On starting school, NOT planning, and knowing yourself

starting-school-not-planningWe started school again on August 1, having enjoyed the month of July for vacation. It was a shorter break than many choose, but for us it was just right–a couple of weeks at the lake with my parents, a couple of weeks at home.

A few people panicked on my behalf because how could I have time to plan a whole school year on only one month of summer break!?!?! Well, it’s simple really. We added a couple of new procedures and a few new subjects. I made clipboard checklists for the kids to encourage them to be more independent. I thought about goals and came up with some solutions to persistent problems. Other than that, I didn’t actually do any school planning.

There are three reasons this works for us.

1) I do not make detailed lesson plans. Or any lesson plans, really.

Yes, I said it. I see people online posting these incredible plans that list page assignments for every single day of the year in every single subject for every single child. Clearly some people love that sort of thing, and if it works for you, go for it! But please know–especially if you are just starting out and feeling overwhelmed–that it is not necessary.

That’s not to say that I go into each day loosey-goosey. We have a set number of subjects and a threshold for completion–we pack a lot of learning into each day. The difference is that my plan looks like “Sarah is using Saxon 5/4 for math”and we do math every day, rather than “Sarah will complete Saxon 5/4 Lesson 16 on August 19.”

After several years of being at this, I’ve realized that my teaching goal is mastery. Every day we move the ball down the field in each given area. Sometimes a kid is on fire and does three math lessons in a day. Sometimes something isn’t clicking and we spend five days doing one lesson. It doesn’t matter. It all comes out even in the end. The goal is for the child to learn math, not to complete a textbook in a given amount of time.

My decision has two facets:

  • I don’t want to hold my kids back. If she is ready to move on, we move on. Does the kid have that concept down? Great, I say, let’s not beat it into the ground. Who says you have to spend a year in a text book just because that’s how they would do it in a classroom? I don’t want to kill the child’s love and wonder for something just because my checklist says get through each and every lesson as written–or just because I made an elaborate plan that requires me to only do one lesson per day.
  • On the other hand, I don’t want to breeze over something that requires more time. In a classroom of 20 kids, you have to do that sometimes. In a classroom of a homeschool family, you don’t. If someone doesn’t get something, we camp out. I don’t get stressed because no one is telling me we had to make it to page 87 today. It’s more important that the child really understand the concept than that we track to a plan.

I do think you have to be careful not to fall behind too badly if your goal is to put a child into a traditional school at some point, or to graduate by a certain point, or to follow a certain academic path. So far, for us, following the goal of mastery has played out mostly in the sense of jumping ahead (for example, Sarah is a 2nd grader in a 5th grade math book) but I think even in areas where a child is behind, it makes more sense to work to mastery than to push ahead for the sake of a schedule.

There are probably notable exceptions and I may change my mind in the future, but that’s how it seems to me from here.


2) We do the same things every day.

The second reason minimal planning works for us is that I spent time up front thinking through what we do every day. I carefully considered how much each child should do independently. I changed our daily flow of events to see if that helped smooth some rough spots. But when it comes to actual teaching, we do different lessons and amounts of each subject, but we do accomplish those subjects daily (or several times a week, depending on the item). So each child has a checklist of independent work that I just print out weekly with no changes. He or she knows to do the next thing, or whatever specific instruction I gave during individual teaching time. The only thing I change on my record-keeping checklist are specific book titles by category for read-alouds, vocabulary words, and art projects.

For some people, doing different things every day really helps. For my kids, it’s easier to make the school day a given. I don’t want to fight battles over whether or not it’s the day for math or cursive or whatever. Is it a school day? Then you are doing math, writing, cursive, etc. This makes things easier for me, but it also makes the kids feel better because expectations are clear.

3) We stick with what is working.

Yes, I know there are simply gobs of different ways to teach math. I’m sure lots of them are more colorful, more fun, more modern, and more hip than Saxon. But after trying lots of different things, hopping around from book to book hoping to find the magic and mysterious One Perfect Fit, I decided that my goal is to teach math. And Saxon does just fine. I don’t use the books exactly as written, so I can tailor the lessons to each child, but for the most part we just truck through each level.

