I Wrote a Book!!!

I know I’m being a little giddy. Three exclamation marks? Uncalled for! And yet… I’m just really excited and proud.

I wrote a book! You can buy it!

The first thing you should know about this book is that it’s not short. It’s nearly 300 pages. There is a whole chapter about how middle school came to be and what’s wrong with middle schools today. There’s another about what’s going on inside young adolescents’ brains and bodies, as well as how to parent them through it all. There are chapters about understanding different homeschool philosophies, keeping your homeschool organized (and why to bother doing that), how to really engage with the world around you through field trips and travel, and how to cover all your basic homeschool subjects.

My favorite chapter is about “best practices” for teaching middle school, where I talk about a few things that I first posted about on this very blog, like doing a short story every month, and using books that are short but meaty to generate discussion without bogging kids down. It’s also about other practices that I think are good for kids, like sometimes spending your whole math time on a single math problem or letting kids spend time on passion projects.

At times I really struggled writing this because I think that a book that says “here’s THE way to homeschool” probably sells better than a book that says, “there is no single path.” However, I firmly believe that. You have to know yourself and your philosophy, your kid and their needs, and then be flexible in making it all meet up. This book is meant to be helpful to a lot of different people, from people brand new to homeschooling to people who have been at it for a little while. It’s meant to be for people who are approaching things from a more strict mindset or philosophy to people who are just doing whatever works.

Above all, I want this book to be a manifesto on why you can and should homeschool the middle grades. I know it’s a time when many people leave homeschooling. I know people are intimidated by this age group. They can be stubborn, moody, and spaced out. Middle schools these days try to make teaching the middle grades seem like rocket science when it’s absolutely not. You can do this. It’s totally within your reach.

Homeschoolers Deserve Professional Development

One of the things I’ve found over the years is that homeschooling can be a lonely endeavor. We get isolated with our own kids in our own homes. There’s no water cooler! And no one pays for us to go to seminars or get new professional development certifications.

However, this is a job and a calling. I know nearly all homeschool parents take homeschooling seriously, but I think that means that most of us stress out about curriculum or whether our kids are really okay. We don’t often take care of ourselves by challenging our own ideas about education and teaching.

It’s understandable. We’re in the trenches all the time. And unlike classroom teachers, we don’t really get a break in the summer. However, it’s worth it to spend time reading about education, questioning what we’re doing, and improving our methods and systems. It’s especially important because our students grow and change every year.

One way to do this is to read about homeschooling or education. I try to read at least one or two books about education every year and I usually find it really useful. Another way is to attend a homeschool conference that’s worth your time. The SEA Conference is just such a conference. If you’re able to get there, the speakers will be great. I’m excited about speaking, but also about peeking in to hear from others.

No matter how you give yourself some professional development, remember that you’re worth spending that time on and that your homeschool will be invigorated by you being challenged in your own thinking and practices sometimes.

Cover and Title Reveal

Okay, it took awhile, but I have a title for my forthcoming book. I hope it sums up the middle school years. They go from tweens to teens. They rarely have smooth sailing throughout. They also tend to have big leaps in critical thinking and creativity that are very much worth celebrating.

More importantly, I also have a cover! This cover is really brought to you by Mushroom, who refused to take credit for it, but who did most of the heavy design lifting by altering the images and doing the basic layout. I swooped in and finessed some things, but I’m mostly just bursting with pride for him. I have no idea how to do half the things he did with the software he was showing me. This is middle school, guys! It’s kids who suddenly know more than you about something that isn’t just dinosaur names or video games, but something super useful!

Expect to see it on Amazon as both a paperback and an ebook in the next two weeks!

Our Beloved Co-op

Our tiny co-op had its final meeting last week and I’m still a little weepy when I think about it. It was time to end. Several kids are headed to school. My kids are starting high school, which brings with it some specific challenges in terms of getting in academics. But this co-op has been in existence for an amazing nine years, which is a really long time for a small, family based co-op.

We ended with an overnight camping trip that the kids planned. The kids planning it was pretty essential. Since its inception, this has been a child-led co-op in various ways, becoming more and more child-led as they grew and matured.

I keep meaning to write a more detailed post about our co-op. I don’t think this is that post. But it’s been a really amazing ride over the years. When we started, the kids picked the topics and the parents taught the lessons. We rotated houses week by week. We made decisions based on consensus, a habit I picked up working in Quaker schools. They learned about things like dinosaurs and history. When they were really little, we used to operated the “Co-op Time Machine,” a pillow fort in the basement that traveled in time to visit the Big Bang, among other things.

At some point, we transitioned to asking the kids to plan the units and decide exactly what they wanted to do. They put on a play, made a movie, staged a fundraiser, wrote their own roleplaying game, and many other projects.

