Is it possible to homeschool a large family in a small home? How about homeschooling eleven kids in a three bedroom house? Today’s post is an interview with Helen Helmers, a homeschooling mom whom I have long admired. She shares with us her experiences and the valuable lessons she has learned as a homeschooling mother of a large family.
Tell us about yourself, your family, and your home.
My name is Helen Helmers, married 34 years to John who is full-time principal cellist with Kitchener -Waterloo Symphony. We have eleven children — seven girls and four boys. The youngest is 17 years old, and oldest is 33 years. My background is in Early Childhood Education and I was also a residential social worker assessing teens. I came to Toronto from England in 1981 as a nanny, working for a Catholic family with four children. It was my first encounter with Catholicism (I was baptized Methodist). Living with the family for two years and experiencing their faith brought me to convert to Catholicism.
It was my experience as a nanny that made me decide to look after and be there for my own children. A care giver gives care, but there is no substitute for a mother’s love and understanding, especially in the early formative years. I am full-time mom at home, and I homeschooled for twenty years. We withdrew our three children from school when our oldest was in grade 4, and we homeschooled all eleven until grade 8 at which time they went to local public school for grades 9-12. We now have only one at home, our youngest in grade 12.
Describe your homeschooling space. Where did you homeschool? Did your kids study all together in one room, or did they spread out throughout the house?
We have a three bedroom house. When we had set of bunk beds and single bed in one room and two sets of bunk beds with a crib in another room, we needed more space. So we had the basement finished, and this became a bedroom for three girls. We used every possible space in the house and still do. We improvised bed frames with foam mattresses as trundle beds to fit under the bunk beds!
We did our work together at our large dining room table. However, because our dining room, living room was one space, I did not want our home to be a ‘school room’. I wanted our home to be a home, and I was their mom who happened to be giving them a ‘formal’ education.
We initially started with some children working in their rooms, but this was chaotic and not conducive to my sanity. Doing school around the table always provided stimulating conversation and a great opportunity for learning how to be with each other, using please, thankyou, excuse me.
How did you organize the books and supplies?
We had a wall unit that became the ‘school room’, housing text books, crayons, paper, crafts, glue, etc. Each child kept his/her work in a wash-up bowl with pencils, erasers, rulers. We all sat around the large dining table which worked for me as I could oversee everyone’s work, discuss work being done, nurse the baby, and keep an eye on toddlers.
At lunch time my children put all their work away and school supplies in their bowls, back into the cupboard. We set the table and spent time with Dad before he went back to work. It helped us to be detached from our work so to give time to others, to be there for others.
With so many children, how did you manage to teach individuals?
We would all work on math together but each at their own level. I found it easier to direct the process by doing the same subjects together, rather than talking to one person about their English and another about their math. We all followed same topics in English, History, Geography and Science but according to level of ability. For example, if we were studying a country in Geography, everyone would have a blank outline of the country. The older children would have to fill in border countries, capitals, rivers, mountain ranges, major cities but the younger ones could colour sea or land and find the capital. This is how I incorporated everyone in learning. Also this enabled me to challenge those who had greater abilities to do more and ‘stretch’ out a topic for those who struggled. Homeschooling helped individuals to know their strengths and weaknesses.
When the youngest joined us for ‘grade’ one, I was in a better position to have more time to organize their work with an agenda. On Friday evenings I would write lesson plans for the week.
What did you do with children who were a distraction or who were easily distracted?
I had a playpen set up by the dining room table so baby could play or a toddler could nap. Quiet toys were allowed while we were working, i.e. Lego, puzzles, tea set. Before we began our work, we cleared up after breakfast and I put a load of laundry in. Perhaps that was the only one for that day, but it got done as opposed to waiting until the end of the day.
I found activities for younger ones to be busy with which would give me time to go through various math lessons. I had a roll of newspaper ‘paper’ from our local newspaper office. I would rip off a piece and tape (masking tape) it to our wooden floor by the table and draw roads on it. The younger ones would play for quite a while with cars and little play people.
There was always noise and lots of activity, but I like to think it was organised noise and activity. Of course there would be an outburst, usually from one of the older children who couldn’t take it any more. But when I suggested they have a change of activity and go fold the laundry, they usually went back to their work.
I would leave the table to nurse at the couch, and often the younger ones would sit with me. It was an opportunity to spend time with a story or perhaps a memory game where they could sort cards. This helped keep people occupied. I also kept a box of small toys under the couch to bring out only when I nursed. The younger ones always saw this box as something ‘new’ which kept them busy and away from disturbing the others around the table.
Did your children ever go stir-crazy? If so, how did you deal with this?
I remember one particular occasion: we had started the science topic of mammals and after a couple of weeks, the youngest asked if mammals ever came to an end. A subtle hint. I then decided to switch up subjects so that we only spent three months on any one given topic. A change of activity was always a good way to avoid boredom or being uncooperative. I had lots of volunteers who could put their work away if they could make lunch, hold the baby, play with baby, sharpen all the crayons, or read to the younger ones. We listened to music and everyone’s stories newly written.
