A New Chapter

Diary of a Work in Progress • René



Considering Homeschooling? Trust Your Calling

Recently a good friend of mine surprised me by asking if we could get together to talk about homeschooling. I wasn’t surprised that she might consider it, but I was surprised by the timing and eagerness to get it all figured out right now — months before the school year’s end.

My friend summed up her sense of urgency about homeschooling this way:

It must be God. I can’t explain it any other way.”


We all have “gut” instincts, and most people would tell you to trust them. But what about your “God instincts,” aka His specific calling to you? Do you trust your Holy Spirit-led instincts as completely as you trust your gut? Do you believe that He’s calling you to homeschool, and if so, what do you do about the butterflies in your stomach or the detractors that are already causing you to doubt?

MYB-ContributorI’m sharing my post “Considering Homeschooling? Trust Your Calling” at Managing Your Blessings, the new home of the Christian homeschooler’s blog “So You Call Yourself a Homeschooler.” Managing Your Blessings is a blog that encourages & teaches women how to cultivate their giftings & be faithful stewards of God’s blessings, and homeschooling is one of those gifts.

In my complete post, I share scriptures to stand on when you feel called to homeschool, as well as five ways to boost your confidence in your calling to homeschool. Click here for the full post.

Are you considering homeschooling, but anxious about the long list of questions and concerns in your head or shared by others? Are you a new homeschooler who is feeling overwhelmed and full of self doubt? The good news is you’re not alone: We’ve all been there! What concerns do you struggle with about homeschooling? What would strengthen your confidence?


Five Reasons I’m Thankful For Homeschooling

As a NextGen Homeschooler, I am thankful for my own homeschooling experience as well as the opportunity to homeschool my own daughters now. Homeschooling has come a long way since the mid-80s when my mom started homeschooling: From more curriculum options and enrichment programs to public funding for homeschooling co-ops. Homeschooling is more accessible and “acceptable” today, and it’s growing in popularity every year as more statistics show that homeschooling produces superior academic results. However, the reasons I am thankful for homeschooling go beyond the academic benefits.

thankful for homeschooling

1) Freedom: The more I read in the news about problems with public school (common core, bullying, cutbacks), the more I’m thankful for the freedom to choose the best educational environment for my three daughters. I have the freedom to use the curriculum that I believe works best for my children, as well as a teaching approach that leverages their natural strengths.

I don’t take this freedom lightly: In light of what’s happening around the world with homeschooling (such as the recent Romnieke deportation case) and the slippery slope we’re on in this country, I know that this freedom is precious and I thank the Lord for it everyday.

2) Flexibility: Life can be bumpy, and when things get tough, I’m especially thankful for the flexibility of homeschooling. Whether it’s health challenges, financial upheaval, moving, a traveling spouse, or special needs with your children, you can adjust your schedule and the family’s daily routine when you’re homeschooling.

Early last year I experienced a health crisis that made it hard for me to function fully every day, and it lasted for several months. I can’t imagine what life would’ve been like for us if I had to wake up early every morning and race the kids to and from school and activities while dealing with these challenges, especially as much as my husband travels. I’m so thankful that I was able to homeschool throughout this difficult time, because I could work with my girls at times when I had energy and strength and rest when necessary.

3) Family: I was blessed to be working from home since the time my girls were born: full time, part time, and self employed. At first I was glad to have more time to work when my elder two girls were in school and I just had one toddler to manage.

However, I was starting to realize that our family life was being consumed by the busyness of school: the daily commute, after-school activities, PTA, fundraisers, etc. Once dinner dishes were loaded and baths were taken, there was little time for quality family conversation & interaction. My husband’s busy travel schedule made it even harder to spend time together when the girls weren’t in school. I felt like my time with them was flying by and I hardly knew them.

Homeschooling doesn’t just give us more time together, it also eliminates all those extras that kept us running from one thing to the next. Yes, we do participate in enrichment & co-op activities, but the pace is different and the whole family is usually involved.

Some parents worry that spending so much time together would drive them nuts — and at times, it’s true! However, I wouldn’t trade in those crazy days for the relationship I have with my girls now, and that they have with each other. I am not gifted with superior patience: It’s something I have to pray for every day. I believe the Lord equips those He calls, so I trust Him for help in this department.

4) Fun: Do you remember being so excited for those few & far between field trips and special projects when you were in school? When you’re homeschooling, learning can be fun all the time!

