Homeschooling: Our First School Year


We never do school like this, but doesn't it seem idyllic?

We never do school like this, but doesn’t it seem idyllic?  (When this photo was taken last fall, most of the people staring intently at books here couldn’t even read English.)

One of the most pressing questions I have received from parents who are soon to bring their school-aged, internationally adopted children home is, “What should I do about school?” I’ve asked it, and since our girls came home nine months ago, I’ve seen other moms reiterate the same concerns I had. In fact, it was around this time last year that I was covering all my bases, calling around to local schools and reading every blog that even looked vaguely like a homeschool curriculum review.

My husband and I have always cared deeply about education. He is a sixth grade social studies teacher in a public school, and years ago, I was employed as an English as a Second Language teacher in a local public school system. I worked one-on-one with kids in all grade levels (elementary through high school)—talk about preparation. Before our [new] kids came home, we already had a four-year-old son and a six-year-old daughter, and I had a year of homeschool kindergarten under my belt–child’s play.  Our new daughters were three, six, and eight—on paper. Over the course of the past year, we have learned that probably none of those ages is correct. Nine months later, we feel fairly confident that we have two kindergarteners, a first grader, a second grader, and a sixth grader—I feel a panic attack coming on.

Our first full school year is nearing its end (in about a month).  Basically, I am writing this to describe what we have done educationally over the past nine months, as I am often asked.  We have succeeded at some things and failed at others.  We have switched curriculum mid-year and struggled to find satisfactory replacements.  Also, since every child is different, I’m certainly not prescribing our methods, but I do hope to put some of you waiting moms at ease, give a few ideas, and provide some hope if your child is not anywhere near the grade level he should be in when you begin.

Schooling Method: Public, private, or homeschool? This is often a pressing question when adopting an older child, and many people on the outside of your situation have firmly held opinions on what you should do. Private school was out of the question for our family because of the expense, so our options were really limited to public school or homeschooling. In our research, we found that the schools in our area of the city do not have stellar reputations (or test scores), particularly those intended for ESL students. We further learned that if our kids went with my husband to his school system in the next county, we would be required to pay a monthly fee for each child. Since the new kids landed in the US just three days before school began, we, along with input from our social worker, decided that homeschooling, though it would be difficult (and it really is), would provide ample time for bonding and would allow us to move at whatever speed was necessary for our specific children. In the long run, we may eventually move to public schooling once our kids are caught up to grade level, but we are allowing a transition period of a couple of years for that to happen.

The First Days of School: During the first few months home, I made a schedule and tried to follow it, more to get myself used to the routine than for any other reason. After lunch, I would often put the youngest two down for a nap and I would watch TV with the older three, two of whom were still speaking very little English (at that point, I could not leave their sight for more than five minutes, and even a trip alone to the bathroom was pushing it). Later in the evening, we would watch more as a family (particularly during the winter when we were all stuck inside—there’s a lot less of that happening now). We didn’t previously consume a lot of TV around here, but it can be helpful in learning English, especially when it comes to pronunciation and accents. Once I’d [mostly] weaned the new girls off their steady diet of tween-age Disney yuck they’d been consuming overseas, we watched a lot of Gilmore Girls, The Cosby Show, Quantum Leap, Anne of Green Gables, The Chronicles of Narnia series, and two movies I highly recommend about the civil rights movement in America, Selma, Lord, Selma, and Ruby Bridges Goes to School.

Co-op: We were a one-car family until recently, so there was not much that we could escape the house and go do in those early days home. A few friends organized a small, weekly co-op just down the street. We met every Wednesday for about eight weeks and all of our kids (mostly preschoolers up to age six, with the exception of our then eleven-year-old), learned art, music, worm science, brief history/geography lessons based upon well-known missionaries, and they participated in an obstacle course. After the three hours of study, we all ate lunch together and then headed home. The capstone project of the co-op was making a worm bin to use this spring in a garden. Our fatted worms are still eating our trash and are otherwise “hanging out” in their Rubbermaid tote next to the washing machine in the basement. This co-op provided such a great relief in those first few months as a family. It was wonderful to have something outside of the pressure-cooker of the house to plan for, to enjoy adult conversation for a few hours, and to know that my kids were gaining educational knowledge that I was not yet able to provide due to the exhaustive work of settling in as a family.