We went to the library every Friday. We live downtown and can walk to most places, including the library. This was the highlight of the week and a great incentive for people to finish their work. Otherwise they would have to do their school work at the library and not be able to look through books. Not to be able to look through books was too great a punishment. We took out books for science, geography, history. You name it, we took it. Recently the librarian asked me if I knew how many books the ‘Helmers’ had borrowed. She read out the number: 26,453! I think the library staved off a lot of our ‘crazies’.
With the kids being so close to each other all day long, there must have been some squabbling. How did you maintain peace in the home?
My husband works a six-minutes walk from our home. He is home for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and works mostly evenings and weekends. So he is home sometime in the day which helped to diffuse outbursts and squash rebellions.
One rule was that the children were not allowed to follow me around the house if I was busy with baby, toddlers, meal prep, or laundry. They could squabble when I wasn’t around and figure out things before I came back.
I would often remove a trouble maker or someone who decided that no one was going to work. He or she would have to do their work when we were having ‘fun’ and they couldn’t participate.
Space and storage is a premium in our house but I think it important for people to have their ‘space’ and a place for personal ‘stuff’, which usually meant their bedrooms. I made ‘pockets’ at each end of the beds which was a piece of material the length of headboard, with ties. I sewed on different sizes of pockets to hold their personal treasures, i.e. doll, book, cars, robots, Lego creation, spaceship, hair accessories. They would hold garage sales to trade their ‘stuff’ for someone else’s ‘stuff’ from their pockets. We were definitely a ‘green’ family and environmentally friendly when it came to recycling.
At breakfast I would ask what they would be doing after their work. This built up the habit of having something to do, i.e. a Lego project, reading, a craft, making dessert, playing outside, board games.
It is important to have rest on the schedule, to have a change of pace for everyone, to have fun and relax. This is especially so with homeschooling because you are with each other 24×7 and family life becomes very intense and claustrophobic.
What would you say was the most challenging part about homeschooling a large family? How did you meet that challenge?
The most challenging part was finding time for ourselves, husband and wife, and having down time away from the children. It took a long time to figure that one out. We do not have immediate family close by, so we had to find babysitters. There are not too many out there who are willing to babysit eleven children! We often had date nights at home. We sent everyone to bed early, and we watched a movie. If they disturbed us, they would never watch a movie ever again.
The early years were spent agonizing on whether the children were learning anything and comparing myself with other homeschooling families. I started to relax when the two older children went to high school and I realised that ‘education’ was a lifetime of learning. I saw my role as presenting to them the tools of learning: how to study, how to use a reference/text book, how to work for a concentrated period.
The challenge of homeschooling a large family is not to over extend yourself as there is a lot to be done in caring for the family and the home. Most of the children had jobs around the house, and being at home afforded a great opportunity for developing culinary skills. My husband was the go to when I needed to fix me not going crazy. As a teacher he does not play during the lesson. His students put out, they work on the piece, they show him a technique, they play a scale. So, I let the children do the work and I was the overseer. I explained their lessons, watched them work examples, corrected them, and challenged them in working well.
The biggest challenge is to meet the challenge, knowing there is a problem. Home- schooling works like a can opener in family life because it exposes all our passions and idiosyncrasies as we spend all day together.
Now that most of your kids are grown up, what would you say was your favorite part of homeschooling?
My favourite part was being home. We did things different so I could be home on one income. No hockey, basketball, dance, soccer. Large families create their own teams and partners for card games and board games. Inclement weather produced massive hide and seek games. We had picnics in the living room on a blanket.
We made up plays and had a bottomless box of dress-ups. I loved to see the them learn to read, to decipher and realize This is a sentence! I just put together a sentence! I saw them take care of each other as well as annoy each other.
Do you have any final words of advice for mothers of large homeschooling families?
Enjoy the process. Don’t get caught up in finishing a particular text book or workbook. Make sure your children have opportunities to spend time looking at the trees, flowers, birds, and the wonder of creation around them. Make time for siblings to be friends with their brothers and sisters. Make time for your marriage, and do not to put it on the back burner while you homeschool.
It took a long time for me to understand how that is so important, even now with only one at home. I think after ten years, my husband and I decided to make time: when his rehearsals were late in the mornings, we would have our coffee together in the sitting room, whilst the children started their work. They were not allowed to disturb us.
Family life is not static. There are multiple personalities and many distractions. It is important to be organised but be open and flexible to change of plans and the spontaneity of living family life.
Finally, my spiritual life has always been important to me. Turning to prayer, spiritual reading, and the rosary have helped me be at peace with the demands and struggles of a large family. It is not easy, but anything worthwhile demands everything from us.
Helen Helmers has always been an inspiration to me. I knew her family most when I was in highschool and my mother used to babysit her children when Helen went on retreat. Her kids were some of the most imaginative children I knew, and they were so well-behaved. By the example of her family, I came to see homeschooling as an excellent way to raise and educate one’s children. Thank you, Helen, for sharing your wisdom!