Making Memories Out of Milestones

family_road_tripOne of the attractions of homeschooling is the opportunity to seamlessly fuse our children’s education with the rhythms of family life. One of the downsides, I learned, is children are never quite sure where they stand in terms of their educational progress.

More than one of my four kids looked confused when a stranger asked, “What grade are you in, Honey?” When they were old enough to realize they could get rewards from local restaurants if they produced a report card, they held a summit and presented their demands:

We want a definitive answer on our grade placement.  We further insist on report cards, recess, snow days, and back-to-school shopping trips. These are basic human rights.

In the early years, I was eager to throw off any trappings of a traditional education. My educational philosophy was learning all the time and the blurring of the lines between family life and the school day was an important part of living this out. It was a shock to end up with children who demanded that conventions be observed. In their view, they were being denied something of value. With experience, I came to see that many of these traditions create touchstone moments for kids—evidence of progress, achievement and maturity. While I loved homeschooling for its flexibility and informalities; my kids wanted a homeschool where rites of passage were duly noted and cultural conventions observed.

Fair enough, I conceded, I agree to your terms, but I’m drawing the line at report cards for French fries. We will mark those milestones that are noteworthy and establish some traditions of our own.

Now that my homeschool days are over, I have the benefit of hearing my adult children reminisce about their childhood and it is those traditions they remember. In hindsight, here are the takeaways I see from making those concessions:

  • Establishing traditions in our homeschools create meaningful memories for our children. These, in turn, contribute to what they value about their family.
  • Marking milestones gives kids a sense of accomplishment, and that produces motivation to keep exerting effort. Without recognition, enthusiasm can flag.
  • Observing cultural traditions; such as snow days or participation in organized sports, gives our kids a point of connection with their more conventionally-educated peers. Few kids want to enter the broader culture without some shared experiences in common.

So what can we do to mark these memorable moments and make them meaningful? First, sit down and decide what kinds of memories you want to create with your children. Settle upon a few traditions you can achieve, especially those where the kids can help. Homeschool parents do not need more busywork or commitments they can’t keep.

Here are some ideas:

Back-to-School Shopping:  During the elementary years, my kids were happy to get new backpacks, a supply of pencils and, for my daughters, the latest flair pens and markers. Even though we weren’t really going anywhere, those backpacks became a great place to keep their supplies organized and out of sight. A lot of deals are available this time of year, but some are reserved just for teachers. Most companies who offer these incentives will extend them to qualified homeschool parents. Just ask.

Once kids are pre-teens, then back-to-school traditions will surely include some serious clothes shopping. Here’s where you can kill two birds with one stone if you are shrewd: Most grandparents are looking for ways to be a part of their grandkids’ education – and at our house we made back-to-school shopping another opportunity for gift-giving (just for grandma!)

Take a Photo:  One homeschool mom in our support group had the foresight to take a photo of her daughter posed on their front porch on the first day of school each year. Those charming pictures captured the history of her daughter’s fashion statements and youthful manias enshrined on each year’s backpack; from Aladdin to Lord of the Rings.

Kick-off Field Trip: This was our family tradition, started when my sons complained about missing out on riding a school bus. I said I’d go one better, and we instituted a surprise field trip, often an overnight, as the official start of each school year.

Family Recognition Night: Our local homeschool co-op ends the year with an awards ceremony that also doubles as a huge church social. Each family is given a table to display that year’s memorable accomplishments:  4-H awards, science projects, arts and crafts, photographs, creative writing or athletic competitions. Students man their tables and share their experiences with visitors and friends.  We found creating a broader audience for student work increases the amount of effort kids put into the work they display. It is just one more way to maximize a learning opportunity.

The evening begins with a short program that features the musical or dramatic talents of some of the students; and the co-op teachers recognize outstanding achievements. The emcee also announces any distinguished accomplishments; such as, National Merit or Eagle Scout awards. The evening concludes with refreshments in the gymnasium. Family recognition nights are terrific PR opportunities to reassure your relatives; and it is a great way to end the school year on a high note by highlighting the progress each child has made.

