Sometimes when we are in the middle of something it is hard to get an accurate picture of what is really going on. But seeing the “view from the top” gives us the perspective we need to cultivate the homeschool we want. That’s why a homeschool evaluation is key when it comes to planning your new year.
I took this photo while hanging over the side of a tall building in our city (don’t ask why…I question it myself every time I see this). And as you can imagine, my stomach did a little flip as I looked down from my perch high above the city street. But it did help me see things from a completely different perspective.
When I was editing it later I began to notice things I hadn’t when I was taking it—how the colors all connect with one another, how lines, shapes, and patterns emerged, how incredibly high up I was. I began to see the big picture better by studying the details.
The drivers in those cars had a very different view. And some of the drivers weren’t even in their cars at the time. Each was probably preoccupied with what was going on in their lives at that moment, barely noticing their surroundings or the group of photographers perched above them.
Because they were busy doing, they couldn’t see what I could from my vantage point. And they definitely couldn’t make any of the connections I was able to notice from my bird’s eye view—especially when I had time to study the picture.
When we are homeschooling, we are very much like those drivers. We are in the middle of it, so we are unable to see the whole picture or the little details that make it up. But if we want our families and homeschools to thrive, we need to take a step back and evaluate every once in a while.
So let’s park the car (or minivan since we are homeschoolers), climb up the stairs, and view our homeschools with some perspective. Let’s take a picture from the top as we evaluate our homeschools.
Evaluate Where You Have Been
To make a plan for your new year, think back over this past school year. If possible, discuss these questions with your spouse, too.
Timelines are a great tool for teaching history, pulling together a variety of topics, and organizing studies. Your children from elementary through high school can benefit from using them in a variety of ways.
The Framework Approach
We sometimes forget that children don't think in the same way adults do!
As adults, we have a better sense of time, so it’s logical for us to put people and events along a chronological timeline. However, developmentally, children don't have the same concept of time. (Just think about how you view waiting for Christmas to arrive as an adult versus when you were little!)
We like how Dr. Ruth Beechick approaches using timelines with younger learners in her book, You Can Teach Your Child Successfully.
“For children, timelines are not for pulling together the scattered pieces of knowledge…children haven’t yet collected enough pieces to pull together. What timelines can do for children is to provide a framework into which they can put pieces of knowledge as they learn them. For this framework purpose, timelines should be very simple—so simple that children can memorize them.”
Maybe you're finding that getting started in your new year back to school is off to a slow or rocky start. Sometimes we find ourselves procrastinating or, at the extreme, dreading getting back to our school-time routine.
There can be many reasons for feeling this way. It would be easy to then feel guilty for said procrastination or dread. One potential culprit behind how you’re feeling could be that some areas simply need to change.
Why Do We Resist Change?
If you are like me, I tend to resist change. I may not like the way things are going.
As I’ve shared in other blogs that I’ve written, I tend to be a driven, moderate Type A kind of person. But being that way has its negative side. I will often struggle my way through a situation before admitting that something is not working. I will plow through and suffer rather than stop and recalibrate.
Honestly, one of the first times I began to recognize this about myself was when I first learned about Trail Guide to Learning. I am ever grateful for the honest conversation at the end of a homeschool convention with the series' main author, Debbie Strayer, as she helped me see this blindspot.
Sometimes it’s not only a driven personality trait, but a false belief that quitting is somehow admitting failure and seems weak or unspiritual. This is certainly not to undermine the powerful virtue and fruit of the spirit of perseverance or faithfulness. So please do not hear what I am NOT saying. We often need to choose to stick with something, to wait or press through challenging things. However, it’s my experience that we often wait too long to change course.
So I write this to encourage those of you who are struggling to consider that maybe you need some encouragement to make some changes.
If things are not going as you hoped, know that you have permission to consider CHANGE.
Our world is becoming increasingly tumultuous. With the responsibilities of managing a household and homeschooling (and for some, working) how can we be the best version of who God has made us and called us to be?