The point is, I find that most of the time I can make what I have work for what I need. Because I’m not casting about for the latest and greatest grammar, writing, spelling, math, and so on anymore, I don’t have to spend time learning new systems. Other than new subjects I add for my oldest student, I’m not having to reinvent the wheel.

So, for me, school planning is really about evaluating systems and considering goals.

I think through pain points in our school days and try to come up with solutions. I consider where each child needs improvement or more challenge, and whether he or she is developmentally ready for more. I make general checklists and the details fall where they may.

That said, I’m an ENTJ (side note for MBTI nerds: I once thought I was an ENTP in spite of always testing ENTJ, but then I realized that I’m actually not spontaneous, I just have an extremely low tolerance for inefficiency so I change things up as I go–now I’m wondering if I’m really an E or if I’ve become an I in my 30s? Is that possible?) so big picture planning appeals to me. Maybe the detail planners are different personality types? As with many things in life, it’s important to know yourself. 

If you like personality typing, you might enjoy the homeschool personality post at Simply Convivial. I found it helpful, and even freeing, to realize that I do things a certain way because it works for me.

Maybe you plan (or not) in a totally different way, and that’s great! As always, this is just the way we do things around here. I think it’s nice to get a window on how other people do life.

How are you tackling the new school year?


14 thoughts on “On starting school, NOT planning, and knowing yourself

  1. I am one of those crazy people who spends the summer planning, but I feel it helps me be more calm through the year, so it is worth it. My plans also become check lists for the kids b/c I am trying to help them be more independent. My plans need to be even more detailed this year because it looks like I will be handing the reigns over to my husband and heading out into the work force. It is not our first choice, but it seems like the only choice at the moment. Definitely not easy. We won’t be starting until after Labor Day.

    1. Oh wow, Thia, that will be a big switch! I hope it goes smoothly, and what a great thing that your husband is willing to take over homeschooling!

      What do you do if you get off track by a day? Or do you just not get off track by a day? 🙂

      I really, really suspect this is a personality type thing!

        1. That makes a lot of sense. I think it’s the tying amount to a particular day that stresses me out!

          I also wanted to encourage you about going back to work–I was thinking about you last night and hoping that the new arrangement works out well and isn’t something that is getting you down. I know SO many moms who are balancing working and homeschooling. Many are in flexible jobs like I am, but I also know moms who are nurses, doctors, and working 9-5s in an office. The great thing about homeschooling is that school doesn’t have to fit certain hours, but changing your whole mode of school is really hard. I hope there are some portions that you can hang on to (read-alouds? particular subjects?) and do when you get home in the evening so you can still be a big part of what the kids are learning.

          One thing to throw out there: for chunks of time here and there I have done more full-time work and one semester most of that was away from home, and when I am working 30+ hours it feels like a LOT mixed with parenting and school. But what has helped me in those times, and in any time when I’m feeling overwhelmed, is to keep a time log. If you track your time just for a week in 1/2 hour increments, it’s not onerous, and it gives you great insight into what stories you’re telling yourself. I start telling myself “I have no free time!” or “I spend all evening cleaning up!” or “I never have time to read to the kids!” and when I track my time I find that actually I have more time than I think. Sometimes it’s my mindset that needs to change, not my schedule.

          Anyway, I hope that you have a smooth transition this fall and that your job is a blessing to your family and to you!

  2. I pinned this to save for my future kids! I love the idea of focusing on mastery as a teaching goal, rather than getting to a certain place in a textbook by a certain time. I was homeschooled for a few years as a kid, and even at the time I was aware of how much easier it was for homeschooling to fit my needs. If I struggled with something, we worked on it until I got it (in regular school, we’d move on whether I understood or not). I think the ability to make mastery the priority is one of homeschooling’s greatest strengths! 🙂

  3. I have to think that those people who plan out every single lesson for every single day are almost one in a million ;). I’m glad we are back into school because somehow our days seem so much less stressful and less busy! ha ha! It’s funny how that works.

