Living within a quarantine of indeterminate length, many parents are having their first experience of becoming hands-on in the academic and spiritual instruction of our children. Word on Fire Institute Education Fellow Robert Mixa brings us a helpful interview on the benefits and challenges of homeschooling, whether planned or circumstantial, featuring Kathleen Vogt. Kathleen is the wife of Word on Fire’s Content Director, Brandon Vogt. She studied at Florida State University where she graduated with a degree in Elementary Education. She and Brandon have six children, with a seventh due in July, and they live on a small farm outside Orlando, FL. There she homeschools their four oldest children.  Kathleen would be happy to answer any questions you might have about homeschooling at [email protected]

RM: How did you get involved in homeschooling?

KV: Growing up, I went to Catholic school for grades K-8 and then switched to the public high school. Homeschoolers had the stigma of being “weird” or “unsocial,” so I never would have guessed that I would one day be a homeschooling mother. That said, I did always want to be a teacher and went to college seeking a degree in Elementary Education. Ironically, it was one of my first Education professors who introduced me to a more positive view of homeschooling. He was Catholic, and after my first year, seeing that I was active in the Catholic Student Union on campus, he approached me and asked if I would be willing to be a Mommy’s Helper for his wife who was a homeschooling mother to three girls. It was through interacting with this vibrant Catholic family and seeing how they were able to infuse their learning with their Catholic faith that first inspired me to one day homeschool my own children. After becoming parents ourselves, Brandon and I realized it was our primary goal to get our children to heaven and we felt homeschooling them would give us the best opportunity to do that.

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What have been the pros and cons of homeschooling?

Homeschooling is definitely a calling. It’s not for everyone, and I don’t think it’s right for every Catholic parent. My own mother, who happens to be a teacher herself, would always say she could never have homeschooled my siblings and me because she needed space to work outside the home.

That being said, if you do feel called to homeschooling, the biggest benefit is being able to tailor instruction to your child. One of our children is really gifted in math and can easily accomplish two or three lessons a day in this subject. I am able to work at his pace to give him material that challenges him. This same child, though, has a very high energy level and would most likely be reprimanded frequently in a traditional classroom for his inability to sit still. Homeschooling means he can do a subject, run outside to shoot basketball or ride his bike, and then come inside to work on another subject. Another of our children has really struggled with phonics and will frequently mix up letters and sounds. With her, I am able to slow down and take several days on a lesson and present the material in different ways until she can finally understand the concept.

Another big benefit for us is the ability to instill the virtues we value as Catholics. Homeschooling allows us the flexibility to teach our kids the faith. We have religion lessons in which they memorize large chunks of the Catechism, become deeply familiar with the Bible and Tradition (even in elementary they’ve memorized all seventy-three books of Scripture, the Ten Commandments, the creeds, etc.). Homeschooling also allows us to attend daily Mass as a family, and we can frequently take advantage of confession times during the day rather than waiting until Saturday afternoon, when it’s busier at our parish. Several of our curriculum books are Catholic-based, so we study religious art while practicing our handwriting, or learn about prominent Catholic scientists and their great discoveries. Of course, our history curriculum, a classical Catholic program, looks at the pivotal role faith has played in the progress of humanity from creation to modern times, and it positions Jesus as the turning point of world history, not just one more historical figure among many.

Finally, flexibility is another major benefit. We place a high priority on family time, especially in the evenings. Brandon typically works 8-5 during the week, like most people, which means there’s not much time between him getting off work and when we put our kids to bed (normally by 7:30 p.m.). So we’ve decided not to fill up our nights with ceaseless activities, shuttling kids from this practice to that event. At the same time, we don’t want out kids starved for extracurricular activities. This is where homeschooling shines. The flexibility allows us to take advantage of extra classes offered during the day, specifically for homeschoolers. For example, our piano teacher has more availability before the public school kids begin their lessons each day, once public school lets out. We also participate in a homeschool PE class that allows kids to do group sports two mornings a week, rather than trying to cram sports activities in the evening, around the already busy dinner hour. Because I am working one-on-one with the kids to accomplish their lessons, our actual time “doing school” is nowhere close to the seven hours kids are normally “in school.” This frees up our evenings for a more relaxed family dinner, time together playing outside, and our family rosary rather than racing around town to various activities all while trying to figure out how to get everybody fed.

