HS 173: Are You a School At Home Homeschooler with Margaret Berns


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The third interview in the Ultimate Guide to Homeschool Methods series was a delight to record. I loved chatting with a friend, Margaret in Minnesota. who blogs about her beautiful life with seven kids at Minnesota Mom where she focuses on family, faith, and lots of love.

Margaret uses a school-at-home method of homeschooling. In this interview, we talk about what a typical day looks like in her home, why she chose a box of books for her homeschool, and how she adapts that to meet the needs of her family.

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School at Home podcast transcript:

Pam: Hi everyone. It’s Pam from Edsnapshots.com and I’m here today with another audio interview in our Ultimate Guide to Homeschooling Methods series. Today, I have the opportunity to speak to Margaret Berns. Now, Margaret blogs at Margaret in Minnesota. And the address for that one is patentsgirl.blogspot.com and Margaret takes some really lovely photos. So you’re gonna want to go over and check out this wonderful lifestyle blog that Margaret has about her family and their homeschooling. Now what Margaret does is she is our curriculum in a box or school at home representative for this series of podcasts and she uses a program called Seton homeschooling. She actually enrolls her children up to the sixth grade in their accredited program each year and they send her a nice box of curriculum and lesson plans for her to use with each of her kids. Now one of the things that so impressed me during our conversation was Margaret really does let her curriculum be a servant to her and not her master. So I think you’re going to find something really inspiring in here. So I invite you to sit back and have a listen to the interview. Hi Margaret. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Margaret: Thank you for having me. I’m thrilled to be talking to you finally.

Pam: This is wonderful. Well, can you tell me, let’s start the conversation by you telling me a little bit about your kids and their ages.

Margaret: Got It. Okay. I have seven kids total. The oldest, my son is a high school senior and my youngest is two and he’s a terrorist. In between my high school senior, I have a son who’s a sophomore, a daughter, eighth grade, another daughter, sixth grade, a third daughter, fourth grade, and then a five year old son. And then the two year old little guy.

Pam: Okay. So a nice wide range of ages in there.

Margaret: With double bookend boys. Yes.

Pam: Yes. Well, I know that your homeschooling situation is a little bit unique because you homeschool only through grade six. So tell me a little bit about that.

Margaret: So far that’s what we’ve done. We started homeschooling when my oldest was in kindergarten. So, always. We knew that that was what we wanted to do and we enrolled him with the Seton Catholic homeschool program. And so then the kids started coming and we always homeschooled them. But then at some point we looked at a private school because a good friend of the family had their children there. And then when the school providentially built a beautiful new building just five minutes away, we felt as if there was a door that opened. And so we enrolled him as a seventh grader and continued to homeschool the rest through sixth grade.

Pam: Okay. So is it just a rite of passage at your house that when everybody goes into seventh grade, they’re going to go to the private school down the street?

Margaret: Yes. That’s a good way to put it.

Pam: Okay. And that works really well for you guys.

Margaret: So far, in my heart of hearts, I homeschool because I love being with them and I love learning with them. So if it ever did work out that God said it’s my will that you homeschooled through high school, I would jump at the chance. But they’re in a great school and so yeah, that’s worked out fine.

Pam: Awesome. Well, you mentioned Seton, and so tell me a little bit about what exactly Seton is.

Margaret: Seton is an accredited Catholic curriculum, so what you do is enroll with them, that’s one option, or you could buy their books separately and not enroll. We have always chosen to enroll so that you pay their fee and receive all of the material. You have access to all of the online testing and the counselors, the record keeping and so forth.

Pam: Okay. And so every fall of every year, or maybe even sooner than that, the summer or the spring, you go online somewhere and you actually sign your kids up for the next year, just like signing them up for school.

Margaret: Usually, it’s at our Catholic homeschool conference. Almost always they have a representative who comes, they have a great big table and they give you a discount for enrolling at the conference. So that’s May. And then the guy will ask, it’s actually Mary Kay Clark, who’s the founder of Seton, it’s always her son. So every year I show up and I’m, “Hello again!” And, they sign you on and he asks, “You want your books right away or do you want to wait until the fall?” And you go from there.

Pam: So which do you do? Do you get them right away or do you get them in fall?

Margaret: Oh, I say ship them right away and that way I can kind of dip into them over the summer and plan a little.

Pam: Well let’s talk about that because what you get from Seton is a great big box of books. And does it come with lesson plans as well?

Margaret: And lesson plans and a rosary, they always tuck a rosary in there, which is very, sweet. And packing peanuts.

Pam: So you have quite the collection of rosaries by this point.

Margaret: We do! They’re hanging on my bedpost as we speak.

Pam: And I guess that’s just a great reminder that, you know, your homeschool should always begin with prayer.

