Plan Your Year: An interview and give-away

For the past couple of weeks, I have been in crazy homeschool planning mode. Maybe you too?

I love planning, really, but sometimes it can feel a little hard to pin all the variables down. Will we do History every day? What should we do during our morning meeting?

Where did we leave off yesterday?

Where am I?

So I was so glad to recently discover Pam Barnhill’s book Plan Your Year. It has helped me to feel really organized and together, and I love how approachable she is within the pages. It feels like an experienced friend sharing her secrets over tea. And maybe cupcakes.

I was thrilled to get to chat with Pam a bit about her book, and ask her some questions about how she plans her own homeschool year. Pam was even nice enough to offer a FREE copy of her book to one reader, and 20 percent off to everyone else!! (See the details at the end!)

Q&C: I love the way you break down planning. You talk about an elevator pitch and testing everything against it as you plan. I think that’s so smart because as a homeschooling mom, I can often get distracted by fun ideas other people are pursuing or a fancy, new curriculum. How did you come up with the elevator pitch idea and why is it important, do you think?

Pam: I’ve been blogging for about seven years, but last winter I got serious about blogging and started reading about how to blog professionally. One of the techniques professional bloggers use is to have an “elevator pitch,” or one-minute statement about their blog in case someone asks what they do or what their blog is about. It seemed like a perfect thing for homeschooling. 

I hate the way I stammer and fumble for an answer when someone asks why we homeschool. I love having this bite-sized statement of purpose that I can share. 

Then as an extension of that, I turned it into the wall for my spaghetti. All of those hundreds of possible distractions, shiny new curricula, and latest greatest schemes — now I throw them up against the wall of my elevator pitch. If they don’t stick with my purpose then I throw them out. 

That small concise statement keeps me focused in my planning and on what is important to our family.

Q&C: You wrote that as you plan that you focus on behaviors not outcomes – what does that look like in your family?

Pam: When it comes right down to it I really have very little control over the timetable of when my kids master reading or addition facts or any other learning. I can’t force a kid to eat, sleep, or learn. What I can control, though, are the practices we do. 

This means when I set a goal for a specific child I don’t say that he is going to have his addition facts memorized by a certain date and time. What I say instead is that we will practice addition facts for X-number of minutes, X-number of days each week. That I can control (though my hardest job as the teacher is to motivate and keep it fresh and interesting).

There is a very good chance that consistently doing those behaviors will result in the desired outcome, but now neither of us have undue pressure because I have set a goal that I really can’t control. Less pressure equals happier people.


Q&C: I loved this quote from you:

“The best homeschool curriculum is the one that will get done.”

Absolutely!! What other ways can homeschooling families set themselves up for success?

Pam: I think I could write a book about this topic alone (hmmmm… now you have me thinking). The most important thing I think homeschool families can do to set themselves up for success is perhaps the hardest.

Homeschool families need to realize that the way they have always done education (speaking mostly to those who went to public school here) is onlyone method of educating humans from a vast array of methods used throughout human history.

I know as a former public school student and teacher my biggest hurdle to get over was the mindset that the way I was taught was THE ONLY way to educate and be educated. It’s not. It’s not even close to the only way.

There are hundreds of methods, techniques, schedules, and principles of education. Many of which are being used in other areas of the world today and others that were used throughout history. The public school model of education is really only about two hundred years old and even that has undergone vast changes regularly.

People ask me if Common Core upsets me, and I think they are surprised by my negative answer. But I have lived through look/say reading, half-day kindergarten, open concept classrooms, new math, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and a hundred other educational concoctions. They have all gone the way of eight track tapes and bell-bottom pants. Some are gone for good. Some cycle back around. But none stick long-term.

What does that mean to the homeschooler? Don’t be afraid to break out of the box — and then burn it. Do what works for you and your kid. Find what helps you to be successful and let everyone else (including your mother-in-law) worry about herself.

Q&C: I know that like me, you are a big fan of reading to your kids, even older kids. Do you schedule read-aloud time? How do you make sure it’s part of the plan?

Pam: I have an *ahem* rather Type-A personality. If I want to be sure something gets done, then I have to schedule it. I will be honest, there are times when it has been hard. The year my husband was deployed there were more days it didn’t get done that it did. Of course the rambunctious three-year-old didn’t help there.

Now he is getting older, so we try to read each evening before bed. Most days my husband reads to them then. I read to them during school time — history, science, and picture books. I am also a big fan of audio books.

We have an app called Tales to Go that has a large selection of audio books for a monthly subscription. We listen in the van and the boys listen while they play Legos and wait for their sister to get done with school.