I’m not talking about catering everything to your child’s wishes just to please them. There are subjects and learning exercises that may never be considered “fun” that are still important. However, even math can be fun when you step away from the textbooks and worksheets. Your children don’t have to wait until their school provides a lab to experiment when you can do it anytime at home.

My 7th grader recently challenged me on the importance of geometry, and I showed her how using geometric formulas helped us plan out & purchase supplies for outdoor garden. Cook & bake with fractions. Go for a nature walk in your neighborhood and gather inspiration for art, science, and writing.

One of my favorite moments is seeing my girls come up with projects on their own. They’ve developed a love of learning, and they often choose to work on a creative project during their free time. I love seeing them think outside the box, with curious minds that are always on the lookout to learn something new.

5) Faith: Last but not least is the opportunity to keep God at the center of our home, including education. As my sister Rosanna shared on Monday, the choices for faith-based curriculum are expanse. We love using Trail Guide to Learning, which is unit studies with a biblical worldview. Reading living books instead of committee-written textbooks gives us an opportunity to learn through the real-life experiences of others.

When we started homeschooling, I felt a little concerned about what others might think about a God-centered education. However, I’m realizing more and more when I see what’s going on in our schools that NO education is neutral: In fact, our public system is stretching so far to be “accepting” of all beliefs at the expense of biblical values. Everything BUT the Bible is acceptable in public schools. If you think it’s not that bad, a google search of national news will be revealing. It’s no surprise that more than two-thirds of Christian teens leave the church after high school when they spend the majority of their day learning that there’s no place for God in “real” history and science, just to name a few.

It’s our goal to teach our children diligently, as God instructs in Deuteronomy 6:5-7, and if we have the freedom to do that at home, with curriculum that we choose, and in an environment that doesn’t exclude faith, why not? Yes, we sacrifice personal time, a two-income budget, and more in order to homeschool, but I’m willing do to whatever it takes to train my children in the way they should go (Prov. 22:6). I’m working for their reward in heaven, not on earth.

I’m so grateful that I can pass on the legacy of homeschooling to my daughters, and it’s my prayer that they will still be able to do the same someday if they choose to.

What are you most thankful for in your homeschooling journey? When times are tough, what are the things that help you refocus on your mission and goals? I’d love to know what drives you to press on in homeschooling: Share in the comments below!

Equipping Your Family to be Defenders of the Faith

As I’ve shared on my blog NextGen Homeschool, I was blessed to attend the Teach Them Diligently Convention for the first time this past spring. One message at the conference really stood out for me: Why it’s important to specifically equip our family to be defenders of the faith — sharpened arrows, standing on the authority of God’s word, wearing the armor of God, ready for the very real spiritual battle we face today.


Although my husband and I have made it a priority in our homeschool mission to focus our educational plans and activity around God’s word with a Deuteronomy 6:5-7 perspective, there’s a next step to teaching our daughters the gospel message: Learning to share His gospel with others. In order to do so effectively, I’m learning that it’s also important to teach our girls to give a defense for our faith — especially in the age of moral relativism that we live in. Teaching Biblical apologetics (answers) will not only strengthen our personal faith, but prepare us to answer the skeptical questions of our day as we share the gospel with others.

MYB-NEW-August-2013-Blog-Button-180x180Join me over at Managing your Blessings, where I’m sharing my complete post on what I’m learning about how to equip your family to become defenders of the faith. Learn what “apologetics” means, how it relates to teaching truth and standing on the authority of the Bible,  and what resources are available to help you train your family in this important area of Bible study.

What does the mission of Deuteronomy 6: 5-7 mean to you? Have you ever thought about providing education in Biblical apologetics for your children? If so, what tools or resources have you used? What does it mean to you to equip your family as defenders of the faith?

NextGen Homeschool: Starting a Homeschool Co-Op, Girls Book Club

A couple of weeks ago, my sisters and I addressed the question of cooperative schooling — aka “co-ops” — in our “Ask a NextGen Homeschooler” column. Since that time, the co-op I talked about starting this year (a tween girls’ book club) has had a social mixer and our first official meeting. So far, so good! If the first meeting is any indication of what’s to come this semester, then I think we’ve got a really great thing going. I thought I would share a little more about what I did to get the ball rolling, as well as a play-by-play of our first official meeting day…

The Idea

As I mentioned in our recent co-op schooling post, I had been feeling a nudge from the Lord to do a tween girls book club, both to give my girls a good social opportunity and turn them on to books with Godly character focus. If there’s one thing I have learned after two years of homeschooling ups and downs, curriculum change after curriculum change, and being involved in too much/too little in the co-op arena, it’s that giving God the reins of your homeschooling plans is the most important thing you can do. Good ideas are always just that — good. A God idea, however, is always a great idea — because you have His strength to back you up and He is glorified!