Even if you limit your exposure to media and internet, it’s virtually impossible to be immune to the heaviness of what is going on in the world—it’s affecting each one of us in some way.
We’ve likely all dealt with sickness or life-altering loss this past year and a half. Compound this loss with the political climate, environmental catastrophes, crisis in the Middle East, and increasing division within the world and in our community of friends and family. As homeschool parents with the unique and consuming responsibilities that we carry, it’s no wonder that so many of us are struggling. It is a lot!
Now more than ever we must be relentlessly committed to healthy lifestyle practices that support our physical, emotional, and spiritual health.
A Personal Note
I don’t prescribe a “one-size fits all” approach. Not only does that lack compassion, it’s also not realistic. There are as many ways to successfully navigate a time like this while homeschooling as there are different people who need them.
Further, during the past year and a half I have walked through some deeply personal circumstances. I share that to assure you as the reader that I come to this topic with integrity as well as empathy.
This personal experience has dramatically shifted my perspective on how to have true peace and contentment even through the major traumatic events that come. I want to encourage healing and hope for others amid the trials of life—most especially for homeschoolers—as a homeschool mom.
I also hope to inspire anyone who needs it with practical ways to courageously walk a journey towards wholeness no matter what goes on in the world, near or far.
These suggestions are by no means exhaustive or conclusive and I hope they serve as a launching point so that you can homeschool with the joy and peace God intends for your family.
Why take care of “YOU” first?
One of the Ten Commandments God gave to Moses is to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). It is not selfish to prioritize caring for yourself. Quite the contrary, I believe God reminds us that how we love ourselves has a direct impact on how we love others. We can only give what we have. It is paramount for us to love ourselves for us to love others. I hope that it goes without saying but I’ll say it: God is concerned with our whole being— mind, body, soul, and spirit.
The beginning of a school year sets the tone for the entire year. Using a soft start to transition rather than jumping in at full speed can help ensure success for everyone!
A Case for the Soft Start
As a homeschooler, I have always needed and taken a summer break. So every August our family faced the contrast of summer and the school year ahead. This concept of starting slowly truly is something that I heard several times over my early years homeschooling before becoming a “believer.”
In the past when starting something new, my tendency was to prepare well and hit the ground running. While I believe being well prepared is important, I didn’t consider the implications of how this more aggressive approach would impact me and especially my kids.Like adults, kids handle change differently. However, many kids don’t like change and need a transition to help adjust well.
My kids were never ready to leave summer behind. (Let’s be honest: Who wants to say goodbye to the fun of Florida summer days with the allure of so many outdoor adventures awaiting us day and night?) They were even less eager to begin a new school year on the heels of such active summers. What they needed was a gentle transition—a slow start to the new season.
Fun and learning should not be mutually exclusive. Kids remember more and understand better when learning is pleasurable.
So many homeschool moms were educated in the public school system. Reflecting on that experience, very few of us refer to our education as one that prioritized fun in learning. As a result, we often lack the understanding of how and why to incorporate fun while learning with our own kids.
When it came to educating my first child, I took a more traditional approach. I am one of those moms who started my first child’s early education sitting down at a child-sized (at least I did that!) table with workbooks. The approach was what I was familiar with. There’s no shame or condemnation for me or anyone who chooses that approach. I just think there’s a better way.
“The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.” —Albert Einstein
My favorite part of teaching my kids was—and still is—reading good books. So we read a lot. We took trips to the library, went on field trips with friends, and participated in dance or gymnastics classes to get out of the house and break up the monotony of “traditional school.”
I didn’t fully realize the value these activities had in my kid’s learning until I met Debbie Strayer, the main author of the Trail Guide to Learning series. I was introduced to Debbie during my first year homeschooling. It was her knowledge and influence regarding the education of children that helped me to see how important having fun while learning really is.
I’m so thankful for her patient and persistent encouragement over the years, especially when I was such a new homeschool mom. I’m even more thankful that she wrote the curriculum all of my children used for years of their education so that they could experience the fun that learning can be.
