Home School Life Journal From Preschool to High School

Home School Life Journal ........... Ceramics by Katie Bergenholtz
"Let us strive to make each moment beautiful."
Saint Francis DeSales

What To Teach, and When

A Reader asks, "First of all, I love ALL of what you do! I take that information and try to use it in our homeschooling...but I have a question for you, when you have time. How do you determine what you will teach, and when. For example, I prayed to know what to teach my children this year, and was led to Science based on the Creation, art, US geography and "the basics" (reading, writing, math). You seem to have so much all at the same time. How do you determine what to teach when, how do you organize it all and then how do you apply it in your schooling day? I realize this is a loaded question...but I would love love LOVE to do all the curriculums you do, I just think I would get overwhelmed. What is your secret? (And thank you so much for all of your ideas, photos and links!!!)"

The secret, if you can call it that, to not being overwhelmed is to relax and not worry so much about gaps in their learning or if you completed your lists' worth of things to do that day, or that week, for that matter. I realize that this is easy to say, but not easy to do. Every homeschooling mom from time to time worries about are they doing enough? Homeschooling is just like parenting in general. If you worry too much or compare yourself too much with other parents then you will always feel you are not doing enough. In the first few years of homeschooling, the main thing that is being learned is how it all works best for you, your student(s) and your family. It takes time to discover this, and it is something that you will have to re-discover over and over again as your student(s) grow older and change and as your family dynamics change.
But, to answer the question as to what, practically, to teach. I do have a general goal in mind for my students...where I want them to be once they have graduated. It has become easier for me to see that now that I have one graduate and a high schooler. Back when my kids were very young, I had difficulty seeing through the year, much less beyond. That is okay and just a stage that homeschool teachers go through. With that in mind, however, I do have a very general scope and sequence.

For science, I rotate between the three general science categories; Physical Science, Chemistry and Biology. But, and this is the most important part for our family, I will gladly drop any planned activity I have, in exchange for any interest my student might have. I don't jump on any curiosity by planning a month's worth of activities, for that is the most sure way of killing an interest in the subject and a most sure way of making sure your student never brings another topic to you. Instead, find out the answer to the question together. Make it a challenge and have fun along the way. If this inspires either of you to complete a project on the subject, then that is fine, but it doesn't have to. Not all of our learning is recorded in some way. I also caution you to not make the project a required task. Let him do it only if he wants to. Be willing to let go if your student wants that. Some unschoolers never suggest a project, and have the student always come up with his own ideas or not. The problem with this is that, especially for younger students, they often don't have the experience enough to even know how to come up with a project. This is where a little coaching from you can open up new doors of fascination. And that is exactly what it is, coaching.

For history, I rotate between Ancient History, Medieval History, Renaissance or Early Modern History, and Modern History, which includes Current Events. Notice that I did not separate off American History. I always teach American History in a World History context, which means I teach American History just as I teach history from any other country, for many of our country's events have been born out of or influenced by events in other parts of the world. Again, we will explore topics out of the  planned sequence, if a student has a question, or wants to explore something else, or if we go on a field trip that is centered on a different time period than we are currently covering.

I would also like to point out that the main learning avenue for our family is books. We read them all the time, and I read to my children long after they know how to read for themselves because being read to and sharing this time together is a most pleasant thing. I don't require them to sit if they don't want to, if they are too fidgety. My attitude toward books is that they are precious and wonderful and I tempt them with them as much as possible. I read in front of them as much as I can. I talk about what I have learned from books. I have lots of books, in every room of the house. I read all types and topics of books. Their history is learned in the context of books, not textbooks.

Math is one subject in which I suggest a particular sequence of curriculum. I teach math in a very hands-on way. I begin with Math Their Way and then on to Mathematics: A Way of Thinking, with Math on the Level as a resource to look up how to teach a concept, sample math problems and the like. I use this when a student needs more practice on a topic or when I need some problems quick to see if he understands a concept. Usually I know if he can do a particular type of math problem, however, because we are practicing all the time. They are coming up with their own problems to solve. (It tells you how to accomplish this in Math Their Way and  Mathematics: A Way of Thinking. Again, often we will veer off the topic we are working on if it come up in real life, such as a student wanting to learn how to tell time or how to measure. If you want a more step-by-step topical outline, you can find them at World Book, but it is easy to get caught in the have-to-check-off the-topic syndrome, so I avoid using it as much as possible, maybe once a year to see what type of thing is coming up for the next year, or did I miss something last year that I need to look at a creative way of presenting.

