Inside the Mommyvan

Homeschooling & Life Inside the Mommyvan - an old dog learning new tricks


The pencils. Oh, the pencils. I had no idea that homeschooling would involve purchasing pencils by the hundred.

Here is my son’s starting pencil lineup for a math page this morning.

He drops pencils on the floor like I’ve greased them before laying them out in the morning. The time spent bending over, hunting for the fumbled implement, attempting to grasp it with his toes, getting settled back into his seat, and similar maneuvers means that his math work stretches on to very near the end of my patience. That’s before the bathroom trips, drinks of water, banging some body part on the edge of the table, or perceived offense from a sister.

I try to minimize some of the distraction by having a ready supply of replacement pencils and handing him another when I hear one hit the floor. I am amazed at how quickly a pencil can go from the table, to this boy’s hand, to the floor without ever touching his schoolwork paper!

Between the dropping, the tapping, the poking into erasers, the overzealous sharpening, and the growing-legs-and-wandering-off, we go through a lot of pencils. I’ve become something of a connoisseur. Decorative pencils, while fun for the kids, are usually round. Round pencils roll off the table very easily. The designs are sometimes printed on a plastic wrapper, which gets mangled in the pencil sharpener and gives fiddly kids one more thing to distract them from their work. Cheap pencils break easily, resulting in freshly sharpened pencils that fail the moment they are touched to paper. There are so many of these that I give each pencil point a little wiggle test after sharpening; about 25% lose the end of their lead and need to be sharpened again. High quality pencils are well worth the small difference in price. Nothing beats good old bright yellow Dixon Ticonderoga wood pencils. They’re sturdy, the erasers work, and the flat sides mean they stay put on the school table.

Sometimes I even splurge for the Pre-sharpened Dixon Ticonderogas! Especially when we’re out and about, it’s so nice to pull out a pencil that is not only perfectly sharpened, but with a shallow angle on the point such that it doesn’t break easily floating around in my bag.

Speaking of sharpening, I don’t know what I would do without my pair of heavy-duty electric pencil sharpeners (plug-in, not battery). One for me (Staples “Power Pro – works great, but the next one I buy will have a larger bin for the shavings and not spill as much when I empty it), and one for the kids to use. Tip: if you can’t bolt it down, get an upright model for the kids so that they are pushing the pencil down into the sharpener instead of pushing the sharpener across the table.


Now that we have emerged from the post-winter-break chaos, I’ve discovered a few key elements that have been making our days move along smoothly, much more so than before.

  1. Get an early start:
    We wake up (sometimes slowly), we eat breakfast, we do chores, and we start schoolwork. Play time comes a little later, electronics come much later, at the end of the day.
  2. Daily and weekly, not hourly schedules:
    Because there’s so much variation in how long one or all of my kids will take to complete a particular lesson, trying to stick to a time-based schedule resulted in stress and frustration all around. Setting goals for the day and simply working through them one by one allows us to take more time where necessary. A bonus when we sail through things quickly is that there’s a chunk of free time at the end of the day instead of having it all in bits and pieces through the day. We do have break times, but the quick days give us enough time in the afternoon to go do something.
  3. Whiteboard it:
    Like most homeschoolers, I have tried a variety of lesson planning tools. My favorite so far is a small whiteboard. I list the next lesson in each subject area or curriculum, so I can see at a glance what materials I need to prep next. Some things on the whiteboard will be for today; others for later in the week (or even into the next week), but it gives me a good idea of where we stand and options for our next steps. Changing plans is a snap, whether moving forward or shifting gears, just erase & re-write.


    I keep a weekly planning sheet on paper as well, and usually get the next whiteboard entries from that (where they’re not obvious from chapter or page numbers), but the paper planner is more for getting the week thought out in my head than a checklist of what must get done. The whiteboard is what I follow day by day. I also mark lessons as we complete them. It gives my students a nice way to see what they’ve accomplished during the day, and I can take a snapshot in the evening for an extra record of our current status (my formal log, required by our state, is a subject for another post).

  4. Rest time:
    I read a forum post and watched a youtube video which both mentioned daily “rest time” or “quiet time” and I had an epiphany. I’d previously thought that since naps were long gone in this house, the chance of getting them back into their rooms mid-day was somewhere between slim and none. At the same time, the kids were becoming more and more rowdy regardless of how much outdoor and physical play time they had. It almost seemed as though more outdoor time was exacerbating the problem. On top of that, I didn’t get a break when I could just stop and gather my thoughts, so I was frazzled as well.

    I shifted gears and tried an hour or so of quiet time after lunch, and it was like magic! That afternoon’s lessons were calm, relaxed, and completed with minimal whiing and complaining. Rest time has become an integral part of nearly every day, generally immediately after lunch, and it’s made an enormous difference in attitudes and quality of work throughout the day.

  5. Go with the flow:
    Regardless of what’s on the whiteboard or the weekly planning sheet, I try to stay in tune with what my crew is struggling with and what they’re breezing through, and I adjust our lessons accordingly. If math is popular today, I’ll toss some extra at them; if they are overwhelmed by the next piece of reading, we’ll rewind a few steps and work our way back up to the troublesome lesson. Sometimes we’re just not into spelling or grammar or whatever, and I can pick the next cool science lesson off the board instead. If we sail through lessons in the morning, we might take off in the afternoon for some fun surprise adventure.

    Some days I’ll have one kid smash through everything in record time while another is taking alllll mooorrrrrniiiinnng to get a simple worksheet done. This is where flexibility really comes into play. I have to be ready to keep the quick worker busy without penalizing him or her for finishing first, but I also have to be ready to sit at pokey’s elbow without rewarding the dawdling with extra attention from Mom. It’s a constant balancing act, and second only to not being able to adequately teach or explain a concept in frustration for me.

And that’s what’s working for us right now.

As I begin (yes, I said “begin”, not “finish”) planning in earnest for the upcoming school year, I have turned back to a tool I once loved but have neglected recently: Evernote.

There are numerous ways to make one’s information portable and mobile, and I have tried many of them. Evernote stands out among the rest for reasons that are difficult to pin down, but can be summed up in two words: it’s easy. It’s also free, which is nice, but as someone willing to pay for functional tools that’s less important to me than the ‘easy’ part.

There are versions of Evernote for Windows, Mac, all of the major mobile platforms, and a web interface. Notebooks are stored, synced, and accessed through Evernote’s online service, and with a reasonably priced ($5/month or $45/year as of this writing) Premium subscription can be stored on mobile devices for offline access and editing. Notes flow seamlessly between whatever platforms you’re using.

Also easy is capturing information from photos, handwritten notes (bonus: automatic text recognition for later searching), websites, email, audio, even original or marked-up images using the free Skitch add-on. Want to share a note with a friend? Easy: post to social media, email the note, or pass along a web address where others can view your note on Evernote’s server (and turn off the web sharing when you no longer need it) — even allow editing with a Premium account.

Finding notes is easy, whether you use Notebooks, Tags, geo-tagging, or some combination of these to keep track of your stuff. The search bar will help you find what you’re looking for within notes — keywords, tags, even typed or handwritten text in images, as automatic text recognition and indexing is done whenever you add a PDF or image file to a note.

Want to learn more about using Evernote? Download the app, and check out the easy Getting Started guides for Mac, Windows, iOS (iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch), Android, and the web interface, plus tips in their blog and around the web from users who have come up with all sorts of creative solutions.

If you use Evernote, or if you start using it, let me know what clever ideas you have for using it around the house or with homeschooling in particular!