    I wonder if people can move in and out of E and I as they age or go through different stages of life….I am still not sure where I fall on that spectrum.
    Heather L. recently posted..Words and Wool

  4. Do you have a set time every day when you check the individual work of each of your kids (math, any worksheets, writing, etc.)? My kids are pretty good at working independently, but I’m not always available (actually, with a high-need 1-year-old, usually NOT available) to check their work as soon as they’re done, and then it piles up.

    1. I have three times when I check on things. After I do Eliza’s preschool we have Inspection, which is when I make sure everyone has done their jobs (make bed, tidy room, tidy bathrooms, daily job, unload dishwasher, etc type things). Then, during each child’s individual teaching time I check to make sure they have done their independent work up to that point. I grade math problem sets while dictating spelling sentences during a teaching time or in between teaching times while waiting for people to find pencils and whatnot. I bought answer key booklets for the math books this year to save time, because before I was always checking math by actually working the problems, which was becoming time consuming! Before I declare that we are done with school I check the rest of the work–usually it’s just making sure it was done, which doesn’t take long. I go over longer writing assignments with the child during teaching time.

      So it’s not that I’m checking work whenever the child is done, because that’s too much interruption, but I do have some spots built in when I can check work. And on my own weekly checklist I have items I have to check off to say I looked at the work (for accountability for myself!). Those are broad, so I check “math” to make sure the child did the math assigned, rather than “check problems 1-25 in lesson 17” or something.

  5. You had me at MBTI! And as a fellow *NTJ, your checklists sound perfect to me–enough structure to keep everything on track, but not bogged down in details. 🙂

    The thing to keep in mind is that the E/I dichotomy isn’t about liking people or enjoying spending time with others. It’s about where you find your energy. Do you feel pumped up, energetic, and happy after spending time in a group of people or after getting an hour or two alone? Conversely, if you go too long without interacting with people other than your children and husband, do you start to drag or feel a bit listless? Or do you feel that way if you go too long with an active social schedule and not regular time to yourself? Both extroverts and introverts benefit from and can enjoy time with others and time alone. Whether you’re an extrovert or an introvert, time alone is great for learning, spiritual development, self-reflection, etc., and time with others is great for developing relationships, making connections, talking through problems, etc.. But one or the other is also filling your ENERGY tank specifically, as well as your learning/relationship/etc. tanks.

    It’s unlikely that you would actually CHANGE from E to I, but it is possible that, with the wisdom of years and self-knowledge, you recognize that you had mistyped yourself previously. That is, maybe acting like an extrovert seemed necessary or was praised when you were younger, and since it wasn’t necessarily an overt strain (you didn’t suffer from social anxiety, say), you just thought you were one. But now that you no longer feel the need to conform to other people’s ideas of you, or if you’ve spent time reflecting on how you actually FEEL about acting extrovertedly, you might recognize that you’re really an introvert.

    1. I think that’s why I always went with E–I used to say that I took energy from being around people. When I go out with friends or meet up with people, I come home pumped, whereas my husband comes home drained. However, nowadays after spending all day with five extremely verbal kids and possibly also doing client meetings and calls in the afternoon, I tend to not feel motivated to go do anything. At that point, a good book and an early bedtime sounds better!

      1. I think you probably are actually an extrovert, you’re just also tired! I don’t think kids should count in the energy gain/loss dynamic, because they’re tiring for anybody. Basically, you’re working two jobs–the childcare/schooling job all day and then going to your client job in the afternoon. You know yourself better than I do, but you wouldn’t be surprised at an extroverted friend being tired after pulling a double shift, and that’s basically what you’re doing.

          1. In general, it takes I-types longer to process stimuli than it does E-types. So yes, I would say that’s another helpful way of looking at it! I know I have a hard time when other people throw new ideas or plans at me, even though I might jump around with new ideas or plans myself–the difference being the source, external or internal. Have you read Quiet by Susan Cain? She cites some different studies about how the differences in the brains of introverts and extroverts that speak to this exact distinction.

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