My daughter also usually listens to a couple of hours at night before bed — though she has finally started reading more to herself during those times. I thought we would never break the chapter-book barrier, but learned not to worry much as she listened to so many books well above her reading level via audio book.

Q&C: I loved your forms that you include in your book, but I had a question about how you organize them. Are you a “binder girl,” or do you prefer another method?

Pam: Yep, I am a binder girl! I like the flexibility of being able to move things around or replace a page. Coil binding gives me hives — much too permanent.

I use tabs and organize them in a way that is logical to me. It has to be pretty, and I made the forms editable on the computer because I hate my own handwriting. This means I also keep a copy on my computer and can “save as” and create updates. Good for my lazy side.

To be honest there are quite a few of those forms I DON’T use. People are always asking me for matching forms for some purpose or another. I am happy to make someone a form and add it to my collection, because it adds value to the set and would be helpful to them, but I don’t necessarily adopt it for myself. I keep mine pretty simple and streamlined.

I’ve made three new forms for others just this week. Look for them as freebies on the blog soon.


Q&C: Finally, if you could share just one piece of advice for families planning for the year ahead, what would it be?

Pam: Begin with the end in mind. Think about where you want your student to be at the end of the school year, write down the what actions are needed to get him there, and then don’t be distracted from that path. All progress basically boils down to those three simple steps.

Pam has generously agreed to give away one copy of her book Plan Your Year to a Quill and Camera reader. Just leave a comment below! Comments close at 5 p.m. CST Tuesday and a winner will be announced!

You can also get her book for 20 percent off until Sept. 10 by using the code QUILL20.

So stop by and check out her book and blog! And huge thanks to Pam for her generosity and inspiration!

The one where I plan like a mad woman


When my son was little — like starting around 16 months — our very favorite show was 30 Minute Meals with Rachel Ray.

Late afternoons were rough for us. Following Nap Time, and Park Visit Climbing Time, and Cookie Bribe 1 Time and Cookie Bribe 2 Time, things would get rocky, and we would wait for Daddy like how I wait for the Amazon boxes to arrive this time of year — with less patience than a tiny, incontinent poodle.

Somehow, probably because I was adjusting to this motherhood business and the idea of needing to feed people ALL THE TIME, we discovered an hour of captivating programming involving garbage bowls, sammies, and EVOO.


Our favorite part of every episode was when Rachel Ray would carry too many items from the fridge and pantry over to the counter. I watched every night wondering if this would be the time she dropped it all and had to go chasing after a can of tomato paste yelling, “It’s OK! I still have 28 minutes! I’VE GOT THIS!!!!”

(I wonder now if this instilled some sort of cooking-from-scratch panic in me. Every time I have more than one burner going I feel like I need to yoga-breathe.)

Anyhoo, I thought of these warm and fuzzy late afternoons when we would build block towers and play in the rice box and watch Rachel make such tempting dishes such as an egg and chicken sandwich (what are you DOING woman?) recently when I found myself carrying way too many books, my homeschool planner, my laptop, my phone?, my favorite pens and I think 2/3 of everything I own up and down the stairs.

I like to plan on my bed, because it's the biggest flat surface in the house.

I like to plan on my bed, because it’s the biggest flat surface in the house.

I had officially hit homeschool planning mode.

Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE to plan. It might be my favorite part of the year.

It’s certainly my most unrealistically hopeful part of the year.

(My homeschool plans are kind of equivalent to a vacation plan involving a yacht, a private chef, a stack of books, a sudden recovery from motion sickness and a cabana boy who looks like Nathan Fillion.)

My homeschooling planning does involve a stack of books, too, although perhaps before I jump into those, I should tell you a little about our overall plan for the year.

I don’t even know who you are anymore

Last year at this time, we decided to give unschooling a shot. I was super inspired by Aadel Bussinger’s book on strewing, and it felt like all I needed to do was put the right stuff in my kids’ path. We got a Magic School Bus Science Kit membership, a Little Passports membership, and spent the rest of our meager homeschool budget on a Sparkle Stories subscription, new markers, paper, some books, some classes, piano lessons, our homeschool co-op and glue sticks.

Always glue sticks.

I felt ready to take on the year, and my kids were too. And it was GOOD, until around mid-January when we found ourselves in the midst of a winter that looked like a constant survival program.

We all got a little antsy, and unsure what to try, and always working with a limited budget, I thought about what my kids were really into. The answer was simple: Percy Jackson.

And so we started exploring everything Greece, and it felt better again. It felt like how unschooling is “supposed to” be.

Our favorite part of every day was sitting down to read from D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths. And because we were all learning together, it made sense just to read the book aloud.