While it may seem obvious, sometimes just hearing the “why” behind something can spark a new motivation or reignite a flame for something that is already within us. So bear with me for a moment.
Why is FUN so Important?
1. Having fun supports the natural way kids learn. From birth we are processing the world around us to form our own conclusions and find our place in the world. We are born to be naturally curious. School should represent learning that encourages children towards what they are curious about.
Considering the complexities of what we manage, we instinctively know that a busy homeschool family needs a schedule or routine.
As we enjoy the rest that summer brings or homeschool as usual, many of us have an inexplicable draw to advance planning. Homeschool moms seem to be some of the most prepared people on the planet.
Rightly so! As both a parent and the primary educator, we carry an even greater responsibility than most. Include the fact that many of us also have special needs and circumstances, and it is apparent that advance preparation is vital to our success.
A schedule or routine can be a great place to begin those preparations! They help us to prioritize and organize, bringing order from chaos.
It is important, however, to remember that these “time managers” are tools and can benefit only as much as they fit the needs and circumstances of each mom and family.
Understanding the differences between routine and schedule while considering which will benefit our family and life circumstance can be critical to our preparation.
What works best for each family will look different, so consider the strengths and weaknesses of each approach as you decide what is best for you.
What is the difference between a schedule and a routine?
The main difference between schedules and routines is simple: Schedules dictate the what and when; routines give the what with a loose order.
“Are you feeling empowered, homeschool mom?”
In my recent interview with Trail Guide mom Tiffany Ingram, she shares how using Trail Guide to Learning as a new homeschool mom with young children empowered her to teach them and gave her the confidence she needed to homeschool.
According to Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, the definition of the word “empower” means to “give official power or legal authority to.”
Many who choose to homeschool do not necessarily have a degree or special training in education. Thankfully, in our country a degree is not a requirement. This freedom enables parents with a variety of backgrounds to make the decision to homeschool.
Some parents know before their children are born that they desire to homeschool, while others are doing it more out of necessity due to special learning challenges in their children or a particular season of life. Some choose an approach that uses a set curriculum, some do not, and there are certainly families who fall somewhere in between.
Whatever the reason a parent has chosen the homeschool path and whatever their approach, assuming responsibility for their child’s education can feel intimidating, even daunting. After all, there is much to be considered when it comes to educational requirements, as well as the needs, personalities, and even interests of each child.
Regardless of vision, approach, or special circumstances surrounding the decision to homeschool, I believe feeling empowered to teach is a critical element to the success of home education. When it comes to empowerment, the curriculum can be KEY!
The Trail Guide to Learning series was intentionally designed to be a curriculum that would empower its teacher. Not only was it written by highly-qualified educators with many years of research, but also with thorough, well-organized lesson plans, side notes, and all the extras to make teaching a breeze.
Empowered by Qualified Authors
The primary author of Trail Guide, Debbie Strayer, never touted her advanced degree or extensive experience as an educator. She never needed to, in my opinion. Her passion and zeal said it all!
The beginning of her journey did begin with both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree. Over the years she gained extensive experience with many different ages and specialties in the educational system, including administration. She was a curriculum writer, homeschool evaluator, and speaker for many years. She was mentored by homeschool pioneer and educator, Dr. Ruth Beechick. Debbie’s qualifications are impressive.
However, it’s not just her experience and knowledge that qualify her to create curriculum that empowers others. Debbie is most known for using her knowledge and experience to encourage, uplift, and empower homeschool moms to do what they were called to do.
Whether evaluating a homeschool student or speaking personally with a mom in the booth at a convention, Debbie was driven by a deep desire to see others strengthened. It is out of this deep desire that she wrote the Trail Guide curriculum.
Since I traveled with her in her later years, I would often hear her speak. There are two things I remember her consistently sharing.
First, she shared that moms (most often she was speaking to moms) are the most qualified teachers of their children. She explained that she believed a parent’s unique love for and relationship with their child would make them the best one for the job—not a degree or letters behind their name. Simply…God’s design of their family.
