Organizing Our School Year & Life of Learning

I look forward to planning new terms. I really enjoy looking through books and putting together the menu for the yearly feast of ideas we enjoy. Oh is it fun for me!

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But organizing a school year is a horse of a different color. Organizing a school year can feel overwhelming, especially if your school year takes place in the midst of your every day life.

There were two major life events to help reframe my perspective on what to organize for our family. The first was agreeing to become a Foundations/Essentials Director (and tutor) for Classical Conversations. The second happened in the years before our insurance started covering my youngest son’s therapies, when I did many of them here at home. Both of these enormous responsibilities taught me how to plan things out, pull them together and organize them well. They also taught me what to skip on organizing all together. They taught me what hills to avoid dying on.

You see, I promised myself years ago I would not spend another minute surfing blogs looking for ways to organize socks or how to color-coordinate all of my children’s closets or toys. Those things led to a lot of frustration and feelings of “If only my kids would appreciate all I did to do this for them and stop messing it up!” Because really, I did those things for myself only. I was ministering to my own pride. Once I realized what I was doing, I did everything I could to change course. No, thank you. Not one more minute looking at how to organize things for the sake of my own pride.

My home is the setting for my main ministry right now, which is raising and educating my children, serving my husband and making a hospitable space for our community to gather. I look around these days and ask myself, “What do I need to organize well so that I can meet my ministry goals? So I can serve my family? So I can help the kids increase in capability and independence? So I can reduce friction?” Those are things I want to organize because they are the things I need to attend to no matter what! I won’t share every single life organization we’ve done, but I will share a few of the main things we’ve done to bless our life of learning together…

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The first step in organizing is understanding what you have planned for the year and figuring out how to order it. Its a bit like writing a paper. After you figure out what you want to say (planning) you have to figure out how you are going to lay it out (organization). When I organize my school year, I am ordering it the way I would lay the framework out for a paper.

This year we have new elements added to the mix and I spent a couple of weeks getting our balance just right. Sort of a test run for what I had planned out. This weekend I’m organizing the framework for day to day movement to ensure we stay on track and to protect our adventure days.
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Here is a look at how we organize our school year for four male children aged 7-12. I hope you may find ideas here that help you even if you don’t use the programs we use.

Morning Time

If you want to know WHAT we are using for Morning Time you can ready other posts under the Classical Conversations tab to find out. I organize for morning time in a few different ways.

On a shelf near our dining room table, the following items are stored for easy transitions.

  1. A MORNING TIME NOTEBOOK thats just for me.
    This notebook has a calendar of our current plan in the front cover pocket. That way I only have to glance it to remember that, for example, on Monday we have our Daily Collect (Scripture reading, Scripture Memory, Creed, Catechism and Hymn) plus biography, poetry memorization, current events and Plutarch.
    I keep copies of verses, creeds, hymns, poems, speeches and monologues we have memorized in this binder. Its a record keeper/scrapbook of what we have done together so far. (I write in dates and ages of the kids on top of the copies before filing them away once we’re done) I also have a small book tucked in the inside pocket that I keep for reference. This book is A Handbook to Morning Time by Cindy Rollins. (NOTE: I linked it on Amazon so you can see what it looks like in case you spot it “in the wild.” It’s currently out of print. Please don’t drop $100 on this book. Cindy is working to republish it soon and I’ll be sure to share once its up)
  2. Morning Menus
    We shared this idea a few years ago and then it exploded online with several homeschool mothers even turning the idea into businesses where you can by ready made menus for morning time. Now I have to be honest and say that I never made a fuss over our menus. I never printed things out on pretty paper with fancy fonts. They’ve never been color coordinated. Because we eat while we have our morning time I needed a way to keep our papers together and clean and dry. So I purchased a stack of menu covers off of Amazon, made copies of the current term’s hymn, verses, memory work, poems, etc. and slid them in. I love having copies for everyone to handout that we can wipe clean when we need to. These menus were meant to be helpful, not stressful. If you’re making them yourself, keep it simple. Your kids will never know that you skipped the fancy fonts. 🙂
  3. Book of Centuries/Timeline
    Nancy Kelley has an excellent post on her blog with examples of what these look like. My boys have not given me permission to share ours.
  4. Scripture Verse Memory System 
  5. Nature Journals
    We’ve been using Exploring Nature with Children for a few years now and we love it. It’s been so helpful in navigating Anna Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study. The nature journals we keep by the table are for water colors or more detailed drawings that we finalize based off of our field notes. They usually water color while I read our current biography.
  6. Current Books used for Morning Time.
    **This includes our Foundations Guide for memory work. I decided to rip the spiral binding off mine and put the pages in page protectors for easier page turning. This way I could also pull out our current cycle and relocate into a much small binder to use for the year. (You can find a video from Wandering Schoolhouse on how we organize our Essentials Notebooks for the kids here)

