First day of school: the way we do it


This stack of books waits patiently for us.









I was a public school kid, and I liked school. So people have asked me, over the years, why I chose to teach my children at home. After all, I grew up in a very school-centered town and within a family very supportive of public education. I did like school, but the night before school started, after a long summer vacation, I always cried.

I liked school. But I liked home better. I was blessed to be raised in a home* where there were always things going on that I wanted to be a part of. Just a few points to illustrate what a lucky duck I was: Dad built me a dark room in the basement so I could learn about developing my own photographs, and he built a potter’s wheel so we could learn how to throw pots out of clay. Mom sewed our clothes, pickled beets, raised vegetables and adopted animals–runt pigs and orphaned calves and abandoned kittens–when her heart overruled her head. Which was often.

At our place, home was always more interesting than school.

Our oldest son, Matthew, was fascinated by books from an early age. He was a “high-need” baby who needed constant movement and nonstop action. But when he discovered books, he settled down, and he really hasn’t stopped reading or thinking about or talking about books, since.

I still get a lump in my throat when I remember how he would follow me around the house, his latest book in his hand, his eyes glowing with joy, telling me all about it. He was forever piling his books on a stack next to my bed, encouraging me to read them. He was reading on his own when he was four, and he was a such a sweet little guy, too, and I remember clearly the comments that people made:  Amy, Don’t teach him any more, he’ll be totally bored in school next year. Oh, he’s attached to you now, but wait until he goes to school, it’ll be his teacher that he loves the most. Yeah, he loves to read now but wait until school, it’ll be work and he’ll not like it so much then. Yeah, he loves his mommy now but once he’s in kindergarten, his peer group will be more important to him than his family.

Yikes. Why do people feel they need to share this kind of thing? All this well-meaning “advice” gave me the willys.  I enjoyed the close relationship that I had developed with my son and I wasn’t happy that I was going to be less important to him (according to some) than his teachers and peer groups. Our relationship was my payment, I figured, for the countless hours of bouncing and pacing and loving and investing and soothing and encouraging and teaching. I didn’t want it to go away, or to lessen. And I really, really didn’t want Matthew to lose his love of reading and learning.

I knew a family who taught their children at home, and I admired the way their children behaved around other people. It was enough for me to talk Bryan (against his better judgment) into my teaching Matthew at home. For one year, only. That was our agreement. Then we decided that if he was doing okay after one year, we’d try another one. And eventually, when we could see that he was missing out on things in public school, we’d consider putting him in school. Our decision to teach our children at home never was a reaction against the public schools. It was just that we wanted a different lifestyle for our family. We were attracted to having a more family-centered, rather than a public school-centered life.

Well, one year went by and another and another, and we never did feel that we needed to put Matthew–or the five siblings who appeared, eventually–into public school. Not yet, anyway! I’ve felt all along that God was leading me to make this decision, and I’m so glad–so glad–that I listened and obeyed. Of course there have been days when it would have been a relief to send the kids to the school bus and have the day to myself. Oiy. Still are!

But I treasure the days and the weeks and the years of sitting across the table with my children--reading, talking, studying, praying, learning, and experiencing life together. God is so good to me, and my kids have done alright for themselves, too, after all: Matthew now is a doctoral student studying Medieval Literature; Andrew is a college grad and is developing his own graphic design business; Bethany is a theatre and English major in her junior year at college, and Timothy just accepted a job as a web designer at a great local company. I guess they’ve done alright for themselves.

So I have two kiddos left in our homeschool: Amalia, who is 14 and little Mack, 7.

It almost is too easy, having only two students now!

But really, I was intending to write about how we do our first day of school, wasn’t I?

When I was a kid, the first day of school was something that I adored, and hated, at the same time. I loved it because I really did love to learn, and I loved getting new pencils and notebook paper and back-to-school clothes (but not those stiff shoes!) and new textbooks and seeing my friends every day again. I hated it because, well, I just liked being home better (see above *). The days at school were so long, and I was one of those kids who would sit and stare longingly out the window long enough to annoy the teacher.

As much as we all love summertime and the freedoms that go with it, we are not “unschoolers” so we do drag out the books and notebooks and the dictionaries and the sketchbooks the last week or so of August, and we cast longing glances out toward the garden (well, that’s me, actually) and we start our school days routine.