Part 2 coming soon. In the meantime, how do you mark milestones at your house?

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You Are Going to Skip Something….(Part 2)


4. What’s the rush? You have a lot more time than you think. I was always in a hurry with my homeschooling, fueled by a nagging sense of falling behind. I see now that  was just a cultural norm not rooted in reality. God has created an inner  timetable for each child called development. And it is not the smooth trajectory we see drawn on the pediatrician’s charts. Our kids’ physical, psychological, and cognitive growth moves forward in fits and starts often preceded by seasons of dormancy. Kids need time to ponder, to experiment, to rest, and to play—even into their teenage years. That’s how their brains develop, that’s how they learn anything deeply. We support this God-designed process by filling our homes with books and resources that pique their curiosity, by building leisure into their schedule and by bringing a sense of playfulness to our homeschooling endeavors.

And who says they have to be ready to leave home or go to college at age eighteen? Gap years are becoming far more common, as is a part time start to college or gentle entry into the work force. Don’t be afraid to slow down your curriculum and to draw out the time allotted for completing algebra or learning how to read. What matters is consistency, not the pace we set.

5. Enjoy the choices.  A couple of decades ago, we didn’t have a lot of options. There were only a few curricula suppliers; co-operative activities for homeschoolers were non-existent; the Internet was in its infancy. Today, the challenge is sifting through all the choices available. There are any number of good phonics-based reading programs you can try; conventions are held in nearly every state with a full slate of speakers and a vendor hall filled with wares; support groups and co-ops in many towns offer monthly opportunities for parents and kids; and even those of us living remotely can find virtual classes and support online. For most of us, all these options are stress-inducing. We assume there is only one right answer in each of these decisions, and we equate a choice that doesn’t work out well with failure. Not true. As long as we learn something from decisions we later need to abandon or tweak, our kids benefit from the process. It will help them become risk-takers themselves and give them a healthy attitude toward their own missteps and mess-ups.

6. Don’t try this alone. I need my girlfriends, and I’m grateful the women I shared my homeschooling years with are still among my dearest friends. My kids are still close with the friends they made during our homeschooling years, too. (They even married some of them!) I didn’t anticipate this side benefit to homeschooling. Find out where your local homeschool community is hanging out (in real time or online) and start networking like a pro. Your best advice is going to come from those in your neck of the woods. They’ll know the ins and outs of complying with state regulations; they can recommend the resources that have worked best for them; they can keep you abreast of all that’s happening in your area. Your kids will likely enjoy homeschooling more if they have their own network of support as well.  So don’t let the curriculum enslaved you. Seize opportunities to take field trips with others or join in some co-operative classes; such as, a homeschool chorus, Spanish class or basketball team.

7. Exploit the advantages of homeschooling. Don’t re-create conventional schooling in your home. There’s no need to.  Homeschooling looks more like mentoring or tutoring.  You don’t have to use materials created for a classroom of 20 kids – you can use your local library for a lot of stuff – and it is usually more engaging. Tests and quizzes don’t need to be the only method of evaluations. You have time for projects, papers and performances – the kinds of activities that kids will remember and value. Get out of the house and into the world, you have the time and freedom to explore. When I was a  classroom teacher, I could only take one field trip a year with my students. With my own kids, we did a dozen or more a year. Some were pre-planned and carefully built into the curricula; but some of the best were on a whim often after catching a notice in the morning’s  paper.

Like the Velveteen Rabbit, we all want to be real.I enjoy asking my adult children what they remember most from our homeschooling years. They each take a shot at teasing me about the math program that flopped or the history lessons I skipped. But then they list the field trips, the projects, the friendships, the plays, the interesting people we met and the wonderful children’s literature we shared together.  Their childhood friends from our homeschool community tell me the same. Homeschooling your kids will certainly give them a different education but it will be a “real” education, too.

