Cow Theory & Secret Ingredients: How We Make School Happen at Home


 We are just finishing up a beautiful week of school.
These past four days were the kind of days where everything came together like a perfect meal, lessons moved from one to the next nearly seamlessly and each one of my (not-so) Littles seemed bright eyed and ready to meet each day-even math (for the most part).
These days I refer to as our Strawberries and Cream kind of days.
I.love.them.

Reality is, however, not all days are like this.
In fact, most are not.
Most days we are moving from place to place and trying to fit it all in and there are often too many things to get done and not enough time in the day.
Those are the days where I have to sit back, and just be grateful we all made it through.
Just like life, not every homeschool day can be Strawberries and Cream. But also, just as in life, you can develop a rhythm that can keep things moving on the hard days and really free you up to enjoy the good days.
It really is a one-day-at-a-time mantra in our home, and these things I am about to share with you are things I can do everyday, one day at a time, and it doesn’t cost me a penny and the results are always positive.

1. Prayer
This is the foundation of a great day. This doesn’t mean that if I start my day praying about our school and the kids and anything else that might be happening, that nothing goes wrong and everything goes right. It just means that it puts my heart in the right place for our day. When challenges arise, I am more able to meet them and less apt to lock myself in the bathroom for five minutes while I search alternative schooling options. ;)
I don’t always have a set time to sneak away to a nice quiet spot with a cup of something warm and an hour to myself (wouldn’t that be nice?!) But, I can pray about our school day as I am making breakfast or while throwing a quick load in the wash before our school day starts. This opens my heart and lets me be open to the wisdom that God gives-sometimes in an inner heart-knowing, sometimes from a friend, sometimes from a fellow homeschool mama, and often from the kids themselves.
I can always tell (so can my family!) when I start bulldozing through my day and try to do this homeschool stuff (or life-stuff) on my own without first bending my knees and opening my heart.
Those are more like baking soda and vinegar days.

2. Habit
This is the foundation on top of the foundation. I guess that would make it the floor? I am new to this habit stuff. Oh, not to bad habits of course, but to developing and keeping the good ones. Last summer I read A Charlotte Mason Companion by Karen Andreola and she shared some great ideas (based on Charlotte Mason’s writings) about habits. Imagine the aha! moment I had when I realized just what bad habit I had developed that had been killing any new good habit I tried to adopt! Once I kicked that one bad habit, suddenly developing good habits wasn’t so hard. It was still a discipline, for sure, but it was a successful discipline!
When you think about it, our days revolve around habits already. It is just a matter of fine-tuning (or, in some cases, completely remolding) them!
Taking some time to determine what habits need to be developed and what habits need to be dropped is an invaluable time saver and life skill that affects more than just a school year. In her book Andreola quotes Thomas a Kempis’ famous old saying,
Sow an act, reap a habit,Sow a habit, reap a character,Sow a character, reap a destiny.
This is why habit comes right after prayer. Habits, their development and the discipline of,  are essentials and are great indicators of which direction your day (life!) may go.
Some of our family habits include: set morning and evening routines, chores, a “break time” after lunch every day (a quiet time where each child goes to his/her room for reading or quiet play alone. They always come out refreshed, with new inventions or stories to tell, and this introvert mama is refueled!). We even have habits that are specifically designed for our doctor/hospital days that are recurring for my husband. We call these “odd” days and they have a different set of chores etc. on these days –but they know they can count of this being required of them even then.
With these habits, every day has a structure on which to flow. Even if the flow is crazy (and often it is), it still flows within these boundaries.

3. Cows.
Okay. This next part will sound strange without having read Echo in Celebration: A call to Home-Centered Education by Leigh Bortins first. And, I ask forgiveness ahead of time if my adaptation of her idea is a bit, well, wonky. But, here I go.
In Bortins' book I read, 
“[Home centered education requires consistency]….On the day [Jayne’s] grandmother died the cow got milked. On the day all the relatives came for the funeral, the cow got milked. No matter what happened the cow got milked.” 
Bortins' point is that some education can be done every day-no matter what. That it is the consistency which is super important. This very vivid analogy was just what my brain needed at the time. When I first read this book, we had just been thrown head first into a new season of illness for my hubby and we were running back and forth to doctor appointments and hospital admissions. I was way in over my head, caring for hubby, the house, the kids, the school, the regular life stuff. I wasn’t quite sure what was the necessary part of our schooling, and how to implement it in our very real, very tumultuous life. Understanding, and then applying this concept to the educational mirepoix of reading, writing and math took me from being overwhelmed with the curriculum (that I had been excited to teach just months before!) to being able to implement a consistent daily lesson even on the hardest days.
In hindsight, this seems super obvious. But when life hits you on the back of the head it can leave everything a bit swirly and out of focus for a while. Her advice was just what I needed to keep us on track.
So now we do math, reading and writing most every day no matter what (most everyday because, well, Saturday and Sunday ;)   ).
Hospital days and long travel days and even the snuffly days (as long as it is not fever or throwing up days), school still happens. On the least of the crazy days, we add the awesome other elements of education. When viewed as a whole, there is a great big balance of math, reading, grammar, art, science, geography, and so much more!
This Cow Theory is invaluable to my day and our success as homeschooling family.  