Margaret: Yes.

HS 173: Are You a School At Home Homeschooler with Margaret Berns

Pam: So that’s awesome. Well, you get your lesson plans in the box. Do you just open them up and it tells you everything that you’re supposed to do every single day?

Margaret: They have it laid out by week. Yes. And then each week is broken down by day, so I’ll just stick it all in a binder by grade, and then I organize that by subject. And to tell you the truth, I don’t use their lesson plans, the paper lesson plans, as much because each week my older kids will go online and they’ll just print out a copy of that week’s lesson plan and they’ll use it themselves.

Pam: Okay. So they send it to you in a book, but they’ve also got it available online.

Margaret: They have it all online.

Pam: Right. Now, do you also have a contact with Seton who helps you with any questions that you have? Do you have kind of like a customer service rep there or a guidance counselor or something who helps you?

Margaret: They have them there. I’m kind of an, this is old hat for me, so I don’t call as much as I used to, but they always have counselors available.

Pam: And what kind of questions could you ask those counselors? If you were a new homeschool mom, what kind of questions could you ask those counselors and get help with?

Margaret: Well, if you were having a hard time, for example, juggling. Oh boy, Pam, this is a good question.

Pam: I’m just thinking about those poor new homeschool moms out there who are like, “Oh, there’s going to be somebody that answers my phone call.”

Margaret: Exactly. So I have to think like a new homeschooling mom, don’t I? So I know that sometimes. What would they ask the counselor? Just…

Pam: I mean, could you call if your kid was having problems with a math concept?

Margaret: Definitely.

Pam: What if the writing assignment just seemed too difficult for your third grader?

Margaret: Then they would adjust it.

Pam: Okay. But you could call and say that. You could call and say, “There are these writing assignments in there, but he just doesn’t seem to be getting it. And the quality of work is not what it should be.” And they would give you suggestions for how to adjust that to his needs.

Margaret: I’m sure they would.

Pam: So they’re just kind of a general help for you, whatever kind of questions you might have.

Margaret: Yes. In fact, I remember calling them about my daughter who I wanted to skip a grade because she was working ahead a bit. And I remember they talked me through that and said that that’s probably not the best approach because you should take it more slowly. I just remember being on the phone with a woman for over an hour and she was just very helpful and understanding and wanted to make sure that she understood my situation. So, does that help?

Pam: Yeah, that does. That does really help. You know, I think that’s a really nice thing that you have available to you that so many of us who have struck out in a different direction or chosen a different method, we don’t have that. So I think it’s a nice thing to have somebody to troubleshoot and give suggestions and brainstorm with you like that.

Margaret: The other thing I do, is that I do have many friends who use the same program. So I think that I avail myself of their advice, too, and ask them how they’re doing with, you know, this book report or that grammar program. It’s all laid out pretty well. It’s a very solid curriculum so that I haven’t struggled too much.

Pam: But you have your community.

Margaret: But yeah, it’s popular in this area.

Pam: Right. Okay. Well my next question for you, because one of the things I like to do with my kids is combine them in subjects like history and science and things of that nature, because, I’ve got the three and two of them are actually pretty close together in age. So do you find it difficult to juggle that many different grade levels where they’re actually working through their own set course of study?

Margaret: No. And in fact they will allow you to combine different students as well. So I’ve done that for my fourth and six. It actually really bugs the sixth grader, but I include the fourth grade with her science and her history. And so we kind of take it as a read aloud type and then they do the work together because it would be, I think, crazy to try and teach that many different history programs, for example, or science.

Pam: Oh, that’s awesome.

Margaret: Yeah, it works.

Pam: Yeah, it sounds like it really does. So what most influenced your decision to use Seton and to use a school in the box or a school at home program?

Margaret: My distracted nature.

Pam: Tell me a little about that.

Margaret: I am very right brain and I would say the main reason why, I mean first of all, we are not your typical Seton family or school in a box. I often joke that we are Seton unschoolers because for me it’s not just about working through the stack of books and checking everything off. But that said, given my temperament and my husband knows my temperament very well, I need to be accountable. And that would be the main reason why we use this program is that I know that for example, if I get distracted and I’m off, you know, scrubbing a shelf in the refrigerator or wiping the baby’s bum or whatever, that my daughters are off and they’re doing their English and they’re doing their math and it’s getting done despite my needing to tend to other things.

Pam: Okay. Well, you know, one of the things I noticed, Margaret, when I was looking at your blog is that you guys, I mean, you just do so much and you have such a rich life. And I think that homeschooling moms get into this idea of we’ve got to create this fabulous homeschool curriculum that allows us to do all of those things. But you kind of do it, you know, it’s kind of a separate thing for you. You kind of have your school and you do it and you get it done and then you still lead this great big wonderful life that’s full of learning and field trips and exploration and all of these things and it’s just very beautiful. So it’s almost like you’ve, I don’t want to say, put school in a box. Well, okay, there’s a great pun. It’s kinda like you’re like, “Okay, let’s get this done and meet that requirement and then come over here. Now we’re still gonna have a great big full life.”.