Over the years, there have been all kinds of co-op experiments. The kids played with “co-op money” one fall, playing an elaborate game of trading goods and services. The kid who sold muffins every morning was the winner, I think. There was a co-op yearbook several years, as well as a co-op newspaper created by BalletBoy that ran several editions for a couple of years. Kids came and went over the years, though a few families remained the same.

Co-op has been a hugely stable force in our lives for so many years that it’s staggering. Most schooled kids don’t get this type of stability in their peer group. I feel so lucky to have gotten this experience for them.

As we left the campsite for the final meeting, it was us and the other original family who had been there since the beginning. That’s it,  I realized. There’d be no more co-op. In the fall, the kids opted to do a STEM-centered day of classes once a week.

I feel like nowadays, if a co-op doesn’t have a slate of classes, a rented space, and an official nonprofit designation it’s not a co-op at all. However, this little, free endeavor has been perfect for us. It took the parents sharing a powerful vision for the kids. It wasn’t without its rocky moments and the kids are hardly perfect to each other. Many of the projects fizzled into nothing much. However, this is what homeschooling can, especially for the K-8 years. Cheap and child-driven. Filled with play and friendships.

Looking Forward to SEA

The next few weeks are busy, busy for me here at the Rowhouse. The kids are finishing up their school year, wrapping up Algebra I and some literature and various other things we’ve done this year. I officially “graduated” them with a special meal and a gift of decent school style backpacks. They’re the same Jansport model that I still have from my own youth. Mine made it through high school, college, and then as I traveled extremely light across Asia in my early 20’s. That’s a good backpack and hopefully theirs will see some good adventures too. First up, we’re taking a short “8th grade trip” to New York to see a Broadway show and hit some spots the kids have never visited.

I’m also chatting with clients for Simplify, which is fun and exciting, to hear about other people’s homeschools and challenges and help them out. I’m trying to finish up my book about homeschooling middle school so that it should be out within the next month or so. It’s getting some final revisions and a solid round of copy editing by a professional. I still have to choose a title, which is a little nerve wracking. Your Complete Middle School Homeschool Survival Guide? Surviving Homeschooling the Middle School Years? Something more clever and cute? Eye-rolls and Deep Thinking: Homeschooling the Middle School Years. I’ll figure it out soon!

Finally, I’m putting the final touches on my talks for the SEA Homeschool Conference in Atlanta. I’m so excited to see some of you there! It’s going to be lots of fun. I’m especially looking forward to talking about middle school. It’s like crystalizing my book into presentation form and it’s helping me discern the most important points.

If you’re on the fence about going to the SEA Conference, there are some amazing speakers there and some great looking presentations. If you live anywhere around Atlanta, you can also get a single day pass now, which seems like a great option if you’re just hoping for a small dose of homeschool inspiration. I know I often resist these sorts of events, but when I go to them, I really do come home fired up about new things and more reflective about our practices. Homeschool parents deserve professional development too!

Organization is More Than Notebooks and Shelves

Hey! Did I mention that I’m working on a book about homeschooling middle school? There are hardly any books specifically about the middle school years and I really think there should be one. Middle schoolers are… well, they’re the best. Prickly, passionate, wild, playful, deep thinkers. They’re great. Anyway, here’s a second little snippet. This one is from the chapter I am working on about organization. I really cracked myself up with this one because I am not someone who is beautifully organized. To prove it, here’s a photo of what our homeschool space, which doubles as the dining room, looks like.

Partway through writing this section, I paused and looked at my notes and figuratively scratched my head. I’m probably the last person who should try writing The Life Changing Homeschool Magic of Tidying Up. I’m not that organized. If you saw our dining room, where we do most of our schoolwork, then you wouldn’t be especially impressed by our shelves or our messy bins of stuff. We’re not homeschool magazine cover-worthy. Not even close. I also don’t keep extensively organized planners or binders. We don’t do things like workboxes or any of the other fancy organization systems that some homeschoolers use. Why, then, did I think organization was worth a full chapter and so many words?

The real focus of your homeschool should be your kids, not your planners. Middle school requires us to be especially flexible. When homeschooling is at its best, we’re being flexible and dynamic. We are engaging our kids and making sure they’re progressing while giving them space to be themselves. We’re honoring that sometimes they roll their eyes and sometimes they get excited about ancient Egyptian tombs or quantum physics. We’re letting them wander around in circles for half an hour and then bringing them back to that math book without judgment.

On the other hand, without at least some modicum of organization, the whole thing can fall apart. Luckily, we don’t have to keep detailed records like in high school, when transcripts and college admittance is on the line. However, I think keeping the chaos of middle school somewhat organized can be a real challenge. There will still be papers, books, schedules, and projects to keep in some sort of order. How will you assign work or give feedback? How will you show up on time or encourage kids to be responsible for their assignments or things?