Like the Velveteen Rabbit, we all want to be real.
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You Are Going to Skip Something…And Other Realities I Wish I’d Known

boy wearing googlesMy son Michael wasn’t all that thrilled to be homeschooled the first year we started. He gave me a month, and then took matters into his own hands. He said we needed to set a schedule. We were doing something different every day! He wanted to have math at the same time followed by spelling (which I should be teaching, by the way) and then he wanted to go outside at 10:15 AM. I said “sure,” and did my best to accommodate his desires, because I was that kind of child-centered homeschooler. At the end of the first week I asked him why he was swinging so furiously on the swing set when he took his morning break. He hadn’t been interested in that for quite some time now.

Turns out, he’d surveyed the neighborhood kids who went to a “real” school and following a schedule was how they did thing there. The best part of the day, they had reported, was recess. Mike probed deeper and found out what you do at recess is swing on the swings. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, Mike was doing his best to be a “real” student so he could hold his own with his more conventionally-educated friends.

Many of us start our homeschool adventure with the same concerns my son Mike had. We want to be taken seriously, and we want others (including our spouse and children) to treat our homeschool as a “real” school, too. If you are anything like me, this can lead to a lot of angst and earnestness that puts undue pressure on us and fills the air with tension (just sayin’). Now with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight (my gang of four are all graduated—and they even have jobs!), I’m eager to pass along a few things I wish I’d known. It would have made the journey a bit more pleasant for all.

  1. There is a learning curve. My good friend, Marie, an experienced homeschooler, told me, “The first year’s the hardest.  It gets easier after that.”  I didn’t really believe her.  I mean I was only tackling kindergarten back then. I couldn’t imagine that being harder than, say, high school physics. Now speaking from the other side of high school physics, Marie was right.  Figuring out how to homeschool is really the toughest task of all. Tell your kids to expect the unexpected.  In fact, the first years of homeschooling are really about finding out what doesn’t work. Ask any veteran, they’ll tell you, “Nobody does what they did the first year again!” So relax. Enjoy the process. That’s part of the fun. There isn’t just one way to homeschool your kids. You have a lot of options. It’s okay to try out a few different resources, schedules, philosophies, curricula, etc. until you finally settle into a groove. And just when you think you’ve found that groove, your kids’ needs will change; your family circumstances will shift; new options will come down the pike; and you’ll be on the upside of that learning curve again.
  2. Kids are resilient. Just in case you fear all this trial and error will mess up your kids, the good news is kids are pretty adaptable. Learning how to adjust and flex is an important life skill they are going to need in the future –you’re just giving them a head start. The best thing you can do is don’t pretend you have it all together. Ask your kids to pray for you. Mine let me know they were already on that when I suggested this source of comfort.
  3. You are going to skip something. And worse, it will be something really important. My twin sons enjoyed calling me from college their freshman year to report in on yet another news flash that would have been good to know! I told them thanks, and that I’d make sure their younger siblings benefited from their feedback. Seriously speaking, we are living in a world of rapid transformation. The skills and knowledge base our kids will need for their future lives is anybody’s guess. That’s why majoring on learning how to learn is the very best use of our time. My sons were teasing me when they called; they knew I was at home sweating bullets that first semester they were away at school. Fortunately, raising an independent learner had been a focus of our home school. And they just headed over to the library, searched online or visited their professors during office hours to get the information they needed to be successful. Posture yourself as a fellow lifelong learner alongside your kids. Modeling a love for learning and taking joy in the process will be a powerful influence on your children’s attitudes toward education and the effort they put into it. It’s also the best backup plan to offset the effects of your inevitable failures and oversights.

Stay tuned… Part 2 coming Monday.