On those winter mornings, it felt cozy and good. It felt like the cocoa and cinnamon toast that we often shared.

We made it through the home stretch and with relief, started another summer of library visits, playdates and adventure days (the best.) But then my little girl asked me a curious question.

“Mom,” she asked, looking up at me with wide eyes, “do we have any workbooks around here?”

It’s true. I have a workbook girl.


Both my kids — both — have requested a little more structure to our homeschool this year.

They both loved our steady summer rhythm, and want to continue it as much as possible.

And both want more of what we found during the cold January — cuddling together, just reading.

I didn’t think homeschooling could be that simple until I read Sarah’s book, Teaching from Rest, but I have to say it has greatly influenced my planning for this year.

So let me tell you a little about our plan …

Step 1: Remove cat from book bin.

Step 1: Remove cat from book bin.

A little about our plan

A morning meeting: I’ve started to think of this as Circle Time for an older set. We’re going to go over our plan for the day, This Day in History (app) and a problem from Bedtime Math, as well as anything else we need to get done, like making a birthday card or what have you. We might do myths here too — not sure. I don’t want it to stretch too long, because we need to get to some more math!

Math: For my 10-year-old, we’re doing Teaching Textbooks this year. For my 7-year-old, we’re giving Beast Academy a shot. We’ll keep doing Life of Fred together — we’re on Fractions.

Language: We’re starting Latin with the appropriately named “Getting Started in Latin.” We’re also using the Duolingo app for Spanish. I assure you, this is all far less ambitious than it seems and I have to say this is a spot where unschooling peeks through again ;)

History/Geography: Story of the World. Always on CD. Letting Jim Weiss do his magic. Also, Stack the States and Stack the Countries apps.

Science: We’re going to use 65 Short Mysteries You Solve With Science, along with A Really Short History of Nearly Everything (which is sort of history too …) to get started.

Language Arts: The Spelling City app and Reading Rainbow app; plus just lots and lots and lots of reading.

I’m also looking through How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare by Ken Ludwig. I sort of loved Learning Shakespeare myself, so I’m intrigued. Although I wonder if this would be better at home or if I should maybe put together a class for our co-op.

And finally, Harry Potter! This is the year, my friends.

I think I’ve been waiting to read Harry Potter to my kiddos since they were born. I can still recall reading the last one as I nursed my youngest and letting her rest in my lap each afternoon so I could keep reading a bit longer.

In summation

In summation, I guess if last year had a theme, it was, “Let’s try unschooling!” and if this year has a theme it’s “Books, not projects.” (Except making butterbeer.)

But I am so, so, so worn out on projects. Even of the art variety.

And I have to say, I am really, really excited to get started.

I already feel a little less like how I remember Rachel Ray, trying to do it all at once, so scared to drop something important, too many burners going at once.

I’m ready for calm this year. We’ll see how it goes.

Note: This isn’t everything. This is a glimpse at how we’re getting started. We also don’t plan to do everything listed every day. (Can you imagine? Gah!) Finally, this post contains affiliate links, and if you use them, it benefits our family, so thank you!!





2 things that are making me Happy; not Sneezy or Grumpy


Let me tell you about last year: Last year, after a month straight of sneezing, choking, coughing, crying and otherwise having things come out of my face, I finally dragged myself to the doctor.

“I want drugs,” I said.

My doctor looked at me with wide eyes. She knows me as Miss Not-Drugs, even when people are coming out of me. I don’t even love taking Advil when I have a headache.

I had tried Benedryl for my allergies, but here’s something that should surprise no one who knows me — a child’s dose of Benedryl is enough to send me to the couch with a blankie for an accidental 12-hour snooze; the kind that if it happened in college would mean I’d wake to dirty words written on my forehead.

She gladly wrote me out a prescription, and I gladly took a pill a day in order to keep from being disgusting.

Fast forward to this year: I had read in several places about an allergy blend of essential oils that people were using on everything from seasonal allergies to mosquito bites.

I blended myself up a mix using grapeseed oil as a carrier oil and a few drops each of lemon, peppermint and lavender essential oils. I also started diffusing the oils in water every morning upon waking.

And guess what — no allergies. (Maybe an occasional sneeze, quickly abated by applying drops of the oil blend to my forehead and under my nose.)

In fact, using essential oils worked so well, I decided to try a headache/tension blend. Again using grapeseed oil, I mixed in lavender, peppermint and rosemary.

I smell a little like Christmas when I use it, but it’s worth it to stop a headache in its tracks.

I am sort of surprised that these two remedies are working so well, but I’ve decided not to question it, because it’s just been so great.

Do you use essential oils in your home? What’s your favorite tip or trick?