As I prayed for direction this year, this idea kept coming back to me. Just when I was trying to give up extra responsibilities and remove things from my “to do” list permanently due to health issues, God was giving me an idea that I knew would require my leadership, extra time and effort. I was worried about taking on an entirely new enterprise — even if it would meet my homeschooling goals for my tween daughters. But as God continued to nudge me, I remembered that God equips those whom He calls to do His work.

“Now may the God of peace … make you complete in every good work to do His will, working in you what is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.” — Hebrews 13:20-21

The Preparation

Over the summer, I did some research on Christian books for tween girls. This included some Web browsing and asking fellow moms of tweens what they’ve seen and heard of. After identifying a few potential book series and authors, I checked out as many as I could from the library (I am all about free) and started reading them. I also had my eldest daughter Audrey read a few of my top picks to get her opinion. She is a voracious reader, and I knew she would not mind reading them again for book club.

I also thought about the mission for this co-op: It would be slightly educational (reading is learning), but more importantly, it would be a social opportunity for moms and their tween daughters to get together on a regular basis and share in our homeschooling journey — and support one another. Yes, I hope we’ll learn a lot from these fictional Christian characters and their true-to-life situations. But mostly, I hope we create tighter bonds between the moms and their daughters, and supportive connections between the moms who are coming together, as well as the girls.

To achieve this, I came up with a suggested format and started pitching the idea to moms that I thought would be a perfect fit for this group. We also had a co-op workshop near the end of the summer with our local homeschool support group, and I shared the idea there as well. Before I knew it, we were going to be full with more than 14 families wanting to participate! The fact that many of the moms shared with me the same desire to accomplish this mission was confirmation that God wasn’t just moving me, He was moving us. Praise Him for the wonderful and mysterious way that He works with us when we are listening to Him!

The Structure

We had a “planning” meeting at the neighborhood pool to discuss the structure for our Girls Book Club soon after identifying the moms who wanted to be part of the co-op. Thanks to the wonderful guidelines provided by the veteran homeschooling moms who hosted the co-op workshop, we made decisions about frequency, group size, responsibilities to share, and a “code of conduct” we would communicate to the girls about what was expected from them to be part of the “GBC” discussion time. We also agreed to use the Secret Keeper Girl fictional series by Dannah Gresh to read for the first four book club discussion times.

It’s not always easy to be on the same page about some of the logistical things, especially when siblings of varying ages are involved as they most often are with homeschooling families. For example, several moms had sons or other children that wouldn’t be part of the book club. What will they be doing while mom and daughter are in the book club? Many girls already had other extra curricular activities (like riding their horse everyday for training purposes) that are hard to get around. Also, not all moms could stay for every book club meeting due to activities for other siblings or prior commitments. And so on and so forth… you know what I mean if you’ve been homeschooling for a year or so.

Praise God that we were able to accommodate the needs of almost every mom and daughter who wanted to be a part of this semester’s book club! Another confirmation that we were on the right track.

What we came up with was a twice-a-month meeting, made up of a 45-minute discussion time and an hour of social time plus snacks. Moms are sharing the responsibility of providing snacks, watching the younger siblings during discussion time, and supervising cleanup. Three moms have divided up the “hosting” responsibility of having the book club at their house (I am one of those three moms).

I had planned to lead the tween girls discussion time since it was my idea and I was happy to do it. However, we had such a large group of tweens (14 girls to be exact) that we decided to break them up into two groups, and another mom had to step up and lead that second group along with me. Praise God that happened too — a mom who had lots of experience leading youth groups and women’s groups volunteered almost immediately. Finally, we found that we had a small group of “younger readers” (girls from 6-8 years old), and one mom stepped up to lead a book reading and discussion time for them while their older sisters were doing their book discussion. How awesome is that?

What I’ve learned so far is that the key ingredients to structuring a new co-op are a common mission, agreement on the logistics and expectations from the students and participating parents, and divine intervention. I believe that when God is calling families to come together for His purposes, He truly makes provision for all the details.