Second, for anyone doubting the truth of this statement, she would follow up with her own life’s verse: 1 Thess. 5:24, “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.”
Those words seemed to resonate deeply in the hearts of its hearers. Even the most discouraged mom found great strength to continue on the journey. It really was as if God used her especially in the lives of the disempowered and downtrodden to infuse hope for the seemingly impossible task.
If only she could be physically present to impart this kind of empowering each day! Oh, but wait—she created a curriculum to do just that!
Empowered by Easy-to-Use Lessons
Since my children knew Debbie personally as their yearly evaluator and my close friend as I was using Trail Guide with them, I used to refer to the curriculum as if it were Debbie herself.
I would say, “What did Ms. Debbie say?” “How many pages did Ms. Debbie ask you to read?” (It helped to give credibility to the amount or type of work they were being asked to do!)
While she knew that she could not be physically present in the homeschooling day, she wrote a curriculum that would feel very much like she was right there next to you cheering you on.
I think the authors did a remarkable job organizing and explaining how to use a multi-level, multi-subject curriculum. It was written with simple language, and addresses the student so that directions were easy to follow.
They coordinated the lessons and student notebook pages with animal paw prints for ease with students at different levels who use Trail Guide. They provided charts and check-off lists. They provided summaries at the beginning of every lesson to help the lesson make sense and tie together key concepts so that the teacher did not have to do that themselves. They even provided a section with ideas for how to expand the lesson material for older students and children with interests beyond the lessons provided.
They truly though of everything. That’s empowering!
Empowered by Margin Notes
As I used it, one of my favorite aspects about Trail Guide were the notes in the side margins. Some notes are practical and meant to guide parents through the curriculum. Others are intentionally written to empower even the most timid, inexperienced homeschool parents.
While there is an in-depth description in the introduction section of each Teacher’s Guide, there are also notes in the margins throughout the curriculum that explain why these sections as well as how to use them with your children. These were invaluable to me in the early stages of homeschooling.
For example, in the “Copywork/Dictation” section they explained that copywork and dictation passages were incremental and encouraged the teacher to progress as the child is successful. Further, they explained the difference between copywork and dictation. They then explained the unique skills built in dictation and how to use the method most successfully. This was so helpful for me!
In one of the side notes there is an explanation of how discussion in the “Read-Aloud and Discussion” sections are important in the child’s ability to begin developing their thoughts around a subject rather than simply answer questions.
I may be a bit biased but I’m honestly not sure I could identify what more the authors could have done to create and design such a curriculum that would empower any parent to teach their children so successfully.
If you’ve never used Trail Guide, what are you waiting for?
Have you ever received a thoughtful or significant gift when it wasn’t even your birthday (or any special occasion for that matter)? You might have experienced, as I did, an array of emotions from complete shock to sheer delight or profound humility to deep thankfulness.
It's happened to me only a few times. I can still feel the overwhelming emotions.
In a recent interview with my daughter on the Trail Guide to Learning Facebook page, I experienced some of these same emotions as she had the opportunity to share her perspective on using Trail Guide through the middle school years.
It really was like receiving a meaningful gift! All the “feels”—surprise, sheer delight, and deep thankfulness as she shared some unexpected consequences which themselves turned out to be tremendous gifts!
Let me begin by saying that I intentionally chose to use the Trail Guide knowing some of its potential strengths and benefits. Developing critical thinking skills and a love of learning were at the top of the list. But, it wasn’t until this interview with my oldest child, Eliya, that I realized just how significant these unexpected gifts from Trail Guide were to my children...and to me.
Discovering Learning Challenges
As parents, we do the best we can to research and choose curriculum that best fits our vision and values as a family. We put considerable time and thought into the needs of each child and even the particular season of our family's lives.
At a minimum, we at least to experience the benefits of our curriculum choices but there will always be some things that go beyond our expectations and, quite frankly, even surprise us.
