Saturday, August 20, 2016

Home Schooling in a Large Family

Home schooling is always a challenge, there are no two ways around that, but there are particular challenges to home schooling many children at the same time with younger children in tow. The most children I have schooled at one time is eight (between kindergarten and sophomore) with a baby and many years I gave birth to a baby mid-year. Here is how I kept my head above water and hopefully it will help you do the same.

School Toys

First of all, it is important to some unexpected prep-work. When you have younger children or even babies, you need to make a plan for them to be entertained. Our children have had a large plastic bin known as the “school toys” which have always only been available during school time. Because the dynamics in my own family, with the exception of one lone girl, I had my five boys first who were followed by five girls. I know, know. I have no idea how it happened. My school toys bin started out as Brio train tracks with lots of accessories. When the shift to more and more girls happened, they added more things. The girls have dress up clothes. We have always had a very large bin of Megabloks that comes out at the same time. Babies often need small things that they can play with, too, but they are often don’t need them to be special the way toddlers and preschoolers need them to be. The youngest of my eleven children is three right now but when I still had babies, they always had a basket of things.

Secondly, the best way to keep the younger children under control and happy while you do school is the have someone older with them. I always schedule my children in half hour blocks to do their “babysitting turn”. It does not have to be stressful. In my notebook, I keep chart that is a list of all the older kid’ names down the side and a space to write dates across the top. As I go through my day, each child has to take a turn with the younger children and once they have done their turn, I put a check next to their name so that I know who had already gone. It is tempting to have some kids babysit more than others but everyone both needs to do school and learn how to take care of younger children. I try to plan it so that kids who are more reliable students start babysitting so I can make sure that the ones who are less reliable have me with them to make sure they get their work done. You can use a timer on your phone or on the oven or any other timer. Switching the kids out regularly makes sure that they kids never get tired of the babysitter.

Lastly, I think it is really important to segregate the learners. I group the older kids (who often listen to music with headphones while they study) and the younger kids who need a lot of talking back and forth to do their school work. This means that the youngest ones and the babysitter need to be elsewhere and not mingled in with the other children. If you keep everyone together, this means that you will have more interruptions and more frustrated teenagers who need to do a lot of reading. Carving out space does not need to be tricky. I have ten children at home still and we live in a 1640 sqft house. Center study areas around the dinner table, a coffee table, even a picnic table on the patio. Wherever a child sit, they can learn.

Daily Check-In Time

I have another list in my notebook that consists of a daily check in with my children. Every day they need to sit next to me and go through their work and get help and have questions answered and concepts taught so that they can move on. I make a check-list of names and any notes on things I need to check. It might look like below:

Maria 11/15·         Math: Differential Equations, stuck on lesson 12
·         Eng: Paragraph check in
Vocab: flash cards made?

Just keep a list of subject and make sure there is a dividing line down the center of the paper. Then keep what you need to check on one side and what needs to done the next day on the column next to it. Then you can keep the dates over the column. At the end of the day, you can transfer (no more than a half sheet, from top to bottom), of instructions into each child’s notebook. They know that you will check those items and they need to be responsible for checking them off. Once they are in fifth grade or so, make them responsible for copying it over. You have enough to do.


I used to have each child grade the English and Math of the child down in the level below their own. Now that I use Khan math, it means that they have less to grade. I like Khan because I get a weekly email that lets me know how many minutes they have spent and in what areas and where they are succeeding and where they are have problems. The children need to do 300 minutes of math a week but the upper limit is 400 (yes, I have kids who need that limit). If anyone does not get his minutes in, he gets to clean the bathroom. If you are using workbooks or texts for math, ask the child grading the work to help a younger child work through the problem. If they can correct it together, I do not count it as wrong. Helping someone learn a skill helps both children.

I can take a look at the work during the daily check ins but I also only have children do math and reading on the first Friday of the month to give me a chance to really look at where each kid is in each subject. I put on a movie and the kids come up one at a time and we really look at everything so I can make sure that each child is making the progress that they need to make. This is a great time to keep track of the reading list for high school kids. Work on their transcripts at the end of each and every semester so that it is not a gargantuan task at the end of high school.

Also, a big tip: flashcards. If it can go on flashcards, do it. I have cut apart vocab books and used them to make flashcards. The children have to make a flashcards for every term in every chapter in the science books. Group kids as much as possible and have them quiz each other every day. I check that the flashcards are made and then I quiz them weekly in groups. I go through hundreds of index cards a year and we have boxes and boxes of them. You can often use them with younger kids who do not have to go through the process of making them for themselves.(Almost) Free curriculum. Score.


All of my children have their own pad of colored or decorative Post-It notes. I love these things. If they have a question, and I am busy, they have to write that question down. It might look like this: Math, lesson 6, #14. They are to come put it on my notebook and not interrupt. I know immediately who needs me and what they need help with and they do not need to tell me and disturb me. This happens when I am helping a child with school, or making lunch, or changing a diaper, or even using the bathroom.

When they come to a place where they can’t solve a problem or answer a question, they are told that they skip that are and keep going. Just skip it. If it means going to the next subject, fine. They need to keep going. Now, if they have nothing else to do, then they need to work on their “Just Right Book”, that is a book they can read with no help whatsoever, or a smaller project. In the kids notebooks, I keep an area for a list of things that they need to do that are open ended like practice classical guitar, practice tying shoes, working on a model, or things of that nature. This means that they keep busy and can even account for their time when I get back to them.

