A Teacher’s Practical Guide to Homeschooling

So you’ve suddenly got kids home with you for weeks, and more likely, months. What is a parent to do? Some school districts are providing you with plenty of resources, but many are not. As an elementary school teacher and sewist, I thought I’d share some tips for you if you have kids ages 4-13 at home!

Let me share a bit about myself: I’ve been teaching since 2008, and working in schools and developing teaching resources before that. I’ve been a classroom teacher in Canada and Japan, and taught Kindergarten to Grade 8 along the way. Right now my specialty is supporting English as a Second Language learners; I work with 80 kids a week at three schools, and support their teachers in developing best practices. Teaching is the one topic I love more than sewing! It’s also a stressful and exhausting career, and I hope that my suggestions can help take some pressure off you and your family.

Think sustainable. This is for the long haul.

Every new teacher comes in guns blazing, spending every weeknight and weekend planning and prepping adorable activities. It takes a few years to realise that a bit of structure and repetition is good for you and for your students—and that an exhausted and crabby teacher does no one any good.

Involve your kids in decision making.

The trick is giving a list of options where there is no wrong choice! Studies say that kids (and adults) are more engaged when they have some control. I suggest brainstorming a list of repeatable activities and putting them up on the wall.

For example, for kids under 10 that could be: reading to self, writing, listening to reading, art, playing outside, doing chores, exercising to YouTube videos, working with math programs online, using learning apps and games, and working on some sort of passion project (more about that later!). For tweens and teens, swap in more academic tasks like writing assignments, making science slide shows, researching history, math practice etc.

Passion projects.

You know how happy you are sewing? Well, your kid likely takes the same joy in some weird niche interest, like video games, dinosaurs, a favourite book series, or whatever. This is the time to do the kind of learning we struggle to provide in school: passion projects! Let them go whole-heartedly into topics they care about, and ask them to create some kind of finished project reflecting their learning. They could build a model, make a website, create a slideshow or a board game…they could do science experiments or write a fan-fic series, film a movie or start a business. This kind of interdisciplinary learning is such a great way to reinforce math, literacy, research, self-regulation, tenacity, and creativity. And since they chose the topic, they will happily work at it for hours without you!

(For kids under 7, this might need to be a “together time” project, but still, it will give a nice focus to your time. Look for books, videos, art projects, and hands-on things you can do together!)

A sample homeschool visual schedule Gillian made. It is a 4x4 grid with sample activities in each box. Each sample activity has its own graphic symbol. 

Here are the items in each row, reading from left to right. The graphic representing the item is described as well.

First row, left to right: Read to Self (image of an open book with a smile on its spine); Math (An abacus, some numerals, and an open workbook); Outdoor Play (a pretty meadow with grass, a tree, flowers, blue sky, and clouds); and Passion Projects (one large red heart and two smaller red hearts).

Second row, left to right: Listen to Reading (an open book with headphones above it); Science (chemistry set and atomic symbol) and HIstory (world globe, compass, and thick closed book); Dance/Yoga/Exercise Videos (a family all doing stretches in the living room); and Connect with Friends and Family (a hand holding a smart phone with an image of a person and the word "hello").

Third row: Writing (paper and pencil); Art (easel, painter's palette, and brush); Hands-On Learning such as cooking, building, sewing, etc. (several raised hands in many colours); and Free Choice Time! (graphic of the words "Your Choice").

Fourth row: Spelling/Grammar/Word Word (boy looking through a magnifying glass at the W in the word "word"); Creative Play (the word "play" with children playing on top of the letters); Chores (a list of various chores, each represented by a small picture); and Clean Up (a cloud bursting with cleaning tools).

Above is a sample visual schedule I made. You can download it here.

Routine is key.

Let me tell you a secret about school: Those 6 or 7 hours are broken into a routine with repeated tasks—and that’s how we get through the day. Kids are more successful when they know what is coming next. A visual schedule is a great idea (such as a poster with the day divided into chunks, with picture prompts to help young’uns; see sample below). Don’t feel like you have to micro-manage every second though: Figure out how long your kids can be successful and focused, and keep things changing often enough to keep them engaged—but not so often that you are hurrying them through tasks they would like to explore! I’d suggest some blocks of time be open for them to pick from the list of activities you made together, and some be predetermined, like “outside play” or “lunch/snack”. Maybe a nice routine of family read-aloud time, or baking, or a video chat with friends/family, whatever you enjoy together.