4. Loops and Tracking
The next two things that have revolutionized our school days are Loop Scheduling and writing down what we accomplished everyday (as opposed to only checking off a list of what I wanted to get done).
I think Loop scheduling is the homeschool equivalent to that special ingredient in a coveted a family recipe that seems so small but makes a world of difference. I learned about Loop scheduling first from Teaching fromRest: A Homeschooler’s Guide to UNSHAKABLE PEACE by Sarah Mackenzie. This Loop scheduling is described in the book very well, and since it is in my list of best reads for homeschoolers (and it is a fast read and full of good, practical advice) I suggest if you are really interested in Loop scheduling to pick up her book. 
Basically, instead of setting specific days and dates to complete items, we loop them through our schedule. This enables us to keep a constant flow of work, even when life interrupts my beautifully laid plans (i.e. every.day.).
The second part of this is the daily recording system I use. I originally was given this idea by my hubby, and later realized this was a typical unschooling method of recording things. Instead of writing a syllabus for our day (or week, month etc.), I record what we completed that day. This helps me in two ways. First, it helps me see all the things we DID complete (as opposed to all the things we didn’t check off the list, which can become pretty discouraging!This also allows for freedom of teachable moments, instead of sticking only to the checklist for the day). Second, when life events mess up my well–laid plans, I am not required to spend more hours rescheduling and reworking our schedule. I can just pick up where we left off in our loop, mark it down, and move on forward.

For those of you who may work best with a perfectly laid plan and think this is all to willy-nilly for you, I agree. I love plans. I still spend a few long hours before school starts each year and lay out a skeleton for our curriculum. I make sure I know where we should be to finish each book and when. 
And then, I let it go
Not because I don't like staying true to a schedule, but because my life circumstances have required that of me. And, thanks to these two skills (and for sure, GRACE), it all still works out mighty fine.

5. Heart Matters
Finally, every Strawberries and Cream kind of day is always accompanied by my being more in tune with my kid’s hearts and not only their performance. Each item above helps me do this for sure, but I also need to make a conscious effort. I remind myself that they do not need to learn everything TODAY or THIS WEEK or even THIS YEAR. My job is to help make our school be a place where “the love of learning is cultivated” and “a place whereI pour out life into my children, instead of drain it”.
Overall, I am a pretty easygoing mama and so it might seem like I would never be a “squisher of life”. 
Sometimes, however, when deadlines approach or I am just plain DONE with math worksheets, or writing a paragraph takes hours and way too many tears, I can get squishy. When I take a deep breath, sit down and remember that, although memorizing facts and having nice handwriting ARE important, it isn’t THE most important thing. 
We are not raising our children to think that the whole purpose of life is to make perfect grades, outshine in a classroom, go to university and then land a prestigious, high paying job.
Although, in and of themselves there is nothing wrong with any of those things, those things are not the purpose of life. We know that a person can devote their whole life to that kind of living and never be fulfilled (there is always more to earn, to buy, to do) and/or wake up one day with a fatal disease and realize that all the culturally acceptable success that was achieved is not transferable to the life that follows this short breath of one.

Hearts matter a great deal, in the schoolroom, in the workplace, at the bus station and in our home. 

We know that teaching those values are just as important as what three times five is.

Years ago I found this list of objectives (I quoted some of it above) and I haven’t found (and don’t think I will!) anything more suited to our values.
We have it hanging up so I can see it everyday. 


So, great info, but not as practical as you had hoped?
I get it.
When you are sitting in the trenches, the last thing you want is something that involves my version of “Cow Theory” and some long-winded advice.
You want printables and fun activities and the last sentence I write to be “this is guaranteed to get you through the year faster and with more laughter than an unwatched toddler out the front door”.
Well, at least that is what I want.
I want all the quick fixes, the things that will get my fourth grader to memorize multiplication facts as well as he can memorize Lego details and the solution that will ensure that my first grader will love reading more than she loves Netflix.
My experience is, however, that it is the long and arduous, consistent living (starting with me and my heart, praying prayers between me and my God) that will take me to the finish line-- not unscathed, but  victorious.
And that is the goal, right?
Life doesn’t really operate on quick fixes and straight-to-the -line finishes.
Usually, those kinds of fixes don’t last long, and cost more (in time, money, tears) in the long run.
Not always, but mostly.
So, although in our home we take the one-day-at-a-time approach to our schooling (and living), we also know that one day at a time will always, always take us to the finish line. We know the race we are running isn’t judged on math scores and handwriting samples, (thank You, Jesus)
We also know that the process of learning those math problems (or teaching them) and process of practicing the handwriting (and being patient while that is happening) and all the other things that homeschool life requires, is part of the journey (our race!) that prepares our hearts for that Finish Line Day.


To Stir Your Heart

Philippians 4:13-Romans 3:23-24-1 Corinthians 9:24-26-Deuteronomy 11:19-Proverbs 22:6-Isaiah 28:10-Daniel 1:17-Micah 6:8-Matthew 6:33-Luke 10:42-Romans 12:2-Philippians 4:8-9-2 Timothy 3:16-17-James 1:5

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