‘Tis the Season, Part I: Before You Go off the Deep End with Lesson Plans

‘Tis the Season! No, not Christmas. It’s the other busy season of the year for homeschool parents — Planning Season!

This isn’t my first rodeo in terms of homeschool planning. Following are a few things I’ve learned over the years that may help you avoid headaches down the road.

Before you go off the deep end with lesson plans:diving board

Network with other parents – Have questions about curricula, coverings or activities? Now’s the time to ask them. You may discover that the materials you considered purchasing are more time intensive than you thought.  Or that the community service project your fifth grader is so excited about only accepts middle school students.  Host a homeschool mom get-together in your home, organize a beach day, or use facebook to chat with friends. The information you learn and share with others can give you a good head start in your homeschool planning.

Order your curricula as early as possible (that’s a no-brainer) – The earlier you order, the more time you have to plan, obviously. If you find yourself procrastinating until the “midnight hour” (like I have done, *ahem*, a few times) e-bay can be a great place to find what you need.

Research extra-curriculars – Friends can be a wonderful source of info on extra-curriculars. However, it is still wise to contact the club coordinator or visit the organization’s website for the latest details. Don’t assume that things will stay the same from year to year. Verify meeting days, times, location, and dues. Some organizations may not have all those details worked out until summer is over, but you will be surprised at what you can learn.

Work on your portfolio – Our family is blessed to live in the state of Alabama, where homeschool regulation is very light. We are not required to keep portfolios, but it is highly recommended you do so beginning at least with high school. This is especially crucial if your student plans on attending college after graduation. If you’re a portfolio veteran, give yours a few thoughts while the prior year is still fresh in your mind. Anything you’d do different than the year before? Is it time for an overhaul? If you have not kept a portfolio but feel the need to do so, start your research now on helpful information to include in it.

Create your calendar – This is no small task, and not to be taken lightly.  A poorly thought-out calendar will cause major problems sooner or later.

1. The basics: Decide on the first and last days of school and what your holidays will be.  Don’t skimp on your planned days off. This is especially easy to do in the fall. The period from Labor Day to Thanksgiving has no major holidays, and many homeschoolers are tempted to cruise right on through without a break. Three words: Don’t Do It!  Learn to love the minor holidays like Columbus Day, Veterans Day, and Presidents Day. They are your friends! And by all means schedule yourselves a Spring Break.

2. The definites: Now that your basic calendar is created, it’s time to start plugging in outside classes and extra-curriculars. Write down all weekly and monthly activities to which you are already firmly committed and will definitely continue. At this point our calendar contains the four activities that we will keep no matter what: Art & Music Lessons, 4-H, and Nazarene Youth International (NYI).  Here’s our “definites” calendar for the month of October.  So far, so good.

3. The maybes: The third step is to enter all weekly and monthly activities that you are considering adding to your schedule. Other activities we are considering for ninth grade are Jr. Civitan, science labs, a theater group, and co-op. We have not nailed down exactly which theater group we will join this year. I picked the front-runner in that category and included its meeting day on our calendar. We know the theater group meets on Wednesdays, but we don’t yet know the time. We have also not received our co-op’s finalized schedule for the upcoming semester. We may not attend this year depending on what is offered. However, I have added it on the day it will meet to remind us that it is still up for consideration.  Here’s our “definites and maybes” calender for the month of October.  You can see a big difference after all the “maybe’s” were added.

You may be wondering why in the world I’d put labs in the optional category. The labs appearing on our calendar are not those that go along with our science curriculm. They are stand-alone labs offered by our local science center. While they are fun and educational, I prefer not to count stand-alones as high school credit unless they correlate directly with what we are studying at the time the labs are offered. Sadly, most of these will not. Therefore, they are optional.

Now that you’ve added all your outside classes and extra-curriculars, you should be able to see more clearly what is realistic for you and what is not. A lot will depend on the age of your student and the amount of help available to you. Is your student able to drive herself? Is a family member like Dad or Grandma able to serve as chauffer/chaperone once in awhile? Can you teach or host a class in your home to cut down on weekly travel time? Another option might be to take turns with fellow moms driving and chaperoning one another’s children who are participating in the same activities.

Come back soon for the continuation of ‘Tis the Season as we discuss the pros and cons of carpooling and being a group chaperone in the follow-up post Tis the Season, Part II – Reclaiming Lost Time in Your Schedule.”

