Homeschool Room Makeover–Big Work in a Small Space

homeschool roomEarlier this spring we converted our dining room to a “learning room” by removing the leaf in the table and moving in some comfy chairs and bookcases. We moved most of J-Man’s books in there along with his Littlebits, telescope, and some of the other learning games and tools that he has. I cleaned out the china cabinet to make room for new collections and art materials, and made space for our laptops. I hung some of the little Leonardo’s art pieces and thought I was good to go. He loved it. He is in there all the time. He pulls books out, often reading three or four at a time. I should have been happy with this.

The thing is, I am home all the time now (well when we’re not at a museum, aquarium, park, nature walk, gymnastics, or a meetup with other homeschoolers or unschoolers). Being home more has allowed (forced?) me see where some definite improvements could be made. On top of this, we live in a small house, and this room is right in the middle. I know that if this room doesn’t work well and look good, it will not bode well fo r this endeavor.

Here is what we look like today. Note: that I did not straighten up for this shot.

The messy and unorganized begining.


Setting aside some of the bigger projects, my first thought was how best to organize materials, leaving space for adding materials as we get going.  Thankfully, I have never been let down by a trusty Pinterest search! Here are some amazing inspiration photos.

I love the organization and bright cheery color in this picture from

Love the colors and clean lines of the white built in. From

This next one is from Live and Learn Studio from Mt. Hope Chronicles I don’t even know what to say about this. I love the space, color and the feeling like learning and living are going on here.

Love everything about this room, but don’t have anything like this much space.

What We Need

After pinning many different homeschool spaces and reading how other moms organized their materials, I made a list of all of the things that I would like our space to be and have:

1) Comfy-this is still our house and we are homeschooling for a reason. I don’t want to lose the comfortable feeling of beeing at home, so I want it to feel homey and comfortable.

2)Organized-I can’t function in a space that is chaotic, and I certainly can’t be creative there. I want everyting to have a place so that we feel good about coming in here, even if we do the actual learning at the park or the museum.

3)Bright and cheerful-Many years ago, when I was a reading coach in Jacksonville, we did a survey of our students to find out what makes the model classroom. After organized and clean, every single child said colorful. This is important because it was a middle school and many secondary teachers were under the mistaken impression that kids didn’t care about dressing up the classroom anymore. A colorful environment can be cheerful and inspiring.

4)Full of resources-Sitting the boy down and saying this is what we are going to learn today, is not going to work. He would do far better with that approach in a school setting, as he, rightfully, does not really see me as a teacher. What work for me is to just pull out a couple of materials and leave them where he can find them. Sandra Dodd calls this “strewing” and it works. This can only work if you have the materials and resources to “strew” around the room. I am currently working on a Minecraft themed unit with rock collecting and geography. I plan to put together a collection of some of the rocks he sees in Minecraft, along with some books on rocks, and some story starters.

5)A place for me to work while he is working and keep my homeschool materials.

Making it Work

What I’m working with is two white bookcases from IKEA, a green china cabinet,two club chairs and an arm-chair. We have a buffet that is about to be moved in favor of two new cubbie units.

I thought maybe it would help us fit more materials in our small space if we sorted books in baskets and bins by topic. While, the room is not completely done, the process made me realize how science heavy our collection is. J-Man loves science, which is a good thing, but we also want him to be well-rounded, so we need to support other interests with as much vigor, as they arrive.

Our room after a little organization.
Another view of our study room.


Soon to be painted cabinet to hold manipulatives and supplies.



The cabinet is an extra space for magazines, notebooks, and math and science resources. The key for me was to make sure all of our resources were easy to find, but looked attractive as this room is open to the living room.

So, all I really added were the magazine file boxes and white plastic bins I purchased at the Dollar Tree and the wire bins I purchased at HomeGoods. I took out more than half of my teaching resources as they won’t apply to us anymore, and removed all the duplicate Captain Underpants books (apparently the family did not coordinate purchases and J-Man had two copies of each). As I straightened organized and rearranged took inventory on some things I will add over time.

Comfy things:

I would love a soft rug and better lighting. The rug will give the room warmth and make the reading area more cozy, while the lighting will make it possible for this old woman to read better.


I would love to put up a large whiteboard. That way J-Man has a larger space to do his MinutePhysics inspired drawings, and I can have a space to use something like a Smartboard (apparently you can make your own with a bluetooth, a Wii remote, and a stand–more on that later).