The Launch

One week before our first official meeting, I hosted a social “mixer” at my house so we could just spend some time getting to know each other. (Unfortunately I forgot to take pictures at that gathering!) That first gathering of 33 moms and daughters was a lot of fun, but also a bit hectic — revealing a few little holes in our structural plans that we were able to patch up before our first meeting. I’m really glad I decided to do the social time first, because the girls and moms were able to make connections before we would have to do anything “organized” together.

Our first Girls Book Club meeting was the following Wednesday, September 19, at my home again. My eldest daughter Audrey (a pastry chef in the making) decided to bake Red Velvet cake pops for the girls to dip into dark chocolate and decorate as they arrived. I love the fact that I can leave my little hostess in charge of things like beautiful snacks and decor: She is so fabulous at it, and I am free to take care of things like making sure our husky’s fur isn’t all over the house and that we have a pot of hot coffee made for the mamas who will need it when the 3 o’clock slump hits.

This turned out to be an especially helpful idea because it took at least 15 minutes for all of the moms and daughters to show up, and Audrey was able to take them back to the kitchen in small groups as they arrived to dip their cake pops and decorate them. Then we set them back on the stand to “dry” while we did the group activities.

Because we had just received the books a week ago, we didn’t have a reading assignment for this first meeting. Instead, the girls played a get-to-know scavenger hunt game, followed by table time in which we reviewed the GBC discussion tips sheet we’d prepared and played “Pass the Teddy Bear & Share.” Passing the teddy is the method we had agreed upon to make sure the girls all get time to talk during discussion time. Since we didn’t yet have a book to discuss, we practiced with some basic questions about their favorite books and fictional characters.

The “rules” for Pass the Teddy Bear & Share are that the girls will pass a teddy bear around the table, and only the girl who is holding the teddy gets to answer the question until it is passed to another girl. If you’re not holding the teddy, your lips are sealed — and you also can’t hold up your hand to be “next” while anyone is still talking. If someone wants to add to what the girl speaking has said, she can request the teddy by raising her hand after the speaker is done and passes her the teddy.

After a few questions, the girls got the hang of it and our little discussion was in full swing. The girls were much chattier and forthcoming with answers than I had anticipated, with only a couple of girls being hesitant to take the teddy and talk. I am really glad we came up with the discussion guidelines in advance, because it was a lot easier to point the girls in the right direction when they were talking too long or not giving each other their full attention. Overall, I think we’re going to pass that teddy a lot — and have some great discussions this semester!

The all-important snack and social time is my favorite time of the meeting — because I can finally relax! The girls came through the kitchen like a swarm of locusts and consumed their decorated cake pops and everything else in sight, then went to play outside in the backyard.

The moms congregated inside and outside for coffee, iced tea and what was left of the snacks. I was so glad the weather was warm again and everyone could enjoy our backyard. It was also nice to be able to have plenty of space for the girls to run around and work out their energy without disrupting the moms from having great conversations. Even the little sisters got a chance to hang out with the big girls and play!

Although I am really pleased about the relative success of our first meeting, we hit a few bumps too. For starters, we have already lost one mom and daughter pair due to their already packed schedule and finding it hard to fit our book club time slot into the agenda. It was bound to happen. We had a few moms that couldn’t stay for various last-minute reasons, so they were missed during our highly anticipated mama social hour. Life happens. We also had one girl who had to leave early for a sports team practice, so she missed the snack and social hour entirely. Thankfully her season will wrap up in October and it won’t always be the case, but guess what — it happens. And it will probably happen again.

I can’t speak for all the moms participating in our Girls Book Club co-op, but I can honestly say I’m not worried about how this semester will unfold. I knew before I started that I couldn’t attempt to do this if I wasn’t going to hand it over to the Lord completely and let Him be in charge. I prayed for the right families to be involved, and I believe that has already happened. I prayed for my girls and that my original mission for this co-op would be accomplished for them, so I am trusting God to work in their hearts in a way that only He can. I prayed for the moms and daughters who would join us and that their own journeys with Jesus and each other would be strengthened, so I am releasing that to the Lord because I am just the vessel being poured out — and He is filling me and will fill them.