When All You Can Do Is Coast

When it comes to our day-to-day activities, all of us want our schedules to run efficiently and our plans to turn out perfectly.  We want to get where we’re going on time, with as little inconvenience as possible.  And then comes reality, those annoying “speed bumps” that get in our way, impede our progress, hinder us.  We have no choice, really, other than to slow down and proceed with caution.

What’s the first thing we tend to do, even before we’ve begun slowing down?  Complain.  We may complain out loud to those around us or silently in our hearts.  But if we are willing to pause and look back, we can sometimes catch a glimpse of God’s hand in those circumstances.  That happened to Kathryn and me just this week.

We were on the road Friday evening.  I was driving Kathryn to a birthday party just a few miles from our home.  I’d been struggling for several days with fatigue, nausea and brain fog.  We’d stopped at a store on the way to the party.  I noticed that my legs were not being extremely cooperative.  They were stiff, and I was slightly off balance.  Like all fibro flares, I wanted this one to be over.  I’d done OK in keeping my spirits up and trying to be positive for the first few days of the flare.  But I could feel the complaining begin to set in.

“I need this fog to lift. Why won’t the fog lift? Why do I feel so sluggish and move so slowly? How long is this going to last?”

We made our purchase, got in the car, and resumed our trip down the road.

When I feel physically tired, I make it a point to drive with extra caution.  You might say that my driving becomes lazy, like a Sunday driver.  (This just thrills Kathryn to no end.)  Friday evening was no exception.  We just could not be in a hurry, even if we’d wanted to be.  My legs would not cooperate.  I was not moving fast enough physically or mentally to be in a rush.

“God, don’t You care about my dilemma?  Don’t You see me struggling?”

We were approaching the site of the party.  One last traffic light to go through before we arrived.  Wouldn’t you know it?  Red.

“Really, God?  On this quiet little back road we have to stop at a red light?  Can’t we catch a break?  I feel so bad already.”

Because I was sluggish and not as alert as I would have liked, I was taking it very easy with my driving.  When my legs are extremely tired or hurting, I try not to apply heavy pressure to the brake pedal.  Coasting helps.  So as we approached this light, I took my foot off the accelerator ahead of time and let our Honda begin slowing with no help from the brakes.

And then we heard it… thasphalt roade awful scream of sliding tires that are not getting good traction — the sound you hear just before a crash.  It took a couple of seconds before the shiny red Mustang came into our line of sight.  We were headed northbound, and it was flying westbound.  The car was careening out of control while attempting to make a left-hand turn which would cross it in front of us into the southbound lane to our left.  There was no one between us and the intersection.  I held my breath and found the strength in my legs to step on my brakes firmly and quickly.  Our Honda stopped well short of the light.

Next thing we knew, the Mustang fish-tailed wildly into the intersection.  By then, the light had changed.  It was now green for us and red for the Mustang.  But the car barreled into the intersection anyway, right into our north-bound lane of traffic.  Right into the space where we would have been sitting had I been able to drive normally that day.  Where were we?  Stopped safely short of the intersection, just out of the way of danger, and just in the nick of time.  The driver finally slowed down enough to recover some control of the car, fish-tailed a bit more, and sped off southbound out of sight.

The adrenaline from that event did wonders for my foggy brain, let me tell you.  I was more alert than I’d been all day.  “Ask and ye shall receive,” perhaps?

I began to understand that even in my discomfort and our mutual inconvenience, there was plenty for which we could be thankful.  We did not get in a horrible accident because I was not able to drive like I usually would have driven.  We were not harmed and our property was not damaged because I was just a few steps behind…literally.

There are multiple lessons to be learned from our experience.  Thankfulness in all circumstances and not questioning God come to mind right away.  And while I am prayerful that God will heal me of this one day, I am so incredibly thankful that all I had the energy to do in that pivotal moment was to coast.   As always, He was waiting there for us all the time.

“Keep me safe, my God, for in You I take refuge.” – Psalm 16:1

Time to Read

The lazy days of summer… Time to pause, slow down and catch our breath. Time to recharge our batteries and think about the year behind and the year ahead. Time to read!

Photo Courtesy of Kathryn Lynn

Although “lazy” summer reading is the best, we are entering a season where it is time to be more intentional and more sophisticated in both our required and independent readings. High school is here, and what we read matters now more than ever.

Part I – The Required Reading List

The foundation of literature in high school is our required reading list. These are the works that we will take extra time to study or analyze for high school credit, or works that support our study of another subject, like World History. Most of our required readings are considered classics or traditional in nature. What’s on our required reading list?