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Organizing Lessons

MUSCLE MEMORY
The first step here is sitting my kids down and going over each and every resource and explaining how its used at the start of every term. This way they know where things live and what goes together. We try to do each subject at the same time every day. Yes, of course exceptions are made for doctors visits, grocery runs, field trips, etc. But for the vast majority of the year my third born knows that right after morning time, he practices the piano for half an hour. He knows where his books are and how to set his timer to practice. My second born knows he needs to grab his Latin Notebook to work on his drills and translations and he knows to grab his instructional DVD if its the first day of the week. Muscle memory and repetition go a long way here. We still have our fun and spontaneous days (Hello BEACH DAY every Friday!), but solidifying a routine that is repeated in the same order, week after week, helps them become more and more organized and capable as time goes on.

STORAGE
Most of our subjects are recorded in plain old composition notebooks. History narrations, Plutarch narrations, spelling lists, parsed sentences, science narrations. We store all their composition notebooks (along with their Math and Latin notebooks) in one of those little rainbow carts of doom.   Each kid is assigned a color and they get two drawers to store their notebooks. The cart gets the job done.

Try as one might, we can’t avoid the homeschool PAPELEO (as my Abuela says) Papers, papers, papers. So many papers. I have a mail sorter perched on the school room counter with four slots, one for each kid to turn in spelling tests, geography work, etc.  Nothing fancy there. Every month I take an hour and organize all the work and record then toss, or file it away for their end of the year portfolios. (More on this later)

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Speaking of papers to hand out. I love these 24 pocket notebook folders for corralling extra papers, handouts, maps or charts that I give out to the kids during certain weeks of the term. I use one for Foundations and one for Essentials. For example, in the 24 pocket essentials notebook folder, I keep fun IEW Vocabulary crossword puzzles that I make for them at the start of each semester, along with copies of charts, ATS or QEQ they need to do that week. I spend one hellish day copying everything so that throughout the year all I have to do is reach for that delicious little pocket folder of time saving organization and hand it over.

COMMUNICATING ASSIGNMENTS
I’m a big fan of children knowing what they’re responsible for on any given day. Once they reach a certain age, usually 8 or 9, my boys loved having their assignments and chores laid out for them so they could have the satisfaction of checking them off (CHECK!) but more importantly, know what they needed to do before they could be FREE for the rest of the day. That’s another thing I’m a big fan of…lots of free time for kids.

Years ago, Sarah Mackenzie shared her spiral notebook approach and I adopted it and never looked back. The older boys have moved on to slightly fancier planners since they are learning to plan and organize their own schedules as they move into ownership of their education, but this is what I’m currently using for my middle boy and what I will use next year for my youngest.

A cheap spiral notebook. At the end of the school day, I take a couple minutes to write down everything he has to do the next day. All assignments, chores, practice times and sports activities. Its all there in one list that he can cross off line by line. Most of these items are the same day to day to day, but he still loves knowing whats expected of him.  Now the deal is, once he is finished with his list, he is FINISHED. I don’t get to say “Oh hey! Its not even 1pm and you’re done with everything? GREAT! In that case, can you please do________.” Nope. He earned his break. Unless he has an evening specific chore, he is done.

Recording Lessons & Portfolios

Here are a few things I do to keep up-to-date records and build their school year portfolios throughout the year.

  1. A BLANK Homeschool Planner
    A really cheap planner. Doesn’t even have to be the current year, I’ll just put a big label on it with the right year if needed. A planner straight from the clearance section, one without meal plans or extra planning space. Just days of the week with lots of boxes or lines beneath each week day. I record what we accomplished there in pen. (My regular homeschool planner has all the bells and whistles and I write in PENCIL for that one) But my record keeper? That one is a plain Jane and she gets updated in pen. I have it on hand in case I ever need to give an accounting of how we spent our year by our local school district office.img_5893.jpg
  2. WEEKLY Journal
    Remember the Friday exam? Well, I used to record that by taking pictures and adding them to the end of the kids portfolios every year. That worked for awhile. But when they got older they wanted to KEEP their Friday exams. Yowza. I did NOT want to store that much butcher paper all year. So we compromised. Enter the weekly journal. This Journal from Rainbow Resource was PERFECT!  I hunted high and low for this exact sort of notebook. Ready? There are 24 pages (One for each week of a CC Cycle!) and they measure 10 x 12. Paper weight is like card stock. Its spiral bound so it can lay flat while you are working on it. The “Soft cover” is very thick and sturdy (not bendy).  On Fridays, we can do our usual Friday exam to get our ideas out and then the kids can pick their favorites and enter them into their weekly journals. BOOM. At the end of the year I have something handy dandy to give to our Evaluator. (In the state of Florida your child can progress to the next school year by 1) Taking a standardized test OR 2) having a psychological evaluation OR 3) getting a certified teacher to sign off on your portfolio.)IMG_2911.jpg
  3. PORTFOLIOS
    Each year I get the kids new portfolio binders (one per child). The first page in it is the layout of what we are using that school year. On my computer I keep a file where I upload pictures of events (field trips, science fair, belt testing in karate, etc) and keep a record of all the books we read together. At the end of the month when I pull all the papers out of the mail sorter, I take an hour to assess what stays and what goes. I only keep examples of their work. I don’t know a single evaluator that wants to see every scrap of paper the child worked on that year. They like to see evidence that progress has taken place. I weed things out and record anything that needs to be recorded and I keep whatever is deserving of portfolio status. Then I file it away in their individual binders.When the evaluator comes I present the homeschool planner with recorded days and accomplished assignments, individual binders with examples of work,  the children’s weekly journals, nature journals, photos of field trips, recorded after school activities, morning time records, etc.