Margaret: It is true. That is part of my philosophy that they just have to get some of that done. I don’t like them to look at it as a chore, but I guess with certain subjects like grammar and math, it’s always going to be tedious for some of my kids and they just have to do it. But it’s like the Yeats quote about education and not being the filling of a bucket at the lighting of a fire. That’s the way I see education in general. And I hope that it is for them, that they’re always having the sense of wonder about learning. So yeah, they do their work, they get it done. And we go on and go to the gallery or take pictures out in the backyard or whatever.

HS 173: Are You a School At Home Homeschooler with Margaret Berns Pin

Pam: Whatever new adventure awaits.

Margaret: Yes.

Pam: What does a typical day look like at your house?

Margaret: So a typical day for us, I get up before them because I need my coffee, first of all, to clear my head and I need to spend some time in prayer. And then the school kids, so that would be the eighth, tenth and twelfth grader get up at 7AM. And if I’m feeling generous, I make them something and then they go off to school at 8AM, the other kids come down and they sort of come down one by one and get started on their day slowly. So it’s perhaps not as scheduled as it could be, but they know what they have to do. And then I just take my time with the kindergartener that he needs, but the other two do their work independently and they are usually done around 1PM and they have certain incentives to finish the harder drier material. Like, I don’t know, playing Minecraft if that’s popular with you, that’s a big major carrot. So they know what they have to do to go off and do the fun stuff.

Pam: Well, do you ever feel kind of hemmed in by the, the requirements of what you have to meet? Do the requirements that Seton has for you, and this could be any curriculum provider, you know, working through them, do you ever feel overwhelmed by the requirements?

Margaret: Yes. And when that happens, I stop, I pull back and we take a break. And that’s why I say we’re not a typical family because there are some subjects that have holes in them. And if I don’t get to a book report or a science test, I don’t worry about it as much, especially at the early levels. And for us it’s not really been an issue because it’s always been, they’ve moved on at seventh grade and they’ve always had a solid education for what they’ve needed at the school that they go to. But ultimately if I find myself getting weighed down, then I will take a break. You know, they call it the February burnout, what have you, and that’s not for me what school should be. And I think any homeschooling mom can relate to that love of learning. That’s why we’re doing this. And we want our kids to love it too. And if I see that it’s a burden then I look for ways to make it fun, try to anyway.

Pam: Right. Well, that’s not a problem with Seton, for you to take a break like that? And especially since you guys are not just purchasing their curriculum and lesson plans, but you’re signed up for their accredited program, they don’t have a problem with you doing that?

Margaret: Well, if they do, they’ve never said, and I’ve never asked. So it works for us. I think that each family is different and I know I’ve spoken to people who worry about falling behind and I’ve always thought you can’t fall behind. It’s a lifetime worth of learning. But what I’m saying is, their transcripts through sixth grade, they don’t really matter in the long run. That’s why I don’t worry about them.

Pam: Right. And you feel that taking the breaks that you take really has no impact on the what the children actually learn?

Margaret: Oh, definitely not. You know, for what it’s worth, they’ve always tested above level. They’ve always done fine.

Pam: Now, does Setan require you to do their testing or is that something you opt into for your, either for a state requirement or for your own edification?

Margaret: They don’t require you to, you’re given that option and so when you enroll it’s broken down into four quarters, like your standard school and then each quarter they have their tests and the papers or the paragraphs that you submit. I have not done some of that and it’s been fine. But then I’ve also submitted the test, so we’ve taken the online tests to get a sense of how they’re learning and it’s gone fine.

Pam: It seems very much to me, you know, we have a saying that you have to let the curriculum be your servant and not your master, and it sounds to me like you’ve done a very good job of figuring out how you were going to do that over the years. And I’m sure some of that comes with your experience, your level of experience and doing this, but it sounds like you’ve worked that out for yourself and so you use it to help you teach your children, but you don’t let it dictate your life.

Margaret: Right. So the Seton program is known to be academically quite rigorous. And I like that when it comes to a class like English where the grammar skills, the writing are important to me. And so I know that they’re getting that and they’re learning those skills. And the testing is good too because then they kind of work toward a specific goal and they can see if they’re meeting it.

Pam: Great. Well, what are some of your favorite books and resources? If we have some new homeschooling moms who are out there listening and they’re interested in homeschooling, where might you send them?

