Going Analog: Bullet Journal Homeschooling

When I made our school plan in the summer, all full of hope and vitamin D, I was like a kid at Thanksgiving piling a giant glop of mashed potatoes on my plate. I didn’t think about how I might never finish, or how uncomfortable I’d be if I did try to eat it all. My eyes were bigger than my stomach. All I could think about was how yummy everything looked.

Homeschool planning is a lot like loading your plate at a holiday meal.

It’s so easy to look at everything that’s possible and pile it all on. We actually want to offer plenty of great books, resources, and ideas so our kids can have a nourishing intellectual feast. But spreading a wide and generous feast is one thing. Attempting to consume everything? Well that’s entirely different.

The way I’ve planned my year in the past is to take recommendations from The Well-Trained Mind or Ambleside Online’s list and plug them into my own spreadsheet. Then I’ll add some things and move things around and I’ll take what I think can be done all together and move it to a Morning Time sheet. My spreadsheets work as a both a plan and a record of what we’ve done. It seems clever, but it’s a LOT to get through.

Plan vs. Reality

The problem is that eventually we get behind. I start looking at the list and getting overwhelmed by what we haven’t accomplished yet.

So much of the challenge of homeschooling is walking the line between our plan and our reality.

Isn’t that the challenge of any productivity system? I have a list of things to do to consider our week done, but it’s so rare that we actually finish every single thing on the list. The kids and I begin feeling like school will never end. For me it’s a more hopeful, “There are so many interesting things I want you to learn!” For the kids it can feel oppressive: “We’ll never, ever, in a million years be done with school and be able to go do what WE want!” Kids are masters of hyperbole.

I’ve got this great plan for our homeschool, but then it encounters reality.

Real homeschooers are too loud for their sibling to focus. Real homeschoolers just don’t want to write a narration (“Why do we have to do this ALL THE TIME?”). Real homeschoolers often disappear upstairs to play, or into their rooms to read Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. Real homeschoolers rarely charge up their Kindles, and real homeschoolers can’t find a “single pencil in this whole house!”

I could go on.

Our homeschool plans must be humanizing, flexible, and help both us and our kids overcome productivity challenges.

Let’s just recognize for a second how tall an order that is.

As our kids encounter or create challenges to productive learning, our plans have to be able to help them stay on track. As our kids grow and develop, our plans have to be flexible enough to change with them. After all, that’s part of why we homeschool, right? To get off the standardized train. To recognize and glory in our kids’ humanity.

My spreadsheet also means I’ve been looking at a screen for a good part of the day, and screens have a lot of distractions. If you don’t silence them, there’s always a new little red circle demanding your attention.

Plus, I’m not a huge fan of my kids seeing me stare at a computer all the livelong day. When they ask what to work on next, 80% of the time I say some version of, “Hang on, let me look at my spreadsheet.” If you’re six, that lacks a certain motherly warmth.

Making Adjustments: The move from spreadsheet to bullet journal

One of the ways I’m bringing our homeschool plan and reality more into alignment is by trading in my spreadsheet for my bullet journal.

I’ve been a bullet journalist for years now, but never fully integrated my bullet journal into our homeschool because I didn’t want to rewrite everything. I’m a HUGE fan of efficiency. I’m always looking for ways to be more efficient. Copying a spreadsheet by hand into a notebook might be neat or quaint or whatever, but it is decidedly inefficient.

So when we started Term 2 for Ambleside this year, I bit the bullet and simply printed out the kids’ assignment sheets and glued them in my bullet journal. It’s not super pretty, but it works.

Ambleside Online taped in a Bullet Journal

This had five effects:

1) I simplified what I track.

It turns out my spreadsheet overcomplicated what essentially can be broken down to a list of books scheduled over 12 weeks and a list of habits I want us to practice. (And all the non-spreadsheet people say, “I told you so.”) School can really be that simple sometimes.

I still track what we do everyday, but it’s less detailed because I realized I don’t need to be as detailed as I was being. I don’t have to know what exact pages we read on any given day. I just need to know where we are in our overall plan for the term.

You may not have the problem of overly detailed records. I’m an ISTJ, after all. But, it’s always good to take a look at what you’re tracking and ask whether it’s really necessary for you to track that. Can you track things by the week instead of by the day? What does your state law actually require?

Yes, I still have links & resources we use online, etc., so we’re not going full-on Caveschool here, but waiting for an app to load or finding a website is the exception, not the rule right now.

2) My focus increased.

Using my bullet journal for our homeschool means I’m not staring at a screen, waiting for the app to load, or getting distracted by other pings and dings. Ever. No pings in my bullet journal. It’s glorious. I just open to the page and look at it. It may be old school, but it’s a million times faster and less distracting than all high-tech methods I’ve tried.

3) My own productivity increased.

If you’ve tried out a bullet journal or index card to-do list, you may have found that it’s easier to get more done because it’s more gratifying to physically check items off a list than it is to mark them done in an app on your phone. I applied this idea to our homeschool and it worked.

4) My bullet journal helps me track spontaneous schooling better.

Julie Bogart talks about “schooling from behind,” and this is kind of the same thing. I’m able to recognize easier when the kids are using academic skills and simply record that. It doesn’t have to push the rest of my spreasheet out of order or anything. I can simply write down what we did that day, even if what we did was a spur-of-the-moment afternoon hike and not on “the plan” at all.

Of course I could (and did) do this on my spreadsheet as well, but in the bullet journal, I don’t have a need to categorize things by subject area. I simply write down the thing we did that “counts for school.” That’s it. Done.

5) Going analog makes schooling on-the-go more efficient.

We do a LOT of school in waiting rooms. Now, I can use a spreadsheet on my phone, but it often takes forever, and, again, I feel like I spend all my time staring at a smartphone screen. My bullet journal fits right in my purse, and I can easily and quickly open right up to find out what page numbers a student needs to read.

Lessons Learned

If there’s anything I’ve learned in our eight years of homeschooling so far, it’s that change is necessary and good. Why do we always want to change the way we organize or track our homeschools? I’m not convinced it’s 100% procrastination. Yes, it can be tempting to completely overhaul our schools when we get stuck and things aren’t working. But the type of change I’m talking about is more like a shift or a tweak. It’s just like helping our kids use short lessons and switch subjects when their eyes glaze over. “A change is as good as a rest,” Charlotte Mason once wrote.

I didn’t change the coursework. I simply changed how I track what we do.

I may return to the spreadsheet in Term 3 or next year when I feel like we need a little more structure and can handle a more intricate routine. But for now, analog is working. And I’d encourage you, too, to try switching things up if this is a season where your home or homeschool feels overwhelmed by tasks and events–even if that means chucking the computer altogether for a time and just using a simple notebook.

Take a look at the gallery below for some examples of typical homeschool days:

It doesn’t have to be pretty, just useful.
I love capturing kid quotes in my bullet journal!
Notice the “letter to Santa” and “Christmas word searches” entries. Both are examples of “schooling from behind,” or noting down what we did that accomplished our educational goals but wasn’t necessarily on our plan beforehand.

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