Child labour is great.

Not sweatshops, of course, but keep asking yourself, “Could one of the kids be doing this?” Reading to a younger sibling, looking for cool art projects online, tidying up, or creating a nice workspace—those are all things that children of any age can help with! In these stressful times a lot of us sewists are looking for ways to help, and I think children also want to feel helpful and valuable.

You are the parent.

As much as I’m suggesting you involve your kids in the planning and decision-making, the other truth of teaching is that kids feel safer when someone reliable is in control. The first month of two of each school year is usually spent teaching community norms, classroom rules, routines, and setting structure. If you don’t have that grounding, then all the math lessons in the world won’t work!

Oh yeah, curriculum!

Speaking of lessons…the curriculum is your friend! Of course, start with whatever your district has provided. After that, download the local curricula, and take a look at some of the topics that kids the same age as yours would be covering in school. More often than not, you might find that it’s not as complicated as you are making it! You don’t have to teach them trigonometry if all they need to know is numbers 1 to 100. Focus on any lagging skills that teachers have told you about in the past.

Most curricula give some suggestions for activities as well as learning outcomes. So for example, a particular curriculum might say, “Explore a variety of text forms, such as poetry, plays, letters, and short stories.” Voila! Writing a letter to grandma, and retelling a picture book you just read together, suddenly meet the curriculum requirements. Try printing off the language and math curricula for each applicable grade, and (you guessed it!) then pick the next topic along with your kids!

Graphic shows multiple images, each representing a different activity or resource.

Online resources are fantastic.

Lots of apps and websites are now offering free resources, and there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Here are a few I have used in classrooms for years and recommend. Please leave your own recommendations in the comments!

  • Dreambox Math usually costs an arm and a leg, but is offering free 90-day memberships right now. It offers engaging math lessons for Kindergarten to Grade 8, and adapts to move kids forward or backward in level depending on their success. It’s also lots of fun! Prodigy Math is another good option, but not as responsive to tracking students’ progress.
  • Sightwords.com is perfect if you have a young non-reader! It guides you through lessons teaching the foundational skills of reading, like rhymes, first and last sounds, blending, and so on. Then there are lots of fun games for sight words. All free!
  • Scholastic is a major publishing house of teaching resources, and is offering free day-by-day resources for kids up to Grade 9.
  • Evan Moor is another publishing house for teachers which offers excellent PDF workbooks. They are offering free PDFs of their “Daily Fundamentals” books for Grades 1-6, and they also have a huge catalogue of workbooks for sale on different subjects. Every teacher knows that sometimes spending $20 on a downloadable resource is a great investment, especially if you want some easy structure for history, grammar, spelling etc.
  • Get audiobooks or digital books from Audible, or whatever app your local library or school board uses.
  • Sewcialist editor Becky home-schooled her own kids for years, and has a great post on a more structured online learning approach on her blog here.

REAL TALK: If you don’t have time for any of this, that is okay! If you are working from home, a single parent, ill, overwhelmed, or taking care of extended family, this may all sound like a guilt-inducing pipe dream. Love your kids, make them feel as safe as possible, and that is what they’ll remember in years to come. I teach a lot of refugee students who have been through hell and come out resiliently on the other side. You are enough, and what you are doing is enough.

When all is said and done, homeschooling has two main purposes: First and foremost, to make your time together happy and successful; and secondly, to teach both personal skills and academics. I truly believe that a few hours a day are plenty to keep the academic side going, and that doing passion projects, free-choice activities, and family fun stuff should make up most of your day. If you have any questions at all, either specific (“How do I help my kid with x?”) or general, please feel free to ask in the comments—and if you have resources or your own experiences to share, please do that too!

Gillian is cofounder of the Sewcialists, and an elementary school teacher, with additional qualifications in math, early learning, special education, and English as a Second Language. Her husband is a teacher, as are her parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles! She always swore she wouldn’t be a teacher too, but turns out it is the most satisfying and creative career she could imagine. It is a pleasure and an honour to have time to make kids feel special, and to figure out what support they need to take the next step.