacher, I’ve seen first-hand that kids with ADHD rarely get what they need in public school. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s just the way it is.

This time around I’m going to do things differently. I know a lot more about educating special needs children than I did the first time I homeschooled. And I want to share what I know with others. I want to encourage homeschool families who have children with challenges. That’s why I started A+ Educational Solutions and Jubilee Academy. I want homeschoolers to feel that they are able to stay the course, whether they have typical children but are burned out, or whether they have children with learning disabilities, ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorders, or other challenges. I want them to feel supported instead of isolated.

So the next time you talk to a homeschool mom who is having a tough time with a challenging kid, or the next time you see a family at church who is having trouble with their child, consider the possibility that they may be dealing with things you can’t understand. And be supportive. Instead of giving them a look of disapproval or pity, give them a genuine smile. Instead of giving well-meaning advice, listen to them and pray with them. If you know them, offer to babysit so they can have a break. Read up on their children’s disabilities. Reach out however you can. But please, don’t make them feel isolated.

Following God’s Plan Can Be Bittersweet

The road God calls us to walk is sometimes bittersweet.

Tomorrow will be my last day teaching at Cartmell Elementary. I have had the craziest year there, and there have definitely been ups and downs at school and at home. But when it comes right down to it, I love working there. I love everything about teaching in public school—everything except the time I spend away from my own children. I love classroom decorations, lesson planning, and working with other teachers. (OK, I don’t always love meetings and paperwork, but those don’t even bother me that much.) Most of all, I love the students, and I love knowing I’m making even a small difference in their lives.

This year was a little bit rough at work because of some unusual circumstances, but even with the difficulties, I still loved teaching—every minute of it. So saying goodbye to full-time teaching has me kind of down. Most teachers are so excited about the coming summer vacation. I will enjoy my summer for sure. But I’m probably the least excited teacher at my school right now. Packing up boxes and taking down decorations has brought some definite sorrow.

Sometimes God calls us to do things that bring us some sadness. Contrary to our society’s philosophy that we should do what feels good, the Lord calls us to sacrifice. So many people sacrifice what’s best for their children to do what feels good to them. The Lord often calls us to sacrifice our own desires for the good of our children.

So, while I feel kind of down about leaving full-time public school teaching, I am hopeful that God will bless my sacrifice and benefit my family because of it.