Upcoming meeting days may be hectic. It might snow two feet on a day that we plan to meet at one of the more remote homes on our hosting schedule! Someone who’s signed up for snacks may not be able to come at the last minute. Kids get sick. Family logistics change. Another family may have to drop out. I don’t know… but thankfully, God does!

I am up for the journey because I know He’s leading us. And I trust my Good Shepherd.

“For I, the Lord your God, will hold your right hand, saying to you, ‘Fear not, I will help you.'” — Isaiah 41:13

Renée Gotcher is an entrepreneur, writer, wife & home-educating mother of three daughters: Audrey, Claire and Elise. Renée was homeschooled during her last two years of high school and started homeschooling in 2010. She is currently editor and lead author of NextGen Homeschool: Formerly Homeschooled Moms Homeschooling Our Next Generation. The Gotcher Family lives in Castle Rock, Colorado.

Lessons from the meeting my schedule forgot

We’ve been “back to school” for several weeks now — we did schoolwork three days a week those last two weeks in August as a warm-up and review for the girls (and to test out my new school organization systems), and then we went on a 10-day family road trip that is becoming a tradition for our family. Needless to say, getting back into the swing of things after that vacation was like starting school all over again, and I’ve been hesitant to “journal” any of our days because I’ve felt like I’m flying by the seat of my pants still… even after all that planning and organizing!

For the past four years, my husband has been running a world-famous race over Imogene Pass, from the town of Ouray to Telluride, on the weekend after Labor Day. When he first attempted this race with his best friend, we lived in Durango (not too far from Telluride) and many of our Durangoan friends also ran the race. Since moving to Castle Rock two years ago, it’s a bit more of an effort for our family to drive to Telluride from the Denver metropolitan area for this race.

Last year we decided to make a family road trip out of it: Spending Labor Day weekend in Beaver Creek with my sister (who now lives in Eagle), camping near Crested Butte during the week after Labor Day (still warm enough to camp, but the summer crowds are gone!), and ending up in Telluride by Friday for the Saturday race. It’s a whirlwind 10 days of traveling through some of the most beautiful parts of Colorado, seeing close friends and family, and spending plenty of time “unplugged” from our normal life, enjoying God’s creation.

However, I have to admit it’s a little tough to “hit the street running” when we get home on Sunday night and the week that follows includes not just getting back into our own homeschool routine, but starting all of our supplemental programs and homeschool co-ops at the same time. This year, that includes ballet lessons for Audrey (11 1/2) on Monday nights, Worship Dance for Claire (10) and Elise (5) on Tuesday afternoons, our new Girls Book Club Co-op (which I’m hosting & coordinating) on Wednesday afternoons, PE Plus on Thursday afternoons, and AWANA on Sunday afternoons.

This past week, we also had a birthday sleepover party for my new 10-year-old Claire, the annual homeschooling family BBQ with our local support group, a visit from my in-laws (who leave tomorrow) and an upcoming visit from my dad this Friday (who’s staying for a week)!

So you’ll understand how a Type A personality like me, with all my appointments in my iPhone (reminder alarms set) as well as on a color-coded calendar on my refrigerator, could still manage to have a day like yesterday.

It started out with promise: I had printed out all the girls’ sheet work the night before and placed it in their “to do” folders in the school area. I had the necessary DVDs out and books checked out from the library. The girls woke up, ate breakfast, and started on their independent work. We did our family devotions around the table before my five-year-old Elise woke up to distract us. My in-laws (who live in a remote part of Kansas), wanted to get their Costco shopping done while in town, so because things were going so smoothly and Audrey’s ballet lesson wasn’t until 5:30pm, I offered to take them so my husband (who works from home) could stay home and work.

About 10 minutes into our trip to Costco, an iPhone alarm went off in my back pocket. I quickly discovered that I had a homeschool support group board meeting this afternoon — not part of the normal weekly routine — and it was starting in 15 minutes! (I was at least 20 minutes away from the meeting at this point in time). After searching for my in-laws to find out if they wanted to stay or rush out (they opted to stay and continue leisurely shopping), I left my cart in the middle of Costco and took off to the forgotten board meeting.

Right away, I realized my error: Although I had entered the meeting into my iPhone calendar, I had forgotten to put it on the refrigerator calendar – my visual cue that I see constantly, every day — so when asked if I could run the errand, I thought I was obligation free for the afternoon. But that wasn’t the case, and today I was especially thankful for the calendar alarm on my iPhone! I could tell it was going to be one of those days after all.