We also want to order Lego Storytellers Kits. We don’t actually need anymore Legos, but I the software


More fiction for sure. We are seriously non-fiction heavy here. J-Man has been royally in to Roald Dahl lately, so we’ll probably add to his collection. He likes to read stories, so I am thinking about some Aesop’s Fables and Mythology.

Overall, I really like the progress we have made. I know he already used the space all the time, but I think he will really like the updates, and I know I will love spending time in here. So, if you could do anything to your homeschooling space, what would it be? What would you add or take out?






Terminology–Unschooling, Homeschooling, and Schooling at Home

J-Man and I. He is pretty unperturbed about terminology. He just wants to take a selfie.

What we call ourselves is a hot debate in any tribe. My family has a strong Cherokee heritage and I cringe every time some one says Indians and they are not referring to the people from the country of India. I don’t like Native Americans either, as this wasn’t America when they came here. I actually prefer the term First People. At times I have been accused of being too PC (that’s politically correct). People say that what you call something doesn’t matter, it is the intent behind the words that really counts, but I was an English teacher, a word-smith as one of my former professors liked to say. As such, I know the power of words to not just reflect and express our thoughts, but also to shape meaning and create mutual understanding. What we call ourselves and others reflects what we believe and it shapes who we become.

I say these things because initially this blog was going to be about unschooling, and now I am not sure that is the best term for what it is we are doing.  The terminology used by homeschoolers and unschoolers can mean different things to different people as I am learning on our journey. If you, like me, are new to this journey, it might be helpful for you to learn some of the background and terminology.

People have been teaching their children at home since the dawn of time. It wasn’t until compulsory education was mandated that teaching at home needed a name and a movement. John Holt was a writer and a teacher who wrote a series of books beginning in the 60s on how children do and do not learn. According to his biographical website, “Holt originally called “unschooling.” Unschooling—learning that doesn’t look like school nor has to happen at home—is an effective way to work with, not on, young children and teenagers to help them learn.” As time went on, Holt became more and more disillusioned with public schools and lost faith in school reform, though he did not doubt their good intentions. Holt started a movement of parents who were wanted an education for their children that not only aligned with their values, but also met the individual needs.

For information on John Holt Click Here

There seem to be three movements in the homeschooling community.

Schooling at Home

Schooling at Home is not a term I have seen everywhere, and truthfully I forget where I first saw it, but essentially what it means is that children are learning in basically the same way as they would at school, but they are at home. These families purchased pre-made curricula and take a very conventional approach to education. They may be schooling at home due to religious reasons, distance, or other life situations.


When people say they are homeschooling, I have found that they are doing any number of things to make sure their children are learning. These could be taking children to homeschooling co-op classes, buying a curriculum, or designing a learning program around the child’s interest. The key difference here from unschooling is that the adult maintains at least a degree of control over the direction of the learning.


Unschoolers themselves lead the learning. Parents of unschoolers have mastered the art of trusting in their child. Unschooled children tend to have the freedom to make more decisions on what, how, and when they want to learn. The parent is the facilitator of the knowledge, not the giver.

So. With these highly rudimentary definitions in mind, I am not sure what to call us. I don’t think we are unschoolers yet, and I know we aren’t schooling at home. I am guessing we are somewhere in the homeschooler area. We’ve sat down and set some goals together (I definitely did not know he wanted to learn how to juggle), but I am still guiding most of the learning. Maybe I should say we are still finding our flow. Maybe what we are is Flowschooling? You heard it here first, kids.

Here are two amazing resources I came across in putting this post together.

BEST PLACE TO START–Sandra Dodd’s Disposable Checklists

John Holt and Unschooling

Welcome to the Future-STEM and the Homeschool


That drawing is part of a larger piece done by the J-Man last spring. It’s one of my favorite things he has done because on one piece of paper he combined an illustration of Schroedinger’s Cat, the concept of the multi-verse, Darth Vader, and the slogan, “Welcome to the Future!”

I can tell you for sure that, even if we knew about the multi-verse when I was seven, I probably would have been too busy playing with my Barbies to have paid attention to it. J-man on the other hand is all over that business.

And I’m like…How do I even keep up?