Subjects Covered:  We have chosen to focus mainly on math, English, and art during this first school year. (We have also studied Bible stories extensively, as part of our family devotions). Any science or social studies have been extra—science projects as a family on the weekend, watching an episode of Mythbusters or Travel the Road (both on Netflix), a brief explanation of how our government works around the dinner table, etc.

Bible:  Most days begin with a short devotional from Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing, by Sally Lloyd-Jones, and the older kids reading a passage from Psalms for Young Children. My husband has alternated in our devotions before bed between reading from The Jesus Storybook Bible, drilling catechism questions, telling Bible stories or using prepared story sets from Training for Oral Trainers, and just sending overtired and angsty kids straight to bed, because dang, we’re tired people.

Math:  Our chosen math curriculum is Math-u-See, as much for my ease as for the kids’. Our eldest tested at the Beta level when she arrived and is now only days away from entering the Delta book (that’s two books worth of progress in nine months). The others are roughly where they should be, (two children are in different places in Alpha, and two are at different places in Primer).

English:  We have used a more scattershot approach to English. When we first arrived home, we tried Rosetta Stone for our sixth-grader and our second-grader. While it worked for a while, after the third disk (of five), our eldest knew enough English to be bored out of her mind. Plus, at that point the text of the lessons discussed topics like the Euro and life skills such as how to purchase train tickets. Sometimes it would use maps and ask questions that were hindered not by her comprehension of English, but by her insufficient knowledge of geography. Also, there was some kind of glitch with our disks that would sometimes keep the main screen from recording her progress and marking a finished lesson. We now use old English textbooks (not Olde English, but rather those acquired at yard sales and thrift shops) and a Language Fundamentals workbook to study grammar, and she has an e-mail account which has given her more practice with written communication to family (and helps me to see where her spelling and grammar problems are).

Our seven-year-old daughter never did quite get the hang of Rosetta Stone, so I bought an account for her on the online Explode the Code program already in use by our other seven-year-old. It took a little while, but she eventually caught on and has moved quickly through it. Additionally, their time on the computer frees me up to work with the other kids. The kindergarteners have begun the Get Ready for the Code workbooks.

Art:  As for art, I wanted our kids to have something regular in their education that transcended language and gave them a means to express themselves. As of yet, none of our kids is a particularly gifted artist, but since January, they all have enjoyed spending nearly every other Tuesday around our table with Mrs. Rebekah, a former-art-teacher friend who volunteered to teach them. Over the past four months, they have painted self-portraits, stamped with sponges, and learned about shading and perspective.

This is Yay's self-portrait, entitled, "Isaiah as a Lion."

This is Yay’s self-portrait, entitled, “Isaiah as a Lion.”

Plans for the Summer: I’m not a huge fan of year-round schooling, but because our kids are still catching up, we will continue to make ground in math and perhaps begin a spelling curriculum during the summer months. We will probably also work on committing facts to memory, such as states and capitols, names of planets, important addresses and phone numbers, etc.—basic information that most of the American population takes for granted.   We’ll also have increased opportunity for travel and more visits to places like the zoo, the farm, and the local science center.

Challenges: We’ve had to overcome several unforeseen educational challenges around here. Here are a few and how we’ve met them, although there’s no promise that our solutions will work for your individual child.

1. It became clear back in September that one of our children was truly struggling with reading. After an eye exam, it was determined that the issue was a vision problem that has required vision therapy in order for her to progress. We are still fine-tuning what that means for our homeschool plan and seeking out curriculum that meets her specific needs.

2. One of our daughters dug in her feet during the first few months home and made so little progress that I was constantly stressed out teaching her. For whatever reason, she was simply not motivated to learn. I can’t say that this would work with all children, but friendly competition with her siblings spurred her along and since Christmas she has made great gains, sometimes completing multiple lessons in a single day, proving that the issue was never her intelligence or ability.

3. Another of our daughters has a very driven personality and she wanted to know everything there was to know now. I felt a lot of pressure as I tried to hold her back and teach in bite-sized pieces, as much for myself as for her. Just because she wanted to study pre-algebra like her public school friends did not mean we should just skip over multiplication tables—that would be a recipe for certain disaster. Part of the problem, I learned, was that she did not feel like she was making adequate progress. So, I came up with a system of badges (small paper squares) that visually symbolize each completed book. Suddenly, she could see all that was behind her and it didn’t seem so small, after all. Friendships with other homeschoolers who are at various levels have helped her feel more secure in this area, as well.