For late summer and early fall: The Giver by Lois Lowry,  Mythology by Edith Hamilton, The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas, Julius Caesar by Shakespeare, The Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam, selections from The Thousand and One Nights. 

As wonderful as classic literature can be, if that is all I allow my student to read, or all that I note in our records, I have done her a great disservice. Her independent reading is crucial to building on the foundation begun with our required reading assignments.

Part II – Independent Reading

Reading for pleasure is encouraged in our home. We have very few rules as far as what my daughter Kathryn picks to read during her personal time. I am not a fan of censure when it comes to literature, especially at the high-school level. I enjoyed the freedom my school-teacher mother gave me as an adolescent to find my own niche in books. Some she recommended to me have become life-long favorites, like Where the Lillies Bloom. Others, like The Hobbit, have come from genres and authors that I discovered entirely on my own.

This year I am introducing a bit of structure to independent reading. It is relatively easy to be more intentional and sophisticated with required reading assignments as a student gets older. The big question is how to achieve that goal during independent reading and still call it “independent”… and without taking away the student’s desire to read altogether. We will attempt to accomplish this goal by requiring independent reading to include a wider range of genres. This year we will use the following guidelines to help us be more intentional with our independent reading.

Independent Reading Guidelines

General or Modern Fiction – 2;  Historical Fiction – 2;  Non-fiction – 1;  Biography – 1;  Drama/Play – 1;  Fantasy – 1;  Mystery – 1;  Poetry Anthology – 1;  Science Fiction – 1;  Short Story Anthology – 1

At first I was tempted to allow required reading assignments to count toward these goals, too. But I think that would stifle self-directed reading by discouraging Kathryn from reading outside of academic pursuits. After all, the goal is to raise life-long independent readers. Though she is required to meet the independent reading guidelines, she is free to pick the individual books or works in each genre.

If we need suggestions or hints for something to read, we can always refer to our master list. It contains novels, short stories, bios, poems, plays and non-fiction. This is always a work in progress as I’ve added to it over the years. Following is a shortened version of that master list sorted by genre. We are studying World History this year, and this has influenced the works that I listed in several of these categories. When we study American History and Government in future years, we can pull from other works on our master list.

General or Modern Fiction: 2

  1. Animal Farm – George Orwell
  2. Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
  3. The Fault in Our Stars – John Green
  4. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  5. The Help – Kathryn Stockett
  6. I Heard the Owl Call My Name – Margaret Craven
  7. Lord of the Flies – William Golding
  8. The Member of the Wedding – Carson McCullers
  9. My Sister’s Keeper – Jodi Picoult
  10. The Outsiders – S.E. Hinton
  11. The Pearl – John Steinbeck
  12. The Screwtape Letters – C.S. Lewis
  13. The Secret Life of Bees – Sue Monk Kidd
  14. The Silver Star – Jeanette Walls
  15. Sold – Patricia McCormick
  16. Speak – Laurie Halse Anderson
  17. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith
  18. Watership Down – Richard Adams
  19. Where the Lilies Bloom – Bill & Vera Cleaver
  20. White Lotus – John Hersey

Historical Fiction: 2

  1. All Quiet on the Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque
  2. Anna and the King of Siam – Margaret Landon
  3. A Bell for Adano – John Hersey
  4. The Bridge of San Luis Rey – Thornton Wilder
  5. The Bronze Bow – Elizabeth George Speare
  6. The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
  7. A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
  8. Code Name Verity – Elizabeth Wein
  9. Cry, the Beloved Country – Alan Paton
  10. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – Vicente Blasco Ibanez
  11. Gods and Kings – Lynn Austin
  12. The Good Earth – Pearl S. Buck
  13. Gunnar’s Daughter – Sigrid Undset
  14. The Hunchback of Notre Dame – Victor Hugo
  15. The Last Days of Pompeii – Edward Bulwer-Lytton
  16. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
  17. The Robe – Lloyd C. Douglas
  18. The Scarlet Pimpernel – Baroness Emmuska Orczy
  19. A String in the Harp – Nancy Bond
  20. The Trumpeter of Krakow – Eric P. Kelly