Talk of STEM, or science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, is all over the place. It is THE buzzword in education currently. Jonathan Gerlach, an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow Emeritus and NASA Endeavor Fellow for STEM Education, writes in Education Week, “STEM culture cannot begin halfway through a student’s educational career. By the time our students reach 6th grade, they have made a conscience decision whether or not they will be “good” at math and science. The majority of these students have the potential for greatness; however, they were not engaged in authentic learning early enough in their education.”

Check out Jonathan Gerlach’s article here!

How do we, then make STEM a part of our everyday lives? Here are a few resources that we have used and some that I plan to use to encourage J-Man’s continued love of all things STEM.

Science is Real by They Might Be Giants was on constant rotation. We ALL know these songs word for word in this house! We loved They Might Be Giants anyway, but their series of songs about science, are some of our favorites. These are great for little, little kids and will become earworms for mom and dad.

Legos are not just little plastic instruments of torture for your feet to find in the middle of the night. They are building blocks (I can’t believe I went there) of engineering. The technics series uses a combination of simple machines to create elaborate constructions. These builds are gateways to preparing for Lego Robotics. Kids all over the nation compete in teams to create robots to complete different tasks.

J-Man worked for a week on this technic mobile crane. This incredibly complicated construction makes extensive use of gears to raise and lower the crane.

Check out these Lego homeschool resources here, designed to integrate the love of building with developing writing skills.

Along the same lines of Legos, Little Bits are interchangeable electronic pieces designed to make engineering machines possible without having to wire and weld pieces together. These are awesome to teach some basic mechanics.

Check out these resources for educators here.

J-Man loves Minutephysics videos to teach some really big concepts. Their easy to understand analogies and the novelty of their drawings fascinate our little buddy.

This is his take on what he learned about how the sun works. He doesn’t quite get the whole thing yet, but he is getting there.

IMG_1905 (2)

Lastly, and this is not so much a resource as an idea, we have been fascinated by the images from the hubble telescope. This week, we will be doing some watercolors that are inspired by some of the beautiful nebula that we had never seen when I was a child. J-Man’s favorite is the Horsehead Nebula because it looks like a knight chess piece. We will post the lesson plan and the finished results later in the week.

Horsehead Nebula

What are you doing to encourage your child experiences STEM? What resources have you found?

Why I Love Minecraft


J-man is a reader. He came by it naturally, as I am absolutely obsessed with the written word. I absolutely know he would rather go to Barnes and Nobles to buy new books than go to Universal Studios to ride roller coasters. In fact, we did go to Universal, and he did want to go back to the hotel to play and read.

Over the years other moms have asked how we get him to read. It would seem that their kids don’t want to read, and there is my kid who checks out on a play date to go read his newest acquisition.

So, my definitive answer to getting your kids to read is simple. We follow two principles in this house. Every time we stray from these practices, we fail.

1. Support Interests

Two summers ago, J-man obsessively read with Captain Underpants. Everywhere we went he had a book with him. We would hear him giggling in the bathroom (which we call the library due to his propensity for staying in there for up to an hour reading) or in his room. He would talk to himself and comment on the action as he read. He was immersed in this world, and loved it. As he would finish one book, we would give the next volume in the adventure. During the summer before kindergarten he read all nine books.


Now, these books are controversial. The humor is scatological to say the least. I mean with titles like Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets, you kind of know what to expect. Many moms and teachers take great offence to the content. The two main characters are notorious pranksters, possibly juvenile delinquents, who create a comic book. The comic book within the book garners even more criticism as it is riddled with misspelling and poor grammar. Here’s the thing. None of this worried me. What I saw was that my five-year old was motivated to try his first chapter books, and he learned to associate reading for longer periods of time with enjoyment and accomplishment. Before Captain Underpants there was the fascination with space and before that it was dinosaurs. His high level of interest pushed him to read books beyond what one would expect to believe was his reading level. Every time we have let his interests lead us, he begs to read. He takes the book everywhere. I have seen him read on the floor of stores while I am shopping, at the beach, the park, and restaurants.


It is when we try to push our interests that we fail. He has several books on physics for kids that are almost untouched. It’s not that he can’t read them, it’s just that his interests don’t lie in that direction yet. He also has an entire shelf of chapter books that he hasn’t really touched because they were books that we thought he should like.