 

UNIFORMS & SUPPLIES

UNIFORMS
My boys train hard nearly every day of the school week at their tae kwon do school. They get those uniforms good and dirty. I set alarms on my phone each week to soak and wash those uniforms and sanitize mouth guards.  I also set reminders each month for the kids to wipe down all their gear. We store everything in the same spot to try and keep the chaos of “Mom!!!! WHERE IS MY__?!?!” 5 minutes before departure time to a minimum. This means a lot of before hand reminders as we are pulling into the driveway (“OK boys, what are your four steps now? Shoes away. Bags Away. Uniforms Away. Shower) and follow through on my part before dinner (Four steps all done?) Swimsuits and towels are also a kind of uniform for us since we use them weekly. We store all those things in the same place too, along with our adventure gear. I’ve organized my trunk (which is a double decker trunk) with bins of beach gear that we hose off and store in the trunk again once we get home. 

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Maybe you don’t do karate or go to the beach every week, but you might have a uniform of sorts in your home that correlates with something you do often? Having a place and a plan for its care and upkeep can help minimize frustrations throughout the week. Consider how to care for that uniform and give your kids a few steps to memorize concerning that uniform.

SUPPLIES
Pencils and papers and pastels. Yes! But also goggles and nets and catch and release viewers and water shoes. There are many supplies that we use throughout the week here. Helping children keep track of their resources and caring for them is something I have to work hard at. We don’t want to constantly drop money to replace goggles or mislaid (or misused) water colors.

Here is a simple thing I have trained myself to say at the end of each subject. “Put away your books and prepare your materials for storage” They know this means return the watercolors, wash the brushes, empty the pencil shavings, etc. But I have to remember to give them a few minutes to do that well and not rush them on to the next thing. They learned how to care for things well during their preschool years. We used a lot of Montessori materials to help them with this! Whenever we’re returning home from a beach day or nature hike, I’ve trained myself to say, “OK! Empty your packs of food scraps, wrappers, trash and make sure your pack is ready to go for next time!” We prep for the next time before we settle in to anything new.

Easier said than done! Ever finish a beach day with a car full of kids in 100 degree weather with 100 percent humidity? You’re not exactly in the mood to reset your car and your gear. But we know by now that we have to get it done right then and there, if not we pay the price for it six days later.

Again, we don’t do this every time we leave the house. I never have a special saying for when we get back from the farmer’s market. Just for those outings that are part of our routine.

RESET AND REST

 

BLESSING HOUR

I’ve shared about it often. Its been years. We will never quit blessing hour. At the same time every day, my boys get to work on their tasks and they help reset the house. The table gets wiped and swept underneath and then set for dinner before we leave for sports practice. Common areas tidied. Door handles wipes. We get these things done to bless our family so that in the evenings we can rest together and mentally prepare for the following day.

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REST
Yes, I organize my rest. Or rather, I organize so that we can all rest. Or maybe I rest so I can organize. Either way, organization and rest are on a loop. We have to make room for it in our rhythm. A pocket of rest during the day, a pocket of rest during the week, a pocket of rest during the year. Or in other words: evenings, Sundays and vacations. We are careful to organize our lives so we can uphold these things.

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2 thoughts on “Organizing Our School Year & Life of Learning

  1. Not just “clean up”, but “We prep for the next time before we settle in to anything new.”. 🤯 So simple, so brilliant, so how-did-I-not-think-of-that, SO going to start doing that when possible!!! THANK YOU! And I loved reading how the Friday Exam, which is one of my favorite posts of yours to re-read, has evolved.

    Like

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