At the end of middle school, one of my sons needed a middle school transcript for a program he was considering. As we compiled it, I looked at the myriad of things we did and thought about how it needed to be molded into some sort of sense. What was an elective or an extracurricular? How did a study of microscopic stream life and several months building model rockets add up to science? Of course, it all looked fine on paper in the end. You can make it come together however you need to. If I had wanted to, I could have just written “Math 7” followed by “Math 8” and “History 6” followed by “History 7” and “History 8.” However, I wanted to be a little bit honest, so I put down “Science of Flight” and “Graphic Design” and other units he’d done. I was struck by how piecemeal it seemed, but also how diverse and accomplished. He seemed like such a serious young kid when I looked at all the things he had done on paper.

Middle school is wild unexpected like that. When you’re teaching a child to read, at the start of the year, they’re struggling through basic readers and maybe a year later they’re casually reading Frog and Toad or even a Magic Treehouse book. However, in middle school, sometimes it can be harder to pinpoint these particular triumphs. It’s even harder if you have a middle schooler who gets a case of spaciness or grouchiness. In the day to day, you can easily begin to feel like you’re running in place without ever getting anywhere.

Organization can actually help with all of this. It can help you organize your thoughts, make sure you stay reasonably on track amidst a chaotic life, and help you pause and reflect so you can see that progress.

I’ve seen amazing homeschoolers who can’t see how amazing they are because they’re disorganized. I’ve also seen homeschools brought down by a lack of organization. It’s not that the homeschool was actually failing, just that the parent couldn’t feel a sense of success and couldn’t keep up with the chaos of growing kids. Middle school is tough. You need some level of organization to fall back on.

Organization is more than just where you keep the pens and the notebooks. You should have places for those, sure. However, organization is really the underlying way that we communicate with our kids, give them essential feedback, reflect on what we’re doing, and make changes going forward. Organization is how we structure our days and where we put our attention. Organization is how your system runs. It decides what happens and what stays just an idea. That’s super important stuff that deserves some of your attention.

This is not to say that I think you need to suddenly become an office supply advertisement. Some people do love to have systems that include tons of bits and pieces. It can help to have the right piece of paper in front of you every morning, or the right app open on your phone helping remind you to stay the course or at least record the veering course for posterity. However, your systems can also be pretty simple.

Let’s just be honest. Simple systems are best, but even simple systems tend toward chaos. No matter what organization system you implement, it won’t be perfect. This isn’t to entreat you to work toward perfection. Just like how your student is going to work through a messy, chaotic time in their life, you guiding them through it will also likely be a little messy and chaotic.

My main goal is that you recognize that organization can be a linchpin in your homeschool. It can make or break things. That’s why it’s worthy of your attention and thoughtfulness. But also, don’t judge yourself when your systems inevitably don’t work out or don’t keep up. Just reflect on what’s working, let go of what you don’t need, and revise what you do need.

Finding Empathy

One of the amazing things about watching kids grow up is watching them evolve as aware humans. Little kids are, by their nature, mostly self-centered. They have these moments of deep kindness, but also moments of sheer lack of understanding of others’ emotions or views.

One of the most beautiful things about having adolescents is seeing them fully emerge from that younger, naturally narcissistic viewpoint, to becoming kids who can really appreciate others, and empathize with them.

I feel like with teens, they can be moody, prickly, and self-centered at times. It can be easy to fall into this trap of seeing them as uncaring or unfeeling toward others. But the reality is that they’re not. One reason that young adolescents sometimes seem extra concerned with their image is that they can suddenly see that not everyone sees the world or themselves the way they do.

I think, as a parent, you have to catch them being their best selves. You have to catch them when they’re coming out of their shells to do kind things.

BalletBoy spent all year volunteering at his ballet studio, teaching a class of little kids. He did several volunteer stints at a soup kitchen by his own request. When he passes homeless people on the street, he stops and gives them his own money.

Recently, our lives were upended very briefly when we rushed to be at my grandmother’s side as she lay in hospice, dying. Every time he came into the room, Mushroom went to her side and greeted her. Even after she lost consciousness, he spoke to her and told her he was there and that he loved her. He didn’t shy away from holding her hand or touching her.

You guys, teens are the best. Young kids are special and wonderful too, but teens have so much more understanding and nuance. We’re really just at the start of the teenage journey, and I like to gripe about it sometimes. They are moody and sarcastic and all the things teenagers are. They ignore me and roll their eyes too. But they also have these moments of empathy and caring that go beyond the gestures I saw from them when they were little. It’s so beautiful and I can’t wait to see how they continue to grow.

The boys hugging their great-grandmother last fall.