When I have something that they need to get to, I write it on my Post-its. When they seem them on the first page of their notebooks, they know they need to do it. I will often post chores and things like that. By the way, there should always be a punishment attached to losing or destroying these notes. Something productive but unpleasant like rinsing out garbage cans or changing the cat litter.

Nap Time

If you have younger children or babies then someone needs a daily nap; sometimes it’s mom. So, after lunch, we have quiet time. This is a time when everyone needs to quietly read a book. I do not care if you are fifteen. Too bad. This hour is sacred. Little ones go down with an audiobook or a CD. If someone is inclined to ask repeatedly if they can get up, my solution is a CD about an hour long. When it is over, you can get up. If they fall asleep, great. Anyone who is disruptive during this time loses privileges. I have been known to give the good children ice cream at the end of the day in order to teach a child to not misbehave at this time of the day. My children know that I am dead serious about this.

End of the Day Ritual

One of the most important things that I learned about a decade in, is that we just need to stop at some point, even if we were unproductive. You will lack the strength to keep going if you don’t take breaks. We have a set time to stop every day and I don’t go more than half an hour over it. Then we have tea. We stop and have tea and put things away. It helps us switch gears. I think having a ritual is so important because we need to remind ourselves that this is behind us. Now we can be a wife and mother and not a teacher. That said, children might still need to finish work.
We have what we call “Stay Up Late Time”, which is the evening when we play games, watch movies, and things like that. If you are an older child, and what that means is flexible, then you might need to spend finishing thing you did not do during the day. Didn’t write that paragraph? See you later.

Final Thoughts

If there is nothing else that I can impart, I think the most important thing I can say is to remember that sometimes you need to be off. If you are always schooling, always thinking about school, running long days because your morning was unproductive, then you are going to feel strained and stressed. I have done that far too many times. Treat it like a job and be there all day but end it and leave it behind. Get up in the morning and get going as if you were going to a job. At the end of the day, leave it behind. You might not like getting up and staying on task but really, you will be so grateful if you do because you will be able to stop in the afternoon. There are a few ways to make that easier.
  • Put an out-going message on your machine saying that you are unavailable during the day and that you will return calls after 3 or so.
  • Put your phone on silent and only check social media during lunch and after school.
  • If you really need to be available to certain people during the day, use a special ring tone or a “push app” so that they can always reach you without being available to everyone.
  • If you have close neighbors with children who interrupt during school, put up a sign. Yes, I have done this. If you just print up something with some pictures that looks school like, even non-readers can understand it. Laminate it or cover it with clear Contact paper and use a hole punch and ribbon to make something that can hang from the knob.
  • More on signs: when I was a kid my mother had signs like this for dinner time and chore time. It hung outside and our friends knew that we were not available until the sign came off the door. This is another great tip.

I hope this helps! Let me know if you have any
great tips or ideas or even questions I can answer.

Friday, August 5, 2016


There was a time when I joked that I was just waiting for all my children to be old enough to put on their own shoes and use the bathroom by themselves. I am almost there and it is far less appealing than I thought it would be. It is not so much a matter of not liking who they are becoming or not wanting the additional freedom but more or less the rapid onset of the awareness that these days are passing. A much wiser older mother than me once warned me that when our children are born in rapid fire succession, they leave in the same way.

I can see the dominoes starting to fall. It is more than a bit sobering. In a way it is like summer here. These days are hot (for here) and busy and it seems like I am just keeping my head above water with all the preparations for winter. I always remember that winter is coming but I need to remember that summer is here, now. I need to make sure we take some opportunities to enjoy these rare and fleeting days. 

We took all the kids to the beach by the farmhouse the night before last. On the Keweenaw, August is getting colder. The water is not really swim temperatures and usually only the children of the locals get into the water. When the water is 60F or less, it is physically painful to go in, at least at first. I watched my kids go in, even the ones who are older are really remember Colorado. The younger ones just take this cold water as a given. I decided that I live here now, and this is the only summer that I will get, and that there are an average of 200 days between 70F days here, so I best just get in it. So I did. I went into the frigid water with my children. It was so hard but in the end I enjoyed and the kids were both surprised and thrilled.

Afterwards, as I was gathering together the kids and their piles of things that they take to the beach, a woman passed by my blanket. Claudia lured her in by my pointing at me and telling her that I was Mama. She stopped and visited for a few minutes. We chatted about my kids coming out of the lake and silly, casual things like her polka dot swim dress. While looking out at my screaming and splashing kids, she said to me, "You will have grandchildren." It was more of a statement of fact than anything else. I always get uncomfortable when people start commenting on my family size so I put on my best saccharine smile and steeled myself.

"I hope so!" I chirped cheerfully.

She turned to me said, "I don't. I only had one child so it's my own fault. But you, you will have grandchildren."

We wished each other goodnight (it was ten in the evening) and we left the beach before it got dark. I married very young and I was hassled a great deal about giving up so many opportunities and not living life to the fullest before I settled down, but I think what they really believed is that I was just settling. I was giving up. This woman in a gentle and unintentional way was reminding me that I never settled, I ran headlong into life.

..and I am still running.