I arrived about 15 minutes late to the meeting. It figures that the new home of the board member hosting this meeting wasn’t recognized by Google maps, so I had to wing it and find her home by driving around the general vicinity — praise the Lord I found it! This was to be a “short” board meeting, but about 2 hours later, my iPhone was buzzing again because my in-laws were done shopping at Costco, waiting for me. And then there was Audrey’s ballet lesson, which was going to start in 45 minutes. I left the meeting at 4:45pm — Castle Rock rush hour — so traffic to and from Costco was unusually heavy, of course. Because it was one of those days.

My husband had to intervene and drive all three girls to drop off Audrey at ballet. And I had to rush back to Costco, rush back home to unload all the food from Costco, and rush back out to pick up Audrey from ballet. On the way there, I’d planned to make a quick return to Kohl’s. Turns out that would not be easy, either. If I made the return, I would lose the value of the “Kohl’s cash” I used on the original purchase. Unless I could find an item of exact retail value, which I could then evenly exchange for my returned item. Of course, a quick scan of the aisles and nothing I actually needed right now was exactly $34.99. And now I was 10 minutes late to pick up Audrey. So I left without accomplishing anything. Because it was one of those days.

What does any of this have to do with homeschooling? Maybe, nothing. Or maybe, everything — at least for me. Don’t they say that school is never out for the pro? I have a better version of that saying: Growth is never out for the child of God.

Because hours earlier, before the “planned” school day began — and the afternoon’s chaos ensued — I read this:

“It is easy to make an idol of routine, finding security within the boundaries you build around your life. Although each day contains twenty-four hours, every single one presents a unique set of circumstances. Don’t try to force-fit today into yesterday’s mold. Instead, ask Me to open your eyes, so you can find all I have prepared for you in this precious day of life.”Jesus Calling, by Sarah Young

It was one of those days that could have ended in tears, anger, frustration, self-defeat. The thoughts that used to haunt me on days like this included things like, “How can you be the teacher when you can’t even get organized?” Or even better, “You aren’t the parent who’s working, so why can’t you manage to stay on top of things?” Lies that took my focus away from God and back to myself.

But as the day unfolded, the words from the morning’s devotional reading came back to me again and again. Yes, it was my calendar mishap that set off a chain reaction of chaos. But God knew what would happen before I woke up that morning. In fact, He knew what my day would look like before I was born.

Have you ever stopped and really thought long and hard about what that means?

“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.Psalm 139:13-16

My loving Heavenly Father knew that I would blunder up this day — with so many people depending on me — and He planned to be there for me through all of it. He wanted me to grow, to draw ever closer into His presence, and He knows what He is doing! “When you cling to old ways and sameness, you resist My work within you,” writes Sarah Young, as she captures the words the Lord has placed on her heart. “I want you to embrace all that I am doing in your life, finding your security in Me alone.

My homeschooling journey has been as much about my growth and my education — with my Heavenly Father as my teacher — as it has been about what I can teach my girls. Maybe even more. Sometime soon, I hope to share more about my personal struggles and journey with the Lord this past school year that have transformed my perspective on what homeschooling means to me. Another story for another day.

Today, I am very thankful that my Heavenly Father not only knew I would have this crazy day, but walked with me through it every step of the way. He prepared me with a very specific devotional entry and accompanying scriptures. He prepared me with a peaceful morning of (almost) everything I had planned being accomplished around the school table with minimal fuss from the girls. And then when things started to fall apart, He reminded me of the fact that nothing I could have done or should have done mattered now — it was time to walk through it, knowing that He was by my side and it was part of His plan.

I was able to be completely focused at that board meeting, and completely present for my family that evening when we shared a late dinner with my in-laws. And I was able to go to sleep in peace — thankful for another homeschooling day!

Renée Gotcher is an entrepreneur, writer, wife & home-educating mother of three daughters: Audrey, Claire and Elise. Renée was homeschooled during her last two years of high school and started homeschooling in 2010. She is currently editor and lead author of NextGen Homeschool: Formerly Homeschooled Moms Homeschooling Our Next Generation. The Gotcher Family lives in Castle Rock, Colorado.


NextGen Homeschool: Gearing up for back-to-school

This past week — per my three girls’ eager request — we started school a few weeks earlier than I had planned. I’m sure the fact that their neighborhood friends had already started back to the local public school had something to do with it. But whatever the reason, I was glad to see they were so excited to start — even if I wasn’t.