Non-fiction: 1

  1. Born Free – Joy Adamson
  2. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America – Erik Larson
  3. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide – Nicholas D. Kristof
  4. The Hot Zone – Richard Preston
  5. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot
  6. Lords of the Earth – Don Richardson
  7. Sophie Scholl and the White Rose – Annette Bumbach
  8. The Travels of Marco Polo – Marco Polo
  9. South: The Story of Shakleton’s Last Expedition 1914-1917 – Ernest Shakelton
  10. When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals – Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson

Biography: 1

  1. A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier – Ishmael Beah
  2. All Creatures Great and Small – James Herriot
  3. Beyond the Land of Narnia: The Story of C.S. Lewis – Joyce McPherson
  4. Bruchko: The Astonishing True Story of a 19-Year-Old American, His Capture by the Motilone Indians and His Adventures in Christianizing the Stone Age Tribe – Bruce Olson
  5. The Diary of a Young Girl – Anne Frank
  6. The Hiding Place – Corrie Ten Boom
  7. The Inn of the Sixth Happiness – Alan Burgess
  8. Nicholas and Alexandra – Robert K. Massie
  9. Night – Elie Wiesel
  10. Something Beautiful for God – Malcolm Muggeridge

Drama/Play: 1

  1. Antigone – Sophocles (translated by J.E. Thomas)
  2. Birds – Aristophanes (translated by Nan Dunbar)
  3. Cherry Orchard – Anton Chekov
  4. Cyrano de Bergerac – Edmond Rostand
  5. A Doll’s House – Henrick Ibsen
  6. Doctor Faustus – Christopher Marlowe
  7. The Elephant Man – Bernard Pomerance
  8. Incident at Vichy – Arthur Miller
  9. Murder in the Cathedral – T.S. Eliot
  10. The Emperor Jones – Eugene O’Neill

Fantasy: 1

  1. Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift
  2. In the Hall of the Dragon King – Stephen R. Lawhead
  3. The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien
  4. The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
  5. The Last Unicorn – Peter Beagle
  6. Lilith – George McDonald
  7. The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien
  8. On a Pale Horse – Piers Anthony
  9. The Thirteen Clocks – James Thurber
  10. This Present Darkness – Frank Peretti

Mystery: 1

  1. The 39 Steps – John Buchan
  2. And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie
  3. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime – Mark Haddon
  4. The Hound of the Baskervilles – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  5. I Am the Messenger – Markus Zusak
  6. The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
  7. The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins
  8. A Morbid Taste for Bones – Ellis Peters
  9. Rebecca – Daphne du Marier
  10. The Turn of the Screw – Henry James

Poetry Anthology: 1

  1. Carver: A Life in Poems – Marilyn Nelson
  2. The Complete Collected Poems – Maya Angelou
  3. The Complete Poetry – Edgar Allan Poe
  4. Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices – Paul Fleischman
  5. Leaves of Grass – Walt Whitman
  6. One Hundred One Famous Poems – Roy J. Cook
  7. Poems and Other Writings (Library of America #118) – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
  8. Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry – Billy Collins
  9. The Road Not Taken and Other Poems – Robert Frost
  10. Sonnets from the Portugese – Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Science Fiction: 1

  1. Around the World in Eighty Days – Jules Verne
  2. Dune – Frank Herbert
  3. Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
  4. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
  5. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
  6. Jurassic Park – Michael Crichton
  7. The Lathe of Heaven – Ursula K. Le Guin
  8. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson
  9. The Time Machine – H.G. Wells
  10. Unwind – Neal Shusterman

Short Story Anthology: 1

  1. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle
  2. The Best Short Stories of O. Henry
  3. The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain
  4. The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe
  5. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Other Tales from the Jazz Age – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  6. The Grass Harp – Truman Capote
  7. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories – Washington Irving
  8. The Lottery and Other Stories – Shirley Jackson
  9. Smoke and Mirrors – Neil Gaiman
  10. Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories – Sholem Aleichem

We may tweak these guidelines over the course of the year. For now we will start with this as it amounts to one book or work per month in addition to required readings.

So here’s to summer break, lazy days, and reading with purpose.  What are your favorite things to read?







Not my circus, not my monkeys

It’s a catchy little phrase. Grabs your attention. And then the words sink in. Really takes hold once you stop to ponder the meaning.

Nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy is an old Polish proverb literally translated “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” Figuratively this catchy little phrase means, “Not my problem.”  While you probably should not use this phrase in reply to your grandmother, boss, or pastor in polite conversation, there is quite a bit of wisdom in it if we look a little deeper.