English is more difficult for our family because of the multiple learning disabilities they have. All of my children have been very late readers and writers. I follow as much as possible Charlotte Mason's  techniques of oral and then written narrations, combined with simple but clear grammar study. Writing techniques, spelling, grammar and the like are often practiced within the concept of their writing in their other studies. If we are learning adjectives, for example, then I encourage them to add them to their nature journal descriptions of a plant they saw, or in another piece of writing they have done. Field trips are wonderful topics for writing because they are real and tangible to them. Rarely until high school at least do I assign a topic just for English, for narrative, persuasive, comparison and contrast essays are easy to do in context of history, science or through books.

I like to have lots of variety in our schooling, so I often separate off topics into smaller pieces. For instance, we will often study history and geography as distinct subjects. Not that we don't study geography in our history, (and history in context of our geography studies), but we study history sequentially and geography by region and when they overlap, there is a built-in review. The key, is, however, that we only do each subject a little bit at a time. World Geography may take us years, going slowing, one little bit at a time, spiraling back around as they get older to add more detail to their study. So to look at our list of subjects, one might say, "Oh, my! I can't do ALL that!" but if you could see our school, you would see that it is not overwhelming because a small bit is covered at a time. And if it does become too much, we will drop a subject as we need to. For example, while I am going through my cancer treatment, we have temporarily stopped our geography studies, and only concentrate on history. If we can add the geography back in later, then that will be great. If we don't for awhile, that is fine, too. Most of the time, they will miss the subject after awhile and begin asking questions and making explorations on their own if we have dropped a subject for awhile. Then it is time to add it back in again, even if they do it on their own for the most part.

Once they reach about seventh grade, I make sure I have added in foreign language exposure. For our family, we enjoy learning Greek, Latin and a Modern Language. That may sound like a lot but it is not, if you take it slowly. Once they get a bit of Greek and Latin under their belt, Modern Language is so much easier because so many of them have roots in those languages, as does our own English. They get so much grammar review and understanding by studying Greek and Latin. Exposure in the younger grades is fine, too, but I don't worry about it much if it doesn't make its way to our list of subjects for the year. There is time.

Other subjects you might include are Nature Study, Artist Study, Composer Study, Art Techniques, Plutarch, Shakespeare, Poets, Hymns, and Folk Songs. Many of these topics, too, can be incorporated in other subjects, such as art techniques to make a piece of art can be combined with our history studies. Artist and Composer studies can be also taught in context of history.

Include what you can, what inspires or motivates you and your students and do not worry about the rest. There is time.

I hope this answers your question, and if I have left something out, feel free to leave a comment with more questions.


  1. Phyllis, this is the best post I've seen on the subject. Detailed, encouraging, and very simple to implement. Shared it all over the place. :) Thanks!

  2. An awesome post, Phyllis, so full of wisdom and great advice, as always. Thanks for sharing! I've learnt loads from this post. :-)

  3. I loved this response. It wasn't my question, but I'm glad you answered it. Thank you for sharing so much with us.

  4. Thank you so much for taking the time to write all that out, Phyllis. It is so interesting hearing how experienced homeschoolers like you organise yourselves. I love that balance you strike between presenting skills and subjects you think your children will enjoy/need, and following their own interests. That's exactly what I'm aiming for. I'm going to look at some of those math books you mention, too. Thanks again!

  5. Anonymous4.3.13

    I completely agree with Erin. I think this is the best post I've ever read on the how tos of a homeschool. Oh to have read that when I first started! It's so important that more experienced homeschoolers pass on their wisdom to the mums and dads just starting out and you do it so freely and with such clarity. I loved this post!

  6. Thank you, Phyllis, for taking the time to answer my question. I do question myself, almost constantly, if I am teaching all they need, am I teaching correctly, am I hurting my children or helping them, etc. I really enjoyed your entire post and will be printing it off and studying it. :) Thank you, thank you!

  7. I love this post! "Include what you can, what inspires or motivates you and your students and do not worry about the rest. There is time." yes! Thank you for inspiring and encouraging.

  8. Thank you so much for this post! It helped immensely, with my decision for subjects to cover this next school year. Because of this, I really feel empowered to make my own decisions regarding learning, and to not stress over things we don't cover. You are so right: there IS time! Thank you!!


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