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Simple Steps to Nurture A Child’s Natural Love for Learning (Part 2)

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Simple Steps to Nurture a Child’s Natural Love for Learning (Part 1)

Girls with magnifying glassDo you realize the wonderful potential you have to keep your child’s natural curiosity and innate interest in learning alive? Here is an 8-minute cut from a short talk I did for a small group of women hosted in a friend’s home. (Part 2 will post on Monday, August 12.)

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Safe Landing: Reading for Inference after Making the Jump

Part II by Lauren Bailes, Aim Academy English Teacher

(Part I discussed the value of the development jump, when readers go from learning to read to reading to learn. Find it here.)

It’s easy to watch children begin their trajectory as emerging readers, but shaping that trajectory is just as important.  Until about 3rd grade (8 to 10 years old), children generally focus on doing reading, like I did as I read about Sam and his bat. They sound out words, tap out syllables, make sense of strings of words, recognize organizational structures like lists and paragraphs, and hold multiple narrative episodes in their heads in order to enjoy all of the exploits of Horrible Harry or Laura Ingalls Wilder. But after this point, there’s a shift in the activity of the brain during reading – one that we want to watch for very closely. Kids move from doing reading to learning other things through reading. They can answer their own questions, generate their own research interests, and deepen their knowledge by accessing worlds of information in books. The reading itself has become instinctual.

Such a shift in the student brings an additional set of responsibilities for parents. We need to model and assess a new set of skills. No longer is the focus on merely decoding sound combinations or word meanings – kids must move on to deducing and inferential reading. If children are proficient, voracious readers (two essential prerequisites for inferential reading), they need to be coached into a transformed way of thinking about books and stories.

When we talk to our children about books, let’s move away from retelling questions and move toward critical thinking questions. Here are some of my favorites for fiction and nonfiction:


- What does this character want most? What’s getting in the way?

- How would the character behave or speak differently if this other character were not in the book?

- Where do you see characters feeling confusion or conflict about their own choices?

- What is the turning point in the story? Are there lots of smaller turning points?

- What lesson does each character learn at the turning point?


- How is this text organized or ordered? Why do you think the author made that choice?

- What information do you already know that helps you understand this new information better?

- Is there new vocabulary in this text? How does the author help you understand what it means and how to use it?

- What is the most important information in this section you think the author wants you to know? How can you tell?


There are endless variations and extensions for each of these questions. The important thing is to teach our emerging readers to raise and answer questions while reading so that deducing becomes as instinctive and exciting as decoding.

Lauren is a homeschool graduate and an award-winning literacy teacher. She holds an M.A. in literacy from Columbia University and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Ohio State University. Lauren is offering the following classes for Aim Academy:

Course  (grade) Teacher Optional Live Class Discussions* EST Register
Middle School Tools: Writing(6th-8th) Lauren Bailes 1st sem. Fri 1-2 PM EST Register
Middle School Tools: Reading Comprehension(6th-8th) Lauren Bailes 1st sem. Fri 11-12 PM EST Register
Pre-AP English (9th-12th) Lauren Bailes Fri 3-4 PM EST Register
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Making the Jump: From Learning to Read to Reading to Learn

By Lauren Bailes, Aim Academy English Teacher

Lauren BailesI don’t remember quite when it happened. At one point, I was reading phonics books about dogs, boys, hats, and bats. Making meaning from even these simple words was laborious. There was just so much for my mind to hang on to — the long and short vowels, what characters were doing and saying, when certain letters were silent or pronounced. I vividly remember sitting on my mom’s lap in the living room as she read A Cricket in Times Square aloud. I followed along as best as I could but the words were complex and beyond my ken. Even more overwhelmingly, these complex words wove themselves into an even more complex story. My mom’s voice was the only thing that kept the story alive because, independently, I couldn’t have put those moving pieces together in a way that made sense.


