Q&A with Debra: handling doldrums and feeling behind

Is it spring yet?


Is it spring yet?

Is it spring yet?

Today, I address some of the most common and pressing quandaries of springtime homeschooling…


Q: Everyone around here is either burned out or has spring fever, myself included. How do you find motivation this time of year?


A: Do something new. Decide to take a week and totally break the routine. Brainstorm for ideas with your kids; ask them “what can we do to break the monotony?” You can do a unit study or a service project in your neighborhood. Study the history of your town or go on a field trip. Your break can be as simple as putting aside the regular stuff and just reading a really good book together.


Or tell your kids that you’re taking a break to become experts on something new. And then all of you (mom included) choose a topic and check out books from the library. After learning about your topics, everyone gives a lecture, pretending to be a professor and teaching the others about your topic.


Whatever you do, just make a memorable moment. Those are the things kids remember anyway — exceptions! And then after you’ve had a break, go back to the grind. But you’ll find that those breaks really do energize you.


Q: Help! I just realized my kid is behind in our curriculum. What should I do?


A: When parents tell me a child is behind, I first want to know why the parent thinks so. Is it possible the child is just not developmentally ready for the task at hand? While children go through the same developmental steps in the same order, the pace at which they proceed can vary dramatically. Oh boy — I wish I could convince parents to get comfortable with this truth. God did not design our kids to do the same exact things by 8 years and 2 months. Standardization is a man-centered invention because we are trying to mass educate kids. They aren’t built that way. They are designed for an individualized education. Ask yourself, is my child developmentally ready for this task or subject? What indication do I see that he/she is?


But let’s say a child is behind but is cognitively capable of catching up or doing better.


First, don’t rush to catch up. The initial steps in any new endeavor — i.e. learning to read, Algebra 1, whatever the challenge — should be slow and measured. Let the fundamentals really sink in. You will find the child will be able to pick up speed if he or she really understands the basics.


Second, we have to motivate our children. They are the ones who really have to provide the brain power behind learning. Our job is to give them good reasons for doing so. I found that talking through the importance of a subject or assignment was a necessary step I couldn’t skip if I wanted my kids to be motivated. I needed to learn to listen to what my child thought, and to help each one build his or her own reasons for putting effort into schooling.


Third — and I guess I should have said this first — we have to build faith in our kids. When I would remember to pray with my child before we began a tough subject, everything really changed. Then the focus was on God and how we were asking Him to help us. It took pressure off my child to measure up. It was less a problem my child had, and more an opportunity for God to show Himself faithful and able on our behalf.


Q: Okay, I’ve done all of that. We aren’t going to rush and my child seems willing to put in effort to catch up. How do we do this practically?


A: Here are some ideas:


1. Use the summer for intensive remediation.

2. Find a tutor.

3. Clear the schedule and just focus on the area needing attention.

4. Do it first thing in the morning or when your child is most attentive.

5. Find a competition, such as Math Olympiad or writing contest, to give a child a reason to work hard.

6. Make an incentive chart with a reward at the end that the child values.

7. Make it a team effort, with everyone in the family devoting two weeks to improving in a specific area. Quiz each other at dinner.

8. Find a game that helps kids practice the skills or content in context. We used 24 (a card game) a lot to practice arithmetic and then algebra. 

There are more suggestions in the chapter entitled “Motivating the Reluctant Learner” in my book, The Ultimate Guide to Homeschooling.

Like this article? Share it!

Do it Now: Ditching the Fantasy Homeschool and Planning with Reality in View


evaluate-mdBy Joanna Breault, contributing writer


March — it’s the month for buckling down and staying the course, right? Well, right — and wrong.


Right because it does take a lot of stamina to press on when the glitter of the holidays has worn off and the breezes of spring have yet to revive your flagging spirits. The impulse to faithfully put your nose to the grindstone is good.


And yet, if all you’re focused on is plugging away, you’re missing the golden opportunity of early spring: realistic evaluation and planning.


That’s right — evaluation isn’t just for May, when you’re putting together a portfolio or administering standardized tests. And it’s certainly not for July, when you realize you should probably be finalizing some choices for the coming school year. Evaluation time is right now.


Why? Because right now, you’re acutely aware of who you really are as a homeschooler, and who your kids really are as students. 