Truth be told, I’m still in the process of purchasing curriculum, gathering books and lining up homeschool co-ops and extracurricular activities for us to participate in. However, I thought this could be a good opportunity to do some core skills review and test out the new systems I have set up to keep us running more smoothly this year — and hopefully, keep the school area from becoming a dysfunctional chaotic mess as well.

In the past, I have organized and reorganized several times throughout the school year. So far nothing has stuck with us: Not a single curriculum package, filing system or “cubby” shelving strategy, daily planner or homeschool tracking system. We live and we learn, especially in a homeschool environment. Although I’ve pinned many colorful, quaint schoolroom photos and snappy organizational tools and tips to my Pinterest dreamboard, I had yet to come up with something both beautiful and functional for our family.

This summer, my goal was to take what was actually working for us and improve upon it in a more organized way. Not a radical revamp, but a refinement — and beautification — of our homeschooling area and systems. Here’s a glimpse of what I’ve been up to the past two months to “gear up” for back-to-school time…

Shopping for deals

One of the most important factors I believe most homeschoolers face when planning for the new school year is a budget: We’ve all got one, and for some (myself included), it can be pretty tight. Over the past two years, I’ve learned to dismiss past memories of the long and “necessary” school supplies lists provided by classroom teachers and create a list of the tools we do actually use throughout the school year. This step in and of itself saves you money, as well as the fact you’re not limited to certain brands when you are the teacher making that judgement call.

Personally, I’m not brand loyal when it comes to consumable school items like pens, pencils, crayons, paper, notebooks, folders, glue, etc. I know my girls, and I don’t expect things like a subject binder to last more than one school year: Whether the favorite color changes, the scribbles on the front cover are no longer cool, or they’re no longer into Hello Kitty, they will probably need and/or want some new things. So I stay alert to the weekly deals at each local store and gradually compile the new year’s supplies when things are super cheap — and by super cheap, I mean 50 cents, a penny and even free at times!

The consumables I mentioned above always go on sale somewhere at some point for as little as a penny or free. This year, I have purchased all of the above for 10 cents or less. I’ve even filled up a box of items we can use for our Operation Christmas Child boxes this fall. OfficeMax has consistently offered free items every week since July when you spend $5 or more on “non-Max-value” items. To make the most of this, I have purchased a $5 item that also qualifies for a full in-store rebate, so that eventually I’ll get that $5 back too.

For anything more expensive, like a new backpack, lunchbox, or advanced art supplies, I wait for clearance and/or steep discount coupons. With this strategy, I’ve been able to assemble a great art toolbox that includes acrylic paints, pastels, charcoals, canvases, glue guns, fabric glue, etc., as well as update the backpacks and lunchboxes every couple of years.

I believe you can stock up your homeschool area with all the supplies you’ll need for a productive year very inexpensively. Curriculum, on the other hand, isn’t as easy to come by for free or at a discount unless you’re willing to spend some time researching your options — and be patient. For more advice on curriculum savings, see our recent “Ask a NextGen Homeschooler” column on this topic.

Refining an almost-functional system

While I was filling the top shelf of the pantry with boxes of this year’s school supplies, I did my best to keep the girls from impulsively putting new items into the existing school area. I knew that we would continue to use the “formal” dining area for school (fully visible from our front door), and that new furniture to reorganize (or just hide) the overflowing cubby bins and teetering stacks of books and folders was not in the budget. So refining — and hopefully beautifying — our existing space was my best option. Until that was accomplished, I wanted nothing new to be buried in the existing clutter.

I figured out one thing that was working for the girls and had the potential of keeping our school area pretty clean and pristine: The cubby bins. However, the fabric bins I purchased last year got stretched out by the weight of heavy workbooks, and the handles became shabby and weak from constant use. That was an easy fix: I purchased new, more sturdy, fabric bins with leather handles. They fit our existing shelves perfectly and look great.

This was my one “splurge” in the prep process (about $9 per bin). I debated repurposing baskets I already had in use elsewhere or purchasing less expensive options, but the bottom line was that they had to be the right size for the shelves (so they didn’t stick out) and sturdy enough for daily use. Since this shelf can literally be seen from our front door, I also wanted them to match and fit into the color scheme of the rest of the decor for that room — something that didn’t scream “kid zone” as loudly as before.