Then, after a few more chapters of Cricket and a few more phonics books (anyone remember Mr. G-H?), those same moving pieces started operating on their own. Words I had previously struggled to assemble became recognizable on sight. Stories and information came to the fore as the work of reading became as natural as breathing or walking. Books became magic instead of work. Characters could now do so much more than jog or swing; they could ambulate, deceive, wonder, and vindicate.


We all love that moment when readers take off. Seemingly overnight, they go from sounding out words syllable by syllable to taking in whole chapters and whole stories in one gulp. They emerge from the library arms full of chapter books or their favorite series. Or – get ready – they start making their own selections on your Amazon Prime account…


This is a gratifying time for homeschool parents and for their blooming readers. But is there anything we can do to help this process along? There certainly is.


Parents help young readers jump from learning to read to reading to learn by providing two opportunities: volume and choice. Lay a solid foundation by providing  your kids with vast and interesting choices of what to read – from narrative nonfiction to how-to books, from classic fairy tales to short stories bursting with vignettes of puzzling characters and everything in between. In this broad array of reading material is an important point for your readers to grasp: the knowledge adults share in common can be found in print. And reading is the key to access those mysteries. Secondly, kids need time to read every day: at least an hour of uninterrupted, unstructured leisure time when reading is what everyone in your family makes it a priority to do.

Now that my homeschool days are a distant memory, it is the long and luxurious time I spent with my nose in a book, surrounded by my brothers and mom doing the same, I remember best.

[Part 2 -- How to Help Your Child Read for Inference--will be posted Monday.]

Lauren is a homeschool graduate and an award-winning literacy teacher. She holds an M.A. in literacy from Columbia University and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Ohio State University. Lauren is offering the following classes for Aim Academy:

Course  (grade) Teacher Optional Live Class Discussions* EST Register
Middle School Tools: Writing(6th-8th) Lauren Bailes 1st sem. Fri 1-2 PM EST Register
 Middle School Tools: Reading Comprehension(6th-8th) Lauren Bailes 1st sem. Fri 11-12 PM EST  Register
Pre-AP English (9th-12th) Lauren Bailes Fri 3-4 PM EST Register


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5 Ways Advanced Placement (AP) Exams Can Cut College Costs

I-Love-APThe Advanced Placement (AP) program, offered by the College Board, allows ambitious high school students to take college-level exams each May that potentially qualify them for college credit at the college of their choice. Each college lists the AP exams and credit they will award for a passing score on their website. Just search for “AP credit” or “equivalency exam credit” on the college’s site.

Our daughter, Kayte, took 5 AP exams during high school and earned high marks on each. The University of Pittsburgh awarded her 24 credits for her efforts at no cost. Here is the break down of what she did:

Exam Grade Score* Credits   Awarded by Pitt No. of   classes eliminated
AP U.S.   History  10th




AP   European History 11th




AP   Psychology 12th




AP   French 12th




AP   English Literature 12th




*5 is the highest score possible.

Here are five ways the time she invested in preparing for those exams during high school reduced her college costs:

1. The value of those 24 credits at the University of Pittsburgh saved her at least 2/3rd of a year in tuition costs (approx. $12,000 at the time) and all the costs of the required texts for those courses.

2. The 24 credits eliminated almost a full year of the time necessary to complete her degree — time she could then use to earn an income.

3. The credits awarded gave her “sophomore” standing in mathematics (one of her majors) and “junior” standing in French (her other major). This meant she got to register for her classes much earlier than other freshman. This meant she ALWAYS got the required courses she needed the very first semester she was eligible to register for them. (A big reason most students today need 5 years to complete a 4-year degree is they cannot get into required courses when they need them.)

4. Kayte’s high performance on these AP exams qualified her for the honors college at the University of Pittsburgh. This then included many free perks, including preferential housing close to campus. (Safe, affordable housing is in short supply at Pitt.)