There’s this thing that happens over the summer, after we’ve had a chance to breathe and get some distance from the day-in, day-out life of homeschooling; it’s called Fantasy Homeschool Syndrome. 


Awash in the glow of summer sunshine, we forget what kind of curriculum we will actually open and use. In our imaginations, we have unbounded energy, unflagging discipline, creativity beyond measure. We lose touch with the kinds of assignments we will hate, the projects we’ll avoid, the books we’ll never open. We envision ourselves as the homeschoolers that we want to be (creative, diligent, free-spirited, rigorous — whatever floats your hypothetical boat) — instead of being informed by how God has actually made us and what is realistic within the boundaries He has given us. 


Not only that, but we lose touch with who our children really are. Weeks after we close that final book and go out for celebratory Slurpees, we fail to see a disconnect between the kid who hates scissors and a lapbook-heavy curriculum. All we hear are the rave reviews from our friend at the pool.


Now is the time to take stock!


Ask yourself honest, detailed questions, based on the real school year you are living right now:

~ What are my strengths as a homeschooler? What did I really dive into and enjoy, and why?

~ What are my weaknesses? What kinds of things (books, approaches, routines, etc.) do I dislike? What am I avoiding and why?

~ What are the other factors I should take into consideration? What are my other “boundary lines”? (Think about budget, part-time work, ministry, care for other family members, etc.)


These questions are your lifeline to a homeschool that truly fits your family. Trying to pretend we’re someone we’re not or have strengths that we don’t means that we are ignoring the graces God has given us. Don’t trade your actual, unique potential for a phantom “you” that is destined to crash and burn because she’s not real.


Now ask your kids similar questions about their current experience. What are they enjoying? Where do they feel successful? What do they dislike? How could school be better? The answers to these questions will be invaluable for shaping next year’s homeschool. Do it NOW, in March, and not in June. Kids forget over the summer, too, and will give you insight-yielding answers like “fine” and “whatever.”


The answers to these questions become your guidelines. They help you ruthlessly filter the vast array of options you’ll encounter at the convention or as you click around the internet. It doesn’t matter how appealing something looks; if doesn’t match the criteria you’ve learned you actually need, it’s out of the running.


When we romanticize our circumstances, we don’t end up with a solution that’s God-breathed. When we fail to be realistic about who we are — and who our kids are — we end up with a plan that might work for someone else, but not for us.


Seize the month of March for brutally honest evaluation — and get ready for next year to be your best yet.


Like this article? Share it!

Aim Academy 2014-2015 Is Now Open

Aim Academy online classes will open March 10th. Full course descriptions, tuition rates, and final schedule for 2014-2015 will be published then.

In the meantime, you can find out more information by contacting our teachers directly here. Our classes are unique in that they are aligned with the SAT subject area tests and CLEP and AP exams. This means that starting in middle school, our classes cover the content and develop the skills necessary to pass these exams by the end of high school.

Students who pass CLEP and AP exams can earn college credit or be exempt from required courses at most universities in the U.S. at no extra cost. Aim Academy teachers are qualified and experienced in their subject area, and also knowledgeable about these exams. Considering the cost of college credit today, our courses can potentially save you thousands of dollars in future tuition fees. Teachers offer regularly scheduled live classes several times a month (2-4 times depending upon the course). These are also recorded. Student attendance at the live webinars is optional.

For more information, visit the Aim Academy section of our website.

Like this article? Share it!

Spring Testing: Lancaster-Harrisburg-Camp Hill


testingRegistration for 2014 is now open

$38/child by Jan 31, 2014
$48/child after Jan 31, 2014

Mar. 26 (Wed) Grace Chapel, Middletown, PA

Mar 27 (Thur.) Farm and Home Center, Lancaster, PA

Mar 28 (Fri) Farm and Home Center Lancaster, PA

Apr 3 (Thur) Camp Hill United Methodist, Camp Hill, PA

Apr 4 (Fri) Camp Hill United Methodist, Camp Hill, PA

Like this article? Share it!

Handout for 21st Century Homeschooling

21st Century HSchooling

Like this article? Share it!

