26 Aug 2015

One of the attractions of homeschooling is the opportunity to seamlessly fuse our children’s education with the rhythms of family life. One of the downsides, I learned, is children are never quite sure where they stand in terms of their educational progress.

More than one of my four kids looked confused when a stranger asked, “What grade are you in, Honey?” When they were old enough to realize they could get rewards from local restaurants if they produced a report card, they held a summit and presented their demands: We want a definitive answer on our grade placement. We further insist on report cards, recess, snow days and back-to-school shopping trips.

In the early years, I was eager to throw off any trappings of a traditional education. My educational philosophy was learning all the time and the blurring of the lines between family life and the school day was an important part of living this out. It was a shock to end up with children who demanded that conventions be observed. In their view, they were being denied something of value.

With experience, I came to see that many of these traditions create touchstone moments for kids—evidence of progress, achievement and maturity. While I loved homeschooling for its flexibility and informalities, my kids wanted a homeschool where rites of passage were duly noted and cultural conventions observed. Fair enough, I conceded, I agree to your terms, but I’m drawing the line at report cards for French fries. We will mark those milestones that are noteworthy and establish some traditions of our own.

Now that my homeschool days are over, I have the benefit of hearing my adult children reminisce about their childhood, and it is those traditions they remember. In hindsight, here are the takeaways I see from making those concessions:

  • Establishing traditions in our homeschools create meaningful memories for our children. These, in turn, contribute to what they value about their family.
  • Marking milestones gives kids a sense of accomplishment, and that produces motivation to keep exerting effort. Without recognition, enthusiasm can lag.
  • Observing cultural traditions; such as snow days or participation in organized sports, gives our kids a point of connection with their more conventionally-educated peers. Few kids want to enter the broader culture without some shared experiences in common.

So what can we do to mark these memorable moments and make them meaningful? First, sit down and decide what kinds of memories you want to create with your children. Settle upon a few traditions you can achieve, especially those where the kids can help. Homeschool parents do not need more busywork or commitments they can’t keep.

Here are some ideas:

Back-to-School Shopping: During the elementary years, my kids were happy to get new backpacks, a supply of pencils and, for my daughters, the latest flair pens and markers. Even though we weren’t really going anywhere, those backpacks became a great place to keep their supplies organized. Most companies who offer these incentives will extend them to qualified homeschool parents. Just ask.

Once kids are pre-teens, then back-to-school traditions will surely include some serious clothes shopping. Here’s where you can kill two birds with one stone if you are shrewd: Most grandparents are looking for ways to be a part of their grandkids’ education—and at our house we made back-to-school shopping another opportunity for gift-giving (just for grandma!).

Take a Photo: One homeschool mom in our support group had the foresight to take a photo of her daughter posed on their front porch on the first day of school each year. Those charming pictures captured the history of her daughter’s fashion statements and youthful manias enshrined on each year’s backpack, from Aladdin to Lord of the Rings.

Kick-off Field Trip: This was our family tradition, started when my sons complained about missing out on riding a school bus. I said I’d go one better, and we instituted a surprise field trip, often an overnight, as the official start of each school year.

Family Recognition Night: Our local homeschool co-op ends the year with an awards ceremony that also doubles as a huge church social. Each family is given a table to display that year’s memorable accomplishments: 4-H awards, science projects, arts and crafts, photographs, creative writing or athletic competitions. Students man their tables and share their experiences with visitors and friends. We found creating a broader audience for student work increases the amount of effort kids put into the work they display.

The evening begins with a short program that features the musical or dramatic talents of some of the students, and the co-op teachers recognize outstanding achievements. The emcee also announces any distinguished accomplishments; such as, National Merit or Eagle Scout awards. The evening concludes with refreshments. Family recognition nights are a great way to end the school year on a high note by highlighting the progress each child has made.

Call the Media: The bread and butter of your community newspaper is reporting on local school news. These folks will be more than happy to cover your homeschool events, too, if someone just takes the time to give them a call or shoot them an email. Kids love to see their pictures in the newspaper, and it lends legitimacy to your educational choice.

Portfolios: It isn’t just homeschoolers who eschew grades these days; many conventional schools are shifting to portfolio assessments. This is a collection of a child’s best work in each subject area and sustained progress is the goal. Submitting an annual portfolio is required of homeschoolers in the state where I live, and what started out as a burdensome task for me became a treasured rite of passage once I brought my kids into the process. My children kept a file of their work throughout the year, as well as lists of field trips, activities and books they’d read. The last two weeks of school were spent sorting through these files, selecting their favorite pieces and photos, revising writing assignments one more time and regluing or stapling projects back together. These were compiled in a binder and decorated with a unique handmade cover. Now that my children are grown, those portfolios bring back a flood of warm memories. Here’s where we documented how homeschooling and family life did indeed fit seamlessly together. It’s in the projects, photos and stories we’ve collected and catalogued here.

Celebration Dinners: One of the easiest and most meaningful ways to mark a special achievement or important milestone for a child (such as, learning to read or sitting for their first SAT or ACT exam) is to turn your family dinner table into a formal occasion. Prepare a favorite meal, ask Dad to make some formal remarks, have everyone stand and toast the accomplishment, and clap wildly until the celebrant blushes; then post photos of the evening to your Facebook page. There are appropriate times to make a big deal out of each of our kids and focus the spotlight only on one.

Snow Days, Senior Skip Day and Wear-Your-PJs-to-School Day: If your homeschool is anything like mine was, then you will not need to organize any of these events—you just have to be a good sport and go along with it when your kids declare they are observing these national holidays. That’s part of the rite of passage—school children in revolt against the powers that be. You can add to the thrill by initially acting perturbed by the interruption, but then join in the fun by showing off your snow fort building skills and the secret to making the perfect snowball. Senior Skip Day, in case you’re wondering, is a tradition now at our local co-op—the kids all head out for pizza while their siblings are left behind. And if you’re thinking Wear-Your-PJs-Day is every day at your house, then you can change that up by announcing a Dress Up day.

That summit meeting years ago triggered a shift in my approach to homeschooling. My purposes were serious and weighty—a better education, I thought, an opportunity to infuse all of life with our faith and values. But my kids wanted a childhood marked by memorable moments of recognition, hilarity and shared experiences with their neighborhood friends. I’m glad they carried the day—because these memorable moments are now my cherished memories from homeschooling, too.

Debra Bell, Ph.D., is the best-selling author of the award-winning Ultimate Guide to Homeschooling, Ultimate Guide to Homeschooling Teens and the Ultimate Planners for moms, teens and students. Writers-in-Residence: A Writing-Focused Language Arts Program and Readers-in-Residence: A Literacy Program will be released in 2015. Debra and her husband, Kermit, home educated their four children K through 12. All four are now married, degreed, employed, and they also love Jesus! She has been a keynote or featured speaker at numerous international and national venues for more than twenty years. Debra and her sons were featured on NBC Nightly News for a story on homeschoolers and their participation in scholastic sports. After homeschooling, she completed a Ph.D. in educational psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. Her research interests include identifying how, why and when homeschooling works; and she looks forward to using her training to better serve the homeschool community well into the future. A pioneer in online education, today she is executive director and lead teacher for Aim Academy, which provides online college prep and AP® courses for seventh through twelfth graders. More information about her online classes, books, forthcoming curriculum and speaking schedule can be found at DebraBell.com.