Margaret: Oh my, there’s so many that I’ve been a fan of Catholic homeschooling blogs, Christian homeschooling blogs too for many, many years and have found a lot of inspiration. So for example, your blog has been an inspiration. Sarah Mackenzie and her ebook Teaching from Rest and her read aloud program is inspiring. Jessica at Shower of Roses and her way of living out the liturgical year is wonderful. Charlotte at Waltzing Matilda is a dear friend and she has inspired me with many different book recommendations and party plans over the years. These are blogs. I get quite a bit of my inspiration online, which is how we met too.

Pam: That’s right.

Margaret: Tracy at Pinewood Castle is a real life friend and she’s very inspiring with the books that she recommends and her photography and her love of beauty. So often as a homeschooling mom, when I’m feeling overwhelmed and uninspired and uninspiring to my children, I will either shoot an email or a text to these friends and just say, you know, boost me up. And I think that’s really important as a homeschooling mom to not give in to those feelings of isolation and also to not just lurk and look and think that everything is perfect for these other moms, but to reach out to the people who inspire you and let them know and ask for help and inspiration as necessary.

Pam: And so you’ve built a little online community for yourself?

Margaret: I think so. Don’t you feel that you have too?

Pam: Oh, definitely, definitely. And I talk to them every day and it really does. I have my local community too, but my online community is also very important. I think that’s one of the great things about the Internet is we can reach out to people that we wouldn’t otherwise get the opportunity to be friends with just because of distances and then build these real supportive relationships with each other.

Margaret: Right. And I can’t even imagine our education, my kids’ education has not just come from a box because it’s really been supplemented by so many other people and families and ideas.

Pam: That’s a great way to look at it. Well, let me ask you this question. Your children go into the private school at seventh grade. Do you feel like if you had not been using Seton, that the transition would have been as easy for them if you hadn’t been using kind of this structured program that helped you through each day and each year in a very systematic manner? Do you think it would have been as easy for them to head back into this school?

Margaret: I don’t know. That’s a tough one because this school requires them to memorize and test and write quite a bit. And it’s things that they’ve had to do all along. So for us it’s perhaps good that we do, you know what you call school at home because then they’re able to transition fairly easily and they’ve all done okay. They haven’t been, you know, that Geeky unsocialized homeschooler coming in at the seventh grade level. They’ve done fine.

Pam: Good. So why do you think that the method that you’ve chosen for homeschooling your kids, why do you think that’s a great way for kids to learn?

Margaret: Well, I think it’s good that they’re independent. I think it’s good that they can work at their own level or their pace, I should say, and go through their books on their own and come when they need. And then we do the subjects together that I’ve mentioned, the science and the history. So it’s independent in part and it’s as a family in part. And that’s a good fit for us. So this program works. It’s very beautiful. I mean, its layout, it’s academic as I’ve mentioned, and it’s Orthodox. It’s very Christian, and for us that’s been at the top of our priorities is in the end, at the end of the day, we don’t want to be raising a bunch of really smart atheists. We want them to have that faith and they do get that from the program we use.

HS 173: Are You a School At Home Homeschooler with Margaret Berns

Pam: Right. Well you mentioned good books a couple of times. You had gotten inspiration about good books. So tell me a little bit about your family’s reading habits. I have a feeling that it’s not all just school books at your house.

Margaret: No. In fact, I think I’m putting some of these librarians through graduate school with our overdue fees because I don’t put a cap on the books that they can check out and they haul out stacks. The books we’re reading together right now is we had started The Green Ember, which Sarah Mackenzie had recommended, but then the Penderwicks new book came out, and so we had to drop The Green Ember because of our love for the Penderwick family. We actually have to wait for our eighth grader to come home from school so that we can read that one together. I won’t let them read it by themselves. Lunchtime, we have a different book that I do with the homeschoolers and then yeah, we do the other one.

Pam: So you do have a huge family culture built around books.

Margaret: I hope so. I make the big boys listen sometimes too. That gets a little trickier, but the rest of them comply.

Pam: Oh, I’m sure they’re eager. I’m sure it’s eager compliance.

Margaret: Oh, and we do a lot of books on CD in the van. Right now we’re listening to The Bridge to Terabithia and that’s a great one. So yeah, always when we’re traveling, we’re listening to books.

Pam: Oh, that’s great. Margaret, thank you so much for joining me today. I really appreciate it.

Margaret: Well, you’re welcome. It was my pleasure to be here.

Pam: Hey, thanks so much for joining us today. We hope you enjoyed it. If you would like more information about the resources that Margaret and I spoke about, you can go to Edsnapshots.com/methods. And from there you can click on the School at Home tab to go to the show notes page and see the resources there and leave any questions or comments for Margaret or me in the comment section. We hope you enjoyed it and have a great day.

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