“Do not let the endless succession of small things crowd great ideals out of sight and out of mind.” (The Story of Charlotte Mason)
About six years into teaching, I made a drastic shift in my classroom structure that transformed everything (and likely prevented early burnout). On the heels of what I’ve always hailed my “worst teaching year,” I read Jim Burke’s book What’s The Big Idea (if you are an English teacher, or even if you home educate older children, I highly recommend this book). It shifted my pedagogical perspective and inspired me to reconstruct my curriculum from a chronological, teacher-centric structure to a thematic, student-led one.
And this was a total game changer. The following years were the best of my career.
Using Burke’s concept of student-generated discussion questions, I developed a unique version of a class discussion method called “inner-outer circle.” In this method students sit in two concentric circles, the inner one participating in literary dialogue with the outer quietly moderating and taking notes. Throughout each session, I sat to the side at a small desk, speaking only when the discussion required correction or redirection. Here in my silence, I was regularly reminded of what brilliant thoughts young minds are capable. If we only give them space to breathe and freedom to wonder.
Yet for this to occur, a clear structure is necessary.
It took me a couple years to fine-tune this structure, because that’s how it works when teaching 70 students and lesson-planning three months in advance. But fortunately, homeschooling is different. I’m only half-way through the first year, and it’s already evident that some aspects of our structure need fine-tuning (as I expected they would). For a while I thought I’d “stick it out” for the rest of the year, but I quickly realized that this was just plain silly. One of the great beauties of home education is the freedom to adapt curriculum as we grow and learn alongside our children. So adapt I will.
When I first started, I wrote about the “Three S’s of Homeschooling,” focusing primarily on my decision to use a “daily theme” structure. I originally got the inspiration here, and I’m so glad that I did, because this concept has been perfect for our family. Yet a couple of the daily themes I’d selected simply weren’t working out as I had envisioned, which is why I’ve decided to give them a little mid-year makeover.
Introducing our Revamped Daily Themes:
Masterpiece Monday: Poetry, Art, Music & Shakespeare Study (4-week rotation) – learn to identify traditional forms, masters, classic works; more importantly, learn to engage (emotionally, intellectually) with quality art.
Texts: I haven’t read through all of these texts yet, but they are quite promising, and so far, we are loving them! Of course, I will supplement with art & poetry books, online sources, etc.
Timeline Tuesday: History & Geography – learn a “big picture” history of the world.
Text: First semester we studied the Middle Ages purely through living books, dozens of wonderful books, and now we are using this as a follow up. We are several chapters in, and so far, enjoying it. Ellie’s favorite part is the accompanying coloring sheets (I paid for the download through the publisher’s website). If we decide to continue with Story of the World next year, I imagine that I will rotate living books with the text (which is written in an engaging narrative format).
Artwork Wednesday: Original Art & Handcrafts – I despise tacky craft projects, but I love beautiful art & handiworks. I truly believe that if guided, young children can create lovely art! So far, most of our projects have been inspired through Pinterest, but I recently purchased this book, and Ellie and I are excited to explore it!
Thinking Thursday: educational/learning games & puzzles – learn through play and problem solving! We are thrilled about our new theme for Thursdays, as it seems I’m never able to fit in all of the cool learning games and activities that I know Ellie would love. We have a nice collection of puzzles and games, but I’m also always learning from my wonderful Instagram community. I doubt I’ll ever be short on ideas!
Games: Matching Games, Dominos, Zingo, Nature Bingo, Map Puzzles, etc.
Nature Fun Friday: Exploring the Natural World & Nature Journaling.
Texts: We’re slowly making our way through these two texts, which are great resources.
And I plan to use these soon, although technically, we haven’t yet (unless you count Ellie’s habit of flipping through bird field guides and “studying” them).
Finally, we checked this out from the library recently, and it is fabulous! We will be purchasing a copy in the near future!
So, as I now fine-tune our daily theme schedule, I’m discovering another structural piece that I plan to make more intentional and specific. Our four “learning blocks.”
This structure evolved organically, as we have weekly commitments that prevent us from having a single daily routine. It also allows flexibility, which I love. Admittedly, I’m not type-A, and I struggle sticking with detailed routines … yet I know that my kids need a predictable daily plan, a structure, to guide them. Therefore, “learning blocks” were born!
Four learning blocks of time:
1. Circle Time (rotating items in “circle time basket”):
This is quickly become a precious time for us, partly because it’s currently the only aspect of homeschool in which both girls participate together. There is no particular order, but each circle time will include the following: review of (or introduction to) memory work (scripture or poem), some flash card fun, a short picture book, a fairy tale or fable, and a song or two.
2. Main Core Desk Work (math, phonics/reading, handwriting):
Usually completed during Evy’s nap, desk work is the most focused, disciplined aspect of school. We typically do desk work in our school room, but sometimes we make it a special treat to go “do school” at a cafe or coffee shop (when I have someone to watch Evy).
3. Read-alouds (living books & current chapter book):
Oh how we love read-aloud time. On these cold winter days, we light our gas fireplace and cuddle in front of its warmth. This is the time of day when I introduce all of our character study books.
4. Enrichment (theme of the day):
Masterpiece Monday, Timeline Tuesday, Artwork Wednesday, Thinking Thursday, Nature Fun Friday: we heart our daily themes! Sometimes, for one reason or another, we aren’t able to complete one, but for the most part, we’re pretty dedicated to them.
How it is working for us:
Fit the blocks of time into the day, where they fit. Circle Time needs to come first, ideally in the morning, but the other blocks are extremely flexible and need not go in a specific order. For us, our goal is for school to begin by 10:00 and be finished by 5:30, which is when I typically start dinner. Outdoor and free play breaks should occur throughout the day, ideally in-between learning blocks. If an excursion is planned, we determine the departure & return times and simply arrange the blocks around the excursion. As someone who leans towards the Charlotte Mason homeschooling approach, I believe that children should receive at least as much free play and outdoor time as they spend doing “schoolwork.”
Do we get it all in every day? Goodness no … some days are epic fails! Others are designed to be shorter school days. For example, we have long Wednesdays, with commitments in both the morning and the evening, so I decided early on that we wouldn’t do our “main core desk work” on Wednesdays. It gives us a nice mid-week break from the more tedious work. On Fridays we often spend multiple hours outdoors, so we sometimes skip read-aloud time on these days. We will be schooling year round, so in the long run, missing a block here or there isn’t a major issue. Ultimately, the hope is that this added structure provides clear goals and a framework in which to complete them, which we all know, is good for both teachers and students.
I’m learning as I go, but for now, this is working! I would love to hear from more experienced homeschool mamas out there about how you schedule your days. This is indeed one of the most significant aspects of a quality home education.