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Parental Arts

Back to School Advice from a Mom Who Homeschools

For many families, school this year will take place at least in part at home. Whether you’re opting for virtual learning, a blended model, or homeschooling, the time to set yourself up for a successful school year is now, says homeschooling mom of two Markëta Howard, of School at Home and Beyond. We chatted with her to get her top tips for making it work—and making it fun.
Interview By
Marnie Schwartz
Can you tell us a little bit about your family and how you came to the decision to homeschool your children?

We are a fun-loving, energetic family of four living in northern Virginia, near Washington, D.C. My husband and I have been married for 14 years and have a 6 year old son and a 4 year old daughter. We homeschool for so many reasons! We enjoy traveling and appreciate the flexibility that homeschool offers. It's important to me to present my children with a holistic, comprehensive, and objective view of the world. I enjoy creating a specially curated education for my children with books and materials that reflect images from different cultures. When my husband and I began considering homeschooling we were excited about the opportunity to provide our children with a loving and vibrant educational environment rather than one where they might be subjected to stigma and judgment because of their race or ethnic background. My husband and I are deeply concerned about the psychological safety of our young, Black children, given the precarious state of race relations in modern-day America. In homeschooling, we strive to preserve African-based cultural standards and self-esteem for both of our children.

What has surprised you most about homeschooling? What has been the most fun and the most difficult?

I’m most surprised by how much we love it! After the first year of homeschooling we quickly realized it was the best decision for our family. We enjoy starting and ending our days when we’re ready and not at a predetermined time. Our homeschool schedule allows us the freedom to take time in the middle of the week to explore. My children enjoy learning while outdoors or at museums, cultural centers, art galleries, botanical gardens — anywhere where they can explore and see new things! As many can imagine, being with the kids all day can be challenging so we have a regular babysitter who helps out in the evenings. That way I can have time to exercise, work, and enjoy weekly date nights with my husband!

How do you schedule your days, and what advice do you have for parents thinking about a homeschool schedule?

Create a schedule that takes advantage of the time when your children are most fresh and ready to work, which is usually in the morning. We follow the Montessori three-hour work cycle which is my children’s opportunity to delve deep into their school work. They often get wrapped up in their learning activities and I can disappear into the background for a while. In our home, mornings are for school and afternoons are for creative projects, arts and crafts, and outdoor play. I recommend building in time for the kids to eat, and keeping healthy snacks easily accessible. My kids are most cranky when they’re hungry so having food available helps maintain a positive atmosphere in our home.

For parents who want to homeschool (rather than do virtual learning through their child’s school), where can they go to find or develop a curriculum?

The number of curriculum options can easily overwhelm a new homeschool family! Start by assessing your children. Do they have a particular learning style? What do they enjoy? What are your values as a family? Do you prefer a structured educational program or one with less structure? Once you’ve answered those questions, review different education styles such as Montessori, Classical, Charlotte Mason, Waldorf, and others, and select a curriculum from there.

Any advice for physically setting up your space for success?

When my son was a preschooler, I felt we needed a dedicated learning space to create a distinction between playtime and school time. So I created a separate space and time dedicated to learning. Keep in mind, you don’t need an entire classroom in your home! It may be helpful to use a bar cart for storing workbooks and other supplies, and to designate a small shelf for displaying learning materials. Having a designated space and time for learning helps young children understand when it’s time for school.

How do you juggle multiple kids who are different ages and have different needs?

If you have children of multiple ages I encourage you to give them opportunities to engage in both independent and collaborative work. My son enjoys helping my daughter with her reading practice and math work. When teaching subjects like geography and science my children and I often work as a group since that material is suitable for a wider age-range. I also spend one-on-one time with each child during our work cycle.

How do you fit in your own work or other to-dos?

Montessori work is primarily child-led and the children do much of their work independently — a great option for parents juggling full time work and homeschooling. I’ve also implemented an hour of quiet time in the afternoons followed by outdoor play, which is an opportunity for me to get some work done.

The school year is still a month or so away. What should parents be doing now and through August to prepare for a successful September at home?

Create a prepared environment for your children. That means setting up your spaces to accommodate their needs so they can do simple things like fetch their own art materials, pour themselves a glass of water, and make their own snacks. I set up our home to include an “art cart” which holds art supplies, activity books, and handwriting materials, all of which are used daily. Our prepared environment also includes things like a small broom and dust pan, cloths for wiping surfaces, easily accessible trays to contain messy art projects, waterproof smocks, child-size dishes, a mirror for checking their faces after eating, a stool, and even a small spray bottle filled with water for misting plants or surfaces that need to be wiped clean. Making these small changes will go a long way to helping your children gain independence, which will serve the entire family well once the school year begins.

Last but perhaps most importantly — what’s your best advice for making this a fun and positive experience?

Make the experience fun in small ways! Let the kids hangout in their pajamas. Plan for one afternoon adventure each week. Spend a full day doing science experiments, or arts and crafts, or reading books. Try game schooling for a day. Keep fun learning kits on hand for your children to work on when they need a change. Visit your local botanical gardens when studying botany, or your local zoo when studying zoology. When the weather is beautiful take your work outside to your backyard or a local park. Remind yourself that we may never again in our lifetime have an opportunity to enjoy this much slow time with family. For me and my family, spending time together not being rushed about is a treasured thing.