His latest obsession is Minecraft. While many parents and educators get up in arms about the trend toward students becoming obsessed with video games, we, like the ninja parents that we are, have channeled his obsession to encourage more reading. Off to Barnes and Noble! We found several Minecraft Hacks books and a massive Minecraft  tips and hints magazine. To say that J-man has read these, does not quite cover the level of laser like focus he has given to these guides. He reads, grabs a laptop or iPad, practices the tip described, and then refers back to the book for further instruction. I don’t know about you, but I see a world made up of people who struggle to apply technical text to real world situations, and here is this kid at seven with four books lying open around him referring to each as he tries to create online. Parenting win!

2. Don’t Make Reading a Chore

What I am about to say will fly in the face of what education experts will tell you. Study after study implores parents to read to their children 30 minutes a day. Teachers assign 20-30 minutes a day of reading. I was part of this culture when I was a reading teacher. I am here to say, this is not what I have done as a parent, and this can be counterproductive if you are trying to create good readers who love reading.

Confession: There were days when J-man was little when I did not read to him. Sometimes several in a row.


It’s true. I did not read to my own child even though I know what the research says. What the hubs and I did was different in its approach, but had a tremendous effect on how the boy saw reading time. If he brought a book to us, we would stop what we were doing–no matter what that was– and read. We would read until he was satisfied. This means that there were times when I read Ira Sleeps Over (a 48 pager) four or five times in a row. It was not unusual to read for an hour or so. There was the Llama Llama Holiday Drama marathon during a layover in Atlanta when we read THIS ONE BOOK for TWO HOURS. As painful as that was (and kids, you will get tired of reading the same book after the third or fourth consecutive reading), it taught him that his books were important. This was a major contributing factor in his learning to read so early on. He learned sounds, words, and even grammar. He asked what words meant, why the /ph/ sounded like the /f/ and what /!/ meant.

Ira ira end

We have never required him to read a certain number of minutes per day. Even when his teachers, who were my very much-loved colleagues, assigned this. We didn’t do it. Some days he read for over an hour. Some days none at all, and that was fine with me. If he wanted to read the same passage over and over I was good with that. Just yesterday, at Taco Bell (of all places), he quoted Roald Dahl’s BFG, and asked me what I thought the word “bulging” indicated “in this case.” He could do this because he has probably read his favorite parts of that book 100 times.

As much as he likes to read, the surest way to get him to resent it is to make him stop something he loves to do to go read. If you treat reading like a chore, kids will like it about as much as they like cleaning their room. Don’t push. I know this sounds counter intuitive, and it may take a while for some kids to come around to wanting to read, but the more you push the harder the resistance.

And that is it. Follow their interests, but don’t push: my six word story about teaching good reading habits. When people ask me if I am concerned that he is spending hours on Minecraft, I tell the truth. I love me some Minecraft! BRING IT ON! I will find every article, guide-book, and magazine on the subject. I know there are five or so more Minecraft hint books at the store that I am holding out as rewards. I will exploit the heck out of it. In the mean time, my kid is getting some amazing comprehension practice while having fun, and that is what it’s all about.



Getting It All Done and Other Fairy Tales


I had such a utopian vision of what our days were going to look like. J-Man would wake up around 8:00 AM happy and excited to start the day. We would talk about our plan for the day in a morning meeting as we ate the home cooked breakfast that I made. We would get set up for the day and then do a little yoga, finally settling in to whatever J-Man and I planned to focus on for the day. When he was working independently, I would do laundry, dishes, and stop treating my house like a victim of neglect.


It took one day for me to see that this was not going to work. First, I grossly underestimated how long the activities we planned would take. The cool thing about working with J-Man is that I get to spend time with him and see what he enjoys. I get to learn more about his strengths and areas where he needs more help. We spent hours on a dream catcher that turned out beautifully, and in the process I found out he has had nightmares lately that he hadn’t told me about before, but these conversations took time. So, more than an hour past when I imagined we would be done.

So, then we started reading together and I was doing the whole, “Oh! No! What will happen to Sophie?” (because I haven’t read the whole thing yet). I was thinking we would have this great conversation about predictions and evidence in reading, and he said, “It’s OK Mom. I know she’s OK. I finished already.” He was reading to humor me, but also because he wanted to snuggle up and share something he enjoyed.

The take away is this: We won’t get to everything I would like us to do in a day. Some days, we might not to get to any of them because we may have an urgent need to get to the beach, but what we are getting is closer everyday.

My house is still a mess, I am four days behind on the blog, and I am behind on my work for my etsy shop, but I wouldn’t change a thing. Are you making it all happen? Share your tips for organizing your days! Please!