Within each cubby are conveniently camouflaged workbooks, 3×5 card file boxes, library books, journals, spiral notebooks, and anything else that would not easily stack on a visible shelf. Next to each girl’s cubby is an exposed shelf that holds her curriculum books (which usually stack quite neatly), her bible, and her new personal school supplies box (more on that later). The girls love it, and it’s easier on the eye than last year’s stacks and stacks of books and folders falling from the shelves.

Next step was keeping tools like pens, crayons, highlighters, and such in an easily accessible place that could also be easily cleaned up at the end of the day. For this, I purchased two types of clear bins: One per child with tools that are specific to them (and that they can take with them to other areas of the house or outside to work with), and another that is “all purpose” and divided by tool type (crayons, colored pencils, highlighters, markers, etc.) This — hopefully — solves two previous problems: They now have both a portable solution where their personal tools are self-contained, as well as school “area” tools that are easy to clean up and don’t belong to anyone (preventing constant “that’s mine!” arguments).

To complete this task, I enlisted the girls to help me sort through boxes and Ziploc bags full of crayons, markers, etc. We tossed out every dried-up marker, chewed-up crayon, and nub of a pencil, and aggregated all the “worth using” implements into their specific boxes. When we were done, the girls were thrilled. “I am so glad we did this Mom,” one shared. “Now when I want to work on something, I won’t waste any time with junk that doesn’t work!”

Mission accomplished.

So far, this new system of splitting up the school supplies is working as planned. When someone is in the mood to color or work on a school project at the dining/school table, they can pull down whatever supplies are necessary  — share with whomever has decided to join them — and put the supplies back quickly when finished. On the other hand, someone who wishes to work alone outside on the patio table or in their bedrooms can take their personal toolbox and do so easily, as long as they return the toolbox to the school area shelf. We’ll see how this holds up, but so far it seems to be efficient and keeping our school area clean.

The last area that needed work was the student/teacher “in-out” box. This year, I took a leveled file folder stand from my personal desk and gave each girl a “to do” folder: In the evening, I put print-outs and any independent work for the next day in their folders, and when they’ve completed them and I am done checking them, I’ll put them back in the folder so they can be added to their individual binders later.

My goal with this system is to have independent work ready so the girls can start whenever they are ready in the morning and go back to it during times of the day when I am not working with them directly. Plus I can find their finished work easily when it’s time for me to review it.

This has been one of the easiest fixes to make a big impact: This Saturday, my 5-year-old (Kindergartener) Elise noticed that she already had sheets in her “to do” folder for Monday, and asked if she could just work on them right now. Why not? She ended up completing Monday’s work in about 30 minutes and starting on a new creative art project, which is also almost done. Now instead of catching up next week because we had friends in town visiting for two days, she is actually ahead of the lesson plan. I love this new system!

One other previously troublesome issue was the easy accessibility of extra “supplies” that the girls or I might need during the school day — everything from refill staples and tape to scratch paper and ink for the printer. To meet this need, I brought down a nice set of portable drawers from my home office to use for everything extra that I wanted tucked away neatly.

This has also turned out to make a huge difference right off the bat. The girls know exactly where the extras can be found and aren’t wandering up to my office for tape or paper clips, and there are no longer stacks of extra everything sitting on the dining room table waiting to be put away at some later time. Everyone was able to get their school work done without having to wander around for supplies, and the area was returned to a relatively clean state at the end of each work period. Victory, as far as I’m concerned!

Although I wasn’t expecting to get “started” with school in mid-August, I am thankful that this week of review and test-run of our refined school area has been both successful and fun — re-energizing my daughters and giving me some peace of mind that this year we might be able to maintain an active — and attractive — school area. I am really looking forward to implementing our new curriculum and other exciting plans for this new year in September (more on that later). Until then, I hope you’re off to an inspired start as well — and if not, that you’ve received some helpful info from my sisters and I to get yourself and your family ready for a great start very soon!

“And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Jesus Christ.” — Col. 3:23

Renée Gotcher is an entrepreneur, writer, wife & home-educating mother of three daughters: Audrey, Claire and Elise. Renée was homeschooled during her last two years of high school and started homeschooling in 2010. She is currently editor and lead author of NextGen Homeschool: Formerly Homeschooled Moms Homeschooling Our Next Generation. The Gotcher Family lives in Castle Rock, Colorado.

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