The word cyrk or circus used by itself can mean chaos, or an out-of-control situation, especially one that might be seen as amusing — much the way we sometimes use the word in English. No matter what the language, monkeys are almost universally associated with trouble, bedlam, chaos. Put the two together (chaotic circus + trouble-making monkeys) and you get the mental picture.

Performing Monkeys Vintage Poster

Performing Monkeys Vintage Poster

How many times have our well-intentioned plans devolved into just such a situation? What was meant to be low-key, manageable, and enjoyable spiraled out of control. Chaos… calamity… monkeys run amok! We are left scratching our heads wondering how that happened so quickly. Frustration levels run high, especially if we didn’t listen to that little voice inside our head. You know the one: “Don’t get involved.  You don’t have the time.  Or the money.  Or the energy.”

With high school coming again to our household in just a couple of months, it is time to revisit the art of time management and chaos control. One way to minimize the chaos is to get your activities and extra-curriculars under control. Keep a mental picture of the monkey circus in your head as you ask yourself a few questions.

  • Time: Will I have time for this? Is there extensive travel time involved? Do I have time to take care of what needs to be done BEFORE the day of this event arrives?
  • Money: Can I afford this? If I can afford this, is it really a good use of my money? A good return on investment? (Don’t forget to factor in indirect costs of an event like gas, food, special clothing or gear.)
  • Energy: Am I up to this?

For those of you in generally good health, this may seem like a silly question to ask yourself every single time an event pops up on the horizon. However, if you have a chronic illness, you really cannot afford to skip this question. And you cannot afford to be dishonest with yourself. If you know that you cannot make it, don’t commit to it…period. And don’t forget that your kids get tired, too. Even they have their limits.

  • Commitment:  Am I overbooked? Is it too far ahead of time (or too close to the deadline) to commit to this?

Just because events don’t overlap does NOT mean you can do them all. A very good rule of thumb, especially for those with chronic conditions, is to only book the number of events per week that you KNOW you can tolerate. Anything more is going to cause major problems sooner or later. Another good bit of advice is to pencil in events that have been announced way ahead of time. The commitment can come later after you have a better handle on your resources and energy near the time of the event.

  • Goals: Is this activity a good fit for us right now? Does it help further our homeschool goals? Am I doing this just because all my friends are doing it too? (Don’t laugh… this describes way too many homeschoolers!)

This is not to say that a “fun day” with friends now and then is not a great idea, or even a necessity. But balance is a must in keeping chaos under control. It is crucial that we understand the unique needs of our own family in terms of our social lives. What constitutes “balance” for one homeschooler may not for another.

To give an example, our family is not what you would call “party people.” We prefer low-key events and small crowds. Museums, galleries, living history and other learning activities rank higher on our scale than do social events like movies, sleepovers, and beach days. That’s not to say that we don’t like movies, sleepovers, and beach days. We just feel out of balance when the majority of our extra time is taken up with those things. And church almost always takes precedence over secular activities.

So now that you’ve got a handle on the process of vetting activities for your family, here’s a little disclaimer: This is where it gets hard. Those monkeys don’t come under control easily. Old habits can be tough to break.

If you are one to say “Yes” to too many things, it will take practice to develop a pause in your response. I learned a very helpful hint from a friend several years ago. Let your “yes” be a “maybe.” When someone puts you on the spot by requiring an immediate RSVP for an activity, don’t give it. Delay your response until you have had time to review your calendar in private. This will give you time to go through the checklist above and make an informed decision.

Will you miss out on activities by doing this? Occasionally. If you find that an event you can attend has booked up, get on the waiting list. Chances are, there will be more than one person on that list who has overbooked or overcommitted and will have to drop out. It happens with almost every single homeschool field trip or event I’ve ever been involved with. And if it doesn’t, it is not the end of the world.

Another difficult part of implementing these changes is that there are some dear friends we’ll see in person less and less. The transition years from middle school to high school are times of change. Interests grow and develop. Some are cast aside and others are picked up. Goals change. And so do our kids. Many friendships that blossomed at one stage do not carry on in the same way to the next. This is all part of the growing process.

So are you ready to get those calendars out and prepare for high school? With a few simple considerations applied consistently, you can learn to evaluate activities more effectively than before. Remember to pause first and then think “time, money, energy, commitment, and goals.” After you’ve done that, don’t be afraid to say “Not my circus, not my monkeys” to anything that is not a good fit for you.