5. Finally, Kayte’s high performance and evidence of a willingness to academically challenge herself with the most rigorous coursework available in high school earned her a full tuition, 5-year scholarship worth approximately $75,000 at the time. (She double majored and finished in 4 years anyway.) High AP scores are often the most decisive factor in a college’s decision to offer merit scholarships to homeschooled students. AP scores are viewed as an objective measure of a student’s achievement, ambition and readiness for college-level rigor.

Kayte used the AP classes offered by Pennsylvania Homeschoolers  to prepare for these exams. The cost of those classes was money well spent when you think about how much time and money Kayte saved.

Taking AP classes is not required. Anyone can sit for the AP exams in May — students just have to sign up with a local test center (usually a local private or public high school) and pay the fees. But research shows that taking classes aligned with the AP exams substantially improves a student’s success on these exams.

Based on my daughter’s experience, I started Aim Academy. We offer coursework beginning in 7th grade that is aligned with AP exams. My rationale is students who have been gradually preparing for these rigorous exams over their entire middle school and high school years will be much better prepared to earn the highest scores possible when they take an AP exam. So far, that rationale appears to be working for the many parents and students who report better than expected success on the exams they have taken. And Kayte — now Kathryn Gomes — is offering her own college-prep coursework in mathematics through AIM to help the next generation of homeschooled students realize the time and savings she did.

P.S. I should mention the #1 advantage to all the hard work Kayte put in during high school, according to Kayte: She was able to study abroad for three semesters and one summer at a reasonable cost, and still graduate on time. (Pitt allows students to apply their scholarship monies to these ventures.) Kayte studied in Provence, France; Cairo, Egypt; and sailed around the world with Semester-At-Sea, docking in 10 different countries along the way.

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Heidi St. John: The Busy Mom

tbm-logo-tallI have a guest post up at Heidi’s newly designed site. Check it out, and while you are there take a look around. Heidi is one of my favorite speakers (and one of my favorite people to hang out with). Thanks, Heidi, for letting me help you decorate your revamped site!

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How to Help Your Teen Succeed on the SAT Math Exam

Kathryn (Bell) Gomes

Kathryn (Bell) Gomes


By Kathryn (Bell) Gomes

As a senior in high school I was guaranteed a full-tuition scholarship to Eastern University before I even officially applied.  It wasn’t because of my rigorous course load, well-written application essay, or volunteer service.  The scholarship was based solely on my SAT scores.

You might disagree with this snapshot approach to accepting and awarding students, but it should convince your high schooler to study.

The SATs are challenging, but it is realistic to think students can dramatically improve their scores.  Here are the three main reasons a student doesn’t score well and all of these can be addressed:

1)     They forget. The math on the SAT is not that broad, it only includes the most essential concepts of Algebra I, geometry, and Algebra II.  But most students have moved well beyond these courses and need to brush up on the basics before the test.

2)     They don’t prioritize preparing for the test.  Both the SATs and PSATs are normally taken in the fall.  Classes have just started and there are always countless assignments to be completed.  How do you balance AP courses, volleyball tournaments, and that hefty Gruber’s SAT Guide?  It’s difficult but in the long run earning a better math score might be more important than an “A” on that next English exam. (My mom found a way to count my SAT prep work towards my math or English credits for the year.)

3)     They don’t learn time-saving strategies.  Many of the most difficult SAT problems can be answered quickly if students know certain tricks.  The questions are designed to be solved in a minute or less. Students who use an elaborate formula or work through 15 different steps have missed an easier method.  However, many popular math programs homeschoolers use do not take time to teach these strategies.

I treated test prep as a part time job in high school. I took the SATs/PSATs a total of 5 times. (A bit obsessive?  Perhaps.) But considering the scholarship money my SAT scores earned me it was definitely a “well-paying” part time job.

Kathryn Gomes teaches SAT math prep online for Aim Academy. She is in her seventh year as a high school math teacher outside of Philadelphia. She was a presidential scholar at the University of Pittsburgh, where she was awarded 36 credits for her AP and SAT exam scores earned during high school.



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