Though the pros certainly outweigh the cons for us, my biggest con is fatigue. I don’t want to downplay the difficulties. Homeschooling is like juggling multiple balls in the air. One minute I’m working with a child on his lesson, until a kid rushes in to tell me the toddler has tripped outside and has skinned his knee. So, I have to pause the lesson to take care of the screaming toddler. Five minutes later, I hear a crash and the preschooler has knocked a glass off the counter while trying to get a drink, spilling water all over the kitchen. In between lessons I hear a chorus of “I’m hungry” or “She isn’t playing fair with me.” The homeschooling mom is simultaneously teacher, principal, dean, coach, secretary, nurse, cook, and janitor. Also, since all the kids do school at home, this means there are no easy outings. When we need groceries or have to run an errand, I’m bringing all the children with me, all the time. It takes effort to make sure everyone has gone to the bathroom, put shoes on, and is dressed appropriately (i.e., not wearing the fairy wings and sparkly dress-up heels) for our outing.  A trip to mail a package at the post office can sometimes be an hour-long event.

What does your homeschooling schedule look like?

Our family consists of mostly early risers. Since the kids go to bed at 7:30 p.m., they’re usually awake by 6:30 a.m. and getting breakfast, which the older two mostly cook and prepare now.  My goal is to wake up by 5:30 a.m. and have exercised, fed the kids, unloaded the dishwasher, and cleaned up from breakfast by 7:00 a.m. each morning.

Then we begin school. Each child has his or her own checklist to complete for the week with subject checkboxes for each day (I put together these weekly checklists in advance, one week at a time). My older children can work on several subjects independently and only need my help for certain things. My younger children require more one-on-one time. A system that works well for us is that if a child needs my help with some assignment, they simply write his or her name on our dry erase white board. I then work down the list, assisting as needed. This prevents kids from demanding I help them right now, and also infuses the virtues of patience and time management.

We typically work on school from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m., when we take a break to attend our parish’s daily Mass, which begins at 9:15 a.m. around the corner from our house. My husband joins us. We are home by 10:00 a.m., and the kids typically get a snack before working on school again until 12:00 p.m. Most of the time, we are able to finish up most schoolwork by lunchtime. In fact, my older kids now consider it a daily challenge to “finish before lunch,” so they push themselves to hit that goal.

We have lunch together, and then I typically take a break until 1:00 p.m. While the kids are playing, inside or outside, I typically sneak away to my bedroom and listen to some quiet music while reading or working on a personal project. This recovery time is so necessary and restorative. Without it, I would burn up quickly. I’ve learned from other homeschooling mothers that it’s important to operate your homeschool activities from a state of rest, which helps you stay calm and collected despite the inevitable stresses that arise.

Our afternoons are more fluid. Some days we have lessons, practices, or meetings with our local homeschooling co-op group (this is so valuable, to find other homeschooling families locally with whom to meet up). I’ll often use this time to run errands or take the kids to the library. Other days we stay home to catch up on school work we may have fallen behind in.

I’m not the best at menu planning, so it isn’t until around 4:00 p.m. when I start trying to come up with something for dinner. The kids get to take turns helping me in the kitchen so it isn’t overwhelming having seven of us crammed in the kitchen together. Dinner is typically ready by 5:30 p.m. We eat as a family, clean up, play outside a bit, have our family prayers, and then it’s bedtime for the kids. Our older kids typically go to bed by 7:30 p.m., but that doesn’t mean they fall asleep right away, as the sun is often still out. So, many times, with nothing else to do, they will bring schoolwork to their rooms to get a jump start for the day to come (they clearly know that getting ahead tonight means more free playtime tomorrow!). That’s fine by me, as long as they stay in their rooms. Again, I need my own quiet time to stay sane!

How do you teach children of all ages?

We currently have six children, with a seventh due in July. Their current ages are eleven (fifth grade), nine (third grade), seven (second grade), five (kindergarten), three (wild princess), and two (cute and dangerous). Third grade seems to be the magic year where much of the work can be accomplished independently. Our four oldest children are homeschooling, but the bulk of my time is spent with the seven and five year old. I’ve found the checklist system to be a huge benefit to regulating our homeschool day. The children open their binder each morning and know exactly what lessons need to be finished by the end of each day/week, so I’m not always answering “What do I need to do next?” The checklist also allows the children to learn to regulate themselves, which will be important come high school and college. They’re free to choose the order in which they finish their subjects and/or play, but they know that by the end of the week when I check their binders, everything needs to be accomplished or they will lose out on privileges the following week. This system has worked well and we’ve rarely had problems with kids not finishing their weekly work.

Really, the biggest challenge is keeping the little ones from interfering too much with our school day. I try to rotate toys for the little kids so there is something “new” for them to play with or “work on” (because they get jealous and want to “do school,” too, like their older siblings!). Many times the older kids will help take charge of them while on a break from their schoolwork. Other favorite activities the little kids can do independently include flipping through board books (they love recordable books with Grandma and Grandpa’s voices), an extra abacus they can use to “do school” with big brother or sister, or coloring—always a perennial favorite. The three year old is anxious to be like her big sister and can’t wait to start preschool in the fall when she’s four. So I’ll spend a few weeks over summer making weekly file folders of activities for her to work on independently. But then there will be the two year old and newborn to contend with—the joy of a large family!