Having high hopes for each child—no matter what personal challenges or struggles they are faced with—we intend to give them the best opportunity to succeed and excel in whatever God is calling them to do in life.
I’m no exception.
However, I’ll be honest enough to admit that raising four children within eight years of each other in age sometimes left me overwhelmed in homeschooling and often wondering if my kids would indeed reap the benefits I hoped for using Trail Guide.
It wasn’t until a couple of years after finishing the series with my oldest two children that we realized they both had mild to moderate reading difficulty. As their mother and teacher, I found myself questioning how it was I missed such important learning challenges in my kids.
My oldest child self-diagnosed with mild dyslexia and ADD. My second child was diagnosed by an opthamologist with eye tracking issues that required thousands of dollars and many hours of eye therapy to correct.
What?!?! How did I not know?!
How in the world did they do as well as they did in school?
As much as I have been tempted to feel guilt for not having known and helped them in some way, I’ve come to a deeper understanding of the bigger picture. But this deeper understanding was truly crystallized through my daughter’s reflection.
Over these years, I’ve come to trust that God really means it when He says that He uses all things for our good. I no longer experience the fear or regret that plagued my past.
I am more confident than ever that He wants to use even our greatest mistakes and challenges for something purposeful in all of our lives. That is a key part of why NOT being aware of their challenges while we used Trail Guide is such a gift to me NOW.
This interview helped me see God’s good plan for my children’s challenges in ways I never could have expected.
How was Trail Guide the answer?
The flexibility to adapt lessons, along with the engaging of many learning styles, significantly helped my children navigate their difficulties.
Trail Guide’s approach to learning allowed them to develop strategies to compensate, turning potential weaknesses into strengths and ultimately building confidence instead of discouragement.
And they did it on their own, unaware of what they were actually doing.
Connected Learning Makes Sense
Research proves that when learning is related students better retain and enjoy more what they are learning. However, it didn’t occur to me that this unified approach also offers a flexibility to learning that enables students to work around challenges without needing to emphasize them.
My kids could not only do work at their own pace/ability level, but they also discovered how to learn absent a rigid method.
That flexibility allowed them to adjust and do what they were good at and stress less about what was difficult.
For example, Trail Guide has copywork or dictation lessons. I often observed writing was a stressful activity for kids, so we adjusted to accommodate their needs. Sometimes we did copywork. Sometimes I dictated to them. And sometimes we needed to skip a day.
If writing in any subject was a struggle, we did less. Sometimes I would write for them or allow them to process verbally.
Often my kids gravitated heavily towards the art and music lessons. I took advantage of that by allowing more time and emphasis when it came to those subject areas. We listened to the orchestra CD used in Paths of Progress for hours on end—not just the lesson it was assigned.
Who knew that this choice to be flexible was growing into such confidence!
Various Learning styles
Trail Guide engages not just one style of learning but many. If your child is not naturally inclined to one learning style, you can adapt it or choose to expose them gently, considering that it may create unnecessary stress in learning.
My kids were very verbal and tactile in their learning styles. They wanted more discussions and hands-on activities.
We had elongated and sometimes lively discussions (that may or may not have strayed off topic). I often chose to have them share verbally rather than in writing.
I’m convinced this allowed them to also enjoy our relationship in learning more, as I focused more on their strengths and less on perceived weaknesses.
Trail Guide has a weekly review which employs many types of games. They loved to play the games together and compete with each other. Because learning was fun, hands-on, and competitive with his sister, I feel that my son (who later had a year of eye therapy) could push himself further than he would have otherwise.
Eliya always loved literature and learning through storytelling. I think it was one of her favorite parts of using Trail Guide, which is so rich with good literature. Even with her reading challenges, Trail Guide afforded the opportunity to read at her own pace or to listen as I dictated.
Looking back after all these years, it’s my daughter herself who expressed that this approach to learning “allows kids to feel successful even if they have disabilities.” I don’t think either one of us had considered this before.