Here’s how it goes:

First of all, we always take a First Day of School photo. This is our tradition. Years ago, when my schoolroom was full (and all my kiddos have a, erm, theatrical bent, as you know) one of the kids asked if they could dress up for the photo. I gave them ten minutes–and ten minutes, only!–to dress up for this photo. They all came back in elaborate costumes from the attic, and we trooped outside so I could take their picture. That’s when the UPS man showed up. Oh boy. Those nutty homeschoolers! I could just see him rolling his eyes.

This tradition stuck, and I still give the kids exactly ten minutes to throw something fun on. Amalia and Mack headed for the attic, and the stash of costumes up there.

Here's what they came up with.

Here’s what they came up with.

Then, because it was the most beautiful day ever outside (of course, it was the first day of school, it couldn’t be miserable out) we stayed outside for a bit and took a few more pictures. The first day of school experience shouldn’t be rushed. And a delightful Indian summer day cannot be ignored. Don’t you agree? The snow will be flying soon enough, and the wind will send icy bits into our faces and we’ll rush for the comfort of indoors. But not today.

Such a gorgeous spot!

Such a gorgeous spot!

first day of school

The kitty raced outside with us, and she climbed a tree, so little Mack shed his costume and followed suit. He would have stayed here in this tree for the rest of the day, if I had given my consent. Isn’t it funny how something you might have ignored for months suddenly seems precious to you, when it is taken away?

Like the freedom to spend the whole day outside, climbing trees, skipping rocks on the pond, riding your bike across the grass, and trying to catch frogs down by the pond. Gosh, now I’m feeling melancholy.

Childhood and summertime both go too quickly, don’t they?

I don’t know. Maybe I should have delayed starting school by another week or so.

We did, later, bring our science books outside and we sat in the treehouse for a little while to read Mack’s science assignment, but this kind of outside book reading never does work that well for me.

I am so distracted by the delights of outside. Within minutes of settling down to read about the earth’s crust or solar flares or black holes, I find myself studying the curves of the tree trunk, or wondering if that was a frog or a turtle down in the pond that just popped its head up, or noticing some feathers that perhaps I ought to pick up and try to identify. Before long, little Mack and I decide to close the book and go check something out.

It’s a nasty trick that God’s sublime creation plays on me. I am totally captivated by it and am forever longing to participate in it, whether I’m working in my garden or going for a walk, or sitting quietly by the pond watching the frogs jump in. I am never bored when I’m outside. A brilliant thought just occurred to me: an outdoor kitchen!

Our little pond has shrunk a bit during the past few dry weeks of summer, but there are still plenty of frogs to see.

Our little pond has shrunk a bit during the past few dry weeks of summer, but there are still plenty of frogs to see. They are content in the mud at the edge of the pond, until we approach. Then they let out a squeek! and skip several times across the water in front of us. We laugh. It’s very entertaining.

We took a walk around the pond, little Mack, Sammy the kitten, and me.  Mack found a treasure:

And eentsy-beentsy frog!

“Look, Mom! The tiniest frog EVER!”

We had our sketchbooks and I tried to sketch this little fella, but Mack had to hold him pretty close, hiding most of his teeny-tiny little slippery body. Don’t you love those tiny toes? There were plenty of interesting items to study down at the pond, though, and we determined to identify and read about these things later: groups of gleaming silver water bugs, tiny turquoise dragonflies, frogs and turtles, and a reddish bird that we didn’t recognize.

We’ve got this book about pond life, which Mack had with him, and he wanted to collect a jar of pond water to study, so we did that. We have a microscope. We’ll put a bit of the murky water on a slide and see what’s in it.

Sammy is enjoying school outside, too.

Sammy is enjoying school outside, too.

Then we’ll know exactly what our dog Ollie is bathing in. Hmm.

Our black lab Ollie can't stand being near water without plunging in!

Our black lab Ollie can’t stand being near water without plunging in!

After some time spent outside, it was time to go inside and do some “real” school, so we headed back into the house. You can see from little Mack’s woebegone expression that he was not ready for this. But don’t worry. We kept it fairly short, our first day, just for him. I knew that it would take a little “easing in” for this active outdoorsy boy to reconcile with being inside a bit more.

We start every morning with Bible study and prayer, reading aloud together, and drawing lessons. We start with the important stuff first! I bring my sketch book to the table, too, and Amalia and I take turns reading so I can add to my sketchbook, too. I like to draw the kids, mostly.