Are there any resources you recommend to new homeschoolers? How do you come up with your curriculum?

We are blessed to live at a time where there is a declining stigma against homeschoolers, as well as a rising plethora of curriculum options, resources, and support. And yet, it can be overwhelming when starting your homeschool journey to choose the “right” curriculum. I know a lot of parents feel lost and anxious when choosing from among so many curriculum options, especially when you’re starting from scratch don’t know the merits and drawbacks of each type, and have no idea which style would work best for your individual children.

Whether you’re planning to homeschool full time or just as a temporary measure during the coronavirus, do a little research. You can do this at any point, but ideally, do it before your children are school aged. We began considering homeschooling when our oldest was just a toddler. So I began researching early. I asked around to see what curriculum other moms were using and forming an idea of what I wanted our homeschool to look like. I researched online, looking at reviews of different programs. (Homeschooling groups on Facebook and elsewhere on social media can also be invaluable. There are many veteran homeschooling parents who want to help those just getting started!)

You might also consider attending a homeschool conference in a city near you. These are on the rise, and popping up everywhere—just Google to find any near you. Many times, these conventions also include a vendor hall where you can pick up and look through the materials offered by various companies. My advice? Do not bring your wallet with you on day one. Use this time to browse, ask questions, and take notes. Go home or back to your hotel room to discern what would work best for your family. If something felt like it would work really well for your family, go back on day two or three to purchase or see if they will offer a convention discount rate if you purchase later online.

Sometimes, however, you don’t have time for all that. Homeschooling is dropped in your lap and you have to be off and running. The easiest solutions are “homeschooling-in-a-box” type programs that provide the full curriculum and rarely assume any sort of background in the subject matter. The teacher’s guide will tell you exactly what to say to the student, and will tell the student exactly what to do. You just follow the program. There are many great curricula like this and they are ideal if you don’t have the time or interest in piecing together your own program.

Because my background is in education, however, I felt comfortable creating a more custom program, picking and choosing from among different curricula. We use one company’s resources for math, another for phonics, a third for language arts, and so forth. But again, this can be overwhelming to many parents. Fortunately, there are several wonderful Catholic-based companies who offer a boxed curriculum. For a set rate, you can purchase lesson plans and all the materials to teach your kindergartener or sixth grader for the entire year and be done. There are a few families I know who use Seton and are happy with them. Some other Catholic boxed programs to look at include Kolbe AcademyMother of Divine Grace, or Catholic Heritage CurriculaMemoria Press also has a bunch of great resources. They are broadly Christian, not officially Catholic, but they are definitely Catholic leaning.

Whether it comes to curriculum or to homeschooling in general, my husband and I have decided to discern these things on a year-by-year basis. This is what is working for our family this year. Next year, we might move to a different curriculum for all or some of our kids. Will we still homeschool through high school? Right now, we don’t know. Our oldest will be entering middle school next year so we are definitely starting to discern what God has in store for our family. But so far, this seems to be the best path for them.

What advice do you offer parents struggling to make homeschooling work?

If you are one of the many families thrust into homeschooling because of the current pandemic, take heart and give yourself grace. The past few weeks of “schooling under quarantine” have been some of my most difficult ever, even as a stay-at-home mom who is used to homeschooling! The kids miss their friends, attending lessons, and even just driving in a car to run errands. Their tempers (and mine!) are flaring under the stress we are currently under. Fortunately, I had already planned to finish our year before Holy Week, so we are wrapping up for the summer this week. If we hadn’t been so close to the end of the school year, I would have just taken a break and planned to do more work during the summer (another benefit of homeschooling—you get to fit it into your schedule, not the other way around!). If you were already homeschooling and yet are still struggling, try to identify one thing you feel would make your homeschool day run more smoothly. Then give yourself a month to implement that change. It takes time to establish new routines and it’s hard for everyone involved if there’s a new rule, curriculum, or schedule to follow each week. After a month, evaluate how that change is working out and tweak as necessary.

Also, try to reach out to a homeschool community near you. There are many Catholic homeschool Facebook groups you can join online, or perhaps once the quarantine restrictions die down, find a local co-op of homeschooling moms to support you. Chances are high that others moms have faced the same struggles you are facing now. Reach out and ask them how they handled the challenge. Most would be more than happy to help you out, or just give you a place to vent. We’re all in this together trying to educate our children, stay sane, and get our children to heaven.