No matter what difficulties she or her brother were overcoming, they were motivated to learn. They inadvertently learned some of the most valuable lessons in life. That is better than solid gold!
What were challenges that could have held them back or discouraged them, turned into strengths instead! Thank you, Trail Guide authors!
Sitting down with Rachel Martin to talk about her return to the Trail Guide to Learning series was so inspiring! She reminded me what an amazing curriculum we have.
One of the aspects I don’t think gets highlighted enough is something Rachel referenced several times in our conversation—how well the subjects flow together!
Or as Rachel put it, “They (the lessons) are seamlessly intertwined."
I liken the way Trail Guide to Learning is written to weaving on a loom because it not only is a good analogy for how it works, but also because of the beautiful product it brings.
Have you ever seen tapestry being woven together on a loom? On one of our homeschool field trips I watched—mesmerized—as the fabric was intricately threaded through the loom and then woven with the others to create the larger piece of tapestry.
Meticulously and thoughtfully woven together, the tapestry of the Trail Guide to Learning provides lessons that make sense while being easy to use so that children can learn better and learn together.
First, it makes sense.
Weaving subjects together and relating them enables learning to be a natural process.
When a subject like Christopher Columbus discovering America can not only look at the story and character of his life but also include information on how to navigate by the stars and ocean currents which affected the course of his ship, learning science makes sense.
Further, when vocabulary words come from the places where Columbus traveled and the people he met, your word study makes sense. When an art project is to build a model ship that Columbus sailed on and label the parts of the ship, again, the word study and art make sense.
Learning for the child is natural. It doesn’t seem forced, out of context, nor artificial.
I will always remember my first few weeks using the Trail Guide to Learning with my first set of kids. We began with Paths of Exploration. Having never experienced this way of learning, I was absolutely blown away by how easy the teaching and learning process became.
It was a new concept to me personally. It didn’t take long to convince me that this way of learning was not only easier but more effective.
Now those subjects (which taught out of context would likely be quickly forgotten) are remembered and connected to a person and place in history. They make sense to a bigger picture.
Second, they learn better.
As would naturally follow, when learning for a child makes sense, they retain what they are learning better, too.
I loved that my children were learning vocabulary and spelling words that were not random but completely connected to everything they were learning and experiencing. Yes, they seemed to learn better, but even more, they seemed to enjoy what they were learning and to feel more confident in their studies.
Research supports that kids learn better when the subjects relate, but I’m not sure how you can measure the joy that comes from learning that way!
Third, they learn together.
Rachel mentioned that as she used Paths of Settlement she was teaching four different children with four different learning levels, even within their respective grades. Yet her kids worked together regardless of their different strengths and weakness, unaware of the pressures of a particular grade level.
The curriculum allowed each child to learn and influence the others at whatever level they were at without fear or pressure.
This unified approach brought a harmony that bonded them together. As they were a newly blended family, this was a huge unexpected blessing.
In my family I found that it helped the younger or weaker child in a certain subject area to have the benefit of learning from the older or stronger sibling with no negative peer pressure.
Fourth, it’s easy to use.
There is no denying that having one book to teach from is much easier than having several books for several different subjects. More than that though, it’s so much easier to teach when the subjects relate to one another.
It allows for natural discussions both in and out of the school day. We already have plenty of things to complicate and challenge our lives. Our curriculum choices certainly shouldn’t!
Fifth, it’s free to try.
With the “Try It Before You Buy” option there is no reason not to give this curriculum a try. Geography Matters offers the first unit (six weeks) of Paths of Exploration, along with almost all of the resources needed to teach it, for FREE! There is no risk or obligation.
MORE INTERVIEWS TO COME: Many thanks to Rachel Martin!
Rachel is the first interview to kick off this year of interviews with veteran Trail Guide to Learning moms. I look forward to interviewing these moms monthly who can share their insights and experience as they’ve used the curriculum. Having different children and life experiences, they will each bring a unique perspective to the table which I feel confident will help all of users and potential users to feel supported and encouraged. I hope you’ll join us each month!