Our schoolwork in clear pockets and badges that have been earned.

Our schoolwork in clear pockets and badges that have been earned.

4. Homeschool curriculum can be expensive, and we knew that we could not afford every child to have his or her very own $30 consumable workbook, so we invested in clear plastic ticket holders and I deconstructed the workbooks. Since each kid is on a different chapter in math, she finds her current chapter hanging on the wall in a ticket holder, and can first watch the DVD and then complete her work with a dry-erase marker. I do have to grade each child’s work daily, but it works out well for our budget, since I only have to purchase one new math book at a time.

5. I’m terrible at record keeping. I really like A Record of the Learning Lifestyle from the Notgrass Company, because it has plenty of room for educational activities that do not easily fit into more conventional subject areas. For example, our daughter has been helping out weekly with a local ministry that teaches crafting and business skills to refugees, which I count as school, but it is certainly not a traditional class that fits under a normal heading. I also like that it is a written record, rather than typed, so that I can fill in information anywhere—at a meeting, in the car, in a waiting room.

Finally, I just want to encourage you, if you have chosen to homeschool your newly-adopted older child, that they will learn English. They will eventually know their home address. If given enough time, they will catch up to their peers. It’s a process and it does not happen overnight and those on the outside will often put pressure on you to perform. There is already too much undue pressure when you arrive home, (to look like everyone under your roof has it all together, to appear to others that your family is gelling the way they all always dreamed it should be), so don’t lose heart (like I have at times). There is no surefire program or curriculum that fits every child’s needs, and your child is going to be working through issues much deeper and more important to their mental well being than the correct sounds of dipthongs, anyway.

Trial and error will be the norm and your day will not look anything like all the homeschool mom blogs out there—not nearly as well-planned, as professional, or as stinking adorable. You might start your day at eleven o’clock while still in pajama pants and, if you’re lucky, you may get a shower while Steve Demme (of Math-u-See) spends quality time with your child via DVD. You will break up kindergartner’s fights over the iPad while the Unicorns (they prefer this to the term “middle kids”) figure out a loophole on the online Explode the Code, that allows them cheat their way into the next book before you even realize it’s a thing. It’s OK. Chase the Littles outside and reset the Unicorns back to their rightful place. Locate the Big and make her put the lanyard with the multiplication table flashcards attached, back around her neck, because you are well aware that she keeps “losing” it around the house on purpose. If you are a parent who chooses to send your children to public or private school, great, you will have benefits and challenges all your own. But if you choose to homeschool, don’t give up. At the end of the year, you will be able to look back and see just how far you’ve come.

Is it too much of a stretch to call this PE?

Is it too much of a stretch to call this PE?

Nine Months Home

I want to write about all of the up’s and down’s of the past nine months since our family became complete—the triumphs of the hard-fought battles of bonding, the pits of the exhaustion and loneliness, the struggles of searching for and reclaiming my own identity again, the ridiculousness of what the whole ordeal must look like to the outside world.

I want to write about the joy-drenched labor of leading a daughter through her first steps as a new believer, crawling, falling, running after her Savior, sometimes inadvertently pushed down by Mom, because Mom still falls, too.

I want to write about the anxiety I’ve felt in the darkness of it all, in the long, excruciating silence of waiting for God to speak again. Hungering and thirsting after Him, until, without the opportunity for Bread and Water, I had eventually all but given up hope.

I want to write about the desperate desire for someone to speak true, kind words when my soul feels like it is dying and I can’t find space alone in my house to find space for the Word. Not the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps advice that stabs a dying man in the heart, but words infused with the gospel and hope and perhaps even a compliment or two about how my children are probably not all going to end up in prison or therapy and graduate high school with a third-grade education, because I am a good Mom, and I am a Mom who is trying, and because failing all this (and fail it will), there is yet grace.  These really are the thoughts that pummel my waning confidence every, single, day.

I want to write about how most days it feels as though life is finally, finally, leveling out and that the much-too-fragile emotions of individuals are now beginning to withstand the daily strain of close relationship. I want to believe that this is natural as roots dig deeply into the fertile soil of family.

I want to write when I have the time and the clarity of thought and the moments alone, but it is rare that all of those things coincide.

And I’m just not sure I can find the words . . .