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Homeschooling On the Cheap

alec vanderboom

Over the past five years, necessity is the mother of invention. Here is my usual supply list for homeschooling three kids in elementary school: pencil, paper, library card, and the internet. Most of what I teach is straight out of my own head. Here's how I do it.

1. Topical Conversations at Dinner

One night after watching Downton Abbey, I got convinced we could have elevated dinner conversations. Considering my oldest kid was 9 and my fifth kid was1, and there was lots of  "keep your knees off the table" comments (my son and toddler are strange contortionists who belong at Cirque du Soleil), my husband had his doubts. Yet we persisted. Now this is a highlight of the day.

My husband is a science guy. He's also the more quiet parent. Now my husband uses the "dinner topic time" to hold court in his home and share with us all the brilliant stuff inside his head. Sometimes he explains to us the details of how blood clots. Sometimes is the use of those new 3 D printers. Last night it was the photosynthesis process that lets cabbages stay alive long after they are cut from their roots. It's like a college science class condensed into a 20 minute segment.

Jon gives a lot of details in his conversations. Sometimes I worry "this is way over their head." Yet my kids drink in every word. There is something about sitting in a dining room chair and eating that makes information go straight into their brains. It's way better than lecturing at a chalk board. (In fact, teaching while my kids are imprisoned, I mean focused, at dinner is my favorite time to teach Catechism for the same reason).

(Oh and the kids are allowed to propose dinner topics too. Sometimes they are super fun. Other times it's a chance to explain how dinner topics, unlike chatting with a single friend, need to be of general interest to a group of people--which I think is a really important social skill).

2.   Teach Around Your Kids Strengths

My kids love to play video games. Their favorite obsession right now is a free internet game site called Roblox.  This is an international sight where kids build their own video games for others kids to play. It's all live action. It takes some parental policing. For example, our rule is "No Zombie Games". There are sort of violent slasher video games that I won't want my young kids playing. But there are plenty of fun games that are totally G rated.

I use my son's obsession with Roblox to help his reading and writing skills. We do spellings lists based on words he wants to learn. For example, one list was "Sword", "Ax" and "Fire." Then I help him write sentences that he can use on Roblox. The difference between teaching my son fun "boy words" and teaching him words from a spelling word book are huge!  He is a kid who actually loves to do homework now.

Now, sometime in the Fall, I'm going to buy a third grade spelling book for him--so that we can better master basic spelling rules. (My technique is a little too random I think to really master spelling). But my idea is that teaching from a set word list is a supplement to their regular spelling work. Not the main lesson.

My kids are opinionated. They know what they want to say. I help give them correct spelling so that they can write down their ideas for someone else to read. This has really opened up reading and writing and spelling to us. I struggled for years to help them learn how to "decode." They really had no interest in it. Now that I'm starting with "encoding" they eat it up. The plus that once they know how to spell a word, they can read it AND write it at the same time.

Now that we have a passion, Roblox, I'm building a curriculum around that. My son and I are starting a technical writing book to write down tips for his friends who are new to the game. We're also researching what a "video game designer does". I'm hoping to get us into meet some game designers at our local college.

I feel like my job as his teacher is to take his interests seriously and expand them.  When I work with his interests, instead of against them (or worse, judging that playing video games isn't a good use of his time) we can get so much farther in the subjects the State require me to teach--Reading, Writing, Math, etc.

3. One Big Idea Each Day

The big change I made this summer, is to balance out all this freedom and autonomy with student lead learning to teaching "One Big Idea" each day. I see myself feeding my kids minds with something new, big, and nutritious. I teach it in the morning, so they can chew on it all day long.

I usually go to the library and pick up cool new books for this purpose. Right now, we're reading "Into the Unknown: How Great Explorers Found Their Way by Land, Sea and Air" by Stewart Ross. This book is awesome! It goes from Leif Erickson to the Apollo 11 mission. There are all unfolding interesting maps and cross sections that my kids drool over. (The Illustrator, Stephen Biesty did an amazing job). I read a chapter a day. I quiz them orally on the next day. This stuff just sticks like cotton candy to my kid's brains. I can't believe my 6 year old can spell "the Silk Road" and now knows where Marco Polo traveled.


Our summer homeschooling schedule is light and refreshing and easy to do. My rule is that they have to finish their homework each weekday before turning on the computer. That's 20 minutes of reading homework, which earns points for our library's summer reading program). Fun spelling words. One big idea each day. They complain that they are the only kids who have to work in the summer. Yet, I like that keeping up a routine in the summer helps us transition easily into 1st, 3rd, and 5th grade in the Fall.

(This approach isn't doing Math yet because my kids are really good in the subject. In the Fall, I'll work more systematically on Math and English Grammer).