My home-schooled kids often looked confused when a stranger asked, "What grade are you in?" And when they were old enough to realize they could get french fries from local restaurants if they produced a report card, they held a summit and presented their case: "We want to know what grade we're in. We want report cards, recess, snow days and back-to-school shopping trips. These are basic human rights."
In my early years of home schooling, I was eager to throw off any trappings of the traditional education system. My philosophy was that learning should be taking place all the time, and blurring the lines between family life and the school day was an important part of this viewpoint. I was shocked when my kids demanded we observe standard classroom conventions. In their view, they were being denied something of value.
I realized that many of these traditions create touchstone moments for kids — evidence of progress, achievement and maturity. While I loved home school for its flexibility and informality, my kids wanted a home school where rites of passage were duly noted.
I conceded that their demands were fair enough. I agreed to most of their terms but drew the line at report cards for french fries. Instead, we marked noteworthy milestones and established some traditions of our own.
Marking milestones gives kids a sense of accomplishment, and that produces motivation.
So what can home-schooling families do to mark these memorable moments and make them more meaningful? Decide what kinds of memories you want to make with your children. Then create a few traditions, especially those the kids can help with. Here are some ideas:
During the elementary years, my kids were happy to get new backpacks, a supply of pencils and (for my daughters) the latest Flair pens and markers. Even though we weren't leaving the house for school, those backpacks became a great place to keep supplies organized and out of sight. When my kids were tweens, our back-to-school traditions included some serious clothes shopping, too.
One home-school mom in our co-op had the foresight to take a photo of her daughter on their front porch the first day of school each year. Those charming pictures captured the history of her daughter's fashion statements and youthful manias enshrined on each year's backpack — from Aladdin to Lord of the Rings.
Kick-off field trips
This family tradition of ours started when my sons complained about missing out on riding a school bus. I said I'd go one better, and we instituted a surprise field trip (often an overnight adventure) as the official start of each school year.
Family recognition nights
Our local home-school co-op ends each year with an awards ceremony that doubles as a church social. Each family sets up a table to display mementos of their children's accomplishments: 4-H awards, science projects, arts and crafts, photographs, creative writing projects or sports trophies. Students share their experiences with visitors and friends. Creating a broader audience for student work increases the amount of effort kids put into the work they display.
The evening begins with a short program that features the musical or dramatic talents of some of the students, and the co-op teachers recognize outstanding achievements of their students. The master of ceremonies announces distinguished accomplishments, such as National Merit or Eagle Scout awards. The evening concludes with refreshments.
Home-schoolers often eschew grades these days, opting instead for portfolios. A portfolio is a collection of a child's best work in each subject area, and sustained progress is the goal. Home-schoolers in the state where I live must submit an annual portfolio. What began as a burdensome task for me became a treasured rite of passage when I brought my kids into the process.
My children kept a file of their work throughout the year, as well as lists of field trips, activities and books they'd read. The kids spent the last two weeks of school sorting through these files, selecting their favorite pieces and photos, revising writing assignments one more time and gluing or stapling projects back together if they'd fallen apart. These were compiled in a 5-inch binder and decorated with a handmade cover. The portfolios documented how home schooling and family life fit seamlessly together.
One of the easiest and most meaningful ways to mark a special achievement (such as learning to read or sitting for their first SAT or ACT exam) is to turn your family dinner into a formal occasion. Prepare a favorite meal. Ask Dad to make some formal remarks, and encourage everyone to toast the accomplishment. Clap wildly until the celebrant blushes, and take plenty of photos to share with family and friends.
Snow days, senior skip day and wear-your-pj's-to-school day
If your home school is anything like mine, you will not need to organize any of these events — you just have to play along when your kids declare they're observing these "national holidays."
You can add to the thrill by initially acting perturbed by the interruption, but then join in the fun by showing off your snow-fort-building skills and the secret to making the perfect snowball. Senior skip day is now a tradition in our local co-op. The seniors go for pizza while their siblings are left behind. And if wear-your-pj's day is every day at your house, you can change things up by announcing a dress-up day.
That summit meeting with my kids years ago triggered a shift in my approach to home school. My reasons for home schooling were serious and weighty — a good education for my kids and an opportunity to infuse all of life with our faith and values. But my kids wanted a childhood marked by memorable moments of recognition, hilarity and shared experiences with their friends. I'm glad for the summit because the memorable moments are now my cherished memories from home school, too.
Debra Bell is the author of The Ultimate Guide to Homeschooling.