Mack doesn’t think he draws as well as he’d like to, and I encourage him to just keep drawing. He is easily discouraged, a consequence, I suppose, of having older siblings who can all draw quite well. But I love his little drawings. I remind him that he shouldn’t ever compare his work to anybody else’s, but just enjoy the process of making his own lines. He is quite creative. I read once that it’s the kids in the second to third-grade ages who stop enjoying making their own drawings and start comparing their work to the work of others. This is the age where many people decide that they are “no good” at art and stop drawing entirely. This is so sad to me.

At the top of the page in the photo below, you can see the drawings that he did from the book that we use for basic drawing principles. It’s a great little book, and it teaches basics like foreshortened circles and squares, and basic perspective. Underneath his tight little drawings, you see his big red dragon!


Now and then our school day goes as planned, and we get a lot done. We study science and history and Latin and art and grammar and creative writing together. And sometimes we get interrupted, and we don’t accomplish as much as I’d like. On those days I have to remind myself that the most important things that my kiddos have taken away from our home school are not things that they’ve learned in books: Respect for others. Honesty. How to be kind to others. A love for God’s creation. How to work. Flexibility. How to cook! How to put others’ needs in front of their own. A love of beauty, and truth.

Holding a kitten is a great comfort when your world is changed too suddenly, as when you go from carefree summer days to school.

Holding a kitten is a great comfort when your world is changed too suddenly, as when you go from carefree summer days to school.

We pulled out other books–math is not anybody’s favorite, but little Mack can sit for a long time and read science books–and we worked on them for awhile. After he had done his work, I let little Mack go (relief washed over his face and he raced back outside) and settled down to work with Amalia. She’s a high school freshman this year, and is anxious to learn how to drive, alas. She says she’s going to be a writer. After lunch, both kids practiced their instruments (Mack is learning piano, and Amalia is learning the cello) and they each have a required reading hour during the afternoon, too. It’s never hard to get them to read, though.

Phew. We made it through our first day of school. I knew that the next day would go smoother, and we’d hit our stride by the end of the week. You’ve heard of those marvelously organized moms who have a proper school room set up well before the first day of school, who have all their books accounted for and every pencil sharpened? I really admire them. I am not one of them. It always takes us a few days to find everything we need, and to work on our schedule until it’s something that we are comfortable with. I stop and order the things that I’ve forgotten. is my friend.

Speaking of which, it’s time for me to get the kids up and getting their chores done, so we can start school here pretty soon! Catch ya later, Gentle Reader! Thanks for visiting our school room for a bit!


21 thoughts on “First day of school: the way we do it

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Believe me, Roy, when I say that that day haunts me a bit! But God has led us along this process so far, and I’m sure He’ll help me figure out what to do when I’ve only got one little student left here at home. I just know that Mack will have some opinions in the matter, too! So far my kiddos have had definite interests that I’ve been happy to help them pursue–Literature, Art, Dance and Theater, and Web Design, and Creative Writing, from the 5 older kids (respectively). I have a feeling that little Mack’s high school years will be an adventure, and I’ll just be hanging on for dear life! He is a kid who is full of surprises, from Day One.

  1. Deanna

    What a beautiful and poignant post! I always appreciate the opportunity to stop by your blog. It always give me something for the eye, something for the heart and something for the mind. Thanks for a great post.

  2. Alana (@RamblinGarden)

    Beautiful post. One thing you may find interesting is that I was unable to attend school for some of 6th grade because I broke my leg in three places and my classroom was on the 4th story of a building that had no elevator. Instead, NYC sent a teacher to my apartment on a regular interval. It certainly wasn’t every day nor was it all day. Yet: I think I learned more in those couple of months of home instruction than the entire 6th grade combined, along with what my Mom taught me during that time. I am so glad I had the experience.

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      That’s quite a testimonial. I know that our hours spent “at the books” are much less than what the kids in organized school spend, because one-on-one tutoring (basically that’s what homeschooling is) is so much more efficient, time-wise. My kids never have to wait (at least, not for more than a minute!) for me to get to them because I’m busy with another student.

  3. Toni Nelson

    Thanks for sharing this. One of our best decisions was to home school my daughter. We took her for art lessons and educated her in ways the school couldn’t. She received real world training and flourished.

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      It’s so nice to hear from you! I’m so happy to hear of your daughter. Homeschooling can really be a great decision for kids, and families.

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Thankfully there are lots of activities for homeschool kiddos in our area, so my kids never lack for social interaction! Oiy, sometimes it’s hard for us to keep up with it all, in fact!

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