Awestruck Science: Lost in the Wonder of God’s Masterpiece


Web-Ad-300-x-300Need a compelling reason for studying science with your kids? Here are three: Done as intended, it should provide a daily jolt of awe and wonder at the marvels of God’s design. It should also inspire our own creative impulses, because creativity is surely one marvelous way we are made in His image. And ultimately, science should expand our faith in a personal God who knows us by name and has a particular and meaningful purpose for each of our lives. The evidence is convincing and abundant.

Science, as God intended it, should produce joy. If not, we aren’t approaching this subject with a big enough vision.

That’s what Professor V. (Vicki Dincher) and I are hoping to convince you and your kids of at the upcoming Awestruck Science workshop Oct. 24-25, 2013 in Hershey, PA. And we plan to do it with a lot of eye-popping demonstrations, hands-on experiences, and engaging fun. At the end of the day, we want you and your kids to go home eager to dive into your science studies anew. Even better, your kids will be equipped and motivated to initiate their own scientific investigations–you’ll just have to follow their lead.

In the meantime, I am having a blast getting ready for this event: Delving deeply into an investigation of the topics Vicki and I are planning to present is expanding my faith and wonderment at God’s incredible creation and intricate design. We can’t wait to share our enthusiasm with each of you.  Hope to see you there. (Everything you need to know can be found here.)


P.S.Awestruck Science is sponsored by Apologia (our publisher)!


Like this article? Share it!

Making Memories Out of Milestones (Part 2)

megaphone man

megaphone manCall the Media: The bread and butter of your community newspaper is reporting on local school news. These folks will be more than happy to cover your homeschool events, too, if someone just takes the time to give them a call or shoot them an e-mail. Kids love to see their pictures in the newspaper and it lends legitimacy to your educational choice.

Portfolios: It isn’t just homeschoolers who eschew grades these days; many conventional schools are shifting to portfolio assessments. This is a collection of a child’s best work in each subject area and sustained progress is the goal. Submitting an annual portfolio is required of homeschoolers in the state where I live, and what started out as a burdensome task for me became a treasured rite of passage once I brought my kids into the process.  My children kept a file of their work throughout the year; as well as, lists of field trips, activities and books they’d read.  The last two weeks of school were spent sorting through these files, selecting their favorite pieces and photos, revising writing assignments one more time and regluing or stapling projects back together. These were compiled in a 5” binder and decorated with a unique handmade cover. Now that my children are grown, those portfolios bring back a flood of warm memories – here’s where we documented how homeschooling and family life did indeed fit seamlessly together. It’s in the projects, photos and stories we’ve collected and catalogued here.

Celebration Dinners:  One of the easiest and most meaningful ways to mark a special achievement or important milestone for a child (such as, learning to read or sitting for their first SAT or ACT exam) is to turn your family dinner table into a formal occasion. Prepare a favorite meal, ask Dad to make some formal remarks, have everyone stand and toast the accomplishment, clap wildly until the celebrant blushes; then post photos of the evening to your Facebook page. There are appropriate times to make a big deal out of each of our kids and focus the spotlight only on one.

Snow Days, Senior Skip Day, and Wear-Your-PJ’s-to-School Day: If your home school is anything like mine was, then you will not need to organize any of these events – you just have to be a good sport and go along with it when your kids declare they are observing these national holidays. That’s part of the rite of passage – school children in revolt against the powers that be.  You can add to the thrill by initially acting perturbed by the interruption, but then join in the fun by showing off your snow fort building skills and the secret to making the perfect snowball.  Senior Skip Day, in case you’re wondering, is a tradition now at our local co-op – the kids all head out for pizza while their siblings are left behind. And if you’re thinking Wear-Your-PJ’s-Day is every day at your house, then you can change that up by announcing a Dress Up day.

That summit meeting years ago triggered a shift in my approach to home schooling. My purposes were serious and weighty – a better education, I thought, an opportunity to infuse all of life with our faith and values. But my kids wanted a childhood marked by memorable moments of recognition, hilarity and shared experiences with their neighborhood friends. I’m glad they carried the day…because these memorable moments are now my cherished memories from homeschooling, too.


Like this article? Share it!

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?

Like this article? Share it!

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

Like the Velveteen Rabbit, we all want to be real.


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.
Like this article? Share it!

You Are Going to Skip Something…And Other Realities I Wish I’d Known

boy wearing googles

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.

Like this article? Share it!